The slender trunk gleamed a silken grey, a shade stretched out from sharp silver and near as shiny as the small nut he'd planted before the winter. Right miserable those months had been, with only the briefest spells of snow to soothe the desolate gardens and the harsh wounds where so many stately old trees were now missing. But with March and its rains came a bright wind that swept all of Hobbiton and the wasted fields beyond, and green shoots began pushing up everywhere. Quicker it seemed than any spring he remembered, as if all things were in a hurry to break away from the last year's troubles. This morning, the sun climbed thin and white into a cloudless sky, her brilliance needling through the mallorn's leaves in stings that made his eyes water.
Sam brushed the clotted dirt off his knees and hands and headed back towards Bag End. Up the Hill where the new Row curved out clean and proud, and all the gashes in the ground were scabbing over with young grass. Perhaps this afternoon Frodo would come out with him to look at the mallorn sapling, and if the sun kept a'blazing as it did, the first golden buds might peel open to greet him.
Next to the Gaffer's restored hole, Widow Rumble was busy over her turnip patch, the ruddy glow of spring cleaning in her cheeks. Instead of bending her shoulders, the past year had tightened her up like wire and set a keen look in her eye that would suit any budding lass.
"Hullo, Sam!" She waved with a bundle of lank weeds before tossing them in a bucket.
"These little cribbers grow back right quick; quicker than the true and honest greens, what's more."
"So they do, Mrs. Rumble," Sam returned her greeting. "And some of them flower so cheerful, it sets me thinking they're doing us a pleasure this year."
"Ach, ye've always had a softness for the wee things and the wayward," she replied, her Tuckborough accent thickened with fond humour. She winked the way she would when he was still the Gaffer's dreamy-eyed toddler and bustled on towards the hole, bucket in hand. Sam stood watching after her another moment.
For a while this winter, some folk gave him thoughtful looks like he'd come home all chopped and changed. But by now most agreed that Sam Gamgee, though he might have kept queer company for a time, still wore the same old skin. Truth be told, he wasn't one to cut a dash like Merry and Pippin in their lordly mail-shirts and their unrestful ways. Nor was Mr. Frodo, who walked about in his old everyday clothes and made so little of himself, people had stopped watching for changes as wouldn't show on the outside. And though he might be saying thanks for the lesser attention to himself, it pained Sam to see so little care and mind paid to Mr. Frodo's comforts.
Frodo never spoke of his ailments, but those Sam didn't know of he could guess, just from his own bothers, trifling as they were. Like the spots of numbness in his feet and those odd little trembles in his fingers that always passed too quick to be worried about. Taking on what they couldn't take away.
The garden gate rumbled shut behind him, with a creak that begged for a good oiling. Sam cleaned his muddied feet on a wet patch of grass, stopping a moment till the coolness tingled his soles and grateful contentment crept over him. Sunlight scythed a wide arch across the front garden and glazed the tips of early snapdragon sprouts. Everything sparkled with a keen edge while the crisp air turned the season, making room for all things scattered to come together again.
Not long now, and he would be married.
A small quaver in his breath trailed after the thought, just as it had done when he finally spoke up. Setting foot into a road that brought no dangerous business and instead ran frank to a homely doorstep, just as his Gaffer had always hoped for. In another month, all the season's glory would shine up in his Rosie's eyes when Sam promised in front of everyone to comfort and care for her, as he'd already done in private.
"It's you that needs some looking after now, Sam Gamgee," she'd said, blushing sweetly, her eyes forward with affection and casting a glow about her that sent him off feeling more fortunate than he rightly deserved. And they'd both be taking care of Mr. Frodo at Bag End, now that his furniture and all odds and ends had been carted back from Crickhollow.
Several days it took, too, to move everything in its rightful place once again. Every so often Sam had stepped away, tugging out memories to set them next to the picture in front of him. Till finally Frodo asked him where he was finding fault, but he couldn't quite say.
"It doesn't feel quite right, Mr. Frodo. Not the same, if you take my meaning."
