Simple and Clean

Chapter Nine

A/N: GAAH! ::tears hair out:: I was all set to update speedily and well, it didn't happen like I wanted. This chapter ended up being very long, so I took out Glorfindel and moved him to the next chapter. ::waves goodbye to a sulking Glorfindel:: He is not pleased. At any rate, I couldn't decide on which canon to use for this chapter so I used a bit o' book, a bit o' movie, and a bit o' improvisation. Thus, the whole Weathertop scene is quite different. I have already started Chapter ten and I have some surprises for you all! ::evil laughter::

Oh! Oh! I've almost reached 50 reviews! I love you guys!! ::does silly little dance::

Ah yes, one last thing: Special thanks goes to Violet Raven, who has kindly undertaken the task of beta-ing my fics. Three cheers for VR! Praise her with great praise!

To the reviewers:

Godsgirl8806: Yea! I'm glad you like the story! I try to have as many little details as possible; even if no one really notices them I like doing it. (Its like a private joke, or something.) I'm glad you noticed! You deserve an award! Hmm.....::hands Godsgirl8806 the "I-have-a-genius-eye-for-detail" award.::

Violet Raven: *snert* Frodo-Aragorn bonding moments. Hee hee, you know what I thought of when I read that? : ~Aragorn and Frodo are sitting in a boat, fishing poles in hand. "Frodo, its time we had a talk," says Aragorn. Frodo shrugs and replies "We always talk." Aragorn blushes and clears his throat. "No, I mean *the* talk. Frodo, there comes a time in every young hobbit's life when they begin to go through....changes...."~ Mwahahahahaha! ::cough:: Sorry, I find silly things amusing. .....heeheehee...

ZoSo Gamgee_Baggins: You know, I'm noticing a trend. Pippin has interrupted our boys no less than three times. I really need to occupy him with something....Thank you for the suggestion about proofreading at least twice. I try to proofread my own stuff, but it doesn't work too well. But now, I have a beta reader! Wheee! Oh, and I saw your entry in your deadjournal. Yes, I am a silly hobbit (a slow one, at that.) Ouch, sunburn....::hands ZoSo ointment::

Ivory Bride: Whee! Ivory Bride reviewed my story!! I can't tell you how much I love your fics; its an honor that you've reviewed mine! I'm glad that you like my story. Thank you for all the lovely compliments! Yes, that Fool of a Took....our Gandalf named him well. Interruptions! Interruptions everywhere!

Aare: Ah, no worries on the impatience. It makes me feel guilty and thus makes me write more quickly. ^_^ Argh! Apple cannon! ::takes out umbrella:: Ha! ::reads more reviews:: Well, hello again! Here's the update, fast as I could get it. It was a hard bugger to catch....

Bakemono: Yes! Let us all damn the neeker breekers! Everyone together now!! Well now, you have handcuffed Frodo and Sam together. Ah well, you might as well. They don't go far from each other very often, now do they? Oh, but now the rest of the Fellowship is sulking because they don't have a handcuff buddy. ::pats Boromir on the head:: There, there. Good man of Gondor.....

hildoriel: Addiction! Oh no! ::quickly gives hildoriel new chapter:: There ya be....nice reviewers....nice reviewers....

Chapter Nine

The One

As a rule, most rangers were well traveled. Strider had probably been farther than all, and probably knew more about the wildlife and creatures of Middle Earth than most. He knew the histories of Elves and Men, knew their cultures and their governments. He knew the language of the High Elves and could speak it fluently. But for all that Aragorn son of Arathorn knew, he soon learned that he had much to discover about hobbits. In the seven days he had been traveling with the four hobbits, he had discovered three things for sure: 1. Hobbits, especially young hobbits, were perpetually hungry. And they didn't take missing meals very well. 2. They were by no means well traveled nor used to long stretches of walking; but this didn't hinder their boisterous spirits. True, they grumbled when woken up after only a few hours sleep, but after an hour or so they were merry again, singing and quarreling amongst themselves. And 3. The four hobbits shared a very close bond. Whether this was normal or not Aragorn did not know, but he saw it in his four small companions, a brotherhood that had nothing to do with blood or heritage. They gained strength from one another, they protected one another. More than one morning the Ranger had gone to rouse the hobbits and found them huddled up against one another in a haphazard pile; much like a litter of puppies. During meal times (and these were frequent despite Strider's discouraging of them), they would sit and chat as if they were at a cozy inn somewhere, not in the wilderness fleeing from the minions of the Dark Lord. Often they would try to include the ranger in their banter, asking him endless questions. Peregrin was particularly inquisitive. A stream of questions poured out of his small mouth nearly every waking moment, until at last Samwise had given him an apple to silence him.

