The Invitation
by Frayach ni Cuill

A moment or two passed before Sam remembered where he was. The pale sunlight angling through the window fell across his feet and not his pillow, and a quiet hung in the air as though everyone had gone down to the fields already, leaving him abed. Such a thing had only ever happened to him once, six harvests back now. He'd taken a fever just as the root fields were being dug, and though he'd tried to work, his fingers had felt as nimble as sausages, and the long ribs of the potato mounds wavered before his eyes like ripples on Bywater Pool. His Gaffer sent him home before noon and bid him sleep it off, promising Sam if he did so he'd be as spry as a ribboned calf come the next morning. But he hadn't been. The fever held for nigh on a week, and he'd missed many an early call to work, awakening in the silent smial with a guilty start to the distant sound of the mid-day bell.

Low voices, coming through the wall from behind his head, stirred the quiet air, and Sam breathed a long sigh of relief. Farmer and Mrs. Cotton must just be waking themselves. He stretched his arms above his head, letting the muscles in his back and sides lengthen until he felt the faint familiar tug of pain. He'd been trying to do the work of three lads, and the effort left his eyes dropping nigh nightfall and his back as knotted as an old pine. But the new, hard-packed straw in his mattress and the goosedown pillow made him feel fresh as dew upon waking. He yawned and sat up, scratching between his shoulder blades before stretching again toward the low arched rafters.

The Cottons' kitchen was twice again the size of their kitchen at Number Three, but nearly as cluttered feeling with all the pots and pans and crockery balanced on every shelf and Farmer Cotton's tools taking up half the table. After some searching, Sam found the buckets and yoke in a pile of harnesses by the door and headed out into the yard. A cock crowed half-heartedly from the coop as though he was more than a little weary of the daily task. Tired out by the hens no doubt, Sam chuckled to himself and wished for the first time that day, but surely not the last, that Jolly or Nibs were about to share a joke with or a spot of ale in the fields between rows. They'd be home that afternoon likely as not, but by then Sam would be on the road back toward the Hill. His Gaffer had given him leave to go to the Cottons only until the lads could return from their uncle's farm. There was too much as needed doing in Mr. Frodo's fields and gardens for Sam to be able to spend a day or two more here, singing with Nibs as they straddled the rows, digging up leeks with both hands, as quick and busy as badgers, or sharing a smoke with Tom against the hedge. As soon as he saw them coming up the lane, he'd be packing and bidding the Farmer and Missus farewell.

Passing close by the byre, Sam caught a glimpse of colour. Rosie Cotton was seated on a low stool with a red shawl about her shoulders and her back to the door. Sam hummed noisily as he approached so as not to startle her and set his yoke and buckets on the broad stone slab step with a clatter.

"Good morning, Rosie," he said. The cow she was milking paused in her slow chewing to look at him, but Rosie herself did not turn around.

"Good morning to you too, Sam. Did you sleep well?" she asked, her back still to him, her long loose braid swaying with the rhythm of her milking.

"Like a turnip in a dirt cellar," Sam replied.

"Are my parents about yet?" Rosie asked and turned with a gesture in the direction of the corner. "Will you hand me that pot of salve over there?"

Sam went to the cluttered shelf and groped about for a moment until he found what he was looking for. Dust motes floated up from their rest among overturned jars and bags of shoeing nails and hung lazily in the shaft of light that fell between the loose-fitted timbers.

"I heard them just as I was waking," he answered and handed her the salve. "Neither was in the kitchen before I went out for water, though."

Rosie dipped her fingers into the pot and then reached beneath the cow's udder to coat each brown teat. "Poor girl, she's cracked as a dry streambed," she said and then stood to pat the wide black flank. Turning to Sam, she drew her arm and hand across her brow leaving a greasy smudge.

"You've got some on your face," Sam told her and pointed to her forehead. Rosie bent into her apron for a moment to wipe it off.

"The lads'll be back afore supper," she said, bending again to lift the pail of milk.

"Here, let me get that," Sam said, and she laughed. He gave her a puzzled look from where he sat on the backs of his heels before sliding the pail from beneath the cow, careful not to spill a drop.

"What's so funny?" he asked.

"You offering to carry something for me, that's what," she answered and laughed again. "Too bad Tom and Jolly weren't here to see it."

"I don't think there's aught so unusual about it," Sam said, a faint note of irritation edging his voice. "Especially since I'm here in your home to give you all a much-needed hand. Twould be wrong to stand about like a stump and let others be doing all the work." Without waiting to see if Rosie would follow, he headed toward the door, carrying the pail before him gingerly with both hands.

"There was a day not long gone by now when you and my brothers would have hid behind the bales to frighten me as soon as I stooped to lift a pail full of milk," Rosie said as she followed after him and brought down the latch. "Now you're offering to carry it in for me."

"We were aught but young lads without a pint of sense between us, is all," Sam replied. "I'm right sorry if we were rude to you."

"Oh, tweren't no harm done, and the lot of you would make it up to me later. I remember that time when you and Nibs got your floury mits all over my new shift and I cried through breakfast. You brought me a cake from the market later that day, do you remember?"

"Aye, I remember. We both felt bad, so we did," Sam answered as he shouldered open the kitchen door, and Rosie held it for him to pass through. Mrs. Cotton waved a spoon in greeting and gestured for them to take their seats at the table where porridge sat steaming in earthenware bowls. "But why should buying you a cake seem less worth noting than offering to carry in a pail of milk?"

"Don't wait on ceremony," Mrs. Cotton called over her shoulder as she bustled toward the pantry. They took their seats across from each other.

"It's all that working for Mr. Frodo, is what it is," Rosie answered between mouthfuls.

Sam started and gave her a hard look. "And what might you be meaning by that?" He set his spoon down and reached for the jug of milk.

"Only that I'd imagine that Mr. Frodo don't lift a finger with you about the place, and you've gotten right used to offering."

Mrs. Cotton returned carrying a large round basket filled with bread rolls the size of fists. For a week since the main harvest started, she'd been fixing lunch for the hands in the fields. She and Rosie would lay out a blanket with boards of goat's cheese, and Sam and the rest would fill their bellies and have a smoke before starting back again.

"Rose." Sam almost never called her that. "Mr. Frodo pays me a handsome wage to do for him, and he sees to it that my Gaffer has enough meal each month and a spot of pipeweed, and that May and Mari have candles to do the mending they take in by." His voice was low enough that Mrs. Cotton would not hear it from where she stood by the oven, but he chose his words slowly and carefully so that Rosie would have no mistake: his work for Mr. Frodo weren't no topic for idle chatter.

"I know that, Sam. Sure we all do. I was only saying that you've grown the habit of offering to help a body out is all," Rosie replied in a voice as low as Sam's.

"I'm ashamed to learn I was in a need to grow it. I'd no idea I was such a selfish lout," he said, pushing his half-finished bowl away and pulling his handkerchief from his collar.

"Don't be cross, Sam," Rosie smiled and patted the back of his hand. "No one could ever fault you with being a selfish lout. Why, look how it is? Here we were in a pickle with the lads off to my poor uncle's for the harvest while he mends that back of his, and you step in to help. You saved us the bother of having to ask about the Farthing, not to mention a fair bit of talk. You're grand to have done it, and I meant no harm just now. To you nor Mr. Frodo."

"What secrets have the magpies?" Mrs. Cotton had turned from the stove and was watching them, her eyes twinkling beneath her bonnet, and Sam felt his face redden. He pushed back from the table and stood up.

"I best be finishing my trip to the well," he announced and reached for his hat.

