Buckland, 30 October 1419
The wind slides in restless currents beneath rain-clouds that sprawl from the Barrow Downs to the western eaves of the Old Forest. Under the hanging billows, the wind runs back and forth, twisting itself into capricious swirls that waken only tired rustles among wet drifts of fallen leaves.
In the slump of autumn, the travellers pass through a meld of damp green and grey that darkens slowly. They follow the winding road in pairs, four riders on ponies whose hooves slosh through the puddles. The muted sounds drop into sodden grass, to join the bubbling rush of water through the ditch. The wind holds off the worst of the rain, washing them only in a fine drizzle. At times, a curl of song will rise above the ponies' canter, but only from the younger pair, ahead on the road.
The other two have slowed their mounts after a long day's riding, and their heads are bowed before the weather. Between them, they seem to share a guarded silence. Skirring to and fro, the wind gathers scents of their homeland that it sweeps back in moist breathfuls. The smells of steaming cabbage and mulch, of fermenting grapes and recently turned earth are mixed with uneasy whiffs of smoke, even sifted on a kindly breeze. As it drifts over them, the two travellers turn to each other, and their glances spark against the rain.
Night thickens around them when a gate looms ahead, barring the bridge that spans the river. With a toss and a rattle of the rough planks, the wind balls up to coil around the iron spikes that bristle from the top, but the travellers hesitate to follow. A leap away, all four of them draw together as if, after so long a journey, they are unsure of their destination.
They speak in troubled whispers, until one of them guides his pony from their huddle. When he slides his hood back, his dark curls fall in tangles to his collar, and the wind stirs up a shiver along the fine silver chain at his neck. Wet threads gather into rivulets on his face while his eyes search the horizon from one end to the other, restless among the blended shades of nightfall. Against the crumbling banks, the water burbles noisily.
Then, with a tug on the reins and a dig of his heels, the traveller spurs his pony on, as if he would ride down this barrier of logs and iron. His companion follows with a husky shout, across the dim stretch to the river's edge, and they charge towards the bridge without another word.
The wind runs before them, into the West.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Minas Tirith, May 1419
"The end of all things..." Frodo leaned across a cleft in the breastwork and looked over the city walls, out East. "I was wrong."
With a quick breath against the wind, Sam shifted closer. Amid the hard lines and angles of the fortress, and the near-cloudless sky hanging polished as a marble slab overhead, Frodo bent like a willow-branch into the rough gales. His fine woolen cloak had slipped off his arms as he stretched himself to the stone cleft, and a shiver tensed his shoulders. Though spring burgeoned into summer on the fields below, chill breezes tumbled about these heights and chased round the white tower with never a break.
"'Twould have been," Sam answered, "if not for Mr. Gandalf and the eagles."
Frodo turned towards him, eyes pale in the glare of day. "Do you remember that? How they carried us up into the air?"
"Just bits and scraps, like something from a dream." Sam shrugged his shoulders. "Not that I mind, you understand, it's fearsome enough a thought." But the start of that memory turned upward in his mind: a vast shadow sliding over them quicker than any cloud, so that he wrenched about in alarm and still saw nothing, only a dark flutter in the vapours and fumes. His sight hadn't cleared till Frodo laid a hand to his cheek and turned him back to the light pooling in the softest silver on his face. My dearest Sam...
He could hear it now, like a gentle echo flowing from the touch of Frodo's hand on his arm.
"I thought it was the wind itself lifting us up." Frodo tipped his head. "A tug and a rush, and then – nothing."
His glance wandered back East, where the mountains lay dim and brooding in the distance. But high gales were now dappling the sky over that dark range, herding clouds in ribbons of grey and white. Sam tried to picture what the broken wastes beyond looked like in full daylight, though in many ways the sight had to be worse. Surely more than one turn of seasons would go by ere the soil could nurture the seeds that would blow in from Gondor's woods and fields.
Another cold blast tossed Frodo's curls about his face, and he stepped down from the ledge, to the gallery skirting the inner wall. "Well, I suppose this isn't quite the right spot for taking our second breakfast."
