Belowlands
by Cara J. Loup

~ ~ ~

The trees used to bring the moon closer. In winter, the full moon would rest in the crook of a branch and skip slowly downward, from one bough to the next, like a ball.

~ ~ ~

The snow had started to melt the day before. At the corner of Sam's eye gleamed brighter patches among the black, like torn and dirtied sheets scattered across the ground. The world was still in cloud at this hour, still soft under the seams of night. Sam kept his eyes on the road every step as he took. Towards the middle of his back, hidden under the pack, he carried a trace of warmth, the remembrance of a hand clasped to his spine from the midst of sleep. By the time that he turned into the Row, it would have faded in the chill.

Wet snow cooled his ankles as he trod along Hobbiton Road. The sounds of his own footsteps slid away from him, into the quiet that piled up on all sides like greasy, clotted wool. He paused where a pale shape thrust up from the bank – a stump of stone, not wood – marking the bounds of the Highgroves' fields and pastures. In a manner of greeting, he drew his fingers along the carvings of corn-spike, stem and blossom. Their slender shapes swept up to a crack where the stone had been split near the top. Though they'd put the stone back together, the dim lay numb at his fingertips, caught on this failing.

And I thought we were coming home, I thought

He breathed hard against the ache that fell open in his breast, then clutched like a clamp round a dreaded deep. Only a short stretch of road now, and he'd reach the bridge. It was another day started, bridled and packed with plenty of work to do, more than enough to quicken his pace.

Ahead of him, stray glimmers seeped through the shutters. All the homes seemed to be crouching down under the gloom, small and huddled as they'd never been, the gaps between sheds and fences choked with woodstacks and such things as might be used for mending and restoring when the season turned. The quiet gathered to a dull throbbing in his ears as he continued on his way, till he passed the last few homes before the crossing. There on the corner, from the Rabbets' cottage, rose the wails of a child. A lonesome sound it was, even with the mother's crooning woven about, rising high and thin as a bird's call, never stopping till it tugged on a place in Sam's throat that his own voice couldn't reach.

He moved on the quicker, rounding the bend in the road where the loam was riddled with criss-crossing tracks of hoofs and cartwheels. A pair of crows perched on the foremost wooden post mooring the bridge to the bank. They didn't take off till he'd nigh reached them, beating their wings with harsh flaps.

Fog rolled thick above the Water. When he got to the middle of the bridge, it closed about him as though he might be forgot standing there, swaddled in the night's parting breath and the sound of water running, alone with the memory as would carry him through the day.

He'd kissed Frodo's palm before placing both their hands on Frodo's chest, one over the other, beneath the blanket. Steady heartbeats thrummed and twined through their fingers, cupped safely within the retreat that was theirs alone. It brought Frodo to the edge of waking, and Sam had lingered there with him for a minute or more – slowly easing his limbs out from beneath the blanket while he held on, then settling the covers anew – till he could be sure that his leaving wouldn't bring the shadow of a chill to Frodo's skin. He'd remember this first on awaking, the touch of Sam's mouth on his palm, the breath by his ear. You know where I'll be, love.

It eased the mornings, Sam found, to rise before waking stirred throughout the house, before the loose clasp of their arms round each other became an embrace much harder to release. Before he was tempted to say all the words crowding his throat.

Since Afteryule, Rose had taken to setting out a covered bowl on the kitchen table, with a piece of bread for him and porridge that he ate cold, and he thanked her for it. Today she'd been up early, scarce a shadow in the dark kitchen. Her hair spilling free over her shoulders, a shawl wrapped over her nightshift, she'd kept as quiet as he did. When he walked down the steps, the dark and damp air sifting through his clothes, she stood in the open door and watched after him.

By leaving the farm this way he could gird himself with the remembrance, of the tender skin at Frodo's temple, half-hidden beneath the cloud of his curls, and the sweet, slow breaths filling their bedroom. Gentle as the deeper greys, it surrounded his senses, and it pierced him keen as an edge of steel catching the first light. The trace of warmth along his spine might give way to the chill already, but he pictured it edging inward, sliding past his ribs till it came to rest behind his heart. Sam reached a hand to the bridge rail, so the lines in his palm might rest alongside the furrows in the weathered old wood, one cleaving to the other.

Go on now, he told himself, go on. The next step took him to the spot where the mill's bulk should cast its shadow across him, even through the fog. Its folds were thinning now, sundered by all manner of noise. The large wheel still turned on its axle, creaking and scooping up water that it splashed back into the flow without driving aught. On the other bank, stones crunched and grated against each other.

Some lads had come to work early, Sam could see as he stepped off the bridge. The soil was loose as swamp where the road passed under the corner of the old building, now a jut of piled stones, and the basket he carried under his left arm near slipped his grasp. Sam placed the basket down on a fallen limestone slab, to tighten the straps of his pack and catch his breath, only for a moment.

The new mill and its high, belching chimney had been knocked down in heaps of brick that shrank to scattered mounds as the weeks went. Among the mist blowing about in threads, the lads were sorting and stacking bricks into such panniers and handbarrows as they'd brought. Ted Sandyman stood watching them from the hut where he now lived, leaning against the jamb with his arms crossed. He'd built the shed himself from the mill's old timbers.

Near by the mill-yard's broken wall, Erling Brown tossed a brick in the barrow with a sharp smack. Sam fancied he could see Ted smirk, and surely so could the lads. One of them spat over his shoulder, in Ted's direction. Instead of stirring a hand, he'd scoff at their labours, likely calling them tomfools for clearing the rubble out of his yard. But Sandyman no longer owned the mill's grounds as his father had. They'd sold every rod of land to Mr. Lotho, who'd thought up the new mill and had it fitted with greased iron wheels. Many of those were still lying about, left to gather rust in the rain and snow. One night in the Bush, Sam had heard a villager say Ted ought to be strapped to one such wheel and dropped in the Water, and good riddance. The room had fallen to silence so sudden that Sam's breath caught. The mill-grounds and all their wreck belonged to Mr. Frodo now, and most folk in Hobbiton were expecting him to drive Ted away. But he hadn't – and wouldn't, neither.

Sam glanced aside to the breach in the bank that looked every bit like the scar low on Sandyman's chin. What was he waiting for? Day in and out, when Sam went to work in the Row and Bag End, Ted lounged about the grounds, planted beside his hut like one of its soot-crusted posts, his face as dirty as the foul smoke had been. It clung to him thick as a pointless rage. On passing by, Sam made sure not to spare Ted a second glance. There weren't words for the likes of him, who didn't know harm from hope, didn't try, never did aught but watch the road and make his living as he could from trapping birds or rabbits.

Though he ought to be on his way, Sam dug his heels and toes a bit deeper into the soaked soil, when a stifled shout startled him. Over by the yard's northward corner where the storing shed once stood, Will Furry had tripped over a splintered baulk and waved his arms to keep his balance.

Ted gave a snorting laugh, loud enough for them to hear. Many a villager kept a rod in pickle for him, and it seemed he had a mind to pull all the grudges loose. Perhaps he'd grown tired of waiting.

"Muzzle the scarecrow," Will said through his teeth.

Erling set down the barrow he'd been pushing. "He's a shame to the eye, he is, and no mistake."

"And worse to the nose." Barley Coomb thrust his pickaxe at a remaining corner of grouted bricks, so that crumbling mortar sprayed forth.

They didn't pause in their work, but the stewing anger showed in every motion, driving the swing of their arms and their breaths that puffed up into the dull morning. Sam scrubbed his knuckles across the rough lumps in the old part of the wall. Larger than bricks, these stones had been fit together to suit their own shapes, but most had been torn away when Mr. Lotho's mill were pulled down, and scattered alongside. Those as were left stood without purpose, their jagged seam at odds with the blank sky, like the borders of a land long drowned in a muddy tide.

Sam breathed in slow, but the air seemed to thicken in his chest while he kept watching the lads. In the grey twilight their arms and bent backs moved as the hammers and spokes in the new mill must have, grim and heavy, and their fists clenched on all things they touched. Sam cleared his throat. He'd rooted himself too fast to this spot to just walk on now. He left the basket where it was and shoved through a gap in the wall.

"A good morning to you all." He climbed over the rubble a step too fast, and the weight in his pack nigh dragged him backwards. Under his feet trickled chips of brick and mortar, scraping his soles with tiny teeth. "You've made a running start into the day, it looks like."

"Why, hullo, Sam." Barley set his pickaxe down with a thunk and wiped at his reddened nose. "You're piping with the early birds yourself."

"I'm on my way to the New Row."

"How's your dad liking the new hole?" Erling asked, the foul mood beginning to slide off his face.

"Oh, he's got words for every bit what's different from the old Number Three." It sounded simple enough, put that way, forthright and expectable. Sam pulled up his shoulders. "He'll take to it in his own time, I reckon."

"What with the new door and shutters, leastways he won't be bothered by the freezing draught," said Barley, a touch of envy in his voice.

Sam nodded and let his glance wander a ways to the side till he found Ted squinting at him. "I've a job to do that I want your help with, Ted."

"And what'd that be?" Ted shifted his weight from one foot to the other, showing the starts of a sneer. "Counting the first o' the flowers, is it?"

"None of that." Sam walked up so near that he could smell the reek from the hut's doorway, a thick stew of rot and waste. "Why don't you come along and make yourself useful, and I'll thank you for it."

Ted bared his teeth. "Why, 't has been my dearest wish all winter. You're too kind, Sam-lad."

He carried the same smells on his breath and body. Like as not he slept amidst the gristle and bones of his meals each night and never took his clothes off neither. Less than a yard behind, Sam heard the lads mutter as they drew in closer. They were all chafing to swing their fists at Ted, and the hot flurry collecting under his stomach were demanding the same. One more word –

"Aye." Sam breathed in deep and quick. "That I am."

Ted's eyes narrowed, but after a moment he chuckled. "That being so, what're you up to that your own two hands can't manage?"

"Come with me and I'll show you." Sam turned on his heel. It didn't matter if Ted followed or not, so long as that heated quiver waned away, draining with the steam of his breath. Mayhap Ted had a notion of that, too.

When Sam glanced over his shoulder, the miller's son had pushed away from the hut. Though the lads jostled him, they let him pass, and he trudged across with his hands buried in his pockets. Sam stepped through the gap in the wall, stooping to pick up his basket. Sparrows had gathered round it and one hopped up on the rim, pecking its small beak at the covering. Sam waved it aside and tucked the cloth down firm about the bread.

"Well, Master Gamgee, I'm yours to command," Ted said above him, wearing his ill-tempered look again.

"Keep your jeering to yourself," Sam told him curtly, "or the day'll grow longer'n you like."

With a span of two feet between them, they started along the road, plodding through puddles of melted snow. Each step raised a separate sound that dropped dead in the quiet, and the rising daylight churned grey as lye-soap over the Hill. Half a furlong up the road, Sandyman turned and gave an empty glance to the grounds that lay drab on the Water's edge. Could he picture the shape of the old mill there, and his father grinding the village grist?

In years afore, Sam had never set foot inside, but every day that he crossed the bridge, he'd heard the gears rumble. Every inch of space within must have shuddered with the roar of noise that strained from the millstones and the wheels turning them, and Miller Sandyman had grown a mite deafer with each passing year. Perhaps there'd been a kind of music to it that Ted could still hear, grating from the gears, the stones and the water. Perhaps he missed those clouds of noise and dust in the mill, and his father's shouting.

If he does, 'tis on account of nobut his own doing. Sam shifted the basket higher and set a brisk pace. The day had lightened enough to uncover the land's wounding all about, though he needn't look to know every scab and scar. From the first hour of returning, the sight lived inside him like a blackness poured into his eyes. Among patches of withered grass glared the winter soil, bleached and raw. The Hill had been laid bare like a slab of meat, stripped of hair and hide, and all light had bled away from the slopes to soak in deep where it couldn't be reached.

~ ~ ~

The trees used to strew their light and their shadow across the path, their seed and their foliage. His body still knows the spot where he'd duck under the chestnut's trailing leaves. The memory's left a twitch in his neck, a limp in his step.