"It doesn't have to," Frodo answered in a soft, bemused tone. "It is still much more than I had ever expected."
When Sam turned, he caught Frodo in a look such as he'd not shown since they left Rivendell, on the road home. A look that fanned like the gentlest touch on his skin, and he might have answered it with his hands too, if it were possible.
Sam stood quite still as the familiar ache twisted in his chest, under his breath, and trailed out slowly. Such things belonged to the past now, treasures to be kept close, and not to be pined over. He'd set his mind on doing all the work his hands were good for, instead of clutching what wouldn't be mended. Not by Sam Gamgee, nohow.
For several moments longer, he eyed the round door that sealed his home to be, and not just in his fancy either. It was still a new thought, the kind that took its time fitting itself in. Every once a while, he'd call up the sound of Mr. Frodo's voice asking, "When are you going to move in and join me, Sam?"
He'd not known how to answer at first, struck dumb and battling a rise of foolish ideas he'd put behind himself with every step into the Shire; the sort that still riddled his nights with heart-flustering dreams.
"There is no need to come yet," Frodo went on, seeing his plight, "if you don't want to."
Sam shook his head. *Don't want to, Mr. Frodo?* His heartbeat battered strangely through the hollow in his breast, louder than Frodo's kind offer and the words he dragged from his own confusion. Shame welled up thick at the lonely waiting in Frodo's eyes, at the gift that he couldn't dishonour. So he spoke up as frank as he could though it came out awkward and fumbling.
"I feel torn in two, as you might say," he finished. And the plain truth it was; only it didn't take two for the tearing.
All Mr. Frodo's good cheer couldn't set aside the strange new caution, or the shadows tucked in the corners of his smile. "Get married as soon as you can," he said, "and then move in with Rosie. There's room enough for as big a family as you could wish for."
The light in his smile had a thin edge to it now, like snow crystal sparking against the strained lines in his face. Some of those lines eased when Sam returned the smile. In it lay a slow and scalding relief for undeserved mercies. They would live here, all of them together, and he'd do what he could to assure that Mr. Frodo drew back no further into this loneliness and the shadows of his room.
Sam looked away from the door, to the tidy row of gardening tools he'd brought out of the shed with dawn. Much work wanted doing between Hobbiton and Bywater, but the gardens of Bag End weren't about to suffer for it.
He picked up the clippers to clear the curls of black, withered ends away from the gorse bush. Only the week before, he'd caught himself in the fancy that the troubles had made him gardener for all of the Shire, and it chilled him right through with a memory of the Ring's whisperings. He hadn't a wish beyond tending this treasured bit of garden, just as Frodo wouldn't ask to own aught for himself. He'd said so the morning they shouldered their packs in Rivendell, right by the bed where they'd spent the night not sleeping much at all.
*It wouldn't be right to claim this much all for myself, Sam.*
The blades quickened as Sam trimmed the bush so it could soak up spring right proper, their sharp rhythm chipping at Frodo's voice.
*There is a light in you that could brighten the darkest night, even if you cannot see it yourself. I shan't let you spend it all on me.*
And so very like him it was, to turn a failing to a kindly thing. Bright silver snips flashed through Frodo's firm smile, the memory of Frodo's hand squeezing his own, before he let go quick. As if his touch had grown to be a burden.
Sam hadn't the breath to object, though the ground dipped out under his feet just as it did the day he'd walked straightways into the water. But if there were anything he'd learned on the long roads they'd come, it was that all things fair and right could cut as hard as the worst wrongs did. And also that Mr. Frodo, who'd taken the sharpest blows, deserved better than being questioned on the wisdom of his choices.
Barely a day out of Rivendell, he'd taken ill with a clutching cold that spread from the old wound in his shoulder. *Do you see now, Sam? There's not enough left of me.*
And it was all Sam could do to keep the tears back and his hands from shaking when no manner of warmth soothed that frost. What he wouldn't have done to hold Frodo safe from the Ring, but he couldn't, he hadn't, and here it was shown to him again for certain. Since their return, Frodo had holed away whenever he could, as if he were troublesome windfall underfoot, even living with the Cottons this winter. It made Sam heartsore to see him so withdrawn. Yet maybe, he told himself, maybe that would change now, with Frodo once again Master of Bag End, and most of the Shire back in fresh bloom, and the wedding close at hand.
