Written for the Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder Challenge on Henneth Annun.
Frodo had run ahead, as fey as Sam had ever seen him, his posture erect, his shoulders back. Sam held the Lady’s starglass, for Frodo had given it to him to hold as he drew Sting to cut apart the horrid, great web of shadow that ghastly thing had apparently woven across the mouth of the tunnel of Cirith Ungol. But this was one of those rare moments when his beloved Master shone as brightly as the starglass itself, the Light of him shining defiantly as he ran out of the shadows of the tunnel into the relatively brighter air of the cleft that formed the actual Pass of Cirith Ungol.
Sam set himself to catch up as he stowed the starglass in his inner pocket, for he found the hair on his head and feet was still standing up straight while the skin on the back of his neck felt tight with the anticipation of another assault by evil creatures. But before he quite left the last of the tunnel behind him he spotted a huge dark shape slipping out of a gap that appeared merely as a slightly darker black against an already black wall; and then he felt long, bony fingers grasping for his throat as Gollum made his final bid at murdering Frodo’s determined guardian. "Got him!" Gollum murmured in his ear. "At last, my precious, we’ve got him, yes, the nassty Hobbit. We takes this one. She’ll get the other. O yes, Shelob will get him, not Sméagol: he promised; he won’t hurt Master at all. But he’s got you, you nassty filthy little sneak!"
"Got me, did you?" Sam wanted to say, but couldn’t as he struggled to pry those fingers off his throat. Unable to use sword or staff on the foul creature he finally threw himself backwards--an old trick he’d learned when dealing with Ted Sandyman as a lad in the Shire; and Gollum, unused as he was to dealing with victims at least as smart as himself, was bested by the simple maneuver. At that Sam was able to scramble swiftly to his feet, turned and swung the walking stick Faramir had given him, heard it crack first against the creature’s arm and then across Gollum’s bony back, felt the give as the staff broke and Gollum sprang away, back into the darkness, his squeals and moans of pain following after as he disappeared into the darker shadows of the tunnel.
But by the time Sam reached his Master the great spider had already bested Frodo Baggins, had him wound in her silk, Sting lying there on the ground near his shrouded form. How long the fight went between Sam and Shelob Sam had no idea; but finally he found himself crouched down, holding Sting upwards where the spider had wrenched herself off of it, covered with her ichor. He slipped down on the ground, dazed and shaken, the fury of his defense for Frodo oozing out of him as he collected himself; then he was crawling to Frodo’s side. There was no movement, no rise and fall to indicate Frodo breathed. There was no movement at all, no feel of breath or heartbeat. Sam found the tip of the short Elven sword sliced easily through the winding cords, and he soon had Frodo’s body free--free, but still unresponsive. The poison to the back of Frodo’s neck had apparently done its job well, too well.
Darkness took the heart and soul of Sam Gamgee once he accepted that Frodo was gone, as he realized he couldn’t allow himself to lie down beside Frodo and die there. "Oh, Master! My Mr. Frodo! Why did you have to leave me, go where I can’t follow? Why did you have to leave me to finish it? Why do I have to go on? Sweet Frodo--my sweet Master, I have to take it, go on, find the mountain somehow on my own. I’m sorry, so sorry."
When at last he finally went to leave Frodo’s still body, he stood for one last long moment, looking down on the face glowing softly in the deep grey shadows of the pass, looking what he expected would be his last at the fair beauty that had been granted the Baggins lying at his feet. No pain, no madness, no driven resolve--only the peace of grief concluded, his body finally at perfect rest.
He’d left his own sword at Frodo’s side, for he foresaw that if he came upon more enemies such as Shelob the Elven blade of Sting would be of more use than the one from the Barrowdowns. It appeared that blade, made by Aragorn’s ancestors, was doing its best to shine as would Sting, looking remarkably graceful as it lay by Frodo’s own side, the carefully etched runes and devices engraved on its blade catching the light of Frodo’s form.
"Elbereth’s own light a-shinin’ from him," he murmured, not realizing he whispered aloud. "Her own beauty always lit him, it did. Farewell, sweet Frodo, my beautiful, beloved Master. I’ll come back to you, I will, if I can, and then I’ll not leave you again." And forcing his attention away at last, he turned to make his way alone to do what must be done.
Gorbag looked down at the stripped body lying on the rags along the wall of the tower room. How ugly a creature it was, its skin almost stark white, although still somewhat blue at the moment with the paralyzing poison pumped into it by Shelob. The hair was dark and curling and unnaturally soft, and had some of Shelob’s webbing still adhered to it--the one thing that made it look proper in Gorbag’s estimation.
There was a shudder to the form as it managed to take its first deeper breath since Shelob had applied her mandibles to its neck. The unconscious arching of the back as the body began once again to react to pain brought a sneering smile to the orc’s face.
"Yes, you ugly thing, you. What right you got, bringing Light here? What right you got, bein’ found wearing mithril? The Master, he’ll be glad of that, he will. Maybe give us a right reward for findin’ it on you. He’d best, for I’d of preferred to keep it, I would, given my own choice.