~ ~ ~

~ ~ ~

Behind the fallen fence of the Old Grange, thaw spread in wide, stagnant meres from which the foggage bristled. Only the upmost layer of soil had grown soft with wet; underneath, the ground was still frozen and would remain so for a time. Cold slush dragged at Sam's ankles as he waded through the pools, thicker than water, and it made him think how a sudden frost would shackle his feet in ice. There'd been a veil round the moon the night before, like smoke, warning of sharp veers in the weather. From somewhere behind him came the sound of wearied wood snapping, and Ted cursed aloud.

"You'd ought to watch where you tread," Sam threw over his shoulder.

Of the Grange itself, only rubble and the hearth's sooty brace remained. Stones and charred timbers had been tossed out into the fields, and where the long barn used to stand, a rounded part of the dovecote lay on its side, staring with the eye-sockets of its small fly-holes. Leastways the ice and snow had washed out all the stench clinging to the grounds.

Sam made his way to the well, standing lonely amidst the waste, and there for a moment it seemed as like soft shapes were brushing his shoulders, the lofty crest of the barn's roof and the two hazels guarding the well, shadows of shadows that were vanished in a breath. The hazels would push out their first blossoms at this time of year. Sam set his hands on the lip of the well, pressing them hard to the stone. The winch had been broken, but the bucket still hung from the chain.

When he stood off to unsling his pack, Ted shuffled closer and cast a surly glance into the well. "You're planning to clear out the rubbish."

"So I am."

"What's the use? Folk can haul what they need from the Water."

Sam unfastened the rope ladder he'd affixed in a bundle to the bottom of his pack. "Mrs. Rumble and my Gaffer've moved back into the Row this week, if you haven't heard. 'Twill be a while ere the pumps up on the Hill are doing their job proper."

"I'm not climbin' down there," Ted declared, "and that's flat."

"I am. It'll make the work easier handing you the filth I'll be bringing up. You can stack it up over on the side." Sam tied the ends of rope to the winch's iron bracket, tugging hard on each knot before he unrolled the ladder. It snagged on pieces of broken wood not two yards below.

He wouldn't descend far, not till he'd cleared aside all the trash and wreckage jammed in crosswise near the top. But as he leant over, he could see the faintest sheen of water, glinting with its captured fleck of sky, and a fine scent rose pure and cold from the deep. He looked down, eager and disbelieving, and felt the breath rush up his chest.

"I'll have the first load up soon enough." Sam swung his leg over the well's rim and groped with his toes till they found a sturdy hold in the ladder. Goodbye...

It was an odd thought to enter his head, as though he prepared for a blind jump or a fall when he lowered himself beneath the faint daylight. Stale air closed about him, and his breath ran in damp wafts among the stones. One hand firm on a knot in the ropes, Sam turned on the ladder and tugged at a burnt board, stuck like a fishbone in a parched throat. When he wrenched it free with an upward twist, Ted grabbed on to a corner and pulled it out with a grunt. A muffled thud came through the wall of the well as it dropped.

Sam edged down bit by bit, handing up burnt branches and pieces of wood, a warped bar from an iron grate, and a strip of dirty blanket. Though the cold lay tense on his face, sweat began collecting between his shoulder blades and trickled slow drops down his back. A foot to the side, the hazel's roots had crept out between the stones and spread across, fine as hair and nigh invisible. When he stretched a hand towards them, he could scarce feel the brittle weave under his fingers.

"Darn all this clodder!" Ted's voice rang down to him, jolting Sam so that his hand lost the trace of roots. Below his knee, a large branch poked up from a dark tangle. He hooked his ankle through the ropes and with a brisk dip forward caught hold of a splintered end.

"Hoist up apace," called Ted, "and don't be turning this into a job as will take all day!"

"It wouldn't if the folk you was working for had bothered to dig a trash-hole proper." Sam dragged his wrist across his forehead and craned his neck.

"Not my place to tell 'em so." Teeth bared, Ted leaned over, his elbows propped on the rim so they stuck out like a pair of bull's horns. "Ain't that what your own dad's taught 'ee, Sam?"

The goading in his tone was plain like a hail cloud, and Sam thrust the branch upwards, nigh hitting Sandyman's chin, instead of answering. Ted seized it and tossed it aside in one motion as sharp as a curse. Perhaps he'd simply stomp off now, and if so, Sam didn't care one whit. He climbed a dozen steps down, where the larger limestone squares rested on rounded brown rocks that must have been laid many lives ago. It looked as if the land had risen up above the older well's lip, so its walls had to be built higher in turn.

Sam traced the seam with his thumb and caught a scent like bruised balm on the cool air. He could see matted grass and sedge of a sudden, blowing in a breeze above the brown stones, and a dim range of slopes and meadows stretching in the sun, blanched and strange as old parchment: a shadow-land unrolling and fading with the mist of his breath as he bent towards the restful cold.

The misshaped tangle turned out to be a bird's nest, big enough for a magpie, and a loop of wire were tucked through the twigs. Before he'd quite noticed, Sam stung the ball of his thumb on its tip. He licked the drop of blood away, but when the rusty iron taste prickled his tongue, it went through him as though he'd been out walking – walking among bramble and briar, under the parchment sun, soft as a shadow himself. There were thorns as long as fingers on some growths such as he'd never imagined.

It took him longer to carry this new load all the way to the top. Holding it tucked under one arm, he poked his head into daylight and saw that Ted stood by, prodding the jumbled trash-heap with his toes.

"You might see about burning this," Sam told him, "if you mean to keep busy."

Ted snorted. "Try strikin' a spark from kindling this wet!"

Without another word, Sam flung the nest down at his feet. A silver coin rolled out, glinting ere it dropped flat in the mud, and Ted snatched it up quick as brushfire.

"A penny in the muck is the finder's good luck," he quoted, as though such a custom still held for his like.

Sam pulled himself up to the well's rim. "Aye, but that weren't you." "Suppose your master keeps 'ee well enough, don't he, Sam?" A sour grin twisted Ted's mouth. "Stuffed pheasant and such on the table, and wines as could buy your Gaffer a cow."

An answer to that wanted to whip up sharp as the wire, but Sam bit his lips together and held it fast inside. That’s nobut hunger talking, and Sandyman spite.

"What about the money you got for the mill?" he asked. "Where'd that go, Ted? Or was it that your own dad wouldn't spare you a farthing?"

"Sop and nonsense!" Hands sunk into his pockets, Sandyman spat on the nest and stuck out his waned belly. "I bet you're fair itchin' to hear what a fine time I had of it."

Sam watched his grin return, stretched tighter than before. A wild heat was thudding up his breast – wasn't Sandyman just waiting for him to strike that grin off his face? – till it bubbled over in a harsh spurt of laughter that he couldn't have stopped if he wanted to. "No more I would, from a scratch such as you."

The sound of his voice got trapped in the well, words tumbling over rough chuckles, circling round and round as they sank. Sam peered back over his shoulder, at the doubtful shapes down below. Near the bottom floated odd shimmers that might be daylight brushed on the water or dropped things bobbing somewhere under the surface.

"Keep the penny and stop flapping your tongue," he said without another glance at Ted. "I've got work to do."

In the shadows near the well's crown, crusts of ice covered the stone, running deeper than the dribble of daylight. But those traces, too, faded halfway down, from long strips to wrinkles to blind shades dissolving in the spread of dark. Sam climbed down and down without stopping till a patch of moss touched his bare shin. When he reached out sideways, his palm slipped on a slickened plane, flatter than stone and so smooth it couldn't be wood – yet it was. He held his breath till the last wisp were drained away, to be sure.

Below the brown stones, the walls were braced by thick logs, cut and stacked each atop the other at hard angles. Year after year, the water had soaked into the logs till they were bloated and tight like the slats of a barrel. Not a hair's crack between them, and no sound now, there was nothing, as if all the world had gone to hiding.

Turning about, Sam curled his toes round the rope-tread and leant his back to the logs. Now, he thought, now, as though it were the start of a song, waiting to rise over wood and stone, from the bottom of a tower cresting in that half-moon glimpse of daylight, till it filled every secret space. But the silence was all of longing still fast asleep, clear as a winter dawn ought to be and more supple than song. Winding itself in and out of his breaths till his chest stopped rising and falling. He flinched when a slight scraping from above broke the spell of being so still.

"Ted?" he called, listening after the strange, hoarse sound as his voice leapt away from him. "Drop me the bucket, and I'll give you a shout when it's ready for drawing up."

Though Sandyman made no reply, the chain rattled in a moment, and the bucket plunged down.

"Hold!" Sam shouted, catching a grip before it could splash into the water. The bucket was sewn from thick leather, gone stiff over years of travelling down and up, in every season save the deepest winter, following needs that never changed. From the touch of it, you wouldn't know it for ox-hide, it was a thing remade, rough and swollen in a purpose of its own. Sam felt along the seams and shook his head, for his fingers had grown cold enough to turn numb.

Balanced on the lowest step in the ladder, he fumbled for the netting drawn under the waterline to keep the wellspring clear. Slow ripples curled about his fingers as he fished out sticks and bones and stacked them into the bucket rolling to and fro by the wall. There was naught to foul the water though, as he'd feared, and not a trace of the biting stench surrounding the new mill either. Those cracked, slender bones must be all of birds, tumbling amidst pottery shards, the remains of a keg and clots of fleece – scraps of drowned remembrance that he cupped his hands around, kept safe among screeds of daylight, so remote they might be stars swimming on black. Now, they might be.

The bucket swung heavy before him, and Sam tugged on the chain till it lifted up. A glint flashed down as it went, like a shimmer of hithlain parting the dark. Falling and falling till it brushed tender hues all through his sight. He'd failed to notice them before, but the walls were stained with colours, from dusty yellow to gleaming dark green, bog-brown and the rarest silver running over into black. Those shades might arise from moss or lichen, from log or ice or skinless twig, borne up through some marvellous light, but it didn't matter to the pain blooming in his breast when all of it breathed –

Now, at last, stronger than wood and water. The smell of earth.

The cool stillness slid down his cheeks while beside him the bucket dangled, rocking as if stirred by the water-bearing tune he'd learned so long ago. He'd barely mumble it now, with this taste and scent filling his mouth, folded in a recollection that didn't know him, that he scarce knew himself.

The ropes shivered hard against his back, and he shook with a tug on the ladder. Ted must be loosing the knots to let him drop in the well. His thighs quivered and locked as the falling raced through to his toes and out – into the water urging icy through unknown paths in the ground – all the way to the bottom.

"What're you doin'?" Like a strike inside a tin bell, the call rang back and forth, closing in sharp. "Stop daddling, or I'll come after you."

In the long distance above, Ted's dishevelled head was a dim blot. Sam watched his own breath swing out in a brighter puff. "I'm coming up."

As soon as he'd twisted round, he found himself clutching the ladder, fighting with each step against the luring pull on his middle. Shadows spilled upside down and settled about him, closing damp and breathless from grey to black in that narrow space. When he swung his legs over the well's crown, the day's gloom left him blinking.

"Didn't hear me holler, eh?" Ted stepped closer to fetch up the bucket. "'Tis empty! Did you go an' drop off, I'd like to know, or twiddle your toes in the well?"

"I should dunk you in the water," Sam muttered with but half his voice. "You've a smell on you as could fell an ox." With a terse push, he hopped down from the well. He'd be done quicker without Sandyman at his heels, without the sight and the stench of him and his useless prattle. "The well's clean as may be. Go on back to your shed if you want."

With a slow tread, Sam approached the scattered trash Ted hadn't bothered to sort through or pile up proper.

Ted tried his snorting chuckle again. "And leave you without cheer and company?"

"I'll head on up to the Row myself," Sam murmured. But first – he took a steadier breath – first he'd finish the job here and settle himself.

"None too keen on minding your old dad, are you?"

"I'm not such a sluggard as you, Ted." Sam picked up one of the bigger branches he'd fished out of the water. Stripped of bark from the lumpy end to its middle, it had the shape of a thigh-bone, and the look of it set him recalling –

Troll sat alone on his seat of stone,
and munched and mumbled a bare old bone...

