It was a dark night, gray like the choke of a shadow. The earth was hard, unforgiving and rocky. Moss clung, damp and valiant, to the ledges of cruel stone. The air was thick but also cold. All was not darkness: it was far worse than darkness. Echoes of silence came from all sides and warned of the true darkness that was yet to come, whispers wheeling like vultures in the uncomforting sky above. Things, more terrible for all they were imagined as, waited behind every bend in the makeshift road. The world was an unwelcoming place, the night only a few shades darker than the day. It was miserable, daunting. They were more alone than they would have liked to be, and yet not alone enough to feel safe for a second.
Samwise was awake, unfortunately, to be noticing all these things. He had been dreaming horrible dreams that had seemed too real for his liking. Frodo had been trying to kill him in his dreams, had been a cruel, cold creature with no kindness in his deep eyes, had been skilled with a sword, had been without pause as he pressed the cold blade to Sam's neck. Same had woken himself with a gasp and a start. He had woken himself to cold comfort. Frodo, the mere whisping shadow of himself, was curled up away from Sam's own warmth. Even though Frodo's back was to him Sam knew he slept clutching onto the ring, fingers wrapped tight around it. Even as Sam lay there, listening to his heavy breathing, the ring was marring the flesh of Frodo's palm.
It's a sad day, and no mistake, Sam told himself, when I tream about Mr. Frodo trying to kill me in my sleep. He comforted himself with logic and with memory, though he was sore and afraid and incredibly cold. Whatever weapons he had against the pangs of hunger and fear, they were simple ones, meager and yet determined. For if I lose hope, Sam kept asking of himself, whatever will happen to Mr. Frodo? He needs you, Sam, Gandalf himself told you he does, and there's not cold nor hunger can keep you from giving him the strength he needs. Not cold nor hunger nor fear enough in the great wide world, that's for sure.
If Sam had thought it would be enough he would have given Frodo his own hand to clutch so tight, so it would be that ring holding him afloat, or pretending to. But Sam knew better than to think his worn fingers could replace the unnatural metal that haunted them both. These are solemn times, solemn times indeed, Sam told himself. To soothe the helplessness and the acute knife-edge of his yet unarticulated loss, he told himself that Frodo was not himself. (Again, it was cold comfort, but it was at least something, something.) If Frodo had indeed been himself then Sam's hand would have been just enough, Sam liked to assure himself, just enough to soothe whatever ache it was needed soothing. As it was, Sam could do naught else but keep to Frodo's side, and watch the lines of his face grow yet more gaunt with each passing day. Sam hated knowing how selfish his loathing of the ring was. But it was all for Frodo's sake that he stuck by him to destroy it. Sam was not selfless in the grander scheme of things. He did not trust himself to be a hero - aye, Frodo was the hero, if herethere were any - nor did he believe himself capable of saving the world. He didn't want to save the world, even. In all this, the way Sam saw it, it was Frodo who needed the saving. Determination had driven same thus far, not strength. It was determination wrought of unshaken love that let Sam fight his way through each nightmare, each long, wearisome day that was sure to follow. Sam was hale enough not to be swayed.
It was Frodo who had begun to weaken.
He hardly ate, now, and he barely slept. What sleep he did get Sam knew was restless and without peace. The ring crept into Frodo's dreams and haunted even his sleep. He would wake early, with tired, bruised eyes. When they turned on Sam they did so solemnly and without light, sometimes without recognition, asking hopeless questions to which Sam found he had no answers. Same felt like the failure he was when he faced those eyes, his hands empty and his heart too heavy to bear. There was something yet so pure about the depths of Frodo's great blue eyes that the shadow in them, threatening to devour that innocence, made Sam ill just thinking on it. What's happening to him, Sam wondered though he knew the answer, and why am I so helpless to stop it?
At Sam's side, Frodo stirred. The eerie silence of the night was disrupted by a murmur of unrest; Frodo was once again mumbling in his sleep. Sam felt as if he were crossing the lines of privacy and decency, hearing the things Frodo said in the night. It just wasn't right to listen to them. But Sam had no other choice.
"No," Frodo whispered into the darkness, "not alone, not alone."
It would be so easy, Sam realized, to reach out and touch Frodo's back, like anyone would do for a feverish child. In the night, fear took Frodo like the grip of delirium. The first and last time Sam had tried to soothe Frodo's sleep, Frodo had shouted himself awake at the touch. He'd nearly bitten Sam's fingers off his hand. Frodo had of course apologized, with that despair and guilt in his voice and eyes, and nothing about that had soothed him at all. Sam wasn't about to make such a mess of things in Frodo's heart again. His job was to ease Frodo's burdens, not further add to them.
"No," Frodo said again, voice breaking Sam's heart, "No!" The sound of Frodo's own voice would wake him eventually. Sam clenched his hands into clumsy fists, trembling by his sides, and waited. Frodo thrashed, caught one pale hand in his sleeve, and froze, trapped by his sudden movement. His breath came into his lungs with an audible gasp and he sat upright, abrupt. Sam felt his ragged fingernails dig into his palms and he levied himself up onto one elbow, eyes fathomless in the gray moonlight. Clouds shifted over the sky. Frodo breathed heavily, his heart pounding loud enough for him to feel it in his ears. Everything he did felt so loud, so vulnerable, so bare. There were eyes on him, ears listening to him, creatures charting every movement. In the darkness especially he felt the chill, the prickles of dread crawling up his spine.
