Leavetaking
by Cara J. Loup


The candle that Sam carried swayed with each of his steps. Bag End had never seemed so dark before, not even in the longest hours of winter, after Mr. Bilbo’s leaving. In the candle’s sheen fluttered countless dust-motes, stirred up by all the packing and cleaning of the last days.

This was the time, then. He’d about finished his final round through smials as were left to a close silence and scarce a glimmer of light. Only at the very back, a tired gleam winked from a copper sconce. On the air hung a scent of earth as seemed strangely wanton.

There must have been a day, Sam thought, when old Mr. Bilbo’s father, Mr. Bungo Baggins, had first walked these corridors after they were dug. Inspecting the home he’d got built for his family, even before the floors were tiled or the walls covered in wainscoting. He’d have carried only a single light, just as Sam did now, and he’d have smelled the same scent of earth, only much stronger than it was today. Fresh and rich and old as the Hill, filling all the hollow chambers and tunnels. And he might’ve whispered or hummed, welcome, welcome...

Sam stopped by the shorter smial that led off to the cellars. It was there that the scent arose, and as he lifted his candle, he saw that the third door on the left stood open a crack. A draft must’ve sprung it free.

Instead of shutting the door again, Sam opened it wide. Another scent lingered within, stale and faintly sour, for it was here that Mr. Bilbo, and Mr. Frodo after him, used to keep such wines and ales as were served at their table on weekdays. Over the years, drips and spillings had seeped into the bare floor, but the scent was about all what remained of the once generous stores.

In the past week, Mr. Frodo and his cousins had closed each day with a bottle and a toast to Mistress Lobelia’s long face. Mr. Pippin especially had a gift for wording such toasts as set Mr. Frodo laughing and sputtering into his drink. Though his laughter might’ve sounded a bit high and strained to Sam’s ears, he was still glad at the merriment. Bag End was being emptied out, and too many corners stood in mournful shadows that Mr. Frodo didn’t ought to dwell on.

Sam stepped into the cellar and looked about. One small beer-barrel was left on the side after all. An overturned hamper kept it company, and a mug with a broken handle sat on the breast-high shelf that were dug backwards into the Hill. Not much for Mistress Lobelia to feast on, for certain. There wasn’t aught for it now but to go and latch all the doors.

But surely you wouldn’t leave without a farewell sup? The question came to Sam as if the very walls’d murmured it to him. Mayhap there was a drop yet left in the barrel. He set the candle on the shelf and took the mug to the spout. Aye, ‘t would be a right shame...

A last draught splashed from the spout, near enough to let the mug overflow. With a nod of thanks, Sam settled himself on the hamper. When Mr. Bungo Baggins had entered his home that first time, he must’ve pictured all the rugs and paintings and curtains, all the furnishings, lamps and tapers as would fill these grand rooms with colour and light.

Not a single piece ever got treated ill, Sam thought, not in my time. He raised his mug as if Mr. Bilbo’s father might be watching and frowning over the empty rooms. ‘Tis all accounted for – be sure of it, sir.

This morning, Mr. Merry had set off to Buckland with the third and final cart-load, and only such possessions remained as were sold to the Sackville-Bagginses. Either that, or they were small enough to fit into Mr. Frodo’s travel-pack; things he might need on the tramp across the Shire, or that he kept about for his comfort and remembrance.

Sam took a first, long sip and found the beer tasting too much of grout and wood. It might’ve been in the keg too long, but he was resolved now to finish it off, just as he’d finished that last round through all of Bag End, to make sure that nothing Mr. Frodo wanted along with him got left behind, not a single oddment forgotten.

Sam downed another long swallow with closed eyes. Stronger than the beer’s flavour was the smell of earth that rose in his nostrils again, seeming to deepen as he breathed and drank. He could feel himself grow heavy with it, as if the Hill’s own weight had crept into the air and gathered inside him. It was growing night outside, and with the weather being clear as it was, stars must be lighting in the dark sky. But rather than watching their silver garlands unfold, the Hill seemed to be bearing inward.

Sam looked down into the drained mug that he’d rested on his thigh and couldn’t imagine how he’d get up again. It was then that he caught the faintest ring of a voice.

Sam! He shook his head, sure at first that he’d dreamed up this notion of a call. But it returned, clearer and more pressing. "Sam! Time!"

Mr. Frodo’s voice it was, and no mistake, sounding brisk and alert. Bounding to his feet, Sam barely caught the mug from falling and cracking on the hard floor. The candle-flame leapt wildly in the draft of his sudden movement. Sam put a hand to the shelf where he’d placed the candle, gripping the cool, packed earth.

