With trembling hearts and short breath they ran, dreading at any moment the cry of the Nazgul to be answered, or for it to be renewed behind them. But they were too slow for their liking, being weary and sore, and it seemed as though they were but crawling away from the Tower, such did it loom behind them in their flight.
“This won’t do, Sam,” said Frodo. “If we were real orcs, we ought to be dashing back to the Tower, not running away. The first enemy we meet will know us. We must get off this road somehow.”
“But we can’t,” said Sam, “not without wings.”
The eastern faces of the Ephel Dúath were sheer, falling in cliff and precipice to the black trough that lay between them and the inner ridge. A short way beyond the way-meeting, after another steep incline, a flying bridge of stone leapt over the chasm and bore the road across into the tumbled slopes and glens of the Morgai. With a desperate spurt Frodo and Sam and Faramir dashed along the bridge; but they had hardly reached its further end when they heard the hue and cry begin. Away behind them, now high above on the mountain-side, loomed the Tower of Cirith Ungol, its stones glowing dully. Suddenly its harsh bell clanged again, and then broke into a shattering peal. Horns sounded. And now from beyond the bridge-end came answering cries. Down in the dark trough, cut off from the dying glare of Orodruin, Frodo and Sam could not see ahead, but already they heard the tramp of iron-shod feet, and upon the road there rang the swift clatter of hoofs.
“Quickly now friends! Over we go!” whispered Faramir. They scrambled on to the low parapet of the bridge. Fortunately there was no longer any dreadful drop into the gulf, for the slopes of the Morgai had already risen almost to the level of the road; but it was too dark for them to guess the depth of the fall.
Taking them one at a time by their hands, Faramir lowered the hobbits down as far as he could reach before letting them fall, so as to lessen the hurt of their descent.
“Well, here goes, Mr. Frodo,” said Sam who went first “Good-bye!”
Faramir then let go. Frodo followed. And then even as Faramir too fell they fell they heard the rush of horsemen sweeping over the bridge and the rattle of orc-feet running up behind. But Sam would have laughed, if he had dared. Half fearing a breaking plunge down on to unseen rocks they landed, in a drop of no more than a dozen feet, with a thud and a crunch into the last thing that they had expected: a tangle of thorny bushes. There Sam lay still, softly sucking a scratched hand.
When the sound of hoof and foot had passed he ventured a whisper. “Bless me, Mr. Frodo, but I didn’t know as anything grew in Mordor! But if I had a’known, this is just what I’d have looked for. These thorns must be a foot long by the feel of them; they’ve stuck through everything I’ve got on. Wish I’d a’put that mail-shirt on!”
“Orc-mail doesn’t keep these thorns out,” said Frodo. “Not even a leather jerkin is any good.”
Faramir said nothing but lay still where he had fallen, and the halflings saw to their dismay that while they had fallen upon their backs and so were spared the worst of the thorn’s prickings and clawings, by some ill chance Faramir had tumbled upon his front. And one of the thorns upon which he fell had broken off and pierced his left eye, and it was ruined.
They had a struggle to get out of the thicket. The thorns and briars were as tough as wire and as clinging as claws. Their cloaks were rent and tattered before they broke free at last. Faramir’s hand was to his wound, but with gritted teeth he stayed silent.
“Now down we go, Sam,” Frodo whispered. “Down into the valley quick, and then turn northward, as soon as ever we can.”
Day was coming again in the world outside, and far beyond the glooms of Mordor the Sun was climbing over the eastern rim of Middle-earth; but here all was still dark as night. The Mountain smouldered and its fires went out. The glare faded from the cliffs. The easterly wind that had been blowing ever since they left Ithilien now seemed dead. Slowly and painfully they clambered down, groping, stumbling, scrambling among rock and briar and dead wood in the blind shadows, down and down until they could go no further.
They tended Faramir’s wound as best as they were able, drawing forth the wicked thorn and after washing it tenderly with a few drops of precious water on cloth, they bound his eye. Then they rested, though no sleep came to Faramir.
It was a few hours before the hobbits woke, and the gloom had begun to fade from that land, so that all became imperceptibly lighter. Frodo now led the way, northward as near as he could guess, among the stones and boulders lying thick at the bottom of the great ravine, for Faramir was driven beyond concentration out of hurt and exhaustion. The light, though no more than a grey dusk, was now enough for them to see that they were deep in the valley between the mountains. It sloped up gently northward, and at its bottom went the bed of a now dry and withered stream. Beyond its stony course they saw a beaten path that wound its way under the feet of the westward cliffs.
