No, not dead. I have no words for you guys but apologies and thanks for not giving up on me…yet.
Enjoy the chapter.
Darkness: Failing, or lack of light.
She was struggling to remain conscious. Her eyelids were weights, Unconsciousness ever lurking to catch her unawares. She had not slept since she had been brought here. Dared not sleep. Not with It hovering overhead.
She was chained atop a tower, to one of the spires. All about her was air and all around was the black, dead land. She knew where she was. The giant Eye hovering overhead was a dead giveaway. The black stone reaching out towards the sky, dominating the barren landscape, the Tower of which men hardly dared whisper. Barad-Dur. And atop the tower, between two spires, a presence watched, glaring towards the West with a malevolence that was almost tangible. The spirit of Sauron, the Dark Lord.
So far it had said not a word to her, but she dared not even blink.
How long had it been since she was brought here? A day? Two? It felt like forever. Night or Day seemed to have little difference in Mordor. All she knew was that she couldn't last much longer. The Eye continued to be silent, watching a point she could not see.
Her wracked nerves almost broke as an unearthly scream pierced the heart of Mordor. What happened? The hosts of Mordor wailed, and her heart leapt. Somewhere in the West, the Fellowship must have won a victory. She tried to stand, but the chains pulled her up short. Scorching wind blew her hair into her face.
The hours settled into a dull monotony, her mind stopped working as she focused every moment on keeping her eyes open.
Screams rent the dark night. She jerked upright. The air was shredded by black leathery wings. Shadows flashed through the darkening sky. All about them were black, thick clouds. The darkness thickened; soon no mortal eye could have hoped to pierce it. But she knew the beings atop the beasts were not mortal. They burst out of the clouds into a black land, a land of black earth and twisted structures, encircled by a ring of impenetrable mountains. On the ground, tiny orcs swarmed across the land like ants.
The beasts wheeled, sweeping past the Orodruin, still spewing out smoke and liquid fire. With huge, heavy wingbeats, they soared arrow straight to the top. Towards the Eye, towards her.
The six Fellbeasts thumped down atop the Tower, then flapped off, leaving the Nazgul to their fate. The Ulairi, the Ringwraiths of old. The most feared servants of Sauron, his most favored.
They assembled before their Lord. She realized now there were only six nazgul left, and their robes were tattered, ripped and blackened. They, whose very presence inspired fear, now seemed to cower and shrink before the Eye.
She could feel His fury, his utter contempt for them; heat bore down on them until she saw their robes curling from the heat. One of the Ringwraiths slowly made its way forward, dropping something small and metallic before the Eye.
She couldn't help it, she started with an embarrassing yelp. It was the first time she had heard the Eye speak. The voice hissed from all around the wraiths, permeating through them, around them.
I sent you to take Gondor. The Black army outnumbered the forces of men a hundred to one. Denethor was a dry twig on the verge of snapping. Rohan should have been completely crushed by Saruman. How then did the forces of Gondor reduce my army to mountains of corpses?Their attention was brought to that which the Wraith had dropped. HOW THEN DID MORTAL MEN DESTROY MY LIEUTENANT? Flames burst forth anew from the Eye. The black robes of the Wraiths burst into flame and dissolved into ash, leaving the wraiths naked before their Lord. She cried from the heat.
"There were…many unexpected developments, my Lord." One finally offered. "We breached the gate, but a fierce wind destroyed the clouds and let in the sun. We believe it was the work of one of the youths, the girl who commanded the winds."
"The Rohirrim had gathered and swept upon our army, The Witch King killed their King, but at the cost of his life."
No man, no weapon could hope to harm the Witch King of Angmar.
"It was no man, my lord, and no mere weapon. The Witch King was brought down by a Rohirric woman and a Halfling, pierced by a spear of lightning."
A bitter curse in the Black Speech. What then? Surely you did not merely fly over the city, shrieking like madmen.
"The Ranger, Isildur's heir was present, my Lord. And he brought with him the Men of the Mountain, the Undead."
THEY SERVED ME.
"They were led by another youth, the necromancer. We destroyed the Undead utterly, but they cost us much time."
Annabeth raised her head. Nico!
Did you make no effort to capture the youths?
The wraiths flinched.
"The Witch King tried to detain the girl with his beast. The girl killed the beast. Khamul caught the necromancer, but he dissolved into shadow. And the youth who commanded the waves…he swept us up in a storm of the sea and stole a fellbeast."
Her heart restarted. …Percy…
Sauron laughed bitterly. My best servants, my most loyal, played like fools by a gathering of
youths. Youths! Not even men, not even kings. Yet they have thwarted my servants at every turn, slaying three of my fellbeasts. Oh, they would be valuable indeed.
The wraiths saw a glimmer of hope. "One of the youths is heading here for the girl, of his own will"
Her head fell even as her heart cheered.
I presume you generously allowed him to take one of your fellbeasts.
"…Yes, my Lord."
The Eye turned away from them, muttering to himself. All my plans, all my plots, unravelling. Gondor still stands, Rohan remains, they have united. Denethor still lives. The Sword that was Broken reforged. The youths still roam free save one. And my chief lieutenant…destroyed.
The Wraiths could say nothing. Every word that she heard raised her hopes more.
The Dark Lord considered long and deep. The Fellowship. It all comes down to them. To find the Ring, I will have to crush the Fellowship. The Thirteen. Now is the time…for cunning.
It turned back to the Ringwraiths, the Eye once more alight with a cruel glint. Go. Fly once more over the land, but attack not. Allow them to slumber under the shadow of Fellbeast wings. Flood their slumber with abject fear and dread. I will have more tasks for you the next night.
The wraiths bowed their assent, mounting their beasts. Sauron watched as three of the wraiths were forced to become passengers on another wraith's beast. With a rush of heated air, the beasts launched themselves off the Tower and flapped West.
Then the Eye turned to look directly at her. The oldest...strongest emotion…is fear. For now, I command their fear. With the Ring…I shall command it forever.
She could bear no more. That was her last memory before she was plunged into darkness.
She couldn't sleep. Of course, the irony of the situation wasn't lost on her. After she had crashed back on the Tower, she had woken to pitch darkness. She wasn't even sure if her eyes had been open at first. When she had tried to wave a hand before her eyes to test her vision, the clanking of chains accompanied the motion. She found long, slender chains bound to each limb, every motion producing loud clinks as the chains dragged across the floor. Though the floor was obsidian stone, there was no echo. The chamber must have been massive. The stone beneath her was cold. There was not even a hint of light. Instinctively, she understood that her eyes would never adjust to this darkness.
She had no clue how long it had been since she had woken. If it had been hard to tell time on top of the Tower, it was virtually impossible now. Night, day, they had lost all meaning. There had been no food yet, which was a strange comfort to her, as she reasoned this meant it had been less than a day. Sauron could hardly risk losing her. This tiny bit of simple logic cheered her much more than usual, as it meant she could still think in this dead place.
Part of the problem was that it was nigh impossible to lie down without lying on a chain. Each limb was tethered by a deceptively thin chain to a post, allowing her to crawl or fumble a few yards in any direction, but pulled her up short when she tried to stand. The chains were thin, but she recognized magical objects when she felt them. These chains had been heavily reinforced. Try as she might, it would be extremely difficult to think her way out of here.
She was so tired, but she couldn't sleep. Hanging on the edge of her consciousness, ready to invade her dreams at the slightest droop of her eyes, the nightmares waited. This wasn't the fear she felt when facing the Spider. That fear had been crippling, but natural, and she had overcome it. This fear...there was no cause, no rationalization. It permeated the air, and every time her eyes closed they were forced open by sudden bursts of nightmares. This distress was unnatural, manufactured. There was no way to rationally overcome this creeping dread. If she had to guess, she would say there was a Nazgul by her door. She really, really hoped there was not one inside her cell. She would have absolutely no way of sensing it if it was.
