Sam has an unusual encounter as he tries to make a long-delayed decision.
Timeline: March 1420, S.R.
Part 8: Sun in the Stone
Both or neither, neither and both...
Bill's hoofs rang on the rutted road, every clip and clop skipping through Sam's head. Once again, he felt the spores and shoots of impatience rise all through him. Don't be a fool, Sam Gamgee.
For miles ahead, the East Road stretched on straight and grey under the clouded sun. Small puffs of dust stirred beneath Bill's lively step, swirling from the upper layer of dirt that had dried again since the last night's rains. The air still carried moist scents though, and the resin-smell of firs recalled the departed frost.
Sam sucked in a long breath for patience and shaded his eyes against the light that thinned the clouds to a veil. He could have rode on northwards, following the byway that wound up to the edge of the Bindbale woods, but instead he'd set himself on this wide, eastward track. Now, close on mid-day, the road was empty before and behind him. Far ahead, it disappeared in a haze, a deep furrow in the land that was carved ages before.
With a short whistle, Sam slowed Bill to a trot. On their right, less than a furlong away, he could see the Three-Farthing Stone, a blanched finger against the meadow and the darker rim of evergreens off south.
"Here we are then." Bill pricked his ears, and Sam leaned forward to pat his neck. "How if we took a short break? I've a carrot in my bag for you."
Bill snorted, agreeable to the plan, but his ears kept twitching. He must have noted the tautness in his master's voice, just as Sam himself did.
"I don't know," he said softly. "'T might be a fool's errand, and wouldn't be the first either."
He brought Bill to a halt where a path cut through the road-bank. Reins wrapped round one hand, Sam swung his leg over the crupper and hopped off. In the ground lingered a chill that the sun couldn't chase this early in the year. As he led Bill into the wide, flat dell, he felt a sharper attention gather inside him, rousing to listen for the quietmost stirs in the land, if there were any.
Only a dim slice of shadow lay at the stone's foot where the loam was bare and trod down hard from many a visit paid over the years. There were countless tales about the stone's marvellous history, but no-one knew aright who'd set it there, or who'd carved the markings on its three sides. Many centuries ago it must have been, for the runes spelling East and West, and the circle of the sun drawn on the third side, had withered to shallow grooves and were dappled with yellowed bits of moss and stonecrop. You had to lean close to see the scores at all. Daylight pooled on the stone's bald crown, so it looked near white.
Folk said it could keep cool at noontide, or glow as coal in mid-winter, and at a touch it let you know your blessing. There wasn't a traveller in the Shire that didn't stop to pay the stone a visit, but not all dared to try their luck.
Sam paused before it, watching the stone that reared from the quiet as ever it did, but it struck him then that there should be another on the far side of the road, raised and fashioned like a rightful twin. The notion seemed like a memory breathed out of the stone itself, ancient and worn thin with time. Sam lifted his eyes for another long look around.
In this one spot of all the Shire, things seemed unchanged and untouchable. Like a flame on a short wick, his relief flickered to disappointment – all seemed so remote, so silent – and back again. Perhaps he'd still come to an answer here. His heartbeat sped to small, hard knocks at the bottom of his throat.
Make up your mind, for love of the Shire! You can't have it both ways.
He'd never tried his blessings and wasn't wholly sure he would now – not till Bill nudged the back of his arm, and Sam could feel his soft snort more than hear it, like an encouragement to lift his hand. Then, before he'd drawn half a breath, the stone lay cold and rugged under his palm. Lifeless to the touch, like the black of winter.
That's because the sun's weak yet, and my hand hot from the reins,
Sam reasoned with himself, squeezing back the tears that sprang behind his lids, heated as the stone ought to have been. What's to become of us?
"Well, Bill, my lad..." He cleared the rough edge from his voice and turned to scratch the tuft between the pony's ears. "There's no sense in askin' a stone's advice, I reckon." Each word strained against a weight in his chest, at the hopes wrapped so tight round his heart. I won't be letting go, Frodo. Never that.
He stood back and blinked at the sky, where the sun was a blurred disk behind the clouds, silver more than gold. At that moment he remembered himself, stretched out on Bag End's lawn, many summers before...
As though it was now, he could smell grass just beginning to flower, and the scent blew over him, warm and restful. Mr. Frodo had been away on a visit to Tuckborough and Mr. Bilbo off to market, leaving Sam by himself in the flourishing garden. He'd set to mow the lawn in the afternoon, but when he took his mid-day break, the tended green looked so inviting that he lay down flat in the middle. He couldn't now recollect if he'd napped for a bit or merely closed his eyes, but when he looked up, the sun was right above him, and an odd stillness lay all about. His own heart's pounding dropped straight into the grass and the ground below, and it seemed there was naught in the world but him in that shadowless place, and the day's eye watching from above. A long thrill pierced him, but a moment later Mr. Bilbo's voice rang from the gate, and Sam jumped to his feet in a flustered haste.
He looked on that memory now as though it were a drawing in one of Mr. Bilbo's books, the sort where you might see mountains or a forest peek out just above the horizon, and wonder what path led into that picture, or out of it.
With a shake of his head, Sam reached for the saddle-bag and found the promised carrot among his own provender. Bill had taken to cropping the clover and chickweed, but he swung his head back the moment Sam held out the carrot.
Those were clearer days, he thought, as though a taint had come to the sullen daylight. In years before, most every choice used to grow as trees did, steady without fail, to present itself like a missed acquaintance, in a company of pleasant thoughts. But now, for all his thinking, he couldn't seem to make up his mind.
He couldn't wed Rosie for his Gaffer's wishing alone, nor the Cottons'. In earlier days, that wishing would have been his own, but when he reached for its threads inside him, he found them frayed and tangled in knots of regret.
I'd wrong her,
he would have told his dad if he could, and he'd wanted to tell Frodo the same, save that Mr. Frodo deserved better than being burdened with doubts that couldn't be helped. What am I to give her now?