"No, you folk from out there, you can’t even dress proper--woven stuff and not proper skins for you--too fine, are you, for what us orcs wear? Fit out like a filthy Elf princeling--yet they left you when they had the chance--took off and left you there, lyin’ on the ground, leaving you to us! And here you lie, where you’ll waken soon enough. Oh, I look forward to that, seeing to it you’re beat proper and all, makin’ those ugly pinkish lips stretch as you scream, begging us to let you tell us what we want to hear; hearing your finger bones break...."
The orc bent over the supine form, murmuring into its ear, "How ugly you are! How terribly ugly you are, all smooth as you are, between the too thick hair on the top of your head to that on your feet! And I look forward to pulling it all out, all that hair, a strand at a time!"
The sharp eyes of the Eagles spotted them, the two small wingless creatures as they fell, at last overwhelmed by heat and the fumes of the volcano, brought down by grief, pain, privation, loss.
Landroval had little time to examine the small figure he took up as he touched down briefly on the small hillock where the two figures lay at the last. Small and pitiful it looked, with neither feathers nor even proper fur to clothe it. It was wrapped in a single fold of cloth such as was affected by those who went on two feet, with arms and hands instead of proper wings or forelimbs. Only the top and backs of their heads had hair of any sort--and in the case of these two their feet as well, he noted as Meneldor drew near enough for him to see those of the one his fellow bore. That was unusual for the two-legged ones, to see their feet and hair upon them rather than the more common boots such things usually wore or feet bare of any adornment at all.
Pitiful, weak things these two were, fragile and small beyond the nature of most of the two-legs. What they must look like at most times he couldn’t begin to imagine, for they were almost black with ash and soot, save where the blood lay or their garments and sparse hair hid them. Ugly, the rags and blood and filth made them look, not even proper for feeding to eaglets if they’d not been obviously among the Children of Iluvatar, whom it was not proper to take as prey. Were they lambs found in such condition Landroval would have carried them to a ravine and laid them there, for lambs in such condition would likely have made his own babes weak and ill.
The one he carried was stick thin--he could feel its bones through the damaged skin and fine cloth. What little skin could be seen, such as the underside of the one arm that hung free, was unnaturally pale even for two-legs. Yet, as he approached the place indicated by the White Wizard he realized the slight body held imprisoned in it a radiance, one familiar to him from his one flight West with Gwaihir when he came of an age to serve as their folk were intended to do. The Lady’s own Light, shining forth from the battered body he carried?
The great horse Shadowfax raced toward them as they looked to land, bearing on its back a large form, that of the tallest Man Landroval had seen in many, many years. He, too, was black with dirt and blood, although in his case little of the blood he bore was his own. The cloth that covered him had been richly figured; the mail and armor shone in the light where it wasn’t covered with gore; the sheath for the sword he wore shining with gems and fine metal wire.
A wagon stood nearby, and startled young Men were hurrying to reach the side of the Man who slipped from Shadowfax’s back. The Man was facing the Wizard as Mithrandir slid from Gwaihir’s own back. "You have found them?" he demanded. "Are they still alive? How hurt are they? Can I do aught for them, Gandalf?"
"Wait, my friend--yes, we’ve found them. They were still alive when we found them, but they are very close to the Gates of Death, I fear."
At a nod from the Wizard’s head the tall Man turned toward Landroval, and the Eagle could see the clarity of the Man’s eyes, the equal to that seen in Gwaihir’s own gaze. The King, then. It was years since Landroval had seen him, riding beside the sons of Elrond in the Vale of Imladris, then a young eaglet in his own right, not yet mature enough to fly free on his own. Yes, this one had the beauty of rule and command to him, unlike the pale, bloody thing Landroval bore. Yet when the King came forward to take the small figure from the Eagle’s grasp, just as the Wizard was going forward to take the slightly more substantial form carried by Meneldor, Landroval found himself loth to surrender it, for he found he felt protective toward it, fragile and ugly as it was. Ugly it was now; but so did eaglets appear when their feathers were first starting to grow in. He wished he might take it back to his own aerie, shelter it under his wings and that of his mate, see it mature and fledge properly, see that Light it held freed and brought to fullness again.
Sensing the Eagle’s reluctance, the Man halted, looking from Landroval to Mithrandir to Gwaihir and then back at the small thing Landroval still held close to his underfeathers.
Gwaihir mantled slightly, then spoke. "Why do you not give him over, Landroval?"
"This small one needs cherishing," Landroval said stiffly. "It needs strong meats, comforting, careful feeding."
"That may be," Gwaihir said, "but we are not the proper ones to care for him. The Eagle of the Star here is closer to his own kind, you must understand. He will see him sheltered, cared for, fed, his plumage properly preened. Let the Eagle of the Star take him."
Landroval examined the Man with interest. "This is your name, Eagle of the Star?"
