(continued from previous chapter)
~ ~ ~
The trees used to spin fog and sunlight into sparkles, and spread them all over the lilt of the land. Long before spring, their boughs would shape tender hollows, parting as if to say: here.
~ ~ ~
Instead of turning back to the Lane, Sam clambered up the newly raised bank at the end of the Row. Where the gravel pit had gaped, the bare hillside slanted up harsher than before. Wet gusts pummelled him, one billow after the next, like a crest of hours running against him, rising steep as the slope while the mud slithered away under his feet. His breath came in terse white puffs when he reached the lower quarter of the Party Field. All of two days ago, the soil had been frozen in hard clots beneath the grass; now it gave way and shifted under his feet, sagging where those heavy waggons had carved deep tracks into the sward.
Sam slowed his steps to halt by the stump of the Party Tree. The cut hadn't darkened yet but remained pale like the upturned palm of a hand, and often he wondered if the tree had been felled just the day before they arrived. Perhaps someone like Saruman could reckon the time as if it lapped in heavy swells against the Hill's foot.
Sam bent to trace a fingertip along the wood in a slow, inward circle. A tree so opened was a thing changed, sterner than it ought to be, the tale of its years no longer welling but spelled out in clearly drawn rings.
From a hollow between the roots, a field-mouse hurried out and scaled the gnarled stump. Quick as a breath, it skittered down again and on across the furrows that must seem like mountain ranges to a creature so small, covered in grass thickets and cleaved by snowy gulfs, though the mouse didn't stop at aught, it kept running and running and running in a straight line till it disappeared.
Sam left the old Party Tree with a pat to its flank and walked over to the sapling that grew a stone's throw away. From a distance it looked slender as a reed, less than a shadow with its smooth grey bark, but each day he passed by, it'd grown half a foot taller, its crown unfolding like a marvel from the morning mists.
Sam laid a hand into a fork among the lower branches. "You're as quick as I'm slow," he murmured. "What's it with you that you won't give no heed to the time?"
When the first pale shoot broke the earth, curled tight in the shape of an arrow, he'd thought that such a tree would take forever to grow. He'd remembered the light falling in dazzled shafts through the Golden Wood, hanging there as if caught in still water, and he'd told himself, I can wait.
But by now, the upmost twigs reached well over his head and fanned into sprays finer than frost-blooms on glass. At all the boughs' tips hung buds like grey beads, lined with the faintest hint of amber. It'd be weeks yet ere the leaves unfurled, and no telling if they'd open like blossoms, or splay apart like butterfly-wings, or dapple the twigs all over, small as raindrops.
Near the ground, the trunk had grown too strong for his fingers to clasp in full, and a fresh green thatch was sprouting. Sam curled his toes into the grass and thought of the young mallorn
's roots underneath, slowly twining themselves through the roots of the Party Tree, to stretch out for hidden water-veins. If only he could see it, that weave of root and trickle still running through the soil, reaching paths of black and silver all the way down from the Hill to the Water's edge.
Sam trailed his hand down slowly over the bark. Like the Bywater Pool at dusk, when meltwater glistened on the cracking ice, the bark shimmered and seemed to shift under his palm. Between the mallorn
's skin and his own flowed a secret, out of air and silver, till it shaped the rise and fall in his breast. A day will come,
it seemed to tell him. A day will come.
He walked away with an easier step, up the slope across sodden tussocks to Bag End's gate, where some berries still gleamed in the holly bush. The wind blew steadier now, from a single direction. Streaming over the side of the Hill, it ruffled the sparse clumps of dark green, slid low over brown flats and ribbons of snow.
Those white patches gathered to a strange light at the corner of Sam's eye. The humps and ruts along the slope seemed to slide away under his feet, familiar as the measure of Frodo's steps beside him. There'd come a day when Frodo waited for him in Bag End. Nothing could stall him then, or make him miss his stride.
Sam climbed the steps to the porch and unstrapped his pack to retrieve the keys. But instead of going in right away, he turned and leaned against the front door. The hall had been left agape to the weather too often, and the door's timber had been so warped that it took sawing and sanding ere it shut proper again. It could use fresh paint, too, to bring back that proud, welcoming green. But when he stood there, he felt at rest, and he remembered the fresh, salty wind gusting over the White City's walls with dawn.
He filled his chest before he pushed the key into the lock and let himself in. As always when he came to work here, he opened Mr. Frodo's bedroom first, right of the entrance hall, to throw the shutter wide. Only this one room looked out straight to the east, to the beginning of day. Months ago, the window had been left splintered, a burst of chill draught and glinting edges, but he'd removed the shards and only scratches in the empty window-frame bespoke the damage now.
"Good morning," he whispered, his hand on the sill. The drizzle blew about him lighter and cooler than the curtains used to, and the sound of his own voice sought out the years past. Good morning, Mr. Frodo.
When he turned aside, a sudden prickle stirred between his shoulder blades, and he almost expected to find Frodo standing there, watching him with clear eyes from the shadowed part of the room. What would he say?
A sharp pang snapped in Sam's breast, strong enough to spin his head and make his hands clench about nothing. What could he say, when there was aught inside him but that need to reach and hold, whirling his heartbeat about like sparks from a lump of coal? What words he might find could never be more than tatters – poor, stumbling sounds for the longing that surged from the well of that moment – for the fullness that dwelled there always. Always.
It steadied inside him, this knowing... I shall not forget, for the life of me,
Frodo's voice answered him as surely as the light fell into his eyes, blurring the room all about. Naught else could guide him through this day, or steer his heart's course.