They were chattering even now, with Strider still leading them like a mother duck leading her chicks. It was an analogy that had been grudgingly thought up by Sam, who's faith in the long-legged man was still wavery. True, Sam no longer shot angry glares in the ranger's direction and he did listen intently to the stories Strider told and even smiled a few times, but he still stayed forever close to Frodo, trying his best to keep up with his master while leading Bill the pony. At night, though all the hobbits slept close, Sam lay nearest to Frodo. Strider noticed that Frodo and Sam's hands often found each other at night, fingers intertwined tightly as if each was trying to reassure the other that they were still there. The ranger had seen Frodo accidentally brush lips with his servant back in Bree but had wisely not said a word about it. Frodo certainly had not seemed inclined to bring up the incident, and Sam gave no sign that he remembered it happening at all. Yet Strider's eyes were keen, and more than once he caught a gleam in the two hobbits' eyes as they glanced at each other, a gleam that meant perhaps Frodo's "accidental kiss" hadn't really been an accident at all.

"What do you reckon Rivendell will be like, Mr. Frodo?"

Sam's baritone, lilting voice reached Strider's ears, followed by Merry's laughter.

"Do you mean to tell me that after listening to all Bilbo's stories about it you can not picture it for yourself, Sam?" The Brandybuck chided.

"I was just wonderin' what Mr. Frodo thought," Sam replied indignantly. He hesitated a moment before continuing. "Folk used to say that you visited the elves in Rivendell, Mr. Frodo, but we've been walkin' for more than a week and I don't remember you bein' gone for so long as this, unless you were held up over in Buckland."

Frodo chuckled. "Ah, but how do you know I really was not making secret expeditions to Rivendell when you were at home tending my beautiful gardens thinking I was in Buckland with Merry?"

Sam made a small sound, as if the idea had never struck him. Merry continued the ploy.

"Why cousin Frodo, you were in Buckland? Why ever didn't you stop by to see us; we would have been glad to have you! I have never seen head or foot of you in Buckland since you took up residence at Bag End with Bilbo!" Merry exclaimed dramatically. Pippin giggled childishly. Strider glanced over his shoulder and saw Sam slowly break into a smile.

"Oh, a right fine pair of jokesters you two are," he said fondly. "Don't think I don't know that look in your eye, Mr. Frodo."

Frodo laughed, high and clear. "There's no fooling you, dear Sam. The rumors you heard were mere gossip; I honestly have no idea how they get started. Bilbo has told me all about The Last Homely House but I have never seen it save in my own imagination. And after all your talk of the elves I would not dream about going to see them without you, Sam."

"Strider!" Pippin's high voice spoke up suddenly. The ranger almost winced, certain that the next words out of young Peregrin's mouth would be something along the lines of "It is time for our mid-afternoon/ early evening/pre-dinner/post luncheon meal!" However, this time Pippin had something of another matter to say. "You are leading us to Rivendell, you must have been there before, or at least seen it. What is it like?"

"Yes do tell us!" Merry joined in. "It would be quite rude of us to reach the place and not notice where we are; or be unprepared for the sight of it and be standing with our mouths agape when the elves come to greet us."

"I have dwelt much in Imladris," Strider said at length. "The way there is well hidden and well guarded." He paused and when he wasn't interrupted by questions of how and why the city was guarded he continued. "The House of Elrond is set in a valley, beset by waterfalls that shine with many colors and trees that do not fade in winter. The dwellings of the elves look as if they sparkle with silver and there is light always there, be it from sun or moon. There are gardens there that perfume the air with the sweetness of flowers and fruit, for the land is blessed and gives to blossoms year round. Everything is living there, and the very air you breathe will heal you of wounds in the soul and body. No evil befouls it, but the number of the elves living there has diminished greatly."

"We saw a company of elves in the Shire," Frodo said. "I supposed that they were crossing the sea, like the old stories tell us."

Strider nodded. "The elves are leaving these shores. They are not bound to its fate as we are. Some will not make the journey, not yet, for there are some who love Middle Earth dearer than any paradise they can fathom. But they will all pass, eventually." Then the ranger fell back into silent thought and try as they could, the hobbits could get him to say no more on the subject.

