West of the Moon
A Tolkien Fanfiction Archive
In the Bleak Midwinter
Canon/gap filler. Frodo's first Yule after the quest turns quite dark as he comes to terms with demons inside, as well as out. He finds hope in an unexpected source.
Chapter 1: Lighting
Into the gloaming he came. Into the piercing twilight, trailing frosty breath... leaving warmth and comfort and light behind.
Silently he made his way to the Party Field, barren save for a rare frosting of snow, cradling a precious bundle in his arms. He hugged it closer and the pungent scent of charred wood and ash drifted upward. How appropriate, he thought. It smelled of the past... of spent life. The very things it symbolized.
The very things he carried deep inside.
He reached the center of the Party Field and paused, reveling in the glorious solitude of the moment. Soothing stillness washed over him... calming, embracing, centering. Then he listened, straining his ears.
All was silent. All was still in the growing night.
He turned his thoughts inward and chuckled bitterly at the irony of it all. The bundle he carried had been carefully preserved as a protective charm for the Shire. But it had failed miserably. It hadn't kept the Shire safe and secure and sheltered, and all in the Shire knew it. Tonight he would be charged with rekindling this hollow symbol and lighting anew the fire of hope in the hearts of his neighbors and kin. Yet how could he rekindle the flame of others when he could not yet fathom how to rekindle the flame within?
He ruefully kicked the snow away from the ground and dropped the bundle into the small clearing. Pulling away the ash covered muslin, he piled the charcoal and cinders into a heap. He knelt and spoke the ancient words of thanksgiving... yet felt nothing. He wondered for the briefest of moments if the ingratitude of his heart would belie the magic words of the ancient spell. Could the darkness of his heart turn the charm to curse?
He quickly dismissed the thought. He no longer believed in such enchantment. There was indeed magic in the world, but not here in the Shire. Not in the hands of a few silly Hobbits. He had seen too much. He knew the truth. He knew...
He paused and listened again, his ears straining, yearning for the long sought sound. But there was nothing. Silence... stillness.
He straightened, and took a great breath. The icy air pinched as he breathed it in, as if it feared the warmth inside, and quickly fought to get back out in a billowing cloud of white. He watched his breath dissolve into nothingness, then felt his heart skip. He had heard something. The faintest of sounds. He held his breath... and listened.
There it was again... and yet again, louder.
But this was... different. His heart fell. This was... unwelcomed. He whirled around to see figures in the distance.
They were coming.
Frodo shook his head to clear it. He needed to stay grounded in the moment. To still the thoughts and memories that meandered through his mind, tumbling him blindly from the here and now. He would need his wits about him this night.
Frodo pulled a tangle of dry tinder out of his pocket and wove it in and around the charred wood. Dusting his hands, he found his flint and struck it sharply sending a shower of sparks into the night. The tinder exploded into flames.
He was soon surrounded by his neighbors. It seemed all of Hobbiton had come. Not a word was spoken as they heaved the massive Yule log onto the sputtering flames of last year's charred remains. More tinder was added, and soon the mammoth log was ablaze with light. It had once been a noble tree, towering over the very spot where it now burned. But like the Shire, it had been cruelly hewn by the foul darkness that had touched the land.
Yet... in its death, hope was to be reborn. Its flames now a symbol of returning light... and life.
As the Yulefire smoke trailed upward, the brooding clouds that hung close to the land embraced it, mixed with it, then followed it down. Fog and mist and smoke became as one, shrouding, and enveloping the Shire with a grey leaden veil.
Frodo shuddered. He remembered ancient tales of spirits descending through the smoke of the Yulefire on the darkest day of the year. Spirits drawn to the Yule flame like diaphanous moths seeking light, redemption, and rebirth... longing to share in the somber ritual.
The great assembly grew restless. Amid polite coughs, and the shuffling of many chill feet, Frodo pulled his scattered thoughts together, then spoke. His voice sounded strangely muffled and hollow, as if the grey mists sought to devour it the moment it left his body.
"Shall we begin?"
Hushed voices murmured assent. Young ones were quickly ushered forward to the front of the crowd. Then all was still again. Frodo continued:
"Many, many years ago, the Sun set out upon a Journey. It was to be a journey of great magic. A journey of great wonder. A journey of--"
"--How... how many years ago?", a small voice piped.
"Oh, many, many years ago. It was to be a -"
"--But how much is that?", the little voice pushed, brow furrowed.
"Hmmm... well, far before any of your grandparents were born, or any of your grandparents' grandparents, or --"
"--Before... before old Bilbo was born?", piped a second little voice.
"Yes. Much, much before that. Before the great crossing of the Brandywine... before Hobbits even lived in the Shire."
As comprehension dawned on the upturned faces, Frodo continued.
"It was to be a journey of great magic and wonder and beauty. As the Sun set off, the days grew long, warm and mild --"
"--But where did the Sun go?" This from the smallest lass.
"On a journey... a great adventure. Like none before -"
A chorus of small voices joined. " -To the Old Forest?" , "--Did the Sun go to South Farthing?", "--Needlehole?"
"No beyond that... beyond all of those. To lands far... far away --"
"--But... but where? You didn't tell us."
Frodo took a deep breath. Patience. Though his back was warmed by the blazing Yule, his feet were cold, his hands and face aching. He closed his eyes, slowly breathing out, pushing away the unease of body and mind, fighting to stay connected to the moment.
"The Sun went far away... beyond the stars, beyond all imagining."
Frodo paused. Hearing no further inquiries, he continued with a rush.
"As the Sun traveled, the days grew long. Creatures across the land basked in warm sunlight as the plants grew large and heavy with fruit. But then -"
"--What kind of fruit?" tendered a very small, shy voice.
Frodo bit the inside of his cheek. This was proving far more wearisome than he had imagined. He looked up at the sea of faces staring back at him, encircling him. Faces ruddy with wind, winking their eyes before the Yulefire. Faces etched with recent hardship, desperate to believe in the return of life, and light and hope.
He bit down harder, ashamed of himself. He felt no connection, no kinship to these faces. There was no return of life. No light and hope. Not really. Not in the end. He closed his eyes, pushing his thoughts away, and continued on.
"The Sun turned onto a dark path... a path full of hardship and trials grim. As the Sun struggled, the days grew shorter. As the Sun's strength waned, the land grew colder, darker. Frosty winds began to blow. Snow began to fall. The ground became like iron, water like stone. A great battled waged between the Sun and the darkness. But the Sun was losing. The Sun was being swallowed up--"
Several small bodies edged closer, eager and enchanted. Forgetting for the moment the icy toes, the runny noses, the burning cheeks and ears.
