A Joy Like Swords
NOTE: This tale is the first of a collection told during various stops on the journey home from the quest. Each story is loosely connected, but are stand-alones with their own themes and plotlines. Therefore, this is not a WIP and no cause for panic. Still, if I ever get around to writing the rest, they are all part of a continuum set to book canon. A Joy Like Swords takes place in Rivendell, others will be set in Minas Tirith, Edoras, Isengard, Bree, and Hobbiton.
Frodo gasped as he was thrown forward against the saddle horn. His pony had taken a stumble on the rain-soaked trail, scrambling to regain its legs. Their climb up the high moors to Rivendell had been more treacherous than expected given the sudden collecting of rainclouds over the summit. Their journey through the wilds from Isengard had been dragging on them--leaden by the hard comforts of stony earth and open wind. Although the darkening sky at sundown had foretold rain, the Company had agreed to ride well past nightfall if it promised a bath and warm beds at the end.
Frodo righted himself and checked his mount, rubbing his side where the unexpected jolt had caught him unready. Before he could speak, Sam shouted "hold," and rode up beside him, dismounting, nearly losing his own footing in the slick mud.
"Have you taken any harm, Mr. Frodo?"
Frodo stopped his hand from easing the bruise. No need to worry Sam over a bump in the road. "I'm fine, Sam. I was nodding off, to tell you the truth. No wonder the poor creature missed its step." Ahead, a light began to glow brilliant, casting bluish luminescence across the encroaching roadside line of fir trees and thick heather.
"Samwise?" The wizard's query echoed through the pines.
"We're right enough, Mr. Gandalf. Frodo's pony caught a rut," Sam called out, gathering both sets of reins and leading the beasts out of the sucking earth to rockier ground. He handed the straps back to Frodo and remounted. His legs were soaked to the knees. With a nod from Gandalf, they soon started on again, the rising moon guiding them through the rain-scented air.
It was several hours past supper when they at last crossed the bridge into the dell. The dotted lights of hundreds of lanterns had been lit to welcome their return. But as Frodo took to his own legs again and hurried through the arched trellises in search of Bilbo, he could not help but note the empty air passing through many of the halls--the sad whisper of abandonment.
Frodo woke some hours before dawn. It was as he knew he would. As far as the northern road had brought him that night, he could not fail to predict his own restlessness. In the flickering light of the lantern, the bed silks folded and flowed under green and yellow starbursts--a celestial garden of candle flame passing through the tinted plates high overhead. The lantern rocked to and fro, buffeted by the rain's gentle wind seeping through the open doors and windows kept dry by the steep slant of the roof. Frodo watched as the dapples of light found purchase on the pale lengths of his fingers laid spread on the empty pillow next to his head. He moved them, watching the light dance and dive, vanishing into the void of the one that was no longer there. It tingled now, as it tended to, a prickling of feeling just above the vacant joint. He rubbed his palm over the seam to ease it. If he closed his eyes, sometimes he could trick it into believing it was being scratched, and the tingle would subside. But tonight he knew just as well as he knew his own sleeplessness, that the effort was in vain.
Frodo sighed and rolled to his back, tucking the nuisance under his arm. He fingered the jewel that hung about his neck and listened to the murmur of rain falling steady on the roof over his distantly familiar room in the House of Elrond. The fineness of the vast bed left him afloat, feeling smaller than a hobbit should in the company of elves. He wished he hadn't been allotted such luxury. The dormitory down the hall that housed his friends in adequate comfort would have suited him better. At least then he would not have to sleep alone. He wondered at his former days, those between years after Bilbo left and before Gandalf returned, when he'd lived content and comforted by the solitude of Bag End. The nights he'd passed nestled soundly in his feather bed--all that was lost to him now. A watchfulness prowled below his awareness--ever alert to dangers in a world that was supposed to be free of such dark fears. He alone should know this to be true, and likewise was the least to believe it. Under each bright petal clung a slip of shadow, caught in the nips and tucks of the features of the lands. Under the earth where the rainwater caught cold and clung, he thought he could hear it murmur to him: I am. I was. I will be again.
He moved his legs under the coverings stretching for a yard or more below his toes, as if he were floating in a wide lake. The sense of it made him reel and he sat up, shifting a pillow behind his head, yawing. He was tired, his limbs weighted with a weariness that begged for the sleep his mind refused to relent to. He thought of returning to the bathing pool and lying back in the warm water, letting the rain fall on his face.
He'd found a perfect moment there earlier when the feast had been served and eaten and the stories long told; he'd slipped away with a robe and a drying cloth up the carved stone stairs to the spring. The pool formed a deep bowl below the white splatter of a narrow falls spilling over a sharp lip in the dell. The falling water was cool, but either by some subterranean cleft or Elven spell, the bowl was warm and inviting to road-worn limbs.
He'd shed his clothes by the path and dived in, holding himself under as long as his lungs could stand, hearing the rush of the falls plunging into the pool, expanding to a roar. He gasped at the surface and spread his arms, lying back, letting the water hold him. The rain was only then a mist, falling lightly on his nose and chin as he floated, naming the stars he could spy through the tree boughs--Nenar, Lumbar, Earendil. There was stillness there even in the presence of running water. A star flew across the sky bright as the cut of a sword, burning its tracing into the back of his sight. He felt a drowsiness come into his head and he had to fight it to keep from sinking under the rocking flow.
Frodo tried to bring back that stillness now into his mind, but it did no good. Rather, he recalled the voices of his cousins pattering up the narrow path.
"Steady-on, Pip! You'll have us dropping off the ledge."
"I won't have you blaming me. I said we should be bringing the lantern."
Their quick legs soon brought them level to the lip of the spring. Frodo had sunk himself into the far corner, nose level to the water as he watched his friends shed their breeches and jump in with a chorus of shouts. Whoops and hollers followed as they broke surface and set about trying to drown one another, their clear voices sending echoes through the valley. It seemed to Frodo that the very trees above stirred in protest and dropped the rainwater from their limbs, spattering his head with cold dollops.
"Let go of me, or you'll have us both for fish food."
"You never could keep your head above water now could you, Pip?"
Quietly, Frodo swam closer until he was a skipping stone's leap from them.
"The fine folk of this house are going to be turning crickets into our beds if you two insist on shattering the quiet at this late hour!"
Pippin squealed and leapt floundering into Merry's arms at the sound of Frodo's voice. He quickly sunk his cousin and the two of them thrashed their way back to grip the rocky edge and sputter.
"Frodo? What a terrible thing to frighten a poor hobbit in a deep pool," said Merry, when he'd caught his breath. "We could have been done for!"
Frodo waded a safe distance from them--fearing retribution for his scare, yet secure in his knowledge he was the best swimmer of the three. "I was only serving you both what was due for invading my privacy."
"Ilian, the nice elf who showed us to our rooms, said this pool was for all guests' usage, not just you," Pippin quipped, taking a harmless stab at Frodo's almost nightly allocates from one well-meaning host or another. Hail to Frodo, Ring-bearer triumphant. Frodo had to agree it was getting harder to bear with polite grace.
"Pippin," Merry scolded. "Enough of that."
Frodo dipped back under the water to clear his head. He swam closer to them and popped up, gripping a tree root for stability. "It's all right, Merry. I'm getting tired of it myself. I'd really just like to get back home and forget this whole business ever happened."
Pippin looked chagrined either way. He'd been giving Frodo that look more often than not nowadays. Three minutes together and his company had already managed to snuff out his cousins' easy frivolity. "Where's Sam?" he asked.
Merry and Pippin looked at each other and came up with a mutual shrug. "I thought he was going to follow us up," said Merry. "He was setting his things about in the room."
Frodo felt a pang of wistfullness that was difficult to hide. Harder still when he'd been shuffled off to his private room while the rest of his companions were lodged together. He found it difficult to refuse the well-meaning graces of the elves, however misguided. When it come down to it, he'd thought sleeping alone would do him some good.
"Well, I suppose I'll hurry and wash and go look for him," Frodo had said, making his way to the bowl of scented soap flakes set by the edge. He took up a handful and set about scrubbing it though his hair, grown thick again during the passing months. Merry and Pippin followed his lead, seemingly now just as disinterested with exploring the breadth of the waters. He kept back a pace from them even so, reluctant to have them catch sight of the ridged scar carved across the back of his neck. That marking he could conceal behind a thick collar, along with the tracing across his back. The purple bruise just hidden in his hairline had gratefully faded with time. The shoulder they knew aboutand the hand. There was no way to hide the hand. He was grateful for the quarter moon.
