Not so very far away, two figures struggled over the rough, treacherous terrain of the Gorgoroth Plain. The stink of Mordor invaded every fold of their clothing, dread locking manacles around their ankles, their feet slowing with every step.
Sam kept his eyes downwards, afraid that if he looked up, the Eye of the Enemy would see him. He could no longer hear the din of the Orc armies, but he knew that the sounds – the shrieks and screams, metal on metal, hideous and frightening – would haunt his nightmares for a long time. If he lived long enough to see another night. He glanced every now and then, more frequently now, at Frodo, his worry increasing tenfold for every glimpse he got of his friend.
Frodo was not in a good state. Clammy and pale, his face was twisted in permanent pain and anguish. From the first footstep into Mordor, the Ring had gotten noticeably heavier, the proximity of the Enemy calling to it.
Its voice was loud in Frodo’s head; it was in every thought, every feeling, every nerve and vein was coated with the alluring temptations that it fed upon. It was only through sheer will power that Frodo had managed to resist the Ring’s seduction throughout their journey, but here, here within the Enemy’s walls, he could feel his strength fading fast.
His eyes darted around the barren landscape, the rocky outcrops that burst into flames before his eyes, only to become the Great Eye. Then, he fixed his gaze on Sam; strong, solid, dependable, real Sam.
“Frodo wouldn’t have got far without Sam.”
The truth in his words from what seemed like an eon ago hit him hard. Sam grounded him, saved him from himself so many times. Ithilien felt so far away, the green of the grass a mere dream. The whole journey, from the first brave step out of Bag End, did not feel real. Here he was, Frodo Baggins, from The Shire, in Mordor. No. It was all very dreamlike.
But the jagged stones that tore his feet to shreds were very real, as was the ever-growing sense of dread that accompanied the Ringbearer wherever he might go. His skin was red and raw where the Ring rested, and it hurt. It hurt so much.
“It hurts,” Frodo mumbled, half-delirious. He stumbled, lurching one way then the other, and would have fallen had Sam not been there to support him.
Sam held Frodo gently, but stayed standing. His eyes were anxious, scanning the horizon for any sign of something – anything. The Eye was one thing, but if they met any Orcs, neither of them were in any state to defend themselves.
“There we go, Mr Frodo. Careful now, don’t want you falling now, do we?” Sam tried to keep his voice from wobbling, tried so very hard to keep from falling apart himself. “Look – we’re almost there. Just a bit further, Mr Frodo.”
He pointed ahead of them. Frodo raised his heavy eyes, but it was hard to do anything more. Even his blurry gaze was enough to see that there was something big blocking their way. Something huge.
“Mount Doom,” Sam whispered, partly to himself.
The sheer scale of the mountain was enough to make his pulse quicken, his heart longing to just sit down somewhere and curl up and never wake up. But his head looked at Frodo, and his resolve hardened.
“We’ve come so far, Sam.” Frodo’s voice was raspy, and so faint that Sam barely heard him. If he had not felt the solidness of his friend’s body in his arms, he could have sworn that the voice belonged to a wraith. “But it has all been in vain. I cannot go on.”
Sam closed his eyes briefly. When he opened them again, they held the same steely determination that they had when they left Osgiliath, soon to fade into a shadow. Faramir’s words echoed in his head – “…a dark terror dwells in the passes above Minas Morgul. You cannot go that way.” And yet, they both had survived ‘the dark terror’ and were so close to achieving their goal. He had let go of the hope that they would live to tell the tale way back, but Samwise the Brave still sounded good.
“You must. I’m here, Mr Frodo. I do not intend to leave you, just as Gandalf told me.” He set Frodo upright, keeping an arm round his shoulders, and took hold of his hand. “We can finish this together. You are not alone.”
Sam even managed a small smile. That smile warmed Frodo right to his core, chasing away many of the shadows that lingered in his gut. The shadows of the friends that had lost, the ones they had left; of the images he saw in Galadriel’s mirror, of his kin, bound and beaten, of the Shire, burning. But the impenetrable darkness of the shadows that still held sway in his heart, the power of the Ring, could not be so easily discarded.
“Thank you, Sam.” And that was enough, for them both.
They staggered onwards, in the gloom, and all hope was not lost.
Not lost, despite the growing number of Orcs marching towards the Black Gate, the armies of Mordor and any remnants of Isengard’s forces all ready to face the final few who stood in the way of bringing darkness over the entirety of Middle Earth.
Sauron saw everything, his eye roaming the country. He saw Minas Tirith, flames still devouring the city and the dead that lay within. He saw the three survivors, gloated in their despair. The heir of Isildur was nothing without an army to support him.
He saw Saruman, and his dirty, treacherous slave, Wormtongue, systematically taking control of the Shire. His Eye had not had much cause to turn that far south in an age. But now he watched as the halflings were forced to bow to a new master.
Saruman no longer answered to him, but as long as he kept his sights on the Shire, Sauron would let him feel like he was in charge. When his Orcs roamed free and unhindered across all of Middle Earth, having the Shire already subjugated might even be helpful.
The Eye saw the Elves, their ships leaving Middle Earth in hordes.
The time of the Elves is long over; the time of Men is ending – it is the time of all that is dark to rise up and conquer.
But what Sauron and his Eye did not do was turn inwards; he did not see the two hobbits making their way across his own lands. The call of the Ring was strong, but not for one second did he imagine that it was so close.
And what neither he nor the hobbits saw was the creature that lolloped some way behind them, following a desire that burned so fiercely and painfully just below his skin.