"--swallowed by the night. And so there came a time at last when the Sun could find no strength to fight any longer. Would light and warmth simply fade away forever? Would all be wrapped in eternal night and cold?"
Frodo knew the tale well. He could recite it almost without thought. He had heard the Yule story every year as far back as his memory served. Every year, save for the last. Last year was different. Rivendell. No time for silly hobbit traditions there. Too much to think about - too many dark paths of his own yet untraveled. Too many dangers met, and still unmet...
He felt a steadying hand on his shoulder -- meant to rouse, meant to comfort. Sam. Oh dear. He'd stopped talking. He had promised himself he would not let this happen. Not tonight. How long had he been standing there, lost in thought? Where had he been in the story?
Seeing his distress, Sam moved to make light of it. "Well... don't be keeping us waiting on the edge of our toes, Mr. Deputy Mayor. Would all be wrapped in eternal night and cold forever?"
Frodo picked up the cue. "No... no for as the Sun waned, the Moon yet grew stronger. The darkness that weakened the Sun strengthened the Moon... giving the Moon newfound power and courage. The Moon grew to be a mighty force in the sky, far beyond his former self. But as the Moon looked down on all the lands, and all the creatures below, he saw how they suffered without the Sun."
Frodo delved into the pocket of his winter cloak, and pulled out a chubby taper candle.
"So the loyal Moon sought out the dying Sun in the gathering darkness and gave of his own strength and power. He shared his gifts with the Sun. And with that act, the chains of darkness were broken. The Sun was born anew. The days grew longer, and light and warmth once again returned to the land. The Moon stepped back into his rightful place in the Sky, and the Sun returned in a blaze of glorious power and might."
Frodo reached toward the Yulefire, and lit his candle. At this cue, all of those assembled - save for the very youngest - retrieved their own candles and held them at the ready.
"Each year the ancient cycle repeats as the Sun journeys into darkness. And on this, the first night of Yule, the Sun is at its weakest point. It struggles mightily, and at this moment is being consumed by the darkness. Our very life, and the life of all around us, depends on the Sun's return, so we lend our strength to the Sun through the light and heat of the mighty Yulefire. We pass the gift of light and warmth around our circle through waxen candle. Gifts freely given, gifts freely received, bringing the promise of new life."
Sheltering his fragile flame with cupped hand, Frodo stepped up to Sam. He lit Sam's candle, then murmured, "Light and strength given."
Sam smiled warmly into his face, "Light and strength received". Sam faltered a bit at the shadow he saw there. But Frodo turned away before any words of comfort could be tendered. Sam turned and lit the Gaffer's candle. "Light and strength given".
"Thank you Samwise, son. Light and strength received." The flame was gently, reverently passed from candle to candle with softly spoken words until the circle of light was complete.
And thus, the ancient rite ended as it began, in silence and stillness.
Silence, save for the crackling of the Yulefire.
Stillness, save for the swirling mists of grey.
Chapter 2: Darkening
It had grown cold... a biting, searching, piercing cold.
Frodo turned his back to the glowering heat and ruefully watched the families file from the Party Field. He had volunteered to take the first watch of Yule, a sentinel role all Hobbits of age would share during the six days of Yuletide. The massive Yule log required careful tending to keep it ablaze. It would be shifted, fed, prodded and poked until at last, nothing was left but a few blackened chunks of charred wood.
The first watches were relatively effortless -- the mammoth log seemingly impervious to the ravenous flames consuming it. However, they were the least desired. After the Lighting, most Hobbits longed to hurry back to their holes, carefully sheltering the precious candle flame to light their own Yule logs and prepare for the morrow's celebration. When Frodo stepped forward, many Hobbits sighed audibly in relief. There would be no drawing of lots for the first watch this year.
As Frodo watched the children's faces, trailing behind parents and clutching at skirts and breeches, a wistful shudder stole through him. He remembered the vivid Yules of his youth, full of shivery excitement and anxious mystery. The sleepless night spent envisioning the Sun's enchanted battle with darkness. The boisterous celebration at daybreak as the Sun emerged victorious. Great feasting followed by days of frolicking in the icy cold, rushing to the Yulefire to warm frozen toes and fingers, then dashing away for more.
He watched aloof tweens walking apart from their families, seemingly sullen but all the while keenly watching the faces of those around them. He remembered the Yules of his adolescence -- carefree and full of abandon. Secretly blowing out the candle flame on the way home, returning to the Party Field to relight it, gathering heat from stolen kisses, warm and welcoming in the frosty woods.
He remembered happy, light-filled Yules with Bilbo and lonely, wistful Yules after he left. Yules of quiet introspection and contemplation, and Yules of riotous merriment and fellowship. They were all cherished times. They had all meant something to him - the rebirth of the Sun, and love and joy. The strengthening of the subtle pulse of life underlying all - reassuring that darkness would not triumph.
But now... he could find no meaning in the tradition. No value in the ancient rite. He had lost the drumbeat. The ancient pulse of life that flowed through all of nature... and once flowed through him. He had listened for it, but it was gone.
It had left him during the quest.
Now, there was no promise, no assurance of the bounty of life to come.
Bilbo's song drifted through his mind...
...I sit beside the fire and think
of how the world will be
when winter comes without a spring
that I shall ever see...
Frodo sighed. Had it come at last to this?
He peered into the night, searching for an answer in the void.
Darkness... yet not quite.
A strange light radiated through the fog and mists, blending strangely into the snow. Once familiar shapes morphed into grotesques, then gradually revealed themselves again, as if playing at hide and seek. Frodo busied himself with the game for a bit, picking out the windmill and old Holman's grain silo. With a shiver, he noticed that the cold had become even more intense. The heat from the fire seemingly swept away the moment it touched his skin.
He shuddered again and the wind began to skitter and quake, as if it too shivered sympathetically.
He peered deeper into the night. Misty darkness... strange light... shadows. Inky black shadows, staining the snow. Strange. They hadn't been there a moment before. He searched his mind -- what could cause such strange silhouettes? Suddenly, the mist shifted and two figures materialized.
