Endurance Beyond Hope
by Frayach ni Cuill

Cook looked up with surprise when she heard the voices in the hall. One was very familiar, though she usually didn't hear it until right before tea. Finn had always had a preternatural sense for just when the cakes would be done and shaken from the pan, steaming and golden in the dim kitchen. There he'd be, like clockwork, leaning against the doorjamb. "Master Meriadoc will be wanting an extra cake with his tea today, Cook," he'd say with a wink, and she would always comply, handing him the tray with four cakes on the willow plate rather than the Master's usual three. She hardly minded though and forgave him his small vice. It was enough for her to hear him humming through Brandy Hall's pantries every afternoon. But this was different, for not only was it barely mid-morning, but Finn wasn't alone. The voice accompanying his was seldom heard in the kitchens or pantries, let alone the lower smials altogether, but still Cook would know it anywhere. Mr. Meriadoc's voice nearly matched his extraordinary stature – deep, even for a Brandybuck, and today it was more imposing than usual.

"Well, then, talk to... to... what's her name again?"

"Who, sir? Bluebell? Camomile?" Finn sounded out of breath. He must have been trotting behind his long-legged master all morning.

"No, no. I'm talking about what's-her-name – that new housekeeper Miss Melinda hired last week..." They were close enough that Cook could hear Mr. Meriadoc's substantial chain clinking against the brass buttons on his waistcoat.

"Oh! Becky! Right, I'll find her straight away, sir, right after..."

"Good, good!" Merry interrupted Finn as they blustered suddenly into the kitchen. "Be sure she readies those two other rooms at the end of the hall. One room, even that large one, certainly isn't enough. Goodness! With all those children, Sam and Rose won't have an inch to sit on in only that one room. And see to it there are fresh linens. I hate to even have to mention these sorts of things, but lately there have been far too many mishaps, what with all these new lasses... Why! Good morning, Cook!"

"Good morning, sir, and a fine morning it is, too," Cook answered, moving aside to make space for the Master of Brandy Hall. Whatever room it might be, even the grand old dining room, it would seem to squeeze to a mouse's hole when he entered.

"Yes, yes, indeed. Well, Cook, I'm sure you've heard that we're expecting visitors today... important visitors. The Thain and his wife will be here, Master and Mistress Fredegar Bolger, and the Mayor of the Shire and his family... Have I forgotten anyone, Finn?"

"The Hornblowers of Waymeet, sir, and Miss Pansy Took and her sisters..." Finn tried frantically to tug a much-folded piece of paper from his waistcoat pocket as he spoke.

"Right, right. You get my point. We'll have even more mouths to feed than the usual hoard, my dear." Cook couldn't help but smile at the endearment. The Master had never been short on charm. "And be sure to use our finest stores. The Master of Bag End used to be a gardener and probably still is, if I know him. We'll not have him looking askance at our turnips and tomatoes now, will we?"

"Yes, sir, of course. I'll send Lily to the market straight away. Will your company be wanting tea?" Cook caught just the flicker of a smile in Finn's eyes before he looked away and concentrated, perhaps too intently, on a cobweb in the corner.

"I am sure they shall. Certainly the Thain will, I have no doubt. Thank you, Cook. Right. Well, Finn, I'm off then. Be sure to talk to what's-her-name about those extra rooms."

Stirred from his reverie of purloined cakes, Finn struggled to find his place again in the flow of his Master's myriad instructions. "Becky, sir? I'll do it right away."

"Good, good. Well, I'll look to you to have everything in order. I shan't be back until our guests from Hobbiton arrive. 'Tis such a fine morning, I thought I'd ride out to meet them."

"You won't be needing me to go with you, sir?"

"No, no. You've got much to do here and besides... well, no, I think I shall go alone. Good day, Cook." And then he was off, leaving an undercurrent of excitement in the halls like chimes of laughter heard from a hilltop on a bright day.

* * *

It felt good to be riding again, thought Merry as he passed the last gate and started across the hollow that lay just north of Brandy Hall. Nestled between the Brandywine River and a low bank of tree-covered hills, the hollow remained shaded and cool despite the climbing mid-morning sun. It would be full of the golden light of an autumn evening when he returned with Sam and his entourage, but now the dew still lay like a pale song on the grass. The scent of lavender, flung on a breeze, blew through his hair, and Merry decided that, yes, he would remove his hat after all.

When was the last time he'd been out riding? He couldn't be sure if it had, indeed, been an entire year. The myriad mundanities of running a household had ticked away more time than he cared to think about. It must have been the summer before last. Yes, that was it. Pippin had bravely, and perhaps foolishly, suggested a riding party to celebrate his appointment as Took and Thain, and despite Merry's trepidations it had been a lovely day. He smiled now to think of it – the cornflowers in bloom, the lasses' bright yellow riding coats, and Pippin, a bit tipsy, sitting backward on his pony and toasting Merry as he rode behind him. "Here's to all adventures that don't involve sparse rations, uncomfortable beds and snoring dwarves!" he'd laughed, tossing back another glass of the finest wine the cellars of Great Smials had to offer. The sound of laughter and song had woven itself among the clip-clop of the ponies' footfalls. They had been so merry that day...

So unlike those other days, Merry thought suddenly. Those days when the grey autumn chill had lowered over them like a shroud, and the echo of the sea had stalked them for long miles even after the salt-scent had vanished from the little razor of a breeze that dogged their heels and bit at their bare necks. The memory drove a chill through Merry's bones. It had been years – whole years – since he'd let himself really think on it. That long ride home. After Frodo left.

Why now? Why had it come, unbidden, into his mind like a shadow creeping across the threshold of a sunlit parlour? Sam. That was why. He was to see Sam again after all this time. They had corresponded, of course. Merry had been surprised to discover how much Sam seemed to love to write letters. They'd arrive regularly, painstakingly sealed with crimson wax, and their pages always smelling of fine pipeweed and the ethereal scent of Frodo's study – that unreproduceable mixture of old books and spearmint tea and Frodo himself. They were full of news, full of detailed descriptions of various projects, full of reports on his children and nieces and nephews. But they were also strangely whimsical and often contained inscrutable little rhymes and sketches of exotic flowers or bright-eyed animals peeking from holes or... seashells. Dozens of them of every size and pattern, their whorled tips so keenly detailed that Merry often found himself wondering if Sam had maybe, just maybe, gone back.

But how could he have? Even after all these years, Merry knew it was not possible. Sam could not make that journey again. For had he not turned, at long last, from the shore with that look so dead and hollow that it froze Merry's heart to remember it? He had not glanced back, not once, as they'd ridden away up the winding moonlit ribbon of road. Merry had often wished to stop, to search the silvered troughs of the waves for he knew not what, but Sam had neither slowed nor stopped until, at the cliff's lip, he'd spurred his pony up and over, plunging away from the sea and out of their earshot. "Let him go, Merry," Pippin had said, reaching out and grasping Merry's hands where they had tightened on the reins. "For sweet mercy's sake, Merr, just let him go."

The shock of the memory brought Merry to a sudden stop. Its rawness was in his throat and on his tongue, and he shook his head. His pony, sensing this might be a place to have lunch, tugged the reins from Merry's hand so she could crop the grasses, only yet bronzed at their tips by the low autumn sun. The songs of magpies filtered through the trees at the edge of the hollow like sunlight in a breeze. The day was fresh and bright and so unlike the morning they'd come upon, that grey morning that seemed to drizzle out of the night in a long slow blur.

Just as the sun had started to burn itself into the fog, he and Pippin had finally found Sam. He was seated on his pony with his back to them as they approached, and at first Merry hadn't been at all sure it was him. That figure, slumped and broken like a birch bowed in an ice storm, just had not seemed like Sam. It could not have belonged to the same hobbit whose bright eyes always scanned the horizon, whose expressive face turned in the direction of every sound, and whose shoulders, even after hours of marching, were always squared to the next task ahead. Merry had read his own alarm in Pippin's eyes as they'd approached.

"Sam?" Merry had been about to say, but then Sam turned his face to them, grey in the hovering mists that blew about them like ragged ghosts, and Merry's voice had died in his throat. Sam said nothing but simply put one finger to his lips and shook his head. They spoke no words that day. Nor the next, nor the next, and when they finally parted company at the crossroads, Sam had simply dismounted, and they had done the same. Unceremoniously, Sam had clutched each of them to his breast, knotting his fingers painfully in their hair, thick with sea-salt. His embrace was long and uncomfortable and heartbreaking. When he had finally released Pippin, Pip began to weep, but Sam merely gestured again, his finger to his lips. "Shush, Mr. Pippin," he'd said gently. "Shush now." And with that he was gone.

The memory of that long ride home lingered with Merry all the way to Three Corners, and he was glad when a distraction presented itself. Two of his sister's nieces were just leaving the dressmaker's shop, and their voices caught on the breeze like bodice ribbons.

"Mr. Merry, Mr. Merry!" they cried. "Come see the cloth we ordered for our Yuletide gowns!" The youngest dashed forward and held out a swatch of bright vermilion for his inspection and admiration, while her elder sister remained at the side of the road, abashed at her sibling's cheek.

"Come, dear heart, show us the colour you've chosen this year," Merry called to her. She came forward with a faint blush in her cheeks and showed him a swatch of midnight blue. The sunlight caught on it for just a moment, and it looked to Merry suddenly as though a piece of the Yuletide Eve sky had fallen through time and space and into the girl's young fingers. He blinked and it was only cloth again. Only cloth, but oh so familiar. He would know the weave anywhere, because it had been his cousin's favourite. Frodo's favourite, for it set off the fairness of his skin and the flash of his eyes, startling in the firelight. It had been that colour he'd seen that night, beneath the spill of Sam's sandy curls, as though for the first time...

"Don't you love it, Mr. Merry? Isn't it the loveliest?" The youngest lass pulled at his attention like a loose thread. "It will match the berries at the table and those delicious candied plums Mother loves so."

Loves so. The flow of that word, so free and uninhibited from the girl's lips, made Merry squint at the sun for a moment to blink away the tears. "Yes, indeed it is, my cherry bloom," he said. "Indeed it is, and so is your sister's. Now where are you lasses headed off to? Is your Auntie about?"

"No, she sent us to market with Sadie-Nurse."

"Ah, I see. And where is Sadie now?"

"She's gone to get tea and cakes for us at the inn. Shall you not join us, Mr. Merry, sir?" But the touch of gaiety had left him.

"No, my wee ducks, I must be on my way, but do tell your parents and your aunt and uncle to come round Brandy Hall, for we'll have guests. And you two should come as well, and bring that little brother of yours. There will be many children to play with," and with that he was off again, setting his pony to a trot.

