Ever On
by Cara J. Loup


"And whither then?" Frodo murmured into the still midday air. "I cannot say."

Before him, the road dipped down from the Woody End and idled on towards the Brandywine, a half-guessed ribbon in a mist of shifting airs above the woodland. Those spare shimmers seemed brittle, torn out of the landscape by a hidden sun, and the open fields on their right, closer towards the Marish, lay swathed in a bright haze, as if they would melt away underfoot. Beside him, Sam had to be holding his breath.

"That sounds like a bit of old Bilbo's rhyming," Pippin remarked, from the bank beside the road where he'd slumped down comfortably. "Or is it one of your imitations? It does not sound altogether encouraging."

"I don't know." Frodo turned his head to look at Sam who stood as if transfixed by the sight of the Shire's eastern end, both hands curled into his pockets and his eyes wide open. "It came to me then, as if I was making it up, but I may have heard it long ago."

Sam would know. Sam knew all of Bilbo's songs by heart, of that Frodo was certain.

In recent years, they'd rarely spoken of Bilbo, except in the most casual manner. But there were times when Sam would pick up a stray handkerchief in Bag End and recollect the day when Bilbo had tied it as a flag to the fortress that a younger Pippin built from dry sticks and chaff. Or Sam would return a mathom that had been dislodged during a visit to its old place, and the way he cradled each piece in his hands, his fingers spanning the curve of a vase or the base of a carved candlestick, told Frodo that he remembered with unerring clarity. That to Sam all these odds and ends were fond testimony of Bilbo's presence, and together they formed a necessary pattern that Sam restored every time it was disturbed.

"Certainly it reminds me very much of Bilbo in the last years," Frodo answered slowly, "before he went away. He used to say there was only one Road, that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. 'It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door...'" But as he repeated Bilbo's words, his eyes lost themselves in the land before him, where the road was splayed out like scattered snips of string. "He used to say that on the path outside the front door at Bag End, especially after he had been out for a long walk."

He remembered this so vividly. How Bilbo's glance would fly over his shoulder, at once curious and vigilant, lighting on the dusk-laden fields before garden gate or front door fell shut after him. But as often as he had witnessed this, Frodo knew now that he'd never seen -

What? Well, that seemed like an altogether useless question, for how could he name what had always remained unknown? Frodo shook his head and noticed that Sam was now looking at him, with the same, slightly distracted frankness as before.

"Well, the Road won't sweep me anywhere for an hour at least." Pippin wrestled his arm out of one pack-strap and let his packet slide off his other shoulder. With a relieved grunt, he stretched his legs before him and played his toes through a tuft of grass.

They had made a rather late start, and Pippin's demand for a rest came so soon that Frodo found a piece of argument twitching on the tip of his tongue. Warm as the day was, impatience to move on tickled a hundred little feet down his back. Frodo fiddled with one of his packet's straps. Something warned him not to tarry when they could help it, as if a wasted moment might amount to a dangerous mistake.

"Here, let me take that, Mr. Frodo."

The weight eased off his shoulders, into Sam's waiting hands. When he turned, Sam tipped his head to the side, angling an amused glance at Pippin who'd pillowed his head on his pack and blinked into the trees with lazy contentment. Midday brightness sifted through the crowns, and it would steal sleep over them all too easily.

Frodo seated himself on the jut of a wide root and rubbed his hands along his thighs. He could trace every mile they had walked in his legs, though the slight soreness wasn't entirely unpleasant.

"Thank you," he murmured when Sam handed him the water-bottle, but his glance slid back along the path that had brought them here. Ever on and on. Had Bilbo truly written those rhymes? It did sound very much like him, so fond of riddles that unfolded by the wayside. So full of confidence and curiosity that the Road need never end.

But if he made it up, how could I forget? How much have I already forgotten? Frodo took a deep swallow from the water-bottle and for a moment felt tempted to trickle some drops across Pippin's slack face. If his cousin wasn't already asleep, he'd slipped dangerously near it. On his other side, Sam crouched unpacking their provender, his head bowed over his bulging pack. Was he grateful for this break, before they faced furlongs of countryside unknown to him?