Lifting the branch, he drew his thumb along the slight curve where it was scraped clean and found the same scent there, faint but true. As the words hummed gentle under his breath, he remembered Mr. Frodo's laughter at hearing those rhymes, free and delighted despite the pain in his shoulder. When he threw his head back, waves of daylight ran down with a sudden breeze, among the tall, ragged firs and the trolls turned to stone, tracing his fair cheek that'd never looked so pale. His curls were the colour of chestnut in the shade.

Sam swallowed down the taste that ran into his mouth again, thick of salt with unbearable yearning. He could hear the birds now, twittering from battered shrub and hedge in a hundred voices surrounding his. He'd never thought those rhymes made more than a spoonful of sense, and the Gaffer would've deemed them plain moonshine, but now they hummed from him without stopping.

...the shank or the shin o' my father's kin...

"Garn, but you're daft!" Ted had leant his hip to the well and shook his head. "You'll be singin' lullabyes to the snow-melt next."

Sam shuffled the wood into a loose stack to dry. "What happened to your dad?" he asked without looking at Ted.

"He's dead," answered Sandyman after a space, his voice rasping.

It'd happened the year before, this much Sam knew, for all the mismatched rumours as could be heard in Hobbiton. It seemed old Sandyman had got his sleeve caught between the grinding millstones – or the spokes of a wheel, some said – and it nigh wrenched his arm from his shoulder. He took to his bed with a fever afterwards, but there were some as claimed they'd seen old Sandyman out with his arm in a sling, and there'd been shouts and screaming from the mill-grounds, too, the night ere he died. But only Ted himself knew the whole of the tale, and he'd not shared a word with no-one.

"I know he's dead..." Sam rose and tried to picture the old mill from within. A white room where they couldn't dare to light a candle, not ever, with all the dust floating about and ready to fly into flame at a single spark. And Miller Sandyman standing in the midst of that clouding roar, his hair matted and his face just as white. "What I want to know–"

"You don't," Ted cut in sharp. "He's gone and buried. What's the use askin' about it?"

"What's the use?" Sam's stared into his face where naught showed save spite. Breath by breath, a tremor were hooked and hauled up through his middle, rankling sour in his stomach, but it wouldn't stop there if he didn't –

"There wasn't a need to cut all the trees down and leave 'em lying in the fields. What's the use of that?"

"To the pits with your yammering!" Ted crossed his arms and tipped his head back with a smirk. "I had a laugh at seeing 'em all so scared, even that uppish Lotho, in the end."

There wasn't a word to drive the scald from Sam's breast. His anger flashed out like a spade striking furious at shallow soil, striking and digging wherever it could till the blade caught on rock to break it. He didn't know he'd moved till his shoulder struck Sandyman's chin and he had him bent backwards over the well, with a fast grip on his shoulders. "Speak a wish, Ted."

Ted gasped and grappled and flailed his arms. "Are you gone mad?" he snarled.

"What you call down a well comes back for you–" Sam swallowed against the smell on Ted's huffing breath, "–as you'd ought to know."

Ted's fingers clawed on the well's rim as he tried to drag himself back to his feet. Sam turned his face aside, stiff in the neck with all that anger squeezing him, and peered down into the stone-ringed hollow.

"What'd you wish for?" It was a hoarse whisper now that this raging heat grew thicker and tighter till it had him round the throat – and that was all there would be. He hauled Ted forward to his feet ere letting his hands drop off.

With a sideways lunge, Ted brought his fists up, but then he moved no further and stood quivering, glaring. He hasn't a wish, Sam thought, not even that.

"How d'you think to live, at odds with all and aught?" he asked. In the cold of the well, his chapped lips had torn again, stretching round each word like fine cracks on a frozen puddle. But something worse stung his throat, his mouth, his eyes, till his face felt swollen.

Ted didn't answer that neither. There wasn't a place left for him, and he knew it, he didn't try to make it seem as if he might still be part of life in the village.

"You don't know what we had," Sam paused for breath, "and you didn't. Now you never will." He fancied he could see some shading pour up Ted's eyes, like a mist on a blank silver mirror, pain or fear or relief... Not relief though. There couldn't be. "But you belong here, whether or no."

It was why Mr. Frodo wouldn't hear of sending Ted away, what he'd known all along, himself. When he turned his back on Ted, the ground seemed unsure beneath his feet, as though he'd been flung over backwards.

"Says you, of all the numbskulls!" Ted snapped.

"Aye, so I do." Sam shrugged. He bent over his basket, unwrapping the bread. Though his hands trembled, he took out his knife and cut the loaf in halves, setting one down on the well's rim.

Ted stared at it, then glanced up quick to the sky, but under the dirt his cheeks darkened. Sam stepped aside to strap on his pack and reached for the basket. He'd brought Ted to shame at last, and the knowing made a thick, queasy knot in his stomach, as though he'd stuffed himself with a fulsome meal.

As he walked away from the Grange, a wet wind flew over the empty reach, over the road winding so lost up the Hill, you had to keep your eyes on the ground to know what your feet were treading, trampled bank or rut or muddy grass. When Sam looked back for a moment, Ted had snatched up the bread, ripping it with his teeth as one might tear sinew from bone.

~ ~ ~

The trees used to catch the rain in a spray of song, drip-dropping over leaf and bough ere it soaked through the earth. There the singing might still be heard, if you could burrow in deep enough.

~ ~ ~

The clouds had thinned out when Sam reached the spot where the New Row turned off the Lane. The two roads parted like streams swollen with thaw and the winter's blackened draff, and in the wedge between them grew a patch of thorny shrub. From the sooty look of its twigs, it must be a kind of blackthorn, but it wasn't a sort that'd ever grown on the Hill, not that he remembered. On passing by one day, Sam had run his hands through the bristles to appraise their strength. They must've thrived throughout the past year, but why would Mr. Lotho and the villains that came after him let such a thing grow, and not axe it or dig it out?

I wouldn't either, Sam thought. Not now. Cold gusts flapped his breeches against his calves, and he turned into the Row where the shapely stones that should fasten its lower bank were still missing. Behind him, the wind caught itself in the blackthorn, the only hindrance there was, creaking and whispering just a little.

He'd dreamed the night before, of strange noises rustling at his back, at times soft and restless as dead winter leaves twisting in a hedgerow, then stronger like a bird trapped and thrashing in the hawthorn. They followed him like footsteps, stirring again whenever he thought they'd let go at last. Each time he'd wanted to wheel round, and each time he didn't. An angry wind hissed in the hedge. No-one else walked where he did, but he couldn't stop his hand from reaching for the sword he didn't carry no more. When he'd opened his eyes to the dark, the night-wind had rattled the shutters, and for a while he'd thought it were a voice speaking in a tongue he didn't know.

He wasn't looking back now, either, he stopped where a sanded path struck off at a sharp angle and ran straight to the doorstep of Number Three. Left and right lay strips of bare soil where the Gaffer could plant his taters in time. When Sam bent forward to squeeze a handful of the clod, the weight in his pack shifted about and jarred up against his neck. Seed taters weren't easy to come by this year, but he'd promised himself that the Gaffer would receive his own share, nohow. Sam straightened out carefully. The seed taters would be a gift to his dad, and the starts of the new garden.

When he reached the door, he caught himself raising a hand to knock on the unpainted wood from which the knob stood round and shiny as a shield-buckle. They'd made the windows smaller than they used to be, set fast in brick instead of living turf, though there were glass-panes in them now, taken from one of the Shirriff-houses. The new door turned quiet on the hinges, but when Sam pushed it wider open, it swung with a clatter into something set near the entrance.

"What now?" His Gaffer appeared in the kitchen doorway, coughing and squinting against the daylight. "Lor, Samwise, but you've given me a start!"

Sam set down the basket and pushed the door shut with his elbow. "I said I'd be coming round." He stooped to pick up the overturned pail, placing it a bit further away from the doorstep. "I've bread and cheese for breakfast, and eggs to make griddle-cakes."

His father pulled up his shoulders. "I'm not used to the company no more, that's what, so you might as well give that door a rappin' and spare me the to-do."

There wasn't aught Sam could say to that. A mere three days ago, the Gaffer had moved into his new home, after spending months in the crowded cottage, no less, and now –

"Aye, Dad."

The tiles seemed oddly warm under his feet, printing their strange, rough edges on his soles. Though now that the floors were laid with glazed brick, the hole'd be easier to keep clean, too. Sam freed himself of the pack and followed his father into the kitchen to unburden his basket of all the vittles.

"I've a pint of milk right here," said the Gaffer, uncovering a jug, "from the goat Mrs. Rumble brought to nourish her. She's come round at the snap o' day each morn, right after milking."

A bit of lively pleasure touched his eyes as he said so, and Sam didn't think it were mere flickers from the kitchen fire. He smiled at his father. "That's very kind of her."

"She could've stayed with her family out in Tookland," said the Gaffer, "but she wouldn't have it, nowise." He moved around the table, his hand fluttering over jar and jug as he went, as though touch meant the easiest manner of finding the things needed. "She's made of a sturdy flax, she is."

"As you are, Dad."

The huffing noise from the Gaffer's throat turned into another dry cough, but his eyes gleamed with a silent chuckle. Between them clacked earthenware as Sam set out a bowl and his dad handed him the jug, and pots with flour and lard. When was the last time they'd fixed a meal together? The crocks rattled against each other, and the sounds almost made Sam laugh; they were so much like leisurely talk after work well finished. He cracked an egg and when he'd dribbled some milk into the bowl, his father sat down on the bench, pulling the wrapped bread towards him.

"From Rosie's baking," Sam told him as he mixed the batter. "'Tis a fine meal as she grinds, though it leaves her wrists sore, poor lass."

The Gaffer broke off the heel of the bread and raised it to breathe in the savoury scent. "What, and she only gave 'ee half?" He eyed Sam with a doubtful look. "I never knew our Rosie to be pinching!"

A slight stiffening ran up Sam's back that he couldn't quench. "I gave the other half to Ted Sandyman for helping me clean the Grange well."

"Ted Sandyman? And what'd you be wantin' with a nowt like him?"

"He's got a pair of idle hands fit to work, that's all."

"He's made a nowt of himself," his father repeated, "holding with the Men against his own kin and kind as he did! Now look at him livin' like a rambler in a ditch."

Sam didn't reply till he'd rolled out the batter, shaping it into six even-sized cakes. "Well, he can't just go away and live elsewhere, can he?" He took the gridiron off the hook, warming it over the fire.

"None with a peck of good sense'd have him." The Gaffer shook his head while he munched the bread. "And none would think to let him marry one o' their daughters, neither. If you break all goodwill and custom, you can't be expectin' no favours. 'Tis well deserved, I say."

"And if you hold a grudge too hard, more will be broken." With a brisk motion, Sam set the gridiron on the table's edge to grease it. His father looked at him bewildered, brows knotted, his jaw working on the thick bread. "Never you mind," Sam said in a softer tone. "Have a sup with the bread, it'll be good on your throat."

Soon enough, the griddle-cakes hissed on the heated iron, and baking smells eased through the room, soothing the air. The fire's crackling swallowed up the quiet like a voice speaking to itself.

"When's Daddy Twofoot returning to his hole?" Sam asked when he'd filled their plates, taking a seat across from his dad. "Has there been any word from him?"

"He's been abed with ague a fortnight or more..." The Gaffer rubbed his thumb back and forth along the plate's rim, and his gaze wandered past Sam's shoulder. "Maggie's been worried sore, but when I found her chatting with Bety Rushfoot yestereve, she said he's on the mend at last."

"Bless him," Sam murmured, "and may he mend right quick."

"Aye..." His dad took a fork to the griddle-cake, but then held it in mid-air, pointing. "'Twas a full many years ago, but I still see it afore me, clear as day. We was out in the gardens, Daddy Twoofot and I, trimming the hedge between us, and you toddling about the beanstalks. That's when he says to me, Hamfast, he says, that's the son o' yours who'll take up gardening, mark you."

