by Cara J. Loup

Only for a single day had the weather been clear. Through the kitchen window, riddled with trails of steam that crested and faded again, Frodo could see the humped clouds, just barely. Each time that he glanced up, the fading daylight had receded further, until it shrank to a pale mottling that stained the grey sky. Yet the cool evening air carried no hint of rain and breathed instead with the smell of cut grass, a smell that had never seemed so strong before. So unrelenting.

Sam had raked the cuttings into a loose row along the lawn, spread out to dry even at the risk of another rainfall. A blue shimmer of dusk lay on the grass like untimely dew. Soon it would wash out the shadows between each slender stalk.

Thin and stretched, Gandalf had said. Until at last every minute is weariness.

Frodo straightened his back. Under his fingers, ragged strips curled and crinkled off yellow flesh, gathering in brown tatters against the knife’s blade. The knife was too blunt to do more than scrape the peels off the last winter-potatoes, but he couldn’t pause long enough to reach for another. As long as he stood here, the faltering day flowed smooth as a slow-moving brook around him, soft with gathering shadows, with small, indeterminable sounds from the fields and gardens below the Hill. He strained to listen to them, although he knew it was impossible to catch anything clear at this distance, or to discern whose voice echoed briefly along Bagshot Row.

A rasp of wood against tile called him to sharp attention. Frodo paused in his peeling, his thumb pressed to the knife’s spine, but no call or footstep followed the slight noise. Gandalf had merely shifted his chair in the parlour, it seemed, perhaps to stir new flames from the logs with one long arm. Since lunch, the wizard had not left his place by the parlour’s hearth. Hunched over a book that he had picked from Bilbo’s library, he puffed diligently on his pipe, unperturbed when Frodo wandered by.

With a brisk turn, Frodo slid another handful of chopped potatoes into the stew. A puff of steam washed against his face and into his eyes. Pale strips of leek and turnip swam in the broth that began to bubble noisily, against a silence that seemed to draw in close at his back. Several times during the day, as he walked from parlour to cellar, from kitchen to study, he had stopped and held his breath. Nothing broke the silence, save the snapping of dry wood in the hearth and the sound of Sam’s shears through the open windows, steadily chipping moments off the hour.

That sound had long ceased, though Frodo couldn’t be certain if he had started to miss it immediately. At times thin echoes trickled through the length and crooks of Bag End and nestled into the corners like cobwebs.

When the back door rattled, his knife slipped, flighty as a startled creature, so that he nearly cut himself – if this worn blade could break skin at all. Frodo placed it down next to the dwindling stack of potatoes and reached for the jacket he had flung over the back of a chair. But then he stopped, the jacket bundled over his arm, as Sam appeared in the kitchen doorway.

All the years. For years, Sam’s footsteps from pantry or kitchen door had been as familiar as his own, their pace as reliable as the sun’s course through the day and her slants of light through the windows. Now Frodo stared into the shadows that filled the doorway like a loose curtain, and all he could see was that Sam took one deep breath, that his eyes scanned the kitchen in quick search for a purpose. They came to rest on the untidy mound of potato peels.

"You ought to let me do that, Mr. Frodo–" Sam’s glance leapt towards the pot over the fire, "–and see to your stew, as it were."

"No," Frodo said sharply. "No, I mean, it is nearly ready." Distant reflections from the fireplace cast their shimmers up against Sam’s face, to conjure ghosts of regret or resolve, or simple trepidation. "Sam, you should go home. Your day has been longer than mine, and... full of unexpected turns, to say the least. I’m sure you would rather–"

Frodo interrupted himself with an impatient gesture. Even his own tongue seemed to carry him off in unplanned directions. But Sam met his gaze with intent expectation, almost daring him to continue, unless that, too, was a trick of the fire, lighting sparks of a wilful heat in Sam’s eyes.

"Your father must be waiting," Frodo said as firmly as he could. Words could not right the balance of this day, and it was useless to try.

Sam nodded, his eyes downcast. All the emotion that had stormed across his face earlier in the day seemed dulled now, hidden beneath ragged shadows that shifted carelessly.

On an ordinary evening, Sam would now wish him a good night, and in leaving pick up a pair of empty jugs or the basket heaped with laundry, and Frodo would send a smile towards the closing door while Sam’s voice still lingered somewhere between jamb and threshold and gentled the silence. But for an uncertain spell, Sam did not move.

Frodo dug his fingers into the jacket’s wool and felt roughened fibres catch against his nails. His eyes flew from Sam’s brows, knotting together just a little, to the soft bent of his mouth, pulled tight at the corners. But his expression remained wholly unreadable, and Frodo glanced aside before Sam could catch him in his scrutiny.

Do you not see? We can’t continue as if –

"It ain’t right." Sam’s voice seemed to push through a thickened breath. "Your having to leave and all, Mr. Frodo, and with such a fear following after your steps..." He faltered for a moment. When Frodo looked at him again, he continued with slow effort. "If you’ll pardon me for speaking out. But none else will have a chance of saying it, seeing as how... they won’t know."

