TITLE: The Claiming of the Ring: Part One (1/4)

AUTHOR: Europanya

E-MAIL: europanya@yahoo.com

RATING: R, for violence, disturbing images

PAIRING: Pre-slash, gen Sam/Frodo

CATEGORY: AU, angst, WIP

ARCHIVING: Sure.

SUMMARY: What if Sam had slain Gollum on Mt. Doom and Frodo claimed the Ring? What then?

DISCLAIMER: Tolkien made Middle-earth. Tolkien made the Ring. Tolkien made Frodo to bear it. And Tolkien made Sam to bear them both.

SPECIAL THANKS: To the happy hobbit minions at Hobbitfic who gave this a beta. And thanks to Michelle for putting up with my hobbit obsession.

POST DATE: 6/16/03

The Claiming of the Ring: Part One

by Europanya

"But even as hope died in Sam, or seemed to die, it was turned to a new strength. Sam's plain hobbit-face grew stern, almost grim, as the will hardened in him, and he felt through all his limbs a thrill, as if he were turning into some creature of stone and steel that neither despair nor weariness nor endless barren miles could subdue."

--- Return of the King: Mt. Doom

I

Sam stood feet apart, shoulders squared. Sting was in his fist, the point aimed at a tremulous throat. Pity had spared this creature twice before. Gollum grovelled on the stones before him, hissing and pleading for his miserable life. His crouched form was sunken and wasted by starvation and thirst, blinded by a lust he could not deny. The green pale eyes blinked in supplication; the tongue flicked and the haunted voice wheezed, "Don't kill us. Don't hurt us with nasty cruel steel!"

A debate weighed heavy in Sam's mind as he flexed his grip on the sword hilt. Rapt with anger and revenge as he was, Sam could not fail to recall how he, too, had borne the Ring, but for a day. He knew how quickly it rotted and betrayed the mind. Pity for such an abused and tortured being could be understood. Still, there could be no hope for one who had possessed It for so long--no salvation as Frodo had hoped. Experience had taught Sam this truth if none other.

*It has to be done. It should have been done before, but the job's been left to me.*

Before the creature could raise his pitiful hands to his face, Sam swung the glowing elven-blade and hewed the skull-like head from its shoulders. The bone-thin fingers froze aloft, scrabbling at air. Then, like a burnt leaf, what remained toppled to the ground, crumbling to ash where it fell on the hard stone path.

Sam stood over the dissolving flesh, picking at it with the point of the blade. Billows of foul black stench rose from the body until nothing remained save bits of broken bone and gnarled hair. *Dusst,* the creature had hissed in his final plea. *When Precious goes we'll die, yes, die into the dust.*

Black blood hissed and boiled off the tip of the sword until it was clean once again. Sam's anger had dissipated along with the remains, leaving only a niggling feeling in his gut that something ill would still come from this menace, even in death. With the grey thought of doubt in him, Sam sheathed the sword and began the final climb to the height of the pass.

In time he came to a towering doorway; a great heat rippled from its stone maw. His master must have entered here. Sam shut his dry eyes against the angry glow and stepped into the chamber. A heated wind blown from the depths of the fissure blew his cloak behind him as he shielded his eyes against the brilliance of the leaping flames. Ahead, Frodo stood at the precipice as a solid silhouette against the writhing churn of the molten sea below, lapping in the blackened belly of the volcano.

"Master!" Sam cried from his scorched throat, but Frodo did not turn to him as he approached, stumbling on the trembling ground. Instead, he heard a voice that sounded more clear and powerful than any words Sam had ever heard Frodo utter, rising above the wild roar:

"I have come," he said. "But I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!" And suddenly, as he set the Ring upon his finger, the black shape that had been his master vanished from Sam's sight.

Sam gave a wordless cry and ran forward to the very brink; his flesh pained by the burning wind. "Master!" he called. "Where are you?" No one answered, but in the distance Sam heard the wail of a chorus of riders. Their voices were raised to the air in fury, for their Lord understood in this moment how perilous his fate had become.