"Ach, there's no need of that, Sam," Mrs. Cotton replied. "I've got water enough in the jugs to last me through the morning. Sit down and have some more porridge. I've a whole potful here and Himself can't be eating it all."

"Thank you, Mrs. Cotton, but I left the buckets out by the shed. May as well finish one task afore starting another," Sam said as lightly as he could manage. The room suddenly seemed even more close and cluttered than usual. Rosie looked up at him with a question still in her eyes, and he leaned down to speak quietly in her ear. "I'm not cross, Rose," he said. "I'll just think twice before I offer to carry in a pail of milk for you again." Rosie smiled at him and glanced toward the ceiling in a gesture of mock irritation. With a nod and a tip of his hat to Mrs. Cotton, Sam headed for the door.

Outside the early autumn breeze touched his face lightly and lifted the damp hair from the back of his neck. He went to the shed and shouldered the yoke, checking to see that the buckets were secure before heading up the short hill to the well. The morning's mists were lifting from the fields like steam rising off a pot of water just about to boil, and the sun burned through the haze like a cinder, but Sam kept his eyes on the ground before him and saw little of it.

It was hard to tell what troubled him the more the changing way of being around Rosie or the way she'd mentioned Mr. Frodo like that, as though it were something she knew a whit about. On the first score, he supposed he shouldn't be much surprised. He had older sisters after all and had watched the way his Gaffer's mien had changed toward certain lads and their fathers when one was bold enough to walk one of the lasses home or carry her mending for her. It was just he'd never thought of it before when it came to Rosie. She being his best friends' sister and all, and near like a sister to himself as well. And if his sisters were still lasses, then Rosie was even more so. It surprised him that the Cottons would be looking for a husband for her so soon. Or maybe he had just imagined it and was spinning this discomfort out of hay instead of flax. Regardless, Sam resolved to watch his step more closely. Tom, no doubt, would think it necessary to box his ears if he'd any thought that there was aught between his best friend and his wee sister.

Sam was relieved to see that there was no one about at the well. He set the yoke down and unhooked the buckets from their chains. Leaning out over the lip of the well and reaching for the rope, he felt his back and shoulders protest again. It was a good thing that he'd only be putting in three quarters of a day. He and his Gaffer would be joining the Haywards in Mr. Frodo's barley fields the next morning, and he wanted to be as fresh and rested as he could. His Dad was not as nimble as he once was, and Sam wanted to be able to do his work as well as his own, if his Dad needed to take a rest.

He placed the dipping stone in the bucket and let it drop, the scratchy rope skidding through his fingers as it went. The thought of Mr. Frodo's barley fields had reminded him of Rosie's remarks, and he wondered again at why they'd made him feel so odd of a sudden, so flustered and annoyed. He was sorry now that he'd spoken sharply to her she knew naught of what she said, not being privy as he was to Mr. Frodo's ways and what it had been like to work in Bag End these nearly twelve months now. Maybe she was right that he'd gotten more into the habit of noticing when others could use a hand than he'd once been, but was that a result of working for Mr. Frodo, or was he just growing up and losing the thoughtless ways that all lads have before they learn to know better?

Sam could tell by the tug in the rope that the bucket had sunk and filled. Leaning his weight into the effort, he pulled it up to the well's rim and lifted it down with both hands to steady it. The sun felt warm on his neck, and he paused a moment to loosen his collar. It would be a warm day and no doubt. Another day without rain and a relief to the Farthing's farmers. From this height, he could see back toward the Cotton farm and its small, tidy sheds and pens. Tidier on the outside they looked than the inside, Sam chuckled to himself. He'd never known the Farmer or his wife to discard a thing once it came into their possession, no matter how broken or useless. Where they found the places for everything he could only guess. How unlike Bag End with its high ceilings and cupboards and wardrobes aplenty. Not that Mr. Frodo's home was without its share of bits and bobs and what-have-yous. But it was certainly tidier than the Cottons' and tidier than even it had been when Mr. Bilbo was the master. I like my windows and floors, Mr. Frodo had told him on more than one occasion. I like to see them and not just guess that they're still there beneath piles of things. Sam had been grateful to hear of it, because it meant there was always something as needed doing when he was around.

Sam smiled and shook his head as he fastened the second bucket and let it drop into the well. That first month or so had been aught but guesses for them both. Neither had known what to expect of the other. Nearly a year ago now, but Sam could remember it like yesterday the surprise and then acquiescence in Mr. Frodo's face when Sam had slipped into his bedroom that first morning to throw open his curtains and lay out a clean shirt and jacket on the chair with its carved armrests of blooming roses. Looking back now, Sam could not imagine where he'd found the courage to do it, but at the time it had just seemed the right thing to do, the way to start the morning. They'd never discussed it, and even after Sam realised how forward it was, he still continued to do it, for to stop would have meant having to talk about why, and that would've been even harder.

How was Mr. Frodo waking up with him away? Sam thought suddenly and rested for a moment in pulling up the heavy, swaying bucket. The past few days were the first they'd been apart since Sam began working for him, save for a fortnight in early May when Mr. Frodo had stayed with his relations over in Tuckborough. For a moment, Sam could imagine Mr. Frodo still asleep at noon, his face as Sam had so often seen it, sunk amidst down pillows, as still as milk in a pan. And then, just as quickly, Sam laughed at himself and resumed pulling on the rope. Mr. Frodo, of course, would do as he'd done for the thirty-three autumns before Sam came into his service. He'd wake before breakfast and find his own clothes and likely not think a jot about it.

The pang of sensation that accompanied this thought took Sam by surprise, and he shook his head ruefully before hooking the buckets back to the yoke and turning his steps down the hill. Farmer Cotton had surely finished his breakfast by now and would be looking for him to help hitch up the cart and load it with all the tools and provisions they'd be needing for the day. With each step, Sam dug his heels into the worn path to keep from slipping on a lingering patch of dew. From the far side of the sheds, he could hear the faint sound of voices and laughter and smell the mellow waft of pipeweed.

This strange pang came, perhaps, from the same place as the irritation that Rosie's words had stirred in him. It was true, though she could not know it, that he'd been eager to make himself of use to his new master, and if a way didn't present itself on first inspection, he'd return to it again and again in his thoughts until he'd thought of one. Like the idea he'd had of preparing Mr. Frodo's supper for him rather than simply leaving things chopped and seasoned and ready for Mr. Frodo to cook himself. Or, last winter, when the snow had fallen nearly knee-deep, he'd decided he ought to shovel not only a path to the gate, but paths over the Hill and to the shed as well. And there'd been the airing of all Bag End's linens that spring, and, at least once a week, he'd mop down the tile floors and beat the rugs over the fence.

If you'd do half as much around Number Three, May had said to him one afternoon when she'd walked up the Lane to deliver Mr. Frodo's washing and pick up any mending as he might have for her, there'd be no need of me about the place and I could marry tomorrow. Much to Sam's dismay, she'd called out to him from the gate. He'd been planting the boxes beneath the front parlour window, and Mr. Frodo had been just inside the open door, polishing the brass candleholder beside the jamb. He'd been inside a shadow so May hadn't seen him, and neither had she heard the low chuckle he gave when he heard her words. But Sam had, and he blushed to the tips of his ears for it. That evening Mr. Frodo saw fit to ask Sam whether or not he might be working too hard.

"You realise, Sam, that I did more than half the things you're doing for me for both myself and Bilbo," he'd said after inviting Sam into the study to share a cup of tea and a smoke. "I am expecting your Gaffer to show up at my door any day now and ask why it is that I'm working his son to the quick."