"Fare thee well," he muttered, but the words stayed in his head, turning a long, slow circle like the remnant of another voice. Fare thee well.

He turned the mug upside down to let the last drops spill out. They glistened on the well-trod ground another moment, then vanished away. Sam blew out the candle.

"Coming, sir!" he called as he closed the cellar door for the second time.

He’d never thought that he’d leave Bag End running, but now he sped down the entire length of the dark smial, all the way to the entrance hall. Right inside the open door stood Mr. Frodo, hands on his hips, a shadow against the blue evening sky.

With a late afterthought, Sam wiped the damp traces off his upper lip, but Mr. Frodo had already noticed.

"All aboard, Sam?" he asked. His eyes glittered with something that made Sam’s face grow hot.

"Yes, sir," he answered, his mouth dry from the tart beer. "I’ll last for a bit now, sir."

Mr. Frodo nodded and studied him for another moment ere he motioned Sam to step outside with him. What must he be thinking?

On the porch, Mr. Pippin rose from the bulging pack on which he’d been sitting, loosening arms and legs with a content sigh.

"Now where did you get off to, Sam Gamgee?" he asked, but the thud of Bag End’s door closing put a quick end to Sam’s reply. The largest key of all turned the lock with grating clicks as he shouldered his pack. When he had it settled and strapped on tight, Mr. Frodo held out the key to him.

"Run down with this to your home, Sam!" he said, his words clipped at the edges. "Then cut along the Row and meet us as quick as you can at the gate in the lane beyond the meadows. We are not going through the village tonight. Too many ears pricking and eyes prying."

He held Sam’s eyes till Sam lowered his head, for what he saw in Mr. Frodo’s face at that moment didn’t need him watching.

"Yes, sir," he murmured finally and was off.

Down the garden and out through the front gate he ran, and with each step the pack thumped his back like a drunken friend edging him along. Surely it was the first time ever that he didn’t bother to stop and shut the garden gate behind himself. Sand and gravel slithered under his feet as he hurried down Hill Road.

It shouldn’t have been like this – him dashing off while Mr. Frodo walked away from his home in the other direction, past the shining round windows, the flower-beds, the bean-rows and the crabapple tree.

All afternoon, Mr. Frodo had lingered about, strolling from one room to the next, picking up a bowl here, or closing a window there, his fingers sliding tender with regret from hasp to frame. Till he snapped them and turned away quick, only to stop again and reach for the bellows by the fireplace, or straighten a rug. The light was slanting in low, catching his face and hands in a thin shade of gold. It would’ve wrenched the heart of any who saw him like that, perhaps even the Sackville-Bagginses.

All the long afternoon hours, rolled out and scraped thin like scant dough. And now, the sudden hurry. Sam didn’t have to ask why though. It was enough to meet Mr. Frodo’s gaze, out under the cloudless evening sky, with the first sprinkling of starlight touching the tree-tops and the dry grasses higher up on the Hill. In Mr. Frodo’s eyes lay a brightness just waiting to brim over, though he wouldn’t let it go any further than that. Meet us as quick as you can. And so Sam ran at full speed.

Through all these months, since the twelfth of Astron, he’d known that he wouldn’t look back. Once he walked down the Hill that last time, he’d not turn for so much as a glimpse over his shoulder. As he reached the corner of the Party Field where the Row turned off, he near lost his footing, what with the weight of his pack and running hard as though he were chased by crows. Sam caught himself from bowling over with a short grunt of laughter – but then a scent struck him sudden and stopped him there, with his toes groping among the gravel.

Soft curls of smoke hovered above the Row as they did every eve when he came home down the Hill, summers and winters alike. Sam shut his eyes tight to take in the familiar smell. It filled his head with the tale of sharp resin, of pine-cones and chestnuts chuckling in the fire, till it chafed the back of his throat and he felt his knees weaken like clumps of mud in a rainfall. He couldn’t move out of this cloud that held him close to every day he’d known, its calm threads winding into dark air.

Behind him he could feel the Hill, its solid, gentle weight set deep against the sky, and the grand old oak on top waiting without a rustle to stir its leaves. There’d been another time, he remembered, not so long ago, when he’d stopped in this same spot, his breath short from a heedless dash.

At the end of haying it was, in early summer, when all the bales had been carted off and stored safe in the barns and cocklofts. As sunset neared, everyone from Hobbiton and Bywater milled about in the meadows below the Hill, gathering up to drink to the plentiful harvest. Mr. Frodo had sent him up to Bag End to fetch some more bottles of Old Winyards for the table that he shared with his Baggins and Burrows relations, Mr. Boffin of Overhill, and the eldest farmers.

