Actions

Work Header

Master

Chapter Text

Earth hovered. Brittle and broken, rocks ground beneath his feet. Frodo gulped hot air, his head dangling. The Ring pulled his neck down and burnt his skin. He ran forward, falling, crawling, palms and leathery soles cut and bleeding. Skin and hair soaked with sweat, he climbed into the chamber. His heaving breath echoed back to him.

 

Inside, everything was black. Frodo limped along, his hands grasping the rough edges of the tunnel wall to keep him from keeling over. As he went further, the air thickened. Light sprung up from a giant fissure, red in the blackness. He was now in a cave-like room, he could see it by the flare. He was alone. The mountain lay unguarded.

 

It seemed too simple. Perhaps Gandalf was wrong. Perhaps casting the Ring into the Cracks would do nothing. Frodo walked to the edge of the fissure and looked down at the molten rock churning below. The Ring quivered against his chest. All he had to do was throw It in there and everything would be over.


Frodo reached up to pull the Ring from his neck. The chains clung to his skin. He choked but managed to get It off. He held the Ring up in front of him. The golden band glistened in the red light. Frodo moved to throw It, but his arm stopped.


A voice was calling to him. It was beautiful, deep, and slow like wind through a cave or the roll of the sea.


Halt! Why would you destroy me? it said.


I was sent here to. Frodo replied trembling. He could not tell where the voice was coming from, though it seemed to live in his very mind.


By whom? it said.


I cannot say. I will not say. I came of my own free will.


Why do you wish to destroy me?


You are evil.


What have I done to harm you? it said. It spoke softly, sadly. It wanted to know.


Your riders have hunted me down. One stabbed me. Your Orcs have waylaid and tortured me.


You took what was mine.


It was given me.


Then all shall be forgiven, and your wounds redressed. Merely give over the Ring. I have sent my servants to collect It.


Frodo turned towards the tunnel in fear but saw no one.


I cannot listen, he thought. I must destroy the Ring. He told me to.


Who told you to? it said.

 

I cannot tell you. Frodo strained to keep his limbs from shaking. He stole another glance back, still no one.


How do you know he was not lying? the voice said.


Frodo clenched his fist around the Ring trying to make the voice stop, but it was still there in his head.


Why is he not with you?


He is dead. An image of Gandalf's face surfaced in Frodo's mind. It was a face contorted by terror and rage, falling, falling, so far away. It seemed forever since then. Frodo wondered if Gandalf had even ever existed. Everything was so hazy.


Even you doubt your mind, the voice said. It would be wise to give the Ring over. You have had it too long.


I must destroy it. Only then will I be free. Frodo wondered though if that were true. The Ring had a firm grip on his mind. To destroy it would mean madness, emptiness. Without the Ring, Gollum was nothing. Frodo would suffer the same fate. Only he would not even have the hope of recovering his precious. He paced the rock trying to reach a decision.


But you cannot, the voice said, you cannot destroy it. Give it me, and I shall give you life.


‘What use is life to me?’ Frodo shouted. ‘What use is life knowing I've failed?’


Failed? You follow the plans of a dead man. Your friends are dead, and their armies are broken. Give me the Ring, and you will be honoured. You shall serve at my side, a champion, and all the world shall bow down before you. You will be given riches and power beyond your greatest dreams.


'I have no use for money or power,’ Frodo said, speaking down to the dangling Ring. ‘And if my friends are dead as you say, I shall destroy you in vengeance.


Frodo shook the Ring by its chain, but his pacing had brought him away from the Cracks of Doom. He turned back towards the fissure but the Ring was heavy, each step seemed a league in length.


Nay, do not! The voice pleaded desperately. Some still live, and to those, I shall be merciful, if you turn over my treasure, my bauble, my plaything. To you, I shall give strength and knowledge. I will lengthen the years of your life.


Ignoring the voice, Frodo kept his concentration on his feet. Slowly, they were inching forward. He tried stretching his legs. They ached, but he ignored the pain.
I shall share the Ring with you, the voice said. We together will rule Middle-earth.


Frodo's throat was too dry for him to speak again. His mind was too tired to try and close itself to the voice.


Share the power, Frodo thought. No, you have nothing to offer me.


He stroked the Ring with his fingertips. The metal was warm.


I have the Ring. It is mine.


Frodo looked over the edge at the Crack. He had made it there. He slid the Ring off its chain.


It is mine.


He rolled the Ring on his palm. It was simple gold but beautiful. His eyes looked down at the red tongues that licked the walls of the mountain. They would devour the Ring. It would be no more and with it would end a great power.

Gandalf had said that the Ring could only be used for evil, but Gandalf had chosen against counsel to go through the mines of Moria, and he was dead. Gandalf was not infallible. Why shouldn't the Ring be used to amend the harm It had done? In his mind, Frodo could see a perfect world. There would be no wars, no famines, no floods, only rolling hills, bountiful fields, and sweet water. Finally, the Shire would take center stage. From there, Frodo would rule the world in wisdom, hosting great feasts and inviting the rulers from the north, south, east, and west, to meet and eat with him. All lands would give up their weapons and there would be everlasting peace.


‘Master!’ A voice startled him out of his thoughts. Frodo turned to see Sam. He was trembling. Sting hung from his hand, bloodied.


‘What did you do?’ Frodo said.


‘I couldn't help it, master,’ Sam spluttered. ‘He attacked me.’


‘Oh, so, Gollum is dead. A pity, I could have saved him.’


‘What are you talking about? And why do you still have the Ring?’


‘I have decided not to destroy it.’


‘What? But, Mr. Frodo, we came all this way.’


‘I know. It was a waste.’ Frodo laid his hand gently on Sam's shoulder. ‘I'm sorry for troubling you. We can go home now.’


‘No, we can't!’ Sam pulled away. ‘You have to destroy the Ring. It's the only way.’


‘I can't, Sam,’ Frodo said. ‘And there's no need. We can use the Ring to mend all the wrong in the world, to…Sam, why are you crying?’


‘It's claimed you, sir,’ Sam said. ‘Don't you remember Boromir, what it did to him? And Gollum? The Ring is poison.’


‘You killed Gollum. And Orcs slew Boromir. The Ring has no claim on me, Sam. I am its master.’


Sam stared hard at Frodo. Slowly, he lifted up Sting.


‘Destroy It,’ he growled. ‘Destroy the Ring.’


Startled, Frodo took a step back. Sam was glaring at him with wet eyes. He moved forward, sword still pointed out. Frodo looked back over his shoulder at the fissure then took a step to the side. He was weaponless. He tried to remember why.


Sam is a killer, the voice in his head said. He killed Gollum. He wants the Ring.


‘Get back, thief, murderer.’ Frodo clasped the Ring in his fist. ‘Begone!’


‘You have to destroy the Ring,’ Sam said hoarsely. His sword hand shook. ‘Please, Mr. Frodo, let it go.’


Frodo shook his head. ‘The Ring is mine.’


He slipped the Ring on his finger. Sam seemed dim now, a shadow among shadows. Frodo walked back towards the tunnel. Some force was guiding him there. Through the tunnel and out the door of Sammath Naur, he went until he was standing again in the open air.


The plains of Mordor were deserted. Frodo looked up. Eight points dotted the dusty red sky. As they drew closer, Frodo could make out that were eight riders upon eight winged beasts. The riders' faces glowed white, their eyes burning like fiery lances. The Nazgûl let out long piercing screams, as their beasts spiraled down towards him.


On the ground, Frodo shook in fear. He did not know how to use the Ring. He tried to take It off his finger, but It would not come off. He ran back towards the tunnel, but his legs buckled, and he fell. He crawled forward, only to lose his grip and tumble further down the mountainside. Unable to move, he lay face flat on the rock and started to cry. The Nazgûl crouched over him. Their high, screeches tore through his shoulder, stabbing him again and again. The world around him grew increasingly cold and dark until finally, Frodo felt nothing.

Chapter Text

As the armies of Mordor came down upon them, Legolas felt Arod shake, but it was not just from the horse's fear. The very ground was a tremble, as Orcs and Men and Trolls charged forward on the army of less than seven thousand that had dared challenge the Dark Lord.


Around him, Legolas could see fear in the faces of the Rohirrim and the men of Gondor. Only Aragorn was holding them together, his calming voice rising above the screams of the Orcs. His sword, Andúril, gleamed in the dim light.


Legolas's hand dipped back, took another arrow, shot. The battle had just begun, but his arrows were already running low. Every arrow had made a hit; every arrow had brought another death to the enemy, but there was always more Orcs to fill the void. Their axes and scimitars sliced into men and horses alike. Rearing steeds threw down their masters, who were trampled by rushing feet.


Another arrow sang from Legolas's bow, hitting a Mountain Troll between its squinting eyes. The creature howled but did not fall. Legolas slit an Orc's throat with his white knife then turned back to the troll. It was still standing. Legolas let loose another arrow. This one pierced an artery in the Troll's upper neck. The Troll fell, spraying hot blood on its Easterling companions.


Aragorn was further away now, riding towards the Gate. Andúril slipped in and out of falling bodies, black and red with blood. Hasufel's hooves crushed the bodies beneath him. Legolas could hear the bones snapping. At Aragorn's side was Gandalf on Shadowfax. His staff glowed like a beacon and set the Orcs trembling at the light. Elrond's sons also rode at the front, their silver cloaks flapping in a warm wind.


A wild shriek had Legolas flat against Arod's back, with his hands clasped over his ears. The Nazgûl had flown from their rousts on the Towers of Teeth. Legolas reached back for an arrow. There were three left in the quiver. Quickly, he drew one out, set it to his bowstring, but he did not let it go. The Nazgûl had passed them by, flying east to Mount Doom.


Frodo was Legolas's first thought, but the Mouth of Sauron had said Frodo had already been captured and brought to the tower. The Mouth could have lied. Renewed hope swept through Legolas. He rode forward in haste. If he were to die today, it would be at Aragorn's side, giving the enemy all the fight he had left. The Orcs that divided them did not matter, a few skilled swipes of his knife, and they were carrion.


Aragorn had reached the Black Gate. Orcs leapt to either side in fear, making a path for him.


‘Sauron!’ Aragorn called aloud. ‘Come and fight, you coward! Craven!’


The earth shivered and groaned, but no one came out. A banner barer held up the standard of Arwen, the white tree and the stars. Legolas remembered another warrior who had faced down another dark lord long years ago. In the woods of his childhood, Legolas had heard of the Noldor king, Fingolfin, who had rode unaided to the Gates of Angband and had challenged Melkor. Fingolfin had died. He had smote the monster's foot, but he had died.


‘Aragorn,’ Legolas said, at Aragorn's side. ‘You are not alone.’


Aragorn smiled grimly back at him then they were torn apart again. The Orcs might have quailed at the dreadful gaze of Aragorn and the power of Gandalf, but the men of the South were not as easily frightened. Haradrim in scarlet blazed through the men of the Gondor, cutting them to pieces. Severed hands, arms, and feet pummeled the ground. Legolas did not look at them, his eyes stayed on the enemy, dealing them blow upon blow. He shot the Haradrim captain down with an arrow to the eye, slashed through his men. He tried not to think or feel, as he watched the heads drop. He was in a moment of pure death, once it was over, it would not be real.


Another icy scream hit the air. Legolas lifted his head towards the sky. The Nazgûl were flying back, though there were seven now, not eight. Legolas decided to spare his last two arrows for their beasts, carving Orc heads with quick turns of his knife. He could see the men about him were wearying. Eomer had lost his horse. He was engaging in one-on-one combat with a Mountain Troll and bleeding heavily. His comrades were struggling to come to his aid, but there was a wall of Orcs and Easterlings between them. Legolas could not see Pippin anywhere. He guessed the poor hobbit had already fallen. Gimli was still alive though, his axe unyielding.


The Nazgûl screeched again. Legolas could feel the vibration in his bones. He seized an arrow and shot. The arrow hit one of the flying beasts, but it did not fall. The beasts rushed down, their claws biting into men, lifting them up high, and throwing them to their deaths. All the while the beasts' masters let out shrieks that sent men shaking, falling over each other in fear and despair.


Gandalf had managed to get to Ėomer and save him from the Mountain Troll. Now he was directing his energies on the Nazgûl, attempting to drive them away as he had on the Pelennor Fields. Only this time it was different. The Nazgûl paid little attention to the old wizard and his staff, avoiding him, but still terrorizing the enemy army. Legolas could sense there was something wrong. There was a shift in power. Aragorn was knocked from his horse. One moment, he was sitting proudly astride Hasufel. The next, he was sprawled on the ground with one of the flying beasts over him tearing at his chest. Legolas screamed. He kicked the sides of Arod, trying to get off the horse or urge him forward. He did not know which. All that mattered was getting to Aragorn.


Arod would not go near the flying beast. Though Legolas pressed and pleaded, Arod fought him, moving in the opposite direction, rearing up. If Legolas were not glued to Arod's flanks by the horse's sweat, he might have fallen to his death.


‘Aragorn!’ ‘Aragorn!’ ‘Elessar!’ ‘Estel!’ Everyone everywhere was screaming.


With effort, Legolas got down from his horse and ran ducking and swerving around the horsemen and foot soldiers. Three other Nazgûl had landed their beasts near Aragorn, surrounding Aragorn, so that none of his companions could reach him. Aragorn grabbed Anduril and stabbed the attacking beast through its throat. It choked and died, but another beast took its place, knocking the sword aside and devouring the fallen king bit by bit. Aragorn cried again and again in pain.


Shadowfax darted between the necks of the fell beasts. Gandalf leapt off his back shouting curses and incantations. Up came Glamdring, shining pale in the gloom. It hacked at the beasts, dismembering those left on the ground. Gandalf dropped to Aragorn's side. He laid his hand over Aragorn's heart. He shook his head then bent and kissed the ranger's brow. The Nazgûl watched unmoving, their tall lances held skyward.


Gandalf sprang back onto Shadowfax, his dark eyes blazing. All around him, Aragorn's men were falling into a panic. Some tried to flee the field but were pushed back into the battle by the surrounding walls of Orcs. Others raised their arms in surrender only to be pierced with Orc arrows.


‘The war is not over yet!’ Gandalf shouted. ‘We will fight! We will fight to the last man! For Aragorn!’


‘For Aragorn!’ rang the tired voices of a thousand men.


‘For Frodo!’ Gandalf called, Glamdring held high.


‘For Frodo!’


‘For Middle-earth!’ Gandalf cried one last time.


‘For Aragorn!’ came the reply.


Legolas shook like a leaf in the wind. Autumn had come in spring. Aragorn, their last hope, was dead. He could hardly believe it. His knife shook in his hand unusable. Others used this stroke to rally their strength and take one final plunge. Man after man fell shouting Aragorn's name. It was useless. In the end, it was all useless.


Legolas wrapped his Elven cloak about him, becoming invisible to all but the sharpest eyes. He crept through the ranks, wanting to touch Aragorn one last time. Finally, wounded, he made it to Aragorn's side. He cast himself down beside Aragorn’s body and kissed the mutilated lips, the unseeing eyes.


‘You're free now,’ he whispered. ‘Soon we will all be free.’


He determined to stay with Aragorn. No one would defile the noble king. If anyone came near, Legolas would fight, but he would not join his failing companions in combat. He wanted to die. Only torment and darkness lay in living, but he would not seek out death. Death would find him there.


Legolas washed the blood and dirt from Aragorn's face with his kisses and his tears. He lifted the trampled banner from the dust and laid it across Aragorn's chest. The king of the White Tree would never come into his own.


A thought occurred to Legolas, that he might die, and Aragorn's body could still fall into the hands of the filthy Orcs. He wanted the last person to touch Aragorn to touch him in love. So, Legolas built a fire from bramble wood and touched a branch to Aragorn's banner. The process of burning Aragorn took longer than Legolas first thought. He had to remove much of his armour, because the flames were not catching. Finally, though, his dead leader lay smoldering. The skin had turned to ash on the bone. Legolas had watched the whole while. No one else had noticed.


Most of Legolas's allies lay dead or were restlessly sleeping, victim to the Black Breath. Gandalf was still contending with the Nazgûl but he looked weak and tired. Struggling to his feet, Legolas picked up Andúril. The sword though was heavier than he had expected. He could not yield it. He let it fall to the ground, unsheathed his own knife and darted back into the fray. The Orcs had subsided, and most of the enemy men were no longer fighting but were taking prisoners through the Black Gate. Legolas saved Gimli from being dragged off by Easterlings, but he could not raise the Dwarf from his cold slumber.


The victorious screams of the Nazgûl swallowed place and time. Legolas no longer saw a point in lifting his knife. The battle was already lost. Then he remembered that there was one more arrow left in his quiver. He took it and his bow out, scanned the area around him. This was his last hit, his last gesture to the world. He would make it count.


He spied the Nazgûl who were all now crowding round Gandalf, their weapons pointed out towards him. Legolas chose their leader and shot. The arrow quivered a moment on the bow spring then shot forward and landed near Nazgûl's foot. Furious at himself, Legolas picked an Orc arrow off the ground. He shot at the Nazgûl. This time, the arrow flew through the Nazgûl's head, leaving no imprint.


In despair, Legolas sank back down near Gimli. He ached. Now that he was still, he noticed many cuts along his arms and legs. Most of them had stopped bleeding but they still looked bad. Legolas was exhausted. His mouth was parched. He did not know where his knife had dropped, but he must have lost it when he got out his bow. Anyway, everything seemed futile. Aragorn was dead. They were hopelessly outnumbered. An end must come eventually. Legolas wrapped his arms around the unconscious Dwarf and closed his eyes. When he opened them again, it was to stare at dungeon walls.

Chapter Text

Frodo woke on a featherbed. He was clean and naked, wrapped in a black sheet. There were tables of candles surrounding his bed. Large, round mirrors on the walls sent the light dancing from place to place.

Frodo felt numb, not pain. He could hardly feel his fingers as he inched them up towards his throat, no chain, no Ring. His hands searched under the sheets, over the sheets, under the pillow, nothing. Of course, they had taken It.

He leaned his head back against the pillow and closed his eyes. So, it was over. The quest had failed. He had failed. Then another thought struck him.

‘Where's Sam?’ Frodo bolted up. There was no other bed, no other sound in the room. They were keeping Sam somewhere else. They could be torturing him. Frodo's mind flew back to his own captivity in the Tower of Cirith Ungol, the questions, the claws, and the whips.

He pulled the sheet around him and slipped off the end of the bed, avoiding the candles. His feet barely felt the floor as they touched it. Numb and nauseous, he staggered towards the door. Halfway across, he caught sight of his reflection in one of the mirrors. It was a skin-clad skeleton with feverishly bright eyes, a wreck of whoever it used to be.

Frodo reached the door, turned the handle. Surprisingly, it opened, and he stumbled forward.

‘Good evening,’ a voice said from the shadows.

Frodo shielded his face, expecting a blow. Nothing came. Slowly, he lifted his head again. The stranger had walked out into the light. He was robed in black, his face shadowed by an overhanging hood, but he was a man, not a wraith. Frodo could see a chin peeking out, pale and pointed.

‘Where am I?’