Frodo dipped his head although his neck felt suddenly stiff, but to answer with a mere thank you was unthinkable.

Sam would go with him. And if he overcame his giddy disbelief, then perhaps he could even imagine it; he might envision Sam squaring his shoulders to the weight of a travel-pack, as firmly set as they were now. He might imagine the bright look of wonder that tales of Elves could bring to Sam’s eyes.

"They must not know." As he said so, Frodo heard a clipped urgency in his own voice, more strenuous even than Gandalf’s stern advice. "Try to understand, Sam..."

But how could he? It might be better to say nothing at all, Frodo thought, and pretend that the silence was as plain and honest as it once had been. All those secrets wound around secrets, strung to the slight weight in his pocket that belonged to him alone.

"Yes, sir." Sam’s voice sounded entirely calm now, unnaturally so, as if it braced a tearing gale.

"There is so much to consider, and–" Frodo shook his head, a helpless apology. "We will talk about it later."

If only Sam would leave now. But if Sam didn’t, what was it that he feared he might say?

I release you?

His throat grew tight with the wish to say more, to say nothing, but then Sam murmured, "Good night, sir," and turned into the dark smial.

"Good night, Sam," Frodo sent after him.

As he dropped his jacket over the chair, the back door’s lock settled into place with a low snick. Frodo rubbed his hands together, but he couldn’t stop himself from listening into the silence. It seemed as if so many threads of quiet wishing had been strung through his years as Master of Bag End, too many to count or trace to the full, and they had all been snapped today.

Frodo returned to the fire to stir the stew and swing the pot away from the greatest heat, before all the vegetables could be boiled into a tasteless mash. He picked up the knife once more, flicking his thumb against the blade, and wondered if his cookery would suffice for tomorrow’s lunch. He hadn’t counted the potatoes he had peeled. Suddenly impatient, Frodo scooped the remaining potatoes back into the pannier and went to collect tableware.

"Gandalf? Supper is about to be served," he called in the direction of the parlour. As he had half expected, there was no reply.

When he entered the room, Gandalf sat motionless, the open book propped on his thigh, his forefinger stirring the edge of the page like the slightest breath. The dancing firelight only carved out the stillness in his profile more sharply, instead of cloaking it.

Frodo set bowls and spoons down on the dinner-table, without any particular effort to stop crock or silver from clattering. If Gandalf chose to avert his mind, no manner of noise could disturb him. On his way back to the kitchen, Frodo paused to look over the wizard’s shoulder and into the fireplace.

Often, especially on winter evenings, the fire’s crackle and sway would lull him, providing ghosts of company that demanded nothing. But not now. It was the fire that had made his decision.

Lost before the familiar comfort of his own hearth, he had not known where to start, how to answer. But when his eyes were filled with flame, without shadow or shape to confine it, there had been a moment of suspension, of freely falling towards incandescent light, that relieved him of all knowledge. Only for a moment, then a thrill chased through him, jagged as lightning, that struck the brilliance black.

I cannot stay here. That was all he remembered of his thoughts during those moments, and in truth he could not be certain if it had been his own thought at all.

Frodo shifted his shoulders against a needling discomfort. The small fire in the grate ducked and splayed its flames like bright feathers, but it shed only a dim glow that didn’t reach beyond the hearthrug. From the window alcoves, evening pressed inward – too soon, it seemed to Frodo.

When Sam returned to his work, he had stayed indoors himself, perhaps expecting added counsel and explanation from Gandalf, perhaps because at first the quiet offered relief. But now he felt that he had wasted precious hours, that he should have spent this day in the garden, before it was swallowed up in clouds. Frodo bent to put on another log and cast a sidelong glance at Gandalf.

Oh, he wouldn’t be misled by the wizard’s seeming distraction. Gandalf was usually the most attentive when his mind appeared to wander, and not even the leaps of fear and anticipation inside him could make Frodo forget it.

There was purpose in Gandalf’s silence, a purpose slanted towards him like the gleam of a lantern lapping along the edge of an overgrown path. Gandalf expected him to search out his own answers – beyond the answer he had already given. Or perhaps he was merely supposed to walk around in his decision for a time to see how it fit.

Resentment prickled through Frodo at the thought, but just as abruptly, Gandalf’s knowing patience reminded him of Bilbo. How much easier it would be, he thought, to leave right away, to follow Bilbo out into the road, past all the familiar routes they had ever tramped together, beneath a sky pierced and weighed with stars. He could easily see that path before him, stretching away from the vague shelter of trees, its sand crusted in faint silver, and his mind wanted to fly across it like a racing wind.

A creak from the old chair brushed that image aside. When Frodo turned about, Gandalf’s eyes were fastened on him as if they had never moved elsewhere.

"I will stay with you, Frodo. As long as I may." In Gandalf’s eyes, the fire’s reflections stilled to distant glints, caught within sorrow that rose clear and dark like meltwater in a steep well. Frodo could not hold his gaze long.