As he made his way to the kitchen, Sam opened the doors all along the corridor and walked from one room to the next, accompanied by the slight noises of latch and lock, by the patter of his own footsteps scuttling ahead, as if trying to comfort the bare corners that dreamed of rugs and furniture, of books and paintings.
The empty smial wanted these sounds, the bounce of confident steps passing to and fro, just like a whistle wanted breath and fingers to fetch a tune from its hollowed middle. Always when he made his round, Sam matched his stride to the rhythm of a song he had yet to find, that he tried to whistle under his breath nohow. Once he'd patched it all together, he told himself, the time was come. But not yet, not yet.
For all the work he'd done, the kitchen was still a desolate sight, the kind of place fit for rat-folk, as the ruffians said. When he swung the shutter open, thin daylight spilled across the cracks between the tiles where too much dirt had settled in and hardened in crusts. All round the hearth, soot from badly kept fires stained the walls, and the crumbling chimney kept drizzling mortar like ash into the blackened grate. There wouldn't be another fire lit here before the chimney had been rebuilt on top of the hill, but the air still carried a bitter whiff of smoke.
Sam took a moment to think of Mr. Bilbo – how he used to bustle back and forth between the large table and the oven, among rows of pots, glazed earthenware and bundled herbs – but the scraps of memory he could summon flitted about like straw on a wilful wind. The only kitchen he could picture now was the Cottons', astir with talk and Rosie's singing, with the thick scents of simmering broth and fresh milk.
Out in the corridor, the daylight lay in puddles along the floor and reached its feeble touch to the old oak's roots that still braced the smial. Though the wainscoting was in fierce need of repair, being burned and splintered in places, he'd cleaned the roots first, waxing those ancient limbs one by one till they were rendered smooth and gleaming, a delight to the touch.
Sam stopped by the door to Mr. Frodo's study where a thick root stood out from the twilight, curving sideways to plunge two sturdy branches into the ground. Like carved black pillars they looked now, cloaked in a longsome rest as dark as Moria. Sam wrapped his fingers about the crook that should be warmer than stone and leant his forehead to a knurl above. All about him, the smials with their empty chambers seemed to widen and heave, breathing out their shadows and whatever recollections they might hold. The wind caught strangely in the corners and chimneys, of times, made them moan and chatter and fall to harsh silence again. Perhaps, if it wasn't for the roots, all the rooms would founder, closing themselves about the drained earth.
Against the skin of his forehead, Sam felt the creases that ran in the wood, and he wondered if the roots remembered their tree on the hill above. When he squeezed his eyes tightly shut, flickers rose behind his lids from his own blood, shapeless speckles that danced madly about, till he felt he were clinging to a log tossed in a savage flood. But perhaps that was how the roots kept their knowledge of day up above, of bright air rushing, twisting and dashing through the oak's broad crown. Mayhap they didn't know what was lost, either.
There must be recollection in you,
he thought, while his breath drew a thin mist across the wood, even if I can't reach it.
And if so, then perhaps some snatches of his own rhyming were kept alongside, from all the hours that he'd spent under the oak's guard, jumbling words about while the leaves swayed overhead.
My lad, said Troll, this bone I stole.
But what be bones that lie in a hole?
Sam mumbled the words, tasting them anew as he stepped into the parlour and picked up the broom. He'd stacked a good cord of firewood by the hearth before the snows, but then it turned out that something choked the chimney near its middle. When he knelt in the fireplace and glanced up, only a few winks of daylight peeped through, glistening on the traces of melt along the stones.
He sat back on his haunches and began humming again as he poked the broomstick into the flue. If this didn't do it, he could still fetch the hoe that he kept by the kitchen door. Not long though, and his prodding brought down a tumble of shredded leaves and bits of twig, followed by clumps of ice. Like a strange rain released by the Hill's own soil, those scatterings kept falling till the broom caught in a tangle of sorts that wobbled but wouldn't come loose.
Setting the broom aside, Sam crawled in again, for the flue was wide enough to stand up straight and reach his arms to the resisting snarl. He groped about till his fingers found a dangling end he could tug on. A clutch of bramble it was, with thorns grown brittle as charcoal, and something bigger caught inside. He grunted in surprise when it all dropped of a sudden, snagging in the tight space between his shoulder and the stone.
What was nestled into the bramble, he found when he dragged the whole bundle out with him, was a frozen jackdaw that seemed to have lain there all winter. One of its wings stuck out at a sharp angle, and that was how it must have trapped itself. When Sam stroked his fingers across the black feathers, fine snow trickled out like a dusting of salt, and the one glazed eye peered up white as the full moon.
It made him think of such nights when the moon would light naught but the snow and the drifting clouds, and between them opened a waiting space that breathed, in and out. So clear was the image that he could feel the cold pierce deep and clean in his chest. The jackdaw's beak stood agape in a proud silence. It must have screamed like a trumpet.
Together with the bramble, Sam carried it out through the back door, over to the rubbish pile he'd burn when the weather allowed. The day's colour had risen to a yellow-grey, falling on the pale leaves of some early poppies that speckled the ground not far from the ripped and wild-grown hedge. On the other side of the kitchen garden, a squirrel danced along the rope he'd drawn by the newly dug cabbage bed, since there wasn't a fence yet to mark the space set apart for all the herbs and vegetables.
Sam couldn't resist taking a quick walk along the trenches, between rows of raked and turned soil. It was but the map of a garden, not a true garden yet, but the familiar pattern let him picture the sprouting greens and the dots of tiny blossoms sprinkled among the herbs. He lowered himself to his knees and rubbed the clod between his palms till it yielded into thick softness. None of the waste remained, no slivers of wood, glass or tar as had been scattered allabouts, he'd made sure of that. But what else might be buried in the Shire's soil that he couldn't see?
