Title: Alone in the Dark (5/?)
Author: Slipstream
Rating: PG (angst, medical drama)
Archive: Ask, please. (slipstream_chan@hotmail.com)
Summary: The journey through Mordor has left Frodo more deeply injured than any could fear, robbing him of the ability to see the first blossoming of hope in the land…
Notes: Significant portions of this chapter use dialogue directly from Return of the King, specifically the crowning scene in 'The Steward and the King.' The idea of Gandalf carrying candied toffees (ginger, in this case) stems from the LOTR:FOTR extended edition movie commentary where it was revealed that Gandalf was originally going to be shown sucking on toffees rather than smoking to appease the anti-smoking lobbyists. Thanks Febobe for the herbal notes!
Additional Notes Concerning Updates: I know that I am one of the world's slowest updaters, but fan fiction is just a hobby. There are no deadlines, no timelines, no grades. Regrettably, fan fiction does NOT (as much as I wish it would) come before school, homework, term papers, calculus homework, chemistry finals, group projects, and other things that scholarships are dependent upon. I wish that I could chuck real life to the wind and write to my little heart's content, this is not the case. I can only hope to appease you with the knowledge that this story-line is going to run until the end of ROTK and it already looks like it shall be 15-20 posts long. I'm trying to write with as high a quality as I can, and I assure you that as soon as I get *every* chapter finished, within hours it has been proofread and posted. I like updating as much as you like reading updates. I am not hiding several hidden chapters from you. Also, "Alone" is not exactly being written chronologically. Several snippets from later chapters get written as I go along (as I don't want to lose any ideas), and while this may slow down the current chapter's progression, it speeds up the process further down the line as I have more time to dwell on each plot point. Please bear with me in my slowness. I'm trying to do my best.

~~~***~~~

The journey south did not agree with Frodo at all. By the end of the second day the constant rocking of the horse and lack of any visual orientation had turned his stomach in nervous flip flops. Twice he had been forced to beg for a pause in the journey, gripping vainly at the pony's mane in an attempt to stop the world from heaving. When the third instance had him bent over the side of the saddle vomiting what little he had managed to stomach Gandalf finally decided that, stubborn or no, enough was enough. During one of the pauses to allow the horses to rest, he secretly mixed the contents of his herbal pouch into the Ringbearer's water flask. By the time Frodo realized what devilry had been performed without his consent it had been far too late for him to do anything about it. He slept now in front of the Istari, his mare trailing faithfully behind and Samwise casting nervous glances his direction every five minutes.

When they reached the River Anduin, a steady wind had begun to blow, snapping the sails of the waiting ships smartly. Here their party split; a group of scouts on horseback went to prepare the White City for the return of its king while the remainder of the army lingered along the shoreline, moving more slowly in order to eradicate any lingering dark troops within the lands. The king and his court would travel by boat.

Frodo moaned and shifted as he was lifted down from Shadowfax, and swift hands wrapped him quickly in many warm layers. The shallow bottomed river boats were not deep enough to contain more than cargo holds, but a special place well padded with cushions and shielded from the elements by blankets had been prepared for him alongside Aragorn's seat.

Sam cowered from the edge of the boat, bracing himself against its gentle rocking. "Don't like boats, I don't. Nothing good ever comes of 'em," he muttered, and grimaced as Merry and Pippin rushed forward to peer over the prow. Gandalf laughed softly and within his arms Frodo stirred, looking rather ruffled.

"What's going on?" he asked in confusion, stifling a yawn.

Gandalf hummed lowly within his chest, hitching the bundle of blankets a little higher on his hip. "We have reached the Anduin while you were sleeping, young Baggins, and have boarded the ships that will take us to the White City."

"Boats? Sam won't be happy."

Watching the young Gamgee turn slightly green, Gandalf replied, "No, I should say that he isn't."

Frodo felt hot and restless, too tired even to squirm. He closed his eyes again behind the blindfold, shivering slightly.

Gandalf set him down in a nest of cushions, noting the Ringbearer's distress with some concern. He crossed the deck to where Sam sat huddled in his misery. "Come, Sam," he urged. "You are not yet fully healed yourself and deserve your rest. Perhaps a nap will take your mind off of your dislike of sailing."

Sam peered up, squinting against the bright sunlight. "How long will we be on these blasted things, Gandalf?"

"A day or two, perhaps three if we are delayed along our journey."

Sam groaned and dropped his head back onto his knees. "I think that I shall loose all that I've gained again, if you take my meaning, sir."

Gandalf patted the small back in sympathy and fished through his herb pouch. "Here," he said, offering the hobbit a hunk of something amber-colored and the size of a small rock. "Chew this."

Sam eyed it suspiciously. "It won't make me drop off, will it?"

Gandalf shook his head in wonderment. "My, you certainly have developed your master's mistrust of medicines, haven't you?" Sam blushed. "No, it won't. It's only a bit of candied ginger and should help to curb your nausea. It is also a delightful substitute when one is out of pipe-weed, as I have discovered."

Sam took the ginger and tentatively sucked on it. It was slightly tacky but did seem to help him feel better, so he tucked it into the side of his cheek. Thanking the wizard, he moved to the back of the boat (staying very far away from the rail, thank you very much) to where his master lay.

Aragorn was discussing something with one of the helmsmen. Sam offered him a smile and the ranger smiled back, indicating that Frodo was drowsing amidst the small avalanche of blankets and cloaks. Sam settled slowly into the warm nest, relieved to have a chance to relieve his aching joints. All he could see of Frodo beneath his wrappings was a tuft of hair and a pale, bandaged hand. Glad to see his master resting, the gardener stroked the dark curls absently.

Frodo stirred and whimpered softly, twisting against the tangled covers. Sam reached for Frodo's hand and squeezed it reassuringly. "Hush, don't fret now. It's just your Sam. You're safe."

Frodo quieted. "Sam?" he mumbled in a small voice. "Did Gandalf drug you, too?"

Sam smiled. "Nah, just a bit of candied ginger for my queasiness. I can get some for you if you'd like."

"No thank you," Frodo grumbled, his grogginess popping like little bubbles in his voice. He yawned. "Tired. Must have been… some powerful stuff…"

Sam reached over to straiten a few loose cushions, absently tucking him in tighter. "Go on back to sleep, then. We've a good ways more to travel, and then we'll see Mr. Strider crowned king. King! My, that'll be something to tell the gaffer about when we get home…"

Frodo nodded absently, slipping again into dreams, thinking of how the slight rocking and surrounding warmth reminded him of a time long ago when he was wrapped in blankets and rocked by a softly singing female voice that had long been lost to the lapping waves.

