AUTHOR'S NOTE: Thanks to all on and off the hobbit beta list who provided comments and suggestions about this story! So many of you pitched in that I must resort to alphabetical order: thanks to Adrienne, Cara, Diana, Fyrdrakken, LeLe, NikkiTook, Notabluemaia, and Parker. Your insights were all immensely valuable, and I hope that I've been able to put them into practice well enough to improve the story. Any remaining problems are, of course, entirely my fault!
On Gorgoroth Plain
All men are fools of fortune, or so they say. Perhaps it is so. But if men are fortune's fools, then the green things of this world are fortune's slaves, for they choose nothing, and live or die wherever the seed may fall.
So it is with this little thorn, all scraggled and bent over in a dry ditch, a wretched half-broken thing in a vast plain of ash and fire. Look at it. It is not the sort of thing that you would notice in a better place. It has no flowers. It is dry, near as dry as the barren soil where its seed had the bad luck to fall five years ago. Yet it has scrabbled out a life here in this ditch, every day's growth a struggle against desperate odds. The new young shoots at the tips of its branches are almost indistinguishable from brown: almost, but not quite. Even for this thorn in this place, it is the privilege of new life to show itself in the faintest shade of green.
It does not choose to grow. All of its choices have been made for it. Its life is a series of iron-bound imperatives, and it obeys them with no thought, no plan, no foreknowledge of means or ends. And so the day has come when it has grown too much, for there is not enough water to sustain it at this size. Now it is dying. It will soon be dead. It will stand that way for a while, until the last of it is slowly consumed by the crawling things that also live here somehow, their black carapaces gleaming in the fiery orange light from the Mountain that lours over the landscape.
But now there is a sound that is not the rustling of some crawling thing or the rumbling of the Mountain. It is the sound of some large moving creature, a two-legs. There are many such in this land, ugly things that run back and forth on the road not far away, never pausing, or pausing only to destroy. The thorn does not know what they are, but it would hide from them if it could. For when it was young it was not the only thorn in this particular ditch. One day many two-legs came, and they made a fire, like the fire on the Mountain, only smaller. They tore up every green thing they could find and fed the pieces to the flames, and as they did, they laughed.
But this two-legs is different. He is smaller, for one thing, and not so ugly as the others. He calls himself a hobbit and is far from home. The thorn, of course, knows nothing of this; it knows only that something is near, something large. This two-legs has not stayed on the road like the others. And he tramples on the thorn.
The two-legs swears, for the thorn has scratched legs already blistered and torn. He falls heavily to his knees and almost collapses, for he bears a heavy burden, one that half-supports itself and half hangs about his neck. With the last of his strength he puts the burden down beside the thorn. Carefully, as if his burden is made of glass that will shatter with the slightest pressure. Gently, as if his burden is more precious than anything on heaven or earth. But it is in fact nothing but another two-legs, one he has half-pulled and half-carried down the road and through a dozen ditches exactly like this one. Now he can bear the burden no more, at least for today. And his burden, once on the ground, cannot sit, but falls over and lies gasping on his back, his mouth open like a wound, and his eyes open too, staring unseeing into the ash-filled sky.
The first two-legs kneels by the other, gasping in the fume-filled air. They are both filthy and exhausted. The one on the ground is dying. The other knows it.
"You rest here, Mr. Frodo," he says. "I'll go get some water."
And although he should be too tired to stand, he stands, and he walks away. He knows that not far off, somewhere back on the road they dare not rest too near, there are cisterns built for the use of the creatures that guard this country. It is dangerous to go to that road at night, but if he does not, they will both die, and soon. He goes.
The dying two-legs rests half-beneath the thorn. The thorn sits and does nothing, for it can but grow or die. Several of its branches have been crushed by the stronger two-legs. Several others slowly spring back to their original place, but that will do nothing to lengthen its own life or to save the life of the weak thing beneath it.
As the dying two-legs lies there, his head shifts restlessly from side to side. He focuses briefly on the gnarled dry branch above him. He lifts a trembling hand, and touches it. Then he falls asleep.
When the stronger two-legs returns, he kneels once more beside his friend. Gently, tenderly, with infinite patience and love, he raises the dying one's head and steadies it, and with his other hand he holds a bottle of water to his mouth.
"There now, sir," says the two-legs. "Easy now." He tilts the bottle so that the water touches his friend's cracked and bleeding lips. A droplet slides down his chin and falls to the parched earth.
"Frodo," says the two-legs. His voice is the cry of some small creature as it lies in a wolf's jaws, waiting for them to close. "Please."
