Thanks go to Calanthe and Tiriel for helpful discussions and much-needed gardening advice, and to Europanya, Notabluemaia, and Teasel for beta-comments.

~ dedicated to Nikki, my favourite Took ~

1400 – Spring
by Cara J. Loup

Sam woke to a tight silence in the small room. He was lying on his side of the bed, under the window that he'd left unshuttered, but the warm pattern of Halfred's breathing at his back wasn't no longer there. It hadn't been for nigh on two weeks, but Sam still woke every day expecting his brother to shift on the lumpy mattress with him and snort or scratch at a flea-bite. A heavy sleeper Halfred had always been, and he'd sprawl out over more than his half of the bed, as if to take up all the space that Hamson had left them. And now, Sam thought, now I'm to call this much room my own.

The window hole framed a clear spot of sky, half-grey and half-blue in such a rare shade, it reminded him of water more than air. He sat up against the rickety head of the bed that dearly wanted mending. Something to see to this coming Highday, for certain. Maybe that would help him feel more friendly towards the bed as seemed like a boat adrift now, half-listing to one side, a corner of the sheet hanging loose to the floor, like a fallen sail. Sam reached to tuck it back into the bedframe. The sheet was a gift of Mr. Bilbo's, presented to the Gaffer on the day that the new room in their smial had been finished, the floor laid proper and the bed filled with a mattress of fresh straw.

Why now, Mr. Bilbo, Sam remembered his father's voice, and how taut and high it sounded, but you're too generous, you are, if you'll pardon me. Though he were pleased enough, Sam could tell, and he'd received a linen sheet for his own bed, too.

One bedroom for the lads, and one for the lasses, the Gaffer explained to Mr. Bilbo when the Master of Bag End stepped into their small home. Now 'tis all done and settled.

A touch of pride was in his face and his voice then, but Sam had felt his own throat close on a strange sort of grief. For why, he couldn't rightly say. Perhaps it was that his dad made it sound so final, as if putting a close on his own life with it. His sons had a front room with a fine round window, and from that day on the Gaffer slept alone in the old wide bed, back behind the kitchen.

Sam picked at a loose thread in the woollen blanket. He knew his dad didn't like having his own bed a whit more than he did, and still the Gaffer wouldn't hear of sharing the front room with his youngest son. In the days right after Halfred's leaving, when his father wore a constant gloom on his brow, Sam had finally suggested that.

No, son, the Gaffer replied round the pipe-stem on which he chewed furious-like, my old bones want every bit of warmth as blows in from the kitchen. 'Twouldn't do, spoiling your sleep with my 'plaints about the gout neither. And that was that. Even though Sam protested that he didn't mind, that he woke to the very starts of dawn himself and never needed that much of sleep anyways. The Gaffer merely shook his head, but a smile broke through all the harsh lines on his face, and maybe it had been worth the asking after all.

Sam swept the blanket off himself and swung his legs over the side of the bed. When he pulled the nightshirt over his head, a chill draught from the window trickled down his chest and belly, and he stopped a moment to let the daybreak's greeting run its course. Halfred used to grumble about his habit to leave the shutters open – on clear and balmy nights, leastways – and now Sam missed his griping, too. He dressed quickly. With his shirt and breeches, the coolness of night-air settled close against his skin.

When he stepped into the dark smial, he could hear muffled voices through the door on the other side. May and Daisy indulging a bit of chatter afore getting up, he supposed, with Marigold curled up between them and still fast asleep. Sam could nigh feel the warmth of bodies breathing together under one blanket, and a soft sting of envy went through him. By the front door sat the bucket and the big pitcher, and he clasped their handles in one fist while he unlatched the door.

Only the gentlest breezes ran along the Hill's slopes, and the calls of thrush and lark fell like chips off a greater song from the sky. Sam pulled the door shut and shifted the bucket into his right hand. His feet wanted to head for the garden gate, and from there to the path as wound down to the well, on the edge of the Old Grange. But now it no longer took walking that far to fetch water. Ten steps past the turnip patch Sam reached the gap in the hawthorn hedge separating the Gamgee garden from Daddy Twofoot's. And right there, in a grassy nook between the two smials, stood the water pump. The limestone basin shimmered like fallen clouds in the twilight, and a pair of birds fluttered up from the rim as Sam approached.

"Nowt for you here," he muttered, with half a glance after them, "not today." There'd not been a drip of rain for a week, and the basin was dry to the pale flagstones laid at the bottom.

Sam placed the bucket inside it, under the pump's spout, and pushed down the handle. The pump answered with a creak and a deep murmur that turned into a gurgle after the second push and pull. Most of Hobbiton thought that Mr. Bilbo had let the fly-voles loose in his head when he'd had the slope dug open last spring, in search of the water vein as fed the Grange well. Even the Gaffer looked askance at the busy delving and shovelling, though he never said a word. And they'd all been wrong in their misdoubt, nohow.

A fine spring day it was, Sam remembered, while the pump gasped once more and released a merry spurt into the bucket, fresh and pure as you please. The sun had had a sting to it that day, glinting white on every leaf and grass-blade, and the smell of damp earth rose all about. Among the clay-laden wheelbarrows, the stacks of brick and limestone, and the busy to-and-fro of the farm-hands Mr. Bilbo had hired, Mr. Frodo had been directing the work. More than that, by mid-morning he'd picked up a shovel hisself and stepped into the trench to cut it deeper to the east side.

At that moment, Sam had stopped trimming the hedge further back. Mr. Frodo couldn't know why the farm-workers exchanged troubled glances and the hobbit whose shovel he'd taken wore such a cow-whipped look. Nor did Mr. Frodo notice, eager as he was to find that hidden water vein. Sleeves rolled up to his elbows, he kept digging till his curls clung in thick tangles to the back of his neck and damp spots spread through his fine shirt.

Beside Sam, the Gaffer set down an empty handbarrow, pushed his cap back and chewed on his lower lip. The look of him spoke sharp disapproval, but right then Mr. Frodo gave a short cry.

It was only a trickle at first, seeping from the fold of bared earth in muddy silver, but the next thrust of Mr. Frodo's shovel brought a gush that soaked his breeches through in no time. He dropped the shovel and turned, his arms spread wide, and his eyes sparking warm as pleasure. Whatever Sam might have expected, it wasn't this, not the bright ring of laughter as Mr. Frodo flung his head back and shouted, "Water!"

It went through Sam as clear as the well-spring itself, that joy lighting on Mr. Frodo's face; so free and catching that all the workers joined in the laughter. Even the Gaffer's doubtful mien gave way to a grin. "Aye, well," he remarked under his breath, shaking his head, "Mr. Frodo's half Brandybuck after all."

"Oh, but that's not what–" Sam broke off again, for he couldn't put into words what he'd been meaning to say, and most like it was nobut faerie-mist and fancy.

The work had continued for days, and Sam wasn't about often enough to understand what was built into the slope, from straight and bent bricks as were shaping a channel. Somewhere under the turf lay a bigger basin where the water collected, and how exactly the pump brought it up, Sam couldn't truly tell neither. But the sight had stayed with him, of Mr. Frodo laughing though his legs were muck-spattered to the knee, his breeches wet, and his curls sprinkled with dirt.

Sam caught the pump's handle in mid-swing, for the bucket were full to spilling over. From the hedge, the thirsty birds twittered, and he stepped aside to let them have a quick sip. Out in the east, a pale band stretched over the horizon, bearing a handful of downy clouds. Below the Hill, shadows spread in thick swathes over the meadows and covered the Grange well where he'd walked so often, from the year he'd grown strong enough to work the winch on his own. His mother used to place a bundle of straw where the yoke lay against his neck, and right grateful he was for it, each time he trudged back up the Hill, full buckets swinging on his left and right. His mother had taught him the water-bearing tune too, a song without words winding itself into the chain's rattles when he hauled the bucket back up. Sam could hear her voice, humming alongside his own, and now he felt near shamed for not going to the well anymore. It hadn't dried out though, as Miller Sandyman and the Granger had predicted when Mr. Bilbo began his digging. With a brisk motion, Sam turned back to the pump to fill the pitcher.

When he entered the smial again, the smell of warmed bread wafted through the passage. In the kitchen, May and Daisy were mixing and cooking sweet porridge, and Marigold sat on the bench, working a comb through her wild tresses, but their dad was nowhere in sight. Sam emptied half the pitcher into the wash-bowl and glanced at the rough-spun curtain with a troubled eye. It weren't like the Gaffer to stay abed longer than his children.

"Stop daddling about and sit yourself down, Sam," May said over her shoulder, but he'd half crossed the distance by then.

He tugged the curtain back a space and peered past it, but the kitchen fire threw only the barest spatters of light into the small room. It smelled of his father, of sweat and pipeweed and fennel tea. Good smells all, not the sharp whiffs of fever and bile, none of those scents as could give Sam the shivers up his back. He breathed out long and slow.

Dad wouldn't be taking ill, he told himself. There's not a hobbit as hardy as him, nor as hale. But the Gaffer's bones couldn't keep up with the hours he worked no more, that was it, and Sam had known it since the last autumn.

"'Morning, Dad," he said in as cheery a tone as he could manage. "'Tis a fine day out, too."

"'Twould be a good day to bring us some rain," his father replied from the dark, in a dry-throated mutter.

"It's but wanting the right wind," Sam answered while his dad coughed to clear his throat, "and the cows haven't turned to blow theirs yet."

He'd heard that old crank from the Gaffer himself, but it made his dad chuckle as he'd hoped. A weak, warm feeling sagged from Sam's stomach down to his knees.

"Breakfast is near done," he said before pulling the curtain close again.

While May stirred the porridge and Daisy got busy braiding Mari's hair, Sam took off his shirt to wash. He was in the middle of rubbing himself dry when the Gaffer came into the kitchen and looked at the used wash-water. "That serves me as it ought, for lolling about in bed!"

"I'll fetch another pitcher," Sam offered, but the Gaffer merely snorted and stuck both hands into the bowl. A waste it would be, by his reckoning.

And then it was like every breakfast, every other morning, the Gaffer seated at the end of the table, near the cooking fire, and Marigold beside him. She was smiling into her tea-cup, the little imp, as if lingering over some fond dream. Sam held a dried raisin on his tongue and pressed it to his gums till the sweetness spread clean to the back of his mouth.

"We're to take down the old hazel today." The Gaffer rubbed his neck and began filling his pipe with careful pinches of Stock Leaf.

"Yes, Dad, so we are." Sam cleaned out his bowl with a piece of bread. He couldn't help wishing his father would let him handle such a hard job alone.

While the lasses took to washing the dishes and the Gaffer smoked his scanty morning pipe, Sam went back to the front room and fetched his jacket.

