Undersun by VB Undersun

He has moved too soon, and now he's snared, twisted up around a hunger so jagged it can snap his spine. Over the sharp rocks whistles a laughing wind, the sound of his entrapment. The White Face hangs bulbous in the night, ogling his misery. Pain runs through him in crazed circles. And there is the Precious, its heat bleeding invisible through the Master's hand. It tears into Sméagol's eyes and skull and balls up a whimper at the back of his throat.

"...we swear, we swear!"

"And what would you swear?" the Baggins asks, eyes cold as moon slivers that needle into him. Master of the Precious he is, and he can see what Sméagol wants the most, what runs under his skin so hot and sweet and biting. He can see because it pries through his own flesh.

The Baggins turns hiding the Precious, and it starts again, a hideous, screeching pull that carves the words out of his bones – "Sméagol will swear to never never never let Him have it, yes, yes – I promise!"

At a nod from the Master, the nasty hobbit takes off the rope that jabs blinding pain through his ankle.

"Lead the way, Sméagol," says the Baggins.

The other hobbit scowls. It has dull eyes, this other hobbit does, and its hand is closed tight on the sword-grip.

What does it want? Sméagol wonders as he sniffs the wind, and gollum clucks sullen in his throat. Is it lost, Precious? Is it hungry and lost as we are? He wonders, but he cannot guess.

* * *

Since the Yellow Face has dropped from sight, they've struggled under a clouded sky that fades slowly to black above the fens and meres and clumpy grass mounds. Above all the pools waver the misty candles of the dead, and even Sméagol is relieved when they scramble onto drier ground. A pale sheen hangs back over the marshes and glowers at them. Creeping, always creeping.

The Master walks hunched over, coloured sickly from spying the rotten faces in the water. Beside him, the nasty hobbit has an arm about the Baggins' shoulder and throws angry glances at Sméagol, though it wasn't his fault. He warned them against the tricksy lights, he did.

Stupid, stupid they are. Always looking where they shouldn't. The fog plasters the hair to their skulls, and water drips down their faces. Reeds flick about them. A sharp wind has lifted from the black mountains in the east.

"Look, Gollum, Mr. Frodo can't go on much further like this." The nasty hobbit's voice blurs in the wind. "I've a mind for a bit of rest myself."

Sméagol cowers by a pool that teases him with a slinking notion of silver fish. A glimpse of the White Face spears back at him, and he snarls at it. They must wait till the nasty shivery light has left the sky, then they can move on.

"Rest now, hobbits, rest." Sméagol waves them on to a thicket that rolls in the wind, spread out wide and low on the ground.

The Master drops down with a gasp, his arms clenched around his middle. Before him, the Sam hobbit is crouched, its grimy face scrunched up and just as pitiful. Its arms fold about the Baggins, and it murmurs something so low that Sméagol doesn't catch it.

They are always touching, like blind little worms that have crawled out of the ground with no eye-sense. And their skin so pale. But now they watch Sméagol watching them, so he scampers off.

He mutters against the freezing bite and hiss of the wind, growling a rhyme about fat-bellied fish. He bides his time. In the rattles of brittle twigs, he can hear the Precious, whispers that stroke the tight drum of skin under his ribs and shiver gently up his throat.

And then gollum is back for a while. The smaller hunger squeezes too hard, and gollum knows how to dig soft, juicy things even from sodden ground and muddy pools. He leaps and scurries under the scattered shadows. He laughs at the strength in his hands and arms. His fingers crackle as he wriggles them, strong enough to snap necks and gouge sleeping eyes from their sockets.

With a warm and pleasant lump in his belly, Sméagol scrabbles back to the hobbits. Now they lie curled up in a dell, tangled through each other as the branches in this spiny thicket, their heads tucked away at each other's shoulder. Sméagol sidles up closer. Brown and grey and clotted with mud, they are not much bigger than the pellets that the hideous mountain owls will cough up. Little dirtballs of clay and fear. And Sméagol has a suspicion that they don't mind the dirt now. If only they could burrow into the ground and hide with the maggots and worms, they would, yes they would, but they can't, because the Eye cleaves rock and soil and nothing is safe from it. He sees. He knows.

The Master can feel it too. Often he turns and stares in that direction as if he can keep Him out by looking back. But he can't, and if he still hasn't felt it now, soon he'll find the Eye prodding through every part of his flesh. Then he'll wish to be asleep at the cool bottom of a mire, with a tricksy candle of his own.

Sméagol looks down at his fleshless fingers and knots them together. The hobbits are so quiet in their sleep.

Sometimes, when they think he isn't near watching, they press their mouths together, and they breathe together, in small hitching sounds. They'll say their names to each other as if they're terrified of forgetting.

