Water by VB Water

A mighty river cleaved the forest, rushing along wild as change itself. Teeth set, Sam climbed into the elven boat that rocked and jolted with every move. Thin as a wisp it was too, air and moonshadow more than wood.

Not a care on his face, Legolas jumped lightly into the second boat, but Sam sat clutching the side for dear life. Down to every bone in his body, he could feel the river swirl and suck at the curved planks. Yet it wouldn't do to be shaking with fear, seeing as everyone else took to it like boating was the most natural bit of sport for a hobbit. Boating as had drowned Mr. Frodo's parents in the Brandywine river, no less. But only a brook was the Brandywine next to this grey flood spilling off away into the dim southeast.

Wind ruffled the branches overhead, and sunlight sheared through. Sam squeezed his eyes shut when a sudden flash stabbed off the dancing water. He wrapped his arms about his knees and kept still as a stone while the world swayed in every direction. In front of him, he could hear Frodo settle and breathe carefully. Not so sure about this boating trip perhaps, but not scared out of his wits either.

"Are you all right there, Sam?" His voice soft enough to mix with the pattering of water on wood, yet steady, as was the hand that touched Sam's shoulder.

"Yes, Mr. Frodo," Sam pushed through his teeth.

The boat swung out into the great river, and now there was water all around him. The noise of it too, rushing awful as a hailstorm over the stones and driving the shore far outward on either side, till the trees slurred together in muted green ribbons. Sam could feel the dizzy speed rise up through his backbone, and his head swam with alarm. Before him, Frodo shifted just a little. Restless again.

Sam angled a look around at his profile, half-hidden by wind-blown curls. No call for it, seeing as it confirmed only what he knew. Something was going on with Mr. Frodo, ever since he'd peered in the Lady's mirror, though he'd not breathed a word about it. A hard choice in the making, from the look of him.

Something full of thorns and spikes coiled up in Sam's chest. All too often now, Frodo carried that drawn, inward look. As if he was falling back from the real world, into some tight and lonely place where none could follow.

The Ring? Sam wondered. Is that what it's doing, taking hold of him? From Black Riders to the orcs and goblins of Moria, they'd been hounded down by so many enemies, he'd not had a worry to spare of late. But orcs and Ringwraiths weren't the worst of it. Something had sunk its hooks and claws into Frodo. Something that tightened the skin over his bones and brought out a sharp strain in his face. Even after he'd recovered in Rivendell, it seized around him, a little more with every day of their journey.

Chilling worry squeezed at Sam's breath. He recalled snatches of a conversation not meant for his ears, and the rumble of Gandalf's voice conjuring the power of the Ring. How it burrowed into its keeper's heart, eating away till it hollowed him out from within like a rotting spreenut. How it grew on Bilbo -- but Mr. Bilbo had it for years and it never did him no harm! Sam argued in silence, Not that I could tell. But then, they'd all been safe in the Shire, safe and careless till the first hoofbeat of a black horseman rent their fancy apart. Change bled through the rip and wouldn't be stopped anymore.

Sam tried to call the homely crackle of a fire to his mind. But all he heard was the water fretting among grey roots that thrust out from the river banks like reaching fingers.

In the boat ahead, Legolas stood very straight, his head tilted towards the wilder eastern shore. What with all these stout folk around, you've naught to worry about, Sam told himself. They'll know danger before it shows so much as a toenail. But what if they were all watching in the wrong direction? He chewed on his lower lip as he tried to bolt down another stirring of troublement that edged through him.

For a start, he didn't much like the way Boromir kept sneaking looks at the Ring. Wretched looks they were too, jostling Sam back and forth between sorrow and bristling alarm. Maybe the Ring was calling out to Boromir, the way Gandalf had said it could. And sometimes, when Frodo slipped his fingers round it, the strangest expression hooded his eyes. Perhaps it was carving through his mind even now, throwing out taproots as poisonous as the Ringwraith's knife -- and who'd ever shield him from that?

A loud flapping of wings whipped Sam from his thoughts. Overhead, a flock of swans soared off west, but their feathering gleamed black in the last glints of daylight.

Frodo's head came round as he watched them pass, his lips pressed tight, a faint shadow marking the hollow beneath his cheekbone. Yet for the briefest moment, his features loosened to a look of yearning that struck Sam hard and made him lower his eyes to the dull grey wash. What will you do, Sam Gamgee?