When he'd felt he'd rubbed and rinsed the remains of their travels from his skin, Frodo climbed out at the tree-shaded end of the spring and threw the robe quickly about his shoulders, drawing it tight. He bid his cousins good-night and grabbing his things, headed back down the stairs to their lodgings.
Back in his room he'd sat on the edge of the bed, rubbing the cloth through his unruly curls until they felt reasonably dry. He dressed in the flowing nightshirt that had been laid out for him and fell back on the coverlet, watching the lamplight play in the latticework along the ceiling. His ears kept vigil for any sounds of bare footfalls in the outer hall. It was quiet until the rain started to hit with sudden vigor. He wondered why he was listening for Sam and not seeking him as he'd said he would, so he took the robe and slipped off the end of the bed.
Lanterns were still lit on their end of the causeway, illuminating the mist that clung to the air just out of reach, billowing up from the swift run of the river several feet below. Frodo counted the doorways until he found the fifth one with a silver arch. He passed through the open entry and peered in. The room was narrow and long, hosting three small beds a few feet apart from one another. A single candle left burning at the window lit the space. The first bedstead boasted a helm and breastplate emblazoned with the White Tree of Gondor; the second, the sunburst and horse emblem of Rohan; the third, an assortment of brightly polished copper cooking pots and a small iron pan, hardly used, a gift from the Minas Tirith scullery. Sam was not one to travel far without proper cookery, though Frodo knew how keenly he mourned the ones he lost. Merry and Pippin were nowhere about, but the cloaked lump snoring softly on the farthest bed told him he'd found the last of his friends.
Frodo moved forward noiselessly. Sam lay sprawled forward on top of the covers, his hand tucked by his chin. His feet were still unwashed and his belt only half unloosed. His Lórien cloak had slid off one shoulder. The candle flame reflected the deep relaxation of his face. As much as he tried to hide it, the road had been weighing hard on Sam. He would often walk with a slight stoop. He spoke less. He huddled off to bed sooner. Frodo took the hood up gently and tugged it back over his companion's shoulder. Sam grunted and smacked his lips in his sleep.
"G' night, Sam," Frodo had whispered, and slipped away.
Why do I feel I must deny you?Frodo wondered. Yet, the recollection of Sam's easy slumber now set Frodo's mind and vexsome hand to ease and he settled back down in the wide bed to sleep.
Sam was standing in the river, the wash of the Bruinen flowing over his toes. He was crouching to observe the network of thick river-polished roots of a tall shapely tree caught by time in the ever-bending current.
"It's got itself wrapped about the rocks, it does, Mr. Frodo. I've never seen the likes of it. Caught as it is in such a hard place." His thoughtful hazel eyes followed the sturdy trunk up into a burst of thin weaving branches, warm sunlight spotting across his nose through the golden leaves.
Frodo sat on the bank in the mosses, hugging his knees and wondering at Sam, who was hardly taking notice of the white waters threatening to wash his own roots downstream.
"It's not a birch, I don't believe. Maybe more like an elm--the ones which took so well to the East Farthing highlands, would you say?"
Frodo didn't answer, but felt a warm smile cross his face, touched as he always was by Sam's simple pleasures.
"Wond'rous trees they have here. And herbs and flowers. I saw an onion the other day, twisted like a rope and tall as my head. I wonder if they use it in their Elvish cooking. It had a scent on it as would set my mouth to water over a good hot soup." Sam gave the clinging tree an encouraging pat and took a few halting steps back toward the bank. His toes missed the edge of a slick rock and he leapt sideways to catch himself in the reeds, soaking his right leg to the hip as he scrambled ashore.
"Sam!" Frodo was on his knees, dragging him up the steep bank to the moss bed. "You'll have to watch yourself. I have no desire to jump in after you. It's much too nice an afternoon."
Sam slapped and wrung at the wet garment, a touch embarrassed. "Now Mr. Frodo, I wouldn't be expecting you to"
Frodo laughed, a brighter sound than he'd heard from himself in a while. "I'm teasing you, Sam. I'm certain an elf or two would be at hand with a large net in a pinch."
Sam settled next to him looking sheepish. "Caught for dinner I'd be, if I set the likes of this house into a fuss over me. It's you they've been keeping a close eye on."
Frodo sat back and glanced upwards towards the terraces and causeways of Rivendell. As much as they let him and Sam have their peace, he knew clear-seeing eyes were watching from more than a few of the windows. "I wish they wouldn't," he said. "I know they're worried. But I think their concern goes beyond any scare I have ever given the Company."
Sam shifted awkwardly beside him, twirling a long reed between his fingers. His expression was pained, but he didn't speak.
"What is it, Sam?"
Sam seemed pressed for words. Frodo touched his arm, urging him to let his thoughts be known to him. "Well, it's--oh, I don't know if it's my place to say--but Mr. Gandalf, he's asked me more than a few times if I'd been 'seeing the shadow on you,' as he calls it."
Frodo straightened. "He has? Even now?"
Sam nodded, his eyes on the moss. "And Mr. Elrond, too."
Frodo tried not to let Sam see how annoyed he felt--sending Sam about to make reportings on him. He let out a sigh.
"I'm sorry, sir. I shouldn't have said nothing. I don't have much to say to them anyways."
Frodo rubbed his face with his hands. "I wish they'd speak with me and not be bothering you about it."
"Begging your pardon, Mr. Frodo, I think they're a mite afeared to. As if it would bring about some kind o' disrespect as much as I can figure."
Disrespect? Frodo doubted that was the truth of the matter either, but he had grown more than weary of being handled like spun glass. Even Merry and Pippin tip-toed past his glance. Elves in bright flowing robes would stop in the halls and bow their heads as he passed as if he'd no longer kept a corporal form. It wasn't anything he wanted to be. Only Sam seemed unaffected by his rarefying. Which was the chief reason Frodo told himself he sought his friend out at every convenience.
Minas Tirith hadn't been much different, save for the King. Aragorn regarded him with a quiet understanding that Frodo found comforting. He didn't ask questions of him, either. After they'd been found and healed it was Sam who did most of the story-telling in his somewhat halting, but honest narrative. Tales and songs
Still, there were parts of the tale Sam preferred to leave untold. Frodo noted the omissions and respected those memories Sam found too painful to express, even to him.
Sam twisted the reed to the end and let it go in a flip and whirl of green.
"And what of it, Sam?"
Sam was startled out of his thoughts. "Beg your pardon?"
"This shadow they seem so concerned about. Do I seem different to you?"
Sam looked puzzled. "Different in what sort of way?"
Frodo shrugged. "I cannot say. Changed, maybe."
"Well, I wouldn't say changed for the worse any, except what was wrought by our hard journey."
Frodo blinked into the sunlight. "I feel as if my memory is sometimes bound in a haze. And I know my thoughts can wander, more than they used to. Tell me, Sam. What is it they fear?"
Sam shook his head. "I can't say rightly, but ofttimes there's a stillness about you. You take on a far-away look to your eyes, if you don't mind me sayinglike you'd just fallen into a dream for a spell, nothing more."
"And this doesn't worry you?"
"To say I don't worry none wouldn't be right. But you seem well enough yourself as time passes. That's what I tell Mr. Gandalf, leastways."
Frodo set his chin on his knees. "I'm sorry, Sam."
"For how you're always being made to look after me. For continuing to be made to look after me. You needn't be so troubled after all."
Sam took hurt to his apology. "Now you know better than to be saying such things, Mr. Frodo. I wouldn't know hardly what to do with myself if I weren't set upon your keeping. It's where I want to be. 'tis no bother."
Frodo gave Sam an easing smile. "It's not that I don't welcome your company, Sam. What I meant was, I would hope I'd be better able to do for myself now that so much time has passed. I suppose I expect too much."
"Aye, that you do," Sam said, his expression narrowing as he prepared to serve up a helping of plain hobbit sense. "You won't be looking to fetch eggs if the hens ain't settled in to roost, as my gaffer would say."
"I'm not a hen, Sam."
