Is there a place in the Shire for Sam and Frodo?
Timeline: 17-18 November 1419, S.R.
Part 3: Blotmath
When he closed the bedroom door behind himself, cloak and scarf tucked over his arm, the farmhouse lay empty. In the kitchen, unwashed dishes piled precariously on the cluttered table, but even though a full bucket waited by the hearth, it would only discomfit the Cottons if he tried to clean anything in their absence. That duty would fall to Rose when she and her parents returned from the small hotch-pot market held in Frogmorton, never mind the hour.
Frodo picked up a bread-crust and shortcake, and stashed both in his pockets. He knew it bothered Sam that the Cottons insisted on a fixed appointment of duties around their household, which among other things meant that Rosie, not Sam, waited on him at mealtimes. It bothered Frodo far more that his own hands were kept idle. But he understood, or thought he did, why the family found it necessary to remind him of his place as a guest in their house. He patted his pockets, swung his cloak around his shoulders, and turned briskly.
Both front and back door stood open to the morning that cleared out hovering woodsmoke and greasy cooking smells with its fine chill, and traversed the floor in one grey sweep. Frodo had almost reached the back door when he heard faint whistling from the other side of the timber wall where the cattle were kept at nights. In a moment, the cheerful sound was cut off by a low thud and a clatter. Frodo retraced his steps and opened the door to the byre that already stood ajar.
It was darker within, and the air stale with cold smells that encrusted everything like dried clay. Only a stray beam from the outer door fell across dark posts, beaten earth and scattered snips of straw, but between the ploughshare and the stalls, someone struggled with a bulging sack. He'd tripped over the hoe and scythe that barred the narrow space, and an empty pail rolled at his feet.
"Can I help?" Frodo kept his voice low to avoid startling the lad.
"Oh... hullo, sir." When the boy turned towards him, awkwardly balancing the sack while groping around with his free hand to catch hold of the scythe, Frodo saw that it was Nibs, the Cottons' youngest son. "I din't watch where I went settin' me feet," Nibs explained, a puff of white breath rising before his mouth. "'Tis all me own fault."
From the back, the Cottons' sow grunted as if in agreement. Frodo stepped forward, hesitating a moment, then grabbed on anyway and lifted the scythe out of the lad's path.
Nibs didn't seem to mind his assistance. With a quick "thank'ee, sir," he let the sack slip off his shoulder, grasped it in both hands and carried it over to the pallets by the inner wall. Frodo returned pail, hoe and scythe to their proper place, if it could be called that, among the hoard of ropes, buckets, yokes, scuttles, hampers and sundry tools that must have been collected by generations of farmers.
"There now..." Nibs wiped his brow as he dropped his burden. Grey strands of fleece clung to the burlap, and Frodo could guess what he'd brought in.
"I've a habit of takin' my third step afore the first, Dad keeps tellin' me, and like as not he's right." Nibs patted his sack with a rueful half-smile. His cheeks, the tip of his nose, and his pert round chin had all been stung pink by the cold. There was something about his lively face that reminded Frodo of a younger Pippin, although Nibs was in fact several years older than his cousin. The lad bent again to arrange the sack on his pallet and drape the blanket across it.
I reckon he's been a mite lonely since Tom got wed,
Sam had said when Frodo discovered where the youngest Cotton boy now spent the nights. He's happy as the day's long to be sleepin' near the cows with the other lads.
After entering the byre one evening, Frodo could well believe that. Once the cattle had been brought in, the room filled with the big animals' warmth, a living steam at the heart of which a single lantern would flicker. The smells of dung and musty straw lost their biting edge and were twined into a loose fabric of ease and companionship. On more than one night, Frodo had heard the voices of Nibs and the two farmhands filter through the door's slats, long after everyone else had retired, a lively murmur that played like rain on the senses' edge and softened the quiet of the house. He had wondered, too, what it would be like to hear Sam's voice woven into that gentle flow, and if he would catch in it the ring of a simple, thoughtless contentment.
The Cottons, he knew, would prefer it if Sam shared the farmhands' corner at nights, though they had never mentioned it. Not to my ears,
Frodo reminded himself, with a twinge of disquiet. Surely they hadn't approached Sam? But then, it didn't take spoken words to trace the discomfort through the days, faint as the fissures that patterned the wall-plaster yet always within sight. Without ever mentioning it between themselves, Sam and he had made a habit of leaving and entering their shared bedroom separately.
"'T will make fine bedding, this," Nibs muttered. "Hep and Rob'll grow freckled with envy, see if they don't!"
Though he'd probably meant that comment for no ears but his own, Frodo made a concurring noise in his throat.
Nibs straightened at that, apparently surprised to find him still lingering. Behind him, the sow rubbed her bristled hide against the stall's boards, snorting as she scratched herself.
"If you be lookin' for Sam," Nibs said, "he's over at Tom and Jolly's house, for a cup o' tea with his Gaffer, I fancy."
"I know." Frodo suppressed a slight stir of irritation that took him by surprise. "I'm about to head there myself," he added. "Sam and I have business with Farmer Whitling, and that might take a while."
"Aye, it might." Nibs scratched at his dark curls that his mother had trimmed not long ago, and somewhat raggedly at that. "He's stubborn as a plough-mule, that one, or so Dad says. I've never had no words with old Whitling meself..." The lad trailed off, perhaps remembering who it was that he talked so freely to.