The skin on his arms was blistering and Sam knew he had to step away from the chasm or else burn to dust much as Gollum had. He staggered back, fanning the empty air with his hands in futile hope they would catch on something familiar, all the while calling his master's name.

A great shadow passed by the door and another hard by. A belching screech filled the cavern along with the piercing cries of the wraiths as they reined their winged beasts and reared them around to enter the chamber. Sam stood in fear as one, then two and a third flew past the entrance and circled over his head, beating the hot air with their great webbed wings. He threw himself to the ground and crawled behind a large fallen rock, knowing how pointless the effort was. Ruin had befallen them; there was nowhere left to hide. The only hope crossing his mind was that Frodo may have already left this cavern and was running to someplace far away, mad though he may be.

From his tight niche Sam could see the beasts dive and flap over the liquid waves, screeching at the searing heat burning their thin wings. The wraiths were matched in a battle of wills as they gripped the reins and pulled at the beasts' foaming bits. One dove and flew close over the pathway that had led Sam into the accursed place; its talons spread wide, piercing the air as it raced past. It had nearly collided with the far wall when Sam saw it rear back and clutch something between its claws.

Sam heard a scream and his last hope was vanquished. Frodo was captured. An invisible mass shook the space between the beast's talons as it struggled to maintain a hold. Sam drew Sting and balanced his free hand on the ground before him. He waited for the wraith to turn his mount and fly back for the door. It flew low once again and Sam leapt up onto the boulder. He sliced at the air and caught the fellbeast in the tail. Scales clattered to the ground in a rain of dark blood and the animal howled with pain, dropping its catch. Sam could see by a stirring of the ash where the sightless form had fallen. Sam ran toward the disturbance until he fell over Frodo. Sam righted himself and scrambled to pull Frodo up, to wrest the Ring from him at all costs.

Frodo howled and kicked and thrashed at him in the vacant air. Sam lost hold of the sword and it clattered to the ground, a glint of bright blue. He held a fistful of Frodo's shirt as he reached out to clamp his fingers around the hilt. "Master! Please!"

A great force bore down on Sam's back knocking the wind from him, preventing him from crying out as the claw of the fellbeast snatched at his back. The talons broke through the leather orc tunic about his shoulders. He was raised from the ground and swung through the air over the fiery pit. Sam shut his eyes, certain he was about to become a clot of melted flesh, but instead felt a cooler wind on his face and legs as he was held aloft. Opening them he saw the vast plain of Gorgoroth stretched out below his feet as he hung dangling from the beast's grip. Sting was still clutched in his hand and he struggled in the winds to sheathe it. The view was dizzying and the gripping pull on his tunic slipped; the garment wrenched tight about his neck, closing on his breath. The black smoke churned all about him as stars pricked his vision. The blackness spread into his mind and he knew no more.

II

Sam woke from a dark dream of fire and smoke to blacker shadows and hard stone under his cheek. The sound of dripping water invaded his awareness. His body was wrapped in pain from long toil and the recent bruising and tearing across his back and shoulders. He didn't want to wake to this, so he closed his eyes before they could take stock of his surroundings. He cleared his exhausted mind, taking in only one assaulted sense at a time. After the pain, he could accept the dripping sound coming from his left. It was measured and insistent, echoing upwards off a high cavernous space. *Faramir,* he thought, but knew this was not that place. It was warm in here, stifling, the air choked with a great stench of animal carcass and waste. He lay naked on a bed of hard filthy stone and putrid straw. Sweat slicked his grimy flesh from hands to feet. A prison of the Enemy. *This is where you'll find your death, Sam. And no place better.*

Sam drifted from one lost thought to another. As long as he kept his eyes shut, he figured he wouldn't have to bear the truth of his fate. He wouldn't have to embrace the injuries and pains he had suffered for so long. He was thirsty, true enough, but not with the parched desperation he had known those final days. A bitter taste lingered on his tongue. He'd been given something to drink, that he was certain. His stomach felt small, too withered to desire food any longer.

He drifted, wandering through endless green fields and along sunny water banks. If he lay here long enough he believed he might return to a place where the air was crisp and clean and filled with the scent of blossoms--where he would no longer have to endure the stench of his own body and...