The girl's blue swatch stayed with Merry for a mile or more after he left them and crossed the Brandywine Bridge, as did the memory of that night. It had been the Yule after the Battle of Bywater, and Frodo and Sam had come to Buckland for the festivities. Hobbiton's scars were too new for it to seem right to drink and make merry there, so Merry's father had thrown open the doors of Brandy Hall to all and sundry who could manage the trip. It had been raucous, chaotic and brilliant. Merry would never forget it – the palpable relief in all those present. We're alive and free and together! And it had been so very cold. The stars had pricked their eyes like bright darning needles, and the candles in the trees seemed to mirror the heavens' presence on earth, stars nestled in the bluish bows of moonlit evergreens. The four of them had wandered out to look for comets. Pippin had insisted he'd seen three already and even though no one believed him, with all his wine-tinted laughter, they'd gone outside anyway, grateful for a moment to stand together in the midnight quiet. Light from the windows splashed the snow behind them as they'd stood facing the fringe of the Old Forest, and their pipe smoke seemed to freeze in the air like the breath of winter itself.

"I see one," Sam had whispered, clutching Frodo's arm and pulling him to his side.

"Where?" Frodo squinted after Sam's raised hand. They all did, but the stars seemed affixed to the blue-black sky like embroidery.

"There! Can you not see it! Quick, it'll burn itself out!"

"I still can't see it. I think you're starting to catch Pippin's imagination," Frodo had said, his teeth chattering in the cold. He leaned in closer against Sam who slipped his arm about Frodo's shoulders as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

"What? How can you not see it?" Sam said indignantly. "It's as bright as one of these here candles! Come, Frodo, you're not looking in the right place... over here!" And he took Frodo's chin in his hand and tipped it up and back. "There now, you see?"

"Oh, I do see. You're right, there it is! Make a wish quick before it vanishes."

"I did already," Sam had whispered into Frodo's hair. "I did, me dear."

Had he simply forgotten they were there, Merry wondered? Had it been the mulled wine? The after-dinner cordials? Frodo, he'd said. Come, Frodo, you're not looking in the right place... The intimacy in that one word, bared of formalities, had seared itself into Merry's memory. Frodo. Had he ever before heard Sam say his cousin's name thus? But why had it mattered so much, when that one slip in etiquette might seem, in retrospect, so less telling than the way Frodo had tucked himself against Sam or the way Sam had touched Frodo's face, his fingers light and reverent even in their urgency. And Sam had called Frodo his dear. But none of those details branded Merry's memory like Frodo's name on Sam's lips, stripped of 'mister' or 'sir.' Just 'Frodo.' It was as though Merry heard his cousin's name for the first time, and in Sam's voice, more than all the harpists' on Cormallen's bright fields, he'd heard its essence. He'd looked at Frodo then, as he never had before. Sam's hand, with fingers splayed, rested on the small of Frodo's back, and Frodo's face, in profile, shone like a sliver of the moon. His curls caught the winter stars like bright minnows in a dark sea, and Sam's hand looked as though it touched the only tangible thing worth touching in this world – the dark blue of Frodo's waistcoat. That dark midnight blue...

"Are you Mister Meriadoc, the Magnificent, sir? The Master of Buckland?"

Merry nearly jumped out of his skin. Deep in thought, he'd not noticed the young hobbits seated on a fallen birch log near where the road bent over an arc of bridge. They looked quite at home, with long seed-plumed grasses between their teeth and flasks of tea resting on the stump behind them. Down near the duckweed-green bit of a brook, their pony cropped the grass intently, shaking his head now and again to disperse the flies that settled about him. His mane was flecked with grey, but Merry knew him instantly.

"Bill!" he cried unthinkingly, and the pony raised his head for a moment and whinnied before returning his attention to the tender shoots by the water's edge. Merry brought his own mount to a halt and leapt down. The children stared at him with unabashed wonder.

"You're so tall, sir," the lad exclaimed, "just like Dad said you'd be."

"And your Dad must be the Mayor of the Shire, am I right, young ones?" Merry smiled as he approached.

"Yes, sir," the lad replied, rising to his feet and gesturing for his sister to do the same. "And I'm Frodo..."

"But we all call him 'Fro' and you can too," the lass chimed in.

"And this is my cheeky sister, Rose, who we all call 'Rose-lass' and you can too." The girl rose and gave a low graceful curtsey. Merry could not help but notice how shiny and scrubbed their faces looked and how bright the cotton of their shirts was. Fro wore a green weskit with its peasant collar buttoned to the top, and Rose-lass's riding breeches were embroidered at the hem with tiny golden flowers much like the ones Merry had noticed and admired in the margins of Sam's letters.

"Very glad indeed to make your acquaintances," he said, accepting Fro's bow with a nod. If only the newest crop of Brandybucks could be so courteous, he thought. "You look as though you're enjoying a nice cup of tea there. What a lovely spot you found."

"I found it," Rose-lass said proudly, and then stammered "sir" as Fro elbowed her gently.

"Dad always says that she has an eye for pretty places," he told Merry, "and she's learning to draw, too. Dad's been teaching her."

"Really?" said Merry. "Did you bring your sketch book with you, Rose? I'd love to take a look at it when we get back to the Hall."

"Oh, indeed I did," she beamed. "Dad told me there would be so many pretty valleys and hills on our ride that my memory would spill over and I'd need paper handy to catch it." In her words, Merry discerned her father's unmistakeable poetry and for the second time that day he needed to squint at the sun and blink away the tears that sprang to his eyes. It had been too long...

"Where are your parents, then?" he asked. "Are they far behind?"

"Maybe half an hour," Fro answered. "The little ones have trouble keeping themselves in the cart. But we have more tea in the flask, sir, and it's still quite warm. Will you not sit with us..."

"...And maybe tell us a story," added Rose-lass eagerly. "Daddy says you're full of stories."

"He said that, did he?" Merry said teasingly as he knotted the reins behind his pony's neck and patted her rump, sending her to join Bill by the brook's slow eddies. "And how do I know you haven't already heard all the ones worth telling?" Propping himself against the birch stump, he accepted the warm mug Fro held out to him.

"Because Dad never mentions Mr. Frodo," Rose-lass stated flatly. "But you knew him too, and we want to hear of him."

"Sam... uh, your Dad never mentions Frodo?" Merry strained to mask his incredulity.

"No, sir."

"So... so you know nothing of the Ring and, and...?" A mixture of sadness and strange dread filled the pit of Merry's stomach.

"We know of the Ring and Frodo the Ringbearer," answered Fro, "but we want to know what he was like. Mother tells us he was a hobbit before he became an elf, but we don't believe her..."

"He didn't become an elf, silly," interrupted Rose-lass. "He was half-elf before he went to the place..."

"What place?" Merry asked, almost inaudibly.

"Why the Place Behind the Sunset, of course," answered Rose-lass. "Look, I'll show you a drawing of it I made," and she rose and scampered down to Bill to retrieve her pack.

"Was Mr. Frodo really a hobbit, sir?" Fro asked anxiously, perhaps discerning the strange dismay on Merry's face.

"Yes, yes, of course he was," Merry answered. "And while some say that he's part elf, even if it's true, he is... was... mostly hobbit, just like me and you... except different too," he stumbled on his words. How much should he say to these children, these young bright-eyed children of Harthad Uluithiad?

"Here, I've found it!" Rose-lass flopped down, breathless, between her brother and Merry in a flurry of lavender ribbons. Into Merry's hands she thrust a bound volume of finest parchment, its pages full of pencilled sketches and watercolours, prettily and deftly rendered. "Not that page, the next one... there!" she directed him.

"Oh, it's beautiful," Merry murmured. Beneath a gold and red tinged horizon, a pale shadow of a hill was sketched amidst dancing seas. Light glinted off the waves like gems tossed from some invisible hand as a gardener throws seeds into newly tilled earth. "Did... did your Dad help you with this one?"

"No, I saw it in a dream," Rose-lass answered. "I have never showed it to him, only Fro and Merr and Pip and Ellie, of course. I'm not sure he'd be pleased..."

"Why, do you think?" asked Merry.

"Because, well, he does not like to speak of the sea or Mr. Frodo or the Place Behind the Sunset. Fro tried to ask him once, and he was very cross..."

"He's never cross... or hardly ever..." Fro interjected, "and it gave us a bit of a start."

"Then how do you know what the... uh... the Place Behind the Sunset looks like?" Merry asked.

"Because Ellie told me and then I dreamt it, and Pip's dreamt it too, though he won't speak of it," Rose-lass answered. "But won't you please tell us of Mr. Frodo, sir?"

"What would you like to know?"

"Oh, everything!" Fro cried. "Everything and anything at all..."

"What did he look like?" Rose-lass asked, her artist's mind reaching for a will o' the wisp of a picture. "Was he tall like you? What colour were his eyes? What did he eat for breakfast?"

"What did he eat for breakfast?" Merry repeated, grateful for the small mundanity. "Why, I have no idea. The same things you and I do, I'm sure..." Although your Dad would surely know, he thought.

"He can't possibly like porridge, though," said Rose-lass. "It's so very lumpy..."

"Did he laugh out loud?" Fro asked. "Did he and my Dad..."

"Of course he laughed out loud!" Merry cried, his heart breaking on their fevered questions. "Of course he laughed out loud. Frodo was as jolly a hobbit as any, at least before... before..." He paused. "Frodo laughed a lot, my ducks, he had a laugh like... like bells on a clear morning, and your father could always make him laugh. How his eyes lit up when..."

"What colour were they?" Rose-lass asked again, her rapt face tilted up toward Merry's.

"Frodo's eyes...? They were blue, sweetpea, bluer than any of your crayons or paints, bluer than water in sunlight... as blue as a winter's sky." Merry's own eyes filled then. "Oh, Frodo," he whispered.

Hesitantly, Rose-lass reached up to touch his face with her small light fingers, and in that touch he saw again her father's hand beneath Frodo's chin, cupped as though he held the most fragile bloom of white hawthorn, and he saw again the wonder on Frodo's face as he beheld the fleeting light that Sam pointed to, glimmering on a knife's edge of possibility, before falling into darkness.

"Ah! I see you've made the acquaintance of our more adventuresome young'uns!"

Merry glanced up, shielding his eyes in the sun's glare as a figure on horseback came over the bridge and started up the slant of road to where they sat. He was on his feet as Sam dismounted in one quick fluid motion, and the two hobbits stood for a long moment, an arm's length apart.

"Samwise," Merry stammered. "How long has it been?"

"Too long, I'd venture from the look of it," Sam answered easily. "You've a bit more grey than I remember and it suits you just fine, being Master of Buckland and all."

Merry was suddenly aware of an odd awkwardness as they stood apart, gazing on one another. His impulse was to throw his arms about Sam and pull him to his breast. Over the years, their letters had formed an intimacy that had not been there before. And then, of course, there was the quest with its long days and nights of close proximity and shared concerns. But the greeting Merry longed to give now was too much like the last parting they'd endured – that desperate embrace that filled Merry's memory with the shock of Sam's rough cotton shirt beneath his hands, the scent of earth and sweat and home-made soap, and the strength of Sam's arms as they'd nearly crushed the breath from him. But Merry also knew that Sam would never be the first to cross that invisible line that separated them...

"Do... do you mind?" asked Merry awkwardly, opening his arms in a gesture of embrace, and Sam closed the distance between them in glad acceptance. He felt solid beneath Merry's arms but leaner too somehow than Merry remembered. Gone was his rough cotton shirt and in its place was a fitted jacket of black crushed velvet. Deep blue gentians that matched the colour of his waistcoat were embroidered on the sleeve hems, and the finest silver chain Merry had ever seen trailed from his pocket. It glinted and caught the sun when Sam moved. The cuffs of his shirt that showed just beneath the sleeves of his jacket were as white as snow.