It was perilous for them to use such a path, but they needed speed, and Frodo felt that he could not face the toil of scrambling among the boulders or in the trackless glens of the Morgai. And he judged that northward was, maybe, the way that their hunters would least expect them to take. The road east to the plain, or the pass back westward, those they would first search most thoroughly. Only when he was well north of the Tower did he mean to turn and seek for some way to take him east, east on the last desperate stage of his journey. So now they crossed the stony bed and took to the orc-path, and for some time they marched along it. The cliffs at their left were overhung, and they could not be seen from above; but the path made many bends, and at each bend they gripped their sword-hilts and went forward cautiously.
The light grew no stronger, for Orodruin was still belching forth a great fume that, beaten upwards by the opposing airs, mounted higher and higher, until it reached a region above the wind and spread in an immeasurable roof, whose central pillar rose out of the shadows beyond their view. They had trudged for more than an hour when they heard a sound that brought them to a halt. Unbelievable, but unmistakable. Water trickling. Out of a gully on the left, so sharp and narrow that it looked as if the black cliff had been cloven by some huge axe, water came dripping down: the last remains, maybe, of some sweet rain gathered from sunlit seas, but ill-fated to fall at last upon the walls of the Black Land and wander fruitless down into the dust. Here it came out of the rock in a little falling streamlet, and flowed across the path, and turning south ran away swiftly to be lost among the dead stones. Sam sprang towards it, but at Faramir’s call he stopped.
“Let me drink first Frodo,” he said. “I think not for myself, but if there is poison to be found within, or some hidden malice that might be quick to reveal itself, then better I that suffer it being already hurt, than either of you who are still whole.”
“Your words are wise,” said Frodo, “but we have a need of haste and we must move on from this place as soon as we are able. I think we shall trust our luck together.”
The water was cool but not icy, and it had an unpleasant taste, at once bitter and oily, or so they would have said at home. Here it seemed beyond all praise, and beyond fear or prudence. They drank their fill, and Sam replenished his water-bottle. After that they felt easier, and they went on for several miles, until the broadening of the road and the beginnings of a rough wall along its edge warned them that they were drawing near to another orc-hold.
“This is where we turn aside, Sam,” said Frodo. “We must turn east.” He sighed as he looked at the gloomy ridges across the valley. “I have just about enough strength left to find some hole away up there. And then I must rest a little, and Faramir too I fear.”
The river-bed was now some way below the path. They scrambled down to it, and began to cross it. To their surprise they came upon dark pools fed by threads of water trickling down from some source higher up the valley. Upon its outer margins under the westward mountains Mordor was a dying land, but it was not yet dead. And here things still grew, harsh, twisted, bitter, struggling for life. In the glens of the Morgai on the other side of the valley low scrubby trees lurked and clung, coarse grey grass-tussocks fought with the stones, and withered mosses crawled on them; and everywhere great writhing, tangled brambles sprawled. Some had long stabbing thorns, some hooked barbs that rent like knives. The sullen shrivelled leaves of a past year hung on them, grating and rattling in the sad airs, but their maggot-ridden buds were only just opening. Flies, dun or grey, or black, marked like ores with a red eye-shaped blotch, buzzed and stung; and above the briar-thickets clouds of hungry midges danced and reeled.
At last Frodo could go no further. They had climbed up a narrow shelving ravine, but they still had a long way to go before they could even come in sight of the last craggy ridge. At length, tired out, they slunk under a curtain of brambles that hung down like a mat over a low rock-face.
There they sat and made such a meal as they could. Keeping back the precious lembas for the evil days ahead, they ate the half of what remained in Sam’s bag of Boromir’s provision: some dried fruit, and a small slip of cured meat; and they sipped some water. They had drunk again from the pools in the valley, but they were very thirsty again. There was a bitter tang in the air of Mordor that dried the mouth. When Sam thought of water even his hopeful spirit quailed. Beyond the Morgai there was the dreadful plain of Gorgoroth to cross.
Frodo sighed and was asleep almost before he had sat down, and Faramir followed swiftly after. Sam struggled with his own weariness, and he took Frodo’s hand; and there he sat silent till deep night fell. Then at last, to keep himself awake, he crawled from the hiding-place and looked out. The land seemed full of creaking and cracking and sly noises, but there was no sound of voice or of foot. Far above the Ephel Duath in the West the night-sky was still dim and pale. There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his masters, ceased to trouble him. He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo’s side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep untroubled sleep.
They woke together, hand in hand. Sam was almost fresh, ready for another day, and Faramir’s mood was much improved; but Frodo sighed. His sleep had been uneasy, full of dreams of fire, and waking brought him no comfort. Still his sleep had not been without all healing virtue: he was stronger, more able to bear his burden one stage further. They did not know the time, nor how long they had slept; but after a morsel of food and a sip of water they went on up the ravine, until it ended in a sharp slope of screes and sliding stones with the cliff walls on either side. There the last living things gave up their struggle; the tops of the Morgai were grassless, bare, jagged, barren as a slate.