Though there wasn’t a need for haste, Sam had quickened his steps from a trot to a run as he went uphill. On this very corner, he’d stopped and turned about, his breath flying, thinking that he couldn’t bear to spend a single moment away from the merry company, not a moment longer than was needed. But even as he thought so, he stood moveless, as if bound in a spell to the sights and sounds.

Bits of music floated up from the corner where pipes, fiddles and whistles were being readied for the first dance-tune. And in the tangle of those eager notes were caught the sounds of calls flying back and forth, of hands clapping to greet the first barrel of ale. On a day as clear as this, the shape of every hedge and tree stood out bold against their stretching shadows; a breeze flushed the poplars and chestnuts and set their leaves aswirl like the lasses’ bright skirts among the trestles as they carried mugs in armfuls along the benches. Over the Water, the air was alive with swifts and swallows darting after the midges.

It was sheer gladness that’d brought him to a stop, so full and high that it could scarce be borne. Everything was singing, as it always had and always would, though maybe he’d never noticed it as sharp as he did then, when he wanted to bolt back down and dash further up, so that he couldn’t muster the will to move for long moments.

Remember me, Sam thought now. Remember me this, wherever I might be going. The memory seemed afloat about him, like the fine scent of fresh hay, and it turned his footsteps where his head wouldn’t steer them: Five paces past the corner of the Row, through the small garden gate and up to the doorstone of Number Three.

With no small measure of relief, he gripped the knob and pushed, but the door wouldn’t yield an inch. He pushed harder – once, twice – till it finally dawned on him that the door must be bolted. A sudden warning of cold slid down Sam’s back. He couldn’t remember their door ever being locked before, not in all the years. With a tightly closed fist, he gave it a knock.

After a long silence, he could hear the bolt rumble back, but the Gaffer opened the door scarce a thumb’s width, and that with a grumbled, "I’ve nowt more to tell ‘ee."

Before Sam could even think of an answer, the Gaffer blinked at him and shook his head. "Hello, Sam. I thought you was away with Mr. Frodo this morn. Come inside."

Sam squeezed through the crack, a hard breath pulling tight in his chest. "I wouldn’t have left without a proper farewell to you, Dad!"

"Aye, that’s as may be." His father turned to walk down the short smial with a smart stride.

"Where’s Marigold?" Sam asked, as he followed him into the kitchen. "Abed already?"

"The Highgroves have a cow calving and not enough hands about. She’s over at the farm to help out."

Though he couldn’t stay long, Sam pushed the pack off his shoulders and set it down on the bench with a thump. Of a sudden, he wanted naught so much as fold his arms round his sister, bury his nose in her tresses and smell the crushed mint-leaf in her hair. But he couldn’t dash out to the Highgrove farm and still meet Mr. Frodo in time. "Tell her... tell her I was lookin’ to say goodbye to her."

"You made a long farewell this morning," said the Gaffer tersely, "and she were crying her eyes sore till lunch and after. Leave her be now."

Right though he was, Sam couldn’t trust his own voice to say so. For a spell he watched his dad poke at the kitchen fire. The Gaffer might be aggrieved at Marigold’s weeping, but the tautness in his back spoke of a stinging worry.

"Why did you lock the door?" Sam asked through the lump that’d lodged itself in his throat.

"On account of uncalled visits..." The Gaffer scratched his head and shook it again. "There’s been a strange customer asking for Mr. Baggins of Bag End. A strange customer, and he’s only just gone." He lowered his voice, his fingers tight on the poker. "I’ve sent him on to Bucklebury. Not that I liked the sound of him, mind! He seemed mighty put out when I told him Mr. Baggins’d left his old home for good. Hissed at me, he did. ‘T gave me quite a shudder."

More than that, I’ll warrant, Sam thought. Dry as his father’s words might sound, there was a fear underneath. "What sort of a fellow?" he asked.

The Gaffer pulled up his shoulders. "Well, he wasn’t a hobbit!" he answered with clear annoyance. "He was tall and black-like, and he stooped o’er me! I reckon it was one of the Big Folk from foreign parts. He spoke funny." His manner of voicing foreign parts made it sound like the den of all ills, more so than it commonly did.

"Mr. Frodo were expecting Mr. Gandalf’s return," Sam said haltingly. Right anxious Mr. Frodo had been about it through the past days, and perhaps, if Gandalf himself couldn’t come, he’d sent a messenger...