"I hope they offered you some refreshment," Sam said, tipping his chin in the direction of his children as he remained before Merry, their hands on each other's shoulders. "They certainly had their fair and good share of tea on them."

"Oh, they did. They were very generous," Merry answered. "And Rose has been showing me her drawings of... of Bag End's gardens."

"Yes, we've got a wee bit of an artist on our hands, haven't we?" Sam said proudly.

"Where are Rosie... uh... Mistress Rose and the others?" Merry asked, still feeling strangely awkward and knocked off kilter.

"They'll be here shortly," Sam answered. "We met up with the Bolgers on our way, and they're all travelling together in one big ol' chattery flock. I thought I'd ride on ahead apiece on my own. It's been a space since I've seen the lay o' the land out here."

"Yes, well, you've been very busy in Michel Delving, I expect," Merry said quickly.

"Indeed I have. Never a dull day about the place. But I'm sure you could say much the same about Buckland," said Sam.

"True, true," Merry answered. "I was just thinking this morning as I rode out here how long it has been since I went abroad at all. In fact, I was trying to remember, and I believe it was that foolish riding party Pippin planned to celebrate his Appointment..."

"Sorry I was indeed to miss that," Sam said. "Your invitation arrived just afore Rose-wife went abed again with our youngest, Daisy."

"Well, you were certainly missed," said Merry, "but I'm sure you can wrangle a tale or two from Pip about it tonight at dinner. It was a grand day, that it was, and the riding was splendid..." For just a shock of a moment, Merry almost clamped down on his tongue. What on Middle-earth was he doing talking to Sam of all people about riding parties? But just as soon as the panicked thought flittered through his head he recalled who Sam was now – the Mayor of the Shire and Master of Bag End – and Sam stood now before him, as much a gentlehobbit as any Brandybuck could hope to seem.

"I'm sure it was, what with all the dressage courses and fields to canter in you've got about the place," Sam said, not seeming to notice Merry's discomfiture. "Perhaps we might put together our own riding party while I'm here. Pippin's quite the rider and always has been to my reckoning, but I've gotten rather good myself these days, if I may say so."

Pippin. There was the answer Merry had been half waiting for. No more 'Mr. Pippin,' and, presumably, no more 'Mr. Merry.' Merry felt a surge of relief, although for what reason he could not tell precisely.

"We could do that, certainly," he said. "Pippin's always game for a day's ride and I'm sure I can drum up a few others."

"My daughter, Elanor, is a fine rider," Sam added. "'Tis her that goes out with me. I'm most sure she'd love to join us."

"Consider it done then," said Merry, just as the sound of cartwheels amidst the clip-clop of ponies' footfalls and the squeals of children rounded the bend and crossed the bridge. Rose led the way astride a dappled grey.

"There you are!" she called out. "Thought you'd given us the slip, had you now, Samwise? For shame!" Her cheeks glowed with health as she smiled dazzlingly down at them. "Come, children!" she called to Rosie-lass and Fro where they still sat on the birch log. "Enough dillydallying about. This road's not getting any shorter, so it's not. Good afternoon, Mr. Merry! And how is yourself?"

"I'm keeping quite well, Mistress Rose," he answered, "and how are you?"

"Cannot complain although I'd like to," she laughed. "Just try being with child nearly every year for a decade!"

"Does this mean...?"

"That we're expecting another wee bairn? Why, yes indeed," Sam answered for his wife. "Rose-wife, would you be wanting for a break now?"

"No, no. I've just had my break, if you can call it that. Ellie took the grey while I drove the cart for a while," Rose answered. "But I'd be hard pressed to say which mode of transport was the more jostley."

"Well, there isn't that much further," Merry interjected. "Only another five or so miles. Why hullo, Freddy!"

"And good afternoon to yourself as well," Freddy said as he rode up. "I was wondering when you'd stop hobnobbing with the Mayor and his wife so that I might get a word in edgewise."

"Yes, well, I've seen you since I've last seen them," Merry told his brother-in-law laughingly. "But, come, if we're all set to keep moving, let's get back to the Hall. Cook has promised us tea, and Pip'll be there any time now."

Merry and Sam mounted their ponies as did Fro and Rosie-lass theirs, and the group moved slowly along the road to Three Corners. Rose talked merrily most of the way, filling Merry in on the comings and goings at Bag End and in Hobbiton in general. From what she had to say, Merry gathered she was privy to much of Sam's business as Mayor and probably played no small part in advising him. She'd always had a quick head on her shoulders, he thought, and then winced momentarily at the inadvertent comparison with his own wife. But Estella had her virtues, whether or not wit was one of them.

Sam rode quietly much of the way, only adding a comment here and there when he saw fit. Merry watched him as closely as he dared. He was so entirely the same Sam he'd always known and so entirely different at the same time. Sam had always been self-possessed and calm for as long as Merry had known him. He would never forget the way that Sam had always been able to navigate those chaotic dinner parties that Frodo would throw at Bag End. Without having to call him over or even nod, he'd be at your elbow pouring the wine into your glass with nary a drop on Frodo's fine linen tablecloths. Sam just had that way about him – of being present but letting those he was with be alone at the same time. And he had retained that quality, but there was more than calm in him now, more than self-possession. There was a sense of finely tuned control, so perfect and refined that it seemed to hum in the air about him. It reminded Merry of... of... well, Frodo, he had to admit. It reminded him so very vividly of Frodo.

The hollow was splashed with gold just as Merry knew it would be when he rode through it that morning, and he smiled happily to hear his companions admire it. The light fell on Sam's hair in a bronzed halo, and the glint from the silver chain at his waist bit into the late afternoon like a flash of sword glimpsed from a hilltop. Rose had resumed driving the cart, and Elanor rode now at her father's side. Lighter than her father's hair, Elanor's fairly glowed like new flax in the lowering light. Her eyes were a startling blue.

"I'd forgotten how beautiful it is here," Sam murmured, almost inaudibly.

"Well, you've no shortage of lovely vistas in your neck of the Shire either, Mr. Mayor," Merry said, suddenly desiring to lighten the mood he felt settle about them as the sun drifted to rest behind the trees.

"'Tis true," Sam answered, shaking his voice free from the sadness that had seemed to creep into it. "But this must have been the finest of places to grow up in." He smiled over at Merry.

"Oh, that it was, but no more than any other, I suspect," Merry said too blithely, and Sam fell quiet again. That it was. And an image, like a spark struck in a cold room, flared into Merry's mind. Himself and Frodo in this very spot, looking for crickets to put in the elaborate little cages they'd spent days building in the kitchen. It had been a rainy summer full of creeping damp, and the close smell of the smial had driven them outside at the merest hint of sunlight and warmth. "I found one!" Frodo had cried, and Merry could see him still, crouching in the high grass, his slender back taut with concentration as he tried to catch the nimble creature without hurting it. The contrast of Frodo's dark hair amidst that golden sea, shimmering beneath scudding clouds, was like something from a dream – far away from the moment he lived in now but closer than any waking reality could be. On a sudden impulse, Merry turned again to Sam.

"Frodo loved this place, you know. He used to lie on his back in the grass and read until sunset, nearly driving Nurse crazy looking for him at lunch and teatime. He used to believe the elves had lived here once and even wrote stories of it..." Merry's words tumbled over themselves before he noticed that Sam's back had straightened and his knuckles whitened on the reins. Elanor urged her pony forward and laid a hand on her father's arm.

"Are we there yet?" cried Freddy from somewhere in the rear, feigning a childish whine, and Merry breathed again.

"Of course we are, you old nit-wit, and you know it!" he called back.

"Good, 'coz I'm hungry!" Freddy returned.

"And we are too!" echoed a chorus of small voices from the cart.

"Goodness gracious! I don't believe I just heard that," scolded Rose with a barely concealed laugh. "You children are frightfully bold!"

"Oh, don't be too hard on them," said Merry. "It's been a long day for them, bouncing about like pebbles in a jam jar back there. No wonder they're hungry!"

At that moment they rounded the last bend to the barking of dogs and crowing of roosters. Inside the close of trees, the clamour of pots and pans in the kitchens and a hundred small household noises seemed to swell around them.

"Finn!" Merry boomed. "Finn! Double quick, lad, and give us a hand with the ponies."

"Coming, sir!" Finn emerged from one of the servants' doors and strode forward quickly, his mouth still full of cake, Merry smiled to notice. Three younger lads tagged at Finn's heels and almost ran into him when he stopped suddenly with a quick bow before his Master. "Which stables, sir?"

"Whichever ones have fresh wood chips," Merry answered as he dismounted. "And be sure to put the cart under cover; I think I smelled a bit of rain on the air just now."

"Yes, sir!" Finn handed the reins of Merry's pony to one of the lads. "You know where she goes, Button. I'll take the others out back." He walked to Sam and held his pony's reins as Sam dismounted. "I'll take him, Master," Finn said when he realised Sam was reaching to take the reins again from his hand.

"No, that's quite all right, sir," Sam answered. "I prefer to see him bedded down myself. If you don't mind, please show me to the stables Mr. Merry was referring to." Finn stood stunned for a brief moment.

"Finn, do as Master Samwise bids you," Merry called out to him over his shoulder. "Sam, we'll be in the parlour having tea. When you're finished, come join us."

"That I will, just give me ten or two," Sam answered.

"Sam-dad, shall I come with you?" Elanor asked quietly.

"Only if you want to, Elanorellλ," he answered, leading his pony behind Finn, and with scarcely a glimpse behind her, Elanor followed them into the shadows beneath the trees, leading the dappled grey. Merry watched the shimmer of her hair until it was gone, and, not for the first time that day, a strange sense of misgiving enveloped his heart.

* * *

Elanor entered the parlour just as Lily was clearing the trays piled precariously with delicate cups and saucers. She quietly accepted the cake her mother had saved for her and poured a cup of tea from the last half-empty pot. Merry saw the questioning look Rose gave her daughter as Elanor sat down beside her.

"Were you and your father able to find the stables all right?" Merry asked as casually as he could. Elanor turned to him with her mother's dazzling smile.

"Yes, we did, thank you," she answered politely. "Your stables are so lovely and big."

"They are now, but you should see them when the weather turns cold and we've got to cram all the livestock in them," Merry said. "By the time spring comes around, they certainly aren't the most popular place around here, are they, Finn?"

"No, sir, that they're not," Finn answered from where he stood by the door awaiting his Master's next request.

"Is... is your father going to want his tea?" Merry strained to sustain the easy flow of the conversation, but he needn't have feared. Elanor's answer was as measured and polite as her every gesture.

"My father rarely observes tea," she answered, "especially if there is some task that needs seeing to. When I left him, he was grooming the ponies, and he told me he'd like to oil the saddles before it got dark. He will join us for dinner."

"Goodness! He needn't see to such things," exclaimed Merry's wife, somewhat aghast. "We can certainly spare a lad or two..."

