Sam could feel the heartbeat, slow and laborious, against his arm as he lay, bare-chested, by his Master, hoping against hope to warm the frigid arm and shoulder with his own body heat, half covering Frodoís left shoulder with his own torso. They lay on two blankets, and had two more covering them, plus both Samís and Frodoís cloaks as well as Pippinís. Frodo lay still, hopefully asleep. Certainly Pippin, who lay crowded against Frodoís right side, was snoring softly.
The heartbeat was better now than when theyíd first made the nest of blankets and piled bracken and laid Frodo in the midst of it. Then it had been rapid and thready; at least it had slowed and grown more steady.
"Will it work, do you think, having Sam take off his own shirt and lying against Frodoís chest that way?" Merry softly asked Strider from where he sat his watch at the edge of the small hollow where theyíd camped for the night.
"I donít know whether or not Frodo will take the warmth, for I donít believe anyone has tried this technique against a Morgul wound." The Rangerís voice was also low but steady as he set the rocks Pippin had gathered before he joined Frodo and Sam in the bedding among the coals of their fire to warm them. "I do know that it works with those who have suffered loss of body heat due to having fallen into frigid waters or having been buried in snow drifts."
Sam could hear Strider pouring water from one of the water bottles into his smaller pan, then the clink as he set it over the low flames to heat, balancing it on three strategically placed stones. Would he be planning on another poultice or a warming tea this time? Sam wondered. Very probably both, he knew.
As long as he could feel that heartbeat Sam knew there was hope they would make it in time. He was grateful for the long walk and the extended scramble theyíd gone through today, as it had so tired Pippin the lad was lying still in utter exhaustion for a change as he slept. It had to be helping Mr. Frodo--it had to, to have the two of them lying so close, sharing their own bodiesí warmth with him. He had to make it to Rivendell!
The sound of branches being broken against Striderís booted foot, then being fed to the coals to keep them going, to increase the height of the flame. The soft noise of Strider opening his pack and pulling out his healerís kit, untying the knot, finding the right pouches by means of the patterned knots on their drawstrings, the feel of their contents, their relative weights and bulk. The snap of a twig as it burned.
Sam wondered how Strider did it--kept going the way he did. He didnít think the Ranger had slept more than a couple hours at a stretch since Frodo was stabbed back there below Weathertop. Mostly he seemed to catch small catnaps taken sitting up by whatever fire theyíd have, waiting for the fire to warm water or stones, or to cook whatever foodstuffs they had produced or found that could be fed to Frodo. Sam was grateful that old Mr. Bilboís library had held in it two books that described edible and medicinal plants to be found in the wild and how to prepare them, and even happier that heíd studied both volumes when he was younger. Heíd been unsurprised that Strider had proven knowledgeable of edible plants, also, although the revelation that the Man had known training in healing and was well versed in the lore of medicinal herbs had come as a shock to all of them at first.
Still alive--Frodo was still alive. They had to hang onto that--the fact Frodo was still alive! It was difficult to feel the rise and fall of his chest, his breathing was so shallow. Sam wasnít certain if it was worse when it was shallow but quiet as it was now, or when it was ragged and rasping as it could get in those times Frodo rode on Bill over rough ground or when he must dismount and crawl up a particularly rough rock wall or over especially loose and treacherous scree. Even with Strider and Sam beside him to support and aid him as they could it could be additional torture to Frodo, having to move like that while fighting to keep that thing at bay as it sought out his heart.
He heard at last more movement from Strider as he wrapped up warm stones in Pippinís spare shirt, ready to bring them to place them about Frodoís upper shoulder. Heíd take away the ones already there, wrapped in Frodoís own spare shirt and put them back in the fire again. Then he heard the pouring of liquid into one of their tin cups, and at last the scrape of cloth and boots as the Man rose. Strider was noisier when he moved than any Hobbit could be, although from the little Sam had noticed in Bree he appeared particularly quiet for a Man. Sam followed the Manís footsteps as he approached, then was surprised when he heard and felt his Masterís voice, as labored and low as it now was, vibrating against his skin as Strider knelt over them.
"I donít know if I can keep it down, Strider."
"You need to try, Frodo. You need as much warmth within you as you can get, and as much food as you can retain."
Sam gently and reluctantly rolled aside, revealing he was indeed awake also, as Strider removed the shirt filled with now cooled stones. Sam took the toweling that heíd been lying directly on and wrapped it about Frodoís torso before he and Strider raised him up between them, supporting him so he could drink from the cup the Man had brought. Frodo proved able to drink most of it before he pursed his lips and shook his head, indicating his surety heíd lose it all if he tried to drink any more.
"Do you need to relieve yourself, Frodo?" the Man asked as he and Sam laid Frodo back down again and Sam unwrapped the toweling and laid it where his body could warm it.
"No," Frodo whispered, shaking his head slightly. "At least Iím--Iím spared that humiliation for--for now." Again his breathing was labored, as was his heart as Sam again laid his own shoulder over that of his Master. Lub-dub, lub-dub, lub-dub-a-dub, lub-dub, went the quickened and sometimes irregular beating under Samís arm.
