44. Where the Shadows Lie
High over the plains of Mordor, the watch-tower of Cirith Ungol was alive with activity. Alive, acrawl with orcs, who trembled beneath the eyes of the Nazgûl that stalked its ways, impatient for the war that even now battered the walls of Minas Tirith, yet retained against such needs as this day brought. There was ghastly fume rising over the high passes, as Shelob's body slowly withered in the corpse-fire, now two days hot. Minas Morgul was awake once more, as regiments were moved to occupy it and search about the Stair and roads there. There was much coming and going over the high bridge that joined the Ephel Dúath to the Morgai ridges: searchers, reinforcements, messengers to bear tokens and report to Lúgburz, to Barad-dûr, where the Lieutenant of the Tower would groveling bring them before the Dark Lord.
Something was afoot—that was certain, and a great, brooding wrath had settled over all the land, as the Lord of Mordor pondered the news and other tidings that came to him as Lord of the Rings. There was a Power at work, mayhap more than one. He had felt it, somewhere to the West, and sent forth his armies earlier than intended, hoping to thwart it, wherever it lay. He had thought to catch it in Minas Tirith, but nothing yet had challenged his will there. Not truly. But then from the very fences of Mordor had come this alarm: a breach of his own land. Doubt had set in. Was it Minas Tirith that concerned him? Or was it something else? The Ring moved with this Power. Yet who held it? And where was he? The Song was shifting, and he listened, straining after its elusive refrain.
The servants of the Red Eye, who moved now toward the plains of Mordor and the armed camps massing there, were hushed and fearful, feeling in the land the echo of their Lord's will, and they went about their business in quiet efficiency, seeking to pass beneath notice.
Nor they alone: for north of Cirith Ungol—not so far north, but north enough—in the dark, shadowed vale between the Ephel Dúath and the Morgai, there toiled a small, grey figure, barely visible against the dullness of the rocks...
A small orc crept among the boulders that lay strewn along the old Morgai river channel. One might have thought it was hunting, going slow among the rocks as it was, rather than risking the higher ground which, though steeper, was more open. But one who looked more closely would have cause to doubt: it did not so much creep as reel from stone to stone, arms outstretched to catch itself as it half-fell against them, then pushed off to struggle toward the next, stepping clumsy on the dry, pebbled ground. It seemed dazed, dizzy, almost, moving as if through a dreamworld—or else underwater. But it fell ever so swiftly when it caught its foot upon a rock, and there was no soft sleep at the end to receive it, nor a waking beyond the nightmare.
Frodo Baggins lay sprawled where he had fallen, chest heaving, the stink of leather and metal and old, orcish sweat filling his nostrils, and his face pressed against the hard, dusty earth. His tongue felt swollen, so dry was it, and every bone in his body ached. He felt as a leaf on the storm-winds, tossed hither and thither, battered against bark and railing and walls. Even now, he could feel that storm at his back, seeking to lift him once more, and limbs twitched feebly in response.
I can't, I can't! a part of his mind wailed, resisting the call. But that voice, the voice of a reasonable hobbit, was not the only voice in him. The other spoke in tongues of flame, pulsed dark and dully red, like coal in the ashes and as menacing – the stone of ordeal, weighing heavy there at the core of his being, kindling agony in the small, pale scratch of a scar upon one arm, upon the cold white mark in a shoulder, making palms itch with heat. He had to bear it, had to bear it onward however many miles it took, however far it might be to safety – malign, precious burden.
Lately, there was a third, a constant soft whispering too 'high' almost to hear. He did not know who spoke, but it did not matter, for it, too, was an urging onward – of that he was certain. Like a stream that rushed in its bed, flowing round the silent rocks that cut through its surface, that voice whispered on its way, and Frodo's weary complaints sank into it like pebbles and were carried away.
And so there was nothing to do but go on. Had not Sam said so, and had he not promised when he rose from his side, and did not lie down there beside him? Thus while he had will in him, he struggled forward, Sam's face fixed in his mind's eye, and For you, for you, he thought, and made himself put one foot before the other.