Sam batted his hand against his breeches. He wouldn't turn back to Bywater ere he'd found an answer; leastways that was certain. As he reached for Bill's dangling reins, his glance fell on the ground. Deep in the grass glittered rain-drops, and he noticed then how thick and juicy all the greens had grown. It was here that he'd blown the last dust from Lady Galadriel's box off his palm, with a wish so large it embraced all the Shire.
It might be too soon yet to see aught of his wish take root. All he could do was travel along the paths where its scattered traces lay sleeping. Sam set his foot in the stirrup and climbed back into the saddle.
* * *
There should be a party...
Towards the end of the day, Sam rode through the Bindbale forest where the old tracks lay smothered in bramble and deadfall. A large and cheerful party,
he thought, to celebrate Mr. Frodo's coming home, once Bag End's been set all to order again.
Music and merry voices would pour from the windows, and rich smells would fill the kitchen where he'd wrestle with a storm of pots, platters and bowls.
Sam looked up into the crowns of twisted pines and firs, leaving it to Bill to pick their path among the thickets. Gloomy as the afternoon was under tree and cloud, he could paint the dull sky with his fancy, with bursts of wild colour – green stars and yellow suns whirling about silver spray as fine as a fountain's. As quick as that, he could picture Frodo in the Party Field, too, his head tilted up as he watched, and his lips parted in surprised laughter.
For a moment, Sam could feel the sound ripple and rise through him with a breathless hope. Then the forest's quiet took over again, sprinkled with tardy plops of rain on their earthward journey from one layer of bearded branches to the next, with occasional trills that passed high overhead, and rustles in the undergrowth.
Dusk threw long and ragged shadows across the path when they passed out from under the pines' eaves. On the right stretched weed-grown fallows, and not too far ahead, the village of Bindbale lay hid in a woodless fold cleaving the country. Grey-bellied clouds were fastened to the sky like soaked laundry, crushed together over a yellow rim in the west. Sam caught a smell of burning pine-cones on the air. Evening was about to settle without a breath, as though willing the land itself to sleep.
"Ho now!" Bill tossed his head at Sam's sudden tug on the reins. In the outgrown tatters of a hedge by the roadside, he'd spotted an odd-shaped bundle that set a chill in his blood.
Sam swung out of the saddle so fast that he nigh twisted his foot in the stirrup, and plunged towards the hedge, dropping into a crouch where shadows clustered. From the tail of his eye, the bundle had seemed like a living form, curled in desperation against the quickthorn's grudging shelter, small enough to be a child. What he'd mistaken for pale curls though were strands of flax spilling from a stuffed burlap bag.
Sam reached for it with shaking fingers and cursed his foolish misgiving. There wasn't a need for conjuring ghosts of trouble when trouble as real as blight on the summer-crop stalked most everywhere. He pulled the bag from the bristling shade of the hedge and felt soft materials yield under the coarse cloth. The fastenings were half undone, and at a tug revealed a heckle with long teeth and a pair of spindles wrapped in a kerchief. Underneath, folded garments of patched wool and drap lay bunched together. A musty smell went up from them.
"Have you lost something?"
Sam swivelled round at the sudden question, for he'd heard none approach, and the air seemed so still and thick as to be churned to butter.
In the middle of the road beside Bill stood a lad in baggy clothes. His shadow angled hard towards Sam, and the day's shrinking gleams caught russet on his curls, reminding Sam of Frodo – so sharply that he missed his breath and failed to reply.
"You've a look as if you're mighty bothered," the lad said. With every moment, the light settled a bit more and drenched his face in watery shadows. "Can I help?"
Sam climbed to his feet on an instant start of suspicion. "Were you watching me?"
The stranger didn't seem to mind the question, but didn't answer it either. "I'm the post messenger from northaways," he introduced himself, in the singing tones that made Sam think of his uncle Andy and folk over in Tighfield.
"Sam Gamgee," he answered, thinking that the lad seemed a sight too young for his job, "out of Hobbiton."
The other tipped his head lightly. "Of course."
Do you know me then?
Sam almost asked, but it might be the cant of his own speech that marked him as a traveller up from the south.
"'Tis a bag full of someone's clothes and gear that I found." Sam turned halfways, stealing a glance at the dark bundle and the flax breathing from the thorn in a short twist of wind. "Who'd throw such things away?"
"Perhaps a body that was run from the village," his new acquaintance said, as though it were the most common notion, "thinking to ease the load."
Sam's stomach clenched at that, drawn tight about a gnawing grief.
"But who knows..." With a quick sideways step, the post messenger approached the hedge. As he stooped to inspect the bundle, Sam could see that his locks fell long and untidy against his jacket's collar. "Who knows what the tale behind this bit of puzzle is," the lad muttered and dug his hand deep into the bag. When he pulled it back, he held a ball of dyed wool.
"Why, this reminds me!" he exclaimed, straightening. "You've heard of Miri Longfoot's coloured path, I expect?"
"Not as I seem to remember." In truth Sam couldn't recollect ever hearing the name of Longfoot either. Beside him, Bill swished his tail mildly.
"Miri Longfoot came walking down from the North Moors..." The messenger's voice ran soft with the lilt of story-telling. "In her pack she carried seedcakes and several hanks of wool – in blue, red and yellow, aye. No fawn on dainty legs was she, and she walked a fair stride to the mile, to see her son and his firstborn after a score of years. But – what do you know! – she'd not gone far when the autumn rains soaked her right through. All her clothes were dripping, and the wool turned heavy as bricks on her back. Shame, you!
says she, shaking her fist at the weather-clouds, but I shall lighten my burden and get on the quicker!
With a snap of his wrist, the post messenger threw the woolen ball up into the air and caught it again in his other hand. "What do you think she did? She tied a thread of blue round the nearest tree, aye, and then to the next, and a fence-post after, till she'd reached her hank's end!"
"And wasted a stretch of good wool," Sam put in.
"Ah, but the colour running aside the lane pleased her no less." The lad smiled, tossing the wool from hand to hand. In the twilight, it was hard to guess its colour that might be a washed-out bay. "Down the dale and uphill she went, with a yellow thread knotted to the trees, and a red one next, aye. Miri Longfoot sang a song full of cheer and nibbled on wet seedcakes as she went marking her path in gay colours." The messenger laughed. "Her pack was empty as a larder in spring when she reached her son's home at last!" He let the wool drop back down on the burlap bag. "But she'd spun him a fine tale, and I wager her son was glad enough to see her, wool or no wool."