Frodo started, then relaxed as recognition dawned. It was the two Burrow lads, come for the second watch. Frodo shook his head. He had lost track of the time again. As he stepped away from the Yulefire, the heavy scent of wood smoke in the air told him much more time had passed than he imagined. All of Hobbiton now appeared to be snug in their holes, sitting before a blazing Yulefire of their own.
Frodo bid the lads a "Merry Yule", and dipped his head. But their flushed faces, spiced breath, and ready laughter told him the gesture was unnecessary. They had clearly seen to the occasion themselves and were as merry as two bellies full of mulled wine could provide.
Frodo moved swiftly into the murky darkness - foggier and colder yet. He hugged his cloak tighter as his body began to shiver. He blew into his hands and beat them against his chest, willing heat and warmth back into his trembling frame.
The snow, sodden with the day's warmth, had become thickly glazed with ice. Frodo slipped and slid as his footsteps crunched through sharp crust to powdery softness below.
As the light from the blazing Yulefire waned behind him, Frodo's breath became thick and heavy in his lungs. Cloying... and stifling. He loosened his scarf to ease the air's passage.
All around him he heard whispering, sighing, sibilant murmuring.
Frodo stopped in his tracks. It was just a heavy mist. Nothing to be alarmed about. Wasn't it?
But a niggling thought tickled at the back of his mind. Even for the Shire, this thick gloom was unusual. It obscured not only his sight, but his other senses as well.
He felt enshrouded.
Frodo closed his eyes and swallowed to quell the growing panic in his breast. He had seen mists such as this in the Shire only once before. He shuddered as he fought to suppress the memory. The flash of knife, the head drawn back, great drips of blood splashing on the parched ground, and the lifeless body slowly folding upon itself and collapsing as if weightless.
The mists came then as well. Grey, swirling, enshrouding mists. They gathered about Saruman, rising like the smoke from the Yulefire. They grew to a great height, then stilled and wavered as they looked to the West.
Frodo held his breath, as memory overwhelmed him.
There would be forgiveness for Saruman. Surely there would be healing for him. He had fallen into foulness and malevolence, yes. But such was the horrific power of the Ring - to corrupt a once fine and noble spirit. Saruman had been one of the chosen few... one of the blessed.
But forgiveness and healing were not to be found. A cold wind blew out of the West, rebuffing... rejecting... condemning. The swirling grey mist that had been Saruman bent away. It disappeared with a sigh of such great sadness that Frodo could do nothing but despair, and silently weep in empathy.
Redemption sought.... redemption denied.
With a great effort, Frodo opened his eyes and pushed back the memories.
Saruman had committed frightful, terrible acts. He had sought the ring, but he had never CLAIMED the ring. Frodo alone held that wicked distinction. And for that act, Frodo had expected death, swift and sure.
He had not expected... life.
And though he had been assured of a place in the West, Frodo feared that he would meet the same result in the end. Redemption sought... but ultimately denied.
He knew the Elves were well intentioned, but he could feel it deep inside. His wounds were unhealable, his transgressions unforgiveable.
Frodo slogged on, stumbling and slipping through the thick, frozen fog - falling to his knees, cutting outstretched hands on the sharp edges of the icy crust. His limbs felt slow and sluggish -- movements mired in honey, footsteps caught in the gripping silt of the Brandywine.
Time seemed stretched and sluggish too... minutes losing pace and seemingly expanding into hours. He dully noticed that his fingers and toes, though aching earlier, had now grown pleasantly numb. The stinging in his face had receding, and even the chattering of his teeth had lessened. Perhaps it was growing warmer? He certainly felt less chill than before.
Strange. Everything around him still seemed frozen fast.
He was roused from his musings with a confused thud. He found himself bent double over something hard. He had to chase down his wayward thoughts for several moments before he realized that he had stumbled over a railing. He must have wandered onto the Cobble Bridge. This was good. He could follow the handrail over to the other side, and gain the main footpath. With any luck, he would be at the Cotton's door in a matter of minutes.
Carefully, he picked his way across the icy bridge, clutching the rail with unfeeling fingers. He dimly noted the planks were glassy with ice.
Once across, he set his mind to following the well worn foot trench. Much of the snow had been cleared from the path during the day. But just as he thought he was making good progress, he found himself wandering off the path into the crusty snow, his muddled thoughts drifting a mere arm's length away.
Rousing himself with a great pinch to his arm, he muzzily turned and followed his grey footsteps back to the main footpath. Once there, he pointed himself in the proper direction and started out once more. But he soon found himself drifting...
Where was he going? Wasn't he suppose to be taking Uncle's crumbcake to the Widow Boffins? But where was the package? Had he dropped it along the way? Surely he hadn't eaten it... had he? Bilbo would be so angry with him if...
Bilbo... Bilbo was gone... in Rivendell. Bag End... in ruins. He was staying with Sam and... a farm... others... the Cotton farm. That was it! He was headed for the Cotton's farm!
He gave himself another great pinch. Perhaps if he rested for a bit... he'd grown so sleepy. Perhaps if he sat down - just for a moment -- his mind would clear, he'd be able to focus on the task at hand. Yes. He'd do much better with a clearer head. After he rounded the next bend, he'd find a cozy spot out of the wind and rest for a bit, then head straight for the Cotton's.
He slowly trudged around the curve in the path. But before he reached the far side, he heard a faint, tinkling sound. Bells. Dozens of small bells, or perhaps wind chimes blowing in a gentle breeze. It was magical. Enchanting...enticing.
He followed the sound with his eyes, down to into the murky dell below. Yes. It was coming from down there... calling to him from down there.
Without thought he turned, stepped off the path, and immediately lost his footing. He slipped and tumbled down the slick embankment into the small dell, skidding to a tangled heap at the bottom.
Slowly, dizzily, he realized he had stopped. He found his arms and legs, brought himself onto all fours and struggled to stand. But for some strange reason, his limbs seemed bent on mutiny, as if petulantly listening to his hazy commands and instead acting on their own accord.
After several moments of intense concentration, he was finally able to pick himself up. He took one look ahead and stopped in his tracks.
The mists cleared away for the briefest of moments. There before him stood one of the few remaining trees in Hobbiton. A majestic, towering oak, its tale already part of Shire lore.
Frodo had heard how the ruffians had tried to cut it down. Its gnarled trunk had turned every axe and saw laid to it. The Men had even tried to pull it up by its roots, but the oak had driven itself deep into the soil of the Shire grasping, clutching at the earth desperately. By sheer act of iron will, it would not allow its hold to be breached.
