Revised version of a story that first appeared in the zine Inside A Song.
I'm much indebted to Europanya and Teasel for beta-reading and insightful story discussions: Thank you!
Never and Always and The Wind’s Tale belong to the same continuum and should be read together.

For H.W., my guide in dark places, with love and thanks.

The Wind's Tale

by Cara J. Loup

~ ~ ~

( East )

Minas Tirith, May 1419

The wind blows through Minas Tirith. Born in the mountains, it slips over the ramparts and battlements, dives into the streets, and after a wild, singing twist around the tower, pours across the galleries that gird the citadel. It sidles into the carved arch of a window where its tail is caught into wafts and curls.

Two strange creatures inhabit the chamber, small and brown as leaves blown about by chance in autumn, to settle where they may. They lie crosswise at the foot of the large bed, wrapped in a grey cloak instead of the brocaded cover, huddled away from the cloudless rise of morning. The wind sends a breath over to them and plays with their curls.

One of the two lies in cramped rigour, hunched close against his companion. Between the dark nest of his curls and the cloak, his face is hidden, but the jags in his breathing leave no room for rest or slumber.

The other is stretched out on his back, his eyes open to the stone ceiling. He is humming, a rough meandering of melody that carries no further than the close circle of their breathing. The wind picks it up and lifts stray notes towards the window.

It is an odd melody, strange to these parts of the world, and sweet like the rolling of meadows over hills, or a winding river.

A story is laced through the sparse notes, climbing to pitch with sorrow, and to break with joy. The wind plays it within its ragged tails, sifting the song's flow.

It is a lullaby, the soft spell of a promise breathed against darkness or the burnished day, and the wind cradles it like a secret.

~ ~ ~

Emyn Muil, February/March 1419

What sort of a story would there be to tell? And who'd be the one to tell it? Not me, Sam thought, for the words he might have given it were dried to a dull thudding in his chest. The smell of rain clung like a weight to his clothes, and round his throat clamped a remembrance of bony fingers, squeezing fast. Below the steep cliffs of the Emyn Muil, the wind mulled over a mournsome hum. Frodo stood very straight in the damp gusts, every line of his face drawn thin and clear as glass.

The Gollum creature crouched on the ground before them, one hand curled about his bound ankle, but all the mischief were gone from his eyes. They bore a cloudy shine now, and Sam didn't like it any better than the wicked glint before. It took more than Gollum's nasty looks though, to chase a chill up his chest and down his spine. It took –

"No, not on it," Mr. Frodo said in that strange, forceful voice. "All you wish is to see it and touch it if you can, though you know it would drive you mad."

Each word seemed to unloose an echo from the stony hollows, and each sound came to a harsh twisting in the pit of Sam's stomach. He glanced from Frodo back to Gollum. The bloodless lips were quivering on a word that might be promise or precious, while the last moon-gleams sparked in his eyes. Like a trembling of tears, Sam thought, nigh flinching when the creature crawled up closer to Frodo's feet.

"Not on it," Frodo said. "Swear by it, if you will. For you know where it is." There was a catch in his breath, and a stranger look on his face when he pressed a hand to the spot high on his chest. "Yes, you know, Smιagol. It is before you."

Aye, and you'd be better off not seeing. Sam blinked against a sudden, hot blur in his eyes, but it only got worse – like foggy shimmers falling awry into his sight. They stretched Frodo's form tall into shadow and wrapped him in grey like a thundercloud, with a fierce threat of lightning. An edge of it seeped out, keen as the shine on Sting's blade and cold as the bidding of his voice. Gollum grovelled before it, a miserable bundle of bones and skin, but his eyes had gone soft and sage, almost like –

Oh no, naught like him, not the least bit. All Sam could do was keep a hold on the rope when nothing would stop such thoughts as were making him giddy. His other hand clenched hard in his pocket, grappling on a smooth pebble he'd picked up in the Emyn Muil, from an unlikely bed of stone. Gollum wanted his hands round Mr. Frodo's throat near as bad as he wanted to please him – not him, the Ring! Sam snapped at himself – couldn't Frodo see that?

"Master!" Gollum sobbed, and his thin fingers fluttered up to paw at Frodo's knee.

"Down!" Frodo ordered, his voice cracking like a whip. "Down! Now speak your promise!"

Sam turned sideways, but he couldn't drag his eyes off, nor close his ears when all the rocks seemed to sing with –

"We promises, yes, I promise!" Gollum babbled, between wheezing, sobbing breaths. "I will serve the master of the Precious. Good master, good Smιagol, gollum, gollum!" And the tears started dripping from his eyes then, before he lurched forward and tried to bite at his ankle.

"Take the rope off, Sam."

Frodo's voice cut through to him from a distance, and his own breath faltered on a mumbled reply. His fingers had gone so numb, it took him an awful long time to untie the knot, too. The skin over Gollum's ankle felt like dry holly leaves, gone tough and unfeeling in the scouring of one season after the next.

Sam pulled his hand back quick, but now the creature smiled, if the twisting of his drained mouth could count for aught so familiar. Smiling like that, he watched Mr. Frodo with his large, watery eyes. The rope coiled softly between Sam's shaking fingers, warm and alive as like it were trying to make his job easier.

He bent to affix it to his pack, but his eyes drifted up the crags, filling the West with the warnings and recollections as turned and rolled in his stomach. He'd never map a path home across those tumbled rocks, but he'd always remember –

Lie here beside me, Sam. He shut his eyes so tight that sparks still flickered black across the moon when he opened them again.

Stony peaks struck at the sunken crescent. Frodo's shoulders were slumped, his eyes fixed where shadows overran the dim lands in the East. And Gollum kept watching him with a bright, eager look. He knows, Sam thought, oh he knows, and I can't –

"Well, Gollum..." He made an effort to clear the croak from his throat, "or whatever it is we're to call you. Now for it! The moon's gone, and the night's going. We'd better start."

The creature leapt from its waiting crouch, fierce and hungry like a stirred fire. With the tail of his eye, Sam caught the small jolt that went through Frodo's limbs while Gollum chattered about the path that he'd found.

"Orcs don't cross the Marshes, they go round for miles and miles. Very lucky you came this way. Very lucky you found Smιagol, yes. Follow Smιagol!"

And he was off with one of those vicious frog-leaps, off on the path to guide them. Sam reached out a hand, but it scarce brushed the sudden swirl of Mr. Frodo's cloak. With a sharp stride, Frodo set out to follow, his head bowed. Sam swallowed a bitter rush at the back of his throat. He couldn't guess at the chills or the fires as were running through Frodo's skin. And twice the fool you are for wishing.

They trudged after Gollum, along the stone shelves skirting the Emyn Muil. Soon enough, Frodo's steps slowed to a tired stumble, as if he'd sagged back into himself. Sam could hear the laboured breath squeezing through his teeth, and at times a whispered word trailed with it, released to the dark air, not to him or Gollum.

Not but that their guide would let them fall back too far. He'd come sauntering across the flat stones and tug on Frodo's sleeve with urgent clucks of the tongue. Dark spans of soil stretched between the scattered rocks now, and on their left grew some wind-bent trees, gnarled and leafless.

"Master mustn't stop," Gollum hissed, his fingers tangled in Frodo's coat again. "Mustn't rest, not yet, nice master."

Master. Sam could feel it catch like a stone in his throat. But Frodo's attention was all bent on their guide, his face soft and thoughtful, till the wretched creature dropped his head and whimpered a doleful gollum. Frodo tightened his shoulders and quickened his steps.

Sam tugged on his pack-straps though they were set as snug as might be, thinking, thinking what he shouldn't. What Gollum saw when he looked at Frodo with such a hopeless craving. Who it might be that spoke from Frodo's throat, that used his tongue and his voice, twisting those gentle hands to a fearful grip –

And then Sam staggered among the bare trees, just about catching hold of a branch ere he leaned over and coughed up a thin pulp that burned his throat.

It didn't take long, for there'd not been much in his stomach, though it kept pitching through angry heaves for a while. What a waste, Sam thought, dizzy and gasping. What a waste when every bite they'd got left was a needful treasure. A bulge of silvery bark swam before his sight. Where a branch had ripped off, the scar looked like an eye sketched in fresh ink. When he could breathe proper again, Sam took a sip from the water bottle to clear the sour and the bitter from his mouth. He looked around for some leaves he might chew.

"Sam?" Soft steps rustled over broken twigs.

"Over here, Mr. Frodo." Sam stepped up fast, fingers aflurry in his clothing so as to make it seem that he'd merely relieved himself.

Heat flamed in his cheeks when Frodo wouldn't even look to his hands and held his eyes instead. He knows. The shame of it rushed into Sam's breast, but it fell to naught in another moment, as if his skin knew better now that Frodo stood so near. Knew and remembered with a lifetime's wonder. His voice. His quiet, tender glance. His touch.

"I'm sorry," Sam whispered through the dry ache in his throat.

Without a word, Frodo held out his hand and wove their fingers together as they walked into the open. Gollum was waiting some paces ahead, crouched and grey like a carved stone in the starlight hovering feeble before dawn. He spat and scurried off in so vicious a twist that Sam could hear the flap of his soles and palms on the rocks.

Frodo's hand lay very cool in his grasp, like the touch of a winter morn, and Sam couldn't help but wonder if his own heat would sting as coal or warm his master soft as comfort. From the hollow of Sam's stomach quivered a guilty start. All that his fears came to were another burden, and a breach of Frodo's trust in him.

Gollum led them down the flat tail of the gully they'd not been able to cross by the mountains, and they went plodding along its course, beside a shallow, snaking river. Whenever the wind swerved into the gully, a moist reek blew about them, culled from the marshlands with a smack of rot. More than once, Sam reached a quick hand to Frodo's elbow, to steady him on the wet stones. When Gollum stopped them with a snarl at the breaking day, Sam was glad for the chance of catching their breaths.

They set their packs down by the rocky wall that still loomed taller than a Man's height. Gollum slunk off to wade into the shadowed water, but Frodo slumped to the ground as if not a bone in his body weren't drenched in tiredness.

Sam cast him a sideways look, careful not to let the worry show in his voice. From the stream came the sounds of Gollum splattering about. "You'd best sleep while you can, Mr. Frodo, and I'll keep an eye on our hungry sneak."


Just that, and a glance as firm as any that the Master of Bag End might use to silence a crowd.

"You've not had a rest since–"

"Do come here, Sam."

He knelt before Frodo, struck mute when Frodo reached to wrap both hands round his neck and pull their foreheads together.

"I don't suppose that you can tell me..." Frodo's breath moved in a thready cloud against his cheek, and Sam wished only to shelter that failing warmth, draw it close into himself till it sang with his pulse and his bloodstream. Even if he'd known the question or the answer, he couldn't have urged a word past the tightness that choked his breath. One of Frodo's hands crept an inch under his collar, fingertips pressing and searching as if to seize Sam's heart through his skin. What ran through him was familiar as his own heartbeat and stranger than the wildest fancy, and the two made a living whole. Only half a day and a night had passed since –

"Close your eyes," Frodo murmured, and there was such gentle caressing in his voice, Sam could feel it to the thump in his chest.

The twilight behind his lids filled with Frodo's breathing, and from it rose the soft hum of a lullaby that Sam had known all his life. The tune pulled through him like burning silver, fraught with such a sweet edge, he had to squeeze his eyes tight to stop tears from welling. Frodo's fingers moved in small circles at the nape of his neck, steadier now, and his voice rose smooth in the wordless singing.

Sam couldn't quench the trembling as spread up from his breast. Surely it was wrong to feel such joy when his master had to be aching with weariness, and the pain of –

"Hobbits mustn't make noiseses!"

Sam whipped round to stare hard into Gollum's raw-boned face. "What with you splashing in the water, there's more than noise enough to give us away!"

Gollum shot him a look like pure poison and turned to Frodo. "The rocks listen, and the wind hears," he said in whinging tones. "Nice master understands, doesn't he? Wise master knows that his spies don't need eyes or earses. He never sleeps, never sleeps!"

"Yes, Smιagol," Frodo answered patiently. His hand had slipped to Sam's shoulder and gripped tight as if to keep him from bolting. "We must be watchful."

The bald head bobbed eagerly. "Wise master," Gollum burbled once more, before he bounded off again.

Sam bit his teeth together. Master. A wild sputter that echoed his own stammering when every breath he had, every inch of his skin yearned to give and give. Not the filthy Ring's, you're –

"My choice wasn't lightly made, Sam." Frodo's gaze rested on him, stirring up a swarm of questions.

Sam bowed his head. "You understand him, don't you, Mr. Frodo?" He swallowed to make his voice more than a rough mutter. "I – I can't."

"And you should have no cause for it." Frodo's glance dropped as he drew Sam forward and brought him near enough to embrace. "Sam, there's... a bruise on your throat."

"Oh, but that's naught to be worried about," he murmured and wrapped his arm about Frodo's waist.

"I wish..." Frodo looked over his shoulder, out West to the Emyn Muil. When he tilted his head, a fine, glistening thread showed on his cheek.

"Frodo," Sam whispered, and the feel of it on his lips were like the sting of full sunshine.

A day and a half ago, Frodo had answered him with such blessings, it tore at Sam with greater joy and grief than his body could bear and left him raw inside.

Some straggling curls grazed his cheek when Frodo leaned against him. Between his cloak and the dirty collar of his shirt gleamed the chain like wrought ice. And strapped to it, more than just a growing weight had to burn and throb. How would that feel from inside? Sam couldn't breathe for the want that clutched so hard at his innards, the fretful need to know. Hold on to me, not –

"The Ring calls to him, Sam, as it does to me."

Cool fingers turned his face. He shivered at the softest brush of Frodo's lips to his, like the slip of an unknown dream. Sam pulled away quick, thinking what he must taste like with the bile still lingering on his mouth and the thick of treacherous fears alive in his stomach. He could see it in Frodo's eyes then, a swift darkening, near to a flinch when he turned aside.

"It frightens me too."

I know, Master. Sam swallowed another useless apology and climbed heavy to his feet. He'd only fall asleep on watch if he settled in too comfortable. Away in the East, the river shimmered pale with the rise of day. Sam drew the round pebble from his pocket and rolled it slowly between his palms.

~ ~ ~

At times, Frodo still dreams of their companions. They move in and out of vapours that shift slowly, like hanging veils of pipe-smoke on a windless day.

Legolas stands poised on a stony outcrop, unblinking even when the midday sun is in his eyes. A gentle concern unclouds Aragorn's gaze as he moves past, to lay a fleeting touch on Frodo's shoulder. Resistance steels the line of Boromir's back. He casts his mutinous glance in every direction, and it will find rest only when it falls on Merry and Pippin. They are sparring, in a soundless dance that swings out from their small swords, fiercer and faster with every round. A blunt flash from Gimli's axe will join the carouse of iron gleams, and waver as he scrubs the whetstone back and forth. Gandalf never enters their circle, but his presence is like that of an ancient tree, extending a wide span of cooling shade. A smile lingers beside the glint in his eyes. Even Bill shuffles about among the shadows and the grass. His ponderous breaths ebb through nightfall until the veils draw together, in dense, soothing folds.

Then, darkness holds Frodo like an open palm, and he's stretched out alone, far from fear. Darkness cradles and calms him, full of forgetting.

He never dreams of Sam, for it seems that his flesh and blood hold their own too close to let anything stray. In his dreams, he is blind to Sam, and in waking, a slow wash of gratitude will rise on his breath.

He will lie on his back and look up at a single star that sings and burns in his sight.

~ ~ ~

Sam stirred to the scent of fennel tea, skeins of glory vine clear before his sight. The leaves flittered in a lightsome breeze, stirring rich bronze and crimson into a sun-dappled flurry. He'd have to trim the wilder shoots afore the end of autumn, Sam thought, so as to keep them from splaying all over the window of Mr. Frodo's study. But clipped back tidy, those trailing vines made a fine ornament round the glass. From inside the room, Mr. Frodo would see the light falling through in the afternoons, like a fringe of quiet flames above his desk. The tea, now...

A sudden sound brought him to full, anxious waking. So hoarse and tight a whisper, Sam might have mistook it for the hissing curse of Gollum's breaths. Save that he knew better, that he would have known this voice anywhere, even when it were crushed to a mere thread. Frodo...

When Sam raised his head, a thin reed slapped him across the face. Time to get up and plod on, it must be, for the daylight were failing into a cloudy gloom. But there was Mr. Frodo, sitting hunched on the edge of the reed-thicket, and Gollum nowhere in sight. A sullen hush lay over the Marshes, so thick that the faintest rustle of grasses made a scratching sound, and the dried seed-plumes seemed to be a'rattling. Frodo's voice strained at the quiet, as like it were a fetter.

Sam sat up slow, and the cold ache from his shoulders poured in through his breast. Mr. Frodo swayed back and forth where he sat, like a mulberry bush in a circling wind. What he whispered to himself, over and again, ripped at Sam's heart as little else could. High Elvish it was, that once used to flow so swift and glorious off Mr. Frodo's tongue, now pushed out on troubled breaths, in a broken chant of words.

Sam shoved the blanket aside and crawled forward without rising to his feet. Already the blood was pounding so hard in his temples and his ears, it was a wonder that Frodo didn't hear. But maybe he couldn't. Maybe the words made a shield around him in the silence, and that was why. He sat with his arms caught fast round his knees, as if to make himself as small as possible. Then his voice faltered into a ragged sigh, and Sam held his breath.

"Sam." Not the dash of a question in his tone.

"Mr. Frodo," Sam answered in like fashion, and came round as quick as he might without setting hand or foot onto the muck slide, to crouch before his master.

Frodo nodded and looked at him a long moment, his eyes returning from the haze where they'd roamed. "Remember this?" he whispered and started anew with what he'd been repeating.

He broke off on a high note, and Sam saw his lip quiver and struggle for the next word, before Frodo bit down on it. "Remember this, Sam," he said in harsher tones. "Remember."

Sam swallowed and shaped the words in his own mouth, as faithful as he could. The music of Frodo's voice lay hid in them, and the smooth gesturing of his hands when he sat in Bag End's parlour, an open book in his lap, more graceful and alive than the weaving candleflames. And that were all the meaning as the words had, all that were needed.

"Thank you..." Frodo bent his forehead to his knees.

"It's part of a song, isn't it?" Sam asked when he found naught else to say. "The words feel as if they did ought to be sung, leastways."

"They do." Frodo lifted his head. Under his eyes, the shadows had deepened, but while that might be on account of the falling gloom, the sharp lines of his cheekbone and jaw weren't owed to short commons alone. Something gnawed him from within, stripping all the flesh down to the slender bones.

