It was a darksome dungeon with bitter cold radiating from the black stone walls and a sound of dripping water somewhere. A gigantic cave troll tramped in carrying something in its arms and dumped it at Frodo's feet.
It was Aragorn, bruised and battered, his armor rent and black with Orc blood. He lay still for so long Frodo began to fear he was dead, but - finally - his eyes opened. He sat up, glancing warily around him then he saw Frodo and his eyes widened in an expression of pure horror, before filling with tears.
"Oh Frodo, what have you done?" he whispered brokenly.
Still unable to find his voice Frodo reached towards his friend - and saw a giant black claw, a golden ring gleaming on one talon, at the end of his arm.
He blinked away the nightmare and realized he was sitting bolt upright in bed in his darkened room at Cair Andros with Aragorn, safe and whole, looking down at him in concern. "Aragorn...you're all right... I didn't..."
The King sat down on the bed and put his arms comfortingly around his small friend. "Of course I'm all right," he said gently, "you saved me, saved us all, Frodo, you know that."
But Frodo shook his head, cheek rubbing against the velvet of Aragorn's tunic. "No, you don't know, I betrayed you -"
"I do know." Aragorn corrected gently. "You told me how you claimed the Ring for yourself - don't you remember?" he pushed the Hobbit back to arms length so he could look him in the eye. "So did Isildur, my ancestor, and all my life I have blamed him for it, and feared the same weakness in myself - until you taught me better."
"The power of the Ring, there in the place of its making, was too great for any will to withstand. Even that of a King of Men with the blood of a holy Maiar in his veins," Aragorn smiled "or that of a Baggins of the Shire." the smile faded. "I was wrong to blame Isildur and think him weak, just as you are wrong to blame yourself, Frodo. You both attempted something beyond the strength of any embodied being - of course you could not do it!"
"Maybe so." Frodo said quietly. "But it seems to me I deserve no credit either. If not for Smeagol the Ring would be back on Sauron's hand."
"True." Aragorn agreed. "But Smeagol would not have been there had you not spared him, and taken him for your guide." again he smiled. "So you see it all comes back to you, Ringbearer. It was thanks to you that both the Ring and its destroyer were in that place."
Frodo settled back against his pillow. "I suppose you're right, but I keep having nightmares about what could have happened."
"So do I." Aragorn said quietly. "So do we all. They will pass in time, but none of us can go back to what we were." gently he touched Frodo's cheek. "You must accustom yourself to being the Ringbearer, as I must get used to being King."
"And the King has far more important things to do than hold the Ringbearer's hand." Frodo said, essaying a smile.
Aragorn rose to leave. "No he does not."
He closed the door to Frodo's room gently behind him and crossed the gallery to join Gandalf, softly luminous in his white robes, smoking his pipe at the railing.
"Another nightmare?" the wizard asked quietly.
Aragorn nodded, leaning wearily against the stone balustrade. "That is to be expected of course. But I sense something is troubling Frodo, something he cannot bring himself to tell either you or me."
"There is no one in Middle Earth who can do more for him than you, my friend." Gandalf said gently after a short silence.
"No." Aragorn straightened, a decision made. "There is another who may do him more good than I. And not too far off, I will send for him."
"- then Faramir told us he was Boromir's brother, and that Boromir was dead. And I feared the rest of the company had died too, including Merry and Pippin."
"But we hadn't, only Boromir." Merry interrupted. "You remember, Frodo, how we led the Orcs away from you? Well Boromir burst out of the woods just as they had us cornered and fought them off."
"But there were always more, hundreds of them coming from every direction -"
"Not hundreds, Pip." Merry corrected. "I don't suppose there was more than two or three hundred of them all together - and a lot of those were busy with the others."
"Well it seemed like hundreds." Pippin answered. "Boromir blew his horn for help but Strider and Gimli and Legolas had plenty of trouble of their own and couldn't get to us. Then an Uruk came with a bow.." he stopped, gulping painfully.
"There have already been many songs about the last battle of Boromir, Captain of the White Tower, and the capture of his companions." the harpist said gently. "It is the Ringbearers' story I am here to hear."
They were sitting in an inner courtyard of the fortress of Cair Andros, it had a fountain at its center and was green with potted herbs. Frodo was stretched out on a rug in the sun with Merry and Pippin sitting cross-legged nearby while Sam pottered among the plants with a pair of clippers.
The harpist was sitting on the edge of the fountain, fingers straying idly over the strings of the instrument in his lap. He seemed quite old, with shaggy white hair and a deeply lined face, and looked to Frodo like one who had suffered - and he was stone blind. Frodo suspected he was even older than he looked and not a Man at all - a wizard maybe, like Gandalf, or kin to them. He had told them to call him Tal-argan, but Frodo was quite sure that was not his true name.
The dark, sightless eyes, turned to him. "Go on, Ringbearer." he prompted
'Right." Frodo said. "I didn't know what had happened, I was afraid the others were dead. And afraid to tell Faramir the truth so I lied." he smiled wryly. "Which was a mistake because of course he knew I was lying and distrusted me all the more. So there we were, neither of us trusting the other. Then Smeagol decided to fish in the pool below Faramir's hideout.
"He - Faramir that is - woke me up and took me outside to see. I'd lied to him about there being anybody but Sam with me. He knew it and guessed it was Smeagol. Faramir was all set to shoot him so I had to admit the poor creature was with me and begged to be allowed to go down to him." he swallowed unhappily, remembering. "Faramir's Men grabbed him as soon as I'd coaxed him away from the pool, I'll never forget the look he gave me - I don't think he ever forgave me for betraying him like that."
