The dark shape descended on Frodo and sank its talons into his shoulder.
Above him great black wings shut out the moon.
‘Sam! Help me!’ screamed Frodo...
‘Mr. Frodo!’ shouted Sam, coming awake and leaping to his feet.
There was nothing there. All around the dreary marshes stretched away into the mist, deserted, silent. Overhead the moon, ridged and pitted like an old skull, leered down on the empty land. A few feet away Frodo slept quietly. Sam looked anxiously to see if he had woken him, but finding him still asleep he sighed with relief then sank back onto the ground and shivering drew his mist-soaked Elven cloak tightly around him.
The wings of the nightmare still beat in his ears, then resolved into the pounding of his heart. Like the ripples in a pool when a stone is thrown the weight of fear spread out and away until Sam breathed easily again. He rubbed his hand across his eyes. Never had he had bad dreams at home in the Shire; he could sleep through a thunderstorm, and snore too. Even when they had set off to Rivendell, and beyond, he had been able to rest. His dreams had been of home, of The Shire. Again in sleep he took familiar short-cuts through summer fields, and passed favourite trees reaching out to touch their bark as if greeting an old friend. But not any more. Now that thing that was poisoning their days was also invading their nights, pursuing them even into the land of dreams.
Sam rolled over onto his back and looked up at the sky. The foul mist exhaled by the rotting weeds and rushes of the marsh obscured the stars and Sam, deprived of their light, felt a weight on his heart.
‘Things are never as bad as they seem, Samwise!’ said his old Gaffer to him, when an unexpected frost nipped some cherished cutting Sam had planted out too soon.
‘Next time cover it with sacking, ninnyhammer!’
‘No amount of sacking will protect us now.’ thought Sam, wondering what his Gaffer would think of this swamp.
‘I always said that lad would come to a bad end!’
‘And I have’ thought Sam ‘in a stinking swamp! Speaking of stinking, where is Stinker?’
Sam sat up and looked around for Gollum.
‘Gone again!’ he thought in exasperation. ‘Off looking for some slimy crawling thing to eat, no doubt. He’ll be the death of us, I just know it. But there’s no telling master....’
Sam looked at Frodo and a struggle began in his heart; he knew his master wanted to be merciful to Gollum, but every day Sam thought he saw some dangerous glint in the creature’s eye, or an unguarded smirk. He knew with every fibre of his forthright hobbit nature that this creature would harm his beloved master. And there was nothing he could do about it, because Frodo was bent on drawing Gollum to him in kindness. A bitter flash of envy passed over Sam; he saw clearly in his mind’s eye Gollum kneeling to Frodoand chanting in that whining, wheedling voice of his;
‘The Master! The Master of the Precious...’
Then the feeling faded and Sam felt ashamed. After all Frodo had gone through how could he be jealous of such a miserable creature...
Frodo turned restlessly in his sleep and Sam reached over to pull his cloak up against the chilly damp. Frodo’s face, pale and wasted, looked deathly in the white moonlight and the sight of it was like a red hot blade in Sam’s heart. Tears sprang into his eyes and he dashed them away impatiently but they came back. Hardly knowing what he was doing Sam reached into his pack and pushing his hand down to the bottom he found Galadriel’s gift, the little wooden box of earth enclosing the Mallorn seed.
At once he felt his grief ease. The wood felt cool at first then warm, just like a living tree. Without taking it out Sam traced with his forefinger the raised letter ‘G’ on the lid. He thought, just for one moment, he heard the West wind in the tops of the Mallorn trees…
Something blotted out the moon. Sam looked up, for a moment confusing dream and reality. But this was no dream; above, wheeling ponderously, filling the sky, was the great winged beast of his nightmare. Only this was no dream...
‘Black Riders!’ shouted Sam in spite of himself, leaping to his feet. As if it heard the cry, or took it as a summons, the great winged creature seemed to check its flight and hover, its long neck and small horned head sweeping the land below as if seeking or smelling out its prey.
‘Black Riders!’ Sam shouted again but this time to himself as he scrambled over to Frodo, who seemed unable to wake up. Sam seized his arm and began to drag him away across the bog, looking wildly about for some shelter. A long thin cry echoed across the marshes, and as if roused by it Gollum’s gaunt yellow face appeared above the reeds, screeching wordlessly at Sam.
‘Shut up, Sneak!’ muttered Sam to himself savagely. He looked down at Frodo who seemed paralysed and unable to get up and throwing his weight forward hooked his fingers in Frodo’s Elven cloak and dragged him towards the only tree in sight, a stunted elder half drowning in a wide stinking pool.
With his hand on Frodo’s shoulder Sam noticed, despite their danger, that his master was now little more than bones. His clothes seemed strangely empty, like graveclothes or the clothes of one who has recovered from some long illness. Bracing himself for his master’s weight Sam almost stumbled for Frodo weighed little more than a stand of wheat hauled at harvest time long ago in that other life in the Shire.
‘Wraiths!’ wailed Gollum ‘Wraiths on wings!’