Dawn had roused all over the east when he opened the door again, and its sheen was melting the chill edge off the morning. Sam stepped out into the Row and looked up the Hill. There weren't a glimmer of light in the westmost windows of Bag End, peeks of which he could see from where he stood, and he'd expected none. In the thought of Mr. Bilbo and Mr. Frodo both sleeping peaceful lay an odd reassurance that had Sam whistling softly as he ran his fingers through the leaves of the gooseberry bush. The dew sprayed across his skin, feather-light as the morning's own tenderness. He rubbed the back of his hand against his cheek, spreading the bit of wet and coolness there, while he thought of Mr. Frodo in his lonesome bed.

A picture of mere fancy it was, for Sam had never set foot inside Mr. Frodo's bedroom, though he'd helped shaking out the heavy featherbeds a time or two. A true marvel, those featherbeds: plump as snow-mounds and soft as butter, and warm enough to give Mr. Frodo ease in his sleep. Sam pictured him half-curled to the side, one arm wrapped round the pillow where he buried his nose, his breaths very soft and even. Mr. Frodo was a long time away from Buckland and Brandy Hall now, where he must have shared a bed with his cousins or unmarried uncles. Too long to remember what was missing – Sam hoped so, leastways.

He picked up a stick and walked back to sit on the stoop. With slow, diligent strokes, he scratched his letters into the sanded path as he'd done every morning for the past three years, whenever the weather would let him. Though the Gaffer had given in to Mr. Bilbo's intent of teaching Sam, he wouldn't allow paper or quill in their hole, nowise. But his morning pipe gave Sam enough time to draw all twenty-six letters and a name or two, till the span of sand before him were filled from one side to the other. That done, he breathed deep of the quiet that lay so gentle about him, thinking, 'Twill be a good day.

At his back, the door opened. Sam stood up and scuffed his toes in the sand, wiping out the letters.

* * *

The old hazel never was a tall tree, nor a stately one. It looked shaggy like a ram past shearing time and hunched over as the years went by. But its trunk had grown thick before something leached the sap from it and shrivelled its leaves before the first frost. This trunk stood up to hours of sawing, the sound grating into Sam's bones till he knew little else. Only the ripping of iron teeth into wood, between the thrust and draw of his own arms and the Gaffer's, moving back and forth in a steady rhythm. Then the Gaffer called, "Stop!" and Sam loosened his grip on the saw's handle. A ringing was in his ears, but in another moment it went under in the rising creak and groan.

The hazel stood at the narrow end of the garden, hard by the slope, so when it fell it merely slumped into the Hill's shoulder and lay there, its branches quivering.

"I'll finish." Sam picked up the one-handed saw and clutched it a bit too fierce as he set to sever the trunk from its last hold to the ground. The late April sun poured over his back, stronger than it had the day before.

"Careful, lad." The Gaffer's breaths came as heavy as his own, but he needn't have worried.

When the trunk was cut off clean, the hazel only sagged some more, so slow that Sam had no trouble taking himself out of the way. He looked down at the pale surface of the stump where the tree's years were marked in one circle round the other, without ever a trace of rot. Only on the outside, dark speckles ran in the wood that seemed spongy beneath the bark.

Sam crouched to lay his hands flat on the wound. Cool and rough from the saw's bite it might be, but not lifeless as stone, not yet –

"It were never in the right place, son," the Gaffer said from the side. "Grew too tall for this spot of earth, I'm thinking."

"It grew here for the water," Sam answered, so low his father mightn't have heard if he hadn't stood close. Folk said that about hazels, that their roots would always reach for the water, no matter how deep it was hid. And maybe, Sam thought, tracing the dip of a root where it disappeared in the earth, maybe one of these led Mr. Bilbo to his well-spring. But a sickness had taken the hazel, and even his father couldn't tell what kind, so they'd agreed to fell the tree ere harm could spread round the garden.

Sam rubbed his hands together that were sticky with resin. Pulling out the stump and the big roots would take sturdy ropes and the strength of a pony in harness. Still, he could make a start at cutting off the branches, for a good load of firewood. When he reached for the saw though, the Gaffer caught his wrist.

"There's no need to be rushing, Sam. Not with all the other jobs as want doing."

His dad's palm was heated from the work, and the calluses felt like hard knots under the skin. Sam looked at the Gaffer's hands, recollecting how they'd guided his own when he was first learning the job, with a quick grip or a nudge, or a gentle rapping of knuckles. How nimble his dad's fingers had been then, and how tender with the young shoots and seedlings. Now they were swollen round the joints, like the gnarls in weathered branches. But fine hands still, Sam thought what he couldn't say. He swallowed and dipped his head.

"You go and see to the beans now." The Gaffer turned to wipe the saw-blade clean with a rag. "I'll speak to Mr. Bilbo about borrowing us a mare, and then I reckon them taters want a word from me, too."

All about the hazel's roots, straight and slender shoots had grown, and Sam cut some more to put in new supports for the beans. He'd just rounded the cabbage patch when he heard the back door open, and Mr. Bilbo poked his head out, in answer to the Gaffer's knock. He wore a bright green weskit with brass buttons and no jacket yet, meaning he'd probably just finished with elevenses. Sam paused in his stride to nod a greeting towards the Master of Bag End. And right enough, those keen eyes flew over to him at that moment, with the surety of a hawk's. Mr. Bilbo sent a smile in his direction, then turned back to the Gaffer.

Sam stood watching them another moment. Next to Mr. Bilbo's trim and sturdy shape, the Gaffer looked old and worn, thirty-and-a-handful years younger though he was. Hard work had bent his back, but it wasn't as if all wellborn folk had Mr. Bilbo's sound health neither. Just look at Otho Sackville-Baggins, Sam reminded himself, with those sagging pouches under his eyes and his limping gait. Perhaps it went with hobbits as it did with trees, some growing hoary and stooped under the weathers, while others stood straight and tall till age weakened them from within. Still, Mr. Bilbo had an air about him as no other hobbit in the West or the North Farthing did. Some elvish sort of blessing, Sam liked to think. When Mr. Bilbo smiled, all the mischief of a half-grown lad might spark from his eyes, but the fine crinkles in their corners spoke his age then, too.

The Gaffer pushed his shoulders back as he told the Master about the hazel, and Sam turned to walk down the garden. Did Mr. Bilbo notice how such a tough stitch of work left the Gaffer short of breath, and how stiff his fingers grew on cold, wet days? And if he did notice, what then?

It'll be my turn to take over the job, Sam answered himself. That were what his dad had 'prenticed him for after all, but the thought caught inside him with the strangest thrill. He placed his armload of sticks and shoots beside the beans and took a few more steps into the chestnut's sprawling shade. On its other side, the garden sparkled as bright as all spring and sang for all to hear that the turn of season were come at last. The lawn fair glowed in a lively green and embraced the bed of hyacinths in a soft sweep. Closer by the hedge grew the shrub roses, already laden with pale, close buds. The barest blush edged their delicate petals. From the mix of floating scents and gladsome colours, a piercing sweetness swelled Sam's chest. To think that one day all this glory would thrive from nobut the labours of his own hands...

A pang of rue struck sharp after the thought. He didn't ought to be taking such pride from the notion of becoming Bag End's gardener, not when his father found little rest of nights for the soreness in his bones, and a troublesome, gritty cough had hollowed his chest all winter. But Mr. Bilbo couldn't know that, for the Gaffer always hid his ailments well.

There's some jobs as he shouldn't be doing no more. Truth was, Sam tried to tell this to his dad when ever he could, but mostways the Gaffer wouldn't hear of it. Surely, Sam thought, surely Mr. Bilbo would understand if a body were to tell him of my Gaffer's ailings. He'd see to it that his duties wouldn't be worse'n he can manage without grief. But to make so bold and approach the Master with this, that was...

A sudden breeze dashed through the chestnut, sprinkling Sam's arms and hands with silver sunlight. He turned back to the tree, his eyes running along the furrows and ridges in the bark that were wound about like twisting strands of rope. He couldn't go to Mr. Bilbo when the Gaffer wouldn't wish him to, not even to ease his dad's burdens, and he knew that well enough. But his breast tightened all the same, and of a sudden he longed to put his hands to a living tree, as if the wood might murmur him a wisdom against these fretful thoughts.

A rustle sounded above him, so sharp and thin, it seemed to whisper of paper more than leaves. Sam craned his neck, half expecting to see Mr. Frodo seated in one of the wide branches with a book and his pipe. After the long winter months, Mr. Frodo liked taking his studies outdoors for an hour's leisure, but now there wasn't a sight of him among the boughs and the glossy leaves. 'Less he'd climbed much higher than Sam deemed safe – and he might, at that. The Gaffer would call it a Brandybuck inheritance, that custom of doing things as weren't expected from the Master's heir, but Sam didn't think so. There was something about Mr. Frodo – something akin to water, maybe. Swift as a river running he was at times, and steady as the rain at his work when he set to it. And other times he would sit with a book or stand to gaze out over the land, and there'd be a stillness about him then, like that of a lake within a quiet grove.

Sam stepped back from the chestnut and shook his head at such fanciful thoughts. He shouldn't be idling about, neither, when all of the vegetable garden were calling for his attention. From their dark bed, the young beans and peas were now sprouting, and they'd soon shoot up high enough to climb.

Sam placed short hazel twigs all along the row of peas, then began setting up a sturdier frame for the beans. He drove the stouter branches a foot underground and leaned them to each other, affixing them with strong twine. As he worked, Sam eyed the green shoots with frank anticipation. They'd had dried broadbeans in their stew nigh the whole winter through, but these fresh runners would melt on the tongue with their tender, juicy taste. His mouth near watered to the thought. There weren't much stores left in any of the larders now, not even in Bag End's grand cellars, and everybody grew tired of kale at this time of year. But the spring cabbage were already cropping, and the turnips and rhubarb would be ripe for the picking soon enough.

A time or two, Sam glanced back at the chestnut, till he heard Mr. Frodo's voice drift over from the smials. What rustled in the tree must have been a strange twist of wind after all. The sun rode high now, and Sam fancied he could hear early bees buzz among the flowers. He started to hum right along with them, for just as they were suckling honey from the blossoms so was he soaking up the warmth from the air and the earth that moved softly between his toes.

The Gaffer's call stopped him a while later. The sun was in mid-day, if not over it, and his father had laid out their lunch on the bench by the garden shed: thick slices of bread, smoked sausage and a wedge of cheese. Sam fetched them a jug of water to wash down the food. Another one of Mr. Bilbo's water pipes cut through the slope here, feeding the pump beside the kitchen door. The Gaffer rubbed his shoulders as must still be aching after the felling of the hazel, but when he drank from the jug, he tossed his head back like a young hobbit, and water trickled down his chin.

