1. Part One
As often as not the wind-borne clouds broke over the Shire and a cold drizzle would soak the earth. The well-tended roads ran with water, carts got stuck in the mire, and laughing hobbit children jumped in puddles and ran away with muddy feet. And one day the hobbits would look about them and see tight red buds on the trees and fields arrayed in pale green, bearing the promise of another rich summer and bountiful autumn.
But now at the heart of the Shire there lay a thing that did not love the wind or the rain or the hobbits that they nourished. It was a Ring, hard and dead, and thought by many to be beautiful. Never in all its long history had anyone willingly parted with it, for it was precious, as precious to all who bore it as it was to its maker. Never, that is, but once. One of the hobbits had cast it aside, and that was a new thing in the long slow years of the Ring's hungry malice. It now had another Bearer, but he, too, was a new thing, for he kept the Ring unknowing, as carelessly as if it were no more than a common trinket, close by him but never close enough. The Ring's maker was far away, calling it with a will that grew stronger with every passing day. The Ring heard the call. In its way, it answered. And the West Wind faded and died, and the clouds did not come.
Frodo woke with a start, his dark curls moist with sweat and his neck aching where it had been pressed against the couch at an awkward angle. A heavy book sprawled open across his chest, restricting his breathing. His hands, damp in the heat, stuck lightly to the binding and smelled of its leather. "Sweet Lady," Frodo muttered as he looked at the page he'd been studying. It had folded over and crumpled when he had surrendered to sleep and allowed the book to fall against him. A verse in Bilbo's cramped writing had become blurred where Frodo's sweat had soaked through his linen shirt.
Frodo groaned as he pulled himself upright. His memory teased him with disconnected shreds of the nightmare that had broken his sleep. Something had been calling out to him, something vile and hateful, and it had been right here in Bag End. He rubbed his eyes and stared down at the smudged ink, hardly able to see it in the dim light of the study, which was heavily curtained to block out the worst of the heat. The book would never be the same. What would Bilbo say? Wherever in the wide world the old hobbit had gone since his departure last autumn, he would perhaps forgive the damage to his book if he knew how unaccountably hot the Shire had become.
Never had the Shire known such heat and so little rain. At first the warm spring weather had seemed glorious. Though Sam soon took to watching the sky with a worried frown, Frodo had reveled in day after day of bright April sunshine. The curtains in Frodo's study were flung open so he could surreptitiously watch Sam as he worked in the garden. And if it got unseasonably hot, well, so much the better, for the study was cool, and while Sam worked he would strip off his weskit and unfasten his shirt: one button, then two, then three, and soon the warm southern breeze would tease open the shirt enough to show an expanse of golden skin beneath.
As April turned into May, the breeze died and the temperature continued to climb, and to Frodo's secret delight Sam would dispense with the shirt altogether. Sam's skin grew brown in the sun, and drops of sweat would wander down the muscles of his chest and stomach and lose themselves where his skin met the damp cloth of his breeches. When Sam rose from his labors the harsh sunlight molded his body into planes and angles that Frodo knew he would dream of the next morning as he lay in the tangled sheets of his hot empty bed.
All that work would make Sam thirsty, so he would fling his shirt loosely over his wet shoulders and come to the dark, cool second pantry of Bag End, where he stored the well water he drew for Frodo each morning. Frodo would accidentally-on-purpose run into him there, and Sam would pour a tall glass for each of them, insisting that Frodo have his first. As Frodo toyed with the rim of his own glass he would watch Sam raise the water to his lips and tilt his head back, eyes half shut, and swallow, swallow, swallow. In the closed stillness of the pantry Frodo could hear every drop of water go down Sam's throat and could almost feel Sam's breathy sigh as he put the empty glass aside.
Delightful as all this was in its horrible tormenting way, soon even Frodo began to see the weather as a curse. The summer had not even properly begun, and yet every stream in the Shire dwindled to a trickle; the smaller ones dried up and vanished. The Water and the Brandywine oozed sluggishly, lower than even the oldest hobbit could remember. The edges of their beds turned to mudflats that dried and caked and cracked with each day of merciless sun. Up in the rocky moor country in the Northfarthing some of the shallower wells ran dry. Everywhere the normally green and pleasant Shire turned brown: grass wilted, flowers never bloomed, and the very leaves on the trees curled in on themselves as if they were trying to escape the heat as best they could.