Strider placed the new batch of warmed stones against Frodoís shoulder and straightened the stack of coverings over the three Hobbits, making certain Pippin was also covered and encouraging the young Hobbit to roll closer to Frodo.
"Strider," Frodo whispered, and the Man went still, listening intently. "Strider, what is it--what is it doing to me?"
At last Strider asked, "What do you find itís doing to you?"
Sam felt the brush of Frodoís hair against his cheek as he shook his head. "I mean, the end, Strider. What will be the end?"
Lying face down as he was, Sam couldnít see the Manís face, but apparently the Ranger had just pursed his lips and shaken his head, insisting Frodo answer first. He felt the sigh of frustration Frodo gave before he finally whispered, "Itís affecting my sight. Itís as if thereís a grey fog between the rest of the world and me, especially when Iíve been still for a time. I canít see colors unless theyíre vivid. I could barely see the stone trolls at first when we were there by them. Now I can barely see your face, and--and itís grey." Then, in a softer voice, "No, not grey--silvery, a soft silvery shine. And when Sam walks by me thereís a soft golden glow, as if there was a warm fire burning in--in his heart. Iíve been seeing mostly shadows when I see the others, although today Iíve noticed that--that I see a green flame when itís Pippin, and a warm brown cast to the shape when itís Merry. And thereís a very soft golden brown when I look at Bill." He went still for a time. "I donít think Iíll--Iíll be able to--to keep fighting it that much longer." He took as deep a breath as he could and held it a moment before whispering, "My shoulder--the ache is getting so deep sometimes I--I donít even feel it any more. Itís all going numb."
"Can you move your left hand?"
"Barely. Mostly, though, if--if I fix my fingers around Billís reins I can keep my grip. But I canít hold anything of any weight." He shifted weakly under Samís warmth. "Please, Strider," he whispered, "I have to know--I have to know what Iíll come to when it--if it hits my heart. Please, Strider."
"You donít want to know, Frodo," the Ranger said, his own voice strained.
"I have the right to know." There was such a note of authority in the Hobbitís voice that Sam was surprised, and he could hear a change in the Manís breathing.
"Oh, Frodo...." But at last he began to tell. "Your fŽa will be drawn increasingly into the Shadow World. If the shard reaches your heart, youíll become a wraith like them, but without all their power. Youíll be under their domination. Youíll lose your ability to know yourself. Youíll probably remember what you were like before at first, but then...."
Neither Sam nor Frodo could keep their gasps of horror under control, and Sam wrapped his left arm about Frodoís shoulder. Sam could barely see Striderís face pull up and away as he straightened up, sitting back further on his haunches. Frodo was stretching under Samís protective embrace, and his body was tensing.
Frodoís heartbeat, that had been gradually slowing, again had begun racing. "No!" he whispered from between gritted teeth. "I wouldnít want that--you know that, Strider."
"No rational individual would," the Man said softly, his voice filled with compassion.
Sam asked, speaking against Frodoís cold shoulder, "How is it as you know all this?"
He heard Strider shifting his position uncomfortably. "There was an attack--from Angmar. Someone had come from Mordor, possibly from Minas Morgul itself, armed with a Morgul knife. He stabbed Avramir with it. Avramir had ridden with my patrol and had ridden out as a scout. We heard the assault on him, and we went to his assistance--heíd already been stabbed. And my--Lord Elrond has dealt with two or three whoíd been so wounded. He knows how to deal with it--now. Itís why we are trying to get there to Rivendell as swiftly as we can."
Frodo forced the question, "What happened to Avramir?"
"He didnít survive."
"He--didnít--didnít become a wraith?"
"No. He--died just before he could quite get that far."
"How did he die?"
After a long pause, Strider answered in a tight voice, "I wonít tell you, Frodo. Donít ask me. Sleep, if you can." Sam could hear Strider rise and draw away. Sam turned his face downward, into the hollow of Frodoís neck.
Lub-dub, lub-dub. Lub-dub. Lub-dub.
Frodoís heartbeat was slowing. He finally turned his head back, whispered into Samís ear, "Sam, will you promise me something?"
"What?" Sam answered.
Frodoís whisper was insistent. "No, promise first, Sam. You have to promise--to promise to do what I ask of you."
"And if I canít?"
"You have to, Sam."
After a moment Sam whispered into Frodoís hair, "Strideríll do it, ifín it becomes necessary, Mr. Frodo." He felt as if his chest was being painfully squeezed.
"I canít let him do it. If word got back to the Shire--that a Man killed me, no matter under what circumstances, it would--" Sam felt him swallow. "If a man killed me, it would destroy trust between Hobbits and Men. Forever. We canít let him do it." He sighed. "You have your sword from the barrow...."
"You canít ask me!" It was all he could do to speak at all.
"Iíd rather...." Frodo swallowed again, and lifted his right hand to Samís head, slowly ran his fingers through Samís hair. "We canít let them turn me--turn me into--into one of them, Sam. We canít! Please, Sam! Please! If it--if it has to be done, I want you--I want you to do it."
When Sam only shook his head, Frodo whispered, "Better someone I know loves me, Sam. Please donít make me ask Pippin."