They were just about to start searching about for some way up that they could climb up the steep slope when a snarling and cursing came from above them, and they drew against the side of the ravine beneath them.
“Nar!” a thin voice snarled. “I’m going home. No good wearing my nose out on stones any more. There’s not a trace left, I say. I’ve lost the scent through giving way to you.”
“Not much use are you, you little snufflers?” said a deeper voice. “But you’ll not be going home, not while they’re still loose.”
“I’ve had enough of you,” came the first again. “Garn, first you run too slow, and then you send for the poor trackers. Well I’ve had enough, Dark Ones take you.”
There followed a cry and sound of a scuffle, followed by a shriek and with a heavy thud the body of a thin pale orc fell upon the gravel before the three hiding beneath the cliff. Dazed and winded from the fall, the orc gaped to see them there but could not speak. For as soon as he had landed Faramir was upon him, hand clamped down upon his mouth, kneeling on his arms. Then Sam drew Sting, for he still bore it, and with a swift strike stabbed their discoverer through the throat and withdrew beneath the cliff. Faramir followed behind, turning the orc over to hide the wound from above.
Though they knew it not, they were just a moment from discovery, for the larger Uruk that had cast down his companion looked over the edge of the ravine. Seeing his erstwhile companion unmoving on the ground below, he spat and turned away.
It was some time before the three dared to move from their place of hiding, listening with strained ears for any falling stone or sliding scree. But at last they determined they were alone and ventured to continue onward. After much wandering and search they found a way that they could climb, and with a last hundred feet of clawing scramble they were up. They came to a cleft between two dark crags, and passing through found themselves on the very edge of the last fence of Mordor. Below them, at the bottom of a fall of some fifteen hundred feet, lay the inner plain stretching away into a formless gloom beyond their sight. The wind of the world blew now from the West, and the great clouds were lifted high, floating away eastward; but still only a grey light came to the dreary fields of Gorgoroth. There smokes trailed on the ground and lurked in hollows, and fumes leaked from fissures in the earth.
Still far away, forty miles at least, they saw Mount Doom, its feet founded in ashen ruin, its huge cone rising to a great height, where its reeking head was swathed in cloud. Its fires were now dimmed, and it stood in smouldering slumber, as threatening and dangerous as a sleeping beast. Behind it there hung a vast shadow, ominous as a thunder-cloud, the veils of Barad-dûr that was reared far way upon a long spur of the Ashen Mountains thrust down from the North.
Frodo and Sam gazed out in mingled loathing and wonder on this hateful land. Between them and the smoking mountain, and about it north and south, all seemed ruinous and dead, a desert burned and choked. As far as their eyes could reach, along the skirts of the Morgai and away southward, there were camps, some of tents, some ordered like small towns.
They started off again. They had not gone far when Frodo paused. “There’s a Black Rider over us,” he said. “I can feel it. We had better keep still for a while.”
Crouched under a great boulder they sat facing back westward and did not speak for some time. Then Frodo breathed a sigh of relief. “It’s passed,” he said. “Come now, let’s not waste any more time.”
It was difficult and dangerous moving in the night in the pathless land; but slowly and with much stumbling they toiled on, hour by hour northward along the eastern edge of the stony valley. When a grey light crept back over the western heights, long after day had opened in the lands beyond, they went into hiding again and slept a little, turn by turn.
It was not yet quite dark again when they set off again. They plodded along, on into the night. The hours passed in a weary stumbling trudge with a few brief halts. At the first hint of grey light under the skirts of the canopy of shadow they hid themselves again in a dark hollow under an overhanging stone.
Slowly the light grew, until it was clearer than it yet had been. A strong wind from the West was now driving the fumes of Mordor from the upper airs. Before long the hobbits could make out the shape of the land for some miles about them. The trough between the mountains and the Morgai had steadily dwindled as it climbed upwards, and the inner ridge was now no more than a shelf in the steep faces of the Ephel Dúath; but to the east it fell as sheerly as ever down into Gorgoroth. Ahead the water-course came to an end in broken steps of rock; for out from the main range there sprang a high barren spur, thrusting eastward like a wall.
To meet it there stretched out from the grey and misty northern range of Ered Lithui a long jutting arm; and between the ends there was a narrow gap: Carach Angren, the Isenmouthe, beyond which lay the deep dale of Udûn. In that dale behind the Morannon were the tunnels and deep armouries that the servants of Mordor had made for the defence of the Black Gate of their land; and there now their Lord was gathering in haste great forces to meet the onslaught of the Captains of the West. Upon the out-thrust spurs forts and towers were built, and watch-fires burned; and all across the gap an earth-wall had been raised, and a deep trench delved that could be crossed only by a single bridge.
