Revised version of a story that first appeared in the zine Vilya (2003).
Last Steps is followed by Hope Unquenchable.

"You could have lain down and gone to sleep together days ago, if you hadn't been so dogged."
(Sam’s debate with himself, ROTK: Mount Doom)

Last Steps
by Cara J. Loup

24th March 1419 S.R.

The clouds change from brown to black as the day fails. Within a breath and another, Mr. Frodo is asleep on the hard ground. Sam sits down close beside him, turned away just a bit. He can't look at Frodo now, when sleep bares all the horrible marks of his struggle. And if Sam lies down, he might not get up again, because his bones know it's useless. What does it matter if they fall asleep now, and give in to the weariness tearing them fast into naught? They'll never climb that mountain anyway. Sam wraps his arms about his knees. He can't trust the feeling in his bones here. And he's not tired, though he should be, as if his mind were lit to a torch.

The last bit of daygloom swims under a low roof of clouds, and the only light up ahead comes from the mountain's top. That ugly black mountain standing alone, though not so far away now, as if nothing should ever come nigh it.

And maybe that's why, why nothing will grow in this land – it makes a body wonder how the land can live like this, covered from one end to the other in sharp stone and crusty soil – maybe the mountain's the cause for it all with its thick, flowing fires. The stumps of trees and thorny thickets such as they've come across have all had the sap drained from them, leastways. They're crippled and black for their trouble of trying to grow here.

But the mountain is where they're going. Every step of the way, ever since they climbed and scrambled down from the high pass, it has dragged at Sam, the wish to grab Mr. Frodo's hand and take him the other way, back home, as far and fast away as they can make it. He's been fighting it just as hard, by thinking about the road back, and shaping plans in his head that won't hold a drop of water, but that keep him walking at any rate. He’ll spur himself on as his old Gaffer used to: There's a job as wants doing, Sam, and no arguing, for it won't go nowhere from shuttin' your eyes to it. And he’ll force his mind to recollect all the pains Mr. Frodo has put himself through to get this far, and they can’t have been for naught. But those thoughts and memories are such as he can't hold for long, or his chest will cramp on the heavy air that chafes enough as it is.

If there were tears, he'd lick them off his own skin, seeing how little water remains in their bottle, but they don't come no more. His body knows better than to waste precious water, and so his eyes will just burn somewhat more fierce in the air that stings them the whole time.

He looks at the mountain that towers so high and close now. It spits and roars its fire at the clouds on some nights, and then the ground trembles. And mayhap it's only proper that it does, as if the land were trying to shake off the thing that drains it. Oh, that mountain is alive, and no mistake, just like the Ring that was made there, even if it bellows instead of whispering, as the Ring does. Perhaps, if the Ring is tossed back into it, it will fall quiet too. Perhaps the land will learn how to grow again.

There's a tight squeeze in Sam's breast at the thought, and for a spell he'll wish it hadn't entered his head. He knows well enough what it is, reaching claws and spikes round his chest, another thing that's been turned to thorn in this black land. It used to be hope, bright and brimming as the nasturtians on winter's end. And if he ever ached with it, it would be all of piercing sweetness. But now –

Now he can't bear to look at Frodo in such a state, and he'll stare at the mountain instead, till his head swims with the flying sparks troubling the black. It's the same with his memories. For a time, he could find shelter with them, and put them up like a row of proud white hawthorn against the gloom. He'd look at the miserable crooked things that should be trees and see Bag End’s garden at the height of summer. Later, when they'd left that spot of land under the mountain pass to cross the plain where nobut withered scrub would take hold in the soil, he'd wish to see just one living tree again. Only one. And if it were none but the glum little willow that grows in Widow Rumble's garden with yellowing leaves, even in spring. He recollects that sickly spray clear enough, bent under the sun that should cure it, but doesn't.

His eyes have wandered, and it's only now that he notices he's looking at Frodo's hand where it lies dirty and half-curled against a slab of rock. He keeps himself from reaching and touching, this time. There's a pulse still flowing, the shallow heave of Frodo's chest tells him that much, though it's nobut a trembling of shadow in the dim.

So much has been worn off himself, Sam thinks, that he'd know straight away if Frodo’s breathing, Frodo’s heartbeat stopped. It's the one notion he can trust as he used to trust his sight and hearing. Now his sight may blur in this smoke-filled air, and there are times when he'll sway on his feet though the ground keeps still, but there's always such a prickling in his senses as to show him where Mr. Frodo is, and that he's not giving in. It's like a thread of shivers on his skin, that sense of Frodo's life near him, ever since they came across the mountains.