At least, atop the Tower, she still had some of her belongings. She had awoken dressed in a sleeveless black shift, every other belonging she had taken. Her knife, which had survived so much, was gone. Her shield, which had gotten next to zero use in the lightless land of Mordor, was also gone. Her backpack was long lost. But she ached the most for the coral pendant that once hung around her neck. Even in the shift, she felt bare.
And the youth who commanded the waves…he swept us up in a storm of the sea and stole a fellbeast.
She wondered if she could take comfort in that statement. Percy was so predictable at times. She wondered if she should feel joy that he was coming, despair that he was coming into a trap, or sheer anger at being used as bait for him. Perhaps a combination of all three. She blinked in a vain attempt to overcome the darkness. Who knew? They might just succeed.
Footsteps outside her door. She snapped awake from her half-dozing state. She heard a heavy iron door flung open. Huge, thumping footsteps that shook the floor. Coming towards her. She stumbled back, pushing herself backwards from the sound on feet and elbows. There was still no light. She could still see nothing.
The footsteps grew closer, and she felt pinned by an unseen gaze, emanating fear, malevolence, despair. The evil presence was almost a being all to itself, pressing upon her. It stopped just beyond the reach of her chains. There was, perhaps, one bright side to all this. Her mind woke groggily from its deadened state, trying to analyze every single thing. Fear cuts deeper than swords, fear cuts deeper than swords.
"W...w...what?" She clamped down on her tongue. She would not stutter again.
Tell me Everything.
Unbidden, a quip flashed across her mind. "Is...Is that all?" A smirk. Oh Seaweed Brain, look what you've done to me. She smirked. "You know nothing, Sauron."
What manner of creature are you? From whence came you? Who sent you?Who has the RING?
The voice sounded almost curious. She tamped down her heartbeat. This wasn't so bad. An interrogation. He needed information. She had been in interrogations before. She knew how this worked. "What do you want with me?"
You do not ask questions, godling
"So you guessed what we are?" She forced a nonchalant shrug. "Wonder who clued you in."
What creature are you. Whence came you. Who sent you. Where is the Ring.
"You can just keep asking questions, I can ask my own." How did I get so good with this? She shook her head wryly. When you faced down the Titan of Time...She found it in herself to continue smiling in the darkness. "What do you want with me?"
ANSWER THE QUESTIONS.
The burst of fury took her unawares, her heart raced again, newly reminded of her situation. Oh mom...help me. Somehow she did not tremble, even as she asked the next question that had never failed to get the same reaction. "...Or else what?"
The long pause He needed to respond was almost comical.
You ask me that? I am Sauron. Your soul is now in my hands.
"So what, are you going to kill me?"
The voice was tinged with dark amusement.
We may begin with that.
"You want something from me, that's why I'm here. You asked all those questions. Well, I can't answer if I'm dead now, can I?" She folded her arms. "Let's say I'm terrified of dying. I will endure anything you throw at me very long before I give up the information that is keeping me alive. So that threat doesn't work."
She had expected it to work. Her heart plummeted as she realized Sauron was laughing. His terrible dark laughter rolled around the room, harsh and grating.
No. I said we could begin with death. Seen you not my Ringwraiths? I have mastered life and death. I could slay you, throw your flesh to the Beasts. Then your soul will be laid bare before my eyes. And you would scream. You would beg for the release of true death.
He started laughing again.
She shrank back, her gambit shredded to pieces. Frantically, she wracked her mind for another
Sauron took another step forward.
No. Answer my questions, and death, true death...that shall be your reward.
Desperately, she threw up her arm. "You need me!" Slowly, she lowered it. "You need me, alive, whole, because you are going to use me, aren't you?" When the voice didn't reply, she forged ahead. "Of all the um...godlings...that are in Middle Earth, you got me. You must be so disappointed. You've heard of their deeds, your three dead Nazgul attest to that." She gasped for breath, continuing. "But you got me, the only one who has no abilities to her name."
She glanced up, but could still see nothing. "You sent your Nazgul to capture us, of course, you hoped to use us, turn us into your servants. But you got me, who, to you, is virtually useless. I am just another girl, who can do nothing better than try to sneak into your lands." She didn't believe this. But Sauron might. "So, the best thing you could hope to use me for is one, information, two, to draw my friends to your side."
Another gulp for air. "And you know as well as I do the only way you would ever get them to cooperate would be to keep me alive and well. You know that. Hurt one hair on my head and Barad-Dur would be torn apart by the powers of my friends. You know what they can do, Sauron. They are children of the gods come upon the earth. You don't have your Ring. Should they choose to come, they will tear your fortress apart."
A massive armored fist struck her, sending her flying backwards until her chains jerked her into a stop midair, crashing to the floor. She clutched her side in agony. Her mouth filled with a bitter tang, and her hands came away slick.
Do not presume to dictate my actions, godling. Do not presume, to THREATEN me!
His anger was tangible, rolling about the room in clouds. The mailed hand grasped her around her throat, clutching her neck easily in his gigantic fist. She started choking, desperately beating, however ineffectually, at the hand which was slowly squeezing the life out of her. WHERE IS THE RING? WHO WIELDS IT? The hand tightened.
"Safe!" She gasped, flailing. "Why do you think... your lieutenant...was defeated?!" The hand loosened slightly. She sucked in breath. "One much nobler than you holds it, and soon your own Ring will be your undoing!" The grip slackened, and she was dropped to the floor, shrieking as she landed on her injured side.
The presence suddenly left her, footsteps stomping towards the door. With a crash the doors slammed shut again. The pain was overwhelming. She couldn't help but give a tiny, triumphant smirk. She had drawn the Dark Lord's attentions far away from Frodo and straight back to the West, where she knew he had just suffered a setback. Technically, she hadn't lied. The Ring was the cause of the battle that had killed the Witch King. With this slight glow of triumph, she allowed unconsciousness to take her.
When she woke up, she realized she was in a different room. It was still pitch black, but the room felt different. It somehow felt smaller, and...There was something else. Her limbs were still chained, but now they were chained to a wall. She realized she could hear something else besides her own breathing. And, oh gods, someone else was breathing near her. There was someone, or something in the dark with her. She forced down her shock, taking some breaths, before trusting herself to speak. "Who are you?"
Something stirred some way to her right. A voice floated out of the darkness, male, throaty, tired. "Greetings. Stranger." A pause. "It has been...long...since I have heard another voice."
Annabeth frowned. "Who are you? How long have you been here?" There was something about his voice that she faintly recognized...something just out of her reach. That presence...
"I am an elf, of the First Age." Gods, his voice! It was raspy, tortured and dark! The voice sighed. "I have been here for ages beyond the reckoning of men." Another long, pregnant pause.
"You may call me Esgalgwath."
She arched an eyebrow. "Does that mean anything in Elvish?" If only she had more time in Lorien… she could have acquired another new language!
"...Yes." Esgalgwath admitted.
She waited, but no further responses came her way. "What does it mean?"
No answer. She didn't know how long the silence lasted, but it stretched awkwardly between them.
She shrugged, then realized he couldn't see her. "Oooookay. I'm...Maeneth."
"It is a good name."
She blinked. After another long pause, where it became evident he wasn't going to say anything, "Um...thanks."
No answer. Wow, this guy was worse than Nico on his bad days.
She rolled her eyes and leaned back. "Why are you here?"
A laugh, almost a bark. "Sauron."
"You said you were from the first age. Does that mean you were in the battle for the Ring?"
"Are you always so hard to converse with?" First contact with someone else in days, and it had to be this guy.
"Nay. Once I was best of the wordsmiths," he rasped, "Men and Elves and Dwarves listened to my speech, I was advisor to kings!"
His voice sounded so tortured, painful. "You don't sound like an elf."
A bitter laugh, more like a croak. "A punishment. I used to be fair to all...but never again. If your eyes could pierce the darkness, you will see that I am...hideous."
She chose her words carefully. "You must have seen a lot."
"I was there at Creation. I saw the Silmarils and the Two Trees, Melkor and the Valar casting him away, I saw the fall of Numenor, I saw the forging of the Rings, the battle of the Ring. And for my part in the Forging I was condemned. And I now languish."