"Like the stars," Sam murmured. He could see them now, a handful of white sprinkles bared in a ribbon of dusky sky. He raised both hands and laid them on Frodo's upper arms. Cold he was, and every nerve in his body strung tough as hemp-rope, Sam could feel it, even through layers of linen and wool. And the strength in him, clear and bright as the stars before moonrise. "They're as old as the beginning of the world, so you've told me, and there's naught as can reach them."

He didn't rightly know why he was saying that, but his hands had wandered with the thought, as if tracing a silver twine that connected earth and sky. His palms took a slow course down Frodo's arms, cradling the desperate tension till it eased a bit beneath his touch.

"He is trying to find me." Frodo tipped his head sideways, as if harking to the East. "It is trying to find me, here." He touched curled fingers to the top of his chest and looked down into their empty circle.

Under his breath, Sam felt a slivering of ice, and he noticed a shimmer of sweat on Frodo's brow. Fearsome as a fever spell waiting to be broken, though Sam couldn't guess how.

"We'll be off again soon, I expect." He paused to clear the troubling thickness from his voice. "You should take some food ere we start, Mr. Frodo."

"We both should." Frodo's eyes took to wandering again, and the white fog over the Marshes lay in them.

"Let me get it, sir," Sam muttered, loath to leave him alone at all.

He looked at his dirty hands, and it simply wouldn't do to hasten the provender over to Mr. Frodo like that. He dipped his fingers in the stagnant waters of the mere, amid green clumps of pond-scruff, and wiped them off quick on his sleeves. As soon as he'd brought out a fresh ration, he unhooked the pan from his pack, unwrapped the mallorn leaf and spread it flat on the bottom. When he placed the lembas atop and set the pan down in front of Mr. Frodo, he'd done enough to warrant a smile, as like he'd prepared a proper breakfast. Or supper, as the case might be.

Frodo chewed the lembas slowly, as though it were a necessary labour. Surely, Sam thought, surely the burden of the Ring bedimmed the constant twinges of hunger as clawed at his own stomach, but what sort of comfort were to be taken from that? One less worry, he told himself, made less of the load that Mr. Frodo had to carry, for he didn't expect to need –

"You're not eating," Frodo said gently. He broke the wafer into several pieces, careful to make them even in size. Between one blink and the next, Sam saw his Gaffer's knotty hands, setting chunks of dark bread beside the bowls, each measured to the work as his children were doing. When he grew too stiff in the joints for his job, he kept only the loaf's dry heel for himself.

"'Twouldn't be right to start before you," Sam murmured while he watched Frodo's fingers splay out the pieces on the mallorn leaf.

"Eat, Sam."

When he choked down a bite, Frodo reached for his own share. During the last rest they took, he'd told Sam not to be troubling himself over food, but a tremble passed through his hand when Sam held it and let his tears fall. Their waybread might not last them across all the miles to the mountain and back, but what did it matter when Frodo had to use up so much strength for every step he took? Stray morsels pricked in Sam's throat, and his stomach seemed to be shrinking round each bite, like drying leather.

"You're right, Sam," Frodo said suddenly. "Nothing can reach the stars." He leaned his head on his shoulder to tilt a glance at the sky where the clouds had thickened in a swollen crush. "But we, we must–"

In the crowding gloom, Sam could see only the white of his eyes. "We will, Mr. Frodo."

Though his breath leapt and stumbled, he cupped his hand over Frodo's. His raw knuckles were crusted with grime, and the pale valleys between seemed all the more tender. Sam raised the dirty hand to his mouth. He pressed a kiss to the back of Frodo's fingers, and another to the cool softness of his palm, below the new ridges and calluses that had no right of being there. At his back, water gurgled and lapped at the mud – Gollum? – but he couldn't turn to look. Not when Frodo's eyes were suddenly free of clouds, and the silence parted for a halting murmur – "Sam, would you...?" – a scarce breath away.

All Sam wanted was for Frodo to draw him as close as ever he wished, but his knee bumped against the pan, and his cloak nigh caught on it. Only the tangle of their fingers held him balanced for a moment's clumsy dithering.

"We can't know what will come of it all, Mr. Frodo." Sam strove to make his voice steady when Frodo's breath slid warm against his face, warmer than he'd expected, and a firm hand clasped his neck.

"But I could... I could know." Frodo shook his head. His lashes swept down in a sharp flicker, such as uneasy dreams might bring. "No, I have to remember this. He would want me to believe that the end is certain, and the end alone."

Sam heard a furtive rustling in the reeds and dipped his head, a soft, cramped movement. Not much longer in this place that were beset by creeping fogs and the pitch of night, and yet he would've given the world for this poor bit of quiet. I'll remember, he wanted to say, always and for the both of us, if needs be, but Frodo's breath fell so gentle on his mouth, and all that welled in him were made of fire and startled lightness. So quick and free, he couldn't move at all. How long a day since –

Sure and soundless, Frodo moved for him, as he had before, and their mouths found each other within a single breath. The cool damp melted aside in a moment's shifting, slipped with the sweetest pressure that bloomed and opened wide as a gash in Sam's breast. Comfort and relief and longing poured into him, scattering his breath. It didn't matter if he leaned or fell when Frodo clasped him in a stronger hold, his own hands already delving into folds of wool and fine Elven weave. He drank in every small movement of Frodo's lips on his own, lost to the fierce, tangled heat of Frodo's yearning when his tongue slipped in deeper. The soft stroking of Frodo's fingers along his cheek drew up the clearest ache, as if they were following the white course of tears. Sam's hands clenched tight in answer, caught to a gasp that hitched in Frodo's chest and flowed into his own. They were breathing together, as only they could when –

Frodo pulled away with a sudden wrench, as if to say enough, just as determined as when he'd broken the lembas into even shares. Sam lowered his eyes, in a struggle to mute his jumbled breaths. Everything in him surged high as an overflowing well that he didn't know how to lock again.

"Sam, you..." Frodo's voice carried a rough edge, and only then could Sam meet his eyes again. "You feed me, and I feed–" His fingers jerked back to trap the Ring where it lay against his chest.

A frost harder than any he'd known struck Sam to the root. His knees and shoulders were aching when he sat back on his haunches.

"Please, Master, what is it doing to you?" And he'd never have dared that question if he'd kept his wits about him.

Frodo's glance fell to the pan and the scattered crumbs of lembas, then swerved up restless to search the gloom beyond Sam's shoulder. "I would not want you to know."

When he settled back, Sam felt the cold current of air brush his chest, running wide between them. Sharp and doubtful like the protest he swallowed with an effort, the claims he couldn't make. It weren't the place – his place – to press forth with questions, to speak the need that chafed and rooted so close under his skin.

When he cast a quick glance over his shoulder, the sight of Gollum didn't surprise him. The miserable creature squatted on the nearest bump of mud, thin and black as a branch in winter. With pale, frightened eyes, he stared back at Mr. Frodo.

Sam picked up the pan and roused himself. If they didn't set out soon, they might spend another day tramping through these foul marshes.

~ ~ ~

The clouds pile high in soft shadings of grey and hang strangely close. Frodo stops to look at them, to watch them tear at the passing of a wind that he cannot feel. He's breathing the damp, heavy air in through his mouth. The ground is treacherous, a swaying mass of soaked grasses and mud, adrift in fog that swaddles him like a blanket. He can feel the wet clay settle between his toes.

Dangerous as it may be to cross from one of these straggling islands to the next, it is more dangerous to stop. Taking another step will grow more impossible the longer he waits, until the thought slips away from him like a twist of the feeble breeze. He will be content only to breathe and watch the sky, even though the storm sets in elsewhere.

It will brew in the water and slide deep through the ground, until it is seething beneath the soles of his feet. It will rise up over his ankles, strike at the back of his knees and pierce his spine with a long-familiar chill. The tremors that wrap about his chest will lace through the windy dark, mere stirrings of what is to come. And once it has begun, there will be no end, only the mad rising that swells to the base of his skull. Very far and high overhead wheels a winged shadow, seeking to answer him with a cry.

Frodo stands on a muddy tussock and swallows the clouds that sink lower and lower. Until the ground shifts slightly under another's step, and the air beside him fills –

"Mr. Frodo? This isn't no place to stop. We may be halfways across, but it's still a deal of a distance, and those lights are moving closer."

Halfway across? For a moment, Frodo is puzzled. The candles burn everywhere in the mire, as if to mark the storm's path. Their quiet glow pledging a peace that will not be kept.

"Mr. Frodo," Sam says more urgently, his voice rousing like a touch. So near.

Frodo turns. There are no shadows in this mist-bound twilight, but Sam stands where his own shadow would fall. Above them, the moon sails between rent clouds, but his shape is drawn into hazy ripples. Frodo takes a slow breath.

How deep under the water are we?

~ ~ ~

It was come and gone in the space of a few breaths, but its shadow had scathed a clear enough shape across Sam's sight. Winged as a bat, but so much larger, and fast as the gales that it rode. The shrill cry that split the dark had knocked them aground in a rush of haunting wind, each of them trapped in fear. Sam had to summon all his nerve before he looked up through the bristling reeds. Memories of Weathertop scored his breast, and there couldn't be no doubt what the flying shadow were. Not with a voice like that, as black and torn as dread itself.

Some steps aside, Gollum lay gargling and whimpering even after those uncanny blasts had faltered. Through shredded clouds, the moon peeked down and cast shadows thin as blades. They shivered over Mr. Frodo's cloak when he climbed to his feet, to set a hand on Gollum's skinny shoulder. A muffled wail was his only answer, but Gollum didn't twist away neither.

Sam pushed to his knees, struggling a moment against the weight of his pack. The rife stench of the Marshes wafted thick from his clothes.

"Smιagol," Frodo was saying in a soothing tone. "It has gone – back to Mordor, I suppose – and we had better be on our way, too."

"Not safe! Never safe, no!" Gollum sobbed amid a snarl of broken sounds. "Wraiths on wings see us, they do, they see everything!"

"If this one had seen us, he would not have turned back," Frodo argued. "You feel only what he would have us believe."

Bless you, Mr. Frodo, but you're strong. Sam stepped forward so he could see his master's face. Drawn and pale as he looked, his eyes were steady, resting with worry on Gollum's bald head.

Sam darted a glance back over the Marshes, but none of the misty shimmers swirled above the pools now. Only a short while ago, he'd found Mr. Frodo unmoving among the fens, water dripping from his sleeves and fingers. Pale faces, he whispered, deep deep under the dark water. All foul, all rotting, all dead... Sam shuddered, for it seemed then that all the dead things in the world had gathered in this place, and Frodo couldn't see aught but himself among them.

Silence closed about them again, thick enough to muffle Gollum's anxious babbling about the wraiths and the watchful moon.

"Get up now," Sam said gruffly. "The danger's past, as you'd see for yourself if you took a look about."

Frodo glanced up quick and shook his head. "I know..." His fingers moved softly over the sharp line of Gollum's shoulder blade. "Months ago, they wounded me, and yet I feel the cold in their presence as if the tip of the dagger still lodged inside me."

Sam averted his eyes. That Frodo should speak of it – that his fine, loving hands should draw the shivers from this vile creature –

"It is part of their power to put a spell of fear on every mind," Frodo went on, "but you must not let yourself be blinded by it."

When Sam looked back at them, Gollum quaked under Frodo's touch. But was it fright or thankful relief, or the craving that seemed to fret him all the time? Don't you remember? Sam wanted to ask his master. How we were missing the birds in this dreadful silence, and all he could think of were eating them?

"Wraithses will find us," Gollum sniffled. "Precious is their master."

"Aye, and they'll spot us soon enough if we don't leave this place." Sam bent to tug on one thin arm, but all it earned him was a sob of No, precious! "Oh, for–"

"Leave him be!" Frodo snapped, and gave him a look that ran scalding over Sam's skin.

He fell back a step, awkward and sluggish as if he were wading through one of those slimy pools. Gollum didn't seem to care nohow. Jabbering mindless to himself, he kept his face pressed to the soil.

Seeing as how they wouldn't move for a while, Sam shuffled the pack off his shoulders. Perhaps he should stand off and let Mr. Frodo talk sense into the frightened wretch, but instead Sam dropped to the ground on Gollum's other side. By the sounds bursting from that snarled throat, Gollum might be crying again.

"Look at him, Sam!" Frodo reached across so quick that Sam's fingers twitched in surprise at the fierce grip round his wrist. "See for yourself."

Against his own wishing, Sam lowered his eyes to Gollum's twisted spine. It had starved the flesh off his bones, the Ring did, and all reason from his mind. Where the moonlight fell on the weathered skin, Sam could trace inky blotches, as if he'd bruised from within, or his blood had curdled. Was that the Ring's doing, too? And the croaking sputter of his voice, those hateful gurgles in his throat?

The press of Frodo's fingers lightened, and Sam turned his hand to reach back, such thoughts awhirl in his mind, they'd topple him over if he didn't seize a hold. What if the same blighting want came for Mr. Frodo, not in a day maybe, but in a week, before they could reach that cursed mountain? How much more, how much longer –

You know full well, Sam answered himself, you're just afeared of looking the truth in the eye, that's what it is. But it cramped like a pain in his stomach, and it would run wide like a river if he let it go free. Deep enough to drown in – and more so when he met Frodo's eyes again.

Are you ready? his intent gaze seemed to ask. Do you understand, now?

They sat with their hands clasped above Gollum's body, as like he were the drought and the dark and the wasteland between them.

"It's already started," Sam whispered, though the grief of it crammed cold in his throat.

Frodo bowed his head, filling his eyes with the lay of those starved limbs again, it seemed. "And I must believe that the end is not certain."

Not if there's aught I can do, Sam thought, too foolish a claim to make it out loud. But he remembered now what Frodo had said when they took their rest in the gully and Gollum near choked on the lembas he'd been offered. "Perhaps you can't even try, not yet anyway."

Not yet. A thread of hope and desperate will atremble in Mr. Frodo's words. But that were what Gollum meant to him. Warning and hope, and both tied to a promise made by –

"I allow it to feed on me, as he does–" Frodo nodded at Gollum, "–for neither of us has a choice. There is no strength great enough to resist." His voice hushed, as if a weight were hanging on each word. "He who made the One relies on this. But he cannot understand any reason not to resist, other than to claim it." Frodo withdrew his hand, seeming to ponder for a long while of silence. Shadows crowded on his dirty face, till his glance flashed up quick as flintsparks. "Sam... It can't give me what I desire. That is all I know, the secret I must keep. It is all I have to defend myself."

Sam curled his empty fingers up tight. If I could, I'd be a mountain for you. To stand between you and – a sharp flare ached through his breast, cutting every thought like water. He could wish to wrap all his love round his master, and it wouldn't fend off the threat any more than Mr. Frodo's tattered shirt kept out the cold. But perhaps it did matter that he listened, catching what he could of Frodo's words and memories, every single drop like a rain-barrel out in –

"Is it gone now?" Gollum asked in a voice gone terse with suspicion. "Is the White Face gone?"

"Almost." But when Frodo rose to his knees, the softest brush of silver-white strayed across his curls. He swayed a moment and rubbed hard at his temple. "Come."

They roused Gollum between them. As they trod on past the last straggling pools, a drained dark washed over the flats, and the clouds lay jammed like another mountain range afore them. Cracks ran all asunder in the parched mud, a web of spidered lines, and so deep in places that Sam's toes caught on them. The harsh press of Frodo's fingers still circled his wrist like an iron band, like a need he'd not answered in full.

For all that he'd quavered so long, Gollum hurried ahead now, his head tilting into each lonesome breeze to sniff it for hidden dangers. Sam could see wisps of pale hair trailing from Gollum's skull as he turned it left to right, and a sting of smoke seemed to pierce the air. Leastways it weren't so stifled above these dry peats, though the prickles of a storm seemed to swirl all about. Bits of thunder muttered and rumbled through the clouds, and a cold gust touched Sam's neck. He turned back with a frown, to ask –

Frodo had fallen behind more than a few paces, out of Gollum's sight, Sam reckoned. Did the dratted creature think to whip more speed from Mr. Frodo by urging their pace so? Gollum could scarce be seen in the shadows ahead, save for pale flickers of movement among the brooding greys. Sam quickened his stride ere he could vanish for good.

"Hoy, Gollum!" he called under his breath, and it still seemed to rasp loud in the quiet.

When Gollum turned, only the moony lanterns of his eyes winked through the gloom. Sam marched up fast, till he could pick out the gnarled frame, perched on a slanting rock. How did you grow to be like this? How long did it take, and what–?

"Wait a bit," he said hoarsely, once he'd come close enough. "Mr. Frodo can't keep that pace, haven't you noticed?"

"Yes, we have noticed." Gollum sniffed and slid down from the rock, his large head asway on his neck. "But hobbits must make haste. Not long, and the Yellow Face will catch us. Smιagol only tries to take Master to hiding, away from prying eyes."

"Well, it won't do no good if he can't get there as quick as you," Sam muttered, but for once Gollum had answered short of hissing and spitting. Sam took another moment to study him close. My master has hope for you. So give him reason. He eyed the mottled skin across Gollum's shoulders, thinking how it must feel to hide away from the sun because her warmth were turned to blazes. "It hurts. Don't it?"

Gollum bared his sharp brown teeth.

"Aye, that's a right stupid question." Sam was about to turn and dash back to Mr. Frodo when Gollum clicked his tongue in a strange, wistful manner.

"Yes, Precious hurts," he snapped, but then his voice dropped to a throaty growl, "hurts when it's there, and hurts when it's not."

The glimmer in his eyes were all of anger, Sam thought, not grief, but maybe the two had long been crushed into one. "And that's why you serve Mr. Frodo, why you can't help it. Isn't it?"

Gollum watched him with squinted eyes, as if to ask the same question, and the answer surged heated and thick in Sam's chest. I serve him because – because it's all as I can do, all I could want, and I couldn't not –

"I promised," Gollum hissed.

"That you did." Sam chanced another look at his bare body, so stained and bruised with hunger. Too much for Frodo's hands to undo, he couldn't help thinking, even if – "Smιagol..." He pushed on, though the words near locked in his throat. "We have to wait for our master."

Gollum cocked his head as like he'd been startled, but then his glance slid past Sam, and the old greedy glint returned.

Frodo approached them with slow, dragging steps, one hand clutched to a fist over his heart. Oh no, not his heart, it's –

"Master!" Gollum bubbled, his scowl split into a smile.

A false smile, if Sam was any judge, but he couldn't bother with it right then. How often now Mr. Frodo would reach for the Ring, his face twisting in effort, and yet he wouldn't pluck his hand away. As if the thing would bury itself in his chest, 'less he kept it safe.

"I see that I am slowing us down enough for you to rest and tell tales."

Gollum cackled in glee at the joke. Frodo's hand lowered at last when he met Sam's eyes.