"Oh, don't bother him, Stell," called Pippin from where he lounged on the window seat, his feet propped unceremoniously on the low table before him. "Sam loves that sort of thing. Our trouble will be getting him out of the blasted barn, I'm sure!"

"I can't imagine, but if you say so..." Estella said uneasily, "but I won't have it said in Hobbiton that we make our guests tend their own horses." Merry caught the briefest of amused glances flit between Merr and Pip, Sam's two auburn-haired lads.

"I'm sure we have no need to fear that we'll be slandered up and down the Shire, my dear," he said. "In fact, I believe we'd only make Sam more uncomfortable if we refused him his labours. Why let others do what only you can do best..."

"That's a Sam motto if I've ever heard one," Pippin yawned. "Merry, why don't you let your guests visit their rooms and rest awhile and you and me figure out which year you're going to serve with dinner tonight."

"That's a splendid idea," Merry said, "Finn, run and get me the keys to the wine cellar. Stell, I spoke to Cook earlier today about dinner, but you may want to check in with her again. Rose, let me get Lily to show you all to your rooms, and Freddy, you and Bella know where to go... Finn! Finn! Before you go, run and find Lily. Have her show Rose and the children their rooms."

They all arose from amidst the cushions on their low chairs. Freddy vigorously brushed crumbs from his weskit while Rose gathered her children together. For a moment she glanced about uneasily.

"Is anything wrong, Rose?" Merry asked anxiously.

"No, just... I, uh... I was wondering where our bags are," she answered with a faint blush.

"Why, they're up in your rooms, of course," Estella said. "Mitch and Finn carried them up while we were having tea..."

"Oh, oh, why, of course. How silly of me," Rose said quickly over her embarrassment. "But they shouldn't have taken the trouble..."

"Trouble? What trouble?" Estella said, looking bemused. "That's why we give them bed and board."

"Yes, such a mutually fulfilling relationship," Pippin said as he snuck up behind Estella and squeezed her waist playfully. "So brimful of mundane rewards..."

"Oh hush, you!" Estella giggled. "You are such a rascal."

"Yes, I am, and proud of it," Pippin replied. "Someone's got to provide a bit of entertainment about the place. At the Great Smials we would already have had our servants perform an amusing skit or two, preferably involving a piglet, three socks and a blueberry pie as props."

"Well, yet another reason why I don't frequent the place, myself," Freddy grinned. "Bell and I will be off to our rooms now, Merry. When is dinner exactly?"

"Nine o'clock, in the large dining room... the one with the fireplaces," Merry answered him. "Ah, Lily, there you are. Please show Mistress Rose to her rooms. Finn, have you got the key? Good lad..."

"Shall I accompany you, sir?" Finn asked.

"No, no that won't be necessary. See to it the dining room is readied. Come, Pippin, dislodge yourself from that book..."

Merry and Pippin walked briskly through the halls and down the tunnel to the lower smials. The air down there was full of steam and simmering herbs and the cacophony of crockery being carried in great armfuls up the stairs. From somewhere beyond the main kitchen a sweet clear voice lifted above the din:

Here in the firelight,
What joy to see thee!
All this long winter night
Laddie, lie near me...

"How is he?" Pippin asked as they stopped before the cellar door. In the flicker of the lantern Merry held as he fumbled to put the key in the lock, Pippin's face was suddenly serious and lined with care.

"I don't know," Merry answered, turning to him. "I don't know, and I can't tell."

Long have I sought thee,
Thy face to cheer me.
Dear has it cost me,
Laddie, lie near me...

Exasperated, Merry jiggled the key in the lock, and it finally gave. "Pippin, I think we could make too much out of this," he said, pushing the heavy door open with a grunt. "It's been fourteen years, after all..."

"Fourteen years," Pippin repeated. "Heavens! Fourteen years, Merry!"

"I know, I know, but I've been so busy and so has Sam. Time just goes by so..."

"No, I'm saying fourteen years he's been without Frodo, Merry. Fourteen years!" Merry stopped his descent down the steep stairs and turned to Pippin, holding up the lantern to see his face. Shadows danced like ghosts before his eyes. "How he's survived it is beyond me..."

"Pippin, what are you saying?" Merry asked.

"I'm saying, dear blind Merr, that I don't know how he's survived the loss of his heart's blood!"

Hastily, Merry turned again and clambered down to the cool cellar's floor. The light from the lantern seemed to enclose him in the utter darkness like a cocoon, and the silence, broken only by slow drips from exposed roots, crushed about him.

"Pippin, I'm not sure I follow you," he said, regaining his composure. "The parting was hard for him, terribly hard, I know that. Frodo had been his life for so many years. Heavens, I mean when did Sam begin serving him? When he was twenty-two? Twenty-three? And then, before that even, he had been Frodo's gardener. No small task at Bag End, to be sure..."

"You're forgetting the quest," Pippin's voice came from closer to Merry than he'd expected, and Merry jumped.

"I'm not forgetting the quest, Pip," he said with a strange exasperation he could not hide. "How could I forget it, for goodness sake?"

"I don't know," Pippin challenged. "You tell me."

"And what, precisely, is that supposed to mean?" Merry countered, moving away from Pippin into the maze of wine racks filling the cellar's cavernous reach.

"It means that you try too hard to forget, Merry, and maybe that's not a good thing."

"We were talking about Sam, not me," Merry growled.

"Yes, we were, and what I'm saying is that Sam has not forgotten and never can and never will. Here! How about this one?" Pippin seized a bottle from a rack near the wall and blew the dust from it in a sparkling cloud. Merry's mood softened immediately.

"That's a good year indeed, but I haven't enough bottles of it left, and I want to be sure that everyone's drinking the same vintage. Here, let's go further back." Merry held the lantern up so Pippin could follow him. The light threw splashes of dim red reflections off the bottles on to the dark floor, and for a moment it seemed to Merry as though they waded between shallow puddles of blood.

"Sam did not merely serve Frodo, Merr."

Merry concentrated closely on the dusty labels on the rows of bottles. The writing was not his own, nor his father's and was so hard to read in the dancing light...

"Frodo was his..."

"I know, Pip, I know. Frodo was his every waking moment..." Merry held up bottle after bottle to the light, no longer even trying to discern the scratches on the peeling labels. He only wanted to not think on what Pippin was saying, because...

"No, Merry, I'm sorry, but you don't know."

...because he could not bear it. Not after seeing what he'd seen that night. No. He would not think on it.

"Pippin, please. Like I said before, we can make too much of this. No matter what you say, it was fourteen years ago."

"Merry, don't be a fool!" Pippin snapped, and Merry almost dropped the bottle he held. He gazed in Pippin's eyes and met a challenge there, but even as he saw it and knew it, he understood it was not directed at him.

"Did... did you ever see Sam tend to Frodo's hand?" Pippin asked after a moment, his voice barely a whisper.

"What?" Merry's train of thought scrambled to follow after Pippin's.

"Frodo's hand, the wounded one. Did you ever see Sam tend to it when we were in Minas Tirith?"

"I... uh... don't remember... No, I don't think so."

"Remember how much it pained Frodo? How long it took to heal? The bone being crushed and all and the wound not a clean one..."

"I remember," Merry acknowledged. "I remember that red line running from his hand up his arm and how it alarmed Aragorn so..."

"I think just the sight of it brought back all the terror and pain of that day," Pippin continued. "But Sam would fill a basin with warm soapy water and place it in Frodo's lap. He'd then sit on the bed behind Frodo and pull him up close, between his thighs. He did this every morning and every night. He'd hold Frodo's arms and hands as though they were his own and unwrap the bandage, so slow and gentle, it would take him... oh, I don't know, many many minutes. Frodo would lean his head back on Sam's shoulder and turn his face into Sam's neck, and Sam would hum to him softly while he washed that poor hand. You would think he held the most precious jewel. And then he'd pat it dry and wrap fresh bandages about it, and when he was done he'd bring it to his lips and hold it there..."

"How did you see this?" Merry asked, awed at the intimacy Pippin had apparently been allowed to witness.

"I had been reading in their room one evening for several hours," Pippin answered. "They had been reading as well, and, I don't know. Maybe they just forgot I was there..."

"Or didn't care one way or the other..." Merry interrupted.

"Maybe not. Maybe they didn't care, or it never crossed their minds to ask me to leave."

"T'was something to be ashamed of..."

Pippin looked at him quickly. "I never said it was, Merr. In fact, I felt honoured to... to..."


"I felt honoured to be allowed to watch. To have that chance to see..."

"...True love," Merry whispered.

"Yes. Precisely. I will never forget it." Pippin turned from the reach of the lantern and began to swipe dust from the bottles with his coat sleeve. "Now, Merr, have you found those bottles you were searching for or not?"

"I have. They're right here. Will you give me a hand?"

Both of them carried four bottles, tottering dangerously up the stairs and through the low cellar door. The silence that had enveloped them dissolved into the hustle and bustle of the kitchens, and they stood blinking at each other for a moment.

"I'm going to get a bath," Merry said finally, rubbing his temples. "And maybe a bit of a nap as well before dinner. I feel..."


"Yes, exhausted." Merry smiled sadly. "Thanks, Pip." And he turned without another word and disappeared around the corner.

* * *

Dinner was just being served as Merry entered the dining room. He greeted his guests and apologised for his lateness, but they hadn't seemed to mind. Estella had been on hand to greet the guests newly arrived for dinner, and Freddy had told his story about the compost pile incident to the amusement of all. The candles were lit and the table had been laid with wreaths of autumn daisies. Sam and his family were chatting comfortably with the other guests, and Pippin was blowing smoke rings to the amusement of his young namesake. Merry eased into his chair at the head of the table and patted Stell's hand when she gave him a concerned glance. As tired as he'd felt when he lay down to take a nap, it had been an hour or more before sleep closed his eyes and stopped the thoughts from chasing themselves around his head. He gestured for the servers to come to the table with their arm-loads of steaming tureens, and little more was said as everyone turned their attention to their plates.

"The pudding is excellent, Merry, truly excellent," Bella Bolger said as she dabbed at her mouth with her napkin. "And the gravy is as smooth as silk."

"Why, thank you," Merry answered. "And how do you find the hominy, Sam? It's always been a favourite of yours, if memory serves me."

"Oh, it is excellent as well, so it is now," Sam answered, leaning back in his chair with a glass of wine in one hand.

"And glad I am that you're serving it because I'm afraid he doesn't get it often enough at home," Rosie said, patting her husband's arm. "I can't make it at all. Turns to mush in the pan every time."

"Cook's got a real touch for it," said Estella, reaching for a pink tureen full of mushrooms.

"Has she?" said Rosie. "Does she soak the corn before she salts it or the other way around?"

"I have no idea, to be sure," laughed Estella. "I've never asked."

"Stell wouldn't know salt if she was a snail and it spilt on her," Pippin interjected wryly. "Rose, you'll not find many cooking tips in this roomful of loafers. You'll need to visit the servants' quarters and talk to those who really know how the place is run..."

