Thanks to Calanthe and Frayach for invaluable help with this, and to Eykar and Catherine for thoughtful comments and discussion.

"Run! ... Sam," he said. "The door, the path. Now for it, before any can stay us."
(HoME 8: The War of the Ring, p. 208)

Holding aloft the Phial Frodo looked and before him he saw a greyness which the radiance of the star-glass did not pierce and did not illuminate, as if it were a shadow that being cast by no light, no light could dissipate.
(The Two Towers: Shelob’s Lair)

by Cara J. Loup

On every grass-stalk sparkle grains of rime, each as clear as a moment's thought. Frodo walks with his hood drawn up against the chill, and because of it he seems to have missed how the sun climbed above the horizon. Now her light slants thin and brilliant across the soft slopes, strains through hawthorn, rowan and hazel to kindle the tracery of brittle white, like a recollection of snow.

How long has he been walking? He set out towards Bag End, as he remembers, but somewhere between Bywater and Hobbiton, his feet chose a different course and took him eastward to meet the break of day. The night before passed between fits of sleep and half-waking, too long and too short, and when he climbed out of the bed, the small room's darkness lay so close about him as if night had only just set in.

As he fumbled to pull on his clothes, he could convince himself that Sam was still asleep, nestled into the warm burrow of the bed-covers. He could imagine Sam's deeper breathing behind his own, hidden amid the rustles of cool, stiff linen and the floorboards' creaks. When he opened the front door to a chilled, windless twilight, Frodo felt his own tiredness press down on his shoulders and along his spine, but to turn back inside was unthinkable. And now he no longer feels tired, not when the frosted grass pricks his ankles at every step.

Ahead of him, birch mingles with rowan, and higher on the slope, older trees grow. He should have struck the path winding up into the Green Hills by now, but perhaps he has strayed too far eastward. Around him hangs a silence waiting to be broken by a bird's call, by the distant shouts of farm-hands ploughing the fields or herding the cows to pasture. Although the trees are still bare, the weeds and grasses thicken towards spring with a sudden spurt of growth. The soft sounds that trace his steps seem to crackle with the same expectation.

Frodo walks up toward the rowans, breathing the peaceful cold that slows him down as if to stop him from missing another moment, so that he finally turns around. He should be able to see the Water from here, marked by a band of mist that curls in and out of the willows. But only lit planes of green and grey spread in every direction, and he's gripped by a strangeness that seems to tauten the air around him. What is it?

He winds his fingers into the chain around his neck and looks up to the trees. Not a breeze quivers their boughs, and their flawless sprays unfold before the pale sky, as if they'd been shaped for this very moment. On his right grow nettles and tufts of wild oat, coated with the morning's crushed crystal that appears only to vanish at the light's touch.

"The rime's a memory of dew, or a wish for it, frozen still," Sam's voice says nearby. "Or both. I don't reckon it matters either way."

Is this a recollection? If so, Frodo smiles at it, and he looks down to his feet, half-sunk into fervent silver-green.

"It's what the grass is dreaming, you might say." Sam's voice lowers, with distance or the sharing of a private thought. "As much of it as we can see, leastways."

Frodo almost turns, towards a shaded outline at the corner of his eye, where Sam stands in an open doorway, his hand on the jamb. But there is no smial, inhabited or abandoned anywhere near, and Sam himself must be miles away, at work in the forests between Overhill and Bindbale, if not further east. How many days has it been?

Frodo shields his eyes against the light that seems to have swept everywhere within mere minutes, and then he knows what startled him so. Wherever he looks, everything stands untouchable in this crisp, clear silence. There's not the slightest mark of axe or sickle anywhere, no footprint or wheel-track – this place was spared. No-one came here, no-one seems to have walked here for many seasons. There's not even a hint of fallen leaves on the ground beneath the trees.

Frodo shakes his head in disbelief and takes an uncertain stride forward. The thrill rising through his chest might carry an edge of laughter, but he can't be sure, and perhaps his heedless joy is traced with fear that he might be wrong, that he could be right. Is this how it feels to walk into a lost memory, and if it is, should he be here at all?

"There are kept spaces," says Sam's voice. "They're hard to notice. You might walk by a hundred times and see naught but a patch of grass underneath the crabapple tree. But when the light falls on such places in a certain manner..."

Yes? Frodo stops again to listen more closely.

