(continued from previous chapter)
* * *
Where am I, I ought to be running...
It was a thought twisted by sleep, or a whisper from a dream snatched away in half-waking. The soft hum of a voice seemed to slide warm through his senses, clearer than the words, and a sharp thud under his breastbone answered it. Was Frodo awake now, too, in their bed at the Cotton farm, listening out into the quiet?
Sam pushed his cloak off his shoulder and knuckled his eyes. Through wooden slats seeped faint grey lines, the merest shivers of daybreak searching towards him across the trodden earth. He watched them as if those small splinters might leach away the warmth kept close in the tightness of his skin. More than memory or dreaming, it marked each aching point where he was halved by longing and pared away from the place where he ought to be. He slipped a hand inside his shirt, touching the spot where Frodo's palm would often rest. His own heartbeats drummed a dim and fretful rhythm on the bone.
Get yourself up now, Sam,
he commanded himself. Dark it might still be, but the nip of a morning breeze crept over the ground, insistent as a call to work. He shook out his jacket that'd served as a pillow and breathed the moist scent of clay.
When he stepped from the empty barn where he'd slept, Bill moved like a shadow among a loose fringe of trees by the old field.
"Good morning," Sam said softly, the sound of his own voice seeming like a notch carved to keep count of time. He'd left Hobbiton more than a fortnight ago, most every night spent in a different place. But now, each day as he got up, his feet tugged him to the south and west. How much longer? he asked himself, as though an answer might arise like a sudden landmark out of the fog.
Will and Footy had taken their leave to look in on their folk in Needlehole, but work still waited in Frogmorton and thereabouts. Sam had set himself in that direction by a long eastward loop that ought to take him to the Oatbarton Road first.
Slowly, his eyes made out the humped shapes of hillocks in the distance, charcoal against smoky grey. The morning seemed to start off as cloudy as the day before had ended, and he could smell the coming rain like the earth's own breath.
Hands thrust into his pockets, he walked towards the wooded rise on the north side, hoping to find a stream or pool where he might wash and refill his waterbottle. Deep in the thicket on his left stood old crabapple-trees, but a footpath struck past that patch and wound up the slope where tall beeches grew.
In the stillness, Sam heard the rain set in no later than he'd come beneath the bare spreading boughs. A drowsy sound it was, mumbling on either side of the slowly climbing path. Further up the rise, the dark shapes of rocks lay jumbled in a dry fern-brake, as if they'd pressed up through the soil in year after year. Sam headed there, thinking he might get a glimpse of the road from the top.
Within moments, the rain's voice rose everywhere, with taps and patters that fell on the branches above, on moss and mould and his jacket's shoulders. The air was full of its myriad sounds – stronger here, and brittle there, and like a chuckle in other places – weaving unseen threads from end to end in the twilight.
Sam breathed the humid air in deep, and if it hadn't been for the trickles crawling out of his curls and down to his collar, he might have lost all sense of himself. The space about him stretched and widened in silken-grey, the soft, deep shades seeming to waken as every rain-drop made its way into the ground, touching root, seed and bulb.
When he stopped and turned, the barn's shingled roof glistened black as jet below, and between the trees, the field gleamed in the first winks of day. The rain grew no stronger and settled into the faint music that it called from the woodlands. Sam could feel it ease through him as he continued on the path, guiding his steps like a well-known voice. See, Frodo...
But then he couldn't tell what it was that he might've added – it seemed vast and shapeless as the rain's swell, running so soft and patient as if it might span the distance from here to the great river that wandered over the fields and plains of Gondor.
Sam laid his hand to the wet silver bark of a beech, and it felt like touching the skin of his innermost memories. The summer nights had seemed both long and short in the South, but there'd been one night in the White City that lay cupped in his mind like a hidden well.
Beside him on the wide bed, the line of Frodo's bare arm and shoulder caught the candle-glow like the sunset's fading over the hills, afloat in the hazy distance. But his voice wasn't, it was clear and curious, ambling through the day's sights and discoveries, while his fingers took their own paths over Sam's skin.
Between talking and touching, hours had washed by and carried them past sleep, past the candles' guttering, till time lost itself in the tenderness that filled Sam's breast to bursting. He couldn't stop kissing Frodo's face, hands and neck, till it seemed he was tasting and shaping the pale silver that pulsed so warm to his touch. Daybreak was starting to creep through the window, and a deep stillness came with it.
He remembered looking up to find Frodo watching him, the desire in his eyes as ancient as the starlight, and it pierced him so near and true that it seemed almost too much to be borne. But Frodo's arm clasped him firm round the middle, and he drew Sam close again, his lips at Sam's ear for the gentlest whisper. Strange words they were, and in after days, Sam couldn't be sure if he remembered them aright.
These are not my arms that hold you,
Frodo murmured, I feel as if... as if I was remade to be your – to be... this, here.
What Sam did recall, clear as the battering of his own heart, was the deep note that the words struck up within him. It wasn't the first time that he'd known Frodo in his blood, with a pang and a swell strong enough to stop his breath. But for the first time this feeling seemed to leap out of him, over the glinting edge of walls and towers and into the sky, as if he should be flung there.
Sam leaned his forehead to the beech's trunk, moist and solid in its watchful rest. And so it is, whether or no.
He belonged to Frodo in ways that weren't Shire custom, and he'd known it all along, as sure as his Gaffer's name was Hamfast. But every now and then he'd fancied they might live in such a fashion that none would take notice. In Crickhollow, they might have. Sam shook his head at the notion, foggy and rootless as it was. He couldn't imagine Frodo anyplace but Bag End, in his own home and garden, where he'd find his surest foothold again. It wouldn't be long now, either.