With another glance at the smouldering logs, he reached towards the poker. "And I shall need–" But he’d wound his fingers into the chain that secured the Ring, and the moment that it took to pull them free swept a bristling heat into his face. "I shall need your help." Frodo breathed out sharply. "Well. I’ll have our supper on the table in another minute."

Gandalf leaned forward to rub his knee, as though it had grown stiff despite the fire. "The smell is quite delicious."

"Only a very simple dish," Frodo murmured, "but I’ll fetch us a good bottle of wine to go with it."

He lit a candle in the hearth and strode down the smial, setting his thoughts on the wine-cellar’s current stores and Gandalf’s preference for the 1340 vintage. He had already raised a hand to unlatch the cellar door when a cool draught brushed his cheek. On the other side of the corridor, the door to his study stood wide open, a deeper shadow against the cleft root beside the jamb. Hadn’t he closed the window hours ago?

Gripped by an odd hesitation, Frodo paused inside the door and peered into the room. Beyond the halo of his candle, a brown haze thickened like a sheet of dust over the wheat-fields after threshing. It might have been the room precisely as Bilbo had left it, wisps of Southern Star still hanging between book case and cabinet, curling into stiff rolls of old parchment. It might have been a room that would never be inhabited again.

Frodo rubbed his forehead. What would he do with all the books and maps, the scattered notes and countless oddments that had wound their way into the gaps between more sensible items? But the only decision he felt capable of was not to give it any more thought. Not before he found himself on the other side of sleep, in welcome daylight.

Another gust shook the candleflame, and the window swung a bit wider, jarred on its hinges as if it should mourn the bygone day. Cool April sunshine had streamed over Sam’s shoulders when Gandalf hoisted him across the sill and into the room, as easily as though Sam weighed no more than a bat of straw.

And it was Gandalf, too, who had wrested a rush of wild excuses from Sam, tumbling out with much dismay at half-understood dangers. Frodo didn’t think he had caught more than half of it himself. He remembered, though, how laughter had hitched in his throat, brittle and strange, as he realised that Sam had been near all this time, and how much he must have heard. Had Sam truly asked to be taken along, or had he imagined that?

As he blinked against the dazzle of light that cast Sam’s face in shadow, all Frodo could see with exacting clarity were the bent stalks and crushed blossoms among the geraniums nestling close to the window’s rim. The flowers must have been struck by an anxious kick as Sam was ripped from his garden, red-faced and stammering. Couldn’t you take me to see Elves, sir, when you go?

What had possessed him to listen, to suggest that he might accompany Frodo on this venture? Why had Gandalf so readily agreed?

But when Sam fell to his knees among the grass clippings that rained down to the rug, when Frodo saw the fear that he’d struck into Sam, so that Sam understood, it seemed as if he was looking on Sam for the last time already.

I am alone in this, I must be.

It wasn’t for Gandalf to make this choice, to decide that Sam should leave the Shire with him.

Frodo shielded his candle against the draught as he entered the study, his hand only a trifle steadier than the skittering flame. He wanted to summon a memory of Sam’s face, the very moment when Sam had stumbled back to his feet. What was it that he had seen in Sam’s expression, if he’d seen anything at all? Was it terror or joy, or a painful blend of both, was it a mirror of his own feelings, or did he merely wish that it might be?

It begins here, Frodo had thought, and the tight beats that leapt into his throat left him dry as a nutshell in a bonfire, so hollow and dry that he suddenly craved a glass of water and for a moment could think of nothing else.

Later in the day, he had picked up the grass that stuck to the rug’s matted wool, gathering the fragments in the cup of his hand while the sunlight washed over him in long, scalding waves.

Frodo caught the window and pushed it back against the wind’s unpredictable tugs. Had he thought to make Sam laugh with his ridiculous threat, his quip about toads and grass-snakes? How was it that he didn’t even know his own intentions?

Sam’s shears had lain agape on the rug when he came to his feet. Around his knuckles, the skin was crusted with dirt, and when he covered his face in both hands, the rough sounds of crying were trapped between his fingers. This was the limit of what Frodo could remember. He had seen nothing.

As he crossed towards the door, the candle darted fretful shimmers across the mantelpiece and the stained spines of books, but at his back the shadows seemed in a hurry to settle again and close those small gashes as securely as possible.

It was a relief to enter the cellar where the scent of earth enfolded him like a cloak of dark substance, calm and forgiving. Frodo breathed deeply, letting the gentle chill crawl over his face and neck before he stepped fully inside. Then he almost stubbed his toe on a jug he had left near the door this morning, half full of ewe’s milk that lay against the shadowed rim in a white crescent. As Frodo bent over it, the flame reflected like a single drop of honey on its surface.

He set the candle aside to pick up the jug, lifting it in both hands, and drank until he was glutted with a coolness that hurt in his stomach, but he couldn’t stop.