They walked perhaps an hour longer, the hills in the distance getting closer and closer, until at last before them was a plateau, with a path carved up to the top of it. Stone parapets protruded from the top of the hill like a giant crown set atop a domed head. Even in the midday sun it looked shadowed, as if it held certain places the sun could not warm. It reminded Sam of the Barrow-downs almost. He did not like the way it looked, and apparently, neither did Merry.

"I wonder who made that path and what it was for," the Brandybuck said. "I am not sure that I like it. It has a ...well, a rather barrow wightish look to it."

Strider shook his dark head. "There is no barrow on Weathertop. The Men of the West did not live here, though in their latter days they defended the hills for a while against the evil that came out of Angmar. This path was made to serve the forts along the walls. But long before, they built a great watchtower on Weathertop. The watchtower Amon Sul, they called it. But it was burned and broken long ago. What you see is all the remains of it."

"How cheerful," Pippin groaned. "I suppose you are going to tell us that we will be resting there tonight."

"If you can find a more sheltered place on the road, then by all means please inform me about it. The air is already chill; it will be frigid tonight. The fortress will give us protection from the cold, as well as a vantage point to see our enemies before they see us," Strider replied. Pippin sighed but made no further protests. Frodo looked up at the former watchtower and could not help but shudder. He briefly touched the Ring in his pocket and turned his gaze away from the hill. Strider was right; the air was chill. What day was it? Frodo did the math quickly in his head. September had faded and it was now October. October the sixth, to be exact.

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Weathertop was just as dreary up close as it had been from afar. The climb up the hill was rocky and slightly steep; Sam and Pippin were panting by the time they reached an area Strider deemed suitable for a camp. They laid out their packs and Sam removed some of the burden from Bill, who seemed content enough and rooted around in the dirt while they set up camp.

Frodo collapsed with a relieved sigh against his pack and closed his eyes, passing a hand over them. It felt so nice to finally be able to sit; Frodo's eyelids already felt heavy and he knew that he would sleep deeply that night, even in this foreboding place. There was a scuffling sound beside him and Frodo opened his eyes to see Sam on his knees beside him, rooting through his oversized pack. Frodo watched him for a while before Sam realized it and turned to regard his master with a small smile.

"Strider says it'd be safe for us to make a fire," the gardener said, turning back to his pack. "Says them black riders don't like it much. Mr. Merry and Master Pippin are goin' to go see if they can't find us some firewood and I thought I'd make us somethin' to eat." He pulled out a small tea kettle and one of his cooking pans from the pack and turned once again to Frodo. "Are you hungry, Mr. Frodo?"

"Famished, actually."

Sam gave Frodo another smile and nodded. "You should be. You haven't had two bites of anything almost all day. You're gonna be thin as a tree branch by the time we reach Rivendell, if you keep this up."

"Its hardly my fault, Sam," Frodo said with a good-natured laugh. "Merry and Pippin are fetching firewood and you are cooking. What may I do to help?"

Sam flushed at Frodo's asking him, the servant, what he could do to help but Sam sat back and thought for a moment, knowing that if he refused to let Frodo help he would be awfully put out.

"Well," Sam said slowly, thinking. "You could feed Bill for me, if you'd like to, though I think he's eaten more than the five of us put together. I'm sure he'd take another apple from you, Mr. Frodo, if you'd want to try."

"Certainly!" Frodo said enthusiastically, thrilled that Sam wasn't insisting he rest. Perhaps they were becoming closer to equals, like Frodo wanted. Sam told him where to find the apples and left his master with a smile to go begin dinner. Frodo could hear him whistling as he readied things; it was comforting and made some of the gloom of Weathertop fade.

Frodo stretched and yawned before going to Sam's pack and searching inside for the bag of apples the gardener had stowed in there. Everything had been jumbled together when Sam had searched for the tea kettle and pan, so that the bag was at the bottom. Frodo had to lean in to reach it and as he did so he was met with a scent of earth, cotton, and crisp fruit. Frodo breathed in deeply as he reached for the bag and thought of Bag End, of himself in Sam's arms after the rainstorm, of the scent of rain and flowers, of the feel of Sam's lips against his own at the inn in Bree. At that thought Frodo felt his face flush pink and was glad his back was to the gardener.