" can tell they belong only to themselves. As if they're here and not here, both. Or you are." There's a touch of regret to Sam's tone, perhaps for having spoken outside common-sense, perhaps because this took him so long to discover.

No, I understand. Frodo laughs then, breathless and surprised. Like a dream. Perhaps I'm dreaming, I dreamed myself here. But if that is true, where did he fall asleep that he won't now remember, and which darkness is it that his dreaming mind escapes with such light?

He lays a hand to his throat, to the place where his quick laugh has faltered, and his fingers touch polished stone, sheer as glass and cut like a star. A dream couldn't have fashioned this remembrance, this gift.

Before him, half hidden in the quickened grass, a narrow footpath curves out, dappled with early daylight. He doesn't remember this overgrown little path, but it scales the slopes towards the Green Hills, losing itself among bramble and dry bracken. Beyond the wooded hills lies the Tookland, where the air is never entirely still. Frodo doesn't intend to walk the whole distance, but he decides to climb a little higher, perhaps to meet those restless currents. High above him, gales must be ripping at the clouds whose borders are so seared with brightness that he has to turn his eyes away. Blinking, he imagines the sound of wind-chimes, and it comes to him with the sharpness of a first recollection.

A gift from the Tooks, from your Uncle Paladin, his mother said, holding him up so he could stretch his fingers towards the dancing bits of coloured air, to be their wind. Their soft jangling and his mother's laughter surged in his chest as the tinted glass touched his palm.

The morning's colours are like that, light-blown, on either side of the path. Very slowly, Frodo sets one foot in front of the other. There is too much too easily missed, from the tender curls of withered fronds to the rowans' gleaming bark, scrawled with scores as though someone had tried to carve names or waymarks into the wood. The nightshade thicket still wears the old years' leaves, and they shimmer like pools of dark water that have just been freed of ice. The day's course and cast bewilders him, like a wheel turning so quickly that it seems not to move at all.

Now the shadows fall the other way, and a coarse, bright haze swims in the sky that leaves his eyes dry and burning. Is he looking west or east, towards the Woody End, and hasn't he passed this row of birches a short while before? But he can't be led in circles, it must be his own recollection, his desire to stay where he might never return. There are paths like this in Lσrien, circling, crossing and returning only to vanish, as this one does, in an unexpected place, among fern, rock or briar.

Frodo halts to consider his bearings, or perhaps his purpose. Trees and underbrush cast a soft netting of shadows across the sandy curve before him. Light glitters on every grain of dry soil and tip of grass-blade where the path swings out and disappears. He can't take his eyes off it, and it stings him breathless with a beauty he might never know again. If he could name it, the sound would catch and hover like the drops melting at the tip of each stalk and twig. How could he bear to miss even a moment? Everywhere in the grass, glints of broken frost brim with fractured colours, as if the world might shiver apart into light.

I should be running. A wild heartbeat seems to leap out of his chest and circle around him, pulling tighter and tighter until barely a breath can pass through. He sways on his feet, on a brink into fear. The ground is riddled with shadows – sun-shadows, moon-shadows that shouldn't be there – rising to enfold him in an uncertain web, to form pathways he might walk if he knew his direction. And if he did, the ground would be shapeless as clouds under his feet.

Frodo drops down by the wayside, his hands pressed hard to wet grass and soil that's still frozen. How can he leave when he might never come here again, or find his way back? A grey touch of sleep is on him, brushing the skin of his lids while the light runs to golden pools in his eyes. How long and how far has he already wandered? Did he fall asleep on his feet?

When he looks up, the sun stands a hand's breadth over the horizon – but is it rising or setting? Such a fierce radiance turns to shadow all that it lights upon. Trees, banks of bramble and sprawling bracken. The moon, too, is in the sky, a pearl in a wide river, framed by stone-grey clouds. A white dusk, a white dawn opens above the land, its fingers the spindly shadows that join crosswise where he sets his feet, falling east, falling west. They lead nowhere.

In every place in the world, you can tell the time by the way the light falls, the shadow falls, but not here.

Close your eyes. Sam's voice, entreating, wavering beneath the certainty that Frodo trusts without thought.

I can't, Sam.

Very well then. A breath slides against his cheek, warm and tired like evening wind.

"Thank you," Frodo whispers, blinking into the sparks that catch fire in his lashes and rise up against his forehead.