Sam tentatively accepted the cup and saucer that Mr. Frodo held out to him as well as a poppyseed cake on a silver plate. It was early April and late afternoon at that, and Mr. Frodo had lit an oil lamp and several candles to stave off the lowering gloom. The day'd been bright but cool, and Sam wondered again whether it'd been wise to plant the window boxes quite so early. One frost, even a light one, would blacken the little shoots he'd been tending for weeks in the wet warmth of Mr. Frodo's bath room.

"My Gaffer's glad I can be of service to you, sir," he'd responded cautiously.

"Now, Sam, we know that is not entirely true." Mr. Frodo arched an eyebrow as he leaned back into the shadows of Mr. Bilbo's grand stuffed chair and crossed his legs, swinging his foot, the shiny dark hair catching the light now and again like a mink at a river's edge. "We should not pretend that he's pleased that you're both my gardener and my housekeeper."

Sam had bridled at the term and gave Mr. Frodo a look that he hoped said as much.

"I think I'm a bit more than a housekeeper, sir," he'd ventured after a moment. Mr. Frodo looked at him with an unreadable expression over the rim of his teacup as he took another sip.

"No, you're right about that," he'd said after setting the teacup back in its saucer and taking a bite of cake. "You're more like a... more of..." He waved his hand in the air in front of him as if he could summon a word to mind like a cook waves the scent of his simmering stew to his nose.

Everything, Sam had thought suddenly. I'm more of everything to you.

"...a servant," Mr. Frodo said finally, taking another bite of cake and leaning forward with the teapot to freshen Sam's cup. "But a servant in the truest sense of the word. You serve me, in every way that you can come up with, and I thank you for it. But..."

Sam had known this was coming, had known it since the moment Mr. Frodo called him into the study and Sam had noticed his best plates and silver spoons set out. "But what, sir?" he asked squarely and firmly.

"But you needn't do so any longer. I've quite gotten used to Bilbo being gone and I've got the help, when I need it, of Merry and Freddy and Folco..."

"But you can't be asking Mr. Merry or Mr. Folco to fold your linens for you or draw your bath or..."

"Or make my breakfast and supper, or press my shirts, or scour my cupboards, or wash my windows, or stock my larder, or polish my silver and brass, or take my wheat to be ground, or sweep out my hearths, or scrub my pots and pans, or make my beds..." Mr. Frodo listed off each item on his long fingers, taking a break between them now and again for a bite of cake. Sam noticed that more than a few crumbs were collecting in the folds of his fine brocade waistcoat. What Mr. Frodo didn't mention, and Sam had no intention of reminding him, was that Mr. Merry and Mr. Freddy and Mr. Folco wouldn't waken Mr. Frodo in the morning, when the first kiss of daybreak touched the crown of the oak on the Hill. They wouldn't have the smile to meet his drowsy protestations that Sam held for that very moment in the quick of his heart. No one would.

Sam had remained silent as Mr. Frodo spoke, caught between his desire to keep things as they were, as they had become, and the burgeoning knowledge that Mr. Frodo might not entirely want or appreciate everything that Sam was doing for him. With the list hanging in the air between them, of all the ways that Sam had wound his way around Mr. Frodo's life like a vine around an ash, he began to see that maybe, just maybe, he was doing too much. There was little about Mr. Frodo's comings and goings that Sam did not know of and even fewer mysteries when it came to the upkeep of his person and household. Images leapt before Sam's eyes of moments that even Mr. Merry would not, could not, have seen Mr. Frodo standing in naught but his nightshirt, hair awry and chamber pot in hand; Mr. Frodo sitting all pensive before the fire, his chin in his palms and his eyes wide with sleeplessness and worry; Mr. Frodo as he was preparing for a dinner party, his cheeks hot and red with the wine he'd been drinking since sundown, his laughter at all of Sam's jokes, and the way he stood before the looking glass trying on jacket after fine jacket, tossing them all in a heap on the bed behind him, or Mr. Frodo's face after a night of fever, pale and glistening, the spit dried at the corners of his mouth like a pony's that had been driven hard over a long hill.

Sam shifted in his chair and cleared his throat. There'd be time aplenty on his walk home and through the stretch of the long night before him to think about why it was that he couldn't bear the thought of losing his window to these moments, these glimpses. Time aplenty for that, but right then his first thought had been to preserve all that he'd won over the past six months. And to do that, first he had to know.

"Do you want me to... to stop, sir?" The words had passed his lips without the quiver he'd expected, and he felt a moment's fleeting pride. "Do you want me to stop doing for you?"

Mr. Frodo looked at him for a long moment. He'd filled the bowl of his pipe and packed down the pipeweed with the silver handle of his pocket knife, but now he paused in his efforts, and the pipe remained unlit, balanced in his fingers like a half-formed thought. The candle flames behind him wavered in a sudden draft through the casement.

"No," he'd said and then fell silent again, still unmoving and watching Sam with his dark eyes, until Sam began to feel quite uncomfortable, even more uncomfortable than usual if such a thing were possible. Six months or not, he'd never forgotten for a second that Mr. Frodo was a Baggins and the Bag End Baggins, at that. He'd found a place in his master's company through daily tasks, and though those tasks made him privy to a way of living no Gamgee would ever aspire to, they didn't make him feel at home or allow him to imagine that Mr. Frodo was made of similar stuff. Featherbeds and moonbeams, his Gaffer'd said once, with a grunt and the shake of his head. Meetings with the Mayor, all's he has to do is ask, and tea and cakes twice a day.

"Well, then," Sam replied. "Would you like me to do a bit less about the place?" He'd swallowed hard and hoped against hope that Mr. Frodo would end this conversation, and they could forget it ever happened. But, at the same time, he'd wished for some direction, some point on the horizon to make for. If Mr. Frodo was uncomfortable or unhappy, then Sam wanted to know it. No matter the strange little hurt in his breast, like a bee sting to his heart. He wanted to know.

"I would like for you not to work yourself into an early grave," Mr. Frodo answered. "I would like for you to do what you have time for and leave the rest for me. You put in as full a day's labour as your Gaffer ever did, and I have it on sound information that you do your fair share of work at home and for the Widow Rumble as well. How you find it in you to wait on a gentlehobbit with a rambling smial, I don't know. And I guess I won't ask as you seem to have your mind made up on the subject."

"That I do, sir," Sam had said in a surge of regret and gratitude. Mr. Frodo, signaling a change in mood and an end to the conversation, lit his pipe in a candle's flame and sucked the sweet smoke into his mouth with short inhalations before releasing it, after a moment, in a long breath through his nostrils. The smoke remained hanging in the air and made the whole study seem like a chamber of a dream. The candlelight danced across the gilded bindings of books and fell in bright glints on objects whose origins Sam could only guess at. With a gestured invitation from Mr. Frodo, Sam had filled his own pipe from his master's satchel and leaned forward toward the flame that Mr. Frodo held out to him.

Not another word on the subject passed between them after that evening, but Sam became even more careful than before to remain in the background. He'd gotten into the habit of going about everything just a step before or a step behind Mr. Frodo. Where once he might have chattered away out of anxiousness, he now kept his tongue behind his teeth until he fancied Mr. Frodo had grown able to go about his way with Sam in the room and nary a thought on the matter. He'd grown a quiet way about himself, like he'd learned for hunting coneys. But what he was hunting now was a sign from Mr. Frodo, any sign at all. What did his master want? And it was not as though he could just out and ask him, because after that day in the study, Sam sensed that it had all gone way past words, and, after all, it was not the talking with Mr. Frodo that he craved. He had no fanciful dreams of befriending him, like he was a farm hand, and sharing gossip over a pint. On the contrary, the less that Mr. Frodo spoke to him the better, because when he did, Sam always had the unpleasant sensation that every word he'd ever learned had fallen out the backside of his head like stones out of an upturned hand cart. No, he had no thoughts of being a friend to his master like Mr. Merry or Mr. Folco were. But even without words, he sensed that he could know, if only Mr. Frodo would let him, what his master needed and how to bring it to him, like the evening brings the dew, like the dawn brings the soft, peach skin light.