"No, but you're not halfways expected to cook up an omelette yet, neither. Just leave somethings be a while. And not pay mind to the elders, they've got to be on their worrying, you know. That's what they do."
"Maybe you're right," Frodo said, but his eyes were on the quivering elm, holding tight to its stone in the roiling waters.
Frodo lay on a blanket in the clover by the river under the fragmented shade of an old woody pine. Fall had newly arrived announcing itself in the yellow dabs of colour amidst the surrounding greenery. A few determined honeybees still darted about in the warm breeze between the late season wildflowers. Above their light buzz was the swish and plunk of Sam's casting line as he stood at the bank nearby, trying to lure a trout to his hook. The late morning sun spilled brilliant flickers across the lazy curve of the water, shimmering around Sam in his rolled sleeves and cuffs, dampened from wading into the river.
He and Sam had risen before dawn and slipped out of the dell by way of a high narrow stair running northward along the falling spray of the Loudwater. The falls' mist had all but soaked their cloaks when they cleared the lip of the cleft, opening out into a wide meadow just at daybreak. The day was promising to be warm and their hair dried quickly in the gentle breeze as they followed the Bruinen until it widened and shallowed within a loose grove of gnarled oaks and ancient fir trees.
Sam teased the line out again, and with practised skill, whipped the fly up over his head and out across the river to dance over the rippling flow and back. You wouldn't guess he'd ever been parted from the pastime, Frodo thought. Restless over the many leagues still to travel to their distant home, Sam had spent the last few afternoons sitting in Elrond's garden whittling a pole from a carefully selected yew branch. Taking inspiration from a spool off a broken loom and mixing it with a good helping of hobbit ingenuity (and some aid from an Elven seamstress who'd lent him several yards of her finest twine, and needles to boot), Sam had made himself a passable fly reel. "Nothing as to match the Bywater pole I've got gathering dust back home," he'd said. "But even so, I'd fish with naught but a thread from my jacket and a twig off the ground if it meant I'd get a quiet afternoon by the water." And Frodo agreed, provided he wouldn't mind an equally quiet companion to hold the shore.
"Hoe, there!" A snap tore through the air and Sam's line took off free into the playful breeze. His fly stayed behind, hooked to a patch of moss. "Well, if that doesn't" he bent and squinted into the sunlight, apparently debating whether to wet his knees in an effort to go fetch it. Presently, he shook his head and reeling in his loose line, made his way back to their blanket.
"Well, if that doesn't tell all" he said, dropping down and rummaging through his pack. "The pole is true, the line finer then the likes of any I've ever seen--but these flies, Mr. Frodo, I did my best with 'em." Sam opened a small lidded box. Inside was an assortment of furry lures he'd fashioned from scraps of deer hide and pheasant feathers. "What Rivendell needs is a good bait shop," he grumbled, selecting a bright red ball of plumage tied tightly to the end of a peculiarly bent sewing needle. Sam reached into his pocket for a pair of borrowed pliers and took to adjusting the hooked tip. "We'll be having clover for luncheon soon enough."
Frodo sat up and smiled at him. "I'm not nearly that hungry, Sam. Though, there's a good supply of Elvish pastry left in the sack along with an apple or two."
Sam wrinkled his nose. "It's not anything like that Lothlórian waybread is it?"
"No. I had some yesterday. You'd find it quite good for foreign food, I'd wager."
Sam held the fly close to his nose, clamped in the pliers, turning it this way and that. "What I wouldn't do for a thick string of smoked pork sausage. These elves here, it's like they live on air and moonbeams the way they eat. The wine ain't half bad, though," he added with some thought.
"And I've seen you take your fill of it more than once after supper in the Fire Hall with Gandalf."
Sam looked up guiltily. "I won't be shouldering the blame for that! He's a wizard with a quick hand for keeping the cups full t' anyone within arm's reach."
Frodo nudged him. "I'll take your word for it. I'm just glad to see you indulging yourself again. Sometimes, like today, I'd swear I might mistake you for a hobbit."
Sam chuffed at the comment. "Well, naught that there's been much occasion for dawdlin'. Nor taking a good sup since the coronation."
Despite himself, Frodo gave in to a wide yawn. "I suppose not..." he answered wearily.
"I know well you don't want to hear it, but I've been noticin' you're not sleeping too good these past nights," Sam said, giving the fly another twist. "I brought you up here in the hopes you'd get a rest in."
Frodo sighed, glancing across the waters. "Maybe I will," he said, lying down again. The sun felt warm on his shoulders. He tucked his folded cloak under his head and watched Sam tie the fly to his line. An uneasy feeling crawled through his chest. "Keep an eye on me, Sam, will you?" he asked, without a clear understanding as to why.
Sam regarded him thoughtfully. "You know I will. Don't you worry about nothing. Your Sam will have a fish or two in the pan 'ere the day passes noon."
Frodo settled his head onto his cloak. "Sounds lovely," he said and with a sigh closed his eyes to wade out to meet the elusive tide of sleep.
The smell of fish on the fire and an answering call from his stomach roused Frodo into the golden light of an aged afternoon. Sam had built a fire and was poking at a pan of filets popping in the heat of his new iron pan.
Frodo sat up, rubbing out a pinch in his neck. He'd slept most of the day away. His head felt stuffed with cotton. "Hullo, Sam. Did I miss tea?"
"Aye, and a few other meals besides. Next time I'm grabbing one o' those Elvish hoop nets," he said, not sounding pleased with himself in the least. "Was good to see you have a wink, though."
Frodo got up and wrapped the cloak about himself, coming to sit closer to the fire. "It's gotten cooler up here."
Sam nodded, suppressing a shiver himself. He poked a chunk of fillet with his fork and passed it over the fire to Frodo. "See if that suits."
Frodo picked the hot flesh from the tines and popped it in his mouth. It was the first taste of river fish he'd had since their boating jaunt down the Anduin. And a good taste at that. He hummed his approval and leaned over to get a second stab. Sam flipped a tail piece out of the pan and danced it about his fingers, letting it cool before taking a steaming mouthful himself. "Not bad. If you don't mind the bones."
A pile of gills and fins lay nearby next to a slimed rock and Sam's thin game knife. "What are we eating, exactly?"
"A pair of pike and a lonely trout. What my brother would say if he saw such a sorry catch."
"Sam, we're not feeding an army. I don't imagine Hal could assemble such a useful device from a handful of Elvish rubbage. You're a marvel."
A drip of melted fish fat found its way to the arm of Sam's shirt and he grumbled at it. "Fine lot this shirt has seen. Hard to believe it will still cling to me at all." Sam still wore the repeatedly patched, weather-beaten clothes he brought out of the Shire on his back the year before--despite the Gondorian tailors' frustrated efforts to better attire him. But then, they didn't know this hobbit as well as they could. Frodo, having lost all trace of his original travelwear, now favoured a simple Gondorian tunic and belted trousers made for him at the King's request. The orc raiment, of which he had no desire to ever see a mere scrap again, were reportedly set upon display in a high white tower along with Sam's barrow sword, black cloak and helm. The Lothlórian cloak was the only apparel similarity Frodo still bore to the rest of his kin--it seemed the hands of the enemy had been loathe to touch it.
"I'll see to it that we find a haberdashery in Bree before we get ourselves turned away at the Brandywine for foreigners," he said, grinning at Sam's attempt to thumb out the stain, when a thought struck him. "Do you think you'll be happy in Buckland, Sam? It's so far from your home and family. I hadn't given it much consideration until now. I don't have Bag End anymore, you know. And more's the pity--I miss it so."
Sam gave him a straight look over the faint smoke of the fire. "For certain I'll be happy. I was happy in our home in the White City just as well, being as I was close to your wishes. A home ain't just built of wood and bricks, if you take my meaning."
It was a fine little picture Sam could paint for them, nestled under the sod roof together. But what kind of life would Sam hope to find in Crickhollow? --Where every Brandybuck knows another by ancestral reputation and thinks little of the rest. Poor Sam would be the only Gamgee for sixty miles or more. And puttering about the modest yard, well he supposed it would thrive fair enough under Sam's patient hands, but it held no comparison to the grand Hill of Bag End. It twisted Frodo's heart all the more to know Lobelia skulked about the polished hardwood-trimmed smials just as they sat themselves under the pines above Rivendell.
