(continued from previous chapter)
* * *
It was afternoon as they set out from the farm. The sun lent a pale golden tint to the scudding clouds, her rays lighting sharply on the frost that glittered from the grass banks along the south lane. To Frodo's eyes, everything had the look of an etching on glass, revealing itself, then dissolving again with the clouds' restless movement across the sun. The constant changes from light to shadow drove out every thought about their winter stores, the numbers and reckonings with which he'd busied himself all morning. But he'd prepared well enough for the meeting and carried some written notes in his knapsack, tucked into one of the books that Merry had sent him.
Since the ruts in the lane didn't allow for three to walk comfortably abreast, Sam and Farmer Cotton had fallen a step behind and conversed in lowered voices about the crop yield in the Northfarthing. At times their footsteps stirred faint crackles from the ice that covered the last day's rain puddles.
"I'll be turning off here," Farmer Cotton announced as they approached Tom and Jolly's cottage. "'T might be that your Gaffer will want to come along, Sam, and I've some yarn to fetch that Mrs. Longholt will be wanting." His glance lingered on Sam with an unspoken invitation to accompany him, but Sam merely nodded.
"We shall see you at the Dragon then," Frodo returned, and watched with some relief as the farmer crossed towards the cottage yard, leaving him and Sam to walk the rest of the way by themselves. As they strolled on, Frodo searched Sam's profile from the side and noticed the pensive gaze that didn't quite meet his own. Was it the memory of the last night that flickered behind the dip of Sam's lashes, the same grateful relief for a moment's privacy, or some other thought entirely?
"Well, Sam," Frodo said in deliberately lighthearted tones, "this will be an occasion to celebrate, now that the Dragon is officially open and serving again."
"Aye, and we'll see the whole village turn up, I'll warrant," Sam answered evenly, "as soon as the meeting's finished."
In his sidelong glance flashed a keen expectation that couldn't have been kindled by the prospect of a friendly gathering alone. From the cast of his jaw to the set of his shoulders, everything about Sam's frame spelled alertness, if not outright tension, and Frodo wondered about it with a creeping disquiet. How could he forgive himself for running away, as he had the night before? And after this, what promise could he offer? Can you trust me not to fail you, Sam?
Between the hushed sounds of their footfalls ran a persistent quiet that grew heavier where the rowans guarded the cottage. Underneath these trees, Frodo felt as though he'd moved into a great stillness that lay tense around his breast, and if he breathed too deeply, it might leave him sore. The silence he'd grown accustomed to hear shifted around him, like great floes of ice.
Only when Sam moved closer to his side did he realise that he'd stopped walking, tense with anticipation, and the past two weeks seemed to crest in this sudden stillness where something was waiting for him – if only he could allow it inside. Beneath the trees, the sun kindled autumn gold from leaves raked up against the slender trunks. The bared patch of soil beyond was black and smooth, and Frodo thought of the frost sinking down to the roots, numbing and lulling them. Despite the soft winter haze, everything was crisp and present, as if it could remain unchanged forever.
He stirred when Sam raised a hand to reach out past him, his sleeve brushing Frodo's shoulder. "This... this is winter," he said slowly, uncertain why it should matter. "It is already here."
Sam nodded as he ran his fingers across the glittering crust on one of the lower branches, rubbing ice grains against the pad of his thumb. "'Tis a lucky thing though that the frosts are late this year," he said, "and not reaching all that deep yet. We might have a chance of sanding up the Row and digging out new holes ere the ground's froze up hard."
"Your Gaffer seems eager to return there."
"As eager as ever I've seen him."
"Then he isn't comfortable with Marigold and Tom?" Frodo asked, imagining the modest smial at Number Three as it must have been once, with six small children crowded into a single bedroom.
"It's not that," Sam answered, his eyes wandering from the trees to the cottage. "The Gaffer's grown so used to living below the Hill, he says it gives him a queer feeling to step out the door of a morn and look on flat grounds, instead of down into the dale." He wiped his hand on his cloak and pulled up his shoulders. "He's got his roots dug into that spot of soil, and there's no planting him elsewhere."