"Did he now?" Sudden remembrance stung in Sam's eyes, but it wasn't of Daddy Twofoot nor of crawling about the beans. In one bright sweep, like a rushlight rising and dimming, it gave him a view of standing amidst the flowerbeds in Bag End's garden, a hum of bees and all the fine scents spun through the boundless day. In a whisper out of the blue air, his Gaffer's voice said, Here's where you'll be workin' one day, son, and he was seized by a longing as made him go still inside, wholly still and wanting.

Sam cleared his throat to say, "He were right, too."

The Gaffer nodded and a smile pulled on the corners of his mouth as he chewed slowly. With the fire blowing soft shapes across the wall and the memories stirring between them, it might have been their old kitchen. As they ate in silence, water starting to boil and bubble over the fire, it might have been another morning from those years, save for the want running thick in Sam's breast.

"What if I hadn't?" he asked ere he knew. "Taken to gardening, that is." It was an unthought notion seeming to rouse from some blind pit on the edge of his mind. "What if I'd chosen–"

"'T ain't a matter of choosing!" The Gaffer snorted and wiped his mouth. "'Tis your place in life as finds you, and a good fortune that is." As certain as he sounded, the furrow drawn deep across his brow said he were thinking of his elder sons, away north, who'd sought out other places calling to them.

Sam lowered his head and thought of Frodo standing by the open window in their bedroom, watching the dawn that slid grey over yard and field, till it cradled his quiet face. In his eyes lingered the night-sky, wide and pure.

"'Tis a blessing what found me," Sam said softly, "of that I've no doubt."

His father glanced up at that, the twitch of his mouth half questioning, but no reply came from it.

In a sudden need to move, Sam got to his feet to brew their tea. Surely the clatter of pot and kettle made more sense to the Gaffer than his words had, and the small noises hovered like a cloud about him. Mr. Frodo would be at his breakfast too, by now, or perhaps he'd already finished and sat studying the lists he'd made to decide which fields round Hobbiton, Overhill and Bywater could be tilled and planted this spring. As he read, his left hand would rise now and then, skimming through his curls, and his right would trace the writing and move gentle with the flow of his thoughts. There'd be no-one else beside him in the farm's kitchen, at this hour.

Sam looked down to his own hand on the kettle hook and felt its heat sting on the underside of his wrist. He pulled back hastily, cupping his hand and the scratches across his knuckles that climbing down the well had left. Had this kettle been among the kitchenware the Gaffer took with him when they threw him out of his home? There was a dent near the bottom that Sam didn't recollect.

When the tea was steeping, his father got off the bench and sighed, passing a fond hand over his stomach. "I've got summat to show 'ee, Sam. In your room."

He led the way back to the front and with a sidelong glance at Sam wrapped his fingers round the knob of the right-hand door. As the door swung inward, a runnel of daylight passed out over the tiles and curled about Sam's ankles. He'd helped with the digging himself, but now he felt that he need only step past that wavering line, and he'd find himself in his old bedroom again. As if the light and those yielding shadows kept a secret he'd forgotten.

"There," said his father, standing back to let him enter first.

The window's round gleam hung suspended in the dim of bare floor and bare walls. Sam had to blink hard to see what was leaning by the far wall... A stack of dark wooden planks, posts and boards that looked like something rescued out of a broken home.

"'Tis a gift from Mrs. Brown, bless her." The Gaffer moved to stand next to him and tilted his head, regarding the wooden pieces as though they should speak to Hending Brown's part in the Bywater battle. "She'll live with her sister's family now, so she's not got room for a bed this big."

"No, I–" Sam paused for the sudden scratching in his throat, "– I don't reckon she would."

Under his father's watchful eye, he crossed the room and crouched down, raising his hand to oakwood so ancient it was almost black. A narrow band of carvings ran along the top of the headboard that his fingers scarce found among the fissures in the wood.

"You never used to accept such gifts," Sam murmured. "Not from no-one, except–"

"'T would've been a waste, that's what!" the Gaffer said at once. "'T won't be much of a job putting it back together, neither. With the two of us workin' on it, we could have it fixed this next Highday."

Sam dropped his head in a nod of sorts. In less than a forenoon, the bed would be nailed and hammered back together, and Mrs. Brown would be glad that such a fine thing served its proper purpose again. He couldn't picture it though. Instead of a bed, he saw the waste scattered across Bag End's garden, bleached boards and poles thrown up on a muddy tide.

"'Tis yours now, Sam."

Only the faintest sound caught in his throat, like the last wisp of a word. Sam cast a quick glance over his shoulder. By the open door, the Gaffer shuffled his feet, still holding on to the knob.

"Dad..." He fixed his gaze on the window, cut into four by the leading as held the small panes in place. "I wish... I wish we could–"

Outside the window there was naught to look at, only four even parings of cloud, the colour of fading snow.

"Aye, son," muttered the Gaffer, "and I'll be thankful once we've got everything set aright, to make a proper home again. But the wishin' won't give us added hands nor legs neither."

He'd barely finished when a knock rang through the hole, and before Sam could gain his feet, the Gaffer was padding over to the front door. Sam followed, catching a gust from the opening door that made his face feel heated.

"I didn't call you up from breakfast, did I?" Out on the stoop stood Mrs. Rumble, wearing a fresh colour in her cheeks and a smile to match it. "Good morning, Sam, how's all with ye?"

As he gave back a greeting, she looked on him closer than his Gaffer had, or the lads by the mill.

"'Tis no bother at all," the Gaffer assured her, his mien brightening like a streak of fair weather blown over the hills. "Would you come in for tea?"

"I'd fain say yes, but I left my kitchen in a toss just now," Mrs. Rumble answered. "I set to baking oatcakes, but I'm sheer out of salt. If ye can spare it, I'd be helped with a pinch or two."

"Pleased to help out," said the Gaffer, already half on his way to the kitchen, "and I've more'n that to spare."

Mrs. Rumble glanced after him with a smile turned a mite rueful, then she looked at Sam again. "Fair marvel it is, that we're back to hearth and home," she said in a quiet voice, "and nigh the oncome of spring, too." All her curls were the shade of fine wood-ash, but her forehead showed smooth and round in the day's grey softness, with scarce a trace of her age. "Can you breathe it on the airs yet?"

"Almost," Sam answered, not meaning his voice to waver as it did.

Mrs. Rumble cocked her head. "If it's no bother, would ye stop by later and help me move my old dresser about?"

"Oh, to be certain, I will. We're near finished with breakfast now." Sam stepped aside to make room for his father who'd returned with a small seasoning box.

"Here's your salt, Clary," he said, his mouth curled in a tight-lipped smile.

"My thanks, Hamfast, and let that teach me to take more heed to my stores!" Mrs. Rumble tucked the box into her apron's pocket. "Come by for tea this afternoon, if ye like."

When he'd closed the door again, the Gaffer scratched his ear, still smiling. "Ah, but it's a blessing for neighbours to be neighbours once more," he said, "and for families to hark back to their own. How 'bout the tea now, Sam?"

Back in the kitchen, Sam poured it for them both, into cups ringed with dark smudges from long use. The tea might have grown a smack too bitter from steeping so long, but it relieved the chafing in his throat.

"I've nigh finished up with the floors in Bag End," he said between one swallow and another. "What with the melt and all, I'm thinking as I'd ought to sweep out the chimneys today. They're all clogged up with lumps of ice – and frozen waste, most like."

The Gaffer answered that with a short nod, his eyes fastened to his cup that he tapped against the hollow of his hand. "'Tis time for you to settle in your own home, son," he said after a spell, "and to be thinkin' of all the good as the Cottons've done us."

"I do!" It burst from Sam's mouth in one hurtling breath, and too loud at that. "D'you think I'd ever forget?"

"Not my Sam, he wouldn't." But even as he said so, the Gaffer's dim-sighted eyes started to roam, skipping from the fire to the pots and pans hung from their hooks, and back to the crockery on the table. "The winter's been hard," he muttered, more as if he were reminding himself, "and that'll keep folk off idle talk, but now that spring's about to come... it sets some poking their nose at other folk's business and startin' gossip. For ill more than good, mind you."

Sam's breath sank to the bottom of his chest and seemed to roil there as he met his dad's eyes. Plain enough, the Gaffer didn't mean to be asked any questions, but Sam couldn't stay quiet then, not and gather up his breath again. "What d'you expect they'll say?"

The Gaffer set his cup down with a smack and pushed to his feet. One piece after another, he collected forks, plates and bowls, carrying each to the unfilled wash-basin. From the clenching in his jaw to his shoulders, it seemed he were straining to keep the answer from slipping out.

"They'll have it for shame that you're still livin' under the Cottons' roof, is what," he said at last, "with no proper word spoken 'tween you and Rosie." His voice quavered a bit – with disbelief perhaps, if it wasn't a fear – and he bent fast to the water pitcher, pouring till the wash-basin near overflowed.

A sudden rush filled Sam's head, like the rising of a sharp wind, dulling the sound of his own voice. "I reckon that's what those as can't stop their tongues might say." Though his stomach didn't wish to take it, he swallowed the last of his tea. "And they'd be right as to no words spoken."

Under his Gaffer's restless hands, dishes rattled in the basin. For long moments Sam watched his father's back, the shoulders showing so hard through the worn shirt, and the bared skin between thinning strands at his neck. The Gaffer's silence spoke all of failing will, of something brought about this winter – a terrible yielding into doubt – that Sam couldn't bear. He wanted to lay his hands on his father's shoulders and draw it all away, but as soon as he got up the Gaffer turned sideways to say, "You've got work to get on with, I expect."

"I do at that." Sam halted a pace away, caught there in a need to speak when he shouldn't. "Mr. Frodo needs a home to return to, as sore as you did."

The Gaffer stopped washing the plates, but didn't glance up again. "You've your heart set on Bag End," he said with his hands in the wash-water and his voice dragging low, "as if 't might be your own. There's no need to be looking further for the cause of trouble."

"Dad–" Sam felt as if every part of his body were pulling up tight, squeezing itself round the bright kernel of joy that he kept in his heart. What had swelled up through him came rushing down, hot as blood. "Won't you just leave me be?"

"Leave you be?" The Gaffer swung round so sharp that the wash-basin tipped back with a clatter and stared at him. "You're my son, how can I leave you be?"

The silence following after that question crept up from every lonely crack and corner in the smial. Sam bent his head. He felt so tired of a sudden as though he'd fall over if he didn't sit down, and then he'd not stir a limb in hours. "I know, Dad," he murmured. "I'm sorry for saying what I shouldn't have."

He could hear the breath that the Gaffer sucked in through his nose. "'Tis no harm as ain't worse than words," he said finally, blinking his watery eyes. "Get on with you now, Sam."

"I'll be by this evening." His feet moved on their own account, and when the pack settled against his back once more, with the lumbering weight of tiles wrapped in burlap, Sam felt a soft snap crackle through his shoulders. For a moment he could look on himself as though he were an unowned chair or a table, put together again piece by piece till all joined up in a likeness of sense.

Outside, the air filled with a drizzle so fine it was blown about like dust. High over the sheared flank of the Hill circled a bird, too far away to be more than a scratch to the sky. From such a height, the New Row would seem like the stroke of a brush, dipped in sand and drawn crooked across the slope.

Mrs. Rumble's brown goat stalked through the mud by the unfinished fence of Number One. At Sam's approach, it tilted its head and bleated, jagged sounds like bits and pieces dropping out from a saw. Mrs. Rumble must have heard, for she pulled her door open before he'd set foot on the stoop.

"I won't keep you long," she promised, wiping her hands on her apron. "But that dresser's one heavy lump, as though 't were made of stone, not wood."

"And you oughtn't trouble yourself with it neither," Sam answered, lowering his pack to the floor.

"Ach, who else but me?" Mrs. Rumble turned about with a lively sway to her step and showed Sam into a small chamber. It was shaped the same as his new bedroom in Number Three and took such light as the day gave from one glazed window.

Mrs. Rumble slapped a hand down on the bulky dresser placed underneath it. "Y'see, my wed-son put all the fittings back where we've aye kept them, all in good will," she said. "But I took a notion of waking to a bit o' sun on my pillow. It takes pushing the dresser over til the side, to bring the bed near the window."

