9. In Círdan's House
At last there came a night of rain. The Sea grew quiet, and all the stars were veiled save one that shone vaguely far, far in the West. As the night drew on it waxed clearer and brighter, but remained fixed close to the horizon. Then they perceived that it was not a star at all, but rather the light upon the very tower of Avallónë, and thus they knew that they had passed from the mortal lands into the West.
As the Sun rose they came in sight of land, the ship chasing its own long shadow westwards towards Tol Eressëa's fair shores. "Come, Frodo, my friend, and look! We have almost arrived!" said Círdan. Frodo glanced up, and a small smile came to his face, but he did not speak. Círdan offered his hand, and together they went up into the ship's bow and gazed at the approaching island, green and gold and rosy-white in the early Sun.
And so they came at last to the harbor of Avallónë, and to the great city that surrounded it, and to the broad island that rose above it. But Círdan and Frodo did not settle in the city, choosing instead a small village near the island's western shore. For this they departed soon after making landfall, for Círdan had learned that it resembled the Shire (in a relative sort of way), and he thought that this might benefit Frodo. They did not go alone, but took the road with Gildor and some of his folk, and of course with Bilbo.
"Frodo my lad," said Bilbo one night as they lay in a high meadow, gazing at the stars through clear, cool skies, "this is grander than ever I could have imagined."
Frodo glanced at him, his eyes warm. "Mmm."
Bilbo continued. "Once you said that you couldn't thank me enough, but now I truly can return the favor." He took Frodo's hand, squeezing it gently. "Thank you so very much, my boy – as little as that is." Frodo returned the squeeze, but said nothing, and all they could hear was the faint rasp of dry grass-stems stirred by an imperceptible wind.
Soon Frodo found that Tol Eressëa was indeed unlike the mortal lands, and that the difference was not merely in the number and variety of Elves. It seemed simultaneously deeply quiet (as if quiet were a thing in itself and not merely the absence of sound or disturbance) and strangely busy (as if things were happening that his perception was too weak or untrained to bring clearly to focus). He listened far more than he spoke, and he quickly built upon his knowledge of the ancient Elf-tongue, coming to understand it fluently, and to feel its rhythm and its meter, its mood and its melody, even more keenly than he had felt those of his native Westron. Some of the language's sound-elements – like the high, forward, open-mouthed "a"s and the softly-trilled "r"s – seemed to grab something in his mind, and the Elves' precise elocution filled him with a hidden delight.
Though he remained sad at leaving his friends and the land he had loved so well, and his longing for Sam did not abate, yet slowly his emptiness grew less, and with Círdan and with Gildor he knit friendships as close as any he had known in Middle-earth. Also he had many other friends, though aforetimes he had tended to be less gregarious than most. But the memories of the darkness troubled him for long years, and indeed, as time passed, they seemed to become more vivid and insistent, rather than less. Increasingly he took to wandering the island's forests under moon and stars. At first this was for pleasure: for to feel the night's air upon his skin, cool like fine linens or a fountain's clear waters; or to call the nightingales to his hand, a flutter of wings and a chatter of voices in the tree-scented gloom; or merely to lay upon the clean earth among the pale niphredil and the dewy-leafed isilidin and to watch the stars wheel slowly into the West. But over time it became also a way to avoid sleep, and thus the dreams of darkness that came more and more often to haunt it.
"You are abroad late," observed Gildor, happening upon Frodo in a lonely aspen-glade high above the town in which they lived.
"Not so late as to find no one else about. But come, sit beside me and talk awhile."
And so they talked until Frodo became drowsy and curled himself in the deep fern beside the ledge upon which they had sat. Then Gildor watched him until the eastern sky grew pale.