And I'll be living in the Row as I used to, close enough...
Sam stepped away from the beech and climbed over a fallen branch that barred the path. If he married Rosie, wouldn't he wake every morn as he had today, his breath and skin shaping the place where Frodo ought to be? And what if I do?
he asked back. That wouldn't hurt none but himself, and he'd welcome the truth of it, and keep it locked fast inside him.
A merry sound reached his ears just then and stopped him mid-step. Not far on his left, a runnel trickled and purled, hastened by the rainfall. He turned towards it and shoved past the slapping boughs of reedy young trees that strove for space among their elders.
He'd never questioned that he'd wed when time came, for marriage tied families close together, as surely as the roots of separate trees joined in the ground, twining and grafting on each other for strength and new growth.
He remembered, too, how for years he'd been grieved to see Mr. Bilbo and Mr. Frodo live all on their own in the proud and rambling spaces of Bag End. The parlour Mr. Bilbo used for special dinners had once been the bedroom of Mistress Belladonna, so he'd told Sam. In so large a smial, each member of the family could pick a room of their own, and Sam had oft pictured this chamber full of lace and flowers, breathing a perfume like mingled rose and mint.
But Mr. Bilbo had no wish to bring a wife into his home, and though Mr. Frodo had considered it of times, naught ever came of that. Years of serving him had passed till Sam thought he understood how his heart twined itself with the world beyond Hobbiton and his own kin, through books, stars and wanderings, and listening to strange voices on the borders of the Shire.
We're like that now, him and me,
Sam thought as he pushed another curtain of dripping branches aside. We'll stand apart, in a place where none else'd think to look. It'll be neither or both of us now, and that's certain.
He'd come to a glade of sorts, and some yards to the left, a silver glint leapt against a dark rock-face or a cleft in the slope. Approaching it, Sam saw that the spring splashed down on a flat stone it'd hollowed to a basin, and from there tumbled on through a furrow in the ground. The roots of beech and ash bent over that narrow channel, near hiding it from view.
When Sam knelt down by the spring, the air was teeming with its fine spray. He drank deep from his cupped hands, water sprinkling his forehead and dribbling from his chin. It tasted faintly of the moss through which it ran before pooling in the stone hollow.
Footy would grumble less at the taste, Sam thought; he'd oft complained about the boggy water drawn from farmland wells near the moors. Sam smiled to himself as he filled his water-bottle. He missed the easy company of foresters and helpers – and then again, he didn't. After a fortnight, he'd grown impatient now and then, as if their talk and laughter kept his mind off the land they were tending.
There was an odd sort of relief though to being among others who didn't know him. They'd never heard him sing 'Now A Crusty Old Badger Came Wandering' with the Cotton lads in the Green Dragon
, nor watched him graft camellias in Bag End's garden. Most of them had seen Mr. Frodo at the fairs, at a time or another, but like as not the tales they'd heard were made from smoke and gossip about the Bagginses going off on wild adventures.
Now that he thought on it, Sam wondered if Liff had picked up any of those rumblings while he roamed up and down the Northfarthing. Though to all seeming, his own tales were made from different stuff. No-one in Bindbale, not even Taverner Blain-sdell, had heard a peep about the Longfoots, as it were. All that Sam's inquiries earned him were curious looks.
He stoppered his water-bottle and sat back, thinking how he should ask his dad about their Gammidge connexions, once he'd returned to Hobbiton. But the Gaffer could no longer account for all the family's branches since he'd moved down from Tighfield, and Sam held a strong suspicion anyways that naught Liff had told him was quite the truth. If he was a post messenger indeed, his name should be written in the scroll of office kept at Michel Delving, and Mr. Frodo would know.
Sam thought of him in the Town Hall that he'd never entered himself, under a white vault of a roof. But Frodo must have returned to Bywater a week ago, if not sooner, and he'd lay beneath the dark rafters of the Cottons' roof now – asleep, Sam hoped, closing his eyes as if the wish could travel with the rain's music to spread a comforting blanket over Frodo's limbs, and rest through his mind. Sleep without fear, love...
When he opened his eyes again, a grey sheen brightened about the spring and glanced across the rocks cradling it. Moss grew in thick patches all over them, and roots had squeezed through the cracks in a spidery weave, yet the day's drowsy glimmers showed that they weren't boulders assembled by mere chance but cut blocks, fit together in a snug row. Large they were, too, not quite so huge as the stones from which the White City was built, but near enough.
Rising to his feet, Sam walked a few steps to the right, where the old wall disappeared under root and soil. There was no telling if these weathered stones had been part of a dike or a fastness of sorts, but they'd not been set here by hobbits. Sam passed his fingertips over their rough edges as if he might feel their age, or discover their trace in the tales he'd heard so long as he remembered.
Those stories remained like a shadow on the very brink of memory – of a battle fought back in the days when a king still kept his seat in Norbury, far out to the north-east. He'd learned the full tale of that war from Aragorn, during idler hours in Minas Tirith, but there was a part that Aragorn himself hadn't known: of hobbit archers marching out to that battle, and not one of them ever returning.
When Sam looked along the sunken old wall, he could picture them as he'd never been able in years before: walking abreast in silence through the bare trees, with their bows slung crosswise over their backs and their heads bent, as if they were pushing a wave of frosty air up before them. Long ago,
whispered Liff's voice in his mind, very long ago.