All of a sudden the air grew colder and the darkness deeper. Her heart pounded with dread, her hairs rose. A cold bead of sweat traced its way down her neck. Her breath came in short gasps. Then it was gone, and she could breathe normally again. She muttered a curse. Ringwraiths.
"You observe their...passing."
"How can you not?"
"Truly...how can you not? The power they wield...If only…"
She shivered. "What are you talking about?"
"Imagine holding a Great Ring of Power. It grants you power, immortality, the eyes to pierce the shadow realms," He coughed. "Yes, I envy the Ulairi their power."
"It's a curse, isn't it? A trap. Sauron gave the Rings to the mortal men long ago, knowing the Rings would corrupt them, turn them into wraiths and make them his slaves."
"You know nothing." His broken voice never rose, but she could hear its intensity. "Do you really think it was a curse? A bad exchange? The men wanted power...and power was what they acquired. The power to live forever, to know, to influence the thoughts of mortal men. They are the most feared beings in Middle Earth...besides the Dark Lord himself, and they revel in it."
She frowned. "No, that...that doesn't add up - "
"Do you know what the rings grant?" He didn't wait for her to reply. "The power...to preserve. The rings preserve, protect what is dearest to you. If you...if you were offered the power to guard that which you love most, shield your land from the ravages of time and men, would you take it?"
"I..." Percy, Nico. Thalia. The Fellowship. Middle Earth, Camp Half Blood..."I..."
"You have been in Rivendell, Lothlorien...Wondrous lands, are they not? Untouched...unravished by the flow of time, the natural decay of things. Rings. The Elven Rings are there. I know not who holds them...but I can venture guesses. Even Sauron himself...cannot assail the lands while the Rings remain wielded by the Elves."
She tried to keep her voice level. "Why are we even discussing this?"
"Would you want that power, girl? Maeneth?" He cackled. "Be not so quick to judge the Ringwraiths. They were men like you."
She nodded slowly, leaning back against the wall. Her mind was swirling in a mess of thoughts. "I ...I see.
Esgalgwath seemed to have lapsed into silence again. Annabeth sighed and squeezed her eyes shut. Nothing changed in her dark world.. She suddenly realized how tired she still was. As she allowed sleep to take her, her fingers brushed against the ring on her finger.
He walked slowly through wreck and slaughter that lay about all, searching for wounded. The fields of Pelennor had been watered with blood, not a single green blade of grass could be seen. Fire and smoke and stench was in the air, Gondor still wrapped in a smouldering reek. Men sat down, weeping, soldiers stumbled across the fields with empty eyes.
Around the fields, weary men were gathering the corpses of the orcs, piling them next to hulking carcasses of Southron monsters and setting them alight. Kindling was found all around from crushed and broken siege engines. A gentle, cautious mist of rain descended over the battlefield, the skies' futile attempt to cleanse the reek. Small groups of two or three scoured the fields, scouring for injured, tending to the dying, leading the broken home. A solitary figure in black trailed by a young girl closed the eyes of the dead, muttering what blessings he could give.
It was a scene dreamlike, a dream of despair that could not end.
"It's you…" A voice rasped. Aragorn knelt amidst the grass, grasping the hands of a man who had sustained a grievous blow to his leg. Quietly, efficiently, he examined the man for further injuries.
"Be comforted. You may lose the leg, but you will live." Gently, he hoisted the man to lean on his shoulder, supporting his injured leg.
"You have the sword…"
Aragorn turned curiously. Had news of him spread so far already? "The sword?"
A smile broke through the man's grimace of pain. "I come from a long line of blacksmiths, Isildur's Heir. The legend of Narsil, the sword that was broken, has been passed on for generations. I have never set eyes on it, but when your sword caught the light as your ships arrived, I knew it to be you."
Aragorn smiled gently. "Yes, it is the sword, and it has been reforged. It carries the name Anduril now." They were approaching the gates now.
"Superior craftmanship. Elves, I presume." The blacksmith smiled. "So you are him then? The King of Gondor?" the blacksmith looked to the banner of the White Tree, unfurled by Aragorn's camp.
Aragorn's smile turned wry. "It takes more than a sword to make a King. I do not claim that title yet." Upon reaching the gate, he stopped, allowing the other healers to take the man into the city. The man nodded at him before he was led away, bowing slightly. Aragorn turned back to the fields.
"So you are he." A measured voice bade him turn, finding behind him an aged man watching him, his gaze severe. The Steward's staff of Gondor was clasped in his hands. "The heir of Isildur."
The slightest frown slipped past his schooled features. Aragorn dipped his head in respect."Lord Denethor."
Denethor was still studying him, his hands gripping the Steward's staff with white knuckles. "Why dost not the King enter his Kingdom?"
Aragorn allowed a small, polite smile. "This City and realm has rested in the charge of the Stewards for many long years. If I enter unbidden, fear and doubt would undoubtedly arise, which should not be while this war is fought." He dipped his head again. "I will not enter in as King, nor make any claim, until it be seen whether we or Mordor shall prevail."
A scornful smile flitted across Denethor's face, gone in an instant. He gestured at the banner of the White Tree by his camp and the Elfstone by his neck. "Already you have raised the banner of the Kings and displayed the tokens of Elendil's House. Will you suffer these to be challenged?'
"No," said Aragorn, refusing to rise to the other man's veiled sarcasm. "But I deem the time unripe; and I have no mind for strife except with our Enemy and his servants."
Denethor could have been a marble statue. His voice dripped with barely suppressed contempt. "Thus the King would return a beggar outside the gate."
"Say a captain of the Rangers, who are unused to cities and houses of stone."
Denethor turned slightly, slipping half of his face into shadow.
"You do not accept me." Aragorn noted. When no response came, he forged forward. For my part I forgive your doubt. I am aware I little resemble the figures of Elendil and Isildur carven in your hall. I am but the heir of Isildur, not Isildur himself."
Denethor sighed softly. "Your claim is not yet proven, heir, and if it was...I am Steward of the House of Anbrion. I will not bow to such a one, last of a ragged house long bereft of lordship and dignity."
He tightened his jaw, stepping back just enough that the shadow of his banner fell on him, enough that Denethor's gaze was drawn to the banner once more. "Authority is not given you to deny the return of the King. I do not wish to oppose you, lord steward, but the kingdom is mine by right and blood. I will take it." But not yet.
Denethor's mouth quirked, he sketched an ironic bow.
A quiet sigh. "What would you have, then, if your will could have its way?"'
"I would have things as they were in all the days of my life,' answered Denethor, looking wistfully to the city behind him, "and in the days of my longfathers before me: to be the Lord of this City in peace, and leave my chair to a son after me, who would be his own master and no wizard's pupil. But if doom denies this to me... I would sooner have naught."
Aragorn's gaze hardened. "Then you repeat the mistake of the Numenoreans, and the folly of those who created the Rings. You would preserve what you have at all cost, without regard to its consequences."
Denethor swept his arm across the dying field to the burning city. "Look all around, heir. What do you see? The destruction that your changes are wreaking?"
He, in turn, allowed his eyes to roam, watching the people pick themselves up, families giving comfort to each other, watching the city slowly decide to heal. "I do not deny that there has been destruction, but I see hope."
"Hope." The word was venomous.
A man who won't listen can't hear. "Yes."
"You still do not understand our doom. You are determined to run to your death and lead all of Gondor with you."
"The man who fears death and waits for it is already dead."
Denethor gave a long, sardonic chuckle. "And I say you are a fool." He held up a hand before Aragorn could reply, "But it is no longer I who men look to. The reins of leadership have fallen from mine hands."
Aragorn gazed at him evenly, choosing not to point out that it was Denethor who had dropped them.
"Lord Aragorn!" They turned to see a messenger, still gasping for breath, "Mithrandir requests your presence with best haste in the Houses of Healing."
