AN ECHO OF FOOTFALLS

Chapter Eight: Is It Secret, Is It Safe?

Author: Kidders

Fandom: Lord Of The Rings

Rating: PG-13 for violence and general ickiness

Genre: Angst

Summary: Set after Bilbo leaves but before Frodo departs the Shire

Disclaimer: See Chapter One

Copyright: All dialogue in this part is primarily from the movie, FOTR, which you will probably recognize, and that belongs to PJ, Philippa, and Fran. And Tolkien, of course. The rest is humbly mine.

POV: Frodo

I stand on the path just outside Bag End, staring at the darkened stoop and closed door. It looks just as it always has, safe, unclouded. Because the stain is imbedded in my mind. There is nothing I would rather do than forget these past few weeks, but all I need is go in and glance at the mantelpiece, and all the dark memories are thrust back into my recollection like an arrow delivered to its mark. It is strange to feel both repelled and drawn to the entrance of my home. I gather a deep breath, sensing Sam at my elbow.

"Are ya certain yer ready to go back to livin' alone?" he asks softly. There is only a slight breeze tonight, so the air is quiet, the ceaseless droning of insects creating the illusion of a peaceful, welcoming Hobbit hole.

I slowly nod, my courage fortified by a great many ales consumed at the Green Dragon. It has been a wonderful evening, spent with friends and kin, and there has been much singing and dancing and drinking. I had almost forgotten what it was like to be just a simple Hobbit from the Shire. "I have to face this eventually, Sam. Tonight is as good a night as any. Besides, you've done quite enough for me already. You're needed back at home."

Sam gives me a thorough inspection, though I doubt he can see much in the fading light. He is apparently satisfied, and is off with an agreeable, "Right then. Good night, Mr. Frodo."

"Goodnight, Sam." I sigh, and open the gate, taking the steps slower than usual. I am in no hurry, and find myself reluctant to have the evening come to an end. Finally, weariness steers me into the foyer, where there is a single torch still burning in the sconce on the wall near the study. I frown, thinking I did not leave any candles burning. It is not a custom I practice when Bag End is unattended. I pad softly past the coat rack, stumbling to a halt when I hear a faint creak emanating from Bilbo's study. Paper rustles softly in a sudden wind driven through the open window, and I listen intently for any other sounds which do not belong. Swallowing is made difficult from the growing lump in my throat, because I am certain I did not leave the window open. I venture a few more steps, trying to look in every direction at once. This development does not sit well with me. Something is very wrong.

That something transpires into a heavy weight falling over my shoulder, twirling me about so fast I stagger. A tall figure with wild hair and crazed eyes emerges from the shadows, and I gasp, glued where I stand, unable to move or think or cry for help. The man's face leans over me, drawing frighteningly close. Only then do I realize it is Gandalf.

"Is it secret?" he hisses, his gaze darting across the room quicker than my eyes can follow. "Is it safe?"

I suck in a choking breath that is rudely interrupted by an inopportune swallow, and double over coughing. His hand tightens on my shoulder, until I am finally able to straighten and answer with a nod. I do not trust my voice yet. 'Tis better to give him the ring at once, regardless. It is what he's come for. For a moment, I think badly of him, for he does not inquire about my health or whether I am safe. But the ring.I suppress a shudder.he is welcome to it.

I go and kneel before the chest, digging around under a multitude of scrolls and maps acquired by Bilbo, at last finding the envelope containing what I seek. I have not seen it since that fateful night Sam prevented me from burning myself. And by luck or spell, I have not desired to look upon it, to put it on, or listen to its ramblings since. I am musing how glad I am the voices have been silenced when Gandalf snatches the envelope from my hand. He strides to the hearth-which is well stoked-and tosses it, parchment and all, into the awaiting flames. The paper crackles, consumed in a fiery sizzle.

I feel uneasiness stir queasily in my stomach. "What are you doing?"

Gandalf plucks the Ring from the fireplace, and I am close enough to see the band shines like it was forged only yesterday. There is no soot or ash clinging to the golden surface. "Hold out your hand, Frodo." I glance at him in dismay, but he assures me, "It's quite cool." I hold out my hand, and suddenly it is lying heavy in my palm. "Can you see anything?"