Sam chuckled, squinting at the chattersome hobbit in the dimness. "'Tis you spinning me a yarn from straw and fog, I shouldn't be surprised."
If he wasn't much mistaken, the lad's mouth bent with a sly grin. "Believe as you will," he said and rummaged in his pouch, retrieving a felt hat that he pulled down over his curls. The sagging leather bag at his hip seemed empty; he must have delivered the day's post without picking up any new letters. "Miri Longfoot was a great-great-aunt of mine, I'll have you know, on the mother's side."
"Well, then..." Sam gave him a slow smile in return. "I've a rare new tale to bring home with me, I reckon."
"What about this find of yours?" the post messenger asked, prodding the bag with his toes. "Will you take that along, too?" He sounded wistful of a sudden.
Sam shook his head. "If she that lost it ever comes back, 'tis here that she'll look."
"Quite right, I expect." The post messenger touched his thumb and forefinger to the crooked brim of his hat. "A good evening to you, and a wholesome rest."
"You're not spending the night at the tavern yourself?"
The stranger seemed to be smiling as he stepped back into the road. "I've a ways to go, and no mind for stopping till the moon is out."
For the second time now, he reminded Sam of Mr. Frodo. Something to the straightness of his spine, the ease with which he carried himself – 'less it was his own mind reaching for such a resemblance from his loneliness.
"Good night then, and safe travels." Sam turned and climbed briskly onto Bill's back, scanning the grey span of road afore them. As he gathered up the reins, he threw one last glance over his shoulder, but in the sinking gloom his eyes found no more trace of the other. It was then that Sam realised he'd never thought to ask the lad's name. Where in his mind had he been?
Tiredness crept through his bones when Bill trotted down the vale, from no labour worse than riding fifteen miles or more without stopping. Long fields sloped away on the west side, and the scent of earth freshly turned bespoke the ploughmen's work during the day. South of the thatched cots and farmsteads grew some bent orchard trees, struggling for growth in the hard soil. The chill evening air sank into Sam's clothes, and right then he wished for naught but a bite and bed.
The local tavern wasn't far now, and a torch burned at the open yard-gate, bright enough to dab ruddy glimmers across the painted sign over the door. The Short Settle,
it read: None too inviting a name, but then folk out here had always had a reputation for being blunt, and mistrustful of travellers, so near the forest that hemmed in their crofts and fields with its tangled, hoary gloom.
Fireshine played in the two small windows, and the tavern door opened wide ere Sam could dismount.
"Master Gamgee, it must be!" a stout hobbit called from the threshold, hands planted on his hips. Catching Sam's look of surprise, the taverner added, "We've two of your party supping on our last ale and vittles, but I should've guessed by the looks of you." He nodded towards Bill. "You're riding that pony o' yours as one used to farin' abroad, I might say."
So his approach had been watched for. Sam climbed from the saddle and resettled his pack on his shoulders. "Bill's trod a fair five leagues today. He's good and ready for a rest now. As I am, Mr.–"
"You'll find our stable no worse than our board." The taverner clapped his hands sharply. "Mat Blainsdell's my name, bidding you a good welcome."
A bow-legged boy appeared to his beck, shuffling up from the back of the yard. Sam let him take the reins with a murmur in Bill's ear and a pat to his flank. Traces of a fire blackened the posts that carried the stable's sloping roof, Sam noticed as he followed the taverner indoors, but how recent those marrings were, he couldn't tell.
Inside, he was met by a double hullo!
from Will Hoarbower and Footy Bywell, a pair of foresters he'd parted with on the East Road, the day before. Both the lads' families hailed from the North-farthing, and they were hoping to visit kin over in Needlehole when their work allowed.
"We'd nigh given up on seeing you tonight, Sam," said Footy, and Will added, "Old Blainey's kept his keg under lock and ward, to save the last drop of ale for you – more's the pity."
"Right he is!" called the taverner from the kitchen door. "A long road makes sore throats, I've always said, and we've scarce got enough now for shortcuts."
Sam unfastened his jacket and with a quick glance about pulled up a stool for himself. A grizzled dog lay sleeping by the fire, and at a smaller table on the other side of the hearth, a lone hobbit was smoking his pipe. A local landholder, Sam guessed by the closely threaded wool of his coat, and like enough a Boffin. Yet his curls dropped in a shaggy tousle over his forehead, and his linen collar looked to be missing a wash somewhat sore.
"How was your road then?" Will asked, drawing Sam's mind back to nearer company. "Did you come up on aught unusual?"
"Naught worth the telling," he replied shortly. The forest damp still lingered between his clothes and his skin, and a clinging quiet seemed to lie thick on his tongue. He wasn't in a mood for mentioning the post messenger either, nor his strange discovery by the wayside.
Inside a minute, the taverner returned with a filled mug that he set down in front of Sam. His wife followed with a supper tray, bearing half a loaf of bread and a thin-looking lentil soup. While she hurried back into the kitchen at once, Blainsdell took a seat by the long table.
"As I was sayin' ere you came in–" Footy glanced over at Sam and gestured into the round, "–we've cleared ground down near Waymeet for a tree nursery, as our master gardner calls it, but now that he's here, he'll 'splain it better than I could."
Was that a snort or a huff from the landholder? Sam soaked a piece of bread in the soup. "'Tis much the same as growing leeks, or corn of any sort. You draw the furrows as you would for wheat, and sow the nuts and acorns – or haws and keys, for that matter."
"You don't say." Blainsdell batted at the dog that had strolled up and stood sniffing the soup's warm, greasy scent.
"'Tis in autumn as you'll want to do that kind of sowing though." Sam dipped a large wooden spoon into the bowl, stirring the pale lentils that swam on top. "Spring being near as it is, we've planted shootlings taken from the woods further south."