Clear they were, and his glance rushed all over Sam's skin till it felt like water, swift moving meltwater with the sun dancing across. Alight to the glimpse of Frodo's smile, tired and still beautiful, the twist of pain in it that splintered in his own chest – but it weren't the same and could never be. Not as long as Mr. Frodo carried that loathsome thing. Sam could mark it blind, that spot where the Ring lay touching Frodo's skin.

"Smιagol here thinks we'll find a safer place to spend the day if we keep going another while." Sam caught his breath that broke too harsh into the words and stood back. Best to let Frodo walk before him, so he'd see right away if his master stumbled. "We can tell all the tales you like on the road," he murmured.

"If you say so." A small furrow troubled Frodo's brow. Mayhap he didn't recollect what he'd only just said.

"Never you mind, Mr. Frodo." Sam put forth a reassuring look that held just long enough. Sorrow gaped to a black lurch inside him, steep as any cliff, and once he fell down that pit, he'd never stop. Between the overturning of earth and sky, he'd be lost for certain.

~ ~ ~

An invisible sun rolls behind the clouds. But even so, the pale daylight is scathing to Frodo's eyes, and he can see it fracture in the clouds, a glittering host of rain-drops that will not fall.

This is a place of no seasons, barred by the mountain wall that towers at his back. He has to make a choice before the day ends, decide on a path before the black messengers return the fear that settles like a hand out of the sky.

Through smoke and cloud, the light hardens and stings in his temples, glistening in wave after wave behind his brow. At the back of his eyes, it flares white and blind. His thoughts rise, falter and break in this hollow light.

On the grey slope, Gollum cowers, his eyes fixed a hand's breadth below the mark where their glances would cross. Sam stands at Frodo's back, between him and the gate.

One Ring to bind them all. A truth carved in gold, in flame and flesh. It binds us too, but it cannot make us one. Only –

A hand curves against the back of his shoulder. Sam's touch guides the daylight into him, a warm runnel beneath the skin. Not long ago, it has spread through Frodo's sleep, lending it colour. Rich hues of green and gold that his waking mind cannot shape into anything whole, cannot hold –

– only you.

Thoughts pass in small trickles through him, leach from him as water would from a cracked trough. The chafing of cloth on his skin crawls across a gap filled with thrumming, swelling power. His heart, breath and blood race with it. Not long now, and that pulse will grow stronger than his own, swarming and choking even the smallest hollow.

Is there a place within him that will not forget, where he can bury Sam, so that Sam won't be broken out of him?

Frodo's hand has stirred, raised as if to protect, to hurl aside or draw closer, and Sam clasps it gently before it can reach –

At last.

~ ~ ~

( South )

Rohan, August 1419

The wind slides through the grass of Rohan, parting it into languid ripples that run from one edge of sky to the other. On its back, summer rides across the fields, skirring over brown and black where ripe gold should sway. Away in the North, scorched poles mark the bare slopes. Curled among them, the wind lifts cinder on its mild breath. The sprinkles of ash float easily and scatter like the voices that ring from afar.

On this coarse, cloudless day, the wind finds the two walking beside a burnt field. Two others of their strange kind follow at a distance, and their voices fly swift and lively as swallows. Not so with the first two, whose names are woven into songs that the wind has picked up and tumbles about them. They speak in murmurs, in short snatches of phrase, but mostly with the movement of their hands.

Here they do not touch, but they stand close enough for the wind to mingle their curls, a lighter and a deeper shade of brown autumn.

The dark one turns to watch the gale rip a single cloud into feathers. He stretches his arms, and his cloak flaps over his shoulders before the wind billows it wide into laughter that they cannot hear. It strokes the tilted face, the translucent skin that belongs to winter, and swerves to snatch at the wanderer's breath.

His companion has crossed over the edge of the field where he squats on the ground. The wind sends out a puff to sprinkle earth across the hands that sift through a cluster of tiny green leaves. Small creature that he is, he must be wrapped in a hundred dust-bound smells. He lifts the soil in handfuls to his face and his voice murmurs in song, searching and drifting.

High on the wind's shoulder sails a hawk, and the two heads snap around at its hunting call. For a breath they stand frozen, and when they walk again, their strides match each other with a rare and curious grace.

~ ~ ~

Henneth Annϋn, 7-8 March 1419

Sam tugged the curtain aside by a hand's breadth and peered out into the larger cavern. Torches burned steady in several corners, shedding their patchy glow on the Men as were taking their rest on pallets, or mending bits of armour and cleaning their weapons. What few words they traded in their outlandish brogue told of naught but unworried ease, and maybe a dash of curiosity.

Safe, Sam thought, a slow breath reaching deep through his limbs. Safe. Like a stone plunged in a river. The weight of wholesome food lay warm and strange in his belly, and the flow of Frodo's sleeping breaths filled the small space behind him.

He turned, padding over to the large bed where Captain Faramir had carried his master. Thin shadows and blurred streaks of light rippled over Frodo's face as the curtain blew from a movement outside. The shadows nestled too thick under his eyes and his jaw, but his mouth was relaxed in a soft curl and his left hand rested loose atop the quilted blanket.

What a blessing, Sam thought. At a passing glance, Frodo might have been asleep in Bag End, washed clean and tucked between fine linen sheets. Sam smoothed out a fold in the blanket beside Frodo's shoulder. So tired he'd been that he fell asleep minutes after they'd reached this place, amid a troop of grim-looking Men, no less. He'd leaned against Sam, sagging with a single long breath, and nodded off faster than Sam could slide his arms round Frodo's chest to make him more comfortable, not caring one whit what these Men would think. But after that bit of relief came worrisome hours of questioning and debating that drained all ease away like water from a jug. Frodo hadn't slept his fill yet, and for the first time since crossing the river, Sam could bear leaving his side for a while.

He returned to the curtain, brushing the rough seam aside, and filled his chest till his ribs could stretch no more. From the window that looked out West, through the glitters of falling water, the damp smell of growing things reached him clear as a trumpet-call.

When Sam crossed the cave, a couple of eyes swept over to him, but the soldiers didn't mind him strolling about, seemingly. He didn't stop till the fine spray tingled on his face. Inside those liquid ripples, the lick of flames danced with a moon-beam or two, orange and silver, but fair as the sight might be, there were greater marvels still. Sam closed his eyes.

Just beyond the water curtain lay wide ranges of wet and green, and a hundred mixed smells that roused their shapes to his mind. Plush swells of moss on stone and bark, the proud sway of firs above bay-trees and junipers, sage sprinkling the softer shade in blue and red. Lily and iris were perking fresh from the grass, already abloom in this mild weather, and the rose-brambles sprawled out as they would. All these wild shrubs, vines, flowers and herbs – and so many more that he couldn't have named – grew and twined through each other, without tending or care.

Sam blinked at the hanging water. The clean air pricked in his chest, and the weave of scents lay about him so thick and beautiful, it filled him of fervent wishing. He stretched his fingers into the drizzles as if he might capture spring itself. After the sick emptiness outside the Black Gate, he'd wondered if they'd see the turn of season at all, when it came.

The Gate now... It wrapped him in the memory of Frodo's free and unexpected laugh – when Sam spoke that silly verse of the oliphaunt – right there, under the Enemy's own walls.

With horns in my mouth
I walk in the South


He turned about slow, though a fretful notion wanted to wheel him round and make him reach for the sword-grip, too. From a mere pace away, Faramir watched with a look as said, why aren't you tending to your master?

Sam drew himself upright. It didn't take Captain Faramir reminding him of his place among all these proud Men – and his own Mr. Frodo matching them in word and bearing, as fair as any.

But then Faramir came to stand beside him and asked, in a kind voice, "Do you fear for your safety still?"

Startled, Sam shook his head. "It's your own bed that my master sleeps in."

"I have no need for it this night."

Sam tipped his head to catch a glance of the Man's face, past the dusty leather of his jerkin. "You do look tired, sir, if you don't mind me saying so."

Faramir clasped a hand over his elbow, rubbing at a worn spot on his sleeve, and looked to the water. "That is a weariness sleep will not cure, for our enemies are untiring. Even as we speak, war storms these lands. Gondor has not yet seen its worst."

Aye, that may be so, but I warrant you have, Sam thought. There'd been such a strain in Faramir's voice when he spoke of his waking dream and Boromir, taken seawards in one of the Elven boats.

"What strength and hope we once held is slipping through our fingers." Faramir's tone dropped, mingling with the rush of water. "Even the grief of our losses, even that." He turned sideways again to meet Sam's eyes, and his own were very clear in the dim. "I shall be truthful with you. It is the errand appointed to your master that weighs upon me tonight."

"He's stronger'n he looks, sir. If you could've seen him..." Sam swallowed against a thick and troubled rush wanting to claim his voice.

"I doubt it not." Faramir closed a hand on his shoulder, and Sam paused in his breathing. He could feel each of the Man's long fingers sink in like a caution. "Let not your grief become your only counsel."

"I wouldn't," Sam answered, as steadfast as he could, "no more than I'd take a rainfall for aught but harm and ill, to put it plain."

Faramir's smile passed quick as the glimpse of a bird, high in the sky. "May my rash judgement of your wit be forgiven." He withdrew his hand, but his gaze lingered on Sam with pondering intent. "The rhyme that troubled my dreams spoke of one Halfling, yet your master named you both in answer to this riddle."[*]

"Aye, that he did." Sam shifted under the keen look. "But my master's bound to the burden and the pains of it, and what little I can do for him won't mend it none." He'd scarce finished when he wished he could catch the words back and stem their sour taste behind his teeth.

Faramir shook his head. "There is an old pledge still spoken in the North when the knights of the Mark ride into battle:

"Stand brother to brother,
in bonds of bone and fast of flesh;
swift as steel falls the night,
but in blood given for your blood's own
wells the seeded life."

Blunt silence closed about Sam like armour. He breathed out slow, thankful when the quiet eased with the spatter of water on stone, the faint iron clinks at their back. "Grim words, sir," he said finally, "and grand, but none too hopeful-sounding."

"Grim they may be, but these words seem more fitting now than the subtler verses wrought by Gondor's poets," Faramir returned. "Peril will either break the bonds once forged, or temper them to greater endurance, and thus one may become two, and two one – is that not so?"

A startled warmth washed up Sam's face. It seemed that those mild grey eyes could pierce to the bottom of his mind, stirring the most secret thoughts to a fluster. "We've got no such rhymes in the Shire, nor the custom for them," he murmured. "And... well, there's such matters as don't need words, if you understand me."

"I do indeed." Though it didn't touch his mouth again, the hint of a smile passed through Faramir's eyes.

Sam bowed. "I'll go to him now."

He spared a last glance for the waterfall and took another breath of the good air, wishing only that he could gather all the green out there in his hands and carry it back to Mr. Frodo, to spread on his skin.

As he turned to the back of the cave, a dim flicker showed through the curtain. Sam hurried across and slipped inside, all abustle with unease. On a stone outcropping above the bed burned a small earthenware lamp. Frodo was sitting up, the blanket dropped in a thick ruffle to his waist.

"Where were you, Sam?" he asked, and his face seemed blank of expression.

"Not far, Mr. Frodo. I just..." Sam shook his head; there weren't any call to waste time on such trifles. "Won't you lie back and sleep? You've not had more than an hour's rest."

But Frodo shook his head. "Not yet." He paused again, as if tracing some puzzling question or a dream, perhaps. "I think – I think I should like to wash."

Sam cast a glance about. On a stool in the corner, a basin full of heated water had been placed for their comfort. He'd made use of it earlier, as quick and quiet as he could, while Frodo lay asleep. "Let me fetch some fresh–"

"It will do," Frodo stopped him. The blanket rustled over the pelts on the bed as he let himself down to the floor. A cramped stiffness slowed his movements, as though he'd been sitting up for a while, getting chilled by the stones' damp breath. He glanced down thoughtful at his chest before raising his hands to the shirt-buttons.

Sam turned away fast to bring the basin and the unused wash-cloth. "Still warm enough, I reckon," he muttered, after dipping his fingers in the water. "If you'll let me–"

He faltered at a touch to his arm, so soft and swiftly gone, it might have been a brush of air.

"Yes." As Frodo moved nearer, the lamp's small flame made a ripple over the side of his face and his bare chest, pooling a drop of bronze in the hollow of his throat. Fierce gold stung below, and only a thumb's length from it lay the lifeless white knot, high on his chest.

And too near his heart, too. Sam wrung out the wash-cloth, but now he didn't know where to set his eyes, between the Ring and the scar and the remembrance of his own touching – "Let's start with your back, sir," he murmured. "That's where you must feel the most sore."

Frodo turned without a word. The lamp eased a gentler glow on his skin, a smooth, bright stretch between his breeches and his curls and the shadows all about.

Sam ran the cloth over his shoulders, dabbing gently at first, then setting to work with firmer strokes. He could feel Frodo straighten and press back into his touch, as if to assure that he were steady on his feet.

"That's very pleasant," Frodo said over his shoulder. "Better than a hot bath, though I can't say that I even recall..."

"Oh, there's no compare." Sam rubbed the cloth in long sweeps down his spine and up again, pleased enough that his hand carried on steadier than his voice. "Once we're back in places where folk take baths, you'll see." When Frodo moved his arm out of the way, the lamp-glow etched the bent shadow of a rib where there shouldn't be none.

"I suppose," Frodo agreed, too slow to be a reassurance.

Sam clamped his teeth down on his lip, no more than a sting next to the scald in his breast. His idle chatter came to naught but anguish for the both of them. As if he'd forgotten Mr. Frodo's own words, not an hour since: I must find the Mountain of Fire and cast the thing into the gulf of Doom. I do not think I shall ever get there.

Between the sound of their breathing and the trickling of the water each time Sam rinsed the cloth, a watchful silence stretched and widened, 'less it were but his own fancy. And that might well be, for he couldn't seem to curb what all rose inside him, tangling ragged and sharp in his chest, stabbing hot in his eyes with every swipe of the wash-cloth over Frodo's back. Here, where the shoulder blade curved out a bit as if to meet his hand. There, at the small of his back, above the bumps of bone that Sam's fingers knew like a hold long kept, for dear life. Too close to the skin they lay, and too little of the healthy padding lingered at Frodo's waist.

Sam bit his lip somewhat harder. He reached for Frodo's arm, lifting it to run the cloth along the underside, from his elbow back up to the patch of dark hair where he swirled it gently till all the clotting of sweat and dust were removed.

"Where did you go while I slept?" Frodo asked suddenly, while Sam tended to his other arm.

"Over to the waterfall, Mr. Frodo, for a breath of fresh air." Sam paused to let the tightness clear from his voice. "It's spring out there, and it's so... so wholesome just to know it."

"Tell me about it, Sam."

But you saw yourself – only this morning you saw... Sam wrung out the cloth again with a fierce wrench. Maybe that wasn't what Mr. Frodo were asking.

"It's such a joy and cheer... maybe like you'd feel when you open up a book full of tales you never knew. I reckon I could put names to half the trees, but not more, and some of them give off scents as the finest flowers." He stopped again, for he'd well and truly finished washing Frodo's back now, and should ask him to turn.

"And all the herbs, sir," he went on, reaching over Frodo's shoulder to swab at his chest, "there's some I recognise, though they seem to grow richer and stronger to the taste here, whether it's the soil or the weather nursing them so."

"Yes, I noticed," Frodo said in musing tones. "The herbs in your stew gave it a very distinctive flavour."

"So they did." Sam kept his touch well away from the Ring and chain and slid the cloth lower down Frodo's chest, but it seemed an easier task so long as he spoke. "I'd say it's the sun growing strong so early in the year."

He stood a bit closer to wash the tender flesh from Frodo's stomach down to the waist of his breeches. Matted curls brushed their ends to his face, and at his throat gathered the fine warmth rising from Frodo's skin.

"It would have to be the sun," Frodo answered, sending Sam's thoughts into a shuffle till he'd remembered his last remark. He reached for Frodo's hand, raising it to continue the cleaning from wrist to elbow, but the wash-cloth slipped at Frodo's tug and dropped to the floor, and the reaching became a tangle between their fingers. In a faint glow like embers, Sam saw them linked and locked, fair skin and brown, the bows of Frodo's knuckles shining pale as pearls in a river.

"Thank you, Sam." Such a hush took Frodo's voice, it shrank to a whisper, but hard by his chest Sam felt how his back stiffened. Frodo pressed his fingers tightly before letting them go.

"'Tis nothing, Mr. Frodo," Sam murmured, through a clutch of tears, glad for the moment's distraction when Frodo turned to plunge his hands into the basin and dash water into his face.

He straightened, wiping his palms on his breeches, but a thin trickle down his chest caught Sam's eye as it slowed just a bit over his waned belly. "Oh, but now I've got naught to dry you with!"

"Here..." Frodo reached for his discarded shirt and dabbed it at his face. "Use this. It will be dry again before morning."

"I'd rather use my own, if you don't mind," Sam answered ere he'd half thought.

"I would–" Frodo tossed the shirt back with a sudden twist of his hand, but then he said nothing more.

Through the curtain's loose weave bled the flickers of a torch as one of the soldiers went past. It turned Frodo's face to a mass of strange lines and angles, fetching wild shadows from his curls that clawed at his face. Sam reached up to brush them back with a shaky hand.

"Why yours, and not mine?" Frodo asked softly, frowning as Sam's touch faltered.

He might say that it wouldn't be proper to use such a good garment as a drying-cloth, but in all truth he longed only to wrap Frodo in himself, in every way that he could. Sam dropped his glance and found it trapped to that filthy bit of gold, so familiar to the tender skin. His own crawled in a rebellious shiver. For all the pretence that he were simply helping his master settle in for the night, as he had of times in Bag End, he'd never known such beauty, or such fright for it, nor the sear that it set to his heart.

"Tell me..." Frodo's fingers reached under his chin and tipped it up firm, reading all what he'd tried to hide. "Do I look so pitiful to you?"

"Oh no!" Sam burst out, and he might have glanced away again for shame, but Frodo's fingers gripped tight on his chin.

"What do you see, that I can't–?" A vein curled dark in Frodo's temple, and he held Sam in a look nigh as stern as when he'd threatened Gollum with the Precious, out there by the Gate. If I were to command you, you'd cast yourself into –

"Frodo." A plea or a claim, Sam didn't know what, only that it took all his breath. You're fair as daybreak, it hurts to look at you, and it hurts not to –

"I ask too much of you, I know it, Sam, but..." A long breath drained from Frodo's chest, his hand fell away, and he stood there straight and lonely, in the dawn of his skin. "Will you come to me?"

