flash of light awakened Frodo.
He opened his eyes into the darkness of his room and wondered if he had dreamt the light. He looked at the window but saw only the pale square of his curtains. Shifting onto his side, Frodo sighed, hoping that he would be able to get back to sleep. For three days, an unseasonable heat wave had lain over the Shire, and the air inside Bag End had grown heavy and wet. Even with the windows and doors open, the smial was stifling. It was uncommon, but not rare, to have weather like this in early October, but after three days, it had certainly worn out its welcome.
A faint sound, like boulders tumbling down a far away hill, came to Frodo's ears, and he understood then that lightning had awakened him. A storm was coming, and with luck, the cool air of October would come behind it.
He sat up and plumped his pillows and lay down, but could not find a comfortable position. He was over-warm, and sticky, and his left shoulder and arm ached. All that day, he had tried to ignore the pain, but now, in the night's silence and darkness, he could not tell himself that maybe he had just slept the wrong way on that arm, or perhaps he had only lifted something too heavy. It was the old wound, the same as had troubled him the year before, and in March. Frodo remembered little of his March illness, and the Cottons had dismissed it with such forced gaiety that Frodo had not pressed them. But he knew it had started like this, with an ache in his shoulder and arm. Soon the cold would come, and then his arm would go numb and stiff and then…Frodo did not know what happened after that. In March, he recalled, he had been sitting in his room in the morning, trying to overlook the worsening pain and chill in his side. He had closed his eyes for a moment, and when he had opened them again, night had fallen, and he had found himself in bed with hot water bottles arranged around his left side, and no knowledge of how he had gotten there. When he had tried to sit up, he had felt exhausted and dizzy, as if he had been ill with fever for days.
Another flash of lightning filled the room and Frodo involuntarily jumped, then hissed against the twinge of pain in his shoulder. But it's better than last year. he assured himself. It's getting better. He put his hand into the collar of his nightshirt and his body was warm and damp from the heat but when he touched two fingertips to the wound he thought he could feel a slight chill there, as if a splinter of ice was buried just under the skin. He pressed a little harder, although it pained him, and now he was certain that the scar was indeed cold to his touch. And what if it is? he thought. It will take time to heal. A little better every year. Slow and steady.
The rumble of thunder came again, and now it seemed a bit closer. Frodo could tell that the storm was moving in from the East. When he was a lad, Bilbo had told him that if he counted the seconds between lightning and thunder, he would know how far away the storm was. Frodo had not remembered to count after the last lightning stroke, but the storm still sounded far in the East. Far as Buckland, perhaps. Was the cool air already passing over Brandy Hall? Was rain swelling the currents of the Brandywine?
No, a few minutes, not seconds, had passed between lightning and thunder. The storm was farther away than Buckland. The lightning flashed, and for a brief moment, Frodo saw everything in his room lit by its spectral blue light. Frodo wondered why everyone always said of lightning, "It was bright as day!" Lightning was nothing like daylight; it had none of the warmth and wholesomeness of sunshine. It was an eerie, unearthly light, the sort only evil things could favor.
Suddenly Frodo realized he had forgotten to count. He estimated the number of seconds he had missed …ten…and started counting from there. But a flare of pain as sudden as lightning interrupted him, and he clutched at his shoulder and dug his fingernails into his skin until it passed. Oh, but that one had hurt…he could not pretend that it had not. It had felt as it some icy spiked thing had turned itself over deep within the flesh of his shoulder, tearing as it went. He patted himself on the arm and smiled faintly. Well, it's over now. It was bad, but it's over now. Maybe that will be all this year.
Now the thunder came and Frodo did not think it was as close as Buckland. No, it was much farther East than that. Far as the Barrow-downs. The walls of the Barrow-wight's tomb had fallen in about it, but surely it must still be there, imprisoned in the earth. Was it lying at this moment in its black tomb listening to rain pelt the downs, even as Frodo listened to the distant thunder? Frodo shuddered, and pain whispered in his shoulder.
Or was the storm even farther than that? Far as Weathertop. Strider had called it Amon Sûl, and somehow that ancient name had seemed more fitting. How dark it had been in the dell! How dark it would be there now, with the rain falling on it, running through its cracks and gullies, collecting between the broken stones. Was his blood still on those stones, Frodo wondered, or had enough rain fallen in two years to wash it away? If only the rain could so easily wash away other things! The lightning struck again and as clearly as if he looked upon it with his own eyes, Frodo saw the ring of stones atop Amon Sûl, lit by that devilish light. He whimpered low in his throat, without knowing that he did so, and a trickle of ice seemed to seep from his wound.
Thunder again, and this time it was loud and close, closer than Frodo would have liked. How did the storm come so close, so quickly? Frodo pictured it rolling in from the East, a great black shadow, darker than the night itself. Where had it come from, this storm? From the sea, from the fair shores of Belfalas? From mountains, far inland, whose name Frodo did not know? Lightning, and Frodo saw it even though his eyes were tightly shut. A volley of thunder followed on its heels. He curled his knees up to his chest and his left side throbbed in protest at being shifted.