"Well, Mr. Frodo, we've been far and seen a deal, and yet I don't think we've found a better place than this," Sam announced. "There's something of everything here, if you understand me. And yet, somehow, I feel we ought to be going soon. I'm worried about my gaffer, to tell you the truth."
Frodo nodded. Below his collar he felt the blessedly light weight of Arwen's gift tickling his skin. It was an invitation not to be taken lightly. He'd never spoken of it to Sam, of course. But if he did choose to go, what would become of his dearest friend? It was a thought too painful for him to consider for long. He had made a wish upon it many eves ago that if he should go, Sam would be well looked after. Somehow he couldn't imagine this would ever be possible for him in Buckland.
Sam's eyes were on him and he knew he should reply.
"Yes, they do have something of everything here, Sam, except the sea."
They'd spent the evening after supper in the Fire Hall, the carved columns lit crimson by a vast leaping fire in the ancient hearth. Frodo sat near it in a tall chair with his legs tucked beside him on the cushion; otherwise they'd dangle comically out of touch with the polished floor. His long nap earlier that day up on the meadow left him alert into the late hour, even following a generous meal of spit-roasted boar, stone-fired breads, rich Elven cheeses and plump fruits--some of which failed to resemble anything he'd seen grown in the Shire and were twice as sweet. He idly fingered the rim of a half-finished cup of deep barrel-aged wine in his good hand. Above the crack and roar of the fire rose the high haunting voice of an Elven harpstress intoning a lengthy lay in minor chords. The unearthly sound sent a shiver through him although the warmth of the flames was turning his cheek hot.
Sam was seated across from him sunk into a wide lounge, his arm lax over the plush backing, fast asleep. Merry and Pippin had long gone off to bed and Gandalf sat some way back in the corner speaking softly with Elrohir. He thought perhaps he should be off to bed himself, but that would mean waking Sam and he felt loathe to do that just yet--for it meant an end to their long day together. Up among the pines he'd felt more at ease in as many days as he could remember. But now, the soothing sound of the breeze whispering through the needles was fading. He'd held off as long as he could the nameless dread and chill welling up in his chest, grasping at his breath. His hand shook as he lowered his cup to the floor and sank to his side in the chair, pillowing his head on the armrest. Maybe if he could drift off to sleep here in the light he wouldn't have to surrender to it. He could fight it. He wouldn't have to disturb anyone and he wouldn't have to be alone.
But as the minutes passed his eyes would not close and stayed fixed on the flicker and whip of the fire. The stabbing red tongues slapped and darted behind the iron grating--the bars barely containing the wrath ever-stirring beyond it. In his mind Frodo began to understand the patterns in the flames. They danced for him, the colours burning into the back of his eyes. So when he finally closed them, the fire remained and led him into a harsh dream where the light of the sun and moon had failed and the only path to warmth and vision lay trapped and moulded by fire. It grew and leapt across the void to him. Inside the living inferno was a voice--one he could not forget--calling to him to rise and seek solace in its blinding embrace from the deepening shadows biting cold at his back.
There is no life in the void--only death.
He never felt himself stand to take the final steps to the grate, the hot stones under his feet. He never ordered his right hand to rise and reach through the black bars summoning the flame to him, asking it to rise forth and escape, flowing unfettered from its cage
The wizard's command shook the room. Frodo cried out from the biting pain flying up his arm in yellow waves before he was thrown down to the stones, caught in the turmoil of red flicker, black smoke, and the smothering weight of a heavy tapestry--ripped blindly from the wall--the hanging rod clattering to the wood floor. He was trapped under it, tossed about by a weight pressing it to him from all sides. The flame was dead and all he was left with was a gagging cough forced from his lungs. He ceased to struggle and collapsed into the musty darkness until long arms and many more hands lifted him, wrappings and all, and hurried him away. His head fell back and his ears rang sharply and he soon faded from all knowing.
"Frodo? Can you hear me? Will you open your eyes? Wake up! Wake up!"
Sam was near, calling to him; it seemed for some time. Why hadn't he answered? He could feel Sam's hand on his forehead, stroking his hair. He needed to wake up.
"Can't you hear your Sam, Mr. Frodo? I'm here!"
Frodo obeyed if only to quell the shrill tone in Sam's voice. It wasn't anything to get upset about; he'd just dozed off The room swam as his sight filled with many bright faces hovering over him, the nearest of which was Sam.
"I'm awake, Sam," he mumbled. "Please stop shouting."
Sam was replaced by the grim face of Elrond staring deep into his struggling gaze. He felt a long cool hand on his forehead and heard the lordly elf speak a few phrases in his native tongue. His head was lifted from behind and a vial of clear fluid was brought to his lips.
"Drink," someone said. And he did deeply for it was heaven to his parched mouth. He gasped for breath once he finished the lot of it and felt his head guided back into a pillow. His chest felt heavy with smoke, but the air of the room was filled with a sweet scent that was bringing ease to it. A cloth was being pressed to his forehead and he was aware of someone gripping his left hand tightly. It was Sam, eyes filling with tears.
"Why are you weeping?" he asked.
"'cause I done left you alone, is what. And see if no good came of it," Sam said thickly, wiping his face on his sleeve. His cheeks were streaked with soot.
"Sam! You're burned!" Frodo tried to sit up, but a strong pair of aged hands prevented him. Gandalf looked down upon him, seated behind the head of the bed.
"No, Frodo. Sam is quite unhurt, as are you for the most part. Your tunic is another matter." Frodo could see it lying over a chair nearby, the right sleeve burnt away.
He gasped. "What happened to me?" He looked to Sam who glanced anxiously up at Gandalf. "What did I do?"
The wizard answered him. "From what I could tell, you were trying to hold the fire of the great hall in the palm of your hand! Fortunate for you, Sam is quick to rouse and quicker to act. The Fire Hall is less one banner, I fear, for his trouble."
Sam lowered his face and Frodo glanced at the linen bandage that swathed his right arm from palm to elbow. "Am I burned?"
"Only slightly. The elves have coated the skin in a salve. Good thing to plan your accidents within easy call of the land's finest healers," he nodded to the flock of elves, quietly exiting the room.
Elrond stood at the foot of the small bed. Frodo thought they must have brought him into one of the inner chambers, the air in the room was still. "Lie now and rest," Elrond said. "You have come to no harm. Although the nature of this spell remains unknown, I do not fear for you now that you have awoken. I will come to you again in the morning. Goodnight." He bowed and slipped from the room. Gandalf stood as well and made to follow him, straightening his robes. They were smudged across the knees with soot--grey on white.
Frodo sighed. "I'm sorry, Gandalf."
The wizard shook his head. "No need for apologies, my dear hobbit--nor anymore from you, Sam--no-one expects you to keep yourself awake at all hours day and night. These things, it seems, will happen."
"But I!" Sam began to protest, but Gandalf set a hand on his shoulder.
"What your master needs now is something more than your capacity for remorse. We are all assigned to his care. I'll leave you to him. See that he gets some sleep and don't hesitate to take some for yourself." And with that the wizard slipped out to the hall. "Call me if he turns again--I shan't be far!"
Frodo tugged at Sam's sleeve now that they were alone. "What happened? What did I do?"
Sam sat in a chair near the bed, wiping his face again, composing himself. "You werewell, you had one of those spells, I suppose. Only, I weren't awake to see it."
"I remember the fire. I think it spoke to me. How could it?"
Sam looked miserable.
"I don't know how I got out of the chair. They carried me here?"
Sam nodded. "Mr. Gandalf took you up once they fetched you out of the embroidery. Elrond met him by that window, yonder, and all the room was fast full of elves. I couldn't see, but I heard them speaking in their high tongue and saying your name. There was a flash of moonlight, shone clear through the window, and then they hurried you to the bed and Gandalf caught my arm. "'Call to him!' he said. 'Let him hear your voice.' And so I did, and they weren't wrong--you came 'round sure enough."
Frodo looked to the arched window, now dark. The twisted candelabras were lit near the door and the far end of the room, but the grating in the fireplace lay empty, the coals swept away. He pulled the blanket up and shivered.
"Are you cold?" Sam asked. Before Frodo could reply he was on his feet, opening a long cabinet and pushing herb pots and parchments about. This was a healing room. A faded chart of the body's elements hung on the wall along with bundles of drying herbs. An infusion sizzled in a clay hot pot near the bed, making him drowsy. "I can go fetch"
Frodo coughed. "Just come be near me, Sam."