"But I'm here!" With his own choked protest still in his ears, Sam knew suddenly what he meant, or thought he did. When he stepped up closer, he could see the goosebumps and the wet glitters stirring on Frodo's chest. Sam caught a single drop with his fingertip, shivering just there, beside the scar. "You can ask all you wish, and I'd mean for the sky to fall if I'm not there answering."


No-one ever called his name in such a tone, soft as a half-slipped dream, and firm with such faith as he'd yet to earn. "I'd only wish for you to ask more," he added, "and be dearly glad of it."

When Frodo bent his head, all Sam could see was the twitch at the corners of his mouth, but then he set a hand on the first button of Sam's shirt. "Dry me with your skin."

Sam breathed in, and couldn't seem to breathe aught but silence, or manage more than a nod. In the mute twilight shimmered the poor lamp, and its light pricked through air like glass.

Frodo loosed each one of Sam's buttons with careful patience. Through the coarse-worn linen, every brush of his fingers quickened sheer amazement, and it held Sam still as stone till Frodo tugged the shirt down his arms, letting it fall in a heap. His thumbs stroked lightly over the bruising on Sam's shoulders where the pack straps had wedged their tracks. Sam meant to say it weren't cause for worry, or meant to shrug perhaps, but he was enclosed left and right in the clasp of Frodo's hands, and in the middle, Frodo's breathing broke to fall with the softest caress on Sam's shoulder. His mouth raised a burning from the raw spot as no chafing weight ever could.

"Remember this," Frodo murmured between the kisses he trailed in an awry line down to Sam's collarbone. "And this."

Sam's senses spun nigh dizzy at each touch, and it took him a moment and another ere he could lift his arms and close them round Frodo's back – cool and smooth and unknown as a first drift of snow – but Frodo leaned to the quick stumbling of his heart. Close against him, with a lithe shift and a rustle, into a new learning of each other's skin.

"What a gift this is." Frodo's face came to rest against his shoulder. "I didn't dare to hope..."

Sam drew breath past a sudden chill, for the hard shape of gold pressed up against his breastbone, and its weight caught his stomach in a cold lump. Every inch of him wanted it gone, gone and dropped into the deepest pit as could be found – and if only it would do less harm, kept between them like this. He locked his arms round Frodo's back, cradling the shivers that ran from the prickling wet on Frodo's chest to his own – and the Ring couldn't stop none of it, nor the heartbeats rising swift and strong to take up every bit of space, inside and out.

"Don't never leave me," he whispered against the dark curls.

Frodo pulled away to look at him, his fingers clutched to a fist over Sam's back. "Are you still afraid of that?" Such a question didn't need answering, Sam could tell. The lamp dipped a shadow over Frodo's eyes. "Sam, please try to understand. What I would wish for, and what you–"

"'Tis the same, Mr. Frodo." Sam splayed his fingers over the cool damp on Frodo's back, gathering it up in a slow, uneven stroke. "And if I might – I'd want for you to know, as sure as daylight."

"Forgive me. I ought to trust..." Frodo bit his lip, but his hand opened and his grip eased a little. "You carry so much for me already. All the fear, all the grief that I cannot allow myself. I can't be afraid for myself."

Sam shook his head, though his thoughts staggered to catch all the meaning in that, mired in sore and seething regret. "I'd carry more if you'd let me, if–"

Frodo touched his mouth with a fingertip and shook his head in turn, sealing the quiet anew.

If I could. Sam reached a hand up to the nape of his neck, where the downy damp tickled his palm like a secret only his touch could recover. With a slight shifting of his shoulders, Frodo leaned near, and a quiver rushed his breath against Sam's mouth. Halting, waiting, in a hope as fleet as the glow from that swimming wick, captured between blinks in flaming splinters.

Sam bent closer, into the path Frodo's hands drew up his back. What brushed his lips might have been a gust of flame, a quick and weightless welcome he could barely believe, but he couldn't stop himself neither.

The softness of Frodo's mouth under his own gave a way and haven to his breath. Softer than velvet, easing back from the smooth ridge of teeth – Sam's eyes closed as fast as his heartbeat scrambled to well in his throat. His chest and arms warmed everywhere with Frodo's skin drying against his own, and memories leapt like needles in all his veins. Of the only time they'd held so close, of Frodo's touch seeking his skin as shelter from the wind and the rocks, from a long night's confounded wandering. His hands moved where the last dribs of dampness were melting aside, less from the touching than the blood's warming surge, and the joining of their mouths no more than the crest of it, only the brightest point in a sparking flurry. It seized his breath and filled him anew, this open caress of Frodo's lips and tongue to his own, the inside of his mouth still spiced warm with wine and herbs.

Frodo tipped his head back, and beneath the rise of a quick breath, Sam felt a soft heat uncurl as could fast grow to be blinding. A helpless sound murmured from him, stirred into the flicker of Frodo's lashes against his cheek. Sam caught him closer about the waist and leaned into the kiss, his fingers tangling into thick curls as Frodo tightened the grasp on his shoulders. They were wound together like vines, in a soft sway and bend, and all the air between the bare rock and the curtain seemed to reel about them.

At the close of it, there was a short, wrenching gasp, and Frodo's questioning glance, the strong grip of his fingers. "Lie with me, Sam."

His own hands were slow to release, but Frodo's fingertips took a quick road from the centre of his chest and sent a shiver skittering down, in the wake of that tender searching, till it caught on a sharp jolt.

Sam gasped at the trembling glimpse of a smile, the new shadow of colour in Frodo's cheeks when his hand settled on the front of Sam's breeches. Cupped him so light and curious that he swayed forward without meaning to. The same heat brushed his hip, but Frodo's touch didn't linger and went to the fastenings instead, undoing them on either side.

A whisper curled below Sam's throat and fled past. "Let me give you this."

Tugged down Sam's hips, his breeches rumpled and tangled about his knees while Frodo was quick to take off his own trousers in a flight of breath and fingers. Then he stood there waiting, offering in a kind of stillness that robbed Sam of all thought – that, and the smile starting only in Frodo's eyes, like a memory of stepping out into the garden for a first glimpse of the sun. Sam found his sense finally, and kicked the crumpled breeches off his ankles.

In all his life, he'd never left his clothes strewn about the floor, where the night's chill would leave them clammy and stiff, but Frodo had turned to climb up on the bed, and now he was holding the blanket up for Sam. The lamp's shine glazed his arm and shoulder in polished copper. Sam could nigh feel that vivid sheen crawl on his own chest as he hefted himself up, or perhaps it was the keen attention in Frodo's eyes, setting his skin alight.

With a shaky breath, Sam lay down beside him, amid the shifting layers of soft pelts and the large blanket's folds, tucked into the curve of Frodo's arm over his middle. A haze of warmth closed its blessing about him, and it was enough only to fill his chest of air –

"You're here."

There was such startled relief in Frodo's voice that a gasp burst from Sam's throat. He leaned up and over, to trace Frodo's cheek with his lips, down the edge of his jaw and past that, to the soft hollow under his ear, to cover as much of him in the clumsy caressing as he could.

A long breath shivered against his throat. Frodo sagged into the bedding, tired out from the day's twists and turns.

"You did ought to rest." Sam stroked a hand down his arm, breathless and thankful for every moment, every span of skin that was warm and whole.

"I am weary only of... this rent within myself. With my left hand I would reach for you, and with my right–" Frodo stopped himself with a flick of his fingers. "You must be tired yourself."

"Not too tired to watch over you, Mr. Frodo." Sam cradled his face between both hands, cupping that treasure of a moment's calm, the cloudless dark in Frodo's eyes. Just to look on you, when there's time to look and not worry what might lurk in the shadow, or what mischief that Gollum's up to. Bronze shimmers crept along Frodo's temple and brow, bolder and more solid than the secret glow that could line his face in spun silver and split a heart in two. I saw it this morning, Sam almost said, or thought I did, and there's naught more fair or hopeful.

"All the choices that I made," Frodo said softly, "and yet that will not stop me from wondering what could have been, if we–" He broke off again, raising his hand from Sam's side to his shoulder where his fingers drew circling, restless patterns. "It is quite useless."

And it might be, by all accounts of good sense, but Sam couldn't answer for the stumbling heartbeats that followed Frodo's touch and the stubborn wishing – "You shouldn't burden yourself with wondering over things as can't be changed," he said thickly, setting his hands on Frodo's shoulders.

Frodo tilted his head up to brush his lips over Sam's chin and paused, his eyes astray in the dim. "The spring out there... I barely know it any more, Sam. If I should falter before..."

He'd said it twice now, twice in a day, naming the doubt and fear as must be rising to the height of a mountain. The words grappled cold in Sam's chest and clutched with a hopeless misery that he had to fight, no matter how.

"You're strong in the way of a birch..." He gathered his breath, as much as he could, and firmed his clasp of Frodo's shoulders. "You know how they are, slender and always stretching as if they'd dance with the wind, and the fairy look of their bark in the moonshine..." Frodo's eyes were fixed on him, and Sam lost himself to the watchful silence, for it seemed to sink inside him and seek out a place where naught else would ever reach. "But still," he went on, "they've got a clear sense in them to grow roots in any ground, even where oaks won't thrive, and other trees that seem much hardier to look on."

Frodo said nothing, but his arm drew tight over Sam's waist, his breath adrift with a sound that might be Sam's name or just a plea to hold close.

"'Tis true." A tremor unwound from Sam's middle as he lowered his mouth to the parted lips, tasting their shape with his tongue, from the moist corner to the curve and bow, to the smooth fold between lip and teeth. A soft moan called him closer, into a mingling of breath and heedless yearning, till Frodo's hand gripped into his curls.

"We have so little time..." His voice was hoarse, scarce above a whisper, "and I'm starving, I'm starved for – for everything, Sam."

Such a desperate chill flew all over his skin, Sam found naught to say but, "This is now, this is–"

But Frodo took the rest of his answer into his mouth and clung fast as if he'd drink the whole of a life from Sam's lips, or give it over to him. Sam's throat burned as it might from a swallow of starshine, and a reckless heat rose anew, so quick and hungry it struck as a lightning jab that slivered his breath. All the while Frodo pulled him near, till Sam lay half-tangled across him, as Frodo had lain when they were –

Everything. The memory roused like a claim, with a need sprung from the very root. There'd been awkward tangles of clothing between them and a bed of pebbles underneath, not this strange softness, but it mattered none to the joy and ache crowding Sam's chest, or the longing to answer with every bit of himself, with more than he had or could ever hope to give. His heart hammered up in his throat at such a boundless beauty skimming all over him, this living marvel of Frodo's skin sliding soft between thigh and hip, against his belly, this restless searching of Frodo's fingers, gripping his waist, running over the small of his back and down in a needful haste.

Sam bent his head into the curve of Frodo's neck and stifled a moan there, for more than a murmur of sound would surely be heard outside. Under his mouth hurried pulsebeats like words running too wild to be understood, near drowned in the rush that brought a hard gasp from Frodo's lips. Sam opened his mouth to them and swirled his tongue over the heated skin, to nurture the soft tunes of pleasure from a body grown lean with hardship, the trembling starts that flew to call up their like from his own flesh. A ragged moan stirred his curls as Frodo turned his face, turned closer into him, his thigh angled up and sliding till their ankles locked. He buried another thick breath in Sam's hair, and Sam could feel him rub against his hip, taut and full. A vast hollow bloomed inside himself, needing to widen and merge –

"Sam..." Frodo tugged his head up.

He found shaky support on an elbow and looked down into his master's face, where the lamp-shine had kindled a fever of burning bronze and cutting shadow. As if he'd dissolve in the light, Sam thought. Hard as he tried not to heed it, the fear drove between the aching pull in his body and the anguished squeeze of his heart – and only this touch, only Frodo's hand reaching to lie over his breast could mend it, and the frank look in his eyes, the one word –


He moved till his body covered Frodo like a blanket, and then he couldn't move at all, cradled tight between Frodo's thighs, clasped to a heartbeat that surged and broke. Frodo took a cry off his lips and wrapped it into his own breathing, both hands gliding strong and sure down the length of Sam's back.

"Frodo," he gasped between snatched, uneven kisses, the mere trembling of a wish, but it opened wide from the pit of his stomach and stuttered in the heartbeats that graved themselves on Frodo's chest. Frodo pulled his head down once more and pressed up against him, urging for a match that took all of Sam's breath and wound it into a silent music. Between the weaving of their tongues, the fretful surge and press of hips, a rhythm swelled slow and tight like a staunched river, and tighter still. Shivers slid down Sam's arms and up his legs, as like he were folded in the naked light on Frodo's skin.

He kept his eyes open – he wouldn't lose a moment of this – open to the glistening trail of sweat along the line of Frodo's throat where he set his lips, to the breathless flutters just above that spot. Here he could taste the whimpered sounds that fled with each writhing motion, in stings of salt on the skin, and each a gift of its own. But something prickled at the tail of his eye, and it seemed his sight were turned backward, shackled fearful to the glint of gold – or maybe it were watching.

Sam reached without thinking and clasped his hand over the thing. No unnatural heat branded his palm as he might have hoped, it felt cool as any bit of metal. Cooler than it ought, in truth, when it rested so close –

"Sam, don't–" It sliced sharp through Frodo's teeth, and he stilled completely, save for the heave and fall of his chest.

"But how–" Sam swallowed to stop himself from stammering witlessly. "How can I..."

Frodo's eyes were shut tight, a tense fold drawn between his brows. Lost for words, for aught but this helpless need, Sam leaned over to press a kiss to his frown, to the corners of Frodo's eyes where a dry trace of salt lingered, and could think nothing save please, please I must –

The stillness fell apart then, with Frodo's whisper against his cheek. "As you wish."

He laid one hand to Sam's face and with the other reached down between them, to join them in a single clasp, stroking one desperate pulse to the other till their measure was one, here...

With you and for you and if... only... this... Sam held a groan caged in his breast, but a simpler heat overran him in one fast rise after another, and when he looked up again, Frodo's eyes were on him, dark as a shadow lit from inside. A wildness there, wanting to burst free without knowing a danger in the world.

"Only... you..." And each word a conquest, borne on a sharp breath. "Sam... if I could..."

Sam kissed the fingers cradling his cheek, and a smile touched Frodo's mouth, clear and free as a soaring wind. If Frodo could find this in his skin, in the promise Sam laid to his lips –

"Master," he breathed, fingers wrapped tight in his curls, "Frodo... you're still – always–" But what he might have said went under in a broken sound when Frodo thrust up hard against him. And everything that always could be was –

Now. Frodo's hand tightened for a quick, begging stroke, and Sam followed, deeper into the claiming heat that filled him and pushed outward, against a fierce shudder that made a taut arch of Frodo's back. A dreaming joy flamed on his face, for a moment that stretched and thinned like the sun's passing on the horizon, flaring to sink and spend.

What seared in his own limbs seemed a shadow to that brightness, blind and ablaze in its ebbing rush. Maybe he dreamed his name crushed in a gasp to his cheek while spurts of hard breath wrenched from him, but not a sound, not a word when the pounding of his blood rose so strong, strong enough to melt through his skin. No dream had ever torn like this or took so much, so much that he couldn't find his breath or any sense of his limbs, or any thought other than –

"Here... I have you." Frodo wound both arms around his back, and another shiver spilled between their chests, like a fraying thread. Pillowed on a cadence of fitful breathing, Sam fought the sobs as were near choking him, but he had to stop them, had to –

"I know," Frodo murmured, breathless between the damp tangles of Sam's hair and his cheek, "I know, my love."

His hand took a slow, uncertain path up to Sam's shoulder, releasing the rough gasp that stuck crosswise in Sam's throat. He swallowed back the rest and what no amount of wishing could cure, and told himself, here, this, what more do you need to go on, for him...

It took another while till he remembered to move his hand away, off the cloudy gold that cleared too quick, shedding the damp trace of his touch. Shadows hid the bruise underneath where the thing slapped back and forth in the walking, a mere ghost of the true harm it did.

Frodo's fingers scrabbled for it now, slid over the smooth curve, and his eyes squeezed shut tightly. "I... hate it so."

Such a high anguish ripped at his voice, Sam near snatched his hand away, to prise his fingers open and warm them again with a kiss, but he couldn't dare more than – "Frodo..." He brushed his mouth against Frodo's temple.

"Hatred and anger bind me to it, Sam. There is nothing that will not–" His fingers jerked back and closed fast on the chain. "I shouldn't."

What could he say to that? Sam closed his eyes, but that wouldn't help him weed out what grew like thistle and thorn in his own mind. The churning need to know what passed between Gollum and Mr. Frodo, during those silent moments when the very air seemed to bloat with misgiving.

And what if that was the Ring's doing? Was it nettling these restless questions from him, that constant wondering – but what would it want with you, Sam Gamgee?

Frodo pulled him back from that fool's maze with a touch to his wrist. "The more I listen to it," he said, "the more I learn. And the more my knowledge grows, the more I lose." Thin lines carved into the corners of his eyes. "You have bound yourself to me as I am bound to the Ring. There is no fairness in this, Sam..."

Sam leaned over and brushed a kiss to each of Frodo's closed lids, breathing in as if he could seal the scent of Frodo's skin on his brow.

"Never mind that, Mr. Frodo," he said when his voice would carry again, "for I've made my choices as much as you have, and there's naught as can change them."

Frodo's hand pressed his so hard, it jarred bones and knuckles together before he let go. It was a grip ending the scant safety such as Frodo could trust himself to, and Sam felt its loss like a strike to the marrow. From the outer cavern, he could hear soft snores, and the measured steps of a Man on watch.

"I'd best get us cleaned up now, sir." There, that had a steady ring as was almost reassuring – and what could he do besides offering small comforts, small shreds of familiar things?

"I suppose..." A hazy unease flickered in Frodo's eyes when they opened again.

"I'll be quick about it," Sam promised.

Cold air poured over his chest as he climbed from the high bed, to gather up their shed clothes and heap them on the blanket. The water in the basin had cooled enough to be chilly, so after dabbing himself down, he warmed the wash-cloth between his palms. Frodo lay with his eyes closed while Sam cleaned him, tracing the soft movement of breath through his belly.

"I reckon we ought to put our clothes back on as well," Sam muttered when he was done. "We don't rightly know when someone will come in to wake us."

"Yes, Sam." Frodo sat up to reach for his garments, slow and wearied now. Sam untangled the shirt sleeves for him, to keep a secret from all other eyes and knowledge, so that it would be their own.

"Do you remember Cerin Amroth, in Lσrien?" Frodo asked suddenly. "There are places in the world..."

"Places as seem to be outside of it too," Sam ventured when he trailed off. "There's hope in that, Mr. Frodo."

"Maybe." Frodo's eyes held his for a lonely spell, then he lay back down.