In this light, it might be possible to see everything, and he thinks of Gandalf fleetingly, in his white robes, blowing on something that he holds in the palm of his hand. I strayed out of thought and time, he murmurs, and I wandered far on roads that I will not tell. But the image disappears in the flare of whiteness that slams up in Frodo's head, battering the bone of his brow. Is this what it means to be a servant of the Secret Fire?

There is a point where the whitest brilliance and the blackest shadow meet without touching, flitting about each other like moths at midsummer, casting wild shapes.

In this place, at this point, he remembers himself. Poised at the mouth of a tunnel where flayed strings of cobweb drown the light that springs from Sam's fist. He could feel it on his skin then, on his breath, a wild knowledge of escape.

I ran I dreamed
I dreamed I ran

It froze in his chest, together with the quick, reckless gulps of air he took for each stride. He remembers himself, encapsulated in boundless grey, like a pearl set in stone. Parted from his will, safe within the shrouded fall of his own memories. Carried, like a chance companion, in the space between Sam and himself.

I was there, he thinks, rocking back and forth amid the shadows falling east, falling west. I was there all the time though I did not know it.

On each of his breaths, a shimmering haze hangs suspended. Before him, on the ridge, the sun is caught in a chance crossing of branches between two trees that thrust upward as if nothing can stunt their growth. The moon slips a cool touch to the back of his neck and casts a grey mist across the ground that can't be stopped. Here and there are spanned in a fleeting colour that's seething green or gold, yet he might walk across it – if he could shed everything – backward or forward, into another season. If he keeps his eyes on nothing else, he can see this path rise above the slope, a savage crust of flowers on its back.

Shadows tighten the world before him to a narrow ribbon, a thread. If he lingers too long, they will deepen to black cracks and their silence will bleed into him, prise him open along roughly stitched seams until he's parched and stretched as they are. Moths weave under the trees. It must be nightfall then, night leashed to a moon that's half-full, half-waned.

He stumbles to his feet – but now it must be too late – and with the surge of blood into his head everything glistens and fades, dwindling to a pin-point wink. Shadows snap loose from every direction, free of weight, free of source, as thick and grey as the sleep that will bind him.

I’m forgetting myself. I must go.

There is a brink ahead, a last guard he has to pass. Close your eyes, he tells himself in Sam's voice, one step at a time. Surely he can find his way blind, he will walk backwards in the footsteps of his memories, up the path towards Bag End that's traced with gentle odours. Honeysuckle from the garden, fresh plum pie from the kitchen, the flavour of ale light and bitter under his tongue. The joy of coming home is reeled out of him as if drawn by will of another. Sam? I knew you'd surprise me...

There's a faint sheen then, a light that falls on nothing but swirls, giddy and scattered – glow-worms vie with the lanterns beneath all the trees. The craving for a headlong jig is on the air, and his footfalls follow the distant beating of a drum. It must be his birthday. He's running now, for he can't reach there quickly enough, and when he does, every memory will fall away, into the grass that glistens and bends to his steps.

Without a glance over his shoulder, he can see behind himself, the tunnel mouth where Sam holds the starlight in his trembling fist, and before him a door should open, where Sam awaits him with a calm and watchful air. You're home now, master, my dearest.

His heart beats faster than any drum –

I dreamed I ran

– until the doorway dissolves in light, and the light dissolves in him.

The sun is still in the sky, but now it burns through the haze like a candle's flame through parchment. Sam's breath will wash his skin with rime, then blow it aside. And now he knows. He was captured whole and broken within the glass that Sam kept safe, and the light poured through him – Aiya Eδrendil Elenion Ancalima! – beating so strangely through him, till it froze to a star at his throat.

I was I will I am –
I must be dreaming.

~ ~ ~

Was there someone at the door? He tried to move, but the darkness heaved and tightened to throbs behind his eyes, his forehead. Only his hand rose, scrabbling at his throat, remembering – what? a last sip of water? – to clutch the coolness that rippled liquid against his skin. Curled on his side, he could sense the wall before him, breathing with the chill of stones and the lightless cracks in between. He must have heard footsteps, and soon now the door would open. But where?

A shiver seized under his ribs and traced the pathways rent within himself, like a gust stirring torn cloth or torn ropes into dull grey shimmers. His breaths chased after them, fast and flat.