It would be... a brightness spreading from one to the other, Sam thought, from Rose and her brothers to Farmer Cotton and the Gaffer, and back again to Mr. Frodo.
Sam put the clippers down and closed his eyes tightly. Perhaps it would bring back Frodo's smile, the smile that had once been only for him, cleaving to the heart. With a happiness as piercing as the Lady's starglass, and the light always captured within it, always.
*It weren't for the likes of you to keep, Sam Gamgee, not for yourself, leastways.* He reached for the rake to clear out the brittle twigs and dead leaves that the morning wind had shook down the Hill's side. Elven magic or no, the gardens of Bag End would be the fairest sight in all of the North and West Farthing. He didn't stop again till he'd reached the window of old Mr. Bilbo's study.
The trusty nasturtians had come back the quickest, crawling along the turf walls in thick skeins, and from the flower-bed beneath the window sprang hyacinths, pansies and daffodils in close tufts. But Sam had a mind for doing better and growing a fine gardenia there, and yellow moss roses too. If it was all he could do, at least he'd plant something bright and cheering to catch Frodo's eye each time he glanced outside.
He spent most his time on the book now, patiently filling page after page with that graceful script of his. He was working on it now. Out from the garden, Sam could see the leather-bound volume on the table, the hand that lay against its border and shaped poesy out of the white. As familiar a sight as any he could recollect, from his earliest days at Bag End. A beauty of strange shapes flowed from Mr. Frodo's hand, like the melody of Elven tongues sifted through his fingers.
They'd long been one in Sam's mind, the voice of those charmful songs and the hand that wrote them, both a mystery and an invitation to distant lands. And this he'd taken to heart so much, Mr. Bilbo sat him down next to Frodo one day, so his own crude hand could catch in the letters some of the faraway magic. But he'd not learned by study of the letters, he'd picked it up from the leaning of Frodo's fingers, the poise of his hand over the page. And thus he could see that the spell had been broken, and the silent music no longer flowed in a single direction.
The pages filled up with their own chapters in the story now, some quicker and some tortuously slow, pulling back and rushing in, till some sudden break was reached. He'd not read a line of the tale, but Sam could see in Frodo's bent back, in his hold on the page, how he was pushing himself through it. In a rhythm that flashed and broke, and dashed itself endlessly against an unseen shore. Then, abruptly still, his hand clutched so fierce the knuckles froze white, and Sam kept the breath inside just as he knew Frodo did, on the other side of the window.
All this, and Mr. Frodo thought he was hiding it well. And seeing how he wouldn't have it no other way, Sam never let it show neither. He stood very still by the window, his hands wrapped around the rake, but Frodo didn't once look up.
It had ended. As no story was ever supposed to, and that proved for right how he'd put too much trust in things long gone and forgotten. Bits of starlight and song and fresh grass growing couldn't mend ills that took root in the heart. All that Frodo had left of himself was the book with its dead white pages asking for later chapters and tales running dry without him at the centre.
Sam bent over it in the thinning light. His coarse letters would be all broken up now, leaning every which way. He couldn't do it. He gave a hard look to the dead white that had so betrayed him, the pages that should have been a measure of the future, with Frodo here filling them. He wanted to take the book out into the garden, bury it in the earth that thickened towards winter again, growing heavy and dark with the autumn rains. He wanted to rip every empty page from it, every day that should have been.
When he lifted it up, a loose sheet peeked out at one corner. He pulled it free and fought to still his hands so he could read what looked to be a bit of poetry. Lastly though, he had to flatten it out on the table.
It was a walking song of Mr. Bilbo's, copied and changed in parts, but down at the bottom, lines had been added, scratched out and written over with a savage spill of ink, so that only one verse remained clear to be read.