‘Barad-dûr,’ the stranger said.

‘I see. You were waiting for me?’

‘Yes.’

‘Why?’

‘I am to bring you to my master.’ The stranger held out his hand.

‘And who would that be?’ Frodo said, not taking it.

‘Sauron the Great, Lord of Middle-earth.’

‘Of all Middle-earth?’

‘Soon.’ The stranger took Frodo by the arm.

‘Are we going to see him now?’

‘No, I must prepare you.’

Long legged, the stranger walked in strides. Frodo could not help but be reminded of Aragorn. He wanted to ask about Aragorn and the others, especially Sam, but he knew that concern could endanger his friends.

Frodo was having a hard time walking. His legs were wobbling, and his head was spinning. He kept tripping on the sheet.

‘Why do I feel like this?’

‘Medicine for the pain.’ The stranger led him through a doorway into a steam filled room, where silver basins held hot water.

‘Why am I here?’

‘To bathe, but first, we'll see if you can eat.’ The stranger clapped his hands and two boys came walking in carrying a bowl and, a pitcher and cup. They were both dark skinned and dressed in black livery. They looked at Frodo in fear, nearly dropping the dishes as they set them down on a nearby table.

‘They've been told you are a monster,’ the stranger explained to Frodo. ‘That you scalp children and eat babies.’

‘What?’

‘People have a need to make their enemies more interesting,’ said the stranger. He poured water from the pitcher into the cup and handed it to Frodo. ‘Drink.’

Frodo took the cup and gulped down the water, trying not to stare at the boys who were still standing by and shuddering.

‘I don't scalp people. In fact, I haven't killed anyone.’

‘They would find that most disappointing,’ the stranger said. ‘It is a good thing then that they do not understand your Common tongue.’

Frodo frowned.

‘You should probably sit,’ the stranger said, pulling up a wooden chair. ‘I want to see if you can hold down any of the broth.’

‘Can they go?’ Frodo nodded towards the boys.

‘Do they make you uncomfortable?’

‘I couldn't eat. They look so miserable.’

‘You have a soft heart.’ The stranger looked at the boys and clapped. Relief flooded their eyes. They bowed and left the room.

Frodo began weighing the situation. It was doubtful that torture would begin while he was still numb. Perhaps, they would first try to persuade him to indulge his company's secrets through bribes and threat of torture. Actual torture could come later. In which case, he should at least try to gain a good sense of his surroundings and the people in them. He could still aid the cause of good in a small, unremembered way.

Frodo turned to the stranger. ‘Do you have a name?’

‘That isn't important.’

‘But I'd like something to call you.’

‘Why? Whatever for?’

‘I don't know,’ Frodo said. His voice was always high but he raised it higher now, making it childlike. The man might have a son or daughter. ‘It would just be nice, that's all.’

‘I don't even know your name.’

‘I'm Frodo, son of Drogo.’

His father was dead so naming him would not matter, and his given name was one of the first things they would find out when they started to break him. It was just as well it came out now, while he still had a bit of pride left.

‘Well, Frodo son of Drogo, I'm called Rain.’

‘But that's not your name?’

‘No. Now try eating some of the broth. It will make you stronger.’

‘Why does it matter to you if I get strong or not?’

‘It does not matter to me personally,’ Rain said. ‘But those were my orders.’

‘From the Dark Lord?’

‘Yes.’

Frodo looked down at the bowl. ‘What sort of broth is this?’

‘Beef.’

Frodo sipped at it. It did taste like beef, like beef broth with too much water. Sam would say that it was weak and nasty, but it did make Frodo feel stronger after he had finished the bowl.

‘May I have some more?’

‘No,’ Rain said. ‘We have to make sure that stays down first. In the meanwhile, I'll give you a bath.’

Frodo would have protested but he was not sure if he could hold himself up in the water. His body was still shaking. ‘All right.’

Rain lifted him up and placed him in one of the basins. With gentle hands, he washed the hobbit's body. Though in truth, there was not much to wash. Frodo was clean, which probably meant these baths had occurred before, though he could not remember them. He wondered if he had been awake or asleep then.

‘How long have I been here?’ Frodo said.

‘About a fortnight.’

‘Have I slept all this time?’

‘For the most part, though the times you've woken probably just passed as dreams to you. The medicine made you quite out of it.’

Rain lifted Frodo out of the water. He wrapped him in a towel and sat him on a low-lying couch, rubbed him dry. Afterwards, he picked Frodo up again and set him on his feet. He dressed Frodo in a soft, black robe.

‘It's made from spider silk,’ Rain said quietly, running his fingers along the cloth that covered Frodo's back. Frodo shivered instinctively, remembering Shelob and the poisoned wound she had given him.

‘Where's Sam?’ Frodo had not wanted to ask, but the words had come to his mouth without warning. 'Where's my Sam?’

‘I assume you are speaking of your traveling companion?’

‘Where's my Sam?’ Frodo demanded again. The shadows in the room seemed to be swirling. His head felt so heavy, he thought it would fall off. ‘What have you done to him?’

‘You're becoming delirious again,’ Rain said, taking Frodo’s hand. ‘You should lie down.’

‘No! No!’ Frodo pushed Rain away. The man was a monster, pretending to be kind. ‘I must find him. After everything he's done for me.’

Rain took hold of him, pushed him against the couch. Frodo gave Rain a few hard kicks, landed a blow to his stomach, but Rain's superior strength won out. Frodo lay panting on the couch.

‘You can't win,’ Rain told him. ‘You've already lost. Stop struggling. Even if you were to get past me, there are guards everywhere. Behave yourself. If you're good, we'll be good to you.’

‘I don't matter.’

‘But your Sam does,’ Rain said with a smile.

‘You can't do anything to Sam,’ Frodo said. ‘He's dead. He was my brother.’

‘Oh?’

Frodo looked him in the eye. ‘My mother and father are dead too. I haven't got anyone.’

Rain caught the gaze and bored into his mind.

‘Not all you say is true,’ he said, ‘but the Dark Lord will know more. Come.’

Chapter Text

The streets of Gondor were quiet. No one sang or spoke out loud. Words came only in whispers. Éowyn walked through the garden outside the Houses of Healing. The air was as stifling outside as well as in. A dry wind curled around the city, like an army closing in.

They had left in the early morning, some days past. She could not keep track of time. She did not dare to. Lingering on the eastside, she looked out towards Mordor. Aragorn had gone, and Éomer with him. They had departed into the dark, and no message had reached Gondor whether there was death or victory. She held her shawl tight about her shoulders. Though the day was hot, she shivered.

‘You've caught fever,’ Ioreth told her when she finally came back inside. ‘Best to rest now.’

‘I cannot rest,’ Éowyn said. ‘I am restless.’

The old healer woman smiled sadly and led her back to her bed. ‘Lie down. I'll bring you some tea.’

Éowyn dropped onto the thin mattress and pulled the wool blankets up to her chin. Almost as soon as she had covered herself though, she felt hot and kicked the blankets to the foot of the bed. She groaned and rolled over, cold again. Her limbs ached, all but her broken arm, which lacked any sensation.

Ioreth came back and bent over her. She pressed a mug into her hand. The tea was strong, a nasty herbal remedy. Éowyn drank it though, because Ioreth watched her closely.

‘Any news?’ Ėowyn said.

Ioreth shook her head. ‘None. Only hearsay.’

‘Does that bode well?’

‘No, my lady. Though the weather is warm the sky is dark, and the lights in the towers to the East are still burning.’

‘What a horrible time to live.’

‘Yes.’

Éowyn stared at the bed to her left. Merry was asleep. His breathing was soft, regular. He looked small lying there, almost a child, though she knew he was full-grown. She wondered if his cousin were still living, the one that had been sent out to Mordor. She didn't know why he had been sent. She had questioned Merry about it, but mentioning Frodo always pained Merry.

‘He looks peaceful,’ Éowyn said, nodding towards Merry.

‘That he does. Poor, little fellow.’

‘He's a knight of Rohan,’ Éowyn corrected. ‘He saved my life.’

‘And you saved thousands.’

‘No, they ride to death again. I gave them days, not life.’

Ioreth dabbed a cloth in a bowl of water and set it against Éowyn’s forehead.

‘I don't want it,’ Éowyn said. She shoved the wet cloth back into Ioreth's weathered hand.

‘It will cool the fever.’ Ioreth pressed the cloth back against the hot skin.

‘I don't care. I can't stay here. Oh, why wouldn't they take me with them?’ Éowyn sat up.

‘Because you are wounded. Merry is here as well, resting.’ Ioreth pushed on Éowyn’s good shoulder, trying to lay her back down.

Éowyn pulled away and stood up. She walked to one of the windows, but it looked westward. She turned and spotted Faramir's empty bed. It had been stripped of its blankets, sheets, and pillows and lay a naked, wooden frame.

‘Where's Faramir?’

‘Lord Faramir has been released. He had to attend to the affairs of the city. Poor lad, his father…well, I hope he won't succumb to the same despair.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Oh, I should shut my mouth before speaking. You shouldn't be troubled with it. We haven't even told him.’

‘About what? I want to know.’ Éowyn walked back over and sat down on her bed, bribing Ioreth with compliance.

‘His father – may he rest soundly – died of his own hand,’ Ioreth began. ‘Burnt himself in a tower.’

‘How horrible.’ Éowyn had thought Lord Denethor had died in honour in battle, like her own king and mother's brother, Théoden.

Ioreth nodded.

‘He'd been troubled for a long time,’ she said, ‘ever since his sweet Lady Finduilas died. It was horrible to watch him decline into despair. The way he drove poor Boromir, always prodding, expecting perfection. He was even crueler to our young Faramir. He rarely showed him love until the day he died. And then, with love, he tried to kill his son, to keep him. Such a tragedy.’

‘Yes,’ Éowyn said.

‘I saw Lord Denethor when he was a young man,’ Ioreth said. ‘He was so proud and handsome. He used to ride a white stallion through the city square. I never thought…’ Ioreth did not finish her sentence, just shook her head.

‘We seldom do.’ Eowyn remembered herself as a child, how she had worshipped Théoden. She thought him the bravest and best of men. Time had led to disappointment. She learned he was a weak man easily swayed by flattery. The cold years came. Grey days slipped by one after another, all the same, numbing. Hands that reached for her in the dark, and pale lips that smiled at her coming. The thought of Wormtongue left her shuddering.

‘Get under the blankets,’ Ioreth said.

‘I'm not cold.’

‘You're shivering.’ Ioreth guided Éowyn down and pulled the blankets on top of her. ‘Sleep now.’

Ioreth blew out the candles and left the room. For a while, Éowyn fought sleep, but finally the nightmares caught hold of her and pulled her in. The pounding of hooves echoed through her. There were screams in the dark and dead faces, belonging to those she loved. Eomer and Aragorn lay beside Théoden and Théodred in dim halls.

Then someone was shaking her. Her eyes flew open. Faramir was bent over the bed. She could see him by the light of the lantern he had set down on the windowsill. There was urgency in his hands and eyes.

‘The city is under siege,’ he said.

Éowyn looked around, but the House was still quiet. ‘Why aren't you with your men?’

‘I will be shortly,’ Faramir said. ‘I want you to get out.’

‘Why?’

‘Because you are the last person in this world that I truly care for, and right now, I need something to fight for.’

Éowyn shook her head. ‘I won't go.’

‘Please,’ Faramir said. ‘You've got a broken arm. You can't even hold a sword. You'll be of more use later. The wounded, the sick, and the remaining boys are being brought out of the city to shelter in the hills. I need you to go with them.’

‘I don’t want to leave you.’

‘But you must.’ Faramir's hands were trembling. His eyes were wet with unshed tears. He sat down beside her and took her hand.

Éowyn shook her head. ‘A lord once told me that there would come a time when none would return and then there would be need for valour without renown. Our last fight would be the unsung defense of our homes. Well, it's come to that, and I won't shy away. I will die by your side, unremembered.’

‘This isn't your home,’ Faramir said gently, releasing her hand.

‘It is now.’ She lifted her head and looked up into his eyes. ‘You're here. You are the only piece of life I have left. Let me stay with you.’

She had not planned the words. They had just burst forth. She had not even thought she cared for Faramir until this moment, but now that she knew she would never see him again, her heart ached. She had become accustomed to seeing his strange, grave face, so like Aragorn's and yet not, pressed against the pillow or gazing tenderly down at her. She had loathed his pity, but now she longed for his love, and it was too late.

‘I cannot,’ Faramir said. ‘Please, leave with Merry. I have to go.’ He pressed a kiss to her lips and got up. He had his hand on the hilt of his sword as he walked out the door.

‘Come, my lady,’ Merry said. He was dressed and out of bed. ‘The healers say we have to go now.’

‘What use is running away? They'll come after us. They'll find us.’

‘When we're stronger, my lady,’ Merry said. ‘It's not the end yet.’ But there was no hope in his tired voice.

They walked along in silence. Outside the windows, there was fire in the city. Éowyn thought she saw Orcs rushing by. Inside, the healers were hurrying, talking to each other in quick voices. Some would stay behind to tend the soldiers if there were survivors. The herb-master would stay because of his skill in herbs. Ioreth would lead the others to the hills and on from there if need be.

Healers were leaving now, men and women alike, to search the streets for broken bodies. Éowyn wanted to go with them, but Faramir was right. She would be useless without her sword arm, and she was no healer.

So, Éowyn followed Ioreth, pleading with fate to let Faramir survive. They were descending, down a staircase to the underground. There were passages under the city, Ioreth was saying, other ways out. They went from tunnel to tunnel, choosing doors in what seemed a haphazard manner, though the route must have been carefully planned. They passed another doorway, into a winding tunnel. There were no torches on the wall here, only the ones in the hands of the healers.

Éowyn wondered if it were evening. It seemed a silly thing to wonder about, the time of day. They turned left into another dark corridor. Then the Orcs were on them.

Éowyn heard one of the younger women scream. She turned and took the torch from her and threw it in the face of the largest Orc. It shrieked and sprang back, clawing its burning face with its hands. Merry threw a stone at a taller Orc, but they seemed to have given up fighting. They fled back through the passage they had come from.

‘Scouts,’ Ioreth muttered. ‘We'll never get out now. The city's completely surrounded.’

Éowyn felt nauseous. Her head was wringing, and all she could think about was Helm's Deep, and the long hours of dread she had spent there waiting for the enemy to break in.

‘If more come, I'll fight them,’ a boy said. Éowyn recognized him as Bergil, a young friend of Pippin's, who had come often to visit Merry in the Houses of Healing. The other boys expressed approval.

‘Should we go on or back?’ asked a middle-aged man, one of the healers.

Ioreth hesitated, her eyes taking in the tunnel before them. She tilted her head, listening.

‘On,’ she said finally. ‘But this way. And leave your lights.’

Those with torches extinguished them, and Ioreth brought her host to one of the side tunnels. It was so narrow they had to squeeze through single file. Every nerve in Éowyn’s body was tensed. If there were Orcs at the other end, they would be trapped here. They would die in this tunnel, shot down one by one or burnt alive. Merry, who was a step in front of her, reached back and took her hand.

‘Take the hand of the person behind you,’ he whispered. ‘Ioreth doesn't want us getting lost. There are some side passages.’

She complied and passed on the order. They walked for a while like this in silence, strung together by their hands. The warmth of fingers gave Éowyn some hope. Others were still living, though there was hardly a sound. No one was breathing loud. The footfalls were soft, except for the occasional stumble.

They switched tunnels after about an hour. The new tunnel was narrow to begin with but grew wider as they went along. It branched out some hours later, and Ioreth led them left. Merry let go of Éowyn’s hand. Éowyn let go of the woman behind her without question.

They were approaching the end of the tunnel. So far, there was no sign of Orcs, but that did not mean anything. There could be an ambush waiting for them. Ioreth sent one of the older boys ahead to look. He came back and told them the path was clear. Ioreth moved them on but with caution. She stopped at every sound. It was a halting process, but finally they had made it through. They emerged from the tunnel into a small cave. It looked out over field and sky. The sky was blood red, showing a dawn that would darken to a rusty brown before noon. The fields below were already brown, burnt up by the heat. It was not the most welcoming sight, but no had not died underground. All around her, Éowyn could see faint smiles.

‘We need to keep moving,’ Ioreth said. ‘It's not safe here.’

There were a few groans from the tired, but everyone knew not to argue with Ioreth. She led them down the slope of the hill, going from one small grove to another. Éowyn kept looking from side to side, but there were still no signs of Orcs. She tried to keep near the middle of the company, so as to be of the most use if they were attacked. Some of the younger boys and older men and women were lagging behind. Ioreth was still going at a sprint when suddenly she stopped.

‘We'll rest here a while,’ Ioreth pointed to a clump of trees surrounding a small pool of water. ‘We'll fill up our skins and have something to eat.’

They sat or sprawled on the grass and drank water until their thirst was quenched. Then they filled all their bottles, ate a little, and finally slept.

‘Where are we heading?’ Éowyn asked when Ioreth woke them some time later.

‘Lebennin,’ was the brisk reply.

 

Chapter Text

The room was huge – wide and long with a high arched ceiling. It was dark except for a spray of small lights that dangled down from that ceiling. Frodo felt like one of those lights. So small that if he went out, no one would notice. Rain let go of his arm.

‘You're on your own from here.’

Then Rain was walking back through the iron doors. The doors rattled and banged shut behind him. Frodo looked forward to the room. The floor was hard marble spread with fur rugs that were as soft as lamb's wool when Frodo stepped on them. It was too dark to make out anything else. The air smelt faintly of incense.

Steadying himself, Frodo took a few timid steps towards the other end of the room. As far as he could see, he was alone, but he felt the presence of others in the room. These creatures made no sound. They did not breathe, but they were watching him.

‘Is it hard for you to walk in the dark?’ a distant voice asked. It was sonorous, soft yet strong. Frodo had heard it before in his head. It was the voice that had pled with him in the mountain.

‘Yes.’ Frodo strained his eyes to see the speaker in the gloom. ‘A little.’

Immediately, light poured into the room. It seemed to come from everywhere at once. Blinded, Frodo threw his hands over his eyes.

‘Sometimes the light is too much,’ the voice said.

The light dimmed, and now Frodo could see where it was coming from. There were silver, circular lamps hanging from the walls. Frodo could see other things as well. The room was less cavernous than he had first thought. It was large but there was an end, a back wall. Covering this and every wall were heavy, black curtains embroidered with silver. There was also a chair, set against that wall, made from iron and adorned with silver and jet stones.

On either side of this chair, strange creatures stood. Their eyes were black and blank, their faces as white as the dead. In form, they were like men or women, but they had great bat-like wings. They did not blink or breathe or stir. Frodo stared at them in awe. The barbs at their wingtips could easily tear him to pieces.

What are they? he wondered.

‘Vampires,’ the voice answered. ‘Not all of them are gone, as some suppose.’

Frodo turned towards the voice. It belonged to a man seated on the iron chair. He looked a man at least. He was tall and wore polished black armor marked with silver runes. His face was covered in a mask of mithril, which was carefully carved in the likeness of a man's but with features more delicate and beautiful. His face hidden, Frodo could see only the man's Eyes, but what Eyes they were. There was no white, and the irises were yellow and red like flames with a narrow pupil slit into them.