Bag End was better off than many places, for Bilbo had long ago indulged his independent Tookish streak by installing a deep dwarf-made pump well at the bottom of the kitchen gardens. Some of the more conservative hobbits had grumbled to see such a novelty from a Baggins, who should, they thought, have known better. But they had been relieved when Bilbo at least refrained from imitating the folly of his Took relations, who had gone so far as to install a system of pipes bearing water into the interior rooms of the Great Smials. This innovation was still the cause of much talk in Hobbiton, for what was the use of building a nice dry hole if you then went and piped water in? The Tooks had gone their own way, however, as they always did, despite glum (or hopeful) predictions that the damp and rot in the walls would bring the whole place down. Bilbo's little pump had been tolerated as being less Tookish than it might have been. Now it looked as if the pump might keep Bag End and its extensive gardens supplied with good clean water through the driest summer the Shire had ever known.
Or so Frodo thought. Sam was of a different mind. One hot day in the middle of June Frodo looked up wearily from an elvish translation and was surprised to see Sam standing before the desk. Frodo inhaled sharply and nearly knocked over the inkstand. He reached to grab it and Sam did too; for a fraction of a second their fingers touched and they both drew back as if they had been burnt. As they watched in horrified fascination, the inkstand wobbled threateningly atop the paper-strewn desk. At the last possible moment Sam steadied it, glancing nervously at the paralyzed Frodo, and then stepped away as carefully as if he were walking on Frodo's best porcelain plates.
"Begging your pardon, Mr. Frodo," Sam said. "I did knock, sir, but you didn't hear it, seemingly."
"There's no need to apologize, Sam, you know that I'm always glad to see you," Frodo said, thinking it was fortunate that Sam didn't know just how glad. Frodo had once caught himself thinking that Sam's presence transformed the musty book-crammed study into a grove of living trees. Of course he would never say such a thing out loud. With a little spasm of self-loathing Frodo told himself that his feelings for Sam were as unwelcome as his metaphors were ridiculous.
But now Sam seemed troubled. He was twisting his hands together in front of him, and he stared fixedly at a little blue vase of flowers on Frodo's desk. The flowers were none of Frodo's doing. They had simply appeared that morning as they had every morning in this summer after Bilbo's departure. It was just one of the many little things Sam did for him without being asked.
"Thank you for these," Frodo said, pointing to the flowers and wishing he could put both Sam and himself at ease.
Sam drew a deep breath. "It's the flowers I've come about, sir," he said.
"What about them?" Frodo asked. "Everything looks lovely, by the way. I've no idea how you do it."
"Water," Sam said. "It takes water. And it's water that we don't have enough of. It's got to stop, sir."
Frodo immediately assumed the worst. "Sam! Has the well -- "
"The well's fine so far, but who's to say how long that'll last? I can't be wasting good water on the flowers no more, sir. Not that and keep the kitchen garden green as well. And if you've got to choose between turnips and roses, it's the turnips you'll be needing the most, I'll warrant, for all that they're not near so fair."
Suddenly Frodo felt ashamed. He should have asked Sam to do this long before, not waited for Sam to work up the courage to ask him. The flowers were so beautiful, and so blended with thoughts of Sam in Frodo's mind, that he could hardly imagine Bag End without them. But he said nothing of this to Sam, who continued to look at the little blue vase, his face unreadable. "Of course," Frodo said, trying not to sound as grieved and worried as he felt. "You must do whatever you think best."
"I'm sorry, sir," Sam said. "I know how you like to see the roses and all."
Frodo ached to see Sam apologizing over something like this, as if he were somehow at fault for the cloudless sky and the parched earth. "Don't worry about the flowers, Sam," Frodo said. "Others have lost far more than I. It's nothing, really."
"Suppose not, Mr. Frodo," Sam said. "All the same, it'll be a sad day when there's naught in bloom at Bag End, and that's a fact." And something in the droop of Sam's shoulders when he said this made Frodo want to leap from his chair and hold Sam close and tell him that he himself was the most beautiful thing at Bag End or near it. But Frodo fought to keep his head, as he so often had done before; and as so often before, the moment passed. Sam was nothing if not sensible, Frodo thought, and if Sam could be sensible then he could be as well. Surely it would break neither of their hearts if the roses didn't bloom that year.
For dying flowers were the least of the Shire's problems. Most of the Longbottom Leaf crop was lost. Sweet-acrid smoke hung over the Southfarthing for days as dry crops were struck by lightning and burned. Cattle sickened; calves were lost as their mothers' milk failed. Farmers stared at fields where nothing grew as it should, and they hung their heads in despair. Weather-wise gaffers muttered in their ale and spoke of some strange magic, declaring that not even the lack of rain could account for all these troubles. It was as if the Shire was being squeezed dry by giant hand.
