The Inner Light - A Story
The Inner Light
The first thing he became aware of was that he was not in pain, and he was relieved. He was comfortable, and he somehow knew that he had not felt this way for a very long time. He did not even think to move or open his eyes, floating blissfully in that moment between sleep and waking where peace permeates the senses.
Suddenly, something was very wrong. He was assaulted by the most overwhelming feeling of loss that he had ever known. It crashed over him in violent, tumultuous waves, and he gasped as it overwhelmed and enveloped every fiber of his being. His breathing became ragged; he began to shake uncontrollably. This movement seemed to break the tranquil spell of recent sleep. Memories of the object of his desire assailed him, and with them came the pain.
Mount Doom. He had claimed the Ring. In that final moment, at the end of his strength and his defiance, his will had been broken and he and the Ring had become one. In that instant, he had experienced every sensation ever known by every creature that had ever lived in Middle Earth. He had been present at the first note of the music of the Ainur, and his voice had swelled in a mighty crescendo as the world was created. He was there to witness the birth of the two trees and the scattering of the stars by Varda. He experienced the history of the elves and their bliss in Valinor, their travails in Middle Earth, and the stretching of their existence into the mists of the Undying Lands. He breathed the breath of young deer in the dew-laden forests of Ithilien, and witnessed the birth of Kings in this age and the next. Past, present, and future, he was one with them all--but most of all he was one with the Ring. They were like lovers reunited after a long absence, yet experiencing the ecstasy of the first kiss. His heart sang with a joy purer than any he had ever known, soaring higher and higher--and was suddenly silenced. With the ripping of flesh and the rending of bone, his very soul had been torn in two, and it seemed the best parts of himself, the core of his being had plunged to the depths of that fiery abyss. He was alone, yet more than that, he was no longer complete. The Ring had entwined Itself into every hope and desire and notion that he had ever had, and Its abrupt exodus had fractured every facet of his mind into jagged shards of concept and emotion. The boundless agony of loss seared through him like a blade. He fell to his knees at the Crack of Doom, unable to either advance and end his suffering by joining Gollum and the Ring through destruction or to retreat and cling to the fading embers of life still alight within his tortured soul.
Was he still there now? The stinging grief and longing was white-hot as it had been then, and it consumed him with a vehemence that defied reason. As the anguish reached its climax and he felt as if he would be shattered in its strangling grasp, he cried out in torment...then something broke through the haze of pain and attempted to soothe him. He became dimly aware of his physical body as a hand gently caressed his forehead and softly called his name. His eyes flew open, but in his state of delirious misery he saw only Sammath Naur and he cried out feebly, "The Ring, where is the Ring!"
He had no strength to move in the slightest, but his eyes darted wildly about, unfocused yet searching, yearning to behold their treasure. Someone held his chin firmly and called his name more insistently, forcing his eyes to focus on his current surroundings and abandon the nightmare of memory. With an effort, he managed to wrest his mind from its singular lust for the Ring enough to dazedly wonder where he actually was.
"Sam?" he whispered, still incoherent but certain that Sam was with him.
The pain slowly began to ebb, but the keen pang of loss remained. It hovered in the dark void in the back of his consciousness--too distant for him to grasp but near enough to threaten to overpower him. His gaze fell on Aragorn, and he beheld him for the first time since their parting above Parth Galen. He looked somehow noble now--dressed in fine silken fabric, an air of grace to his bearing.
Concern was etched over his face, however, and he asked gently, "Frodo, can you hear me?"
Their eyes locked and Frodo whispered very weakly, "Yes."
Aragorn's face softened and he smiled broadly down at Frodo, but the smile did not reach his eyes. They had a sorrowful tinge to them that Frodo did not understand, but he chose not to pursue that right now in favor of more important questions. Although his mind was still foggy from his recent battle with the lingering vestiges of the Ring, his first thought was SAM. Where was Sam? What had happened to them after...well, after.