"Ha! Now there's a laugh," cried Stell, "Why, wasn't it just last week that all our white linens were hung out under the maple tree, Merry?"

"Yes, yes, and spattered with red buds... I know. Well, the new girls have a thing or two to learn yet, but they will. They always do. Finn! A top-off of everyone's glasses all around, please." Merry held out his glass for Finn to fill again. The lively candlelight danced across his guests' faces and tickled the low, beamed ceiling.

"More, sir?" Finn stood at Sam's elbow expectantly.

"Huh? Oh yes, please. You startled me." Sam smiled at the lad. "What's your name, my boy?"

"Finn, sir."

"Yes, I know what Mr. Merry calls you, but what is your given name?"

"Finnister Underhill, sir." Merry glanced quickly at Sam's face.

"Well, there's an appellation I haven't heard in a while," said Pippin, reaching his glass out to be filled in turn. "Does your family come from Bree then?"

"They do indeed, sir," Finn answered. "From the north end, near Marshy Creek, sir."

"That's a lovely bit o' land out there," said Sam, his face unreadable in the flickering light.

"You've been there, sir?" asked Finn.

"Yes, thrice in fact," Sam drained his glass nearly to its bottom. "The last time I was there was at the request of your new mayor. He wanted to see about pooling hands together for the haying season, seeing as you all hay later in the year up there than we do here. 'Tis a lovely spot with that purple strife bloomin', come lambing time."

"Oh, you saw the marsh in bloom then," cried Finn, evidently forgetting his situation. "There's nothing more beautiful. How I miss it sometimes..."

"Well, don't be getting any ideas about going home," said Estella. "You're more than needed here, and I don't know who else would have the patience to look after Himself over there." She gestured in Merry's direction, and he laughed. The room swam merrily before his sight, and he forgot for a moment that though Sam smiled readily, there was bone-deep weariness in his eyes.

"No, Ma'am, of course not," Finn said, remembering himself and stepping back into the alcove by the door. Sam watched him for a moment before leaning toward a whisper from Elanor who sat beside him. Her white muslin dress looked as though it were spun through with gold.

"I'm not sure if there'd be much call for music in such lively company," Sam said to Merry. "But my wife and daughters can sing like larks, and I know Pippin can play a rousing reel or two. They've not had much opportunity to sing accompanied, poor lasses, and Ellie was just after wondering if I could ask your permission for a verse or two."

"Why, of course," cried Estella. "Pip, break out that fiddle of yours. We haven't heard you play in ages."

"What are you in the mood to sing, my dandelion?" Rose asked, turning to Elanor.

"Oh, let's sing 'Marie's Wedding' or 'Black is the Colour'..." chimed in Rosie-lass.

"Or 'Blooming Heather,' I love that tune," said Elanor.

"Unfortunately, I don't know how it goes," said Pippin, "and, believe me, my skill with the bow is far overestimated in this room."

"Nonsense, Pip," said Freddy. "In fact, were you not the one playing the fiddle while riding your horse... backward nonetheless?"

"Pippin, do you know 'Black is the Colour,' then?" asked Rose.

"Yes, indeed I do. That's a sad old tune though, if I remember correctly. Maybe we want something livelier, or we'll end up nodding into our cups."

"Mr. Pippin's right, Mom, that song is so very sad," said Elanor, glancing quickly at her father. Merry sat up straighter and shook his head to clear it. Too many unforeseen pitfalls...

"But I haven't heard it in so long, and it's so lovely," said Bella, who was just polishing off her second plate of potatoes and gravy.

"I haven't heard it in ages either," said the aged but still elegant Pansy Took from the window seat to which she'd retired. She rarely ate more than a plateful these days. "But it's so sweet and pure. It will really show off the lasses' young voices."

Rose smiled at her. "Well, thank you, Miss Took. I'm not sure how young my voice sounds these days between shouting after young ones and calling the ponies at feed times. But I can try. Pippin, if you could, play us the first notes."

"All right," said Pippin. "But if anyone's nodding or weeping at the end, don't be blaming me." And with that he slid his bow across the strings and filled the room with a long, sad note. It swelled in Merry's heart for a moment before he remembered to breathe and then faded to near-silence like the whisper of snow about the window casements in winter. Sam reached for a bottle Finn had left on the table and poured himself another glass.

"Are you ready?" Rose asked her daughters, and they nodded. Pippin began again, and this time clear voices leapt up to follow the strain.

Black is the colour
of my true love's hair.
His lips are like
some roses fair,
he has the brightest eyes
and the gentlest hands,
I love the ground
whereon he stands...

A sudden vision filled Merry's mind as the song flowed about him and filled the corners of the room like shadow. He had not heard the tune in years, but he remembered exactly when and where it had been. Bag End. And it had been Pippin playing then as well, although so much younger and unaccustomed to the bow's glide over the silvered strings. His face had been full of concentration as Frodo sang, his eyes seeming to watch the notes that floated from beneath his fingers like living things. The windows had been flung open earlier in the evening, and the song of night birds and crickets augmented Frodo's clear steady voice.

I love my love and this he knows,
I love the ground whereon he goes.
I hope the day will surely come
when he and I can be as one.

Frodo sat, one foot tucked up carelessly beneath him in his chair, wine glass in one hand and his shirt open at the collar. They had been drinking and feasting since teatime, and Frodo's usual quiet reserve had dissolved as the afternoon deepened into a violet dusk. He'd even read them poetry from one of old Bilbo's books at Merry's urging, and then, as when he sang, his face was as unmarred by emotion as a mountain lake on a windless day. But Frodo's eyes, as always, had been full of something he could barely contain. Merry never did find out what that something was, although he remembered it as far back as their youth. It was a fire that burned blue like the flame's hottest core above the wick. When that spark had died on the slopes of Orodruin, what a night must have fallen on Sam's heart. A night blacker and longer than Merry cared to imagine...

If my love should I no longer see,
My life would quickly leave me...

Sam, of course, had been there as well that evening. He'd moved with quiet efficiency about the room, topping their glasses and carving the leg of lamb in easy strokes of the flashing blade. He'd stood in the doorway to the kitchen, his head tilted against the jamb, as Frodo sang. His arms, with the sleeves rolled past his elbows, were crossed on his chest and his eyes closed as he seemed to breathe Frodo's voice like the blush of summer evening through the blowing curtains.

Black is the colour
of my true love's hair...

Had Sam loved him even then? Even in those long hazy days of the Shire before the Ring had bound them together on a journey that would scar them all nearly beyond recognition? Merry scoured his memory for the answer, for, of a sudden, it seemed all important. Bits and tatters rose to the surface: Sam's eyes when they fell on Frodo's face, knowing and gentle. Sam's hands as they reached to take Frodo's cloak from his shoulders, as they smoothed the tablecloth at Frodo's place before he sat down. Sam's voice when he addressed his Master, meant only for Frodo's ear alone. And the way that Frodo listened, his face and eyes alert to Sam's every word, and his hand that would reach for Sam's shoulder as he leaned in closer to catch Sam's low whisper. The rapt attention on Sam's face as he listened to Frodo sing or read... the way that Frodo turned to Sam as the last words faded into the dim-lit room, his eyes afire and dancing and the colour high in his cheeks.

I go to the tide to mourn and weep
for satisfied I ne'er can be.
I write him a letter,
just a few short lines,
and suffer death
ten thousand times.

The singing stopped. Frodo closed his eyes for a moment, his thick dark lashes resting on his cheeks, and when he opened them again, they were the colour of the sea at moonrise. The look in their depth was for Sam and Sam alone, and Sam was drawn to it like a moth to the candle's dancing flame. He had reached for a bottle of wine where it rested on a side table and crossed the room, his eyes never leaving his Master's. Frodo had raised his glass before Sam began to pour, and when he wet his lips with the honeyed wine, Sam's eyes had dropped from blue to the rose's bloom of Frodo's mouth. A hunger had flashed across his face then, fleeting but unmistakable. Merry had watched it pass like a blood-dusk shadow, gone as quickly as it had come. His head snapped up in the silence, and he saw Sam's face again, as it was now, all these years passed – pale and drawn and gnawed by pain and loss. "Can I do anything else for you, Mr. Frodo, sir?" he heard Sam ask – that younger Sam with his sun-burnt cheeks and unruly head of sandy curls – and Frodo did not speak, but Merry heard a whisper, like twilight settling in a corner of his heart, "Be whole for me, Sam."

"Merry? Merry, are you all right?" Stell's voice was a cold slap of wind on a bright winter's morning. He started and glanced about. His glass lay where it had fallen from his fingers, shattered in a pool of sparkling shards. The wine soaked through the white linen as though an unhealable wound lay somewhere beneath. He stared at it.

"I'm sorry," he said, struggling to regain his composure. Finn came forward and began carefully picking up the shards and mopping at the spilt wine. "I'm sorry. I don't know what came over me." Merry smiled in what he hoped was a reassuring manner, but everyone looked concerned, especially Elanor. Only Pippin and Sam seemed unsurprised. Pippin studied the strings of his bow and Sam gazed into the depths of his wine glass as he swirled it gently back and forth.

"Perhaps we'll leave more singing till the morrow," Sam said, looking up and directly into Merry's eyes with an expression that nearly made Merry cry out. "I expect we're all a mite weary with our journey today and 't would be best to get some sleep."

In that low calm voice Merry heard again all the gentle admonishments that had governed their lives on the quest. After a day's march, when they'd all been too tired to even think of moving again, let alone taking the time to find a proper spot dry and sheltered enough to lie in, Sam would be the one to rouse them. No matter what barren scrap they'd find themselves on, Sam would find a smooth place, tucked against a rock or a tree's spreading roots. His instinct had been for Frodo's comfort, but they had all benefitted. After tending to his Master he would chafe their cold fingers and dress the small daily cuts and bruises. "Now, Mr. Merry," he'd say, "don't you go a-fretting that scar or it'll never heal."

"I think that's excellent advice as always, Samwise," Pippin said, rubbing down his fiddle with an oiled cloth. "Merry has had a long day."

"Well, I hate to be the cause of breaking up the evening, but I suppose I'm not feeling as well as I could be. Perhaps too much wine on an empty stomach," Merry said, smiling weakly at Sam and Pippin. "Please forgive me."

"There's naught to forgive, Merry," said Sam, reaching for his hand and giving it a squeeze. Merry's eyes filled then, and he turned away. "Oh, Sam," he choked. "I... I... didn't know..."

"Merr, let's get you tucked into bed," said Pippin quickly, nearly toppling the candles as he stood and bumped the table. "Time for bed, I should think."

Merry just stared at him for a moment and then turned back to Sam. Elanor reached protectively for her father's arm, but Sam only patted her hand gently and smiled wearily at Merry.

"There's much that none of us knew," he said. "But Pippin's right. It's time for bed."

* * *

Merry awoke earlier than usual. The sun spilled into his bedroom through a narrow crack between the curtains and splashed on to his garments from the night before. His scarlet velvet coat reflected red patches on the walls and floor. Somewhere in the yards, near the shelter of oaks, a rooster crowed. Estella was not beside him, and no silken shawl or unlaced corset lay near his things. She must have gone to her own room last night, and Merry was glad. Too often she'd been tossed awake on the unruly sea of his dreams, and last night was surely one of those nights. He sat up and put his feet on the floor. Finn would probably be awake, but Merry decided not to bother him. He wasn't accustomed to beginning his day before the second crow of the cock, and Merry was loth to interrupt whatever Finn's morning ritual might be.