"Aye, them ruffians cut down a grand old glade of beeches to make room for their 'housing'." Footy snapped his fingers with a disgusted look. "Dank and varmint-ridden sheds, more like! Now there's to be trees again, all in good time."
"And when, do you reckon," asked a gravelled voice from the other side of the room, "will those new trees be ready for hewing?"
The notion of renewed felling touched Sam like a sharp wind in brooding weather. Arms braced on the table, he slanted a quick look over his shoulder. Mr. Boffin, if such he was, held the pipe clamped between his teeth. Smoke curled from the corner of his mouth in a thick, bluish skein. Sam chewed his bread and swallowed it down careful before he answered.
"In twelve or fourteen years, mayhap. But they'll give mast for the hogs and cattle a lot sooner, and there's plenty of uses as all the cuttings can be put to." More than that, dry beech-leaves would serve to soften many a mattress better than straw, and the leaves of ash and elm would feed the cows in winter when the hay-stores ran short – as any landholder with a sound head ought to know.
On the stool beside Sam, the taverner cleared his throat, without doubt wary of a quarrel arising under his roof.
"Your sheep and cows will destroy the saplings long before they can be of any use," the gentlehobbit retorted, "unless you protect this nursery
of yours with a proper fence." His tone let on plain that he thought such efforts sheer loss of time.
Will glanced down into his emptied mug and pulled a sour face, but Footy wasn't daunted. "We'll keep 'em staked and bushed about with thorns, if needs be. 'Tis all well in hand – meaning no harm, Mr. Boffin."
Sam gave a nod and felt a brief stir of pride. Footy took to the work with much ease, having grown up as a farmer's second son, but Will, like most former bounders, paid less mind to forestry than he did to the wherewithal of folk and their flocks. By now, Sam thought he could tell by the grip and turn of their hands, splicing roots or trimming spurs, how each of his helpers would fare at their new job. All through the past week, he'd shown them how to choose shoots and plant saplings, bedding them down in leaf-mould and rotted fern. At long last, all the plantlings stood in a field of supple wands, their lower ends covered only to a depth of three fingers, so the tender roots might draw air through the loose soil.
"It takes some labouring to start," he said, "but the work will grow less with each passing year, and the rewards worth all the tending."
"In a donkey's age, perhaps!" The landholder knocked his pipe against the table's edge, scattering clumps of ash into the rushes on the floor. "Why should we spare the soil and labour, if both could serve the tillage, and better so?" He rose with a harsh twist that set his chair scraping against the floor. "It was grain and nourishing meats that we lacked during this miserable winter, on account of all the mischief bred in the Westfarthing, by that wayward Baggins lot." With that, he stalked to the door.
Sam set his teeth against a hot reply. Mr. Frodo would have had a swift answer for such slander, his courteous tone baring the finely honed edge as warned even the slowest to take heed. Sam wrapped his fingers round the pipe in his pocket, and the polished wood slid along his palm like a soothing touch.
When he looked up again, Mr. Boffin sent him a cross look from the doorstep. "If you mean to busy yourself with the curing of trees, Master Gardener, take a look at our wretched orchards."
"I'd be pleased to do that tomorrow," Sam answered evenly, "with your leave, sir."
"I don't suppose it could do any harm. But don't expect to change customs that surpass your own lifetime, or your ancestors', as it were." Boffin strode from the common-room without a good-night, or a thank 'ee for the taverner.
Blainsdell sighed, watching after him, and shook his head. "Ah, but we've been hard set since the snows, and Mr. Boffin no less than the rest of us. His wife died of consumption this Afteryule, and their youngest, too, as was barely out of the cradle." He scratched at his jaw, then folded both hands atop the table, adding in a rueful tone, "Besides, we've more than enough forest hereabouts."
Sam bent over his bowl and spooned up the last mouthful of soup. Though he felt for Mr. Boffin's loss, it didn't seem to reach past the hardness that'd settled about his heart, like a tight shell grown there just when the frost dissolved in the soil.
"Ill times indeed..." Blainsdell rubbed his thumbs together and lowered his voice, "There's been a murder
in these parts..."
"You don't know that for true, Mat!" his wife chided. With firm steps, she came over to their table and began clearing away the dishes.
Sam glanced from her to the taverner who frowned, his lips pursed. Rampant felling and burning had torn deep gashes into the south border of the Bindbale forest, yet there'd been no sign that the ruffians had ventured far into the dense, unfriendly tangles. Seeing that, Sam had supposed that the village was spared further grievance.
"I know what I've heard," Blainsdell muttered, "and it don't take more than a pair o' keen eyes to guess the rest, I say!" He set his palms flat on the table. "Hob Thorney was found dead on a dunghill by the Norcross farm ere the end of Blotmath. Him that ran with the louts and helped them in their grabbing and thieving! He used to do rounds with the post like a decent body, but this last summer he carried off more than letters hisself. His dying weren't no accident, mark my words."
"He was a post messenger then?" A chill inched down Sam's breast and wound itself about his ribs. He couldn't have met a ghost in the dusky road, and he wouldn't picture that ruddy-haired lad sprawled limp amidst the muck and mouldered straw, either.
"For a good fifty years or more, aye," Blainsdell replied, trailing his wife with a galled look as she withdrew into the kitchen, the lacings of her apron swinging as she went. "'Tis his son that goes round with the post these days, but most folk won't give him a word for ten days of fair weather." He waved his hand, and his eyes settled on Sam once more. "Well, you'd know more of killing and such evils than we do, I'll be bound. Tales about the Battle of Bywater've grown thick as hops, if you didn't know!"
Neither Will nor Footy had joined the battle, and Sam could feel their expecting glances as he wet his throat with a sip of beer. "I didn't have much part in it myself. 'T was Mr. Pippin Took and Mr. Merry Brandybuck leading the fray."
The taverner nodded with an eager gleam in his eye. "Aye, Buckland's heir owns a marvellous horn as will waken all hobbits within miles, so I've heard, and it brings a fighting mood even on the sickest."