"I can well understand it," Frodo said softly while a memory of daybreak in Bag End stole through him, the first timid gleams crawling over the tiles in the front parlour where the fire was yet unlit. Stronger and brighter, this grey start of dawn would find him on the porch, and a long, languid shiver rippled from his neck to his toes. But where was Sam in this memory?
"Well, seeing as how the work's goin', we'll have him back by his own fire not long after Yule." Sam passed a long glance over his shoulder, in the direction of the Hill. "But if I could make a wish, I'd wish for Bag End to be mended as quick, if not sooner."
"So do I," Frodo said before he could think about it. "We will just have to be patient."
Sam met his eyes with a searching directness that took Frodo back to the first glimpse of morning. They had both woken late, and even though the noises of an already started breakfast should have rushed them from their bed, Sam held on to him with a fierce urgency. For long moments, he leaned over Frodo, gazing into his eyes through the wispy twilight while his fingers moved restlessly along the side of Frodo's face and through his curls. With a pang below his breath Frodo remembered how he'd been caught to that look, how he'd longed to raise his head the one inch needed to crush their mouths together, and could not dare it. But from that unfinished moment and the night's fears welled a question, begging an answer that he owed Sam, that he longed to give if only he could find it.
"When spring comes–" he started, and suddenly he could see it as if framed by one of Bag End's round windows, a distant sweep of green fringed by a cloud of white blossoms. So lucent that he almost felt the gentler airs on his face, yet entirely out of reach. We can hold out through this winter,
he thought. I can.
"Yes, Mr. Frodo?" Sam asked in a subdued tone, but his gaze lost none of its watchful intent.
A fretting little breeze blew cold past Frodo's ankles and up his calves, and wound into the trees until the boughs crackled. Near Sam's shoulder dangled a clutch of shrivelled berries, yellowed by the cold but still bright as waxed orchard apples. Frodo breathed in quietly. Within his memories he might wander past the windows of Bag End and observe the slow turning of days and seasons, but had anything ever seemed as clear and vivid as this strip of twig and berry against the thinning light? Perhaps this was all there was to know, and all he needed was to look fully at one sight in so many and grasp in it the whole of a life that he missed.
"The waiting may not be easy," Frodo said haltingly, "yet it seems right somehow to return to the Hill in spring. Think about it, Sam... What better time for a new beginning?" He could tell by Sam's startled smile that a genuine hope must be revealed on his own face.
"None better," Sam replied after a moment, "'tis true. And right you are to remind me that spring will come, as sure as anything."
"Do you ever doubt it?" Frodo smiled openly at him. "In that case, I shall keep reminding you." He might not have given the one answer he'd been looking for, but to see the curbed tension ease from Sam's stance, to watch him give the rowan twigs a brief, affectionate tousle was enough for the moment.
They wandered towards the village at a light pace, and soon the first chimneys rose into view, spewing smoke against the pale sky. Behind the smithy, a white dog was running in great, excited circles across the withered meadow. The blacksmith's wife called a greeting from the croft, her arms filled with rushes, and even as Frodo returned it, he noticed the slight changes in Sam's bearing. His eyes roamed from one side of the village to the other, and he carried himself with a quiet vigilance.
At the top of the south lane, the remains of the desolate sheds and houses that had cluttered the Pool Side not long ago lay piled in heaps of splintered boards and poles. A strong gusting wind came at them from the direction of Hobbiton, moving patches of sunlight and shadow across the road, and raked up echoing voices.
On the southern end of the Bywater Pool, among crippled and broken trees, the village maids and matrons were busy with mounts of laundry, some dragging garments back and forth through the water, others slapping sheets, wrung and twisted into thick ropes, against the flat stones. Their hands were red and swollen from the cold water. One of them began to sing, and the others fell in at their own pace, until their voices sauntered back and forth. In the yellowing daylight, Frodo could see the willows and wych elms that had once surrounded the pool and lent shade to the road, and the song seemed to leap from one treetop to the other until it rang like laughter, like the bleating of sheep driven in a hurry towards the fold, like the rhythmic clatter of chimbels.
He turned sideways, perhaps to share these impressions with Sam, but Sam's eyes were averted, and for once he didn't notice Frodo's glance. Quite likely he was reliving a fond remembrance of his own, and if so, Frodo wished that he'd draw hope from it. At a pony's impatient whinny from the western end of the village Sam's head snapped up.