As they looked out it seemed that all their journey north had been useless. The plain to their right was dim and smoky, and they could see there neither camps nor troops moving; but all that region was under the vigilance of the forts of Carach Angren.
‘We have come to a dead end,” said Frodo. “If we go on, we shall only come up to that orc-tower yonder, but the only road to take is that road that comes down from it – unless we go back. We can’t climb up westward, or climb down eastward.”
“Then we must take the road, Mr. Frodo,” said Sam. “We must take it and chance our luck, if there is any luck in Mordor. We might as well give ourselves up as wander about any more, or try to go back. Our food won’t last. We’ve got to make a dash for it!”
“All right, Sam,” said Frodo. “Lead me! As long as you’ve got any hope left. Mine is gone. But I can’t dash, Sam. I’ll just plod along after you.”
‘Before either of you start any more plodding, you both need sleep and food,” said Faramir. “Come and take of them what you will!”
He gave Frodo water and an additional wafer of the waybread, and he made a pillow of his cloak for Frodo’s head. He was too weary to debate the matter, and neither Faramir or Sam told him that he had drunk the last drop of their water, and eaten their share of the food as well as his own. When Frodo was asleep Sam bent over him and listened to his breathing and scanned his face. It was lined and thin, and yet in sleep it looked content and unafraid.
“Stay with your master, Samwise,” said Faramir softly. “I shall have to leave you for a bit and trust to luck. Water we must have, or we will get no further.”
Sam said nothing, but nodded wearily and cast himself down next to his master. Faramir crept out, and flitting from stone to stone with more than care than he had ever learned in his years as a ranger, he went down to the water-course, and then followed it for some way as it climbed north, until he came to the rock-steps where long ago, no doubt, its spring had come gushing down in a little waterfall. All now seemed dry and silent; but refusing to despair Faramir stooped and listened, and to his delight he caught the sound of trickling. Clambering a few steps up he found a tiny stream of dark water that came out from the hill-side and filled a little bare pool, from which again it spilled, and vanished then under the barren stones.
Faramir tasted the water, and it seemed good enough. Then he drank deeply, refilled the bottle, and turned to go back. At that moment he caught a glimpse of a black form or shadow flitting among the rocks away near the hobbits’ hiding-place. Biting back a cry, he leapt down from the spring and ran, jumping from stone to stone. It was a wary creature, difficult to see, but Faramir had little doubt about who it might be. But it heard him coming and slipped quickly away. Faramir thought he saw a last fleeting glimpse of it, peering back over the edge of the eastward precipice, before it ducked and disappeared.
Faramir went on to the hobbits but he had not taken many steps when suddenly in the stillness of the night he heard the sound that all along they had secretly dreaded: the noise of marching feet. It was still some way from them, but looking back Faramir could see the twinkle of torches coming round the bend less than a mile away, and they were moving fast: too fast for Frodo and Sam to escape by flight along the road ahead which ran by but a few feet from their hiding place. The hobbits would not be visible from the road, but if any scouts wandered on either side they would be discovered. Stooping low, Faramir cast a stone which softly clattered by the hobbits feet.
He saw them start, and look about them in fear, and then they heard the tramping boots. Faramir saw them draw their stolen Orc cloaks about them, bow their heads and set their shields at their knees to hide their feet.
All too soon the leading orcs came loping along, panting, holding their heads down. They were a gang of the smaller breeds being driven unwilling to their Dark Lord’s wars; all they cared for was to get the march over and escape the whip. Beside them, running up and down the line, went two of the large fierce uruks, cracking lashes and shouting. File after file passed, and the tell-tale torchlight was already some way ahead. Faramir held his breath. Now more than half the line had gone by. Then suddenly one of the slave-drivers spied the two figures by the road-side. He flicked a whip at them and the ranger heard the yell: “Hi, you! Get up!” They did not answer, and with a shout he halted the whole company.
Faramir saw the orc captain step toward the two, and then to his relief they were directed to join the column. Keeping bent, limping like footsore soldiers they seemed just as one of the orcs they were set alongside, and then with another crack of his whip the captain sent them moving again.
“There now!” Faramir heard the foul laugh. “Where there’s a whip there’s a will, my slugs. Don’t you know we’re at war?”
The going was hard enough for poor Sam, tired as he was; but for Frodo it was a torment, and soon a nightmare. He set his teeth and tried to stop his mind from thinking, and he struggled on. The stench of the sweating orcs about him was stifling, and he began to gasp with thirst. On, on they went, and he bent all his will to draw his breath and to make his legs keep going; and yet to what evil end he toiled and endured he did not dare to think. There was no hope of falling out unseen: Now and again the orc-driver fell back and jeered at them, and licked their legs with the lash.