All of this was forgotten though when Frodo glanced down at the man's hands. The third finger was missing from his left hand, but on the finger next to it was a band of living gold. It quivered, shrinking and growing but never falling from or pinching the finger it rode. The Ring. Frodo had tried to forget it existed, but there it was before him. His fingers reached out for the Ring, but his feet could not leave the floor. The Eyes were on him.

‘You do not deserve to touch it.’ Sauron moved his hand away, putting it up behind his head. He leaned back in his chair, a picture of tranquility. Frodo's eyes followed It, but still, he could not move. He thought he would die. His whole body was breaking with thirst but not for drink. His hands shook at his side, unable to lift, unable to touch the beauty that his eyes gulped down.

‘You are unworthy,’ Sauron reiterated.

The words cut through Frodo. His shoulder throbbed. The numbness had gone from his body. He could feel again.

‘Please,’ he begged. ‘Please.’

Frodo fell to his knees. All he wanted was to touch it. Once and once again. Even if the metal burnt his hands, even if he could no longer feel afterward or taste or breathe. Dying would be preferable to living and wanting. He needed it.

‘Do you wish to eat something?’ Sauron said.

‘No, please, the Ring.’ To Frodo, the words coming from his own mouth sounded inhuman, mechanical like the monotonous ticking of a clock. Frodo felt that he had been split in two. One part of him knew the danger of the Ring, the other saw It as salvation.

‘Do you wish for water?’

‘The Ring.’ There was heat in Frodo's shoulders, spreading to his neck. It was itching and hot like a sweating rash.

‘Would you like to see your friends again?’

‘The Ring.’ Frodo felt now as if had been thrown in a pond in January. First, he fell through sharp ice. Then he hit the water. It overwhelmed him. He was all shivers, and he thought his lungs would cave. Nothing in the room around him had visibly changed, but he knew he must be submerged. He was freezing wet and could not breathe.

‘Would you like your freedom?’ The Ring glittered on Sauron’s lifted hand.

‘I only want the Ring.’ The water drained. Frodo was left cold, but he could breathe again. A wind swept through the room, playing with the curtains. Then everything was still.

Sauron smiled. ‘The Ring is mine.’ He pulled his hand into a fist. ‘It was always mine. Thieves stole it, but it has found its way back thanks to you.’

Frodo nodded. ‘It's yours. I know, but please, let me touch it.’

Rapidly, the heat returned. It was worse now. It was not fever hot, but like touching a stove and not just with fingers. It was like pressing your body against a stove, again and again and again – shoulders, hands, neck, legs, chest, ears, even eyes – pressing them against hot iron. Frodo shrieked and whimpered. He tried to move away, but the fire followed him. Never had Frodo had been burnt like this, yet he knew it had happened before. It was a memory, Sauron’s.

‘You,’ Sauron said, sitting straighter on his iron throne, ‘would contaminate its pure beauty with your iniquity. Tell me again why you came?’

‘I came to destroy you,’ Frodo gasped out. The fire was gone, but the burns remained.

‘Yes, you would have murdered me.’

‘You have killed thousands.’

‘Have I?’ Sauron said. ‘I, personally?’

‘You have orchestrated it.’

‘Where is your proof?’

Frodo shook his head. The pain was subsiding, but he was too tired to argue. He could not win anyway, not against Him.

‘People tell lies, Frodo,’ Sauron said softly. ‘They lie, and they lie.’

‘You would know.’ Frodo was looking his arms over, but as far as he could see they were not burnt at all. His legs were also fine. Whatever, Sauron was doing, it did not leave physical consequences.

‘Yes, I would.’ Sauron agreed. ‘I have lived a very, very long time. Experience has told me that mankind is flawed and in need of a master to direct its steps.’

Frodo was silent. Maybe if he said nothing he would be left alone. The nausea was coming back, the broth returning to his mouth. Leaning forward, Frodo retched it out on the floor. He heaved and heaved until his stomach was empty and his throat raw.

Sauron watched unflinching, indifferent to the vomit. Frodo noticed then that Sauron never blinked, his fire-like eyes were ever watching. One of the vampires shifted, stretching its wing idly then curling it back up. It watched him too with deadened eyes.

‘And what would have done afterward?’ Sauron asked. ‘After destroying the Ring? How would you have lived without it?’

Frodo raised his head and looked again at Sauron. Shadows and cold light played on the black armor and mithril mask. There was a certain beauty to Sauron, power blended with vulnerability. Sauron's armor showed strength and weakness. He could be harmed if He were not barricaded in metal. Sauron's mask concealed Him but also showed what He wanted to be, safe and well loved. And though Sauron had kept hidden for so many years, hiding in the shadow of His own sanctuary, He had lain open to the world in the form of a Ring. A living paradox, He was possessor and possessed.

‘I would have died,’ Frodo said. ‘I would have come undone with the Ring's undoing. My quest was to take the Ring to Mordor. I never planned to return home.’

For a moment, Frodo could swear he saw Sauron smile. There was a flash of white in the mouth slit of his mask.

‘You would have died with me,’ Sauron said. ‘A touching tribute to a long and bitter struggle. You should have known I would have prevailed, if your very dream was to die. Yet, you did not fail your quest. You did bring the Ring to Mordor.’

Frodo said nothing. He turned his eyes away from the Ring and towards the vampires. The vampires' wings were casting great shadows on the floor, black pools on dark stone.

‘They're beautiful,’ Frodo said. They were ugly. Their hair was dark and ragged, set in thick clumps. Their faces were pale and wrinkled, lined heavily around their dark and bulging eyes. Long teeth, pointed like dogs' fangs, peeked out from behind thin lips in large mouths. The bodies of the vampires were covered in rough, black cloth and dark armor. And yet, they were graceful, potent, inspiring. Frodo was sure Bilbo could write' several poems about them. They were so silent. They demanded words.

‘I have often thought so,’ Sauron said. ‘I am glad to see that they have impressed you.’

‘Are they to be my death?’ Again, Frodo thought he caught Sauron smiling, though he could not be certain.

‘Try to be patient,’ Sauron said. ‘I still have other uses for you.’

‘What uses? I am small and weak and not even altogether very knowledgeable.’

‘And yet, you have made it all this way. I wish to study you, you and your kind. I have made the mistake of ignoring you, and I almost paid the final price.’

‘There is not much to know of us,’ Frodo said quickly. ‘We are but a simple, rustic folk, below the thoughts of the great.’

‘And that is how you squirmed your way here,’ Sauron said. ‘With your confounded ignorance and humility. If you had known the danger, you would have never set foot on the path.’

‘Perhaps not, but my people should not be blamed for my foolishness. I acted on my accord.’

As soon as Frodo uttered those words, he wished he had not. A stinging pain ran through him. It started from his spine and ran through the bones of his body. It was so quick and unexpected that Frodo could not stop his screams. He cried out again and again, as shock after shock exploded through him. The pain was so great that he could not see. Everything around him was dim and twisted. He rolled on the floor and hit his head on the marble, trying to knock himself unconscious. The pain would stop and start again, beginning from some new area. It was always like a first bite, there was no getting used to it. His nerves never numbed. He wondered how long this could continue. Could it go on and on forever? Or would it eventually kill him? Abruptly, the pain stopped.

Trembling, Frodo sat up. He wiped sweat and vomit from his cheeks. Sauron's eyes were blazing.

‘What,’ Frodo said breathlessly. ‘What was that for?’

‘Never lie to me,’ Sauron said. ‘Never lie to me again. You said before that you were sent. Now go. I can see you are not ready to talk.’

 

Chapter Text

Elrond knelt in his garden, his eyes looking eastward. The sun was warm on his back, but there were dark clouds in front of him. Reports had come of the Battle at the Gate. They had lost. Estel was dead. Aragorn heir of Isildur would never be king. Since hearing the news, Arwen had not eaten or slept. She just sat in her room, staring at nothing. Her grey eyes were dim and betrayed no feeling. She did not cry. She was silent. No word had yet come of Elrond's sons, but they must have been captured. Elrond had not felt them die.

He had gone to see Bilbo that morning, to break the news that Frodo was dead. It was better than the truth. Elrond could not bear to tell Bilbo that Frodo was in the hands of the enemy. Hope would be more painful than certainty. Elrond remembered waiting for his sons to bring Celebrían back. How he had prayed that she would be living, and how when she came she cried for him to kill her. All skills in voice and healing could do nothing to persuade her to stay with him. She had left on one of the ships. Perhaps, it was better. She might be happy now, without him.

Bilbo had sobbed when Elrond told him his boy had been killed. He had reached out and grabbed Elrond's robe to steady his fall, and Elrond had held him close, finding strange comfort in the hobbit's shaking body.

‘It might be better this way,’ Elrond had said, running his fingers through Bilbo's coarse, gray curls. ‘At least he is at peace now.’

Bilbo's head had nodded against his chest, but Elrond was not sure if that was a 'yes' or just the sobbing. He had held Bilbo until the hobbit cried himself to sleep. Then he had tucked him into bed and gone out into the garden.

It seemed a wise choice, a way of avoiding people, so he could remain neutral. He was plotting the choices he had to make. Who would go, and who would stay. He, himself, would have to stay, of course, to plan out the continuous moves. He would remain in Middle-Earth and fight wars he knew would never succeed. Others would go to safety, to Valinor, as emissaries to the Valar, and maybe, the guardians of Arda would actually do something for once. They liked waiting, watching. Was it amusing to see the weak struggle against a corrupted god? No, he must not think that way. The Valar were their only hope, and Sauron was not a god, no matter his claims. Elrond told himself not to be bitter, that things were moving towards some grand purpose, one he might never know, but which still existed. Arwen would go. She would be safe and forget the cold life she knew now. She would be with her mother.

Elrond stood up. He brushed dirt off his trousers and robe. He went back into the house and to Arwen’s quarters. She did not look up when he entered. As always now, she was sitting on her bed, staring ahead of her at the red wall. Her dark hair hung in tangles. She was dressed in black. Elrond knew she wore black in mourning for Aragorn, but he could not help but feel that the enemy had taken her too.

‘Noon,’ said Elrond, for it was twelve and not good. She said nothing.

‘Would you like something to eat?’

Nothing.

‘Or drink?’

Again nothing.

‘Let's let the light in.’ Elrond moved to the windows and pulled aside the curtains.

‘Leave them alone!’ Arwen cried as if he had kicked her.

Elrond turned and smiled. ‘How are you?’

She shook her head.

‘Please talk to me.’ Elrond sat down near her on the bed. She did not move. ‘You can talk, so please say something, anything.’

‘You did this,’ she said.

‘What?’ Elrond looked at her. She was glaring at her fingers. The Ring of Barahir glinted in the sunlight, its green serpent eyes leering up at Elrond.

‘He wouldn't have gone if it weren't for you. You chased him out into the wild. It's your fault.’

Elrond had not guessed she had been blaming him. He had thought her silence had come from shock, but she was grieving in anger. ‘Arwen – ’

‘I never asked for him to be king,’ Arwen said. ‘That's not something I wanted. It's what you wanted. To get him away, to kill him, and now he's dead.’

‘I never wanted him dead,’ Elrond said softly. It was almost true. He had loved Estel and had never truly wished for his death. Sometimes his mind had slipped, but it was only natural. More often he had wished that Estel had never been born or that Arwen had never met him.

Arwen wrung her hands. ‘I loved him.’

‘I know. I'm sorry.’ Elrond reached out to put an arm around her, but she pulled away.

‘Don't touch me.’ She stood up, pushing her gown in place over her white ankles. She was all black and grey and pale. There were no roses in her cheeks. Even her lips looked colorless. ‘Oh, that I had never set eyes on him!’ She walked over to the window and closed the curtains. ‘He would never have wanted the crown then. He'd be free!’

She turned to Elrond, as if she were seeking confirmation. She looked so much like pleading puppy that Elrond could feel nothing but pity. He had known from the beginning that she could not take the end.

‘You don't know that,’ he said. ‘Aragorn was a proud man. He might have sought kingship anyway. It was his fate.’

‘Fate,’ she said. ‘So much has been said about fate. The fate of Elessar, the fate of Fëanor and his followers, the fate of Finrod, the fate of Lúthien…’

She stared at the old wooden floorboards. She did not want to die. Crossing the floor to Elrond, she wrapped her arms loosely around his neck. She did not cry.

‘I'm sorry,’ she said. ‘So sorry, father.’

She kissed his temple and pulled away.

‘I was never angry with you,’ said Elrond.

Chapter Text

‘What time do you think it is?’ Gimli asked. It wasn't a question of time though. He just wanted to hear Legolas's voice, so he could know that the Elf was still there and living. It was too dark in the cell for them to see each other. The only time or light there, was when the Orcs came, bearing torches and food, but no tidings.

‘I don't know.’ Legolas’s manacles creaked, as he attempted to stretch. His hands were over his head chained to the stone wall, but at least he did not have an iron collar around his neck like Gimli did.

‘I wonder how long we've been here.’ Gimli shifted a leg to keep it from falling asleep.

‘Three weeks at the most.’

They were silent for a while. Gimli leant against the wall. The stone felt hard against his back, but he was used to hardness. He was even getting used to the weight of the iron collar. Dwarves were enduring folk. They were designed to endure: pain, war, unkind words, their own condition. Everything.

It was Legolas Gimli was worried about. Legolas was an Elf, and Elves were breakable. They were weakling beauties, designed for a soft life. They had been given an island in the West where there was no pain or death, and those Elves who had refused to go to it or to remain there had suffered the penalty of living in a brutal world not meant for their brittleness. Dwarves had never been given the choice of living in Valinor, but at least their maker had fashioned them sturdily from stone, long, long ago, before he had grown bored with them and turned his head away.

It had been years since Gimli had thought about Mahal the master – Aulë, the Elves called him, the great smith of the Valar. In his childhood, Gimli had been taught to revere Mahal, but as the years passed, he came to doubt that Mahal cared about his reverence, so he gave up on it. Gimli did not hate Mahal or doubt his existence. It was just easier not to think about him. Now Gimli was thinking about Mahal, but only, he reassured himself, because there were so many unfilled hours. Gimli was not going to hope for a miracle. Dwarves were never given miracles. Death was death, and if you really wanted something you had to work for it, fight for it, spill sweat and blood over it. That was the Dwarven Creed.

It had always been like that. Gimli was not complaining. In fact, he was glad his life had been rough and the lives of his ancestors rougher. It had made him strong so that he could face whatever miseries lay ahead of him. It was Legolas he was worried about.

Sometimes Gimli would wake in the night to hear Legolas speaking Sindarin. He muttered the name Elbereth again and again. Gimli didn't know what Legolas was praying for – escape, death, the deliverance of Middle-earth. He didn't know if Elbereth heard him on her island far away. He didn't know if she cared, but it was too dark to be cynical. Gimli hoped Legolas would get his wish, whatever it was.

‘Gimli?’ Legolas’s manacles were shifting again. ‘Do you love me?’

‘What?’

‘Do you love me?’ Legolas repeated. Gimli could hear Legolas breath out and in. The Elf's breath was usually too soft for his hearing, even though the cell was stifling. Gimli imagined he could hear Legolas's heart beating fast as well.

‘We're going to die,’ said Gimli. ‘They're going to torture us, and then we're going to die.’

‘I know. Do you love me?’

‘All our feelings can be used against us,’ Gimli said. ‘It would be better if we didn't – ’

‘I love you.’

Gimli frowned. Legolas was being emotional. Gimli hoped he wouldn't start crying. Gimli didn't know what he would do if Legolas started crying. He couldn't touch him and couldn't think of anything comforting to say.

‘I love you too,’ Gimli said gruffly.

Legolas gave a long sigh of relief. Minutes passed. Gimli listened, but Legolas's breathing must have gone back to normal because Gimli couldn't hear it anymore.

‘It stinks in here,’ Legolas said.

‘Yes,’ said Gimli. Of course, it stunk. There was no ventilation. The air was stale and smelt of urine and feces. Twice a day they were unlocked and allowed to empty their bladder and bowels into a pit in the corner, while Orc guards kept careful watch. Any attempt to escape was met with the lash of a whip.

‘I think I'll sleep now,’ Legolas said.

‘All right.’ Gimli closed his eyes. Sleep was the only good thing left. Sometimes he would have pleasant dreams, sometimes nothingness, never nightmares. Perhaps there was someone up high who cared for him after all. Except that when he woke, reality seemed twice as dreadful. He wished he could fall asleep and never wake up.

He did wake though, to hands shaking him and yellow eyes gloating in his face. He did not know how much time had passed, only that he had been dreaming about the jewelled walls of Helm's Deep and then there were Orcs again.

‘Wake up,’ one hissed. Its breath reeked of rotten gums. ‘You can't sleep all day.’

Gimli stirred slightly, but the collar kept him from moving his head.

‘Stupid dwarf.’ the Orc laughed. ‘Thinks he's going somewhere.’

Gimli was quiet. He wanted to smash the Orc's head against the wall, but it would not be polite or wise to say so.

‘Are you hungry, Dwarf?’ another Orc mocked. ‘We have soup. Would you like some?’

Gimli could see the Orcs' hideous bodies by the light of the torches they carried. Their legs were bowed and their arms so long they ended at their knees. Their skin was covered in coarse hair and their faces were the worst. Their features were both like a man's and like a beast's but off either way.

‘Well, would you like some?’ The second Orc kicked him hard in the shin.

Gimli did not flinch. ‘Yes,’ he said.

‘Then you must beg,’ said the Orc. Its comrades tittered.

Gimli kept his mouth firmly shut. He would rather starve than plead with the monsters.

‘I see you aren't cooperating,’ said the first Orc. Its yellow eyes turned to Legolas. ‘What about you? Are you hungry, lovely locks?’

Legolas also said nothing. He looked past the Orcs towards the door, peering at the tunnel outside.

‘We're not thinking of escaping are we?’ First Orc said. Gimli guessed it was probably a leader. It wore a large, horned helmet with the Eye plastered across the front.

‘I don't know what you're thinking about,’ Legolas said. Gimli groaned inwardly. The Elf was bound to get himself in trouble again.

‘Believe me, sweetheart,’ First Orc said. ‘You're safer in here.’ It reached out and grabbed a fistful of Legolas's hair, pulling his face close. ‘There's only death and misery through that door.’ Legolas jerked away, his hands wriggling in their chains. Gimli could see his face, glowing gold in the torchlight. There was a venomous glint in his eyes.

‘Let go of me.’ Legolas kicked at the Orc, but it only laughed.

‘You think you're too dear for us,’ it said, running its fingers across Legolas's chest, playing with the soft fabric of his tunic and pinching his nipples. ‘You think you're so precious. That your father will come rescue you or yield his country for a lost son?’

The Orc pressed its body against Legolas's. The Elf squirmed and kicked, but the Orc seemed to enjoy his struggling. Gimli hated watching, but he could not bring himself to look away.

‘You're so beautiful, aren't you?’ the Orc said softly. A long tongue shot out of its mouth and licked the tip of Legolas's ear. ‘And that's why you think you're special, but you're not special. You'll die like the rest of them, ratting out your friends.’