Other than a thing that has haunted my days and evenings for nearly a fortnight? I do not utter such words, though my mind thinks them nonetheless. Following Gandalf's instruction, I stare at the Ring, except all I can focus on is how soon I can be rid of it. "Nothing," I murmur, "there's nothing." I hear him grunt, and the Ring shimmers in my hand, red glowing letters scrolling over its surface. Astonished, I amend, "Wait.there are markings. It's some form of Elvish.I can't read it."

"There are very few who can," says Gandalf, facing me. "The language is that of Mordor, which I will not utter here."

"Mordor?" I croak. I feel my lips part in shock, and am shaken with a nagging desire to fling this gold bauble away from me. I feel as if It's brand is burning through my palm. Not with fire, but ice.

Gandalf lowers his countenance to my level, and speaks gravely, "In the common tongue, it says, 'One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.'"

His voice resonates with fear and anger. I have never heard this way. Never. I am taken by such nervousness, I lead us into the kitchen for distraction. I brew a kettle of water to make tea, play the polite host and pour him the first mug. All the while, fear is twisting around my innards and making my throat burn.

"This is the One Ring," Gandalf continues, "forged by the dark lord Sauron in the fires of Mount Doom, taken by Isildur from the hand of Sauron himself."

I lift my mug, meaning to take a sip, but find I no longer have an appetite for food or liquid. "Bilbo found it," I say meekly, pieces of the puzzle slowly coming together, bringing images I cannot bear to dwell upon. "In Gollum's cave."

"Yes, for sixty years the Ring lay quiet in Bilbo's keeping, prolonging his life, delaying old age." Gandalf's eyes darken, stricken by such craven bleakness I shudder involuntarily. "But no longer, Frodo. Evil is stirring in Mordor. The Ring has awoken, It's heard its master call."

I gulp, abandoning all pretense of sipping brew. My head is spinning, I cannot think. All I can do is feel. "But he was destroyed," I whisper desperately, "Sauron was destroyed."

The Ring whispers in return, drawing my gaze in a slew of panic. Gandalf hears it as well, I can see it in his eyes. "No, Frodo. The spirit of Sauron endured. His life force is bound to the Ring. The Ring survived. Sauron has returned." I stare at the Ring in dawning horror, a sense of what is to come teasing at my thoughts. Gandalf would not tell me of this if he could take this task upon himself. Somehow, I am to be bound to this Ring.

"His Orcs have multiplied, his fortress of Barad-Dur is rebuilt in the land of Mordor. Sauron needs only this Ring to cover all the lands in a second darkness. He is seeking It, seeking It always, thought is bent on It. The Ring yearns above all else to return to the hand of its master." My heart is in my throat, my hands won't keep still. I clutch at the edge of the table, trying and trying to swallow, but the lump wedged in my caw won't budge. "They are one.the Ring and the dark lord. Frodo." Gandalf stares hard in my direction, his meaning clear, though I do not wish to hear it. ".he must never find it."

"All right then." I scoop up the Ring, forgetting about my reluctance to touch it, and hurry into the study. "We put it away. We keep it hidden, we never speak of it again. No one knows it's here, do they?" I pause, the Ring tightly nestled in my fist. Gandalf has followed me. I know without turning his gaze is boring into me. I pivot slowly. "Do they, Gandalf?"

Worry wrinkles Gandalf's brow, hooding his glance with sadness. "There is one other who knew that Bilbo had the Ring." He sighs, sounding very old and worn. "I've looked everywhere for the creature Gollum, but the Enemy found him first. I don't know how long they tortured him, but amidst the endless screaming and inane babble, they discerned two words."

I feel my eyes go impossibly wide, for I know what he will say. Two words, the two words echo in my mind.Shire.Baggins.squealed in a voice not my own. No, no, I do not want this knowledge! "Shire," I whisper hollowly, "Baggins.but that will lead them here!" I take a step forward. "Take it, Gandalf.take it!" Please, please take it, I haven't the strength to do this.

Gandalf scuttles backward, an alarmed look on his face. "No, Frodo."