Frodo gazed in astonishment at the deep scars and fissures on the trunk, then gasped as he looked upward. To his dim eyes, it seemed as if the snow laden branches had wept during the day, their tears forming long icicles. They stretched toward the ground, longing to return to the earth, frozen in a slow torture of denial.
And then something shifted in his mind, and he was gazing at a reflection of himself... frozen, fixed, stretched out of all natural shape to meet the whims and wishes of a cruel nature. Immobilized in a torturous agony of denial, yet longing to return to the earth -- his roots, his home... his life.
He stood transfixed. Spellbound.
Then a small motion caught his attention. Something small and dark was moving underneath the tree. Frodo took a step closer. Yes, there was definitely something there. He hesitated for a beat, then took another step. It was small... an animal perhaps? He carefully closed the distance over the icy ground and found himself staring into the white-rimmed eyes of a frightened fawn.
As he neared, it frantically struggled to stand. Frodo halted. He carefully looked around, hoping to spot a doe standing protectively nearby. He saw nothing.
He took a step back, hoping to calm the panicked animal, but his movement sent it into a frenzy. Frodo continued step back slowly, and when he was a safe distance away he saw the fawn slump, its body shaking with terror and cold. He waited. Still no sign of a doe or buck.
At last, his heart could take no more. He removed his cloak and went to exhausted fawn. As Frodo tucked the heavy fabric carefully around the animal, he noticed that it had become stiff and still as stone.
Frodo stood, puzzling over this. Then realized that he felt no colder now, without his cloak on, than he felt before. In fact, for the last several minutes all sensation of cold and chill had left him.
But in its place he felt a growing sense of dread and unease.
Something was not right here.
Frodo edged his foot back and took a step. Then he quickly turned, and his feet met nothing but slick ice. His head flew back, and smacked the frozen ground with a hollow thud.
And then light. An explosion of blinding, searing, confounding light. No sound, no feeling... just brilliant light.
Then slowly, the explosion dwindled to pinpoints and awareness returned. He lay there, wide-eyed, staring up into the murky darkness, watching the pinpoints of light. The only thing his mind registered was confusion. What were fireflies doing out in midwinter? They were a rare enough sight in midsummer...
Then he felt a piercing pain at the back of his head. Closing his eyes, he felt the ground pitch and roll and he quickly opened them again. He swallowed hard and took a great gasping breath, trying to quell his wildly thumping heart. Surely a heart shouldn't beat so quickly.
Something was not right here.
Hazy words from a distant memory...
...when winter first begins to bite
and stones crack in the frosty night,
when pools are black and trees are bare,
'tis evil in the Wild to fare...
Then Bilbo's words began to fade and Frodo's head filled with a great rushing sound. The pain began to recede and he felt himself slowly spiraling into warmth and quiet.
In the farthest echoes of his mind, he heard laughter, low and dark.
It held no mirth.
It gradually grew louder, until it filled his mind. Frodo's eyes flew open, and he stared up into the twisted, tangled branches of the oak tree. It was night. He was lying on the frozen ground somewhere. Somewhere?
Suddenly the fog and mists around him gathered and thickened in the tree. He watched as they eerily coalesced into a ghostly specter. Though shapeless and indistinct, a pale shadow of its true form still lingered. Recognition lanced through Frodo like an arrow.
"We meet again, Halfling... under circumstance much more to my liking."
Frodo tried to sit up, but found his muscles unresponsive, his mind sluggish.
"Why do you not speak? Has your brain grown dull in your dotage? Or perhaps your tongue has grown more wary, Halfling?"
Frodo blinked, speechless, thoughtless.
"Come now. Which is it?
At Frodo's hesitation, Saruman grew irritated and gave a great sniff.
"Come... this will not do at all. I had thought you wise at one time. I should like to speak with you."
Frodo swallowed and found his mouth had gone quite dry. He thickly licked his lips, and with an effort, found his voice.
"Why... why have you come?"
Saruman laughed, cold and shrill.
"For revenge, of course. You robbed me of the sweetness of my efforts once before. You will not do so again, I assure you."
Frodo felt a chill terror clutch at his heart. Though he fought to steady his voice, it began to shake.
"But... I saw you. I saw you fade into the east... into nothingness. You... are no longer."
Saruman laughed again, long and loud
"My wise Halfling. Have you not learned? There is no 'nothingness' as you call it."
The mists shifted and shimmered and the shade of Saruman drew close.
"I should have thought YOU, among all, would have a better grasp on it all by now. All of existence is rather like a great pool. If something disappears in one spot, it merely reappears in another spot. Life may be displaced, but it does not cease to exist. Even the great evil that was Sauron has not disappeared -"
"--No. You are wrong. Sauron was destroyed. The Ring was sent into the fire -"
"--Yes, the Ring went into the fire, but the evil it held merely scattered and spread over the land. In time, enough of it will have gathered in one place to cause another great calamity... to form a new Atrocity that will seek to bend all wills to itself. And then that great evil will dissipate... and build again... and so the cycle will continue through all of existence. Very much like your rustic Sun story."
Saruman snorted in derision.
"But I see you do not have such a grasp on the lay of things, Halfling. And now I sense that you seek... what did you call it...? 'Nothingness'? You forsake life... the grace that was given you?"
Frodo pulled his gaze away.
"You will answer me, Halfling! Do you now seek... death?"
Frodo closed his eyes, outwardly refusing to consider the question. But inwardly... inwardly he knew.
"I... I seek healing... Saruman. And release. And a return to the life I once knew and loved. I seek -"
"Yes, Halfling. I know what you seek..."
Frodo's eyes flew open at the venomous tone in Saruman's voice.
"...but I also know, as do you, that you will never find these things. You are beyond healing - you are beyond redemption... just like your pitiful Shire."
At this, Saruman spat at the ground.
"I too sought redemption at one time - but it does not exist for such as us."
The mists wavered and rose as Saruman drew up into the tree, sulking like a great vaporous child.
"You did not answer my question, Halfling. Do you now seek death?"
Frodo eluded the question again.
"I... I do not expect redemption... but I do wish to find peace, and solace, and--"
With one swift movement, the mist rose and riffled through the tree, seeming to pluck something from a branch. Then with a bellow, it drew closer.
"DO NOT PLAY GAMES WITH ME, HALFLING!"
At this, Saruman brought a crystalline dagger to Frodo's chest, and traced the tip down his shirt, letting it rest on his breastbone. A small point of scarlet appeared and spread into the thirsty fabric.