They had gone some miles, and the road was at last running down a long slope into the plain, when Frodo’s strength began to give out and his will wavered. He lurched and stumbled. Desperately Sam tried to help him and hold him up, though he felt that he could himself hardly stay the pace much longer. At any moment now he knew that the end would come: his master would faint or fall, and all would be discovered, and their bitter efforts be in vain. “I’ll have that big slave-driving devil anyway,” he thought.
Then just as he was putting his hand to the hilt of his sword, there came an unexpected relief. They were out on the plain now and drawing near the entrance to Udûn. Some way in front of it, before the gate at the bridge-end, the road from the west converged with others coming from the south, and from Barad-dur. Along all the roads troops were moving; for the Captains of the West had advanced and the Dark Lord was speeding his forces north to overwhelm the Host of the West, and then to sally forth with all his might and destroy his enemies utterly. So it chanced that several companies came together at the road-meeting, in the dark beyond the light of the watch-fires on the wall. At once there was great jostling and cursing as each troop tried to get first to the gate and the ending of their march. Though the drivers yelled and plied their whips, scuffles broke out and some blades were drawn. A troop of heavy-armed uruks from Barad-dur charged into the Durthang line and threw them into confusion.
Dazed as he was with pain and weariness, Sam woke up, grasped quickly at his chance, and threw himself to the ground, dragging Frodo down with him. Orcs fell over them, snarling and cursing. Slowly on hand and knee the hobbits crawled away out of the turmoil, until they came across the body of their tormentor, the captain slave-driver with his whip still clutched in his hand and a growing pool of thick, black blood from where a knife was stuck in his ribs. With a shudder the hobbits continued until at last unnoticed they dropped over the further edge of the road. It had a high kerb by which troop-leaders could guide themselves in black night or fog, and it was banked up some feet above the level of the open land.
They lay still for a while. It was too dark to seek for cover, if indeed there was any to find; but Sam felt that they ought at least to get further away from the highways and out of the range of torch-light.
“Come on, Mr. Frodo!” he whispered. “One more crawl, and then you can lie still.”
With a last despairing effort Frodo raised himself on his hands, and struggled on for maybe twenty yards. Then he pitched down into a shallow pit that opened unexpectedly before them, and there he lay like a dead thing.
As Frodo slept Sam tried to guess the distances and to decide what way they ought to take. “It looks every step of fifty miles,” he muttered gloomily staring at the threatening mountain, “and that’ll take a week, if it takes a day, with Mr. Frodo as he is.” He shook his head, and as he worked things out, slowly a new dark thought grew in his mind. Never for long had hope died in his staunch heart, and always until now he had taken some thought for their return. But the bitter truth came home to him at last: at best their provision would take them to their goal; and when the task was done, there they would come to an end, alone, houseless, foodless in the midst of a terrible desert. There could be no return.
“So that was the job I felt I had to do when I started,” thought Sam: “to help Mr. Frodo to the last step and then die with him? Well, if that is the job then I must do it. But I would dearly like to see Bywater again, and Rosie Cotton.” And the hobbit’s head sank to his chest.
But even as hope died in Sam, or seemed to die, it was turned to a new strength. Sam’s plain hobbit-face grew stern, almost grim, as the will hardened in him, and he felt through all his limbs a thrill, as if he was turning into some creature of stone and steel that neither despair nor weariness nor endless barren miles could subdue. And he resolved within himself that he would return home, that they would see this done and come away again if he had to carry his master on his back the whole way.
With a new sense of responsibility he brought his eyes back to the ground near at hand, studying the next move. As the light grew a little he saw to his surprise that what from a distance had seemed wide and featureless flats were in fact all broken and tumbled. Indeed the whole surface of the plains of Gorgoroth was pocked with great holes. The largest of these holes were rimmed with ridges of broken rock, and broad fissures ran out from them in all directions. It was a land in which it would be possible to creep from hiding to hiding, unseen by all but the most watchful eyes.
He roused Frodo, shared some water and lembas and once more they started, crawling from hollow to hollow, flitting behind such cover as they could find, but moving always in a slant towards the foothills of the northern range. But as they went the most easterly of the roads followed them, until it ran off, hugging the skirts of the mountains, away into a wall of black shadow far ahead.
So the desperate journey went on, as the Ring went south and the banners of the kings rode north. For the hobbits each day, each mile was more bitter than the one before, as their strength lessened and the land became more evil. They met no enemies by day and only heard footsteps on the road in the night. But far worse than all such perils was the ever-approaching threat that beat upon them as they went: the dreadful menace of the Power that waited, brooding in deep thought and sleepless malice behind the dark veil about its Throne. Nearer and nearer it drew, looming blacker, like the oncoming of a wall of night at the last end of the world.