On top of it all, he'd tried to tell himself that all he wanted was simply to be able to stay where he was, in Bag End's beautiful halls and gardens amidst clever folk and their clever talk. And it was true. Since the first day he'd set his foot inside that green door it had been all he'd ever wanted the chance to come back again and again and stand amidst books and paintings and music and tales as wild and dark as an early winter storm. As long as Mr. Frodo needed him, there would be a place for him in Bag End. But he'd come to realise it was more than just presence he longed for, more than just books and tales and even Mr. Frodo's fiddle playing. It was to know, in the taproots of his heart, what it was his master wanted and to be able to give it to him without his having to ask and without a whisper of want on his own part. Not even a whisper.

Farmer Cotton hailed Sam from the front door of the farm house. Around the yard milled lads from neighbouring farms and smials, and they nodded to Sam or clapped his shoulder as he walked past, carrying the water into the kitchen where he poured it into the jugs Mrs. Cotton had set out. Neither she nor Rosie were anywhere to be seen, and Sam expected they were probably in the bake house out back or headed down the South Lane to the market in Bywater.

"Thank 'ee, Sam," Farmer Cotton said, ducking his head inside the door for a moment. "I would've gone to the well myself if I hadn't slept past the cock's first crowing."

"Twasn't a bother," Sam replied. "Besides, I'm not surprised you didn't waken. I think that bantam of yours has about as much taste for his job as a milkmaid on a forelithe fair day."

Farmer Cotton laughed hardily and spat into the dust beside the front steps. "Don't I know it," he said. "Perhaps it's time I bought myself another 'un, although the squabbling between them will keep us up all night until they figure out who's who and what's what." He stood for a moment counting heads. "Are you ready to set out? I thought we'd start on the lower quarter this morning and work our way up the slope. That way we can stay ahead of the sun a bit."

"I'm ready," Sam answered him, and he and the other hands fell in behind Farmer Cotton's cart as it started along the two-tracked road and passed behind the pens and sheds.

The work went quickly. More lads than they'd expected turned out to lend their labour, and they soon had a steady rhythm going and a song to match it. Sam could feel it sink into his bones like the remembered warmth of a bath on a cold night. When he stood to wipe his brow, he was pleased to see that nearly half the slope was already dotted with piles of potatoes and turnips. He looked to where Farmer Cotton walked the rows, stooping now and again to rub the soil in his fingertips or examine a radish gnawed white in spots, and caught his glance. Farmer Cotton smiled broadly and shook his head. "You're all grand lads," he called above their song. "Keep on with it the way you are." And to Sam he said in a lower voice, "My boys will have naught to do when they return. I'll have to put them to work for their mother making the jams." He winked and went back to his surveying, joining now and again in a chorus.

Would Mr. Frodo come out to the fields tomorrow and walk the rows as Farmer Cotton did? Or would he just leave the overseeing to Farmer Hayward? It momentarily amazed Sam that he had no answer. Certainly, Mr. Frodo hadn't been present during the planting, but then again he'd been in Tuckborough for his Aunt's birthday party and then had to see to that nasty land dispute on his return. Didn't leave a lot of time to walk his fields, as vast as they were. Mr. Bilbo had some times come out to watch them at work, but Sam had always suspected it was more for the walk of it than anything else. There was still so much he didn't know about Mr. Frodo so much that remained a mystery despite the slow twining of their lives and labours. Like as not, Sam could guess at every third word to pass Farmer Cotton's lips, but Mr. Frodo, well, he was a different story altogether, and Sam found it wiser not to guess at too much. More often than naught, he'd been wrong when he had.

He thought again of Rosie's remarks and his own disquietude after the talk he and Mr. Frodo had in his study. The trick to training sweet peas, his Gaffer had told him once, is patience and lots of it. In his heart, Sam had a vision of himself, near as grey-haired as his Dad, standing in the kitchen of Bag End chopping chives and testing the broth now and again. Though he couldn't see him, Sam knew that Mr. Frodo was there, like as not in his study or strolling his garden paths with thoughtful steps. This was the end he sought. This was where he wanted to be when his back stooped with age, amidst the quiet daily rhythms of a shared life. His heart swelled to think of it Bag End and its master under Sam's care and all the things that'd mean. For Mr. Frodo was bound for greatness, and Sam had no doubt of it. He'd be mayor before too long. The Shire would be the better for it, and Bag End would be at its centre and at the centre of Bag End would be Mr. Frodo and himself. Like it was now. Just like it was now.

Patience meant stepping back and trusting a thing to grow as it sees fit. Not forcing it against its nature or before its own good time. That was the secret. And if that meant giving Mr. Frodo more of his own tasks back, then so be it.

The entire lower quarter was finished just after noontide, and Sam and the other hands took a long lunch in the spreading shade of the tall sycamores crowning the low ridge. The ale was cool and smooth in his throat, and he leaned back amongst a knot of sprawling roots to watch the stretch of the East Road that lay just beyond the lower hedge. Around him, lads sat smoking and talking quietly, a laugh or two filling the still air. To his left, young Rollo Cotton, one of the Cotton lads' cousins, lay on his back with his hat covering his face, letting go a snore or a grunt now and again. The sun had climbed to her highest point and seemed ready to bake them all like puddings, and after some minutes of consultation with his foreman, Farmer Cotton told them all they could go on home for the afternoon and return again when the other quarter was in the shade.

"Why don't you head on home, Sam," Farmer Cotton said as Sam shouldered his pack. "I've got more than enough hands to do the next quarter, and Tom and the other boys will be back within an hour or three."

Sam thanked him and, after making his good-byes, turned and strode down the field to the road. The farmhouse was still empty when he arrived, but either Mrs. Cotton or Rosie had laid out a jar of ale, a slab of cheese and a couple of the fist-sized rolls, still warm from the oven, for his walk home. He went to the bedroom and folded his shirts and breeches, placing them in his pack and tightening the straps. His Gaffer would be glad to see him, no doubt. He'd be eager for any news as well, although Sam would have to disappoint him on that front. Other than the regular word they'd all received of Farmer Cotton's brother and his plight, there'd been precious little news. Perhaps, Sam thought, he'd pick up some gossip at the market or the Ivy Bush on his way home, along with some provisions. There were those chops Mr. Frodo had admired the last time they'd gone to Bywater together, and the needles his sisters were always in want of.

* * *

As he'd hoped, the innkeeper's youngest daughter waved him over when he passed by the Ivy. She and her sisters were always good for news, seeing as they were the ones who watched over the inn during the day and sorted the post while their father slept off the night before and their brothers worked their small, but tidy, holdings. But as he approached, Sam saw the reason for her summons. In her gesturing hand, she held a piece of folded parchment with his name Master Samwise Gamgee written on it in a fluid and familiar hand.

Sam was more than a little disconcerted. Certainly, he'd known about the party for some time now and, next to Mr. Frodo, of course, he'd been the principal overseer of all that needed doing and ordering and preparing and whatnot. No, the feast wasn't a surprise at all not like it was sure to be a surprise to those as who didn't know aught of it yet. The surprise was the being-invited-to-it part. That he had not counted on at all.