Something rustled and scraped along the wall. Crushed voices ran among the stones. He could smell the ancient wood of the bedstead, the sour damp of straw under the mattress, the faded bloom of rushes long dry, and thick wax-scents coating everything. When he tried to roll onto his back, every crackle of straw pierced his senses, and linen shifted over his chest with fretting whispers.

The candle, he thought. It must be somewhere between himself and the wall, and he tried to frame it in his mind – its uneven, tapering form, the short crook of the wick – as though he might kindle it to flame by force of will. There were the footsteps again, thundering across wooden boards. Their advance rang in his temples, sparked in a series of knocks, sharp and dry, and trembled away. In another moment, light would pour through the doorway. Sam?

Even if he could manage to light the candle, its heat would curdle the air that clung so heavily to him. He lay within a sheet of sweat that touched him everywhere, pale as moonlight, and imagined a sip of water. The door was opening now, with a ponderous creak that carved through the shadows.

Frodo inched his head back on the pillow, a crackling effort as if the linens carried a frost of their own. Please... open the window for me. The room's darkness enveloped him like a breath drawn in, endless in every direction. Perhaps he'd been blinded by the sun's reflection on water and was staring through shards of forgotten light. Please, I must see...

He clutched the coolness low on his throat, catching his grip on an edge like cut glass. I was given a chance, a moment, and I ran –

"Mr. Frodo?"

The door fell wide with a slicing rasp of wood on wood. Light should spring through his fingers, warm and alive with his flying heartbeats, and white at the core. He could feel it for a moment, but it faltered to nothing. Lost, drained, dropped into a shapeless gloom. There could be no escape.

"Pardon me for steppin' in without being asked, but we was worried when you wouldn't join us for lunch. Are you in good health, sir?"

The voice asking this question from the doorstep wasn't Sam's, and the voice answering might not have been his own, summoned out of nothing.

"It is gone for ever, and now... all is dark and empty."

"Mr. Frodo, sir..." A voice he remembered, roughened by the gravel of years. Farmer Cotton. But hadn't they found him face-down in the furrows of his barley field, felled like a healthy tree at mid-day, his hair white?

He's been a farmer all his life, someone had said, he won't mind a good mouthful of earth, before they turned him over.

"Where was I?" Each word lolled on his tongue that felt heavy as soaked leather.

"If you don't mind..." The farmer drew nearer, shuffling feet at his back, and a touch fell on Frodo's hand, seeking his wrist. Coarse fingertips, cracked from raking the frozen earth. "Seems you've come under a spell of ague, Mr. Frodo. I'll be fetching water."

Water. Frodo tried to nod against the tromping footfalls, hurried sounds that tumbled one over the other, hooked through his loud breaths – no, I want – and then the farmer was back. Damp cloth tangled around his calves, his ankles. Frodo bit his teeth together against the fitful twitching of his feet.

"There now, sir. Cool wraps ought to bring the fever down."

The time... what is the time? He stared into darkness, and his breath disappeared down its steep trench. It must be nearing midnight, but through the open window, he might be able to see a few stars. He didn't remember returning to the farm as he must have, exhausted from his long jaunt. "Is it... spring?"

"Oh, soon 't will be," answered Farmer Cotton, sounding preoccupied as he tugged on the bed-covers. Why did he bustle about in the dark, instead of lighting the candle? Frodo swallowed water from a cup that Cotton held to his mouth. His damp curls clung thickly to the nape of his neck.

"The Misses will make you her famed fever tea. Just you take a rest now, Mr. Frodo."

He reached for the cup already withdrawn, and couldn't be sure that he'd even lifted his hand. Farmer Cotton had to be moving at a quicker pace than his own mind, or his tongue, and the door settled into place with a slow rattle. The shadows seemed to yield as he watched, but all was grey – smothered in folds of grey that clung to doubtful shapes. Tireless chills ran back and forth on his skin, crossing and meshing. But when he kept his breath inside, he could hear small sounds on the other side of the wall, painting out forms from twilight shades, as if the stones in front of him might melt away if he looked on long enough, closely enough. This fever wasn't one to cloud the mind, it seemed to pierce and unveil everything.