The tongue moved inside Legolas's ear. Legolas flung his head to one side and managed to bite the Orc on the cheek. It howled and jumped back. The other Orcs laughed.

‘He's got spirit, that one,’ said the Second Orc. First Orc gave no reply. He took his whip off his belt and lashed at Legolas's legs until his trousers were torn and his knees and calves were bleeding. Though Legolas only cried out twice, Gimli could see tears in the Elf's eyes. It would be easy to break Legolas, too easy. He had a lively spirit, but he did not know how to endure.

 

Chapter Text

Gandalf wondered if he were going insane. He had been walking and walking, yet he never seemed to get anywhere. The air was thick and strong and hot. His throat was full of dust. Often he had to stop because he was choking. He did not even know if he was going in the right direction. Because of the darkness, he could not see far ahead of him, even with his staff's light. Everything was black and opaque, like a canvas an artist had painted over to hide his ugly work. There were no moon or stars.

In his head, Gandalf could still see them falling. Aragorn, their hope, was dead, cut up by the steeds of the Nazgûl, and the great Prince Imrahil had fallen to the sword of an Eastern foot soldier, and Eomer, who Gandalf had struggled so hard to save, had been shot through the mouth by a poisoned arrow. Many more had been slain, and others had been bound, kept for the violation of body and mind.

The Mouth of Sauron laughed in Gandalf's head. Over and over, Gandalf heard his threat.

Good, good! He was dear to you, I see. Or else his errand was one that you did not wish to fail? It has. And now he shall endure the slow torment of years, as long and slow as our arts in the Great Tower can contrive, and never be released, unless maybe when he is changed and broken, so that he may come to you, and you shall see what you have done. This shall surely be - unless you accept my Lord's terms.’

Frodo. His name was like a Balrog in Gandalf's head, ripping and tearing and burning. Stop, stop, stop thinking of him. Stop thinking of the things they could be doing to him, stop. Gandalf had turned his back on the hobbit at the Black Gate. He had refused the terms, and now Frodo would pay for an enmity centuries in the making. If Frodo ever saw Gandalf again, he would not love him.

After the battle of the Black Gate had ended, Gandalf had disappeared. He had slunk away as the Nazgûl screeched in tortured triumph. He had wanted to save his companions but not even he was strong enough to withstand the armies of Mordor. Resolving to one day return and release his friends, he had gone to warn others first. Though his heart had anguished, and he had wished to be chained just so he could stay with the battle's survivors, he knew that such a course would be vain and unwise, so he had turned away. He had taken the road back to Gondor.

He walked now. Shadowfax was dead. He did not want to think about that. He did not want to think about anything. He longed for rain. His throat and tongue were dry. In the back of his head, he heard dripping, but he could not touch it. He wanted water on his face, in his mouth, down his sweating back. He had failed. He deserved to be wretched, deserved to die of thirst. It wouldn't do anyone any good though. But would anything?

Perhaps it would have been better if Gandalf had never been sent to Middle-earth. He had not thought himself strong enough to face Sauron, and he had been right, as always. Without him, the north would have fallen to Sauron faster, but maybe Sauron would have shown them more mercy then. The wars that Gandalf had devised had inflamed the wrath of the Dark Lord. If Gandalf had not pushed Bilbo off on that quest to defeat Smaug, and if Bilbo had not happened to stumble on the One Ring, well, then hobbits would still remain relatively safe, ignored. Gandalf had stolen that chance from them.

Why had he been sent? Manwë should have chosen Eönwë or some other more powerful Maia. Ilmarë could have done better, or Uinen, though her hands were full, controlling her tempestuous husband. If only Saruman had not betrayed them. He had been a great and cunning wizard before he had fallen to folly and despair. But perhaps, Saruman had been right, perhaps there was no use fighting Sauron.

Gandalf stopped, taking long haggard breaths. He had to figure out what to do. How to deal with this disaster, but every step he thought of taking to defeat Sauron seemed pointless. Sauron had the One Ring and strong allies. And the great warriors of Gondor and Rohan were dead or captured.

Lothlórien and Imladris still stood. He could feel the minds of Galadriel and Elrond at work, but the Three Rings answered to Sauron now. Narya burnt on Gandalf's finger. He could not remove it. Its band seemed to have melted into his skin. Perhaps, running away was pointless. The wraiths would hunt him down and return him to their master. Gandalf cursed his physical body. If he could shift forms – as he could before he had been forced to undertake this futile mission – he could shrink, and the ring would roll off his finger. As it was, he would have to cut the finger off.

‘You shouldn't think so much,’ Gandalf told himself. ‘You need to reach Minas Tirith. You need to warn them. After that, you can think, for all the good it's done you. Right now, you need to walk.’

He wished he had someone to talk to. It might still his mind – distract him. He missed Pippin's sweet voice asking all those absurd questions, but he had failed Pippin too. Don't think, don't think, don't think, walk.

Gandalf trudged on. Until hours later, he hit a wall. He lifted his staff to examine it. He had reached what was left of Minas Tirith. The once white stone was now black and charred. He crept along the wall, until he came to the fallen gate. Húrin, the Warden of the Keys, lay close by, his head and body separate. Gandalf quickly looked away and crept on into the city. The streets were quiet and filled with the dead. Some Gandalf knew, some were strangers to him, and others had faces so smashed or bodies so burnt he did not know if he had known them or not.

‘I've come too late.’ Gandalf leaned his staff against the wall of an old forge and sat down beside a lifeless healer woman. Thick clumps of dark hair covered her cold cheeks. He picked up her bag. She had discarded it to grab a large stone, which still lay near her fingertips. He opened the bag and looked through it. There was a normal supply of herbs and cloths, scissors, thread, and a small knife. He picked up the knife. He laid his finger on one of the street cobblestones and painfully pushed Narya as far up as it would go. Third finger, left hand, not much use. It was just a finger. He put the knife's blade right under the second knuckle and slashed down.

Even though he had mentally prepared himself, Gandalf still jolted at the pain. The cut was jagged, the bone jutting out beyond the flesh. Blood oozed red and black, globs streaming down his hand and wrist, staining the sleeve of his robe. Gandalf cleaned the wound with a cloth then bound it with another cloth and some thread. He sat waiting for the blood to clot, leaned his head back against the wall. He felt faint.

Narya flared on his severed finger. He wondered what he should do with it. If he kept it, then it would be possible to track him through it, but if he let it go, Sauron could find the ring and give it to one of his servants, create another terrible power.

The enemy was still here in the city. He could sense it, and he felt an overwhelming urge just to give himself up. He was a coward, he knew, but it did seem pointless, prolonging this struggle that would inevitably end in the surrender of his soul. He looked down at the ring around his broken finger. He had already made that decision. He could not turn back and go to Sauron now. He'd look a fool.

How could he even consider delivering himself to Sauron? Such thoughts were treacherous. He would doom himself and those who depended on him. Surrender to Sauron – madness. Sauron the Terrible, Gorthaur the Cruel, those had been his titles. Dark Lord, Lord of Wolves, Lord of Gifts, The Cunning, the Great, the Wise, and the Fair. Mairon, the admirable, he had been named in the beginning, but that was the beginning. Gandalf didn't even know if he should consider Sauron and Mairon to be the same person. Sauron had fallen so far. But Gandalf could fall further and faster.

He stood up, trembling, stretched his back. He had reached a decision. He would look among the bodies for survivors. He would seek out the enemy and find if they held prisoners. If no good were left alive in the city, he would leave and take the ring with him. If there were survivors he would take them and leave Narya behind. He stuffed his ring into the healer's bag and swung the bag over his shoulder.

He examined the bandaged stump of his ring finger. It was healing fast. There were some advantages to being a wizard. He smiled but then thought of Frodo – he would say something like that, and suddenly Gandalf could not help it. He started to cry. He stifled his sobs with his right hand, but the tears were running down. He told himself to stop. The enemy might hear him. He listened and heard nothing but his own muffled breath and thumping heart. Why was the enemy silent? Were they sleeping? Or did they know he was there? Were they in wait for him?

Gandalf clenched his teeth together and put out the light of his staff. He stole through the streets, right hand on the hilt of Glamdring. Everything was still and dark, until he turned into an alleyway. There were lights up ahead, torches by the doors of what used to be an inn. Gandalf threw the hood of his cloak up over his head and edged towards the window.

Inside there were also lights. Men of the South gathered around a long table where maps were spread. They were talking quietly and pointing at different locations, moving leaden token armies across the creamy parchment. A few pieces were seated firmly near Rohan, but, of course, the enemy would attack there. Most of the soldiers of Rohan were already gone. It would be easy to destroy a country of thatched houses. Not that the Rohirrim would just give up. No, there would be a women's war. It would be fast and bloody. Most of the swords were gone, many of the women and children untrained, but they would fight anyway and be crushed.

Suddenly, Gandalf noticed something else. There was another man in the room. A silent figure in a chair in the corner. His wrists and ankles were bound, and a blindfold was over his eyes. Despite not being able to see half his face, Gandalf could still recognize the young man. He had the nose and lips of Faramir.

Chapter Text

Sauron lay awake, watching the stars disappear. They shone only in the early evening now, one last vestige of Varda. Sauron could not sleep, could never sleep. He was always watching and waiting. The earth was ever shifting, but it would soon be his. He would still its madness and bring it to order. He wished that this would comfort him. He had striven so long to make Middle-earth his own. Now it lay stretched, ready to be taken, and still, he was unhappy.

Not that happiness had ever been his aim. All wants were selfish, but he had never thought long on pleasure. Power, glory, and wisdom were all things he had desired, but he had known from the beginning he was not destined to be happy. The thing that came closest was his foolish desire for love. He had wanted love once, though he had known he would have to pay greatly for it. He had. No, he had not paid for love but to love. There was a demoralizing difference.

Sauron groped the globe that stood by the window of his bedchamber. It was cold and round and sharp, made from marble and covered in precious stones. He had crafted it himself from a memory he had of Arda before he had joined himself to it when the Music of the Ainur was sung, and they had their first vision of the ever-changing world.

Over the years he had made many globes, to show the changes that the Valar and Ilúvatar had wrought on the land, but this was the original design, pure but useless. It showed the continents before the War or Wrath, before the host of the Valar had torn up the earth in their battle with Melkor: Sauron's beloved, his former master, and Arda’s first Dark Lord. The Valar had defeated Melkor – Morgoth and sliced off his feet, dragging him away by the neck with a collar made from a crown. They had left the Middle-earth in tatters, and Sauron, in a hopeless step towards redemption, had healed its hurts and helped its people. For this Men called him a god, and Sauron had loved their devotion, more than the thought of cold salvation, of submitting again to an absent father.

Sometimes Sauron wondered what would have happened if he had yielded himself, repented, and returned to Valinor, whether they would have thrown him in the Void with his master, or made him a slave, or the lowest of free peoples. But such thoughts were too old to consider now. He had known when the island of Númenor had sunk and he with it that there was no turning back. He had laughed in the temple, as thunder exploded around him and lightning sizzled. He had sealed his fate with his double-edged tongue.

‘Lord?’ a voice whispered from the door. Sauron turned. His Mouth had come, dressed in layers of long blank linen, his grey eyes glinting beneath the folds of his veil.

‘Master,’ the Mouth of Sauron said, lowering himself to his knees and bowing his head to the ground.

‘Rise.’ Sauron turned from the window. The stars were all gone out, and there would be no moon. The only light was a dying fire in the grate. ‘You have news?’

‘Yes, Lord,’ the Mouth said, rising. ‘Tidings from Gondor.’

‘Go on.’ Sauron crossed the room and seated himself on his bed. It was a large bed, finely ornate, with silk sheets and a bejeweled coverlet. It was rarely used.

‘As you know,’ the Mouth began, ‘Minas Tirith has fallen. The refugees who escaped the attack have fled to Lebennin. They are fortifying the city of Pelargir.’

‘That is very foolish of them.’ Sauron lifted his legs onto the bed, stretching them out before him. They sunk into the thick feather mattress. ‘It will fall.’

‘Yes, Master,’ said the Mouth. ‘But will it fall now or later? That is what your servants wish to know. We await your orders.’

Sauron played with The Ring on his finger. It was hot but so was his skin, too hot. Sometimes he felt he would just burn away, like Fëanor.

‘Now is as good a time as any,’ Sauron said. ‘They need not wait. I know how eager our troops are to fight, and I cannot see why we should prolong this bitter war.’

‘Shall we take prisoners?’ the Mouth inquired.

Sauron stopped fiddling with The Ring and lit a candle with his fingertips.

‘Kill the strong if they will not surrender,’ he said. ‘Do what you will with the weak. If our Men desire slaves, so be it. They deserve much, after the sacrifices they have made. Anyhow, I see no reason to slay all the children and women. It would be needless brutality, and they may serve a purpose in my new order.’

‘So you will show yourself merciful,’ said the Mouth. There was a touch of displeasure in his voice.

‘Yes, all great leaders must balance between mercy and justice. The Orcs will be recalled from Gondor. They are not rational enough to be controlled. Men will be given province there. Send the Orcs to Lorien and Imladris, where the people have not yet been broken.’

‘As you will,’ the Mouth said.

Sauron looked down again upon his Ring. It was beautiful, precious. His mind slipped back to Elendil and Isildur. The father had been his one obstacle in Númenor, and the son had cut off his finger and claimed the Ring. Their descendants lived on, bent on vengeance.

‘I will have you destroy the line of Númenor,’ he said. ‘I will be haunted by their memory no longer.’

‘You wish all Númenóreans to be slain?’

Sauron laid his head back, his mithril helmet clinking against the gold headboard. ‘Yes.’

The Mouth said nothing but did not leave, his feet shifting.

‘You have something else to say,’ said Sauron.

‘Yes, Master.’

‘It concerns the Númenóreans?’

The Mouth hesitated. ‘A Númenórean.’

Sauron felt his body clench. A tremor ran through his hands. He clasped them together and eyed the Mouth closely. ‘Continue.’

The Mouth opened and closed his mouth then opened it again. ‘You wanted us to keep Lord Faramir alive.’

‘Yes,’ said Sauron. He let out his breath. He had thought for a moment that the Mouth would say that Aragorn Elessar, the prophesied king, was still living. ‘Yes, I wanted Faramir kept alive to lure in Olórin, as I said before.’

The Mouth nodded and looked troubled.

‘Is Faramir dead?’

‘No, Lord,’ said the Mouth. ‘He has been freed. As you predicted, the wizard did come, but he managed to overpower the men who held him bound. They are dead.’

Sauron rose from his bed and walked back over to the window. ‘I see.’ The sky was still dark, the mountain tranquil. ‘He passed the sentinels?’

‘Yes, Master,’ said the Mouth. ‘But he left something behind.’

The Mouth opened his hand. On his palm rested a ring, ruby stoned. Sauron had never seen it before, but he knew. This was Narya, ring of fire. Sauron breathed out and in. He reached for the ring, took it between his thumb and index finger.

Olórin had not given up then. He was foolishly fighting on. He had chosen sentiment over wisdom, Faramir over this ring. He would fail. Of course, he would fail. Love drove you to madness. The Mouth has told him that Olórin had almost surrendered for Frodo, and Sauron knew that Olórin was close with Faramir. He had read it in Denethor's mind, a rambling complaint. The Palantír was a globe that was ever useful.

‘Who delivered this?’ Sauron pressed the soft side of his finger against the sharp facets of the ruby, enjoying the prick. Pain meant you were alive.

‘It was sent by a bird,’ said the Mouth. ‘I do not think that the men who sent it knew of its great power.’

‘No,’ Sauron said. ‘They would not have given it up so freely if they knew.’

He got off the bed and sat down on the warm stone near the grate. He held the ruby up to the flame, watched the various shades of red, orange, and even purple flutter by. He smiled.

‘Master,’ said the Mouth. ‘Must I die?’

Sauron looked up. He saw fear in the shaking corners of his Mouth's lips.

‘No,’ said Sauron. ‘I have promised you immortality. You cannot have this stone. It would overcome you, but I shall give you another, one of the Dwarven rings.’

‘But, Lord,’ the Mouth said, ‘you wish all Númenóreans to be slain. I have the blood of Númenór in my veins.’

‘Oh.’ Sauron rose to his feet and for the first time in years, he wished he could remember the Mouth's name, so he could give it back to him. ‘Dearest,’ he said in place of it, ‘I did but mean those Númenóreans who fight on the side of the enemy. They dishonour your great race, so they must be eliminated. But not you, not you, my loyal one. I would not slay you. Now I would embrace you, but you'd burn.’

‘I would burn for you, Master,’ said the Mouth.

‘Yes,’ Sauron said sadly. ‘You would, but I will not ask that of you. Go now and deliver my messages. Be my voice, my mouth.’

The Mouth bowed. ‘Yes, Master.’

He walked backwards towards the doors, his head still low.

Chapter Text

The plains of Lebennin lay dark and empty. Merry looked and looked, but it was hard to see and there didn't seem to be anything, no moving shadows. He was on one of the high walls of the fortress at Pelargir. They had moved from one doomed stone city to another. Éowyn stood by his side, trying to scratch her broken arm without removing its binding.

‘Do you think they're all dead?’ said Merry. ‘Aragorn and the others.’

‘Yes,’ Éowyn said, without pause.

‘You're so certain.’

‘Yes,’ she said again.

He looked up at her. She was very pale and her lips were set in a tight line. Her grey eyes, which had softened a little under the gaze of Faramir, had returned to their original hardness. She was the steel lily again, cold and remote. Her good hand was clenched in a fist at her side.

‘What about Lord Faramir?’ said Merry. ‘Do you think –’

‘Do I think he managed to defeat the great enemy with just a small band of men?’ Éowyn said, turning to him sharply. ‘Or somehow managed to escape the sack of the city? Could he win? No. Would he flee? Faramir is no coward. I can only conclude that he is dead. Do not feed me on your false hopes. I want none of them.’

She looked back east. Merry felt as if she had thrown a stone at him. ‘I'm sorry,’ he said stiffly. ‘But this is not my fault.’

Éowyn's gaze turned back to the fields. They were all red and grey in the dim light. A soldier walked by, whistling a sad tune. Éowyn waited for him to pass before she went to the wall's edge.

‘Don't you hate yourself?’ she said. ‘Don't you want to hurl yourself off this wall?’

Merry followed her but said nothing. Maybe he was wrong, but he didn't think she would end her life like that, not when there would be more battles. Éowyn shook her fist at the wind.

‘Why, why should I live when others are dead?’ she asked. ‘Others who wanted life more, who fought for it, strove for it, gave their lives to live.’

She laughed and shook her head, bit her lip, stifled back the sobs. Cautiously, Merry moved closer and laid a hand on her arm.

‘I've felt that way too, my lady,’ he said softly. ‘But it doesn't do any good to dwell on it. We've got to…’

But he couldn't think of anything else to say. He didn't have any hope, and even he did, she didn't want it. He let go of her arm, blushing.

‘I'm sorry,’ Éowyn said quickly. ‘You're right. This isn't your fault.’