Sam knelt up to blow out the light and fancied he could still feel Frodo's glance on his back till the lamp flickered out, folding them in shadow. The blanket settled over them with a heavy rustle, into the whispers of Frodo's quieter breaths. Through the dark, he reached a hand over Sam's side, easing them close together as if they'd always slept in such a comforting tangle. A gentle hum spread in Sam's chest, but he kept his eyes open, against sleep.

Amid the scents of pitch and damp stone and burnt linseed oil hung the cheerful whiff of spring. Sam breathed in long swallows to plant it as deep as he could.

~ ~ ~

The water fans out to fall in sliced ribbons from every side. Under the full moon, every drop is caught in brilliant white, a dazzling host of thousands leaping down the steep cliff. The sound comes to Frodo in billows – a clashing surge, then silence – measured to the pounding of blood in his temples.

There are moments such as this, that splinter out of time with crystal sharpness. That hang isolated, pierced by a thread that may be sewn through his skin but strains far into darkness.

Frodo steps out further on the ledge than Sam dares, and if the half-guessed motion at his back is not a hand reached out, it must be a muted gasp or the sheer intent. A split impulse that joins the falling drops, brushing him like a touch to wake a thousand others.

The memory is alive under his skin, but it may not last long – not for him, and not for Sam. It can't even be called a gift when everything given is at once taken. Taken and shaped into the very substance that feeds the One.

You keep me alive, Sam. So that I can carry it further to destruction, to my destruction as much as –

It fractures cold under his breastbone, freezing his breath before he can catch the truth like the spray on his fingers. Yours. And pretend not to know, insist that Sam's choices are his own, that this balance they have gained between them also holds them apart. But what breaks them apart is –

Here. Frodo's glance holds a single drop suspended in its fall. Already he can feel it spun out in a thread between himself and Smιagol, oblivious in the pool below. The same unrest. But Frodo cannot call it his own, any more than Smιagol can. He knows the source at least and the battering surge, if not the paths that it carves through his mind.

He climbs down to the bottom where the water rings sharp on stone and greyed strands of moonlight sink across random sights. The slick, pale gleam of a fish's torn belly. The trust in Smιagol's eyes, never quite expected and about to be broken by a greater justice. Frodo stands very still.

All around them, bowstrings quiver in the dark, ready to release a rain of arrows at a flick of the hand. Above, at the back of the rock-shelf, Sam is trapped within the same circle, and Frodo doesn't need to glance up over his shoulder to find him there. His chosen companion. And here, his chosen guide. Betrayal strings them together in their small hopes.

The servant has a claim on the master for service, even service in fear, Frodo repeats to himself.

All around them, the water falls. Frodo holds out his hand.

~ ~ ~

( North )

Rivendell, September 1419

The wind dives with the foam that shrouds the valley of Rivendell. At its tail hovers a crisp breath of winter, drawn from the Misty Mountains' edge, but all along the dark river range the colours of autumn. The wind rakes eddies through the changeful waters and gusts white froth towards the mellow lights above. Falling leaves dance down the slopes, messengers between the homely fires and the river. But a stealthier movement slips between the trees, hidden in blue and grey and the pale silver of a waning night. The wind fans along the river banks to lie in wait for the travellers, its tail twitching through the foam.

These two move more quietly than all other creatures as they climb to the bottom of the valley, and they take a slow path that wends past many stops. The wind quiets and slides low among the ferns, to find them melted together in the shadow of birch or alder, to cradle the sound of a gasp or a whispered word above the water's voice.

Then the two will move on again, each keeping a firm grasp on the other's hand, while the wind lifts twigs and boughs out of their way. As it lightens towards morning, the night grows restless in the deep, between the spray and the leaves that float on the wind's breath. The travellers follow it down to an alcove of flat, weather-scoured rocks.

Though they sit very still beneath the waterfall, it is a stillness of moments, braced in the clasp of their arms around each other. They have yet to reach their home. The wind slides curious tendrils around their toes that dangle above the water and cools the scarred feet.

The stouter of the two lifts a hand to the stars and the wind fills it with water. More than spray glitters on his cheeks while his companion sings in the old tongue, fine droplets dazzling in his curls. His husky voice strains at some notes as if unaccustomed, almost drowned by the water's clash and surge, but when the melody rings free, it sounds rich and sweet.

Through it runs the strange pull of tides, and the wind carries it up on a swift breeze, so that it soars.

~ ~ ~

Cirith Ungol, 12-15 March 1419

It didn't last longer than a moment. A moment swept away clear from the blind dark as choked every footfall, every rustle of sound, and swallowed it down some awful deep.

Sam backed away from the dead end of the tunnel where there wasn't a crack wide enough to let a rat pass through. Without the stirs of Frodo's breathing, high and taut beside him, he wouldn't have known where to turn. Only the feeble warmth curling into the space between them kept the blackness at bay.

But from it crawled a sound that froze Sam short of his stride, fear prickling numb all over his skin. The dark lay hard about them, swelling with the hiss and rattle of slow breaths and scraping noises along the tunnel wall at their back. Everything drowned within that unseen coming, and then Frodo's breaths were gone, truly gone, as he'd always feared. Sam couldn't make a sound in his throat for the cold burst in his chest.

If only I could see you... In that moment, he thought he was falling again, down a bottomless blank, but in the falling swirled a spark, gold and green like a far glimpse of the Shire. As if he'd breathed it to flame, it surged and bloomed wide into silver, and then he knew well enough what it was – he'd seen this light on Frodo's face of times, keen and soft all through him.

"Master!" Sam's whisper dropped into the dead gloom. "The Lady's gift! The star-glass!"

More to his left than he'd deemed, Frodo's voice answered him, near and warm and hazed with confusion. His sharp intake of breath spread into the silver that shaped his face out of the dark. Surprise smoothed back from Frodo's brow and left it clear, and none of the dirt-smears could cloud the graceful line running from the soft dip at his temple to the angle of his jaw. His mouth set firm, and his eyes were just as calm, the colour of juniper berries washed in a mild rain.

Sam drank in the sight as the light roused to piercing vigour like the blaze of his wish. Then a white brilliance sprang from Frodo's hand and burst shape and shadow alike into wild splinters. But the slivers settled, louring across the tunnel, each spiked with a hard and hateful intent.

They ran. Whatever the creature were that tried to stare them helpless, it had caught up nigh to their heels when the white flash swung about. Folded in this light, Frodo raised the glass in one hand and Sting in the other, a star descending on those hideous eyes. And they couldn't bear this brightness neither. One by one, like glisters sinking in a murky pool, Sam watched them waver and wink to black. Oh, and if this is the last I ever see –

For a moment longer, Frodo stood, lost in his own light, but he spun backward at Sam's call.

When they took off again, a new vigour trickled into Sam's limbs, from one stride to the next. He could hear Frodo's quick breaths beside him, the rhythm of Frodo's steps drumming through his own, and on his right, the hopeful shimmer dashed along with them. It leapt and flickered in flurried grey on the walls, like a crest of lightning-clouds running before nightfall.

They stumbled up the passage where the ground was uneven with bumps of rock and sudden cracks. A faint draught seeped from somewhere ahead, closer and closer, but where the tunnel should have opened, something sticky and solid flung them back.

Sam let an angry shout fly ere he could help it. It scattered into gasps as he hacked his sword at those clinging ropes, but each blow only drove a hard strain up his arm and tossed it back with a hopeless quiver. His breath rasped like a dust-whirl in his chest. Curse that miserable Gollum who'd taken off when they needed a guide worse than ever before, just as he'd suspected all along. But when he turned to look at Frodo, the same fearless will showed on his face.

"Let us see what Sting can do."

The ring of his voice stopped Sam's fretting and blew his senseless anger aside, into the strangest thrill.

"Here, take the star-glass. Do not be afraid." Frodo's hand folded round his own with soft care as he passed the precious thing into Sam's grasp. "Hold it up and watch!"

Damp as they were, Sam's fingers nigh slipped on the fine glass, and for a space he wondered if it might go out, but it burned on steady. His own blood pulsed round its fair shine as he watched Frodo strike at the web, and the ropes parted and spilled loose.

There... A cold wind gushed in and swept the sweat-drenched curls away from Frodo's face. He tossed his head back, and one touch of that free gust brought a smile as clear as day, all else forgotten. It lasted only a moment, but Sam could feel it settle on him, this smile that he'd not seen in so long, till he was hollowed out by the joy of it.

"Come!" Frodo called as he leapt through the mouth of the tunnel. "On! On!"

Sam's heartbeat sprang into a race of furious hammer-blows. The dim crags out there weren't safe, not for a yard's wishing, but all he could think was: Run, my love.

~ ~ ~

He's humming against darkness, though it's a mere scratch of sound, but it carries his breath and keeps it aflight, not steady but going, in and out. He's humming snatches from an old tune that the lasses used to sing on washdays, when sheets would float pale on the Bywater pool, to billow and sink. The tune's broken now, for the sounds rasp in his dry throat and echo the notes in thready whimpers. One by one, the words stumble and drag from the back of his head, and rise up like bubbles popping in muddy water.

Long have I sought thee,
Laddie, lie near me...

But when he recollects that much, he has to stop humming, and he's plunged back into loneliness, so fast the dark near closes to black again. His knees are caught so tight to his chest that it hurts, but it won't stop the cold from eating its way out through his skin. He has to get up now and leave – but how oft has he thought that and lost himself in the thinking?

He looks at the hand that he's clutching, pale beneath the dirt and soft only at the heart of the palm. But cold, so cold, seized in a winter smothering all the world – and him, too, from inside. It's come burrowing under his skin and lulls him in endless shivers, one after the next, till his blood and heartbeat are all fraught with frost.

It takes much willing and a yank to lift his head. To make his eyes crawl the short, thornful space from the hand he holds to Frodo's chest, to his bared throat and his face. Still no flicker of air above his mouth, not a hitch in his breast. How many hours have gone by?

There's a point in crying where each sob turns a knife in the chest, and each breath bears down hard as a rock. It's working down, down, blunt and relentless; his legs have turned cold and unfeeling as stone already. If he can't gain his feet now, he won't never leave, and he must, or he won't deserve to lie near.

Sam stumbles up, and a sudden gasp cracks the ice in his chest, and for a spell he can't breathe at all. Not fear now, it's a different kind of cold as he lays Frodo's hand back against his chest. A last chill trickles out from his own fingers, to pool thick as blood and drain him dry.

Here's where the crying stops then, for the end's come, hovering like a breath, and it won't matter none when it's going to fall, just that it will, for there's naught else left in the world. Thoughts shift like breezes above the squeeze and roll of fogs, the aching through every limb. But the thread between the two's grown thinner and thinner. He'll stay alive in this manner, afloat in the knowing of what he's got to do, dragging his limbs behind. Just long enough to make it to the Fire and back again. And then the thread will snap and he'll crash back into bones of pain and quivers of crying, and the sky will come falling down after all when he lays himself beside Frodo, stilling a breath on those quiet lips, to let the life go out of him too, as it ought. That's all as he needs to know.

Once he unbends, there's a new weight hung round his neck, and the cold links slide raw against his skin, like a chain rattling off the winch to hurl a bucket to the bottom of the well. He sets his feet apart and squares his shoulders to it. The reeling weight won't settle, but it swings inward as like it's going to delve through the numbness in his breast and make a place there. Sam's fingers wander by rote, from pack straps to sword-hilt to the brooch holding his cloak, and when his hand drops back empty to his chest, it means that he's ready. But he can't leave Frodo in the dark like this, even now, not when there's a moment's light to be had and a last memory clothed in it.

This light, whiter than snow and unbroken, pouring through fine glass, through his dirty, shaking fingers, to cradle Frodo's face in the softest of dreams. Mayhap it's another wrong choice that he's made, raising the star-glass like this when even the stones gloat all about, but its shine runs so clear and seals the promise between them. Another snarled sound splinters out of Sam's throat as he closes his eyes on the sight and drowns the light in folds of threadbare cloth. His only wish is hooked in deep, its twine strung through every part of his body, catching him to this place in a last silver thread.

He can turn now, and set one foot in front of the other. There's an old rut in the ground, carving deeper among the rocks to swallow him up like a trough. He's asway in the walking, out of his balance between one weight and the other, but he's going forward along the bounds of the Black Land. The tune drifts through his mind again, scattered as leaves trundling on a river, though he won't never sing again, not when –

The Ring scoops up what rattles in his chest like a bucket hauling water. It won't stop him from plodding along, leastways. While the trough narrows and cliffs rise on either side, Sam walks with fitful memories as lurch through his head, like rags flapping in the wind, blown off somebody else's life. The peels of days aswim in a bleared and scalding glare, of idle tales as would catch his fancy. He has an odd notion that he's trailing those remembrances in his footsteps, and they're sloughed off him so he can bear this weight round his neck. Up ahead hangs a ruddy glint, in the eye of the tower. His feet have brought him to a run of worn steps, under that dark horn. Shadows slide about him as he climbs the stairs, but with each step a no winds up tighter inside him, till he's pulled to it on a short leash, dizzied and breathless.

He clamps his hand over the star-glass, till its edge bites his skin and sinks the hasp of another tale into his mind. He thinks of Beren holding the moon-jewel in his fist, still holding on fast even when the wolf bit off the hand entire, and the light burned on to scald a hole through the wolf's belly, like a wish.

If only I could have... my one wish... When Sam turns near the top of the stairs, a damp waft scrabbles at the back of his neck, but in the cloud of tears lies a lonely shimmer. To go back and find him.

Around his neck, the chain seems strung out to its grating limit, ready to snap his spine if he takes a single step further, but that isn't what holds him here. There's only one place for him in the world, and the truth of it balls so tight in his breast that everything falls to silence, squeezed about him in the crush of stone. And then, through the mute charcoal and black bursts the harsh sound of voices.

~ ~ ~

Deep marks crossed the stone – two, one and three – broke off between breaths, and took up again below. Thinner than before – here and alone – above a black band wedged into the cold and damp.

"Sam...?" That whisper again, escaping into dead air that never changed, never stirred. Between the jagged scores and the black lay a hand, his hand, clutched close on nothing. Under his cheek, a sharp bump in the stone pressed up, a mutinous part of the wall that guarded nothing, always... nothing. What had made those scratches in the wall?

Roses, roses and thorns... He shook his head slowly. The watery sound of his breaths rolled against the stone, hollow in the depth of this well. With it came the smells – sour, bitter and rot – and a chill bled from high above him. But at his back crowded – not air nor shadow, the only shadow gathered here by the wall, a dank wedge of quiet. And if he turned –

Sam... The hand moved again, from its empty hold over his chest to the wall, to follow the scars in the stone and count them to nothing. Stone piled on stone, endless and unmoving. If he could stop his breathing, all would be silence, here in the dwindling black between the wall and the floor. But his stomach twisted at the smells. Too much had been poured into him, he remembered – bitter down his throat to churn in his stomach, and frozen at the back of his neck, spilling weakness between his shoulder blades.

He swayed with the flush of it, to and fro, into cooling darkness. His hand slithered down and fell on his leg, a pale span of skin where the shadow gave no cover. But no, that couldn't be, his skin had been stripped off, hadn't they told him so? They know their job in Lugbϊrz, little maggot, they'll take your hide off in ribbons, do you hear?

He kept his breath in. Sounds would follow the smells, and more would follow the sounds from the space that lay behind him, but he could stave them in the cage of his chest. To stay unbreathing among these rough blocks, and press his thumb against a crack, here. But these stones trapped noise, caught it and spilled it – a screech like bursting iron – and his breath rushed out, too loud and sobbing, a mad ringing in his ears that would bring –

Roses and thorns, run while I count... Coarse rags brushed his forehead. With the smells came the sounds – trampling now, and bellows and shrieks below – till the space at his back crawled and surged with dreams. There were voices in the stones, welling from the deep.

Roses and thorns
won't hide you a bit
the first to turn
falls in the pit.

The other children spun in a circle about him, crowing, shrieking with glee, but there were gaps in their smiles, between their teeth, and their eyes –

It didn't seem like a memory he could own, but he could see their teeth very clearly, sharp and brown and broken. He could hear the breaths that wheezed through the gaps and ruffled his hair, their hoarse, ragged voices. The noise staggered in tighter circles through his chest, borne on drumbeats of blood and a warm, gagging smell.

I have no skin.

They'd told him so, among questions hurtled like gravel, grinding their way inward with the glint of claws and knives. The heaves of his stomach couldn't bring up anything but thin, wretched gasps. What had been poured into him wasn't enough to fill –

Sam. Surge and fall, from one blackness to another. But what carried him up brought him to reeling clarity, splinter-sharp in his mind, and thrust forward into questions. If Sam isn't with me then he's' –

Two, one and three, run while I count... The scratches slid away under his fingers. Nothing held the stones together, and now there was only silence. It gorged the space behind him, rushed him in cold, relentless waves that sluiced over his back, one after the other – here and alone and alone and here – till it crept under his hair and he pushed his hand into it, pulled tight into a fist, as if it could be torn out.

Only the wall could ward off the silence now. He laid his face against it, breathing the stone, the cool mindless damp. Without skin to stop him he could melt into it and hear what the stones themselves might be dreaming.

A faint hum trembled through them. A thread of singing clasped them together, like a fevered memory of the place where his own voice lay buried. But that wasn't what answered him now.

A hum rose out of that well, a voice, and the wall dreamed up a song, dreamed –

Sam. A steady rising warmed the rock under his cheek. Note by note, the song strung itself together, through scratch and ridge and blunt edge. What he croaked in answer was wordless, feeble against the heavy creak of wood on stone, and it brought –

"Keep your trap shut, see?" Through the space at his back lashed a shout, and it struck him with fire across the side.

He angled his arm sharply over his head and could smell the fear there, stronger than before. A hot flash traced the blow from hip to shoulder and seared into his head. Drunken sounds stumbled about him, rose to another cry that faltered over his spine.

He could not give in to this dream, let it claim him away from his shred of shelter by the stones, but there was a scent now –


– of grass, grass freshly mown and drying in the sun, a dream he could sink into, till he felt the earth thrum warm underneath. Held and cradled to this heartbeat, he could dare –

"Sam..." Murky light inched through his lids, blurred as the words that staggered from the weight of his tongue, "...but the other dreams were horrible."

"You're not dreaming at all, Master." A shudder heaved through Sam's chest, against the side of Frodo's face, ragged with tears and – "It's real. It's me. I've come."

Real: a wet streak over Sam's cheek that his fingers traced, warm as blood in the gleam from the chamber's low roof.

"I can... hardly believe it." The ruddy light spread smoothly on Sam's face, hiding the tender lines Frodo longed to see. Fine traces of laughter, of squinting at moody weather or a storm-burned sunset. His hand dropped to Sam's shoulder, clutching at the strength that held him like the earth itself. "Then... I wasn't dreaming after all when I heard that singing down below, and I tried to answer? Was it you?"