He took the bag of apples and went over to the pony, who regarded him expectantly. He nipped at Frodo's sleeve as Frodo took out an apple and held it out to the pony. Bill looked at him for a moment, studying him with beast's eyes, then accepted the proffered fruit. Frodo stroked the animal's neck as Bill chewed.

"I'm not sure what it is about him," Frodo whispered, looking over at Sam, who was pouring water from the water skins into the tea kettle. "I think perhaps that its everything about him...." Frodo looked at Bill. "What do you think?" Bill just nipped again at Frodo's sleeve, wanting another apple.

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"A job well done, Sam, very well done!" Merry exclaimed, laying his now empty plate beside him.

"Indeed! Now, if only we had some ale to wash it all down with...." Pippin added, extending his hands out to warm them by the fire which now crackled merrily, casting dancing shadows over the fortress wall behind them.

The sun had set but the small fire had managed to chase away most of the fear from the place. Only Strider still sat on the edge of the camp, watchful eyes searching the ground below. They cleaned up the remnants of dinner but left the fire going and added more wood from the good sized pile Merry and Pippin had gathered.

Sam returned the tea kettle and pan to his pack and glanced over at Frodo, who was hunched closely to the fire. Sam saw him shiver slightly and then reached back into his bulky pack and pulled out his thickest blanket. After closing the fastenings on the pack, Sam returned to the fire and wordlessly settled the blanket on Frodo's shoulders. Frodo jumped at the sudden touch, then saw his friend and smiled.

"Thank you, Sam," he said. Sam shrugged slightly and nodded, then sat back down beside Frodo. The air had grown much colder, and now a cold wind began to blow, making the flames turn with the breeze. Merry blew on his hands and gave Frodo a sidelong glance.

"Well, if you aren't perfectly snug and warm," he said.

Pippin also looked at his cousin, then broke into a grin and crawled over to Frodo's other side. "Did you take Sam's blanket?"

Frodo scooted away and pulled the blanket tighter around his body, smirking. "No, he lent it to me out of the pure kindness of his heart. And no, I shan't share with you, Peregrin Took. Go fetch one of your own."

Pippin frowned. "But my pack is all the way over there." He pointed.

Merry sighed. "Oh for pity's sake." Then he stood and went to his own pack, took out his own blanket, and unfurled it with a flapping motion. He returned to the fire and Pippin immediately went over to him. Merry opened the blanket up obligingly and Pippin snuck in, so that the two of them were wrapped in the blanket.

Frodo looked at Sam. The gardener held his arms across his chest, fingers gripping his upper arms tightly. It was apparent that he was trying not to shiver, but as another gust of chilled air blew, he lost his resolve and his shoulders shuddered. Frodo hesitated a moment, then scooted a little closer to Sam and opened the blanket, laying one side over Sam's shoulders, leaving the other side over his own. Sam started and looked at Frodo in surprise. The elder hobbit smiled slightly. Sam looked from Frodo, to Merry and Pippin, and then back to Frodo again before deciding that this situation was not "improper" and relaxed a bit. Frodo returned his gaze to the fire.

Sam felt a slow blush creeping into his cheeks. The blanket was decent sized but not huge, and he and Frodo had to sit very close. Not that they hadn't sat that close before; there was just something about being huddled under that blanket together, sides touching, that made Sam blush. For a while they sat in comfortable silence, taking in the warmth of each other's bodies, each feeling every small movement the other made. Then Strider began to speak, to tell them stories of old lore and ancient times, and eventually sitting that close didn't feel awkward any more. In fact, it felt....it felt as if it was supposed to be that way. Sam wasn't even aware that Frodo had taken his hand until he felt his master give it a gentle squeeze upon Strider finishing the tale of Beren and Luthien.

"Through halls of iron and darkling door,

And woods of nightshade morrowless

The Sundering Seas between them lay

And yet at last they met once more,

And long ago they passed away

In the forest singing sorrowless"

The ranger finished speaking and all was silent for a while, save for the crackling of the fire. At length, it was Merry who spoke.

"Can you imagine such a love?" he asked incredulously. " Can you imagine loving another person so much that you would give up immortality to be with them?"

Strider stood and walked away from the fire without a word. They looked after him, and Frodo recalled the night several days ago, when he had heard the ranger singing the Lay of Luthien and seen the look of sadness in his eyes.

Sam felt Frodo squeeze his hand again, but his master's eyes were on the tall ranger. No one spoke any words until the moon was high above the hill, bathing the camp in white moonlight. Then, Merry said, "The moon is high. It must be late."