She took his hand and pulled him close. He looked up into her eyes, which were still hard. They glinted, like a sword point. She knelt beside him on the stone and drew him into her arms. Her body was soft and warm, and Merry leaned into her, closing his eyes and laying his chin on her good shoulder. Her fingers ran through his hair, making pathways through the tufts, gently stroking his scalp.

‘Merry,’ she whispered. He could feel her warm breath in his ear. He nodded, his face brushing against a curtain of golden tresses.

‘I love you.’ The words were spoken so quietly that Merry thought he must have misheard them.

‘Pardon, my lady?’ he said. He moved his head back, so he could see her face again. Her cheeks were still pale. They showed no flush.

‘I love you,’ Éowyn said again.

‘Me?’ said Merry. Éowyn had been smitten with Aragorn. They all had truthfully. And then Faramir had reached in and touched her heart, thawed it, made it tender. So, what was he to her? A friend, yes, she meant love as in friendship. To think otherwise would be wrong.

‘Yes,’ said Éowyn. ‘You.’

He studied her, but her face betrayed no emotion. ‘I love you too, my lady,’ he said. ‘You're a good friend.’

She smiled. ‘I am glad you think so.’ She pressed her lips against his. It took him a moment to grasp what had happened. He felt like he had been struck by lightning. He didn't know how to move and every sense he had was on fire, except he couldn't see. He thought he would die or wake up. His arms wrapped around her neck to catch himself from falling. This was wonderful. It felt like his arms belonged around her, but they didn't. He wrenched away and opened his eyes. She smiled nervously back at him.

‘I'm sorry, my lady,’ he said, ‘but this is wrong. You loved Faramir, and he's been dead less than a week, and you're kissing me.’

‘So?’ she said. ‘I'll probably be dead in less than a week. I want to take what I can while life's still giving.’

‘And if I don't agree to it?’

‘Then I won't think about it again,’ said Éowyn. ‘I'll die a benighted virgin.’

‘So, you're leaving this up to me?’ said Merry.

‘Entirely,’ she said.

‘Isn't that rather unfair?’

‘So has said many a maid to many a man,’ she replied softly. She twisted a foot of her hair through her fingers.

Merry looked around at the guards standing by at their specified points, but none had taken notice of their conduct. The guards were all looking eastward. Their silver armor was covered in red dust. Merry looked back at Éowyn. She had risen to her feet. She was tall, very tall and very beautiful. Her red robe flailed in the hot wind, revealing white ankles.

‘Don't you think you should honor Faramir's feelings?’ asked Merry.

‘I am,’ Éowyn said. ‘He told me to go with you.’

Merry hesitated. ‘I don't think he meant it like that.’

‘We weren't even engaged,’ said Éowyn.

‘But you loved him. You truly loved him. And he loved you.’

‘I don't know about love anymore,’ Éowyn said. ‘Who is to say what love is wrong and which one is true? I fell for two men, and they are now both dead. It seems that I am better off with a friend. This way, no one has to hurt.’

You don't have to hurt,’ Merry said.

She looked down at him, and her grey eyes gentled. ‘I could never hurt you, Meriadoc.’

Merry felt his heartbeat quicken. He stomped his foot on the floor to keep his thoughts grounded.

‘You have, you will. You are doing this for all the wrong reasons,’ he said. ‘You think by being with me, you can get him out of your head.’

‘No,’ she said. ‘I just think we could work.’

Merry breathed in and out. ‘With all that's going on,’ he said, ‘the war, the fighting, is this really a good time to be thinking of this?’

‘It's why I am thinking of this,’ said Éowyn. ‘We are going to die, Merry. We're going to die, and I don't want to die alone.’

‘You won't,’ said Merry. ‘I promise you, you'll never be alone, my lady.’

He took her hand and kissed it. It was cold.

‘No,’ she said. ‘Lady, no longer. My people are broken. I am an exile now. Call me Éowyn.’

‘You'll always be a lady to me,’ said Merry.

‘Then you are a king,’ said Éowyn. ‘For you are nobler than I.’

Merry shook his head and looked down at his hairy feet.

‘For a long, long time,’ he said. ‘I've wondered, what it would be like to kiss you, but I was a hobbit, no noble prince, so when Faramir came along, of course, I move aside for him. I harbored my feelings; our moments would be sweet memories. But I won't be able to hold on to them now. Éowyn, what happens after death?’

Éowyn shrugged. ‘I don't know. I was always taught that there were Halls for the dead, but maybe that was just something to comfort us. Though it is not reassuring now. I would rather just cease to be then be trapped in halls until the end of the world.’

‘Even if the Halls meant you got to see people you loved again?’ said Merry.

He did not like the notion of not existing, at all. It terrified him. He counted his mind as his greatest asset, and the idea of his brain just stopping, never thinking, never planning, never imagining, never dreaming again, well, he couldn't bear it. He would rather die and then face grave torment, than not exist at all. The thought of a great emptiness loomed before him. Except, he would not even be able to experience that emptiness because he wouldn't feel or think anymore. He wouldn't exist.

The thought of Halls was better. Perhaps, there he would see Aragorn again, and Legolas and Gimli, Pippin, Sam, and Frodo. All those people who had left him behind. Oh, and Boromir, who had died for him. That wasn't a bad prospect, but perhaps, it was delusional as Éowyn said. Most good thoughts were.

‘Even then,’ said Éowyn.

Merry reached out and took Éowyn's hand. ‘Why do you hate life so much?’

‘It's rotten.’ She squeezed his fingers. ‘Come, let's go down, out of the wind.’

They went down into the interior of the fortress. Éowyn was careful, not to go fast, as Merry struggled with the steep stairs.

‘So, you'll think about what I said?’ said Éowyn, as they were parting to go to their own separate quarters.

‘Of course, my lady…Éowyn,’ said Merry. ‘Of course, I'll think about it.’

She smiled and with one final swish of her hair, she was gone.

Chapter Text

It was near dinnertime, Frodo guessed. He was sitting in bed, having nothing to do. He was still in the same room, the one with the candles and the large, round mirrors. His reflection stared back at him from all sides, leaving him dizzy. He could see himself slowly getting better though. Fat was returning to his cheeks and stomach, rounding him out. He felt like a chicken waiting to be cooked, though he doubted chickens had enough sense to know they were going to be eaten. Then again, why should they suspect? People who had taken care of them all their lives suddenly whirl on them and cut their throats. Treachery was an everyday occurrence.

Frodo rammed his fists against a mirror, but the glass did not break. It never did, no matter how hard he hit. One jagged piece and he was sure his life would be over. He had tried straggling himself with the sheets, but every time he started choking, he panicked and stopped. He was coward, afraid of death, afraid of living, afraid of himself. With a sharp edge, it would be easier though. He knew just where to cut. He had studied it in Rivendell. He had shut the book when Sam walked in.

‘What are you looking at, Mr. Frodo?’ Sam had asked.

‘Poetry.’

‘Why did you shut it so fast then?’ Sam had tried taking the book, but Frodo had pushed it back on the shelf.

‘It's erotic.’ Frodo had said the words without flinching.

Sam had blushed bright red. He had bowed his head, but there had been a glitter in his eyes, curiosity. Frodo had taken Sam by the arm. ‘Come, Sam,’ he had said, ‘Let's go out into the garden.’

Sam had obeyed, of course. He had always listened, nearly always. He had not obeyed when Frodo had told him not to come with him to Mordor. He had thrown himself into the river. He had told Frodo he would die if they were separated. Frodo had wanted to believe it then.

Now Frodo wondered if Elves even wrote erotica. He had never seen any in the libraries of Rivendell, but he had never looked for it either. He wondered if Sam had stolen back to the library without him, if he had remembered the volume Frodo was looking at. It had been quite ordinary – black leather casing, but perhaps Sam had memorized the spot. Upon opening it, would Sam have been disappointed or worried? He could not have known the page. He would not have known Frodo was planning ways to die in case of capture, but Sam always worried about Frodo, always. It was not fair. Of course, it was not fair. Sam had loved him. Did he still? But Frodo was not worthy of love. He had failed.

‘Good evening,’ Rain said from the doorway. He came in, carrying a bottle of wine and a tray laden with bread, meat, and herbed vegetables.

Frodo lay down on the bed and looked up at the ceiling. ‘I am not hungry.’

‘Yes, you are,’ Rain said. ‘I can hear your stomach grumbling.’

‘I am not hungry,’ Frodo repeated. He knew that as soon as he gave in and ate, Rain would leave, and he would be left alone again to his guilt and wonderings. Rain lay the tray down on a nearby table and bent over the bed, his hood draping over his face.

‘You will eat,’ said Rain.

‘Take off your hood.’

‘What?’

‘Take it off,’ said Frodo. ‘I want to see your face.’

‘Well, you're a queer one.’

‘Please.’ Frodo smiled softly up at Rain.

Rain pulled off his hood. ‘Eat.’

He pushed the tray towards Frodo. Frodo stared up at him. He had expected the man to look like Aragorn, grim and weathered, but Rain's face looked more like Faramir's or Boromir's, noble and fair: smooth skin, high cheekbones, deep-set eyes.

‘You look so young,’ Frodo said.

‘I am forty-two,’ Rain said quickly.

Frodo smiled. ‘Oh, that is quite a respectable age.’

‘How old are you?’ Rain asked.

‘Fifty.’

‘Fifty? You look hardly more than a child.’

‘I am a halfling,’ said Frodo. ‘We're all short like this.’

‘It wasn't your height that made me think so.’ Rain trailed one of his large hands across Frodo's cheek. ‘Your skin is soft.’

Frodo turned his cheek away. ‘Do you have children?’

‘No,’ said Rain. He ran fingers over Frodo's curls like one might pet a dog. Then he withdrew his hand, looking thoughtful.

‘And you are not married?’

‘I am not.’

‘Why not?’

Rain laughed and shook his head. ‘You are inquisitive.’

‘I'll talk if you talk.’

‘My Master already knows all you know,’ said Rain. ‘He has searched your mind many times, though most of your knowledge was already guessed at.’

‘Then why am I still alive?’

‘I do not know,’ said Rain. ‘It is not for me to question the Great One.’

He pulled his hood back over his head.

‘Why do you cover your face?’ Frodo asked.

‘It's symbolic. Those of my order and others wear hoods or face coverings to show they have given up their own identities to become one with the Master.’

‘And you do this willingly?’

‘Yes,’ said Rain. ‘Of course. But I see you are puzzled. It's like a marriage in a way. We take vows to stay true to the Master. You do have marriage in your land?’

‘Yes, we do, though I am unwed. Could you marry another?’

‘If that served His purpose I would, but so far it has not.’

‘Must you always wear your hood?’

‘No. In our private quarters, we do not wear them, and they are more a code than an enforced rule. It depends on the person or situation. I, personally, see it as a way to show that we do not act on our own, but our actions are the work of our great Master.’

‘Do you love Sauron?’

‘Love?’ said Rain. ‘I do not think that is the right word. I respect. I revere. I worship. I obey. As a child, I was dedicated to Sauron the Great, and all my life, I have dreamed of being high in his counsel. He has brought such wonder into the world, such vision.’

‘What has he brought into the world?’ Frodo really was curious. He was starting to realize that he knew very little about Sauron, and the enemy as a whole. If he could not understand his enemy, he could never defeat him. Yes, Saruman had thought the same way, and he had been trapped by the connection, but Frodo was already trapped. Within enemy territory, the best way to get by was to adapt, and he could not adapt until he understood the people. He was playing a game he had already lost, but as long as he was living, he would keep playing blank cards.

‘He has shown us ways to better irrigate the south, for one,’ said Rain.

‘But Mordor is a desert filled with brambles,’ Frodo protested.

‘What you have seen of it,’ said Rain. ‘Sauron does not wish his enemies to invade his fortress, so he makes the land about deterring, but his armies must eat, yes? What did you think we survived on? Dust?’

‘I didn't know what,’ said Frodo. ‘It was something I questioned on the road here.’

Rain tilted his head. ‘How did you get into Mordor?’

Frodo smiled. ‘I thought you knew everything.’

‘The Master knows everything,’ said Rain. ‘But he has not told all to me.’

‘I see,’ said Frodo. ‘Well, it was all your fault really. I mean the fault of the Orcs. They lugged me into Mordor and then fought themselves to death over my coat.’

Rain cracked a smile. ‘Orcs are stupid brutes.’

‘Aren't they?’ Frodo agreed. ‘How can you bear working with them?’

‘Sauron has a purpose for all people,’ said Rain. ‘Even those others feel are beyond help, he holds out hope for. After the wars are over, he believes there must be a way to civilize the creatures, until then they work well enough as soldiers.’

‘Until they start killing themselves.’

‘That is a problem, though, in their defense, mithril is exceedingly rare. How did you come upon a whole coat?’

‘It was a gift,’ said Frodo.

‘A great one then,’ said Rain. ‘You must have a lot of admirers.’

Frodo flushed. He thought of Bilbo. The man he thought of as a father, the man who thought of him as a nephew. The man, others in the Hobbiton had suspected as his lover. Well, the Sackville-Bagginses had at least. They had made it quite clear that they viewed Frodo as some unscrupulous gold digger.

‘I have had my fair share,’ said Frodo. More than my fair share, Frodo thought, since I deserve no admiration.

‘You have a fair face.’

Frodo looked away. ‘Thank you.’

‘I think I should tell you,’ said Rain, ‘that you have been put completely under my charge.’

Frodo nodded and sucked in his breath. ‘Well then, that's nice to know.’

‘If you wanted I could bring your friend to visit you.’

Frodo's head jerked up. All his thoughts fell on Sam. Sam with his ever-loving brown eyes, that tired smile, those gentle hands. He would do anything for Sam. He did not know what they had done to him. He did not know if he wanted to know, but he loved Sam and owed him too much not to jump at a chance to see him, comfort him, tell him nothing was his fault.

‘Would you?’ said Frodo.

Rain smiled slowly. ‘Do you want me to?’

‘Yes,’ Frodo said. But he knew there was a catch now. He shifted uneasily on the bed. ‘What do you want in exchange?’

‘One night,’ said Rain. He brushed Frodo's hip with his hand then trailed his fingers up to his waist.

Frodo shuddered. He thought about Gollum, how the creature had crawled at his feet and clasped and kissed his knees. Gollum had revolted him. He had been a filthy, naked, old hobbit who had survived for decades off the carcasses of other people, and yet Frodo had let him touch him. He had hid all his disgust behind a smile and kind words. This would be the same. He was not sure how it would work, but he could do this, for Sam and only for Sam.

‘One night,’ he agreed.

Chapter Text

Her fingers kept gliding over Nenya, a subconscious habit, and one she could not break. Galadriel disliked the way the ring stuck to her finger. It did not hurt, but it was uncomfortable and reminded her all too fully of the renewed danger her power brought her. Sauron could see her mind now. She could see him too as before, but his thoughts were coming to her dimmer now. He had the greater control, the One Ring. He saw her like looking through water. To her, he was lost in a thick fog.

Galadriel peered out from behind a tall elm. The trees were still. Not even a breeze moved their leaves and branches. She had been awake and fighting since before the dawn, and now it was after sunset. It was always dark, but she kept careful count of the hours.

The forest was teeming with Orcs. Her army had been taking them down for weeks now, but their numbers never diminished. Sometimes, like at present, there was a break, but that made her more anxious than the actual fighting. She kept craning her neck and straining her ears, wondering from which direction her enemy would spring.

‘How are you?’ Celeborn asked, from her left. She had been aware of his approach. He had signaled her with the white sleeve of his undershirt before slipping down beside her.

‘I am doing well, my lord,’ she said, not looking away from the clearing. ‘You should be resting.’ Celeborn has been pierced in the hip by two successive arrows that afternoon. The poison had been quickly drained, but the healer who had attended him had advised rest.

‘I feel much better,’ said Celeborn. ‘I want to fight.’

‘Of course, you do,’ she said. ‘You're stubborn. You're going to get yourself killed.’

‘I am glad you are worried about me, my lady. It shows you still care something for me.’

‘Yes, well, good,’ she said. ‘Go back and rest.’

‘I worry about you too.’

‘You should not. I am unhurt.’ She kept scanning the trees and undergrowth, irritated with his prattle. They were in the middle of a war. She could not worry about their relationship right now. His concern was all right if it did not upset his judgment, but he did not have to tell her. She could feel it in his presence.

‘How are you holding out?’ Celeborn said.

‘I told you, I am well. I am unhurt.’

‘I meant with your burden.’ Celeborn leaned in closer to her.

She pulled away, moving left and forward on her elbows. ‘He has not beaten me yet.’

‘How long do you think it will take before he claims your mind?’

‘I do not know.’

‘Maybe you should give it up.’

She pursed her lips together. She had yet to tell him that she could not remove the ring from her finger.

‘I am never going to give it up,’ she said.

‘Why? It's His now. Why would you want to hold on to it still? This thing has tortured you for years. Why not let it go?’

She turned to him, looked straight into his wide, worried eyes. She had forgotten how delicate he looked when he was frightened. Celeborn had always been a beautiful man: narrow waist and sculpted shoulders; large eyes; lovely, long-fingered hands. It was one of the reasons she married him. She had not minded the thought of staring at him for ages, and even now, though they had been drifting apart for so long, she looked at him and loved him. Yet she could not allow her feelings to weaken her resolve. She had to show Celeborn that she was still strong and able to take care of him and their people. She took his hand, squeezed the fingers.

‘Because if I do,’ she said soft near his ear, ‘it will just fall into enemy hands. Celeborn, I intend to fight to my last breathe for control of this ring. Do you understand? I am not giving it up.’

She let go of his hand and turned her eyes back to the clearing. Celeborn did not say another word, but he did not leave either. They stayed there silently looking out. Minutes stole by. Galadriel thought she heard someone or something thudding along in the distance. Its sound, the way it moved, spoke to tallness and a heavy build. Galadriel strung an arrow and waited. More time passed. A shadow came through the trees. There was no signal from the wanderer, but she still waited, watching closely. All around, her hidden army pulled back arrows in the gloom. The figure stepped silently out into the clearing. He was neither Orc nor Elf but a Man, dressed in a red. An arrow shot through his leg. He stumbled. Another pierced his chest. He fell.

Galadriel breathed. ‘Who shot him?’

Celeborn shook his head. ‘I don't know.’

‘Was it one of ours?’

‘I don't know.’

The man convulsed on the ground. He struggled to lift his head.

‘He is still alive,’ Celeborn said.

He stood up. Galadriel seized him by the wrist. A healer ran out into the clearing and stooped over the body. She sat for a moment, rolling the man over, reaching for supplies from her satchel, and then the next moment, she was strewn out over the pine needles with three arrows in her neck. Orcs came rushing out from the shadows and seized her limp body. They threw her around in a circle, stripping her clothes off and lewdly fondling her.

Galadriel gritted her teeth together. Celeborn waved his hand slightly, and arrows flew, killing one Orc after another.

‘Celeborn, you fool, you fool!’ Galadriel hissed. She leapt to her feet and unsheathed her sword. Orcs were streaming out of everywhere now, down from the trees and up, up from the brambles where they had been lying face-flat. They leapt laughing at the Elves in their hideaways, bloodying their way through the bushes.