He could hear voles and dormice rustle in the weeds by the fence, beetles boring through fallwood, and the swift, furtive leaps of hares further out in the fields. Bats would glide from one tree to the other and large white moths flutter beneath the mullberry's crown. Soon, the cry of owls would stalk the night, and frogs would begin their concert by the pool. Beyond the wall, the world opened to sounds that threaded one moment to the other, that beckoned with hundreds of memories. He wanted to cover himself in them till they scrabbled over and under his skin, but he couldn't seem to move.

I was gone for so long, and I found my way back, he thought, but now, how can I bear it?

He heard the farmer's voice again beyond the door, a worried mutter among wooden creaks, and Rosie's reply. "Yes, Dad, 'tis the season for it."

Her tone was so familiar that it brushed him with another memory – of Sam's voice and his Gaffer's snatched from the garden by chance of an open window – but then Mrs. Cotton said, "Sit you down for supper, Tom."

It wasn't midnight then, the hour must barely be reaching dusk, if the Cottons kept their usual meal-times. Frodo shut his eyes fast, as if there was still an unknown space inside him, a tight and guarded place where he couldn't be found.

I have gone mad, he thought, with a strange calm that settled soft as down in his senses. He traced the shiver winding from his neck along his ribs like a touch that passed into the sheet's creases and lapsed into twilight.

I have forgotten much that I thought I knew, and learned again much that I had forgotten. Was it Gandalf's voice speaking to him, thoughtful and halting? And was this, too, a memory? I can see many things far off, but many things that are close at hand I cannot see.

Frodo ran his palms flat over his chest, across the nightshirt, the blanket, that felt so foreign to his touch. His heartbeat was tangled in stifling cloth, below the cool star at his throat, and he pressed his fingers where it beat the strongest. There had to be an answer in Gandalf's words, a test he might put himself to. Very slowly, he raised himself up on an elbow and into the dark, dizzy with the noise of his breaths as he grasped the bedpost.

He pulled himself up inch by inch, until he could lean his head against the wood and turn his eyes towards the wall, to the spot where the stool should be placed directly beneath the window. Shadows peeled away from its blunt angles and the pale curve of the wash-basin, and above, the shutter stood open, a darker sickle against the stones. Beyond the window was – nothing, was – could it be daylight?

Frodo lifted a hand to grope along the cracked wood. A breathless gloom had swallowed the world outside, dayfall so dark as if there was a storm coming. Where was I?

Did bits of grass and sand still cling to his feet, were there frost-grains tucked between his toes? The heat inside him thrummed as if trying to burst through a crust of ice, but he remembered then, he remembered... green. A place where the light danced, stirred free into radiant colour. A kept space.

Sam, he thought, I must tell you... His fingers found what they must have sought, a shape carved into the blunt top of the bedpost. A wooden flower. He closed his eyes, running his fingertips over and around the grooves that spread outward from a rugged centre. The last he remembered was trying to reach a doorway.

The parting gate...

Pain loosened in his breast, a clear, strong current that took the weight off his limbs and with every moment grew wider and wider.

That's what I found. What found me.

~ ~ ~

In the fireplace, flames blistered about a log that was starting to split lengthwise. Frodo uncorked the ink bottle and smoothed out the paper on the kitchen table. Heat touched the side of his face with small darts, and he reached for the water-filled cup to wet his lips. It was perhaps the last remainder of his fever, if a fever it had been, that his mouth continued to be so dry. He kept a full jug beside his bed at night and drank directly from it instead of bothering with a cup, grateful for the cool dribbles that slipped down his chin and throat.

A faint scent of gall-ink joined the smell of smouldering pine, and Frodo stretched his feet carefully. He'd grown so restless in his dim bedroom that he wanted to throw off the covers and pace – only to move back and forth between the sturdy walls – but the small effort of sitting up covered him in sweat. On his tongue hovered the remembered tastes of Mrs. Cotton's tea, of meadowsweet and elderblossom mixed with a sour flavour he couldn't put a name to. How much time had it taken him today to shift his legs over the bed's side, to drag up his trousers and, finally, push his arms into his jacket's sleeves?

It had seemed like hours, and when he stood, supporting himself with a hand on the bedpost, the afternoon sun edged long, flat beams past the low clouds. But there was sunlight at last, slanting past his window to gild yard and fence with its cool tint, and he felt oddly naked before it. As if the day's embers were enough to divest the house that sheltered him, to strip away stone, clay and thatch until only the bare structure remained, tall posts looming against the evening sky, as stark and open as a winter forest. And within its compass, he was walking back and forth, pacing aimlessly to test the strength of his legs.