Neither of them said a word while they sat on the bench and ate up their lunch to the last morsel. As they looked out over the garden together, Sam thought that their minds must be strolling side by side along the same comfortable path. Later in the day, they'd mend the threadbare spot in the shed's thatched roof, then the summer cabbage needed to be sown, and the patch of earth where they'd soon plant the young taters had to be turned afresh, too. With dusk, they'd return home to the smell of Daisy's soup and mayhap to the first cries of barn-swallows gliding high overhead.

Sam narrowed his eyes at the sky that were washed so bright it seemed silver more than blue. If hawk or swallow sailed on the high airs now, you wouldn't be able to see them.

* * *

The next morning, Sam left their hole right after breakfast, without a minute to spare for practising his letters. He was to fetch the pony from Farmer Hayward, so Mr. Bilbo had said.

As he turned to the door, the Gaffer threw a "No doddling, lad!" over his shoulder, though it were lightened with a chuckle. A memory of Sam's toddler years lay in that call. When the family went out to collect kindling in the woods – or raspberries, or mushrooms – he'd been wont to crawl off after the sight of a butterfly or a shiny beetle, or the nodding blossoms of wildflowers. And such things still caught his eye, as sharply beckoning as before, but he knew better now than to hurry after them while a job wanted doing. Rather he'd mark them in his mind, and if it were a matter of netted vines hanging like orfray on a hollow tree, or wood-anemones blooming in an unlikely spot, he could always return later, even if time didn't come for a week or a month. He could carry a map of such small treasures in his head for a season and longer.

The morning shone clear as burnished copper, and no curl of cloud bedimmed the edges of the sky. Instead of heading up the Row toward the Overhill Road, Sam passed the Rumbles' smial and took the footpath as climbed straight up the south-west flank of the Hill. A path for goats and tweeners, older folk called it, for rising so steep among thistles and unshorn grass. But it offered a good shortcut to the sweeping curve of the road and led to a grand view from the hilltop besides.

The climb heated Sam's face, and his breath puffed white before his mouth. But soon the first rays of sun slanted out over the North Downs far off east, warming the air. Sam quickened his steps and reached the top ere the sun broke fully over the horizon. The bushy oak stood guard up there and kept its broad grip of the earth with many stout roots. Only the barest sprouts of leaves showed in the boughs, tipped ruddy in the morning light. Sam sat down on a weather-polished root. He'd earned himself this break by taking the shortcut.

As he watched, the sun lifted the shadows off the land. A thin mist were draped over the orchards, fields and meadows and shimmered soft as pearl. Through it, the Water sparkled in secret silver, and beyond its jotted line the world rose in swimming blue and green as like it would join the sky. Sam could have laughed for joy at the sight, save that such a sound would startle the birds holding their morning chat in the oak's crown. They flushed their wings and trilled sharply when he finally got to his feet, but they settled again before he'd left the old tree's circle.

Sam turned north-east to follow the path down the milder slope. Fogs thickened in the dale beyond, across the village of Overhill and its well-tilled fields. When he came down to the bend of the road, he frowned to see the shape of another wanderer less than a furlong ahead. This early in the day, it couldn't be the messenger doing his round with the post, for he'd be starting out in Waymeet and never reached Hobbiton ere noon. But the air was flurried with mist and sunlight, so he couldn't tell who it might be, striding along with such a determined step. Not till the wanderer paused to let him catch up, though Sam was sure he'd not made a sound.

"Good morning, Sam."

It was Mr. Frodo's voice, ringing free from the hovering wisps, and then his face was clear to be seen as Sam drew nearer. He wore a jacket of dark green wool, and the morning damp had made a fair tumble of his curls, leaving them dark and glossy as oak after rainfall.

"You're going to the Hayward farm too, aren't you?" he asked.

"Aye." Sam cleared his throat to answer him proper. "Yes sir, to get the pony, if you don't mind."

Mr. Frodo nodded. "I have business to do with the farmer." He set his walking stick another foot ahead but didn't move, as though he were waiting for Sam to join up fully.

Sam shuffled his feet and felt the dry dirt like a sudden itch to his soles. Farmers' carts and waggons had cut deep ruts in the road, and grass grew knee-high in the middle. Mr. Frodo was standing on the narrower track beside the ditch, seeming to expect Sam to walk beside him, as friends would, with only the grass between them. He tilted his head to the side, but instead of a question, a slight smile came to his lips.

"I'll be walking with you then, sir." Sam rubbed his fingers against the outer seams of his breeches and felt right foolish as they fell into step. It wasn't as if he weren't used to speaking with the Master's heir – for a fact, Mr. Frodo could set a body at ease with a frank word or two, just like Mr. Bilbo. But meeting him here, out in the road, left Sam mithered like a bee as had dashed itself against the window-glass at Bag End.

He breathed lighter after they'd walked another stretch, in a restful quiet, only the peewits warbling from the meadows on the other side of the ditch.

"I hadn't planned to make such an early start," Mr. Frodo remarked, "but a quarrel among the magpies woke me, and then the morning seemed too lovely to spend more of it in bed."

"Aye, 'tis that," Sam answered and kept his eyes on the road. "A morn as like it's been washed and brushed to shine."

Soon after, they could see the first turf-roofed houses and smials of Overhill, the village greeting them with cock-crows and a drowsy rattle of cans and buckets from the well. They turned into the sandy lane leading up to the Hayward farm. On the rising lea to the right, the farmer's oxen were grazing. Their broad flanks glistened, and Sam slowed down a bit to look at their proud horns and how the muscles moved under their dark hide with each measured step. A marvel of strength those beasts were, and the farmer's pride for good and fair reason. He'd bought them in a town up north, and a pair of them could drag a plough through the hardest soil as like it were butter. For the end of haying, the farm lads waxed their horns and tied them with coloured ribbons, and rode their backs laughing.

Right then, the nearmost ox poked his square nose into a lilac bush that was opening its first flowers and nuzzled them as if only to savour the smell. The large eyes blinked, and the ox gave a shuddering sneeze.

A soft laugh sounded beside Sam, and when he turned, Mr. Frodo stood close by him, watching the big animal snuffle all bewildered-like at the flowers. A funny sight it were, too, but Sam smiled more to see Mr. Frodo take such delight from it, and partways from surprise. As if he'd supposed the Master's heir wouldn't pay heed to such things, though he might have known better.

"Everything's abloom early this year," he said. The lilacs' scent wafted so strong about them, it was nigh dizzying. You might think that May were already come.

"We have had a rather mild winter." Mr. Frodo stretched his shoulders and took his glance off the ox, with some reluctance, it seemed. "I might make the tramp to Tuckborough sooner than I had expected, now that we're blessed with such fair travelling weather."

Sam nodded in agreement. Both Mr. Bilbo and Mr. Frodo were known to enjoy long jaunts up and down the Shire, even out to Buckland, when the season allowed.

"I'd not mind such a walk and visiting kin myself," he said without thinking, as if he had the same kind of right to it.

But Mr. Frodo looked on him with calm, clear eyes. "Have you received any news from your brother yet? I heard he moved to the North Farthing."

"Not a word, Mr. Frodo." The hard lump in his throat quashed most of Sam's voice, and he couldn't help it. "Though that's not to be expected neither," he went on quick. "'Tis only two weeks since he started off, you understand."

"Oh, I see," Mr. Frodo murmured, and a soft spot of warmth rose into his cheeks. Most like it had just occurred to him that Halfred wouldn't be sending no letters. "Well, I – I hope you will have word from him before long, then."

His discomfort caused a little stitch in Sam's breathing. "I'm sure we will, sir," he hastened to reply, though a niggling doubt twisted at the back of his mind. But here was another sight he wasn't like to forget a year over: Mr. Frodo standing beside the lilacs, his cheeks still warmed, wearing a smile as looked half abashed and half made to reassure.

"I'll be glad to tell you, Mr. Frodo, if you like," Sam added, though that seemed too forward the moment those words were out of his mouth.

But Mr. Frodo said, "I would indeed," in such an earnest tone that it took the qualms from Sam's head and gave him another start of surprise. He lowered his eyes, and they walked on towards the farmhouse.

Nearer the gate, one of Hayward lads was busy clearing out the ditch. Alfred of the red hair, his face dusted with freckles as much as it were with mud now. On sight of Mr. Frodo, he swept off his cap and bowed his head, not without slanting Sam a curious glance.

Sam fell back half a step, for that glance minded him of his place somewhat sharp. Mr. Frodo wouldn't come of age till the next year, but he'd every right to being treated like the proper Master. "'Morning, Alf," Sam echoed Mr. Frodo's greeting.

Ere they'd even come nigh the gate, the dog's high bark called everyone nearabouts to their coming. Once he saw his visitor, Farmer Hayward was quick to step over from the trough he'd been filling with mash for the pigs. He unlatched the gate for Mr. Frodo and shook his hand with a serious mien. The dog trotted over to sniff their ankles.

"Bilbo sends his regards," Mr. Frodo said. "He would have come himself, but he received a note from the Mayor that called him to Michel Delving." The farmer nodded at that, not seeming to mind. "And Samwise is here to borrow your mare," Mr. Frodo continued, "to help with the garden work – if you can spare her for the day."

"Aye, we've the stump of an old hazel to pull from the ground," Sam added when the farmer looked over to him.

Farmer Hayward was a stout hobbit with quick eyes and wisps of reddish beard on his jaw that spoke to a Stoor heritage. "Our Tully will do good work for you," he said. "She's a tireless one, she is. I'll have Mat put the harness on her."

"I could help with that, Mr. Hayward," Sam offered, but the farmer's glance had travelled back to the house as he called for his elder son.

"No need. But you'll want to wait for your master, I expect. Go round back to the kitchen, lad, and the wife will have some fresh maslin for you."

Before Sam could get out a thank'ee, Mr. Frodo ventured, "You could come along, Sam, to see how the crop stands." Now that were an invitation hard to refuse, and for more reasons than one, but Mr. Frodo seemed to realise that in just another moment. "Unless you would rather taste Mrs. Hayward's baking. I shouldn't blame you for it."

The farmer's eyebrows climbed a bit at such courtesy.

"Oh no, I had a good breakfast at home, sir," Sam answered right away. "I'll be along, if you don't mind."

He made sure to keep a step behind Mr. Frodo though as the farmer walked them out to his fields. Long strips of carefully tended land stretched side by side over the soft rise, right up to a small copse. The foremost lay fallow, while the field on the left carried a green crop of winter wheat, and the middle one had just been tilled afresh. They'd be growing the barley there, Sam guessed, but the new-carved furrows ran deeper and straighter than aught he'd seen before.