Frodo nodded, and looked back into the fire. He suddenly felt very cold and exposed, even under the thick blanket. He released Sam's hand and hugged himself about the knees. The blanket fell from his shoulders onto the stony ground. Sam moved to retrieve it, but then Bill started fussing, making tiny frightened noises and stamping his feet. All the hobbits, except for Frodo, looked over at the pony. Sam tsked and stood up.

"What's gotten him all worked up?" He mused, walking over to the pony. Frodo tore his eyes away from the fire and watched as Sam petted the pony's neck, trying to calm the beast. Frodo felt as if something was crawling on his neck and reached back to swat it away, but there was nothing there, nothing but the wind.

Bill was beginning to panic. He stomped and reared back slightly; Sam grabbed at the leather bridle and tried to hold the beast still. "What's the matter with you?" Sam demanded, fear creeping into his voice. Strider was paying attention now. He stepped back towards the fire, his hand groping for the hilt of the sword by his side.

"Quiet him, Sam!" the ranger hissed. "We do not want to draw any more unwanted attention."

"I'm tryin' to, Mr. Strider, but somethin's got him awfully spooked," Sam protested, trying to restrain the pony.

Frodo swallowed heavily. Something was not right. Bill was nearest to the path and Sam was standing in a way so that his back was to the entrance. The crawling feeling on the back of Frodo's neck moved down his back and into his belly. He stood up.

"Sam...." he said, his voice far more unsteady than he had intended. He swallowed and tried again. "Sam, the path..."

"Is it wolves?" Pippin asked, terror evident in his voice. He and Merry stood as well, huddled close together behind the fire. His question went unanswered.

*Frodo...*

Frodo's blood chilled. That voice....the ring.....it wasn't wolves, no, Frodo was sure.

"Sam, come back over here," Frodo said, his voice stronger now. Sam shot him a helpless look from next to the rearing pony.

"Merry, Pippin.." Strider said, his voice low and cautious. "Pick up some of the unburned logs and keep them near. Do not light them, not yet, but keep them ready."

"Why?" Pippin asked, though he moved to comply. Strider did not answer immediately, he just continued to watch the path below and the plains far away.

*Ashi...*

Frodo's hand went to the hilt of the sword he had picked up in the Barrow-downs, but he did not draw it. His other hand raised up to his jacket pocket, where the ring lay hidden. It was still there, but it felt suddenly heavy, a weight in Frodo's mind and he felt as if he was being watched...the image of the great burning eye flashed in Frodo's mind. He started and could stay where he was no longer. Keeping his hand on his sword hilt, Frodo went to Sam's side and grabbed a hold of Bill's bridle. The pony bucked and screeched.

"Bill, Bill, come on now!" Sam pleaded.

"Frodo, Sam!" Strider called suddenly, his voice very loud in the cold air. "Get back near the fire now!"

And then, as if in answer to Strider's call, a high pitched scream rolled up from the plains, echoing off the stone pillars and statues of Weathertop. Then another cry answered it, and then another. Pippin let a strangled sob escape him. Sam and Frodo's eyes met over the now frantic pony.

"It's them..." Frodo whispered, his eyes locked on Sam's. He could see the terror in his companion's eyes and knew that he could do nothing to make it go away. A fourth scream tore sounded, this one closer. Sam jumped and left Bill's side, grabbing Frodo's arm and pulling him backwards, away from the path and towards the fire.

"Keep close to the fire with your faces outward!" cried Strider. They followed his instruction, eyes full of horror watching the shadows that now seemed to jump everywhere. Frodo drew his sword as did Sam. For a while there was no sound save for frightened breathing and the crack and sizzle of the fire. The silence grew to be suffocating; Frodo thought that if he did not say something then he would snap and go mad with the waiting.

"Sam," he said in a hoarse whisper.

"Right here Mr. Frodo."

"Hush!" whispered Strider.

"What's that!?" Pippin gasped.

A shadowy figure pulled itself into the dell, a long and gleaming sword held tight in one clawed hand. Frodo's breath froze in his throat, and he felt Sam shrink to his side. Frodo remembered the dream he had had, remembered the Ring glowing (his hand flew to his pocket to cover it), remembered Sam trying to deter the horrid black cloaked figures (and here they were coming; the dream was coming true...), remembered Sam's stunned face as blood wept from the chest wound.