After a while, he'd bent gasping over the foot of the bed, but the restless will to move still hovered like a shadow at his shoulder. When he looked around the room, it seemed that every inch had grown unbearably familiar; every scratch along the floorboards, every stain where water had spilled from the wash-basin and soaked into the wood assembling a long, pale train of memories that didn't belong to him. He knew then that he couldn't stay any longer, and he would see to it today.

Out in the yard, he could hear Rosie call to the fowls, answered by the cock's raucous cackles that alerted every hen within ear-shot. Frodo dipped his quill into the ink and set down the date at the top of the sheet that glowed faintly with firelight.

13 Rethe. But there he'd dismissed the days of his illness, and the little slip stopped him with a strange, cold thrill. It must be the fifteenth, he thought. A year ago, we escaped the tower... Yet everything before that moment seemed as dim and questionable as his memories of the days just past. Time doesn't pass in such darkness.

His fingers tightened on the quill. Something about this notion seemed to sink a sudden cold into his bone-marrow and met recognition there. A year ago. And now it happened again, it took me... where?

Sam had never asked him about the time lost to Shelob's poison, but when summer found them in Minas Tirith, Frodo had once tried to describe, to explain...

Impossible, he discovered almost at once. The darkness of the tunnels, of wandering through places where memory could not endure, and the darkness that followed seemed to be one and the same. Nothing, and yet more than that – like a breath trapped on its way in or out – and the small, frantic movements between knowing and not knowing... When he tried to retrace those impressions, his mind seemed to slide along crossed boundaries resembling nothing so much as a pathless web.

"I was in a place separate from time," he'd said, "or perhaps separate from me. I wonder if there is a difference?"

Sam had looked away at that, out towards the Anduin's course where small fishing-boats bobbed on the silvered flood. Still Frodo couldn't have missed the tightening in his face, around his mouth, restraining memories he couldn't guess at. He touched Sam's arm, ready to wait as long as it would take Sam to speak.

"There were such times when you were with me," Sam said finally, "and yet you weren't. Afterwards, out there..." His jaw set and he lowered his head a little, as if refusing to glance directly at the Ephel Dϊath, a clouded band on the horizon. "But now I'm thinking... maybe that's how it had to be. Maybe it kept you safe from worse."

Frodo bent over the paper that carried only the mistaken date. What he'd described to Sam that day was far from recollection, it was a thought sprung into his head like the assertion of a change unknown to himself.

But I do remember... I remember now. The shadows of two trees stretching across the grass and the utter stillness framed by their graceful crowns. The light. The memory was encased in vague swirls, as if seen from a distance, yet closer than any dream he might have walked into. Such a place was safe from being forgotten. It had to be.

In the hearth, the log cracked in two, and from the sagging pieces fled white sparks. Frodo watched their brief, glittering flight, every mote snapping with a keen radiance like the flare of the star-glass when it dashed itself against a dark so timeless, it had never known its match in light.

The recollection rose in a flutter below his breath, and tugged dizzily on the edge of his senses. Something had been scuttled loose within that darkness, within himself, parting will from memory and dream from desire, and ever after it seemed he was held together by fine, drifting threads, like the wind-chimes that danced on the porch of his childhood home. Frodo rubbed his neck, and his fingers slipped along the chain until he clasped the jewel that he'd worn day and night since –

How long had Sam been gone by now? He'd lived in his father's new smial for little more than a week when the frost finally broke and the milder weather allowed for the forestry work that Sam had prepared for. Together they had travelled along the road to Michel Delving, breath steaming from their ponies' nostrils into the cloudless morning. Half a mile east of Waymeet, they'd taken a second breakfast by the roadside, seated on the roots of a bent sycamore.

Frodo leaned back in his chair and recalled the birds' voices surrounding them in endless echoing strings, afloat somewhere above the mist that still clung to the ground.

"Can you guess for how long you'll be away, Sam?" he'd asked.

Sam shook his head, but his eyes softened. "A fortnight maybe," he said, "depending on what I find further up north."

"Spring," Frodo answered lightly, heartened by the smile that bent Sam's mouth, "you'll see."

"I'll want to be back before the season turns for true, though." Sam reached across, covering Frodo's hand with his own, a quiet fervor in his voice. "And then..."