There was a single nod. "Yes, so I have been known in this land and Rohan and Rhun. May I have the body of my small brother, please?" The Man had the proper gaze of a Lord of the Children of Iluvatar, and with a last look at the small thing he carried in his one talon, Landroval at last opened his claw, letting the tiny figure slip loosely into the Man’s sure grip.
It was the proud look of love that the Man showed as he cradled the slight form to him that reassured the Eagle he’d done rightly, He was already wrapping his own mantle about the almost broken form, was crooning to it as he gave an abbreviated nod of acknowledgment and turned away to find a proper nest for the creature....
It was the third time the water of the tub had been changed as once again Aragorn sought to cleanse away the last of the blood and filth from Frodo’s body. Gandalf had taken Sam’s Elven cloak with which Frodo had been clad, had set it over the back of a folding chair and had done some spell of cleansing and renewal upon it, for when Aragorn looked at it again it was clean and whole once more, ready to return to Sam when he would be able to wear it again.
Eldamir and one of the lady healers between them were finally lifting Sam’s body from the other tub, were examining it once more, were wrapping soft towels about it, were bringing it to the cot set to receive it.
"There’s a terrible gash on his forehead, overlying an earlier scar that looks months old."
"An orc blade caught him there in Moria--fortunately but a glancing blow--I was able to see it closed without needing stitches."
Eldamir looked up with surprise. "Moria? This one went through Moria?"
Gandalf sighed. "We all went through Moria, you see. Both of these acquitted themselves well there. What about the wound near his temple?"
"It’s deeper than the other, and there was a fair loss of blood there. It looks as if he were struck with something, perhaps a jagged rock. What happened to that ones hand?"
Aragorn lifted the pressure bandage he’d placed over it to see if the bleeding had yet stopped. "I’m not certain, but it looks almost as if the ring finger had been chopped--or bitten--off the hand."
Gandalf lifted his head, his attention intent on Frodo. "Bitten?" He looked roughly westward, then murmured, "Sméagol--somehow Sméagol was involved, but so far the details are not granted me."
Aragorn looked up in shock. "Gollum? You think he did such a thing to Frodo?"
"Faramir told us Frodo had taken him as a guide, Aragorn."
Aragorn looked again with deep pain at the small figure he supported in the tub, and one last time he rinsed the hair.
The body when at last he lifted it up was emaciated, the skin marred with burns and cuts and a myriad of abrasions. There was evidence Frodo had been beaten badly on at least two occasions, those on his legs still barely scabbed over. The soles of Frodo’s feet, as was true of Sam’s as well, were scored with cuts from walking across rough lava flows, and the knees and palms of Sam’s hands showed he’d most likely crawled for a time up the side of the volcano, perhaps with Frodo’s weight on his back. Frodo had been bound at one point, and there was what Aragorn feared was the bite of a great spider on the back of Frodo’s neck, still draining itself. So, it appeared the Pass of Cirith Ungol had indeed been named for the Maia who’d poisoned the Two Trees. Was it Ungoliant herself they’d met there in the darkness of the pass?
But with the last of the blood and grime washed away, Aragorn could see Frodo’s own familiar features once more, as beautiful as only this one could ever be, the Light of Stars clearly shining about him. He was so fragile looking, so fragile and fair, and so close to abandoning his earthly prison.
Certain he’d done all he could for the moment to ease Frodo’s body, Aragorn indicated he wished the boiling water he’d ordered earlier brought, and Eldamir himself brought the leaves of athelas he’d found in his swift search as he’d begun ordering the setting up of the healers’ camp where the worst hurt were to be brought.
"We’ve found him, Aragorn," said a soft Elven voice from the opening of the tent in which those who worked over the Ringbearers labored. "Gimli found Pippin’s body under that of a great troll, with the bodies of three others, all still living. Elladan is with him now."
Aragorn looked up, his attention distracted. "Pippin’s found? And he’s alive?"
"Yes----" The Elf’s eyes fixed on the slight form under Aragorn’s hands. "But are these?" he asked, his face pale.
"Barely," Aragorn sighed. "I must call them. Go, stand by Pippin. I’ll need to work on these together to call them back. They’ve wandered far now, and I doubt Frodo will feel it worthwhile to return to us. I’ll come as soon as I can be certain whether or not these will come back."
Legolas gave an uncertain nod. "I’ll go." Yet he lingered a moment longer, finally murmuring in Quenya, "I can barely see the beauty of Frodo in what remains. Call it back, brother." So saying, he left.
Aragorn lifted Frodo’s thin body out of the tub and allowed Gandalf to shroud it in towels, laid it beside that of Sam. The bowl of water was laid by him, and he took the athelas, and gently mouthing the words and tune of the invocation he bruised the leaves and dropped them into the bowl. Then he was leaning over Frodo and Sam, seeing the great beauty both held, intent on bringing it back to fullness as he invoked his own Light of Being in his search to find theirs....