The dresser grated and creaked over the floor as they shoved it towards the wall, and when they'd moved the bed as well, Mrs. Rumble puffed and laughed. "Here ye stay now." She patted the gleaming old wood. "And thank ye, Sam!"

"'Tis a pleasure–" Sam bent down to lay the small rug in place alongside the bed, "–and a pleasure that you're back with us, I might add."

"Aye, 'twas a while that I stayed with Myrtle and hers, since afore the troubles grew so bad." Mrs. Rumble paused on the threshold and gazed round the room, half her face tipped into shade. "For certain, the bairns would have wished me to stay, and my old dad would swear that it's breathing the fresh airs of Tookland as keeps a hobbit hale... but it's naught to do with the airs nor the weather." She swung about and walked to the open front door where the drizzle stained the floor with a dark tracing.

"When 't comes til the bit," she said as Sam joined her, "it's here that I'll bide, with the remembrance all and ane."

Sam watched her face and couldn't guess at the sight that brought such ease, like the stillness on a water's edge after drowned ripples.

"Listen to me chattering!" Mrs. Rumble chuckled and clucked her tongue. "Are ye for a fresh oatcake or two?"

Without waiting for an answer, she turned on her heel and left Sam peering out at the shivery day. On the other side of the Row, the land dropped away sharp before the humped line of the Green Hills, beyond the Water and the East Road. Fog cloaked the hills like a thin crusting of ice, yet they'd never seemed so close as they did now, pierced by the fence-posts that struck up from the untilled garden. A yellow sheen glistened faint in the gaps, caught in the puddles like smelted lead and dissolved in the mizzle, till Sam couldn't see naught at all. Something blew damp over his fingertips though, and he looked down to find the goat nuzzling him, darting its coarse tongue between his fingers.

"Ach, be off!" Mrs. Rumble hurried out and rapped her knuckles on the goat's horn, nudging it aside. "Here now, Sam," she said, handing him the wrapped cakes. "A bite to keep ye in kilter through all the hard work."

Crisp warmth from the oven edged through the cloth and pricked at Sam's palm as though a bee had crawled inside. "What sorts of flowers are you thinking to plant in your garden?" he asked, gathering his mind to the spot.

"I'm for a white climbing rose aside the door..." Mrs. Rumble traced her outstretched thumb across the raw curve of wood. "The blooms'd look so lovesome by a door painted red. Red as the holly's berries, if I could have it." She shook her head less than a moment after. "Don't mind me, Sam, an old rake taking a fancy to bright paints! But it's all like a picture of spring in my mind."

Sam could nigh imagine it, too, neither white nor red but a blazing sweep of green unrolling up the side of the Hill, there and gone under again in a glimpse.

"If it weren't for all your help," Mrs. Rumble added, "I'd aye be waiting to come home."

So soft was her voice that it flowed through him, like a ripple breaking over a sharp edge. He couldn't answer then, not with the same waiting thickened up inside him, swelling and pushing, till it stuck beneath his breath.

If he walked out to the edge of the Row, the lands below would lie in jagged and unfinished lines, meeting nowhere, like a map drawn blind. I've known too much of the Black Land, he thought, and that's why, it's not the harm done allabout, it's what I can't see.

Mrs. Rumble placed a hand on his arm. "But you know that full well, don't ye, Sam?"

"If I didn't–" He pulled himself together so fast that she must feel it in a tremble under her touch. "It oughtn't take more than looking at you, Mrs. Rumble." Sam took a short step aside to heft his pack off the floor. "I'll be on my way now."

When he walked out into the open again, Mrs. Rumble watched with a question in her eyes, but he didn't pause to meet it outright. It wouldn't be aught he might answer, of that he was certain.

~ ~ ~

The trees used to spin fog and sunlight into sparkles, and spread them all over the lilt of the land. Long before spring, their boughs would shape tender hollows, parting as if to say: here.

~ ~ ~

~ ~ ~

Instead of turning back to the Lane, Sam clambered up the newly raised bank at the end of the Row. Where the gravel pit had gaped, the bare hillside slanted up harsher than before. Wet gusts pummelled him, one billow after the next, like a crest of hours running against him, rising steep as the slope while the mud slithered away under his feet. His breath came in terse white puffs when he reached the lower quarter of the Party Field. All of two days ago, the soil had been frozen in hard clots beneath the grass; now it gave way and shifted under his feet, sagging where those heavy waggons had carved deep tracks into the sward.

Sam slowed his steps to halt by the stump of the Party Tree. The cut hadn't darkened yet but remained pale like the upturned palm of a hand, and often he wondered if the tree had been felled just the day before they arrived. Perhaps someone like Saruman could reckon the time as if it lapped in heavy swells against the Hill's foot.

Sam bent to trace a fingertip along the wood in a slow, inward circle. A tree so opened was a thing changed, sterner than it ought to be, the tale of its years no longer welling but spelled out in clearly drawn rings.

From a hollow between the roots, a field-mouse hurried out and scaled the gnarled stump. Quick as a breath, it skittered down again and on across the furrows that must seem like mountain ranges to a creature so small, covered in grass thickets and cleaved by snowy gulfs, though the mouse didn't stop at aught, it kept running and running and running in a straight line till it disappeared.

Sam left the old Party Tree with a pat to its flank and walked over to the sapling that grew a stone's throw away. From a distance it looked slender as a reed, less than a shadow with its smooth grey bark, but each day he passed by, it'd grown half a foot taller, its crown unfolding like a marvel from the morning mists.

Sam laid a hand into a fork among the lower branches. "You're as quick as I'm slow," he murmured. "What's it with you that you won't give no heed to the time?"

When the first pale shoot broke the earth, curled tight in the shape of an arrow, he'd thought that such a tree would take forever to grow. He'd remembered the light falling in dazzled shafts through the Golden Wood, hanging there as if caught in still water, and he'd told himself, I can wait.

But by now, the upmost twigs reached well over his head and fanned into sprays finer than frost-blooms on glass. At all the boughs' tips hung buds like grey beads, lined with the faintest hint of amber. It'd be weeks yet ere the leaves unfurled, and no telling if they'd open like blossoms, or splay apart like butterfly-wings, or dapple the twigs all over, small as raindrops.

Near the ground, the trunk had grown too strong for his fingers to clasp in full, and a fresh green thatch was sprouting. Sam curled his toes into the grass and thought of the young mallorn's roots underneath, slowly twining themselves through the roots of the Party Tree, to stretch out for hidden water-veins. If only he could see it, that weave of root and trickle still running through the soil, reaching paths of black and silver all the way down from the Hill to the Water's edge.

Sam trailed his hand down slowly over the bark. Like the Bywater Pool at dusk, when meltwater glistened on the cracking ice, the bark shimmered and seemed to shift under his palm. Between the mallorn's skin and his own flowed a secret, out of air and silver, till it shaped the rise and fall in his breast. A day will come, it seemed to tell him. A day will come.

He walked away with an easier step, up the slope across sodden tussocks to Bag End's gate, where some berries still gleamed in the holly bush. The wind blew steadier now, from a single direction. Streaming over the side of the Hill, it ruffled the sparse clumps of dark green, slid low over brown flats and ribbons of snow.

Those white patches gathered to a strange light at the corner of Sam's eye. The humps and ruts along the slope seemed to slide away under his feet, familiar as the measure of Frodo's steps beside him. There'd come a day when Frodo waited for him in Bag End. Nothing could stall him then, or make him miss his stride.

Sam climbed the steps to the porch and unstrapped his pack to retrieve the keys. But instead of going in right away, he turned and leaned against the front door. The hall had been left agape to the weather too often, and the door's timber had been so warped that it took sawing and sanding ere it shut proper again. It could use fresh paint, too, to bring back that proud, welcoming green. But when he stood there, he felt at rest, and he remembered the fresh, salty wind gusting over the White City's walls with dawn.

He filled his chest before he pushed the key into the lock and let himself in. As always when he came to work here, he opened Mr. Frodo's bedroom first, right of the entrance hall, to throw the shutter wide. Only this one room looked out straight to the east, to the beginning of day. Months ago, the window had been left splintered, a burst of chill draught and glinting edges, but he'd removed the shards and only scratches in the empty window-frame bespoke the damage now.

"Good morning," he whispered, his hand on the sill. The drizzle blew about him lighter and cooler than the curtains used to, and the sound of his own voice sought out the years past. Good morning, Mr. Frodo.

When he turned aside, a sudden prickle stirred between his shoulder blades, and he almost expected to find Frodo standing there, watching him with clear eyes from the shadowed part of the room. What would he say?

A sharp pang snapped in Sam's breast, strong enough to spin his head and make his hands clench about nothing. What could he say, when there was aught inside him but that need to reach and hold, whirling his heartbeat about like sparks from a lump of coal? What words he might find could never be more than tatters – poor, stumbling sounds for the longing that surged from the well of that moment – for the fullness that dwelled there always. Always.

It steadied inside him, this knowing... I shall not forget, for the life of me, Frodo's voice answered him as surely as the light fell into his eyes, blurring the room all about. Naught else could guide him through this day, or steer his heart's course.

As he made his way to the kitchen, Sam opened the doors all along the corridor and walked from one room to the next, accompanied by the slight noises of latch and lock, by the patter of his own footsteps scuttling ahead, as if trying to comfort the bare corners that dreamed of rugs and furniture, of books and paintings.

The empty smial wanted these sounds, the bounce of confident steps passing to and fro, just like a whistle wanted breath and fingers to fetch a tune from its hollowed middle. Always when he made his round, Sam matched his stride to the rhythm of a song he had yet to find, that he tried to whistle under his breath nohow. Once he'd patched it all together, he told himself, the time was come. But not yet, not yet.

For all the work he'd done, the kitchen was still a desolate sight, the kind of place fit for rat-folk, as the ruffians said. When he swung the shutter open, thin daylight spilled across the cracks between the tiles where too much dirt had settled in and hardened in crusts. All round the hearth, soot from badly kept fires stained the walls, and the crumbling chimney kept drizzling mortar like ash into the blackened grate. There wouldn't be another fire lit here before the chimney had been rebuilt on top of the hill, but the air still carried a bitter whiff of smoke.

Sam took a moment to think of Mr. Bilbo – how he used to bustle back and forth between the large table and the oven, among rows of pots, glazed earthenware and bundled herbs – but the scraps of memory he could summon flitted about like straw on a wilful wind. The only kitchen he could picture now was the Cottons', astir with talk and Rosie's singing, with the thick scents of simmering broth and fresh milk.

Out in the corridor, the daylight lay in puddles along the floor and reached its feeble touch to the old oak's roots that still braced the smial. Though the wainscoting was in fierce need of repair, being burned and splintered in places, he'd cleaned the roots first, waxing those ancient limbs one by one till they were rendered smooth and gleaming, a delight to the touch.

Sam stopped by the door to Mr. Frodo's study where a thick root stood out from the twilight, curving sideways to plunge two sturdy branches into the ground. Like carved black pillars they looked now, cloaked in a longsome rest as dark as Moria. Sam wrapped his fingers about the crook that should be warmer than stone and leant his forehead to a knurl above. All about him, the smials with their empty chambers seemed to widen and heave, breathing out their shadows and whatever recollections they might hold. The wind caught strangely in the corners and chimneys, of times, made them moan and chatter and fall to harsh silence again. Perhaps, if it wasn't for the roots, all the rooms would founder, closing themselves about the drained earth.

Against the skin of his forehead, Sam felt the creases that ran in the wood, and he wondered if the roots remembered their tree on the hill above. When he squeezed his eyes tightly shut, flickers rose behind his lids from his own blood, shapeless speckles that danced madly about, till he felt he were clinging to a log tossed in a savage flood. But perhaps that was how the roots kept their knowledge of day up above, of bright air rushing, twisting and dashing through the oak's broad crown. Mayhap they didn't know what was lost, either.

There must be recollection in you, he thought, while his breath drew a thin mist across the wood, even if I can't reach it. And if so, then perhaps some snatches of his own rhyming were kept alongside, from all the hours that he'd spent under the oak's guard, jumbling words about while the leaves swayed overhead.

My lad, said Troll, this bone I stole.
But what be bones that lie in a hole?