He'd said nothing further, but Frodo could feel the strain of hope and determination in his touch and clasped Sam's hand just as tightly. Nothing more needed to be said between them.

An hour later, they had parted by the inn watching over the cross-roads in Waymeet, where Sam would find a group of former bounders, now foresters, waiting to join him. As he rode on, Frodo heard Bill whicker softly and knew that Sam's gaze followed him until the bend in the road took him from view.

A slow ache slid through his chest, and Frodo picked up his quill once more. At this rate, he would never finish the barely begun letter – and perhaps he was reluctant because he'd planned to wait until Sam's return, but now... Now, perhaps, he would surprise Sam.

As words of greeting formed beneath the quill's tip, Frodo tried to picture Merry and Pippin in the quiet Crickhollow cottage, crowded with things he couldn't bear to part with when he left Bag End. The new windows arrived last week, he wrote. Save for a few minor repairs, all the rooms are now quite habitable again. He didn't remember the rooms in the cottage with much detail, only the kitchen with its wide hearth where his cousins would now smoke their pipes in the evening.

There is no need for hurry, but do tell me how soon you can arrange for my belongings to be moved back to Hobbiton. I miss Bag End, yet I can't think to live there without –

Sam was right, Frodo thought what he couldn't set down in the letter. We have taken less than we've both wanted. He paused to blot the writing carefully. The paper was nubby and uneven, but still a rarity to have.

Merry would surely shake his head at a request phrased with such courteous reserve. He'd vowed to see to transporting the furniture after all, and not even the spring planting in Buckland would keep him from it.

From the yard came scraping noises as Rosie shoveled ash from the bakehouse oven. Frodo listened for a moment and wished he could assist her with the added tasks she managed in her mother's absence. Early in the morning, Mrs. Cotton had set out to visit her family, the Browns of Frogmorton, to help with her sister's late delivery. She'd stood in the half-open door to Frodo's bedroom, awkwardly clasping the cloak at her neck as she wished him well. But now, when Frodo remembered the lively anticipation in her glance, he guessed that she must have awaited this day all winter.

A less certain memory trailed behind that thought, stirring from the past night's broken sleep, and the quill followed its trace as though of its own accord: I had an odd sort of dream last night. I knocked on doors that I didn't quite recognise, intending to ask for directions to Bag End.

Frodo paused to look at the not entirely even lines of his writing and only then wondered if he should include such a thing in a letter to Merry.

You clearly dreamt of being drunk, my dear hobbit! the younger Merry would have told him with a wink. Frodo could imagine it with instant ease: Merry sprawling in the unshorn grass atop Buck Hill, wriggling his toes among the plumed stalks as he surveyed the hazy fields and meadows before the river. There would have been laughter in his reply, a hint of the clear, high snicker that could be so catching.

But to receive such a letter today would bring a frown to his face, the kind that smoothed out quickly and yet revealed that Merry had decided not to voice his thoughts. Perhaps he would be upset.

Frodo shook his head, but he still picked up the small knife that he used to sharpen the quill. Merry is troubled by too many thoughts about the future, and I shouldn't add to his concerns. He bent the sheet over the edge of the kitchen table and carefully cut off the two bottom lines that didn't belong there.

Another memory from Crickhollow crept up on him as he wound the paper strip into a tight curl that he dropped into his jacket's pocket. On the morning of their departure, he'd woken to the flickers of a candle, casting its unsteady glow across Merry's pale face and the door-frame, in the place where he'd expected his bedroom window. Time to get up! Merry had announced with a distinct effort at sounding cheerful. It's half past four and foggy.

Only the slightest noise alerted Frodo, but when he looked up, Rosie stood in the open doorway, carrying a pail that she set down with a clatter and a sigh. "Why," she exclaimed as she crossed the room, "'tis pitch dark in here, and the fire nigh gone out! You'll catch another fever, Mr. Frodo, with such a cold to the limbs."

"It seems quite warm to me." Frodo glanced sideways at the hearth. "Although perhaps I should–" He rose from his chair within the same breath, but instant weakness seemed to grip his knees, so that he had to steady himself against the table's edge.

"No, no, you keep your seat, sir!" Rosie protested, sparing him a glance full of concern, "and I'll have the fire stoked up right quick."