Hobbits are resourceful creatures, but nothing in their experience had prepared them for this. Even in Buckland, where the ingenious Brandybucks had long harnessed stream and river to do their bidding, fertile water-meadows grew barren when they could no longer be flooded. Previously, even in the driest summers, the meadows had been a reliable source of as many as four cuttings a year of rich grass, feeding cattle in Buckland and the Eastfarthing and beyond. But now they were failing, for they were irrigated by a system of wares and trenches built when no hobbit had dreamed that the Brandywine would fall so low.
A few days after his encounter with Sam in the study, Frodo received a frightening letter from his favorite cousin, Merry Brandybuck, begging him to come to Buckland and help with the repair of the water-meadows near Brandy Hall. In his teens, Frodo had involuntarily spent several months doing such work, as a punishment for pilfering mushrooms. He now also knew something of the principles underlying the water-works, since Bilbo's extensive library contained several treatises on irrigation that Merry was anxious to consult.
Frodo did not want to tear himself away from Hobbiton and from Sam, but Merry sounded half-desperate in his letter; Frodo suspected that what Merry really wanted was not his expertise -- which was minimal -- but his company. At nineteen Merry could be as fickle and careless as the next teenager, but he was the son of the Master of the Hall, and at times he showed quite clearly that he took to heart the responsibilities he would someday inherit.
And at Bag End Frodo was feeling a bit desperate as well, not least because of Sam. He was unsure of Sam's feelings -- or rather, he suspected that Sam had no feelings that his Gaffer would not consider perfectly proper. The Gaffer had already taken to glaring suspiciously at Frodo whenever they chanced to meet, particularly if Frodo was with Sam. Even if the Gaffer suspected nothing, it would be wrong, horribly wrong, to pursue Sam. He was so young, and not only Sam but much of his family depended on Frodo's good will for their livelihood. So Frodo had said and done nothing, and it was perhaps this burden of unfulfilled love that accounted for the feeling of dark misery that had hung over him almost since the day Bilbo had left.
Or perhaps it was something else as well. Lately he'd had strange dreams almost every night, and when Sam went home for the day Frodo often felt he was being left alone in Bag End with . . . something. Something he did not want to face. It was silly, of course: the heat was affecting him somehow.
The last thing he wanted was to trouble Sam with all this. So Frodo set out for Buckland almost at once. Sam seemed neither surprised nor upset when Frodo announced his resolve to go. He silently helped in the preparations and even packed Frodo's things himself, while the farmer who had offered Frodo a ride waited in his cart. Frodo, somnolent in the heat and dreading the journey, had of course put off the packing until it was almost time to go.
As a result Frodo had no idea what he did and didn't have with him until he got to Buckland, and for the duration of his stay he was haunted by the feeling that he had left something crucial behind. He more than half suspected that the something was Sam himself, but it might as well have been his left arm, so intense was the feeling that half of his soul remained in Bag End. But he tried to put the matter out of his mind, and for some of the time at least he succeeded. For Merry's letter had not exaggerated. The drought was bringing Buckland to its knees.
"Will this awful summer never end?" Frodo said to his cousin one day, dizzy with the heat and every muscle sore from unaccustomed labor. "I never thought I'd long for winter, but I'd rather see the Brandywine freeze solid than endure much more of this."
Merry stared across a field of straggling half-grown corn and kicked at the dusty soil beneath their feet. "Winter is what I fear most, Frodo," he said in a low voice that the nearby hobbit-children would not be able to hear. "If the crops fail, what food will remain even in Brandy Hall come February? And what will there be to plant for next year?"
The cousins exchanged a worried glance, and without another word they returned to work. The water-meadows at least were a problem that might be solved, even if the drought continued.
Frodo drove himself mercilessly, appalled at the slow withering of the country he had known and loved from childhood. Each night he collapsed into his narrow cot in the room he shared with several distant Brandybuck connections who had also been drafted into service at the Hall. After the other hobbits said their good-nights and extinguished their candles, Frodo would lie awake, too hot and even too tired to sleep. He listened to the quiet breathing of the others in the dark and wondered if Sam also slept back in Hobbiton, and whether Sam had yet succeeded in persuading the Gaffer to stay indoors during the worst of the afternoon heat.