* * *

In his dream, Sam stood beside him on top of the Hill on a clear autumn day – if it was the Hill at all, for the old oak no longer grew behind the thatch of thistles and ryegrass. Instead, a low thicket of blooming briars surrounded two apple trees. Frodo breathed in to ask about it, but the air was so clean in his chest and the scents it carried so mellow that all he wanted was to keep them in, and he couldn’t speak.

In every direction, the country lay ripe and golden, fields and meadows sprawling outward from the Hill’s feet, into a long, cloudless spell that ringed the horizon. Frodo sought the Water with his eyes, and the ridge of the Green Hills in the south, but his gaze couldn’t reach far enough and fell to the grass at his feet.

Sam was watching him, he knew, and waiting for him to speak, with a patience as slow and sure as the years.

It is ours, all of this... is ours.

Frodo could feel the sunlight prick through his curls with a thousand needles, and on his forehead it pooled with a smelting strength. Why had no-one thought to cut the grass that fell over the slope in tangled dry swaths? When he finally looked back at Sam, Sam’s eyes held a knowledge he had never wanted to see. Keen and dark, it welled from a slow-forming smile.

"Sam..." To say this much took Frodo’s breath in a soft rush, but perhaps it was all that was needed.

Within that wide golden circle, Sam held out a hand to him, and he stepped forward.

* * *

Frodo lay on his bed beneath the bent and ribbed shadows of the roof-beams and could hear only the beating of his own heart. The darkness itself thrummed with the sound, as if it had grown a new skin that tightened about him. Had a dream jarred him so, or had a sudden noise snapped him from this brief fit of sleep?

Sweat had gathered under his collar, and the rub of cloth against damp skin reminded him that he still wore his shirt and waistcoat. He wrenched his collar open, wishing he could plunge into a dreamless rest just as he’d dive into the Water. How much time had passed? He should make up his mind and either change into his nightshirt and put himself to bed properly, or end this uneasy pretence of sleep.

Beyond his window, high against a dark fringe of leaves, gathered a grey shimmer as if the moon had found an opening in the clouds. Frodo leaned up on his elbow to watch it, and with the movement the last bit of drowsiness slipped away. Rather than wait out the night, he might as well get up and walk the fidget out of his heels, as Bilbo used to say. The memory almost made him smile.

Frodo swung his feet to the rug, reached for the jacket he had tossed down at the foot of the bed and untangled the sleeves on his way to the door.

Dear Bilbo. How far did you have to walk until it ended, if it ever did? From the far side of the corridor winked a small oil-lamp that he’d refilled for Gandalf’s sake, and the voice that stole into his thoughts as if to answer him was Gandalf’s, too. I don’t think you need worry about Bilbo. He would never have passed on to you anything that he thought would be a danger.

Frodo smoothed his jacket’s front and quickened his step. Outside the parlour, a pale gleam edged along the tile. He almost expected to find Gandalf still vigilant by the fire, but the great old chair stood empty, and only a weary prickle of embers remained in the grate.

Frodo set a hand on the doorframe. He left me everything. From the heavy oaken table to the knowledge that slept in the many leather-bound volumes, Bilbo had left what wouldn’t fit comfortably inside a travel-pack. As he looked into the thicket of shadows that laced the parlour’s furnishings, Frodo felt a sting of anger that was, perhaps, less surprising than it had been seventeen years ago, but still as swift to the mark.

Without another backward glance, he walked to the back door and unlocked it quietly. From the hovering grey of garden and sky rose a cooling breath, and he didn’t stop again until he’d passed the small gate in the hedge on the west side of the garden. Below on his right, sloping meadows stretched towards a coppice and the orchard further down. A dark seam of trees stood watch over the open grounds. Away in the south, the clouds had frayed and spattered the dark sky like the contents of a feather bed, crushed into tiny fragments.

Frodo stepped from the patch of bare earth to begin his descent. With each step, damp grasses slid and bent against his ankles, but not the slightest whisper of a breeze relieved the still air. As many nocturnal walks as he had taken in the past years, the familiar country around him had never lain so quiet. He remembered nights, long ago, when strange sounds would rise through his open bedroom window, and the chattering of the poplars from the lower end of the Lane suddenly resembled disgruntled voices. Half-asleep and a little afraid, he would try to imagine the rumours they exchanged, and the secrets that the wind shook from their boughs. Now the only sounds for miles around seemed to come from the rustles of his footsteps through the grass.

At first he felt almost compelled to soften his steps and blend them into the silence if he couldn’t escape it. But wasn’t this silence long familiar, after the same manner as the shadows changing their colour when the afternoon sun dappled Bag End’s casements? He crossed the Row where it tapered to a narrow track which by the beginning of summer would dwindle to a mere trace amid sprawling clematis, mugwort and clover. Pebbles and gravel muttered briefly under his feet.

Perhaps this was the silence that sometimes seized his awareness at the oddest moments, felt rather than heard among the lively voices of his guests at a party, or after a wild reel when the dancers would stand with flushed faces and hands pressed to the waist, before someone cheered or demanded the next tune. It stirred him most strongly when the fiddle’s song broke off on the highest note, as if its pitch had rent the air itself and left a breathless gap that swallowed the music. Was there a call in it, a bearing he had missed?