Frodo cast about with a nettling unrest that he couldn't seem to get rid of. They had met no-one on the road today, and the land about them seemed strangely still and empty. It would be different on the East Road, Frodo thought, dull and straight as it ran among the fields. For his tramps into Buckland, he usually preferred this less-travelled path, and their present need for stealth allowed no other choice. You're fretting for no reason, he said to himself, setting the water-bottle down. For weeks you complain about the gossip that your leaving has raised, and now you wish people would take notice? It's good not to be watched, and safer. He leaned back into the forking roots, willing himself to relax.

Where they sat, the shade of an ash tree stretched to the middle of the road, but some yards away, a clutch of tall, flowering weeds had crept forward into a puddle of sunlight. The rasp of invisible insects surrounded clusters of hanging yellow blossoms, and the dark leaves were gleaming, each shape etched with unyielding clarity. Sharp as the reflections in a still water, Frodo thought, before they'd shiver apart in a sudden breeze.

Will I ever-? But the thought broke on a prickly edge of annoyance. Frodo rose abruptly to his feet, irritated by his own wistful absorption. From the corner of his eye, he saw Sam's head snap up, but he didn't pause until he stood at the top of the road again. Woody End and Marish spread before him, as calm and remote as they had minutes ago.

Will I ever see this or that again! Frodo dashed his sleeve over his hot forehead. How often had he wandered certain paths, thinking to discover a point of parting? A point when the memory stored in his mind would contain everything of importance, in order to be carried forward, like the clothes and pipes in his pack. But in truth he had never found such a point. He should have known that it was a forlorn venture, that no matter how many memories he tucked between his fears and expectations, they could not tether him safely.

When Gandalf first disclosed the Ring's secret, the force of his own response had nearly left him dizzy. Frodo remembered staring at a spot above the mantelpiece in Bag End's study and searching desperately for something that would stay his disbelief. It was as if his hands had been numbed by a deep, persistent cold, and he had failed to notice it until he stretched them into the hearth's warm halo and felt nothing. Since then, the urgent notion that he must wake up had never fully ceased, nor the impulse to glance back over his shoulder.

But what was he arming himself against? That was the real question, wasn't it? Gandalf's words of warning and advice, as he turned them over in his mind, seemed to flash bright as tossed coins, but they held surprisingly little to steer by. The Enemy's Ring. The One Ring. Even though Frodo had watched, his chest taut with anticipation and his head humming with sudden dread, as the fiery letters seared along the gold band, the memory had quickly assumed the veiled quality of a dream. When Frodo thought about the Ring, Bilbo's ring, the threats that weighed on his mind slipped off it, insubstantial as the glimmers that dotted its smooth surface in daylight.

His hand crept to the pocket where the Ring lay fastened to its chain, where in fact he had carried it so many years, in a manner of safekeeping, without question or misgivings. But what did he know now? His fingers were familiar with the flawless shape that he'd often absently traced, and his hand knew its weight - but no, how could he forget that this weight was unreliable, that it could change at will, almost? His knuckles pressed against the pocket's seam as if to seal it tightly, so that he would not touch.

"Frodo, what are you doing?" Pippin muttered drowsily.

He spun back at the question, casual as it was, and needed a moment to regain his breath. "Nothing in particular."

It sounded unpleasantly terse, grating and ungracious in the windless air. From his place beside the sprawling roots, Sam watched him with a keen attention that drove heat into Frodo's face. Moments too late, he pulled his hand away from his pocket.

"You're pacing about, that's what." Pippin yawned, shook his head, and folded his arms more tightly over his middle. "I hope you won't complain later that you didn't get enough of a rest, for I shan't have pity on you."

Sam opened his mouth as if to counter that admonishment, or perhaps add gentler words of his own, but then he did not speak. A tight little fold had appeared between his brows. Frodo rubbed the heel of his hand over his own forehead, but he forced himself to hold Sam's gaze a moment longer. I know what you've seen. Although Sam blushed and lowered his eyes, Frodo felt no touch of remorse. Past Sam's shoulder and bent head, the cloud of yellow blossoms captured his eye again.

Only now, on the brink of departure, had he noticed something precious and irretrievable about those bright blooms. Something Sam must have known for years. Had Sam said his own farewells to his favourite spots for picking mushrooms or napping in the sun?

Of course not, Frodo told himself, newly irritated. All the cleaning, packing and preparing hardly left him the time for it. Certainly, Sam had not felt sorry for himself either, even though - unlike Frodo - he'd never considered leaving the Shire before, had he? Nor would he fear to forget.