Sam shook himself free of the cold wanting to settle between his shoulder blades. Growing daylight crept sideways over the top of the ridge where a line of younger beeches stood like a brittle fence, and he remembered Gildor saying, It's not your own Shire. Others dwelt here before hobbits did, and others will live here again when hobbits are no more.
The knowledge of it was in his voice, drifting calm as yellowed leaves on a river.
Well, then I won't be here neither.
Sam turned back to the spring. A cloudy chill had gathered at the bottom of his chest, from breathing the mist that still clung to the slope perhaps, or from filling his stomach so quick with the icy water. He wouldn't let it spread any further.
By now the spring sparkled in a pale glimpse of dawn, and Sam groped for other recollections as he sat down beside it once more. Stirred by the restless flow, the water slopped against the stone rim. It took no effort then to think of the Bywater Pool, and summon the very memories that'd taunted him so in Mordor. A feverish dazzle they'd been amid ash and fume, but now they opened up calm and cool like early spring. Slow ripples lapped along the Pool's edge, beneath the old willows' shade, and mirrored the band of rain-clouds driven up from the west.
In that kind of weather, Rosie's brothers wouldn't let her wade in deeper than her skirt's reach – though that always seemed too short for a time, as Sam recalled. She'd grown right quick in a single run of seasons, thin in the legs and slim about the waist, till she stood a head taller than Nibs. Not but what Nibs caught up in later years.
Sam drummed his fingers against the full water-bottle. When Rosie stalked out too far, Tom or Jolly would send pebbles skipping across the Pool on either side of her, and she'd swing round with her braids flying. She'd laugh when Sam thought she might be annoyed, but the bright heat in her cheeks lingered a good while. Rosy as ripe apples they were, grown safely at the heart of the Shire.
Sam pushed to his feet and followed the small stream down towards the barn. Honouring the gift she was shouldn't be any harder than giving praise to the fresh and wholesome water he'd found here. It wouldn't be.
* * *
I must be further from the road than I'd thought.
A sudden gust grabbed Sam's scarf and sent it flapping over his eyes before he could tuck it back under his cloak. The clouds were growing thick again, but a fierce wind raced among them, whipping their shapes to rags and tatters.
He'd left the Bindbale Wood firmly behind now. Just over his left shoulder he could see its southern fringe trail out like a dark mist, about a mile away. Before him, the land opened in soft dips and swells dotted with spinneys as barred all view of the road. Still, he should reach it afore nightfall, Sam reckoned, if he kept following this overgrown track running vaguely eastward.
He rubbed his eyes with the heel of his hand. The sun had passed noon not so long ago, and he already felt a weariness rising, like grey waves that rolled in the wake of Bill's steps. It might be the country lying so bleak and lonely in every direction – if it wasn't looking ahead to days that flowed away like a mirthless fog. Sam straightened his back, impatience chafing him. Ever since returning to the Shire, he'd learned a new resolve that felt hard and strange inside him, but it needed carrying forward: that was the way of it.
Up ahead, a broad hill loomed from dense clusters of trees that laced their branches above the path, forming a knotty roof. They'd barely entered that stretch when Bill startled and stopped, his head swinging as he sniffed the air.
"What's that now?" Sam stared ahead, but the path curved about the hill's foot, and there was naught to be seen save trees and bramble on the raised banks. Sharp blasts tousled the frost-bitten crowns of oaks and elms, but amidst their creaking and rustling, Sam thought he heard a low whistle that resembled neither bird nor wind.
With an odd sense of expectation, he slipped to the ground and loosed his scarf. Windy it might be, yet the weather had warmed, and milder scents blew through the hollow passage. Though he led Bill onwards with a soft tread, the whistling broke off when they came around the bend.
Up on the bank, between sprawling roots, sat a shaded figure. Sam would have recognised him even without the copper strands that spilled out from beneath the felt hat.
"Well, it seems I should've expected to meet you on the road once more," he said, walking up slowly.
"Our paths cross because neither of us is going by the straight route, perhaps." Liff rose to his feet in a smooth motion.
"I'm on my way to the Oatbarton Road," Sam answered stiffly, "and to Frogmorton from there."
"Belike you are." Liff smiled, winsome and careless as he often seemed. "But if you keep after this path, it'll take you further north than you need to go. Let's walk up this hill, and I'll show you a shortcut."
What is it that you want with me?
Sam almost asked. Confident that he'd follow, Liff sprang up the bank and strode away through the trees.
Sam fastened the reins to Bill's saddle with a shake of the head. "Wait for me," he murmured. "It won't be long."
Though the trees grew close at the bottom, he could see open glades ahead after climbing the first few yards. Stunted alders surrounded the hill's bare crown that rose from the thickets like the bald head of a buried giant. Liff had slowed his pace, but when Sam reached his side, he sped up again, his empty pouch slapping his hip at each stride.
"The road is another five miles from here," he said as they crossed out into the open where briars and nettles grew in scattered clumps. "How do you like all this travelling?"
"I wouldn't call it that. Not – well, not within the Shire bounds, I reckon."
Liff said nothing for a while, seeming to ponder his answer. In the windy quiet, Sam thought he could hear the gush and spatter of falling water.
"Do you know where the Northfarthing ends and the Eastfarthing begins?" Liff asked suddenly. "Can you see the boundary?"
Without awaiting a reply, he stalked on towards the top, across blunt stony ridges that broke the ground here and there. The wind tore at Sam's cloak as he stepped onto the hill's flattened brow.
"There's your road." Liff flung his hand out. "If you're certain that you mean to go as far."