"Well, it wasn’t him." The Gaffer breathed out impatiently and set the poker aside. "You’re late on the road as is–" he nodded towards Sam’s pack, "–and you’d ought not to keep Mr. Frodo waiting."

"Yes, but–" Sam reached into his pocket, "I’ve got the key to Bag End. Mistress Lobelia is to come and fetch it in the morning."

His father’s eyes grew wide for a moment, then narrowed again just as quick. "Fetch it, my word!" he muttered. "On Friday the first of Summerfilth!"

He’d be out and about much earlier than was his wont, Sam could guess with ease, so that the new Mistress of Bag End wouldn’t catch him with his feet unwashed.

"They was about bothering Mr. Frodo after lunch today," he told his dad, "Mistress Lobelia and her son, looking up every bit and piece that’s to be their own."

But for all the nuisance that they were, Mr. Frodo’s courtesy had been flawless, and his manners polished like a silver bowl. None of Mistress Lobelia’s ill-tempered remarks and suspicious sidelong glances could make a dent in it. Once or twice, Sam had even heard Mr. Frodo laugh, a lonely sound skipping into the dusty quiet. And each time the sound had stopped and froze him, like a pebble off a sling that’d struck the nape of his neck.

"Aye, counting all the silver spoons, most like!" The Gaffer made a greedy wriggling motion with his fingers, his mouth twisting. It wasn’t often that he allowed himself harsh words for his betters, but the Sackville-Bagginses were an exception. In that he was following Mr. Bilbo’s footsteps, who’d flung his sharp wit at them like a whip, when he was in the mood.

"Mark my words," the Gaffer went on, "the new Mistress will stuff her pillows with the silver, to set them a’rattling as she snores." He tapped his nose and chuckled at his own joke.

The sound sprang sudden tears into Sam’s eyes, meant as it was for his own comfort, and yet such a surprise. "Dad..."

But all words left him and he stood with his eyes fixed to the flap of his pack that he’d mended with rough stitches only the night before.

He’d had words for Marigold, poor as they might be, and he’d said his proper goodbyes to the Cottons this last Highday, over in the Green Dragon. Tom, Jolly and Nick had come out to meet him, and the Farmer himself arrived with evendim, to share their bench and a tankard of ale.

"You’ll be a Bucklander in no time at all," Tom had said, winking at him. "And we won’t know you when you show up for a visit."

Jolly had frowned at him with a sullen look and said nothing.

"I’ll be by in good time," Sam found himself replying, though he knew full well that he oughtn’t make any such promise.

Farmer Cotton had dragged on his pipe and gave him a long, grave look. "Your Gaffer’s getting old," was all he said.

But despite that touch of heaviness, they’d shared a friendly, mellow time, and when they parted ways after several rounds of ale and song, not a drop of grief dampened the mood. It couldn’t be the same with his dad, but the knowing didn’t loose Sam’s tongue.

"What’s that long face now?" The Gaffer pulled him from all such thoughts with a hand on his shoulder.

"I’m not sorry for me, Dad."

His father looked at him, lips pressed tightly together, his thumb digging into Sam’s shoulder.

‘Tis only that I don’t know how... Now that the moment had found him, Sam felt a trembling start in his thighs, so sudden that he feared his knees might go weak and refuse taking him one single step outside the Shire. He’d never dreamed it might come to this point. That his own body might refuse his choice, the very need he’d felt to leave with Mr. Frodo on the day that Gandalf caught him, and every day since.

The Gaffer eased his hold on him and the tight lines about his eyes eased, too. A softness grew in them, slow and gentle as though travelling over a long road. "You’ve always been for searching after elves and dragons and mountains, son," he said. "I don’t reckon moving to Buckland’s any queerer than that."

It was more of a blessing than Sam could have asked and needed none of the answers he might’ve offered. He nodded and closed his eyes, lingering another moment with the warmth of his Gaffer’s hand. Then he reached for his pack and let his father walk him to the door.

"Don’t forget your hat now!"

It was a shapeless and threadbare old thing that the Gaffer pressed into his hand. Sam hadn’t worn it in a year, if not longer, but he took it, touching his dad’s knobby wrist ere he pulled the hat over his curls.

"There!" the Gaffer said, sounding gruff and pleased and not the least bit troubled. "Off with you to the rightabouts, and don’t let me hear no complaints!"

"You won’t, not a word," Sam promised what he could in full truth swear to. It didn’t take saying any more than that.

The evening had cooled when he stepped outside, waiting till he heard the bolt settle back to keep his father safe in the night. Stars had come out everywhere above Hobbiton, in white pricks so dazzling that for a breath Sam thought he felt their fine frost on his skin – but those were wet trickles on his cheeks that he’d not noticed before.