Sam mumbled the words, tasting them anew as he stepped into the parlour and picked up the broom. He'd stacked a good cord of firewood by the hearth before the snows, but then it turned out that something choked the chimney near its middle. When he knelt in the fireplace and glanced up, only a few winks of daylight peeped through, glistening on the traces of melt along the stones.

He sat back on his haunches and began humming again as he poked the broomstick into the flue. If this didn't do it, he could still fetch the hoe that he kept by the kitchen door. Not long though, and his prodding brought down a tumble of shredded leaves and bits of twig, followed by clumps of ice. Like a strange rain released by the Hill's own soil, those scatterings kept falling till the broom caught in a tangle of sorts that wobbled but wouldn't come loose.

Setting the broom aside, Sam crawled in again, for the flue was wide enough to stand up straight and reach his arms to the resisting snarl. He groped about till his fingers found a dangling end he could tug on. A clutch of bramble it was, with thorns grown brittle as charcoal, and something bigger caught inside. He grunted in surprise when it all dropped of a sudden, snagging in the tight space between his shoulder and the stone.

What was nestled into the bramble, he found when he dragged the whole bundle out with him, was a frozen jackdaw that seemed to have lain there all winter. One of its wings stuck out at a sharp angle, and that was how it must have trapped itself. When Sam stroked his fingers across the black feathers, fine snow trickled out like a dusting of salt, and the one glazed eye peered up white as the full moon.

It made him think of such nights when the moon would light naught but the snow and the drifting clouds, and between them opened a waiting space that breathed, in and out. So clear was the image that he could feel the cold pierce deep and clean in his chest. The jackdaw's beak stood agape in a proud silence. It must have screamed like a trumpet.

Together with the bramble, Sam carried it out through the back door, over to the rubbish pile he'd burn when the weather allowed. The day's colour had risen to a yellow-grey, falling on the pale heads of some early poppies that speckled the ground not far from the ripped and wild-grown hedge. On the other side of the kitchen garden, a squirrel danced along the rope he'd drawn by the newly dug cabbage bed, since there wasn't a fence yet to mark the space set apart for all the herbs and vegetables.

Sam couldn't resist taking a quick walk along the trenches, between rows of raked and turned soil. It was but the map of a garden, not a true garden yet, but the familiar pattern let him picture the sprouting greens and the dots of tiny blossoms sprinkled among the herbs. He lowered himself to his knees and rubbed the clod between his palms till it yielded into thick softness. None of the waste remained, no slivers of wood, glass or tar as had been scattered allabouts, he'd made sure of that. But what else might be buried in the Shire's soil that he couldn't see?

Only the earth's own strength, he answered himself; what filled his hands now was naught like the Black Land's poisoned soil. Though he'd raked away a full layer of loam to remove the filth, all the goodness gathered through years of gardening must reach deeper than that. It was a pledge for new growth that he sifted through his fingers, in moist black crumbs. As he knelt there, the memory that he'd brushed in his Gaffer's kitchen came back to him, with a longing that let him go still as a tree, still as the patch of snow by the hardy wintersweet shrub, till it reached down to cramp in his very bones. A garden like no other it had always been – and would be, again.

Stiff and slow, he climbed back to his feet, but from where he stood, he could make out the young mallorn in the Party Field, a silvery ghost. Come spring, Mr. Frodo would be able to see its bright crown from his back door – if the mallorn could thrive in such a strange soil and the shortness of days. Sam curbed that thought ere it could seize up inside him. The Lady's blessings are with it. He walked on at a terse pace, back around to the front door.

Beside the parlour window, a cluster of gorse had survived, and along the slope by the steps the trampled grass clung in short, grey-green tufts. The spring rains would raise it up high, and Sam could almost picture the swathes of green that he wouldn't mow for the pleasure of feeling the grass dip about his legs. He climbed the porch and cleaned his feet, scrubbing his soles on the lumpy old whetting stone by the door.

Bag End lay open before him, but when he stepped over the threshold, something kept him for a spell, like the closing folds of a silk curtain. Just beyond it, he could see Frodo, his dreaming face freed and cradled in the sheen of a candle that burned low. Asleep or awake, those movements on his face were like the softest traces of wind touching a slow brook, while something passed through, beautiful and unknown.

The pain that seared Sam's breast bore an edge of fear, so keenly honed that he put a hand out to the door-frame and leant his head on his forearm. His breath came ragged – and why was it that he moved through the day in hapless fits and starts, when he had so much work to do?

Nearby sat his unopened pack with its wrapped load of burnished brown tiles, and in the parlour, the fireplace was waiting to be swept clean. Armed with brush and scoop, Sam ducked into the hearth and looked up the steep of the chimney.

Against his back, the stone was cold and strong, and above him loomed a tower into light where the wind sang. If he could rise up there in the rush of a dream, he might see the whole of the Shire, healed and renewed.

~ ~ ~

With age, all trees split the skin of their remembering, and some open themselves from root to crown, baring a path like a river between long, pale coasts. Everything can change in this manner, if it must.

~ ~ ~

Noon was just past when he finished laying the tiles in the corridor, where a full score of them had been dislodged and broken. He'd placed the pieces in a basket, for later use in the garden, and sat rubbing at the sprinkles of dried lime on his hands and forearms that mixing the mortar had left. Only a slight rustle drifted in through the entrance hall, but it caught Sam's attention like a tug on the bell. Someone was walking up the steps to Bag End's door.

Blood pricked sharply from his ankles to his toes as he pushed to his feet. There'd not been a visitor since before the snow, when he'd had some lads from the village help him lug in the timber, brick and sand as would be needed for the countless repairs. Sam strode back quick to the open front door, blinking into daylight that seemed oddly bright now.

It poured about Frodo, glinting russet on his curls, and ran to deep green on the wool of his cloak. Under one arm, he carried what looked like a thick bolt of cloth. A sting rose upward Sam's breast and sent his pulse leaping in his throat. All at once, he wanted to close the door and his eyes and seize Frodo to him, but instead of doing or saying aught he just stood there, his breath awhirl in his chest.

"Good morning, Sam." The softness in Frodo's voice held the touch of a question. "I missed my chance to say that earlier in the day."

"Mr. Frodo." Sam snatched another breath. "I weren't expecting you, sir." All he could see for the moment was himself, as if in a mirror, his hands and face and hair dirty and showing none of the welcome he'd longed to offer.

"May I come in?" Frodo asked.

"Oh, but of course..." Heat surged into Sam's cheeks as he stepped aside. It seemed as if time were spun on its ear, reeling him through the long-gone days when Mr. Frodo had opened the door to his knock, and Bag End spread before him with its deep comforts and mysteries.

"I also came to bring this," Frodo explained as he set down the bolt to untie the strings that held it. The climb had washed a high colour into his face, and his fingers made quick work of the knots. "I was on my way to the Highgrove farm when Weaver Harfoot called me into his workshop. Look..." The bundle unrolled into a woolen rug. "I shall think about an appropriate gift that he will accept in return."

Sam couldn't spare more than a glance for the patterns woven in red, yellow, and brown. The day's muted shine fell fair across Frodo's cheek and jaw, setting a glint in the corner of his eye. "Folk mightn't say much about it, but they're right thankful you've returned, Mr. Frodo," Sam murmured, bending forward to touch the thick skeins of wool. "Where were you thinking to put it?"

"Well, how about placing it in front of the parlour hearth, at least for the time being?"

"That's the best spot, I'll own." Sam caught himself from glancing back over his shoulder, down the dank and sullied smial, and strove for a confident tone. "I'd just cleaned out the hearth, and the chimney too." Before he could grab on though, Frodo had bundled the rug up again and carried it over to the parlour door.

Sam hurried along, as if he might change the room's appearance by getting there first. Now that Frodo was here, recollections gathered about him thick as a lightning cloud. Together with the draught from the window, a drift of voices, pipesmoke and candle-light filled the open doorway. He could see party guests rise from the dinner table like visiting shadows – and Mr. Frodo moving among them, smiling and talking and making his way through the gathering as supple as a brook. His hands used to be restless on such evenings, aflight with every word. And despite all the noise as such a crowd made, Sam could always pick out his laughter, even from the kitchen. He'd pause in his work for a spell and listen, and smile at the unheard joke being told. Would those memories rise up now to enfold Frodo, or would they scramble away to leave him alone in the empty parlour with its bleared bit of daylight? And which of the two would be worse?

Sam cast a wild glance round the room, but all he could find to say was, "I pulled a frozen jackdaw from that chimney..." And then he rushed on, hurtled into another memory, "Do you remember the summer when we found an owl nesting in the chimney above Mr. Bilbo's bedroom?"

"I do." Frodo met his eyes and held them as he lowered the rug before the hearth. "Bilbo heard fluttering, scraping noises at night that seemed to come from within the walls."

"Aye, it gave him an awful dream... about someone writing on the back of the wainscoting with a giant quill, only just to mock him."

"Quite an unusual nightmare, if you think about it!" Frodo laughed softly, and the sound seemed to pull Sam out of himself, so that he watched, unmoving, while Frodo stooped to straighten out one of the rug's corners.

"I realise that many hopes are set on my return," he said, "and I shall try not to disappoint them."

"Disappoint them?" Sam burst out. "There's aught you could do as would disappoint them!" His voice rang too loud in the barren chamber, and he lowered his eyes to the rug, to still his racing thoughts with the sight.

The weave was plain at the centre where red lay side by side with dark brown, but along the pale fringes ran patterns of leaves and grapes, all suspended from one swirled vine. Weaver Harfoot must have pulled those ornaments from a memory full of dancing hues. A chill grazed the side of Sam's neck and drew his eyes to the window.

"There's more rain borne on that wind," he muttered, half on his way across the room. "Mayhap I'd ought to close the shutters." But the moist air laced so calm about him that he stopped with his hand on the sill, listening after the faintest sounds. Rain was still dripping softly from the grass above the window, to run its course among the flattened ruffs below.

"I think we've seen the worst of the weather for today," Frodo said from behind. "In fact, I saw the sun peek out on my way from Bywater." His light tone mingled with the rain's dribbles, and it seemed suddenly that the glistening space outside held its own music.

Just this, just the sound of his voice. Sam breathed the smell of humid earth that rose strong enough to make his eyes water. He turned slowly and found Frodo watching him from a mere step away.

With the colour across his cheeks and the soft line of his jaw, he looked untried as a lad just then, save for the knowing in his eyes. So much strength and decision rested there and kept Sam more securely than the ground under his feet.

He held his breath when Frodo raised a hand to his cheek, cupping it in the coolness of his palm, and all the blood in Sam's face seemed to dash there at once. Out of the wordless pause came a smile, quirking untroubled and tender in the corners of Frodo's mouth. It brought Sam back to himself, and he found a wish in the touch that set his heartbeat pounding up the side of his neck.

"I admit," Frodo said finally, "that I was glad to be handed a reason for coming here."

Sam tipped his face to the side, leaning into the curve of Frodo's fingers that traced a slow path over his skin. Only half his mind and less of his voice had a part in it when he asked, "Why's that, Mr. Frodo?"

"Why?" Frodo's voice rose in surprise, but something less easy squeezed it tight. "Must you ask that?"

A murmur caught in Sam's throat, shapeless and raw when Frodo lowered his hand, and he felt the missing touch like the room's own misery, where naught was as he'd pictured it to welcome Frodo home. All the tenderness inside him rose hot as a teeming spring till his chest brimmed and ached with it.

"If you don't mind–" Frodo glanced back to the door. "I should like a look around..."

"But naught's ready, sir!"

"But, Sam, I saw Bag End in a far worse state than it is now, on that first day."

"And I wish you could forget that," he returned with too much force.

Frodo glanced aside at that, but it took no more to give Sam the answer that he'd known all along. Fear tunneled thick and heavy through his limbs.

"I've ordered new window-panes from the glass-blowers out in Scary," he went on in a hurry, "and they'd ought to arrive next week. It takes some waiting, but there's to be a rim of stained glass in the big window here, done in red and green to bring in a bit of colour." It seemed as though all the fret inside him were unwinding into chatter, and he couldn't stop it. "Oh, and the curtains! Mrs. Longholt's gotten behind on her work, what with her youngest falling ill, you understand, but she's using the finest linen for your curtains, Mr. Frodo."