The wind had raised a brighter colour to his cheeks, and his voice took on such a tone, it slipped round Sam in a breezeful of memories – of brooks and byways and a cheerful meadow just west of the Hill – so vivid a spell that his answer lagged behind. "Or elevenses, more like."
"Yes, it must be," Frodo answered. "Let us look for a suitable place then."
They'd made their way up here from the noisy bustle of a market in the city's sixth circle. Curious as Sam was about the wares laid out on carts and trestles, the push of large bodies all round scattered his ease, and the curious glances tracking his master more so. Busy sounds still jounced on the gusts as they walked along the wall, towards the citadel under the mountain's hard shoulder. Each time Sam craned his neck for a glimpse of the snowy peaks, they seemed higher than the clouds and tall enough to spin the world on their axle.
"I think we should turn left here..." Frodo led him down a short set of stairs and into a deep, pointed arch. "Or would you rather return to our rooms?" He slowed within the lay of shadows where only stray beams glanced across his cloak, kindling the rich green of a pine forest.
"Oh no, Mr. Frodo. 'Twould be a shame to spend such a fine day indoors."
"Every day, Sam..." Frodo's voice slid into the hazy echoes filling the passage up to the vaulted roof. From all directions, the stones rang with the din that made up this city. Every hour of the day simmered with the scraping of tools on stone or iron, the rattle of wains through the lower streets, and clopping hooves on the pavement as messengers hurried news back and forth.
"Aye, 'tis a wonder," Sam murmured, "and stranger than aught I ever thought I'd see."
He knew that Frodo had heard him by the bright flicker of a glance, the short tug of his hand on the cloak's seam.
When they turned a corner and passed under another arch, the raucous noise ebbed to whispers, and from somewhere purled gentler, liquid notes. The gallery ran on between the upper storeys of stout buildings, and at the other end, broad sunlight met them with swirling grass scents and a drowsy ripple of water.
Sam raised a hand to shield his eyes. A cloud seemed to hover in the open space ahead, wind-gnawed and spare, and it took him a blink or two to see truly. He stepped over to the low balusters bracing the gallery above the fountain court. From the court's centre rose the leafless white tree like a lonesome stalk of winter. They'd passed this place when they first came to the citadel, and Sam had stopped to look up into the branches gleaming paler than a birch's in the sun. Like the finest weaving of frost, the tree's crown had seemed then, not withered or dry, but from where he stood now, he could see knots and tangles among the boughs, and sickly dark traces where the bark peeled off. For an odd moment, it reminded him of –
"It worries Aragorn." Frodo stepped up beside him and crossed his arms over the carved railing. "If the White Tree carries no flowers, Gondor won't thrive as it once did."
Sam dipped his head. Here, in the quiet heart of the city, he could well believe that a single tree guarded the land's good fortune, never mind the busy hammering, sawing and grinding all about. His eyes searched along the dark cracks in the tree's branches, but there wasn't a good and true reason why the sight should put him in mind of Gollum and his mottled skin.
"Tell me," Frodo said, as though he'd laid half a thought out in the open and then fallen silent.
Sam hunched his shoulders forward, but the question pressed up like a hand against his chest, cramped as the remembrance was. He hadn't the words or the wish, not when sunlight lay sheer on all the stones, carving crisp shadows across the grass and the pavement below.
Beside him, Frodo released a breath as if it were stoppered before. With a rustle of his cloak, he wound his fingers through Sam's, a tender and uncertain touch pressed through the silence. Sam had just gathered his breath to answer when hurried steps sounded from an archway on the gallery's far side, and he leaned back to see –
"Faramir." Frodo turned without letting go of his hand – even clasped it firmer against Sam's instant tug – as Faramir walked towards them.
Prince of Ithilien or no, he wore plain clothes, and his hair showed the tangling of brisk labours out in the wind. He greeted them with a short bow. "I am glad to find you here, in a place of such tranquillity."
Frodo bent his head in turn. "Were you looking for us?"