Only the earth's own strength, he answered himself; what filled his hands now was naught like the Black Land's poisoned soil. Though he'd raked away a full layer of loam to remove the filth, all the goodness gathered through years of gardening must reach deeper than that. It was a pledge for new growth that he sifted through his fingers, in moist black crumbs. As he knelt there, the memory that he'd brushed in his Gaffer's kitchen came back to him, with a longing that let him go still as a tree, still as the patch of snow by the hardy wintersweet shrub, till it reached down to cramp in his very bones. A garden like no other it had always been – and would be, again.
Stiff and slow, he climbed back to his feet, but from where he stood, he could make out the young mallorn
in the Party Field, a silvery ghost. Come spring, Mr. Frodo would be able to see its bright crown from his back door – if the mallorn
could thrive in such a strange soil and the shortness of days. Sam curbed that thought ere it could seize up inside him. The Lady's blessings are with it.
He walked on at a terse pace, back around to the front door.
Beside the parlour window, a cluster of gorse had survived, and along the slope by the steps the trampled grass clung in short, grey-green tufts. The spring rains would raise it up high, and Sam could almost picture the swathes of green that he wouldn't mow for the pleasure of feeling the grass dip about his legs. He climbed the porch and cleaned his feet, scrubbing his soles on the lumpy old whetting stone by the door.
Bag End lay open before him, but when he stepped over the threshold, something kept him for a spell, like the closing folds of a silk curtain. Just beyond it, he could see Frodo, his dreaming face freed and cradled in the sheen of a candle that burned low. Asleep or awake, those movements on his face were like the softest traces of wind touching a slow brook, while something passed through, beautiful and unknown.
The pain that seared Sam's breast bore an edge of fear, so keenly honed that he put a hand out to the door-frame and leant his head on his forearm. His breath came ragged – and why was it that he moved through the day in hapless fits and starts, when he had so much work to do?
Nearby sat his unopened pack with its wrapped load of burnished brown tiles, and in the parlour, the fireplace was waiting to be swept clean. Armed with brush and scoop, Sam ducked into the hearth and looked up the steep of the chimney.
Against his back, the stone was cold and strong, and above him loomed a tower into light where the wind sang. If he could rise up there in the rush of a dream, he might see the whole of the Shire, healed and renewed.
~ ~ ~
With age, all trees split the skin of their remembering, and some open themselves from root to crown, baring a path like a river between long, pale coasts. Everything can change in this manner, if it must.
~ ~ ~
Noon was just past when he finished laying the tiles in the corridor, where a full score of them had been dislodged and broken. He'd placed the pieces in a basket, for later use in the garden, and sat rubbing at the sprinkles of dried lime on his hands and forearms that mixing the mortar had left. Only a slight rustle drifted in through the entrance hall, but it caught Sam's attention like a tug on the bell. Someone was walking up the steps to Bag End's door.
Blood pricked sharply from his ankles to his toes as he pushed to his feet. There'd not been a visitor since before the snow, when he'd had some lads from the village help him lug in the timber, brick and sand as would be needed for the countless repairs. Sam strode back quick to the open front door, blinking into daylight that seemed oddly bright now.
It poured about Frodo, glinting russet on his curls, and ran to deep green on the wool of his cloak. Under one arm, he carried what looked like a thick bolt of cloth. A sting rose upward Sam's breast and sent his pulse leaping in his throat. All at once, he wanted to close the door and his eyes and seize Frodo to him, but instead of doing or saying aught he just stood there, his breath awhirl in his chest.
"Good morning, Sam." The softness in Frodo's voice held the touch of a question. "I missed my chance to say that earlier in the day."
"Mr. Frodo." Sam snatched another breath. "I weren't expecting you, sir." All he could see for the moment was himself, as if in a mirror, his hands and face and hair dirty and showing none of the welcome he'd longed to offer.
"May I come in?" Frodo asked.
"Oh, but of course..." Heat surged into Sam's cheeks as he stepped aside. It seemed as if time were spun on its ear, reeling him through the long-gone days when Mr. Frodo had opened the door to his knock, and Bag End spread before him with its deep comforts and mysteries.
"I also came to bring this," Frodo explained as he set down the bolt to untie the strings that held it. The climb had washed a high colour into his face, and his fingers made quick work of the knots. "I was on my way to the Highgrove farm when Weaver Harfoot called me into his workshop. Look..." The bundle unrolled into a woolen rug. "I shall think about an appropriate gift that he will accept in return."
Sam couldn't spare more than a glance for the patterns woven in red, yellow, and brown. The day's muted shine fell fair across Frodo's cheek and jaw, setting a glint in the corner of his eye. "Folk mightn't say much about it, but they're right thankful you've returned, Mr. Frodo," Sam murmured, bending forward to touch the thick skeins of wool. "Where were you thinking to put it?"
"Well, how about placing it in front of the parlour hearth, at least for the time being?"
"That's the best spot, I'll own." Sam caught himself from glancing back over his shoulder, down the dank and sullied smial, and strove for a confident tone. "I'd just cleaned out the hearth, and the chimney too." Before he could grab on though, Frodo had bundled the rug up again and carried it over to the parlour door.
Sam hurried along, as if he might change the room's appearance by getting there first. Now that Frodo was here, recollections gathered about him thick as a lightning cloud. Together with the draught from the window, a drift of voices, pipesmoke and candle-light filled the open doorway. He could see party guests rise from the dinner table like visiting shadows – and Mr. Frodo moving among them, smiling and talking and making his way through the gathering as supple as a brook. His hands used to be restless on such evenings, aflight with every word. And despite all the noise as such a crowd made, Sam could always pick out his laughter, even from the kitchen. He'd pause in his work for a spell and listen, and smile at the unheard joke being told. Would those memories rise up now to enfold Frodo, or would they scramble away to leave him alone in the empty parlour with its bleared bit of daylight? And which of the two would be worse?