Had the storm come from Mordor? That, too, was in the East. Now suddenly, Frodo was certain that it had. He had never asked what had become of the Black Land, and no one had ever told him. The host of Lórien had taken Dol Guldur and cleansed the forest, but what could ever cleanse the ashy plains and slag heaps of Mordor's poisoned country? Frodo imagined the rain falling upon Mordor and boiling away into bitter steam even as it struck. Only the sea could purify such a place, and even then it would have to cover the land for a thousand years ere the blight was removed.
The thunder boomed again, now seeming directly over Frodo's head, and he shrieked and put his hands over his ears. His heart was racing. Frodo put his right hand over it and as he did so his thumb touched the smooth surface of the white gem that Queen Arwen had given him, and he reached up and seized it in his hand.
The pain and cold in his side lessened and his mind seemed instantly to clear. Suddenly he felt terribly foolish to have been frightened by something as harmless as a thunderstorm, nothing but bright light and loud noise, a simple phenomenon of weather. How silly! In the morning, when the storm had passed and a bright blue October sky covered the land, he would tell Sam and Rosie about it, and they would all have a good laugh. Frodo smiled and would have laughed now, but something distracted him, some small sound near the window. He looked at the window just as lightning struck again, and he saw that the white curtains that had hung so listlessly during the three days of heat were now flapping in the storm-driven wind. What a nuisance of a sound, why the devil had he left that window open? Frodo decided he would get up and close the window but suddenly the room seemed very dark and the window seemed very far away and altogether it seemed that his bed was a better place to be. It was just a curtain flapping, after all, but the sound reminded Frodo of things. It reminded him of how the pale king's white shroud had twisted about him just before Frodo had felt the blade sink into his shoulder like poisoned ice. It reminded him of the sound of Gollum's feet and hands slapping on the stones of Emyn Muil and through the wet earth of the marshes and over the old crossroads and up the straight stair, the straight stair and the hidden passage, the hidden passage and the winding stair, the winding stair and the tunnel, the tunnel and into Mordor. Mordor.
Frodo closed his eyes and the white gem fell from his hand and he ground his teeth against the reawakened pain in his shoulder, and a new blaze of pain at the back of his neck. Mordor, ever-defiled, which only the sea could cleanse. But no sea covered the land of Mordor. It was still there, in the East, as he and Sam had left it, and Frodo could see it now beneath a mantle of cloud, smoldering under the rain, its towers and turrets standing dark and empty against the sky. But the land was not wholly empty, for evil things still walked there, lost and bewailing the downfall of their master, and the lightning revealed them creeping across the waste, and when the thunder roared they howled with it into the darkness. She was still there too, older than Sauron she had been and so his fall had not meant her own but now she was buried forever beneath the groaning dirt of Mordor and she consumed herself with hatred and rage. The tower still stood, the tower where they had stripped him and questioned him and beaten him. To Frodo, it seemed that he now stood in the center of the room where he had been imprisoned. All was dark, the red light was gone, but when the lightning came, it lit the room even to the darkest corners and in them he could see the rags where he had lain and the remains of his things, the shredded bits of cloak and pack that he had carried with him from the Shire, still there after all these years, and there they would remain until the sea finally did cover this awful place. From the window of his prison he could see the mountain, silhouetted against the storm-wracked sky each time the lightning flashed. It no longer smoked or belched fire, it was cold and dark, but still it stood, a blackened canker on the surface of the earth. And there It was, there had he lost It, and so It was destroyed, It had gone into the fire of Its forging and was destroyed but was It? Was It truly, or was there, could there be, perhaps, some tiny bit, just a sliver, a flake of It, a little thing, too small to burn, even now, somewhere, somehow, sitting, and waiting, under the dead bulk of that mountain?
The rain came at last, drumming hard upon the roof of the smial. Frodo's window blew wide open and snapped against its hinges. The sharp sound brought Frodo back to himself, but only a little, and, he knew, not for long. He felt for the white gem but could not find it, and so he laid his hand over his frozen shoulder instead. "Wounded," he said to the darkness of his room. "It will never really heal." A cold gust of wind blew through the window, smelling of the East. The wind howled about the eaves and over Bag End as if it would tear the very roof off the place. With his last conscious thought, Frodo wished that it would, and that it would find him here, and bear him away, and that this would be over, at last.
Author's Note: The other day I heard someone's car radio playing Bob Seger's "Night Move." Not the world's greatest song, but there's always been one line in it that I love, and that always strikes me as not only sad, but vaguely fearful:
I woke last night to the sound of thunder
How far off? I sat and wondered.
So the line got stuck in my head, as such things will, and was running through my head all weekend. Last night, just before bed, I started plotting out this little story in my head, and when I finally went to bed, it kept me awake. "The hell with this!" I said to myself, and then, just before I fell asleep, weirdly enough, I was awakened by one bright flash of lightning, and one rumble of thunder…just one of each…followed by a pounding rain that lasted the night. Now it was rainy here all day yesterday, but thunderstorms are pretty darn unusual in the Northeast US in February, so I thought that was just enough of an odd coincidence to compel me to write the story. Thanks for reading.