Turning eastward, Sam frowned at his grudging tone more than the words. Beyond a thick woodland thatch, the land leveled out, and a hedge marked the road's course. Straight below, the hill's steep flank dropped away into the wood's brown tangles, and somewhere near rang the water's restless splashing.
"Whereabouts do your folk live?" Sam asked, watching Liff from the corner of his eye.
A magpie fluttered up from the trees below and sailed leisurely past the slope ere Liff answered.
"Northope, it used to be, aye." A haunting loss seemed to muffle his voice, and Sam couldn't summon further questions at that.
"It must be lonely." The words were rough in his throat, sounding feeble and hollow at the same time.
"I've strayed far from my long home, you might say." Liff grabbed the brim of his hat before the wind could knock it off. "But now! There's more as you ought to see before we part ways."
He was off again quick as a squirrel, plunging left and down over the hill's hard, bare shoulder. Sam could do aught but follow him into a clutch of birch and alder. As he caught up, Liff thrust out his arm.
"Careful now!" he said, pointing ahead.
Only a scant three feet before them, the ground dropped away. Overhung on all sides by shrubs and branches, a narrow gorge gaped in the hill's flank, as if a mighty axe had cleft it open at a stroke. Water rushed and gurgled from pale rocks, but on either side of the spring showed mossy banks among the low, bushy alders.
Moving cautiously, they edged along the outcrop till they stood where the water hurtled down a sheer drop, frothing white against the dark surface of a pool that stretched out lengthwise, a good ten fathoms below. At first the height dizzied Sam, but it passed again quick enough. The trees and the hillside fenced off the wind, and the water's lively echoes sounded everywhere.
"This is the Dragon's Trough," Liff said in a lowered voice, "leastways that's what I've named it."
"Well, it might suit a young dragon, mayhap," Sam replied with a dubious glance at the pool that couldn't be wider than twelve feet, as far as he could see it, but Liff shook with laughter.
"I've ne'er seen no dragon in all my born days, and neither have you, I'll warrant!" He dropped down on a flat rock, still chuckling.
"I know someone that has though." Sam sat down beside him. "An old and nasty dragon it was, living under a mountain where it slept on mounds of treasure, till its belly was crusted all over with jools and gold."
Leaning forward to watch the waterfall, Liff nodded, looking thoughtful and nowise prepared to doubt the tale as most others did.
Dappling sunlight crept through the clouds, and strayed across the mossy pads on the stones that lit up plush and green. In a little nook on his right, Sam noticed that amidst the last year's withered ferns young fronds were poking up in tight curls. Down along the gorge, dabs of fresh green answered the sun. As he sought them out with an eager gaze, he marked the glitters of a stream, half-hidden by the trees below, that wound out southwards from the pool.
The fleeting touches of daylight seemed to work a marvellous change on the place, and memories came crowding into Sam's head – of his favourite tales and rhymes, and Mr. Bilbo's voice as he stood by the hearth in his study. His pipe bobbing at the corner of his mouth, he'd gesture with both hands, or walk up and down the room as he spoke, while Sam listened from his place at the table, every thought of his writing lessons swept clear from his head.
Gandalf once told me that dragons can put you under a spell,
Mr. Bilbo said, until you forget your own name and everything you ever held dear. And it isn't difficult to believe, don't you know! Once you have looked a dragon in the eye, quite alone and very afraid...
Striding up quickly, he leaned across the table, and the sunlight caught the side of his face, sparking a golden glint in his eye.
A dragon's glance can pierce you to the marrow,
he went on, and his voice fell. It is red and alive with memories of fire.
He'd all but flinched at that, Sam remembered, and for a moment he'd thought he knew what it meant. To be frozen in forgetting by such a hard, relentless stare...
But I didn't,
he thought now; he'd known nothing of such a fire as roared from the roots of mountains, nor what it meant to be truly alone, sundered from his own heart. In the end, he realised, it was the knowledge of these things that drove Mr. Bilbo from his home and the Shire.
"I never saw no dragon," he said aloud before the silence could turn to brooding, "but I did see a living oliphaunt, once. Nigh as big as this hill here, it looked to me."
"Grey as a mouse, big as a house
..." Liff murmured, his mouth curled with faint humour, but to Sam's eye his attention seemed to be a'rambling again. "Nose like a snake, I make the earth shake!
I know the rhyme, see." He got up and wandered over to the side with restless steps.
"And more, I'll be bound," Sam said after a pause. "Down on the path, I heard you whistle a tune."
"I was running through a bit of song there..." Stopping close by the rushing water, Liff set his hands on his hips and swayed back and forth like a reed. At first he merely hummed to himself, but then he spoke a verse in a clear, high tone.
"I'll hold my bridal in a hedge,
where wind blows sharp through thorn and hair,
where holly guards the moorlands bare,
and fallen leaves shall be our bed."
"Oh, stop it!" Sam snapped before he could check his tongue.
"What's to be upset about?" Liff gave him an odd look, a hint of amusement flickering round his mouth. "You must be used to sleeping under moon and stars."
Sam rose and stepped up to the stony brink, his toes clenching on the rocks. He sucked his teeth to trap the sudden anger, and after a moment it sank back, turning its keenest edge to the inside of his chest.
"Aye," he murmured, staring down at the churning pool, "that I am. But not through every day of my life..." Our life,
he was thinking: the Shire used to be our own home.
All in a moment, Liff's little verse had jarred it loose: the longing, and the fear that he kept under harsh guard. Or maybe it was the fear keeping him, lacing its threads through all his heart's needs – the tighter the more he tried to give it no heed. But now that he turned his mind to it, he could feel it rise like frost on his breath.