His eyes flew open, heart hammering. He was not alone. Not alone! Raising up on shaking arms, Sam peered into the gloom of his cell. Black bars ran from stone floor to arched ceiling and a torch flamed on a distant outer wall. He was in a dungeon, a lockhole, one cell of several along the four walls of a wide square room opening into dark corridors. Turning about, Sam saw the dripping crack in the stone wall which provided algae-slimed water into a rusted bowl one drop at a time. Straw littered the floor, black and rotten with filth. In a nest of that filth lay another hobbit, naked and curled into himself.

Sam's heart swelled with hope as he crawled to him across the cell floor and struggled to pull him into his quaking arms. *He's here! Bless the Lady! He's here, with me!*

Frodo's pale skin was clammy to his touch as Sam turned him over in his arms. His back and side were mottled with clots of blood and reddened with burns. He had been carried in the grip of one of the beasts and the claws had broken the tender skin. Frodo's face was quiet, as if he was in a deep slumber, but the white colour of his dry lips frightened Sam terribly. He raised Frodo's face to his ear that he might be able to feel him breathing. The faintest puffs stirred against his cheek. Frodo's shrunken chest hitched shallowly. He was alive but dangerously in need of water. It looked to Sam as if their captors had tried to force him to drink the same fluid that had been poured down his own throat, but had only succeeded in spilling it across his master's neck in a brown stain.

Sam dragged them both to the water bowl which had filled near to the rim. He cupped some of it in his hand and poured it over Frodo's mouth. The oily water oozed across his lips and dripped to the floor. Sam rocked him gently. "Master, dear master. Sam is here. Please try to drink."

He pleaded and whispered to Frodo, holding him, stroking his face, trying to slip the precious drops into his silent mouth. With great patience and care Sam managed to wet the sealed lips and chin. Whether by instinct or reflex, Frodo sputtered for a moment and Sam was able to pour a few mouthfuls into his throat. But that was all. Frodo did not open his eyes nor speak. Sam held him close and rocked him, thinking of nothing else.

***

Some hours passed and Sam had given in to his thirst, lifting the bowl carefully and draining all but a few swallows of it in his need. He could have drunk ten bowls without a thought. He set it back under the dripping stones, chiding himself for his lack of restraint. What if Mr. Frodo woke?

But Frodo didn't wake and lay motionless in Sam's arms. Outside in the chamber not a soul stirred. Far off behind many walls and passages echoing noises could be heard--shouts and marching of many feet. Drums beat and horns blew from time to time, but no one came into their dark hole. And Sam was glad of it for now. He felt a little stronger after his drink, not so dizzy. He leaned back against the cool stones with Frodo slumped across his lap, and sleep overtook him once again.

***

A scrape of iron and the clanging of keys woke Sam from his dreams. He'd fallen to his side and his shoulder was stiff and cramped from lying so long on the hard stone. His vision swam but he could see the hunched form of an orc sliding open the barred door to their cell. Another stood close by, holding a large ring of keys. Sam lay still, eyes half closed so he could observe the grotesque creature. It was short and clawed with long arms and a thick armoured chest that bore the red eye emblem of Sauron. It carried a waterbag over its shoulder and a whip in its right hand. A long knife was belted to its waist. It came over to them and toed at Frodo's inert body with a boot tip. It was all Sam could do not to jump and set his fingers about its neck, but the orc keeping watch just outside their door gave him pause. He knew he was far too weak to fight two at once.

The orc inside their cell called out to the other. "Why are we bothering to nurse these two? I thought they were scheduled for the Round Room. They should be hanging by their ankles or sitting pretty on some comfy spikes."

"Ack! Don't you listen to your orders? His Lordship has something special planned for these little thieves," hissed the second orc outside their cell. "Something they won't soon forget, I hear. We're to keep them alive until He sends for 'em."

"Special, eh?" said the first orc, lifting Frodo's head up by the hair. "This little one here don't look to be breathing much longer. There'll be nothing left to tickle and tease. What is it they stole?"