Aragorn turned to Denethor. "It seems like I will have to enter after all. Will you permit me to enter, lord steward, as a healer?" It was phrased as a question, but it wasn't one.
Denethor gazed at him with a curious mixture of resentment, wonder and sorrow. "Know this, heir, I will submit to your reign, but I will no longer be your steward." He knelt and in the same motion planted his Steward's staff in the ground. He left in a swirl of robes. "May I live to see your reign turn to ashes as mine has. Outlive thy glory, like I have."
The house was darkened, the sounds muted. The tang of blood and rot wafted softly around the air. Death crept slyly through the house, waiting. Healers flitted like spirits between the rows of beds. Aragorn trudged slowly across the tangle of beds and injured, a man walking amidst rushes whispering "Mercy, mercy..." Hands rose to touch him, and he vowed to return. Slowly, he made his way to the back of the house, where he knew there were those who lay at the door to Mandos' realm.
He found Gandalf tending to them. The wearied Istari turned him a relieved smile as he entered. "Aragorn. It is good you have come." He gestured to one of the women bending over a sick man. "Ioreth, remind him of your words."
She stepped forth, full of years, a puzzled look on her face, "Why, I said to Mithrandir, 'Would that there were kings in Gondor, as there were once upon a time, they say! For it is said in old lore: The hands of the king are the hands of a healer. And so the rightful king could ever be known."
Aragorn nodded at her respectfully, "'Men may long remember your words, for there is hope in them. Maybe a king has indeed returned to Gondor; or have you not heard the strange tidings that have come to the City?"
Ioreth smiled sadly. "'I have been too busy with this and that to heed all the crying and shouting,"
He turned to the still form of Faramir, finding Boromir and Denethor already by his bedside. And even as he watched they seemed to fade further. All speed would be needed. And as he looked upon them he knew what he must do. He called to Ioreth, "You have store in this House of the herbs of healing?"
"Not nearly enough, my Lord."
"Have you athelas?" At her blank look, he clarified, "Asla aranion? Kingsfoil?"
Some healers who had heard snorted, and Ioreth looked confused. "Kingsfoil is but a weed that some grow for its freshness, my lord. There are precious few gardens in Minas Tirith, for it is but a city of stone. I once told Mar -"
No time for delicacy, Aragorn interrupted her river of words. "Can you bring me some Kingsfoil? If your prince is to pass death's shadow, I shall need athelas!"
Ioreth's eyes lit up "The song!"
A healer laughed from the other end of the room, "Ioreth, bore the man not with your doggerels and old wives tales."
Ignoring him, she closed her eyes and chanted
"When the black breath blows
And death's shadow grows and all lights pass,
Come athelas! Come athelas!
Life to the dying in the king's hand lying!"
Aragorn sighed. "It is the old wives who have wisdom, and tis true. But for the love of your prince, Ioreth, run as quick as your tongue, and bring Boromir to some man of less lore and more wisdom who keeps some in his house!" Boromir nodded and led Ioreth to his horse. At the last moment Pippin managed to scramble atop the horse as well, and they shot off like an arrow from a bow.
As the sound of hoofbeats faded, Aragorn heated some water and bathed the brows of Faramir, Eowyn and Merry, listening to their fevered muttering. Denethor kept long watch on his son, while Eomer tended to his sister. Gandalf in turn stood by Merry while Pippin was gone. Every minute, more bodies were brought in from the battlefield.
The moments slipped by like sand in an hourglass. With every passing second Aragorn couldn't help but feel another grain of sand in the hourglasses of his charges had slipped by. Nico touched their foreheads, and shared a glance with Aragorn. They didn't have much time left.
Come athelas! Come athelas!
Life to the dying in the king's hand lying!
Eomer paced. Gandalf muttered constantly under his breath, perhaps chanting a spell of preservation. Denethor was a pillar of stone by his son's bedside. Aragorn bathed the brows of the ailing once more, and took the time to tend to the other wounded. The minutes were marked with gasps of pain, moans of disbelief, and labored breathing.
A knock. Their heads jerked up in hope. Boromir flung the door open. Pippin scrambled off - nearly falling - from the man's great horse. He made for Aragorn, gasping, six dried leaves in his hand. "They're dried, Strider, but they're all we could find." He gazed mournfully at the still figures lying on the beds. "Will it...work?"
Life to the dying in the king's hand lying!
Would it work? He grasped the leaves in his hands. The King's hand. The hands of the King are the Hands of a Healer. The Elfstone suddenly hung heavier around his neck. And so shall the rightful King be known.
Any man could lead an army. Any general could command a charge. A king needed to both lead and heal. Was this, then, his final test?
He had known his destiny all along. Now was the time to finally grasp it. He was the King. He was the King, and his duty was to his people. No more doubts, no more evasion. I am ready.
And in his heart of hearts, he realized that it was no surprise.
The King had returned to Gondor.
He looked up, smiling softly, a deep assurance in his heart. "Yes. It will serve," he turned to Faramir, "for in the high tongue of old I am Elessar, the Elfstone, and Envinyatar, the Renewer."
He took two leaves and breathed on them, trusting, believing. "The worst is now over. Stay and be comforted! "The leaves crushed in his fist, and like the sigh of a Valar, a living freshness danced across the room, the air itself waking and tingling, sparkling with joy. He cast the leaves into the bowls of steaming water that were brought to him, and his heart was lightened, peaceful smiles stole over all who stood in the room. For the fragrance that came to each was like a memory of dewy mornings, of unshadowed sun, a fair world untouched and pure. Aragorn stood up, refreshed, and smiling, he held a bowl before Faramir's dreaming face.
'Well now! Who would have believed it?' said Ioreth to a woman that stood beside her. 'The weed is better than I thought. It reminds me of the roses of Imloth Melui when I was a lass, and no king could ask for better.'
Suddenly Faramir stirred. He awakened, and his eyes opened. He looked on Aragorn who bent over him; and a light of knowledge and recognition was kindled in his eyes. He tried to rise, and failing, raised his hand, speaking softly, "My Lord! What does the King command?"
Denethor bowed his head and fled the room silently.
Aragorn watched him leave, then turned back to Faramir, taking his hand. "This is the King's command. Walk no more in the shadows, but awake!" He smiled. "You are weary. Rest a while, and take food, and be ready when I return."
"'I will, lord," said Faramir. "For who would lie idle when the king has returned?"
Aragorn finally stepped back, allowing Boromir to fling arms across his brother with surprising delicacy. Tears of joy streaked across his cheeks, and Aragorn received a smile of unbridled gratitude.
Next was Eowyn, lying cold on her bed. It was a grievous hurt and a heavy blow. Her shield arm – the arm shattered by the Witch King's blow – had been mended with skill by the healers, and doubtless it would heal in time, if she had the strength to live. It was the sword arm – the arm that had struck the killing blow – that caused him to fear. Her sword arm was unbroken, unharmed, but it remained cold and lifeless. She could not wake. Examining her, he sighed. "Alas! She was pitted against a foe beyond the strength of her mind or body. And those who will take a weapon to such an enemy must be sterner than steel, if the very shock shall not destroy them."
He saw before him a white flower standing straight and proud, shapely as a lily, and yet knew hard, as if wrought by elf-wrights out of steel. After a silence he spoke. "I have, maybe, the power to heal her body, and to recall her from the dark valley. But to what she will awake: hope, or forgetfulness, or despair, I do not know." He gave Eomer a grave look, "And if to despair, then she will die, unless other healing comes which I cannot bring."
Eomer nodded, his voice choking as he replied. "Do what you can."
Aragorn bent and kissed her brow, and called her softly, 'Eowyn, Eomund's daughter, awake! For your enemy has passed away!' She did not stir, but now she began again to breathe deeply, so that her breast rose and fell beneath the white linen of the sheet.
