Shadow by VB Shadow

It whispered and burned. Back where It belonged, It nestled comfortably against spare flesh and bones that were starting to stretch the skin. Though the heartbeat beneath dragged and stumbled, it would continue to struggle long enough. Completion wasn't far now. Scrambling steps carried It forward, past tumbled rock and dead wood, down into the homeland's dark trough.

It stretched into the watchful distance, towards the scattered fires that shone like lost parts of Itself. Behind It, Cirith Ungol thrust from the crags, now a beacon of desolation, and before It, solid black against black, the mountain flamed a stark welcome. The fire's pulse went deep through the land. When the time of completion came, all lingering blindness would be stripped away, and those sunken veins would blaze with power. Beside It, a weary hobbit in black cloak and orc-helm grappled for a hold among thorny scrubs.

"Mr. Frodo?" A mutter that thinned in the heavy air. "We can't go on much longer like this, and you're asleep on your feet."

A trembling hand released the treasure buried under leather tunic and orc-mail.

"Here, let me help you..."

A jolt went through him. A touch, and he lurched. Forward into a dizzy gap that filled with his harsh breathing. I'm here, I'm --

He'd stared too hard at the sun that swung overhead like a wheel of fire. But now the landscape swam in shades of black.

Still here.

"It's... all right." Frodo straightened. "I must have... dreamed."

Sam had wrapped an arm around his waist. How he had to dread and despise it now, this necessity to touch.

"Sit down for a bit anyways, Mr. Frodo." Sam's voice was a mere whisper, roughened by want for water and clean air. "The longer we stumble through this awful pitch blackness, the sooner we'll go breaking our necks in some ditch or other."

Strange. Mere moments ago, the ground had run hot with secret fire. Now it seared frigid as ice. Frodo leaned his back against a boulder. Sweat prickled everywhere on his body, like a fever frost. All the warmth there was had retreated to a single place, a hand's breadth above his heart. He wanted to cling to it. But he couldn't. His parched throat ached as he swallowed.

Beside him, Sam tightened both arms around his knees. A first attempt to speak wound up in a hard cough. He tried again. "Well, now... if Shagrat himself was to offer me a glass of water, I'd shake his hand."

"Don't say such things!" Frodo snapped. "That only makes it worse."

There was silence. A dull, pressing silence that made breathing even harder. When he looked sideways, Sam's head had fallen forward, his expression impossible to see in the dimness.

I'm sorry. But the effort to say it would be wasted. Whatever he said couldn't undo a single wrong.

Behind his closed lids, the wheel of fire glittered and turned. Nothing like the sun that rolled unseen behind the spreading gloom. But all the time he was sinking, sinking into a tight space where It couldn't reach, down to the bottom of a dark well. He had to stay awake and aware to fend against It. Frodo pressed his knuckles into his eyes until bright specks danced through his sight. Until he could see again.

Huddled up against the rock, Sam had fallen asleep. For the first time, he had simply given in where he sat, with no more strength to spare for worry or caution.

Frodo bent closer. Straggling, sweaty curls clung to a dirty cheekbone. Even in sleep, the gentle curve of Sam's mouth was drawn tight in defense.

"Sam," Frodo whispered before he could stop himself. Weak as it was, the thready sound would have sufficed to waken Sam at any other time. But not now. Not here.

Frodo sagged with exhaustion. A hand's breadth beneath It clenched a dull ache. He could cling to that, if nothing else. What have I done, Sam? Did you have to bring me back only to make things worse for you?

But thought slipped and found no purchase in the shadow. Little by little, the stone at his back draped its damp chill over him, and the cold crawled with memories --

-- hands on his body, many hands that tore at him in frantic search, nails breaking skin -- and from the sway of torchlight pressed claws and eyes and questions --

Where is It?

Fingers crept up a rawboned chest as if they could rip It out from underneath the skin.

But It was here now. A hand cupped It through orc-mail and leather and cradled Its warming throbs. It had been lost only for a short while. Swollen with the power that ran through the land, It preened and stretched...