A small, crooked smile slipped through the tears and stirred them to glitters on Sam's cheeks. Even this dirty glow spilled rich and pure around him. Frodo filled his chest with it, with the first free measure of air.

"I'd given up hope, almost," Sam whispered. "I couldn't find you."

"Well, you have now, Sam... dear Sam." Frodo couldn't seem to clear the slur from his voice, but it didn't matter. He nestled his fingers into the seams of Sam's shirt, tugged clumsily and met a hand no steadier than his own. With a quick wrench, Sam unfastened a button for him, right there, over the middle of his chest. Frodo pushed his hand inside to press it against Sam's skin, to the rise of uneven breaths, the heartbeats that slowed out of a whirl.

A long sigh eased him into twilight, but he could hear it and touch it still, the stumbling notes of a song gathered under his fingers, wound through the gentle rhythm at the side of Sam's throat. It spread out and out in widening ripples, a hum that passed unhindered through the stones, releasing them from their laboured silence. Out, and in, towards this grain of brightness, travelling along the path of Sam's hand, from his elbow up his arm to his shoulder, and he wanted this touch to fall on him everywhere, that and nothing else – so close now, yes, clothing him in skin, in glistening waves that reached farther and farther – till a damp caress brushed his forehead.

"Wake up, Mr. Frodo."

Sam's voice was rough with a joy that roused shivers through him, and he blinked against the dimness that surrounded them. The chamber seemed shrunken and distant at the same time, fogged in uncertain red while he fumbled through the memories to tell Sam "–they were standing over me, gloating, fingering their knives. I'll never forget their claws and eyes."

From rigid silence, a huff of breath pushed through Sam's teeth. "You won't, if you talk about them, Mr. Frodo." His voice lowered to a gruff reassurance, but his grip on Frodo's side eased only after a long moment. "And if we don't want to see them again, the sooner we get going the better." His hands stroked up slowly, a steadying force against Frodo's back. "Can you walk?"

When Sam released his elbow, Frodo swayed for a moment, poised to reach back. But the crowded twilight yielded before him, opened – "Yes, I–I can walk..."

The air slipped in faint currents against him, and he felt adrift with it as if he'd shed all weight between those last moments in the pass and waking. Could this be–? The light-headed ease of pacing back and forth while he spoke of the past hours, while Sam's answers surrounded him with a familiar calm. In the wake of Sam's voice spread the leisure of a sunny afternoon in the Shire, filled with the swish of scythes that dipped through the grass.

"Now what's to be done?" Sam asked. "You can't go walking in the Black Land in naught but your skin, Mr. Frodo."

But my skin... He stared into the shadow wedge by the wall, and it seemed like the mouth of a pit where he would have flung himself. But now he knew why – why there could be no refuge among these stones, these walls, and the silence reared to crush –

"They've taken everything. Do you understand? Everything!" He crouched where the pit gaped suddenly wide, where the black had swallowed a scream, a hope – we can't escape, we will never – "Only Elves can escape, far away over the Sea. If even that is wide enough..."

A dizzy pounding swelled into his temples, filled his ears with a drowning rush. There was no escape save in this thin ooze of shadow where nothing was remembered, nowhere to turn but –

"I took it, Mr. Frodo, begging your pardon," a pleading voice pulled at him, and pulled him back. "And I've kept it safe. It's round my neck now, and a terrible burden it is, too."

No, not you, not – He rose and turned back so quickly that the room swam in red and grey slivers before his eyes. "Give it to me. Give it to me at once! You can't have it!"

He fought for breath through his own stammering. Safe? How could it be? All the shadows rankled with memory, with claws and broken teeth and thorns to pry skin loose from –

"...I could share it with you, maybe?"

A sharp glint stabbed towards him, thrust out from a soiled hand. Another "no!" rushed through his teeth, the hiss of a blinding fear – you can't have it – it can't have you – "Thief!"

A chill rippled between his fingers and dazzled his sight. From the greedy clasp of the chain swung a false light that he buried in his fist, though the glare and ache in his temples remained. Betrayed, again, as he should have known. Sickened, panting breaths shook him as he looked down at Sam, not the misformed threat sprung from stone and shadow. No, mine – please, you can't touch – you can't take...

"What have I done?" Was it his voice, this remote wheeze of sound? In the dull, yielding glow, he could suddenly see everything. Sam knelt on the floor, black spatters on the front of his shirt and jacket, dusty white daubed across his cloak, his hands clenched into a tight knot before him. Pale tracks streaked the grime on his face, and the cumbrous pack was still strapped to shoulders that must be aching.

"Forgive me..." Frodo searched the familiar face – this face, stripped to the stark grip of pain, "...after all you have done." But this empty patter couldn't span the gap between them, and how could he move with this thing in his hand? How could he dare – "I must carry the burden to the end," Frodo said, shaping words that jarred like stones in his chest. Behind his breastbone rose a keening that threatened every draw of breath. "It can't be altered. You can't come between me and this doom."

"That's all right, Mr. Frodo, I understand." Sam glanced to the floor and didn't meet his eyes again as he climbed heavily to his feet. "But I can still help, can't I? I've got to get you out of here."

He cast about, his voice filling the chamber as it had before, chasing the dead quiet away with practical concerns for clothes and gear. Offering comforts Frodo longed to pull to him like tatters of clothing, though they wouldn't cover even the worst of his needs. In Sam's voice he heard the dragging weariness, the bite of loss, but at least Sam was free, free of this burden, the only thing that seemed unbreakable. Frodo turned his face to the wall. How thin the chain felt in his hands, and how deceptively tranquil.

"If we go together, we'd best match," Sam said at his back. "Now put this round you."

The grey cloak slipped with a rustle around Frodo's shoulders and settled light as a breeze on his skin. An endless breeze rippling the grass, he thought, light, sound and scent as clear as the trembling of Sam's hands through the cloth. A star between his fingers. The leaf-shaped brooch shimmered faintly, and Frodo could still smell the grass when Sam's touch fell away. The Shire. How long had it been since he last remembered so clearly, the spread of fields and meadows, and the drone of bees lacing the mid-day air?

He breathed, full and deep, steadied to the slow turning of one moment. When he found Sam's eyes again, Sam stood by the trap-door, Sting in his hand, his shoulders set hard.

"You stay here. Walk about a bit and ease your legs. I shan't be long." Sam ducked his head, but his glance didn't falter again.

When the trap-door fell shut after him, Frodo looked down at the chain wound around his fingers. He would wait here for Sam and remember the song that still hummed faintly on his skin. And then they would leave this prison.

~ ~ ~

The stairs wound down and down and down in the dark. Every step on these worn stones could end in a headlong fall, and any one daring them had best keep their wits about them, and their eyes skinned. Sam wasn't too certain of either by the time he lost count of the steps again. Some of the torches still hissed in their brackets, tearing patches out of the pitch black, though that were hindrance as much as help. Giddy sparks would dance in the air for moments after they'd passed such a bright splash, and he'd blink hard not to lose sight of Frodo, toes scrambling for a hold on each step as like a steep nothing might yawn right afore them. They continued on down, wrapped in the ragged echoes of their breathing.

And then it was all he had for steer, the sound of Frodo's thin breaths and his footfalls – confounded as they rang among the stones – and at times a brush of the cloak when he'd caught up too close. Sam tried to keep off by a step or two, and match his own tread to Mr. Frodo's uneven pace. If he stumbled, Sam would still be close enough to catch hold, and better that than his master toppling into him from behind, to send them both flying. Though it seemed his own fingers didn't possess an inch of that faith, for they kept up a fretful clenching in the foul, clammy air.

Light again, from a torch sputtering on its last clump of pitch. The flare swam so dizzy in Sam's eyes, it gave him fair warning. Round and round they'd gone for so long, he'd soon lose all sense of direction. Before him, Frodo's head flicked sideways, as if he might have thrown an anxious glance over his shoulder ere another dip in the stone warned him to mind his steps. His left hand scrabbled pale on the wall where there wasn't a proper handhold amid the rugged stones, the orc shield dangling awkward from his other arm.

"Go on, Mr. Frodo," Sam said softly, "it can't be too far now. I'm right behind you."

Frodo's answer wasn't more than a lonesome sound, a break in his thready breathing. Likely a mutter of disbelief, too, at the promise that this would soon be over – and what then, Sam couldn't let himself think on yet – for the stair just tunneled and spiraled away as if to delve into the heart of the mountain. And what if it did, what if they'd missed the doorway Sam took on his way in? He'd stormed up then in such a desperate race, never wondering if there were more stairs plunging into deep caverns on the other side. He bit down on the inside of his cheek, telling himself no, it ain't that dark out, and the air's chill, there would have been a draught, but the fear slid up his back, between the sweat and the chafing of his pack through the crumpled, stinking cloak.

The next torch they passed had gone out, though Sam could trace it by a bitter whiff. Further down they went, and it seemed every bit like being pulled into a cold well at their feet. The dreadful weight round his neck might be gone, but when Sam stared into the blackness, searching for a hopeful slip of grey among the floating snatches of Frodo's breathing, the feel of falling crept through his bones again, as if he'd done naught else for days. Plunged into the deepest well there ever was, till the memory of sky above and perhaps a branch weaving in free air were fully drownded in stone and dank – and next the glum creepers of moss on the inside walls would seem like rich and promising things where the greyest bit of light still reached – till that, too, were gone and swallowed up in black, and no hope of water in the depth below, only the reeling, clenching heartbeat that thundered in his ears. So tight he could scarce breathe.

"Sam?" Though Frodo's voice quivered in the gloom, the sound soared jubilant as song and freed a sob from Sam's throat.

"Sam..." Closer and turned towards him, Frodo's voice slid between him and the blackness.

"It's – I'm all right, Mr. Frodo," he rasped, waving a hand about to reach for the wall again. It fell on cloth instead, the coarse and stiff weave of that ugly cloak, but beneath it lay Frodo's shoulder, firm and too thin, the only hold in the world. Oh, to know him here, alive... Sam clutched on blind as he steadied his breaths. There were so many things he wanted to say, hard on his heels from the long dark before – I thought I'd lost you, and I thought I'd found you, and now I don't, I can't –

"Don't... don't be afraid, Sam." Mr. Frodo mightn't sound any more certain than he was, but the warmth of his voice, his breath, cleared a space in the dark and gave better guidance than those guttering torches ever would. "Can you go on?"

"Yes, sir, if you can," Sam muttered, releasing his shoulder in a faint afterthought. By a soft stir in the air, he knew that Frodo had turned, and his footfalls picked up again, drawing patters along the walls.

Sam raised his hand to the stone once more. His palm scraped over rough bumps and slick dribbles as gave him shivers up his arm. Oh, his fingers might want to dig into Frodo's shoulder and not let go till the very end of things, but he wouldn't let them. He'd seen a sharper need by the gloom on the rooftop, when Frodo gulped air through his open mouth and looked over the walls as if he'd not set foot outdoors in a lifetime. Sam had to let him walk by his own strength, for more than anything his master needed to know this: that he could.

And he'd been proved right, too, Sam thought as his fingers trailed through dust and damp along the wall. Slow and unsure as Frodo might be descending the stairs, he'd not faltered or stumbled once. No small marvel, when the first steps he took up in the tower were so weak and miserable that Sam ached to reach out –

"I see... something," Frodo whispered from below.

And soon there came the pale shine of a torch still gloaming, and not ten steps afterwards, a thin spill of firelight stretched across the stone.

"Sam, there..." It was a mere gasp, not hope as such, but some small relief, and Sam filled his chest with the same. Yes, a cooler draught, just as he'd expected, wafted up towards them from the archway.

"Down along this passage," he said as they stepped through. The run of stones seemed to tunnel on for miles, and a fresh chill fell on his shoulders. At his back stood the brazen undergate where he'd lost his hope and sense all over again.

"You had better lead now," Frodo murmured, his breaths coming faster, from tiredness or fright or both.

"It's the straight road out," Sam answered with all the cheer he could muster. "We can't get lost here." But this open route also laid them bare to whatever might lurk out of view, and his own voice scraped harsh against the brooding silence.

There's not a body left alive in this place, Sam repeated to himself, save only us, but that roused a memory of crouching among the corpses, out on the roof, grappling and tugging for usable gear, not wanting to look or to think...

He peered into dark arches and chambers left and right, each smothered in a hateful silence. The sheer weight of stone all around seemed to lean in on them, breaking their footsteps into fearful slaps on the walls. Frodo walked close behind, the ring-mail rattling with every tired step. That disgusting orc gear. It vexed Sam's own skin to think of Frodo walking about in fretted leather and clotted pelt, but perhaps he didn't quite notice such discomforts now. And there was still the need for food and refilling their water bottles; Sam told himself to keep his mind fixed on that.

"There's the door up ahead, Mr. Frodo." He pointed towards it, and slowed his step to push between Frodo and the two dead orcs lying in a heap by the wall. There'd been so many on the rooftop, but Frodo hadn't paid them any heed as he stood swaying in the smoky twilight, while the mountain flickered dull and angry in the Northeast.

They'd almost reached the end of the passage when Sam paused again to look into a chamber on his left. A rim of paler stone encircled what could only be a water-hole of some sort.

"Wait, here's..." He stepped inside and cast a look down the hole. Aye, a cistern it was, and the oily shimmer deep below might be water, but no bucket had been left to hand, as he ought to have guessed.

"Sam." Though it was less than a whisper, it spun him back in a heartbeat and whipped his hand to Sting at his belt.

But the passage lay silent as before, and Frodo stood rooted by the doorway, an ell from the big orc sprawled across the threshold. Sam moved up close till he could whisper in his ear. "Don't look. Here – 'tis just another step, and we're out."

When he slipped a hand under Frodo's elbow, he felt the stiff dismay ease just a bit, a tremor unlacing into the shaky step Frodo took, his cloak tangling in the dead orc's armour. With a gasp, he pulled free and sagged into the shadow of a pillar beside the arch. Sam followed in a quick leap and stopped in front of him, blocking the outer court from his master's view. How they'd get across, he couldn't imagine.

The dead lay scattered all about the paved court, and he needn't take another look at them either. When he'd crossed the first time, there'd been aught but anger, anger that surged and seethed so thick through every limb, it swept him past fear and every thought save one. But now all of it seemed to be crowding in from the back of his eyes. Hideous shapes wound together in their death-tangles, the bloodied holes where –

Frodo dropped the shield against the wall with a clatter, and his shoulders fell on a hitching gasp.

"You'll have to breathe through your mouth, Mr. Frodo, then the foul stench won't seem so bad." Sam almost bit his tongue a moment later for saying something so useless, but it had been the only protection he knew when he crawled among the dead on the roof, to find cloaks as weren't too stained or slick with –

"Sam, please..."

Sam stared down into his hands, not wanting to think what still clung to his fingers, and if there'd ever be a chance to wash it off.

"Please," Frodo said again.

He had to look up then and was seized by the same quiver – alive – that made him feel light as a feather. Not a single star pierced the gloom overhead, though Sam wished there could be, if only a scrap of one, just to see its living silver mirrored in Frodo's eyes.

"How... how did you manage to get in here?" Frodo asked.

"Through the gate, Mr. Frodo," Sam murmured, "on the other side of the court." But he thought of the place where they'd found each other again, so far-off now, high and distant as a bird's nest among the crags.

Frodo shook his head, brief and tired, before he leaned back into the wall. "That isn't what I meant."

Some limp curls straggled from the leather cap he was wearing, and the gloom brushed dirty shadows and hollows across his face, but his eyes held fast. Such a clear shade they were, even here, more so than any sky, and Sam's sight filled with a heating dazzle as he stepped nearer.

"I had to come." Oh, but he couldn't bear this – it split him sharp like a crack that sprang from deep in the ground, and through it he pulled a hard breath – "I didn't ought to have left you, not for a moment!"

He turned aside, to the dark stretch beneath the tower's wall, and the court lying dim and dazed under the weight of all the dead.

"Sam, think about it." A stubborn urgency strung Frodo's voice now, pulling at him. "If you hadn't..."

With the tail of his eye, Sam caught a small movement. One of Frodo's hands raising up in a confused flutter, till he trapped his own wrist in a fast grip. "Only you would sing in a place like this."

A song splintered into a thousand pieces – thief! – and put together again, here, in the softness of Frodo's tone, the look of him now that burned to such brightness in Sam's heart. But he had no voice to carry even a single note, only a shattering in the middle of his breast, amid jagged, stumbling beats. "I didn't know what to do."

If he was leaning forward, it felt more like falling, falling till he'd clutched hold of Frodo's shoulders and buried his face in coarse, black folds. He wasn't breathing, either, till he felt the trembling of Frodo's fingers through the curls at his nape, and then it rushed from him in a sobbing gasp. Only a moment, he warned himself, we have to leave –

"Sam..." Warm and unsteady against his jaw, while Frodo's fingers fumbled for a path to his skin past the edge of the orc-helm. "Can you even bear–"

But just the start of that question wrung a sound near to a moan from him, and he raised his head to look at Frodo. "There's but one thing as I can't bear, and that... it's over and past. I'll not lose you again."

From all around rose the sick smells, even from the clothes as they wore, but they seemed less than a wisp of fog next to the breaths that cradled his face. Taut and anxious, holding him to the hope, the questions that brimmed from the liquid glitter in Frodo's eyes. "If we go together, Sam? You said if..."

"Oh, but not – it's your choice to make, Mr. Frodo, it always is." Sheer urgency drove the words out ere Sam could untangle them into reason. If only Frodo could see himself, then he would know – "There's aught in the world as can take it from you."

And not this, neither, Sam thought, his neck nigh itching from the memory of the chain. Let the foul thing try what it will, it can't take me from you.

"But that is a choice I have long made." Frodo's tone was all of surprise, before it dropped again, and so did his glance, lowering to the the spot where the Ring lay buried under leather and orc-mail. "I only would have wished..."

Recollections crawled down Sam's throat, thick with loathing. How bearing the Ring had stretched his own skin into some hunched sort of shadow, hollow and dragged down by its weight, the lying promises.

"You should never have had to carry it." Frodo's eyes flashed when they met his again. But if there was anger in them, it burned off all the doubt and opened a breathless understanding that tightened Sam's grasp on his shoulders.

"It destroys," Frodo said hoarsely, "it pulls apart and shapes anew – but not you, Sam, not you."

"Why not me?" he whispered. "Frodo..." Who else but me? A shiver struck him at the thought and wound into the clumsy stroking of Frodo's fingers on the back of his neck. And that tenderness gave him all the answer, a surety that blazed so fierce and whole, it shook him through the bone. Alive and here – and not a single question more to waver between them.