‘And you had nothing to do with that, I suppose...’ snarled Sam to himself. He at last got Frodo under the sparse cover of the elder and threw himself down beside him. Frodo seemed dazed, only half awake. Then the Wraith let out a piercing cry and Frodo too cried out and clutched his shoulder and Sam realised with horror that he was feeling again in his mind the Witch King of the Nazgul plunge his notched, poisoned blade into his shoulder. Sam watched helplessly as Frodo saw once more the tall iron-crowned shapes surrounding him on Weathertop, their rotting graveclothes billowing out to enclose him as they bore down to seize the Ring. A pain, like fire in ice, stabbed into Frodo’s shoulder again. Lord Elrond had healed him, had drawn out the evil from the wound along with the tip of the broken knife, but such was the power of this poison that something had remained in Frodo, waiting to claim him when the dark powers surrounded him... Despite himself Frodo clutched The Ring and drew it out from under his shirt, his forefinger seeking the relief of the enchanted space within its gleaming circle...
Elrond ascended the stone staircase silently. His long heavy gown, brocaded with silver upon deep purple velvet, swept the patterned pavement of the Observatory. He walked across the inlaid floor to the viewing balcony where the Seeing-glass stood. He was alone. No-one sought to read the skies any more; the oncoming doom of Middle Earth was only too clear to see in the daylight all around. Reluctantly he looked up; there, where it always was, in the Southern sky, stood the red star that had shone through Frodo’s window when he had sheltered in Rivendell. Now the hobbit was gone, but the Red Star shone ever more bright and baleful, a herald of the doom of men.
Elrond turned away. He clasped the stone rail and looked down into the dark courtyard far below. The endless music of the fountains of Rivendell continued, but the great hall was dark; no music played and no voice recounted in poetry the story of Tinuviel. In the hearts of all his Elves was only sadness, and the expectation of imminent departure from Rivendell, the Last Homely House on earth for their kind.
With a sigh Elrond turned back to the lighted room. Spread out on the map table was the map of Middle Earth, made by the Elves to mirror their great Map of the Stars. Now it lay in the clear golden light of the Elven lamps and on it Elrond saw the red line he had drawn with his own hand marking the route of the Ringbearer into danger. Few knew of this route, or understood the spidery scratches that were imprinted on the map. Now Elrond studied the lines and wondered. He grew oblivious of the room, and the lamps and even the map, smooth and cracked with age under his hand. He closed his eyes and his lips moved as if he spoke to himself. Then he put his hand into his gown and drew out a piece of cloth, black as a night without stars. He placed it on the map and unrolled it. Inside, dark as the material but glinting malevolently, was a tiny triangle of metal.
This was the tip of the knife that Elrond had withdrawn, with all his Elvish healing skill, from Frodo’s shoulder. Sam, watching anxiously, had seen it disappear into a twist of blue smoke. But Elrond knew that this was also a weapon of the mind and although it had disappeared it had not ceased to exist. Elrond had wrapped up the cloth with the dull mark and kept it. Now, here, even here in the Elven heartland, it had come to life again. As if unwilling to touch it, Elrond laid it down on the map, close to the Dead Marshes, and stretched out his hand over it.
Glittering on Elrond’s hand was a great ring, of gold set with a sapphire whose depths were the blue of the deepest lake and the shining silver of the brightest fountain. It was the Ring of Air, Vilya, greatest of the Elven rings. Elrond put his hand out with care, aware of the power and danger of the Ring. But he had decided, and closing his eyes he allowed its strength to flow out spreading radiance throughout the room and beyond..
When Sam threw himself down on the ground he could not move. Terror fixed him in one place. He tried to look up but the shadow of the wraith and its winged steed seemed to press him into the earth. Behind him he heard Gollum whimpering but he had no time to think of that because beside him on the ground Frodo was losing his fight to stay in the present. Sam could see his eyes gaze on things invisible to himself, and then he drew out the Ring and went to put it on.
Sam fought with his own fear, and in desperation thought of the box in his pack, and of the Lady, and then of Rivendell, and Lord Elrond..suddenly a shiver passed through him and he felt his strength return. At once he reached out and seized Frodo’s hand and held it. At first cold as ice, it grew warm in Sam’s grasp, and then Frodo opened his eyes and looked up, and around, as if realising where he was.
‘Hold on, Mr. Frodo!’ whispered Sam. Frodo grasped his hand and hung onto it as if it was life itself.
Gradually the great shadow receded, and with a cry flew away towards Mordor. Sam relaxed his iron grip on Frodo’s hand. His master lay as if dazed and Sam wanted to leave him there to rest and recover his bearings, but he knew they had to get away from this place. Gollum scrambled over to them and gazing at Frodo’s deathly face he put out a long yellow hand to paw Frodo’s cloak.
‘Leave him be!’ shouted Sam knocking his hand away and helping Frodo up. As he did so a voice spoke inside his head, and to his horror Sam realised it was his own;
‘You can’t save him.’