Sam shuffled back to his side and Frodo lifted the coverings to invite him in. Although the bed was small by elf standards, it would serve two hobbits quite nicely. Sam shrugged off his braces and slipped in next to him, adjusting the pillow so they could both share it.
"Here Sam, you're a mess." Frodo took the damp cloth from his forehead and used it to wipe the remaining streaks from Sam's face and hands.
"I'm sorry I wasn't a mite faster with that hanging," Sam mumbled, his eyes on Frodo's latest bandages.
"It's all right. I feel much better now. I don't really know what happened. Maybe I was dreaming," Frodo said hopefully, shifting closer so Sam could slip an arm around him. He sighed, nestling his head against him like he used to when they shared a room in the little house in Minas Tirith. The arrangements were more convenient there. Sam's bed was only a few steps away when he'd wake sudden in the night and slip out of his blankets, searching for welcoming arms. Frodo shut his eyes and listened to the soothing thump of Sam's heart under his ear. "I don't know what's wrong with me," he said as sleep began to take him. "Somedays I think I'm managing well enough, and then I can't say what's come over me. I can be very silly sometimes."
A hitch in Sam's chest stopped him from reasoning. Sam's arms closed about him and his mouth pressed against the top of his head. The fierceness in his hold set Frodo's heart quickening. "What's wrong?"
Sam couldn't answer straight away, but Frodo felt his hand stroke down his back like he was soothing a child, or soothing himself. It lingered there sometime before rising back up to squeeze his shoulder gently. When Sam found his voice it was tight and soft. "When I woke up it was as if, for a moment, we were back in the dark land. And the evil had its hold on you all over. And all that time, each terrible hour, I told myself if I can just get him to the fire then he'll be free of It. If only" Sam sucked his breath in before he could continue. "Only, you're not free of It. Not all to-gether and Iit's hard, Frodo, when I can't do nothing about it."
Frodo tilted his head back to find Sam's eyes. "Sam. It will be all right. I'll try harder. I'll tell you. I'll tell Gandalf. I was foolish. I felt it coming on, you know. But I didn't"
"Ain't nothin' that you can help. And it don't seem to be getting easier on you, neither."
"Sam, please, I don't want you to" but his plea was silenced by the warm press of Sam's lips to his forehead. His touch lingered there a moment before pressing a kiss to his eyelids one by one. Frodo softened into the caress as gentle fingers smoothed his hair. Sam's shy tenderness with him never failed to rouse a sweet rush of longing from his breast, unlike any he had known since finding himself lost and alone--orphaned so many years ago. These was so much he could wish for, but as always felt he had no place to ask.
When he could look again, the flickering light shimmered in the liquid gaze Sam held on him. Within was such depth of worry, Frodo sought to ease it with small assurances of his own. He touched Sam's chin with his uninjured hand. "Please don't be sad for me," he said as his fingers brushed up Sam's cheek and into the soft curls over his ear. Sam closed his eyes and lay very still as Frodo kissed his temple and chin, brushing their noses, letting their breathing mingle. "I took this all upon myself--willingly," he whispered and Sam's understanding came in the strong arms that wrapped about him, warm and secure.
They stayed that way for sometime, holding tightly, listening to the midnight sounds of the house--a song of distant wind and Elvish whispers. Moment by moment their clinging lessened along with the fear, loosening into comfort. Frodo felt full with the need to ask Sam so many questions that would not come--his heart still lacking the courage to voice them. Instead, he tucked his head where it longed to rest at Sam's shoulder and shut his eyes against the pale light of the rising moon, letting sleep bring them both into peace.
Pippin was reciting his heroic battle at the Black Gate to Bilbo in an excitable tone, working his way up to his felling of the great mountain troll, which had grown fouler and more fearsome with each re-telling as much as Frodo could recall. They'd gathered here frequently, seated on cushions around the hearth in Bilbo's small room sharing tales of adventures old and new--or at least this was true of his friends. Frodo preferred to listen.
Bilbo sat in his favourite chair by the fire, his feet up on a cushioned stool, pretending to take notes, but mostly indulging in quick naps that had been growing somewhat lengthier along with Pippin's spirited ramblings. Although his arm had been unwrapped none the worse for wear that morning, Frodo didn't fail to notice that Sam was keeping himself positioned between himself and the dancing flames.
"I'm telling you," Pippin said, "that troll had never seen the likes of a hobbit-at-arms before, but my sword soon taught him a lesson or two about Shire-folk." Merry's eyes had long rolled heavenward, and his chin wrinkled with the effort it took to hold his tongue until the storytelling would pass to him and his narrative would take on its own swelling embellishments--not failing to mention the quaking knees of the Wraith King when sized-up to a Hobbit of the Mark.
Sam sat cross-legged close to Frodo's side, giving his own best effort to flatten a growing smile. He was just as familiar with Pippin's aggrandising and never failed to take great humour in it. As wearisome as the tireless Took could be, his words lightened their hearts fair better than Gimli's first grim account of the same events.
"And there I was," Pippin continued, "all covered in troll where he fell on me, smelling something terrible so I"
"But wait a moment, Mr. Pippin" Sam interrupted, unable to help himself. "You've overlooked the best part."
"I have?" Pippin said, scratching his head.
"The part, if you'll pardon me, where the troll does fall on its knees right at your feet, neat as neat, and begs for your kindness and mercy. Or so you've told it before," Sam said in all seriousness. Frodo couldn't help but break into a smile.
"Ah, yes!" Pippin opened his eyes wide as if he'd only just recalled a dropped memory and not been caught following the wrong thread in his yarn. "Well, well, he did drop to his knees after I struck him in the chest, you know. No troll-hide can withstand the skilled thrust of a Lothlórian dagger. But I refused him my pity of course and gave it another go as such--" Pippin demonstrated his swordsmanship with a twig plucked from the cord of wood stacked on the hearth. "And only then did he fall over me--but I was so flushed with the fury of battle that I tossed him off like a bale of hay."
Merry poked a finger at his cousin. "A bale of hay? Pippin, you forget we all had our own encounter with the Moria breed and he couldn't have weighed less than all the stones in this chimney stacked together. And a mountain troll is four or five hands taller. I saw plenty you know, on the Pelennor right before the King of the Nine rode in on that fire-breathing fell beastwhich reminds me Bilbo, have I told you yet about?" Merry paused to take a peek up at the chair. "Drats! Has he gone to sleep again? You had to go on and on now didn't you, Pip! You've put him right out for good. I'll never get my tale on parchment now--and I'm bound to forget half of it."
Frodo got up on his knees and touched his uncle's hand. "Bilbo?"
The old hobbit grumbled and snorted awake. "Yes, yes, I'm listening. Was just resting my eyes, you know." He yawned and blinked. "Well, there you have it," he said laying aside his unmarked paper and pencil. "A grand tale well told, my dear Peregrin. Perhaps you'll run it by me again in the morning, or after tea when it's not so late. So many storiesI don't know when I'll get a chance to record them all," he said, patting Frodo's shoulder. "And what of you, lad? Have you told me all your adventures?"
Frodo shook his head. "No, I haven't just yet."
But Bilbo seemed bound to another thought. "Which reminds me; what's become of my ring, Frodo, that you took away?"
"I have lost it, Bilbo dear," he said. "I got rid of it, you know."
"What a pity. I should have liked to see it again. But no, how silly of me! That's what you went for wasn't it? To get rid of it?"
"It's all so confusing" Bilbo muttered and his eyes closed again and he was suddenly asleep.
Frodo tucked the heavy woollen blanket around his uncle's waist and settled back near Sam. "Well I suppose we've all had enough of riddles and balderdash tonight," he said, hoping to bring about an end sooner than later.
"Not quite, Frodo," Merry said softly as not to awaken Bilbo, if that were possible. "Pippin and I would very much like to hear your account." Pippin sat up straight and nodded his head earnestly. His cousins exchanged a look between them as if they'd been waiting for an opportunity to draw him out for some time now.
"It's a very long tale, and the night is growing late," Frodo said, stealing a glance at Sam whose expression read as encouraging. "Surely, you've heard it all before."
"Yes, from Gandalf, and somewhat from Sam," Merry said. "But you've yet to share your own telling with us."