Aragorn, as if reading his thoughts, said "Gandalf and the eagles rescued you and Sam from Mount Doom, and brought you here to the Field of Cormallen. I have been tending to you ever since."
"Sam?" breathed Frodo, acknowledging to himself that the effort to speak was almost too much for him, and hoping that Aragorn would just provide explanations without requiring questions.
"Sam will be fine", answered Aragorn brusquely, "How are you feeling?"
This was an interesting question, and one he had not considered yet. Now that his head was clearing a bit, he took stock of his surroundings. He was in what looked like a large tent in a field. He could hear water rushing somewhere off in the distance, and see the sunshine falling at an angle across the grass at the foot of the large cot that he was lying on. In the tent, he saw a table laid out with items for tending to the sick, and Aragorn, sitting on a small wooden chair and anxiously peering at him waiting for an answer.
With an effort he dropped his chin to gaze down at himself. He was covered in a white sheet, but as he slowly moved his legs he could feel bandages in various places where cuts and deep bruises had been carefully ministered to. His legs were stiff and sore, but they seemed quite intact. His gaze next fell on his right hand. It was bandaged down to the wrist, and although from the wrapping it was not obvious that it was maimed, as he surveyed it he was assaulted again by the memory of Gollum's razor sharp teeth committing their last conscious act. He breathed in sharply, and tears sprung to his eyes, but he closed them quickly, hoping Aragorn would not notice.
A hand tenderly brushed his cheek, and Aragorn whispered, "You are safe here, and nothing will harm you. Why don't you get some rest, and we will talk more when you are stronger?"
Frodo had not realized how exhausted he was from this small effort and drifted off to sleep almost immediately.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Aragorn gazed thoughtfully at Frodo as sleep took him. He looked so different now than when he had last seen him just over a month earlier, so much...older. His skin was still the same pale ivory, but his face was marred now by cuts and bruises, however these would heal in time. More permanent were the care-worn lines that had formed on his brow and around his eyes, and the fine flecks of grey that were now interwoven at his temples...he was entirely too young for these obvious signs of age. So what did they indicate? What had he endured on his journey? Only Frodo knew the truth of this, but the now-furrowed brow told a tale of fierce inner struggle, most likely in defiance of the Ring. Aragorn knew of the Ring's evil. He had perceived Its magnificent power as a siren call on the top of Amon Hen, as It beckoned to him to savagely dispense with this weak halfling and take what was rightfully his. He had only felt Its lure for those few minutes, and it had been all he could do to withstand Its seductive urgings. What must it have been for Frodo to feel that tremendous draw every waking moment, that gnawing insistence pursuing him seemingly even in dreams, demanding that he bend to Its will? The thought was almost more than Aragorn could bear. He still wondered if there had been any other path to choose that would have led to destruction of the Ring. To have such an oppressive and impossible burden thrust upon one so small and gentle still seemed ludicrous to him...but Frodo had borne that burden. And even more than that, he had survived to tell the tale. But what had befallen Frodo and Sam since their parting on Parth Galen?
He put his head in his hands and his mind returned to the arrival of Frodo and Sam to Cormallen just a week prior. The eagles had landed lightly in the center of the field, one bearing Gandalf with a small figure cradled before him, the other shielding a crumpled form between the blades of its shoulders. Aragorn had rushed out to meet them, incredulous at the knowledge that the wizard did not return alone and that his friends had survived their perilous ordeal beyond hope. As he approached Gandalf's haunted gaze fell on him like a blow, and immediately his joy was transmuted into grief-stricken horror as he eyed the lifeless bundle the wizard bore. Tears choked in his throat as Gandalf ever so gently placed Frodo in his arms. As Aragorn gratefully accepted the burden, he realized that it was not actually a burden at all--Frodo was so light that he could scarcely believe he still drew breath, and so fragile that he thought he might break him just by nestling him in his embrace. He was filthy--covered in brown clay dirt and crusted over with thick black volcanic ash, his skin stretched tautly over his cheeks from malnutrition. The most alarming aspect of his appearance, however, was his right hand. Lying curled in protectively over his belly, the third finger was missing and in its place a ragged, gaping wound seeped blood onto the dingy orc garments beneath.