It had been a trap and obviously so. Galadriel could not look at Celeborn. She directed her rage at the Orcs instead. Her sword swung down on them swift and hard. She watched the black blood spray. She cut and cut again, jabbing this way and that, her hands a blur in the swiftness. Then it was over. The Orcs had all been slain. Their laughter lulled by blades and arrow points.

Relief, crippled by doubt, came crashing down on Galadriel. She caught her breath and looked around. She averted her eyes from the healers, as they gathered around their fallen companion. She knew the maiden was dead.

‘Who was the man?’

Galadriel turned to see a young bowman standing there, spent arrows in his hands.

‘Most likely he was a prisoner,’ said Galadriel. ‘A traitor or captive of war. They pushed him forward to catch our attention. They were trying to draw us out, and it worked well. We can only be thankful nothing worse came of this.’ She directed her gaze at Celeborn. ‘We must be more careful. Compassion can be a strength, but it is a disadvantage on the battlefield, as our enemy has none. They will pick us apart if we let our softness show.’

Celeborn's eyebrows closed in together, and his cheeks reddened. ‘I couldn't let them treat her like that,’ he said.

‘She was dead.’

‘Well, they're dead now.’ Celeborn kicked one of the Orc bodies.

‘Yes, but you should be glad we were greater in number than they, otherwise things could have gone terribly.’

Celeborn looked at her with disbelieving eyes. ‘What if that had been you? Would – ’

‘Would I have wanted you to get yourself killed over my dead corpse? No, my lord. Do you remember the accounts of the Battle of Unnumbered Tears? Many, many lives were wasted in that war, and do you know why?’

‘Because your people were foolish enough to stand against Morgoth without the aid of the Valar.’

‘Yes,’ said Galadriel. ‘Their courage was foolish, but there was something else that brought them down that day, that wrecked their plans and strategies. It was love. Orcish brutes cut Gwindor's brother to pieces in front of him. Gwindor was brave and wise of heart, but agony drove him mad at the sight, and he charged forward wildly in revenge. His army was scattered and killed. Uproar conquered the battlefields that day. My people suffered greatly. I cannot have that happen again. We cannot afford to feel.’

Galadriel turned her eyes to the fallen maiden. She was lying in the arms of another woman, who was stroking her hair and blinking with tearless eyes. Galadriel walked towards her.

‘I am sorry for your loss,’ she said.

The woman looked up, and Galadriel was surprised to recognize the face of one of her generals.

‘Eleniel,’ said Galadriel. ‘I am so sorry.’

‘She was my youngest daughter,’ said Eleniel.

Galadriel nodded, reached down and touched the woman's shoulder. ‘I to have lost a daughter,’ she said. ‘But likely, they are happier where they are now. It is we who must live on, for the present.’

Eleniel nodded and started to cry.

‘No, no,’ Galadriel said softly. ‘Shhh-shh.’ She rubbed her arm. ‘We have to bury her.’

‘Already?’

‘Yes, I am afraid we have to move on. It is not safe to stay long in one place, especially in the forests of Mirkwood. The Orcs who attacked us may have comrades about.’

‘Couldn't you leave me here with her?’ Eleniel pleaded.

‘No,’ said Galadriel. ‘I could not sensibly do so. I am sorry. We are going to have to leave her behind, but if we work fast, we may at least give her a proper burial.’

‘All right, I understand,’ said Eleniel. She got to her feet, dragging her dead daughter up into her arms. Galadriel reached out to help her. They carried the body a little ways and lay it down in a small valley between two mossy mounds. They dug a shallow grave with their fingers and covered the Eleniel's daughter with dirt and pine needles.

Chapter Text

Frodo was quiet the next morning. He did not eat but drank a lot of water. He rinsed his mouth and swallowed, rinsed and swallowed again. He wanted to spit and even more to vomit, but he did not dare because Rain was watching him. He did not look at Rain. Instead, he focused on the new sheets that had been laid out that morning. They were a brilliant red.

‘So,’ said Rain, ‘when do you want to see him?’

He was leaning against the wall, running his fingers over the slight crevices in the fine stonework.

Frodo lifted his head up but still could not bring himself to meet Rain’s eyes. ‘Now.’

‘Are you sure? You look rather pale. Wouldn’t you rather wait and have him see you well?’ Rain’s words were soft but mocking. His hands stopped moving, waiting for a reply.

Frodo started to tremble. He clasped his shaking arms across his chest and stood straighter. He had already paid the price. He was not going to let Rain cheat him of the reward. The thought of seeing Sam again had been the only thing keeping him from drowning himself in the red porcelain washbasin Rain had left him with that morning. He was sure he still smelt of Rain. He could still taste him in his mouth.

‘Yes, now,’ Frodo said sharply. ‘Right now.’

‘Certain?’

‘I am.’ Straining hard, Frodo managed to lift his head enough to meet Rain’s eyes. They were still beautiful, those eyes. Harsh and gray with spots of darker gray, like an overcast sky stippled with ravens. He thought of Faramir. Grey eyes and raven hair, catching him as he fell fainting, lifting him up and tucking him into bed. It must have been in another life, another world, just weeks ago. Frodo could still feel Faramir’s soft lips on his forehead, and Rain’s tongue in his mouth. He looked down.

‘Very well then,’ Rain said. ‘I shall go get him.’

He pushed himself away from the wall and walked out of the room. Frodo waited a moment before venturing back to the washbasin in the corner. He gathered warm water in his palms and splashed his face and neck with it. It trickled down his back dampening the red shirt he was wearing. Everything was red today. He wondered why. Then it struck him.

What if Sam were dead? Maybe they had killed him, and Rain was going to bring back a bloodied body. Frodo felt sick all over. He longed to retch, but if he let himself, he knew there would be no end to it. He would retch out his whole inside: his intestines, his lungs, his liver, and heart. So, he held his hand over his stomach and watched the door.

If Sam were dead, this meeting would still be good. He would know for certain what they had done to his Sam. And if they brought back a limp corpse, well, then Sam would be free from their brutal hands. Frodo could kiss his cold eyes and cry, hold him one last time. It would be better that way actually.

If Rain brought Sam back alive, Frodo would not dare touch him. Sam would know, maybe, perhaps. He would guess. Rain would say something he thought clever, but it would not slip by Sam. And Sam, the darling, he would try killing Rain, and that would end in disaster. Frodo wondered now why seeing Sam had seemed like such a great plan. It would only bring more trouble. He cursed himself for letting his feelings take control, but still, his eyes stayed locked on the door.

He marveled at his own selfishness. Hadn’t the whole of Middle-earth fallen to darkness because of him? And yet, he thought he had the right to love, pieces of love at least. For all he knew, Sam could hate him. Sam should hate him. It would be better that way. He could put all blame on Frodo, damn him forever.

But it’s not my fault. I should never have been given this task in the first place! I couldn’t even throw the Ring to my own hearth, what was Gandalf thinking sending me to Mount Doom?

But he didn’t make you do it. You volunteered to take the Ring because you were greedy. You wanted the Ring for yourself from the start. You were as bad as Boromir, only quieter and cleverer.

I wanted to save the Shire.

At the very best you wanted to be written down as a hero. You did not love the people you were striving to save. You thought they were stupid. You just wanted to show them you were worth something. How you have failed.

They know nothing. None of them! They would have fallen too. It’s futile to fight the Ring.

No, you just think so, because you are weak. The Ring should have been given to another: Aragorn, Sam. They wouldn’t have turned away at the last moment, made all work done thus far against Him a waste.

Yes, Sam, Sam could have done it, but it would have wrecked him. I couldn’t bear –

You couldn’t bear? Do you hear yourself? You don’t matter. You never did. Anyhow he’s wrecked, Ring or no.

You don’t know that.

Yes, you do.

Frodo sighed heavily and looked down at his reflection in the washbasin. It was murky and contorted by the still rippling water. His face looked swollen and greenish brown above the red collar. Now he could look aside and see his face in a round mirror, pale but otherwise normal, but he thought the washbasin face suited him better. It was ugly and twisted like the inside of him.

‘Frodo!’ a high voice called out to him. He looked up. Rain was standing in the doorway, holding a small figure in front of him. The figure was dressed in the black cloth of Mordor, but his voice was as clear and bright as June in the Shire. He struggled in Rain’s arms until the man let go of him then tore across the room and threw his arms around Frodo.

‘Oh, Frodo, Frodo!’ he cried. ‘I thought I would never see you again!’

Frodo pushed him away, feeling like fainting. He grabbed onto the stonewall for support.

‘Are you all right?’ the other asked, his eyes filled with concern. ‘They said they would keep you in the tower and torture you forever. They haven’t hurt you, have they?’

‘No, no,’ said Frodo. ‘I am all right.’

‘Are you sure? You look quite pale. Have they been feeding you?’

‘Yes, yes, Pippin. I’m fine.’

 

Chapter Text

He was drowning in a swamp, falling through the faces of dead men, going deep below the surface of murky water. Catching breaths and sputtering, Faramir found himself no longer in water but in sand, hot sand, choking up his lungs, burning his cheeks and eyes. There were hands on his throat strangling him. His body was pressed down. He struggled and screamed, reaching up and grabbing at cords in the air. He tried to pull himself up, but he was struck down and shouted at. He heard something sizzling. His skin. He screamed and screamed again, until all the darkness was an echo of his agony. And then it stopped. Coolness was set against the burn. There were voices he did not understand, talking to each other. Something soft was wrapped around his face, and then there was nothing.

Whispers, overlapping voices filled his head. His father was ordering soldiers about in a tone so calm and resolute it sounded like he was orchestrating a funeral – but for bodies not yet dead. His mother’s voice came from a distance, soft and obscure, a memory of a memory. His brother’s boom passed over land and water like thunder, and his cousin Lothíriel’s laugh filled dark dells with lightheaded bliss. Everything was faded though, like old clothes. He was numb and could not feel the hill he was climbing. The voices were still there, churning, filling his mind with erratic words with no full thought.

The hill was steep. He was walking vertically, and it was not a hill now. It was a mountain. He reached the summit and looked out. Below him, he saw a golden city that glowed with many lights and a ways further, there was a city of marble with crystal stairs. Beyond that, other cities scattered until there was the sea. Water rippled on a white beach, jewels sprinkled in the sand. A palace of pearl spoke of a people, but there was hardly a ship in the tranquil harbor. These were places he had read about in books, places he had never seen with his waking eyes.

He must have been standing on the peak of Taniquetil for he could see further still. The sea rolled before his eyes, changing in hue, blue and grey and green and sunset, and in patches – black as Mordor. Storms brewed in every corner of the earth. Ossë had escaped Uinen’s restraints and had finally found a new master. Waves rose high and menacing, crashing down on the lands of the West but also the East. Faramir had never seen anything like it, great walls of water rising as high as towers, crushing and sweeping up everything in their way.

‘Faramir, Faramir,’ the stones below him were shifting, calling his name. ‘Faramir.’ He was going back under.

Pain woke him, and everything was dark. ‘Faramir,’ a familiar voice was calling. ‘Faramir, you live.’

He tried sitting up, but a large hand pushed him gently down again. ‘No, rest.’

‘Where am I?’ Faramir asked.

‘In a cave by the sea. Can you see me?’ There was a slight blur of light but nothing else.

‘No, it’s too dark.’

‘Yes, yes, it is, I’m afraid.’

‘Mithrandir,’ Faramir said.

‘Yes, it’s me.’ There was slight scraping of wood against rock.   Mithrandir must have set his staff down. A certain warmth had left Faramir’s face.

‘You were shining a light right at me, weren’t you?’

There was silence. Then Mithrandir cleared his throat. ‘Yes, I was.’

‘I’m blind, aren’t I?’ Faramir struggled to sit up again, and this time Mithrandir helped him. Faramir leaned his back against smooth stone, breathing heavily from the closed air.

‘You are now, though perhaps not forever. There may be ways for me to heal you.’

‘But you are not certain?’ A growing sense of panic was rising in Faramir. He wanted to leap up and run, get away from the dark cave, where maybe more light would allow him to see a little more, but he could not navigate easily without sight.

‘No.’ Mithrandir was bending over him again. Faramir could feel the scratch of the wizard’s beard against his cheek.

‘You are feeding me with hope for nothing, aren’t you?’

‘They burnt your eyes quite badly. In Aman, there would be hope for your recovery by the hands of Este and her followers, but here, in Middle-earth, there is little hope for anything anymore.’

Faramir thought that perhaps he should deny his blindness, like so many that faced injuries did at first, but he simply accepted it. His eyes were gone forever. Mithrandir had said so, and Mithrandir did not lie.

‘Kill me,’ he said.

‘Don’t be foolish,’ Mithrandir chided.

‘No, I mean it truly,’ Faramir said. ‘Slay me now. Take me from this misery, this half-life. I do not wish to become like the riders blind, probing. I belong no longer to the world of men. I’m nothing more than a hindrance to you. I cannot fight what I cannot see. I cannot write or read words any longer. Please, Mithrandir, you are merciful and wise, take my life and save others.’

He stretched his neck out for the blade. There was the sound of metal, a sword being pulled from its sheath, but then the blade slid back in again.

‘I cannot,’ Mithrandir said.

‘Why?’ said Faramir. ‘I already told you I don’t want to go on like this. So do me one last favor and leave, save what good is left. I don’t know who lives or not, but if Éowyn yet breathes go to her, for she is more precious to me then what remains of my life.’

‘Faramir,’ Mithrandir said, and his voice was low and tired. ‘Faramir, I cannot.’

Chapter Text

The hole was as dark as nightmares. It was damp and dirt and cold stone. Loneliness was tangible. It filled the already thick air, and the walls were the only friends to be had, the only enemies. Sam had long given up on rescue and almost on escape. It was his free hands that left him a little hope. He was not chained. When the door opened, if it opened (they threw him scraps through a slot) he would scramble up the slippery stonewalls and charge up out of the hole. He had been practising, only gotten to the top once, but he was going to try and try.

Why he was not so sure of. Frodo was dead most likely, trampled beneath the hooves of the fell beasts or speared by poisoned blades. He could be a wraith, a tortured creature beneath the dark lord’s Great Eye, but Sam needed to know for sure. He could not die until then, could not give up. His heart would not allow it, so he sat and he plotted. In his mind, in his imaginings, he plotted the ruin of Sauron. He would take the Ring from His very finger and cast It into the fiery charm. Who cares what they would do to him after, if they twisted his body on the rack, if they broke his bones and rearranged them into some unhappy shape. All that was needed now was an end, an end to Sauron and the madness he caused. To kill again, like he had killed the Gollum, blood gushing from the creature’s gullet. And Frodo, somehow he had to get Frodo back. Frodo who had betrayed him, betrayed the world, but it was not his fault. It was not his fault. The Ring was too strong.

Sam leaned back against the stone wall and looked up at the door, or rather where he knew the door to be. It was too dark for him to actually see it. He ran his fingers through his pockets. They were empty.

“I’m going to die in here,” Sam told the walls. They said nothing. He took a long breath of the stale of air. It smelt like piss and shit.

His mind drifted back to the Shire. He thought about all those times shovelling manure. Across town, an old farm wife lived by herself after her husband’s passing, and she was happy to give Samwise her surplus manure in exchange for a couple big bags of potatoes. Sam would shovel the manure into his wheelbarrow and push it home. As Sam passed the miller’s house, Ted Sandyman would often poke his head out his window, grinning from ear to ear, ‘Goodness, you stink! But then Gamgees always do, don’t they?’

Sam would go crimson to his very ears. For a long time, he didn’t say anything, but one time he was pushing an exceptionally heavy load, and Ted was out the porch with some pretty hobbit-lass.

‘Hey, Gamgee,’ Ted said, ‘is that the perfume you’re going to give your wife?’

Sam had stopped and stared at him. ‘I don’t know, Ted. Do your lower cheeks have as many pimples as your uppers?’

Even while saying it, Sam knew it was not very clever, but it was better than nothing, changed the colour of those cheeks in any case. If Sam could go back in time right now, he would dump that manure on Sandyman’s porch, at least he would have something to laugh at now, even if his Gaffer would have walloped him for it.

There’s no shame in good honest work, his Gaffer was always telling him. In theory, Sam knew this. He never looked down on any of his neighbors, but he had always wanted something more. To be a hero like in all the stories, and well, now here he was, in a hole reeking of his own waste. You stink.

What he would do for a bath. He skin and scalp itched like crazy. Sam shook his head. He was being selfish again, but it was better than thinking of the big things, the big, dark things that he couldn’t completely wrap his head around. Frodo. Where was Frodo? The person who he had come all this way for, the person he would gladly die for, if only.

The first time they met, Sam had been a boy, ankle deep in the Bywater Pool. Rosie and he had been having a water-war, wildly splashing each other, but Sam stopped when he saw Him, the pretty boy on the pony.

‘Which way to the post office?’ Frodo had called, his voice high and sweet.

Sam had been too in awe of the coiled curls, glowing complexion, and bright eyes to give an answer. Frodo was the most beautiful being he had ever laid eyes on, and he felt his skin heat in an oddly pleasant way. Rosie, irritated by Sam’s delay, had shouted out the directions, and Frodo thanked her and rode off.

‘He’s like a butterfly,’ Sam mumbled under his breath.

Rosie turned his way. ‘What you mean?’

Sam shrugged, blushing hard. ‘I don’t know. He just seems so delicate and high.'

‘He’s not some porcelain figurine on a shelf,’ Rosie said. ‘He’s a lad, same as you. You could talk to him.’

‘I wouldn’t know what to say.’

‘Why?’

‘He’s just so beautiful.’

‘Am I beautiful?’

Sam nodded. ‘Of course.’

‘But you can talk to me just fine.’

‘Well, I’ve known you since we were babes.’

Rosie sucked her breath in. ‘You’ll get used to him then, and get your tongue back.’ She then continued attacking Sam with water.

Unfortunately, it hadn’t been as easy as all that. Even after seeing him almost everyday for years, Sam felt too flustered around him to say anything of merit. He reckoned it had to do with the Gaffer teaching him not to babble around his betters, but it was strange, because he had never had those reservations around Mr. Bilbo. He had been in and out of Bag-End all his life, bugging old Bilbo with all sorts of silly questions, but there was something about Frodo that tied his throat in knots.

When Frodo was near, Sam’s heart would beat at ridiculous rates, and there’d be butterflies in his stomach like when he was put upon to perform a song or poem at the Inn. If Frodo chanced to glance at him or worse yet to smile, Sam would struggle to breathe. Sam was also more prone to clumsiness, blushing, and stammering when Frodo was near, making him look a fool time after time. Despite all these hindrances, Sam could not help but feel happy around him. And when Frodo was not there, he often wandered into Sam’s thoughts. Every kind word, every touch would be enough to keep Sam warm through the winter.

‘I love you.’ Those were the words Sam had been wanting to say forever now. But even when they were out risking their lives, he could not bring himself to. They lingered in his mind now.

‘Before I die, I’m going to tell him I love him,’ Sam told the unfeeling walls. ‘I swear it.’