"Mind your prying tongue, Nagh. It's not your business to ask questions. Just give 'em a drink and let's leave 'em."

The orc tipped Frodo's head back so his chin dropped open. It poured a brownish fluid from the sack into his mouth until Frodo coughed and swallowed some of it, ere his body convulsed and sent it back up, splashing at the orc's feet. "Garn! Filthy rat can't hold his water," it snarled, dropping Frodo to the ground. "Let's see about the other."

Sam lay limp and allowed himself to be pulled up by the arm, dirty claws poking his flesh. When the drink hit his lips he accepted it, hoping there might be some truth to what the orcs were saying, that this fluid might be designed to keep them alive. The liquid was sharp and burned the tongue and throat like a bad brewing; though it did not appear to be an alcohol. Whatever it was, it sent a jolt of renewed strength to his limbs almost instantly. His head felt clearer as he was thrown to the stones next to Frodo. Sam waited for the orc to turn about before he gathered all his waxing strength and leapt to his feet, lunging for the knife. He knocked the orc to its knees as he tugged at the scabbard. It broke free and before the orc could rise on its legs, Sam had the blade to its throat.

"Hi, you! Look sharp!" Sam shouted to the remaining orc. "Toss me the keys and your knife or his head will be rolling on the stones."

The orc leered at Sam through the bars. "Carve 'im up all you like, little elf-rat. There's more where he came from. He won't be missed."

Sam pressed the blade into the neck of the orc. The knife was sharp and he could feel cold blood begin to ooze over his knuckles. The creature clawed at the floor with its long arms and hissed, but remained firmly in Sam's grip. The orc outside began to laugh in a low rattle.

"You cut him deep enough, I might not have to hear his rotten speech any longer. Try a bit more slicing; saw at 'im." The orc made a hand motion to demonstrate.

Sam's mind scrambled for a solution. He hadn't counted on the cruelty of his captors to be this complete. If he killed the one, then how would he get to the second? If they denied him food and water long enough they'd be able to retrieve the knife easily and most likely return the favour. He hesitated far too long. The orc broke free from Sam's slippery bloody grip and lunged for its whip. Sam staggered back, knife in hand. The leather snapped through the stale air, catching him across the arm with a lash of red fire. He ground his teeth against the pain, just one more hurt to bear as he held his stance waiting for an opening.

The bleeding orc laughed at him and danced the whip from hand to hand. "You think you can fool me twice, little elf-rat? Let us see." The orc was skilled with the whip and aimed its next lash across the space between them to wrap tightly about Sam's wrist. The orc pulled sharply, and wrung the knife from Sam's fist. It skittered across the stones to its boots. The orc picked up the knife and waved it tauntingly at Sam. "Drop something?" it hissed in delight. The orc outside the bars was laughing as well. It seemed this was but a game to them. Neither had been much impressed by Sam's threat. This was not the first time one of them had caught a lick from a prisoner, it seemed.

The whip lashed again, catching Sam by the ankles, yanking him to the ground. The orc was over him in a second, pressing the point of the knife into the hollow of his throat, grinning around its fangs. Blood dripped black on Sam's chest from the cut he'd made in the foul hide. "How shall I repay you, eh?" the orc taunted, digging the knife point this way and that. "You gave me quite a scratch."

"Your manners, Nagh," warned the orc from outside the cell. "You'll be feeling more than a scratch if you mar that little filth's hide. His skin's for his Lordship to peel."

The orc leaned in close, its knee in Sam's stomach, still digging with the knife, yet not quite breaking the skin. Sam held very still, though the rotten stench of the orc's breath was driving him to gag. "How's this?" the orc asked, grabbing Sam by the hair with its free claw. It wrenched back Sam's head, knocking his skull senseless against the stones.

***

When Sam roused, his head was split in two it seemed by sharp nauseating pain. The ceiling swam before his eyes in the fragmented torchlight. The bowl of water had filled to overflowing since his losing battle and a thin river ran from it out under the bars. When Sam felt he could move, he soon discovered only one arm would answer his call. He looked behind him; his right wrist was clamped in an iron band and chained to the wall above him. He pulled at it, but the fastening held tight. *Frodo?*

Sam twisted his throbbing head about and was shocked and much relieved at first to find his master sitting up against the far wall, eyes open, watching him.