There came at last a dreadful nightfall; and even as the Captains of the West drew near to the end of the living lands, the two wanderers came to an hour of blank despair. Four days had passed since they had escaped from the orcs, but the time lay behind them like an ever-darkening dream. All this last day Frodo had not spoken, but had walked half-bowed, often stumbling, as if his eyes no longer saw the way before his feet. Sam guessed that among all their pains he bore the worst, the growing weight of the Ring, a burden on the body and a torment to his mind.
The next morning they abandoned their orc-gear, setting aside secrecy and concealment, and made straight for the slopes of Orodruin. That day it seemed to Sam that his master had found some new strength, more than could be explained by the small lightening of the load that he had to carry. But as the day wore on and all too soon the dim light began to fail, Frodo stooped again, and began to stagger, as if the renewed effort had squandered his remaining strength.
At their last halt he sank down and said: “I’m thirsty, Sam,” and did not speak again. Sam gave him a mouthful of water; only one more mouthful remained. He went without himself; and once more the night of Mordor closed over them.
The last stage of their journey to Orodruin came the next day, and it was a torment greater than Sam had ever thought that he could bear. He was in pain, and so parched that he could no longer swallow even a mouthful of food. It remained dark, and away to the south-east there was a shimmer of lightnings under the black skies. Worst of all, the air was full of fumes; breathing was painful and difficult, and a dizziness came on them, so that they staggered and often fell. And yet their wills did not yield, and they struggled on. Sam tied a fast hitch between he and Frodo so that if one was overcome by the fumes and fell, the other would not continue heedless without them.
The Mountain crept up ever nearer, until, if they lifted their heavy heads, it filled all their sight, looming vast before them: a huge mass of ash and slag and burned stone, out of which a sheer-sided cone was raised into the clouds. Before the daylong dusk ended and true night came again they had crawled and stumbled to its very feet.
With a gasp Frodo cast himself on the ground. Sam sat by him. To his surprise he felt tired but lighter, and his head seemed clear again. His will was set, and only death would break it. He knew that all the hazards and perils were now drawing together to a point: the next day would be a day of doom, the day of final effort or disaster, the last gasp.
“Now for it! Come now master” said Sam as he struggled to his feet. He bent over Frodo, rousing him gently. Frodo groaned; but with a great effort of will he staggered up; and then he fell upon his knees again. He raised his eyes with difficulty to the dark slopes of Mount Doom towering above him, and then pitifully and with sobs he began to crawl forward on his hands.
Sam looked at him and wept in his heart, but no tears came to his dry and stinging eyes. “I said I’d carry him, if it broke my back,” he muttered, “and I will!”
“Come, Mr. Frodo!” he cried. “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you and it as well.”
As Frodo clung upon his back, arms loosely about his neck, legs clasped firmly under his arms, Sam staggered to his feet; and then to his amazement he felt the burden light. He had feared that he would have barely strength to lift his master alone, and beyond that he had expected to share in the dreadful dragging weight of the accursed Ring. But it was not so. Whether because Frodo was so worn by his long pains, wound of knife, and venomous sting, and sorrow, fear, and homeless wandering, or because some gift of final strength was given to him, Sam lifted Frodo with no difficulty. He took a deep breath and started off.
They had reached the Mountain’s foot on its northern side, and a little to the westward; there its long grey slopes, though broken, were not sheer. Frodo did not speak, and so Sam struggled on as best he could, having no guidance but the will to climb as high as might be before his strength gave out and his will broke. On he toiled, up and up, turning this way and that to lessen the slope, often stumbling forward, and at the last crawling like a snail with a heavy burden on its back. When his will could drive him no further, and his limbs gave way, he stopped and laid his master gently down.
Frodo opened his eyes and drew a breath. It was easier to breathe up here above the reeks that coiled and drifted down below. “Thank you, Sam,” he said in a cracked whisper. “How far is there to go?”
“I don’t know,” said Sam, “because I don’t know where we’re going.”
He looked back, and then he looked up; and he was amazed to see how far his last effort had brought him. The Mountain standing ominous and alone had looked taller than it was. Sam saw now that it was less lofty than the high passes of the Ephel Dúath which he and Frodo had scaled. The confused and tumbled shoulders of its great base rose for maybe three thousand feet above the plain, and above them was reared half as high again its tall central cone, like a vast oast or chimney capped with a jagged crater. But already Sam was more than half way up the base, and the plain of Gorgoroth was dim below him, wrapped in fume and shadow. As he looked up he would have given a shout. if his parched throat had allowed him; for amid the rugged humps and shoulders above him he saw plainly a path or road. It climbed like a rising girdle from the west and wound snakelike about the Mountain, until before it went round out of view it reached the foot of the cone upon its eastern side.