"Do you seek death? You are very close, even now as we speak. Surely you can feel your heart begin to labor... your brain begin to slow? But come, let me hasten it along. "
Frodo felt the sharp point press deeper into his skin.
"You will find neither peace, healing, nor solace in this life. You will keenly remember the life you once had... yet be denied the ability to enjoy it once again. You will see those closest to you enjoy their lives fully until your unhappiness begins to infect even them. Your life will grow ever worse until you curse the Valar for your very existence! DO YOU SEEK DEATH!"
Frodo gave a great shuddering sigh, then found he could dissemble no longer. As the deepest desires of his heart took conscious form, he wept.
"Yes", he whispered. "Yes... I seek death."
And with these words, Saruman raised the crystalline dagger high overhead and brought it down with crushing force. Yet as it touched Frodo's skin, it dissolved into a shower of water. Frodo gasped as he felt shocking coldness seep through his shirt, puddle on his chest and slip down his sides.
"You seek death, Halfling... I give you worse. I give you life!"
Then the swirling mists triumphantly rose to a great height and the mocking laughter of Saruman filled the dell.
"My torment... my punishment, my given burden is to wander all of Middle Earth in this ethereal form. Forsaken. Eternally in view of the glories of life and yet powerless to share in the bounty. Your torment, witless Halfling, your punishment, your given burden is to remain solid and substantial yet. A shadow of your former life. To be aware of what might have been... but will never be. To live with the knowledge that in the end you CHOSE to do great evil, not great good. To ever endure without hope... to hold the gift of life in your hands, yet refuse to embrace it."
From far away... perhaps from a different space and time, or the same, it was so very hard to tell... Frodo heard voices. Plaintive voices calling out, full of fear and despair. Calling to him. The mists stilled, as if hearing the voices too and the specter of Saruman looked toward the path above the dell. Then with great speed the mists encircled and shook the great oak, causing the icicles to tinkle and chime in the still night.
"Yes, Frodo. I condemn you to life... such as it is. I have gained my revenge. It is sweet indeed."
And with this, the mists drew back.
Up on the path, two figures frantically searched for wayward footprints in the icy snow, calling... ever calling into the gloom.
"It's those bells again, Sam. Do you hear them?"
"Aye. I do."
The two Hobbits peered down into the dell, casting the light from their lanterns into the murky darkness. As the mists cleared, the stockier of the two gave a shout and bounded down the icy hill to the towering oak, and the still figure lying beneath.
Chapter 3: Dawning
Raw fear coursed through him. Fear, burgeoning on panic... seizing and spurring him to reckless action.
"I'm coming, Mr. Frodo... I'm coming."
Sam tore down the hill, the Elf-warrior once more -- brandishing lantern instead of sword and commanding his feet to find course down the treacherous frozen slope.
As he closed the distance, an endless stream of self-reproach raced through his mind. 'I shouldn't have left him. Not tonight, what with it growing so cold after the Lighting. I shouldn't have left him. But... but there he was, asking me to see the Cottons home, and Rosie, smiling and asking for my arm... and me thinking with my heart, instead of my head...'
Sam dropped to his knees beside Frodo and quickly picked up his hand. Sam winced. Frodo's fingers were hard, pale, cold as hoarfrost.
"Mr. Frodo... I'm here..."
Sam shook him by the shoulders, but Frodo's face was still and lifeless. He put his ear to Frodo's mouth and held his breath. For several anguished moments there was nothing... then the slightest puff of air. He pulled Frodo into his embrace, and called out to the night.
"Hurry, Jolly. We need to get him inside where it's warm. He's alive, but just barely it seems."
As hurried footsteps crunched through the snow toward him, Sam unbuttoned his cloak and pulled Frodo closer, enfolding him in his warmth.
"What were you thinking... wandering off so...?"
Jolly Cotton stopped in his tracks a few feet away and cast the light of his lantern around. He found Frodo's cloak lying carefully tucked around a small boulder nearby.
"Look at this, Sam... what do you reckon?"
Jolly pulled up the cloak, shook it out then brought it to Sam and wrapped it around Frodo.
"I don't know. He's soaking wet too... a right mystery it is."
Sam fingered the edges of Frodo's shirt, which were beginning to stiffen in the chill air. Suddenly a breeze blew through the dell, and the icicles tinkled and chimed above.
"Look Jolly... the bells."
Just then, several large icicles broke free and plummeted into the snow around them.
"Let's settle the mysteries later, Sam, unless you fancy being skewered... "
Leaving their lanterns behind, they lifted Frodo and slowly made their way out of the dell, following their grey footsteps back up the treacherous slope. Sam clutched at Frodo, and shuddered as he looked into his face. He was pale as snow, pale as frost-rimed mist... and so still; no longer of this world, but born of alabaster...
Once they gained the main footpath, they hastened their steps and within minutes burst through the Cotton's door.
Mrs. Cotton and Rosie flew into action when they caught sight of Frodo. They spread a thick quilt in front of the fire, and beckoned for Sam and Jolly to lay him out on it.
"Jolly...son, you'd best round up the others. They'll be nigh upon the Mill by now... searching in this cold. We'll be lucky if your old Dad in't laid out so..."
Mrs. Cotton slowly knelt next to Frodo on arthritic knees and gently felt the skin of his abdomen under his clothes. She tsked and shook her head.
As Sam began to chafe Frodo's hands, Mrs. Cotton stopped him.
"You're doing more harm than good, Samwise. Feel how stiff his fingers are? I'll warrant his toes and maybe his ears will be the same. They've begun to freeze. You'd best leave them be until we warm him up from the inside out. And see that he doesn't get too close to the fire..."
They peeled Frodo's sodden shirt from him, tinged pink from the small cut at his breastbone, and swiftly wrapped him in warmed blankets. As Mrs. Cotton pulled a warm covering over his head, she felt a large lump at the base of his skull. She quickly lifted each eyelid and peered into Frodo's pupils, shuttering each against the light with her hand.
"Samwise, you need to rouse your master, if you can. Mind, he won't be thanking you none for trying...but you must wake him if you can. He's had a nasty knock."
Sam maneuvered behind Frodo and gently pulled him up to a sitting position against his chest. He wrapped him arms around him and spoke softly into his ear.
"Mr. Frodo. I need you wake up, sir."
Frodo lay still as stone.
"Please, sir. Mrs. Cotton here says you must."
