It always started with the heavy, labored breathing. The drops of sweat gathering at his brow and wetting his hair. The cool sheets wrinkling from the tossing and turning and desperate writhing as he became entangled. The small fingers forming into fists and struggling to break free of the cocoon. A few whispered protests mumbled pleadingly through his pale, cracked lips. Eyelids opening and revealing a set of large cerulean irises, coated in saltwater and wide with fear.
And then there were the screams—the ear-piercing, pane-shattering screeches that bounced back and forth along the walls and echoed throughout the entirety of the little house. The ones that sent shivers down the spine of the one who heard; the only one who could put an end to the seemingly ceaseless flow of shrieking and terror that came from deep within the victim's throat.
Samwise Gamgee was always there within seconds, but the time it took to throw the covers off himself, scramble out of the guest bedroom, and race down the hallway to his friend's bedside seemed like hours. Only after he'd reach out to cradle his fellow hobbit's sweaty head and take hold of his clammy fingers, whispering words of comfort, would the high-pitched calls come to a stop.
"It's all right, Mr. Frodo," Sam would say softly. "Just a bad dream, is all."
Frodo Baggins would lay there, trembling madly against his friend's strong hold and shivering in remembrance of the images he'd previously seen. It was never a bad dream; no, it was so much more than that. It was a nightmare; the very terror that had caused Sam to stay at Frodo's house as often as he could, despite the duty he held at his own home to his wife and their little girl.
Sam knew that it had grown increasingly difficult for Frodo to sleep, even three and a half years after they had come back from Mordor. He never dared to ask what the dreams were about, but in his heart he had the feeling that he already knew.
The projections of his own imagination had been haunting Frodo ever since his return to the Shire—the red-and-orange giant fiery eye of Sauron, always watching and observing, even after his destruction; the small, despicable creature named Sméagol who had somehow survived the incident at Mount Doom and had followed Frodo back to Bag End, carrying half of the hobbit's left index finger in-between his nine teeth as he eyed him menacingly from afar; the black emptiness underneath the hood of the Witch-king as it stared down at him and dug its blade into his shoulder repeatedly.
Sometimes the wound would still ache him, and draw life from his tired eyes. Sometimes Frodo could still feel a weight around his neck, and he'd reach up frantically to grasp the ring in reassurance, only to find that it and its chain were long gone. Sometimes his mind wandered to the past and he could still see the swirling pool of lava; still hear his cries of pain. And sometimes he was still fascinated by the power that the ring had possessed, finding himself meditating upon it for hours or days at a time.
Along with the horrors of his slumber came the endless waves of loneliness that seemed to constantly sweep over him. He missed the red-haired dwarf whose bravery and fierceness had shown through, and the careful eye of the elf that had accompanied them. He longed for Aragorn's constant watch over him; the protection and devotion that the Ranger had offered.
But most of all, his heart ached at the absence of Gandalf, for no one had shown Frodo more care and wisdom than the old Wizard. He hadn't so much as visited since the ring's end; instead only being present in Frodo's dreams, along with Elrond and Galadriel, who would whisper to the hobbit that it was time.
As Frodo's shaking hands gripped the edge of Sam's cloak and his friend rocked him back and forth, the former ring-bearer knew that the consequences of the ring were great. The scars would always be there—not just the physical ones, but the memories and nightmares also, for they had created even deeper wounds than the fragment of the Morgul-blade that remained embedded in his shoulder. The hobbit felt tears roll down his pale cheeks as he realized he would have to leave the Shire.
There was nothing for him there.