All's Well Cover All's Well

'Tis a sty, Sam thought between racing breaths, not a place for a hobbit to live in. He broke his run some yards away and slithered on the muddy ground that was torn up with wheel-tracks. A foul smoke was in the air, burning his nose and throat, wrapping the row in a haze.

Second from the top, Sam reminded himself. He'd sent Jolly Cotton on back when the sheds came in view, for sheds they were, not houses deserving the name. And naught like their hole in Bagshot Row had been, this leaning stack of boards and tar, dribbling firelight through the cracks. How such a hovel were to be kept warm in winter, Sam couldn't imagine. The door sat askance on a single hinge and didn't have latch nor handle neither.

Sam tried to knock, but his fingers trembled so bad, they made only a weak, scratching sound. When he pushed against the door, it swung wide at once, and he staggered, his breath rushing. The old hobbit on his stool gave a fearful flinch.

"Oh, I'm... sorry." No more than a gasp that, and the Gaffer's expression went from alarm to something else, something that shrunk to a glint and narrowed his eyes.

A small peat-fire smouldered in the corner and filled the room of clouds. Not enough of a draft from the smoke-hole to pull it up, seemingly. It made Sam's eyes water as he glanced round the place. There was a table littered with kitchenware, a bench against the wall, and a cot off to the side.

"Dad," he managed. "How're you keeping?"

"Is it you, Samwise?"

A long glance searched him up and down, skipping from his face to the Elven brooch to the sword-belt, and took note how there weren't a thread left on him --

"Aye, Dad, it's Sam, sure enough."

Though it weren't their custom, he wanted to dash over and throw his arms round the Gaffer, so much that his chest ached with it. But that look from squinted eyes had him trapped in his place.

The Gaffer tilted his head and gestured with his unlit pipe. "Shut the door now, will ye?" His voice was hoarse and tight-sounding, as it would be after struggling with the coughs for a time. "'Tis a chilly evening and hard enough for a body to stay hale in here."

Sam turned to push the door into the ill-made frame with unsteady fingers. All his anger, all the heat of a fighting rush were drained in a moment, like a puff of smoke, and left only a hollow in his stomach and a wobble in the knees.

"Besides," his father continued, "we're not allowed outside, come dark, and doors and windows must be shut. That's the rules."

"Not any longer." Sam gathered himself up and took a step into the room. "We'll have them all drove away by morning, you'll see, those Men and half-orcs and what other filth there may be."

The Gaffer's eyes were back to Sting in its sheath, like he could see it drawn naked, blue glitters on the stained blade -- I shall need both hands in the blind night, Sam, but Sting I give to you --

"Where've you been, Samwise?"

"Far away, Dad. All the way to the fiery mountain." And such a roar of fire too, streaming and choking, like it would swallow the world.

"What's that, now?" The Gaffer's hearing hadn't grown no better in the mean time. He leant forward on his stool and cradled the empty pipe in his hands, tapping at it and twiddling the stem about.

"To foreign parts." Sam strove to make his voice more than a thread. "Some places so marvellous as you wouldn't believe, and some..."

But there wasn't any worse than this, was there, for the Gaffer to lose his home and his garden, and find himself all alone in a shed like this. No comfort to be had from tales about the Black Land neither, and no need to stir up those memories now, the dreams were bad enough on their own.

"How's May and Marigold?" Sam asked.

"May's a safe jaunt away, with her family up in Nobottle," the Gaffer answered and looked to the fire for a moment. "Haven't seen her since Lithe, for there's no travellin' allowed now, but she and hers were well enough when Marigold and Tom wed. They've a house out on the Cotton lands, Mari and Tom do."

"I'm... glad." Sam paused to clear his throat. "So much has changed."

"It's them ruffians," his father said, "and such hobbits as will forget their friends and kin for pride or pay. Take Sandyman for one..." He snorted.

There was a bigger mill now, an ugly bulk in the dark that Sam had seen on his way up from Bywater. He glanced at the water pitcher on the table.

Naught but ash and dust and the stench, Dad, the stench, till you'd give aught for a drop of water and a breath of clean air --

"'Tis a shame, the look of the Hill these days." The Gaffer turned and spat into the smouldering fire. "You've not seen the worst of it yet. They've dug up the Row entire and cut down all the trees. What's left of Bag End's gardens is running over with nobut weeds. Such a sore sight there's never--"


The Gaffer stopped, but his fingers were still moving on the pipe, all atremble and restless like they'd never been in years before. Sam breathed in deep. "Mr. Frodo's got to have it back," he said when he could. "Bag End's his home."

"He might not wish to set a foot inside once he sees what's come of it."

Sam shook his head. "We'll clean it up, wait and see, even if it means replacing all the tiles and panelling, and turning over every inch of garden."

"He ought never to've sold it, and that's a fact."

"Oh, but it wasn't Mr. Frodo's--" Sam broke off and followed the Gaffer's glance to his own feet, but such scars as were running down from his ankles didn't show in the dim lighting, and for the rest -- "He's saved us, Dad, all of us. If he'd not made it to the mountain, every mile of land would look like Mordor soon enough."

His father tapped the pipe against his thigh and finally set it down on the table. "What's all this about mountains?" he asked. "I thought Mr. Frodo might go off 'venturing like Mr. Bilbo did, hunting for dragons and treasures. Some such mountain, was it, Sam?"

Sam breathed out softly, mindful of the taut pull in his breast. He ought to have learned by now how to tell the tale without thinking too hard on it. "We went to cast the Ring in the fire -- Mr. Bilbo's ring, that was, though it was made by the Enemy..." His breath was high again, and too flurried besides. "I can't rightly say we've brought back any treasures."