Mrs. Cotton nodded at him, then gathered some nearby basins and padded off with Rosie. Sam and Frodo were alone.
Sam let out a great shuddering sigh, and closed his eyes wearily.
"What's come of you lately, Mr. Frodo... wandering off so? Closing yourself off from everyone and everything around you...?"
He pulled his arms tighter around Frodo's slight frame, and breathed onto his neck ... sharing his warmth, his life force... willing it into Frodo's body.
"The battle ended on the Fiery Mountain, Mr. Frodo. It's over. Why do you still go on fighting against everything... against yourself?"
Sam opened his eyes, and found himself on the verge of tears.
"We need you to wake up... I need you to wake up... to come back... to us... to yourself. You don't see it, do you? There's so much waiting for you here... this is your home... your Shire. All you need to do is open your eyes to it."
He gave him a gentle shake.
"Just open your eyes, Mr. Frodo. Please... wake up."
Sam looked into Frodo's face. Studying it... searching it as if searching a map... looking for any sign of response or awareness. But it was still and fixed, as unchanged as before.
Rosie and Mrs. Cotton returned balancing basins of warm water. Rosie smiled tenderly at Sam, seeing the tears in his eyes, then gave his arm a brief touch -- a gesture at once both casual and intimate.
They gently placed Frodo's feet and hands into the basins and gradually added warmer water. As they watched, Frodo's fingers and toes slowly changed from chalk white, to pink, to angry crimson.
At this, Frodo began to rouse as well. At first, the only sign was his breathing - quickening and hitching. Then expression returned to his face as he began to frown and flinch. Finally, he tossed his head about and cried:
"B... burning... the fire, it's burning... St... Stop..."
The voices were back - and in this space and time - not another. That much he could tell. He felt strong hands gripping him, embracing him as he drifted on a warm, gentle breeze... floating and weightless...
Then a vague humming sensation awoke in his fingers, toes, and ears. Soon his elbows, buttocks and shoulder blades were buzzing sympathetically. He felt for all the world as if a great hive had found its way inside, and each nerve was a somnolent bee slowly awakening in the Spring's first warmth
Before long the buzzing became angry, insistent... giving way to prickling and stinging and countless pins and needles spreading up each extremity.
Then snatches of conversation, "...the fire... Fiery Mountain... waiting for you... open your eyes...wake up... "
And then the flames were there... licking at his fingers and toes, searing his skin, lifting and carrying him on a swift current of liquid heat and intense pain.
He cried out. His eyes flew open and he jerkily pulled his hands and feet out of the basins, splashing water across the floor. He began to flail his hands wildly, shaking off burning flames... then felt strong arms stilling him... and a torrent of voices confusing and confounding him.
"It's all right. Mr. Frodo. We've got..."
"--Calm yourself, young sir, and stop your--"
"...you here... me and Mrs. Cotton and Rosie..."
"--thrashing. You'll do yourself more harm if you don't settle--"
And a blast of chill air as five vaguely familiar faces bustled through the door, gaping and staring at him as he struggled.
Then a voice - more familiar yet -- calling out angrily, "This isn't a Litheday Pageant, you great lumbering oafs ... I'm pleased you're back to hearth and home, but you'd do us a sight more good by lending a hand than gawking."
Frodo was aware of a flurry of action, yet felt oddly disoriented... unnaturally detached from his thoughts, though keenly aware of the emotions which overwhelmed him.
He cried out again, but was repeatedly assured that there were no flames burning him. He tried to pull away from the blankets surrounding him, but the faces around him soothed that his body was cold, he needed the warmth. None of it made any sense.
And underlying it all was a rhythmic throbbing in his head. An ambient ostinato of dull pain.
The response, welcome and reassuring, was immediate.
"I'm right here, sir."
Frodo felt arms tighten around him, and he relaxed into Sam's sheltering embrace. He closed his eyes, and with great concentration, opened them and focused on his surroundings. He knew this place. It was... it was the Cotton's hole. He looked long and hard into the faces surrounding him. Gradually, the features of Rosie, Nibs, Nick and Old Tom came into focus. He looked at his sore, tingling hands and was shocked to see that his fingers were bright red, and strangely mottled with grey.
"Aye lad... your toes as well. They'll likely turn a bit black before the worst is over. Time will tell what you'll keep, and what you'll lose. Let's hope for the best, though. Young Nick here gave us a scare a few years back... all the toes on his feet turned as black as the grate... but nary a one lost..."
Frodo looked up into Old Tom's face, smiling grimly down at him as he recounted the tale of his son and a wayward sled. But soon Frodo's mind began to drift and float, and his eyelids grew leaden. He was roused by a great shake, and pain blazed through his head. He opened his eyes and saw alarm in Old Tom's eyes.
"No, young sir. The missus says you mustn't sleep. Not yet, leastways."
Frodo heard Sam, Nick and Old Tom murmur together for a bit, then he felt his bearings shift and sway, as he was lifted and carried across the smial to his room.
Mrs. Cotton followed on their heels and sat on the edge of Frodo's bed with a creak. She looked deeply into his eyes, and poked and prodded the lump at the back of his head. A surge of pain and a great wave of nausea swelled, then ebbed as Frodo swallowed hard. Mrs. Cotton whispered a bit to Sam, then together they stripped off his remaining clothing and clad him in a warm, woolen nightshirt. Mrs. Cotton frowned a bit as she looked at the cut on Frodo's chest.
"Can you tell us anything about what happened tonight, Mr. Frodo? How'd you come to wander off the footpath so?"
Frodo quirked his brow as he considered the question. Yes.... he remembered wandering off the path. But why?
Fear rumbled deep in his belly as full recollection flooded his mind. The dell, the mists... Saruman. He felt his face flush, his head throb and his body flame anew as his pulse quickened. He threw a panicked look at Sam, then stammered:
"I... I don't... I don't remember. I'm sorry...."
"Oh... well, soon enough, I'm sure. Though I'm afraid they'll be no sleep for you tonight, Mr. Frodo, what with you nearly catching your death of cold and that great clout on your head. I've heard too many tales of Hobbits that went abed with such, and never woke up. The six of us, we'll all take our turns with Samwise here to make sure--"
Sam began to fidget nervously, stepping from one foot to the next, as he stood next to the bed.
"Oh no, Mrs. Cotton. That won't be necessary. I'll see to Mr. Frodo tonight. Not that I don't thank you for your offer and all."