 

Chapter Text

Another sleepless night. Sauron watched the world from his window. He had thought that when he had the Ring back, he would get some rest at last, but it was not so. He lifted himself from his bed and noticed that he had melted some of the gold adorning the coverlet (despite the spells he had placed on the bed to make it inflammable). With a wave of his hand and a muttered incantation, he fixed the damage.

He paced the room, feeling restless and alone. A small part of him wished that Ring was still lost, so he would have an aim to fight for. Of course, there was still bringing the world to its proper order, but he knew it would happen. Unless the Valar came from Valinor to stop him, Middle-earth was his, and why would the Valar help? They had shown little interest in mortals and the Elves that remained were rebels or the children of rebels. Soon Sauron would have all of Middle-earth under his control to do with as he pleased. He had been planning this for years, and yet now, it didn’t seem the triumph he had anticipated. True, upon regaining the Ring, he had experienced euphoria, but it was short-lived. He missed his conversations with Curunír, was heartbroken that he had called for his execution almost as soon as he had reclaimed the Ring. Another practical decision, eliminating a threat.

He had hoped that Olórin at least could be spared, but he doubted now that Gandalf would betray his fallen friends. Such waste, such loss. Sauron touched the mask he wore, beauty that covered an ugly face. Not even the return of his Ring could give him back his power to transform. That had ended in the water.

Isolation. Seclusion. Sauron stood in a tower surrounded by thousands and yet he felt it. What use was worship when no one could carry a challenging conversation with him? Everyone hung on his every word. They desired to delight him. They were dull. Sauron shifted through the thoughts of the people near him and stopped on someone. Murder was on this person’s mind, his murder. Someone was plotting against him.

Sauron smiled. He left his room, following the thoughts back to their owner. Thoughts of scalding, of laceration, vengeance. It was not so much the content that interested Sauron as the intensity of it, the willpower. Following this murderous muse, Sauron came quietly to the dungeons. The guards bowed their heads before him.

‘I want that cell opened,’ Sauron said, pointing to where the thoughts were coming from. ‘I wish to interrogate the prisoner.’

The guards readily obeyed. The cell was dark, dank, deep, and dirty. Sauron could not see the bottom, but he had a rope lowered and the creature grabbed on tight. The guards pulled him up. He was small, like the Ringbearer, and like him he had thick, curly brown hair, but this one was not as pretty as the first. His face was wide and surly. The corners of his lips were driven downwards into a frown. His eyes betrayed no fear, though his heartbeat was rapid.

‘Thank you,’ Sauron said to the guards. ‘I’ll take him from here.’

He seized hold of the creature’s arm. Not wanting to be delayed by its short legs, he lifted it up and carried it back to his chambers. When there, he looked the creature up and down. Its clothes were tattered and its body caked with dirt and dust, probably from the journey into Mordor.

‘You’re filthy,’ Sauron told it.

‘Who are you?’ the creature said.

‘You don’t know?'

‘Why would I be asking if I knew?’

Sauron smiled softly. ‘Mmm. I’ll have to wash you.’

‘Fine by me, it wasn’t my choice to be locked in a dirty cell.’

‘But you did choose to come here.’

The creature grunted and eyed him suspiciously. ‘Only because I couldn’t leave him.’

‘Him?’

‘You know who I’m talking about.’ The creature scrutinized him some more. ‘You’re Him, aren’t you?’

‘Him?’ Sauron said again. The creature seemed to be making little sense, but maybe the isolation had already started to peel away at its sanity. He led it to a basin and filled it with cold water, which he warmed with his hands. ‘You can bathe here.’

The creature tested the water with one of his hairy feet. Seemingly satisfied, he stripped off his rags, got in, and started scrubbing himself, working first on removing the grime from his hair. ‘I know I must be dreaming, but you’re the Enemy right?’

Sauron laughed. The creature was so simple, so straightforward. He reminded him of Beren a bit. ‘The Enemy? Well, I guess that would depend on who you were asking.’

‘You know what I mean,’ it said. ‘You’re Sauron is what I’m saying, the dark lord.’

‘Is that what they said when they recruited you?’

‘No one recruited me, sir. I came of my own accord.’

‘Because you couldn’t leave him?’

The creature nodded. ‘That’s right. Because I love him, and that’s a feeling you’ll never know.’

‘You jump to quick conclusions.’

The creature looked up, looked him straight in the eye. ‘I know you never loved, sir. Never truly loved no one, because if you knew, if you felt that, you wouldn’t want to make the world miserable.’

Sauron stared back and shook his head. He had heard this sort of talk before, and as always it irritated him. No one seemed to understand that people in love could do monstrous things.

‘Love is excruciating, child,’ he said. ‘Maybe someday you’ll see that for yourself, but I’m not trying to make the world miserable. That is not my object. I wish to build a better world, one devoid of the chaos that troubles so many lives. You’re a farmer, aren’t you?’

He had flitted through the creature’s mind and seen him digging holes and planting seeds.

‘A gardener.’

‘Mmm, that is a little different I suppose. But you do know how land is cleared for agriculture?’

The creature nodded. ‘You cut down the woods and then you burn the remaining vegetation.’

‘Yes, and that way you have space to create a garden with the beneficial plants. In the same way, I wish to clear the lands of Middle-earth, to cut down the kingdoms that have caused themselves and others trouble for centuries. However, I don’t intend to kill the people off. I will raise their children in better kingdoms. I will create a well ordered world where no one is hungry and there are no more wars.’

The creature snorted. ‘Right, so you’re the hero. You’re talking about murdering people like it’s the most common sense thing to do, but of course, you’re in the right. And what about freedom then, eh? Forcing everyone to listen to you, you know what’s that’s called. It’s slavery, that’s what it is. So, you can tell yourself things to make yourself sleep better, but you’re rotten to core, Mr. Sauron, sir.’

Sauron laughed. ‘Oh, you are scrumptious.’ He sat down cross-legged on the floor near the basin. ‘I’m afraid that I was left in the dark about your kind for a while, but I’m making an effort to study you now. You are actually quite close to perfect. I admire both your courage and your strong desire for peace. Your greatest fault is your close-mindedness, your dislike and distrust of outsiders. Of course, that is quite justified, given that they would undoubtedly bring about your extinction if left to their own devices.’

The creature stiffened. He stopped washing himself for a moment and really looked at Sauron. The eyes were still suspicious but a deeper doubt was forming. ‘What do you mean by that?’

‘I mean that Men are not as grateful as you might think. Doubtless, you have been told that my coming rule would bring disaster to Middle-earth, but the thing is that without my control –my protection – your people would not stand a chance. I know that you journeyed with one called Aragorn, a man who would crown himself king of Gondor. This man is of the line of Númenór, a claim of which he often boasts.’

Sauron glanced at the creature but it said nothing. It was listening though, brown eyes narrowed but attentive.

‘Do you know the history of Númenór?’ Sauron asked.

‘Yes. Well, bits and pieces.’

‘You probably know then that Númenór was an island kingdom, a gift by the Valar to the men of old who fought against Melkor, my first master.’

‘What of it?’ The creature had gone back to bathing itself, removing the mud that encrusted its toes. It was making slow progress though, and the water around it was already murky.

Sauron moved his hands over the water, and it became clean. The creature gazed at it in amazement. He rubbed his eyes and looked at the water again, muttered something about being asleep.

Sauron smiled, amused. It was a simple trick. He had merely removed the molecules of dirt from the water. When he moved his hands in front of the hobbit’s body, the dirt also disappeared off, revealing glistening, brown skin.

‘Númenór was a great kingdom,’ Sauron said, handing the creature a warmed towel, ‘probably the greatest that has ever existed in terms of power. One island dictated the world with its whims. Númenór needed trees for ships, so they took them, cut them, deforested vast lands, created desserts, and left the inhabitants to die. Númenór was a land of inventors of thinkers. There was an infinite array of brilliant minds, and no one wanted to play servant, so they took those ships and they found people, they caught them and tore them away from all they loved and brought them back to great Númenór to serve as slaves. “How much better to be slave in a great nation than to be a leader among wild men.” I heard the king say that once when I was his prisoner.’

‘Now Gondor wonders why they have so many enemies. They blame me for lying and bewitching everyone, but in truth, the men from the south and east needed little coaxing to join against the people who had terrorized and nearly destroyed them. Now, hobbit, your land is fertile, and your people peace-loving. How long do think it will take those men of Gondor to turn towards the north and start claiming your land as theirs? They will drive you out into the wilderness, and you will starve and dwindle and die. I’ve seen it done before, and they will do it again.’

‘I understand that my methods are brutal, and perhaps, here and there, I have made mistakes, but I do want to make sure that no one dies out. And maybe it’s for selfish reasons because I want to study you all, but your chances of survival are much higher if your kind sides with me. Do you understand?’

The creature shook his head. ‘No, I don’t understand. Aren’t you mad at us for trying to destroy your Ring?’

Sauron nodded. ‘I was, but I’m more impressed that you came as far as you did. I was careless in my arrogance. I see now that I can be resisted. Your Frodo was not easily seduced by my Ring, but I did have him in the end. He has a pure heart, and I can hardly hate someone that suicidal. He was planning to die with me you know. Like Lúthien laying down her life because she couldn’t bear to be without her Beren. It’s almost romantic, don’t you think?’

The creature snorted. ‘I think you’re twisted, is what I think. Just goes to show you what you know about love.’

Sauron smiled again. ‘What is your name, child?’

‘Sam, Samwise Gamgee.’

‘Half-wise? Half-whit? Was it your father who named you that?’

‘He wanted me to be humble.’

Sauron shook his head. ‘Still, it seems cruel.’

‘Well, that’s malarkey coming from you.’

Sauron didn’t answer. He had been called cruel countless times in his long life. Even Melkor said that he was like a cat, loving to play with his prey. Bodies and minds were fascinating though, and there was a science to torture. How much could a person withstand? And how did trauma affect a person’s perception of the world over time? Sauron had used himself as a subject for many of these tests. In some ways he had even enjoyed the harsh sensation of pain. It also gave him a first hand accounts of what everything was really like, because victims were seldom rational or willing enough to tell him what they were experiencing. No, there was no point in arguing he wasn’t pitiless. So far, he had been honest with Sam, and he intended to keep it that way.         

He opened his wardrobe, but of course, there was nothing small enough for the hobbit. He wondered if Sam even needed clothes. After all, the chamber was plenty warm. On the other hand, Sam was not especially pleasant to look at, so maybe covering him up was the best option. Sauron would have a tailor come in and measure him.

‘You’re staying here now,’ Sauron announced.

Sam’s face scrunched up. ‘Why?’

‘You want to take the Ring from me, don’t you?’

Sam’s cheeks paled a little. He pinched himself.

‘You’re not dreaming. I am indeed Lord Sauron the Great and Wise, and you are indeed in my chambers, and I am inviting you to stay to see if you can actually take the Ring from me.’

Sauron wondered if he should add that he had already had every entrance of Mount Doom sealed, so no one could enter. Deciding against it, he smiled again at the bewildered hobbit.

‘Why would you want to do that?’ Sam said.

‘Maybe I find it amusing.’

‘Humph.’ Sam shook his head. ‘You’re a riddle, Mr. Sauron, and I don’t like it one bit. You’re not as frightening as I thought you were, and frankly, that’s frightens me more.’

‘Wise, very wise.’ Sauron bowed his head in mock reverence. ‘Tell me, what is your favorite meal?’

The suspicion, which had never left Sam’s eyes, grew stronger. ‘Are you planning to cook me in it?’

‘No, no, nothing like that. I just want to make sure you’re comfortable. After all, you are a guest, and I don’t get those up here often.’

‘Well, I wonder why.’

‘Indeed.’

Sam hesitated but finally broke.

‘Well, if you must know,’ he said, ‘it’s beef and mushroom pie, served with chips and a pint of ale.’ Sam smacked his chapped lips together. ‘But you’ll probably have me starve or else you’re planning on fattening me up to feed me to one of your friends.’

‘You certainly have a pleasant mind,’ Sauron said. He was happy though that Sam was this talkative. Loneliness could work wonders. Make lovers out of enemies, and make even a plain-faced, sour hobbit seem exciting. ‘I have things to attend to, but I shall be back before morning. In the meantime, you’re free to come and go as you please.’

Sauron moved towards the door but then stopped and turned. ‘Oh, I just thought you should know. He’s not dead.’

Chapter Text

Legolas sat in manacles, encaged in memories. Again and again, he replayed them in his mind, happier times in his life. Stronger than aged wine, more potent than any mind-altering potion, Elven memories did not die, nor did they fade. They were the perfect conduit for insanity, and Legolas welcomed it.

The dark room and the stench gave way to woods and the smell of earth, the feeling of bark against skin as he climbed to the top of the tallest tree, out into the sunlight. It was bright, and the air was filled with black emperor butterflies, whose velvet wings brushed against his face. And he felt bad for leaving Gimli behind, but he belonged here. A breeze blew through his hair, hinting of apples, and he scurried back down to find them. He ate a little, tart one then filled his pockets and headed home. He sang as he went, used to the gloomy woods that others had come to fear. He passed through the guards and the gates, and then there was his older brother scolding him for going off on his own again. Wild one, they called him at the palace, the spoiled youngest child of the king.

‘You shouldn’t run off like that all the time without telling anyone,’ Saeldur said.

Legolas would just laugh it off. Back now, he had no real fears. Yes, he had faced dangers, but none that he could not thwart. He did not worry. Others worried for him. His father, his mother, his brother, his sisters. And they all loved him despite his frivolity, nay, because of it. He could coax a dull party into a whirlwind, turn a gathering into a theater. No one was above being teased, and Legolas loved the attention.

Before the dragon, there were only spiders and rumors to make children tremble. Mordor had slept for a long time, and though Thranduil had told the White Counsel again and again that Sauron was not dead and still a threat, to Legolas the dark tales of the First and Second Ages were just that, tales. Stories that he and his sisters had acted out. Saeldur, Thranduil’s eldest and heir, was of age before Legolas’s birth, so he was not much of a playmate, but Tanna and Lostariel were but twenty years older than Legolas. They were twin sisters but did not look alike. Of his children, Tanna’s hair came the closest to Thranduil’s rare golden tresses, but hers was still darker.

Lostariel was raven-haired like her mother. Most of the time it was she who was in charge of their games, and she who got the best roles. When they acted out the story of Lúthien and Beren, she played Lúthien and sang Morgoth to an enchanted sleep, while Tanna got the role of brave Beren, and Legolas, as the youngest, was delegated to Huan, the hound. And when they did the Fall of the Noldor, Lostariel always got to be Fëanor, with the long speeches and lunacy. And Tanna was happy to play Fingolfin, a personal hero. Meanwhile, Legolas was stuck with Finarfin, whose only actions were to try to placate his fighting brothers, and occasionally cry.

Legolas had complained to his father about it, but Thranduil seemed more upset about his children pretending to be damned Noldor then about whether or not Legolas had a meaty part.

‘Why would you make believe you were Finwë’s kin?’ Thranduil asked. ‘They’re murderers.’

‘But we have kin with them,’ Legolas said. ‘Lord Celeborn is wed to Finwë’s granddaughter, Galadriel.”

‘Yes, but the Lady Galadriel is different.’

‘Why?’

‘She forsook the Noldor long ago, has fought for Doriath. She’s almost Sindarin really.’

Almost Sindarin. What a compliment. Thranduil ruled a kingdom of mostly Silvan Elves, had a Silvan wife, and yet it always seemed that the Sindar were vaguely more esteemed. Thranduil had an unspoken but definitive racial hierarchy: the Valar, the holy ones of Eru, were revered, as were their servants, the Maiar; next in importance were those of the Sindar who had served under Elwë Thingol; then came the Caliquendi, those Elves who had gone to Valinor and seen the light of the trees; after that came all other races of Elves, and by the time Legolas was born, mortal Men had reached this place on the list as well; lastly, there were the Dwarves and trolls and Orcs, creatures that were not crafted by Ilúvatar. And here at the bottom were also the kinslayers, the dispossessed forever.

Growing up, Legolas had always wondered why the Sindar should be considered superior to the Silvan Elves when neither group had actually been to Valinor, only Thingol had. It bothered him. On the other hand, he had never questioned Dwarven inferiority.

Befriending Gimli was a bittersweet memory. At the time, he had thought Gandalf was dead, and Gandalf’s last request to Legolas and Gimli had been that they, at least, should be friends. After all the blows between Elves and Dwarves, it was best not to point fingers but to move forward. However, it took the Lady Galadriel rebuking Celeborn’s untrusting attitude towards Gimli to make Legolas truly reconsider the worldview that he had been fed since birth. Loving his father as much as he did had made it hard to admit that Thranduil could sometimes be wrong.

Overall though, Lórien was a nice place to look back on. With his mind’s eye, Legolas took in its beauty: the gold leaved Mallorn trees, golden starflowers, and clear water. He could feel the soft moss beneath him, as he lay in a quiet grove. Gimli was sitting near him, gazing at a sunlit pool.

‘So, are you in love with her?’ Legolas asked.

Gimli gave no reply.

Legolas scooted closer. ‘Gimli.’ He tugged on his arm. ‘Do you think you’re in love with the Lady Galadriel?’

‘You’re a wicked creature.’

‘So, I’ve been told.’ Legolas peered up at him through his lashes. ‘Are you?’

‘It doesn’t matter what I feel,’ Gimli said. ‘She was just being courteous, the kindest and most courteous an Elf has ever been to me.’

Legolas let his gaze drop. ‘If I were nice to you, would you like me?’

Gimli stared at him. ‘No, because I’d think you were plotting something.’

‘Like what?’

‘I don’t know. I can’t imagine you being nice to me.’

‘Aren’t I being nice and friendly right now?’ Legolas moved even closer and lay his head across Gimli’s lap.

The dwarf started and narrowed his eyes. He looked Legolas over. ‘What are you doing?’

‘I wondered what your face looked like from this angle.’ Legolas smiled. ‘Your beard tickles.’

‘You’re terrible.’

‘Oh, Gimli, please. I am trying.’

‘Do you usually insert yourself into people’s personal space?’

‘Yes, all the time. Why? Does it bother you?’

‘Not me as much as my cock.’

Legolas sprang up. ‘Gimli!’ He threw dry leaves at him. ‘For shame!’

‘I was just stating the truth,’ Gimli muttered.

‘Hmmph,’ Legolas said. But he stayed near, peering at Gimli curiously. ‘Are you married?’

‘No.’

Legolas sunk back down onto the moss bed. ‘Why not? Are you not considered handsome among your people?’

Gimli stared at him. ‘Do you even realize how rude you are?’

‘Am I rude?’ Legolas lifted his head slightly. ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t realize. If it helps, I’m not considered especially striking by my kind either. I’m not considered ugly or anything like that, but I never get stared at unless I’m around mortals.’

‘Do you usually talk this much?’ Gimli asked.

‘Yes, usually much more actually. I’ve been quiet because of the seriousness of the mission.’

Gimli shook his head. ‘The sun will set, and Elves will chatter.’

‘Is that a Dwarven adage? Interesting. “The sun will set, and Elves will chatter.” Is that saying that as surely as the sun sets, Elves will chatter, or is it talking about our nocturnal habits?’