Sam cast a wild glance round the room, but all he could find to say was, "I pulled a frozen jackdaw from that chimney..." And then he rushed on, hurtled into another memory, "Do you remember the summer when we found an owl nesting in the chimney above Mr. Bilbo's bedroom?"
"I do." Frodo met his eyes and held them as he lowered the rug before the hearth. "Bilbo heard fluttering, scraping noises at night that seemed to come from within the walls."
"Aye, it gave him an awful dream... about someone writing on the back of the wainscoting with a giant quill, only just to mock him."
"Quite an unusual nightmare, if you think about it!" Frodo laughed softly, and the sound seemed to pull Sam out of himself, so that he watched, unmoving, while Frodo stooped to straighten out one of the rug's corners.
"I realise that many hopes are set on my return," he said, "and I shall try not to disappoint them."
"Disappoint them?" Sam burst out. "There's aught you could do as would disappoint them!" His voice rang too loud in the barren chamber, and he lowered his eyes to the rug, to still his racing thoughts with the sight.
The weave was plain at the centre where red lay side by side with dark brown, but along the pale fringes ran patterns of leaves and grapes, all suspended from one swirled vine. Weaver Harfoot must have pulled those ornaments from a memory full of dancing hues. A chill grazed the side of Sam's neck and drew his eyes to the window.
"There's more rain borne on that wind," he muttered, half on his way across the room. "Mayhap I'd ought to close the shutters." But the moist air laced so calm about him that he stopped with his hand on the sill, listening after the faintest sounds. Rain was still dripping softly from the grass above the window, to run its course among the flattened ruffs below.
"I think we've seen the worst of the weather for today," Frodo said from behind. "In fact, I saw the sun peek out on my way from Bywater." His light tone mingled with the rain's dribbles, and it seemed suddenly that the glistening space outside held its own music.
Just this, just the sound of his voice.
Sam breathed the smell of humid earth that rose strong enough to make his eyes water. He turned slowly and found Frodo watching him from a mere step away.
With the colour across his cheeks and the soft line of his jaw, he looked untried as a lad just then, save for the knowing in his eyes. So much strength and decision rested there and kept Sam more securely than the ground under his feet.
He held his breath when Frodo raised a hand to his cheek, cupping it in the coolness of his palm, and all the blood in Sam's face seemed to dash there at once. Out of the wordless pause came a smile, quirking untroubled and tender in the corners of Frodo's mouth. It brought Sam back to himself, and he found a wish in the touch that set his heartbeat pounding up the side of his neck.
"I admit," Frodo said finally, "that I was glad to be handed a reason for coming here."
Sam tipped his face to the side, leaning into the curve of Frodo's fingers that traced a slow path over his skin. Only half his mind and less of his voice had a part in it when he asked, "Why's that, Mr. Frodo?"
"Why?" Frodo's voice rose in surprise, but something less easy squeezed it tight. "Must you ask that?"
A murmur caught in Sam's throat, shapeless and raw when Frodo lowered his hand, and he felt the missing touch like the room's own misery, where naught was as he'd pictured it to welcome Frodo home. All the tenderness inside him rose hot as a teeming spring till his chest brimmed and ached with it.
"If you don't mind–" Frodo glanced back to the door. "I should like a look around..."
"But naught's ready, sir!"
"But, Sam, I saw Bag End in a far worse state than it is now, on that first day."
"And I wish you could forget that," he returned with too much force.
Frodo glanced aside at that, but it took no more to give Sam the answer that he'd known all along. Fear tunneled thick and heavy through his limbs.
"I've ordered new window-panes from the glass-blowers out in Scary," he went on in a hurry, "and they'd ought to arrive next week. It takes some waiting, but there's to be a rim of stained glass in the big window here, done in red and green to bring in a bit of colour." It seemed as though all the fret inside him were unwinding into chatter, and he couldn't stop it. "Oh, and the curtains! Mrs. Longholt's gotten behind on her work, what with her youngest falling ill, you understand, but she's using the finest linen for your curtains, Mr. Frodo."
"She shouldn't trouble herself with it at all while she's tending her boy," Frodo said firmly, a thin crease forming between his brows. "The curtains can surely wait until we have brought the furniture back from Crickhollow."
"No, they can't!" Sam's breath rushed hot with it.
Frodo was watching him sharply now, but Sam couldn't say more for aught in the world. The window's empty circle laid a cold touch against his back. You'll be looking out to the garden for your memories, and you'll find them missing.
He pushed a hand into his hair and felt the dirt drizzle through his fingers.
"I know you're doing this for me," Frodo began, "but I would rather–"
"I can't." The words jarred together like stones tossed without aim. Sam heard the slight catch in Frodo's breath and wanted to swallow them backwards.
"Sam..." Frodo set his shoulders and his chin rose. "You did not sleep well last night, yet you were up again before dawn. You're wearing yourself down to the quick. What would you have me do?"
Sam bowed his head and wiped his dusty hand on his breeches. All through the winter, he'd asked Frodo to wait, but now his own anxious waiting had been snapped to dangle in loose ends. From the corner of his eye, he saw Frodo take a step towards the door.
"Come outside with me," he asked, in the resolute tone Sam knew from all the years of serving him. "We shall take a walk."
He strode ahead so fast that Sam barely had the time to snatch up his jacket and none to lock the door, but now it didn't seem to matter. Instead of heading down to the Lane, Frodo turned right, across the garden and towards the spot where the smaller gate still stood among the ruins of the hedge. He unlatched it with a quick move, holding it open for Sam to step through, but then he hesitated.