"I have no doubt you'll see to him, Samwise... but who will see to you? That's what I'd like to know. I'd never forgive myself if I came in here at daybreak and found you sawing logs aside your master here, and him the worse for it..."
Frodo listened vacantly as Sam and Mrs. Cotton softly argued and reached accord. Then blankets and warming stones were piled around him, and his hands and feet were placed on pillows above his heart. Rosie brought in an enormous pot of tea, with two mugs, and directions that they were to down its contents, and request another within the hour. She then whispered soft words to Sam, bringing a bright flush to his face and neck, nodded shyly to Frodo and left them in relative peace.
Frodo stared at the fire in the grate, the bright candles sputtering around his room, and Sam's shadowed face as he sat stiff and wooden in his chair next to the bed. In the dim light, Sam looked strained, careworn... aged beyond his young years, with a trace of the old Gaffer already in his features.
It wasn't right... Sam looking so. He should be young and fresh, still.
But Frodo knew the cause... and that knowledge smote his heart. The scornful words of Saruman echoed in his mind... your unhappiness begins to infect...
Sam poured them each a cup of tea and helped Frodo take a sip.
"You... you should be with Rosie. I'm sorry..."
"No, Mr. Frodo... I should be with you."
Sam helped Frodo lift his head for another sip of tea, and inadvertently brushed against the swelling at the back. Frodo winced and shut his eyes as the room spun and tilted ominously.
"I'm sorry, sir. Now look what I've gone and done..."
"It's... it's fine Sam. Really... "
Frodo opened his eyes, and tried to smile wanly, all the while gritting his teeth against the pain.
Sam looked at him hard, and saw through the transparency of his effort. He gently caressed Frodo's face, and his eyes grew misty.
Frodo closed his eyes again. He didn't want to see it. The look of pity on Sam's face. It somehow deepened and sharpened his own pain. And if he couldn't see it... he could pretend it wasn't there.
Then the shadows at the edge of his mind slowly began to sing a siren's song... they would take him away from it all, if he would only follow...
And he began to drift...
"Mr. Frodo... you stay awake now. You stay awake."
Frodo felt hands on his shoulders, shaking him. The movement boosted the pain in his head, setting off a surge of vertigo.
"Open your eyes... now, Mr. Frodo... NOW... That's better... and keep them open, if you please. Can you tell me, sir, about the rest of you? Do you still feel as if your hands and feet are afire?"
Frodo could do nothing but stare at the scene swirling dizzily in front of him, clinging to Sam's insistent voice.
"You need to talk to me, Mr. Frodo. Mrs. Cotton said as I should make you talk."
Frodo felt another shake.
"Talk... Mr. Frodo."
"St... stop, Sam... please..."
"I'll stop, Mr. Frodo, only if you show me you're not drifting away..."
Frodo looked into the clear eyes of his most cherished friend. Yes. There was pity there. But also a well of love and hope... spilling into an endless reservoir of strength. Frodo knew that reservoir had carried the both of them through the dark lands, and would carry Sam for years to come. It would sustain Sam. But it would no longer sustain Frodo. Sam had already given so much. In fact, he had given too much. If it weren't for Sam...
"Thank you... my dear Sam."
There was something in that simple declaration that set Sam's heart on edge. It wasn't the words spoken. No. The words were clear enough. It was the way they were spoken. The tone. It belied the words. The tone spoke of guilt, disappointment, regret... and parting. And the look in Frodo's eyes as he slowly closed them...and drifted again...
A hint of desperation crept into Sam's voice.
"Wake up, now... Frodo. You wake up..."
A voice full of weariness answered him. Weariness... past hope... past endurance...
"Pl... please, Sam. Just let me rest... let me find rest..."
Sam swore an oath, sat on the edge of Frodo's bed and firmly pulled him into a sitting position.
"No sir... you'll NOT sleep this night. Not if I have anything to say about it..."
With the rapid change of position, Frodo felt his tenuous hold on the world release. His senses spun giddily - sight, sound and touch tumbled and tilted dizzily. His mind spiraled wildly - away from cognizant thought to raw emotional impulse. And underlying it all, pain... of mind and body and soul.
Frodo began to retch and heave, purging himself of all that swirled within - the self-loathing, the misery, the lingering ring-lust, the promise of mortal release mockingly snatched from his grasp - emptying the contents of his churning, despairing mind.
For long moments that stretched seemingly into an eternity, Frodo's body painfully constricted with each spasm of his stomach. As release came, he would suck in a great breath of air, only to find another twisting spasm waiting in its stead. Wave after wave after wave followed, until slowly the breaths lengthened, and the spasms grew shorter.
And then... he was done. He found himself weeping, and Sam holding and supporting him.
"Never you mind about this, Mr. Frodo. Mrs. Cotton said as though this might happen... Just let me see to the mess, while you lie back there... "
Frodo sank back into the downy softness of his bed, his breath hitching in his chest, his voice no louder than a whisper.
"He... he should have finished it..."
"Who's that, sir?"
Frodo watched numbly as Sam busied himself with removing the soiled blankets, and replacing them with clean ones.
"He should have ended it..."
"Ended what, sir? Who's that you're talking about?"
Sam stopped his efforts, and looked firmly at Frodo.
"Saruman's gone sir."
"No... he's not gone. I... I saw him tonight."
"Beggin' your pardon, sir, but I wouldn't go trusting much of what you saw tonight, with that great lump at the back of your head. Saruman met his end months ago, and that's a fact. It happened right outside of Bag End. Don't you remember?"
"No... he was there under the tree, tonight. He lured me there. He... he had a dagger..."
Sam sat again on the edge of Frodo's bed, and gently placed his hand on Frodo's shoulder.
"There was no one under that tree but you, sir. And he had a dagger yes... but that was months ago. If it hadn't been for your mithril coat..."
"No, Sam. He had a dagger tonight... he cut me here--"
Frodo touched his breastbone.
"No sir... he didn't. You were cut by something there, I saw that when we first brought you in. And I've been turning it around in my head ever since. That great oak tree was full of icicles, deadly ones too by the sight of them. Jolly and I were nearly skewered rescuing you. I reckon you were nearly skewered too... only one fell and actually hit you -- there where that cut is - and it melted as it lay on your shirt. That's why you were soaked to the skin."
Sam gently picked up Frodo's hand, lying at his chest.
"Saruman was a liar, Mr. Frodo, as sure as my name is S. Gamgee. What he said about you and the Shire never being healed...? It was all lies. Lies. Why... you only have to look out your window at the corrybells budding through the snow to see that."