"No, this is but a chance-meeting, my friends." Faramir made a short gesture towards the citadel. "I am at present running errands between the palace wardens and our store-masters. Our craftsmen work tirelessly to mend what battle has wrecked, yet our provisions were sorely diminished during the siege. What little Lebennin's storehouses may yet spare us will not reach the Rammas ere nightfall tomorrow, and the traders' barges from Dol Amroth may not arrive for another sennight."
"What will you do?" Frodo asked.
"Send messengers to our–" Faramir interrupted himself with a chuckle. "No, Frodo, I will not press needless demands upon your courtesy, nor weary you with our cares. You have both earned comfort and rest."
"Why, we've some knowledge in those matters, leastways," Sam put in. "In the year of the flooding, they had the same trouble out in the Marish and Buckland, and many's the tale I've heard about the farmers' struggles in that time. Though Mr. Merry could tell you more, I reckon."
"Maybe." When Faramir looked on him, Sam would have sworn to a twinkle in his grey eyes. "But the King would question my good judgement, and rightly so, if I laid claim to the services of his most esteemed companions, least of all one of the Ringbearers."
Inside half a thought, a troubled flush crept into Sam's face, and he felt Frodo's fingertips move light against his own.
"Not meaning any harm, sir," Sam muttered, "but I – well..."
A change came over the Man's face, swift as a ripple in the fountain below, and it steadied into clear regret. "Forgive me. I spoke of matters that will never lend themselves to lighthearted speech, however glad the days may be."
"No, sir," Sam murmured, too aware how Frodo's face tightened and his back tensed.
"It is still a pleasure to see you so light of heart, Faramir," Frodo said evenly, "and no less deserved, if I may venture to say so."
Faramir took the courtesy with a tilt of his head and an odd little glance to the side, and the blazing sunlight bared some tell-tales to Sam's eye. Even if Pippin hadn't told them about the steward's madness, it was plain enough that Faramir had come under the harrow since their first meeting. Still, though the grieved lines by his mouth might run deeper, a softer humour showed in his eyes.
"It may be that I have learned the most important of lessons," Faramir said in low, thoughtful tones. "That is to prize a blessing within the confines of despair, even when its ruin seems fated."
"This, too, I have learned," Frodo answered, and a quickening seemed to course through him, down to his fingers that caught Sam's in a fervent grip.
"Yet what hope you had lay beyond all bounds of wisdom." Faramir's glance lingered on Frodo with frank esteem. "And our strength should indeed have failed but for your will and courage."
Sam couldn't help glancing at his master, half expecting him to avert his eyes from such praise, or face it with a sterner tuck to his chin as he often did. This time, there was only the firming of his mouth to a faint curve, the sort folk would take for a polite smile – though maybe not Faramir, Sam thought, when the Man's gaze seemed to be clouding over a bit.
"We have all..." Frodo shook his head as if the words themselves were a bother. "I suppose that we have all learned to trust far beyond the limits of our own knowledge."
Faramir nodded and laid a hand on each of their shoulders. "I must see to my errands now. But peaceful days are at hand, and I shall speak more with you soon. Were you on the way to the King's hall?"
"Oh no, he's busy enough without us bothering him," Sam answered. "We were just strolling about looking for the kind of spot where a hobbit can enjoy a peaceful breakfast and not get in the way of other people's business." He patted the pouch at his side that he'd stuffed full of provender.
"The palace gardens should suit your purpose." Faramir stepped back to point out the direction. "Or, if you seek a place that will grant you a clear view over the lands, go to the rear of the south wall. The oldest towers overlook the vales and woods of Lossarnach, and they were built to lift the spirit also, not merely for our defence."
"Thank you, sir." Without another glance at Frodo, Sam knew where they'd be heading.
"I shall take my leave of you then." Faramir hadn't taken more than a few paces when he stopped again. "This is the Tower of the Sun," he said. "Truthfully was it named, and may you find it so in your own hearts." His smile bore out the naming with quick and forthright joy.
Warmth bloomed in Frodo's cheeks and swept away the strained half-smile as he nodded in answer. Then they were left alone above the court, where the drips of water pattered into a waiting stillness.