"No, no, no, no..." Frodo muttered, backing up slightly, his hand still protectively over the Ring. The Ring! If it was gone then the black riders would leave as well; they only pursued because of the Ring. It was simple; if Frodo put on the Ring, then he could sneak away and lead the Nazgul away from his friends. Yes, if he put on the Ring he could remain unseen and still draw the evil riders away.

*No, no!* some rational part of Frodo's mind screamed. * No, fool, remember what Gandalf said!"

But it was too late. Frodo could not help himself and gasped in surprise as he felt the cold band slide over his finger. He had put the Ring on again.

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Frodo vanished before Sam's astonished eyes. He turned, calling Frodo's name wildly, groping with fright at the place where his master had stood a mere moment before. Then the world exploded in a burst of motion.

The wraith charged, sword point held outward. Sam leapt out of the way, feeling for the barrow sword that hung at his hip, though he had never used it before and was certain that it would do little against this evil enemy. Three more crept over the ridge and into the dell, moving noiselessly, save for the unnatural screeches they let out periodically. A cold chill found its way into Sam's heart as they approached the fire; he heard a small strangled sound and realized that he himself had uttered it. One of the wraiths turned its hooded head towards him, and it was faceless, it was nothingness, just a black void, and empty space in the dark hood. It emanated sorrow and pain, it radiated anger and frustration; it was a pure hatred that came out of that void. Sam felt a wild scream rising in his throat, but when he opened his mouth he could make no sound. He tried to take in a deep breath, but his throat had constricted and would allow only a short haggard intake of air. Then the thing spoke, or rather hissed, its voice like that of a resurrected corpse, a dead voice, or one that should have been.

"Ashi.." it husked. "Ashi..."

Sam could do nothing but shake his head over and over, until at last the wraith turned its empty face away.

Suddenly a voice cried out, clear but seemingly far away: "A Elbereth! Gilthoniel!" No elvish voice was it; it was the voice of Frodo! Then the lead Nazgul let out a mighty scream, and plunged his gleaming sword into a foe unseen.

"Elbereth!" Crying the name of the star-kindler, Strider leapt into the group of Nazgul brandishing a flaming log, sweeping it in front of him angrily, fending the ring-wraiths off. One of the dark cloaks caught fire and it shrieked in agony and fell back, running back out of the dell. The others fell onto the Ranger, who now pulled his sword and used it to compliment the burning log. Merry and Pippin had to scamper out of the way as Strider drew the Nazgul to the other side of the fire. They shrank against the fortress wall, Merry protectively in front of Pippin. They watched the fight with wide eyes, their own swords forgotten.

Then suddenly a scream filled with agony ripped through the camp, and a moment later Frodo reappeared, blood staining his cloak and jacket. His left hand still clenched the Ring tightly.

"Frodo!" Sam cried, forgetting all else and rushing to his master's side. Frodo had been injured in the right shoulder, stabbed by the leader of the Nazgul while under the invisibility of the Ring. Now the right arm lay motionless, and when Sam grasped Frodo's hand it was cold and clammy to the touch.

"Oh Sam...." Frodo breathed, looking into Sam's face with eyes clouded by pain and fear. He looked ready to swoon; he was so terrified that he was quaking. Sam's heart broke at the sight, and he took his master into his arms, being careful of the injured shoulder, and said over and over "It'll be alright, Mr. Frodo, it'll be alright. Your Sam's here now."

"Sam, oh, dear Sam, don't let them take it... do not let them take it...." Frodo mumbled, half in a delirium.

"Hush now, Mr. Frodo, no one's gonna be takin' anything from you," Sam soothed.

The ring wraiths screamed, but they were defeated for the moment. The fled from the camp, shrieks fading into the darkness.

"I saw them, Sam, saw what they are beneath all the black robes. They are terrible, terrible! And they tried to take It, Sam; the pale king with the iron crown, he tried to take it!" Frodo's eyes were wild. He held the ring tighter to his chest.

"Hush, Mr. Frodo, hush!"

"They shall not have it!" Round, frantic eyes locked onto Sam's. "You, you must protect it!" Frodo declared, then he shuddered and the world plunged into darkness for him.

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Frodo woke to the feel of someone cradling him. His shoulder throbbed angrily, and it felt as if there was something warm and wet on his forehead. Slowly, he opened his eyes and saw the concerned eyes of Samwise Gamgee looking down at him. It was the most beautiful sight he could have wished to wake up to.