Once more he bruised two leaves of athelas and steeped them in steaming water; and he washed her brow with it, and her right arm lying cold and nerveless on the coverlet. A keen wind rushed through the chamber, and it bore no scent, but was an air wholly fresh and clean and young. 'Awake, Eowyn, Lady of Rohan!' said Aragorn again, and he took her right hand in his and felt warm life returning. 'Awake! The shadow is gone and all darkness is washed clean!' Then he laid her hand in Eomer's and stepped away.
Her eyes opened, alighting on her brother's face. A joyful gasp escaped her. "Eomer! My brother, what joy is this? For they said that you were slain." She paused, darkness briefly marring her face, "Nay, but that was only the dark voices in my dream. How long have I been dreaming?"
"Not long, my sister," said Eomer, grasping her hand tightly, "But think no more on it!"
"I am strangely weary," she decided. "I must rest a little." Her face fell. "But tell me, what of the Lord of the Mark? Alas! Do not tell me that that was a dream for I know that it was not. He is dead, as he foresaw." Her eyes filled bright.
"He is dead." Eomer squeezed her hand. "But he bade me say farewell to Eowyn dearer than daughter. He lies now in great honour in the Citadel of Gondor."
She nodded simply. "That is grievous," she said. "And yet it is good beyond all that I dared hope in the dark days, when it seemed that the House of Eorl was sunk in honor less than any shepherd's cot. And what of the king's esquire, the Halfling? Eomer, you shall make him a knight of the Riddermark, for he is valiant!"
"He lies nearby in this House, and I will go to him,' said Aragorn. "Eomer shall stay here for a while. But do not speak yet of war or woe, until you are made whole again. Great gladness it is to see you wake again to health and hope, so valiant a lady!"
Then he went with Gandalf and Pippin to Merry's room. 'Poor old Merry!' cried Pippin, and he ran to the bedside, even to Aragorn it seemed that his friend looked worse, and a greyness was in his face, as if a weight of years of sorrow lay on him; He turned to Aragorn, eyes fearful. "When I found him, he asked if I was there to bury him."
"Do not be afraid," said Aragorn. 'I came in time, and I have called him back. He is weary now, and grieved, and he has taken a hurt like the Lady Eowyn, daring to smite that deadly thing. But these evils can be amended, so strong and gay a spirit is in him. His grief he will not forget; but it will not darken his heart, it will teach him wisdom.'
Then Aragorn laid his hand on Merry's head, and passing his hand gently through the brown curls, he touched the eyelids, and called him by name. And when the fragrance of athelas stole through the room, like the scent of orchards, and of heather in the sunshine full of bees. Finally Merry awoke, and he said:
"I am hungry now, what is the time?"
The room choked on its relief. Aragorn sighed in mock exasperation.
Nico snorted. "Bloody typical, hobbits. Faramir asked for his King, Eowyn asked for her family, and you ask for food."
Thalia laughed. "You're one to talk."
A breath was released. Smiles were seen once more.
'Past supper-time now,' said Pippin, ignoring the cousin's banter; 'though I daresay I could bring you something, if they will let me.'
"They will indeed," said Gandalf. "And anything else that this Rider of Rohan may desire, if it can be found in Minas Tirith, where his name is in honour."
Having saved those nearest the threshold of death, he felt the weariness of the day press on him. But he could not rest. He returned to the people, his people, in the room of the ailing. Amongst the reaching hands, he grasped them back and promised them life. As they pleaded "Mercy, mercy," He said "Yes".
These men were brave men, but Mandos would not have them this night.
For the rest of the night he labored amongst the countless injured and damaged. Along with the tireless army of healers, they refuted Mandos' claims for the valiant men before them. Candles flickered at each bed keeping back the night. They cleaned injuries, brewed poultices, bound up open wounds and splinted broken bones. The scent of crushed herbs mingled and fought the stench of blood and rot. They fed gruel to the starving, watered the mouths of the parched, kept vigil by the fearful. The murmuring of the sick faded one by one. Even as his army faded one by one to exhaustion, he released them and worked alone. He worked until spots danced before his eyes and he could work no more.
An equally weary Boromir supported him as they stumbled to the outskirts of the city to his camp. There they slept like dead men themselves.
And in the morning word was over Gondor that the King had been among them, bearing an elfstone, beating back the darkness and binding up their wounds. The people doubted not it was the King, for the hands of a King were the hands of a healer.
"Frodo has passed beyond my sight." Gandalf walked across the hall, frowning, "The darkness is deepening."
The next day had brought an urgent summons, and now a council was taking place in the courtyard of Minas Tirith. Gandalf was present, as was Denethor, Boromir and Eomer and him. Elrohir, Legolas, Gimli and Thalia were likewise listening, as Nico had been unable to be woken in time. Wind whipped through their hair and clothes, and from the highest level Aragorn could watch the dark mountains of the East, a foul black fume encircling the land even now.
"Denethor" Gandalf spoke again, "Will you now tell us what you espied in the Palantir?"
Denethor took his eyes off the East and nodded slowly, speaking softly and with dignity. "I watch your joy at your triumph, and I sigh. You may triumph on the fields of the Pelennor for a day, but against the Power that has now arisen there is no victory." He pointed to the Black Land. "The Stones of Seeing do not lie, not even the Dark Lord can make them do so."
He paused in his pacing, facing the circle. "I saw great forces arrayed against us in Mordor, and more still being gathered. Hardly has our strength sufficed to beat off the first great assault. The next will be greater. I looked, and I see this grim truth. This war then is without final hope. We are but children beating against the tide."
Gandalf thanked him and addressed the council "Yes, victory cannot be achieved by arms, whether you sit here to endure siege after siege, or march out to be overwhelmed beyond the River. You have only a choice of evils; and prudence would counsel you to strengthen such strong places as you have, and there await the onset; for to think otherwise would be to deceive yourselves.
Eomer frowned. "Then you would have us retreat to Edoras, to the North?"
Denethor nodded, "That would be prudent."
"Aye, prudent," Gandalf agreed, "but I do not counsel prudence. I still hope for victory, but not by arms," he paused for emphasis, "for the Ring has been found."
He spoke again. "If he regains it, your valor is vain, and his victory will be swift and complete: so complete that none can foresee the end of it while this world lasts. If it is destroyed, then he will fall; and his fall will be so low that none can foresee his arising ever again. For he has invested the best of his strength in the Ring, and when it is destroyed, he will lose it all. He will be maimed forever, becoming a mere spirit of malice that gnaws itself in the shadows, but cannot again grow or take shape."
Thalia nodded. "Sounds familiar. You can't kill an immortal, but you can chop him into too many pieces to return. Problem solved, no more evil."
Gandalf smiled, shaking his head softly. "'Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years where we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule"
Thalia frowned and her eyes grew distant. Perhaps she foresaw such a storm in her world as well.
Gandalf finally gestured to Aragorn, and he came forward. The meager night of sleep took its toll on him, but he refused to show it, standing straight and speaking clearly. "My friends, we have unbalanced the beast. He is watching. He sees much and hears much. His Nazgûl are still abroad. They passed over this field ere the sunrise, though few realize it. He studies the signs: the Sword that robbed him of his treasure remade; the winds of fortune have turned. His first assault routed and his greatest Captain slewn."
He paced the courtyard, speaking steadily, voice calm and measured. "His doubt will be growing, even as we speak here. His Eye now strains at us, blind almost to all else that is moving. Blind to the threat that is in his own land. We must at all costs keep his Eye from his true peril. We cannot achieve victory by arms, but by arms we can give the Ring-bearer his only chance, frail though it be."
He then looked up, looking the assembled leaders deep in their eyes, trying to communicate his urgency, his assurance. "'We must march out to meet him at once. We must make ourselves the bait, though his jaws should close on us. He will take that bait, in hope and in greed, for he will think that in such rashness he sees the pride of the new Ringlord, and will think of nothing but to crush him, and regain what he has lost."
Gimli almost choked on his pipe "You cannot be suggesting -"
"We draw out his armies, empty his lands." Aragorn nodded. "We gather our strength and walk open-eyed into that trap." He glanced around the circle. "You may speak your doubts, Denethor."