~~~***~~~

It was cold and a little windy for April, as if winter was trying to get one last say in before the coming of spring, but other than that it was a fine spring day, bright and sunny, with the crisp air carrying a few tarrying notes of birdsong. Even with the blindfold on bits of red light filtered into Frodo's vision, and he shielded his face further with his hands while his cousins supported him on either side. There had been a very slight discussion about whether or not he should be up at all, what with his illness appearing to resurge after their sail, but after all, it was not every day that a ranger was crowned king of Gondor, so he was allowed to attend.

"What's happening?" he asked, shifting more of his weight to Merry's good arm. "Tell me everything."

"Not much," Merry whispered back. "The soldiers are lining up in formation. There's no gate to the city, only a blockade, but people are all up on the wall lookin' down on us."

He was interrupted by the clear ringing of a trumpet, and the gathered host at the gates of Minas Tirith fell silent.

"Faramir is comin' forward now, and four fellows behind him are carrying a great black and silver casket," whispered Merry lowly, his breath making little puffs of air against Frodo's ear. Frodo would have asked more, but Faramir's voice broke through his thoughts.

"The last Steward of Gondor begs leave to surrender his office."

Aragorn's voice was kingly and deep, far from the smokey rasp of Strider eons away in the Prancing Pony. "That office is not ended, and it shall be tine and they heirs' as long as my line shall last. Do now thy office!"

There was a rustle of grass and then Faramir spoke in a clear voice, and from the slight muffle and echo Frodo guessed that he had turned to face the city walls. "Men of Gondor, hear now the Steward of this Realm! Behold! One has come to claim the kingship again at last. Here is Aragorn son of Arathorn, chieftan of the Dúnedain of Arnor, Captain of the Host of the West, bearer of the Star of the North, wielder of the Sword Reforged, victorious in battle, whose hands bring healing, the Elfstone, Elessar of the line of Valandil, Isildur's son, Elendil's son of Númenor. Shall he be king and enter into the City and dwell there?"

And all the host and all the people cried "Yea!" with one great voice.

"Men of Godnor," Faramir continued, "the loremasters tell that it was the custom of old that the king should receive the crown from his father ere he died; or if that might not be, that he should go alone and take it from the hands of his father in the tomb where he was laid. But since things must now be done otherwise, using the authority of the Steward, I have today brought hither from Rath Dínen the crown of Eärnur the last king, whose days passed in the time of our longfathers of old."