"Where should we go?"
"Perhaps... there's that little dell, down where the Row used to bend off," Sam suggested. "I used to go there for mushrooms..."
Frodo watched him a moment longer ere he nodded, and they began rounding the Hill's western flank. The wind had lessened to shallow gusts, swirling among the dead nettles. Below, by the Water, the day's haze lay in patches over grey and brown strips of land.
All at once, Sam remembered sitting on his dad's knee one eve, the sun still flaring on the grass at their feet while the dale was swimming in shadow. Watch,
his Gaffer said, his cheek close to Sam's with its rougher skin, pipesmoke on his breath. The word formed in a slow, content rumble against Sam's back. Watch.
How had he forgotten that? Or was it a dream, the sort that made itself familiar through many nights? But he was still watching now, for the land to join together again from all the pieces that seemed so small and bounded, crushed together before the horizon.
He reached out a hand to Frodo as they descended over bumpy ground and wet grass. Frodo's fingers caught on his wrist before their hands joined in a firm clasp, and a jolt went through Sam, driving his breath out in sharp relief.
Frodo's gaze returned to him from the muffled west. "Have you come this way before?"
"Just once, when all was covered deep in snow, for a look at your orchards," Sam answered. "I didn't go very far." The orchards, too, were in a wretched state, having been plundered for wood at will and else left in dire neglect. But they weren't beyond saving, and the bare crowns formed a mild grey cloud on their left, hiding the Water's course.
Through the light movement of Frodo's hand in his own, Sam could trace the long breath he drew. "All winter," he said, "you have thrown yourself at every plight and failing. As if they were blows you could take in my stead, so that I would be spared."
"Mr. Frodo, I never meant to–" But Sam's throat clenched on the words, and in truth there wasn't aught he could say, save "I'm sorry... sorry for acting as I did just now, too."
"No." Low as Frodo's voice was, it betrayed a hidden strain, and his grip on Sam's fingers tightened. "Don't be sorry, Sam. But I cannot stand to watch this any longer."
They'd passed the level of the Row and found the remnants of the old footpath where faded thistles and briar clustered along the slope. Sam slowed his steps, as though that might help with the churning inside him.
"I understand your reasons..." Frodo measured his stride to match their pace and spoke with a soft urgency. "You wish to return Bag End to me as it once was, or as close to it as possible."
Sam dipped his head in a short nod, though he felt that hope jab like a cutler in his chest.
"A gift for me," Frodo continued, "one of so many... and you must know that I treasure each. But now, after you have done so much, let me do something to help. Or let others help you with the remaining labours, at least."
"Yes, Mr. Frodo," Sam said hoarsely. He knew it wasn't answer enough, but the tangle in his breast didn't allow for more.
Some yards ahead, the ground dropped towards the dell, and Sam could hear the little brook burble along the overgrown banks. Most of the copse that thickened towards the back stood unmarred, behind the brambles that had crept out farther than ever before, as if to lay a bulwark round the trees. They hadn't saved the mighty old elm though. At the first glance Sam took, he could see that it was chopped off near the ground.
He kept his eyes on his feet as they climbed down, through the last year's rank and matted growth, towards the brook that sang loudly now. Chunks of ice clung to the cresses and horsetail overhanging the banks and dropped bit by bit into the water. Sam let go of Frodo's hand to step across, or they'd likely both take a tumble. Ahead glared the gap where the old elm would have caught him in sprawling brushwood.
"Thick as an oliphaunt's leg, the trunk used to be..." His glance dropped to the roots, the severed humps and joints standing out grey from the loam, and he could see them thrashing, snapping up from the soil like tails and snouts. Something crammed in his throat, as if to bray and snarl with them, and it took a hard effort to stopper those noises when the folds of Frodo's cloak brushed his sleeve.
"Do you remember?" Sam whispered. "They've a strength as we'll never know. Like oliphaunts."
He tore away before Frodo could say a word, plunging in the direction where a path used to wind among the trees. Brambles clawed at his breeches, and he couldn't blame them for wanting to stop him. He'd come here so many times, jouncing along beside his mother to collect berries or mushrooms, and practicing with stone and sling later, together with Ham and Hal. Perhaps the angry hum in his ears rang with their shouts and laughter, mocking his mad dash. The recollections were like teeth broken out of his mouth and buried at all four corners of the farthing.
He ploughed through deadwood and undergrowth that sprayed him with rain-water till he could see the end of the dell between scranny birches, where the Hill rose steep as a dike to the sky. There he stumbled to a halt, a trickle from the boughs chilling the back of his neck. Where had he thought to go? His hands felt limp and swollen at his sides.
Through his own harsh breaths, he heard footsteps approaching in a blind hurry, then stop right behind him. The patches of soaked green up ahead seemed brighter after the rain, and so keenly drawn as if a bottomless drop lay beyond that edge.
He felt the touch of Frodo's hands on his shoulders before it came, light and soothing, and gathered up enough breath to say, "You shouldn't be near me."
"But – why? Why would you think that?" Frodo's fingers slid down the length of his arms till they brushed Sam's knuckles, then circled his wrists in a fast grip. "Sam..."
He shut his eyes. The need inside him ran too wild, too heedless, as if it might drown Frodo, drown them both. Please...
He could feel the tremor in Frodo's fingers press hard to his wrists, close enough to mesh with the pounding in his blood. Then, with a wrenching motion, Frodo let go and took a backward step.
The quiet that followed crept under Sam's lids with a cool grey sheen, till it broke on a woodpecker's rapid knocks, somewhere to the north. He didn't have to look over his shoulder to know where Frodo was, but he did anyway.