Sam was shocked. "Youíd never--heís but a lad yet, and heís never----"
"He grew up on the farm, Sam, and heís helped with the autumn slaughtering. Not like Merry and me, growing up protected. After--after I learned where lamb chops came from, I didnít eat meat again for better than a month. Made me ill--I had to be force-fed liver for three weeks."
Why that made Sam want to laugh he couldnít imagine, and when he realized the hitches in Frodoís breath indicated he was doing so he turned his head in surprise to look into the older Hobbitís eyes. He saw the pain and the determination in his Masterís face alongside the fleeting laughter. Frodoís laughter faded, and he sighed, turned his face to look up toward the sky. Finally Sam asked, "What makes you think as Strideríd be blamed like that?"
When he answered, Frodoís whispered words were slow with much thought. "You donít understand--the Ring--It wants him to do it for me. It wants him to be blamed. It foresees Strider and Men and--the Elves Strider consorts with--theyíll be blamed. That much more distrust It would sow. Of course," he murmured, turning his head again toward Sam, "It would rather the shard finishes its work." He lay still, and for several minutes both his heart and his breath were labored. Finally he whispered again, "Please Sam. For the sake of my soul...."
Sam squeezed his eyes shut and turned his head away. At last Frodo said, in a very still voice, "It would break Merry completely to do it, and Pippinís still so young."
"What makes you think as I could do it?"
"Because youíre strong. Youíve had to help with slaughtering, too, on the Cottonís farm. You know sometimes itís necessary. Youíve snared conies and pheasants, and have prepared them for the pot. You even--you even helped put down Nibsís pony last year, after it fell and broke its leg. You know where--where to hit me--I know you looked at those drawings of how the bodyís made in Bilboís anatomy book. You would do it, swift and sure."
"And youíd have me be a murderer ratherín Strider?" Sam turned again to look into Frodoís face, saw the growing weariness.
"Uncle Sara--he knows how much, how very much, you love me, Sam. Heíll know--youíd only do it if there was nothing else to be done."
At last Frodo looked back upwards and closed his eyes, covered them with his right hand. Sam saw that weary tears were now working past Frodoís fingers, running back into his dark hair. At last Sam said, "Donít feel comfortable with this sword, you know. But I have my skinniní knife, there in my pack."
He felt Frodoís body relax in relief. There was the slightest nod of understanding, then, barely to be heard, "Then keep it by you, till this is over, please. Thank you, Sam."
Lub-dub. Lub-a-dub. Lub-dub.
Heart and breathing slowed, grew more regular, once again.
Sam lay with his chest pressed to Frodoís wounded shoulder, where the skin had knit almost completely, only holding in something worse than infection. And he felt himself hating them both, the shard and the Ring, hated them for what heíd been forced to promise.
He wasnít certain whether Frodo was asleep or not, but knew that for the moment at least he knew some peace of mind. His own emotions might be seething like a maelstrom, but Frodo had a bit of peace he could hold to him, a bit of surety in a suddenly deadly world. He stayed as still as he could, willing his own warmth and strength into his friendís form.
The Man sat by the fire pit, rolling the heated stones into Frodoís extra shirt when Merry left his post to take his place with Frodo, Sam rising and already donning shirt, jacket, and cloak before Merryíd even knelt by the pile of coverings over the Ringbearer. Again the Ranger pulled away the cooled pack and pressed the warmed roll of heated stones against Frodoís upper shoulder before Merry was through removing his own shirt and laid his cloak over the blankets and other cloaks in place of the one Sam had removed. He saw Merry, Frodo, and Pippin carefully covered, then walked across to the place where Sam knelt, rummaging in his pack before heading for the rock from which Merryíd kept his watch. He briefly laid his hand on Samís shoulder, but the Hobbit shrugged it off, shaking his head.
Strider saw Sam go still as he apparently found what he was looking for in his pack, and then the gardener pulled it out, glanced briefly at it, and stowed it in his pocket. He methodically refastened the pack and put it back into its place, and finally went to take his guard.
Sam and Frodo had been discussing something in whispers after heíd left them. Strider hadnít known what the subject of the conversation had been, but as he watched the stiffness of Samís posture as he sat his rock facing out into the darkness he was coming to realize what it had probably been about. He thought back to what heíd seen Sam take from his pack--a folding Hobbit knife--a skinning knife, he judged. As he saw Samís shoulders begin to shake with silent sobs, the Man knew for certain, remembering to the patrol with Avramir, and how Avramir had made a request of him.
And the Ranger found himself hating both the shard and the Ring, realizing how both had brought love of one by another to such a pass, remembering the love that had guided the knife that had freed Avramir before the Morgul shard heíd carried had taken him completely.
Frodo had already carried that shard ten days. He couldnít hold out that much longer, Strider knew. If only the Creator and Valar would send aid to make certain they made it to Elrondís side in time, then Sam could keep that knife in his pocket, and eventually return it to his pack.
He returned to kneel by Frodoís head, watched his apparently sleeping face, began singing the ancient healing invocation heíd learned as a child, offering it for the peace of all four Hobbits. He knew Sam, at least, was as wounded tonight as was Frodo....