Denethor crossed his arms. "What do you hope to achieve, Heir? Honor? Valiance? Glory in leading a hopeless charge? What glory is there in leading your people to their deaths? A King cares for the safety of his country and people!"
Aragorn raised a hand to silence the other members' cries. "Lord Denethor, a King also has to weigh and consider, to keep the greater goal in mind. My lord, this charge is not a futile but grand attempt to snatch at glory, no. We must set our thoughts on this higher goal, to understand what is truly at stake besides our reputations and a city!"
He spread his arms, "My lords, it may well prove that we ourselves shall perish utterly in a black battle far from the living lands; so that even if Barad-dur be thrown down, we shall not live to see a new age," He brought his hand over his heart. "But better so than to perish nonetheless – as we surely shall, if we sit here – and know as we die that no new age shall be."
Around the circle, heads were nodding. "Nonetheless," he raised a hand, "I do not yet claim to command any man. Let others choose as they will."
Elrohir, his friend the son of Elrond, stood. "From the North we came with this purpose, and from Elrond our father we brought this very counsel. We will not turn back."
"As for myself," said Eomer, "I do not need to consider too deeply. This I know, and it is enough, that as my friend Aragorn aided Rohan, so I and Rohan will aid him when he calls. I will go."
"'As for me,' said Boromir, 'Aragorn is my brother and my King. I would follow him to the death. But," he cast a hooded glance at his father, who turned away, "I am also the Steward of Gondor, and I have to think first of its people. We must prepare against all chances, good as well as evil. Gondor must be protected. We would not want to return with victory to a City in ruins."
"That is true," Aragorn acknowledged. "We do not need to pit all our strength, but just enough to challenge Sauron. Therefore I ask the Captains: what force could we muster and lead out in two days' time at the latest? And they must be hardy men that go willingly, knowing their peril."
"All are weary, and countless numbers wounded," Eomer replied. "If you wish to ride soon, the largest force I can muster is two thousand riders."
"We have not only to reckon with those who fought on this field," said Elrohir. "New strength is on the way from the southern fiefs, now that the coasts have been rid. Aragorn has summoned four thousands more from the cities of Gondor, who are due to arrive in days... I judge that we could lead out seven thousands, and yet leave the City in better defense than it was when the assault began."
"The Gate is destroyed,"Denethor countered, "and where now is the skill to rebuild it and set it up anew?"
"You need look no farther than the dwarf beside you," said Gimli, "If I do not perish and we succeed, I will go to Erebor and return with wrights of the Mountain. The City has good stone, and will be rebuilt fair and strong."
Denethor's head shifted almost imperceptibly. "I have no more arguments. Do with Minas Tirith what you will, Heir."
As the second morning dawned bright and clear, the city was emptied. Women and children stood silently by the parapets of the seven levels, watching as the might of Gondor assembled for battle. Some fighting men had been left in the city to guard them, and in Boromir's absence Faramir had been dubbed temporary steward of Gondor. He had pleaded most earnestly to be allowed to serve, but on that rare occasion Aragorn, Denethor and Boromir had been of the same mind.
Like a sea of flashing steel, a forest of courage and spears, seven thousand men stood in their ranks by the gates of Minas Tirith, along six thousand mounted soldiers. Aragorn had arrayed himself in the armor of Minas Tirith, the White Tree emblazoned across his chest. Anduril was belted by his side. Eomer and Boromir stood by the heads of their own commands, similarly arrayed in devices of Rohan and Gondor. In his own command Gimli and Legolas waited, and also Nico and Thalia. Pippin was in Boromir's troop, and though he very much suspected that Merry had snuck into Eomer's command, he could not prove it. He took one last moment to sweep his gaze over the force arrayed before him, realizing again that he was back among his people, and he was leading them. He rode to his fellow commanders, ready to sound the charge.
But there was another man riding among his captains, also armed and armored. Denethor.
Keeping his tone and face calm, he rode towards the former steward. "My lord Denethor. I was told you would remain behind."
Denethor's mouth twisted. "I do not agree with you, Heir." He glanced at Boromir, "And I am no longer your steward. Do you realize...do you realize the full extent of what you have taken from me? My stewardship, my sons, my honor." He faced the city once more, face inscrutable. "But I have served Gondor all my life, and I know no other. I remain bound to Gondor, as she is to me." He set his face back to the East, eyes roving over their army. "Even now, as she fades forever from the minds of Middle Earth, so shall I fade along with her. I can think of no fitter end"
Aragorn bowed his head, and stiffly, Denethor returned it.
"Men of the West, March!"
Horns blared, drums rolled. Seven thousand soldiers cried out, the ground shook, and like the inexorable tide of a flashing silver sea the might of the West began its march.
Denethor gave a bitter laugh. 'Surely,' he cried, 'this is the greatest jest in all the history of Gondor: that we should ride with seven thousands, scarce as many as the vanguard of its army in the days of its power, to assail the Dark Lord! So might a child threaten a mail-clad knight with a bow of string and green willow! I would not be surprised, Mithrandir, when the Dark Lord smiles rather than fear, and with his little finger crush us like a fly that tries to sting him."
"No, he will try to trap the fly and take the sting," Gandalf replied. "For we carry the threat of the Ring. No, he will not smile."
'Neither shall we,' said Aragorn. 'If this be jest, then it is too bitter for laughter. is the last move in a great jeopardy, and for one side or the other it will bring the end of the game.' Then he drew Anduril, the blade pure white in the sunlight, and pointed it East. "You shall not be sheathed again until the last battle is fought."
It was night in Mordor. A low sunken valley, blasted bare. Nothing grew, and all around was but dust and occasional bones. The walls of the valley were pockmarked with small hollows, all shrouded in darkness. A lonely figure stood by one of the gaping fissures in the land, pack in hand. Purposefully, he set down his pack. Regretfully.
Sam brought out a saucepan, turning it in his hands, taking a last look. Slowly he held it out over the fissure. Closing his eyes, he released it, wincing at each clang. He reached into his pack again and brought out his cooking tools. With a quick jerk his spoons, forks and plates clattered down into the depths of Mordor. Each and every item was dear to him, if only because he had cheerfully lugged it all the way from the Shire. But they were slowing him down. And...and they would no longer be needed.
He brought out two more saucepans, releasing them into the cavern, eyes shut. So many meals with the fellowship had been cooked on these very pans, the last meal being the rabbit cooked in Ithilien. He remembered Aragorn leaning over him, adding several new herbs into the mix, Gandalf's good natured grumbling as he had to light the fires when they ran out of tinder, Percy making the soup rise in weird shapes, the company laughing around the fire as they tucked into a hearty meal.
Steeling himself, he emptied the rest of his gear into the cavern, each noise a death knell to his heart. His pack was significantly lighter now, a stark contrast with his suddenly heavy heart.
Alone in the night, he examined his pack again. He nodded and bowed his head, making a silent vow. The hobbit turned and made back for a hidden valley.
He found Frodo still curled up in the hollow where he had left him. In sleep, his shoulders were straighter, his face peaceful, the Ring's taint lessened. Sam sat down beside the entrance and propped his back to a wall, one hand by his knife, keeping watch for the night.
The world was big, lovely and horrible. Most hobbits lived and died in the same corner where they were born and never got to see any of it. Except for Master Bilbo, of course. Master Frodo, too. And now him. They weren't most hobbits.
They saw the Mountain the next day. Some forty miles away. Mount Doom, its feet founded in ashen ruin, its huge cone rising to a great height, where its reeking head was swathed in cloud. Its fires were now dimmed, as threatening and dangerous as a sleeping beast. Below it there hung a vast shadow, ominous as a thunder-cloud.
No, that wasn't hope in his heart. Hope was lighter. This was a grim, hardened determination. No words were exchanged, just a glance, a nod and a heavy smile. Another step, and another.
