There he lay, cast upon the ground like a dead thing among the steaming vents of the volcano. Sam gave a cry and ran to his master's side.

Frodo was pale as a ghost, shivering and cold as ice yet drenched in a sweat. Sam tried to wake him, shaking him, rubbing his hands, calling his name. "Frodo! Master Frodo! Oh, don't leave me here, not now, not after –"

Frodo stirred slightly. His eyes opened a crack, and Sam's heart leapt, but Frodo just stared unseeingly. Sam laid an arm about his master's freezing shoulders, and tried to help him up. "It's all right, you're safe now. Your Sam's here."

He knew it was a lie. How long would they be allowed to stay there undiscovered?

Frodo's feverish eyes rolled onto Sam's face. They flickered there a moment, clouded and unfocused, then slowly recognition dawned. "S...Sam?" Frodo's voice was parched, almost a death rattle. Sam felt a pang of joy and sorrow and threw his arms around Frodo. "I'm here for you, Mr. Frodo."

"I ... I don't think I can make it up." Frodo said distractedly. His breathing was shallow and uneven. "I'm ... sorry ..."

"But we've been up." Tears carved deep tracks down Sam's cheeks. He tried to help Frodo stand. "Up and back down. We should find somewhere safer, Mr. Frodo." But he stopped. Where could they go? Only the elves could escape, if even the Sea was wide enough to keep the Shadow out.

"Let's at least get off this foul mountain," he said. And away from that cave, he added silently, trying and failing to block the memory. He shuddered. Frodo nodded and tried to get up, but stumbled, falling beside one of the deep rents torn into the mountain. "Be careful, Mr. Frodo," Sam warned. "Some of these craters look deep enough as to swallow an oliphaunt."

As if on impulse, Frodo leaned over to look into the rent. Sam did so too.

Far below, almost obscured by belching smog and ash, was a small, broken body.

"He attacked me, Mr. Frodo," Sam explained, "while you was going that last mile. Leapt on me - but he must have misjudged it: went straight down. I was hard put not to fall myself."

Frodo just stared at the sad form, spreadeagled on the rocks. "Sméagol?"

Like an arrow from a bow Frodo shot upright. "It's gone!" he cried fearfully. "Where is it?" He rooted through his pockets, dropped to his knees and frantically scoured the ground.

Sam stared sadly at his master. "It's gone," he said, and a heavy weight seemed to settle on him as if his own words brought home to him their plight. "That filthy flying Rider must have taken it."

Frodo tensed. He looked up at Sam, crouched like a coiled snake, suspicion written all over his face. "He's got it," he muttered. He stood shakily, hand outstretched to receive.

"You've done it again, haven't you," Frodo said quietly. His voice caught in his throat. "Like at that foul tower. Well done and all that, now give it to me."

Sam shook his head. "The Enemy will have it by now," he said hopelessly. "I never took it! I just came into that cave, and you – you were –"

Frodo wasn't listening. "Very well," he said, withdrawing his hand. "Very well, if you won't give it to me, I will take it." Like a striking snake he flew at Sam, clawing, biting, with every weapon he possessed. Sam stumbled backwards. Frodo kept coming. On the very brink of the chasm that had claimed Gollum the two figures fought. One attacking, one defending.

The mountain rumbled, and great jets of steam and liquid rock erupted from the vents and crown. Sam froze, looking first at the lava, then at Frodo, who had stopped his onslaught, and was staring at him. Frodo looked in horror at the deep scratches all over Sam, and down at his own bloody hands. Tears were running down his cheeks. He started towards Sam, stumbling as the mountain roared and writhed in triumph, but there was no hostility in his face. Frodo was saying something, barely to be heard above the tumult.

"I'm sorry, Sam."

The burning lava swept down and engulfed them, two tiny figures in an endless ocean of fire and dark.