"We'll miss elevenses too, if we don't go now." Frodo turned from the gallery and released Sam's hand slowly.
Sam followed him to the southward arch, and through another dim passage that climbed back up to the wall. As they reached the spot where the rampart leaned over the stables, a chatter of lively voices floated up from the wide yard. Sam fancied that he could hear Mr. Pippin among them, his laughter pealing high as bells, but Frodo only sharpened his stride. He didn't seem wearied by all their walking through the confounded streets neither, and that, Sam told himself, should by rights be a comfort, not a worry.
Guards stood solemn on their posts by the watchtowers. Though the helmets cast their miens in shadow, Sam felt their glances like a prodding to his back. As he always did when he walked among folk in the city, Frodo slipped his injured hand into the folds of his cloak. The sight of it tore at Sam, and anger crept up close on his heels. For all that the city's healers said the wound were closing well, they couldn't know how much the tending of it still pained Frodo, and that he kept it hid as if those curious looks chafed it raw each time. Maybe that was why he urged their pace on now, till they were marching briskly along the stony walk.
Despite the lash of cold winds, Sam could feel the sun sting through his hair and on his forehead, and when the guards stepped back from their path, the light sprang in brilliant shards off burnished helmets and armour. Flustered by the heights and the day's dazzle, Sam was glad when they came to the hindmost tower and ducked into its wide shadow.
A hanging stair on the inside wall wound to the upper storey, and Frodo started to climb it without a pause to catch his breath. Scattered sand and grit on the steps itched against the soles of Sam's feet as he followed, prickling strange under newly healed skin, and he gripped the iron railing a bit harder.
When he reached the top of the stairs, Frodo stood in an open doorway. The daylight whipped about him, glinting through his curls, and lit his cloak to a green flame. He'd spread his hands to the carved sides of the arch and pressed his shoulders forward, such a taut unrest in his stance, Sam thought that he'd climb much higher if only the stairs didn't end here.
"Well, here we are then," Sam ventured with a caution.
Frodo let go of the doorway as if he'd been cast off a sling and didn't stop till he'd reached the balustrade.
Outside, a ledge curved wide as an oliphaunt's rib, but the wall girding it rose no higher than a Man's waist, and broad clefts opened everywhere in the breastwork. Sam looked back to the watchtower and discovered a pair of alcoves on either side of the arch, fitted with low benches that were shadowed by the eaves of the shingled roof. He set his pouch down on one of the stone seats and knew he was breathing harder than he ought after so short a climb.
"Faramir was right," Frodo said over his shoulder. "The view from here is more splendid than anywhere else. Come and see." He'd bent forward, and when Sam joined him, the wind snatched Frodo's cloak and unfurled it as a banner, tossing it high enough to brush Sam's face.
Sam squinted his eyes against the gusts that swooped about them, edged with bird calls and a dash of salt. The battle hadn't spared this part of the surrounding country either, but it must have been less fierce, for grassy banks showed between the blighted and trampled fields. Beyond the dike called the Rammas, the river swung through bright, lazy bends, and farther out, a pale gold haze lay over the rising grounds. The steep valleys were dotted with darker patches of brush or hurst, and on the edge of sight, another water-course cleaved the green with restless sparkles. Birds followed both waters, flitting specks on the lower air-streams.
"It isn't a lot like the Shire, is it?" Frodo's voice dropped low and wavered as if he'd run out of breath. His fingers flew after the curls that the winds flung back and forth across his face.
For a pained moment, Sam wondered if he'd meant the question in earnest. Times were when Frodo strove sorely for memories as if he had to drag them out of a sump and scrape each piece clean to see how it fit with the next. But surely he remembered –
"There's not a place in the world as sweet as the Shire," Sam murmured, but even as he said so, he found he couldn't call up a remembrance to match the wealth of hue and fragrance spread out afore them.
"Everything is changing," Frodo said. "At times I... I feel it as if the ground rolled under my feet and might never settle again. A new age has begun, Gandalf says, and if this is..." He trailed off with a brief shake of the head. "It escapes me."