Careful not to crease it, Sam slipped the invitation into his jacket pocket and adjusted the pack on his shoulders. The innkeeper's daughter still stood by the gate where she'd met him. Leaning against her hands, held behind her in a poor attempt to seem prim, she hummed a tune under her breath and let her eyes fall just past Sam's shoulder, back down the road toward the Pool. She'd be more than a little curious about the invitation as, no doubt, would be her sisters. Nothing got by them, and speculation as to the contents of a letter was a good as confirmation in their eyes. Especially if it got them an audience by the inn's hearth that night.

Curious, but not bold enough to ask. Well, let her wonder on then, Sam thought as he nodded his head to her with a smile. He had sisters enough of his own as it was, and they would no doubt have heard of the invitation, what with its crimson wax seal with the ring of Bag End stamped in its middle and his name written across it like that in big letters. Most likely half the West Farthing had heard about it already as it must have been waiting for him at the inn for the better part of three days now.

Brown hens, eyeing him pertly, scattered before his feet as he passed out of the Ivy's yard and into the road. Returning the nod of Farmer Underbrush and his boy as they drove by, he turned and set a course for the south side of the village. The farmer was on his way toward the market and looked in the mood for a chat, but Sam no longer yearned for company. He climbed the stile behind the inn and crossed the innkeeper's pasture, keeping just shy of shouting distance from the road. It'd been a wet harvest thus far, but the rain had followed on the heels of a dry summer. The Water wasn't likely to be over the stone crossing just west of the bridge, and if he were lucky, there'd be no lads splashing about in Key's Kettle. As he walked, he kept his eyes on the uneven path before him, watching for fox holes and marsh tussocks in the tall grass by the hedge.

The reason he was so rattled by the invitation was that he'd already planned the evening of the Hundred-weight feast in his head. He was to arrive at Bag End before the guests, after he and his Dad put in a good morning's worth and, of course, after a dunk in the Pool. He'd wear the new waistcoat he'd had cut and tailored just so, with the embroidery on the collar an expense he'd ordinarily have denied himself but for the fact that the party was coming up and Sam had caught a peep of Mr. Frodo's new jacket and waistcoat when they were delivered and, surely, Mr. Frodo's servant couldn't be turning out in garments he'd been wearing every Highday for a year. He'd planned to have cut flowers on the table, a board with cheese and salted pork ready, and several pots of tea steeping by the time the first knock came, and then, after that, it would be as it always was: the warm greetings in the front parlour, Mr. Frodo's hands on his friends' shoulders and a quick kiss at the ear. Walking, arms around each others' necks, into the sitting room, everyone's voices loud from their journeys, from having to shout over the wind or the rain or the clop-clop of ponies' footfalls. The tea steaming in the cups and the smell of burnt sugar and warm milk. The light slowly fading and him lighting the many candles, one by one, countering the rising dark with each new low flame.

Then he'd be in the kitchen preparing the sauces and gravies and wiping the steam from the little window now and again to watch the stars wink on, as though the sky were a house too, and a fond servant was going through its rooms with a taper in his hand. He would cut the roast and ladle the drippings and slice the bread and chop the mint for the taters. He'd take his own plate in the kitchen, shoveling the food into his mouth and gulping back the ale so as not to miss a call for more wine or more meat. So as not to miss that moment when Mr. Frodo leaned back in his chair, his arms spread wide to include the whole table, the whole room, nay, the whole Shire in an embrace.

Lads, Mr. Frodo would say. Who wants to dance? And with that, he'd rise and go to the chest where he kept his fiddle. Standing before the wide hearth, a dark outline against the leaping fire, he'd tuck the fiddle beneath his chin and touch his fingers, light as rain, to the strings. And the sound would be like wind in the poplars; like the distant mountains old Mr. Bilbo used to tell of; like every party Sam'd ever been to rolled into one; like coming home to a warm fire but still knowing that behind the door the whole world stretched out like a beckoning hand.

But all his planning would now be for naught. Walking slowly onward, his hands in his trouser pockets and his eyes on the path before him, Sam tried to imagine what being a guest, and not the servant, would be like. Certainly, it would mean not being able to stand against the far wall, drinking in every sight, every sound. It would mean sitting at the table and trying to think of something clever to say to Mr. Frodo's clever friends. It would mean having to worry about holding his fork and spoon correctly and keeping the gravy off his new waistcoat without the help of a handkerchief tucked in his collar. It would mean not being able to listen, without the worry of having to respond, to all the lively talk of goings-on in the Shire and other things, like seas and stars and books and numbers. It would mean not being able to watch every movement of Mr. Frodo's fine hands with their long fingers or Mr. Frodo's mouth with its quick, wide smile. It would mean not being able to retreat to the kitchen, with its stack of pots and pans that called out for a scouring, to be alone with his fumbling thoughts.

As it neared the Water, the path became more distinct, a hard-packed dirt rut that cut through the sod in a straight line and left a notch in the steep bank as though it were a measuring rod. Sam climbed down carefully and stood for a moment, surveying the crossing. As he had hoped, the stones were not yet under water. All the same, it was difficult going. Only the very tops of the flat stones were visible above the current, and they were wet and slick. Sam kept his weight low, gripping the stones with his toes. Key's Kettle was too deep from the recent rains for bathing and splashing about, so he had the crossing to himself, save for the long blue heron among the cattails at the bank dipping its graceful neck now and again and raising it just as quickly, the bright quiver of a fish caught in its beak. The river chuckled and murmured on either side of him, and the sunlight fell through the leaves on to the brown water, turning it golden in places and as dark as stout in others.

He'd gone wading here as a lad, though now he and his friends more often made for Bywater Pool when they found a minute or two for a dip. But he had always loved this spot, with its mixture of shade and sun, of swiftly flowing water and smooth stones and dark foam-flecked pools. It was a changeling place, always different from one day to the next and sometimes even hour to hour. In the early mornings, the mist lay on the water nearly muffling its sound, but by elevenses it would be sparkling, with insects drifting through shafts of sunlight like someone was sanding the roof of the sky and bright bits were floating down now and again. Afternoons it would be full of splashing boys, sprawled on rocks and swinging from ropes in the trees. And evenings it seemed to sing in the silence, in the absence of voices and birds' calls, just itself alone, singing to the night coming through the trees and the bats darting from bank to bank. He could sit here for hours while darkness fell, with the only light the slivered moon on the rippling water or, as he'd seen it once, the full moon reflected in a deep pool, like something precious a coin or a trinket perhaps dropped and forgotten. At the time, he'd been more than half tempted to dive for it.

A flicker of movement among the alders on the far bank distracted him, and he crouched to catch his balance, his toes scrabbling for a grip and his fingertips grazing the moss-covered stones on either side. It took a moment before he recognized Mr. Frodo, and at first he thought he was mistaken, that he'd conjured him to this place with all his thinking. But then he heard his name in a clear, familiar voice.

"Sam! Did I startle you? My apologies. I should have announced my coming sooner."

Nimble as a deer, Mr. Frodo climbed down through the tangle of alders and stood at the river's edge, a walking stick in his hand and his pack on his back. Sam stood to make his customary bow, but nearly lost his balance again. Wading into the shallows, Mr. Frodo leaned forward and caught Sam's elbow, guiding him on to surer ground.