Still yawning as he emerged from his room, Merry nearly collided with Sam who carried a pitcher and a tin wash basin balanced on top. Sam grabbed for the basin before it clattered to the floor and woke up the household.

"Whoa there, Merry! You're nigh one of the last I'd expect to see about before the smell of rashers could wake you."

"Yes, well, that's true enough," said Merry. "I don't usually arise this early, but then again I don't usually have guests that arise this early or attempt to get their hot water on their own."

"Oh, 't weren't a hassle," replied Sam. "Either me or Rose or one of the elder children do it at Bag End. You know we have no servants, don't you."

"No, I didn't realise that," Merry said awkwardly. "Must keep you busy then. Bag End's no small place."

"'Tis true, but I'm used to it," Sam said matter-of-factly. "I don't believe anyone'd be more suited to keep up with the place than I am."

Merry could think of nothing to say, and he must have been gaping because Sam laughed and freed a hand to clap him on the shoulder.

"You look as though you could use a splash about the face and neck," Sam said. "Why don't I just bring this into your room and we can share it. 'T will be like old times."

Merry stepped aside from the door, and Sam entered. With a servant's instinct he found the washstand and had the water poured and steaming in the basin before Merry even had time to close the door behind them.

"You first," Sam said, moving aside Merry's clothes and seating himself in the low, worn armchair Merry so loved to read in when he couldn't sleep. Grateful, Merry splashed his face and arms and neck with the hot water and paused for a moment at the hint of lavender and sage. A memory of Frodo leaning over his shoulder as Merry wrote a letter at old Bilbo's desk flickered though Merry's mind, his presence announced not by any sound or movement but by that winter-clear scent Frodo always carried about with him. That, like so much else, had evidently been Sam's doing.

Merry dried his face in a towel and ran a wide-toothed comb through his hair, and in the mirror he watched as Sam surveyed the room around him. His shirt was pressed and brushed and sewn of thick dark blue cotton, so dark it was nearer to violet than not. His breeches were black and tailor-fit with silver buttons just below the knee. The chain Merry had admired the day before was again at his waist, trailing from his pocket to his belt loop in a graceful arc. He carried the aura of a gentlehobbit taking his ease, with his legs crossed and one foot swinging insouciantly. In his jacket pocket Merry caught a glimpse of a small bound book, it's pages gilded in dusky gold.

"Your turn," Merry said, stepping aside. Sam rose, and Merry assumed his seat and watched as Sam removed his jacket carefully and laid it across Merry's bed. He unbuttoned his cuffs, rolled the sleeves past his elbows and filled his hands with water.

How many times had he seen Sam thus, Merry thought. No matter where they had spent the night and under what conditions, Sam had always been the first to wake, arising silently so as not to wake the others, though often enough Merry would be awake already, lying near paralyzed by the fear that dogged them. Sometimes Sam would need to gently untangle himself from the graceless pile the hobbits had woven themselves into during the night for warmth and comfort. Sandwiched between Merry and Frodo or Pippin and Frodo, he'd gently unsettle a sleeping head from his shoulder or loosen an arm from about his waist. If the head or the arm belonged to Frodo, Sam would pause to press his lips to Frodo's skin – the soft slight depression at his temple or the white underside of his wrist. The kisses, Merry remembered, were reverent, and no matter how deeply asleep Frodo was when he'd felt them somewhere at the back of a dream, he would stir slightly and curl himself about Sam for a moment until Sam extracted himself and stood, looking back down at Frodo with such a look as Merry would not forget. He'd then disappear for several minutes and return with his clothes as neat and proper as he could get them and a pot-full of water if he could find it.

Every morning, even though he could see his breath, Sam would scrub his face and neck and arms, trying not to sputter with the cold, and then he'd go to fill the pot again for when his Master woke. If it was safe to build a fire more the better, and they'd all awake to hot cloths and tea. The gratitude then in Frodo's eyes as he acknowledged Sam's effort to make every morning like a morning at Bag End; the gratitude that could not possibly be expressed in words but only in a hand laid on Sam's back as he knelt beside the scrap of a fire.

Sam dried his face and arms and rolled his sleeves back to button them. "I was after thinking I'd go out for a short ride this morning," he said, turning to Merry. "Is there a hunk of bread and cheese in the kitchen I could take with me?"

"Certainly," said Merry. "I'm sure Cook is awake and can provision you. But wouldn't you like some breakfast and a hot cup of tea?"

"I'll join you all for second breakfast, or elevenses at the latest," Sam answered, pulling on his jacket. "The morning's so fresh though, 't would seem a shame to waste it indoors. We had a light rain last night and the fields are fair shimmering."

"I know better than to try and stop you once you have your head set on something," Merry laughed. "Would you like company?"

"No thank you, Merry. I've been with myself long enough to know when I'm fit for company and when I'm not," Sam answered in his matter-of-fact tone. "Most mornings I need an hour or so on my own. Just enough time to square myself to the task at hand, if you read my meaning."

"Well, I wouldn't want you to think I was going to be putting you to work here." Merry nearly bit his tongue, but the words were out already. "Sam, you're no one's servant anymore," he added quickly.

"That I know all too well, Merry," Sam said. "And by task I didn't mean the cleaning of stables or the cooking of breakfasts, I meant the daily task of waking up, of opening my eyes and remembering where and who I am. No small task that. No small task to get dressed, to greet my wife and children, to be the Mayor of the Shire and the Master of Bag End. No small tasks, Merry."

"By all reports, the Shire under your watch is thriving, Sam." Merry wasn't sure why he persisted in pretending not to understand what Sam was driving at.

"No more than it should be," Sam said as he moved to the door. "There's still much to do and much that needs seeing to. Some mornings that's the only thing that gets my eyes to open and my feet on the floor. But, if you'll pardon me, Merry, I'll be off. My family will be waking soon and it's not to my liking to have them see me thus." Sam gestured vaguely toward his face, and Merry noticed, with a start, that the fully risen sun showed the smudges beneath Sam's eyes not to be shadows. His cheeks were pale and drawn.

"Certainly," said Merry, stepping aside and opening the door. "If you're sure you don't want company..." he ended lamely.

"'T would be lovely to go out riding with you, but not this morning," Sam replied. "I'll be back soon enough." And with that he was gone.

* * *

Merry was just finishing his second cup of tea when Rose entered the sunny parlour. She smiled when she saw him and greeted him warmly, enquiring as to whether he'd slept well and felt better than/#from the night before. Merry assured her that he did, but she merely smiled knowingly.

"No use in pretending with me that you slept well when you didn't,"she said. "I've a practiced eye where that's concerned, so I have. You look like a hound after two hunts." She accepted the cup of tea he poured for her and a slice of cranberry cake.

"Well, I won't bother then," Merry said. "Truth be told, I slept poorly. But that's not what's important. The question is, how did you sleep, being my guest and all?"

"I slept well, thank you," Rose answered. "Your beds are so wonderfully firm. I'm afraid I've never taken to Bag End's deep feather beds."

"Have you not? I always loved them," Merry said. "Frodo even used to let me sleep in his bed when I visited because he knew I loved those beds so, and he, of course, had the biggest and the best." Frodo's name had slipped out before he'd thought better of it, but Rose didn't blanch.

"He did indeed. 'Tis Sam's bed now," she said. "He's never said so, but I believe it's a comfort to him, to sleep in the place that Mr. Frodo slept in."

"It's been hard for him, hasn't it, Rose?" Merry asked gently.

"It has," she said, looking directly at him, her clear eyes frank and calm. "Harder than I and even you can know. But it's better now than it was. 'T was a time when he rarely left that bed."

"When was that? Why didn't you write to me?"

"The year after Mr. Frodo left. I didn't write because he didn't want me to. We got through well enough, and then it was over," Rose said, her gaze still as open as a book. "Did no good to talk on it, and it'll do no good now, if you take my meaning."

"I do," said Merry. "But..."

"Begging your pardon, Mr, Merry, but there are no 'buts,'" said Rose. "Sam has his heart, and I have mine, and you have yours. Our lives are the strand they're strung on, like pearls, if you like. We're pierced by the same thread, but we hang side by side." Merry stared at her. "What I'm saying is this," she smiled and squeezed his hand. "We've all got jobs to do, and the greatest thing we can do sometimes is just stand near and not say a word."

"But... Frodo was his life, and now he never speaks of him... It just doesn't seem, well, right, if you ask me. Does he at least speak of him to you?"

"No, especially not to me," Rose answered, between sips of tea. "Sam keeps to his own heart about Mr. Frodo. He has not forgotten, but he has many responsibilities, many who need him and look to him. We have a large family and it grows larger by the year." Rose laughed, gesturing toward her belly. "We had many families left homeless and without livelihoods after Sharkey and his rogues were driven out. Forests were hewn down and fields mown under, and there are some that will not forget and refuse to do business with those who'd gone along. The Tooks and the Brandybucks fared better than the folks in Hobbiton. Sam still sees the scars of that year everywhere he turns, and it comes down to that, Merry. To speak of Mr. Frodo is to open a wound that may not stop itself again. Either he bleeds and dies or he leaves the sutures be. My job is not to tear at the wound and mop at the blood, see? My job is to put food on the table when he needs it and see that our children are spared the pain he shoulders for us. I have my tasks and he has his."

"You're a strong lass, Rose," said Merry, leaning back in his chair. The sunlight blowing through poplars filtered in through the window behind her. She took a slow sip from her cup before placing it in the saucer on the table before her.

"No stronger than I need to be," she smiled. "None of us are."

Least of all me, Merry thought, as his mind turned again to the journey home from the Havens.

They'd not stopped riding until well past dusk. The ponies had stood, heads together, with their backs to the raw little wind, as he and Pippin had set about trying to light a fire. But everything was too wet. Beads of moisture clung to hanging lichens, and a fine mist wrapped them in a gauzy twilight. Just one spark, Merry had pleaded to himself. One spark. The need for a fire was in his bones as was the fear of stopping the effort, of giving up. From where he knelt by the small circle of stones with its damp pile of sticks, Merry could feel Sam's presence, somewhere behind him in the shifting dark. If ever they needed a little light and warmth, tonight was the night. Merry redoubled his efforts, but when he could bear the silence no longer, he finally turned.

Sam stood at the edge of the small grove, one hand clasping a slender birch as though it were a lifeline. His head was bowed, and he made no sound. The faint plash of water echoed through the wood about them, whispering a half-forgotten song. Slowly, Sam turned in a full circle, his eyes taking in every detail of where they stood – the arc of birches with their sheltering leaves and the moss, nearly dry, at their spreading roots. Weaving amidst the trees' pale branches, the wind seemed to quiet to the barest rustle and leave the grove untouched. Every root was spaced as though made to cradle a hobbit, and glistening green holly formed a thicket perfect for storing packs and sheltering sleeping heads.