Perhaps that’s because it was gone, once, and he didn't truly know before what it meant to miss it.

He sits up with a jerk, before that thought can stretch its blackness out further. It's enough to know that Frodo can't slip from him and fall away any deeper than the pit of numb sleep. And that's the one blessing scraped up from all the barren miles between here and there, that thin shiver for which he's more thankful than he can ever say.

He wonders if it's anything like the manner in which Mr. Frodo feels the Ring – he's had his brief share of that, those heated, unnatural stirrings crawling through his mind and under his skin – though now it must roar as the mountain does.

It's no wonder, surely, that Frodo won't hear or see more than scraps of this bleak world, now that they've come so close. That he's lost his remembrance to it with every step and stumble.

No taste of food, no feel of water, no sound of wind, no memory of tree or grass or flower, no image of moon or star are left to me – is what he said.

And Sam's hands will clutch to fists when he remembers, wishing not to, but the memories come over him anyway, to tease his mind like sand blown over the bare rocks. Only it's not dust and sand then, it's the flow of clear water sparkling against a warm day, till his parched throat will ache with it. Or it's a soft breeze weaving itself through the poplars till they turn its voice into that of a great, rushing wind. Or worse, it's a memory of Frodo watching him with clear eyes and his small, tender smile that's full of wondering and still bright enough to warm Sam's skin from inside.

Then he'll want to bury all memories, and he'll comfort himself thinking that Mr. Frodo is safe from their bite and betrayal, leastways. From their burning in his chest.

A noise stirs Sam from the slump into which he's fallen, and he can't be sure if it were his own voice or a moan of trapped air among the stones. There are sounds in the black sky at times, sharp cries such as any poor creature gives when its life is ripped out, though he suspects that's not what goes on. The language in this land is like that, a torture on the throats that will speak it, and any creature surviving here will have its voice turned to a scream. Even when there's no voice left to give sound to it. Is this how Frodo–?

Sam stares down at his fists till they open, one stiff joint at a time, though it won't stop his fingers from trembling. He feels heavy, and he knows now that it's not tiredness, it's all the wishing as drags him under and slows his steps.

Oh, he's grateful enough for such blessed moments when his wishes would come true – when that bit of light he'd been wanting so bad glittered under the clouds, one night. But here, he can't carry too much of it, and he'll have to throw aside what's no longer needed, just like he parted with his cooking gear not so long ago. And the hoping will have to be rooted out, thorny black thing that it's become, just as he'd dig up a withered shrub in the garden and lay it to rest so it won't choke up the living earth. His hope can stay behind, for it tears him in two directions, and there's only one now. Up that mountain, to the fire.

It's what Mr. Frodo has been telling him for a good while, with all the tough strength that's in him, and eyes that see well past the clutter of if and maybe, even now. He's been willing to leave it all behind, the flesh on his bones as much as his memories and his hope, and Sam can do no less.

He knows what it means, too. His eyes can stop storming that mountain with anger and stubborn protest, his mind can stop plotting a road back away from this place. Of all the hopes that he's carried, he can't afford more than one wish. And he knows what that is, close and alive at the bottom, when all else has been taken away. It's the one wish he found when he took the Ring himself.

His back will ache as he moves, and his heart will give such an unsteady pounding as leaves him dizzy and breathless. His eyes will want for water again, but all that can't be helped. With his hope, he'll lose the fear, too. He'll take Frodo to the mountain, carry him up there if need be – if it breaks my back and heart – and he will look now.

He will look at Frodo and know it's not the mere gloom turning his skin to ash, baring the bones beneath it, and there'll be no bright summer in the Shire putting the flesh and weight back on Mr. Frodo's body, as Sam has often fancied. There won't be a day of sun and free air returning Frodo's smile, or the softness of his voice that's been run down to hoarse whispers. When his eyes open again without seeing Sam, without the spark that's welcomed him so many times, he'll know that this won't come back neither. And if Frodo's fingers no longer curl through his own, as they still do, remembering his hand even when he doesn't see – if that's taken away too, there will still be the bit of rest and ease passing through his limbs when Sam lies down and holds him near, so what warmth he has can crawl from his skin to Frodo's. It's grown so thin that light could fall through it, and tender enough for a wish to pass between them.

He knows Frodo wants him here, even if the wanting has pained him in the past. This they share, when nothing's left, and at the very end they will be together as they've both wished.

Another tremor is pressed through the hard soil, trapped deep underground, as Sam moves. He will look now and feel calm for knowing his one wish, the only thing he'll take with him. When he lies down beside Frodo, to give what comfort he may with his arms and his body, it will cradle them both, wound through their breaths and heartbeats. And then he will sleep.

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