His answer was the same as always -- never leave him -- but change ran through it now in ways he couldn't define. Huddled up around a deep, grinding ache, he watched daylight sink and fade, and now it felt like gliding through a dream, between scraps of mist that flickered on the water and clogged under the trees.

He'd almost grown used to the steady movement when the boat tossed suddenly about, and the river lurched through white eddies. Rocks burst the roiling surface everywhere, and fear was on him again, a sick, clenching cold that stole his breath.

"We have to go ashore for the night!" Strider called out from the stern. "Turn back -- we cannot dare these rapids by night!"

Sam heaved a long breath of relief as all three boats swerved, cutting sharply west towards a narrow cove. Spindly branches fell over it in curtains, as near a promise of shelter as could be found in these parts, he reckoned. But just when they'd dragged the boats onto dry ground, a slipping shadow caught on the edge of his sight.

He narrowed his eyes at a shape that drifted along the river. Dark in the water like a dead log, and yet it moved ahead of the current. A pale glow peeped up for a blink, raising an unpleasant crawl at the back of Sam's neck.

"Do you see that, Mr. Frodo?"

"Yes, I see him." Soft as his own, Frodo's voice carried only weariness.

Sam inched a step forward. He could put a name to that sneaking shadow too, skimming the water like its very own element. But before his fingers grabbed on the hilt of his sword, Frodo's hand was already there, breaking the movement.

"You won't catch him, Sam."

He was going to protest, but Frodo's fingers rested against the back of his hand another moment and trapped one endless shiver that was spilling through him.

"You're cold." A bit of humour crept into Frodo's tone. "And you must be tired from putting up with all this water."

Sam shook his head violently. "With that Gollum creature about, we'd best set up a watch." A mutter below his breath, to keep it from troubling the others. "I'll wake you for your turn, you just catch a little rest now, Mr. Frodo."

Frodo's jaw set, and a clear refusal flared on his face, though none of it found words. In the grappling shadows, there was still a brightness about him that shone forth when his expression softened.

"Very well, Sam," he answered finally. For a moment he looked as if to say more, but then only hunched up his shoulders and went to unroll his blanket.

Sam stopped a witless motion and curled his fingers tight. His hands had a way of getting ahead of him, and there was always the longing to touch Frodo these days. Touch him, and be sure...

He dropped down on his own pack and fixed a thoughtful look on the boats. It was odd, how Mr. Frodo no longer took for granted what he should, being served and cared for and all, especially now. Everyone in the company had sworn to protect him, for the sake of what he carried, leastways. Not that they could ease his burden any, and they all knew it -- maybe better than you do, Sam Gamgee.

Ahead in the twilight, the river licked the shore with gobbling chuckles that mocked his fears. But he'd made a promise. And the only solid thing it was, too, in this swamp of fog and rumour.

* * *

Sounds of battle rang down the wooded slopes, riding high above the snarls of Rauros falls. Clash of iron and whirr of arrow, and harsh shouts that raised every hair on Sam's skin. He'd been running after Strider without hope for matching his pace longer than a minute, and his lungs burned from the wild scramble. He raised one arm against the branches that whipped about him. Out of his reckoning in these strange lands. And where is it you think you're going, you ninny?

He'd lost sight of Frodo as he shouldn't have, not for a breath if he'd taken his own advice. From the clammy feeling in his bones to the queer smell on the wind, everything had told him so when he'd plucked himself up in the morning. Most of all, the stillness on Frodo's face, all strange and remote in the cool grey wisps that rose off the water.

But where could he go in these parts? Sam wheeled and blinked against his blurring sight. The memory of Frodo's face stood out sharper than the dark web of branches, pulled to sudden, aching clarity. The first of daylight floating in his eyes, and about to go under.

He's leaving.

I knew it, ran through Sam's head in a frantic circle -- he's made up his mind to just up and leave by himself because he's afraid -- and there he broke into another stumbling race, back the way he'd come.

High up in the woods churned the hoarse blare of a horn -- Boromir's horn -- not a call though, a warning pushed out desperately that drove him on and down. He charged through the middle of a bramble thicket with never a thought till the water glittered through the trees.

From somewhere near trickled a raspy, slicing sound, like pebbles stirring briefly. Flicks of gliding movement shuddered through the trees, in the shape of an elven boat that drifted gently off the shore.