"You must take it!" I march closer, holding out the Ring, my arm trembling ever so faintly. There is no spell or charm now to ease my fears, and they rush through me like a howling storm blowing in from the Blue Mountains. Bilbo knew, keeping it so long, he had to have known.I am not all right! I will not be all right, Uncle!

"You cannot offer me this Ring!" Gandalf asserts, backing away from me until the doorway blocks his retreat.

"I'm giving it to you!" I cry, my breath shuddering sharp and painful within my ribs.

"Don't tempt me, Frodo!" shouts Gandalf. I slowly lower the Ring, a horrible emptiness clawing at my heart as I begin to understand. "I dare not take it, not even to keep it safe. Understand, Frodo.I would use this Ring from a desire to do good.but through me, it would wield a power too great and terrible to imagine."

Any hope I once had dies a brutal end in the face of this nightmare. It shall fall to me, become my task after all. The dreams, the awful things I saw and experienced, they may actually come to pass. "But it cannot stay in the Shire!" I say shrilly.

"No," Gandalf agrees sadly, "no, it can't."

I swallow hard, curling my fingers to press the Ring into my palm. It doesn't hurt, surprisingly, as my cut is almost healed. Unlike my soul, which is laid bare by such a wound, that I fear nothing will ever be the same. "What must I do?"

We are leaving Hobbiton. Hurrying across fields and meadows, until we have crossed the road from the Brandywine Bridge and are well into Tookland. Gandalf seems to be in an awful hurry, his anxious gaze sweeping in all directions, checking to see if anyone is following us. There isn't a soul back there save Sam, who's fallen behind again. I am already sweaty and panting from exertion, so Sam with his slightly shorter legs isn't having a good time of it, either.

"Come along, Samwise," growls Gandalf, "keep up!"

I am unsure what we are running away from-what type of creature will Sauron send in pursuit of the Ring? The Orcs frighten me badly enough, I do not ask what else the dark lord might summon. Gandalf's strides lengthen, and when at last we halt, I am ready to drop from exhaustion. The combination of a few too many ales and no sleep this night has left me utterly spent. My head is lolling toward my chest, my eyes barely in focus by the time Gandalf stops. I am not paying much attention, and narrowly avoid running into his horse's backside, which the animal would no doubt not appreciate. I stumble around this obstacle in my path, listening to Sam wheezing behind me.

"Be careful, both of you," Gandalf advises. "The Enemy has many spies in his service-birds, beasts." He leans down to meet my eyes. "Is it safe?"

I do not have enough breath for words, and simply nod, patting my coat pocket where the Ring is hidden in sequestered keeping. "Never put It on, for the agents of the dark lord will be drawn to its power. Always remember, Frodo, the Ring is trying to get back to its master. It wants to be found."

I lower my eyes to the ground, not certain what to say or think, my mind full of half-formed memories and nightmares. My path is not clear to me in the slightest. We take the Ring to Bree, but then what? Gandalf could not vouch with much assurance that it would be safe there. My doubts continue to circle in my mind, until for a gladdened instant, I experience the familiar swell of calmness that granted me peace those few fateful days when the Ring tried to drive me mad. Gandalf.

Throwing my head back, I seek to acknowledge his kindness, to show Gandalf the depth of my gratitude, except he is already away, his mount bearing him in the swift passage of galloping hooves until he is only a speck in the distance. Sam and I are alone now. I sigh, shifting my pack, and when a bird screeches from somewhere high in the trees overhead, I startle and jump about a foot in the air. I look at Sam, feeling the need to repent for such silly, ridiculous behavior. If I am to tremor at every dismal magpie crossing our path, this will be a long journey indeed.

Sam shakes his head, but no smile dimples his cheeks. His look is serious. "All dreams don't necessarily come true, Mr. Frodo. Ya 'ave ta believe the worst ones, the ones that scare ya right badly, won't come to pass. That they'll stay in the shadows where they belong."

I find my eyes turning southeast, the echo of a piteous voice crying in my head.Shire.Baggins. "Some of it already has happened, Sam. That's the problem. The first verse of this tale has already come true."

THE END

A/N: Thanks again to any who reviewed my story. Hope you enjoyed it. Thanks especially to Ariel, who was there for every chapter. At least you let me know someone was still reading out there.