"Good afternoon, sir," Sam said, straightening his braces and collar and adjusting his own pack on his shoulders. "I'm just after coming from Bywater and was on my way up to Bag End. Picked up those chops as you were wanting and a bit of cornmeal as well, seeing as we're low on that at the moment."

"Did you stop by the Ivy?" The light on the water seemed to dance in Mr. Frodo's eyes, though his face remained still. "I heard that there might be something there for you."

Sam blushed and looked down the river for a moment, the flickering light forcing him to squint his eyes. Among the cattails, the heron straightened, spreading its broad wings and, without a sound, glided around the bend and beyond his sight.

"Aye, there was something at the inn for me. An invitation in a hand I well recognize."

Mr. Frodo laughed. "As I suspected, you sound less than pleased."

Sam started and turned his head again to look at Mr. Frodo's face. His eyes crinkled at the corners with only half-concealed merriment, and his mouth turned downward as it always did when he couldn't help but be smiling.

"Not at all, sir! Tis an honour and no doubt," Sam countered.

"Then you accept?"

"On one condition, sir, if I may make so bold."

"And, pray, what would that condition be?" Mr. Frodo shifted his weight, leaning forward with both hands on his walking stick.

"That I may keep my place in the kitchen, sir."

"What? Then you would be my servant and not my guest. I can't have that."

"Then I can't come, sir." Sam held Mr. Frodo's eyes, watching as a half dozen emotions flickered through them. At their feet, the river bobbed along with its cargo of twigs and golden leaves, and from the alder thickets came the rising song of the cicadas. If heat had a sound, Sam thought fleetingly, it would be that.

"Sam, I can't have a guest waiting on me. It would be so awkward..." Mr. Frodo's voice trailed off. He straightened and leaned his oaken stick, one of many from Mr. Bilbo's vast collection, against a tall stone.

"Not as awkward as having your servant seated at your table," Sam countered gently. "What would your other guests be thinking?" But it wasn't Mr. Frodo's guests he was thinking on. It was the change it would make between them. Never, in all his thinking since that day in Mr. Frodo's study, had Sam ever thought that what his master might want would be him, his company...

"Oh, bother that." Mr. Frodo waved his hand before his face in a dismissive gesture. "Besides, only my closest friends will be there. I've decided against inviting the 112 people we'd discussed before. The other night I was imagining it, and the very idea had me tired out."

As though the mere mention of it exhausted him, Mr. Frodo shrugged off his pack and sat down on a broad flat stone, thrusting his heels into the gravelly wet sand. Sam shrugged off his own pack and removed his jacket before sitting down beside him.

"I thought you'd decided against a big party in the field weeks ago."

"I did, but then I rethought it again. It just seems so appropriate. Something Bilbo would have done, I'm sure. Although I'm not surrendering my plan to call it a Hundred-weight feast. A hundred-weight it may not be, but a feast it will be without question."

"Mr. Bilbo was always the grand one for riddles and whatnot." Sam smiled as he watched the dancing light return to Mr. Frodo's eyes. "I remember the time... let's see, I was no more than knee-high to a cricket at the time, but I'll never forget it... when he gave my Gaffer that pumpkin..."

Mr. Frodo laughed, tipping his chin back as he did. Against the back of his neck, Sam noticed dark curls clinging damply and, glancing down, that Mr. Frodo's blue shirt was dark with sweat where his pack had been.

"That's only because Bilbo knew what a fuss your Gaffer made each year when he tried to give him a birthday present. He had to disguise it somehow."

"How did he ever manage it?"

"With my sweat and labour, of course," Mr. Frodo answered, laughing. "One morning it was, 'Frodo, lad, run over to the Cottons and find us a nice big pumpkin, a plump little gourd and a fat ol' turnip.' And there I was thinking it was for a stew. The next thing I know, I'm up to my elbows in pulp, scraping out the insides of those confounded vegetables until I was sure my arms would fall off."

"They fit inside one another like peas in a pod," Sam said, shaking his head at the memory. "Twas a marvel."

"Yes, and it took so long for your Gaffer to find those silver buttons inside the turnip that he forgot to be affronted." Frodo replied, tugging idly at his pack's straps and brushing the sand from the hair on his feet with the backs of his heels.

"Ach, my Dad was never 'affronted' as you say, Mr. Frodo. He was just... just a bit uncomfortable, is all."

"And more's the pity," Mr. Frodo responded quickly. "And it's a pity you won't sit at my table on my birthday."

"It's a pity you can't see that standing at your elbow is where I'd rather be than seated between Mr. Folco and Mr. Merry five places down," Sam responded just as quickly and with more heat than he'd intended. He'd hoped this had passed them by. He didn't know how to deny his master anything, but he also knew that he could never, ever, accept his invitation...

Mr. Frodo's eyes were like the pools against the far bank, deep and dark, as he watched Sam's face, which felt suddenly hot at the cheekbones. His expression seemed caught between two thoughts, but then he sighed.

"Well, I can't say that I'm surprised that you feel this way."

"You say that as though it's a wrong thing to want to serve you as I'm employed to do," Sam replied, anxious to soothe the air between them, the thunder-laden wind that twisted their words like leaves before a storm.

With a twig he'd stripped from a nearby alder, Mr. Frodo began tracing runes in the damp sand. "When I 'employed you,' as you put it, I was only employing you for a short while until I could hire someone..." He paused for a moment, his brow furrowed. "More suitable."

"And by 'suitable' you mean a house boy from Frogmorton or the Widow Rumble perhaps?"

"Yes, perhaps."

They sat in silence for a long moment, and the cicadas' keening rose and fell beneath the sound of water over rocks, like a boat struggling to stay afloat on stormy waves. Sam squinted downstream again. The sun no longer fell in slants on the standing pools, but instead came horizontally through the branches, resting on Mr. Frodo's face, which seemed full of concentration as he traced the delicate runes in the sand, one by one.

"Were you on your way somewhere?" Sam asked quietly, just to break the silence. Mr. Frodo did not look up.

"I was on my way here, actually. Bag End is as hot and stuffy as a new-baked pie, and I fancied a swim before supper."

Sam looked at him with surprise. "Why didn't you draw a bath?"

"Because it's not the same, is it?" His voice was without the sharp little edge that had crept into it before, and Sam traced the line of his neck with his eyes, the way it arced to his shoulders. The dark swath of damp on his back had all but disappeared. Still without looking at him, Mr. Frodo added, "Did you think it was perhaps because you weren't there to draw it for me?"

The sharp pain he'd felt earlier at the well hooked itself under Sam's ribs, as did the embarrassment. All the more so for Mr. Frodo's steady voice. How did he expect Sam to answer?

"I'd never have thought such a thing, Mr. Frodo, sir," he said finally, trying to keep his voice from quavering. Instinctively, he straightened, pulling his shoulders back as he did so, and setting his face against the light that made him squint. For the first time in all of his life, he wished to be as far away from Mr. Frodo as possible. Three fields and the Water in-between would not be enough. Beneath the ice that was spreading under his skin was a stunned stillness. For a moment, everything around them seemed edged in bright light, clear and nearly painful, like sunlight on frozen branches or a knife's edge, newly whetted.

"I know that, Sam. Don't mind me," Mr. Frodo replied. Sam could feel his eyes on him, but he didn't turn. Any movement, no matter how slight, and he'd shatter, sure enough. "That was more than uncalled for."