Frodo absently rubbed the back of his maimed hand. It chose the worst times to ache. "I guess I just don't know where to begin--there's so much of it--and I should be getting Bilbo to bed" his feeble protest ended as Sam took his bothersome hand in his. He noticed that once laced together, Sam's fingers filled the missing space.
"Well, where should I begin?" he asked them. His voice was heavy with uncertainty, but his eyes were on Sam, seeking strength.
"Start at the end," suggested Merry. "That way you'll know where to get to."
Frodo felt his throat tighten. "Butthat's the hardest part to tell" Sam's eyes were searching his and he gave their fingers a gentle squeeze.
"It's all right, Mr. Frodo," Sam said softly. "Just give it a start. I'll help you."
Frodo adjusted the cushion under him and Merry and Pippin began to lean in to catch the coming words. It seemed to Frodo the very walls were listening and the fire quieted itself for fear of missing a moment of it.
"You've heard we made it up the mountain, I'm certain," he began, figuring that was close enough to the end without having to muddle his way through what came just beforeall a haze in his memory at best. "To the path that leads winding up to Sammath Naur. Sam found it somehow."
All too easily Frodo could once again see the glow of molten rock reflected on the obsidian cliffs of Mt. Doom. Above him hovered the blackened sky, the burning air seeping around him, his beaten body tortured by hopeless thirst. And above all pains the call of the Ring: Alive with swirling fire drowning all thought; the pull of the chain cutting his flesh as he bowed to Its terrible weight. It was a nightmare his waking mind was careful to let lie. But now safe in Bilbo's room, rooted to Sam's eyes and hand, Frodo pushed the memory haltingly forward.
"I came upon a high door in the side of the mountain with a fire beyond it andI walked through it alone." He stopped to try and steady his voice.
"Where was Sam?" asked Pippin reasonably enough.
Frodo tore his gaze away from Sam and settled it to the floor. "He wasdetained."
"Aye," said Sam quietly. "Had me a scuffle with that wretched Gollum. Flew right at us from between the crags. And a sorry sight he was, too. All bones and hiss."
"Did you take a swing at him?" asked Merry.
"I wanted to, with every inch of me. But he begged and rolled about most pitiful. So I cursed him instead. 'Be off!' I said, 'or I shall hurt you with nasty cruel steel,' as he was wont to call Mr. Frodo's fine sword."
"You let him go then," Merry said amazed. "I didn't know that. But I suppose it did serve a purpose of sorts."
"It did," Frodo said suddenly. "It served every purpose. If Sam had slain the creature, then" His throat closed on him. He couldn't speak it--not even now, though he threw his will against it. The thoughts were trapped in the roar and churn of the leaping heart of the mountain. The Ring on his hand, the Eye seeing all, seeing him. Mine.
"But he wouldn't have bit you, then," offered Pippin. "Would have spared your hand."
Frodo blinked at him, dragged up short out of his harsh reverie. "Spared my hand?"
"Yes, you know," his cousin continued, "in the struggle he made to keep you from throwing down the Ring."
"What?" Frodo felt sickened and he let go of Sam's hand. The room was thick with stale air difficult to breathe against. What were they saying? An anger rose in him with the revelation like a flash in the tinder. "What did you tell them, Sam?"
Sam looked frightened to the roots of his hair. "I didn't tell naught but the truth, Mr. Frodo," Sam said with conviction. "You went in there to destroy the Ring, right enough."
Frodo hated himself for making Sam shrink before him, but he couldn't stop himself--something ugly and black had come loose in him. "Then they don't know," he said.
"Know what?" Merry asked, visibly disturbed.
Frodo struggled to his feet, his useless hand throbbing as if it could still feel the sharp gnash of Gollum's teeth crunching the bone. He closed it in a fist. Frodo stared at the three of them aghast, strangers to his eyes. "It's all a lie," he said and turned hastily for the door.
The hour was fast approaching midnight when Frodo's aimless wanderings took him back up out of the depths of the valley to the stone walls and winding steps of Elrond's garden, shimmering grey and silver in the moonlight. The sound of fallen leaves chattered across the ground as he stepped swiftly, hoping to cross the garden undisturbed and find his way quietly to his bed. Now that he'd walked off the horrible memories and unsettling anger, he felt only tired and lonely, wishing to lay his head in the soft cradle of his pillows. But then his nose caught a wisp of stale Old Toby drifting through the air from where Gandalf sat on a bench under the glow of a lantern hung from the boughs of a bent tree.
"Good evening, Gandalf," Frodo said, moving closer, knowing better than to try and slip past the ever-vigilant wizard.
"A good evening to you, my friend," he replied jovially and Frodo eased some having half-expected a stern lecture about wandering off.
His feet stopped across the path from his old friend where a red rosebush grew. It was covered in new buds, thanks to Sam's idle pinching of hips the last time he'd walked with him among the roses. He'd chided Sam for it, sighting the meticulous care the elves gave the shrubbery, but Sam was unabashed, twisting another seed pod between his fingers and thumb until it fell away. "Does ought but help the will of the bush keep to blooming," he'd said.
Frodo ran his finger through a newly maturing rose, coaxing it open.
"Your friends have been concerned for you," the wizard said at last between hardy puffs of his pipe, intent on savouring what Frodo was certain amounted to the last of his supply from the spoils of Isengard before settling into a late chat.
Frodo sighed and looked up at the stars finding their way through the breaking clouds. "I made a fool of myself tonight," he said, feeling very tired indeed. "I should have known better."
"Hmm" Gandalf hummed around the tip of his pipe.
"What is worse, I upset Sam. I became cross with him for reasons that have very little to do with his decisions."
Gandalf studied him a moment before taking another puff and nodding as if he'd overheard the whole affair. Or perhaps he just knew. From the very beginning he always seemed to know.
"Merry and Pippin have their polished armour," Frodo continued. "They both have such wonderful stories to tell, of bravery realised and foes conqueredbut for Sam and II never have anything to say. I let him be my voice for everyone who would look on me so, as if I were fading like an early winter's eve."
Gandalf grunted and tapped his pipe out on the stone wall beside him. A small rain of red embers flew into the night breeze. "And do you believe, my dear hobbit, that you are as you say, fading?"
Frodo was struck by this. He'd not thought to assign himself the same sad blurring he saw around the edges of his uncle's countenance whenever he sat by his side patiently waiting for him to wake. It was one of many concerns wafting at the back of his mind. But he knew this was not what had stirred such rage in him tonight, nor what had so many nights before twisted his sheets to tangles.
"I'm afraid," he finally admitted. And it seemed a great weight was lifting from his shoulders as he spoke. "I know they said in legend once that he was vanquished, lost to Middle-earth. And they were wrong--wiser beings than I, with centuries at their back. The Eye was closed before, but we've learned it was folly to believe evil failed to cling to the shadows, however fragmented."
Gandalf dabbed the tip of his spent pipe at his lip a moment before responding. "Are you so certain that even the very echoes of darkness do not breathe your name with equal fear?"
Frodo drew his cloak about him to keep out the reaching wind. "Stealth was my weapon, Gandalf. Not courage. I have none of it."
"Perhaps you look to identify courage in its likeliest forms. I know the Dark One did, and that was his downfall. You, Frodo, were a foe incomprehensible to him."
"But he saw me, Gandalf," Frodo whispered, as if the admission would make it all the more threatening. "I showed myself to him in my pride and weakness."
"Do not judge yourself so harshly, Frodo!" Gandalf said boldly. "If you can see beyond this you may find that the end justifies whatever failings you would assign yourself. You alone were entrusted with our salvation and you alone knew how to go about it--without maps or weaponry or even sound council." There was a flicker in the wizard's eyes, a regret not dissimilar from the pain that gnawed at Frodo's breast. "It was simply your will that made the balance right again. Even when all the sky over Gondor had turned to black cloud, even though your cloak and mail fell from the enemy's hand--I did not despair."