Frodo felt himself wake. He was in a cold dim room lit only by torches, and quiet but for the breathing of a single orc-guard. He lay naked upon a dirty stone floor, his arms bound at his sides and his knees and ankles tied. "Sssam?" he whispered. But there was no answer. He shivered, trying to pull his cloak tighter about himself, and found first that he could not move, and then that he had no cloak to pull, nor indeed any clothes at all. His eyes flew open, and, lighting upon the guard, went wide with horror. He groped for the chain about his neck and found none. They've taken It! he thought. Quietly but desperately he struggled to free himself, writhing and tugging at his bonds, but they were too well-tied to slip from, too strong to break, and too well-placed to bite.
"Nar, sleep well, little fool," growled the guard, "– while you can. Soon you'll be for the Tower. For Him personally, I hear." Frodo thrashed ferociously, but the guard laughed: a cold, harsh sound. "Save your strength."
Then despair came upon him. It's all lost, everything's lost. Gondor, Rivendell, beautiful Lórien, even the Shire. All will be taken. All will come to darkness. Bitter tears welled from his eyes, falling silently upon the cursed stone. All that effort, all that pain, Gandalf dead – all for nothing! For a time blackness took him, and he knew no more.
There was a shout. Big, broad orcs sat about him in a circle, staring and slavering. The largest – the captain, he surmised – stood before him, a wicked curved blade in his hand. "Hoy, you dunghill rat! Sit up!" He kicked Frodo hard in the side. He gasped. "I said, sit up!" The orc pulled him upright by his hair. He thrashed wildly, and the orcs clapped and hooted. "What are you doing here?" asked the captain.
"Ar, you'll not talk, is it? You'll come here and spy on us, lead the filthy tarks here, maybe even stick us in our sleep, but you'll not talk?"
Frodo glared at him defiantly.
The captain bent before him and brought the blade's point against his throat. His foul breath in his face, he growled, "Oh, you'll talk alright. Garn! You'll tell us everything you know. Indeed soon you'll wish that there was more you could tell, you will." He issued a sharp command in the orc-speech. Most of the orcs scattered, but four surrounded Frodo, leering. "Oh no, my precious little one, we're not going to waste this bee-autiful chance. No indeed. We'll take it nice and slow. You're going to get to know me and my friends very well."
Frodo woke with a start. The Sun was high in the sky, sparkling through the aspens' finely-cut leaves. A fine warm breeze blew up the hillside from the east, but Frodo was covered in a cold sweat. Shaking, he rose and hunted for a clearing, then laid upon a shelf of stone to warm himself in the Sun.
"Come, Frodo!" said Círdan one October afternoon. The sky was filled with rolls of grey cloud, one behind the next, receding to the edge of sight, and a fine soft rain fell. They sat in their house's courtyard, warmed by a merry fire and shielded from the rain by a cluster of mallorns, their leaves now autumn-gold. "This should not be left to fester."
Frodo looked down, his forehead wrinkled and his lips set in a firm, straight line. He shook his head. "It is – too hard. I don't know – I don't know how –"
There was a silence. Círdan searched his eyes. After a time a vision came to him, small and dark but terribly clear. His breath quickened and his heart pounded painfully. Suddenly the vision bloomed, and Círdan found himself in a strange place, strange but terribly familiar. Bodies of Men and of Elves, cruelly hewn, lay all about. A vast threatening figure clad in black armor stood not ten paces away, facing him, a huge mace in his hand. Fear boiled from him like heat from a vast forge, and upon his mace-hand a great Ring glowed, red script shining with piercing clarity upon its hot gold. Círdan trembled, and, momentarily unmanned, made to turn back. But he was not alone. He felt a hand upon his left shoulder and a voice said, "Termáre, melda atto!" His foster-son Gil-Galad stood there, resplendent in his silvery armor and wielding his deadly spear, and with him was Elrond, his face set in determination. Glancing to his right, Círdan saw Elendil and his mighty son Isildur, fiery swords at the ready. His courage returning, he faced his adversary once more.