Memory tugged at him, as if a mere glance over his shoulder would show him Bilbo, leisurely puffing his pipe on the front porch. In slow and delicate threads, smoke would fan against shafts of late sunlight that broke over the Hill, each hanging suspended, like a question, in the windless air. In apparent contentment, Bilbo would watch over the day’s fading, but the look he sent after the smoke-rings that he blew was sharp and wistful. Once, adventure had claimed him in one bold sweep, but it seemed that in later years he had listened with utmost intent for a stir, a motion however small, that might beckon to him.

He was getting restless and uneasy, Gandalf had said. Thin and stretched.

Hands pushed into his pockets, Frodo strode across the meadow that separated the orchard from the Water’s bank. Why didn’t I know? Why did he leave me so... unprepared? And what else had he failed to notice, steeped in his own loss, in the turmoil and the confounding thrills of those days?

Of all the party guests and neighbours, Sam alone had shown no surprise at Bilbo’s sudden disappearance, though he too must have grieved. Grieved in silence, and in secret – unless, Frodo thought, he’d overlooked small signs that he didn’t know how to read, seventeen years ago. But had he learned to read them since? Could it be that Sam truly wanted to leave the Shire with him – Sam, who had seemed a stranger when he wished him good-night?

Shallow and uncertain as his own breaths, the burble of current reached Frodo from the row of alders along the Water. Under their bushy crowns, trapped in the meshes of twigs and foliage, the sound rang hollow. With a quick step, Frodo walked up to the bank where the Water’s snaking course had washed out the loam to form a small, almost circular pool. Thready knotgrass and stime hung over it, and mirrored stars stood firm as rivets on the dark surface.

From here, he could turn towards the Crossing where the stream gurgled among the stones as if pressed through the neck of a bottle, and snarled roots wove a ladder up the steep embankment on the other side. By day, sunlight stenciled a silver edgework over the brown stones, crisp as the chill that wound itself around his ankles. He stood unmoving by the pool, gripped by a sudden urge to toss something in the water and shatter the mirrored lights. Just as the Shire would be torn and shattered if he didn’t leave.

A ridiculous comparison, indeed. Fingers knotted over his knees, Frodo crouched beside the pool and tried to envision his path. The distance seemed endless, and vast with mysteries he’d never learn, now that his road had been set out for him. Even the nearer sights were riddles he had to capture anew. A thin mist gathered on the far bank where Farmer Longholt’s fields would soon turn green with rising barley. From the Crossing, the mill’s roof would be visible, and the brightly painted doors on the south side would shimmer like sloe and rowan berries under the wooded rise. Daylight would outline the strong shape of each tree and sift through their crowns, dissolving them into a flurry of shadows that floated precariously above the ground, pierced at the centre by a golden glare.

Of everything that he pictured, only that stab of a brilliant glance remained and settled as a burn over the middle of his chest. How much longer could he stay?

Through all the years of Bilbo’s absence, he had believed that his own adventure, when it came, must be different. Now he peered along the Water’s course as if it was from this direction that his call should have come, from the soft and transparent greys that hovered over reeds and underbrush. But it hadn’t, it came from an unknown place – from within or without, he could not be sure – with a myriad dangers battering at him. Dangers that only Gandalf could foresee.

An anxious heartbeat knocked sharply against his ribs, and he leaned over to dip his hands into the pool where stars eddied around his fingers and thinned to vague flickers. Calm and smooth among them, he could envision the golden circle at the heart of his palm – he had meant to fling it into the fire, but instead had watched his own fingers curl up tight and slip the Ring back into his pocket.

Frodo rubbed wet knuckles against his temple. How does it do this, Gandalf? Why didn’t I know? It was then that he remembered what he had dreamed. Burnished gold surrounded Sam and himself on every side, smouldered in the woods and fields and meadows, in everything that he knew.

Fear bloomed under his breastbone like the deep echo of an unheard drum, quickened and tightened to a fist that held him, close to the question he had failed to answer until now.

I can’t take Sam with me. I must not.

The decision snapped inside him like a lock sprung open. He had known this from the moment when Gandalf set Sam down inside the study, hadn’t he? Frodo climbed briskly to his feet and dried his hands on his breeches. Whatever else he might wish for must vanish without trace, like a stone skipping in bright short leaps across the Water before it sliced the surface and fell. At his shoulder, the presence of Bag End loomed suddenly near, lightless and soothing as sleep itself.

I will speak to Sam tomorrow, he told himself. I shan’t put this off an hour longer than necessary. But first, I will rest.

Driven by a high wind, the clouds laced together in coarse ribbons as Frodo turned from the bank and towards the Hill. If only such a wind would rise at his heels, out of the low lands, to furrow the grass left and right, its stealthy messengers running ahead of his steps. By the old Grange, the poplar leaves would move to each gust in soft, circling shivers that turned up their pale undersides like hands splayed to protect or defend.