Frodo sat down hard on the stone bench, absorbing his words. He peered over the edge at the falling waters, rolling blue and grey beneath them in the evening starlight. "But it hasn't all come back again as I wanted it to," he said quietly. "I hadn't felt it as much until our arrival here. The lands of men have their King and will thrive under his sceptre. But here, and every step I've made closer to home I see a dimming, like the colours I remembered are no longer true. Imladris is faded, its halls are emptying. I thought it was my eyes betraying me, but I can't hold on to that lie anymore. The world has changed. Merry and Pippin are changed. Even you, Gandalf," Frodo said looking to the blank sweep of the wizard's robes. "And I have changed, though I would not have it that way. Sam alone seems to have regained his former self. I suppose that is why I need him so--to remind me of what I left behind."
Gandalf smiled at him then, as if he had already guessed at the heart of the matter. He reached forward and patted Frodo's shoulder like he used to when he was but a lad in the wide golden fields of the Shire. "Dear Frodo, you could ask the stars to shine brighter and they would not hesitate to honour your request. Do not deny yourself what comforts you may find."
Frodo felt a fast worry rise in him, the gathering of tears welling at his eyes. "There are questions I keep needing to ask. Except, I can't seem to find the words."
Gandalf studied him, greatly pained it seemed in the knowledge that such doubt lay deep in his heart. "I cannot answer your queries, but I think you can easily guide yourself to the one who can."
Frodo turned from Gandalf's furrowed brow to the glimmering leaves of the rosebush. "I've asked so much of him already. There are things he keeps from me, and I understand why he chooses to do so."
"Sam's desire to protect you runs very deep. Perhaps you would do well to trust his wisdom."
"But where is the wisdom in protecting me from myself?" Frodo asked, his voice rising with doubt. "I must know who I am--what I was and what I became--if I'm ever to find a place in this world again."
"Your journey has yet to near its conclusion. Even I cannot predict all its turns and ends. Trust yourself, and trust to those who would have none other than to see you brought safely to your home."
Unbidden, the memory of his own scream echoing off the high chamber of Khazad-dûm filled his ears. Frodo gathered all his will to still the fear and tried to accept that what was lost could be found again. "I shall try," he said, stilling to listen to the neverending fall of the water.
Frodo stood before his bedroom's looking-glass unclad, the silvery Elvish nightshirt lying over the chair. Several candles he'd lit sat burning on the bedside table, facilitating his hesitant view. He'd met this reflection almost a year before, in the brightness of day, only now there was decidedly less of himself to reflect. Hardly a soul would take him for a hobbit anymore were it not for the stature. He stepped closer to draw a finger over the puckered scar at his shoulder, no more than a tuck in the skin--a wound long knit yet still capable of drawing a chilling pain at untold moments. He'd learned to bite it down and flex his arm through the numbing that surely followed. He moved a step back, turning slowly, and met for the first time clearly the pink lashing across his back and side--a foul strike over what was once smooth and fair. The polished brass reflecting plates of Minas Tirith had been more forgiving.
Frodo jumped and grabbed for the gown, holding it against him. Sam was calling from the outside hall--out of view. He relaxed. "Just a moment, I'm dressing!" he called out, pulling the silky garment over his head to hang an inch or so from the floor.
"It's justGandalf said you might be looking for me."
Frodo pulled the coverings back on the bed and slid in before inviting Sam into the room.
He came up the steps, a small shadow in the high doorway. "Would you be needing anything before I turn in?" Sam asked. His voice, like his face, was hidden from expression.
The words were hard in coming, but he made them take shape. "Sam, I'm sorry."
Sam moved a few steps farther into the room. Candlelight now gathered across his face, but his eyes were downcast. "Ain't nothin' to be sorry for, Mr. Frodo. Your Sam's but a fool sometimes is all."
"No, he's not," Frodo said, leaning forward, a feeble attempt to close the distance between them. "Except maybe for standing by a master as thankless and selfish as myself."
Sam still looked to the floor, but a sad half-smile had bloomed at the corner of his mouth.
"After all, what did I expect you to say? Why do I expect you to say anything. You needn't, you know."
Sam's soft voice was almost lost in the distant murmur of the falls. "'tis no bother."
He stood there for a few moments, lost in thoughts unknown to Frodo and just as impossible to decipher. Presently, Sam firmed his shoulders and raised his head up as if the day were beginning all over. "Well, then if you're all settled right, I should be off to bed. Least before Mr. Pippin starts talking in his sleep."
Frodo smiled, catching the ease in Sam's renewed manner. "G'night, then."
Frodo lay back in the bed as Sam went out, closing his eyes to hope and catch a few hours sleep before the day broke with sunlight shining down on him and the morning ringing of the bells.
Startled, he leaned up to find Sam still in his doorway. "Yes?"
"Would it benot too much for askin' if I were" he stalled on his own tongue.
"Sam, out with it."
"Could I stay?"
A warm flush rose in him at the sound of Sam's awkward request. It was everything he wanted to hear. "Of course. Come on, then."
Sam padded closer, aiming for the chair. "I only meant for keeping a close watch on you, is all"
"Don't be silly, Sam," he said, shifting over. "Get in."
It could have been the myriad of candles still burning brightly to the side of the looking-glass, but it appeared as if he'd driven Sam to blush--though he obeyed just the same, slipping in after setting his weskit and braces aside as he always did when they shared a mattress. I shall have to give this up someday, Frodo reminded himself, but didn't fail to manoeuvre them both so Sam lay warm along his back, an arm securely about his middle, their fingers joined in a light clasp at his breast.
Sam grunted pleasantly and settled his nose at the nape of his neck, releasing a sigh that tickled the curls brushing Frodo's shoulder. He closed his eyes and let the warmth of their closeness chase off the chill left from his late walk in the shadows. Before long he could feel Sam's breathing deepen as he nodded off. It filled Frodo with a rush of peacefulness, but even so, sleep evaded him. Having Sam near was stirring up worries he had hoped to put off, but before he could think better of it, he spoke to what had been turning about in his heart all evening.
"What's happened to me, Sam?"
"Hmm?" Sam flinched awake.
"It's gotten so I don't even recognise my own reflection anymore."
Sam lifted his head, suddenly alert.
"I thought I knew what I had set out to do, but somehow I became lost. And I can't seem to find a clear way home again."
"What do you mean? We are going home, Mr. Frodo."
"This should have been my burden alone," Frodo said, unable to hold it in anymore. "It was my fate, not yours. Somehow, you got caught up in it all and you've done nothing in your life to deserve the pains I've caused you. I thought it would end when we woke in Ithilien, but I've been mistaken. There will be no end. And Icannot ask anymore of you."
Behind him, Frodo could feel Sam's troubled breathing. "Don't be thinking on sending me away," Sam choked. "I couldn't bear it."
Frodo squeezed his hand. "No Sam, I didn't mean that, silly old hobbit. I couldn't bear it, either. I've grown quite desperately fond of you, you know. But you put so much trust in me. Ican't help but think what a disappointment I must have been to you. I never should have been awarded any praise for something I couldn't find the courage to do."
Sam let out a shocked breath. "Is that what's been troubling you so? That you'd think I might be ashamed?"
Frodo couldn't hide the emotion weakening his reply. "I don't knowI led you so far"
"Now listen," Sam said, gathering Frodo's hands in his and holding them firmly, his lips at his ear. "I won't have you going on like this. Because I'll tell you something about courage. 'cause I'd seen it at the very end, when I found you hurt and bleeding and I knew you didn't have nothing left in you. But being as I was born a Gamgee--and not the least stubborn of 'em--I asked you to walk out with me, that there might be some hope for us after all. And you agreed, you said, all but for me asking you to get up and follow. I know you didn't count on us leaving that place, and you told me so right from the start. And I promised you I wouldn't turn back even if it came to that. But we changed that day on the mountain. 'tis not me who's doing the following no-more. And I don't expect you to turn back on me now, neither."
Frodo turned slowly in his arms, searching Sam's eyes and finding the sincerity held so closely in them. The tears came easily now. "Sam, I didn'tI didn't think"
Sam held him close as he buried his face in the old ragged shirt, long since stained with his blood and pain from their many months of trials together. What harm would a few tears more bring? he thought, as the drops fell hot over his nose and his shame ran out of him in hushed sobs.
When he'd at last quieted, Frodo swallowed the last of his grief and rubbed his cheek against Sam's sleeve, searching for his voice again. "How do I manage, after all these many years together, to understand you so poorly?" he said sadly.
Sam kissed his head and rubbed a thumb soothingly along the back of his neck. "You don't, Frodo. You know me like nobody else ever would. You were always so kind. From the first day I came up the Hill to ask Mr. Bilbo about toddlin' 'round the garden after my dad, don't you forget."