"That were Mr. Boffin's old mare, if I've ever heard her in a temper."
"I suppose we should hurry," Frodo replied, "or there'll be no seats left for us in the Dragon."
Sam gave him a look so full of disdain that he almost laughed. "They'll always keep a seat for you, Mr. Frodo, 'less they've lost all manners in the scufflings, along with their wits."
When they stepped through the Dragon's open gate and wended their way past the carts and pony traps crowding the muddy yard, shouts and greetings flew from every direction. The inn's door might still show the traces of hasty repairs, but over the threshold streamed the familiar blend of firelight and burbling voices.
Frodo pushed his cloak back over his shoulders as he entered, dazed for a moment by the heated wafts of woodsmoke and cooking smells. Most of the local farmers were already present and had taken their seats at the long table towards the back of the common room. He nodded to Farmer Highgrove, Longholt, Hayward, Marsh and Greenholm in turn, before shaking the outstretched hand of his cousin Milo Burrows who'd pushed into his path.
Out of the corner of his eye, he caught the glances that skipped from him to Sam and back again. They were both wearing their Elven cloaks and the leaf-shaped brooches, an attire of which their assembled neighbours probably didn't approve. It marked them both as Travellers, alike to the community's eyes in this one way, if in no other.
One hand at Frodo's elbow, Milo ushered him towards a large round table already occupied by Olo Proudfoot and Otto Boffin from Overhill, and several others that Frodo had not expected to see, among them Odovacar Bolger, Aldo Brockhouse from Waymeet, Pit Hornblower from Michel Delving and, next to him, Will Whitfoot's eldest son Franklin.
"Frodo!" Without effort, Pippin's shout pierced the din, and Frodo turned back to see him approach from the ale casks, hefting a pair of filled tankards. "Over here!"
The path he took across the floor, his dark head bobbing easily above the milling crowd, directed Frodo's eyes to a table by the great hearth. The Thain himself rose from the single stuffed chair that remained in the tavern, straw spilling from rents in the padding.
"Frodo, my boy..."
"Good evening, Uncle Paladin. This is a surprise..." To Frodo's ears, they both sounded as if they were repeating a conversation from memory, with an altered, uneasy awareness running its course underneath. His uncle smiled staunchly as he looked him up and down, but then his eyes found Frodo's right hand and darted away quickly.
I don't mind if you look at it,
Frodo almost said, but that would probably cause his uncle greater embarrassment than letting it pass without comment. Paladin's expression was steadfast when he raised both arms, and Frodo stepped forward to let himself be folded in an embrace more circumspect than any he'd ever received from his boisterous uncle.
"Heavens above, but it's good to see you," the Thain muttered, holding him by his shoulders for another moment. "I only wish it could have been sooner." The Occupation hadn't diminished his girth by much, but the hard glint in his eye suggested a less apparent change. "The lot of you have been through strange weathers, indeed. Come and sit with us, Frodo. Pippin will fetch you another–"
"He can have mine." Pippin set the tankards down with a gallant bow and a wink for Frodo. "I'll be back in just a bit."
When Frodo cast a swift glance over his shoulder, Sam had been joined by Farmer Cotton who steered him to the long table on the other side of the room. Only family heads were called to attend this meeting, and Frodo thought he saw some farmers raise their eyebrows on sight of Sam. Lips pressed tightly together, Frodo drew up a chair next to Paladin's and draped his cloak over the backrest.
"I am glad to see you here, but this is a much larger gathering than I had expected."
"Is it now?" Amusement quirked Paladin's mouth and disappeared just as quickly in lavish froth as he took a swig from his tankard. Pippin dropped into the chair next to Frodo's, nearly spattering himself with the fresh ale that he'd brought.
"Well, then..." The Thain set his own ale aside and drew out his penknife to tap it against the tankard. "Let us begin before everyone has gone to the bottom of their mugs, shall we?"
"Certainly." Somewhat puzzled, Frodo watched his uncle approach their business with an uncommon amount of ceremony.
