Frodo lay back, his dry mouth sweetened by the generous mouthfull of water Sam had given him. He was too tired to eat the lembas that had been pressed into his hand. Wearily he gazed up at the swirling smoke and opaque airs of darkness that had blotted out all sun and starlight for days uncountable. He saw within the boiling vapours images that teased his mind; half-recognizable faces, memories of fair places that swam away when his eyes tried to catch them. It was like dreaming only worse, for in dreams he found a shred of peace from the horror of what his life had become.
He heard Sam stir faintly next to him, the crunch of the dry elf-bread and his friend's soft breathing were amplified to his ears. The wind over the blasted rocks around them was sharp and whistling, and the heavy throbbing beat of a massive black heart full of hate rang in his head like an abused bell. He longed to scream for the sounds to cease, just for a while, but he knew that this could not be. The Ring was working its change on him. If he had had tears left to shed, he would have wept. Instead, he swallowed painfully and broke off a corner of his bread, placing it on his tongue so that it might soften.
He heard Sam's comment; soft as a thought, though it sounded loud in Frodo's busy mind, "I do wish we were home now, Mr. Frodo. I'd hate to think what is going on in the Shire without us, this day."
The Shire. Green hills and clean water, gardens and pools, groves and barns, homes and hobbits; Frodo's mind shrank from the beauty that the name called to his mind; it was painful to think about. Instead, he knew darkness only; something in him called forth the things that normally lay unseen.
There were graves in those hills, ended lives that will never walk on the earth again, and flowing beneath the clear lakes and streams was mud and worms and unclean things. Gardens carved from the flesh of the earth, taking from her vitality and life, leeching the strengh from her as a vampire might drain the lifeblood from a child. Circles of trees, haunted with spirits of ancient magics, luring some to death beneath the roots of their angry trees, twisted and bound in tendrils of steel, avenging themselves for deeds done Ages past on the innocent that were unwary. Homes, holes and hobbits, laughing and living and raising their children, who grow old and die and never know or understand or can do anything to change the great wide world around them. Mothers wracked in pain as they brought forth life that failed to bring hope or cure. Fathers left in impotent fear as their world turns and their families are not safe anymore.
Hoplessness and depression settled in Frodo, and closed his eyes and croaked, "No, Sam. You do not want to know what goes on there. It may be that it doesn't even exist anymore. I wonder if it ever really did exist? It seems like a dream that I cannot forget, or a story told that once I heard, the memory returns to torment me in this evil place."
Sam reached over and took Frodo's hand. "Well of course it exists, Mr Frodo! The Shire will always be there, and we'll get back there someday, you wait and see! Why, I intend to go back there just as soon as we finish this job, and get back to the garden. The weeds must be up over the crown of the Hill by now!"
Frodo laughed in spite of the heaviness in his chest. "Grown up over Lobelia's head, so that she can't see out the window to spy on the Gaffer and Daddy Two-foot?" He laughed rustily. "She would mow the grass down with her own teeth rather!"
Together the hobbits chuckled quietly. Sam described every inch of Hobbiton and Bywater for Frodo, sharing the best memories of his life. He brought back to him the feeling of walking on dew-drenched grass to catch the sunrise breaking over the Hill; fishing in the Water at his favourite spot, dozing in a lazy hot June afternoon; running with Jolly and Tom, while Rosie laughed and judged the winner of the race, planting a kiss on his cheek that had make his face turn red like a beet. Other stories he unfolded also, his voice whispering just above the murmur of the wind.
Frodo listened and the darkness receeded for a time as he recalled his home, once his whole world. Sam's words flowed over him, and from somewhere he had not reached yet, strength returned to him in some measure. The pressure over his heart eased, and he closed his eyes and dozed lightly.
Sam covered his sleeping master with his cloak, and checked their water bottle and food supply, then lay down next to Frodo to wait for the muddy day to pass. They were closer to the Mountain now, but no closer to home. He sighed and closed his own eyes, but no sleep came to him. There was only one thing that would bring Samwise ease, but they were journeying East, not West. At least Frodo was resting for once. He would be a little stronger, tomorrow when they made their last effort.
Far, far away, a hobbit maiden crept out of her house to watch the stars come out in the East, twinkling fitfully over a distant smudge on the horizon. Even that darkness could not dim the bright star that glittered there. Rosie had watched every night since Sam and Mr Frodo had left Bag End, and when Sam did not return, she came out to say a prayer for him to the witness of that bright star. Looking at it seemed always to awaken hope in her heart, even when everyone frowned and said that they would not return. Since Sharkey had come and the Shire had deteriorated, she had to be careful and sneak out only in the darkest hour of night. The bright star was always there, hanging in the East like a lantern for a lost soul. She looked at that star now, and wondered what its name might be. She was sure that Sam would know.
"Come home Sam," she whispered. "Take care of yourself and Mr Frodo, and come home soon."