The silence dragged at him. Before, there had been thirteen of them. Twelve when Gandalf fell. Three when the fellowship broke at Rauros. Now there were only two. Every step took them closer to the Mountain, and it seemed every step took something more of them. His companions, their laughter, the smiles, his hope. Frodo was a weakened, at times half delirious shadow of his former self. He wondered how others would see him now.
He looked at Frodo worriedly. He was trudging forward, fingers playing unconsciously with the Ring by his neck. How much could a hobbit withstand? Stinker, Osgiliath, the Dead City, the spider, Minas Morgul… The guilt still stung. He'd been too slow. Annabeth had saved him and Frodo so many times, and then he had failed to save her. It all meant that he had to be more careful. It meant that there was now no one else, no one who could make sure Frodo succeeded but him.
There was no sun. He had no measure of how long they had been walking other than the soreness of his feet. It was a testament to how far they had walked that even his thickly furred foot had gotten sore. In silent agreement they made for a jagged outcropping and slumped against it, nursing their feet. Frodo was panting heavily.
"It's no good, Sam," he said. "'I can't manage it. This mail-shirt, I mean. Not in my present state. Even my mithril-coat seemed heavy when I was tired. This is far heavier. And what's the use of it? We shan't win through by fighting."
Sam frowned. "But we may have some to do," he said, "And there's knives and stray arrows. That Gollum isn't dead, for one thing. I don't like to think of you with naught but a bit of leather between you and a stab in the dark."
"Thanks, Sam," Frodo smiled, "But I am tired, weary, I haven't a hope left. But I have to go on trying to get to the Mountain, as long as I can move. The Ring is enough. This extra weight is killing me. It must go. But don't think I'm ungrateful. I hate to think of the foul work you must have had among the bodies to find it for me."
Sam clutched Frodo's hand, gripping it tightly. "I have hope enough for both of us. Don't you worry Master Frodo."
Frodo laid aside his cloak and took off the orc-mail and flung it away. He shivered a little. "What I really need is something warm," he said. "its gone cold, or else I've caught a chill."
"You can have my cloak, Mr. Frodo," Sam unslung his pack and took out the elven-cloak. "You wrap that orc-rag close round you, and put the belt outside it. Then this can go over all." He surveyed his work. " It don't look quite orc- fashion, but it'll keep you warmer; and I daresay it'll keep you from harm better than any other gear. It was made by the Lady."
"Dear old Sam" he smiled sadly. "You've sacrificed so much for me. I could ask for no better friend." He tugged at the cloak. "I feel much lighter. I can go on now."
Sam raised an eyebrow. "But?"
Frodo laughed softly. "But this blind dark seems to be getting into my heart. As I lay in prison, Sam. I tried to remember the Brandywine, and Woody End, and The Water running through the mill at Hobbiton. But I can't see them now."
He coughed. "What I wouldn't give for some water." He shot Sam a wry smile. "If Shagrat himself was to offer me a cup, I'd shake his hand."
Sam snorted. "Don't say things like that." He reached into his pack and passed a full waterskin to Frodo.
Frodo accepted the skin, giving it a bemused glance. "Where did this come from?"
He had found some water in the valley they were in while he had been hunting for Stinker, a small trickle of seeping from a crack. He had sniffed it cautiously. It didn't smell foul or look black, so he sipped some. Better he than Master Frodo, at any rate. After a few minutes with no ill effects, he had filled the waterskin. "I found some water by a crack. I've drank some, and seeing as I'm still walking, it should be safe."
Frodo nodded. "How much food do we have left?"
Sam sucked in a breath. "...Enough. Now that…" she's gone, "there are only two of us…the food will last longer." He nodded his head matter-of-factly. "We'll finish the lembas by tomorrow, then we'll eat the food Faramir gave us. It's enough."
"Enough to last us to the Mountain?"
"Enough to last to the Mountain."
The unspoken words hung between them. Enough to last to the mountain…and not back. It was as much as accepting they would never see the Shire again. Sam mulled over this thought briefly. For such a long time, he had thought he was going back. The thought of home had dogged his steps and waited as a dream, to be returned to after this long quest. All through his quest, he had never given up on returning, until now. His vow weighed heavily on him.
It seemed like only a few seconds before they had to stand again and strike East. The remainder of the day passed tediously, the twisted landscape barely changing except for the mountain growing slowly larger before them. Frodo gradually adopted a hunchbacked stance, bent by the weight of the Ring. Sam bit down his urge to offer help and continued to walk.
If only the Lady could see us or hear us, I'd say to her: "Your Ladyship, all we want is light and water; just clean water and plain daylight, better than any jewels, begging your pardon." But it's a long way to Lórien.
It was around midday. A slight breeze ruffled his hair, barely noticeable. Sam turned. Away to their left, southward, against a sky that was turning grey, the peaks and high ridges of the great range began to appear dark and black, visible shapes. Light was growing behind them. The billowing clouds of Mordor were being driven back, their edges tattering as an unnatural wind pushed them back. Under the lifting skirts of the dreary canopy dim light leaked into Mordor like pale morning through the grimed window of a prison. For the first time in weeks, dim sunlight fell on Sam's face.
"Look at it, Mr. Frodo!" Sam gasped, his eyes wide with wonder. "Look at it! The wind's changed. Something's happening. There's light! I wish I could see what is going on!" From the West, a long, wailing scream resounded across the land of Mordor. The scream of a Nazgul. But the scream… it filled his heart with joy.
Frodo looked up, his eyes lighting briefly. "It's dead...One of them is dead!"
"What did I tell you? Something's happening!" cried Sam. "A battle! Things are looking up, Mr. Frodo. Haven't you got some hope now?"
"Well no, not much, Sam," Frodo smiled wryly. "That's away beyond the mountains. We're going east, not west. I'm so tired, Sam, and the Ring is so heavy. I see it in my mind all the time, like a great wheel of fire.'
Sam took his hand and patted it. "Come, Mr. Frodo!" he said. "I've got one thing I wanted: bit of light. Enough to help us, and yet I guess it's dangerous too. Try a bit further, and then we'll lie close and have a rest. But take a morsel to eat now, a bit of the Elves' food; it may hearten you." Sharing a wafer of lembas, and munching it as best they could with their parched mouths. Frodo and Sam plodded on.
A hard, brutal shove, and he landed squarely in something that scratched and stung. Before he had time to yelp Frodo crouched next to him, wide eyed, and shoved a hand over his mouth. Sam blinked at a long sharp thorn, inches from his eyes. Just their luck. A patch of briers. A darker patch of blackness blotted out the sky, a scream of a fellbeast pierced the silence.
They stayed in the patch for what seemed like hours.
"I didn't know as anything grew in Mordor," Sam grumbled, pulling himself out of yet another thicket. "But if I had a'known, this is just what I'd have looked for. These thorns must be a foot long by the feel of them; they've stuck through everything I've got on. Wish I'd a'put that mail-shirt on!'
'Orc-mail doesn't keep these thorns out,' said Frodo. 'Not even a leather jerkin is any good.' They had a struggle to get out of the thicket. The thorns and briars were as tough as wire and as clinging as claws. Their cloaks were rent and tattered before they broke free at last.
They walked through the night into the next day, sleeping a few scant hours. Then they picked themselves up, looked at the Mountain, and started again.
Around midday they scrambled atop a flat mountain, and their hearts dropped. As far as their eyes could reach, along the skirts of the Morgai and away southward, there were camps, some of tents, some ordered like small towns. One of the largest of these was right below them. Barely a mile out into the plain it clustered like some huge nest of insects, with straight dreary streets of huts and long low drab buildings. A wide road ran from it southeast to join the Morgul-way, and along it many lines of small black shapes were hurrying.
They shared a long look, then in unspoken agreement doubled back, costing them an entire afternoon, and cut a new heading East. They shared another bar of lembas. Sam tried not to think of how much food they had eaten. It would be enough. It must.
The light grew no stronger, for the Mountain was still belching forth a great fume that, beaten upwards by the opposing airs, mounted higher and higher, until it reached a region above the wind and spread in an immeasurable roof, whose central pillar rose out of the shadows beyond their view.