On the other side of the river, a single tree grew foremost on the bank, proud on its tall trunk, its crown shaped like a linden leaf. And we've not got taproots like that,
Sam thought, but if we did, we'd never
"'Twill be different when we come home." He mustered all the faith as he could in this fair and forlorn place. Frodo didn't answer, but he let his head dip sideways to rest on Sam's shoulder. The gusts blew his curls against Sam's mouth, in strands finer than combed silk. Sam bent to brush a kiss into the tangles.
From somewhere in the outer circles of the city floated the jangling of a noon bell, one strike looped through the next. Frodo stirred up sharply at the sound.
"There, 'tis time for lunch." Sam straightened to glance back at the alcove. "Let me get our fare now, sir."
Frodo nodded to him without taking his eyes off the river and the birds circling above it. "Yes... I will join you in a moment."
When Sam unlaced his bag, the smell of fresh bread wafted up and drew an approving rumble from his stomach. After those wholesome weeks in Ithilien, food no longer lay heavy as a scoop of stones inside him, but Frodo had more trouble taking his meals, sparse as they always were. Sam placed the bread on his flattened bag, and the cheese and fruit beside it, and stepped out from the shadow. He blinked again; the walls and the ledge ranged so bright about him as if the stones themselves would melt into air and daylight.
From afar, all the towers glittered fresh like the snow on the mountain sides, and those glitters lay bedded deep in the stone, among the grey veins and swirls that ran through it. Sam laid a hand to the masonry, and from it his glance flew to the light glistening and sparking off the rock flanks, up and up the soaring heights –
In an abrupt turn, the white spun to black, and his mind was caught to the sight of another mountain, towering over them in a skewed mass of broken stones. Among them hovered Frodo's voice, so thin and drawn as if it spanned many leagues. Yes, I must go on... Farewell, Sam. This is the end at last.
And then he was left alone to the jagged waste of rock and the sight of Gollum's twisting face, the skin drawn so hard over his bones as if it might split open. Grey as the dust, he writhed on the ground, bubbling and hissing in his torment – lost, lost, we're lost
– and Sam couldn't breathe neither, such a blunt ache grating through him while Frodo's footsteps faded along the slope. When Precious goes we'll die,
Gollum whimpered, yes, die into the dust.
Through ashes and smoke, they stared at each other, and with all that he had in him Sam refused to believe that this was the end – it couldn't be, not like this. Over him, the rocks had gnawed out every last scrap of sky, and under him, a boom shivered through the stones, racing upward through his legs.
He swung back with a gasp, and through a dizzy whirl saw that Frodo had set one knee on the breastwork to pull himself up.
"Master!" Sam crossed the distance in a wild leap and hauled him back by his shoulders, as if he were a leaf swept aside in the wind.
"Sam, what–?" A fevered colour stung Frodo's cheeks, but Sam didn't have no answer save to clutch him in his arms while the booming sound – if it were sound at all – rolled closer through him, in thunderous waves. It didn't matter now, not when he could feel Frodo's heartbeat run quick as a bird's against his own chest. Sam fumbled through the folds of cloak and jacket where the wind had crawled before and pressed his hands against the chilled shirt, to the steel in Frodo's backbone.
"What was I..." Frodo's flying breaths warmed the side of his neck. "What did you think I was about to do?"
"I don't know," Sam whispered, "I don't know." He closed his arms round the hitch in Frodo's chest, his own breath thick between his teeth.
Over long moments, they stood like this, tucked close together in the cavorting wind. A stillness opened within Sam, like a fan of chestnut leaves in spring, as the tension drained away and a slow ripple eased through Frodo's limbs. "Your Sam's a fool," he muttered, "and no–"
"Don't say that." Frodo laid both hands to his face and looked at him, bewildered in the faultless mid-day. "Where were you?"
"Just a step and a half away." Sam searched his face for a sign of the changeful moods that took him at times. One moment, unrest lit a fire of questions in Frodo's eyes, and the next could set his gaze adrift as if the world lay in a boundless fog. But now there was none of that, only the clearest shade of autumn sky, and a look as peaceful as it had been during their last moments on the mountain's slopes. Such a beautiful sight it was that Sam found himself wishing to go under in it.