Where shall they live?
his own words came back to him from days of waiting in Rivendell, like a mockery echoed in the water that dashed down heedlessly.
Liff was watching him, he realised, and the stronger light showed weary lines beneath his eyes when Sam returned his glance. He swallowed, fumbling for words. He'd no cause to lash out at Liff, a poor gadling who'd been willing to share some cheer and his tales, no matter if they were true or mere fancy plucked from his own head.
"'Tis a good place for trying out rhymes though, wouldn't you say?" Liff waved a hand at the steep, encircling hillside. "I'd like to hear one you've learned on your travels, if you don't mind."
"How about this then..." Sam cleared his throat.
"The world was fair, the mountains tall,
in Elder Days, before the fall
of mighty kings in Nargothrond,
and Gondolin, who now beyond
the Western Seas have passed away.
The world was fair in Durin's day.
Sam paused, remembering how Gimli's voice had meshed with the dark of Moria and called up slow echoes as belonged to the slumbering past.
"Durin's day..." Liff had listened with his head bent, but now his eyes twinkled. "The world was
fair, when dwarves and their like made such poesy!" He threw his head back and laughed, loud and deep from his belly. Sam wondered at his strange mirth, but it touched him with pleasure and sadness alike.
Liff tugged on his hat that sat awry on his curls. "I shall remember that, aye."
When he held out his hand, Sam shook it, but of a sudden he didn't want Liff to leave, as if there'd ought to be more words spoken between them that hadn't yet been found.
"What are you up to now?" Awkward though he felt about it, Sam gestured at his pouch. "You carry no letters."
Liff shrugged. "Would you want to write one?"
"Well, I–" It was a sharp pang that broke him off, and Sam glanced down at the tumbling water. All the words as I have can't say enough, and he knows anyways. He knows.
"There's no need for it," he said at last.
"Well, then." Liff smiled when he looked again, seeming oddly pleased. "Fare thee well, Sam Gamgee."
He didn't turn back on the way he'd come. Once Liffson had strode off northwards, pushing through the undergrowth with the intent of a hunting badger, Sam started looking for a path down to the pool. Between rocks and brambles, it was a tricky climb, and he grabbed for the support of sturdy young trees more than once as he scrambled into the gorge, but the ground got less craggy towards the bottom, and there the alder thickets opened onto a fringe of long, bleached rushes and nettles.
Hot in the face, Sam turned to look up the dark hog-back of the hill. Blood was coursing through him with a fresh vigour and drove out all the tiredness as had troubled him earlier.
"Goodbye," he said, letting out a long breath, "and be well on all your roads." But whoever Liff might be, he seemed to want for nothing, not even company.
Beyond the clough, the pool widened further than the glimpse from above had shown. Swelled by all the recent rainfalls, it reached towards feathered reeds and a copse on the far side. Through sedge and dog-nettles, Sam walked towards the stream that flowed out at the narrow southern end, singing over flat rocks and dragging at the rushes on the banks. Everyone said that the road to Oatbarton marked the meeting of North- and Eastfarthing, but perhaps this running water was the boundary Liff spoke off.
It must be the stream, Sam thought now, that travelled all the way down to the Bywater Pool and joined it on the north side, after wandering through tall reeds in countless bends and bights. Folk might know it by a different name this far north, but in Bywater they'd only ever called it the Brook
How many miles from here?
Passing flashes of sunlight played at the edge of the pool as Sam crossed a stretch of mud to crouch down beside it. He dipped his hands in and watched the ripples disappear again, his own skin seeming pale and lost under the surface. But only a few yards further out, a bright reflection swam on the water: Sprays of tiny leaves swayed back and forth on slender twigs, their young green so transparent that it shone like gold.All but breathless, Sam fixed his eyes on the sight, small and far away as a recollection that floated up from the bottom of the pool. Like a magical glimpse of Lórien it seemed, of its beautiful trees guarding those secret shores. Had the young mallorn
in the Party Field opened its leaves yet?
At the thought Sam nigh reached into his pocket where he'd long carried the Lady's gift, even after he'd finished planting all the seeds. The small box was carved from silky grey wood, smooth as wonder to the touch. When he'd left the Cottons' household to move back to the Row, he'd placed it under Frodo's pillow, like a charm.
The flick of a breeze stirred the water, scattering the gold sprinkles so quick that Sam bit his lip in disappointment. But when he sat back on his haunches, his fingers still dripping, he saw that it was
a reflection, tossed there by the flighty sun. In the copse on the other side of the pool, a pair of birches stretched their crowns high, and at their tips danced young leaves. Sam blinked at them, his heart taking a sudden leap, and verses from a song whispered in his memory.
I sang of leaves, of leaves of gold, and leaves of gold there grew,
Of wind I sang, a wind there came and in the branches blew...
The same wind seemed to tousle his hair now, as if to tug him awake from a heavy dream.
From the first day of returning to find the Shire so changed and wounded, he'd been frightened – frightened that the earth itself no longer knew him. But now, when he looked down at the prints that his hands had left in the mud, when they glistened with the water that seeped in slowly, there was no cause for such fear.
He stepped back from the pool and turned in a slow circle to take in all the sights. The sun was setting in the overcast west, but in the south and east where the clouds had frayed to straggling ribbons, the sky was tinged with faint purple and amber, spreading their soft sheen everywhere. In the fleet dapples of gold, the small blossoms of cowslip, rockfoil and bluebutton showed their faces. From the alders' feet sprouted shoots thick with buds, and among black stalks, nettles bore their first splays in vivid green. Sam ran his fingers through those saw-edged leaves only to feel their sting and prickle.