The land hated them. On some briers Sam noticed thousands upon thousands of maggots, and before long the swarm descended on them. Flies, dun or grey, or black, marked like orcs with a red eye-shaped blotch, buzzed and stung; and above the briar-thickets clouds of hungry midges danced and reeled. "Orc-gear's no good," said Sam, waving his arms. "'I wish I'd got an orc's hide!" Frodo said nothing, and silently enduring, they walked on until they were out of range.
At length, tired out, they slunk under a curtain of brambles that hung down like a mat over a low rock-face. There they sat and made such a meal as they could. Sam reached into his pack and realized that they had consumed the last bar of lembas that unexpected detour had cost them. Wordlessly he reached instead for what remained in his bag of Faramir's provision: some dried fruit, and a small slip of cured meat; and they carefully sipped mouthfuls of water, saving as much as possible for later. There was a bitter tang in the air of Mordor that dried the mouth. His throat cried for water.
"It's getting dark." Frodo sighed and was asleep almost before the words were spoken. Sam struggled with his own weariness, and he took Frodo's hand; and there he sat silent till deep night fell. Then at last, he crawled from the hiding place and looked out. The land seemed full of creaking and cracking and sly noises, but there was no sound of voice or of foot. Far above the Ephel Duath in the West the night-sky was still dim and pale.
Alone in the night, Sam once more took their packs and checked their provisions. He estimated another three days journey of sneaking before they reached the mountain. The food in the pack would only last one more day. Yes. He had been right. But there was a solution. He had promised Frodo the food was enough to last to the mountain. He hadn't said us.
There was a limit to how long a hobbit could go without food. As long as he could, he would push Frodo onward. By the time his body dropped of starvation, they would have reached the Mountain. Frodo would have to take it from there. He had vowed. He was at peace.
He looked once more at the Mountain, now mockingly near, then above it. There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, a small gleam. A star. It was bright, cold and beautiful. Sam smiled softly, returning to the shelter. His eyes did not leave the star. "Take that, you shadow. There's a beauty you can never take, one far beyond you." Then casting aside all care he allowed sleep to take him.
The land continued to be grassless, bare, jagged, barren as a slate. They continued to walk, putting all thoughts of his head other than putting one foot in front of the other. He had grown good at banishing the thoughts of food and water. He needed to. All day they walked, the jagged landscape monotonous, all around a formless gloom stretching as far as they could see.
The wind of the world blew now from the West, and the great clouds were lifted high, floating away eastward; but still only a grey light came to the dreary fields of Gorgoroth. There smokes trailed on the ground and lurked in hollows, and fumes leaked from fissures in the earth.
Mordor-dark had returned, and the watch-fires on the heights burned fierce and red. They trudged tirelessly on an old orc road, ears pricked for the slightest sound. He could hear no movements. Their pace was rough, but steady. After doing some twelve miles, they halted for a rest. Frodo was too tired to realize that only he was eating. They continued on. He ignored the biting pang in his stomach and continued to keep a close eye on his master, ready to step in should he falter.
The ground rumbled.
He seized Frodo and shoved him down before he even realized what the sound was. The tramp of marching feet. Some way behind them, he spotted the twinkle of torches coming round the bend less than a mile away, and they were moving fast: too fast for them to even think of outrunning.
Frodo's eyes were wild. "We're trapped." Sam's gaze darted around them, but it was too late, there was no way off the road. One side of the road was walled, the other sloped into darkness. "We're trapped at last!' he said. He sank to the ground and bowed his head.
'Get down" Sam hissed, "'Bow your head, pull the cloak around yourself." They continued to trudge in a stooped bow. "We're just...just some tired soldiers." He took another glance back. On they came, red flames in the dark, swiftly growing. Now Sam too bowed his head, "'If only they are in a hurry and will let a couple of tired soldiers alone and pass on!"
His breath was bated, it seemed for an eternity. The leading orcs came loping along, panting, holding their heads down. Beside them, running up and down the line, went two of the large fierce uruks, cracking lashes and shouting. File after file passed, and the tell-tale torchlight was already some way ahead. Sam held his breath. Now more than half the line had gone by. His heart beat along with the tramping feet. Perhaps it would work!
Thwack! Sam yelped as a whip flicked past his ear. A snarl. "Hi, you! Get up!" it was one of the slave drivers. They did not answer, and with a shout he halted the whole company. "Come on, you slugs!" he cried. "This is no time for slouching." The shields, Sam realized with horror. The shields he had picked up at the Tower had the Red Eye on them!
"Deserting, eh?" the orc snarled. "Or thinking of it? All your folk should have been inside Udun before yesterday evening. Up you get and fall in, or I'll have your numbers and report you." They struggled to their feet, and keeping bent, limping like footsore soldiers, they shuffled back towards the rear of the line. "No, not at the rear!" the slave-driver shouted. "Three files up. And stay there, or you'll know it, when I come down the line!" He sent his long whip-lash cracking over their heads "We're at war!" then with another crack and a yell he started the company off again at a brisk trot.
He couldn't imagine the torment Frodo was going through. He was suffering enough as it was... The stench of the sweating orcs about him was stifling, and he began to gasp with thirst. On, on they went, and he bent all his will to draw his breath and to make his legs keep going; It was mindless, a nightmare, trapped within a running column of evil. There was no hope of falling out unseen: Now and again the orc-driver fell back and whipped them, roars filled his ears.
He panted, his heart was a war drum. His legs were attached to someone else. They must have gone for miles. Out of the corner of his eye Frodo lurched and fell, his cry unheard. Sam staggered to him, clutched him and dragged him along. His legs screamed. At any moment now he knew that the end would come: his master would faint or fall, and all would be discovered, and their bitter efforts be in vain. Further and further. Their legs pounded the rock.
A crack of a whip almost took off his ear as the lead orc ran past. His hand crept to his sword. If they were going to die here, he would at least kill that slave driving devil. He couldn't go on any further. Frodo...master Frodo, he was half dead. His hand tightened on the hilt of his sword. Raising his head painfully, he saw a gate approaching. Off to the South, another pile of smoke...another troop. He blinked in exhaustion.
Then he was being pulled apart. All at once there was great jostling and cursing the troops collided, each pushing to get first to the gate and the ending of their march. Chaos. Blood. Orcs yelping and roaring. He couldn't hear himself think. Though the drivers yelled and plied their whips, scuffles broke out and some blades were drawn. A troop of heavy-armed uruks from crashed near their line and threw them into confusion. Dazed as he was with pain and weariness, Sam grasped at his chance, and threw himself to the ground, dragging Frodo down with him.
Orcs fell over them, snarling and cursing. Slowly on hand and knee Sam crawled away out of the turmoil, half dragging Frodo,, until at last unnoticed they dropped over the further edge of the road. It was too dark to seek for cover, if indeed there was any to find; but Sam felt that they ought at least to get further away from the highways and out of the range of torch-light. "Come on, Mr. Frodo!" he whispered. "One more crawl, and then you can lie still." With a last despairing effort Frodo raised himself on his hands, and struggled on for maybe twenty yards. Then he pitched down into a shallow pit that opened unexpectedly before them, and there he lay like a dead thing.
Longest chapter yet. I hope you guys enjoyed reading this. Thank you to all you new readers who constantly encourage me, and thanks for the old reader's messages. Thanks also to my good friends for the support.
I'm 18 this year. I started this story when I was 15, back in 2013. I will never again criticize authors (George R.R Martin) for taking so long between book coz man, I know the struggle XD. Thanks for sticking by to read this far, you readers.
Welp, the next chapter has already been outlined, I'm not giving a date, but I shall try to get it up as fast as possible. I'm thinking I might finish this fic this year. I have around four or five more chapters planned, and perhaps an epilogue to wrap it up.
Oh, right, please check out Help from Another World 2 to see what I get up to when I'm stuck with this story, heh. It might get a few laughs out of you and show you my weird mind.
Thanks guys. Leave a review.
Scribe of Worlds.