"None save moonshine, 'twould seem, and small wonder!" The Gaffer huffed and scratched his cheek. "Mr. Frodo to go off as a thief in the dark, and only to cast away what jools Mr. Bilbo hisself brought home! Now why would ye get mixed up in such a fool's business?"

"Because the Ring--" Sam broke off to start anew. "You remember the Black Rider? The large fellow in a black hood that knocked on the door the morning before we left. There were nine of 'em, the Enemy's servants."

The Gaffer raised his eyebrows and looked all the more uneasy. "We've heard strange tales from Buckland, that we have. Black Men raidin' the house in Crickhollow and such."

"They did." But it seemed so long ago now, so distant a fright, and Sam didn't care to delve for closer memories. There'd been a time for telling the story and a time for keeping their eyes on what was whole and growing again, and hoping for sleep of nights --

"And you all went chasing off into the forest, from what I hear." The Gaffer rocked his stool back a bit and let it drop forward again.

"That we were..." Sam breathed out for want of words. A time would come for Shirefolk to hear of Frodo's deeds and to make their own songs, plainer than the lays of Men, but pure in a way that wrenched at the heart.

The Gaffer regarded him another long moment, his eyes fixed on Sam's chest. As if a mud-smear clung there, or the rags of that filthy orc gear.

"'Tain't like Mr. Frodo to dress you up queer, 'less he's taken to't himself."

"No," Sam said softly. "He's done fighting." He rubbed his hands together, chafing for warmth, and glanced down at the mail-shirt. "It wears well enough."

The Gaffer wagged his head. "How's Mr. Frodo then?"

He should have been ready for that question, but his mind ran dry as a well, steep and hollow to the bottom. We still have a long road ahead of us, you and I, Sam. And may all your wishes come true. Right then, he longed only to close his eyes and remember --

"He's been... ill, but he's recovered. He'll be well now that he's come home." Sam took a step back to the door and pulled it open. "We ought to be off. They're rousing the Shire to clear out the ruffians and all." Seeing his dad's disbelieving expression, he added, "Mr. Merry and Pippin have fought in the war, and they know what's to do."

The Gaffer rose from his stool, reached for the water pitcher as if to put out the fire, then set it back down. "Fought in the war," he muttered. "And the less said, the better, I expect."

When he shuffled over to the door, Sam thought for a moment that his father would reach out, put a hand on his arm maybe, but he didn't. He walked out and sniffed the night-air with a grimace.

"Who ever thought. Hobbits killing their own kind! Killing, Sam, and now there's to be more, you say. But where blood's once spilled, nowt grows for a hundred years, you mark me. 'Tis a curse, I say."

What ever the smoke was that blew over Hobbiton, it set a sick twisting in Sam's stomach, and all he wanted was to be gone. All this time he'd been waiting for a bit of ground to feel like home under his feet, not pitching and tilting, or ripped open by boots and wheels. He kept his back turned to the Hill as they walked.

"I saw them digging up the Row..." It slipped ere Sam could think about it. Folk take their danger with them into the golden wood, he could still hear himself say, and weren't that the truth. "Like a dream of things to come," he tried to explain. "I couldn't do aught about it, not and--"

"You couldn't 'a stopped them," the Gaffer said brusquely, "not the lot of them. There's no use weepin' over dreams and fancies."

Sam ducked his head. Aye, nobut a fancy I carried all the way to Mordor. The old oak and the Water and the look of the Hill in spring...

They'd reached the end of Hobbiton Road, and the moon had climbed high enough to spill an even grey shine where the shadows of trees should have lain.

The Gaffer slowed to a halt, breathing deep. "Show me your hands, Samwise."

Sam held them out and turned them over, pale in this light and not a stain of the black blood left on his skin. The Gaffer tapped his finger-pads where all the old calluses from his gardening work still showed.

"If I'd known a touch o'this when Mr. Frodo took you off with him..." The Gaffer's eyes looked sore and watery up close, and they filled with a knowing look that flushed heat into Sam's cheeks. "But I couldn't have kept you, could I, Sam?"

He shook his head. This was all they'd ever say about it, and the closest to --

"Well, you did find your ways home again." The Gaffer started walking again briskly. "Now what's up in Bywater, you say?"

"There's been a bit of scuffle with the robbers just after dark," Sam answered, "and Farmer Cotton's rallied folk to fight them."

"Ah!" The Gaffer nodded vigorously. "The Cottons have been kind as kin, and don't you forget it," he went on with sudden sharpness. "Before them ruffians started dragging folk off to the lockholes and worse, Mrs. Cotton sent Nibs or Rosie along every week, with porridge or bread, she did." There was anger in his tone, and a biting edge of grief.

"You'll have a new hole, Dad," Sam promised in a rush, "bigger than before, and drier, and a new garden for your taters." But would his father believe half a word of it, after seeing it all go to wreck? "We'll plant new trees too," Sam finished, so soft that his dad couldn't have heard.

The Gaffer stopped anyway, and in the flat, grey twilight he looked terribly old. "All's well as ends better, I've always said."

But where does it end? Though his neck felt stiff as wood, Sam made himself nod. Don't you know it already? He couldn't cry now, couldn't make it worse for the Gaffer who watched him like sorrow come walking.

After a moment, the Gaffer set a hand on his shoulder. His fingers gripped hard for a breath and another, then fell away again. "I thought you was dead, son."

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