With his head bowed and his arms braced on his knees, Frodo sat on a tree's fallen limb that was covered all over in pale moss. "Tell me," he said at last, without looking up. "Sam, please tell me."
It must be him that was turning, Sam thought, but it felt more like the ground itself spinning him about, so that he had to fix his eyes on his toes to make it stop. The words fell from him after the same manner. "There's such times when I think about Gollum, Mr. Frodo, and how all that craving drove him out of his mind... the more that he knew he couldn't have what he wanted. I didn't understand it then, but I do now."
"You cannot compare yourself to him!" Disbelief snapped in each word, and when Sam looked up, a desperate intent pierced the shimmer of tears in Frodo's eyes. "What you long to find–"
His voice didn't carry no further, but it carried Sam a step and another, till he dropped to his knees before Frodo, seizing both of his hands. Cold and trembling, his fingers were knotted as if to a last hold. Sam breathed on them before he pressed his forehead against Frodo's knuckles. He couldn't ask forgiveness for having spoken what he'd never meant to say, and it seemed now there was nobut blank space inside him, filled by his breaths and the smells of rain.
"What can we do?" Frodo's voice was utterly changed, so soft as if he spoke from the midst of sleep. "What have we lost... that we could have kept safe?"
Sam straightened a bit, his head still bent. The damp was starting to soak through the knees of his breeches, and the dark curls on Frodo's feet glistened wet. "It's neither you nor me, Mr. Frodo, it's what were done to the Shire."
"But we are part of it. We always have been."
"Aye, and it's all broke asunder now. Not just the land, the fields, the trees... it's there when folk look on their neighbours as used to spy for the ruffians. When they recollect all the fear." Sam's breath ran out with that, and his voice dried to a whisper. "I'd pull it all back together, if I could, with my own hands."
"You would... and you do." Frodo leant forward and freed one of his hands to rake his fingers through Sam's hair in short, fretful strokes. "Sam... do you fear that you
have been broken?"
There was but one answer Sam could give, and he pressed a kiss to the back of Frodo's hand before raising his head. "Not when you're with me."
For long moments, Frodo studied him, his own face drawn and alight with feelings that wavered as a candle-flame in a draught, against the dark stillness of his eyes. But instead of speaking, he pulled Sam to his feet and clasped him in his arms, so fierce and sudden that a small sound escaped Sam.
"Then do not run from me," Frodo said close by his ear.
It pulled a shiver through him, and more than that, a surge of will and belief drawn to Frodo's touch. Sam flung both arms round his waist, locking himself to their embrace, to all the certainty there could be. He could feel it rise up from the ground underfoot and through him, in faint stumbling sparks that caught where Frodo's arm pressed to his spine. And every touch seemed to ask, tell me your wish, your greatest wish.
Sam buried his face at Frodo's neck and closed his eyes tightly. Only a thin, curved line pricked through his lids like a smouldering seam of daylight, while all else were plunged in floating shadows that spread wider and wider. I'd wish for the Shire to be whole again, and to hold us in it, like this.
Between one breath and another, the world moved about them in a long, slow circle that left his knees weak. He shivered again, and Frodo drew back to brush at the damp curls sticking to Sam's temple.
"You must be getting cold, soaked through as you are." His voice held a light reproach, but his mouth set firm with the will to say no more right then.
"In fact–" Frodo glanced down at the stains on their clothing, "–we're both quite wet. Do you think we could start a fire in the parlour, now that you've swept the chimney?"
"I've got... logs and kindling stacked up and ready." His answer came slow while Frodo's breath warmed his cheek, and his mouth had gone dry with want. When Sam let go, his arms felt stiff and clumsy, as though his senses had forgot up and down, left and right, and that eased only when Frodo took his hand, when they took the first steps together.
Walking with clasped hands slowed their advance through bramble and underbrush, boughs dipping and rustling all about in a cautious farewell. When they reached the upper end of the dell, where the brook vanished among rushes and tufts of undauntable spleenwort, Sam stopped for another backward glance. The old elm had disappeared without a sprig of cut timber lying about unused.
"Mr. Lotho must've had the felling done," he said, "when it were for proper use, not mischief and ruination. That's a crumb of comfort."
Frodo answered with a short squeeze to his fingers. "Poor Lotho. The more he owned, the less he had."
Till it all came to naught.
As they headed back, Sam avoided looking up the disfigured shape of the Hill, and the sore stump watching from its top like a tower crag. Smaller clouds had loosened from the hanging blanket and sailed south in tatters, towards a band like grey steel that spread on the horizon.
"I shall have to travel to Michel Delving again within the next fortnight," Frodo said as they climbed the slope below the western reach of Bag End's gardens, "to discuss the spring planting. I hear there have been some arguments about the distribution of the grain, too."
"There's always bickering over some matter or other these days." Sam pulled up his shoulders. "And a lot of muttering going on besides. Folk in Hobbiton worry that all the seed will go to Bywater this spring, and Farmer Cotton, in the main."
Frodo turned to him with a frown. "Not because the Cottons have shown me so much kindness, I hope."
"Mostly because of Old Cotton's part in driving out the ruffians. But folk are no longer used to fair dealings, and now they doubt that each household will receive a fair share."
"We shall prove that worry unfounded, as soon as we can." Frodo stopped by the gate and sent a long glance out west. "Perhaps, when I go to Michel Delving, you could ride part of the way with me. We will leave on a clear morning, and if we start out early enough, we can watch the daybreak in that little grove among the chestnuts and sycamores, east of Waymeet." His voice lowered, seeming adrift with thought. "Long before we can see the sun, there'll be a spark lighting on the tip of every branch..."