So he had worn the Ring in Mordor. What had It done to him to make him put It on, and how had both It and his very flesh perished on that mountain? Gandalf had seen from afar that the Ring had been destroyed and Gollum with It, but he could not discern the events in those last fateful moments. Aragorn shuddered as he began to contemplate the possibilities...no, he would not take wild flights of fancy as to how the end had played out. The truth would most likely be horrific enough, without his imagination adding unfounded details.
Despite his grievous wounds Frodo was making a miraculous recovery. He had not thought that the hobbit would regain consciousness for some days yet, but the way that he had awoken had Aragorn thoroughly shaken. Frodo's call for the Ring had quite floored him. The Ring was destroyed now. Did Its power still linger in Frodo's mind? He knew that Frodo had endured much and that his memories of the past weeks would be difficult to bear, but this appeared to be more than memories--could he still long for the Ring even now? The suggestion that his friend's suffering might not be over made him restless. He carefully rose from the chair so as not to disturb his slumbering charge, exited the tent and began walking purposefully through the compound.
No, it was over, it had to be. The War of the Ring was over, and the world of men would rise to glory and prosperity once again...but what of this small soul whose sacrifice of heart and mind had purchased the victory? He had suffered so much, everything had to return to normal now. It already tore at his heart that Frodo had been the one chosen to undertake this task, he could not live with he and his people having gained so much and Frodo losing everything. No. As he continued thinking, he seemed to wander aimlessly, but his feet began steering a path towards where he knew he would find Gandalf. He would discuss this with Gandalf as soon as possible.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
"Noo!", he screamed, and as he bolted upright, the shriek still echoed inside his mind and clung to his throat. He immediately regretted the movement, as waves of dizziness washed over him and nausea threatened to overpower him. He gritted his teeth and squeezed his eyes shut to try and regain control, as he eased himself back into a prone position. After a few moments the world righted itself and his stomach settled enough that he was able to reopen his eyes. Still panting and drenched in sweat, it took him several more minutes to place his surroundings and recall the sparse details provided by Aragorn as to his whereabouts and condition. He was in a field somewhere, and had been brought here by eagles. The Ring had been destroyed. That last thought caused a tremor to rattle through his frame, and brought with it such a deep longing for the Ring and anguish at Its loss that as before it took his breath away. He drew in a sharp, sob-laden breath, and once again closed his eyes and fought for composure within his severed mind. He scrambled within himself to grasp an image or memory more powerful than his torturous parting with the Ring. This time, he had the strength to hold at bay the shroud of panic and sorrow that threatened to engulf him by concentrating on the image of Sam working in the garden in the Shire. He could see him there, on his knees before a patch of freshly tilled earth, weathered brown hands tenderly cradling a delicate bloom as he angled it earthward to deposit it into its newfound home.
The image of Sam slowly staved off the shadow of the Ring, and the grief spasm lessened itself to a dull ache. He plunged headlong into reality as he surveyed the tent--Sam was not there! Had he survived? Wait, Aragorn had said that Sam had been brought here with him, so where was he? Even though he had no conscious recollection of recent days, his body responded to Sam's absence and he began to tremble, as panic threatened to claim what little control he had achieved over his emotions. He had to find Sam. He raised his head from the pillow carefully and struggled to prop his elbows under him, but the dizziness assailed him with fresh fury, forcing him to lower himself slowly and abandon the notion of finding Sam himself.
At that moment, Aragorn appeared in the doorway of the tent and smiled pleasantly at him. "I'm glad to see that you are awake again, Frodo, I--"
"Where is Sam?" Frodo asked breathlessly, his quavering voice revealing his fear and alarm.