"I'm sorry," Frodo said quietly. "I brought you here, and I don't know why."
With the smallest shake of the head, Sam closed his eyes, and all his feeling wound down to the caress of Frodo's fingers as they wandered over his face, pressing soft against his cheekbones to stroke down to the corners of his mouth and cup his chin.
"We're here..." He breathed out long, and when he looked at Frodo again, it seemed as if all else had been nobut a dream. "We're here to have a bite and rest our feet, aren't we?"
"Yes, let's sit down." Frodo clasped his shoulders for a short squeeze. "And eat."
His movements were even and fluid as he settled on the stone bench, and Sam joined him in the shadow with a sigh of relief. The healers might find hope in the mending of his wound, but they didn't hear Frodo's breaths rip in the deep of night nor find him huddled in a corner without a memory why he'd gone there, or what fear shook him so he could barely speak.
"'Tis plain fare, but the bread's fresh from the palace kitchen." Sam pulled the small knife from his belt to cut the bread and cheese. The wind didn't blow so harsh in this corner, and a milder breeze slipped by with scents of sage and lavender as must be drifting across from the herb gardens.
"The smell of this..." Frodo picked up a chunk of bread, rolling it between his fingers before he bit off a piece. "It's... rather like Marigold's nutbread."
Sam hid an astonished smile by reaching for the bread. "Oh, I've missed that, I have," he said between bites, "but there's a spice to this as I've never tasted in the Shire. A bit like gillyflower, maybe."
A grateful contentment sprawled inside him as he watched Frodo eat and wipe bread-crumbs off his chin with his bandaged hand. When they spent mealtimes with Mr. Merry and Pippin, back at the house where they were lodged, Frodo tried hard to hide how clumsy his right hand had grown. His cousins made light of it, but Frodo's knuckles clenched white each time the fork slipped between his fingers and he dropped a bite, and then he'd stare at his own hand as if he didn't know it anymore.
"And what are those?" Frodo gestured at the fruit Sam had set aside for afters.
Round and plump they were, with rosy splashes on the pale, downy skin, each big enough to fill Sam's palm. "They're a sort of plum, I expect."
He set his knife to the fruit and started carving it, thinking about the woman at the market who'd cupped them so easy in her big brown hands – a gift, she said, while the ribands of her bonnet flew merry in the wind. The slice he cut off dripped with juice as he held it out to Frodo.
"The first is yours." Frodo folded his arms and watched him with a look of keen interest, perhaps even a spark of amusement.
Sam chewed under that intent gaze and licked a dribble of juice off his fingers. "Sweeter than plums, they are. Have a taste, Mr. Frodo."
Instead of reaching out for the next slice, Frodo slid the pouch aside and came to sit close by him, his feet pulled up on the bench. Sam laid down the knife to wrap his arm round Frodo's shoulders, and breathed deep against the gentle weight as Frodo leaned into him. "Here now..."
Frodo chewed with relish, his lashes dipping to rest against the bruised hollows under his eyes. "It tastes of spring and sunshine."
Sam held another slice to his lips, where juice and breath and the grazing softness of Frodo's mouth mingled for a moment, and his eyes filled of a sudden. "There's another, if you–"
"No..." Frodo found his hand without opening his eyes and twined their sticky fingers. "Thank you, Sam."
The sky seemed paler now, as if the wind had washed it clean, and Sam thought if all the world chose to stop right then and never moved another inch forward, he'd spend forever in the heart of his only wish. But then the quiet was rent by heavy footfalls in the tower below.
All alert in an instant, Frodo drew back further into the alcove. "Someone is coming."
"Well, they wouldn't mind us sitting here, would they?"
Sam listened for a space, but the steps shuffled about in the lower storey instead of climbing the stairs. And then he wasn't listening no more. Beside him, Frodo stretched up and turned, his breath flush against Sam's cheek – and his own surged to meet him there, with the barest brushing of lips. The juicy flavour hovered on Frodo's mouth, sweeter for the taste of him and the startled pulse that leapt down to Sam's fingertips. He found Frodo's eyes on him, full of the same breathless expectation, and near enough to reveal a kindling glow.