As he watched, Sam caught a wisp of that same light in Frodo's eyes, swift and unreachable. "How do you know?" he breathed.
"Why, I've learned to take notice from none but you." A hint of laughter and memory touched Frodo's expression, catching Sam in utter surprise.
"We saw such a light in Lórien," he murmured.
"You did, Sam... more than any of us, I think, save Aragorn." Frodo paused as if harking to the same remembrance, of leafless white trees standing in a circle, as radiant as the dawn. "That is why the Lady Galadriel chose it to be her gift to you."
"Aye, she did..." Sam let his breath go quiet with the memory. "But I've yet to prove that it were put to good use. Spring will tell, I expect."
Frodo shook his head and folded his fingers round Sam's upper arms. "You must not doubt yourself," he said urgently, "nor me."
"But I wouldn't doubt you!" Sam protested. "And I trust the Lady's blessings." Below, smoke rose in thin curls from Mrs. Rumble's hole and Number Three, where the Gaffer must be heating his lunch. "Did you see... there's a young tree from Lórien growing in the Party Field."
"I did." Frodo splayed his fingers across Sam's sleeves, and he felt the touch sink through wool and linen, seeking his skin. "Let's go inside."
Indoors, they hung damp cloak and jacket on the pegs to dry. Sam led the way back to the parlour, past empty rooms and stained wainscoting. All the work yet undone seemed to be shouting for him, starting a restless flurry round his stomach as he filled his arms with logs he'd cut months ago. Even without looking, he knew Frodo's eyes followed him across every inch, with a keen attention as would never let go. It wrapped him in light-headed wonder and apprehension, both so enmeshed that he couldn't tell one from the other.
"I wish I could make tea," he said, just to fix his mind on something forthright, "but half a jug of water and a cup is all as I've got in the kitchen."
"I shall bring tea the next time." Frodo took a bundle of dry rushes from the basket and tucked the kindling underneath the grate. Straightening, he raked a hand through his hair. The damp had made a ruffle of his curls, and they were sticking out in every direction. As if he'd only just returned from one of his tramps across the Shire, ready to savour the comforts of his home. Sam knelt down in front of the hearth to place the logs in the grate, careful to leave enough room for the fire's path.
"Sam?" Frodo handed him the flint and got to his knees close by, crouching forward to blow on the sparks Sam struck to the tinder.
"I should've thought to bring a pair of bellows." Sam stilled when Frodo's fingers twined through his own, easy as a breeze would lace through the boughs.
Side by side, they watched the small flames sprout and shiver among the rushes, the room seeming to sprawl at their back. Thready smoke started to wind up into the chimney.
"Let me close the shutters now," Sam said at last, "and we'll be warm all the quicker."
A hush settled through him as the day disappeared behind the shutters. When he turned, the sparse light from the hearth seemed like a dancing marsh-wisp that spilled its flickers across Frodo's curls. He sat on the rug with his knees pulled up and held out his hand. As soon as Sam took it, Frodo gathered him close to his side, his arm sliding round Sam's shoulders.
"Stay here with me a while..."
Sam gave up trying to balance his weight and laid his head on Frodo's shoulder. Huddled together as they would be by a small campfire, they watched the rushes dwindle to dark scratches in a glow as sharp as pain.
As long as you want,
Sam meant to answer, but that wouldn't be the truth, not with all the promises owed and given.
"When you leave in the morning," Frodo said quietly, "it often seems as if I am left on the skirts of a dream, that I could stay there and no time would pass."
It felt nearly like that now, when Sam could breathe the scent of his skin, through the crisper smells of woodsmoke and heather soap, like a start of twilight borne on a laughing breeze.
"I never want to leave at all," he said, his mouth stirring the collar of Frodo's shirt.
"Have I waited too long? I left you alone, to this..." Calm though Frodo's voice sounded, his heartbeat raced and staggered not far from Sam's cheek, and he covered it with his palm.
"You never did." Sam closed his eyes, listening hard for Frodo's breaths through the fire's chatter, for the fervent thrums that spoke to his fingertips. "It's me, trying to be in two places instead of one, as I'd ought..."
Frodo's back went taut, and his fingers curled closer about Sam's shoulder. "And you can't – nor should you."
A sharp crackling rush rose from the hearth and blew heat to Sam's face, flying and bating with the slow stroke of Frodo's hand down his arm and up again, till his fingers came to rest at Sam's open collar, touching his throat each time he breathed. He opened his eyes to that patient call, swathes of light weaving before him like ripe barley, parting shadows that flowed shapeless on the left and right.
He couldn't have told what it was in Frodo's voice, but it poured bright heat through his chest and came to such a burst that freed up the words before he rightly knew.
"My Gaffer wants for me to come home." He sat up fast and caught Frodo's hand in a pleading grip. "He's having a difficult time of getting settled back in, and he frets about all that's gone missing. I never meant to leave him to such troubles, but–"
"No, of course not." Frodo looked at him with a thin smile. "I cannot deny that it will be very lonely without you, but... well, I shan't stay in Bywater much longer myself, if it can be helped. How many weeks, do you think, until Bag End is ready?"
"More than a fortnight – two, I reckon, what with the windows and two chimneys needing to be repaired." Sam's chest grew tight as though he'd run for miles. Here he was asking Frodo to make a choice, because he couldn't, not when it felt as though he'd be lost and swallowed inside it.
Frodo glanced across to the hearth. "Solmath is almost over... It is time to go. The farm is quite crowded, and the Cottons will surely be grateful to have it to themselves again." Though the light played over his face, not a muscle stirred beneath, his skin catching that vivid glow like a barrel catching rain. "Nevertheless, you're as dear to them as one of their own, and I'm... glad to see it."