Aragorn stopped in mid-stride, his eyes filled with kind pity at Frodo's obvious distress. He then made his way across the tent, depositing the tray that he was carrying on the table to Frodo's right and perching on the chair next to the cot.
"Sam is in an adjacent tent at the moment. He has still not awoken and you both have been rather restless in your sleep, so I thought it best to keep you separated so as not to injure each other. I will have him brought here shortly."
"What happened to us? Was he hurt?", Frodo pressed. Fear was giving way to full-blown panic as he realized he truly had no idea what had happened. He only knew beyond any doubt that Sam should be here with him now, beside him.
Aragorn could see the worry now deeply etched on Frodo's face, so he replied carefully but honestly, "His injuries were more serious than yours. He was pushed to his limit of physical endurance. It will take him some time to recover."
Frodo's mind reeled--how had Sam been pushed so far physically, when it seemed that he had not? Questions swirled about him, but he knew that Aragorn could not provide the answers. He wished he could remember more of those last days on the mountain, but that portion of his mind remained dark and screamed in protest every time he drew near it. It seemed that he did not have the strength to penetrate the deep night that still held sway there.
Aragorn gently laid his hand on top of Frodo's, breaking through the haze of confusion. He reassured him warmly, "I am certain that he will be just fine though, Frodo. Nothing is being hidden from you, it was just easier to tend to you separately. I have watched over you both with utmost care."
Slowly Frodo began to relax , even though the thought that Sam was more seriously hurt than he was cut him to the marrow. Aragorn's touch had a soothing effect on his senses, and he sighed softly, his mind as free of burden as it had been in a long time.
"How are you feeling?", Aragorn inquired, continuing to minister to his patient with warm touch and careful observation.
Frodo smiled at him faintly and replied, "A bit sore, and dizzy when I move too quickly, but otherwise I think I am fine."
"Are you hungry?" he inquired.
Frodo's face blanched. His stomach roiled at the mere mention of food, still struggling against the vanquished enemy of starvation, but since he couldn't recall the last time he'd actually eaten something, he thought it best to at least try.
Aragorn noted Frodo's discomfort and a trace of concern flitted across his face, but he dismissed it immediately and gently prodded, "You have not eaten anything by your own power for a number of days now, and it will help you to recover your strength."
Frodo forced a tight-lipped smile and replied, "What have you brought?"
Aragorn helped Frodo to slowly sit up and lean against the headboard of the cot. He produced a bowl of broth and some fruit, but decided to start with the broth, considering Frodo's weakened state. He held the bowl out and Frodo reached for it, determined to feed himself.
Frodo attempted to balance the bowl in his lap, but his wounded hand was still too sore to press against anything. He also realized that he had no experience eating with his left hand, and frowned down at his right with a mix of disgust and sorrow.
Aragorn said nothing. Out of respect for his injured friend, he dispelled the look of pity that flashed in his eyes and smiled good-naturedly at Frodo as he reclaimed the bowl and began feeding him from it.
"Do you remember waking up before?" asked Aragorn.
"Yes, I do," replied Frodo. "You told me that Sam and I were brought here by eagles."
Suddenly he saw a vision of someone lifting him and tenderly placing him on a pile of soft, black feathers. That must have been the eagle, but who was the savior?
"Gandalf?" he whispered incredulously, and as if on cue Gandalf the White framed the doorway of the tent and greeted him with a warm smile.
"But..." stammered Frodo, completely aghast at the visage before him. It was Gandalf, but yet different at the same time. He was dressed in a luminous white robe, and his usual slightly disheveled silver mane and beard were now meticulously straight and a shocking snowy white in color. He also stood taller, or maybe just not hunched with age? He strode forward with an air of confidence. Frodo grinned at him as he sat down on the edge of the cot beside the hobbit and gave him a warm, but gentle embrace.
Frodo finished his broth and cautiously began nibbling at the fruit while Gandalf and Aragorn recounted the tale of the War of the Ring, and the Fellowship's role in it. Frodo grasped Gandalf's hand as Aragorn told of the passing of the Witch King and Merry's brush with the black breath, and Pippin's courageous battle with the troll. They assured him that both his cousins were alive and well and eager to visit him, but that their duties and his condition had precluded them thus far.