"She shouldn't trouble herself with it at all while she's tending her boy," Frodo said firmly, a thin crease forming between his brows. "The curtains can surely wait until we have brought the furniture back from Crickhollow."

"No, they can't!" Sam's breath rushed hot with it.

Frodo was watching him sharply now, but Sam couldn't say more for aught in the world. The window's empty circle laid a cold touch against his back. You'll be looking out to the garden for your memories, and you'll find them missing. He pushed a hand into his hair and felt the dirt drizzle through his fingers.

"I know you're doing this for me," Frodo began, "but I would rather–"

"I can't." The words jarred together like stones tossed without aim. Sam heard the slight catch in Frodo's breath and wanted to swallow them backwards.

"Sam..." Frodo set his shoulders and his chin rose. "You did not sleep well last night, yet you were up again before dawn. You're wearing yourself down to the quick. What would you have me do?"

Sam bowed his head and wiped his dusty hand on his breeches. All through the winter, he'd asked Frodo to wait, but now his own anxious waiting had been snapped to dangle in loose ends. From the corner of his eye, he saw Frodo take a step towards the door.

"Come outside with me," he asked, in the resolute tone Sam knew from all the years of serving him. "We shall take a walk."

He strode ahead so fast that Sam barely had the time to snatch up his jacket and none to lock the door, but now it didn't seem to matter. Instead of heading down to the Lane, Frodo turned right, across the garden and towards the spot where the smaller gate still stood among the ruins of the hedge. He unlatched it with a quick move, holding it open for Sam to step through, but then he hesitated.

"Where should we go?"

"Perhaps... there's that little dell, down where the Row used to bend off," Sam suggested. "I used to go there for mushrooms..."

Frodo watched him a moment longer ere he nodded, and they began rounding the Hill's western flank. The wind had lessened to shallow gusts, swirling among the dead nettles. Below, by the Water, the day's haze lay in patches over grey and brown strips of land.

All at once, Sam remembered sitting on his dad's knee one eve, the sun still flaring on the grass at their feet while the dale was swimming in shadow. Watch, his Gaffer said, his cheek close to Sam's with its rougher skin, pipesmoke on his breath. The word formed in a slow, content rumble against Sam's back. Watch.

How had he forgotten that? Or was it a dream, the sort that made itself familiar through many nights? But he was still watching now, for the land to join together again from all the pieces that seemed so small and bounded, crushed together before the horizon.

He reached out a hand to Frodo as they descended over bumpy ground and wet grass. Frodo's fingers caught on his wrist before their hands joined in a firm clasp, and a jolt went through Sam, driving his breath out in sharp relief.

Frodo's gaze returned to him from the muffled west. "Have you come this way before?"

"Just once, when all was covered deep in snow, for a look at your orchards," Sam answered. "I didn't go very far." The orchards, too, were in a wretched state, having been plundered for wood at will and else left in dire neglect. But they weren't beyond saving, and the bare crowns formed a mild grey cloud on their left, hiding the Water's course.

Through the light movement of Frodo's hand in his own, Sam could trace the long breath he drew. "All winter," he said, "you have thrown yourself at every plight and failing. As if they were blows you could take in my stead, so that I would be spared."

"Mr. Frodo, I never meant to–" But Sam's throat clenched on the words, and in truth there wasn't aught he could say, save "I'm sorry... sorry for acting as I did just now, too."

"No." Low as Frodo's voice was, it betrayed a hidden strain, and his grip on Sam's fingers tightened. "Don't be sorry, Sam. But I cannot stand to watch this any longer."

They'd passed the level of the Row and found the remnants of the old footpath where faded thistles and briar clustered along the slope. Sam slowed his steps, as though that might help with the churning inside him.

"I understand your reasons..." Frodo measured his stride to match their pace and spoke with a soft urgency. "You wish to return Bag End to me as it once was, or as close to it as possible."

Sam dipped his head in a short nod, though he felt that hope jab like a cutler in his chest.

"A gift for me," Frodo continued, "one of so many... and you must know that I treasure each. But now, after you have done so much, let me do something to help. Or let others help you with the remaining labours, at least."

"Yes, Mr. Frodo," Sam said hoarsely. He knew it wasn't answer enough, but the tangle in his breast didn't allow for more.

Some yards ahead, the ground dropped towards the dell, and Sam could hear the little brook burble along the overgrown banks. Most of the copse that thickened towards the back stood unmarred, behind the brambles that had crept out farther than ever before, as if to lay a bulwark round the trees. They hadn't saved the mighty old elm though. At the first glance Sam took, he could see that it was chopped off near the ground.

He kept his eyes on his feet as they climbed down, through the last year's rank and matted growth, towards the brook that sang loudly now. Chunks of ice clung to the cresses and horsetail overhanging the banks and dropped bit by bit into the water. Sam let go of Frodo's hand to step across, or they'd likely both take a tumble. Ahead glared the gap where the old elm would have caught him in sprawling brushwood.

"Thick as an oliphaunt's leg, the trunk used to be..." His glance dropped to the roots, the severed humps and joints standing out grey from the loam, and he could see them thrashing, snapping up from the soil like tails and snouts. Something crammed in his throat, as if to bray and snarl with them, and it took a hard effort to stopper those noises when the folds of Frodo's cloak brushed his sleeve.

"Do you remember?" Sam whispered. "They've a strength as we'll never know. Like oliphaunts."

He tore away before Frodo could say a word, plunging in the direction where a path used to wind among the trees. Brambles clawed at his breeches, and he couldn't blame them for wanting to stop him. He'd come here so many times, jouncing along beside his mother to collect berries or mushrooms, and practicing with stone and sling later, together with Ham and Hal. Perhaps the angry hum in his ears rang with their shouts and laughter, mocking his mad dash. The recollections were like teeth broken out of his mouth and buried at all four corners of the farthing.

He ploughed through deadwood and undergrowth that sprayed him with rain-water till he could see the end of the dell between scranny birches, where the Hill rose steep as a dike to the sky. There he stumbled to a halt, a trickle from the boughs chilling the back of his neck. Where had he thought to go? His hands felt limp and swollen at his sides.

Through his own harsh breaths, he heard footsteps approaching in a blind hurry, then stop right behind him. The patches of soaked green up ahead seemed brighter after the rain, and so keenly drawn as if a bottomless drop lay beyond that edge.

He felt the touch of Frodo's hands on his shoulders before it came, light and soothing, and gathered up enough breath to say, "You shouldn't be near me."

"But – why? Why would you think that?" Frodo's fingers slid down the length of his arms till they brushed Sam's knuckles, then circled his wrists in a fast grip. "Sam..."

He shut his eyes. The need inside him ran too wild, too heedless, as if it might drown Frodo, drown them both. Please...

He could feel the tremor in Frodo's fingers press hard to his wrists, close enough to mesh with the pounding in his blood. Then, with a wrenching motion, Frodo let go and took a backward step.

The quiet that followed crept under Sam's lids with a cool grey sheen, till it broke on a woodpecker's rapid knocks, somewhere to the north. He didn't have to look over his shoulder to know where Frodo was, but he did anyway.

With his head bowed and his arms braced on his knees, Frodo sat on a tree's fallen limb that was covered all over in pale moss. "Tell me," he said at last, without looking up. "Sam, please tell me."

It must be him that was turning, Sam thought, but it felt more like the ground itself spinning him about, so that he had to fix his eyes on his toes to make it stop. The words fell from him after the same manner. "There's such times when I think about Gollum, Mr. Frodo, and how all that craving drove him out of his mind... the more that he knew he couldn't have what he wanted. I didn't understand it then, but I do now."

"You cannot compare yourself to him!" Disbelief snapped in each word, and when Sam looked up, a desperate intent pierced the shimmer of tears in Frodo's eyes. "What you long to find–"

His voice didn't carry no further, but it carried Sam a step and another, till he dropped to his knees before Frodo, seizing both of his hands. Cold and trembling, his fingers were knotted as if to a last hold. Sam breathed on them before he pressed his forehead against Frodo's knuckles. He couldn't ask forgiveness for having spoken what he'd never meant to say, and it seemed now there was nobut blank space inside him, filled by his breaths and the smells of rain.

"What can we do?" Frodo's voice was utterly changed, so soft as if he spoke from the midst of sleep. "What have we lost... that we could have kept safe?"

Sam straightened a bit, his head still bent. The damp was starting to soak through the knees of his breeches, and the dark curls on Frodo's feet glistened wet. "It's neither you nor me, Mr. Frodo, it's what were done to the Shire."

"But we are part of it. We always have been."

"Aye, and it's all broke asunder now. Not just the land, the fields, the trees... it's there when folk look on their neighbours as used to spy for the ruffians. When they recollect all the fear." Sam's breath ran out with that, and his voice dried to a whisper. "I'd pull it all back together, if I could, with my own hands."

"You would... and you do." Frodo leant forward and freed one of his hands to rake his fingers through Sam's hair in short, fretful strokes. "Sam... do you fear that you have been broken?"

There was but one answer Sam could give, and he pressed a kiss to the back of Frodo's hand before raising his head. "Not when you're with me."

For long moments, Frodo studied him, his own face drawn and alight with feelings that wavered as a candle-flame in a draught, against the dark stillness of his eyes. But instead of speaking, he pulled Sam to his feet and clasped him in his arms, so fierce and sudden that a small sound escaped Sam.

"Then do not run from me," Frodo said close by his ear.

It pulled a shiver through him, and more than that, a surge of will and belief drawn to Frodo's touch. Sam flung both arms round his waist, locking himself to their embrace, to all the certainty there could be. He could feel it rise up from the ground underfoot and through him, in faint stumbling sparks that caught where Frodo's arm pressed to his spine. And every touch seemed to ask, tell me your wish, your greatest wish.

Sam buried his face at Frodo's neck and closed his eyes tightly. Only a thin, curved line pricked through his lids like a smouldering seam of daylight, while all else were plunged in floating shadows that spread wider and wider. I'd wish for the Shire to be whole again, and to hold us in it, like this.

Between one breath and another, the world moved about them in a long, slow circle that left his knees weak. He shivered again, and Frodo drew back to brush at the damp curls sticking to Sam's temple.

"You must be getting cold, soaked through as you are." His voice held a light reproach, but his mouth set firm with the will to say no more right then.

"In fact–" Frodo glanced down at the stains on their clothing, "–we're both quite wet. Do you think we could start a fire in the parlour, now that you've swept the chimney?"

"I've got... logs and kindling stacked up and ready." His answer came slow while Frodo's breath warmed his cheek, and his mouth had gone dry with want. When Sam let go, his arms felt stiff and clumsy, as though his senses had forgot up and down, left and right, and that eased only when Frodo took his hand, when they took the first steps together.

Walking with clasped hands slowed their advance through bramble and underbrush, boughs dipping and rustling all about in a cautious farewell. When they reached the upper end of the dell, where the brook vanished among rushes and tufts of undauntable spleenwort, Sam stopped for another backward glance. The old elm had disappeared without a sprig of cut timber lying about unused.

"Mr. Lotho must've had the felling done," he said, "when it were for proper use, not mischief and ruination. That's a crumb of comfort."

Frodo answered with a short squeeze to his fingers. "Poor Lotho. The more he owned, the less he had."

Till it all came to naught. As they headed back, Sam avoided looking up the disfigured shape of the Hill, and the sore stump watching from its top like a tower crag. Smaller clouds had loosened from the hanging blanket and sailed south in tatters, towards a band like grey steel that spread on the horizon.

"I shall have to travel to Michel Delving again within the next fortnight," Frodo said as they climbed the slope below the western reach of Bag End's gardens, "to discuss the spring planting. I hear there have been some arguments about the distribution of the grain, too."

"There's always bickering over some matter or other these days." Sam pulled up his shoulders. "And a lot of muttering going on besides. Folk in Hobbiton worry that all the seed will go to Bywater this spring, and Farmer Cotton, in the main."