For another moment, he held Frodo against him as if he could crush whatever strength he'd got left into him, their stiff cloaks rubbing together like folds of pitch. Then he let his hands drift down Frodo's arms till only their fingers were touching. "I know what it does, now."

Frodo pressed his lips together, watching him. But then his fingers reached back, and he raised their hands up between them. "Yes... we will go together." Each word was blown warm against Sam's knuckles, waking a tingle on his skin underneath all the dirt. "To the end, Sam."

The small tug on Frodo's mouth couldn't rightly be called a smile, and yet it was more, as if a sudden light had fallen on his face. He unlaced their fingers to breathe a kiss against Sam's palm, and Sam could feel it then, all the will as was needed joining between them. He nodded. "We must leave now, Mr. Frodo."

The first glance he threw over his shoulder brought back all the dangers, as if they were crowding in through the gate. Hereafter, they'd be lucky if they didn't run into worse than ash-heaps and barren rock. Oh, he wouldn't fool himself believing they'd lost Gollum on the pass. The old villain had to be lurking out there, too, but the thought brought only a weary sense of warning, not a single pricking of anger. Sam took his own advice and breathed in through his mouth. There was the glowering watch by the gate to face first, and another menace still hovered somewhere amidst swollen clouds and black sky. And then –

Frodo clasped his hand firmly. "Lead me."

~ ~ ~

With every step, Frodo is sinking. The very air seems to thwart his purpose, beating him against an unknown limit, without or within himself. The walls of this stronghold may have been built by the Men of Gondor, but when his eyes struggle along the harsh lines of towers and battlements, they find no relief. He stumbles as if these walls and the crags from which they rise were tied around his neck. And beyond these walls, the mountain waits. The glimpse he caught from the rooftop lies frozen in his mind's eye, a sullen wink of fire. Underneath the rock flanks moves a force like giant bellows that suck the breath out of this land and drag it from his own chest.

He remembers his last wild run, and its echoes are pounding up through the ground, shaking it apart until it turns into a mire. These echoes trap his feet, and what should be clear space stems him backward, surging up in a tide of stone.

He finds himself clinging to the pavement where black runnels seep into the cracks. "I can't go on, Sam... I don't know what's come over me."

"I do, Mr. Frodo," Sam murmurs and sinks into a crouch behind him. "Hold up now!"

The sound of his voice draws shape and direction out of the shadows that wheel around them, that rear ahead of them. Frodo looks up to follow Sam's gaze forward, to the waiting arch.

"It can't be more dangerous than before," Sam tells him.

Though neither of them can be sure of this, there is no other choice. Frodo folds himself into Sam's hands, his arms, wrapped about him and tangling so that for the moment he doesn't know whose fingers press to his forehead and pass over his eyes. And the breath thrumming against his back breaks in a soft shock from his mouth that's almost laughter.

"You're right, Sam."

The touch retreats to his shoulder and remains there, a soothing hold hinged upon this darkness. From it unwinds movement, without effort, so that Frodo, too, can rise. He no longer moves by his own will. What moves him is lighter than air and spins out between them, cast loose from the finest glass that kindles at a touch.

"Now for it!"

The light pours through Sam's fingers and envelops them both in the whole of a startled moment. With the flare comes Sam's smile, and on this sudden brink of hope, their voices are joined.

Gilthoniel, A Elbereth!
Aiya elenion ancalima!

Now they are both running, through the black arch, past the scathing silence of the Watchers. One more step, and then –


~ ~ ~

( West )

Buckland, 30 October 1419

The wind slides in restless currents beneath rain-clouds that sprawl from the Barrow Downs to the western eaves of the Old Forest. Under the hanging billows, the wind runs back and forth, twisting itself into capricious swirls that waken only tired rustles among wet drifts of fallen leaves.

In the slump of autumn, the travellers pass through a meld of damp green and grey that darkens slowly. They follow the winding road in pairs, four riders on ponies whose hooves slosh through the puddles. The muted sounds drop into sodden grass, to join the bubbling rush of water through the ditch. The wind holds off the worst of the rain, washing them only in a fine drizzle. At times, a curl of song will rise above the ponies' canter, but only from the younger pair, ahead on the road.

The other two have slowed their mounts after a long day's riding, and their heads are bowed before the weather. Between them, they seem to share a guarded silence. Skirring to and fro, the wind gathers scents of their homeland that it sweeps back in moist breathfuls. The smells of steaming cabbage and mulch, of fermenting grapes and recently turned earth are mixed with uneasy whiffs of smoke, even sifted on a kindly breeze. As it drifts over them, the two travellers turn to each other, and their glances spark against the rain.

Night thickens around them when a gate looms ahead, barring the bridge that spans the river. With a toss and a rattle of the rough planks, the wind balls up to coil around the iron spikes that bristle from the top, but the travellers hesitate to follow. A leap away, all four of them draw together as if, after so long a journey, they are unsure of their destination.

They speak in troubled whispers, until one of them guides his pony from their huddle. When he slides his hood back, his dark curls fall in tangles to his collar, and the wind stirs up a shiver along the fine silver chain at his neck. Wet threads gather into rivulets on his face while his eyes search the horizon from one end to the other, restless among the blended shades of nightfall. Against the crumbling banks, the water burbles noisily.

Then, with a tug on the reins and a dig of his heels, the traveller spurs his pony on, as if he would ride down this barrier of logs and iron. His companion follows with a husky shout, across the dim stretch to the river's edge, and they charge towards the bridge without another word.

The wind runs before them, into the West.

~ ~ ~

Minas Tirith, May 1419

"The end of all things..." Frodo leaned across a cleft in the breastwork and looked over the city walls, out East. "I was wrong."

With a quick breath against the wind, Sam shifted closer. Amid the hard lines and angles of the fortress, and the near-cloudless sky hanging polished as a marble slab overhead, Frodo bent like a willow-branch into the rough gales. His fine woolen cloak had slipped off his arms as he stretched himself to the stone cleft, and a shiver tensed his shoulders. Though spring burgeoned into summer on the fields below, chill breezes tumbled about these heights and chased round the white tower with never a break.

"'Twould have been," Sam answered, "if not for Mr. Gandalf and the eagles."

Frodo turned towards him, eyes pale in the glare of day. "Do you remember that? How they carried us up into the air?"

"Just bits and scraps, like something from a dream." Sam shrugged his shoulders. "Not that I mind, you understand, it's fearsome enough a thought." But the start of that memory turned upward in his mind: a vast shadow sliding over them quicker than any cloud, so that he wrenched about in alarm and still saw nothing, only a dark flutter in the vapours and fumes. His sight hadn't cleared till Frodo laid a hand to his cheek and turned him back to the light pooling in the softest silver on his face. My dearest Sam...

He could hear it now, like a gentle echo flowing from the touch of Frodo's hand on his arm.

"I thought it was the wind itself lifting us up." Frodo tipped his head. "A tug and a rush, and then – nothing."

His glance wandered back East, where the mountains lay dim and brooding in the distance. But high gales were now dappling the sky over that dark range, herding clouds in ribbons of grey and white. Sam tried to picture what the broken wastes beyond looked like in full daylight, though in many ways the sight had to be worse. Surely more than one turn of seasons would go by ere the soil could nurture the seeds that would blow in from Gondor's woods and fields.

Another cold blast tossed Frodo's curls about his face, and he stepped down from the ledge, to the gallery skirting the inner wall. "Well, I suppose this isn't quite the right spot for taking our second breakfast."

The wind had raised a brighter colour to his cheeks, and his voice took on such a tone, it slipped round Sam in a breezeful of memories – of brooks and byways and a cheerful meadow just west of the Hill – so vivid a spell that his answer lagged behind. "Or elevenses, more like."

"Yes, it must be," Frodo answered. "Let us look for a suitable place then."

They'd made their way up here from the noisy bustle of a market in the city's sixth circle. Curious as Sam was about the wares laid out on carts and trestles, the push of large bodies all round scattered his ease, and the curious glances tracking his master more so. Busy sounds still jounced on the gusts as they walked along the wall, towards the citadel under the mountain's hard shoulder. Each time Sam craned his neck for a glimpse of the snowy peaks, they seemed higher than the clouds and tall enough to spin the world on their axle.

"I think we should turn left here..." Frodo led him down a short set of stairs and into a deep, pointed arch. "Or would you rather return to our rooms?" He slowed within the lay of shadows where only stray beams glanced across his cloak, kindling the rich green of a pine forest.

"Oh no, Mr. Frodo. 'Twould be a shame to spend such a fine day indoors."

"Every day, Sam..." Frodo's voice slid into the hazy echoes filling the passage up to the vaulted roof. From all directions, the stones rang with the din that made up this city. Every hour of the day simmered with the scraping of tools on stone or iron, the rattle of wains through the lower streets, and clopping hooves on the pavement as messengers hurried news back and forth.

"Aye, 'tis a wonder," Sam murmured, "and stranger than aught I ever thought I'd see."

He knew that Frodo had heard him by the bright flicker of a glance, the short tug of his hand on the cloak's seam.

When they turned a corner and passed under another arch, the raucous noise ebbed to whispers, and from somewhere purled gentler, liquid notes. The gallery ran on between the upper storeys of stout buildings, and at the other end, broad sunlight met them with swirling grass scents and a drowsy ripple of water.

Sam raised a hand to shield his eyes. A cloud seemed to hover in the open space ahead, wind-gnawed and spare, and it took him a blink or two to see truly. He stepped over to the low balusters bracing the gallery above the fountain court. From the court's centre rose the leafless white tree like a lonesome stalk of winter. They'd passed this place when they first came to the citadel, and Sam had stopped to look up into the branches gleaming paler than a birch's in the sun. Like the finest weaving of frost, the tree's crown had seemed then, not withered or dry, but from where he stood now, he could see knots and tangles among the boughs, and sickly dark traces where the bark peeled off. For an odd moment, it reminded him of –

"It worries Aragorn." Frodo stepped up beside him and crossed his arms over the carved railing. "If the White Tree carries no flowers, Gondor won't thrive as it once did."

Sam dipped his head. Here, in the quiet heart of the city, he could well believe that a single tree guarded the land's good fortune, never mind the busy hammering, sawing and grinding all about. His eyes searched along the dark cracks in the tree's branches, but there wasn't a good and true reason why the sight should put him in mind of Gollum and his mottled skin.

"Tell me," Frodo said, as though he'd laid half a thought out in the open and then fallen silent.

Sam hunched his shoulders forward, but the question pressed up like a hand against his chest, cramped as the remembrance was. He hadn't the words or the wish, not when sunlight lay sheer on all the stones, carving crisp shadows across the grass and the pavement below.

Beside him, Frodo released a breath as if it were stoppered before. With a rustle of his cloak, he wound his fingers through Sam's, a tender and uncertain touch pressed through the silence. Sam had just gathered his breath to answer when hurried steps sounded from an archway on the gallery's far side, and he leaned back to see –

"Faramir." Frodo turned without letting go of his hand – even clasped it firmer against Sam's instant tug – as Faramir walked towards them.

Prince of Ithilien or no, he wore plain clothes, and his hair showed the tangling of brisk labours out in the wind. He greeted them with a short bow. "I am glad to find you here, in a place of such tranquillity."

Frodo bent his head in turn. "Were you looking for us?"

"No, this is but a chance-meeting, my friends." Faramir made a short gesture towards the citadel. "I am at present running errands between the palace wardens and our store-masters. Our craftsmen work tirelessly to mend what battle has wrecked, yet our provisions were sorely diminished during the siege. What little Lebennin's storehouses may yet spare us will not reach the Rammas ere nightfall tomorrow, and the traders' barges from Dol Amroth may not arrive for another sennight."

"What will you do?" Frodo asked.

"Send messengers to our–" Faramir interrupted himself with a chuckle. "No, Frodo, I will not press needless demands upon your courtesy, nor weary you with our cares. You have both earned comfort and rest."

"Why, we've some knowledge in those matters, leastways," Sam put in. "In the year of the flooding, they had the same trouble out in the Marish and Buckland, and many's the tale I've heard about the farmers' struggles in that time. Though Mr. Merry could tell you more, I reckon."

"Maybe." When Faramir looked on him, Sam would have sworn to a twinkle in his grey eyes. "But the King would question my good judgement, and rightly so, if I laid claim to the services of his most esteemed companions, least of all one of the Ringbearers."

Inside half a thought, a troubled flush crept into Sam's face, and he felt Frodo's fingertips move light against his own.

"Not meaning any harm, sir," Sam muttered, "but I – well..."

A change came over the Man's face, swift as a ripple in the fountain below, and it steadied into clear regret. "Forgive me. I spoke of matters that will never lend themselves to lighthearted speech, however glad the days may be."

"No, sir," Sam murmured, too aware how Frodo's face tightened and his back tensed.

"It is still a pleasure to see you so light of heart, Faramir," Frodo said evenly, "and no less deserved, if I may venture to say so."

Faramir took the courtesy with a tilt of his head and an odd little glance to the side, and the blazing sunlight bared some tell-tales to Sam's eye. Even if Pippin hadn't told them about the steward's madness, it was plain enough that Faramir had come under the harrow since their first meeting. Still, though the grieved lines by his mouth might run deeper, a softer humour showed in his eyes.

"It may be that I have learned the most important of lessons," Faramir said in low, thoughtful tones. "That is to prize a blessing within the confines of despair, even when its ruin seems fated."

"This, too, I have learned," Frodo answered, and a quickening seemed to course through him, down to his fingers that caught Sam's in a fervent grip.

"Yet what hope you had lay beyond all bounds of wisdom." Faramir's glance lingered on Frodo with frank esteem. "And our strength should indeed have failed but for your will and courage."

Sam couldn't help glancing at his master, half expecting him to avert his eyes from such praise, or face it with a sterner tuck to his chin as he often did. This time, there was only the firming of his mouth to a faint curve, the sort folk would take for a polite smile – though maybe not Faramir, Sam thought, when the Man's gaze seemed to be clouding over a bit.

"We have all..." Frodo shook his head as if the words themselves were a bother. "I suppose that we have all learned to trust far beyond the limits of our own knowledge."

Faramir nodded and laid a hand on each of their shoulders. "I must see to my errands now. But peaceful days are at hand, and I shall speak more with you soon. Were you on the way to the King's hall?"

"Oh no, he's busy enough without us bothering him," Sam answered. "We were just strolling about looking for the kind of spot where a hobbit can enjoy a peaceful breakfast and not get in the way of other people's business." He patted the pouch at his side that he'd stuffed full of provender.

"The palace gardens should suit your purpose." Faramir stepped back to point out the direction. "Or, if you seek a place that will grant you a clear view over the lands, go to the rear of the south wall. The oldest towers overlook the vales and woods of Lossarnach, and they were built to lift the spirit also, not merely for our defence."

"Thank you, sir." Without another glance at Frodo, Sam knew where they'd be heading.

"I shall take my leave of you then." Faramir hadn't taken more than a few paces when he stopped again. "This is the Tower of the Sun," he said. "Truthfully was it named, and may you find it so in your own hearts." His smile bore out the naming with quick and forthright joy.

Warmth bloomed in Frodo's cheeks and swept away the strained half-smile as he nodded in answer. Then they were left alone above the court, where the drips of water pattered into a waiting stillness.

"We'll miss elevenses too, if we don't go now." Frodo turned from the gallery and released Sam's hand slowly.

Sam followed him to the southward arch, and through another dim passage that climbed back up to the wall. As they reached the spot where the rampart leaned over the stables, a chatter of lively voices floated up from the wide yard. Sam fancied that he could hear Mr. Pippin among them, his laughter pealing high as bells, but Frodo only sharpened his stride. He didn't seem wearied by all their walking through the confounded streets neither, and that, Sam told himself, should by rights be a comfort, not a worry.

Guards stood solemn on their posts by the watchtowers. Though the helmets cast their miens in shadow, Sam felt their glances like a prodding to his back. As he always did when he walked among folk in the city, Frodo slipped his injured hand into the folds of his cloak. The sight of it tore at Sam, and anger crept up close on his heels. For all that the city's healers said the wound were closing well, they couldn't know how much the tending of it still pained Frodo, and that he kept it hid as if those curious looks chafed it raw each time. Maybe that was why he urged their pace on now, till they were marching briskly along the stony walk.

Despite the lash of cold winds, Sam could feel the sun sting through his hair and on his forehead, and when the guards stepped back from their path, the light sprang in brilliant shards off burnished helmets and armour. Flustered by the heights and the day's dazzle, Sam was glad when they came to the hindmost tower and ducked into its wide shadow.

A hanging stair on the inside wall wound to the upper storey, and Frodo started to climb it without a pause to catch his breath. Scattered sand and grit on the steps itched against the soles of Sam's feet as he followed, prickling strange under newly healed skin, and he gripped the iron railing a bit harder.

When he reached the top of the stairs, Frodo stood in an open doorway. The daylight whipped about him, glinting through his curls, and lit his cloak to a green flame. He'd spread his hands to the carved sides of the arch and pressed his shoulders forward, such a taut unrest in his stance, Sam thought that he'd climb much higher if only the stairs didn't end here.

"Well, here we are then," Sam ventured with a caution.

Frodo let go of the doorway as if he'd been cast off a sling and didn't stop till he'd reached the balustrade.

Outside, a ledge curved wide as an oliphaunt's rib, but the wall girding it rose no higher than a Man's waist, and broad clefts opened everywhere in the breastwork. Sam looked back to the watchtower and discovered a pair of alcoves on either side of the arch, fitted with low benches that were shadowed by the eaves of the shingled roof. He set his pouch down on one of the stone seats and knew he was breathing harder than he ought after so short a climb.

"Faramir was right," Frodo said over his shoulder. "The view from here is more splendid than anywhere else. Come and see." He'd bent forward, and when Sam joined him, the wind snatched Frodo's cloak and unfurled it as a banner, tossing it high enough to brush Sam's face.

Sam squinted his eyes against the gusts that swooped about them, edged with bird calls and a dash of salt. The battle hadn't spared this part of the surrounding country either, but it must have been less fierce, for grassy banks showed between the blighted and trampled fields. Beyond the dike called the Rammas, the river swung through bright, lazy bends, and farther out, a pale gold haze lay over the rising grounds. The steep valleys were dotted with darker patches of brush or hurst, and on the edge of sight, another water-course cleaved the green with restless sparkles. Birds followed both waters, flitting specks on the lower air-streams.

"It isn't a lot like the Shire, is it?" Frodo's voice dropped low and wavered as if he'd run out of breath. His fingers flew after the curls that the winds flung back and forth across his face.