"Sam.." Frodo croaked; his mouth was dry and his throat parched, but that did not matter to Sam. His dear one was awake again!

"Mr. Frodo, can you hear me alright?" Sam asked, laying a hand along Frodo's cheek. Frodo turned his face into Sam's touch, trying to understand what had happened.

"I can hear you fine, Sam."

Somebody removed the wet cloth from Frodo's forehead and replaced it with another, warmer one. Frodo glanced up and caught a glimpse of Merry.

"Strider chased those wraiths off," The Brandybuck explained. "He told us we were to keep you warm at all costs."

"Keep me..." Frodo shifted, trying to get a better look around. His shoulder screamed with the slight movement; a whimper escaped Frodo's lips and Sam tightened his grip around his master, his brown eyes wide with concern.

"Mr. Frodo!" Sam exclaimed. "You just stay still; your Sam will look after you."

"My Sam..." Frodo let out a sharp breath and closed his eyes; the light of the fire was almost painfully bright. His shoulder still throbbed, now even more sharply, and he was having trouble maintaining coherent thoughts. A heavy fog had fallen upon Frodo's mind, cold and steadily growing. He wanted to return to sleep, if only to escape the pain in his shoulder and the shadow in his mind.

Merry's voice drifted to Frodo's ears. It sounded muffled and distant, as if being heard through a wall, but the words could still be made out. "Has he fainted again?"

Frodo felt Sam shift, but he felt the movement from a million miles away and the ring bearer did not respond.

"I don't know..... he's so pale...." Sam's normally strong voice was thin and hoarse, barely audible in the fog that clouded Frodo's thoughts. "'S'all my fault. If I hadn't a-just stood there...."

"We are just as at fault as you are," Merry said. "And so is he, for putting that thing on again. Gracious, cousin, what were you thinking?"

Put on...The ring! Where was it? Frodo's eyes snapped open and he sat up so quickly that Sam gasped and Frodo felt dizzy. "The Ring, the Ring!" Frodo exclaimed, trying to ignore the dizziness and the pain that now shot through his entire body. "Where did it go? Have I lost it?"

"Frodo!" Merry cried, kneeling beside his cousin and trying to ease him back down into Sam's arms. "You've still got it! You haven't let go of it since that thing stabbed you; its still in your hand!"

Frodo stared at his cousin, sweat starting to bead on his forehead from all the activity. He looked down at his hand. It was still fisted tightly. Frodo stared at his hand then slowly uncurled it. The Ring still lay on his palm, gold glinting in the firelight. He still had it. The wraiths hadn't gotten it. He hadn't failed yet.

"Oh...." The adrenaline gone, Frodo's body lurched with pain and nausea. His head felt unbelievably heavy and he swayed, closing his fist around the Ring once again. Sam's arms went around Frodo's waist, supporting him, warming him, protecting him. Frodo groaned and laid his head against Sam's shoulder; felt Sam's hand stroke his curls. Frodo shut his eyes again and this time sleep took him swiftly.

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The next few days passed in a blur for Frodo. His arm had gone numb and the coldness was spreading throughout his entire side. He slept often, and when he was awake the chilled fog crept over his mind, secluding him from the waking world. During the day things faded to a ghostly gray; at night the shadows multiplied, trying to choke the injured hobbit with their darkness.

Sam stayed by Frodo's side constantly as they walked towards Rivendell. He ate very little and slept even less. At night, he held his master by the fire, trying to warm him with his body heat to no avail. As the days wore on, the weather turned wet, and Frodo grew worse. Merry and Pippin grew anxious, and Pippin was terrified that his cousin would die. He tearfully tried to get Strider to reassure him, but the Ranger had few words of comfort on the road. He knew why Frodo grew more ill day by day, even though the wound in his shoulder was not deep and would heal in time. It was not the wound that caused Frodo pain, it was what had caused the injury: a Morgul blade, a weapon of the enemy used to enslave those that were injured by it. Strider was well learned in the devises of the Dark Lord, and he feared that Frodo still carried a shard of the blade deep within his wound. They needed to reach Rivendell as quickly as possible. Frodo needed the skill of the elves.

They kept on, eventually following the same path that Bilbo and the dwarves had taken all those years ago. They halted after a long day of walking in the shadow of the trolls that had turned to stone while arguing about the best way to cook a dwarf. Sam looked at the hulking statues miserably. If they had been there under any other circumstances, Sam would have been overjoyed; but all the trolls did now was remind him of Bilbo's adventure when he first found the Ring.