Sam gathered him close, and for a moment more their breaths were hanging warm and loose in the narrow space between them. Then Frodo bent towards him, and a richer taste filled Sam's mouth, shared in the kiss, in gentle sweeps of the tongue that went back and forth till shivers spilled over his skin. A familiar ache rose through him, lighting sweet pangs in his breast, and a trembling catch of breath that dried to a gasp in his throat.
..." A soft quiver ran through him as if he were speaking a secret.
Frodo's fingers were still knotted in his curls when he drew back a bit, his other hand splayed over Sam's chest so that his heartbeat might fill the gap between his fingers. Below, the footfalls sounded again and lumbered out of the tower, but now they were nestled into a haven of close breaths skimming each other, the wounded hand cradled between them.
"I didn't think I could possibly be so... glad," Frodo murmured with a low, rueful laugh. "Now."
Now and always, if I had my wish.
Sam stroked a hand down his back, shifting them both to settle Frodo into a restful hold against him.
Across the breastwork, they could see the city's eastward point where a single bold rock jutted forward like a ship's prow. On their right, birds rode the gale that rushed them near to the mountains, strong wings stretched wide against the boisterous airs.
"They travel with the river," Frodo said, a drowsy hum in his voice.
Sam craned his neck to watch after one of the gulls, till it disappeared between the tower's eaves and the pale brink of the sky.
~ ~ ~
When Frodo slides out of sleep, a grey chill steals in through the window, and for long, breathless moments, he is suspended, nameless and nowhere. On the other side of the room, loops of gold-thread in the tapestry gleam pale like a ghost of dawn. At this hour, the shadows start to swim and dissolve into a hanging mist. From it, uncertain shapes waver and tug at his memories as if they were knots to be loosened. And perhaps that will happen one morning, if he can bear to wait long enough.
He turns his head to look at Sam, bedded deeper into the room's twilight. They have slipped apart in their sleep; heavy folds of brocade and embroidery are heaped across Sam's back. Between the pillow and an edge of the sheet that clings to his shoulder blade, his skin is dark as earth under ragged snow. Frodo curls his fingers up tightly before he can reach out and wake Sam.
His hand crawls under the pillow instead and closes on a smooth, round pebble. Sam has placed it there on the first night they spent in this room, and there it remains, unseen, a reassurance to Frodo's searching fingers as he imagines its dusky colour. When he touches the small stone, it seems like a measure of the time that Sam carried it. A chill runs up his spine, and Frodo tries to hunch back under the covers.
At the first rustle of sheet and blanket, Sam is awake, a tell-tale catch in his breathing that Frodo stills with a hand to his shoulder. There was a night not long ago when Sam woke to an empty bed, and the moments that it took him to find Frodo, crouched under the window arch, drained all the blood from his face. Moonlight carved his cheekbones in stark white bows, and the fear had locked his shoulders so hard that they trembled with the strain.
"Sam..." Frodo folds himself against the strong back and winds an arm about him so that it lies across Sam's chest, and his fingers cup Sam's shoulder. A murmured reply hums under Sam's ribs that still show too clearly through the skin, and the sound trembles on Frodo's chest. He can feel how that seeking tremor spills around the scar below his shoulder, like the waters of a brook parting around a dead branch. There are times when his skin seems to be spread out thin between these knotted marks, almost into air. He will look out from the high battlements and find himself stretched between here and there, his breaths straining at an unknown distance. Only when Sam's skin lies against his own, like this –
"You're awake." Sam's voice is hazed and rough with sleep, but his chest widens with stronger breaths.
"I am..." Behind the words blooms a bewildered hollow. I am.
There is always such a pause of startled marvelling, and it robs him of his chance to answer with quick comfort. Sam must be wondering how long he has lain awake in the dimness. Frodo rests his face against the curve of Sam's neck where his curls are wound into a soft tangle. He's breathing traces of soap and stone dust, and a warm scent that is undefinable but essential, like earth.