Eventually Frodo would slip into restless dreams in which he came home to Bag End and found it deserted. He would search for Sam everywhere and never find him. But it seemed that in the empty tunnels of the smial a dark presence waited, and he knew that if he turned the wrong corner he would find not Sam, but some cruel thing that hungered for him and called to him night and day. Frodo would moan in his sleep until at last he woke to another cloudless dawn and another day in the heat, as weary as if he had never slept at all.
Then one day, Frodo and Merry found themselves having an interminable argument with a stubborn waterman who insisted that no trench needed to be dug as deep as Mr. Merry wanted, no matter what Mr. Baggins's books might say. Frodo had been out in the sun for hours, and all at once his usual dizziness and headache got so bad that he could no longer stand. His skin was as dry as dust and it burned, burned like fire, like the white-hot sun above his head. He sat gasping on the ground, unable to see in a haze of whiteness. But then he was soaked through and almost choking on the water that someone held to his lips. A dark shape loomed above him. "Merry," he said weakly, and his cousin looked sick with relief.
"Don't try to talk," Merry said, as Frodo struggled to sit up. "We're getting you back to the Hall. No Frodo," -- for Frodo was trying to speak -- "no arguments. Do you know what has happened to you?"
Frodo nodded slowly, and even that little effort made the world spin. Heat sickness, they called it; he had seen it happen to others, though mostly to the very old and very young. Over in the Marish, he had heard, two hobbits had died this way when they worked for too long in the sun. But they were old gaffers, a voice in Frodo's head complained. Frodo thought that he should have been stronger. He had come of age last autumn and by rights should have been better prepared to be useful now. For the past year he had done nothing more strenuous than mow the lawn on those rare occasions when Sam would let him get within ten feet of the toolshed. And oh, how he longed for Sam at this moment: for Sam's strength, Sam's endurance, Sam's plain hobbit-sense that would probably keep him calm and collected in an earthquake. Sam's smile -- Frodo buried his head in his hands and felt wetness on his face, his collar, his hair. Of course. Merry had given him water, some of the precious water that never should have been wasted on a single lazy hobbit in the prime of life.
"I'm sorry, Merry," he said wretchedly. "I haven't been myself."
"Silly old hobbit," Merry said. "You've done work enough for ten. Get back to the Hall."
So Frodo allowed himself to be led to what little shelter from the heat the Hall might afford and rested in his room as the Brandy Hall healer directed. But the sleep that came to him was no blessing. The moment his head touched the pillow the horrible thing from his dreams was calling him, calling in a voice he hated but could find no way to escape. He started awake and stared at the ceiling for a long time.
When the shadows lengthened across the bone-dry fields, Merry returned and sprawled in the chair beside Frodo's cot. "The Sheriff is starting back to Michel Delving tonight," he said. "He can take you to Hobbiton if you'd like."
"I want to help."
"You have. And I can't tell you what it's meant to me to have you here. But Frodo -- " Merry sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "You've done the work of ten, but even ten more of you couldn't save Buckland now. We're beyond any help other than rain and cool weather. We've more than the meadows to worry about." And Merry proceeded to give a long explanation of seed germination and tuber formation that Sam, no doubt, would have understood perfectly. All Frodo understood was that within the next week, Buckland had to have rain. If there were no rain, or if it came even a week or two late, by February and March the hobbits would starve.
"Merry -- " But Frodo could say nothing more. There seemed to be nothing to say.
"Go back, Frodo," Merry said gently. Go back to Sam. He's the only hobbit I know more stubborn than you are, and I can't imagine anyone else who can keep my favorite Baggins from killing himself with overwork."
Frodo protested, but not as much as he might have done. Exhaustion had sunk into his very bones. With no hope to inspire him, he could do little else but obey an instinct that pulled him to Hobbiton and Sam like a wounded animal returning to the far-off country of its birth. He did not even want to think about how much he wanted to see Sam again, to touch him, if only just once. He wanted this more than he wanted to save Buckland, more than he wanted to see Merry or even Bilbo. He wanted it more than he wanted water after a long day in the fields. He thirsted for it so much that to get it he was ready to face the strange dread that haunted him at Bag End, for he felt -- though he could not for the life of him explain why -- that Bag End now held both the thing he most loved and the thing he most feared in all the world.
Dusk found Frodo and his luggage packed in the Sheriff's cart. "Good-bye, dear Frodo!" Merry cried. "Remember us to Sam and the Gaffer!"