It took some time for the general noise to fade, and longer until everyone in the room had found a seat, but Pippin ignored Frodo's questioning look in favour of tasting his ale. Finally, Paladin walked to the middle of the floor where a small open space remained.
"Esteemed friends and neighbours, my dear hobbits," he said, spreading both arms wide, "we have many pressing questions to discuss, but before we talk about grain and shelter, there is one important matter to be decided." He paused to unfasten his jacket, its glass buttons flashing in the firelight. "As you all know, Will Whitfoot, our good mayor of many years, has suffered sorely from his imprisonment. He must be spared all duties until he has regained full health – and may he mend quickly."
Sympathetic mutters rose at this, and Frodo could see many eyes turn towards Franklin Whitfoot.
"We shall have to appoint a deputy for the time Will needs to recover," Paladin continued, "and that is why I was asked to attend this meeting. Indeed, those who approached me have also suggested the most suitable hobbit to fill the gap, and I am in full agreement with their choice. But it is for this gathering to decide upon the proper deputy, and for the hobbit in question to accept this appointment, of course."
Again there was a refrain of murmurs, thickening the air with a mixture of approval and curiosity. Though anticipation crept over him as well, Frodo took a sip of his ale and bent to retrieve his notes from the knapsack.
"Let Farmer Hayward have a say," Farmer Cotton requested from the back of the room. "He's the eldest among us and can speak for us all."
"Of course," Paladin agreed pleasantly.
Farmer Hayward pushed up from the bench. "Those were words well spoken, sir, and if I might say, we've given the matter a thought among us, too." He wet his lips and glanced back along the table. "'T should be the Master of Bag End taking up the Mayorship for this while, now that he's back and all. If we're to have more dealings with outsiders, he'll know what's best for us to do."
Frodo let the notes drift back into his knapsack and straightened in his chair. It was only too expectable that the local farmers would vote for someone they'd had dealings with for many years, yet their trust touched him with a sudden tightness in his chest.
"I am not about to argue with you," Paladin said cheerfully while Hayward sat down again, "not at all. In truth and fact, Frodo Baggins is the very hobbit I was going to propose to you, on behalf of several family heads from the West and Eastfarthing. Without our Travellers' courageous deeds, we would still chafe under Sharkey's rule." He hooked his thumbs into his belt and sent Frodo a jovial smile. "Besides it would not be fair, now would it, if only Hobbiton and Bywater were to profit from your return, Frodo."
"I–" Frodo shook his head, aware of Pippin's glance from the side. "I don't know what to say." His answer emerged so low, it went under in a fresh surge of rustles and murmurs. With a gesture, Paladin motioned him to stand.
Countless inquisitive faces seemed to swim among drifting smoke and the light fanning from the hearth, but Frodo could tell that not everyone in the room was as content with the Thain's choice as Farmer Hayward and his neighbours. Olo Proudfoot for one picked at the embroidery on his cuff with a scowl. Glancing around, Frodo felt as giddy and overwhelmed as he had after Bilbo's abrupt departure, his mind grappling with a hundred newly acquired duties, and his heart full of doubt. Yet those eighteen years ago there'd been none of the clouding disquiet that enveloped him now.
"You honour me," he said, "but if there is another that anyone here would like to see appointed, do speak up." No-one responded to his appeal, but his eyes finally found Sam, seated on a stool at the end of the long table. His expression was quietly expectant, without a trace of surprise, and his glance slipped briefly towards Pippin. When Frodo turned sideways, he saw that a smile played in the corners of Pippin's mouth, the kind that he considered secretive.
"You've ever been a good and kindly master, Mr. Frodo," Farmer Cotton said loudly, "and you've done your bit in putting an end to the mischief. We trust you to see us through the coming winter, hard as it may be."
"What's needed is someone with a sensible head on his shoulders," Odovacar Bolger stated, his upper lip curling in a suppressed smile. "From what I hear, my dear Frodo, you've kept your head together through all your travelling." Someone from the table behind him snorted softly, but Odovacar paid no attention to it. "What's more, now that we're in need of help from outside, your knowledge of foreign parts may do us some good."
At the dubious glance Olo Proudfoot exchanged with his Brockhouse connexion, Frodo guessed that there must have been an argument on this subject, but no-one objected now, and it seemed that no other candidate would be put forward.