Off with you, he called up his dad’s voice, and then he trotted along as quick as he could without causing such a bump and rattle from his pack as would fetch all the neighbours to their windows.

The Gaffer hadn’t lost any words about his leaving for Buckland since the day that Sam first told him about Mr. Frodo’s plans. It’d been the first time, too, that he’d ever told his father a bare-faced lie in speech or silence. When all that he’d prepared were out, he’d felt cold and heavy as a stone carved with every word he’d just spoken. His father looked on him, his fixed gaze turning from disbelief to a dark pondering, till the silence rose to such a pitch that Sam hoped his Gaffer would see through the lie and put him on the spot with a single shrewd question. He didn’t though.

"Why, the Master’s the Master," he’d said at last, drawing himself up sharp, "and it speaks fair to your work and all that Mr. Frodo can’t do without you. But don’t let it go to your head, and mind your place! Those Bucklanders ought to know that a body from the Shire can behave hisself."

"Yes, Dad," Sam had answered, yes to everything his Gaffer supplied by ways of advice – and that ran on for a while. At the end of it, the fingers he’d clasped behind his back were stiff and bloodless, and the relief washing through him felt like the strangest thing, as though it were smoke blowing in his veins.

He’d reached the end of the Row by now, where it lost itself as a narrow track in the thick of dock and clover. Heading downhill at a quicker pace, Sam let the tears spill and some of the weight passed out of him, or began swinging with his steps.

Halfway down, the shadow of the straight oak slid over him, a darker tint of grey than the stalky hogweed crackling at his heels. From the edge of the orchard, a crippled old plum tree leaned forward like a waysign. A savage spring storm had torn off its largest branch, and now the tree stood askew, its shaggy crown and remaining boughs all bent in one direction. The Gaffer had paused before it, soon after the picking, and took off his cap to appraise the tree like an idle farmhand. Before the winter, he’d surely set to cutting it down. As he passed, Sam reached a hand to the scaly bark that brushed his fingers with dust.

This, and this, too... He was in the open meadows now, where the aftergrass had grown coarse and rank. But even at such a ways from Bag End, he felt the shadows of trees and the slight stirrings all about, as though none of it could do without him. Walking in it and through it were like slipping past memories he couldn’t touch now. If he could watch after himself – from the brow of the Hill where every grass-blade must be etched hard and grey in the starlight – he’d be a mere shadow sliding off its tether.

In the lower part of the dale, a thin mist breathed up from the Water and hushed its voice, spreading outward. Keeping to the edge of it, Sam hurried on and turned right where the ground rose a bit towards the narrow gate and their meeting-place.

He could soon see it, a paler spot in the hedge as kept Farmer Hoarman’s cows to their proper pasture, a long row tangling spindle with plum and chestnut. On the ground nearer the gate, the nettles and cleavers didn’t grow as thick as they did along the hedge, but Sam found his gait slowing all the same.

All was so very quiet, as if no-one’d been here in weeks or longer, and the gate woven from dry wickers looked grey as woodash. What was it that lay behind – what could there be? Caught in the noise of his own rushed breathing, Sam stood watching the gate as though it might lead out into nothing. But in the green lane on the other side, Mr. Frodo must be waiting for him.

When he turned his thoughts to Mr. Frodo’s parting from Bag End again, it seemed to Sam that he’d failed to note all that there was to see. Beside Mr. Frodo’s grief and smart temper, there’d been relief, too, and a will to meet all such surprises as the journey would show him.

Once he started on the longer road, Mr. Frodo would walk in resolute strides and take full breaths of the scouring air that bore just a whiff of frost. His shoulders set, and his chin high. He’d come to the moment at last, and he would step into it as though the weeks and hard hours of hesitation had never been.

Not long, Sam thought, and something would fetch a true laugh from Mr. Frodo again; there’d be those moments once more when his face fell open like chestnut-leaves to the spring sun.

Time, Sam. It was like a whisper of the evening air, bearing many voices, and one among them as he’d always follow. The gate was leaning to, but when Sam put his hand out, it opened like a welcome. He nodded to himself and strode on through.

* * * * *


A/N: From The History of Middle-earth 12, p. 122: "It will be observed if one glances at a Hobbit (perpetual) Calendar that the only day on which no month began was a Friday. It was thus a jesting idiom in the Shire to speak of ‘on Friday the first’ when referring to a day that did not exist, or to a day on which impossible events like the flying of pigs or (in the Shire) the walking of trees might be expected to occur. In full the expression was ‘Friday the first of Summerfilth’, for there was no such month."

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