It was as ideal a spot to spend the night in as any, Merry thought in the part of his mind that still considered such things, and he'd almost said as much. Anything to break the silence between them. But before he could open his mouth, Sam dropped to his knees as though felled by an unseen shot. His hands clutched the thick moss and he leaned forward, as if to kiss the ground in thanks, but the sound that tore from his chest was anything but thankful. Half-sob, half-inarticulate cry, it ripped free from his heart in an ice flow of a grief as yet unchartable in its vastness. His body was helpless in its savage grasp, and his shoulders heaved beneath his cloak. Ragged breaths barely escaped between each new cry, and he remained, half-prone, his face pressed to the fragrant earth, until he began to choke and sob, struggling for air. Pippin rose then and went to him quickly, encircling him in his arms as Sam brought up what little he'd eaten that day. Over Sam's bent back, Pippin had looked at him desperately, but Merry had remained, affixed to the spot, unable to face the blast of grief that wailed around them. Blindly, he had turned back to the pile of sticks, white as bones in the gloom, and began to search again for the spark he would never find...

Merry watched as a yellow leaf loosed itself from a hanging branch and see-sawed through the air until it came to rest in one of the Brandywine's slow, foam-flecked eddies. It swirled, bright against the brown water, like a fragment of the sun fallen from the sky. From where he stood, Merry could see across the river and into the fields beyond. Sam had taken his pony over on the ferry to ride the broad, tree-lined lanes on the other side, and Merry squinted, scanning the far shore for any sign of a horse and rider.

The memory of their ride home from the Havens kept returning to him as he stood watch. The memory of how Sam had finally gone hoarse, his throat torn raw with grief; of how he had finally slept, his arm flung across his eyes that had all but swollen shut. And he thought in a flash – what if they hadn't come? What if he and Pippin had not been there to accompany Sam on the long ride home? What if those letters from Gandalf hadn't arrived?

Merry still had that letter addressed to him. It was folded in a book of verse and its ink had all but faded, but he could still read it. Come in haste. Do not tarry. A friend sails in a fortnight, but he leaves his heart behind. The riddle had galloped through his mind as he and Pippin flew like the wind to the sea, arriving just in time. The ship was at dock, but its sails were full, and there was Frodo, just as Merry knew he'd be. For he'd known the friend in the riddle was his cousin, and he knew, just as surely, that Sam, standing there with the blood drained from his cheeks and his hands balled into fists at his sides, was Frodo's heart. He'd known because he'd heard the riddle's answer from Frodo's own lips.

That winter's night at Brandy Hall, in that quiet hour at the night's core, he'd heard Frodo whisper. There is no me. There is no you. You are my breath, my flesh, my very heart. And Sam, his hands buried in Frodo's hair, had pulled him down and answered him in a kiss. The firelight had danced in the sheen on Frodo's shoulders, bare where the blanket had slipped down to his waist, and shadows lay cupped by his collarbones. His face and chest were flushed and sweat darkened the curls against his brow. He moved above Sam, his arms straightened to watch Sam's face, blue eyes intent with desire. Oh, how I love thee. And Sam lay beneath him, sandy hair spilling on a pillow made in haste of Frodo's dark blue jacket. Against the sheen of the dark fabric, Sam's flushed cheeks had seemed to glow as he watched Frodo's face above him.

Frodo, he murmured, reaching to cup one hand beneath Frodo's jaw and with the other seize Frodo's hip beneath the blanket to guide him on and over the edge. And as Frodo, with a soft cry, had tossed his head forward and back, throat taut, Merry saw his face. Only a quick glimpse before he'd stepped back into the shadow of the hall, but enough for Merry to see his eyes for a spinning moment in time. And in them Merry had seen his cousin's soul, opened like a rose to sunlight, beautiful, painless and free.

Merry felt tears stopper his throat, and he brought a hand to his eyes for a moment and bowed his head. The river lapped against the landing dock, reminding him again of the ship, rigged and ready to sail. Merry, Frodo had said to him as he kissed his cheek. Watch him for me, please... He'd gripped Merry's shoulder to the point of pain. Watch him for me. Merry struck the landing rail with his fist, and for the first time in years let a sob break from his chest. Fourteen years. He'd been a coward. He'd been afraid to face that storm of grief, been afraid to try to stop the blood, been afraid to allow himself to remember, to feel, to know.

The sharp sound of a pony's neigh and the clatter of hooves on the opposite dock startled Merry back into the present. He wiped at the tears angrily with the back of his hand. What right had he to weep after all? After all these years?

Sam called to him in greeting, and Merry waved back. With barely a moment's hesitation, Sam led his mount on to the ferry. How different from the first time he'd made that crossing, Merry thought. But small terrors bowed before great ones, he knew, as did small griefs. Using the current, Sam steered his way at an angle across the river, until he was in distance to throw Merry the painter. Merry missed it the first time, but on Sam's second throw, he grabbed it and tugged the raft against the dock. Droplets of water, thrown from the rope, glistened on his waistcoat like tiny drops of resin.

"Ah, I can see it's not you that's posted here to tie up boats," Sam laughed. "You're out of practice, or I'm mistaken."

"No, you're right about that. The truth is I'm seldom down by the river these days or anywhere outside of my study or town hall," Merry said, whistling for Finn between his fingers.

"Let the lad be, Merry. You can show me to your stables surely enough," Sam said. "I'm not all together comfortable at making others jump at my bidding, if you take my meaning."

"I'm sorry, Sam, you're right. I suppose that's just another unthinking little thing I do these days. Laziness, I suppose."

"And busyness as well, I'll warrant," said Sam. "'Tis the same at Bag End, 'cept I've an army of wee 'uns to attend to my needs rather than servants." He smiled wryly. "Though don't you go saying so, or my game'll be up." Merry glanced over at him as they traversed the switchbacks leading up the bank, noting in relief that the colour was high in Sam's cheeks and his eyes appeared less clouded than they had that morning.

"Speaking of your fine family," he said. "I've been asked to inform you that they've walked to the market at Three Corners. Something was mentioned about blackberry honey, which I was assured you'd understand."

Sam laughed. "Indeed I do. Rose has a weakness for it, though I myself find it a tad bitter and not worthy of a fine cup o' tea. 'Tis hard to come by in Hobbiton. I think we haven't the shade for it as you all in Buckland do, being so near the Old Forest and all."

Merry found he couldn't answer as they neared the top of the bank. The short, steep walk nearly knocked the breath from his body. Once on the level, he motioned for Sam to stop a moment as he tried to catch his breath and mopped at his brow with his jade-coloured handkerchief.

"Gracious! What to do with you?" Sam said. "A march to Rivendell and back would do you good. I see I'll have to invite you out on some of my tours of the Shire, so I should. Get you in shape proper, that would. I've been derelict in my duty in looking after you and Pippin, I'm afraid."

"What?!" Merry gasped, still puffing for breath. "You've been derelict? It's me who's been derelict! It was to me Frodo gave the job of looking after you!" The words were out of his mouth before he'd considered their propriety. Sam stopped short.

"What are you speaking of?" he asked quietly, his brows furrowed, and the splash of sunlight fled from his cheeks. Alarmed at his own foolishness, Merry began walking again briskly toward the stables.

"Oh, maybe we shouldn't speak on it, Sam. Just forget I said anything."

"That I shan't," Sam said fiercely. "My life is one big forgetting, Merry. Or at least pretending to forget."

"I thought that's what you wanted," Merry stammered, suddenly confused.

"It's hard to know what 'want' is anymore, if you take my meaning," Sam replied. "There's necessity and then there's..."

They reached the stables just as a flurry of clucking and feathers scattered out from one of the doors. One of the orange dogs that could always be found sniffing about the place was taking his morning constitutional by chasing the hens about.

"Stop that, you!" Merry cried after him as the dog shot out of the yard toward the great hedge. "Leave the poor ladies alone. Goodness! What a madhouse this is!" At the sound of his voice, nearly a half-dozen faces peered out of the various doors and windows of the rambling stables.

"Can we be of assistance to you, Mr. Merry, sir?" The voice seemed disembodied, and Merry squinted toward the darkness of a doorway, one hand shielding his eyes.

"No, thank you," he stammered, unable to gain his composure. "No, wait. Yes, you can be of assistance. Please. Take Master Samwise's pony here and see to it he's groomed and put out to pasture." Merry could feel Sam begin to protest at his side, but he moved a hand to silence him. "Sam, I must talk to you. We must be alone. I can't take all these servants buzzing about the place never giving me a moment's solitude. Heavens! I don't believe I've been on my own more than a handful of times in the last decade!"

Sam allowed his pony to be taken from him, but a cloud had settled on his brow. Merry strode blindly past the stables and down a small bank until the High Hay loomed over them, a tangled mass of brambles and foxgloves, full of the small songs of invisible insects and birds. They traced its edge until they came to the tunnel they had looked for that morning, so long ago. After glancing back to ensure that Sam was following him, Merry ducked under the brick arch. In the sudden darkness their ears rang with the dripping of water, and their noses filled with the earth's dense, heady scent. But before they could grow accustomed to it, they were on the other side, blinking in the sunlight and acutely aware of the forest's dark embrace at the edge of a wide hollow. Merry felt a sudden, barely-remembered thrill in his blood as they made for that fretwork of trees.

They walked in silence for nearly a mile and Merry began to wonder if either of them would ever find the courage to speak first, but then Sam stopped at the base of a sprawling silver maple. Its trunk was knotted, but its bark was nearly as thin and sentient as skin. Sam laid a hand against it as though searching for the pulse of a fever patient, the flutter of blood in the heart of a long night of waiting and watching. Without turning to look at Merry, he spoke.

"It's like this, Merry. Frodo's leaving was like I had the heart carved out o' me. Like I was scrapped out, hollowed out like a gourd. And it's the husk I was left with. These past fourteen years might have filled me 'cept there's a hole that cannot be stoppered. Rose stopped trying long ago, and glad I was of it, too. Her trying hurt more than her not trying. 'T was right bad for a time. But it's grown easier."

"Rose... she, ah, told me about that first year," Merry ventured gently. "She told me that you scarcely left your bed..."

"There's not much I can tell you of that year, so there's no point in asking about it," Sam continued matter-of-factly.

"I am angry at myself for not coming to you then..." said Merry lamely.

"What, pray you, could you have done? Could you have brought him back to me?" Sam snapped, but then his hard-won calm settled about him again. "There was nothing you or anyone else left in Middle-earth could do."

"I don't know that... Frodo himself didn't know that when he asked me..."

"You'll forgive me if I say to you that Frodo didn't understand the half of it." Sam's eyes snapped again with anger before he turned from Merry to study the tree, as though the delicate veins of its silver bark soothed him in some way, answering a call at his heart's core.

"I don't know, Sam. I don't know about that. He loved you..."

"Eru, Merry! Do you think I don't know that? Can you possibly think that he needed you to tell me that he loved me? There's naught he did but for the love of me."

"...And the same can be said of you..."

"Merry, please. We don't need to have this conversation. You don't need to tell me that Frodo loved me and that I loved him."