Frodo breathed in slowly. At least one of us need not fear that. He set his hands on his hips and, stretching his back cautiously, turned back towards the hazed, languid view. A faint dark line marked the course of the Stockbrook past meadows and coppices, and north of it, in the far distance, moved a speck that had to be a farmer's cart. But as his gaze traced its relentless crawl, Frodo remembered the look in Sam's eyes when they first stood here, and how they brimmed with a reluctant kind of wonder that waited only to be called on. What was it that Sam saw?

The beginning of a road that ran ever outward, Frodo guessed, and whose course Sam couldn't hope to predict. Beyond this near horizon waited all things strange and unknown, stitched through the seams of Buckland. Frodo narrowed his eyes at the wavering silver reflections in the distance. But there he suddenly found his answer. One answer, at least.

He could not see how all the roads ran together into one bright and sweeping path, as Bilbo had. From the moment that he'd decided to leave, his remaining days in the Shire became a labour of gathering and winnowing, a slow harvest that sparkled with farewells, choices, discoveries. Yet he seemed to walk each path against its own current, and his finds grew stale with a bitterness that gathered slowly, somewhere beneath his thoughts, like the grainy residue of old vinegar. Sometimes Frodo could almost taste it at the back of his throat.

There was no trace of it now as he thought of Bilbo again, content in a place that he could not imagine. As closely as Sam guarded the array of Bilbo's keepsakes, they had both always known that he would not return.

Frodo released a long breath and looked at the curve in the road that disappeared among the trees east of Woodhall. I'm not following in your footsteps, Bilbo, as I always thought I would. In the shimmering air before him, that pale stretch of road lay like a forgotten piece of laundry, its short end pointed at nothing. But for him the road would have to end... somewhere. Frodo stared hard at it, and for a moment it seemed like a struggle with the path he'd chosen, a choice he could not have made, perhaps, if it were weighed against a hope of returning. Or maybe he had simply longed for this one certainty among so many doubts, when every thought was bent on taking the Ring out of the Shire.

How did it come to me? Although Gandalf had unraveled long threads of history for him, there was no true answer to that question. Unless, Frodo thought now, unless he was to find such an answer in himself.

He let his head fall back, so that his eyes filled with the loose fringe of branches and thready clouds in a sky almost bare of colour. A faint breeze stirred his curls against the sweat-damp nape of his neck. Ever on and on whispered through the back of his mind. It had turned into a chant as soft as the breeze, as unavoidable as the midsummer crickets or the Water's steady burble. But what did it mean?

The sight before him misted a bit, as if he was sliding under the surface of a shallow pool. Spots of brightness danced through swaying leaves, and the day's warmth lay on his shoulders like a pair of hands. He felt their shape clearly, a near-weightless clasp settling his unrest, together with a gentle breath at the back of his neck, and from that place where his vision did not reach, Sam said his name. Frodo. But Sam never called him that, never anything but Mr. Frodo, or sir.

Frodo blinked and raked his fingers through his hair. Was he falling asleep on his feet? What was he dreaming?

When he turned his head to the side by an inch or two, he realised with some relief that his mind had not played an entirely confounded trick on him. Sam had risen from his nook among the roots, though he did not move until Frodo's brief glance grazed him. Then he climbed the remaining yards to the ridge and came to stand next to Frodo. Behind them, Pippin was now gently snoring.

"Is that Stock out yonder, Mr. Frodo?" Sam asked. At the corner of his mouth dipped a pale grass-stalk.

"No, that's Woodhall..." Frodo raised his hand to direct Sam's gaze further to the north. "There, do you see, where the trees stand so close - Stock lies at the meeting of two roads, near the river."

"My Gaffer buys his pipeweed from a trader out of Stock," Sam murmured, his eyes now set where the surrounding woodlands were flecked with the brighter patches of fields and pastures, "though it's not sowed and grown there, I reckon."

"It couldn't be," Frodo agreed. "It probably comes from Willowbottom. The weed they grow there might not be as famous as Longbottom Leaf, but it's very pleasant."

Although Sam nodded, an intent expression had come into his eyes. "A funny thing it is," he said slowly, "for us to be standing here and not seeing aught the same..."

Frodo cocked his head, bemused and curious. "Tell me," he prompted when Sam didn't continue.