Farmer Hayward stopped on the field's marge and threw a pleased look across the loamy range. "We was thinking to clear more land up yonder, if the Master agrees." He waved a hand towards the copse and underbrush on the ridge. "Me and my boys could start on it come Halimath, and we'd have an added six rods for the tillage next year, weather be kind."

"But will you be able to manage all the work on so large a field?" Mr. Frodo asked. "Or were you thinking to take on additional help?"

Curious about the look of the turned soil, Sam knelt to scoop some into his hand. The earth drizzled between his fingers in loose, soft clumps, and the furrow were deep enough to bury his arm to the elbow in it. A few yards ahead, two blackbirds were pecking for worms or stray seed. Ploughing this deep would let the rainwater drain quicker from the soil, Sam reckoned as he rubbed the crumbs between his fingers.

"Ah, but you've not seen the new plough yet!" Mr. Hayward exclaimed.

A soft prickling at the back of his neck drove Sam to glance up over his shoulder. Mr. Frodo were watching him with a bit of amusement in his glance. "A new plough?" he asked.

Sam got up quick and brushed his hand off on his breeches. A blush ran up his face, and a grin quirked the farmer's mouth, but he answered without pause. "Aye, Mr. Frodo. I saw a new sort up in Oatbarton, and heard tell of all the work and wonders as could be done with it. When I told the tale to Mr. Bilbo, he had a great mind for trying it on his lands. Robson the blacksmith made it. I can show it to you, sir."

"Please do." Mr. Frodo stood a moment more, his gaze roaming up the length of the fields. His eyes were a shade of dove-blue in the pale daylight and keen as his uncle's, but given to lingering where once they'd taken hold.

"Well, then." Farmer Hayward rubbed his hands together and turned back towards the farmhouse.

Sam trailed behind them, sparing a moment's attention for the greens as were thriving beneath the south wall. Through the byre they entered the back room where spades, hoes, sickles and scythes made a tidy row. The room was warm with smells of straw and tallow and whiffs of dung. Thin beams of light squeezed through knotholes in the wall-boards, catching on the dust that whirled about at each step. Under those rays, the plough-share gleamed bold and broad like a giant's axe.

Farmer Hayward set a hand to the plough-beam that must have been fashioned from a young tree. Sam guessed they had to yoke up all four oxen to drive this plough so deep under the soil. It were fitted with spoked wheels and a second blade set a foot before the first, and the whole of it had Sam wondering if it might be a thing what the dwarves had thought up. But then, dwarves worked no fields of their own, for all he'd learned from Mr. Bilbo's tales.

"It will bring back its worth thrice over, all in good time," the farmer said with a beckoning glance for Mr. Frodo, "and the crop will be better for it." His hand fell on Sam's shoulder. "Step aside here, lad, so that the master can see."

Sam stood off with a murmured apology and tucked his hands behind his back. Palms set on his knees, Mr. Frodo bent forward. Like a curious tweener he looked then, a glint in his eyes and his curls falling loose into his face. He listened close as Mr. Hayward explained the use of each piece and how the plough were put together.

What sort of a mind did it take, Sam asked himself, to contrive such a thing? Though the farmer's words gave sensible meaning to each part, that bit remained secret: how a first inkling had entered a mind, swarming about like the dust they were stirring off the floor.

"Do you see, Mr. Frodo?" Farmer Hayward gestured to the door and his fields beyond, and the grounds up on the ridge yet waiting to be cleared.

When Mr. Frodo straightened, the slanted rays flickered over his face and neck, as if the secret were wandering along with him, and his eyes filled of sudden knowing. "Yes, I do see," he said with a smile.

In the close air of the back room, Sam felt abruply breathless and had a sense of something slipping behind his eyelids, of which he couldn't have told the shape. Quick and sure like a bird's wing-beat, and missed in a blink. He squinted into the day that seemed overly bright as they filed out again through the byre. From the yard rose the smaller children's voices – playing chase, by the sound of it – and several geese waddled hastily aside when they rounded the corner.

"'Tis time for second breakfast," the farmer said over the little ones' shouts and shrieks, clapping his hands together. "If you care for a bite and some tea before you take to the road again, Mr. Frodo, the wife will be pleased to have you at our table." He turned to catch his youngest by the frock-tail ere she could climb the trough.

"Thank you for the kind invitation, Mr. Hayward, but we really should not keep you any longer." Mr. Frodo combed back his curls with one hand. "Sam?"

"Yes, sir." But then he realised it had been a question, not an order, and it threw him off his stride a moment. "I'll fetch the pony, Mr. Frodo."

Tully was a broad-backed mare with a light blaze running aslant from her left eye down to her nostrils that gave her a mischievous look. She wore a harness with a padded collar, and Mat had set forth some sturdy ropes besides.

Sam ducked his head through the coil and settled it over his shoulder. In the garden shed at Bag End, they kept their own ropes of Tighfield making, and the Gaffer wouldn't trust no other. But nowise could he say that, so he nodded his thanks to the lad and promised to walk Tully home before nightfall.

Back in the yard, Mrs. Hayward was wiping her daughter's face with the edge of her apron, and she must have brought out the hamper that now sat on the trough's rim.

"I was going to send Alf round to Bag End with these..." The farmer held the basket out to Sam. It was heavy with the eggs of hens and geese, and two wrapped slabs of butter to keep them company. "For the Master, with my best regards."

While Mr. Frodo spoke his thanks in turn, Sam shifted the basket to the crook of his arm. He could still recollect how he'd first seen a farmer's son take cans of milk to Bag End's doorstep, early one morning.

"Folk from all the world like Mr. Bilbo well, don't they?" he'd said to the Gaffer.

"They did ought to, lad. He's a good master, and true to his word, so he is." The Gaffer had put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed it. "Don't you listen to them tales as the prattlers spin about him, neither."

Sam harkened to the memory with an odd bit of rue. He'd not understood at the time that Mr. Bilbo were owed the milk, eggs and cheeses and other vittles harvested on his lands.

As he led Tully past the gate, he glanced to the steep slant of the sun over the Hill. The Gaffer wouldn't be pleased with him gone so long, but that couldn't be helped now, and Sam was sure that his dad would enjoy hearing of the plough.

When Mr. Frodo pulled the gate shut behind them, the dog woke long enough to growl a sleepy warning. The day's warmth gathered on Sam's forehead, and for a while he pictured the work ahead of him. They'd have to drag the felled tree aside first, then dig a trench all about the stump and loosen up the earth, perhaps sever some of the bigger roots before Tully could pull out the rest. She walked with a slow, swaying step, and Sam put an arm over her back for a bit, feeling how each movement passed up through her shoulder in a slow ripple and a jolt. The steady clop and crunch of her hooves on the path had him reaching for a walking song, and he started humming below his breath.

"Do you mind if I take my jacket off?" Mr. Frodo asked all a sudden, his fingers tugging on the clasp at his shirt's collar. They'd come to the lane's end, where the pale ribbons of the road parted slope from meadow.

Startled, Sam shook his head.

"It is one of the things that Bilbo is rather finical about," Mr. Frodo explained as he slung the jacket over his shoulder, and the sun flashed white on his shirt-sleeves.

"Mr. Bilbo's not–" Sam clamped down on his rash tongue and changed his question to, "Is he going to Michel Delving, sir?"

"Why yes, he will go... later this week." Mr. Frodo shot him a look with such a merry twinkle as Sam had met in his uncle's eye more than once. "But he was a little... indisposed after an extended supper with the Boffins yesterday evening, so I proposed to attend to the business here."

Sam tried to bite down on his grin, but then he let a bit of it escape after all. "I see, sir."

Where the road curved closer to the Hill's slope, white fieldstones fastened the bank. Another dip and rise, and Hobbiton would lie before them in green and brown hues, like a well-stirred pottage in a shallow bowl. A crisp breeze picked up, riffled through the grass and slid into Mr. Frodo's sleeves, so they blew and billowed about his arms.

"Well," he said in a while, "I think I understand why this new plough is such a wonder, but I doubt that I would be able to handle it myself."

Across Tully's back, Sam stared at him a full moment ere he remembered his manners. "I've never gone with the plough, myself. Tom does though. Tom Cotton. He's been driving the plough for three years now."

"It must be very laborious," Mr. Frodo returned, looking a mite troubled, "especially for a lad who's still growing."

"No more than part of the job as they do, and Tom was fair bursting with pride when his dad deemed him old enough." Sam felt a trickle of sweat on his neck, but taking off his own jacket would mean to stop and set down the ropes and the basket first. "It's not got any wheels though – the Cottons' plough, that is."

"The wheels will ease the labour, won't they?" Mr. Frodo made a vague gesture, then added, "For the oxen, too."

"Aye, and if they could talk, they'd have asked for them wheels first, I shouldn't wonder."

"Do you think so?" A wide, startled grin spread on Mr. Frodo's mouth. Perhaps he pictured Farmer Hayward's ox raising up on its hind legs beside the lilacs, to bid them a good morrow.

Sam chuckled to himself as the road plunged down the dip and ran up clear to the sky above the weaving grasses. He started humming once more, and Mr. Frodo set a hand on Tully's left shoulder, and it seemed to Sam they were walking this road as if it might never end. The breeze strengthened into a true wind from the east that whipped through their hair. Chances were it would draw up those rainclouds as were needed to refresh the garden.

* * *

"'T hasn't rained enough by halves." The Gaffer stopped on the middle of the bridge and sniffed the evening air. Some dark patches stained the road, the only remainder of the afternoon's shower. "If them clouds don't pull away from the hills, we'll not see another drop soon."

Sam looked to the darkening south-east where thick grey billows were piling up. "They'll be here before morning, I expect."

The Gaffer wagged his head with a doubtful look. "There's a fret in my bones as if the weather's already broke, sure enough."

Out over the Woody End, the starts of a rainbow shivered in the day's gloaming. Sam watched the hanging colours and wished those sparkling wisps would mesh in a stronger glow, but the Gaffer headed onwards with a grunt.

They'd set out to hail the end of the work-week with a good mug of beer. On the rain-washed airs, the voices of farmers and tradesmen travelled far and light, mingling with the creak of doors and shutters and the distant bleating of sheep that trailed in one long groan over from the south pastures. Often on their walk to Bywater, the Gaffer would share old tales or bits of his gardening lore, but this evening he trudged along with a tight-lipped inward look. If there was aught bothering him besides the ache in his back, Sam couldn't tell what. Short of rain as this week had been, a good number of jobs had gotten along quicker in the clear weather. For the last hours of the day, Sam had been chopping the hazel's branches. He could still feel it in his arms: the rise and swing of the axe, the jarring impact up through his shoulders when the blade caught, and the wrench of pulling it free again. Those compact chunks would smoulder to a good coal, too; they'd be sure to warm Bag End's parlours for many an eve. In a burrow as deep and rambling as Bag End, the winter cold found too many pockets to lodge in, though the evenings were mellow outdoors. There'd be no more worry of a sneaking frost killing bloom or young shoots now, as there had been through all of March.