-- here I'm here --

A fist pressed to his mouth, Frodo rocked himself back and forth. Crouched up over the burning at the top of his breastbone. A second heartbeat. A lie. A promise that filled the dreadful hollows in his body and mind.

He'd welcomed the bite of the whip that severed him from the loss of It. The worst torture, he remembered. You were right, Gandalf, you were so right...

Another truth he'd stubbornly refused to believe. Even locked up far from hope in the dank tower, stripped and exposed to the worst of his fears. Even then. So long as Sam was alive, shut out of this nightmare, the worst hadn't come to pass. Not yet. A comfort stolen from his captors' questions: Sam had not been taken.

Frodo let his head drop down on his knees. There'd been moments between blackness when his mind escaped into a boundless dreamstate, when the battering questions became part of a deep rhythm that rose and fell like the Sea.

And through it all, Sam's voice. Trembling with fright and stony echoes. The sound of a straggling dream that called him home.

I was so glad... I was --

A fool. He'd been a fool to believe anything in him could be strong enough to withstand Its power.

His stomach heaved. I don't want to be this... thing. I don't want to be...

Frodo braced his elbows against the rock and pushed up slowly. His time was running thin. "Wake up, Sam!" He cleared his throat to force the sound through. "Come on! It's time we made another effort."

"Well I never!" Sam was on his feet in a moment, clumsy with tiredness and clearly embarrassed. "I must've dropped off. It's a long time, Mr. Frodo, since I had a proper sleep, and my eyes just closed down on their own."

There was no count of hours in the gloom, only the dead patter of minutes and footsteps. Only the fogged glare from the mountain top that hung like a torch in the distance. Long tremors rooted through the stony plain, running out from the ravines.

Framed within those thundering spells, It grew heavy as the molten shadows. Promised power enveloped It, feeding Its weight, until It burned to sink and join, and bound the dark with Its fire.

"Mr. Frodo -- what--?"

His stomach cramped violently, and he clenched a hand over his mouth. Alarm wormed through him, tunneled up and up through solid shadow. ...still here, but so... heavy...

"Frodo -- Mr. Frodo!"

The hands on his shoulders loosened their clasp when he started, but didn't quite let go.

What is it? he meant to ask, but the shadow was in his throat now, clogging his voice.

"You fell over, Mr. Frodo, and before I could catch you, begging your pardon."

He realised then that he'd dropped to his knees, and his fingers were crusted with dirt as if he'd dug them into the ground. He raised one hand slowly and rubbed it against coarse cloth. His legs refused to move for the time being, a numb weight that his mind couldn't reach. All he could do was sit back and breathe air that scratched deep in his lungs.

"You shouldn't come near me," he managed a whisper, "at times like this. It's too dangerous."

Sam let his hands fall to his sides, his mouth twisted hard. But in another moment he wiped his sleeve over his eyes, and his jaw set. "Do you remember the day Gollum went hunting for us, and I cooked those coneys -- and then, what you said to me?"

"I'm afraid I don't. The Ring is--" mine! It flared in his thoughts and he gasped, "--between me and everything that once belonged to me."

"...about trusting my judgment and all," Sam murmured, a tremor in his voice.

Frodo squeezed his eyes shut. It was the least he could do for Sam, to burrow in deep for the needlepoint glimmers of what had been. Ithilien. The knowledge survived in scratches, pale and scentless, like an unsure outline on parchment. Flickers of a fire blurred strangely, as if through murky water.

"I'm sorry, Sam..."

A shaky breath was followed by a sharp cough. "Don't be, Mr. Frodo, it'll come back to you."

He didn't have the heart to object. He looked at Sam, and his eyes were so clear, so full of sorrow that he almost flinched back. His fingers curled together, around an insane urge to touch. But he couldn't. Not anymore.

There'd been a moment when the shadow pierced and took him, blinding him to himself. And that was only the beginning.

Sam's shoulders rose and sank through a cautious intake of air. He leaned closer. "Perhaps... if you won't think less of me for trying, but perhaps you'll remember this..."

Quick and gentle as it came and went, a brush of dry lips to his own, the kiss scalded, and Frodo jerked away.