Frodo pulled his jacket tighter about himself, against the chill that followed him up from the Water. All that this excursion and his ungathered musings had gained him was a closer knowledge of his own fear, and a slow ache building against each step he took up the slope.

His shoulders sank in relief as he turned into the Row with its shuttered windows and its gardens that drowsed behind well-trimmed hedges. Among the shrubs and the dark heads of kale, strips of loosened earth formed patient patterns. Was this how the Shire seemed to Gandalf? Tidy and oblivious, tucked deeply into the seasons’ steady cycle, and only half-awake to the world outside.

Between the smials, yellow blossoms dotted a bristling gorse bush, smug as quiet laughter behind whiskers of dark thorn. For a moment, Frodo felt absurdly small, and mischievous like a lad who’d duck through a gap in the quickthorn to pilfer ripe strawberries that he’d eat alone, nestled into the fork of a welcoming branch, shins and hands scratched from his tussle with the hedge. A remembered taste teased him with its raw sweetness that left his mouth dry. How often could he return here, as if for the last time?

He stopped by the Gamgees’ garden. A timid breeze had lifted after all, catching beneath the sycamores and chestnuts on the lower side of the Row. Frodo laid a hand against one bleached gate-post and drew his nails along the deep fissures in the wood. Although he had never set foot inside, he knew Sam slept behind the window left of the door, where vetch and blooming butterbur framed a half-moon of shadow. The shutter had not been pulled and rested against the turf like the forgotten lid of a pot. Sam must have been confident indeed that it would not rain during the night. Now his window looked out into the world like the tunnel-mouth of a small animal’s burrow, peeping from concealment. Spied from the folds of forbearing earth, the sun would seem distant as a star, wreathed in fine roots that captured her last, lingering beams while the crickets’ chafing went up into the evening air.

Frodo blinked against a sudden heat in his eyes, as if those rays he’d glimpsed only in his mind possessed a sting of their own. The burning sensation in his chest was quickly becoming unbearable. How could he trust his own choice, when he found himself wanting what he should not?

Once he had left, he would wrestle with a thousand memories, or ghosts of memories that welled from mere wishing; he’d bear with him a life’s fullness of which Sam had always been a part – no, not always, yet more than part, like the breath needed to carry a song.

I have to leave, he thought wildly, as soon as I may, or –

The door’s opening was a widening crack of darkness beside the window, without sound, that revealed a startling flash of white. Sam stood in the doorway, his nightshirt half-tucked into his breeches, and pushed thick curls back from his forehead.

For long moments, Frodo stared at him. While Sam’s presence at this unexpected hour was entirely too real, he felt invisible himself, as if he’d been summoned from inside his own dream to witness a private moment of waking. How often had Sam seen him like this, dishevelled at the break of day, broken sleep and foggy dreams hanging about him like a spill of vines?

"I’m sorry if I..." He took a short breath, aware that Sam was looking at him, had been meeting his eyes all along with unswerving alertness. "What did I–?"

"You didn’t do aught to apologise for, sir." Sam’s voice was soft and carried a husky edge, but not the kind that abrupt waking would bring. "It’s not often as someone walks by in the middle of night," he explained, approaching the garden gate at a slow pace. His glance swept past Frodo, for a swift survey of the Row. "I heard your steps, Mr. Frodo, and then nothing."

"You were awake." It wasn’t a question now, and might as well have been left unsaid. Frodo wondered uneasily who else must have taken note and might be listening.

"Don’t be worried, Mr. Frodo," Sam said as casually as though they were having a mid-morning conversation about the beans and turnips in Bag End’s garden. "I heard my Gaffer snore a jolly tune just now, as I went to the door."

Frodo shook his head, a tentative answer at best. He looked at Sam across the garden gate and found the twilight still too thick on his face, pooled about Sam’s eyes and temples where stray curls clung in a damp tracery.

I should not be here. But something stirred restlessly underneath his thoughts, something greedy and starved, as compelling as the breeze that reached gentle fingers to the nape of his neck.

"I wonder if Gandalf snores," he said absently.

The soft start of a chuckle rumbled in Sam’s throat. "‘Tis hard to picture Mr. Gandalf ever being aught but awake, sure enough. But I suppose he needs a nap now and then, though maybe less than the lot of us."

"He does at that." Frodo rubbed his fingers along the seams of his trouser-pockets. At any other time, Sam’s equable tone with its deft touch of humour would have eased him, but now everything that he’d left unspoken, that he had yet to say, strained him like a weight around his neck. Between yesterday morning, when Sam had left a steaming pot of tea swaddled in a towel on the kitchen table, and the present moment, a reeling change had occurred and left them dangling precariously, as if suspended at opposite ends of a rope that stretched taut between them. What was it that he’d failed to see in his study, the day before? Had he been blinded when, between one blink and another, something flared too brightly, too full and raw to be remembered?

"I should hope he’s fast asleep," Frodo snatched at the thin thread of conversation. "Rather than rambling about aimlessly, like his host."