The Ring was now hidden in Frodo's pocket, laying silent and undisturbed, despite Frodo's shivering and tossing. Merry, Pippin, and Sam surrounded their companion, wiping his sweating brow and bathing his wound with warmed water. Pippin tried to distract Frodo from his pain by telling him stories, but as night fell, Frodo could barely hear him. He was becoming lost in the wraith world.

The night wore on, slowly. Sam gazed down at Frodo's face, so pale and drawn. He held his master's right hand between his own, trying to somehow warm in and chase away the numbness.

"Mr. Frodo," Sam whispered, though Frodo was fitfully asleep and could not hear Sam anyway. "You've gotta get better. We've gotta go home, remember?" He brought Frodo's cold hand to his lips and kissed the knuckles gently. "I'm sorry, Mr. Frodo, I've failed you somethin' awful. But if you'll just get better then I promise you, I'll protect you always and nothin'll ever hurt you like this again, not while your Sam is near. And I won't leave you, no sir, not for anything, not ever again. That's a promise, sir, a promise I'm makin' you." Tears began to build in Sam's eyes; he let them fall unheeded. "See, Mr. Frodo, I meant what I said 'bout home bein' where you are. Even if I have to follow you into the black lands themselves, I'll be home as long as you're with me." He kissed the frozen hand again and ran his hand over Frodo's forehead. It too was chilled, icy to the touch. Sam's heart caught in his chest; how could he have allowed this to happen?!

"Frodo, me dear," Sam whispered through a veil of tears. "I've something to say to you, so you'd best not go leavin' me. I've got to tell you....." He bent and kissed Frodo's forehead. A salty tear fell upon Frodo's cheek, warm sorrow against cold flesh. Sam blinked at it, then wiped it away gently with the back of his sun-browned hand. From deep within his misty sleep Frodo felt the touch and like a flower bending towards the sun he turned into the caress. Sam sighed and keeping his one hand against Frodo's cheek he pulled the blanket tighter around the both of them.

"Has he woken yet?" asked Merry suddenly, making Sam jump. The Gamgee had not been aware that anyone had been watching his brief soliloquy, but apparently both Merry and Pippin had been watching and listening from their places by the fire. Strider stood several feet away as usual, but he seemed oddly attentive. Had everyone been listening then? Sam decided that it didn't matter if they had; he was too tired and heart sick to care much. He shook his head in response to Merry's question, but otherwise made no response and both Merry and Pippin turned back to the fire, huddled up to each other against the cold. Sam was left to his own thoughts, his own fears, and his own love for a certain hobbit that lay injured and fading before him. Samwise Gamgee held his beloved in his arms and wept as if his tears could recall Frodo from the shadows. And as he wept he could have sworn that he heard, beneath the crackle of the fire and the sounds of the forest, dry laughter and a voice whispering: *failure...*

Come up to meet you, tell you I'm sorry
You don't know how lovely you are

I had to find you
Tell you I need you
Tell you I set you apart

Tell me your secrets
And ask me your questions
Oh let's go back to the start

Running in circles
Coming up tails
Heads on a silence apart

Nobody said it was easy
It's such a shame for us to part

Nobody said it was easy
No one ever said it would be this hard

Oh take me back to the start

I was just guessing
At numbers and figures
Pulling your puzzles apart

Questions of science
Science and progress
Do not speak as loud as my heart

Tell me you love me
Come back and haunt me
Oh and I rush to the start

Running in circles
Chasing our tails

Coming back as we are

Nobody said it was easy
Oh it's such a shame for us to part
Nobody said it was easy
No one ever said it would be so hard

I'm going back to the start

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Lyrics: The Scientist-Coldplay

Ashi: The one

A/N:I had this posted before I could edit it, so if you reviewed before I'm sorry! You can review again if you'd like, but other wise I'll respond to the ones you already have posted.

Next chapter: Sam and Frodo come face to face with an elf who seems to know more about them than he lets on (and no, it ain't Legolas....::grumbles:: stupid Bakshi movie....). Frodo flees to the Ford, leaving his friends behind him. The elf has much to say, but only in riddles and he leaves Sam with more questions than answers. Then, at Rivendell, Elrond declares that Frodo must be kept warm at all costs until the morgul shard can be removed. And what is this? Men, in the elven city? Who is this man with the white tree upon his armor?