Sam could not see the course immediately above him, where it was lowest, for a steep slope went up from where he stood; but he guessed that if he could only struggle on just a little way further up, they would strike this path. A gleam of hope returned to him. They might conquer the Mountain yet. “Why, it might have been put there a-purpose!” he said to himself. “If it wasn’t there, I’d have to say I was beaten in the end.”
The path was not put there for the purposes of Sam. He did not know it, but he was looking at Sauron’s Road from Barad-dûr to the Sammath Naur, the Chambers of Fire. Out from the Dark Tower’s huge western gate it came over a deep abyss by a vast bridge of iron, and then passing into the plain it ran for a league between two smoking chasms, and so reached a long sloping causeway that led up on to the Mountain’s eastern side. Thence, turning and encircling all its wide girth from south to north, it climbed at last, high in the upper cone, but still far from the reeking summit, to a dark entrance that gazed back east straight to the Window of the Eye in Sauron’s shadow-mantled fortress.
But Sam’s joy turned swiftly to despair for even as he looked up, a face appeared over the edge of the path looking down, and same saw an uruk clad in black armour wielding a wicked halberd standing over them. And they were seen.
With a cry he leapt over the edge and bounded down to them, a grasping hand outstretched to them that he might take the hobbits and question them for spies. But even as he drew nigh unto them, an arrow appeared in his throat, and the uruk stumbled and did not move.
The halflings looked down below them and with weary gladness, for beyond all hope Faramir had found them. Thin and gaunt he was, for the past few days had not been kind to him, and he had not eaten for two nights. But there was still strength in him, and together he and Sam brought Frodo up to the pathway that led to the Cracks of Doom. They came to the path and found that it was broad, paved with broken rubble and beaten ash.
But the cry of the uruk had not gone unheard, and they saw coming up the path a clutch of his fellow-guards, about five or six together. And Faramir had only a brace of arrows left, beside the one recovered from the uruk just slain, three arrows all told. So the ranger knelt before the halflings and kissed them each on their head.
“Farewell Samwise, noble and faithful. May you live to see greener times,” whispered Faramir. “And farewell to you, Frodo Baggins. Most excellent and worthy, so as to be counted among the heroes and kings of former days. It has been my honour to walk with you thus far. May the Valar guard and guide you, and may Illuvatar cause his face to shine upon you this hour.”
Then taking his bow, the son of Denethor and Captain of Ithilien, to whom had been sent a dream from beyond the Great Sea of the doom nigh at hand, set an arrow to it and turned from the hobbits. “Go now! Take your master Sam, and guard him well,” he said, and looked on them no more, that his heart’s courage would not fail him.
The hobbits did not speak, but wept as they staggered up the path and round the side of Orodruin. Over the rumblings of the mountain they heard no sound, neither ring of steel or cry of battle, but they were not pursued, neither did word of their presence reach any ear further.
And Faramir was never seen of mortal eye again.
Before long Frodo began to flag and fail, and so Sam again lifted Frodo and drew his hands down to his own breast. letting his master’s legs dangle. Then he bowed his head and struggled off along the climbing road. It was not as easy a way to take as it had looked at first. By fortune the fires that had poured forth in the great turmoils when Sam stood upon Cirith Ungol had flowed down mainly on the southern and western slopes, and the road on this side was not blocked. Yet in many places it had crumbled away or was crossed by gaping rents. After climbing eastward for some time it bent back upon itself at a sharp angle and went westward for a space. There at the bend it was cut deep through a crag of old weathered stone once long ago vomited from the Mountain’s furnaces. Panting under his load Sam turned the bend; and even as he did so, out of the corner of his eye, he had a glimpse of something falling from the crag, like a small piece of black stone that had toppled off as he passed.
A sudden weight smote him and he crashed forward, tearing the backs of his hands that still clasped his master’s. Then he knew what had happened, for above him as he lay he heard a hated voice.
“Wicked masster”’ it hissed. “Wicked masster cheats us; cheats Smeagol, gollum. He musstn’t go that way. He musstn’t hurt Preciouss. Give it to Sméagol, yess, give it to us! Give it to uss!”
With a violent heave Sam rose up. At once he drew Sting; but he could do nothing. Gollum and Frodo were locked together. Gollum was tearing at his master, trying to get at the chain and the Ring. This was probably the only thing that could have roused the dying embers of Frodo’s heart and will: an attack, an attempt to wrest his treasure from him by force. He fought back with a sudden fury that amazed Sam, and Gollum also. Even so things might have gone far otherwise, if Gollum himself had remained unchanged; but whatever dreadful paths, lonely and hungry and waterless, he had trodden, driven by a devouring desire and a terrible fear, they had left grievous marks on him. He was a lean, starved, haggard thing, all bones and tight-drawn sallow skin. A wild light flamed in his eyes, but his malice was no longer matched by his old gripping strength. Frodo flung him off and rose up quivering.