And when will abandoned him, then all sight failed, save a sort of afterimage that walked with him and felt of Sam. Eventually, he would blink, and find himself elsewhere than he remembered, with little memory of how he had come there. Only the wounded report of his body suggested his course, and a sense of burn or chill that made him wonder whose will moved him when his own failed. Had he gone in circles, caught between fire and water? Had he doubled back? Where was he, and how long had he wandered? He could not have said, left to his own devices: the vale was a monotonous sameness of rocks and peaks once he had left the bridge behind. But he could feel the pull of an infernal fire, feel it pulsing through the land, radiating outward from the wounded heart of Mordor, and so knew that day by day, inch by inch, he drew closer to the Fire he sought.
Still, he did wonder where he was, and how he had come here – what transpired in the blank spaces of memory. Try though he might to recollect, nothing came to him, yet still he tried, and thought it not entirely a futile effort. For in point of fact, they were not wholly blank: wavering images, isolated scraps of memory or else delusion, floated in the darkness of the recent past, ambushing him in those brief periods between sleep-walking and the hell of wakefulness. Then, sometimes, they came fast and thick – too much so for him to make much of them, and he never knew what would remain with him when he opened his eyes to Morgai vale.
But he knew there had been orcs – he was wearing orc-gear, and he remembered the babble of their voices: angry, incomprehending, confused, demanding. He remembered their faces all about him. He remembered their stench – had no need of memory, in fact, for it was on him and he could not escape it. He had been among them, and somehow, he had departed, leaving them behind. There had been the bridge that he dimly recalled seeing from on high: a bridge that ran above the vale, connecting the hideous, watchful fortress with whatever lay beyond and down a dark road. He remembered the feel of walking over an airy void.
And then there was nothing, unless one counted waking again and again to rocks and bruises and thirst. Somehow, he had passed the tower of Cirith Ungol, had 'got away clean,' as Sam might have said, yet he had no notion how, though he knew the pursuit must be up, however confused it might be. He could not wait for memory to return before fleeing, however – that, too, was certain. Perhaps that was why he kept on as he did. Perhaps that was all the voices were: the hallucinatory terror of capture. Perhaps he was simply talking to himself...
But the weight of the Ring, and its heat belied such hopeful thoughts. No, the Ring was real, and he knew it spoke – verily, it sang in the strange way of metal, and there was not one dweller in Mordor who was deaf to its fell melody, mistake it how they might. For in it was the voice of Him who twisted every heart and put his mark on them all, calling them to him. The Ring, too, bore that mark – was that mark – and it knew its Master's call, recognized the land of its birth.
Other things, too, it knew – and he knew that it knew. It knew how he had come here; it knew the tale of his recent days, of how he had come past the tower, and the suspicion crept over him that perhaps those blanks in his mind were not the Ring's doing, but his own. Because perhaps... perhaps a part of him did not want to know. Sometimes, in the dim realm of shadows that he wandered in when will abandoned him, he had the impression of a solid, limp weight, of the heat of another body crushingly close, and of a mortal terror... a terror not his own. There was never a face, and never a sound, just feeling, and his hands burned hot...
Had it really happened? Orcs, he knew, were filthy creatures, but they were not likely to leave armor lying about for just anyone to pinch. Who did his clothes proclaim him to be, that orcs should have let him past? And where was their owner now?
Such questions made his heart pound and his vision swim. For though he had seen now murder aplenty since leaving the Shire, something about this made him want to vomit. Though he'd nothing in his stomach to heave and no strength to waste on it, such shreds of memory and the questions they raised made him sick. At the same time, they confused him. Could it be that he was worried... about an orc? About one of the innumerable orcs that opposed him, and whom he would have to fight and slay should they present themselves this instant? One of the many whom he had, in fact, helped to slay on the journey through Moria? Was this... guilt?
As he plodded forward, he worried at the puzzle. It made too much sense to suppose he had slain an orc, taken what he needed, and continued onward, just one orc among many, an orc that had got 'lost' at some point. It made too much sense, and yet why should he feel so? He had been horrified after Moria, but that had not prevented him from acting, nor had he given overmuch thought to anything beyond his own terror and revulsion, and his grief over Gandalf's fall. Yes, battle was disgusting, but he had done it before. He had not felt this way afterward.