"The King of Rohan's sister gave it to him, for his courage and faithful service," said Sam, remembering how Pippin had smiled when the horn-call leapt clear over the muddy Bywater Road to the Woody End, at the end of the battle, tears streaking the dirt on his cheeks. But Mr. Merry had his mouth set in a grim line as he lowered the horn, his fingers seized tight about its etched silver.
"We could use such a call, surely, or summat like it, to rouse us from this low peck o' troubles." Blainsdell heaved another sigh and looked to his wife who'd got busy by the hearth, stoking up the fire. "Drear as the winter was, 'tis hard to believe that this year'll turn aught to the better."
"Don't be so glum, Mat." His wife set the poker aside and swung round, smoothing her apron. "The mothers among us know a thing or two of growth to come. Why, our own Daisy dreamed of the pear-trees carrying so much fruit, the village entire couldn't bring enough barrows nor baskets to collect them all. See if 't won't happen, come the time!"
"Dreams and gossip!" When she laughed at him, Blainsdell blew a noisy breath out through his nose. "Let's hear some news from the South, if you please, Master Gamgee."
Readying himself with another swig of ale, Sam began recounting the labours and repairs afoot in the West- and Southfarthing, and next the deaths and childbirths of the past winter. The taverner took special interest in the fortunes of the Pickthorns in Overhill, being related to them by way of a cousin who'd removed some thirty years ago. While Sam answered his questions as best he could, he listened to his own voice repeating news he'd handed out before, and a dull feeling of time wasted crept over him. All round him, the room seemed adrift in a flurry of shadows, sliding further and further away from him.
He sat back gladly when Will's turn came to report the latest goings-on in Waymeet and Whitwell, till Footy took up to describe how the fierce frost had glazed all the southward roads by mid-winter, so that only the hardiest tried travelling those polished bands of ice.
The snow had piled high on the Green Hills, Sam remembered, but now he imagined threads of blue and red twined among the trees' black crowns. Over hill and down slopes the coloured yarn went, weaving a confounded path against the smooth rolling white.
When next he looked up, Will was starting to yawn, and Footy slouched against the wall, his eyelids drooping.
"Well, lads, I've enjoyed the chat with 'ee, but now you've worn out your tongues, I can tell!" Blainsdell set both hands on the table and pushed to his feet. "Look for rugs and blankets beside the hearth. There's a trough full of clean water out in the yard for washing, if you want it."
Neither Will nor Footy seemed eager to make use of it, but Sam got up at once. Glad to catch his breath from the smoke and stifling smells of the common-room, he stepped out into the yard.
The torch had burned down to a mere gloaming, and clouds covered the sky from one end to the other, swallowing all shapes into a murky haze. The moon wouldn't be out at any hour, this night. As he walked over to the trough, Sam thought of the post messenger who'd have to find himself some nook to sleep in now, without catching a glimpse of the silver horns as he'd hoped.
The trough was carved from a rough block of stone, filled near to the brim. Still as dark glass, the water lay against the grey lip of stone, neither star nor lit window mirrored on its surface. Sam dipped his hands in to spatter his face and neck till the cold runnels wound under his collar and raised goose-pricks on his chest.
Drying his hands on his sleeves, he looked around, through the wisps of his own breath. On all the horizons, a black band of trees rose, barring the sky. The country seemed fenced in, and held down so firm by the windless air that he wondered how folk bore it.
The thought put old memories in his mind – of his dad smoking a pipe at the day's end, and his mam coming to join the Gaffer on the stoop of Number Three. Without a word, the Gaffer would set his arm about her waist. He wouldn't look to her, nor she to him, but a quicker puff of smoke flowed from the corner of his mouth that twisted up in a smile. For a spell the two of them would stand like that, while another gentle eve filled the Hobbiton dale like a bowl. They'd been wed thirty years and four, when Bell died.
Sam turned to look south, where Bag End lay, and Bywater. On the evening before setting out, he'd climbed the Hill's slope, watching as the long shadows ran together and drowned all the land. The bare fields and winter-worn meadows had the look of a patched table-cloth, spread over the earth, so thin that a gale could snatch it up and shake it out, till everything tumbled together: the Cotton farm and the Green Dragon
and the Bywater Pool and Bag End –
He shook himself sharply. The night's breath was crawling up his arms, and he'd yet to look in on Bill.
There wasn't a light in the stable either, but Sam found the right stall without much groping about. Bill was swinging his tail from side to side in long, ponderous strokes, and whickered with plain impatience.
"We'll be off again in a day or two," Sam told him, sliding his palm up the sturdy neck where the blood pulsed warm and thick.
On his way out, he noticed the stable-boy, crouched between the boarded wall and a stack of creels in one corner. By his uneven breaths, the lad was wide awake, though he huddled close under a blanket.
"I'll thank 'ee to look well after my Bill..." Sam retrieved a farthing from his pocket and dropped it into an outstretched hand that rose from the dark like the pale belly of a perch.
"Be sure of't, sir." The boy's eyes blinked white at him. "G'night."
When Sam slipped back into the common-room, Footy was already snoring, and Will smacked his lips in sound slumber. Like as not, he was dreaming of full tankards with froth slopping over the rim. Both of them had made their beds on the long benches set hard by the wall. Sam pulled out a rug for himself and placed it in front of the hearth. Short of provisions the Blainsdells might be, but the fire flared bright from solid logs, and faggots were stacked high beside the hearth.
Sam sat down cross-legged before it, drawing the pipe from his jacket's deepest pocket. It was Frodo's own, one of the spare pipes that he'd left back at Crickhollow, and which had arrived in a packet from Mr. Merry one day.
Have you got your pipe, Sam?
Frodo had asked him when they stopped half a mile outside Waymeet, where a sycamore stood broad and hale among the burnt banks and hedges skirting the road. He'd replied that there wasn’t cause for packing it, seeing as how the weed was so scanty.
Well, that won't do.
A telling start of delight tugged on the corner of Frodo's mouth, as though he'd fully expected Sam's answer. You may be away for a fortnight, and you'll miss a good smoke before long.
Quicker than Sam could object, Frodo handed him the pipe and a small satchel broidered with slender leaves all along the bottom. Do you know, this was my very first pipe, a gift from Bilbo.