“Down, down!” he gasped, clutching his hand to his breast, so that beneath the cover of his leather shirt he clasped the Ring. “Down you creeping thing, and out of my path! Your time is at an end. You cannot betray me or slay me now.”
Then suddenly, as before under the eaves of the Emyn Muil, Sam saw these two rivals with other vision. A crouching shape, scarcely more than the shadow of a living thing, a creature now wholly ruined and defeated, yet filled with a hideous lust and rage; and before it stood stern, untouchable now by pity, a figure robed in white, but at its breast it held a wheel of fire. Out of the fire there spoke a commanding voice.
“Begone, and trouble me no more! If you touch me ever again, you shall be cast yourself into the Fire of Doom.”
The crouching shape backed away, terror in its blinking eyes, and yet at the same time insatiable desire.
Then the vision passed and Sam saw Frodo standing, hand on breast, his breath coming in great gasps, and Gollum at his feet, resting on his knees with his wide-splayed hands upon the ground.
“Look out!” cried Sam. “He’ll spring!’ He stepped forward, brandishing Sting before him. “Quick, Master!” he gasped. “Go on! Go on! No time to lose. I’ll deal with him. Go on!”
Frodo looked at him as if at one now far away. “Yes, I must go on,” he said. “Farewell, Sam! This is the end at last. On Mount Doom doom shall fall. Farewell!” He turned and went on, walking slowly but erect up the climbing path.
“Now!” said Sam. “At last I can deal with you!” He leaped forward with drawn blade ready for battle. But Gollum did not spring. He fell flat upon the ground and whimpered.
“Don’t kill us,” he wept. “Don’t hurt us with nassty cruel steel! Let us live, yes, live just a little longer. Lost lost! We’re lost. And when Precious goes we’ll die, yes, die into the dust.” He clawed up the ashes of the path with his long fleshless fingers. “Dusst!” he hissed.
Sam’s hand wavered. His mind was hot with wrath and the memory of evil. It would be just to slay this treacherous, murderous creature, just and many times deserved; and also it seemed the only safe thing to do. But deep in his heart there was something that restrained him: he could not strike this thing lying in the dust, forlorn, ruinous, utterly wretched. He himself, though only for a little while, had borne the Ring, and now dimly he guessed the agony of Gollum’s shrivelled mind and body, enslaved to that Ring, unable to find peace or relief ever in life again. But Sam had no words to express what he felt.
“Oh, curse you, you stinking thing!” he said. “Go away! Be off! I don’t trust you, not as far as I could kick you; but be off. Or I shall hurt you, yes, with nasty cruel steel.”
Gollum got up on all fours, and backed away for several paces, and then he turned, and as Sam aimed a kick at him he fled away down the path. Sam gave no more heed to him. He suddenly remembered his master. He looked up the path and could not see him. As fast as he could he trudged up the road. If he had looked back, he might have seen not far below Gollum turn again, and then with a wild light of madness glaring in his eyes come, swiftly but warily, creeping on behind, a slinking shadow among the stones.
The path climbed on, and Sam climbed with it, though heavy and tired. Soon it bent again and. with a last eastward course passed in a cutting along the face of the cone and came to the dark door in the Mountain’s side, the door of the Sammath Naur. Far away now rising towards the South the sun, piercing the smokes and haze, burned ominous, a dull bleared disc of red; but all Mordor lay about the Mountain like a dead land, silent, shadow-folded, waiting for some dreadful stroke.
Sam came to the gaping mouth and peered in. It was dark and hot, and a deep rumbling shook the air. “Frodo! Master!” he called. There was no answer. For a moment he stood, his heart beating with wild fears, and then he plunged in. A shadow followed him.
At first he could see nothing. Fearfully he took a few uncertain steps in the dark, and then all at once there came a flash of red that leaped upward, and smote the high black roof. Then Sam saw that he was in a long cave or tunnel that bored into the Mountain’s smoking cone. But only a short way ahead its floor and the walls on either side were cloven by a great fissure, out of which the red glare came, now leaping up, now dying down into darkness; and all the while far below there was a rumour and a trouble as of great engines throbbing and labouring.
The light sprang up again, and there on the brink of the chasm, at the very Crack of Doom, stood Frodo, black against the glare, tense, erect, but still as if he had been turned to stone.
“Master!” cried Sam.
Then Frodo stirred and spoke with a clear voice, indeed with a voice clearer and more powerful than Sam had ever heard him use, and it rose above the throb and turmoil of Mount Doom, ringing in the roof and walls.
“I have come,” he said. “But I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!” And suddenly, as he set it on his finger, he vanished from Sam’s sight. Sam gasped, but he found himself unable even to cry out.