"Good-bye!" Frodo said. "Remember, Merry, there is only so much that even you can do."
Merry's only answer to this was a tight smile. As the cart jerked down the lane from Brandy Hall, he dwindled to a small waving figure fading into the gloom. When the cart rounded a bend his voice floated across the lawn. "Good-bye! Be well! And do see if old Bilbo's books mention any elvish magic that can change the weather!"
With that, he was gone, and the cart turned northward to meet the Road at the Brandywine Bridge. As the last hint of red left the western sky, the moon rose and washed the dry countryside in its dead silvery light. Brandy Hall sank behind a ridge, and in the dark meadows a tattered line of dim orange lamps flickered where a few hobbits continued their desperate labor by lantern-light. Through the trees to his left Frodo could see an occasional flash of white as the moonlight gleamed on the Brandywine.
As they made their way to the bridge the Sheriff told him news of the rest of the Shire, and none of it was good: dried wells, failing crops, and everywhere Merry's same fear. "I don't know, Mr. Baggins, but that we'll be eating our old mathoms come winter if there's no rain soon," he said, shaking his head. "You don't suppose there's anything to what Mr. Merry said?"
"What about?" said Frodo.
"About the -- elvish magic. Never had much truck with Elves myself, but I hear tell they can talk to the sun and stars and such," the Sheriff said, sounding embarrassed but determined. "Do you reckon they have a magic that can bring us rain?"
Frodo almost laughed, but he did not want to offend the Sheriff. And in the time it took him to restrain himself, he realized that he did not really know the answer to the question. "I haven't heard of such magic," he said carefully.
"That may be," said the Sheriff. "But who's to say? That Mr. Bilbo of yours, now. He knew Elves, dwarves, wizards, all kinds of strange folk in and out of Bag End. Mind you, old Bogle who was Sheriff before me didn't like it, so many strangers in the heart of the Shire. But Mr. Merry's right, I reckon. Your Mr. Bilbo might have written something about it in those books of his."
"I shall certainly look into it," Frodo promised. It wouldn't hurt to try. Now that he had decided to return and could not with good grace go back to Brandy Hall, he couldn't think of what else he would do at Bag End, other than be a burden to Sam. And Sam had too much else to do already, caring for his family in Bagshot Row.
For most of the long miles to the bridge, the only sound was the clop, clop, clop of the ponies' hooves on the dusty road. They met few travelers. Though the moon was near to full and the night clear and fine, the heat kept most hobbits close to home unless a journey was absolutely necessary. Lulled by the motion of the cart, Frodo dozed off until the Sheriff's cheerful greeting to the guard at the North Gate shook him from another unhappy dream. Then the Hedge loomed above them and ponies' hooves echoed on the stone pavement of the Bridge. They had left Buckland and entered the Eastfarthing. "Best catch some more sleep, Mr. Baggins," the Sheriff said. "From what Mr. Merry said it seems you need it. The moon won't set till late, and I mean to press on to Frogmorton tonight and change ponies there. It'll save the us a bit of work in the heat of the day tomorrow."
Frodo remembered little of the rest of the journey: the rustle of paper-dry leaves, the dust stirred up by the ponies and the cart, the dull wonder that the heat could continue to bear down upon them even after midnight. When they reached the inn at Frogmorton, Frodo felt as tired as if he'd been pulling the cart himself and wordlessly followed a drowsy servant to a small airless room in the back. But he woke before dawn, his heart hammering in his chest after an evil dream he could not quite remember. He had wanted so much to find Sam, but something else was waiting for him.
Something was angry at him for neglecting it for far too long.
So plain was Frodo's exhaustion the next day that he had to work hard to persuade the Sheriff that he was well enough to go on. But he succeeded, and they left with fresh ponies before the morning heat grew too intense to make Frodo change his mind.
Then the worst part of the journey began, for the Road bore due west and the sun shone at their backs, hot and relentless like a great hand pushing them into the earth. The air shimmered before them, and the dust raised by the passage of other travelers was so thick that Frodo's eyes were streaming and he had to hold a handkerchief over his mouth to breath. Frodo wandered in and out of a dream of an empty Bag End garden, and struggled to open the door of the toolshed so he could hide from the thing that pursued him. Then the Sheriff woke him with a hand on his shoulder. "Here you are, Mr. Baggins," he said, and the dream became real. Bag End lay before them, but Frodo had no sense of homecoming. Sam was not there, and all the flowers were dead.
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.