"I shall keep it in mind." With a quick smile, Frodo turned towards the door. He'd learned long ago that it was a mark of respect when farmers called each other stubborn or half-cracked, and he'd very likely hear the same about Farmer Cotton from old Whitling.
"A good day to you, sir," Nibs called after him.
"And to you," Frodo answered from the door, where the crisp morning air greeted him with whiffs of warm dough from the bakehouse. How many times had he caught such a scent as it wafted up from the Row to reach him, soothing as a promise that all was well, on Bag End's doorstep?
Frodo paused to retrieve a memory that seemed to hang on the edge of that smell like a star glimpsed by chance through a bramble thicket, but it slipped away into nothing. Behind the wattle-fence of the hencoop, a flurry of cackles went up and seemed to urge him not to waste any part of the morning.
All around, the mists had thinned to wisps that drifted across field and fallow like smoke after the stubble has been burned and the embers still crawl everywhere, restless as glow-worms, over the face of the earth. As the mist receded, it bared scattered dabs of frost on the weed-banks, a fine salting that looked feeble, as if the coming winter was in doubt of its promise.
Not a promise, a threat...
As he walked along the fields' margin, Frodo turned his thoughts towards the grain they would need to buy in Bree-land or the north country, in addition to the stores that the Tooks and Brandybucks might spare them. Yet even if sufficient amounts could be purchased to last through the winter, there would hardly be enough left for the spring sowing. Calculations and concerns beset him, as they so often had in the past fortnight. He took a clearing breath and looked ahead.
On the other side of the fields, where the south lane swung out in a wide curve, a second cottage ducked against a cluster of rowan and whitethorn. Smoke puffed up from the chimney, winding into the young trees that stooped to windward. Unlike the trees farther up the lane, these rowans had escaped the axe, and some withered berries still clung to their lower branches.
As soon as Frodo entered the small yard, a dog's high, yipping bark rose in alarm. Straining on the limit of its rope, the mongrel danced with agitation and didn't quiet even when the door opened.
"Numps! There now, lad!" Tom Cotton's cheerful voice rang through the cold air, and the dog subsided into a snarl that rolled in its belly. "Good morning, Mr. Frodo! Shall I fetch Sam, or will you step inside a minute? We've a pot o' tea steaming on the table, if you fancy a cup."
"Yes, thank you." Frodo turned from the dog that still eyed him suspiciously. "I'll be glad to come in, if you don't mind."
"'Tis a pleasure, sir." Tom stood back and waved him on into the main room, where most of the light came from the stoked kitchen fire. The cottage was smaller than the farmhouse, yet both Tom and his brother Jolly lived there with their wives, and after the Bywater battle, Sam's Gaffer had moved his scarce belongings to their home. Frodo blinked in the sudden warmth and untied his scarf, if only to stop his eyes from searching for Sam's right away.
From the long table set near to the wall, Jolly Cotton rose to greet him, one hand resting on his wife's shoulder. Although the family gathered for a shared supper at the farm each Highday, Frodo had not met her before. Her braids were coiled into a tight bun at her nape which lent her face a peaked look.
"Good morning," Frodo said into the round.
While Marigold smiled openly at him, Jolly's wife cast her eyes down rather like Rose Cotton did when they all sat at table together. Her name was Ivy, Frodo remembered as she took his cloak and scarf and hurried off, her head bowed.
"Fetch us another cup, lass!" the Gaffer called after her.
"Over here, if you will." Tom pulled out a chair for Frodo and seated himself on the bench beside Marigold.
Sam was perched on the other end, next to his father, and when he met Frodo's eyes, his lips curved in a quick, private smile. Sharp and fleeting as a quiver in the bright mid-day air, Frodo felt the familiar leap under his breastbone. At such moments, a single glance could shut out every other presence, and something held in suspension between them, poised as an arrow to the tautened string.
With a polite murmur, Ivy leaned past Frodo to pour his tea. He thanked her and sat back with his cup, relieved when conversation resumed around him.
"I hope there's some salt to be had at market," Tom was saying as he lifted a spoonful of porridge to his mouth. "We're short on candles, too."
Jolly let out an audible sigh. "Ah, but I was hopin' for a good side o' lard!"
"There's another fresh loaf in the oven," Marigold returned, "if you're still hungry."
oven, mind." Tom patted her rounded belly, a hazy cheer in his eyes.
"Oh, you!" Marigold reached for her husband's chin and shook it lightly.
"I'll be out from under your eaves ere that wee one starts a-wailing," the Gaffer put in. "Won't I, Sam?"
"Aye, Dad." Sam didn't meet his father's eyes and gazed into the mug that he rolled between his palms.
Frodo watched him with a shapeless concern, seeming to stir up from his stomach. This past week, the labours to close the sand-and-gravel pit in the Hill's flank had begun, and when Sam returned late on the first evening, his curls were dusted grey, and his eyes reddened from the flying grit, if nothing worse...
I could come along tomorrow and help,
Frodo had suggested as he watched Sam splash water over his face and neck, though he already knew what Sam's answer would be.
I still know how to handle a shovel,
With quick and quiet steps, Sam had walked over to the bed and cupped his hands around Frodo's. I know that, me dear.