For a pained moment, Sam wondered if he'd meant the question in earnest. Times were when Frodo strove sorely for memories as if he had to drag them out of a sump and scrape each piece clean to see how it fit with the next. But surely he remembered –

"There's not a place in the world as sweet as the Shire," Sam murmured, but even as he said so, he found he couldn't call up a remembrance to match the wealth of hue and fragrance spread out afore them.

"Everything is changing," Frodo said. "At times I... I feel it as if the ground rolled under my feet and might never settle again. A new age has begun, Gandalf says, and if this is..." He trailed off with a brief shake of the head. "It escapes me."

On the other side of the river, a single tree grew foremost on the bank, proud on its tall trunk, its crown shaped like a linden leaf. And we've not got taproots like that, Sam thought, but if we did, we'd never –

"'Twill be different when we come home." He mustered all the faith as he could in this fair and forlorn place. Frodo didn't answer, but he let his head dip sideways to rest on Sam's shoulder. The gusts blew his curls against Sam's mouth, in strands finer than combed silk. Sam bent to brush a kiss into the tangles.

From somewhere in the outer circles of the city floated the jangling of a noon bell, one strike looped through the next. Frodo stirred up sharply at the sound.

"There, 'tis time for lunch." Sam straightened to glance back at the alcove. "Let me get our fare now, sir."

Frodo nodded to him without taking his eyes off the river and the birds circling above it. "Yes... I will join you in a moment."

When Sam unlaced his bag, the smell of fresh bread wafted up and drew an approving rumble from his stomach. After those wholesome weeks in Ithilien, food no longer lay heavy as a scoop of stones inside him, but Frodo had more trouble taking his meals, sparse as they always were. Sam placed the bread on his flattened bag, and the cheese and fruit beside it, and stepped out from the shadow. He blinked again; the walls and the ledge ranged so bright about him as if the stones themselves would melt into air and daylight.

From afar, all the towers glittered fresh like the snow on the mountain sides, and those glitters lay bedded deep in the stone, among the grey veins and swirls that ran through it. Sam laid a hand to the masonry, and from it his glance flew to the light glistening and sparking off the rock flanks, up and up the soaring heights –

In an abrupt turn, the white spun to black, and his mind was caught to the sight of another mountain, towering over them in a skewed mass of broken stones. Among them hovered Frodo's voice, so thin and drawn as if it spanned many leagues. Yes, I must go on... Farewell, Sam. This is the end at last.

And then he was left alone to the jagged waste of rock and the sight of Gollum's twisting face, the skin drawn so hard over his bones as if it might split open. Grey as the dust, he writhed on the ground, bubbling and hissing in his torment – lost, lost, we're lost – and Sam couldn't breathe neither, such a blunt ache grating through him while Frodo's footsteps faded along the slope. When Precious goes we'll die, Gollum whimpered, yes, die into the dust. Through ashes and smoke, they stared at each other, and with all that he had in him Sam refused to believe that this was the end – it couldn't be, not like this. Over him, the rocks had gnawed out every last scrap of sky, and under him, a boom shivered through the stones, racing upward through his legs.

He swung back with a gasp, and through a dizzy whirl saw that Frodo had set one knee on the breastwork to pull himself up.

"Master!" Sam crossed the distance in a wild leap and hauled him back by his shoulders, as if he were a leaf swept aside in the wind.

"Sam, what–?" A fevered colour stung Frodo's cheeks, but Sam didn't have no answer save to clutch him in his arms while the booming sound – if it were sound at all – rolled closer through him, in thunderous waves. It didn't matter now, not when he could feel Frodo's heartbeat run quick as a bird's against his own chest. Sam fumbled through the folds of cloak and jacket where the wind had crawled before and pressed his hands against the chilled shirt, to the steel in Frodo's backbone.

"What was I..." Frodo's flying breaths warmed the side of his neck. "What did you think I was about to do?"

"I don't know," Sam whispered, "I don't know." He closed his arms round the hitch in Frodo's chest, his own breath thick between his teeth.

Over long moments, they stood like this, tucked close together in the cavorting wind. A stillness opened within Sam, like a fan of chestnut leaves in spring, as the tension drained away and a slow ripple eased through Frodo's limbs. "Your Sam's a fool," he muttered, "and no–"

"Don't say that." Frodo laid both hands to his face and looked at him, bewildered in the faultless mid-day. "Where were you?"

"Just a step and a half away." Sam searched his face for a sign of the changeful moods that took him at times. One moment, unrest lit a fire of questions in Frodo's eyes, and the next could set his gaze adrift as if the world lay in a boundless fog. But now there was none of that, only the clearest shade of autumn sky, and a look as peaceful as it had been during their last moments on the mountain's slopes. Such a beautiful sight it was that Sam found himself wishing to go under in it.

"I'm sorry," Frodo said quietly. "I brought you here, and I don't know why."

With the smallest shake of the head, Sam closed his eyes, and all his feeling wound down to the caress of Frodo's fingers as they wandered over his face, pressing soft against his cheekbones to stroke down to the corners of his mouth and cup his chin.

"We're here..." He breathed out long, and when he looked at Frodo again, it seemed as if all else had been nobut a dream. "We're here to have a bite and rest our feet, aren't we?"

"Yes, let's sit down." Frodo clasped his shoulders for a short squeeze. "And eat."

His movements were even and fluid as he settled on the stone bench, and Sam joined him in the shadow with a sigh of relief. The healers might find hope in the mending of his wound, but they didn't hear Frodo's breaths rip in the deep of night nor find him huddled in a corner without a memory why he'd gone there, or what fear shook him so he could barely speak.

"'Tis plain fare, but the bread's fresh from the palace kitchen." Sam pulled the small knife from his belt to cut the bread and cheese. The wind didn't blow so harsh in this corner, and a milder breeze slipped by with scents of sage and lavender as must be drifting across from the herb gardens.

"The smell of this..." Frodo picked up a chunk of bread, rolling it between his fingers before he bit off a piece. "It's... rather like Marigold's nutbread."

Sam hid an astonished smile by reaching for the bread. "Oh, I've missed that, I have," he said between bites, "but there's a spice to this as I've never tasted in the Shire. A bit like gillyflower, maybe."

A grateful contentment sprawled inside him as he watched Frodo eat and wipe bread-crumbs off his chin with his bandaged hand. When they spent mealtimes with Mr. Merry and Pippin, back at the house where they were lodged, Frodo tried hard to hide how clumsy his right hand had grown. His cousins made light of it, but Frodo's knuckles clenched white each time the fork slipped between his fingers and he dropped a bite, and then he'd stare at his own hand as if he didn't know it anymore.

"And what are those?" Frodo gestured at the fruit Sam had set aside for afters.

Round and plump they were, with rosy splashes on the pale, downy skin, each big enough to fill Sam's palm. "They're a sort of plum, I expect."

He set his knife to the fruit and started carving it, thinking about the woman at the market who'd cupped them so easy in her big brown hands – a gift, she said, while the ribands of her bonnet flew merry in the wind. The slice he cut off dripped with juice as he held it out to Frodo.

"The first is yours." Frodo folded his arms and watched him with a look of keen interest, perhaps even a spark of amusement.

Sam chewed under that intent gaze and licked a dribble of juice off his fingers. "Sweeter than plums, they are. Have a taste, Mr. Frodo."

Instead of reaching out for the next slice, Frodo slid the pouch aside and came to sit close by him, his feet pulled up on the bench. Sam laid down the knife to wrap his arm round Frodo's shoulders, and breathed deep against the gentle weight as Frodo leaned into him. "Here now..."

Frodo chewed with relish, his lashes dipping to rest against the bruised hollows under his eyes. "It tastes of spring and sunshine."

Sam held another slice to his lips, where juice and breath and the grazing softness of Frodo's mouth mingled for a moment, and his eyes filled of a sudden. "There's another, if you–"

"No..." Frodo found his hand without opening his eyes and twined their sticky fingers. "Thank you, Sam."

The sky seemed paler now, as if the wind had washed it clean, and Sam thought if all the world chose to stop right then and never moved another inch forward, he'd spend forever in the heart of his only wish. But then the quiet was rent by heavy footfalls in the tower below.

All alert in an instant, Frodo drew back further into the alcove. "Someone is coming."

"Well, they wouldn't mind us sitting here, would they?"

Sam listened for a space, but the steps shuffled about in the lower storey instead of climbing the stairs. And then he wasn't listening no more. Beside him, Frodo stretched up and turned, his breath flush against Sam's cheek – and his own surged to meet him there, with the barest brushing of lips. The juicy flavour hovered on Frodo's mouth, sweeter for the taste of him and the startled pulse that leapt down to Sam's fingertips. He found Frodo's eyes on him, full of the same breathless expectation, and near enough to reveal a kindling glow.

Sam gathered him close, and for a moment more their breaths were hanging warm and loose in the narrow space between them. Then Frodo bent towards him, and a richer taste filled Sam's mouth, shared in the kiss, in gentle sweeps of the tongue that went back and forth till shivers spilled over his skin. A familiar ache rose through him, lighting sweet pangs in his breast, and a trembling catch of breath that dried to a gasp in his throat.

"Oh, Frodo..." A soft quiver ran through him as if he were speaking a secret.

Frodo's fingers were still knotted in his curls when he drew back a bit, his other hand splayed over Sam's chest so that his heartbeat might fill the gap between his fingers. Below, the footfalls sounded again and lumbered out of the tower, but now they were nestled into a haven of close breaths skimming each other, the wounded hand cradled between them.

"I didn't think I could possibly be so... glad," Frodo murmured with a low, rueful laugh. "Now."

Now and always, if I had my wish. Sam stroked a hand down his back, shifting them both to settle Frodo into a restful hold against him.

Across the breastwork, they could see the city's eastward point where a single bold rock jutted forward like a ship's prow. On their right, birds rode the gale that rushed them near to the mountains, strong wings stretched wide against the boisterous airs.

"They travel with the river," Frodo said, a drowsy hum in his voice.

Sam craned his neck to watch after one of the gulls, till it disappeared between the tower's eaves and the pale brink of the sky.

~ ~ ~

When Frodo slides out of sleep, a grey chill steals in through the window, and for long, breathless moments, he is suspended, nameless and nowhere. On the other side of the room, loops of gold-thread in the tapestry gleam pale like a ghost of dawn. At this hour, the shadows start to swim and dissolve into a hanging mist. From it, uncertain shapes waver and tug at his memories as if they were knots to be loosened. And perhaps that will happen one morning, if he can bear to wait long enough.

He turns his head to look at Sam, bedded deeper into the room's twilight. They have slipped apart in their sleep; heavy folds of brocade and embroidery are heaped across Sam's back. Between the pillow and an edge of the sheet that clings to his shoulder blade, his skin is dark as earth under ragged snow. Frodo curls his fingers up tightly before he can reach out and wake Sam.

His hand crawls under the pillow instead and closes on a smooth, round pebble. Sam has placed it there on the first night they spent in this room, and there it remains, unseen, a reassurance to Frodo's searching fingers as he imagines its dusky colour. When he touches the small stone, it seems like a measure of the time that Sam carried it. A chill runs up his spine, and Frodo tries to hunch back under the covers.

At the first rustle of sheet and blanket, Sam is awake, a tell-tale catch in his breathing that Frodo stills with a hand to his shoulder. There was a night not long ago when Sam woke to an empty bed, and the moments that it took him to find Frodo, crouched under the window arch, drained all the blood from his face. Moonlight carved his cheekbones in stark white bows, and the fear had locked his shoulders so hard that they trembled with the strain.

"Sam..." Frodo folds himself against the strong back and winds an arm about him so that it lies across Sam's chest, and his fingers cup Sam's shoulder. A murmured reply hums under Sam's ribs that still show too clearly through the skin, and the sound trembles on Frodo's chest. He can feel how that seeking tremor spills around the scar below his shoulder, like the waters of a brook parting around a dead branch. There are times when his skin seems to be spread out thin between these knotted marks, almost into air. He will look out from the high battlements and find himself stretched between here and there, his breaths straining at an unknown distance. Only when Sam's skin lies against his own, like this –

"You're awake." Sam's voice is hazed and rough with sleep, but his chest widens with stronger breaths.

"I am..." Behind the words blooms a bewildered hollow. I am. There is always such a pause of startled marvelling, and it robs him of his chance to answer with quick comfort. Sam must be wondering how long he has lain awake in the dimness. Frodo rests his face against the curve of Sam's neck where his curls are wound into a soft tangle. He's breathing traces of soap and stone dust, and a warm scent that is undefinable but essential, like earth.

Sam rubs his thumb back and forth along the blanket's seam, in a pattern Frodo recognises.

"What you asked me," Sam says at length, "yesterday, when we came by the fountain court."

"Yes." Frodo watches as his fingers trace aimless paths across the rich embroidery. By daylight, the shapes of beaks and wings reveal themselves in the closely stitched braids and swirls, but under the shadows, they are a mass of confounded lines. Sam's hand flattens on the fabric.

"The dead tree... it got me thinking of Gollum, and how he was when we last saw him, if you remember?"

"I know that we fell... He attacked us, but..." Frodo hesitates. How can he say that his own memories lie blanched and clouded before him, as if viewed through the eyes of another? "...not much else. I – I think I told him to leave us be."

Sam lifts his hand to clasp it over Frodo's. "Such a picture of mad torment I've never seen," he says thickly.

"I wanted to save him." With that simple statement, something is rising in Frodo's throat, so sharp and unexpected that he can barely swallow around it. "I had to – if I could save anything at all, then..." He falters, startled to feel a wet trickle between his mouth and Sam's shoulder.

Sam pulls his hand tight against his own breast. "Aye, and he saved us in the end, didn't he? Not that he meant to, the poor wretch."

"Because you let him go."

It is a simple fact, but Sam hears in it what Frodo didn't intend to say. With a smooth motion, he rolls onto his back and draws Frodo along so that he's sprawled across Sam's chest.

"You let him guide us," Sam says quietly.

Frodo shakes his head, not to deny but because too many words crowd his throat. The tears still run across his face – heated now, as if they're washing up more than grief – and drip down the side of his nose. He starts to dash them aside, but Sam's touch is quicker, and his thumb wipes in a slow, gentle arc over Frodo's cheek.

"They've made the tales about us that I was wanting to hear," he says. "And I never thought I would, not when we were sitting on those cold stairs–"

"Yes," Frodo answers quickly, "yes, I remember," and he brushes Sam's lips with his own as if to release the memories that must follow this one. Memories that Sam has buried in a thoughtful silence.

"There ought to be one about Gollum, too," Sam says decisively. "I never got to find out if he wanted to be the hero or the villain, but I reckon in the end it was neither."

"Yes, I... I believe you're right." Frodo swallows tightly. He forgot who he was, and what he was becoming, and he never –

"Well, he left me a keepsake." A short smile quirks the corner of Sam's mouth as he touches the scar high on his forehead, a pale dash usually hidden by his curls.

"I didn't know." Frodo leans over to skim his lips across the slender ridge. The tears have left dry tracks on his cheeks, but Sam's hands move in searching, soothing circles over his back, and thoughtless relief suffuses his skin. He looks at his hand where it rests on Sam's chest, the bandages ruffled and stained with sweat in the valley between thumb and forefinger.


Surprise glints from the dark eyes at the sudden urgency in his voice. The dimness has lightened around them and the contours of Sam's face are bathed in a tender grey.

"I love you." Frodo shapes the words against his lips, so that they twine with Sam's breath. "And I do not think that I can ever tell you how–"

He stops at a wordless sound rushing from Sam's throat, and between their mouths they share the keen taste of joy until they're both breathless.

"'Tis early yet," Sam murmurs into his hair when they part after a long while that is still too short. "You should rest some more."

Balanced on the edge of morning, Frodo listens to the wind that gusts around the towers to draw strange moans and whistles from the hollow passages and crannies. His head tucked under Sam's chin, he looks to the window. A growing sheen silvers the stone arch. In a while, the window alcove will light up while the room is still cloaked in grey, and a myriad dust motes will float and sparkle within that first radiance. Against his throat drums the steady rhythm of Sam's heart, and only this – only to lie against each other like this – is enough to fill him until it peaks sharp as a cry beneath his ribs, escaping into a sky washed clear of all colour.

Frodo's thoughts travel along riddled paths as he looks into the wind's eye. "Can you imagine, Sam–" and his breath flies with the discovery, "that perhaps there is no end..."

~ ~ ~

When the wind swerves inland from the sea, it storms over the bare Tower Hills and gentles only after the long sweep across the West March. Gulls will skirr on its ruffled tail, but they wheel back long before the wooded Downs swell on the horizon. At the heart of the mildly rolling country lies a garden where fine, rare scents blend through all seasons, even in mid-winter.

From the profusion of this garden, the wind gathers spores and seeds that it scatters along the hedgerows and the drowsy water-courses, so that strange blooms may startle wanderers in spring. The wind trails playful breezes through the orchard as it steals up the Hill to brush a pair of strong brown hands that are never idle. If they aren't filled with rich black earth, they mend broken tools, braid strips of bark or bend willow twigs into small baskets for the children. Sometimes, at the hour of dusk, the traveller will sit high on the slope, rolling a pebble back and forth in the cup of his hands. Or he'll shape unfinished rhymes that float downhill and catch in the rustling foliage of a single mallorn tree.

On this frosty autumn morning, the wind finds the traveller on the bench by the toolshed, carving swirled patterns into the length of a walking stick. The flash of the knife between his fingers casts dancing reflections across his still face. At the first graze of the briny scent, he tilts his head to the side. Although his straining knuckles lighten the skin, he doesn't pause in his whittling. Beneath the busy blade, curled strips of bark shear off the pale wood.

With a soft hiss through the bleached grass, the wind settles near the traveller. It carries the sound of the sea for his ears alone: The soft, mournful lap of low tide that trails winding runlets through the shallows. The angry leap and roar of returning waves, pounding against harsh, ancient cliffs. And the yearning hum as the tide turns, slow waves cradling the sides of a white ship.

With a sudden scrape, the knife skitters across the wood. The traveller closes his eyes to breathe in the wind's gift and bury the lonely hum in his chest. And perhaps in days to come, a new song will unravel from it. His eyes are stung red when they open again, but he greets the wind with a smile.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

[*] "Aragorn whom I named is the bearer of the Sword that was Broken," said Frodo. "And we are the Halflings that the rhyme spoke of." J.R.R. Tolkien – The Two Towers: Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit.

* * *

Darkness darkness, be my pillow,
take my hand and let me sleep
in the coolness of your shadow,
in the silence of your deep.

Darkness darkness, long and lonesome
is the day that brings me here,
I have felt the edge of silence,
I have known the depth of fear.

Darkness darkness, hide the yearnings
for the things that cannot be,
keep my mind from constant turning
towards the things I cannot see.

Darkness Darkness – Solas

* * * * *

| Never and Always | back to top | send feedback |