Sam looked fiercely into Frodo's face, his expression grave.
"All that evil -- make no mistake Mr. Frodo -- it's all behind us. And to think, after all we've been through, that here -- in the Shire of all places -- I almost lost you..."
Sam's voice choked, emotion overwhelming him.
Frodo closed his eyes, and gave a heavy sigh. When he spoke again, his voice was hollow and vacant.
"You can't... you can't lose someone who's never been found, Sam."
Sam pursed his lips and shook his head.
"There's nothing for it... what with you speaking in riddles like Mr. Bilbo..."
Then Sam set his jaw, his voice reflecting iron will.
"You're not lost now, Mr. Frodo. And you never were lost on our journey... leastwise not when I was around..."
Frodo gave a weak, bitter laugh.
"Dear Sam. I was lost the moment Bilbo left me the ring..."
"No, sir, you weren't. You weren't lost. You were here in the Shire with me. You were living in Bag End. Your cousins knew where you were and Gandalf--"
"No, Sam... not physically lost, but my heart... my will was lost to darkness. It's still lost..."
Sam shook his head vehemently.
"No. Beggin' your pardon again, sir. But your heart and your will and such, sir. They've never been lost neither. There right here, still..."
At this, Sam gently touched Frodo's chest.
"And it's taken me awhile to get my thick head around it... but I think at last I have. We always thought the great battle was on the Fiery Mountain... when the ring went into the fire. But it wasn't, Mr. Frodo. Leastwise not for you, because afterward you were still left in the darkness."
Sam edged closer to Frodo on the bed.
"And you're still in the darkness, Mr. Frodo. Like the Sun. You've both reached the longest night, and you've no strength left to fight any longer. You've given everything a body has to give, Mr. Frodo, and that's a fact. But now you have to start seeing that accepting strength from others, well... that's a gift too. Only, it's a different kind of gift. When you gladly receive the strength others have to offer you... it's just like you're giving a gift to them that are offering it."
Sam gave a great sigh, and scratched at his head.
"I know I'm muddling this up something fierce, Mr. Frodo. But you've got to understand that there's love and forgiveness out there, and strength for you, sir. But you have to chose to accept it... you have to want to open your eyes to it."
Frodo turned his head away, to hide his shame, his voice a mere whisper.
"There is no forgiveness for me. I don't deserve the love and strength others have to offer me..."
Sam threw out his hands in exasperation.
"But don't you see, sir. None of us do. When it comes down to it, none of us deserve the good things we have. And as for forgiveness... it doesn't much matter whether you'll get it or not. You still have to look for it. My Gaffer always said forgiveness is really only yours to hold when it's sought, but not expected..."
Sam angled Frodo's face back to him, and waited for Frodo's eyes to meet his.
"...and I think you were drawn to that tree tonight... but it was for one simple reason. That great oak tree is like you, Mr. Frodo. Terrible, dark forces tried to bring it down... but they couldn't. They scarred it... but now it's even more beautiful and majestic than it was before. It's roots are deep in the soil of the Shire, because this is its home. Just like you, sir...just like you."
Frodo stared for a long moment into Sam's eyes, his look wavering from doubt to belief then back again. At last, he gave a weary sigh, giving himself over to exhaustion.
"Thank you, dear Sam, but I don't think I can go on talking so. I'm so tired...."
"Yes... Mr. Frodo. I know you're tired. But you must stay awake. Perhaps if you can't go on talking, well... maybe you can go on listening."
At this, Sam moved to the small bookshelf next to the bed and pulled down a book of Elvish tales, painstakingly translated by Bilbo.
And so, through the long hours till daybreak, Sam read to Frodo. He read to him tales of great beauty and tales of grim hardship; tales of soaring love and tales of shattering heartbreak; and above all, tales of reward... unbidden, yet resplendent.
And Frodo listened, as captivated as any tiny Hobbit lad before the Yulefire.
Then, ever so slightly, the dark sky outside began to pale.
"Sam... please. I want to see the day break. Will you help me over to the window?"
Sam cautiously helped Frodo out of the bed, and led him to the window on trembling legs and tender feet. After making sure Frodo was thoroughly wrapped in blankets, Sam excused himself to use the privy.
"What with all that tea, we've been drinking, Mr. Frodo... I feel as if I could swim there..."
As Frodo stood alone at the window, he looked down into the vista before him. The mists were rising all around him, and he could barely make out Hobbiton in the distance. It was a stunning sight.
And then he caught sight of the Party Field. From his vantage point, he could see the Yulefire blazing away, and a trio of Hobbits struggling to turn the massive log.
He watched as the smoke of the Yulefire trailed up into the sky, and he noticed that the rising mists seemed to be drawn toward it. He struggled to open the window with sore, fumbling fingers, and pulled it free with a gasp. He then leaned out the window, and called to the retreating mists:
"Go in peace... and may you find forgiveness. Though you do not seek it, I freely give you mine."
At this the mists seemed to stop... and grow still. It seemed to Frodo's eyes that they began to quiver and shake, as if in the midst of some great internal turmoil and change.
Then the first rays of the sun broke through. All around him, Frodo heard the raucous celebrations begin - drums banging, pots and pans clanking, bells tolling, shouts, cheering, a multitude of Hobbit voices raised in joyful triumph - as if all of the land were awakening from a great sleep.
And then the mists followed the smoke of the Yulefire up into the sky. They rose to a great height and slowly moved to the East. Then they stopped, hesitated and meekly turned to the West. Though he knew it was not possible, it looked to Frodo for all the world as if the mists bowed down to the West for the briefest of moments - a clear gesture of supplication -- then turned abruptly back to the East.
Frodo felt silent tears well up again, the corners of his eyes stinging and smarting.
Then he beheld an amazing sight. Or rather, he felt and smelled it first. A gentle warm wind rose out of the East -- seemingly sent by the rising Sun. It blew through the Shire... sweeping away the bitter, chill air and bringing with it the smell of sweet grasses and blossoming trees. The scent of new life.
Frodo watched as it gently gathered up the grey mist, tenderly supported it and then bore it swiftly into the West.
And as the mists disappeared into the horizon... Frodo heard it again.
It was faint... but growing with each heartbeat.
It was the drumbeat. The ancient pulse of life that flowed through all of nature... and once again, flowed through him as well. It was the long sought sound, discovered anew.
Rising and growing stronger yet...
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