Suspicion raised its head once more. It could not be the nameless orc that concerned him so much, that put such blanks in his mind, that set the will to forget against the desire to know. What really lay in those gaps? What... or who?
It was at that point that he would feel the sweat begin to bead on brow and neck – a cold, clammy sweat, and he shivered within his borrowed armor. He thought of Aragorn, of Boromir and of Legolas, Gimli, Gandalf. He thought of them facing the wargs in Hollin, and standing against the orcs in Moria – there was a fey, cruel light in them in such moments. They could be ruthless – that was both the why and how of their being warriors: they could kill, because that was how killing was done. He saw Boromir, writhing in Aragorn's grip, murder in his eyes, his fair face twisted by a madness.
A madness that had shown the split in him into which the Ring had wedged itself, corrupting all that lay about it. And the Ring, wreathed in flame, hung before his mind's eye, burned in the back of his mind.
Frodo felt his arm throb with the memory of It lodged there in his very flesh, and now he did swallow against nausea. Who was he, he wondered, in those blanks in memory? Who was he, when he staggered through the seeming unending night of Mordor, eyes unseeing, lost to the world 'til, for whatever reason, he was jolted back to wakefulness?
You're the one who's got to do this, Mr. Frodo, that's who.
Sam's voice sounded in his mind suddenly, and Frodo swallowed, hard and dry. My dear Sam! He shut his eyes a moment, and that dim, afterimage of a hobbit floated there in his mind's eye, eclipsing momentarily that circlet of fire. Frodo breathed in deeply, a breath sharp enough to hurt the stitch in his side, and then he opened his eyes. Mordor remained as grey and unyielding as ever it was, but he dug the heel of one gauntleted hand into his afflicted side, gritted his teeth, and picked up the pace.
The mountain rumbled, and the heat within him flickered in kindred restlessness.
And from the depths of his being, there came an answer: Yes, I am coming, and an eye opened onto –
– a small grey figure in the narrows of a great grey land. That is what the eye sees, and Frodo looks upon it and knows it for himself.
Where am I? he wonders, and wonders, too, at the dearth of feeling in that thought. Everything feels grey as that land, shrouded – mute. Mute, yes, deadened. Silent. The dry ravages, he thinks, and knows not why.
But they are, and this place is, and he is himself – dry as dusts and wispy with it. Come a breeze, and he should scatter like the husks of seeds on an autumn's day. And then the Thing in him would fall to the earth, burrow its way into the cracks of this land and lie there, winking gold, singing to the shredded sky 'til the Eye in the Tower saw, 'til the Will felt the echo of its own resonance.
It will happen soon, he knows, and feels perhaps a little sting at the thought. How could it not? The thin, worn shadow crawling down the empty gully, over the sand wastes a lost river had left has not much light left in him to give. The Thing in him devours, slowly, leeches it out like sunlight takes color from cloth. Who knows where it goes? Or where he shall go? Will he end here in this grey between, forever?
Frodo feels a thrill run through him, like the beat of a drum. No, he shall not end here. Here is no where, and there was no between of the Light and the Dark. No, for he stands in the shadows...
Aye, you're in a bad way, Mr. Frodo, no denyin' it.
Much as I can be, comes the reply, voiceless yet O! So exquisitely clear! And if he looks hard enough, Frodo thinks he can see a shadow in a sunless land that follows the grey wisp on his way. I told you, Mr. Frodo, didn't I, that between leaving others and leaving you, leaving you would be the death of me?
Once upon a time, Frodo answers after a long stretch of the mind after dim and hazy memory. Once, you did say that, I think. I don't know. Not anymore.
Well, I do, and I did say it, so of course I'm here. I'm always here, just when you need me, Sam says fondly, and Frodo feels him close now. Didn't ought to've gone this far, though, Mr. Frodo. It ain't safe, you know.
There is no safety any more, Sam, he says, with infinite resign.