Sméagol rolls himself into a tight ball under the thorns that scrape gently at his skin. He is slipping down into a memory that has long given up shape and colour, but there's a warmth buried in it that doesn't blister and scorch. Like swabs of the Yellow Face drowned in a pool. He weeps a little with the slush of that memory thick around him.

His sleep is thin and colourless and doesn't hold together very long. When he looks again, the Master lies with his back pressed to the Sam hobbit, one hand under his head and the other flung out on the ground.

Sméagol breathes his smell, a troubling whiff of freshness that lingers about them both, even through the stink of the marshes. The Master's fingers are curled up and grubby, but his face looks soft where the half-light fondles it.

"Don't you touch him!" the nasty hobbit grinds on a sudden hiss of breath. It shifts away from the Baggins, glaring and very awake.

"Wasn't!" Sméagol bites out. "Not touching, just looking, we were!"

The Master trusts Sméagol to lead them, and even when heaviness carves his face, he has kind words. Only the nasty hobbit is always suspicious.

Sméagol bounds away, with an angry gollum gurgling in his throat. But there is nowhere to go. A stinking grey shine sprawls outside the thicket, and bubbling light glistens on the surface. At his back, Sméagol hears the nasty hobbit shuffle about and settle to watch the gloom that swaddles them.

After a time of routing through the prickly growth, Sméagol returns and sits a pace away from the hobbit.

"What is it doing here, we wonders?"

It looks at him with eyes like drowned wood. "I made a promise."

He gargles in surprise. "To the Preciousss!"

"No, Sméagol." The Sam hobbit frowns, scratching its chin. "But if you can't see the difference, I don't know's I can explain it to you."

It lowers the head then and plucks at dead grass with stubby fingers. Its shoulders twitch a little and heave through long breaths. Sméagol wonders.

"...what it's like being sick with worry," the nasty hobbit murmurs to itself, "and to be thinking all the time how there's more I should be doing and not coming up with anything – you don't understand that, now, do you?" Not nasty now, it looks off helpless to the east, and all the words come thickly out of its throat. "Have you ever wished so hard, you–" Then its face drops hidden behind both hands.

Sméagol cocks his head at the silly hobbit. But perhaps it's torn over a hunger like the hunger for the Precious that gnaws and gnaws till every bone is light and awash with it. Perhaps the silly hobbit doesn't know that yet.

It's sniffling a little, but there is no scent in the air that wasn't here before, only the slick smell off the marshes and the bitter leaves that grow in thatches close to the ground.

"Picture this..." the Sam hobbit murmurs and spreads dirty hands, "you're out under a sky full of sun and moon and stars, and they're all shining so clear and bright, you think you'll burst apart just looking."

Sméagol gives a hiss through his teeth. "That doesn't sound nice, no it doesn't, not nice at all!"

The hobbit shakes its head. "I expect not. Nice is not a word for it, if you take my meaning, but I'll be a doornail if I know any as will fit."

It sits hunched over like a rabbit that's given up flight, but there's a change in its eyes, and something tunnels through the dead brown shades of Sméagol's oldest memories. A flicker like the Yellow Face in those eyes, like an undersun in the water, there is.

Sméagol can feel it prod him, and he spits. Yes, there is, and we hates it.

"You're bound to your promise, aren't you?" the hobbit asks. "We've given you a right chance to sneak up on us, and you've not–"

"Yes, yes, we are!" gollum snaps rabid through his teeth.

The nasty hobbit shrinks back and gives him a suspicious look that steels into anger when the Master shifts out of his sleep.

"Now see what you've done!" It bounds up to hover over the Master. "You've gone and woke him."

"I'm so tired," the Baggins says, his face pinched, and unbends his back in a slow, laboured stretch. He looks west a moment, then at his hands, spilling dirt crumbs off his fingers. The Sam hobbit doesn't catch the sick, wretched look that twists his face, but Sméagol, from where he sits, can see it.

"I know, Mr. Frodo."

When the nasty hobbit cups both hands around his fingers, the Master looks up, and his eyes grow clear.

"You can rest a little more now, Mr. Frodo, Sméagol won't be moving before hours at any rate."

The Baggins rubs his forehead with the back of his hand. "And then... we go on."

All the way to the pits, the pits full of ashes and dust, where the Eye will pin and burn them. Sméagol rocks back and forth uneasily. He tastes a biting reek on the wind and draws it in deep.

How long now can they go on, he wonders. Soon they will curse the flesh that hangs on their bones while Sméagol is thin as a twig and not in need of much rest.

Gollum will keep them safe, yes he will, Precious. And if they fall asleep one morning and never wake up again, it's the Master's wish, the wish he doesn't speak because of the silly Sam hobbit. But Sméagol has made his promise to the Baggins, and he knows what's gnawing the Master's heartflesh.

He licks his dry mouth. Gollum will keep the promise, and the Baggins will have his wish.

Yes. Perhaps.

* * * * *

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