‘Probably both.’

Legolas smiled. ‘Clever.’

Gimli surveyed him closely. ‘Are you married?’

‘Oh, no,’ Legolas said. ‘I was never one for romance, and I haven’t met anyone I could imagine being with forever. Well, I have friends who I love and who I never want to lose, but all that gazing into the other person’s eyes and pining, it seems rather tedious to me.’

‘Well, I’ll bet you’ve broken hearts.’

‘That’s not fair,’ Legolas said. ‘I never meant to, and most of them got over me.’

‘Most of them?’

Legolas hesitated. ‘There was a boy in Esgaroth I was friends with. I liked him very much, but he loved me. We almost eloped. I backed out. He ended up marrying someone else, a woman actually, but to the end of his days, he would write me letters. I kept them all, though I never told anyone about it.’

The memory dissolved into one from centuries before. Legolas was lying on a narrow bed, his back against Earnen’s bare chest. The man held him close so he would not fall off. Legolas loved how strong Earnen’s arms felt around him and how gently he was stroking his cheek.

‘Your skin is soft,’ Earnen whispered. He was young. His beard was coming in thin, redder than the dark hair on the top of his head.

Legolas blushed. ‘Thank you.’ Underneath the floorboards, water lapped, and there was a perpetual dampness to the room, even with the fire going, but then the town was built on a lake.

Earnen kissed the nape of Legolas’s neck. ‘You know I love you.’

Legolas smiled. He turned around and wrapped his arms around Earnen. He buried his face against him, felt the fuzz of chest hair against his cheek.

‘You are so beautiful,’ Earnen said. He tilted Legolas’s face up and kissed his lips. He sunk his fingers into Legolas’s hair, drawing his face even closer. He kissed him again, more deeply this time. His hand slid down to Legolas’s hip and then wrapped itself around his thigh.

Legolas pulled back and sat up. ‘Hi,’ he said softly.

‘Hi.’ Earnen smiled and sat up too. He fluffed Legolas’s hair. ‘I can’t believe you agreed to be mine.’

He unlaced Legolas’s tunic in the back and kissed down his spine. Legolas tensed and squirmed. He felt a certain aversion to the situation, though he did not understand why. He liked Earnen, and he thought he was very attractive, and yet every time they came close to physical intimacy, he drew back. It wasn’t because he feared that Earnen would ditch him once they had sex. This thought hadn’t even occurred to Legolas before Earnen had sworn that he would never leave Legolas or be unfaithful. Something else was holding him back, but he wasn’t sure what.

When Earnen had first said that he loved Legolas, the elf had felt overwhelmed. The declaration seemed to come out of nowhere, and Legolas was uncertain how to respond. Broad and handsome, Earnen was like a hero out of one the tales, like the mortal Tuor who had managed in just a short time to enchant both Voronwë and Idril of Gondolin. Of course, Earnen was really just a poor blacksmith’s son, but Legolas had been young, and no one had ever confessed their love to him before. He wondered if maybe it was fate.

So, like a fool, he had gone along with it, even promised to marry the boy, and if there was trouble to run off with him somewhere were no one could find them. And here they were both in a state of undress, having had their own private wedding feast with the finest of Dale’s wine. Legolas fidgeted with his jeweled necklace. He knew he couldn’t keep pretending. He looked at the bedroom door.

‘Sorry,’ he said, suddenly getting up. ‘I have to pee.’

He walked out and didn’t come back again. It was the coward’s way out, and later he shamed himself over it, but in that moment, he was too mortified to tell Earnen that nothing was going to happen, that the wedding and wine had been waste of time, and that even Earnen’s beautiful and powerful body pressing up against him had failed to arouse him. He could never give Earnen what he wanted, so he had released him.

Sex was the seal of marriage, so Legolas never attempted another romance. He watched as his siblings each found someone and wed. Now Saeldur and Tanna both had wives, and Lostariel had a husband, and though Legolas had adapted, embraced the role of doting uncle, he still felt like the odd one out, lonely.

Legolas sighed as he slowly came back to the present. Why were all the memories coming to him tainted with sadness? He squirmed in his chains, felt the blue bruises forming on his wrists.

‘So, you’re here again,’ Gimli said.

‘Mmm.’ Legolas stopped struggling.

‘Where did you go this time?’

‘I’m sorry,’ Legolas said. ‘I’m so sorry. I wish I could take you with me. I’d have a feast prepared in your honour, introduce you to my father.’

‘He’d probably hate me.’

‘No, I wouldn’t let him. I adore you, Gimli. I want to spend the rest of my life with you.’

‘Well, you’re in luck. I can’t escape.’ But there was a smile in Gimli’s voice.

‘I wish I could touch you,’ Legolas said.

‘Yeah, what would you do?’ Gimli asked.

‘I’d take your head in my hands and kiss you.’

‘Oh, anything else?’

‘I –’ Legolas was cut off by the door opening.

‘You’re being moved,’ a hoarse voice said. Legolas blinked in the sudden brightness of the torches. A large Orc strode over to him and tilted his head up. A flask was put against his lips, and he was forced to drink. It tasted like wine but made Legolas feel drowsy and his limbs felt heavy. The Orc lifted Legolas up. He held on weakly, not wanting to be dropped.

‘What’s going on?’ Gimli said.

‘We’ve met with delegates from both of your kingdoms. Neither have agreed to surrender, so now we must determine what to do with you.’

‘I see,’ Gimli said, and nothing more.

Legolas was carried out into the hall and to the left, while Gimli was dragged off to the right and down a side corridor. A scream grew in Legolas, but he could not release it. He couldn’t even feel his tongue.

 

 

Chapter Text

Aragorn is well mourned in Rivendell. All around her, Arwen can hear it. Estel. Estel. Estel. Estel. Lamentations for Elrond’s foster son, her beloved. She’s in bed with a mug of warmed mead and a plate of bread and fruit. She got up today, bathed, went down to the library and got as many books on Túrin Turambar as she could carry. Afterwards, she went back to her room. It was her father who brought the food. He asked her again how she was. She didn’t know how to answer, so she shrugged. He deemed that an adequate reply. He didn’t see the books. She had hidden them beneath the blankets, and he didn’t stay long.

After he left, she got out the books again and searched for any mention of the sword, Gurthang ‘Iron of Death.’ Túrin had reforged the sword from Anglachel, which was crafted by Eöl from the black metal of a meteorite. The shards of the broken sword had been presumably buried with Túrin, after his suicide. There had been mumblings that this sword would one day be used in the end of days to destroy Morgoth once and for all. Arwen hadn’t given it much consideration before. After all, Morgoth was in the Void, and the end had seemed far off, but now another Dark Lord ruled Middle-earth. She wondered if maybe there was something in the sword, in the metal from outside of the world that could kill an Ainu.

Of course, it was just a hypothesis at best, but she had to do something. When she first learned Aragorn had passed, she thought she would just die, fall down and die like Lúthien, but time had passed, and she was still here. Everything was empty, but her heart beat, her lungs breathed. She didn’t want to die, not until she had struck the enemy. How she wished to make Sauron suffer: for Aragorn’s death, and her mother’s wounds, for her great uncle Finrod who she had never had the opportunity to know, and for Gil-galad, who her father had loved.               

Where Túrin was buried though was up for speculation. The world had changed so much since his death. The Valar had broken the land open in massive fissures and changed the continents. It would be almost impossible to find Túrin’s grave. Most likely, it was under water. Beleriand had long ago been swallowed by the sea. Still, she would search. If she were careful enough, she would have all the time in the world.

She gathered supplies quietly. She took all the lembas she had with her, along with dried meat and fruit. She packed a bag with rope and other tools for climbing, an extra set of clothes, bandages and potions and herbs. Travelling light was a necessity, so she brought no armor. Her body would be protected solely by stealth, a hunting knife, and a leather jerkin.

When she said good-bye to her father, she kissed him but did not look him in the eye. She said she was visiting a friend on the other side of the valley. She still wore the black mourning robes, but she discarded them once she left the valley. Hidden by a cloak that Galadriel had woven, she went unseen into the shadows of dusk.

Nightfall fell fast, and she walked quickly, trying to create as much distance between herself and Rivendell as possible. A horse would make a swifter journey but be more conspicuous. She kept her eyes to the west, towards the Blue Mountains. When the sun rose and warmed the back of her head, she was still walking, not tired in the least. She felt she could walk forever.

 

Chapter Text

It started out soft, their bodies pressed together on the bed. Éowyn hadn’t even been sure he would come, but he knocked on the door at four in the morning with a ‘are you still awake? I can’t sleep.’ She called him in, and he flopped down on the bed, tired and restless. He whispered, ‘I love you,’ and Éowyn drew the drapes to keep out the everlasting night. They both climbed in under the covers, not because it was cold, but because the weight of the blankets on top of them was soothing. Éowyn stroked Merry’s cheek and breathed in his scent. He smelt like smoke and rain.

‘I love you,’ he said again. She kissed him. His lips were warm, though his curls were wet and cold. She slid her arms around him, securing him. He was small but strong, nestled against her. She planted kisses on his ears and neck, and he tangled his fingers in her hair. Two low burning candles gave just a touch of light to the room. Merry’s face was more than half shadow. Éowyn kept holding him, touching him, tracing his face just to make sure it was real, really him.

Her thoughts wandered, against her will, back to long evenings spent in Théoden’s Halls, with Gríma. How she had to be there, have dinner with the man who made her skin crawl, who made her want to turn the carving knife on him, on herself. Gríma had started following her when she was twelve. She had not understood then why she hated it when he said, ‘you’re becoming such a beautiful young woman,’ or how he could come up with so many ways to help her, to touch her.

‘May I be of assistance, my lady?’ became a dreaded question, especially since Gríma never waited for an answer. ‘Here, let me help you off your horse.’ So I can squeeze your arse. ‘Here, I’ll get your shawl for you.’ So I can touch your shoulders and developing breasts. He reveled in every new feel, and she learned to act faster, to snatch up her shawl, to leap off her horse. She tried telling Théoden, but he wouldn’t listen. He said there must be some kind of misunderstanding. Eomer was the only one who believed her, but he was kept busy, sent away.

Everyday, her confidence in her own perception dwindled, and yet her feeling of unease would not abate. Slowly, she felt herself lose sanity, as she silently screamed to be saved. And then there was Aragorn. He came, and the nightmares were driven out, but he dismissed her like some pretty bauble. She had hated him, hated herself more, for falling to her knees and begging him to let her come with him.

Now he was gone, was never coming back. Faramir gone too. Théoden. Eomer. All gone. She pushed Merry under her, kissed him fiercely. He gasped and wrapped his arms around her neck. She pressed close, didn’t want to feel cold again, never out of control either. She gripped his shoulder with her working hand. Was this right? She didn’t give a fuck. Nothing in her life had ever been right. She couldn’t remember being happy. Her parents died when she was seven. She kissed Merry again and again.

She stripped him ruthlessly, leaving him as naked as a winter tree. His amber eyes were huge, his pupils dilated, but his face was free from fear. Instead, he looked at her in awe, and shame churned inside her. Why did he worship her? She was a coward, using him for comfort.

She ran her fingers over Merry’s chest and abdomen – fine haired and firmly muscled. She slid her fingers down to his hip, felt the curve of the bone. He was elegant.

‘You’re beautiful,’ she told him.

‘I don’t know about that.’

‘You are. Don’t argue.’

‘All right, well, thank you then.’

‘Better.’ She kissed him, moved back and slipped her nightgown off over her head, let it fall to the floor.

‘Are you sure about this?’ Merry’s eyes were so wide Éowyn thought they would take over his whole face.

‘More than anything,’ she said. ‘In the coming weeks, I’ll be raped or killed, most likely both. And you can hardly hope for a better fate. If Ilúvatar does exist, he has no right to judge us. He could put a stop to this in a second, but he’s just let it go on and on.’

Merry blinked in confusion. ‘Who’s Ilúvatar?’

Éowyn laughed. ‘Exactly.’

She drew his naked body against her bare chest, ran her fingers along his back, and kissed his mouth again. Merry deepened the kiss. He was good, experienced. Éowyn wondered if there were some lass away in the Shire who fancied him, but she didn’t ask. Merry cupped her breast.

‘May I?’ he asked, an afterthought. She nodded, and he touched her, gently squeezing each tit. He rubbed and pinched the nipples, then bent and kissed them. She smiled, and he sucked, his hand trailing down to her thigh. Her legs spread for him, and then there was a voice in the hall. Voices. Calling to each other, calling to arms.

She sighed and pulled away. ‘It’s too late.’

‘They don’t need us,’ Merry said. ‘We won’t make a difference.’

She shook her head. ‘I can’t now. I’m sorry.’

Merry bit his lip but nodded. ‘All right.’ He reached for his clothes. Éowyn went to get hers from the top of the dresser and kicked her flimsy nightgown under the bed. Afterwards she put on a new hauberk she had taken from Pelargir’s armory and helped Merry with his chain mail. They went down together and stood in the garden behind the great gates of the fortress, swords in the sheaths at their sides.

‘I’m going to die in battle,’ Éowyn told Merry. ‘Don’t save me this time.’

Merry made no promises.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Glorfindel walked through the dimmed valley of Imladris. Terror pounded in the hearts around him. The young Elves feared the unknown, the older ones dreaded the darkness they had fled from. Glorfindel himself only regretted that he had not fully appreciated the short-lived peace he had been given. He knew everything of war. He had died in one, burnt alive by a Balrog. Nothing frightened him anymore. Or so he told himself, again and again. 

He found Elrond crouched near the hearth in the fire room. He looked old somehow, even though his face was free of wrinkles and there was not a strand of grey in his raven hair. 

‘I miss Gil-galad,’ Elrond said, without even looking to see who had entered. ‘I’m sick of making decisions.’

Glorfindel nodded. ‘I know.’

‘I don’t think I was born to be a leader,’ Elrond said. ‘I don’t think I can do this. Delegate who should live or die. Why can’t you all make the decisions? Does it even matter in the end? Every move we make is futile. I should have chosen to be mortal like my brother. Then I wouldn’t have lived to see this time, but I was a coward then, same as now.’

‘You’re not a coward,’ Glorfindel said gently. ‘Every king has their doubts.’

‘I’m not a king,’ Elrond spat back. ‘Never was.’

Glorfindel knelt near him. ‘All right.’

‘I’m sorry. I’m just so tired,’ Elrond said. ‘I haven’t slept in weeks. I can’t. I just see their faces, everyone I have ever failed. My sons...I should have never let them go to battle.’

‘Let them?’ Glorfindel said. ‘You were against it from the start, but they wouldn’t listen.’

Elrond sighed. ‘Well, perhaps I should have been more strict when they were growing up. Or maybe it’s just my luck. I love Ilúvatar. I do, but sometimes I wonder why everyone must be taken from me. I feel so empty all the time, and nothing seems to fill it, and everyone expects me to be wise and to make these monumental decisions, and I don’t want to. I just want to hide in a hole until it’s all over. I don’t even know what I will do if Sauron tries bargaining with me.’

Glorfindel frowned. He knew that the odds were against victory, but he hated how there was no hope in Elrond’s voice. It reminded him too much of Turgon, who had vainly died in his crumbling tower. ‘You really should rest.’  

‘I told you, I can’t.’ Elrond shook his head. ‘Perhaps he would an accept an exchange. He would take me and release my sons.’ 

Glorfindel touched his shoulder. ‘Don’t you have medicine that induces sleep?’

Elrond nodded. ‘Yes, but it’s a deep sleep, and I have to be alert. The enemy could attack at any time.’

‘Well, it seems to me that in your state, you’d be useless to the valley. You need to rest. I’ll watch over Imladris.’

‘I suppose that’s true, and it’ll be better to sleep sooner than later, if I must.’ Elrond got slowly to his feet. ‘Well, night then. I should be out for ten hours or so.’

‘Fine, fine,’ Glorfindel said. ‘You rest. Perhaps when you wake the Valar will already have come.’

Elrond shook his head. ‘Please don’t. I can’t bear another disappointment.’

‘Earendil and Elwing might be able to convince them again that the world is saving. After all, their son is here.’

‘Mmm,’ Elrond said. ‘Yes, I do tend to rely on my abandoning parents who left me to die.’ He turned on heel and disappeared down the hall.

Glorfindel sighed and looked around the empty room. Everyone was elsewhere preparing for battle. No not everyone. There huddled in the corner on a low chair was a sleeping Bilbo. His head was nodding with his snores. Glorfindel lifted the hobbit up to carry him to bed. Half way there, Biblo’s eyes fluttered open. 

‘I can walk,’ Bilbo mumbled.

Glorfindel froze. ‘You were sleeping sitting up.’

‘Well, it’s dark now,’ Bilbo said, rubbing his sunken eyes. ‘Must be near midnight.’

Glorfindel hesitated, still holding the old hobbit. It was early in the afternoon. It was dark, but it was always dark now, and it wasn’t pitch black.

Bilbo shrugged sleepily. ‘I suppose you can take me to bed.

‘Good,’ Glorfindel said. ‘Ah, are you hungry at all?’

Bilbo perked up, eyes wide open now. ‘A little supper might do me good, and it’s hard to say “no” to your Elven fare. Such a wondrous place Rivendell. I do wish Frodo would visit soon. He would love it here.’

Glorfindel gave no reply, only carried Bilbo to the kitchen. He had forgotten about the failing memory of elder mortals. He supposed it was Ilúvatar’s way of dulling the pain of all that loss. What a mercy. Glorfindel set Bilbo down at the table, gave him a pillow to put under him. He got out bread and cheese and fruit, fixed a plate.

‘Are you going to have anything?’ Bilbo asked.

‘No, I already ate,’ Glorfindel said. A lie. When was the last time he had sat down for a meal?

‘Come on,’ Bilbo said. ‘Have something, even just a little. It’s lonely eating alone. Everyone seems so busy lately. Are they planning something? Is there going to be a party?’

Glorfindel shrugged. ‘I don’t know.’

‘You do know,’ Bilbo said, spreading soft cheese on a piece of bread. ‘You’re just not telling me.’

‘Maybe.’

‘Hmmph,’ Bilbo said. ‘I should have known. You Elves are all so secretive.’

Glorfindel smiled. ‘I shall try to take that in a good light.’

‘Hmm,’ Bilbo said, mouth closed, chewing. 

Glorfindel leaned against the wall. He played with gold tassels of his cloak. ‘Is there anything you really want to do? Before you die?’

Bilbo peered at him. ‘You really think I’m done for, don’t you?’

‘I..I just mean...’

‘I was joking.’ Bilbo straightened his shoulders and looked thoughtful. ‘Well, I do sort of want to see the sea. I’ve read so many poems about it here, and sea-longing must be contagious, because it has infected me. And the Shire is right in between, so I’d get to see Bag-end again and my gardens and my dear Frodo.’

Glorfindel smiled again, sadly this time. ‘I shall make it my duty to get you to the sea then.’

‘You’ll come too?’ Bilbo was smearing cheese again.

Glorfindel opened his mouth and then closed it, cleared his throat. ‘I think I shall have supper after all.’