*But ever as the seasons go,
the swell and rise of sea to shore
is music and lament for us
who shall not part though years may pass.*
The lines ran together before his eyes, and the clash of breakers thundering up the stony beach was only blood and pulse rushing hard in his temples.
He left the book and the page on the table, but it didn't stop his heart hammering up his throat, or the chill of remembered words whispered in his ear, Be happy, Sam, promise me that.
The door rattled at his back and got stuck, spattering a dry sound through the depth of Bag End.
All that I had and might have had I leave to you. Frodo's fingers curled over his own and wrapped them tight, one last time.
But he'd never wanted to own the smials or the gardens - *and how can you leave me a 'might have'?*
Might have was the music of Frodo's hands on his skin and starlight under it, flowing smooth like the run of Elven tongues.
Sam pulled at the half-closed door to settle it firmly in place. He shouldn't be thinking of that no more. Beside the white ship, he'd seen in Frodo's eyes what he'd missed so hard and so long. The first kindling of hope.
It released Frodo's smile when they stepped apart, there on the shore. To see it, Sam had to let go. And all the kindness he could offer was to wish Frodo in a place where no shadow could ever reach.
Sam clasped his hands together and chafed warmth into them. Even not thinking on it, the memories would shine through, like the starglass had once pulsed in his fingers. So rich and pure.
Outdoors, the air carried scents of earth being raked afresh after the harvest, and he breathed it in deep. All his life, he'd been content to follow the calm growth of trees and roots stretching through the soil. The waiting should be like that, a weaving through days and months and seasons, and naught wrong with it either. Time and trees couldn't be hurried, and he'd never had a mind for trying before.
Halfway across the garden, he paused at the sound of little Elanor's voice burbling from the open window, and Rosie's murmured song wrapping round it. He wanted to turn back inside and just sit there all quiet and watch. How those tiny little fingers grabbed through Rosie's hair and poked at her lovely smile that warmed the whole room. But that would come later when his crying were done; for now he'd drag in only what didn't ought to be buried in their home.
His feet carried him down to the Party Field where the sunlight paled on shrouding gold leaves. And so it had when they first came to Lorien, where time faltered into a sweet rest, silvered with the music of water. *Still ending and beginning still,* as the verse ran in one of Mr. Bilbo's poems, so lightly circling an endless whole. Sam knelt beside the tree, and the voice speaking in his mind was Frodo's again.
*...so much to enjoy and to be and to do.*
But he wasn't whole now, and what if he could never be? Nearer the ground, the tree's silver fell to an ashen gleam.
The mallorn had set its roots down deep. But seeing how it grew through the long ages of Elves, why would it soar to the sky as it did, as if it could span forever in weeks? Sam laid his hand against the trunk that had grown thick as his arm and thought he felt the sap running under the smooth bark. Like a need.
*Don't never go where I can't follow, Mr. Frodo.*
But he hadn't, he hadn't.
"...time, Sam. Maybe..." Broken words scarce heard in the clash and whipping of the Sea. The waves' thunderfalls returned to him now, softer than before, a gentle urging of time to the shore. A salty burn on his lips when he leaned his forehead against the shimmering bark. *Here's where I'll be keeping you safe.*
He looked at his hands that weren't made for fine things such as seeding words. But Frodo had put all his trust in these hands, and his life besides.
He left you a Maybe, Sam Gamgee, what more do you need? And his hands were near steady now.
Black earth crumbled cool and damp against the skin of his palms. He'd raise letters under his fingers such as he could, and the tale would continue, winding on and outward like a road or a river. Until he was whole again with hope.
One day when all the pages had been filled, he would look at his children and the trees regrown in all the right places, and the years would spread out wide and gladdened before them. He could wait for that day.
In the cup of his hand lay the rich, clean soil of the Shire. He wanted to fill his mouth with it, but it wouldn't wash out the scouring taste of salt.
He'd planted the tree. He'd have a family as big as anyone could wish for, and a promise to keep. There was no need to be crying.
*...tomorrow we may come this way
and take the hidden paths that run
west of the moon, east of the sun.*
not the end *