And the smells! The day's wet brought such fervour from earth, scrub and wood that he thought he'd get drunk on the rich scents alone. Rose shimmers filled the air to brimming and brushed his skin like a fine, cool cloth. Perhaps he'd feared, too, that his hands no longer knew how to make things grow. But now, now he could believe –
As he breathed the countless mingled scents and shifting hues, something touched his upturned face as clear as sunlight. A flock of small birds shot out from the copse, wheeling about each other – and he laughed till his eyes swam.
What had stirred him with questions at dawn felt like an answer now. Spring will come, Sam. What better time for a new beginning?
More than the memory of Frodo's voice, it ran through him with Frodo's own strength and kindness – joined to him heart and will, blood and bone.
It was a long time ere Sam turned aside. The colours had faded to dusky greys, and the hill's shape ran into the shadows of gnarled old trees that lined the brook. If he followed it for a span, he figured that he should come back round to the path.
He'd not gone far though when Bill strolled towards him from the underbrush and snorted a greeting.
"Liff sent you here, didn't he?" Sam pressed his forehead to Bill's nose and stroked both hands down to his muzzle. "We're bound for home now, Bill my lad. 'Tis time."
* * *
Out on the East Road, the air seemed warmer and heavier, and a haze covered the ground like a sheet of dust turned to daylight. Sam slowed Bill with a click of the tongue.
From the pool he'd followed a boar-track through the woods till they struck a path trailing the Brook. It crossed over to the east side after some miles and broadened into an old cart-road skirting fields and hedges. When it branched away from the Brook, Sam stayed on its course that would lead him back to the larger road. Perhaps, he was thinking, perhaps he'd ought to pay the Three-Farthing Stone another visit ere his journey could reach its end.
And there he was now, amidst the many reckless starts of spring. Every linden wore green trimmings about its ankles, the willows' crowns showed a pale tracery of unfurling leaves, and yellow wood anemones peeked from the shadows. Many times along the way, he'd stopped to look, touch and smell – and memories shot forth at every turn. Of Marigold munching whortleberries in her first Highday dress till she had it stained all over. Of Halfred tucking a buttercup into his shirt's fastenings before he wandered off to work in the Haywards' fields of Overhill, his knapsack swinging. But here, by the road, it was the scent of quickly grown grass that put Sam in mind of the Hill's gentle slope, glistening beneath the touch of dayrise. He sat silent in the saddle, stilled by the sweet ache that passed through him, like a stray sunbeam.
"Well, Bill, shall I try my blessings again?" Sam asked, but the words weren't half out when he knew that he wouldn't. Even from several yards away he could see that wild green tufts surrounded the Three-Farthing Stone, as high as his knees. Amid them, the stone seemed to doze in the cloudy afternoon, like a bear on the first day out of his winter-burrow.
As Sam looked on, the strange notion flitted through his head that his touch to the stone might've called up Liffson to keep him company – then he chuckled at his own foolishness. But of one thing he was certain: he wouldn't meet the fellow anywhere outside the Northfarthing.
Back to your own road, Samwise...
He nudged Bill who'd been nosing through the clover away from the bank. Straight ahead and far in the west, the sun rode large behind the clouds, and there was something odd to the light, filling the air with glints and veils.
In such a light, he could imagine Elves travelling this same path, through the wide, ancient world, on their way to the Havens. It set him thinking of Lórien again, and how you couldn't tell if they'd made the land, or the land made them. But treading this grey band of a road, they'd pass like shadows under the sun, adrift between one place and the other. How could they bear to leave?
A vague uncertainty crept over Sam, and he looked back eastward. In the distance, a high waggon was puffing up the dust, driving out of Frogmorton. Well, there was a sight all solid and familiar. He'd not forgotten about the work as lay in that direction either, but there was no business afoot that couldn't wait a few days. No more delays now, Sam Gamgee,
he told himself.
Bill didn't need more than a word to fall into a lusty canter. Bywater was still miles away, and even at this pace they'd not reach the farm before dusk.
On either side of the road, shadows were crawling out from shrubs, hedges and the old trees' remains. Most of the lopped wood had been cleared away and carried off by now, but those sad stumps hadn't been removed. So long as their roots stayed in the ground, Sam thought as he turned off into the lane that ran northwards to Bywater, their memory wouldn't be lost either.
Though daylight was dwindling away, he couldn't have missed that all the field margins were snowed with small blossoms – speedwell, squirrel cup, dwarf bay, he guessed, and so many others. Among the nested roots of a large beech, young shoots grew in sheaves, some of them already wearing the first green. The trees were waking at last, to put forth what they'd gathered all winter, in the pale, still light as filled their crowns. Clad in leaves, the wind would stir their voices into that endless flow of rustles and whispers, day and night. Sam caught himself whistling Liffson's odd little tune and smiled.
He'd travelled in long circles about the land where he'd spent all his years save one, but now he was nearing the Shire's heart that welcomed him and claimed him for its own. How could he do aught but rush forward? Bill must be sharing some of that eagerness, for he trotted along with a fresh spring in every stride, his head high.
On the other side of ridge, orchard and fields, Farmer Cotton, Tom, Jolly and Nibs would now turn in from the day's work, and Mrs. Cotton would be stoking up the fire to fix their supper. And Rosie... Rosie would be setting out mugs and wash-basins, humming as she went. Full of warm recollections, these thoughts wrapped themselves about Sam.