The afternoon was fast becoming evening. The lowing of the cattle in nearby pastures moved farther and farther away as lads and lasses drove them home with hazel switches in their hands. Sam tried to imagine himself among them, laughing and talking about nothing. It'd always been one of his favourite tasks whenever he was visiting the Cottons' farm. He'd loved the end-of-the-day feeling it gave him the harmony of hobbits and animals settling in for the long night. But now the sound left him lonely, as though he were watching Jolly and Nibs and Tom and Rosie walk over the ridge of a hill, driving the dark cattle before them, with nary a wave or a look back. At his feet, the water swirled and seemed to speak. But for all his listening, Sam could not tell what it said. How long must he simply sit here?

At last he cleared his throat and spoke. "No harm taken, sir," he said stiffly.

"I feel that I should explain..." Mr. Frodo said quickly. "I've not, well, I've not been feeling like myself of late."

Sam didn't trust himself to speak, and so he remained silent, no longer knowing for what he wished or why.

"Perhaps it's the time of year," Mr. Frodo continued. "Perhaps I've been more lonely than I've admitted to myself. Perhaps I've realised that being Master of Bag End is not all dinner parties and tea in the garden."

Sam listened, but Mr. Frodo's words might as well have been the Water lapping at their feet for all the sense they made. That Mr. Frodo might be lonely did not surprise Sam, but his talk of being master and all was pure nonsense. Since the day he'd taken Mr. Bilbo's place, Mr. Frodo had worked as hard as ere his guardian had. It had never been "all dinner parties and tea in the garden," as he'd put it so flippantly. Mr. Frodo was just filling the silence, and Sam knew it. Filling the silence like Sam himself had done so often over the past year when he'd felt a distance between them as between one river bank and another. Filling that silence with words that meant naught, Sam realised suddenly, was worse than just letting it be. But Mr. Frodo clearly could not.

"Sam, speak to me," he said quietly.

"Tisn't an easy thing, if I may say so," Sam said at last. "You assuming the master's place and all, with nary a one to turn to with a question if one should arise." The moment had come and passed so quickly, he'd scarcely noted it, but once it was gone there was no retrieving it. He had answered only the surface of Mr. Frodo's words. Beneath them ran a current Sam could guess at but would always be afraid to enter.

Mr. Frodo merely nodded.

"And it hasn't been the easiest year for it neither," Sam stumbled on. "What with the boundary dispute and all, and it coming in the middle of spring planting as it did. But if I may say so, you handled it as well as Mr. Bilbo would have done. My Gaffer said as much, so he did, and I've heard others say so as well."

"Well, I'm not sure Farmer Marsh feels as overjoyed about it. He gave me little more than a nod at market last week." With each word, Mr. Frodo seemed to withdraw into the shadows against the bank, and Sam had to fight a sudden urge to reach out and lift his master's chin with his fingertips, turning his face back to the fast-fading light. But he didn't. Instead he kept on talking.

"Ach, that's just his way, Mr. Frodo, and don't you pay it no heed. What matters is how he shook Farmer Hayward's hand and your own that day in front of the whole council. There was no one as was making him do so, and it looks as though he'll have a daughter-in-law out of the bargain come springtime. That scrap o' land will all be in the Marsh family's hands before too long, mark my words."

"Really?" Mr. Frodo arched his eyebrows in surprise. "I hadn't heard of any wedding plans. How did you hear of it then?" The lightness in his voice felt like solid ground again beneath Sam's feet.

"How could I not hear of it? My sisters and the Haywards' milkmaids can talk of nothing else. Besides, the signposts all pointed in that direction some months back. Two families like the Haywards and the Marshes don't have feuds that bitter and leave fences unmended, if you catch my meaning. The rest of the Farthing won't have it. Not after all the Marshes of Waymeet did for ol' Rush Hayward not three winters ago. Gave him a room under their own roof, so they did, and that with new twins and a sick aunt in the household as well."

"Well, I'll be glad to hear the announcement when it comes. It was, indeed, a bitter feud, and ill-considered words were said on both sides. Their neighbours were lining up at the door for a few weeks there, worried that the planting wouldn't go through for either farm, and there would be a shortage come harvest. It'll certainly be a load off my shoulders as well. I don't think I slept a full night for the entire season." Mr. Frodo brushed the sand smooth again with his palms and then rubbed them in long strokes against the sides of his thighs. Leaning back, he broke another alder branch, this one thicker than the last, and resumed his writing in the sand.

"And well I know it," Sam said, buttoning his collar against the rising chill. "I'd arrive in the mornings to find you already pacing the floors. I think you saw the sun rise every morning there for a stretch." Before the words had even left his mouth, Sam wished he could reel them back. It was this kind of talk, after all, as caused all the trouble between them. Leave him be, Samwise Gamgee! he scolded himself.

"And what you're saying is that now I don't see the sun rise." Mr. Frodo turned his head, smiling in a way that even Sam, as soon as he saw, could recognize as relief. "How do you know I haven't put in a few hours' work every morning by the time you come in and open my curtains? I could just be napping after my labours and before my breakfast."

"Yes, except the front windows are still shuttered, and the kettle is as cold as a well digger's backside. Whatever your early morning labours consist of, sir, they certainly don't bear visible fruit."

Mr. Frodo laughed, and the sound of it fell amongst the rocks and pools like a fine rain.

"It seems you've caught me in my fib, Sam. There's no hiding the truth from you."

"Begging your pardon, sir, but the truth didn't take a lot of looking for."

Mr. Frodo threw the alder branch into the thicket and, hunching his shoulders, rubbed his arms vigorously.

"My, but it's gotten chilly all of a sudden. I'd better take my swim now or I'll not have the courage for it later. It was quite warm walking over here, but now I'm ready for my jacket."

"Well, I'll leave you to your bath then, sir." Sam stood and reached for his pack. "If I don't meet more than one gossip on my way up the Hill, you'll have your supper ready and waiting by the time you get home."

Mr. Frodo stood in turn and shrugged his braces off his shoulders. He began unbuttoning his collar, each silver disk sliding from its hole in a fluid motion. Sam strapped his jacket to his pack and turned to go.

"Will you wait for me? I'll not be more than a minute or two. The water's too cold now, so I won't be wallowing about like an ox."

"If I wait for you, your supper won't be ready by the time you get home," Sam replied.

"My supper can wait. I'd rather have company."

Sam unshouldered his pack again and resumed his seat, rather reluctantly.

"Won't you join me?" Mr. Frodo shrugged his shirt from his shoulders and unbuttoned his breeches at his side. The cut was a close one and the fabric a thick wool, so it took some work to get them down past his knees. Sam had been present when the tailor had come to take Mr. Frodo's measurements and had caught the tailor's arched eyebrow when his master had requested a half an inch removed. It'll remind me that I should be out walking whenever I put them on, Mr. Frodo had answered the unasked question. And if I can't get the top couple buttons done after a large meal, it won't matter, will it? The buttons will be at my side and my jacket will cover them. And to Sam he'd said with a wink, Always think ahead.

Mr. Frodo stood for a moment at the Water's edge, obviously considering the wisdom of his decision to bathe in a spring-fed river rather than in his warm bath at home. He rubbed his arms and, after a here-I-go look over his shoulder at Sam, made a shallow dive, surfacing again quickly and sputtering with the sudden cold.

"Well? Are you coming in or not?" he called, splashing water in Sam's direction. "It's lovely!" he added.

Sam smiled wanly and went to where Mr. Frodo's shirt and breeches lay crumpled on the sand. With deliberate movements, he lifted each garment and shook and smoothed it before folding it and placing them all in a neat pile. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse now and again of white limbs in dark water.

"Oh!" Mr. Frodo gave a sudden cry, and Sam heard a loud splash. Before his mind could form thoughts or a plan, he was wading out into the pool, soaking his breeches up to his thighs, his hand extended to where Mr. Frodo swam hard, fighting the swift current.

