(Disclaimer: I own nothing in this story except the rather predictable plot. Tolkien's estate and the guys who made the movie have all the rights to this. I'm making $0 off this deal.)

Darkness, flowing, running, billowing darkness, all around; and up ahead, drawing him closer and closer, that great scarlet eye that filled the world and roared on and on in flame, never ceasing, never blinking, never letting go.......

He stumbled, the shards of rock cutting into his hands and knees as he fell, and picked himself up again—even though he knew he was running to his death, he couldn't fight the pull of that horrible burning eye any more than he could wear a ring on the third finger of his right hand......and in a way it was almost a relief to know that he would soon be in those flames, that the awful pulling would cease, that all the memories and all the pain and voices in the darkness of his head would go away........

Frodo sat bolt upright, gasping, his nightshirt plastered to his body with cold sweat. The place where his finger had been was aching again—phantom pain, they had called it—and he could feel the old scars of the Ringwraith's blade and of Shelob's sting throb with every heartbeat.

The dream again. Shivering, he slipped out of bed, padded over to the window. Outside, the moon poured benign silver over the Shire; trees and hedges dreamed in the pale light, the distant mountains slept at peace. I've seen those mountains close up, Frodo thought tiredly. I've walked through them. I've seen Orodruin collapse.

And he hadn't slept one full night through in almost a month now, without the dream. He couldn't ask anyone about it—Sam would worry needlessly and be completely useless, the other hobbits would nod wisely and remark that young Frodo had never been quite right in the head since all that nasty business with that ring. The only ones who might understand even a little were the Elves, and he couldn't see mounting an expedition to Rivendell to ask them about his nightmares.

He rested his aching head against the cool glass. The others would be right; he had never been quite the same, not after what he had seen, what he had done. Thing was—he'd thought it was over, once the Ring had returned to its fiery birthplace and the shadow blown away on the morning wind—he'd thought he could, eventually, learn to live a normal life again. That there wouldn't be any more quests, any more pitched battles, any more nights huddled by a banked earth-fire in the lee of crumbled monuments. After all—who was there left to fight?

But he couldn't help it; he knew something else was wrong. The twisted white scars told him something was on the wing again, something was about to happen; he carried that knowledge in his blood, like the poison from the Ringwraith's blade. He was no longer quite mortal, anymore.

He ran his hands through his hair, tangling the curls even further, not noticing the pain. It would go away. It had to go away. He had finished his adventuring for good, nightmare or no nightmare. And the tightness he'd been feeling in his chest was nothing more than good old-fashioned fear. It would go away once the nightmare passed, he was sure of it.

Nevertheless, he spent the rest of that night, like so many others, curled on the windowledge watching the moonshadows move across the grass. Now and then a little cough would shake him, just a shivering of his shoulders, a catch in the light rhythm of his breath. He was thinking of the way he'd felt when he'd learned of his parents' death, and not quite understanding why.

**

The hall of Rivendell was hung with sprays of the fragrant late rose, pale creamy petals bright against the old wood. The celebration of summer's end was a solemn occasion, but perhaps not solemn enough to explain the preoccupied look on the face of the elflady Arwen as she sat at the high windows at the end of the hall. No one approached her; they knew better. She, like Frodo many miles away, was remembering the flickering running darkness and the scream of the Black Riders.

Abruptly Arwen rose and stalked to a smaller chamber locked and bolted from general access. The mithril bolts slid back at a look, and she stepped inside.

A palantir—the last of the seeingstones—hung gently in the air above a blondwood pedestal. Unlike the thing Saruman had cherished in his tower, Arwen's palantir glowed a gentle silver, swirling like clouds in a distant sky, and the air around it failed to crackle with leashed hostility. The elf tucked an errant strand of dark hair behind one ear and bent over the crystal, letting the field around it change with the power she was channeling.

A moment later she was running down the hallway to the cloister where the elven elders gathered, all thoughts of roses and autumn forgotten in her haste.

**

"Mr Frodo......?"

Frodo looked up from the map; Sam's face was blocking the light from the window, haloed by honeysuckle he should have been industriously cutting back. "Mr. Frodo....are you all right, sir?"