Rosie had always been a part of his love, he knew now. Like the Gaffer, like Marigold, May and Daisy, like his brothers and the friends he'd found in the Cotton lads. She'd been part of everything that he once belonged to, and she'd belong to him after the same manner.
"But how to go about it proper?" he murmured, twiddling his fingers through the reins. He remembered how Nick Broadbeam had come round to Number Three one eve, bearing a satchel of the finest pipeweed for the Gaffer, his eyes sweet on Daisy who never said a word while her dad and the lad who'd court her talked, quiet and earnest at the kitchen table.
Sam frowned at the memory and himself. He should've thought to bring something, truly he should have, and he knew what sort of words his Gaffer would have for such lack of care and manners. Then again, there'd be time for it the next day...
From the top of the low ridge, he could now see glimmers across the fields as must be spilling from the farm-yard. Like glow-worms they looked in the drift of blues and greys, and they tugged his heartbeats into a saunter.
One of those gleams ought to be the candle burning in the foremost bedroom, where Mr. Frodo might be setting his ledgers and papers aside just now. It didn't take more than such an inkling, and Sam's mind was running over with all the things he wanted to tell Frodo – if he could get a word out for the joy of looking on him again after so many days. Most like, Mr. Frodo already guessed, anyhow, what he'd come to decide about Rosie.
He'll wish me well...
Yet something cramped up tight and stubborn under Sam's breastbone, squeezing at his purpose. There is nothing that I want as much as your happiness, Sam.
The words were set in his mind like stars, but now he wondered what they might've kept back.
Sam said to himself, once I look in his eyes, I'll know
– and it eased the troubling twinge aside, bit by bit.
Out of the darkening yard leapt a shout Tom or Jolly might've given as they carried the plough inside. When Sam rode up, one of the lads was just about pulling the door shut, and he jumped down in a hurry, leaving Bill by the gate. A brew of voices and clatters came through the door, and from the byre he could hear the cattle lowing and shuffling about. Sam climbed the steps and took another moment to wipe his feet ere stepping fully inside.
"Good evening! I'm back!" he called, though his voice wavered. In the sudden warmth and smoke, his eyes watered a bit, and the first he saw clearly was Tom with his feet in the wash-basin, grinning broadly at him.
His "Hullo, Sam!" brought on a merry round of greetings, but in the middle of it all, Sam noticed that the bedroom door stood wide open, and Mr. Frodo was nowhere to be seen.
"You're come just in time for supper," said Mrs. Cotton, "you've a good nose forsooth, Samwise."
"I've missed the taste of your cooking too long, Mrs. Cotton," Sam answered, slipping off his cloak – and then couldn't stop himself from asking, "Is Mr. Frodo off to Michel Delving then?"
"Oh no, he's gone no further away than Bag End." Farmer Cotton was wiping his hands on a cloth and tossed it over his chair's back. "It's been but a day and a half since Mr. Merry came out of Buckland with his furniture and all, and Mr. Peregrin too."
"Bag End." Sam heard himself mouth the name, and it seemed like a wisp of the oddest chill travelling through his breast.
"Aye, and right glad he is to be warming his feet by his own fire, I'll be bound." Farmer Cotton settled into the chair and sighed comfortably. "Though he's shown us more thanks than ever he owed, that he has."
With his cloak hanging loose in his grasp, Sam turned back to the door, half drowned in shadow yet only a few steps away. Confusion rushed up in him, quick enough to spin his senses about – and then it was as if the door swung out wider, and through it he could see...
Bag End, up on the Hill, and from the large round door, light poured in a living stream. Cradled in it, Mr. Frodo stood watching the evening rise, his head tipped a bit to one side as though he were listening. The light brushed his waistcoat's pine-green wool, hiding his face, but where it sloped away at his feet, it touched nobut torn ground and rough tussocks, instead of sand-strewn paths and a well-kept lawn.
Sam breathed in sharp, for it seemed a view as opened before him, not an image shaped in his mind. As if it'd take only one step –
"Well, Sam, sit yourself down," Mrs. Cotton's voice pulled him back. "Rosie!" she called, for the back door was opening right then, "Now look who's here!"
A basket in either hand, Rosie stepped in. She set her burdens down first and careful, as Sam knew she would, before sending him a smile. "Hallo, Sam. You've done a fair bit of travelling today, haven't you?"
He nodded, run out of speech for the moment, but Rosie's smile didn't fade. It brought a dimple to her cheek and called on so many things Sam had known well nigh all his life: The way her eyes turned to upcurved bows when she laughed, or how she'd pinch her nose when she thought hard on something.
Be with the people you love.
Frodo wouldn't tell him aught else now.
"I've come to–" Sam broke off, noting the sudden quiet round the room. The cheerful talk between Jolly and Nibs had faltered, and their father looked on with narrowed eyes. A choking warmth settled against Sam's chest. He couldn't speak the words that the family must now be expecting with all of them listening.
"Rosie..." he said, his eyes still on her face, and held out his hand. Farmer Cotton's brows were starting to knit in a frown, but Rosie crossed the room with her quick and deft step. Her hand looked reddened and rough, as it would after a washday, and when Sam took it, her clasp was firm.
Without another word, he led her outside, into the moist breeze that rushed here and there over the ploughed fields. The sun had set, but a pale sheen clung to the horizon, out west. When he turned Rosie towards him, he could still see that glow, on either side of her.