"Why, this being the road you took to Buckland many a time, I'm thinking that what's looking ahead to me is looking backwards to you. In, well, in a manner of speaking..." There Sam stuttered to a stop and rubbed a knuckle across his lower lip.

"I see what you mean." But even as he said so, Frodo wondered just when they had crossed a boundary that was visible only to Sam, or if there had been a sight, an unknown bent in the road that jarred Sam with sudden grief. "I'm sorry," he said before he could think about it. "I gave you so much work to do during the last months, you had almost no time for leave-taking."

Sam shook his head. "'Twere a good thing, not getting lost in fond lingerings, if you understand me." A quick smile played at the corners of his mouth, even as he turned back to their resting place.

"...and then I reckoned you'd be sayin' those farewells for the both of us," Frodo heard him add, or thought he did, and his breath caught strangely in his chest.

"Sam?" Frodo followed him into the shaded dip of the road. But what would he ask? Do you truly think I could? What gives me the right? Before him, the yellow blossoms burned as brightly as if they'd drawn the day's entire sunlight to them, and they reflected as golden dots in Sam's eyes.

"What," Frodo paused for breath, "what is this?"

"This?" Sam was slow to lower his glance to the flowering weed. "'Tis called touch-me-not," he answered. "Here, you'll see why..."

He held out his open hand, waiting until Frodo placed his left in Sam's grasp. Amid the dangling blossoms hid seed-pods like tiny striped cobs. At a mere brush of his outstretched fingertip, Frodo felt the sudden burst, small tongues snapping apart with a tingle like a scattering of dust, and he flinched against the clasp of Sam's hand.

"They're so alive," he said with a startled laugh. When he glanced back, Sam's face was closer to his own than he'd expected, and very earnest.

"That they are." Sam's voice had dropped, and the low buzz of unseen insects filled the pause. "A breath of wind can be enough to release 'em. They're as much of wanderers as a thing growing roots can ever be, I expect."

Before he could withdraw his hand, Frodo reached back and linked their fingers to coax another seed-pod into yielding its burden. Sam's grip tightened so sharply that it seemed almost like a rebuke, but then the corners of his mouth twitched, and a low chuckle followed.

"Wanderers, Sam?" Frodo let their clasped hands sink to his side. Any moment now, Sam would retreat from this quick and reckless hold.

And he did, yet without stepping away, as Frodo had almost expected. If he wasn't mistaken, the softest regret flickered in Sam's eyes. "Aye, they plant themselves at will, and they'll find a spot nigh everywhere."

Frodo nodded, though he couldn't think of an answer. Touch-me-not. He would remember that. On a whim, he snapped one blossom off its stem and tucked it through the uppermost buttonhole of Sam's waistcoat. Something strained in his chest, like a breath drawn too deep, a new taste downed too quickly. Farther out in the grasses, the stirs of late crickets threw thin ripples into the air, a chant that wound itself through the space between Sam and himself. A but hovered between them, and it seemed only one in a long row of similar moments, lifted as beads on a string, sheer as the wind-chimes on the porches in Tookland.

"And what are you up to now?"

When Frodo turned, Pippin blinked sleepily at them, from beneath the hand that shielded his eyes.

"Plotting to have our lunch without waking you," Frodo answered with a wink. "Let's eat."

Sam had already returned to his open pack, retrieving wrapped chunks of bread and cheese. He polished an apple on his sleeve before handing it to Frodo.

"Now you're showing some sense!" Wide awake, Pippin shook out his arms. "But you would not have succeeded." He inched nearer on his trouser-bottom and snatched up one small spicy sausage, smoked and dried by Farmer Highgrove in Hobbiton. "Have you walked off your sour mood then, Frodo?"

"My-" Frodo broke off with a snort, though he felt a telling warmth dart into his cheeks. "That wasn't necessary."

He kept his eyes carefully averted from Sam's all too catching grin as he sat down, perhaps a little closer beside Sam than he had at other times. His impatience and the sense of time pressing had melted away, and a different sort of expectation seemed to spring from the place where those rhymes had waited for him to find them again.

The Road goes ever on and on. Perhaps Sam knew a tune to join the words, a measured and confident hum that would blend itself to the Brandywine's flow, once they were close enough. Frodo bit into his apple and smiled to himself. He had, as Sam put it, looked backwards long enough; it was time to turn toward the steps ahead of him, to things unhoped for, and welcome what he could not find on any map.

What he could not know.

* * *

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