At the end of the tale, Aragorn glanced kindly at him and stated, "The only part that we are missing is the tale of the Ring".
At the mere utterance of the word, Frodo winced visibly and involuntarily drew his maimed hand along his body and up to his breast, to the place where the Ring had ravished his fair skin for so long. He covered the wince as quickly as he could, but for long moments he could not meet their eyes as their gazes of concern bore into him. He fought to keep his breathing steady, to belie the surge of anguish that had raced through him at the mere thought of his mislaid treasure.
What did he remember? As he searched his mind, images from the Shire and the quest came unbidden to comfort him, memories that he knew he had longed for during his arduous journey. They had been withheld from him then, devoured by the Ring as one more weapon to weaken his defenses. He ventured once more towards the gaping rent in his soul where he knew the events of the last days dwelt, but suddenly the darkness overpowered him, lashing out at him and pulsing shrieks of agony through his battered mind, sending him reeling blindly, pinning him with crushing force. He lost the battle with his uneven breathing and gasped openly as the pain intensified. As he began to hunch forward, curling instinctively to shield himself, he was startled as Aragorn squeezed his shoulder gently, thrusting him into the present with a jolt. The touch of the healer provided some strength to fend off the darkness, but the shadow still held him in icy claws as he struggled to compose himself in spite of it. He knew they were watching him, concerned or even shocked at his reaction. But he could not explain, not even to himself...not yet.
Without looking up, he uttered in a barely audible voice, "I do not remember what happened. We will have to ask Sam."
Aragorn shot an alarmed glance at Gandalf, but the wizard stared back evenly, ventured softly, "Frodo, you look as if our tale has tired you. Why don't you rest awhile and Aragorn and I will check on you later?"
Frodo nodded a bit numbly as Aragorn eased him back down onto the bed, then with all the will he could muster he feigned a smile for them as they moved to leave.
As soon as he was sure they had departed, he drew in a great shuddering breath, and curled on his side as sobs wracked his body. How could he endure this? It was just too much to bear. Every moment he was awake, the lust for the Ring still lurked in the back of his mind. Memories of the Shire had served to keep the pain and longing penned there, but Aragorn's mention of It had caught him unawares, and the wrenching sorrow and torment of despair had nearly overwhelmed him to the point of crying out aloud. And what of the memories that he could not summon? Was this how it was to be forever? Would he ever be rid of his need for the Ring? Deep shame welled up inside him at the mere thought. How could he tell anyone of his feelings? He himself did not understand how he could still long for the vile piece of jewelry. How could he explain it to anyone else? He could never tell them. They would not understand anymore than he did, and they all had already borne so much. He would not burden them with the knowledge of the Ring's presence still within him. He just had no idea how he was to contain it within himself. As these desperate thoughts engulfed him, merciful sleep lulled his consciousness into brief dreamless silence.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Aragorn followed Gandalf from the tent and quickened his pace to walk abreast with him. He had not been able to locate the wizard earlier, which only served to magnify his frustration over Frodo's uncertain condition. He had instead gone and tended to matters of his fledgling state, and then returned to look in on Frodo only to have his earlier conjectures all but confirmed by the incident they had just witnessed. He was quite anxious to hear Gandalf's opinion of the matter.
The wizard cast him a sidelong glance and stated,
"You are troubled in mind, Aragorn."
He was not surprised by Gandalf's perception--Gandalf had an uncanny ability to sense the mental state of others, and this was exactly what he was counting on in regards to his suspicions about Frodo. He took a deep breath and a moment to frame his thoughts, and began, "He will not speak of it, but I believe that Frodo longs for the Ring. When he first awoke, he cried out for it in delirium, and you cannot deny the discomfort that my mere mention of it caused him".