With her free hand, Rosie wiped stray curls back from her face and tried to tuck a strand back into the braid that lay over her left shoulder. She was a fine and sturdy lass, Rosie, with the wind rousing colour to her cheeks, her braids agleam like hazel bark against the black furrows drawn for the planting. The evening cold didn't bother her to a shiver, and her strong fingers lay quiet in his. If there was aught more a hobbit could look for in a bride, Sam couldn't name it.
"Rose." He reached out with his other hand and covered hers in both of his, wrapping her fingers tightly, so she wouldn't feel the slight tremor as was starting upward from his wrists. "Will you be my wife?"
In the fading light, the change in her expression were hard to see, and it came about slow, setting in with a quiver round her lips. She tilted her chin up a bit and blinked, while the wind played with her hair and tugged it loose again.
It struck him then that she might say no – quick as light on a fast-moving river – and in the wake of that thought, as it sped its bright chill down his spine, ran the knowledge that he'd never once asked himself whether she'd want to marry him. Not since the day he rode up to the farm and Rosie said she'd been expecting him since the spring. The shame of it surged into his face, swift and furious, and surely Rosie saw it even in the dim.
"Oh Sam, of course I will," she said, biting her lower lip ere she reached over to touch his hot cheek. "Why, you've had me waiting a fair time, if you didn't know, without a wink or word that a lass can hold on to!"
"I–I'll be mending that," Sam promised, an awful croak in his voice that wouldn't seem to ease. "And we'll go about the courtship proper." He steered his mind towards the things as he should be saying now. How the kitchen in Number Three would be so much smaller and darker than it was here, at her parents' house – but still the Gaffer would be pleased to keep busy round the household, and they'd lay out a fine new garden for herbs and vegetables, all to her liking.
"If you worry that dad'll say no, you've no eyes." Rosie clucked her tongue, teasing for his own comfort, Sam knew. "And proper
's not to say long
, mind. You've already wasted a year!"
"Wasted?" Sam shook his head. "I wouldn't call it that." But then, she'd lived in the midst of worry under the ruffians' sway, with scarce a hope for better. Sam held her eyes and couldn't help but wonder what she saw.
"I've been away a long time... to far places, Rosie. Do you know who it is that you're having?"
"Maybe..." Her face fell serious as she looked on him. "Maybe I don't know, but I'll have thee anyways, Sam Gamgee."
"I won't be asking more." He felt all strange, light of head and bewildered as perhaps he shouldn't be, but there was comfort too, spreading warm and friendly inside him. "And I thank thee."
"Why, Sam, you're grown as courteous as one o' the gentry!" Rosie laughed – a high, merry sound of relief – and that he could make her laugh like this, Sam took for a promise of their good fortune.
"I know that you'll want to be looking after your Mr. Frodo," she added, squeezing his fingers in her grasp, "and well you should. 'T won't do for your wife to keep you from it." She leaned forward and pecked a quick kiss to his cheek.
When they walked back inside, all eyes were turned on them. Sam cleared his throat. "I've asked Rosie to be my wedded wife – with your good-will, Mr. Cotton."
Farmer Cotton set a hand on his shoulder and looked him in the eye for a long moment. "That you have, son, and my blessings."
On the other side of the room, Mrs. Cotton threw an arm about Rosie's shoulders as she sat down on the bench by the fire. Tom gave a loud whistle, and his brothers joined in, all of them bounding forward to clap Sam's shoulders.
When he glanced towards Rosie again, she held both hands to her cheeks as if covering the warmth that'd run there, or protecting it, maybe. She'd never looked so pretty before, flushed and glad, some tousled curls bobbing over her fingers, so pretty that it tore at Sam's heart.
"I'd ought to take Bill to the stable afore supper," he muttered, catching the pleased glances as passed between Farmer Cotton and his wife. From his wedding day forward, he'd be calling them Father Tom and Mother Lily, and they'd be his own family for true.
Fresh laughter arose at his back when he stepped out again, but Sam could guess well enough how they'd be chuckling at his awkwardness, how they'd tease Rosie and smother her in good advice. He'd heard the same, a time or two, from his Gaffer and his sisters.
With slow steps, he walked up to Bill and paused beside him, near the fence. Dusk had bleached all the colours and cloaked the fields, but even blind he'd still know the shape of these lands, as if he could touch them where he stood. All winter, his hope had shrunk as embers, but now it needed stretching to the far ends of the Shire.
Now... Sam laid his hands on the fence, the tough wood cracked by countless turns in the weather. He felt those cracks as if they were akin to a breach opening inside him, growing wide and deep. The evening breeze wakened his memories of every dale and brook, every hedgerow and pathway that he loved, till the very air brimmed with it – with a love he'd been born to, surging and stumbling outward in need of a hold.
That was the true gift he'd received with Rosie, for his love had found a hold in her. And he'd be sure to thank her for it, through all their days.
Everything's as it ought to be,
he thought, and in his mind it sounded like his Gaffer's trusty old voice.
Less than two miles away, Mr. Frodo would now be seating himself at his own dinner-table, with his cousins for company and all the comforts of Bag End about him. Sam set his mind on that, on the warm shine of tapers sparkling on silverware, and a soft, contented smile playing about Frodo's mouth. That he couldn't climb back into the saddle and ride there straightaways shouldn't pain him one whit.
"Good night," Sam murmured. I'll be on your doorstep to say good morning with daylight.
Westward and a space to the south, the waxing moon swam among wisps of cloud, glowing faintly gold with the light of the vanished sun. Sam turned his eyes there and breathed the cooled, clean air deep into his chest.
Both or neither.
He'd known all along that it wasn't a choice for him to make. It just couldn't be home otherwise.
* * * * *
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.