Between them for a long time there was only silence, disturbed by quick, rough breaths, and the clouds that filtered the pale moonlight over their faces. Frodo watched nothing. Sam watched Frodo. The earth constricted, the sky began to fall, Frodo felt himself slipping into cage after cage, each one smaller than the last. He was falling, though there was not enough room to fall. Finally,
"Sam?" he asked. With baited breath, he begged all that had turned their backs on him for a reply.
"Was it another nightmare, Mr. Frodo?" Sam's voice was a comfort to hear, familiar and wonderful. Frodo closed his eyes and let out a deep breath, one he had not known he had been holding. He didn't want to reply. He just wanted Sam's voice to question him back into reality: which was stark and bleak and miserable, but far less terrifying than the fears that clutched hungrily at his heart and mind. "Aye, an' look, you're trembling. The night's gotten cold, an' me here, lettin' the fire go out."
"It's all right, Sam. I'm not cold." Sam scowled, feeling strength return to him with the prospect of taking care of Frodo.
"Course you are, sir," Sam said firmly, "you're shakin' in your skin, you are. I'll get the fire goin'." Sam heaved himself forward onto his knees, purposeful.
"No," Frodo said quickly, "don't go." Sam paused. Frodo faltered. "I'm not that cold, Sam," Frodo insisted shakily, hands refusing to lie still on his lap. It was as if he were wringing them, or trying to wash them clean of something. "And the night is dark," Frodo went on, voice sounding as if it came from a very long way away. " I fear that if you leave my side, the darkness would claim you, and you would not return."
"Why, Mr. Frodo," Sam began, incredulous, but touched, "I'm not goin' anywhere; I just thought I might light a bit of a fire, seein' as how you're shivering, and that won't do."
"Don't go," Frodo repeated. The desperate insistence in Frodo's tone was enough to set Sam back; he leaned against the stone behind him, and folded his arms over his chest for warmth.
"You're sure you're warm enough?" Sam asked, uneasy in the silence that followed. Frodo wrung his hands but his voice was steady.
"Yes, Sam," he reassured his friend, we've seen colder nights than this before."
"I reckon we will again," Sam mused. Their conversation seemed unnatural and displaced. It was grave, but came easily as ever. Frodo worried at his fingers, the sound of them rubbing together omnipresent in Sam's senses. He had grown so quiet of late, Frodo had, his troubled thoughts kept within himself. It was as if he thought by keeping quiet as he did he could keep himself unnoticed, secret, safe. "Are your hands cold, Mr. Frodo?"
"Aye, Sam," Frodo answered wearily, "they are, but you don't have to-" Frodo cut off as Sam took up Frodo's hands, chaffing them against his own. Sam had broad, able hands, and they were warm. Frodo let the tension in his fingers go as Sam rubbed them together, bringing life back into Frodo's blood. "Thank you, Sam," Frodo said, very softly.
"Your hands are like two blocks of ice," Sam muttered, brusquely chiding, but concerned, "an' you settin' there telling me you're not cold. You'll freeze at this rate, an' no mistake." The chilled flesh of Frodo's hands were warming under Sam's ministrations, Sam was pleased to note. Frodo seemed unusually calm and at ease with the physical contact. Most times, he shied away from it. "An' not getting much warmer, at that." Same spoke to scare away the creatures wrought of silence that closed in on them, to calm Frodo's mind as well as his own. "Honestly, Mr.Frodo, sir, lettin' yourself get this cold and sayin' nothing. I can only do so much, I can, an' I'll do it, course I will, but only so much, like I said. I'm not the sort to make miracles, nor keep ought from freezin', when they've set their minds to freeze." Sam brought Frodo's hands to his mouth and puffed hot air on the yet chilled flesh. He cupped his own hands around Frodo's, keeping the warm air in.
It was then that Sam lifted his eyes to Frodo's face, and saw that he was crying.
His eyes had filled with tears and they had at last spilled over, streaking the smudges of dirt on his cheeks. His lashes, heavy and wet, trembled, through shadows over his cheekbones. He was watching Sam's face and the pain playing over his features was too great, too great.
"Mr. Frodo?" Sam asked. His voice was an unsteady whisper. "Mr. Frodo?"
"I'm sorry, Sam," Frodo whispered, "I don't deserve you."
"You don't deserve any of this, if you don't mind my sayin'," Sam muttered through clenched teeth, holding tight to Frodo's hands. "You ought to have more comfort'n I can give, an' I'd give more if I could give it." His eyes grew sad, which only seemed to add to Frodo's misery. "Mr. Frodo," Sam pleaded, fumbling, his callused hands lifting to try and wipe those tears away. He got the feeling his fingers were too rough for the job.
"Sam," Frodo said, letting out a ragged sigh, "oh, Sam."