"Mr. Frodo? Are you all right?" Sam asked. Frodo did not respond and Sam began to understand that the gaze behind those large watchful eyes was vacant. "Frodo? Can you hear me?" Still no sign of a response. Something was terribly wrong.

Sam struggled to sit up and passed a tentative hand over the swollen gash on the back of his head. He was a fool to think he could take on a pair of orcs like that. He needed to think harder and plan carefully. Now that he knew Frodo lived, Sam's purpose was renewed. He was no longer that shy hobbit who had walked out of the Shire the previous year. Sam had grown cunning and hardened to his sufferings. He no longer held any fear for his own skin, and had only one remaining desire-the need to protect the master he loved. Sam would find a way for them to escape if it took him to the last breath of his life.

The chain was binding but long enough Sam could reach the water bowl and most of the way across the cell. He could not reach the door, however, nor Frodo, who sat just out of his reach. Sam took a desperate drink from the bowl, saving half of it. Then he pulled himself as close to Frodo as he could, the bowl cradled in his lap. "Did you drink, sir?"

Frodo's empty eyes rolled upwards and over, taking in the surroundings, nothing more. No expression presented itself across his pale, grimed face. It did not look as if he had drunk yet. Shadows rimmed his eyes and hollowed his cheeks. Sam held the bowl out to him and when Frodo failed to take it, he set it as close to him as he dared while keeping it within his strained reach.

"It's good to see you sitting up, sir," Sam said softly. He thought that if he spoke to Frodo with ease he might be able to rouse him. "It's true we're in a bit of a tight spot here, but there's water at least. That's more than we had before. I saved half the bowl for you. It fills every few hours by my reckoning. The orc draughts are hard to swallow, but they seem to give the heart some strength. I've handled two of them now and seem as well as can be expected. Won't you try to drink?"

Frodo looked at the bowl but made no move toward it, though his dry lips parted in expectation. Sam continued his talk.

"I can't say rightly where we are. Last I can recall we were being brought over the plains. I sorely hope it isn't the Dark Tower, but there's no use worrying over it until I can find us a away out from behind these bars. But don't you worry, Mr. Frodo, your Sam will find a way out, no mistake." Speaking these promises aloud helped Sam reassure himself that he did have a hope of setting them free. *Setting us free to go where?* Sam's darker thoughts interceded. *They have the Ring. Is there anywhere in Middle-earth where we can ever go now in peace?*

Frodo stirred and reached for the bowl, dragging it closer across the stones to his knee. His eyes fell to the murky fluid as if he'd never seen water before, nor knew what to do with it.

"Have a drink now, Mr. Frodo. It's all right."

Frodo brought the bowl to his lap and eventually, to Sam's relief, dipped his hand in the water, licking the drops from his fingertips. He did this a few times until something snapped deep in Frodo's mind and he lifted the rusty vessel, drinking frantically from it in gulps until it was emptied. Frodo let the bowl drop into his lap and stared at it. He resumed dipping his fingers below the empty rim, as if they would once again find it filled.

"It won't fill by wishing. We need to set it back under the stones, Mr. Frodo," Sam said, pointing behind him. "Back over there, see? It collects and then you can have another drink." This seemed to be too much for Frodo's comprehension and he made a weak sound, sliding to his side toward Sam, letting the bowl roll across the floor out of Sam's reach. But Frodo's head was close enough for Sam to touch and he lay flat on the stones at the limit of his chain to run a dirty hand over the matted mass that crowned his master's head.

***

Sam lay with his belly upon the stones for some time, though they hurt his ribs. It didn't matter to him anymore what his body felt, as long as Frodo was within his reach. This was the only thing that mattered anymore--keeping Frodo comforted as best he could.