"I'm fine, Sam." He was wearing, over his shirt and waistcoat, a tattered brown coat that had seen better days—better days on a long and winding road—whose rents had been neatly mended with contrasting thread. It was, however, warm enough for Sam, outside, to have stripped to the waist.

"That's good," said Sam, "but if you don't mind my saying so, you look a little peaky, sir."

Frodo sighed and manufactured a smile. "I haven't been sleeping well," he said, sounding unconcerned. "Go on, Sam, that honeysuckle needs attention."

His friend gave him a searching look, but nodded and disappeared from view. A moment later the bushes began to shake and thrash as he attacked them with the pruning shears.

Frodo got up, pulling the coat tighter around himself, shivering. The eye kept getting closer, in the dream. Close enough to touch. He thought that in another few days he would probably reach it. Coughing, he wandered back into the living room of Bag End, knelt down by the fireplace and put on another chunk of applewood. It was funny how cold it seemed inside on a day like this.

As he had been doing more and more as the dream got worse, his hand strayed to the white gem he wore on a thin chain around his neck; its comforting hardness bit into his palm. For a moment he felt stiflingly hot in his layers of clothing, but then the strange insidious chill crept into him again, the tightness in his chest returned.

I won't go to the Elves. I won't.This is just........nerves, or something. We destroyed the Ring. There is no Eye of Sauron any more.

Then why is it getting harder and harder to breathe? he asked himself sourly.

Nerves. They're right, I've never been quite right in the head since that first moment when I touched the Ring. It did for Bilbo—Elbereth's eyes, the ferocityof him when he demanded it from me at Rivendell.......and it's done for me. I'll be jumping at shadows as long as I live.

He leaned on the mantelpiece as another fit of coughing shook him. It's never going to let me go. I know it won't. I'll miss it forever.

Ah, but forever may not actually be all that long now, he answered himself. You're getting closer to the Eye.

And he was; that night he only just managed to wake, gasping and coughing, before he fell into the fire of the Eye itself. He'd been close enough for the heat of its flames to bring out a sudden fierce sweat on his face—close enough for the roaring of whatever unholy fuel fed that fire to deafen him. He could have reached out and sunk his arm to the shoulder in the flames. He's already got one finger, he thought dizzily, gasping in the still night air, why not give him the rest of that hand? The calm night air caught in his chest, doubling him over in a helpless fit of coughing. He curled up on his side, burying his face in the pillows, trying to muffle the awful choking sounds.

It was a long time before he could sleep again, and when he did he was chased through burning darkness by things with too many teeth, and iron bands were tightening around his ribs.

**

Arwen sat in the high carven throne of her father and raked her gaze around the circle of elflords. For thousands of man's years these lords had sat in council as they did today, and pondered problems far greater than that which she had placed before them; but nevertheless each pointed, pallid face looked back at her with fear and urgency.

"Are you sure of this, my lady?" one of them asked. His quiet voice made Arwen jump.

"As certain as the palantir can make me," she told him quietly. "The Ringbearer yet holds some of the Ring's poison in his body. It......is growing, my lords. It is growing fast."

"And the danger?"

"Is great. For him.......it will consume him like a fire consumes a branch, if it is not stopped. For the rest of Middle-earth...it is a doorway back into the world, if Sauron can open it." Arwen stopped, looked firmly at her hands. "We do not have much time."

"Does the Ringbearer know of his danger?"

Arwen closed her eyes for a moment. "I do not believe so," she said softly. "He is......afraid, yes, but he does not know the full extent of what he has to fear."

"Yet," said another elflord, "is there really a need for us to interfere? The hobbit is but a mortal-----mostly a mortal. He has survived much, but he is tired now, and weak, and Sauron's influence burns his bones with fever. Surely this........will run its course."

There was silence in the hall for the space of a heartbeat; then Arwen was on her feet. "You must not dare, Lord Valas," she hissed, "for shame.......this hobbit has shown more courage and more strength in a matter of months than you have done in all your long life. The House of Elrond will not desert him now."

Valas had the grace to look embarrassed, and bowed his head. Arwen's flashing gaze ran around the circle of faces. "Are there any further objections?" she demanded. "Who will ride with me to the Shire?"