A damp breeze tickled Sam's face as they walked past the houses and work sheds at the end of Hobbiton. Through a wide open door, he could see Hending Brown still busy at his loom. He was grumbling out a song that went something like,

     Mowing and heaving,
     humble dum humble dum,
     and the rye is a-weaving,
     humble dum ho.

The Gaffer stopped and crossed his arms over the biggest fence-post to peer inside. In the twilight, you could scarce see the shuttle slide back and forth in the warp but for the motion of Hending's elbow. Sam stood by as the shadows quivered on the wooden frame and the weights swung gently under the loom, thinking of his uncle's ropewalk over by Tighfield where they'd once gone for a visit. Long years ago it had been, but Sam still remembered the steady backward tread of the workers drawing out the yarn from the bundled hemp round their waists. Up and down the walk they'd go, between the whirls and the reels, till the yarns could be twisted into strands, and the strands into powerful ropes. It had seemed like a slow dance, one where each step spun out thrumming strings without ever winding up in a tangle, and when Sam thought of Hamson who now worked with the ropers, he'd picture him in the middle of that dance.

The Gaffer leaned over the fence to call, "A fine Mersday night to you, Hending."

"And to you, Gaffer Gamgee," he called back without a pause in his weaving or so much as a sideways glance.

"Mind 'ee don't waste your eyes, workin' so late." The Gaffer's tone had grown a tad sour, but Hending only threw out a louder humble dum ho! in return.

As they stepped away from the fence, Hending's son Erl came round the work shed with an armload of rushes and dashed an envious glance over to Sam. They were of an age, but Erl's father wasn't about to let him take a drop at the inns yet. Sam met his gaze with a sympathetic shrug as they turned back into the road. A lad as could work for his bread and gruel from dawn to sundown, the Gaffer always said, had earned his ale too.

Their shadows had grown lank and spidery, near melting into the deeper greys by the time Bywater came into view, and a long silence filled the road. Sam dropped his pace somewhat to watch the first stars peek out over the grey bulk in the east. The glimmers of waned daylight were caught in the upper clouds and turned them to snowy pale dashes against the blue. In Mr. Bilbo's stories there were mountains wearing such wimples of snow all year long. He'd shown Sam a map that marked their outline in the Wilderland, though you had to picture the snow from strokes of brown ink.

"Come along now," the Gaffer said, none too patient.

He turned straightways into the Dragon's yard where Daddy Twofoot stood by the open door and tipped his cap back in greeting. "Have the miles grown longsome for you, Ham? I was justabout ready to make jolly without 'ee."

All of his face wrinkled round a teasing smile, and the Gaffer clapped his shoulder in answer, pulling their neighbour along as they stepped inside. In the hearth, a first twiddle of flames licked about the logs, and in the heavy chairs nearby sat Farmer Cotton and his old father. Long Hom could look back on nigh a hundred years, and he'd grown thin as a lath of late, but his laugh still rang full and deep. The Gaffer and Daddy Twofoot drew up chairs for themselves, their backs turned on the Sandymans that were sitting at the table's end.

When Sam went to fetch a first round of ale, he ran smack into Tom Cotton. "Oy, Sam!" Tom trapped three brimful mugs close to his chest. "You're a bumbling calf, you are!"

Sam grinned widely back at him and dabbed at the beer that had spattered across his sleeve. "Where's Jolly?"

"Cooped in the kitchen with a long face." Tom lowered his voice a bit. "He got himself caught pinching carrots, the noddle."

Soon enough, they were both settled on a bench beside the fire while the Gaffer advised the Cottons how to grow the ducksbelly-turnips good and proper. He sat kneading his elbow through the faded cloth of his jacket and approved the ale's tartness with a smack of his lips.

Inside an hour, the common room was crowded, and a din of voices rose up with the pipe smoke, balling under the rafters that glistened brown as cured ham, till there didn't seem to be an inch left for words. Sam nudged Tom with his elbow, and they took their mugs outside to sit on the bench beneath the burly hornbeam.

"Tell me the week, Sam." Tom stretched his legs before him.

"Oh, but I have news to tell you! Listen up." Sam took a long swig first, wiped the froth off his mouth, then launched into the tale of the new plough, describing each part as good as he could remember.

"And how did you come to be shown all that?" Tom asked. "You're not getting it in your head to change your trade, are you?"

"Not for all the world, I wouldn't." Sam leaned back to watch nightfall filter through the mesh of leaf and bough. "I happened to be along with Mr. Frodo, is all."

Tom chuckled low in his throat at that. "Happened to be along," he echoed. "'Tis true then, the gentry up the Hill are spoiling you!"

"Who says they do?" Sam muttered. A troublesome warmth crawled up his neck. He wished he could tell Tom – he didn't know what for sure, but something more about the plough's strangeness and the light dancing across it. A short rattle of the gravel at his back put an end to that thought.

"Well, that plough's a mighty fine thing," Sam added with a clumsy tongue, "and no mistake."

"Some outlandish contraption, I'll bet." It was Ted Sandyman that had strolled out, looking as if he'd been too deep in the keg already. "Like them funny waterlines as they've got carving through the Hill. It ain't natural."

Sam sat up a bit straighter. "And your dad's mill is?"

Ted glared at him. "'Tis a needful thing, and it's been kept by our family since hobbits first moved into the Shire," he claimed when he'd recovered himself. "There ain't a thing more natural than that. And besides, what old Mr. Bilbo's plotting next–" He snorted. "A new wheel that's good for naught but hauling water, and pipes going underneath Hobbiton so folk won't have to fetch and carry no more! Now who ever heard o' that?"

"A water-wheel?" Sam murmured in Tom's direction. "What's this all about?"

"Mr. Bilbo was telling it to Granger Holeman last week," Tom explained, turning a sharp look on the miller's son. "Says every lane ought to have its own pump, and there'd be no more jostles by the well, nor squabbles over keeping it in good order." Since last summer, he'd grown broader in the chest than Hamson ever was, and Ted eyed him with a deal of wariness, but it didn't tie a knot in his tongue.

"Before he goes spinning mad plans, he'd best hear my dad's advice. The grounds along the Water aren't Baggins land either."

Sam shook his head. What good had the miller's advice done when it came to setting up the pumps on the Hill? But he'd scarce opened his mouth when Ted leaned over and ruffled his hair. "Don't fret it, Sammy-boy, you can't know any better. My dad's his own master, and free to speak his mind as he'll please when other folk gripe behind the Master's back."

He turned on his heel, and Sam was glad of it, for Ted's tone drove his breath up in a tight rush. "It ain't right," he said thickly, "him and his father spreading such words about Mr. Bilbo. And folk listen to it, too!"

Tom shrugged his shoulders. "They can't get the miller in a rankle, can they? Who'd grind the grain for them? And he's like to go raising charges, what's more – all out of spite, as my dad says."

"It ain't right," Sam repeated, a ragged anger leaping inside him that couldn't go nowhere. "And it's not just the plough nor the pump, neither."

"Well then, what is it?" Tom slung an arm over his shoulders to give him a light shake.

Sam let another breath go. "Well, you've never heard all the stories Mr. Bilbo's got to tell, or how he tells them, as it were."

Tom raised his mug with a chuckle, so Sam said no more and looked into the tree's shadowed crown. Hornbeams had a strange way of growing, their boughs and branches lacing tight where they crossed, so that in another year there was no way of telling where one ended and the other took up. At that moment Sam felt just as tangled-up inside, and helpless to say why.

* * *

Pitch dark wrapped all round him when Sam opened his eyes, seeming to thicken with the thump of his heart and the tapping of rain on the shutter. No other sound reached his ears, though he'd have sworn that a moment before he'd heard the voices of Hal and the Gaffer through the door, low but sharp, and so close that it woke him.

He stretched his left arm over backwards, and his fingers wandered in the cool folds of the blanket till his heartbeat slowed and his wits scrambled out from underneath the sodden quiet. Neither in bed nor out in the smial wrangling with their father, was Hal. The thought seeped into Sam like a winter drizzle, from his spine out to his fingertips. The weather had been like that, too, when he walked his brother as far as the crossing of the roads beyond Overhill. And Halfred not even come of age yet, not by two years. The Gaffer could have made him stay, but in the end he hadn't.

Sam tucked the pillow closer against his throat and chest. Plump and firm it was, stuffed taut with hairs from cowtails and scraps of fleece, and there rose a scent from it that could warm him up inside. A grey rim edged the window's shutter like the hair-sickle of a new moon: morning couldn't be too far off. Sam fixed his eyes on that moist shiver of grey, hoping that Hal had since found a roof to sleep under. Their cousin Tolman, him that was the youngest son of May, the Gaffer's sister, lived near Oatbarton with his family. Perhaps Halfred took shelter with them while he went looking for a job as would suit him. But time and again the Gaffer said that he'd like as not end up living in some shed up north. Much as Sam wanted to, he couldn't picture his brother in peace and comfort, and after a while the restless trying drove him from the bed.

The Gaffer's snores whispered up from the kitchen when Sam padded from his room. A wicker basket hooked over his arm, he left the smial. No-one else was like to be about this early on a Highday, but the wet was bound to have some timely mushrooms sprouting.

A steady patter accompanied Sam all along the Row, and he made a sport of hopping across the fast-forming puddles. West of the Hill, where the Row bent southward, the grounds dipped into an overgrown dell. A small brook ran through the copse and the brambles, to join the Water just outside of Hobbiton.

Sam followed a footpath that would soon disappear among nettles and coltsfoot, but his head swarmed with memories. On many a summer's eve, he and his brothers had pelted headlong down the Hill's flank till the undergrowth broke their run, Hamson always reaching the large old elm first, but Hal being faster when it came to climbing any trees to spy out birds' nests, their shouts ringing off the slopes.

Sam breathed deeply of the wet smells as he climbed down to the gurgling rill. The rain pricked cool through his hair, calling up a remembrance of the morning when Halfred went away, with nobut a small knapsack and such clothes as he wore.

"Up north," was all he'd answered when Sam had asked him where he'd go.

"But what will you find there?"