When he heard Frodo pass back into sleep, Sam got up and searched the cell carefully. He began to cover every stone, every crack, with keen eyes and fingers, learning everything he could. His ears were pricked to any sound he could discern, listening for patterns that might give him clues to his advantage. He could see into the square room and the dark corridors beyond, two of them. Sometimes orc guards passed through with torches, but for the most part Sam could not see or hear any other prisoners. It seemed this dungeon was not much in use.

Slowly, he worked his way around the space as far as his wrist iron would allow. He came to a mat of straw in the far corner, not far from where Frodo had been sitting earlier, but where Sam had not yet peered. He got down and began to paw through the soiled mass with his hands, immune now to its repugnance. His fingers brushed cloth and he was amazed to draw the familiar grey weave of his Elvin cloak from the refuse. He held it in his hands, unbelieving. *How did this get here?* he wondered. *Why did they take everything else, but leave this?*

Perhaps it was with orcs as it had been with Gollum, he surmised. The cloth held some virtue that bit evil hands. Perhaps they had dropped it and kicked it aside. Sam looked about him and when he knew no creature had seen him, nor was coming down the halls, he took the cloak and walked to the end of his chain. He held it by the ends and tossed the hood out and over the fallen water bowl. The hood closed around it. Sam dragged the tin slowly as to draw no sound, until he could grasp it and set it back under the dripping stone. Then he rolled the cloak up tightly and stashed it as far back in the corner as he could reach and piled straw atop it.

The cell revealed no other clues and Sam was becoming dizzy again from the mere act of standing. He sat heavily on the floor, as close to Frodo as he could, and held a conversation with himself: *Well, you've got water now, Sam Gamgee, so there's that. But what of food? You've not eaten a bite in days or more and that will be doing you no good much longer. Strength is what you'll need if you're to get the both of you out of this. Mr. Frodo's not all here and won't be much help, so if offerings come, best you take the lot of it and leave him but a bite. It'll break your heart in two, but a broken heart won't stop you from laying your hands about an orc's throat.*

And so it was settled. Food did come later that evening, or day, delivered by a short dull-eyed orc, slipped without fuss or mockery through the bars. Sam reached against his restraint for the shallow pan of gruel. He slurped it up as best he could, leaving but a swallow for Frodo, whom he could not rouse either way. He set the pan near the wall, and lying stretched on the stones, reached out to wind a few fingers into Frodo's hair and went to sleep.

***

Sam woke sometime later to find himself covered by soft cloth. He opened his eyes. Frodo sat crouched before him and the Elvin cloak slipped off Sam's shoulders as he sat up. He grabbed it quickly and wound it into a bundle. Crawling past Frodo, he hid it again in the straw. Frodo looked saddened and stared at the floor, but he was near enough to Sam now to touch. Sam took him in his arms and held him close. Frodo merely sighed and rested his head against Sam's shoulder.

"Oh, Frodo," Sam whispered. "Not that I don't appreciate your kindness, but we'd best leave that cloak hidden. I've got a plan how I might use it to get us free, but it won't work if they know about it. Come now, Mr. Frodo. Try a little food."

Sam led Frodo to the pan. To his dismay, it was crawling with small black worms. He picked them out one by one until the swill was clear and raised the pan to Frodo's lips. He managed to coax his master into taking a few swallows, but no more. Hunger seemed to be a need Frodo no longer responded to. Thirst was, however. Sam could see that Frodo had drunk from the bowl while he slept and set it back under the drip stone as well. This heartened Sam, but made him feel no less urgent about taking the much needed risk to get them free and soon.

He led Frodo slowly to the straw pile and reached in to tear a scrap of elf cloth from the hem of the cloak. He dabbed the swatch in the puddle left by the water bowl, and laying Frodo across his lap, set about cleaning his wounds as best he could, wipe by wipe. Somewhere in the distant chamber corridors he could hear the muffled screams of a creature in torment. Not man or hobbit or elf: one of their own, punished by their evil laws and ways.