Gandalf stopped and seemed to weigh this a moment, then turned to Aragorn and fixed him with his gaze,
"Yes, he does long for the Ring. By the end of the journey, the Ring was as much a part of him as It was of Gollum, but Gollum passed on with the Ring. Frodo must live with Its absence".
"How can he long for something that no longer exists?"
"Its existence has no bearing on Its effect on him now," replied Gandalf gravely, gazing off at the sunset blazing in the West.
"During the time he bore it, Its presence engraved a lasting mark on his heart and mind. It became a part of his very self. It burrowed into his thoughts, finally pushing him nigh onto insanity as It broke his will and he had no choice but to claim It. Its abrupt departure from him has left a gaping wound that will never really heal. The loss of It cannot be compared to any in Middle Earth. He will always feel it." Gandalf glanced up, his eyes for a moment deep wells of sorrow and regret peering at Aragorn, then his expression changed to one of stolid acceptance, a sad smile touching his face.
"But it is as it had to be", he muttered softly.
Aragorn had seen that look before, at the Council of Elrond, in the moment that Frodo had stepped forward to claim the quest to himself. With a jolt he realized that Gandalf had known all along how things would end for Frodo, if the quest was completed. He had known, as Frodo spoke those fateful words "I will take the Ring", that he had sacrificed everything he was in that instant, and everything he could ever be. The reality smote Aragorn brutally; despair and regret heaved in him as he thought about that rare and luminous spirit who would remain forever broken as a result of his willingness to put the fate of Middle Earth above his own. He now knew who truly had paid the most dear price for his kingdom--in blood and sweat and tears and bitter shards of soul.
Anger suddenly flared up in him and he demanded, "Why didn't you tell me?"
Gandalf looked thoughtfully back at him for a moment, replied patiently, "This was not your burden to bear. Your task was to lead your people in battle and reclaim the throne of Gondor--would it have aided you to know that Frodo's sacrifice would endure no matter what the outcome of the War of the Ring? The burden was mine to bear, as it should have been."
Aragorn just stared at him blankly, still attempting to come to grips with the knowledge of Frodo's fate. The anger had drained from him just quickly as it had come--Frodo had been his charge to protect as long as he could, but ultimately both Frodo's fate and the Ring's were taken from his hands...maybe they had not actually been in his grasp in the first place. He could do nothing to alter the events of the past, and there seemed little he could do to prevent their cruel aftermath.
His eyes shimmered as he implored flatly, "Is there nothing we can do?"
"There are things that can be done", replied the wizard kindly, "but Frodo must choose to do them...and the time is not yet ripe. All that we can do is watch over him while he regains his strength."
They walked on in silence, hearts heavy with the burden of one small soul forever changed, as the last rays of the weary sun streaked through the trees and glinted off the White Tower of Ecthelion in the distance.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Frodo awoke, still curled tightly in a ball as he had fallen asleep, and he was grateful for this as the anguish lanced through him almost immediately. Again, his mind was on fire with lust for the Ring, consuming every aspect of his existence and forcing him to tear at his thoughts for purchase on something that would drive back the excruciating stab of agony. He struggled, but the memories of the past were becoming more readily available, and he caught hold of Bilbo's study in Bag End on a bright summer's day. He pictured himself sitting at the big old desk, Elvish translation laid out before him, but his gaze was out the window into the garden beyond, where he could hear Sam busily humming as he weeded the flower bed just below the window. The air was heavy with summer heat and busy insects, and the vivid memory slowly eased the pain to something manageable as he dwelt again in the Shire. He had used his memories this way to combat the Ring before, but only until It had obtained the power to take them away from him. It seemed that whatever remained of It had no sway over them anymore. Memories would be a formidable weapon against the Ring's lingering essence.
He slowly relaxed his arms, unclenching them from around his stomach as he rolled gently onto his back. His eyes fluttered open as the world again righted itself, and immediately he was aware that he was not alone. His eyes scanned the room from side to side and fell leftward onto Sam's sleeping form beside him. Gingerly, Frodo rolled unto his side, raising his maimed hand and using his elbow to position himself. Once the vertigo had passed, he beheld what remained of his dearest friend.