A fond smile grew from the memory, and Frodo hearkened after it with a quiet, wondering look.
Too tired now to smoke, Sam cradled the pipe's smooth weight in his hand, running his thumb over the whorls that patterned the glowing wood near the bowl. His fingers were colder than the wood, just as Frodo's had been that morning, till Sam warmed them with deep-blown breaths.
Folding his jacket up for a pillow and laying the pipe beside it, Sam stripped to his tow shirt. The fire hissed gently as he settled, a blanket wrapped round his lower body.
"Sleep well, Frodo," he murmured with scarce a sound, only to feel the words take shape in his mouth.
Ever since he'd left the Cotton farm to move in with his Gaffer, the long nights tossed him back and forth, from ragged dreams to fitful waking. Dazed and raw, he'd listen hard for Frodo's breath – the marvel of Frodo's sweet, slow breaths beside him – till he remembered, with a dull ache struck through his bone and blood, where he was. Such a habit couldn't be broken by time, or aught else in the world.
* * *
I promise you,
he said to none but the air that shimmered wet and misty in a brief beam of sunlight. From the other side of the ridge floated voices like sawdust tossed on the air. Sam climbed down from the back of the cart with several coils of rope slung over his shoulder.
A mere furlong from here stood the ruins of a cottage where an old ditcher had lived with his wife. None knew where they'd come to, nor the flock of wild rabbits they'd kept in a cooped warren that ranged from one side of the dell to the other. Mayhap they'd fled before the robbing packs could assail them and ransack their home. The cottage had been plundered, at any rate, and the fences knocked down in several spots, but scouring autumn storms and snowfall had swept over it all, blurring the traces. Some time last summer, the ditcher must have disappeared, and since then there'd been no-one to look after the mending of the road where it angled round the limb of the woods and cut across the long, western ridge.
As Sam climbed its steeper side, sunlight edged the brown and dry knotgrass beside the road. The groping rays thinned again quick, buried in clouds, but from those glisters came the memory of burnt stumps, row after row where once an orchard had been, and tiny tips of green perking through the charcoal crust of earth and ash. That had been in the south of Waymeet, and it pulled the idea for tree nurseries from his head like a rhyme long known. The soft wood-ash covered the earth like a blanket, and it'd nourish the soil in years to come, but that didn't make the damage easier to look on, whether in Waymeet or any other place.
Sam tightened his fingers about the ropes as he walked down the ridge on the other side, towards the cheerful bustle below. Where the road took a sharp turn, a long saw dragged its grinding tune from the trunk of a fallen field maple, mingled with the chopping thunks of hatchets and the grunts and shouts that the workers flung back and forth. There were five of them now, since Will and Footy had been joined by three lads from the Woodruff farm, two miles to the south.
"Hoy!" called one of them when he spotted Sam with the ropes. "Not long and we'll have this big ol' lump to bits, won't we?"
"It might take a space longer," Sam replied, "but it can't hurt having the ropes handy."
For answer, the lad tackled a thick branch with a wide swing of his hatchet that missed the notch he'd already made. The flesh of the tree gleamed from the injury, stark against the loam-grey bark. Yet the maple hadn't been axed out of spite, it was toppled by a storm after long years of rot had done their gnawing from inside. For months it'd blocked the road from Bindbale to Needlehole for all carts, though few had tried to make the passage, seemingly.
Sam hooked the ropes over an ash's broken branch and wandered some yards into the undergrowth, where the maple's unearthed roots stuck up like jaws gaping round a mouthful of soil and stones. Beetles and borers had tunnelled through the yielding bole, and its bark was stripped off in places. From the torn roots and the pit of earth below wafted a sour, musty smell that brushed Sam with a fleet disquiet.
Shaking it off, he reached for the smaller one-handed saw he'd left stuck between the old tree's claws and resumed cutting such roots as were still lodged in the ground. Though the biting chill was lifting, a thin mist hovered in the hollows among the trees. On his left, the trunk of a sturdy oak was green with ivy, and some of those ruthless vines as thick as his arm.
As he traced their patterns across the rugged bark, his mind turned again to Bag End's garden where he'd left so much work half-finished or barely begun. He'd grow ivy and grapevine over a lattice by the kitchen garden, for one, to make a bower of shade for Mr. Frodo till the trees had grown tall again. On warm days, the scents of herbs would steam up to that green roof, and sunlight would stitch through at the ruffling of a breeze, touching Frodo's brow and hands and the book he might be reading...
A loud crack and a shout ripped Sam away from the thought. A big limb had given way to the axe, and one of the Woodruff boys had climbed onto the trunk, capering about and waving his arms. The others had paused in their work. Will stood rubbing his wrists that must be sore from handling the saw since daybreak.
Sam walked up to him and clapped his shoulder. "Here, let me take over now."
"Lop away!" answered Will, and the Woodruff lad hopped down from the tree.
He joined Sam at the cut near the middle of the trunk and rolled his frayed sleeves back up over his elbows. Specks, the others called him, likely on account of his stained front teeth.
Between them, they soon had a steady rhythm going, while the others kept hacking root and branch away. From the corner of his eye, Sam saw Footy tie a rope into the maple's withered crown. As the blade bit deeper and deeper into the wood, the pull and push of the saw went through him, up his arms and down his spine. A pleasant heat bunched in his limbs, seeming to catch the hidden sun as it rolled behind the clouds.
Scratch and scrape the saw went for over another hour, till Sam could feel the slight shivers in the wood gather to a snap and called a warning for Specks to mind his toes. Within moments, the trunk split and sagged, pillowed on its crushed boughs.
Sam stood back and stretched his shoulders. High grey clouds were pushing each other up the sky, but without a sudden gale they wouldn't break before the job was well finished. All as remained to be done in this spot was dragging the cut log to the sides of the road.
"We could get our cart-pony for the pullin'," suggested one of the lads.
"We'll be done twice over in the time it'd take to hitch her up," Footy returned. "Let's earn our lunch with a hearty pull, lads!"