Frodo lay with his eyes half-open, relaxed in Sam's arms as he tended to him. Faintly, Frodo began to hum something sweet and light, a remnant of beauty slipping from his cloistered heart. Sam could not name it, though the melody seemed familiar and for the first time in weeks, Sam allowed himself to weep silently. He knew that if he did not succeed on the morrow, he would lay a hand over that sweetly humming mouth until it failed, and breathed no more.

III

Sam woke with Frodo curled against him, breathing softly at his neck. In the torchlight, Sam could not tell the time, but he guessed several hours had passed by the spilling rim of the water bowl and the return of the worms to the gruel pan. Another pan would be delivered soon, but this time Sam would not be taking part of it. With great reluctance, he unwound himself from Frodo's arms and lay him as best he could near the far wall, away from the straw which Sam now gathered into a careful pile.

Sam went to the bowl and drank the vessel dry. He smeared his hands in the runoff on the stones to clean them of sweat and grease. He looked to the crawling food pan. It was alive with plump wriggling life. *If offerings come...* Sam did not waste them this time.

As predicted, the gruel-distributing orc soon came and paused at their cell door to shove a new porridge-filled pan through the bars. It paused, sniffling in the dim light. "Hark ye poor wretches! Food's come! Where's your dirty bowl? It needs collecting." When no reply came the orc grew puzzled, for there seemed to be only one prisoner occupying the cell, lying motionless near the far wall. "Hark ye now! Where's the other wretch? Off to the Round Room? Aye, he'll not be looking for supper."

When nothing stirred, the orc took up its chain of long keys and fit one in the slot, drawing the knife in the other claw. It left the door open as it went over to Frodo and dug a toe into his flesh. Frodo let out a low sigh and nothing more. "Looks as if yer not wanting to eat none," the orc remarked and put up the knife. "Waste of time coming up this way."

The orc then moved across the cell to pick up the empty food pan lying on the shallow patch of straw. It bent over to grasp the tin with long fingers when something small and vice-like gripped its arm, pulling it off balance and toppling it head-first into the straw.

Sam's hidden shape lunged from under the cloak, which had hidden him in the straw bed. He leapt upon the floundering orc's back, wrapping the wrist chain twice about its gasping throat. Sam pulled back on the chain for everything he was worth, tightening it. The orc kicked and thrashed, clawing at the chain, sending straw flying all over the cell. The restriction of the chain around its windpipe prevented a screech from leaving the bony throat.

Sam held on and bit by bit was able to pull the chain just a little tighter, hand over hand. Minutes went by and still the orc fought him. Sam felt blood rise in his own mouth from biting down, willing himself to not let up for a moment. He got his foot up on the orc's shoulder and pulled with the last of his strength. There was a snapping sound and the creature fell limp. Dead.

Sam collapsed to his knees, gasping, his arms shaking from the effort. But he couldn't stop now and crawled over the creature to grab the keys. There were many of them, but eventually Sam found one that fit the lock on his wrist iron. It wasn't an exact match, but with a bit of wiggling and patience, he got the tongue to give and his hand came free.

Knowing his time was marked, Sam heaved the orc over and began to undress it, tearing at seams and ties until he got the long tunic up off its black stringy head. Sam put this on and it fell past his knees. He took up the cloak, clasped it to his throat then unbuckled the orc's knife belt and secured it about his waist. The orc had carried no other weapon, save the keys and Sam took these also, looping them through the belt in case they came in handy. Now dressed, Sam kicked the corpse into the straw and covered it as best he could, allowing a bit of naked spine to show. Darker than his own skin, but with all the grime he'd been living in, probably as good a match as any. He knew he'd have four, maybe five hours before the draught-bearing orcs arrived. If they arrived at all.

Now for the hardest part. Sam came to his master and kneeling, lifted his limp head into his arms, kissing the pale forehead.

"Lie quiet now, Mr. Frodo. It breaks me to know I'll have to leave you here a time alone. I shan't be gone longer than I need. May no foul hand touch you, or else I'll hunt them to the ends of the earth. Don't think I won't. Wait here for Sam!"

Sam laid him back on the floor and kissed each hand before rising to slip out of their cell. He secured the barred door behind him, locking Frodo in, and made for a darkened corridor.

Continued in Part Two