"What guff!" Sam snapped, straightening abruptly from his inspection of a rosemary bush. "You saved his cursed life is what you did, Frodo. It wasn't your fault Faramir got a bit rough with him."
"More than a bit rough, Sam." Frodo said quietly. "They beat him to make him talk."
"I'm sorry," said Pippin, "but that doesn't sound like Faramir at all!"
"He felt he had to do it, Mr. Pippin." Sam explained. "He had to find out what Mr. Frodo and I were up to, and making Gollum talk was the only way - and of course he could see what a nasty treacherous creature it was."
"He's a good Man, Pippin," Frodo said gently, "scared as I was I could see that. He was trying to do the right thing - unfortunately he decided the right thing was to take us to Minas Tirith."
Pippin winced. "Thank goodness he thought the better of it! giving the Ring to Denethor would have been a disaster. He was a good Man too - at heart," he continued earnestly, "but he'd been driven half mad by grief and couldn't have been trusted with something like the Ring."
"Pippin's right," Aragorn said quietly, gazing across the river at the army encampment as they stood smoking their pipes in the evening cool on the gallery outside Frodo's chamber. "Denethor was not to be trusted, that's why I was so set against going to Minas Tirith." he smiled wryly. "But of course I couldn't tell Boromir that."
"No." Frodo agreed. "He wouldn't have appreciated it at all."
Aragorn glanced down, sidelong. "I know what Boromir tried to do, Frodo. He told me himself before he died."
The Hobbit's eyes filled with tears. "It wasn't his fault, it was the Ring. I was afraid it had ruined him."
"No. He freed himself from its hold and died clean of taint." Aragorn answered firmly. "I was there at the last, Frodo. I know this for certain."
"I'm so glad. I was desperately worried about what might have happened between him and the rest of you after I'd gone."
Aragorn smiled faintly. "You thought maybe it wasn't Orcs who had killed him?"
"It occurred to me." Frodo admitted. "Thank goodness I was wrong!"
Aragorn lay slumped against the black wall, dirty cheek resting on his chained hands, his face half hidden by sweat soaked strings of hair. Frodo bent over him and his eyes opened. For a moment he stared up without recognition, then a terrible look of hatred and revulsion swept over his face.
"Traitor!" he spat.
Frodo woke with a start, shivering in his bed. Aragorn wasn't there to comfort him this time - he'd gone down to the army camp after dinner to see to all the kingly duties he'd been neglecting for Frodo's sake. The Hobbit threw back the covers and got out of bed, caught up his grey cloak wrapped it over his nightshirt and went outside. A walk would do him good.
He went down the long gallery, past Sam's room, and Merry and Pippin's. He heard Gimli's snore floating through the window of the room he shared with Legolas but either the Elf wasn't there or he was sunk too deep in his own dreams to hear Frodo pass - for he didn't appear. To the Hobbit's relief. He didn't want to have to explain what was wrong or listen to any more well meant comfort. He came to a door, and to a flight of steps spiraling down to the little herb scented courtyard.
It was bright with moonlight reflected off the white stone walls and the soft bubbling of the fountain was counter-pointed by the twinkling notes of a harp. Frodo stopped in surprise in the doorway; Tal-argan was there, sitting on the fountain's verge as if he'd not moved since they'd left him hours before, gently strumming his harp. Suddenly he stilled it with a hand flattened over the strings and turned his head sharply towards the turret door. "Who is there?"
"Me, Frodo." the Hobbit stammered. He moved into the yard, eyes fixed on the harpist's face. Perhaps it was the moonlight silvering the fine features and smoothing over the lines that marred them but suddenly he saw the shadow of a familiar kind of beauty beneath the worn surface. "You're an Elf." he breathed wonderingly. "But - but you look old."
"I am old." Tal-argan smiled. "Very old, and somewhat the worse for wear." his fingers danced over the strings of his harp, sending a glissando of notes shivering through the moonlit air.
"Who are you?" Frodo demanded. "What happened to you?"
Tal-argan shook his head. "I am here to listen to your story Ringbearer, not to tell you mine."
"Not just for the song." Frodo said flatly.
"Not just for the song." the harpist agreed. "What haunts your dreams so you can find no rest, Ringbearer?"
"You expect me to tell you? I don't even know you!"
"You know Aragorn and Gandalf, why not tell one of them?"
Tal-argan nodded to himself, as if something he'd suspected had just been confirmed. "It is guilt then. Frodo, whatever wrong you've done silence won't heal it." he smiled faintly. "Believe me I know."
"Do you? How?"
"You are not the only one to have fallen into darkness and sinned." Tal-argan replied. "But I have no wish to tell you my history, any more than you wish to speak of your own trouble. So let us be silent and enjoy the moonlight together."
Frodo eased himself down on a step. "But you can't see the moonlight."
"No, but I can feel its coolness on my skin, just as I can feel the warmth of the sun. I was not always blind, I remember moon and sun and the light of Elbereth's stars." He had a beautiful voice, deep and rich, and his fingers wove a shimmering music - like light turned into sound. Frodo's eyes grew heavy, began to close.
"Sleep if you wish, Little One, I promise no nightmares will trouble you."
And Frodo believed him, though he didn't know why. He lay down on the step and yielded himself to his weariness, and the soft enchantment of music and moonlight.