A grey dribble ran from his hair as he bent his head to press a kiss to Frodo's knuckles. But don't come. Not now.
Did the Gaffer realise that Sam would wear himself down to the bone, if it meant that the Row could be restored before the frosts? Even as he watched the old gardener, Frodo noticed that he'd folded one hand over the other, as if to protect the memory of Sam's breath and lips on his skin.
"You'll still need to add a room or another to your house, Tom," the Gaffer continued. "'Tis getting mighty crowded as is."
"Don't be worried, Father Ham," Tom answered him, leaning past Marigold, his arm around her shoulders. "We've logs stacked aplenty, and the bairns won't be needin' much room for a while."
A thin sound sliced through their conversation. Frodo glanced to the side and saw that Ivy was grinding the bottom of her cup against the table. The fretful movement stopped when her husband clamped a hand over her wrist, yet her face had lost all colour.
"Shall we have more tea?" Jolly asked, without releasing his grip. "Though I can't be a-loitering longer, or the deadwood won't get chopped ere the week's out."
"Not for me, thank you," Frodo ventured, when no-one else answered the question. During the brief silence that followed, he could hear the rustle of mice in the thatched roof above, where the bags and baskets that were hung from the rafters cast formless shadows.
"Well, then." Jolly rose, nodding his head towards Frodo. "A good day and all."
The instant he made to leave, Ivy was on her feet as well, collecting the dishes, and Marigold pushed herself up from the bench. On either side of her, Tom and the Gaffer watched her with frank appreciation.
"I tell 'ee, Tom," the Gaffer said with a wink, "there's no better stock than what's bred by a Cotton-and-Gamgee match."
Tom lifted his mug. "We'll drink to that when the babe's born."
"I could help you with the house," Sam said suddenly, and Frodo noticed how his cheeks darkened when the other two turned towards him. "Seeing as how you won't be startin' to build before spring..."
"Now, Sam, there's no need." Tom leaned back, his arms folded. "You've got all the work strapped on as one pair o' shoulders can carry. And I bet you'll have more to worry after, come spring."
Sam muttered something against the rim of his own mug, either unaware of the Gaffer's sharp sidelong glance, or pretending not to notice. "Mr. Frodo and me ought to be going. It's a bit of a walk out to the Whitling farm, too."
He looked directly at Frodo, a silent urging in his eyes that caught like a spark.
"Yes, we should be on our way," Frodo agreed, unrest kindling in the pit of his stomach.
Among goodbyes from the remaining family, Marigold accompanied them to the back door where she fastened her brother's cloak. Sam kissed her cheek hurriedly, then followed Frodo out into the small croft. Like wistful trespassers, the rowans leaned over the fence, their branches weaving in a cold breeze, and from the other side of the cottage came the dry sounds of an axe-blade snapping wood. Beyond the thicket, a footpath ran up to the muffling haze that lay banked on the southwestern ridge. Sam set a determined pace towards it, and with every step the steam of his breaths clouded his expression.
Frodo didn't speak until they'd passed the boundary stone that marked the limit of the Cottons' fields. "Is something the matter?"
Before them, the ground dipped towards unclaimed grassland and brushwood, and they stopped by the brambles that crowned the ridge. Sam pushed both hands into his trouser pockets, his shoulders rising and settling on a long breath as he looked across the land. "No," he answered slowly, "all's set to return to how it's always been. And that's as it ought to be, I reckon."
Frodo heard the note of reassurance, meant for them both and mustered with an effort Sam might not be aware of, and he couldn't bring himself to pursue the question. "What about Jolly's wife though? She seemed... well, ill at ease."
"Aye." Sam lowered his glance to the short, wiry grass at his feet. "She lost the babe she carried last summer, that's why."
Before he'd quite finished, Frodo's heart beat faster with a sudden fear he couldn't comprehend. "Do you know... do you know what happened?"
Sam shook his head. "'T might have been the lack of wholesome food, or just the fear as the ruffians put into her."
"So that is why she won't join the family on Highdays."
"She's staying away for shame, poor lass..."
"Shame? But –" Frodo broke off when Sam looked at him, alert and, without doubt, angry to the last inch of his stiffened back.
"There's no cause for it." Sam turned back to the north and when he spoke again, his voice had grown tight and husky. "She didn't ought to be thinking that she failed the family. It ain't right."
"No, indeed." Frodo laid a hand on his arm, wishing the quiet view below would envelop them both, that it could rise up through his touch, like the beginning of a dream, perhaps.
Mist lay in thick swaths over the Bywater Pool, cloaking Hobbiton Road, and beneath its expanse the stumps of trees dwindled to dark blots that swam in the pearly grey. Along the seam of that veil, the village spread in a patchwork of pale sod and black earth, and Frodo longed, irrationally, to walk back towards it instead of heading in the opposite direction.
He set his eyes on the cottage roof that showed through the web of bare branches, and voiced the first question he could think of. "Why did the Cottons build a separate home for Tom and Jolly, instead of expanding the farmhouse?"
"Oh, 't was Long Hom that had the cottage built for himself," Sam answered, "the farmer's old dad, if you remember?" The glint of anger had disappeared from his eyes when he turned back to Frodo. "I was too young to know much of aught at the time, but my Gaffer says that old Hom Cotton took to bristling like a hedgehog in his later days, whenever the moods took him. And instead of growing weak, his hearing got better, if you can believe it."