"Hold on, sir!" He shouted. "Hold on, I'm coming!" With another step further, the water was above his waist, and he was beyond the sheltering ledge of Key's Kettle. As a lad, he'd never ventured out this far into the current and neither had his friends. All of them had harboured a healthy respect for deep water.

When Mr. Frodo caught his hand and pulled him out into the current, it took a moment before Sam realised that he was laughing. And then, just as suddenly, there was no bottom beneath his feet, and the water seemed to envelop him like an enormous dark fist. All he could see was Mr. Frodo's face before him, his eyes no longer laughing but filled with alarm, and he was clutching both of his master's arms, struggling for a purchase on nothingness. The current pulled at him, and Mr. Frodo's grip tightened. It was deeper and colder and stronger than Sam had even imagined it to be, and he was sure it would carry him away. Down through fields and past the leathery noses of drinking cows, down past the steep side of the Hill and on to Needlehole Marshes where'd he'd finally come to rest.

"Sam, come toward me!" Mr. Frodo called. His hands slid up Sam's forearms, his fingers tangling in his shirtsleeves that were rolled past his elbows. Sam's own fingers reached for his master, seeking a hold on cool bare skin, until their arms were locked and Mr. Frodo was pulling him from the current's grip. "Keep your mouth closed and kick your feet. There we are. There now. Reach with your toes. Can you feel the bottom?"

Suddenly, Sam could feel the thick suck of mud between his toes. They were nearly at the far bank, which, being the outer edge of a sharp bend, was eroding in a slow slide. The grass in the field above hung out like an eave, its roots holding on to air instead of earth. Sam was coughing and sputtering, and Mr. Frodo's arms were around him, holding him close, holding him back from the current's pull.

"Oh Sam, forgive me! Can you forgive me? I didn't mean to frighten you. I didn't mean to." Mr. Frodo was pushing the wet hair from Sam's face with one hand while the other remained knotted in the back of Sam's shirt. Even if he'd been able to think to do it, Sam wouldn't have been able to pull loose. His master's strength surprised him. Sam could feel the muscles in his arm, tight as rope, and he at last committed himself to their hold, reaching with his feet between Mr. Frodo's legs until he found surer ground and could support his own weight. Mr. Frodo took his hand, twining his fingers through Sam's and did not release it until Sam had struggled up out of the water and sprawled himself against the arching bank, his breath heaving his chest beneath his clinging shirt.

Mr. Frodo knelt before him in the water, and they watched each other's faces for a long moment, each seeming to wait for a clue a hint of what to say or do next from the other. The sky was lavender and fire orange in the west as the sun slid slowly down, rendering the contrast between Mr. Frodo's skin and the dark water all the more stark. The Crossing was fast becoming a place Sam scarcely recognized. Mr. Frodo's eyes were wide, and Sam could feel everything in them concentrated on him, willing him to speak. But yet he said nothing. Between the pounding of his heart and the swell of anger in his head was a vast stillness. A stillness like the moment before night falls or dawn breaks, when the world just hangs there, like the last apple on a branch in winter. For a fleeting moment that he would never forget, Sam saw to the core of Frodo's heart, and a knowing lodged in his own like an arrow, shot straight and true, from a bow strung taut enough to break.

"Forgive me." The words were barely a whisper, and Sam felt his shoulders release and drop, his grip on the water reeds loosen.

"I thought you were drowning," he said simply.

Mr. Frodo nodded and looked down, dropping his face into his palms. "I was being foolish. I didn't realise how deep the water was on the other side of that ledge there. I would never have done that if I had known." He looked up into Sam's eyes, dragging his fingers through wet lank curls.

"You know that, don't you?" His eyes were full of a pleading that surpassed his words.

"Yes, I think I do," Sam replied slowly.

"I would never... I would never make you do anything that made you uncomfortable or afraid."

Sam looked at Mr. Frodo skeptically, an eyebrow arched and his mouth twisting slightly. "Meaning no harm, sir, and forgive me if I'm speaking out of turn, but this is the second invitation from you today that's caused me no end of dismay."

Mr. Frodo nodded and squinted toward the setting sun.

"Now it's my turn to ask you to forgive me," Sam said gently. "I spoke without thinking." He held out his hand to pull his master up on to the bank beside him.

"No, I deserve that," Mr. Frodo answered and looked back at Sam, his eyes clear and without rancor. "I have been selfish. I wanted you as both a servant and a friend."

"And clearly as a bathing companion as well."

Mr. Frodo laughed and, looking down, shook his head before looking up at Sam's face again with an expression of wonder.

"It's beyond my deserving."

"What is that, sir?"


"Well, I don't know about that," Sam said, blushing furiously and looking away from Mr. Frodo's eyes, over to the far bank where, beyond the alders, a row of birch caught and held the fading light. For a moment they seemed like golden pillars or like shafts of light themselves, and then they were trees again, their branches waving slightly in the rising breeze.

"Well, I do."

"Will you take my hand or are you going to swim back again?" Sam's eyes returned to Mr. Frodo's face.

"If you don't mind, I think I'll swim back again."

"You realise, of course," Sam said with mock solemnity. "If I hear more hollering I'll take it for a prank and leave you to float down past your hill. And that, surely, is about what you deserve."

"Understood, sir," Mr. Frodo replied with a quick salute before turning and ducking his head beneath the water. Using the bank, he pushed out into the current and kicked his legs in short, sure strokes. Sam stood and watched his white shoulders and back, his buttocks and thighs and the long soles of his feet slide beneath the dark water like an apparition, before turning to clamber up the bank. The ground was loose and slid with every step, and by the time he reached the top, Sam was panting again for breath. The sun, with a last quick wink, slid behind the hills, and, on the other side of the river, Mr. Frodo crouched in his breeches, drying his arms with his shirt. From where he stood, Sam could not see his expression.

* * *

When he dreams the dream, the moon is falling in a slice of silver across his pillow, and no matter which way he turns, he cannot seem to keep it out of his eyes. Just beyond the small round window, he sees, as though he is awake, the dangling buds of the fuchsia, like drops of milk at the pitcher's lip. And beyond, the grass shimmers like brushed flax with a thick layer of dew. The sky is clear and vast and bright with stars.

He sits up and puts his feet on the new straw on the floor. This is how he knows for sure that he is in a dream, because all his feet feel these days is ash and stone. From behind the blanket in the kitchen he can hear the low rattle of his father's snore. All else is silence. He reaches for his breeches and a clean shirt from the basket at the foot of his bed. Without a sound, he makes his way through the cluttered front room to the door and, with barely a click, he's outside, bathed in moonlight and moving, driven by a strange calling, down the Hill, over the hedge, across the field, through the trees and to the Water's edge where he and Mr. Frodo had been that afternoon, so long ago now.

But once he is there, he stops, unsure in the last what he is looking for or what he might hope to find. Crickets chirrup in the tall grass on the far bank, and bats dip and skitter above the trees. Before him, the water flows, smooth and dark among the rocks, and the moon is as it had been, all those years before a jewel in the dark water, a thing half-looked for but mostly forgotten. A chill reaches up from the pools' depths, and he shivers suddenly and violently.

Turning to go, something in the sand at the water's edge catches his eye, and he stoops to examine it closer. Mr. Frodo's runes. Much is rubbed out, but some markings remain as clear and deep as though they'd just been made. His heart thuds in his chest, and his hand braces his weight against a stone, when he reads the words.

Come to me.

* * *

To be continued...

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