"Sam, you can't!" His voice cracked. Something in his body remembered for him, stirred against the numbness, the cold, and scattered into grief. "Don't you remember? How you found me in that tower, and how I repaid you for it?"

And this one memory snapped open like a doubled blade. Damp trails down the sides of Sam's face, a savage tenderness in his eyes, all the hope and safety gathered in the circle of his arms. Shattered and broken at a single thought of the Ring.

"How can you even suffer to be near me? Sam, you must hate me!"

Yes, that was it, the consequence he'd fled -- to carry a Ring of Power is to be alone -- out of his own weakness. He'd sensed it in Gollum from the first day. How knowledge and hatred kept them bound and divided. And relief came from it, when he could seal himself off and be alone, beyond hope, beyond struggle. He looked at Sam. Don't hold me here. Release me.

But Sam shook his head. Confusion made his voice small. "Hate you?"

Frodo glanced down. Down Sam's body, at the grim evidence of every mile they'd covered. Deep scratches along his shins, black clots of blood between his toes. Too much that he had failed to notice until now.

"You didn't do nothing," Sam carried on in a firmer tone. "And there's nothing could hurt me worse than losing you again."

"You don't understand!" It welled from the bottom of his chest, a bright wave that rushed his breathing and rushed the words out -- "I'm poisoned, I'm -- there's so little left of me that I don't even -- I could have killed you, Sam, for the Ring! It's taking everything from me, little by little, and I haven't the will left to fight it."

His breast ached with release, and he found himself buried in blind warmth, held tight against his own denial. "You should have left me for dead!"

Sam kept both arms wrapped around him until he stopped struggling. "All alone and without me? Mr. Frodo..." Shudders ran between his breaths, prising the words apart. "Don't think on it, because I couldn't do it, I couldn't!"

"And I couldn't afford it, Sam, no matter how I may wish for it." Frodo raised a hand to the place below Sam's throat where It had rested and heated the skin. "One way or another, I will be the death of you."

Sam grew very still under his touch, his shoulders pulled painfully tight, but his tone had changed when he spoke again. "Whichever way that goes, Mr. Frodo... it's not you, it's the Ring, and a good and true fight you're giving it, if I may say so. Don't you let it spin your head with lies now, and things wanting to take root where they don't belong."

"Don't they? Perhaps that is what holds me in one piece. I cannot be sure."

He wanted to dip his fingers under the stained cloak, the tattered old garments, and touch the living warmth of Sam's skin, just there. But his hand pulled It from hiding instead. Cool and unbreakably whole.

He didn't have the right. It was taking his place, and what remained of him had withdrawn too far, a tiny reflection in Sam's eyes.

How I wish... There were no tears to be wrung from the dryness of his body, only the pressure behind his eyes, in his throat.

His hand sank from his chest and released the Ring. For the moment, It lightened Itself to the shadow, never far from him, never far. He traced his fingers over Sam's face, collecting all the marks of terrible effort and despair that spelled out his guilt. His fist tightened about regret as if he'd picked a coal from embers. It burned.

"Remember me," he whispered. "When I'm -- when I no longer -- remember this, whatever happens. Promise me..."

Sam didn't have to say a word. It was all in his eyes. Promise, denial, fear... and impossible hope. He reached out and drew Frodo's hand back over his heart. "Here. That's where I'm keeping you safe, Mr. Frodo, and if it's all I can do, just such a little thing--"

"No it's not..." Frodo flattened his hand against Sam's chest and couldn't speak any more. Under the loose wraps of clothing, he could feel the hard structure of bone. The loss of everything except for the will to endure.

When it's all over, I want to find you again. Perhaps there would be such a moment, and if there was only one, for a breath and another, then it would be enough.

He closed his eyes. When his fingers tangled in Sam's hair, he remembered -- Sam's mouth on his -- chapped and dry and barely touching now. A breath that wasn't his own passed lightly between his lips. Here...

He'd missed his chance to tell Sam, and now he no longer knew if he could claim this truth for his own. But within Its mind, the words fell soft as ashflakes,

-- I
-- love
-- you

* * * * *

* next in this series: Air *

* send feedback *