"I can," Frodo said with a smile.
"It seems he couldn't put up with all the noise from the cattle and little 'uns back at the farm no more, so he set to have his own house built a good distance away. I daresay Farmer Cotton weren't too pleased with the business, but what could he do?" A sudden gust flicked the hem of Sam's cloak into the brambles, and he pulled it free with a quick motion. "Aye, we should be off now," he told wind or thorn as much as Frodo, and headed down into the southern dell.
"Sam..." Frodo didn't intend to say more, and the sound wavered, dipping like the breath before his mouth, but only to hear it, to see Sam turn around at once and feel it draw out between them like a caress was more than enough. The vivid change on Sam's face touched Frodo's senses as clearly as the mists that flickered about his feet and carried him down, half-skidding, over the frosted grass. He steadied himself with a quick clasp of Sam's shoulders.
"Give an old hobbit a chance to catch his breath!"
"Old! You..." Sam swallowed and wrapped both arms around Frodo's waist, holding him very close, as if they'd not separated for a moment since rising from their bed.
Wind pooled in the dell, between the ridge and a line of spare grey aspen. Frodo bent his head to Sam's shoulder, glad to let the air eddy about them, a slow circling that wound their breaths into one, and in their embrace he felt a gathering pull, as a tree might draw inward through autumn's chills, storing sap and strength beneath its scoured bark. Warmth rose up his chest and stayed there, spreading a fine layer between skin and linen, even as he prepared to let go.
we can leave."
But the look in Sam's eyes held him motionless, open and alive with wonder through the vapour of their breaths. There is no end,
Frodo thought, surprised anew, as he always would be. Not to this.
Sam touched his lips as if to stop him from revealing a secret and nodded, almost gravely, before he let his hand drop.
Frodo felt a flush crawl up his throat when a cold blast whipped against the side of his face. In reckless, tumbling flight, a hooded crow sailed past and landed on a tussock some yards away, its beak wide open. To Frodo it seemed as if the bird had fallen out of the trees on the other side of the dell, together with the foggy light that slanted through the boughs as the clouds shifted. For a moment, the same light hammered in his temples.
"Well, now." Sam tipped his head to the side for a glance at the crow. A white fold of skin slid rapidly back and forth over the bird's eye. "Here's another one wanting to catch a breath, it looks like."
"Yes..." Frodo paused until the chill that seized him had abated. "Exactly how far is it to the Whitling farm? I'd rather not arrive at mid-day, or they might feel obliged to invite us to lunch."
Sam slapped his own forehead at that. "Kick me, but I forgot to pack us a bite for the road!"
"Don't berate yourself, Sam." Frodo reached into his pocket and brought out the shortcake. "I took a piece of bread, too. It isn't much, but it should keep us on our feet until tea-time."
"And I ought to be grateful that you kept your wits about for the both of us," Sam replied, still looking aggrieved at his oversight. "At any rate, we'll see the farm well before noon. I've not gone there in years, but it's less than an hour's walk from the East Road."
"Right." Frodo smiled, a little shakily perhaps, but it eased Sam's frown aside. "Lead the way."
* * *
When they climbed down to the East Road, among the stalks of withered thistles and hemlock, a smell of rot thickened the air. Water ran low in the ditch that was choked with dead leaves and wood chippings.
"That'll be one fine job, come spring," Sam said through his teeth. "Clearing out all the ditches. But I reckon it'll have to wait till then."
"The meltwater might even do some of the work for us." Frodo took a wide step over the trench and held out a hand to Sam. It wasn't that Sam needed his assistance, but his jaw had been clenched long before the road came into view, stripped of the trees that had once attended its course. Now the road itself bore the look of another injury inflicted on the land, straight and ugly like the mark of a giant whip. Through the seamless cloud cover, a dull grey light spilled over dried mud and the wooden carcasses left by the wayside.
"Ah, 'tis the same everywhere!" Sam released his hand as soon as he'd gained the road and crossed it in long strides, although the hardened ruts and pits demanded some caution. "Who'd think that even orcs
took the time to–" He interrupted himself with a terse, dismissive gesture.
"Not everywhere, Sam." Frodo caught up to him by the embankment on the south side, where they had to step around the lopped trunk of a chestnut.
"No... I know," Sam muttered, his head ducked between his shoulders. Under their feet crunched twigs and foliage that were hacked off before the season's turning could touch the roots.
In Rivendell, they had walked on a tapestry of rustling colours, lit by wandering beams that quickened their steps and drew fleeting paths among the trees. The memory surrounded Frodo like the falling leaves had, as they drifted on languid air currents, translucent to the light. Daily he had watched the gaps in the trees' crowns grow larger, and he'd often stopped beneath the huge elm that grew at the upper end of the valley, his neck craned at those bright pieces of autumn sky, thinking – no, he'd thought nothing, he'd merely stood there with his arms stretched wide, breathless anticipation straining through all his limbs. It was time to return to the Shire where the colours and scents would be sparkling as well, just like this, and yet so different in ways that he might have forgotten.