"No, perhaps not," Merry answered wearily, suddenly not at all sure what he was trying to do and feeling weak and ignorant in the face of something he'd only been privileged with a glimpse of. "I guess... I guess I only wanted to tell you that I know... that I understand now, after all these years."

The fatigue and sadness must have written itself into his voice, because Sam turned to him and crossed the distance between them. Gently he guided Merry to one of the tree's exposed roots, and they sat down together, side by side. Sam laid a hand on his shoulder, and Merry turned to him, tears springing to his eyes. Who, for pity's sake, should be comforting whom?

"I... I didn't know, Sam. For the longest time. I was a fool, and I was blind or I would have... I would have..."

"What? What could you possibly have done or said, Merry? We were all just willow leaves in a river's current."

"I don't know. Nothing maybe. But the point is I didn't realise by the time I needed to. It wasn't until that Yuletide Eve, here at Brandy Hall, that I even had the slightest hint. Do you remember?"

"How could I forget?" Sam said. "Why would I want to?"

"I... I don't know if Frodo ever told you, but I saw you that night..."

"Yes, he told me. Seems you caught us in a bit o' tumble by your dining room fireplace."

Merry blushed, but Sam wore the same frank expression he always had, and Merry realised suddenly, vividly, that no shame could touch his knowledge of Frodo, of Frodo's heart and body and spirit.

"Well, he came looking for me the next morning and found me in my study. He didn't speak of what I'd seen, but he asked me how often I'd be at Bag End, now that my father was getting older, and I told him I didn't know. At least twice a year, I told him. He only nodded and looked worried for a moment. I thought it was because of me... of what I'd seen, and I thought he thought I was prying into matters that didn't concern me, so I told him, I said, 'Frodo, you know I'll never tell anyone,' and he looked at me, all startled, and said, 'what are you talking about?' And I said, 'you know, about you and Sam, being your servant and all.' In fact I told him that I'd seen your bond even back in Minas Tirith. But he just laughed. 'First of all, cousin,' he told me. 'The word servant is hereby banished from any discussion of me and Sam, and second of all, it's not a true secret anyways, at least not one I want to keep'..."

Sam dropped his head into his hands at that, and Merry stopped abruptly. The silence moved in leaf-dappled sunlight over his bowed shoulders. "Go on," Sam murmured weakly.

"There's not much more to tell except that... well... he said that you would be moving into Bag End with him in the spring, and he wanted me and Pippin to visit as often as we could. He said the company would do the two of you good, because... because it'll be such a burden on you to look after him..."

Sam's face was white and as shadowed by emotion as a winter field is shadowed by low scudding clouds. He raised his eyes to Merry's. "He told you that he was a burden to me?"

"He said that he'd not been well. He didn't elaborate, and I, stupidly, didn't ask him to. He simply said that it would be a lot of work for you, that if he wasn't careful he'd sop up every minute of your day... Did you know how ill he was then, Sam?"

Sam could not speak for a moment. He only stared at Merry helplessly until Merry grew worried that he might faint. Here they were, so far from the Hall and all. No one to hear if he should call... But then Merry shook himself. It was not for Sam he was afraid as much as for himself. His inability to face that pain he'd left hidden all these years. Finally Sam spoke.

"Frodo was not ill. He was hale and healthy as could be imagined after what he'd gone through. There were bad days... bad nights to be sure, but nothing I couldn't see to. Nothing that I couldn't mend if he'd given me the time and the chance..." A sob broke then from Sam's throat, rusty as though unheard in years.

"I think that was the problem, Sam," said Merry, wrapping his arm about Sam's shoulders. "He didn't want you to have to mend him and all the Shire too. You had your family..."

"No!" Sam's voice was hoarse and fierce, and it was all Merry could do to keep from trying to step them back from the edge... "No! I am not a well that runs dry in a bad season. I'm not a knife that's blunted on the first peach stone it finds! My family," he said. "What was my family compared to him? What was the whole Shire?"

"Maybe that was just what he knew you'd say," Merry said faintly. Sam merely stared at him and for a fleeting instance Merry believed Sam might strike him. The rage burned beneath the surface of his words when he spoke again.

"T'was not his call to make. To go. To not give me even the chance. The chance..." The rage ebbed again until it was a sob, a sound rent from Sam's heart. "Oh, Frodo, you knew even then..." He panted for breath beneath the weight of his loss. Merry rubbed his back in a vain attempt to soothe him. "But, how long did you know, Merry?" he asked in a barely constrained whisper.

"That's the problem," Merry removed his arm from Sam's shoulders and stood abruptly. "That's the whole problem. Why I'm saying what I'm saying to you. I didn't hear what he was saying to me. I had no idea. All those times we visited you all at Bag End that year, I had no idea he was planning on leaving. Although... I should have known. The way he'd always confirm our next visit before we left. The way he'd give me small treasures – keepsakes, he called them. The way he talked about you and your future, as though he was watching through the other side of a mirror and not there at all... But I was a fool. I didn't see it, and then there was that letter from Gandalf, and only then did I open my eyes wide enough to see it... but it was too late!" Tears sprang into Merry's eyes for the third time that day and again he brushed them away furiously. "I have no right to feel so... so betrayed," he almost hissed.

"But why would he drop all those hints for you and leave his Sam in the dark?" The anger was nearly drained from Sam's eyes. He looked weary, drained, lost. From somewhere above the woods about them came a falcon's lonely cry. A sign that the hunt was over.

"I don't know. I don't know. Whatever the reason, his choice was a bad one. Or maybe the right one as he saw it. I don't know." Merry sat again, running his fingers through his hair.

"Or maybe I was just too blind to see any hints he dropped... too blinded by hope." A weary sob rose in Sam's throat again. "Well, no more. Now all that's left is to endure..."

"Endurance beyond hope," Merry murmured, and looked at Sam searchingly. "Frodo gave to you all that he had or could have had. It's as though you've changed places..."

"There were no places to be changed, Merry," replied Sam. "That's the thing you still can't get your head about. Any boundary between Frodo and me was lost halfway to Mordor. Before that, even. Gandalf set the names on us, but they belonged not to me or him, see? They belonged to us together. They were never meant to be said apart, only between one breath and another. 'Beyond' don't mean 'without' and 'unquenchable' don't mean 'enduring.'"

They sat for many minutes in silence, letting the noontime sounds of the forest tell them a story beyond their own cares and griefs. Merry could feel Sam gathering his calm about him like a vast and heavy cloak.

"You can speak of him to me, you know..." he ventured finally. "If you wish, that is."

"I thank you, Merry." Sam squeezed his hand and stood. "I hadn't the strength for many years, but now 'tis only harder not to speak of him, not to try to think on him at all. I did ought to get started on the writing he left to me. His memory shan't die with us, and my children are of an age when they should learn about him... about me... and maybe, for my Ellie, about us." He was silent for a moment. "Don't wring your heart out over this, Merry. You can't be blamed for a choice Frodo made hisself and despite his last words, you needn't be my keeper. 'T was his job and he can't pawn it off on someone else." He smiled wryly, and Merry looked at him curiously. "Yes, there is endurance beyond hope, but no enduring without it. I will see him again..."

"You know this? But how...?" Merry interrupted, standing in turn and gripping Sam by the shoulders.

"Ah. I have said what I said and I'll say no more. Do not ask after it again, but you've heard what I said and let it be of comfort to you. 'T was the sundering sea that parted us for the moment. Not you, Merry."

Merry didn't answer but only let the tears slide down his cheeks. He did not wipe them away this time.

"Come. Let's be off now. I'm after riding and having no breakfast in me," said Sam, and they turned, arms about each other's shoulders, and headed back to the High Hay and its beckoning arch.

* * *

"Cook! Cook!" Master Merry's voice boomed through the lower halls.

"In here, sir," Cook called back, smiling wickedly at her visitor. The kitchen had been a regular hub of society all morning.

"We've a hungry mouth here to feed, and I could use a refreshing cup of tea myself... Why, hullo, Pip! What are you doing here?" Merry stopped short as he strode into the kitchen, and Sam had to quickly place a hand on his back to keep from colliding with him.

"Getting some breakfast in me, of course," Pippin answered, his mouth full of cranberry cake. "I woke up and everyone had gone off without thinking of my health and sustenance!"

"How terribly rude of us," Merry said with exaggerated seriousness, and Cook barely concealed a chuckle where she stood, facing the stove.

"My, but you've got cheeky servants," said Pippin with feigned chagrin. "But then, they've always said, like master, like servant," and with that he cast a dazzlingly innocent smile in Sam's direction.

"That they do. I've heard it said so, meself," Sam pulled up a stool beside Pippin and reached for the teapot. Merry stood for a moment, looking a bit at a loss.

"Merr, stop being such a bump-on-a-stump and pull up a stool!" Pippin scolded him. "You don't mean to tell us you're going to call for Finn and Lily and Becky and heaven knows who else just to carry a few cups and saucers up to the dining room and wait on three old hobbits while they eat a gentry's late breakfast?"

"Well, since you put it that way, I suppose not," Merry smiled, relenting, and pulled up a stool beside them. Cook had a plate of eggs and rashers on the low work table before them in no time.

"Cook, come and join us," Pippin called after her as she moved to the wash basins along the far wall. "We're terribly bored of each other and could use a new tale or two."

Cook glanced uncertainly at Merry, but he smiled and gestured for her to sit down. He felt as if he would like to leap over Sam and grab Pippin into his arms. Of all of them Pip's heart had always been the most unfettered... Cook joined them and soon she and Sam were engaged in a vigorous debate over the merits (or lack thereof) of horseradish. Merry leaned behind Sam and tugged at Pippin's sleeve.

"How do you always know what's best?" he whispered.

"Because I'm smarter than you, why else?"

"Stop playing the wag, Pip."

Pippin didn't respond, but only smiled sadly and pointed to Merry's face. Merry raised a hand to his cheeks and felt the dried salt trails left by his tears. His eyes must be red and puffy as well. He looked quickly at Sam with alarm, but saw no trace of the tears he'd shed. Why would I be surprised? Merry thought. Sam's face was as smooth as his shirt front that he'd tucked in taut over his chest. His eyes looked tired but not red. Pippin tugged at his sleeve, and Merry leaned back again.

"Not Sam, Merr, you. He's had lots of practice, I'm afraid. It is you that gave it away." Pippin gave him another sad smile. "He's adept at not letting his heart show, at not letting himself burden anyone else," Pippin whispered, and Merry shuddered to hear those words again, and Sam's friendly admonishment suddenly seemed doubtful. Don't wring your heart out over me, Merry.

He turned again to his tea, examining the swirling leaves as though they could tell him something. Small hints. He'd missed them before. He sighed and closed his eyes for a moment.

Behind his lids he saw the white ship again, the trailing mists. But gone was the group of travellers. Instead one lone figure stood at the bow. The sails swelled with moonlight and song, and the figure raised a hand in his direction. In farewell? In benediction? Merry could not tell, but the vision wrapped a calm about his heart, and when he opened his eyes again, the kitchen was full with the bright autumn sunlight.

* * * * *

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