Frodo squirmed in the silence that followed. "What's happening now?"

"Well, Faramir's just opened that great casket, and he's got this magnificent crown in his hands. It's… oh… I'll have to tell you later, it's so grand. He's just given it to Strider, hush now…"

And indeed, Aragorn was speaking again, but his words were not in the Common Tongue and they rolled and filled the field and Frodo's mind with their rich antiquity.

"Et Eärello Endorenna utulien. Sinome maruvan ar Hildinyar tenn' Ambar-metta!"

Then he paused and his words were gentler if not less authoritative. "By the labor and valor of many I have come into my inheritance. In token of this I would have the Ring-bearer bring the crown to me, and let Mithrandir set it upon my head, if he will; for he has been the mover of all that has been accomplished, and this is his victory."

Frodo balked, swaying slightly. "Gandalf!" he whispered. "What do I do?"

"Do not worry, Frodo," the wizard reassured from his stance behind the hobbits, his voice full of warmth. "I will point you in the right direction. You need not fear if you stumble, for Faramir shall guide you."

His strong hands replaced his cousins', and together they set forth toward Faramir and Aragorn. Before Gandalf broke off to stand beside Aragorn, he gave Frodo a gentle shove towards Faramir. Frodo's heart beat in a nervous flutterand he feared that his quivering legs would steer him wrong, but he soon felt Faramir's gentle touch upon his shoulder and relaxed. He took the crown, and in his hands the metal felt cool and heavy, good against his flushed skin.

He turned in what he hoped was the direction he had come from, but in a blinding moment of panic he lost all sense of direction. "Faramir," he whispered. "Which way do I go?"

The man's hands grasped him about the shoulder and turned him slightly to the left. "This way, Master Hobbit."

"Ah, thank you."

He could imagine the captain's gentle smile as he covered the short distance, then Gandalf's hands stayed him again and lifted the crown from his hands. Frodo fell in beside the wizard, clasping his hands behind his back for want of something to do with them, and suddenly Sam was there, supporting him as they observed the rest of the crowning.

Aragorn knelt, and Gandalf the White set the crown up his head and said, "Now come the days of the King and may they be blessed while the thrones of the Valar endure!"

In all his life Frodo had never felt such a rush of joyous emotion, and within his mind it was if he could see Strider standing tall and proud, the sun gleaming brightly off of the White Crown. Indeed, a flash of light broke through the cloth of his blindfold, and he was dazzled by the rush of red spots, feeling all of five feet tall.