Fierce cries rose behind them, but they did not turn back. Repeatedly Elendil feinted, then withdrew, seeking to fixate Sauron upon himself while Gil-Galad, Círdan, and Elrond readied a charge. Immediately Isildur was at his side, then ahead of him, striking and withdrawing, then striking again, but each time his sword rang and glanced aside. Sauron dropped his fighting stance, leaned upon his mace, and laughed. "What hurt dost thou think to do to me, thou worm, forgotten remnant of a mongrel race?" he said. Then turning to the others, "Verily I marvel at thy foolishness! Long years thou might yet have enjoyed in peace, but instead thou comest to pollute my doorstep with thy blood. So be it! But wilt thou not hearken unto thy kin, who even now writhe in an agony that only thy own arrogance could have contrived? Look back!"
Involuntarily Elrond and Círdan turned. Huge Orcs surrounded someone on the ground, holding him down, and one straddled his hips. Horror flooded them as they raced to his aid, but even as they did so the Orc raised a jagged blade and plunged it into him, ripping it upward in four hard jerks. A crescendo of screams, one hard upon the next, filled their ears, then suddenly ceased. The Orc withdrew his blade, licked it, and let out a howl of victory. Just as he did so Círdan reached him, freeing his head from his shoulders with one clean, sweeping stroke, then quickly dispatching two others. But it was vain. Círdan's mate lay there, his golden hair trampled into the gasping earth, his fine lean body flayed open from groin to heart, his face frozen in pain and in horror.
The vision receded, and Círdan found himself once more facing Frodo. His hands shook.
"Sermo?" Frodo asked, feeling a distance between them.
In reply Círdan sat at his feet and took his hands into his own. "Long ago you asked me – about something that was too – difficult for me to discuss. When we first met, at the lakes north of your land."
"But you didn't forget it. Every so often you urged me to talk about it, sometimes by asking straight out, sometimes by trying to, well, trick me."
"And you succeeded?"
"Then you remember what –" Círdan's eyes misted, "what they did in – Mordor, so long ago?"
Frodo grasped Círdan's hands and nodded slowly, pity and sadness twining together in his heart.
"But you also went there, and its evil touched you."
Frodo raised his eyes, blinking hard, but gazing steadily at Círdan.
"And not, I think, completely unlike how it touched my Laurefindë. My love."
"It was – it was –," Frodo began. "In the Tower – in –" He found himself unable to continue.
"Where?" Círdan asked softly.
"C-Cirith – Ungol."
There was a silence. The rain fell harder now, and a cool breeze shook a fine spray of drops from the mallorns' leaves. Thunder rolled in the distance. Frodo nestled into Círdan's embrace, gripping him hard, shaking with pain. But Círdan rested a hand lightly on his back and sang a slow, quiet song. Frodo did not understand it, for the tongue was strange, yet it comforted him and loosed his tears.
The song ended. A steady rain fell all about. Círdan rose, and, carrying Frodo, walked to the courtyard's east wall. A chair was set there, shielded from the rain by a broad overhang. Círdan settled into it and sat quietly, watching the wind stir the mallorns' branches and the rain splatter upon the paving-stones, and breathing deep the clean rain-scented air. Frodo still held him tightly. "Tell me," he said after a time.
That night Frodo dreamed again of Cirith Ungol, but it was different than before. He felt that he was observing rather than experiencing, and someone was with him, someone he did not know. At first she had no form, but a voice only, and she spoke softly but clearly, her words like rain upon a calm river, like fog that strays in a wood's hollows in the morning's first light. Frodo watched the Orcs drag him into a fire-lit room. His belly clenched and he found it hard to breathe. But the voice said, "Take my hand," and Frodo turned towards it, and then he saw her: as a slender elf-maiden she appeared, but strangely indistinct, as if she were made of wind and moonlight and gossamer-threads. But her hand was firm, and Frodo felt a little warmth creep from it into his hand and arm, and his breath grew easier.
He saw the Orcs kick him. Hard. He heard himself gasp and saw himself buckle, and he felt a fierce anger. He wanted to reach out and catch the Orcs by the throat and strangle them. "What are you doing here? Whom do you serve?" yelled the captain. Captive Frodo neither cried out nor answered. "Nar! So you're tough? You think I can't make you talk? Five minutes and you'll be blabbering like the town gossip!" the captain jeered, laughing. Then, turning to the others, he said, "Lads, get the board and fill the tub. We've got ourselves a little rat to drown!" At this, captive Frodo's eyes went wide and he began to shake. The Orcs saw it and taunted him.