"There’s nights as bid folk to come out and watch them, I’m thinking." Sam leaned his elbow on the gatepost as he might for an amicable chat with a neighbour, but his posture seemed tight with effort, and the curve of his shoulder stretched the pale cloth of his nightshirt. "Though mosttimes that’s when the moon’s out and nigh full," he added, his thumb worrying at a trennel that stood out from the wood.

Frodo glanced to the sand at his feet and curled his toes against the scouring grains. He had heard the wavering in Sam’s voice, as if it shook his own breath, grown hoarse with pressing questions. Was it true that Sam could not stand the thought of being parted from him? An answer shivered through him, slow and guarded as dawn lighting on a first coating of frost along the window’s leaded panes.

"I went out for a breath of fresh air," he started, though a fine heat crawled up from his throat to his ears. "But now I should seek my own bed, or I won’t be a proper host to Gandalf tomorrow, let alone see to any other duty."

Why did he even bother with this pretence? He knew well enough that he couldn’t mask the quick surge of regret from Sam. That he could not hide.

With a determined motion, Sam unlatched the gate and swung it inward. "I’ll walk with you."

"Like this?" Frodo gestured at the nightshirt that bunched in thick folds about Sam’s waist.

"Oh, but..." As if he hadn’t noticed his rumpled state until now, Sam glanced down and began tugging at the nightshirt in the same manner as he’d fasten his cuffs before he entered Bag End’s parlour.

"No, I didn’t mean..." Frodo waved his hand, dismissing the notion with sudden impatience. "You’ll be cold, Sam, and I – I’ll find my way."

"Of course you will, sir."

And of course Sam would not budge, now that his mind was set. Frodo stepped back into the Row, yielding to the familiar, stubborn tuck of Sam’s chin as he closed the gate behind himself.

Neither of them said another word as they walked up to the juncture where the Row curved into the Lane that led up to Bag End’s gate. The quiet between them was uncomfortable, though it gradually seemed to ease into the night’s wider stillness and the even pace of their footsteps. Frodo cast a look over his shoulder before he could help it, at the straggling clouds in the south, but the breeze had settled like another thing that he’d dreamed, and silvered shadows welled down over the slope as if from Bag End’s invisible doorstep.

Proud under the Hill, stuffed with possessions and remembrances, Bag End overlooked the lands and dwellings that had been his responsibility through so many years. He couldn’t simply lock the door and run off as Bilbo had, in his headlong dash towards the unknown, without an inkling how long his journey might take. The Mastership could not be abandoned. Someone else would have to oversee planting, haymaking and harvest, and the thousand small duties Frodo could count out like coins rolling and rattling across a trestle at market, grown smooth and dull through fond handling.

He bent his head and noticed the faint slant of shadows against the dirt, his own and Sam’s becoming entangled among the outlines of close-growing trees where they caught on stones and ridges in the Lane. As he thought about Bag End, a strange coolness folded itself about his heart, like the evening’s breath off the Water. No-one knew all his duties better than Sam, and with a sore, sudden longing Frodo wished, if it were possible, that he could leave everything in Sam’s hands. It was the kind of idea that had gained Bilbo and himself their stippled reputation and would send a flurry of gossip through all four Farthings. Yet he found it startlingly easy to picture Sam at Bag End’s front door, framed by sinking twilight and the fire’s golden glints, a hand half-raised in farewell before he turned inside with stooped shoulders.

As if I could return, Frodo realised, as if I could simply pass my life into Sam’s keeping for a time. It was a most selfish wish, he knew, and it cramped into a small, defiant ache within his chest as he cast a sidelong glance at Sam.

The nightshirt’s collar hung loose about Sam’s neck and nape, the soft, worn cloth exposing skin paler than his face and hands. The night-chill must have crept under the thin garment minutes ago, but instead of protecting himself from the cold, Sam appeared to welcome it. What was he thinking? What was it that Sam wanted?

As they reached the top of the Lane where carts driving up to Bag End’s gate would turn about, a bird trilled and began a song from a nearby box tree.

"A robin, isn’t it?" Frodo listened to the notes that rose incredibly high, then fell like a swift tapping of rain from the evergreen leaves, strung together in a rolling lilt. Beside him, Sam tilted his head towards the sound.

"What is it saying?" Frodo asked softly.

"Ah." Sam smiled, his face still turned towards the low-growing tree. "This early in the year, it calls I bring hay from the stables, I bring down from the pen, I bring moss and wool for a house – or so my Ma used to tell me. They won’t lay an egg afore they’ve built their nests proper, roof and all."

"They nest so close to the ground." Frodo paused, but the warbling swirls and trills had ceased. "I remember one spring in Buckland when a robin built its nest under a hedge just beside the barn. Merry was heartbroken when a marten got its eggs."

"But another came and took its place the year after, didn’t it?" Sam looked back at him, his expression so intent that Frodo had to swallow an instant answer.

Of course, he meant to reply, but in truth he didn’t recollect if it had been the following year or the next. "There was another."