"Why, loads of dragon gold!" Hal had teased him, but then he fell serious and placed both hands on Sam's shoulders. "What's not to be had in Hobbiton or Bywater, leastways." He shrugged and smiled a bit, and wiped his thumb at the tears on Sam's cheek. "'Tis a chance of finding what I never looked for, maybe."

Sam took a long step over the brook, and the elm's brushwood drizzled another shower down his neck. Out north lay the ruins of Norbury – the old king's city, folk called it – but surely Hal wouldn't roam that far. Then again, their grand-dad's forefather on the Gaffer's side had moved from Gamwich to Tighfield, and the Gaffer in turn had left his family to join old Holman Greenhand – his own dad's cousin – in Hobbiton. But when they set out, did they know what to hope for at the end of their roads, any more than Halfred did now? And what must it be like, Sam wondered, to leave home and move away as far as Mr. Frodo had done? Life was different in Buckland by all kinds of manners, Shirefolk said, and perhaps Mr. Frodo still missed his kin as sore and deep as Sam missed his brothers.

He blinked to clear his eyes – and right across, a mere step away in the underbrush, a brown gleam winked at him. Sam took it as a call to drop those glum thoughts and pulled out his knife to start cutting the mushrooms. There'd be large chanters, broadfans and morels later in the year, but spring rain always had the browncaps and swartheads popping out in their own kind of magic. Tight and small they were, but of a spicier taste than the bigger sorts, their caps as round and shiny as pebbles in the brook. The shadowed corners were rich with them, and Sam whistled to himself as he went from one cluster to the other.

He'd nigh filled his basket when a distant thunder grumbled over the Hill. A fast wind stormed ahead of it, and within moments, the mizzle became a downpour as if buckets were emptied at a toss. The Gaffer would wake up delighted at the weather's turning. Sam grinned at the angry squeak of a squirrel and leaned into the old elm's bushy arms. The rainwater crawling under his shirt trickled chills down his chest, but it had warmed when it reached his belly and thighs, running steady like the sap through the tree. Under his feet, the ground grew soaked and soft. All the world had gone still save for the restless drumming on leaf and grass, and the gusts whipping branch and spray about. But in all this ran a voice like a song of wind, high and thin, that blew around him and through him. Perhaps the old oak up on the Hill was the source of that singing.

In his mind, Sam listened again to Hal's words – a chance of finding what I never looked for – though now they made him smile.

* * *

He was in the kitchen, stirring juicy brown slices about in a dash of butter, by the time his sisters got dressed. May sauntered in first and tucked her chin over his shoulder.

"Mmmm," she sighed, "and here I told Mari 'twas her stomach dreaming up the smell!" She chanced a kiss on Sam's cheek, and he batted at her with a laugh.

"Go get Dad, he's out giving the word to his taters."

The morning's harvest had been so plentiful that he'd set a good share aside, and after breakfast Sam went out again to carry the remaining mushrooms over to the Rumbles.

The rain had spent itself for the morning, seemingly, and the sun made a silver patch in the thinning clouds. Sam rapped his knuckles on the door, his knock sounding dull and dry against the silence of Number One. The green paint was fading into the wood, he noticed as he waited for Mrs. Rumble to answer his call, turning to a greyish hue like winter-worn pine. In the garden, the shreds and tatters of last year's growth crowded round in the pale blossoms of Dame's violet, and dandelions were stealing out into the path. Sam shifted the basket on his arm and wondered if he should knock again when the latch scraped on the other side of the door.

Mrs. Rumble pulled it open by a hand or two and peered at him from the dark smial.

"Good day to you, Mrs. Rumble." Sam strove for a smile, though he knew it weren't half as brave as hers. "I went out after mushrooms this morning, and seeing as how I collected more'n we can eat in a day, maybe you'd like to help us finish them."

"Oh, I–" She drew the door a bit further back and wedged herself into the opening. "Sam dear, that's very kind..."

A cool breath wafted from the hole, but the juniper she'd burned couldn't clean the air of the bitter privy stench. Sam swallowed hard when the scent of knapwort crept into his nose, for that hadn't helped neither when –

"The mushrooms always shoot up fierce in the rain, don't they?" Mrs. Rumble took the basket and with a flurried gesture swept her ruffled braid back over her shoulder. Threads of white overlaid the dark brown, like spider-web snared in her curls.

"Aye, they do at that." Sam stopped, so his voice could grow steady again. "And good luck we've had, too, with the clouds breaking just in time for Highday."

"And you to rise up ere daybreak when you ought to be resting!" Mrs. Rumble looked at him with a fond disapproval. "Bless ye, Sam, and your dad, too."

"'Tis no trouble, Mrs. Rumble," he said awkwardly. All the neighbours brought such stores and bread as they could spare, and Mr. Bilbo sent down vittles too, though Mrs. Rumble wasn't supposed to know where they came from. None of them had seen her husband about since the last autumn, and even then he'd only sat on the garden bench for an hour or two.

"Mrs. Rumble..." Sam glanced from the tired droop of her shoulders to her pale face in the half-light. "Would you step outdoors? Just for a moment," he added in haste, "but there's your primrose budding so sweetly, and the daffodils long in bloom."

Without a word, Mrs. Rumble set the basket down by the door and followed him along the path.

"There, you see?" Sam bent to tug some sprawling cleavers aside. Under the broom hid a first sprinkling of bluebells. "And look what's showing here..."

"Yes," she murmured, but her blood-rimmed eyes weren't turned to the flowers. They travelled far out west, where a shelf of high, grey clouds loomed on the White Downs.

"I'd be glad to do a bit of weeding for you," Sam offered in a low voice, so he wouldn't be scattering her thoughts. "If you don't mind the to-do in your garden."

"I shouldn't let it go to weed as I do..." Her answer came slow as if she had to drag on each word. "Or keep you away from your own garden." She turned back, her smile very soft in the milky light, and Sam didn't know what to say when such a muffling pain welled up his chest.

"Please, I – I'd like to help!" he burst out, his voice too rough and hoarse, but Mrs. Rumble wasn't flinching.

"And I thank'ee, Sam." After a moment, she reached up and touched his cheek. "It'll be a comfort to see the garden cared for, 'tis true."

Sam's breath unstoppered in the wake of that touch, and he released it with a dip of his head. When Mrs. Rumble went indoors, he was out in the Row again, for a quick trip back to Number Three.

The Gaffer didn't ask a question as Sam collected the clippers and a hoe, but he stood by the gate when Sam returned, carrying a weed-basket himself.

"Time to shear the ruffles," the Gaffer said as they walked down to the Rumbles' garden, "or they'll grow mean as cleavers in this weather."

While he set to trimming the shaggier shrubs, Sam turned his attention to the bindweed wanting to choke the peonies Mrs. Rumble used to tend with such care. In a nook by the hedge, a wild rose had planted itself, and Sam loosened up the earth around it to aid its growing. His dad mightn't hold with letting wild things claim a place without leave, but some of them blossomed in fair hues like fireweed, or gave off the finest scents. Rainwater dripped from every leaf and twig, but the day was warming and a gusting breeze carried sounds from the village uphill. Between that and the busy chipping of the clippers, Sam could feel a slow, soft measure settle into him, guiding his hands and his breath.

The day was nearing noon when a cart rattled up Hill Lane, wheels crunching over the grit. With their click and rasp, a prickle of anticipation scurried down Sam's back. Mr. Bilbo had gone off to Michel Delving two days ago, and surely that was him returning now.

Sam leaned over the hedge, and although he couldn't catch a glimpse of the cart, he heard it stop by Bag End's gate. The wind brought a snatch of voices, mingled and too low to tell apart, followed by the driver's wordless call to his pony as he turned the cart about. Sam twiddled some outgrown quickthorn ends between his fingers as his mind leapt ahead. He could go up to Bag End between lunch and teatime, and ask if Mr. Bilbo were rested enough to give him his Highday lessons.

When he turned back, the Gaffer watched him close and hard – surely he was reading every airward thought in Sam's head. But there was a worry in his father's gaze now, and a wish –

I have to go, Dad. Sam's stomach clenched up tight as he knelt by the flowerbed again, and the Gaffer returned to pruning the hebes.

On the first day that he took Sam up to work at Bag End, he'd kept his hand on the back of Sam's neck almost the entire way. Mind yourself to take off your cap and bow your head when you greet the Master, and don't you speak up 'less he asks you to. Sam thought he didn't need such admonishing, for he'd spoken to Mr. Bilbo oft enough, but his dad's hand squeezed as like to bury the words in his skin. For a space Sam had thought he were afraid, though he couldn't think of what.

And then, when Mr. Bilbo walked round the garden with them, Sam had soon chattered away, forgetting his manners all over again. His dad rapped him on the ear for that, later in the day, when Sam pulled weeds from the bed of slow-growing parsnips. Trap that flighty tongue of yours, Samwise, or harm'll come to thee quicker than you can think. Truth be told, he still needed such reminding of a time.

But now a stronger wind sent the clouds scudding, so that bright rays dipped their fingers over the green and sparkled on the raindrops. Such a wind would rake trails in the wet grass all along the Hill's slope that the sun lit to glistening sweeps. With it, Sam's mind flew up there, to the mysteries and the marvels of Mr. Bilbo's study. The room always breathed the fine scents of Southern Star and old leather while the sunlight pierced the leaded window-glass and danced across the wainscoting like a living fretwork. And from such a quiet spell, Mr. Bilbo's voice would reach outward and give names to invisible things.

* * *

All the wetness had dried off when Sam opened Bag End's gate that afternoon, and the flower garden streamed with proud colours. There wasn't a garden like it nowhere between Overhill and Bywater, for all that the richer hobbits might try to match its glory. As Sam took in the corydales, daffodils, anemones and rhododendron as stood all in bloom, his fingers nigh itched to start the next week's jobs right away. Now that the soil had been soaked through proper, the flowerbeds were ready for a good mulching; the buddleias and fuchsias needed cutting back, and he'd see to splitting the double primroses, too.

A ticklish job that would be. Sam remembered well enough how the Gaffer had frowned when he'd planted the first of them out in the garden. Proper primrose does well and fair for most folk, son, and 'tis hardier too. Like as not you'll be wastin' your time on them fancy things. But the dainty kind were now thriving in the rich soil, as jolly as you could wish for. Sam bent to splay a cluster of leaves and white blossoms apart. This particular clump seemed too tender to bear splitting though, and the spindly look of its crowns said they still wanted company.

As he straightened, Sam noticed a stray pair of clippers under the rhododendron. Mayhap Mr. Frodo had taken some cuttings earlier in the day – it couldn't have been Mr. Bilbo, at any rate. Sam picked up the clippers and took them to the garden shed ere he knocked on the back door.