"I thank you," he answered, though he couldn't keep the hoarseness out of his voice. Every pair of eyes in the room was set on him, and he wondered who it was that they saw, and if they were looking at a memory – of him in former years, or of Bilbo, perhaps, with his grand and whimsical ways. I should want this,
he thought, I should be grateful.
"Very well." Frodo cleared his throat. "I will tell you my thoughts, and you can then decide if you'll have me in Mayor Whitfoot's place." He stopped at a clatter of earthenware that was quickly hushed. "I wish for peace. I know that many of you carry scars from what you have suffered, and those scars, seen and unseen, may not disappear in a lifetime. They might not even heal..." He sought Sam's eyes again and found sharp comprehension in them as he groped for the right words. "But do not carry grievance alongside, do not burden yourself with bitterness over your losses. I cannot give you hope if you can't find it within yourselves..."
Some uneasy coughs and shuffling noises skittered about the room as Frodo paused. He should find words to give them confidence, he knew, even if it carried no farther than the bounds of this evening. But he thought of the fear that lodged hard as black slag in Farmer Whitling's eyes, of the irate disbelief tearing at the Gaffer's voice when he spoke of losing his home. He thought of Sam's stunned grief when he'd touched the bark of the dead Party Tree, and the weariness that so often bent Sam's shoulders. Among them all, Frodo realised with a start, he alone was unburdened by the grief they dragged through each day like cut and dangling roots. He felt light as air for a moment, enclosed within his own shallow breathing, when another disconcerted whisper stirred nearby.
He'd let the silence last too long, and some of the landholders were watching him with troubled frowns. Without looking at Sam again, Frodo could feel his steady gaze and knew that with every ounce of his will Sam wished him to continue, to accept –
"For the Shire," Frodo said, releasing with a breath everything that had dimmed the truth inside him, "I will do everything that I can. If there is one certainty I have, it is that we'll see the Shire flourish again... because we all love this land, and this love is stronger than all the forces that would see it destroyed." His voice dropped towards the end, but Sam looked at him with brimming eyes.
Frodo added silently, and thought with a bewildered calm that he'd come to this moment to find a decision within it, like the sweet flesh of a chestnut cracked open in a bonfire.
After a short pause, the farmers smacked their palms on the table in jumbled thumps of acclaim, and many hands from the nearer side of the room followed suit.
"No-one could ask more of you, Frodo. These are difficult times for us all." Paladin laid a hand against his shoulder blade where only Pippin could see it. "Are we decided then?" he asked, raising his voice.
"I say we are." Odovacar was first to rise and deliver a formal bow that was duplicated by one landholder after another. When they had all expressed their consent, Paladin turned towards the farmers' side of the room to request their decision as well. A response came in murmurs at first, but they were soon overtaken by good-humoured calls that rose to loud cheers like a river swelling with thaw from the mountains.
While the noise washed around him as if to sweep him over the doorstep and out into the road, all that Frodo could see clearly was the glow of pride and happiness in Sam's eyes. This was the moment Sam must have been waiting for all day. Frodo smiled at him and at the same time braced himself for the shoulder-claps and handshakes that would follow.
* * *
Dusk was pouring watery shades of blue across Bywater when Frodo stepped into the Dragon's yard. After many toasts and a prolonged, meandering discussion, the meeting was concluded. From the yard's rear rose thick compost smells, and greasy billows steamed through the kitchen wicket. Frodo walked across to the gate that faced out west, breathing deeply to clear his head and his chest.
Once the Dragon's doors and windows had been thrown open, more villagers crowded in to learn the news and enjoy their first cup of ale in months, until the crush of bodies made it difficult to breathe. He'd escaped the bustle as soon as he could without drawing attention. Perhaps the many months of travelling under open sky, and the time spent in the lofty halls and courtyards of Minas Tirith, had left him unused to the cramped and close spaces of Shire dwellings.