Frodo turned to him with a frown. "Not because the Cottons have shown me so much kindness, I hope."

"Mostly because of Old Cotton's part in driving out the ruffians. But folk are no longer used to fair dealings, and now they doubt that each household will receive a fair share."

"We shall prove that worry unfounded, as soon as we can." Frodo stopped by the gate and sent a long glance out west. "Perhaps, when I go to Michel Delving, you could ride part of the way with me. We will leave on a clear morning, and if we start out early enough, we can watch the daybreak in that little grove among the chestnuts and sycamores, east of Waymeet." His voice lowered, seeming adrift with thought. "Long before we can see the sun, there'll be a spark lighting on the tip of every branch..."

As he watched, Sam caught a wisp of that same light in Frodo's eyes, swift and unreachable. "How do you know?" he breathed.

"Why, I've learned to take notice from none but you." A hint of laughter and memory touched Frodo's expression, catching Sam in utter surprise.

"We saw such a light in Lórien," he murmured.

"You did, Sam... more than any of us, I think, save Aragorn." Frodo paused as if harking to the same remembrance, of leafless white trees standing in a circle, as radiant as the dawn. "That is why the Lady Galadriel chose it to be her gift to you."

"Aye, she did..." Sam let his breath go quiet with the memory. "But I've yet to prove that it were put to good use. Spring will tell, I expect."

Frodo shook his head and folded his fingers round Sam's upper arms. "You must not doubt yourself," he said urgently, "nor me."

"But I wouldn't doubt you!" Sam protested. "And I trust the Lady's blessings." Below, smoke rose in thin curls from Mrs. Rumble's hole and Number Three, where the Gaffer must be heating his lunch. "Did you see... there's a young tree from Lórien growing in the Party Field."

"I did." Frodo splayed his fingers across Sam's sleeves, and he felt the touch sink through wool and linen, seeking his skin. "Let's go inside."

Indoors, they hung damp cloak and jacket on the pegs to dry. Sam led the way back to the parlour, past empty rooms and stained wainscoting. All the work yet undone seemed to be shouting for him, starting a restless flurry round his stomach as he filled his arms with logs he'd cut months ago. Even without looking, he knew Frodo's eyes followed him across every inch, with a keen attention as would never let go. It wrapped him in light-headed wonder and apprehension, both so enmeshed that he couldn't tell one from the other.

"I wish I could make tea," he said, just to fix his mind on something forthright, "but half a jug of water and a cup is all as I've got in the kitchen."

"I shall bring tea the next time." Frodo took a bundle of dry rushes from the basket and tucked the kindling underneath the grate. Straightening, he raked a hand through his hair. The damp had made a ruffle of his curls, and they were sticking out in every direction. As if he'd only just returned from one of his tramps across the Shire, ready to savour the comforts of his home. Sam knelt down in front of the hearth to place the logs in the grate, careful to leave enough room for the fire's path.

"Sam?" Frodo handed him the flint and got to his knees close by, crouching forward to blow on the sparks Sam struck to the tinder.

"I should've thought to bring a pair of bellows." Sam stilled when Frodo's fingers twined through his own, easy as a breeze would lace through the boughs.

Side by side, they watched the small flames sprout and shiver among the rushes, the room seeming to sprawl at their back. Thready smoke started to wind up into the chimney.

"Let me close the shutters now," Sam said at last, "and we'll be warm all the quicker."

A hush settled through him as the day disappeared behind the shutters. When he turned, the sparse light from the hearth seemed like a dancing marsh-wisp that spilled its flickers across Frodo's curls. He sat on the rug with his knees pulled up and held out his hand. As soon as Sam took it, Frodo gathered him close to his side, his arm sliding round Sam's shoulders.

"Stay here with me a while..."

Sam gave up trying to balance his weight and laid his head on Frodo's shoulder. Huddled together as they would be by a small campfire, they watched the rushes dwindle to dark scratches in a glow as sharp as pain.

As long as you want, Sam meant to answer, but that wouldn't be the truth, not with all the promises owed and given.

"When you leave in the morning," Frodo said quietly, "it often seems as if I am left on the skirts of a dream, that I could stay there and no time would pass."

It felt nearly like that now, when Sam could breathe the scent of his skin, through the crisper smells of woodsmoke and heather soap, like a start of twilight borne on a laughing breeze.

"I never want to leave at all," he said, his mouth stirring the collar of Frodo's shirt.

"Have I waited too long? I left you alone, to this..." Calm though Frodo's voice sounded, his heartbeat raced and staggered not far from Sam's cheek, and he covered it with his palm.

"You never did." Sam closed his eyes, listening hard for Frodo's breaths through the fire's chatter, for the fervent thrums that spoke to his fingertips. "It's me, trying to be in two places instead of one, as I'd ought..."

Frodo's back went taut, and his fingers curled closer about Sam's shoulder. "And you can't – nor should you."

A sharp crackling rush rose from the hearth and blew heat to Sam's face, flying and bating with the slow stroke of Frodo's hand down his arm and up again, till his fingers came to rest at Sam's open collar, touching his throat each time he breathed. He opened his eyes to that patient call, swathes of light weaving before him like ripe barley, parting shadows that flowed shapeless on the left and right.

"Sam..."

He couldn't have told what it was in Frodo's voice, but it poured bright heat through his chest and came to such a burst that freed up the words before he rightly knew.

"My Gaffer wants for me to come home." He sat up fast and caught Frodo's hand in a pleading grip. "He's having a difficult time of getting settled back in, and he frets about all that's gone missing. I never meant to leave him to such troubles, but–"

"No, of course not." Frodo looked at him with a thin smile. "I cannot deny that it will be very lonely without you, but... well, I shan't stay in Bywater much longer myself, if it can be helped. How many weeks, do you think, until Bag End is ready?"

"More than a fortnight – two, I reckon, what with the windows and two chimneys needing to be repaired." Sam's chest grew tight as though he'd run for miles. Here he was asking Frodo to make a choice, because he couldn't, not when it felt as though he'd be lost and swallowed inside it.

Frodo glanced across to the hearth. "Solmath is almost over... It is time to go. The farm is quite crowded, and the Cottons will surely be grateful to have it to themselves again." Though the light played over his face, not a muscle stirred beneath, his skin catching that vivid glow like a barrel catching rain. "Nevertheless, you're as dear to them as one of their own, and I'm... glad to see it."

Sam couldn't find the breath to answer, not then. Come spring, there’d be choices he’d have to make on his own, a decision he’d put off for so long. But now, with each careful word, Frodo seemed to be plucking at a strained knot.

This was the moment then, the moment he'd feared, when it would all come unlocked inside him to well up without end, without sense or direction, whatever it would be, this heated flooding swelling the limits of his skin. He held his breath.

"What you need to do, Sam, I want you to do."

Out of the giddy half-shade, he found himself facing Frodo, held at the centre of his steady gaze.

"'Tis so much more, more than me, and always has been." Sam swallowed and listened after the words he'd spoken like a knowledge so oft repeated, it'd slipped from memory. Now he felt it sweep along his skin, like a dark river rising through cracks in the ground, the many needs that used to flow together in one direction, like the countless small brooks feeding the Water. "Frodo..."

His voice was cracking, hoarse, but the moment was passing, falling back into the leap of flames on the wall where proud shapes hovered – ridged like the White Downs, edged with fleet shimmers like the Brandywine's course – the whole of the Shire mapped out in shadows. But here at the very heart, all was still.

"And for all that, I need to be near you," he whispered. Frodo's fingers moved against his palm, turning, reaching back, and Sam clasped them in both of his hands.

"The time will pass quickly... We can make do, can't we?" Frodo's expression was all of stillness as he said so, steeled to the will Sam knew as his own. It crept up inside him, too, and banished all else to a sharp pulse at his fingertips. He'd not felt such quiet through weeks passing weeks.

"Aye, we can, but you're forgetting what I know." Sam paused, holding himself to the courage in Frodo's eyes. "You've grown the strongest in giving away. And even with such a terrible burden tearing at you... you gave me yourself."

"Less than that, Sam." Frodo lowered his head with a small twitch of his lips. "It was less than I wanted to give."

"Maybe, but now you're taking less, too. Less than we're both wanting."

Sam watched the fine brown lashes settle as Frodo breathed out, admitting what they both knew. "You're right that there is more at stake. We cannot think only of ourselves." He folded his fingers into Sam's with slow, thoughtful movements. "Be with them. With the people you love. I should reproach myself if I took you from them."

"You won't," Sam answered, not needing to think on it. "Not any more than I'd ever take the Shire out of your heart."

The truth of it sprang from his very quick, swept airwards, and let him move again. He leaned into the close, familiar space that kept the warmth of Frodo’s breath, where every thread of remembrance could be a hope, a promise that he sought now, when his lips brushed awkward against the flush over Frodo's cheekbone, rising through his skin, lit from without. No matter what might be, there shouldn't be a loneliness to touch him here.

Frodo turned his head, a soft motion of welcome. A thrill bloomed through Sam's middle, sharper than relief and stronger, soaring into the short gasp that left Frodo's lips. For a spell there seemed to be too much air in his chest that he didn't know how to release, till Frodo flung an arm round his neck, and their mouths came together with thoughtless ease, with open, half-breathed wonder, sealing a pledge long made. Sam could feel it drive inward and lock in a joining of wills, his own to Frodo's, strengthening as laced strands in a rope that pulled all the tighter when Frodo's fingers wound into his hair. He drew it into himself, in hard gulping draughts that flared in his breast – with joy or grief he couldn't tell – and broke loose in a sob, a rough sound laid to Frodo's mouth.

"Yes." Frodo's voice was low and fierce.

"You've my heart in your keeping," he said, startled how firm his own voice were sounding. "Naught can change that."

"I know that, Sam, I know it." Frodo touched his brow, his heart, and leaned back haltingly. "Don't be afraid."

And now he wasn't, he might be as far from fear as he was from hope, but he could look on without holding back. A log in the fire split open and flung up a spray of sparks. As he stroked his fingers down the sides of Frodo's face, light seeped through them like the finest grains. His hands seemed separate in that glow, afloat on their own purpose. A tremor went through him and trickled away as he bent his head to Frodo's shoulder.

"You're tired." Frodo shifted him to a gentler hold. "Rest with me."

Sam gave only a small start of protest, stuttering to a halt at the stubborn glint that sprang to Frodo's eyes. When he settled with his head on Frodo's chest, sheltered in a careful embrace, Frodo's breath ran through his hair with a fine, warm prickle as reached all the way to his toes. What he could know of healing was folded in it, more than he'd thought. Somewhere far-off, he could feel the cloth of his breeches cling stiff to his shins as the fire leached the dampness away.

"Your home will be here, Sam, regardless." Those words brushed his temple soft as haze and swift as time passing.

Sam wrapped his fingers tight about Frodo's arm and closed his eyes. How I want to come home.

Weariness sagged inside him like a weight of mill-stones, and perhaps he should let it take him instead of trying to resist. He could sink with it as he'd climbed down the well, pulled by the thought of water seeking hidden paths through the ground. To go so deep and find what couldn't be changed, what kept all remembrance soundly, the firm layer of rock beneath it all, under water, under soil.

Beneath the touch of Frodo's hand, he could dream the tips of trees in the high distance, lighting against a dim sky, and the cries of birds tumbling down, down, twisting about each other in the middle of his chest, to string his breaths to their piercing song. With each rise and fall, the smell of earth grew stronger, enfolding and filling him.

Speak a wish. That whisper might come from the fire or Frodo's breathing, but it ran through him without stopping, and onwards, always.

~ ~ ~

Under the bark of a tree runs a pulse that's naught like blood in the skin. It's dense and deep where earth is crushed into sunlight, and sunlight into earth. Where both are made whole.


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Photos (c) 2003 by Nikki Took.

Thanks to Notablumaia and Eykar for helpful beta-comments in the nick of time, and to Frayach and Calanthe for seeing it through. It wouldn't be the same without you.
Finally, much thanks to Nikki for the beautiful and inspiring photos, taken in New Zealand at locations where the Lord of the Rings movies were filmed.


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