Soon enough, they were all leaning into the ropes. Together with Will and Specks, Sam applied himself to the bottom part of the tree, still holding fast to its erstwhile cradle.
Step by step, they hauled it towards the bank. Along his back Sam traced every quiver of the bole as it moved sluggish over the pitted ground. His breath and Will's puffed out in accord, with a grunted "Heave!" every now and then. With his feet braced to the earth and the rope straining taut over his shoulder, Sam gave himself up to the effort, to the force that ran through them all and the earth itself. It was the kind of work that'd always made him wish for a dance and a lively tune afterwards.
"There!" Specks cried as the trunk settled into a bed of mould, clear away from the road. The others had lugged the broken crown lengthwise across the ditch and into the dry sedge. Then they were all laughing, slapping each other's backs and mopping their sweaty faces with their shirt-tails. On his brothers' orders, the farmer's youngest made a dash to the cart beyond the ridge to fetch their lunch.
"'Tis hungry work, and no mistake!" said Footy, rubbing his stomach.
They all settled on the maple's trunk to eat the spiced shortbread and onions from Mrs. Woodruff's kitchen. Through a fringe of oak-boughs, Sam blinked at the mid-day sun now washing splotches of silver into the clouds. He remembered sitting side by side with Jolly and Tom Cotton at the Yule dance, their bellies filled with fresh oatcakes and goat-cheese, brimming mugs in their hands.
Fierce as the winter was, there'd been a buzzing expectation on the air, and the lofty space of the Marshes' hay-barn steamed all with laughter and light. The farm-hands had taken much care to sweep every corner, for fear of sparks drizzling from the rushlights and torches, but a dusting of the old summer smells still hovered everywhere.
Alongside Tom and Jolly, Sam had watched the lasses join up in a long line for the new year's first dance, as they always did. Arms linked, they'd started out slow, while Maggie Twofoot alone raised her voice to the song, amidst a gentle sway and a tapping of feet. But each time Maggie circled back round to the first line, another voice joined in and another, and they came forward a few bouncing steps, dust starting to swirl over their fresh-brushed toes. Round and round the song went, till they were all stomping and kicking their feet, skirts swirling in the lively rhythm, tossing their heads so their braids leapt as the torches' flames. They'd formed a circle then, facing outwards, that tightened and opened up like a ragged, living bloom under a mellow sun.
Beside Sam, Tom was rocking back and forth on the bench, stirred as they all were by the vigour in the dance. There wasn't wife or widow among them as didn't catch a fair flush to her cheeks, every bit as lovely as the sweetest maid. Sam set his eye on Rosie, who never missed a step of her shapely feet, catching in the sway of her body the sweep of corn-stalks in the wind-raked fields, and the hope for a good year to come.
Like all the other lads confined to the long bench, he'd clapped his hands and joined the shouts that spurred the dance to a wilder pace. They might be gaunt with the winter's scarce rations and weary from labours seeming endless, but the lasses' untiring reel blew off the cares like a strong wind, as though nary a hardship might touch them. Sam could see it rise to Rosie's face, mingling with the sweat-sheen on her cheeks: a lusty strength as could weather the hardest blows and unbend as easy as the grasses of spring.
He'd touched a bit of that when they danced, later that eve, when she fit herself into his arm and stepped lightly to the fiddles' tunes, but he'd seen it clearer from afar.
How shameful, he thought now, looking down at the crumbs on his lap, how shameful it would be, refusing such a gift. Worse only was not to honour it well.
No rain fell in the afternoon. When Sam wandered over towards the cottage, the sun even found a few rifts in the clouds and touched glancing fingers to brambles and mossy stones. Deep in the woods, a stock-dove cooed from a full chest, but the lads' voices were lost behind the dam of trees. He'd left them collecting the ropes and tools and such firewood as could be laden on the cart, to visit the ditcher's old home.
It was a tumbled heap of broken timbers and rotting thatch now, but once the cottage must've leaned against the steep flank of the ridge, where the roots of pine and fir clawed the brink, some of them groping hapless in mid-air.
Sam walked a couple of steps down the slope, for a better look at the rabbit warren in the dell. Between the torn fences stretched a bumpy range of mounds and burrows, grass cropping up in scabs here and there. As he paused, wondering if he should climb to the bottom, a strand of sunlight fell past his shoulder and touched a tree growing near the edge. Drops of resin glistened on the reddish bark – and recollection came over him with the piercing whiff of pine...
At the height of summer in Ithilien, that scent had spread through every gully and glade. Rich and heated, it was blown from hanging boughs and the carpet of fallen needles, enveloping the spices of stranger trees. The forest floor crackled wherever he walked with Frodo, and silver dots danced restlessly, as if flitting over the surface of a swift-moving river.
Like a cloudless noon returning, the memory slid through him: the constant weaving motion among the boughs, clusters of fine, long needles lacing the sun, and how their soft shadows played across Frodo's face.
There is so much here that reminds me of the Northfarthing uplands,
Frodo had said, turning to look at him with bright eyes, and yet the Northfarthing never knew such a season.
Though it hadn't indeed, Sam could believe that it might, right then. As if the pines were made to sparkle in such brilliance: warm as the sun and crisp as starlight, so pure that his skin prickled. And when a sudden wind rolled through the forest, it seemed to answer with the sound of the sea – as Sam fancied it might sound, leastways.
He shook himself, feeling the day's cold like an unexpected draught. The bewitching scent was gone as if a slow ripple had passed, and spots of sunlight moved over the grounds below.
There was something odd to that small enclosure of mounds and hollows, where the shadows wavered and shifted at will. Sam watched them with close attention, as if something might be revealed in that half-formed –
A twig cracked somewhere nearby. Were there footsteps approaching from behind?
Sam stiffened with near alarm – though surely there wasn't cause for it – and turned only after a long moment.
"Hullo, Sam Gamgee," said the post messenger, stepping from the thickets a short ways further downhill. He couldn't have come by the road, and the leather pouch at his hip looked no heavier than it had the last time.