But his memories didn't falter, and now he could envision the trees as they would have been, each with a rich carpet sprawling at its feet. Red below the beech, brown around the oak, pale yellow under the willow, golden beneath birch and sycamore, and russet under the chestnut. He wanted to tell Sam to close his eyes and summon all those colours for him, until they could both imagine the lively swirls that the wind stirred here and there...
Something pricked his ankle, and Frodo stepped quickly aside. The chestnut's spiny cups were only half-grown, its leaves having shrivelled to a shade of ash, and the unripe nuts inside would still be as white as milk. How could I come here and not know?
he thought, struck again by the smothering disbelief that so often folded about him, boundless and misleading as a fog, since the day of their arrival. How could I?
During the first week, they had taken long, rambling walks every morning, sometimes roaming as far as the woodlands that stretched at the Green Hills' feet. He had been restless then, driving Sam and himself towards some undiscovered brink that would give him a view of he knew not what. At times the soft shapes of bushes and orchard trees would catch his attention on the tail of a glance, apparently unchanged in the cloudy light of late autumn, but always when they drew nearer, the resemblance would be jarred aside and the scar of a new muddy track pressed forth, or a fence hammered together from rough planks, or bleached and broken wood glaring from tendrils of new moss. And yet he had needed to see it all, even this, even though it left him exhausted. Perhaps, Frodo thought now, he had merely craved relief, the relief of knowing the worst.
But I already knew,
he thought with a sensation of pain like a thin cut along his chest where the skin lay closest to the bone. Nothing could be worse than the look on Sam's face when they had first caught sight of the Hill, dead and barren at its crown where the old oak used to grow. And dead below, where the Party Tree had been cut down.
"It sickens the heart, it does." Sam cast a final glance at the chestnut's twisted branches, his breath thick before his mouth, and shook his head. "My Gaffer used to tell me, 'Grief's like a weed, Sam, if you don't pull it out by the root, it'll choke other things wanting to grow.'"
Frodo needed a long moment until he could trust himself to speak. "But even so... it takes time."
"To be honest, Mr. Frodo..." Sam's eyes narrowed. "I'm not sure now as I'd wish to pull it out."
It was not the answer Frodo had expected, although perhaps he should have, and a startled sound caught in his throat.
Sam's glance flew back to him, expectant and so intent that it lit the change on his features in every minute detail. Frodo couldn't help but think how it must disturb his father, his sister, his friends, to see this in him – if they did – this sharp edge of knowing that should have been soothed in the Shire's trusted presence.
"I don't mean to forget," Sam said bluntly. "I never mean to."
"No," Frodo murmured, "no, of course not." That Sam should choose this – that he would root himself in grief if nothing else carried – brought his own desire to abrupt clarity. Through all their walks around the Westfarthing, he had yearned only to find a place where everything was at one, both familiar and unremembered, and then he would take Sam's hand and say, Here, this...
"When everything is in bloom again," Frodo started anew, but it seemed that something splayed his thoughts apart to reach out into the coming year. Neither hope nor anxiety, it simply stirred and passed through him. "Well," he said softly, "weeds bear their own kind of flowers, don't they."
"They do at that." The tight set of Sam's mouth loosened, curled with thought or half-formed hope. Then he pulled up his shoulders and pointed at an overgrown knoll that lay a little to the north. "If we cut across country here, we'll come up on the Greening Brook and a path running straight to the farm, if I remember rightly."
Frodo couldn't force his eyes away, even though he must have observed this a thousand times: how Sam would fill his gaze with a sight ahead, draw the air in deep and take the next step, whatever it required. At such a moment, all that Frodo could wish for was to close his eyes and let his fingers wander over the contours of Sam's face, over each treasured line, curve and angle, and ask him, What do you see?
And then, every answer that he needed would be balanced at his fingertips.
"I marvel at you," he said quietly as they struck out towards the knoll.
"Oh, but I ought to know my steps round these parts," Sam answered, his voice low and bashful. Green swells began to rise on either side of them, and suddenly the air smelled of spruce and approaching rain.
* * *
"I met Farmer Whitling at the annual tithe gatherings and at the fairs, of course," Frodo said as the thickets lightened before them, "but he always seemed... withdrawn, I guess."
"Aye, he keeps to his own." Sam grabbed a handful of tangled twigs and held them out of the way, for Frodo to step through. They settled back with a soft crackle when he released them. "Folk say the family lived out here well before the mill was built in Hobbiton, and the first Mayor elected."
From behind them, Frodo could still hear the Greening Brook, burbling over brown stones as it swept a load of leaves and fine needles onwards to the open plain where it joined the Water. As Sam had predicted, a narrow footpath wound through the undergrowth, although the tumbled autumn drifts rendered it nearly invisible.
"No-one in Hobbiton or Bywater's had word as to how the Whitlings are faring," Sam continued. "This far off the trod roads, things might've been better, or they might've been worse."
"You mean no-one knows if all is well at their farm? I thought–" Frodo gestured sharply, exasperated at himself. What had he been thinking? During the past months, no messengers had travelled between the villages, and few would pass through this wooded easternmost corner of the Westfarthing, less than two miles from the Three-Farthing stone.
"'Tis ill news as travels the quickest," Sam returned with a steadfast look. "And there's places hereabouts where folk can hide from trouble and never be found."