Oh stars, was that actually Sam? The figure lying beside him was gaunt and haggard--sallow skin stretched across sharply angled cheekbones which plummeted into deep sunken wells beneath the eyes. His sandy curls were interwoven with strands of straightened, scorched tufts of hair, and his face and scalp bore several ugly seared areas. The specter before Frodo bore such little resemblance to the pristine and envigored image in his head that tears welled up in his eyes and flowed freely down his cheeks.
He couldn't bear to look at him. He abruptly rolled away to face the wall, not caring as the world spun about him and his maimed hand throbbed painfully in protest as he pinned it beneath his own weight. He discovered he still bore no clear recollection of Sam's appearance since their time in Ithilien, except for a memory of his angelic face bending over him in the tower. He had been so occupied with the Ring that he could pay no heed to the practical, and from the looks of things he had fared far better in terms of physical health, although it occurred to him that he had not yet gotten to look at himself since their terrible odyssey.
He searched for any scrap of memory since Ithilien. This part of his mind still lay thickly shrouded in darkness, a seething wound that sent waves of torment through him at his very approach; although each shard of recollection he produced brought with it renewed suffering, he struggled to piece together the events the lay in pieces before his mind's eye. Most of what he laid claim to was darkness, an abyss of mind-numbing pain and pressure that melted all time together into one eternal moment of heated agony. But from beneath this he captured a single impression--himself holding tight to warm flesh, holding on for dear life with all the strength he possessed, and a sensation of motion. He realized with a start that what he was holding was Sam's neck, and that the movement was Sam carrying him. Had Sam carried him up the mountain? He knew it to be true. Oh Sam, what else did you do for me on that hateful road? What else did you sacrifice? Only silence answered him. The Ring had taken everything else.
How had things ended up this way? Why had he chosen to bear this? WHAT had happened on that mountain and in the days just before? He lay there for a long time, pinned by stultifying grief as he wept bitterly for Sam, for himself, for everything that had happened since that fateful day when Bilbo had departed the Shire and left him the Ring.
A single image burst upon his misery, as it had when he had stood on the shore at Parth Galen, trying to screw up the courage to depart with the Ring. Gandalf's image warmed every corner of his thoughts as the phrase echoed in his mind:
All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us
He still had time. And he had a decision to make. He had to decide what to do with the time that was left to him. He could not change the past, but he had a choice as to what happened now...what he let happen. The Ring was gone. Would he still allow it to control him and overshadow him?
No, he would not allow this to happen. The Ring had taken so many things out of their lives, and had changed so much, he would not allow it to claim what was left of him, too. He was stronger now, able to push back the shadows with his re-emerging will and his cherished memories. He would use them as a beacon, a light to keep the darkness at bay and he would return to life in the Shire surrounded by the warmth of friends. He would live, to spite It and to pay homage to all the sacrifices that had been made to ensure that he had that opportunity. For the Fellowship, who had watched over and protected him for as long as they could. For Merry and Pippin, who had lost their innocence and nearly their lives in battles they had waged because of him. For Sam, dear Sam, who had risked everything to save him and return to him everything that the Ring had taken away.
Yes, he would live each day to the fullest, and keep within himself his own battle with the evil that remained in his mind and heart. He would protect them from the one thing that remained that could still damage them all. He would not fail at this one last task that lay before him, not like he had at Sammath Naur. No, he could not change the past, but he could shape the future. He would shield them all from what remained of evil in the world.
Slowly, he rolled back over, and this time he slid in close to Sam and curled around him protectively. Tears still shimmered in his eyes, but he held fast to Sam as he knew Sam had done to him as he had suffered through their long quest. When Sam awoke, he would be there to care for him and show him that everything was back to normal now, that the Ring and all It represented had been destroyed. He would protect them all.