"My lady," said another elflord, younger than Valas and still bearing the faint air of wildness that the forest elves wore like perfume, "......you mean to go in person?"

"Yes," said Arwen simply.

"But...you must not leave Rivendell, leave the Last Homely House......"

"Do not tell me what I may not do."

"Your father....." began a third lord. Arwen sighed, and for a moment everyone watching her was aware of how weary she was, how bone-shakingly tired.

"I am not my father, and I do not rule as he did. We ride out tonight, I and whoever follows me."

**

Sam found him late in the morning, huddled in a little heap by the windows. His face and throat were sheened with sweat, although the air was chilly with the first hints of autumn; his breath came in shallow gasps, and he moaned a little as Sam frantically gathered him up and carried him to the bed. His maimed hand was clutching the white gem around his neck; when Sam finally unwound his fingers from the jewel he found that its facets had cut slashes in Frodo's palm. Numb with horror, he found some water and a cloth and began to bathe Frodo's face, trying to wake him.

It seemed like hours before his lashes fluttered and parted, and he blinked up at Sam with eyes so dilated from pain that only a thin ring of blue had escaped the black. "....Sam?" he croaked.

"Hush, Mr Frodo, you're not well," Sam murmured, wringing out the cloth and replacing it on Frodo's forehead. "I knew you was ill when I saw you the other day. How long has this been going on?"

Frodo coughed wrackingly. "I......don't know," he managed. "The dream......I'm running toward the Eye, Sam.......it's awfully close now....."

Sam went cold all over. "Let me get you something for that cough, Mr Frodo," he said, trying to keep his voice level, and hurried out to the little low-ceilinged kitchen. As he put on a kettle and searched in the cupboards for the herbs he needed, he ran over the same stretch of ground in his mind, over and over. We watched Mount Doom fall. We watched it, him and I, and we came home again, and it was over. Now.......I'm no doctor, but I've only ever seen Mr Frodo this bad twice before....and that was when he'd been hurt by the Dark Lord's things.....and that gem he wears.....he was holding on to it like a lifeline........

How can it be back? How can it?

But Sam couldn't think of any other explanation.

He carried a steaming beaker back to Frodo's room and helped him drink, trying not to notice the sick heat of him through the cotton nightshirt, trying not to think about it. Frodo got about half the beaker down before another coughing fit attacked him; it sounded so horrible Sam half expected to see blood and shreds of tissue on the handkerchief he was holding, but it stayed blessedly white. Eventually the cough let Frodo go, and he collapsed back against the pillows, exhausted.

"Don't leave me, Mr Frodo," Sam said, sternly. "Don't you leave me."

Frodo's eyes were open a slit, glittering. "........I don't mean to," he managed, and then he gave a little sigh and went limp.

Sam's heart jerked and fluttered until he found the slow, steady lifebeat in Frodo's wrist. He sat there for a long moment before getting to his feet, feeling old and achy, and pacing.

He might not have noticed the dim blue glow from the depths of the wardrobe, but Frodo had been rummaging around in there and left the doors partway open, and Sam's gaze happened to fall on that corner of the room as he paced. He stopped short when he saw the light, and approached the wardrobe as if it held a giant spider poised to spring, but slowly opened the door. As the pale blue light fell across Frodo's bed, the sick hobbit jerked and gasped in pain.

Sam frowned deeper and reached into the wardrobe. His fingers found the plain hilt of the elvish dagger Frodo, and Bilbo before him, had carried into battle. Sting. It glows when evil is near. Sam remembered that blue glow lighting their faces as they waited in the darkness for the orcs to attack, in more dark holes under the earth than he wanted to remember. And it was glowing now.

Sam pulled Sting out of the wardrobe and held the blade up—a long slim silver blade with indecipherable Elvish script carved into the metal—and turned to Frodo's bed. The blue glow of the blade intensified perceptibly, and Frodo tossed uneasily against the pillows.

This isn't good at all.

Sam shoved Sting back into its scabbard and buried the dagger underneath a pile of clothes before turning back to Frodo and taking his master's maimed hand. "It isn't fair," he muttered. "You've done so much. For so long."

Frodo's fingers twitched and curled around Sam's. He sat there for the rest of the day, not moving, as their shadows swung across the floor.

to be continued......