"Behold the King!" cried Faramir, and the ensemble burst into cheering and blowing of trumpets.

~~~***~~~

It was not a large courtyard by any means, but to Frodo it was ideal, both in its proximity to the set of rooms Aragorn had given him as his own and its seclusion from the rest of the upper circle. It was small, no more than thirty paces long and twenty paces wide and bounded on all sides by the high stone walls of the surrounding houses, accessible only through a single narrow gateway. There was a small path and the remnants of an old fountain surrounded by benches, all handily low for a tired hobbit to scramble up upon, each seat carved with deep-set runes and designs that spoke of ancient dwarven handicraft to blind, exploring fingers. All of this he had learned by touch, groping around the perimeter an inch at a time and digging his toes into the newly unthawed earth beginning to spring forth tender shoots of life. (He had also learned, quite by accident, that some of the plants were actually poison oak, and Sam had been kind enough to tend to their removal while Legolas applied a poultice to the rash.)

The sun was warm here in this section of Aragorn's court. The stone beneath him was almost hot from days of direct sunlight, and Frodo lounged on the heated bench, soaking up sun like a lizard. Yet despite the growing warmth of the summer breezes he was wrapped in layers of cloaks and warm winter clothing. Ever since his wounding at Weathertop he had felt the cold more deeply, and the destruction of the Ring seemed to have ripped the part of his core that retained heat from his very being.

The weave of his outer cloak was thick beneath his fingers and from the stifled warmth it absorbed he guessed it was dyed a dark color, black, perhaps, if Boromir's clothing had been any indication of Gondorian style. He had pulled the hood tight around his face and tucked his feet beneath him, so with the blindfold on the only part of his body exposed to the open air was the tip of his nose and lower face.

He sighed. His breath rattled against the dry skin of his lips and he licked them absently. Six weeks. Six weeks they had been in the White City and still it winded him to do more than walk from his bed-chambers to the main banquet hall. He had been ill again upon their first entering the city, spending another week in bed rest, and his body had yet to grow used to the chill the old stone settled in the air.

Every muscle was sore and stiff. He had complained of it at first, but even the softest touch that attempted to massage the pain away only caused him to stiffen and muffle cries as every muscle screamed in protest. Whatever relief these sessions provided was temporary and not worth the pain and agony. He learned to bear it and never spoke of it again, pretending that every movement wasn't a torture in itself. Maybe, he told himself, if he ignored the stiffness, the pain, the icy feeling of his blood creeping sluggishly through his veins, then it would go away, either that or become so common that he could pretend that nothing was wrong. Like his eyes.

He flinched at the thought, wrinkling his nose instinctively behind the rough blindfold. Since Cormallen he had been toying with his vision, tempting it to get it to return to some use while similarly learning to get along without it. He had learned that all was not completely lost, some tiny sliver of sight remained. In very dim candlelight he could see vague forms and colors along with some movement, and in that gray almost-light between moon-set and sun-rise there were silhouettes, moving dark and wraith-like amongst a silver mist. But in all practicality his eyes were useless; the bright daylight rendered him utterly blind and gave him a pounding headache and vertigo. He wore the blindfold to block as much of the disorienting flashes as possible and because he sensed that it made those around him less uneasy by hiding the horrors he imagined his eyes had become. Nobody said anything, but Frodo noticed that when he was up close and touching the faces of his cousins, his friends, they were never turned to face him head-on, always they turned away slightly to look at some distant corner or the edge of his clothes or else bit their lips nervously as they trembled to hold still.

Frodo shifted, trying to make himself more comfortable, his bones jutting out of his too-thin skin and baggy clothing uncomfortably. Thankfully his seat was made for such reclining, and he lounged back against the warm stone. The breeze echoed in the little garden, bounced off the high walls of the courtyard in a gentle whisper of air. He thought he could doze if his pains would let him, and as he relaxed he wormed his maimed hand free of the confines of his clothing to stretch and ease some of the ache out of it.

The footsteps were sharp and loud, breaking through Frodo's haze of almost-sleep. He turned as the clang and heavy jingle of chain mail and iron-shod boots clattered onto the stone path of the courtyard. Clank clank clank. They were business-like, decisive, and as they came to attention before his seat he could imagine the stoic face of the soldier as it peered down at him.

"May I help you?"

The soldier's chain mail jangled agitatedly. "By order of the Gondorian Guard, I must remove you from the king's court."

Frodo was stunned. "What?!"

The soldier tapped the butt of his spear decisively against the cobblestone. "You heard me. I don't know how you even got into this circle, but beggars aren't allowed in the inner court, child or no."

His chest shook with sudden indignance and Frodo struggled to sit up despite his tangled cloak. "I assure you, sir, that I am no child, and certainly no beggar, and I beg you to reconsider your haughtiness before I take word with the king."

He gasped as a rough hand seized him by the shoulder. "There now, I hate to be harsh to one so young but I'll have none of your cheek. I can take you down to a lower level and direct you to somewhere where you can get something to eat but you *must* leave…"

The slap of bare feet against stone was so different than the soldier's own footsteps that Frodo turned towards them, shrugging the soldier's heavy hand off angrily. The feet ran along at a quick pace, rounding the corner into the garden at high speeds, and it was only when a high, animated voice called out "There you are, Frodo!" that he identified them as belonging to one Peregrin Took.

Pippin was short of breath and audibly jumping with excitement, but Frodo could still hear the soldier's sharp intake of air as he realized his fatal mistake.

"I-I… Master Ringbearer, I apologize… I did not realize… oh I have been a fool! Forgive me, please…!"

Pippin glanced between the furiously apologizing guard and the huddled form of his cousin. "Hey you, what's going on?"

"Nothing," Frodo interrupted before the guard could embarrass them further. The soldier took advantage of Frodo's current occupation with his cousin and made a hasty retreat, footsteps receding quickly on the old stone. Frodo sighed. He would have to ask Aragorn to have the guard dropped from this portion of the citadel, or at least informed, to avoid future incidents. Pippin's hand slipped into his own, and Frodo looked upwards to what was, hopefully, his cousin's face. "Now, tell me what it is that has you in such a state."

Pip's grin could be felt through his whole body even if Frodo could not see it. "Oh Frodo, it's so exciting! I came as fast as I could to tell you!" He was already tugging Frodo to his feet and pulled him into a quick embrace in his happiness. "The wedding party has arrived! Lord Elrond and the Lady Arwen are here!"
TBC….

*- "Out of the Great Sea to Middle-earth I come. In this place will I abide, and my heirs, unto the ending of the world." –Elendil originally