After a space the latch creaked back, and it was Mr. Frodo opening the door for him with a "Hullo, Sam."

He was in his shirtsleeves, and such a look lingered in his eyes that Sam would have guessed he'd been reading even if he hadn't carried a book under his arm.

"Bilbo is napping," Mr. Frodo told him, "or taking a mental stroll, as he would say. He asked me to call him when you arrived, though. If you'll wait a moment..."

Sam needed more than that to find his voice between one wish and another, but then he managed, "Begging your pardon, Mr. Frodo sir, but I didn't ought to disturb Mr. Bilbo's rest, him travelling such a long road in a day and all."

"Oh, don't be silly, Sam," Mr. Frodo answered with a laugh, "come on in." But when Sam stayed rooted to the door stones, still vexed by indecision, his expression changed quick as a breath. "Uncle Bilbo would be very disappointed if you left again," he told Sam in quiet tones. "He enjoys the lessons as much as you do."

A sudden heat washed into Sam's face and numbed his tongue, and it got worse when Mr. Frodo touched his elbow and motioned him inside. Head bowed, Sam stepped over the threshold into the coolness of Bag End.

"I'll be sure not to rouse him too quickly," Mr. Frodo promised over his shoulder, but when he noticed Sam pausing just inside the door, he turned back. "Wait in the kitchen, Sam, if you like."

"Thank you, Mr. Frodo." Sam watched him disappear into the dimness of the smial, then hung his good jacket on a peg. He'd put on his best shirt too, though the collar had grown a bit tight round his neck, of late.

Unlike their own in Number Three, Bag End's kitchen had a round window, fitted with four separate glass-panes, no less. On the shelves stood glazed earthen mugs and bowls, and in the cupboard glistened finer pottery and crystal. From the stew-pan by the fire, the scent of leeks and onions tickled Sam's nose. His mind wandered back to his own musings of the morrow, and now it seemed odd that he'd thought Mr. Frodo might miss aught for happiness in Bag End. How could a hobbit not thrive when he had Mr. Bilbo to live with, and all his tales and songs?

In years before, when the children of Bagshot Row were littler, Mr. Bilbo used to come out to the field below Bag End on some Highdays and tell tales to them all while the sun sifted through the great maple's leaves. Maggie Twofoot – who now worked as maid for the Boffins – was always the boldest when it came to asking him, but after a time they'd all learned that Mr. Bilbo enjoyed sharing out his stories as much as they loved the listening.

Though he mostways brought a book with him, it stayed closed while Mr. Bilbo told his tales with flysome gestures, now and then darting off the bench under the tree to let his hands shape fantastical forms, or point the direction where the far-off lands lay. Often Sam eyed the books that were bound in leather and shut with silver-tipped clasps or beaded strings, and some of them had their pages rimmed in dark gold. But he'd turned sixteen ere one afternoon, when the others had already left, he screwed up his courage to ask, "Do you get them tales out of the books, sir?"

Mr. Bilbo smiled at him. "Some of them, yes."

"Could I – could I see?" Sam asked, and the warmth rising up his cheeks was all of eagerness.

But when Mr. Bilbo opened the book for him, the pages were covered by letters in tight lines, interrupted here and there by garlands of leaves and flowers or small drawings of animals and bits of landscape. Sam chewed on his lip as his eyes ran across the endless mystifying strokes and jots as made up all those marvellous tales.

"Would you like to learn how to read books?" Mr. Bilbo asked.

When Sam looked up at him, something must have revealed on his face, for a hundred blithesome crinkles appeared round the Master's eyes.

"If I can," Sam murmured, adding a belated, "sir."

"Of course you can!" Mr. Bilbo answered with a sweeping gesture. "But you will have to take lessons, for reading is at first tedious work and requires quite a bit of patience. Not everyone has it in himself."

"Oh, I do, Mr. Bilbo!" Sam claimed without another thought. "And I'd dearly love to learn it, sir, if you don't mind."

But that year Sam had become 'prentice to the Gaffer, and his father decided that with so much learning to cram into his head, there was no space left for the letters besides. Though Sam still spent borrowed hours listening to Mr. Bilbo's stories, it wasn't until two years after that the Highday lessons began. The Gaffer had agreed to it grudgingly and only after Mr. Bilbo himself had had a word with him. Though what kind of words it took to convince his father, Sam couldn't guess.

He stepped a bit closer to the kitchen window where the nasturtians were blowing in the breeze. Their thin shadows dallied over his hand, and he turned it about as if to catch them in his palm.

"Sam?" Mr. Frodo's voice rose up gentle from the room at his back. "Bilbo is waiting for you."

For a moment longer, Sam watched the playful shadow in his hand and thought how strange to be called like this, as if it were the most ordinary thing. "He's awaked then?"

When he turned, Mr. Frodo answered with a nod from the kitchen door. "I'm bright-eyed awake, lad," he mimicked Mr. Bilbo's tone, "and there's no need for shouting. My eyes may be closed, but I've yet to teach such a trick to my ears, more's the pity."

A grin sprang to Sam's mouth as he followed Mr. Frodo from the kitchen, for he couldn't help but picture Mr. Bilbo's ears waggling and trying to curl over.

"I think he intends for you to read from his book," Mr. Frodo added in his own voice, and a new note had crept in too, full of thought.

A fresh trickle of anticipation ran its course down Sam's back. It weren't often that Mr. Bilbo let him peek at the book he was writing. "Such a grand tale it is," he said, "the part about the mountain and the town on the lake, now – there was the ruins of another town under the water, but Mr. Bilbo says he never found out what happened..." He trailed off, only just remembering who he was talking to.

"He says that that is the way with every journey," Mr. Frodo answered. "It's only after you have returned home that you notice all the riddles you have left unsolved, and the paths you didn't take."

Sam cast a quick glance sideways, but the passage was too dim to see much, save for a faint gleam on the wainscoting and the polished roots, and Mr. Frodo had lowered his head.

"Well, here you are, Sam," he said in a moment and with a short knock opened the study door. "I'll leave you to yourselves now."

"Thank you, sir." Sam blinked in the spill of afternoon sun, and took half a step into the room ere it occurred to him that there'd been no need for Mr. Frodo to show him the way.

"Sam." Mr. Bilbo rose from his stuffed chair by the hearth. "You're rather late today, aren't you? Do sit down."

"I lost a bit of time over weeding, sir." Sam crossed the room to his usual place. Some steps from the window stood the writing table and a chair on a thick woven rug.

The first time he'd been called in here, Sam hadn't quite dared to set his feet on the burgeoning patterns of yellow and blue. And right there, open on the table, lay the big book Mr. Bilbo was filling with his story. Beside it he'd placed some fresh sheets of paper, quills, a small earthen pot holding the black ink, and two corked ink bottles bearing the runes for green and red that he must have brought back from Michel Delving. Leastways they'd not been on the table the week before.

"How is everyone down in Number Three?" Mr. Bilbo asked. He'd started lighting his pipe, and with the words came thin puffs of smoke from the corner of his mouth. "Well, I trust?"

"They're all keeping fine, sir," Sam answered, "and now that my Gaffer's out planting his taters, he couldn't be in a better mind." Daisy had burned her thumb on the kettle a bit earlier in the day, when she were swatting after an errant bee, but there wasn't no call –

"And the Rumbles?" Mr. Bilbo looked over to him, his face wreathed in thin curls of smoke, and for a long moment his question hung on the air, stretching with the pipe smoke.

"No better, and no worse," Sam said slowly. "Going by the look of Mrs. Rumble, you understand. I've not asked after Mr. Rumble's health. She'd be the first to tell if he were mending, I'll warrant."

Mr. Bilbo nodded and sighed. Instead of taking his own seat again, he strolled over to the window alcove and cranked the window open a bit. "Well, Sam," he said after a pause, "I have been working on a new chapter in my book, but now I am stuck, and I thought that hearing the last pages read out might help me to a fresh start."

Sam looked down at the rows of Mr. Bilbo's slender letters, and a tingle ran all the way to his fingertips. He'd heard the tale many times from Mr. Bilbo's mouth, shorter and longer, but only a part of it had been put in writing yet. "Shall I start where it's open, sir?"

"If you would..." Mr. Bilbo blew his smoke towards the window where it danced and shivered in a bit of breeze.

"Inside the hall it was now quite dark," Sam started and paused again to steady his voice. "Beorn clapped his hands, and in trotted four beautiful white ponies and several large grey dogs. Beorn spoke to them in a queer language, like animal noises turned into talk. They went out again and soon came back carrying torches in their mouths, which they lit at the fire and stuck in low brackets on the pillars of the hall about the central hearth. The dogs could stand on their hind-legs when they wished, and carry things with their fore-feet." Sam stopped, for the picture in his mind were taking on its own wilful shape, and the ponies came trotting through Bag End's smials, one after the other, led by a dog with a silver candlestick.

"Quite a remarkable sight, don't you know." Mr. Bilbo made a noise in his throat that could have been a short laugh or a grunt. "Who in the Shire would believe it!"

I do, Sam might have answered, save that Mr. Bilbo knew it well enough, so he bent his head over the book again and read onwards. He continued all through supper in Beorn's hall, his fingertip hovering along the lines so he wouldn't get lost amid them. The writing hummed with Beorn's story-telling and the voices of dwarves, and then a song about the wind racing from the West:

     It left the world and took its flight
     over the wide seas of the night
     The moon set sail upon the gale,
     and stars were fanned to leaping light.

"...stars were fanned to leaping light," Sam repeated. "Oh, I like that! And the moon setting sail, too."

Mr. Bilbo chuckled. "Ah, I have to admit I am not certain if that's exactly how it went. I grew awfully tired after supper. I shall have to ask–" But there he broke off, to suck a new glow from his pipeweed, seemingly.

"I've never heard aught like it," Sam murmured, "and the words have such a ring to them, too, as if they're each calling their sound from the other, if you take my meaning, Mr. Bilbo."

"I wonder if that is because dwarves live in deep, hollow caverns. At times their songs remind me of echoes rolling off the stone..."

Mr. Bilbo fell silent again, and the start of a shiver teased the back of Sam's neck. Besides the letters, Mr. Bilbo were teaching him the world, and at such moments Sam felt like he'd run up the Hill and stood breathless on the day's own brink.

"Do continue, Sam." Mr. Bilbo's voice stirred him from that wayward path of thinking.

After a blink or two, Sam found the line where he'd stopped and followed the tale into the dead of night, when strange sounds blew about the house. That part made him shift uncomfortably and he wondered, just as Mr. Bilbo had, if Beorn walked outside in the shape of a black bear. At times he slowed his reading so he wouldn't stumble over words he'd not seen as letters before, or names he'd never heard, though there weren't many in this chapter. As he read, Mr. Bilbo wandered from the window to the fireplace and back again, and when Sam reached the spot where Mr. Bilbo dreamed of bears dancing in a slow round under the moonlight, he tapped his pipe out by the hearth with a sharp, impatient rapping of his knuckles.