"I hope you're right." For an instant, Frodo fought the images that wanted to rise in his mind, blackened by fires that had long burned out, but he pushed them aside like the curtain of ivy that fell from the alder branches before them. Beyond, a small clearing brimmed with grey daylight.
A fine drizzle sifted through the trees that grew wider apart now, and within another minute the woods opened onto a range of bare, untilled soil. Weeds stood knee-high in the crumbling furrows that must have been dug in spring. Sam whistled in dismay at the sight. Twigs and dead branches littered the strip of grass along those abandoned fields, but at least they'd clearly been swept off by a storm, not scornful hands.
Frodo stepped forward to a hunched little birch that still carried scatterings of dry leaves, curled up and yellowed like old parchment. As he leaned back to look into the boughs, he caught a distant, reedy note which at first sounded like the wind whistling in a tight cove of rocks, but another note followed and then another, until they strung themselves into a hesitant melody.
"Somebody's playing a pipe..."
Beside him, Sam was listening with close attention. "It's an ash whistle," he said under his breath. "You tap away at the wood till you can pull the bark off the branch, like a sheath." A smile took hold on his mouth, shaping slowly as a sun-spot on a shadowed pool. "They're right delicate things for making music."
"Yes, it's..." Frodo shook his head, lost for words at the sound. Soft as dust, the drizzle gathered on his face, and he stood following the tune that consisted of only three or four trailing notes, but the sounds floated high and separate as sparrowhawks in a windless sky, piercing the quiet with a dauntless joy that almost stopped his heart. The Shire was still full of things that struck him unexpectedly, of discoveries receding, reviving and returning, like unknown hopes, or memories that he might have had. Then the melody broke off with a pitched squeak that sounded strangely like laughter, and he smiled. Whoever blew the whistle was apparently still practising.
"Well, that was a fair welcome, and no mistake," Sam said with a low chuckle. "We've come up on the farmlands from the east. You'll see the house in another minute, it's up yonder." He waved in the direction from which the tune had sprung.
At a more vigorous pace, they rounded the wood's outflung limb, while the rain pattered with greater insistence across the rising grounds. Sheltered between a green hummock on one side and a pair of rugged pines on the other, the farmhouse crouched at the western end of the fields. Frodo breathed out in relief when he noticed the dark ribbon of smoke that hovered above the straw-thatched roof. On the gentle rise to the right grew apple trees in dense rows, and in the misting rain their leafless crowns covered the slope like a rare embroidery.
As they approached, Frodo could see a small figure on the roof of a low shed that leaned to the narrow side of the house. Wetness glistened on the wooden boards and the lad's bare arms and shins.
"Hullo there!" Frodo called, although the boy must have long noticed them.
He cradled the whistle to his chest, but when they stopped below the shed, a small carving knife flashed suddenly from his other fist. His arm stiff as a log, he held the knife before him like a charm that could make them disappear.
"There now, lad." Sam spread his hands and spoke in the most placating tones. "We don't look like robbers or ruffians, do we?"
Without releasing his weapon, the boy scooted closer to the edge of the roof until his legs dangled over the side, wary eyes fixed on them.
"We're here to see your father," Frodo added, since surely a child of this age couldn't have been employed as a farmhand. "Would you tell him that he has visitors who wish to speak to him?"
The lad ducked his head and with a short twist of his hips propelled himself off the roof. Mud splattered about his feet as he landed, but he dropped neither knife nor whistle and ran off helter-skelter, shouting "Dad! Dad!"
they'll be right worried..." Sam shook his head, and they both hurried after the boy, around the byre to another outbuilding at the back.
The door had been thrown wide open, and the boy's shouts had indeed roused the family to instant alarm. An older lad had armed himself with a club, while Farmer Whitling clutched a long-handled hayfork in both fists. A step behind, the small boy danced from one foot to the other, his expression curious rather than anxious now.
"What's this, Timmi?" The farmer lowered his hayfork. "Can't tell wheat from chaff, eh? For shame. They're not come to rob us."
"No, we certainly haven't, Mr. Whitling." When Frodo took a step forward, he caught the smell of apples, breathing thick and sweet from the barn's shaded interior. The farmer's eyes searched him, seeming to examine every inch of his face. "Good day to you," Frodo added. "We're very sorry to have caused such a stir." For a moment he felt coldly certain that Whitling would not recognise him, but then the farmer gave a short nod.
"Why, 'tis Mr. Baggins of Hobbiton, if me eyes don't fool me," he said, only the barest note of welcome in his voice. "We weren't lookin' out to such a high visit, as ye can tell."
"We shan't keep you any longer than necessary," Frodo promised.
"Well, come inside."
"Thank you." Frodo ducked past the rainwater that sluiced in long skeins from the door-beam.
Within, another lad who might be Sam's age stood next to the large cider press that took up the barn's centre, one arm flung protectively across the dark, glistening wood. The scent of apples filled every corner, rich and sodden with a sour edge, and so heady that it was nearly overwhelming. Frodo could hear Sam breathe it in deeply as he stepped inside.
"My sons, Imling, Mart, and Tim," said Farmer Whitling with a quick tip of the head, but his eyes rested on Sam now, clearly questioning.