Never was, really. But you know what I mean, sir. You shouldn't go walking in Mordor as not but your skin – things move in, if you take my meaning, Sam says wisely, and Frodo can almost – almost – see him standing there, blowing a stream of smoke around his pipe, as he would do at home, standing on the porch and looking over the gardens.
There is a rumble, hot and menacing, and Sam, or the shadow of him looks up. Storm's coming, he says.
There is no rain in Mordor, Frodo answers, longingly.
Didn't say rain. Storm. But, Sam says, as the grey figure staggers onward down an ancient road, I dare say there'll be some of that, too. You ought to get yourself back there, Mr. Frodo, seein' as how it's all on account of you.
I cannot go back. I do not know the way, Frodo protests, clinging to the dullness of this place. For 'tis better than the torment that awaits – anything is better than the torment that awaits in that place!
Don't matter – you'll go back. They're callin', don't you know?
Maybe they are, whoever 'they' are. At the least, Frodo can feel a tingling that starts in his fingers and toes and crawls up his limbs. He's getting heavy – gravity has found him, and he's going down, sinking down, and No no no, not that! Mercy, not that! Can you not leave me be? he cries to the unfeeling sky.
A sky that is warping about him, wrapping him up like a suffocating blanket, falling in after him, and he's going down, down, down – and he gasps as the heat hits him, right in the chest, like a weight of molten metal, that band about his heart. No, I can't! Please, I can't! he thinks, but 'tis no use. The world has got him now, presses in upon him, presses him back into himself, back with It... Ai Elbereth, save me, I'm going back!
And faintly, through the rush and thickness of the air: Of course you are, Mr. Frodo. Of course you are. But don't worry – I'm coming with you!
Frodo cries out, wordless, voiceless, as the world comes crushingly upon him, and –
– with a gasp, he blinked, just as the stone jarred him achingly sense-ful. He groaned and lay there upon the old road, unable to move. There was a thin, weak whistling in his ears, and after a time, he realized it was his own breath, and he could feel the grit of the road clinging to cracked lips. One arm was numb beneath his chest, but he could not muster the strength or will to shift it.
This is the end, then, he thought dully. He could see nothing but paving stones that marched onward past the limits of vision, and for all he knew they went on forever or ten steps. It did not matter. He could not imagine taking even one. Not even to save his life, and he could not even find it in him to fear. There was nothing in him – not even a sense of relief. Just... nothing. Nothing but heat and hurt.
Dry ravages. He shut his eyes and willed himself away...
But it was not to be. Lying there upon the road, ear pressed painfully to the stones, hearing grown sharp since Weathertop heard the first ring and beat of metal on rock. At first, he knew not what it was, but after a time, realization took hold: orcs!
And of a sudden, and utterly despite himself, he jerked. His whole body spasmed, twitched and cramped and clawed its way to hands and knees, as the white-hot familiar terror took hold: They will find It! With a grunt and heave, he rose, and pain flared incandescent, nearly knocking him over. But he put his hands on his knees, and hung his head a moment before first one foot and then the other lifted, trembled in the air a moment before one after the other found the earth once more. Blood pounded in his ears as an echo of a deeper throbbing beat, and slowly, shakily, he moved to it, grinding forward, stop and start, unsteady as a newborn calf.
Hurry, Mr. Frodo, they're coming up fast! Sam's voice in his head sounded, and with a supreme effort, Frodo attempted to lengthen his stride, to quicken his step. And for a few precarious moments, he managed it, before of a sudden, his foot slipped – it came down and there was nothing, and the next thing he knew, he was falling.
He gasped again as he hit the earth, but in surprise as well as hurt – for something chill and wet splashed over him. Water! As he lay stunned and aching in the sandy damp, he could feel it trickling over his hands, and past his toes, and the orc armor and leather grew heavy with it. He shut his eyes. This was beyond cruel! That after the torture of going all this way, from Shelob's cave to this forsaken place, desperate for one drop to drink, he should now find water and have no time to get it, for the orcs were coming and he couldn't, he could not let them have It!