Sam paused in his reading. Mr. Bilbo stood with his back turned to him, one hand rubbing from his side to the small of his back ere he raised it to the thick root beside the hearth that bulged out like a pillar. The old oak's roots had pierced the Hill long before a hobbit ever lived underneath it, and they splayed their giant fingers wide, framing doors and guarding fires. Sam had never set foot inside another smial where such strong roots lay in the walls.

"Mr. Bilbo?" he said haltingly.

"Yes, I–" Mr. Bilbo straightened his back and turned. "I fear I am none too attentive today, Sam. But now, before you read yourself hoarse, I think it is time for your writing exercise." He placed his pipe on the mantelpiece and smiled. "What would you like to write?"

"The dwarf-song," Sam answered at once, "if I may, sir."

"Of course." Mr. Bilbo crossed his arms and began repeating it, waiting after each line till Sam had set it on paper, his own letters tilted awkwardly in places. Slow as the writing went, the song's measure thrummed in his mind, all astir with each dip of the quill and the shimmers of fresh ink on the page ere it dried.

When he'd finished, Mr. Bilbo came over to the table and picked up the sheet, his eyes running quickly across the verses. "Very good, Sam, but mind your 'o's and 'u's. Here, you see, they tend to look rather alike. And there is an 'i' missing in mountain."

Sam gave the misshaped word a look full of dismay. "Can I write it again?"

"Why, certainly." The window rattled with a sudden gust as sent the page fluttering in Mr. Bilbo's hands. He walked over to close the window and sat himself down in the alcove. Outside, a sharper wind chased among the clouds and filled the window-casing with swells of shadow and light.

Sam bowed his head over a fresh sheet and let the song run out of his recollection again so he could follow it with slow trails of ink. The quill scratched on the paper, but it lay easier in his hand now than it did at first, seeming to dare him like a living thing, bristling and spraying black droplets this way and that.

When he looked up again, Mr. Bilbo sat very still, his head leaned to the wainscoting and his eyes turned to the window. Sam laid the quill down quiet and set his hands on his thighs. He never minded waiting as Mr. Bilbo gathered his thoughts, for so many things in this room were telling stories of their own.

In the front parlour, Mr. Bilbo kept mathoms and tableware bright enough to catch the eye of any magpie. But in his study, only some plainer oddments lodged with the books, maps and scrolls. On the shelf by the window stood a jug holding the golden tail-feather of a pheasant and a forked twig with swirled ends, from which a piece of ribbon dangled. The sun had nigh bleached away all its colour, but Sam thought it might have been green once. Next to it, an egg-shell had been sitting as long as he could recollect, pale like October sky and speckled with brown.

Most often, Sam liked to think about the places where Mr. Bilbo had picked up this remembrance or that, or the towns where the books were written and the maps drawn, but the silence gathered to a dull weight now, all seeming to settle about the Master.

When he could bear it no longer, Sam cleared his throat and ventured, "Shall I read some more out of your book, sir?"

"Oh, there isn't a lot more, I'm afraid," Mr. Bilbo answered right off, not so distracted as he'd seemed. "See for yourself, if you will."

Sam turned the leaf over, and took a strange grief from the way those last lines stood raw over unfilled white. "You've got more than half the tale written though, haven't you?"

"I suppose..." Mr. Bilbo snorted softly. "But who will read such a book, I wonder?"

"Everyone hereabouts loves listening to your tales, Mr. Bilbo!"

"The children do, Sam. Only the children."

"But what about Mr. Frodo?" Sam asked. "Begging your pardon, sir, but I daresay he loves 'em too, as much as anyone, and more." He was getting all upset and it told in his voice, but there wasn't no help for it.

"Why, yes, but that is..." Mr. Bilbo raised one hand for a vague gesture, "another matter."

A quick start of wind blew the clouds apart and set the sun dazzling on the cut edges of the window panes. As Mr. Bilbo rose from his seat, the sudden light caught so on his hair that it looked near white.

"Mr. Bilbo sir..." Sam clasped his hands together to stop his fingers from fretting on the book. "Folk won't always speak up – or dare speak up, I might add – when there's cause for giving thanks, and more's the shame of it. But take Daddy Twofoot, for one. You ought to hear him talk about the pump and what a blessing it is."

"Does he now?" Mr. Bilbo asked softly.

"Yes sir, meaning no harm, but carrying buckets up from the well was awful hard on him, in the years before."

Though Mr. Bilbo nodded at that, he didn't seem to be listening with the whole of his heart. Sam pushed the chair back and took a hesitant step forward, casting about for a cheerful thing he might say. While his mind flitted back and forth like a sawfly, his eyes found a rest on the egg-shell. Such a frail thing it was, enclosing nobut air and a memory, perhaps.

"Is it true," he started ere he could think about it, "that there'll be more pumps and suchlike down in Hobbiton? I heard tell of it in the Dragon."

"Curious that you should mention it." From where he stood, Sam could see Mr. Bilbo's eyebrows knot, and his mouth curl. "The Mayor wasn't exactly taken with my plans. Good old Whitfoot. He's a sensible and sturdy chap, but–" He interrupted himself with a snap of his fingers. "I suppose it was one of my more outrageous ideas, as all the respectable Bagginses would say."

His voice rang cross as it only did when Mistress Lobelia or that chattersome Angelica dropped in for a visit. Or that one time, Sam remembered now, when young Olbo Proudfoot blustered about sitting down next to a Gamgee and study his letters. Mr. Bilbo still gave lessons to the lad, but not on Highdays no more.

Sam moved nearer, wishing only to scatter the glum spell that were vexing Mr. Bilbo, though he didn't know how. He set a hand on the oaken shelf, rubbing his thumb along the wood.

"At times it seems I am all out of stride." Mr. Bilbo scratched at a spot just behind his ear, as he would when something bothered him. "You remember how we escaped from our Mirkwood prison, don't you, Sam? I clung for dear life to that bobbing barrel, and the river hustled us along so rapidly that I thought we would all drown. But when I stood on dry land again – well, it was most odd. Every step I took felt slow as a snail's crawl, and it seemed that the world had turned to stone around me. Fancy that, it was my birthday too, though it slipped my memory at the time."

"Mr. Bilbo..." Sam started, but his voice wavered too much to carry aught else.

"Anyway, I wouldn't ever want to ride a barrel again." With a low chuckle, Mr. Bilbo turned sideways to put a hand over Sam's and squeeze it a moment. "Don't let an old hobbit's whims trouble you, lad."

In the low slant of afternoon sunlight, Sam could see a freckling of age on Mr. Bilbo's hand, and sudden tears pressed up close behind his eyes.

"I should like to go on a journey south before the summer," Mr. Bilbo went on, gazing out through the window again. "A long, leisurely walk is the best cure for confounded minds."

"Yes, Mr. Bilbo," Sam murmured. His breath released like the hot rush from an oven, and he folded his fingers fast.

Just then, there came a brief knock on the door. Sam turned to see Mr. Frodo open it. Long stripes of sunlight slid up his russet breeches and brightened on his shirtsleeves.

"I've put on the kettle for tea, if you're in a mind for a break?" Mr. Frodo took a step inside, his glance moving from his uncle to Sam's face and to the tight curl of Sam's fingers on the shelf.

Sam dropped his hand to his side, but when their eyes met again, a shadow seemed to pass out from Mr. Frodo's gaze and settle over his heart.

"I expect Sam would welcome a cup to wet his throat," said Mr. Bilbo and turned away from the alcove. "We've quite finished our lessons for today, haven't we?" He went to close the book and gather up the loose sheets.

"Yes sir, and I ought to be going home," Sam answered. "It can't be too long till supper."

"Just a cup," Mr. Bilbo insisted, opening the cabinet where he kept some wax-sealed scrolls and papers, to set the book inside. "Sage tea with honey, Sam?"

Sam didn't need to consider long when he wanted to give in anyways. "I couldn't say no to that, sir."

When he looked over to the doorway, Mr. Frodo smiled, and the worriment in his eyes had vanished like a raindrop in the brook. "Sage tea," he said. "Very well."

Blue shadows stretched through the kitchen when they entered. Mr. Frodo lit the stump of a candle between the cups and bowls on the table. He'd set out a plate of shortcakes too, and Mr. Bilbo snagged one ere seating himself. The kettle was already puffing steam, and Mr. Frodo hummed softly while he poured water over the leaves in the pot.

As Sam sat down, the dwarf-song ran through his mind again, mingling with Mr. Frodo's quiet hum and the crackles from the hearth. While the tea was steeping, Mr. Frodo opened the window wide to the evening breeze.

"Ah, but now I've forgotten my pipe!" Mr. Bilbo wiped some crumbs off his chin and rose again.

"Shall I–?" Mr. Frodo started, but his uncle waved it aside.

"I'm not doddering with age yet, my boy!" Mr. Bilbo picked up a second shortcake and winked at Sam, the mood that had been hanging over him whisked aside like a mere snatch of mist.

"And he proves it in every manner he can contrive," Mr. Frodo said in a wry tone, once his uncle were gone from the kitchen. His hands flew from the teapot to the honey jar that he placed beside the shortcakes. "Well, he's like that and has been as long as I can remember." The candleflame wavered with his motions, casting liquid ripples across his fingers.

"Like a river." The words had fled before Sam could tell where they came from, or why they unsettled him so.

Mr. Frodo looked at him a long moment, then bent his head as he poured a first cup of tea. "Maybe, yes."

The sun had set when Sam left Bag End, but the sky still glowed at the rim, beneath a thinning band of clouds. Sam paused by the gate to breathe deep of the evening air.

A bit of smoke curled from the Rumbles' chimney, and by now the Gaffer and Daddy Twofoot would be sitting on the garden bench, comfortably sharing a pipe. Below in the dale, the lines of hedgerows were fading soft into the meadows, and in the village the first lights flickered from open doors and windows. There'd be such glimmers winking on in Bywater, too, and farther off in Waymeet and Whitwell, and though they weren't to be seen from the Hill, Sam could picture them in an endless string, reaching to a sky as rare as that blown egg-shell on Mr. Bilbo's shelf.

Though he stood very still, something keen and changeful stirred inside him, and he wished that he could stay out till the trees and bushes all sang with night-jars and every hole in the clouds were filled with stars.

* * * * *

| to be continued in: 1400 – Summer | back to top |

to return to main page, close this window