"It's all right," Sam soothed, hands suddenly clumsy against Frodo's smooth skin, "it's all right. Your Sam's here. Your Sam's with you. It's going to be all right; it's all right." Frodo nodded once, like a scared child.
"I feel so small," he admitted, "so small, and yet so trapped." Frodo smoothed the coarse fabric of Sam's shirt over his shoulders. It was a fidgeting movement; it was a need to do something with his shaking hands. Sam patted his cheeks helplessly.
"I know, Mr. Frodo," he said, "it's going to be all right." Frodo looked up at Sam, as if he were about to ask, is it? but decided against it. Instead, he pitched forward against Sam's chest, and held tight to him. Sam smelled familiar, like dampness settling over the shire. Funny how Sam still managed to smell of the shire, of that little patch of garden just below Frodo's favorite window. The one he always read by, during his lazier summer days, at that. Sam smelled like the flowers and the earth and the wind in that sapling that had just been planted, that he and Sam and Bilbo had planted. Frodo closed his eyes and drew in deep breaths, just to smell and savor that memory. Sam was patting his hair, awkward and childish in an impossibly comforting way. Frodo felt young again. It was as if there were no ring at all - but the moment he dared to think that, there was the weight around his neck, close to choking him.
"Will I ever be free of it?" Frodo asked, speaking to himself, into the collar of Sam's shirt.
"To be honest, Mr. Frodo," Sam said, sober, "I don't rightly know."
"I don't know what I'd do without you, Sam," Frodo mumbled. It seemed to be another feverish statement, one that Sam would have liked to cherish, but he knew it would be wrong of him to do so.
"Well, now, Mr. Frodo," Sam eased, "you don't have to think on it. Not for a second, you don't." He smelled Frodo's hair and he stroked it like he'd never stroked anyone's hair before. Which, come to think of it, he probably hadn't. His hands were shaky things, the skin on his fingers broken. He was terrified of catching Frodo's hair on the ragged skin.
"I know," Frodo reassured himself, "I know. I'm tired, that's all. I'm just tired."
"You ought to get yourself a good night's sleep," Sam instructed. Frodo smelled like home.
"Like this Sam?"
"Hm?" Sam patted futilely at the back of Frodo's neck.
"Let me sleep like this, Sam?" Frodo asked again, more clear, this time.
"I don't see as why you shouldn't," Sam ruminated out loud, patting Frodo's hair again, because Frodo seemed to find that most comforting. Sam wanted nothing more than to be home again. Not that he'd have Frodo in his arms like this at home - not like things would feel this way at home, or have reason to - but Frodo wouldn't be so miserable as to seek that meager solace he could find in Sam's arms back home. And so home was what Sam wished for. Sam wasn't a miracle maker. He knew no magic; he knew how to cook, how to tell the very sprouts of a flower from the very sprouts of a weed, and he knew Frodo's eyes better than he knew his own. Made sense, anyway, as he didn't go around looking in mirrors all the time, but he saw Frodo's eyes every day. Had ever since he was but a little child. He knew Frodo's eyes and he saw how they were changing, how the luster was gone, that quiet, reserved warmth, sapped away, the deep, innocent blue fading into a weather-worn gray. Come back to me, Sam wanted to say, even if it's not me you're comin' back to, come back to us all. But it wasn't his place to ask these things, of Frodo, of the world that was swallowing him whole. He could only say, simple and warm as he could manage it, "Just get some sleep." And he could smell Frodo's hair, and let Frodo smell his clothes. And he could rub Frodo's back, and pat his hair. And he could talk aimlessly into the night about trivial things, easing Frodo into a comfortless but dreamless sleep.
"Remember how it was," Sam whispered, as Frodo grew heavy against him, "remember how it was, when the sun rose over the hills an' the world was small an' golden? Wasn't that nice, Mr. Frodo; things so carefree, then. There weren't no quest an' there weren't no ring to worry about, just a nice book to read, an' a nice bit of garden to tend to, there were. An' a nice supper to sit down to, at the end of the long day. There weren't no hunger, there weren't no cold, an' that was the life. It's the life we're fightin' for, though, ain't it? What we're goin' back to, together, someday. That's why your Sam's gone this far with you. He knows how much you love it, an' he'll see to it it'll always be there for you to love."
Frodo was sleeping now, nestled in Sam's arms, and the embrace of his words. But Sam was talking to himself, now, grateful for a silence in which naught else he said could be heard.
"We'll walk back home together," Sam murmured to the darkness, "an' the sun'll just be risin', pale over the fields. It won't've changed a day. Everything'll be the same, an' we'll put down our packs an' go back to how it were, before everything changed. For us, leastways.
"An' won't that be nice, Mr. Frodo? Just you, an' your Sam, till the end of our days."
It was a dark night, gray like the choke of a shadow. The world was a vast, unwelcoming place. There were terrible things waiting for them, around each corner. In Sam's arms, Frodo slept the night through without waking again, cheek pressed up against Sam's chest, comforted by its steady rise and fall. It was a rhythm far too stubborn to be disturbed, and far too loving to beat for any other's repose.