Sam couldn't find the breath to answer, not then. Come spring, there’d be choices he’d have to make on his own, a decision he’d put off for so long. But now, with each careful word, Frodo seemed to be plucking at a strained knot.
This was the moment then, the moment he'd feared, when it would all come unlocked inside him to well up without end, without sense or direction, whatever it would be, this heated flooding swelling the limits of his skin. He held his breath.
"What you need to do, Sam, I want you to do."
Out of the giddy half-shade, he found himself facing Frodo, held at the centre of his steady gaze.
"'Tis so much more, more than me, and always has been." Sam swallowed and listened after the words he'd spoken like a knowledge so oft repeated, it'd slipped from memory. Now he felt it sweep along his skin, like a dark river rising through cracks in the ground, the many needs that used to flow together in one direction, like the countless small brooks feeding the Water. "Frodo..."
His voice was cracking, hoarse, but the moment was passing, falling back into the leap of flames on the wall where proud shapes hovered – ridged like the White Downs, edged with fleet shimmers like the Brandywine's course – the whole of the Shire mapped out in shadows. But here at the very heart, all was still.
"And for all that, I need to be near you," he whispered. Frodo's fingers moved against his palm, turning, reaching back, and Sam clasped them in both of his hands.
"The time will pass quickly... We can make do, can't we?" Frodo's expression was all of stillness as he said so, steeled to the will Sam knew as his own. It crept up inside him, too, and banished all else to a sharp pulse at his fingertips. He'd not felt such quiet through weeks passing weeks.
"Aye, we can, but you're forgetting what I know." Sam paused, holding himself to the courage in Frodo's eyes. "You've grown the strongest in giving away. And even with such a terrible burden tearing at you... you gave me yourself."
"Less than that, Sam." Frodo lowered his head with a small twitch of his lips. "It was less than I wanted to give."
"Maybe, but now you're taking less, too. Less than we're both wanting."
Sam watched the fine brown lashes settle as Frodo breathed out, admitting what they both knew. "You're right that there is more at stake. We cannot think only of ourselves." He folded his fingers into Sam's with slow, thoughtful movements. "Be with them. With the people you love. I should reproach myself if I took you from them."
"You won't," Sam answered, not needing to think on it. "Not any more than I'd ever take the Shire out of your heart."
The truth of it sprang from his very quick, swept airwards, and let him move again. He leaned into the close, familiar space that kept the warmth of Frodo’s breath, where every thread of remembrance could be a hope, a promise that he sought now, when his lips brushed awkward against the flush over Frodo's cheekbone, rising through his skin, lit from without. No matter what might be, there shouldn't be a loneliness to touch him here.
Frodo turned his head, a soft motion of welcome. A thrill bloomed through Sam's middle, sharper than relief and stronger, soaring into the short gasp that left Frodo's lips. For a spell there seemed to be too much air in his chest that he didn't know how to release, till Frodo flung an arm round his neck, and their mouths came together with thoughtless ease, with open, half-breathed wonder, sealing a pledge long made. Sam could feel it drive inward and lock in a joining of wills, his own to Frodo's, strengthening as laced strands in a rope that pulled all the tighter when Frodo's fingers wound into his hair. He drew it into himself, in hard gulping draughts that flared in his breast – with joy or grief he couldn't tell – and broke loose in a sob, a rough sound laid to Frodo's mouth.
"Yes." Frodo's voice was low and fierce.
"You've my heart in your keeping," he said, startled how firm his own voice were sounding. "Naught can change that."
"I know that, Sam, I know it." Frodo touched his brow, his heart, and leaned back haltingly. "Don't be afraid."
And now he wasn't, he might be as far from fear as he was from hope, but he could look on without holding back. A log in the fire split open and flung up a spray of sparks. As he stroked his fingers down the sides of Frodo's face, light seeped through them like the finest grains. His hands seemed separate in that glow, afloat on their own purpose. A tremor went through him and trickled away as he bent his head to Frodo's shoulder.
"You're tired." Frodo shifted him to a gentler hold. "Rest with me."
Sam gave only a small start of protest, stuttering to a halt at the stubborn glint that sprang to Frodo's eyes. When he settled with his head on Frodo's chest, sheltered in a careful embrace, Frodo's breath ran through his hair with a fine, warm prickle as reached all the way to his toes. What he could know of healing was folded in it, more than he'd thought. Somewhere far-off, he could feel the cloth of his breeches cling stiff to his shins as the fire leached the dampness away.
"Your home will be here, Sam, regardless." Those words brushed his temple soft as haze and swift as time passing.
Sam wrapped his fingers tight about Frodo's arm and closed his eyes. How I want to come home.
Weariness sagged inside him like a weight of mill-stones, and perhaps he should let it take him instead of trying to resist. He could sink with it as he'd climbed down the well, pulled by the thought of water seeking hidden paths through the ground. To go so deep and find what couldn't be changed, what kept all remembrance soundly, the firm layer of rock beneath it all, under water, under soil.
Beneath the touch of Frodo's hand, he could dream the tips of trees in the high distance, lighting against a dim sky, and the cries of birds tumbling down, down, twisting about each other in the middle of his chest, to string his breaths to their piercing song. With each rise and fall, the smell of earth grew stronger, enfolding and filling him.
Speak a wish.
That whisper might come from the fire or Frodo's breathing, but it ran through him without stopping, and onwards, always.
~ ~ ~
Under the bark of a tree runs a pulse that's naught like blood in the skin. It's dense and deep where earth is crushed into sunlight, and sunlight into earth. Where both are made whole.
* * * * *
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.