"As you wish, but you make me feel quite useless," Frodo pointed out in a light tone. "As useless as a frog in a rain-barrel." He took his seat again, slipping a hand under the table to rub at his knees.

"A frog?" Rosie's laugh blended with the fire's crackles as she placed another log in the grate. "Now surely that's not a likeness as would come to my head!"

Frodo chuckled and shrugged. It seemed that Rosie had finally shed her last awkwardness towards him, now that she'd stepped in to replace the Mistress of the house. With deft and easy movements, she pushed the kettle towards the fire's inner heat and turned to collect the tea-jar and cups. She always applied herself with a light-hearted diligence, Frodo thought as he watched, whereas Mrs. Cotton went about the household as though she'd long stopped noticing the run of days, her conversations repeating themselves.

When the tea steeped in a pair of brown cups, Rosie sat down on the bench across from him. "Would you be writing a letter, sir?" she asked with a shy tip of her head towards the sheet on the table.

"Yes, to Cousin Merry," Frodo answered. An ember glow wavered between the letters. "Now that Bag End has its windows and chimneys back, it is time to bring the furniture from Crickhollow."

"You must be missing your own home somewhat dreadful. We've all of us been so blessed hereabouts." Rosie glanced around the kitchen, from the fireplace to the small window in the eastern wall, with a smile full of fond recognition. In her eyes, Frodo could see something that made his heart ache.

"There will be many blessings in your life..." Frodo set his hand over hers and felt an instant start of surprise fall to utter quiet. "Whatever else may happen, you shall never lose sight of them."

"Why, thank you, Mr. Frodo," Rose said uncertainly. Then she looked up at him, and for a moment her frank gaze was at odds with the cramped stillness of her hand beneath his, pressed to the cracked wood of the kitchen table.

What ever possessed me to say such a thing? Frodo withdrew his hand to pick up his cup, offering a short, rueful smile.

Rosie drank her tea with quick, hearty swallows. "Well, I've had my bit of break, and I'd ought to see to supper now," she said, cradling the drained cup between her palms. "Dad, Tom and Nibs will be wanting a solid meal after pushing the plough all day."

"I shall finish in a short while." Frodo turned the sheet over, reaching for his quill to end the letter with his best wishes.

"Oh, don't let me bother you!" Rosie got to her feet and tied a fresh apron round her waist. "There's room enough for more than the both of us." She refilled the water-kettle and draped wash-clouts over the rim of the basin her father and brothers would use to clean their feet, when they came in off the fields.

By the time Frodo signed his name to the letter, Rosie was heating the stew they had had for lunch. "That'll be the last of the dried beans now," she said to herself, on her way to the pantry. "But we've some onions left..."

The hearth-fire leapt with the swing of the pantry door and sent bright tongues across the table where they danced between the tea-cups and the ink-bottle. Frodo blotted his signature and folded the letter, but the shadows flickered this way and that, and the lit planes swam suddenly in his sight, waiting to be named and –

– take the hidden paths that run
west of the moon, east of the sun.

Where had he heard these verses? He was sure that he had, the words like murmurs from an overgrown brook seeping wistfully through the grasses, and they shivered through him with their gentle spell. A wash of light had filled the horizon, he remembered, neither pure gold nor silver. Instead of falling on the land, it pierced and veiled everything, stretching towards...

A door, a path... to where? Frodo blinked tears away, perhaps welling from the memory of unbearable beauty, outside waking, outside time, or a knowledge of loss – if loss wasn't always companion to such beauty.

I wish you could have seen it, Sam. What shall be... He could picture Sam at that moment, as though between winks it took a mere leap of will. He could see Sam wander beneath the bare trees of a Northfarthing forest, alert to every start of new growth, to the countless small buds that formed like knots in the web of branches. Black warming to brown, and green escaping from silver-grey.

All of this, Frodo could see as if he watched through the eyes of a sparrow in flight, carried high on the gust of one breath. And, as one released from long illness, he felt light and hollow at the same time.

* * * * *

"It's tomorrow," said Gollum, "or this was tomorrow when hobbits went to sleep."
(The Two Towers: The Stairs of Cirith Ungol)

* * *

A/N: Gandalf's words are taken from TTT IV.5: The White Rider.

Photo (c) 2004 by Adina Ispas, taken at the Hobbiton set in New Zealand.

* * *

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