"There, there! It won't be so bad. Just a few minutes underwater's all, then you'll tell us what we need to know, and give us what we want, and maybe we'll go easy on you," said one.
"Such a pretty thing! I know what I want from him," said another.
"The very same!" agreed a third. "Nice and slow and deep."
"Snaga! Mugdash!" growled the captain. "Stop your slavering! There'll be none of that, I guarantee you, 'tiI I've had my share. Get to work, you slugs! I am Shagrat, and you are stale worm-spit."
Frodo saw the Orcs fetch a big metal tub. They placed a long water-stained board in it so that it sloped steeply towards the bottom, then affixed it to the tub's rim. To this they attached another board, this one fitted with wheels so that it rolled upon the first, making it easy to raise and lower. The second board had rough leather fastenings bolted to its upper surface. Frodo shuddered and gripped the maiden's hand hard.
The scene shifted. Frodo saw himself lying on the ground in a dark place, his limbs and body wrapped in a kind of rough, frayed rope. Then Sam stepped into view, and he knew that it was not rope, but a huge spider's web-cords, and that he lay on the path just outside Shelob's Lair. As he watched, Sam took his head and shoulders in his arms. His voice cracking, he beseeched him to awaken.
"Frodo, Mr. Frodo! Don't leave me here alone! It's your Sam calling," Sam said. "Don't go where I can't follow! Wake up, Mr. Frodo! O wake up, Frodo, Fro, me dear, me dear. Wake up, o wake up!"
The scene shifted again. Sam stood by his body, his shoulders slumped and his head bowed, his face awash in tears as he looked at him. "Frodo, Fro, me dear, me love – wait for me." Then he turned and, hiding Galadriel's Phial, plodded slowly up the path, into Orodruin's glow – into Mordor.
A rapid series of images followed. Shelob bubbled and shuddered, curling tightly in her hole as her blood oozed out upon the cursed stone. An Orc hung by his wrists from a chain, its far end embedded in a ceiling of cold stone. Tears fell from his eyes and made a little puddle on the floor. An old man in a stone seat held two pieces of a great horn and stared vacantly at a blank wall. Sam searched among dead Orcs, disgust and fear written plain upon his face. Gollum crept carefully down a steep path towards Frodo, who lay sleeping, his head in Sam's lap. An expression of pain came over his face, and his eyes went dim and grey and old, and he raised a hand to his face. Then he turned, looking back up the path into the darkness, and made to take a step back, but hesitated, seemingly unable to decide what to do. He opened his hands before him and looked at them, then up the path, then again at his hands. Slowly he closed them, as if in resignation, and collapsed weeping upon the ground. A great black-robed figure, his face shadowed and invisible, screeched and wailed. Seizing a glittering sword, he tried again and again to impale himself upon it, but could not. Last of all a lone figure ascended a hill and beheld two trees, one with fine smooth silver bark and the other clad in pale furrowed gold. But their leaves were blackened and withered, their branches scarred and broken, and great seeping wounds rent their trunks. She knelt before them, uncovered her head, and wept bitter tears upon the earth at their feet.
Then Frodo knew his companion. He turned from the vision and looked into her eyes, and let the hurt of his wounds course through him as sap through the veins of a living tree.
In the years that followed Frodo grew into life on Tol Eressëa, slowly recovering the delight he once had taken in simply living. While he did not forget the Quest, its events ceased to have power over him, and the empty place that the Ring and Its destruction had delved within him gradually became filled with more wholesome things. Nonetheless he still longed for Sam, and often wondered whether he would see him again. He took to walking far over the island, even to its easternmost beaches, gazing ever back across the Sea towards Middle-earth. But no ship heaved herself over the horizon, and no visions came to his mind nor rumors to his ears, and he felt a great empty gulf between himself and the land he had left.