The dying one licks the water off his lips and swallows reflexively. The stronger two-legs tilts the bottle again, and his friend coughs and opens his eyes.
"Sam," he says, in a dry whisper.
"Easy now, sir. Easy now. I've got some water."
"Sam. You must have some."
"Done that sir, back at the cistern. You go on now."
The dying two-legs licks his lips again with a tongue thick and swollen. "I -- I'm not sure . . ."
"Please. Just a little now. Please, Frodo."
The dying two-legs nods. Slowly, painfully, he swallows the water offered to him. As the water moistens his parched mouth and throat he comes to realize just how desperately he wants it, and he tries to take the bottle, to drink faster.
"No," says his friend. "Slow. Slow."
They look at each other. The stronger two-legs leans over his friend and brushes his lips against his forehead. The dying one sighs, and lies back, steady in the arms that hold him. When he is offered the water again he drinks slowly, stopping when he is told, resuming when they both know that his body has accepted the water and will not cough it back up.
After a time he whispers, "Sam, we should save some for later."
"I can fetch more after we sleep."
"Sleep . . . " says the dying one, whose his death has just been postponed. Not postponed for long; a few days only. It is all he needs, though. For as is the way of moving creatures, he has a purpose, and his is so strong that it has almost devoured him. It will be accomplished soon; either that, or it will consume him utterly.
He slumps, his eyes half closed. But they do not close completely until his friend puts the half-empty bottle aside and lies down beside him.
Then his eyes drift open again. "Sam . . . " The voice is but a sigh, a rustling of dead leaves in the wind. If the stronger two-legs had not listened for this voice every day of his life from childhood, he would not have heard it.
The dying one reaches up, and takes a branch of the thorn in pale fingers that are little more than skin over bones. It pricks him, and a tiny drop of blood swells dark on his fingertip. But he does not draw back; he is long past feeling such a slight pain. "Look," he says, pulling the branch weakly toward them. "It's budding."
The two of them stare for a long moment at the green shoots at the tips of the branch. "Aye," says the stronger, "it wants to live, I reckon, even here, like all green things do."
"All green things," murmurs the dying one. "Like home."
"Aye, like that. Like home."
His companion sighs deeply and curls against him. They are soon still, a huddled bundle of rags and warmth, sleeping beneath the thorn. And to the dream of the dying one there comes a memory of a far-off green country, one final drop of nourishment for a soul tormented by evil. He will not remember it when he wakes, but it will be there nonetheless, a hidden reserve of strength when he needs it most.
Time passes, for it passes even here, where every moment is a world of pain. When at last the stronger two-legs rises bleary-eyed and staggers to his feet, he sees the same fiery light as before reflected from the low ashen sky. He glances down at his companion. If he loved him only a little less, he would think it better for them both if they died here.
But the thought does not cross his mind. Instead, he picks up the last of their water, and pours it over the roots of the thorn. He is wise in the ways of growing things, and his mind knows full well that the thorn will soon be dead. But his heart hopes otherwise, so he gives their water away, and uses some of his last strength to trudge off and find more before his companion wakes.
Soon he is back. He kneels and puts his hand on the other's shoulder. "Wake up, Mr. Frodo," he says. "Time for another start."
Soon, after the manner of two-legs, they are gone, for it is the nature of moving creatures to come and go, and so they do. The thorn does not have this option. It sits. But it is strong; it could not have survived for so long without strength. The water at its roots gives it new life. Not much; perhaps three days more than it would have had, if the two-legs had not come.
But as it happens, three days are all it needs.
On the third day the ground shakes, and the Mountain blazes with fire. For a time it seems that the land itself will be destroyed. But soon a fair fresh breeze springs from the West, and the smoke from the Mountain fades away, and dawn comes to a country that has not seen such a thing in years uncounted.
With the deep instinct of its kind, the thorn has always known the dawn and hungered for the light of the sun. Now for the first time in its life its branches stir in air rich with the golden warmth it has craved. And soon it bathes, too, in long, soaking rains that wash away the ash, and that sink to the roots of all the twisted miserable creatures that have clung to life in forgotten crevices throughout this land of Mordor.
The thorn does not choose. It has no thought or plan. It knows no songs of thanksgiving or praise. It cannot even speak, or if it speaks, it speaks in actions only. But this year, when Spring has come at last to a land no longer dark, it speaks in tiny white blossoms that flower for a brief season. Look at it. You might not notice it, or not much, if it grew in a better place.
But that is none of its concern. A day or two after its last flower has fallen, a gentle wind blows through the ditch, and a few seeds sail into the air, born on the breeze like delicate gossamer threads. They fly away, over plain and mountain, to wherever chance may take them.