Too late -- fast as he flailed through the undergrowth, he'd never catch up with such a wind-borne feather of a boat.

"Frodo!" His heart thundered in his throat as he barrelled on across mud and gravel.

In broad sunlight, the water looked peaceful as any pool in the Shire, though near the middle it swirled with a dusky undertow. In the pit of Sam's stomach danced a queasy memory of the rapids. He swallowed. If you can't do this, you should've stayed back home, and that's all there is to it.

And there was Frodo, bent forward to row the boat to the far bank. Without him.

"No, Frodo, no!" The water slapped Sam's calves as he stopped -- and all against his will, too. Plain as daylight, he could see the strain in Frodo's shoulders, but for a moment he was mired in the chill that clutched him inside and out.

The noise from the woods had fallen far behind. In the crisp, shimmering air, he heard Frodo's answer clearly. "No, Sam."

And a cold quiet there was to his tone such as he'd never heard before.

Sam's breath caught hard in his throat -- didn't come all this way with you for nothing -- and that nothing opened up inside him like a bottomless drop. There was far worse than water.

"Go back, Sam! I'm going to Mordor, alone." Frodo had turned now, his face set with a calm that put him out of reach, more so than any stretch of waves and eddies.

"Of course you are." Sam yanked in another breath. "And I'm coming with you."

And don't you be afraid. It was a blind stubborn need that pushed up through his chest and hammered outward. I can reach him, I know I can, just you trust me, Mr. Frodo. The water lapped around his knees, folding him tighter in its slick, clammy pull. Wide as the sea it might look from here, but he would get across.

"You can't swim!" Frodo called.

So I can't, but there's no one going to say's I didn't try. He waded on with big sloshing steps, felt the current pluck at his legs, the bite of stones under the soles of his feet, and the fear crept up his thighs like a silver frost.


What dread ran icy in his veins, he could draw on, make it a brightness that filled him inside out and carried him over. The ground slipped out from under his feet, and with the weight of his body stripped suddenly away, he milled his arms about in great useless splashes.

If I can do this...

"Sam!" Something ripped through Frodo's voice and rushed him, stronger than any current, though the water closed over his head now, and he sank like a stone.

Silence wrapped thick about him, sucking at the throb of heartbeat in his ears till that, too, was gone. He opened his eyes wide. Pure as glass, the water brimmed in every direction, and right above him swam a dreamy dazzle of the sun. He watched, half-reaching as it spun out into blinding threads. Safe inside a mystery that would drown him.

Something closed about his wrist. Caught him back from the slow shuttering of a dream, and he gripped on hard, clasping the hand that yanked him upward with a sort of strength as had all the demons in the world behind it.

He came up spluttering, gasping air and liquid as he rolled into the boat that rocked crazily with his clumsy weight.

"Oh, Sam."

Frodo sat back, his eyes clear as the water, and he could get so lost there while he blustered out what few words he had to explain -- I promised. Sunlight dissolved the chill in his waterlogged clothing, and here he could reach Frodo, with both arms locked about him and shudders running down their backs. It was everything he'd wanted.

When he drew back, all the cold and choked-up choice had melted off Frodo's face.

"Come on." Frodo dipped the paddle in for a stroke and paused again, his shirt stained damp where he'd been crushed up against Sam's wet garment. "When I looked into the mirror... I could see you, Sam, and I -- you were..." He shook his head. "You had to be safe."

How he could be thinking that was beyond Sam. "Not without you," he said stubbornly.

"But with me, you'll be--" Frodo broke off again and gripped the paddle harder. "It's not only where we're going. The longer this takes... at some point, I may not be myself anymore. I do not know what is happening to me." He'd turned his face aside, his voice brittle as autumn leaves.

Sam watched him, and something faltered between his breaths. Like the last, keen note of a song, hooked so hard within his chest, he couldn't bear it.

And me, I don't know nothing -- but if I could just be your mirror... Out of the way it was to be thinking that, more than any of the notions flitting about his head, so he put out a hand to clasp Frodo's shoulder. Through the shirt, he felt the slow easing of a bunched muscle, a small marvel in itself.

"I'm coming with you," he repeated.

What had been fear poured through him in silence, richer and stronger than sunlight.

* * * * *

* next in this series: Fire *

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