"It's Sam Gamgee," Sam responded before Frodo could speak. "You mightn't remember, Mr. Whitling, but I used to come here for your seed taters of a time."
"Ham Gamgee's youngest, is it? I thought I knew yer face, but..." The farmer shrugged and gestured around the barn. "We're sharp at work here, and late at it to worse."
Atop and around a high-wheeled haycart, crates and baskets full of apples were stacked up, and on the other side of the room casks and jugs were waiting to receive the cider. With a curt wave, the farmer indicated a low door into the main house. The youngest boy sauntered ahead, but the other two remained where they were, exchanging uneasy glances across the cider press.
Resinous smoke stung Frodo's eyes as he followed the farmer into the kitchen. There were no windows, and sparse light flickered from the open hearth where a grey-haired matron sat with her mending. From the pot over the fire wafted the smell of bean-porridge.
"My sister Tansy," Farmer Whitling introduced her, with a flick of the thumb. "And here's Mr. Baggins of Hobbiton that used to be Master o' the Hill."
"He's Master of the Hill now," Sam said tersely, "come back into his own."
Whitling passed him a dubious look before he turned back to Frodo. "Why, I can't say I'll be grieved if ye sent that Sackville-Baggins off runnin'. Meaning no harm, but that cousin o' yours ne'er did good if he snored in his sleep."
"Yes, so I have heard," Frodo answered, despite the tightness in his throat, "and I was indeed sorry to hear it."
"Mr. Lotho is dead." Annoyance sparked in Sam's eyes, barely held in check. "It wasn't a Baggins as did the worst harm hereabouts, Farmer Whitling."
The farmer cocked his head, eyes slitting with a quick temper of his own, but instead of arguing he shrugged one shoulder. "Well, speak no ill words o' the dead, 'tis said, and so rue me mine, Mr. Frodo." He gestured towards the table. "Sit yerselves down so we can have a talk."
He pulled up a stool for himself, and little Tim scuttled over to his aunt, squatting next to her on the hearth-stones. Although the dim, smoke-filled room seemed to close around them, Frodo took a seat on the bench and waited until Sam had settled next to him. One glance at the farmer's grieved expression told him that their own errand must wait. Over the past two weeks, he had paid similar visits to other farms, though none so secluded, and in one way or another their inhabitants were all in need to speak of the wrong they'd endured.
"I know that it has been a very difficult time for everyone," Frodo began, "and even though all strangers have been driven away, it will take many months to mend the damage. But tell me, how have you fared this last year, Mr. Whitling?"
"Ah, poorer'n some and better'n most, I 'spect." The farmer rubbed knotty fingers over his chin and glanced back furtively at his sister and his son. "'Tis a relief to hear of 'em madlings gone, and no use moanin' over old ills."
"There was a raid on your farm though, wasn't there?" Frodo asked, fairly sure of his guess after the quick defence they'd encountered.
"Aye, 'bout two months hence it was, and such a clear sunny day..." Whitling sat back and folded his arms. "They took our sow and would've took the ox, too, if the smart thing hadn't bolted as like he knew what were coming. 'Run after 'im,' I says to Mart, and he does, an' that's when I could hear 'em holler from the other side of the fields. Ruffians, a mort of 'em, making like they was all the lands' owner. It took a day and a night ere Mart was back with the ox." He slapped his palm down on the table. "Now what'll we eat 'tween Yule and spring? We've no ham or sausage to sell, only the cider. See, they took the old sow with her farrow, but they din't bother with the apple trees." He looked from Sam to Frodo, one hand flung open, as if it should seize an answer that put the harm in its place.
"Aye, there's no sense to robbin'," Sam grumbled, "there never is."
"Dumpy ran off, too," the little boy said. "She ne'er came back."
"Our pony," explained his father, "and they cut the dog's throat for naught but puttin' us to affright."
"I am very sorry," Frodo repeated, hollow as the words might ring to his own ears, "and amends shall be made in every manner possible, as soon as it can be managed."
The farmer nodded, but his expression didn't change at the reassurance. Frodo could see the memory on his face, naked and unsoothed, like an iron glint that edged every line, drawn with a fear that gathered to impassable blackness behind his eyes. A shiver stole up Frodo's chest – as if the farmer might be afraid of him
– clouding every response he could think of. He cleared his throat and felt Sam's glance from the side, enfolding him with quiet concern.
"I have no claim on your land or your service, Mr. Whitling," he said as steadily as he could, "but I am here to ask for your help nonetheless. Many farmers have lost their stores, if they were able to carry on with the harvest at all, and very few provisions are left to us. We will try to make up for the lack with grain from Buckland and beyond, before winter sets in, but such amounts have never been transported within so short a time." He paused until Whitling met his eyes again. "If you have a cart or waggon that you could spare for the task, I should be very grateful."
Whitling chewed on his lower lip and shook his head, although with some regret, it seemed. "We can't do without ox nor waggon, Mr. Frodo, not longer'n a day, and that won't serve for naught. See, we'll be takin' our cider to market where we can, and hope to trade for the flour and such vittles as we'll need."
"I understand." Frodo hid a stir of disappointment and settled back. "Very well." Briefly, he thought about offering payment, but under the circumstances, Whitling had little chance of spending a penny and might take insult besides. His world was crowded with worry, and Frodo could almost feel it encroach on his breath, like the smoke that stifled the air. We should leave,
he thought. We should leave now...