But there was no way to stop it. There was no place to hide, no sheltering stone – just the road, and the open channel, and himself.
Curse it all, I care not any more! he thought, suddenly furious. He rolled onto his belly, dropped his head into the little streamlet, opened his mouth and let the water flow in, swallowing in great, convulsive greedy gulps. Let the orcs come, I'll drink my fill or they can drown me here!
So drink he did, and deeply, and reveled in the feeling of wet upon his face, and he neither cared nor noticed the bitter taste of the water. After so long without, he'd no taste for such, and he would've wept over it had he any tears to shed.
But at last, the tramp of iron-shod shoes grew audible in the distance. And though he had thought to stay and give no further thought to flight, useless as it was, slowly, the dread came over him, and he found himself clutching at the pocket in which the Ring lay. They'll take me to Him, he thought, as horror hollowed out his chest. Any moment now, they'll see, and they'll come, and then...!
He couldn't finish the thought. And though he groped at the hilt of the orc-sword that he bore, his fingers were nerveless, clumsy – he couldn't grip, couldn't draw. Was he dying already? Or was it the Ring's doing? Or had he simply nothing left of strength? With a shudder, Frodo shut his eyes, waiting for the hue and cry with bated, pained breath.
I'm so sorry, Sam!
An odd, whispering laughter, like a fall of sweet bells, sounded in his mind, as if from the depths of the earth, reverberating down his spine. Then: That's all right, Mr. Frodo. I understand. A sigh of air brushed over him, feather light, head to toe, making his skin tingle. But still, he could not move, and he set his teeth and waited, and waited, as the sound of marching feet drew closer, and closer.
Shadow fell upon him – a long train of it, it seemed, wavering a little as the orcs passed.
They never missed a stride. Their march did not falter. Two by two, they passed above him on the road, and never looked back and never slowed down, and their steps grew dim, faded into the distance, 'til he could hear his own harsh breathing once more.
Impossible! his mind told him, and incomprehension cracked his eyes open to an empty road... and a miracle of light! The feared wind had blown, and left him whole, and with the Ring in his pocket, and taken instead the ash clouds. There was daylight in the sky – the pale light of dawn. No doubt the orcs were hastening to reach their hold and shelter from the shine of day.
A strange feeling stole through him, then, and after a long, puzzled moment, he realized, to his wonder, that he was laughing! Painfully, wheezingly, sounding like a ghost or a gaffer, but he was laughing! The orcs had gone! Unbelievably, they had passed him by! As if... as if they had not even seen him.
"But how...?" he croaked hoarsely, as he painfully levered himself up into a sitting position. "How could they possibly – ?"
And then he trailed off, eyes wide, as speech died and wonder turned to sheer shock. Frodo stared, numbed and dumbfounded, for if the orcs passing had been impossible, what he saw before should be even more so. It's a trick, was the first coherent thought he had, and yet trick or no, his heart leapt in his chest, as if begging for release.
"But... not possible," he whispered.
But the figure standing staring down the road after the orcs seemed heedless of possibility. Or of history. Instead, he simply turned and eyed Frodo up and down, and gave him a small, sheepish smile, blushing as he said: "May I be forgiven! Didn't ought've gone ahead like that, but I've come back to you now, Mr. Frodo."
Samwise Gamgee stepped forward and held out a hand.
"Come on, now, Mr. Frodo – we've a ways to walk yet."
Frodo stared blankly at the hand hovering before him – brown and callused and steady – then slowly reached for it. The moment their fingers met, he felt a warm wave of dizziness seemed to sweep through him.
He had one glimpse of the lightening sky and the rest was darkness.
A/N: Welcome to the final book of Dwim's AU! Apologies for the many plodding scenes of Mordor that try to say what Tolkien said without repeating it verbatim – "The Tower of Cirith Ungol" and "The Land of Shadow" must be credited wholesale here, and may I never have to look at them this closely ever again.
That's all right, Mr. Frodo. I understand. - "The Tower of Cirith Ungol," RoTK, 208.
May I be forgiven! - "The Choices of Master Samwise," TTT, 445.