Sam rubs his thumb back and forth along the blanket's seam, in a pattern Frodo recognises.
"What you asked me," Sam says at length, "yesterday, when we came by the fountain court."
"Yes." Frodo watches as his fingers trace aimless paths across the rich embroidery. By daylight, the shapes of beaks and wings reveal themselves in the closely stitched braids and swirls, but under the shadows, they are a mass of confounded lines. Sam's hand flattens on the fabric.
"The dead tree... it got me thinking of Gollum, and how he was when we last saw him, if you remember?"
"I know that we fell... He attacked us, but..." Frodo hesitates. How can he say that his own memories lie blanched and clouded before him, as if viewed through the eyes of another? "...not much else. I – I think I told him to leave us be."
Sam lifts his hand to clasp it over Frodo's. "Such a picture of mad torment I've never seen," he says thickly.
"I wanted to save him." With that simple statement, something is rising in Frodo's throat, so sharp and unexpected that he can barely swallow around it. "I had to – if I could save anything at all, then..." He falters, startled to feel a wet trickle between his mouth and Sam's shoulder.
Sam pulls his hand tight against his own breast. "Aye, and he saved us in the end, didn't he? Not that he meant to, the poor wretch."
"Because you let him go."
It is a simple fact, but Sam hears in it what Frodo didn't intend to say. With a smooth motion, he rolls onto his back and draws Frodo along so that he's sprawled across Sam's chest.
"You let him guide us," Sam says quietly.
Frodo shakes his head, not to deny but because too many words crowd his throat. The tears still run across his face – heated now, as if they're washing up more than grief – and drip down the side of his nose. He starts to dash them aside, but Sam's touch is quicker, and his thumb wipes in a slow, gentle arc over Frodo's cheek.
"They've made the tales about us that I was wanting to hear," he says. "And I never thought I would, not when we were sitting on those cold stairs–"
"Yes," Frodo answers quickly, "yes, I remember," and he brushes Sam's lips with his own as if to release the memories that must follow this one. Memories that Sam has buried in a thoughtful silence.
"There ought to be one about Gollum, too," Sam says decisively. "I never got to find out if he wanted to be the hero or the villain, but I reckon in the end it was neither."
"Yes, I... I believe you're right." Frodo swallows tightly. He forgot who he was, and what he was becoming, and he never
"Well, he left me a keepsake." A short smile quirks the corner of Sam's mouth as he touches the scar high on his forehead, a pale dash usually hidden by his curls.
"I didn't know." Frodo leans over to skim his lips across the slender ridge. The tears have left dry tracks on his cheeks, but Sam's hands move in searching, soothing circles over his back, and thoughtless relief suffuses his skin. He looks at his hand where it rests on Sam's chest, the bandages ruffled and stained with sweat in the valley between thumb and forefinger.
Surprise glints from the dark eyes at the sudden urgency in his voice. The dimness has lightened around them and the contours of Sam's face are bathed in a tender grey.
"I love you." Frodo shapes the words against his lips, so that they twine with Sam's breath. "And I do not think that I can ever tell you how–"
He stops at a wordless sound rushing from Sam's throat, and between their mouths they share the keen taste of joy until they're both breathless.
"'Tis early yet," Sam murmurs into his hair when they part after a long while that is still too short. "You should rest some more."
Balanced on the edge of morning, Frodo listens to the wind that gusts around the towers to draw strange moans and whistles from the hollow passages and crannies. His head tucked under Sam's chin, he looks to the window. A growing sheen silvers the stone arch. In a while, the window alcove will light up while the room is still cloaked in grey, and a myriad dust motes will float and sparkle within that first radiance. Against his throat drums the steady rhythm of Sam's heart, and only this – only to lie against each other like this – is enough to fill him until it peaks sharp as a cry beneath his ribs, escaping into a sky washed clear of all colour.
Frodo's thoughts travel along riddled paths as he looks into the wind's eye. "Can you imagine, Sam–" and his breath flies with the discovery, "that perhaps there is no end..."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.