"Perhaps you could let us borrow your haycart though?" Sam asked. "With some boards added, it'll make a fair enough waggon." He didn't need to add that, without a pony to pull it, the second conveyance would be useless to the farmer.
"I'll see to it that your cart will be returned safely and quickly," Frodo put in when Farmer Whitling was slow to respond, "my word for that."
"Carl," the farmer's sister said softly.
"Fair said, Mr. Frodo..." Whitling coughed and scratched his chin. "If ye can bring a mare to pull it, you're welcome to the cart."
"I'll gladly take that offer." Without looking at Sam, Frodo could imagine how his brows were knotting as he took stock of the places where they might find a spare pony.
"So then..." Whitling glanced back towards the hearth where his sister was now stirring the porridge. "We're to have our lunch soon. If ye'll stay for a bite and sup..."
"Thank you, Mr. Whitling," Frodo replied firmly, "but we have other business to see to, and we've kept you from yours long enough."
"Ah, 'tis a deal of a walk back to Hobbiton." The farmer's eyes skipped to Sam who'd already risen to his feet, but he didn't repeat the invitation.
"My best to yer father, Sam," Whitling said as he saw them to the front door, "and same to Old Noakes if ye happen on 'im. He and his own are well, I trust?"
"As well as may be," Sam assured him. "I'll be glad to pass on your greetings."
Frodo turned about and breathed in the wash of daylight that spread its muddy silver across the puddles in the yard. The rain had lessened to a light patter, and brighter patches showed among the clouds.
"Timmi!" The farmer tipped his head back towards his youngest son. "Some apples for our visitors, to keep 'em on the road. Good ones, mind, and be quick about it!" As the boy dashed off, he added in a lowered voice, "He were cryin' in his sleep for weeks after the raid, and no soothing him 'xcept me playin' the whistle. But now matters'll turn back to rights, eh?"
"They will, within time," Frodo answered, and even as he said so, the words seemed to form a strange echo behind his own heartbeat. Time. And may it come soon.
He shook hands with the farmer while Sam took the apples that Tim had brought, tucked into the tails of his shirt.
"Good lad, Timmi," Whitling muttered, reaching out to draw the boy close against his side.
Frodo smiled at the lad whose fingers were knotted into his father's long tunic. "You play the whistle very well yourself." Farmer Whitling gave a snort at that, but his son grinned cautiously.
As they walked away from the farm, in a northward direction, Frodo heard the lad's voice rise with excited questions, until the rain's tapping on the pools scattered the sound. At his side, Sam made a small motion that he stopped mid-way, as if he would have taken Frodo's hand, had they been unwatched. Their feet sank into damp soil as they stepped over the furrows that crossed the barren field in long, cresting waves, skimmed by the rivulets that gathered in the trenches.
Thistles tugged on their cloaks as they climbed towards the line of trees. Half within their shadow, Frodo reached under Sam's cloak and touched his elbow. "Thank you for coming here with me."
"There's no place else I'd rather be," Sam answered just as quietly, "though sure enough you didn't need my help with winning him over..." He shrugged lightly. "There's not a body in the Shire as could tell you no, Mr. Frodo."
"Oh, I don't know!" Frodo nearly laughed, and a quick welling in his chest answered the look Sam gave him. "I forgot the haycart, for one. And besides, I..." But there was too much to say it all, save I need you with me,
and this Sam could read in his eyes, in the most fleeting of touches.
"I was simply being selfish," Frodo finished. Throughout the past week, he had consulted with one landholder after another, while Sam was kept busy by the restoration works in Hobbiton – but now it seemed as though the day's course had shifted, its countless small meanders joined to a single current that ran through the ground, the air and his blood, as clear and encompassing as the rain.
"No more than I," Sam murmured, his colour rising a bit as he gazed back over the field.
"That cart now," he said after a moment, "I was just remembering – they've got two ponies stabled at the Dragon that must've run off during the battle, and no-one's come to claim them yet. One of those could pull it. Or else, there's our Bill."
"Yes, although he'd no doubt dislike it very much to be parted from you." Frodo smiled, but the sight of old Whitling's face, drawn and doubtful, flickered through his thoughts again. "Farmer Whitling didn't ask us for news outright. I wonder how it must feel... to think that everything may have changed beyond these woods."
"He'll be worried a deal less about it now, I'm hoping," Sam answered. "When shall we send out the waggons to Buckland?"
"Next week, if at all possible." Frodo paused to consider the whirl of plans they had shaped, discarded and put together again. "I'm going to write to Saradoc... Merry is currently going over their stores, and messengers have been sent to Bree, too. We should have word from him soon." He turned towards the fringe of ruffled alders where bark and moss glowed in rain-washed brown and green, and his mind let go of everything but the present moment. "I'd like to take a different path back... if we can find one."
"We can cross the brook a bit further east, I expect, and make our way to the road from there." Sam offered him one of the small yellow apples that he'd stashed in the pouch at his hip.
"At our leisure," Frodo added, holding Sam's eyes as he bit into the apple and let the juice spill over his tongue, grateful beyond words that they had the remaining hours of the day to themselves. A gift of time. And it mattered not at all which path they took.
* * *
(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.