Across the road, alongside the ditch, lay a fallen chestnut, its trunk wreathed in pale skeins of ivy that gleamed in the twilight. It must have been cut down some time ago, for weeds and thistles formed a matted tangle beside and beneath the trunk, the kind where dormice or hedgehogs would take shelter during the cold season. Many miles beyond, behind a ragged line of trees in the west, the last of sunset gathered in burning orange. As he watched those dwindling flares, Frodo fingered the chain around his neck to which the white jewel was clasped. Every outline and shadow was sharply cut in this receding light, and the wind-swept sky formed a glassy dome containing it all. Clear as a dream,
he thought. But I am not here. Am I?
Neither sound nor movement told him that he was no longer alone. Rather it seemed as if the knowledge slid through him like one of the bright rays that narrowed to threads across the road's frozen tracks. When he turned, Sam stood by the Bolgers' covered waggon, splinters of bronze sunlight in his eyes, yet he didn't blink.
"You knew," Frodo said softly. "You and Pippin..."
Before Sam could answer, a quiet rustle came from the back of the yard. "I know what you're thinking, cousin." Pippin stepped around the bulky conveyance to stand beside Sam, "but there was no conspiracy this time. Only... well, I guess you might call it a private understanding of sorts."
"It weren't just us neither," Sam added.
Frodo raised an eyebrow. "No, it rather seems as if everyone shared this understanding, except me," he said lightly. "Not everyone approves, you know."
"Oh, there's always an old badger or another with secret–" Pippin gestured airily, "–ambitions. They'll stir up trouble only to make more of their own importance. And there are those who'd fill their own pouch and pantry first. Which reminds me..." He sank one hand into his jacket's pocket and with a sheepish look produced half a carrot. "I've pinched this to feed our pony, but don't tell on me, Frodo. Everyone knows we Tooks are terribly wasteful." His rueful grin flashed and dimmed in the space of a breath. "You'll be here when I come back, won't you?"
"Of course I will be," Frodo answered. "I think I have at least another dozen uncles, cousins and nephews waiting for a word with me."
"Not to mention a drink and a toast." With a satisfied nod, Pippin turned and headed towards the stables. "You owe me one, too," he flung over his shoulder, "and don't you forget it."
As he disappeared among the lengthened shadows, Sam crossed the short distance to the gate and took his place at Frodo's side as if he'd never left it. Watching him, Frodo found the same relieved gladness in Sam's eyes that he'd met there before, even though the responsibility of replacing Will Whitfoot and handling business in Michel Delving would surely limit their scant time together.
"Why didn't you tell me about it?" Frodo asked. Was there something guarded in Sam's expression now, or was it regret?
"Mr. Pippin... he asked me not to."
"Were you afraid that I would say no?"
Sam lowered his eyes. "I didn't know aught about it till this morning when I ran across Mr. Pippin in the village." When he looked up again, all trace of hesitation had vanished. "Mr. Frodo... you've no cause to doubt yourself."
Frodo shook his head. "I can't help wondering who it is that they see."
"If only they knew..." Sam's fingers curled into a fist atop the gate-post. "All that you've done, all that you've put yourself through to keep the Shire safe."
"And you, Sam. But I didn't mean to sound sorry for myself. I'm not. I do know that I can trust..." Frodo raised a hand as if to cup Sam's, barely stopping the motion to offer a smile instead. "Trust what you see in me."
Sam's hand loosened and dropped to his side. "That's more'n I'll ever have words for," he murmured thickly, holding Frodo in a glance so intimate that Frodo couldn't return it long – not here, where caution must keep them apart.
When he forced his eyes aside, towards the brimming sky, a sparrowhawk sailed above the fields west of Bywater. For long moments, Frodo watched its flight, the jagged upward wingbeats that eased into a graceful glide, only to start again unexpectedly as the bird was lifted from one air-stream to another. He knew that Sam was watching too, as they stood by the gate together, and this knowledge seemed to release the gentle brush of Sam's fingers against his own, like a calm breath flowing, before it became a firm handclasp between them.
Frodo smiled and felt something lift within him as though a haze had been blown off his senses. It was the first time since their return that Sam had touched him in this manner, in a place where they risked being seen. It was close and real, unquestionable as the quiet joy in Sam's eyes.
This is all that I have,
Frodo thought, enclosed in a deep stillness that he need not fear, and all that I need to guide me.
* * * * *
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.