As he walked up with easy strides, Sam noted the confident set of his jaw and the lines on his brow that made it impossible to mistake him for a mere lad. His frame seemed heavier than it had in the twilight of the road, and there wasn't a lick of likeness with Mr. Frodo either.
"Good day to you," Sam returned. "I'd be greeting you by name too, but I forgot to ask about it when we met."
"Ah! I wondered that you didn't ask." The other winked at him. "Why don't you take a guess!"
"I thought – well, I'm thinking it might be Thorney," Sam said slowly, watching his face. "Wasn't your father–"
"My father?" The post messenger interrupted with a queer little laugh. "No, my name's Liff – Liffson Gammidgy."
Sam didn't know how to answer that. Was the post messenger passing him a fib, for shame of his dad's doings? But, his pouch being empty or near to it, perhaps he'd not said the truth about his job either. He might be a roamer without a place to call his own. Mayhap he'd come here thinking to search the old cottage for gear he could use or trade.
"My dad's grandad's name was Gammidgy," Sam replied at last.
"So it was, I dersay." Liff pulled up his shoulders.
If they'd met by chance in a tavern, they'd soon get busy unravelling the tangles of their family trees to some distant knot, if it could be found. Sam wasn't too sure he wanted to think of Liffson as kin though, even several times removed. But the fellow seemed friendly enough, and too solid to be a ghost, at any rate.
Liff edged closer to the brink now, his toes curling about a gnarled root. "This cottage was built on the wreck of another," he said as though remembering, "and before that, there was a snug little hole dug into the slope... But the ground is loose and chalky here, and when the trees on the ridge got swept down in a storm, the slope began sagging till it buried the hole, hearth, rafters and all."
"When was that?" Sam asked, wondering if Liff might have lived in this place himself.
"Long ago, aye," he murmured, smiling to himself. "Very long ago."
And how would a hobbit your age know about it?
Sam couldn't help questioning, though his suspicions had all blown away as he listened to Liff talking. He could almost see it himself now, the subtle changes in the shapes of slope and dell, the softening where roots had mouldered in the soil and grass covered the rotting stumps.
"They look a sight like tiny smials, don't they?" Liff pointed down to the field of rabbit-burrows. "Holes and smials as a bird's eye might spot 'em."
Sam nodded. He'd thought the same, and yet an uneasy stirring came with it – perhaps for being away so long, till the ways and measures of the Shire seemed lost to him. I didn't know distance nor danger. And I didn't know –
"'T ain't much of a home now to anyone, hobbit or coney. A pity, that is." Liff ran his fingers through his shaggy curls that looked a dull copper in daylight. "Well, I should be going." He turned away so quick that he'd already put several yards between them when Sam caught himself.
"Where are you off to now?" he called after him.
"I go and go and go," Liff answered, nigh chanting the words so they floated like thistledown on a lazy brook. "From the road to the fields and the forest, over hill and stream I go, and back to the road, aye."
Sam swallowed against a troubled tightness rising to his throat. Can I help you? Is there aught as you need?
But before he could voice any such question, Liff gave him a jaunty wave and headed up northwards into the forest.
A cold light fell through the trees. Upright and separate, the pines rose in a stern row, seeming to guard a secret passage. Down the ridge flowed the crisp, faintly bitter scent that always stirred with oncoming dusk.
Sam filled his chest with a long draught. The light had shrunk to frosty seams along the side of each tree but seemed all the clearer for it. He laid his palms together as though he could gather those bright threads in his hands. Perhaps there'll be a season such as we've never imagined... perhaps it takes but looking close and true.
It was such a sure knowledge that he longed to bring back home, like armfuls of blooming larkspur and honeysuckle, when Frodo opened the door for him.
Sam turned away southward, where pines and firs dwindled among patches of scrub. Shadows slanted in hard black ribbons across the slope, and of a sudden he wanted to run back to the others, run all the way ere nightfall could catch up.
As he rounded a hazel-thicket below the ditcher's old home, he spotted a little girl wriggling past the sloe and hawthorn that grew above the road.
"Hallo there!" Sam called, quickening his steps.
She pulled her skirt away from the prickly bushes and came sauntering towards him. "Ma's makin' supper back home," she said between flying breaths, "and Specks says to fetch 'ee."
"That's very kind of you," Sam answered, "and your Ma." The Woodruffs had eight children to feed, and the girl's face was peaked as a vixen's, but her cheeks glowed with lively colour.
"Our ol' Poll's calved this aft'noon!" she told him, gathering her skirt up again in one small fist before she leapt down to the road. "Guess how many she had!"
"Two?" Sam asked.
"Three!" Grinning proudly, she held up three fingers. "An' would 'ee know how big they are?"
"I can't guess!" Sam smiled at her unchecked excitement.
"Big!" The girl paused to spread her arms as wide as she might. "Much bigger'n our little Tom." She let her arms drop, her grin fading to a puzzled look. "Granny says 'tis an ill sign, but Da says no! It's for good."
"Does he now? It's a marvel for a cow to have more than one calf, so it is."
A short ways ahead of them, her brothers were busy lading the cart and fastening the traces to their pony's collar. Nearby, Bill stopped chewing the winter-grass and whinnied at Sam's approach.
"Why, straggle along!" Will called. "We was just startin' to wonder if you'd missed your step in the woods."
And how had it got so late? Twilight inched forward, draining the day's colours to a tired grey, save only for a yellowed border over the moorlands out west. "Say, did you happen to see a stranger on the road, or nearabouts?" The question slipped off Sam's tongue quicker than it came to his head. "A red-haired fellow with a post bag."
Will shook his head. "Not a hair, red or otherwise. Were you hopin' on a letter, maybe?" He grinned at his own joke and bent to fling the next fardel of sticks onto the cart.
The little lass had strolled over to Bill and wrapped her fingers into his thick mane.
"Would you like to ride him with me?" Sam reached over her shoulder to unwind the reins from the pommel.
She dipped her head and spun towards him, but what she said was, "Will 't be a good year?"
Sam looked at her thin, eager face, and strove for an answer he could give without doubt. "Aye, it must be. I think it must be."
* * *
(continued in the next chapter)
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.