Frodo smiled, remembering fondly the knobbly-kneed lad who'd rung the bell, cap wrinkled in his hands, all 'begging his pardon, but would the Master be at home?' Hardly more than a handful of winters had touched Sam then. And how old had he been? Just into his Tweens and a stranger to Hobbiton.
"That seems like another lifetime ago, Sam," he said sadly. "I've gone so far from Bag End I don't know how I'll ever return. There isn't an inch of me left that's gone unspoiled."
Sam didn't speak, but his thumb rubbed along the half-moon scar left by the chain of the Ring. Frodo closed his eyes as Sam's hand slipped under the loose collar of the Elven gown to unerringly trace the lashing across his shoulder blade and down his back with gentle fingers--the shape of each hurt forever etched in Sam's memory.
"I've been so frightened, Sam," he murmured, shivering at the unfaltering touch dipping lower to rub away the doubt--as those hands had done so many sleepless nights before when the rent of the Ring was new and raw. "I thought I had become the thing I tried to destroy," he said before moving to hold Sam's face in his hands, caressing the contours he knew so well, but so much older now and shadowed by toil and pain. Sam's eyes were warm in the candlelight seeing far into his own--loving, always so loving.
"No," Sam whispered to him. "I wouldn't have borne it, were it true."
Frodo knew then, of all the free peoples of Middle-earth who would not hesitate to sing his name in praise, it was Sam alone who could look upon him whole and see more clearly than the finest glass in Rivendell. There was a glow lit here so rare and inviting Frodo feared devouring every glimmer, leaving only a new darkness. He would not have that for Sam, though his bones trembled with the want of it as Sam's mouth moved to close over his own.
There had been scattered moments like this before, after the Ring had gone into the fire and the visible wounds had mended. Either caught by dream or flash of lightheartedness they would find themselves met close and breathless, waiting, eyes bright with expectation. Sometimes they drew back and sometimes they let their lips share secrets between them, which sooner than not, left them clutching one another with rapid breath until the rush that had caught them unawares had stilled to a gentle ache pulsing just beneath the skin.
And so with those same uncertain steps Sam was kissing him--his lips, his face. Each brief, halting taste leaving him weak, as his fears ebbed and his lips drew apart to welcome the soft sweep of Sam's tongue.
Frodo lay on his back watching the familiar green and yellow stars dashing and dipping along the ceiling. The candles had long since burned down, spilling to the floor in long ribbons next to the looking-glass. But not before Frodo had taken his fill of the sight of them entwined in its reflection: The strong length of Sam's back framed by his encircling, clinging limbs; the adapted sway and shift of their bodies. They'd moved like dancers who'd never set foot on the stage before--all a rush with effort--yet lacking so in grace. It had nearly made him laugh with absurd happiness were he not so caught up in it. All matter of humour was taken up in the burning perfection gliding between them. And so it went. He could recall a dazed and breathy pause, eyes locked in wonder, led only by slow caresses and nonsensical murmurs voiced against bare skin as they took an unhurried journey across all those hidden places that had never known such longing. They kindled it with each kiss and languid stroke until, so filled and flushed with wanting, the sweet pain flourished into bliss--Sam first, melting in his hands, then he a moment after--catching themselves as they fell spent together, a sweet mixture of tears and release mingling between their bellies like smelted gold.
Sam lay quiet now, sleeping heavy against him, his dishevelled head below his chin. Frodo brushed the curls back from his forehead and kissed the brown skin. "Turn over, Sam dear," he whispered and Sam obeyed though he didn't wake, rolling and flopping into the pillow. It was an easy enough habit learned through months of lying down together to sleep. Sam, he'd found, tended to snore. And the knowledge of that had pleased him. Why then, after just coming to know dozens or more intimacies many times more endearing, was he still so restless?
Not caring to dress, Frodo left the warmth of the bed and took up his cloak, wrapping it around himself as he stepped out to the causeway and down the short stairs into the rose garden. The air was still as he stood at the wall overlooking the river valley. Its contours were slowly taking shape as the palest shade of dawn began to glow at the horizon. He'd yet to sleep--his head still skipping unevenly along with the jittery thump of his heart. There were too many moments to savour and wonder at, and the scent of Sam all over his skin too new and magical to set aside in slumber. He could barely fathom it all, as his heart clung to moments too tender to let slip away.
How Sam's hands had trembled (had he ever known them to be so unsteady?) as they gathered up the silk of his nightshirt to pass over the stretch of his arms--the yearning his voice betrayed as it broke over a breathy "oh" In his turn, he'd undressed Sam button to button, the anticipation tightening sweetly around them. He'd pressed Sam back into the pillows and bade him lie still that he might drag his gaze and fingertips over darker skin and broader shoulders. What joy he found in trailing the dusting of fine russet curls that began below his throat, travelling in spare flourishes to his ticklish navel and beyond. Not a shiver was left unloosed as he claimed those cherished places as his own.
The memories of each kiss shared between them, which Frodo had once collected in the folds of his heart like a lily catches the rain, were now overrun with the bevy of nips, feints, and slow consuming tastes that bloomed between them throughout the whole of the night. Sam's mouth hungry at his throat, drew cries from his lips he'd never heard the like of. And what consuming desire drove him to kiss down the darker moans that would be Sam's answer? A fleeting worry touched the back of his awareness that Imladris carried sound as the wind carries air, but he didn't care who stilled to listen. This was who they were, who they always were, and no more cause for shame than the sun feels as she caresses the mountain peaks before she bids the world goodnight.
Frodo gave in to a yawn and stretch. His body was stirring again at the recollections despite the exhaustion that weighed so heavy upon him. Perhaps after a much needed soak in the bathing pool and a breakfast or two, he might coax Sam into stealing a nap together. Though, that would most certainly result in more wakefulness all the same, he thought with a smile. He hoped he wouldn't soon be caught walking into walls, but it was hard to imagine the bed empty ever again. But then, he'd best not hope that far.
Whatever doubt might be weeding its way into his happiness it was brushed away by the familiar brush of Sam's feet crossing the stones. He'd worried how he would take to him leaving the bed, but the light whistling heard under Sam's breath as he joined him at the wall spoke to itself. Sam stood looking off over the valley, a private smile tugging at his mouth. It was enough to make Frodo wonder if he'd missed a joke earlier. Perhaps Sam had taken a peek into the looking-glass, too.
"Good morning, Sam," he said. Not knowing quite what else to say.
Sam's smile twitched as he took in the expanse. His eyes were bright. "Aye, it is at that."
Sam had dressed, but had brought along an extra blanket which he tossed about the both of them, leaning close to catch a brief kiss as it settled over their shoulders. They looked at one another shyly for a moment before locking fingers and peering up into the sky. The Sickle stood up on end, ready to scythe the heavens in two as a shooting star dove across the height of the cliffs.
"Why do you suppose they do that, Mr. Frodo?"
"The stars--fall from the sky like that."
"I don't know, but some do every night if you watch them."
Sam looked thoughtful. "I wonder if they're missing the earth."
Frodo laughed gently. "Whatever do you mean, Sam?"
"Spending all their lives as they do looking down upon it. I imagine they get lonely."
"Perhaps they do. Or perhaps they just grow tired of holding onto the heavens and fall."
Sam pondered this sometime before whispering, "That's a terrible long fall, Frodo. I don't like thinking on it just that way."
"Even the stars let go sometimes," he said faintly, drifting into his own thoughts. The old fears were even now threatening to rise. What was lost could be found again. "Why is it Sam, that everything beautiful in the world always comes with great pain?"
"Maybe it's like what that minstrel sang to us on the field in Ithilien," he offered. "Something on, 'a joy like swords' oh, I can't remember the rest of it."
"'where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.'"
"That was it! I nearly forgot. Seems so long ago."
"It wasn't that long ago. Yet I feel as if an age had passed, ere we arrived."
Another streak flashed across the starfield, vanishing into the west.
Sam blinked as the lit trail faded in his sight. "I'll hold if there's some truth to your meaning--that the stars are letting go--it's but for knowing the earth is here to catch 'em."
Frodo closed his eyes to ease the sting welling in them. He lay his head on Sam's shoulder and wished with all he had that he could prove him right.