He made an effort to smile, and wondered why the robin had chosen such a late hour for its song. Through the trees, he caught a brief glimpse of the setting moon, his horn etched like the rim of a newly minted penny.

"And what does the robin say in autumn?"

"It says–" Sam broke off and hunched up his shoulders. "Oh, I’m sorry, Mr. Frodo."

Frodo shook his head. "What ever are you sorry for?"

But he could guess, couldn’t he, for the robins all departed, come autumn, and he was abruptly reminded of the grass Sam had cut from his lawn which would dry into the finest hay, the kind that could flare alight at a single spark.

"What was it," Frodo started, but the question changed, halfway formed. "What was it that kept you awake?"

"I thought maybe you’d be wanting to say something to me, Mr. Frodo." Sam’s voice had lowered to a deep, uneasy murmur. "And then I thought no..."

But you knew I would come, when I didn’t. Frodo met his eyes and found them filled with a strange wariness, very dark against the cool greys that surrounded them on every side. He knew he looked to Sam as he so often had, always certain to find Sam at his shoulder, always sure of the calm attention that answered to his wishes and unspoken requests. But what was it that he now saw?

I must have something to take with me, Frodo thought, to remind me that the Shire remains whole and safe. A firm foothold, he had called it.

"Don’t be sorry, Sam." Suddenly short of breath, Frodo took a step to the side and glanced along the Lane that dropped away into concealing trees.

"I do understand, Mr. Frodo."

"Do you?" he whispered. His glance fell to a gnarled root in the road against which his own shadow lay curled and feeble, as if it tried to fade into the ground. As if it knew, better than he did, what it meant to be severed.

A trace of warmth told him that Sam stood close by, yet no movement or gesture offered comfort, and the need to know became a craving. What was it that Sam had said about the robin? There was another, the year after. Perhaps Sam would be relieved to step back from a rashly made promise, the kind of service that would bind him to –

"This – this journey is... it’s the most dreadful business," Frodo began, his breath so heated in his chest that he thought it must cloud up white before his mouth. Sam couldn’t have heard everything that Gandalf had revealed, and the less he had gathered, the better.

"Aye," Sam murmured, "that I know."

Frodo turned slowly to face him. Now that the moment had arrived to tell Sam about his decision, he could not speak. Silence swung between them, like the tongue inside a heavy bell before it strikes the first note, and Sam’s hands were clenched at his sides, as if he already knew.

"Mr. Frodo..."

Low and hesitant as it was, the sound of Sam’s voice seemed to fill the air, charging it to surfeit with closely held memories. And there was grief now, a slow welling that Frodo didn’t know how to stop, seeping hot as wax through his chest, to thicken and seal the air within.

He almost expected Sam to hold out a hand as he had in the dream, but he didn’t. Instead, Sam raised his head with a look that held a pointed challenge, aimed to the quick of his own resolve. "I mean to go with you, Mr. Frodo."

"Don’t think me ungrateful, Sam, but..." Frodo paused to measure his words against the demand of Sam’s gaze. "I don’t believe you have had quite enough time to think well about it, to consider what you would leave behind, perhaps for good." Although he had managed an altogether sensible tone, the flat, dry sound chafed at the back of his throat. "Why would you leave when you could–" He waved a hand at the lands that lay so calm about them, "when you’re free to call all of this your own!"

Quick as a wingbeat, Sam’s expression grew clouded and withdrawn. "Not to be forward, Mr. Frodo, but I couldn’t, not in the manner as you do. And I wouldn’t wish for it neither."

"But how could you not?" Frodo shot back.

As many times as he had encountered Sam’s stubbornness, like the substance of weathered oak beneath a gentle cloak of leaves, there had never been a serious argument, never the kind of dissent that threatened to rend and splinter between them. Never a moment when Sam did not defer to him in one fashion or another, though at times he’d retreat into a stiff formality that could fret at Frodo’s composure for days. But this blunt show of will, this frank defiance left him breathless.

Why must you do this? He felt betrayed, forced backwards against a swift anger that flashed in his mind and snapped a violent thrill through his middle.

"There will be another Master at Bag End," Frodo said, keeping his voice even and his temper under tight rein, "someone who’ll take my place. Who shall have to rely on your help and advice–"

"Mr. Frodo," Sam interrupted him, and now his voice was shaking. "If I had a right to ask aught for the years as I’ve served you... what would you give me?"

"Why would you think that you do not have the right?" Frodo returned, before he’d quite taken in what Sam had just asked. Then, something wrenched loose in his chest, darting like a sharp tune over the fiddle’s strings, so high and taut that either song or string must snap. "Haven’t I given you–"

He broke off when his breath wouldn’t carry more, his own error all too glaring before him. What pleasures and comforts they had shared were beyond his power to give. Yet Sam was ready to leave this life behind and commit himself to an unknown yoke that would harness them both.

The freedom of each other’s company, at our own choosing, Frodo thought. That is what we stand to lose. But was it the truth? Were Sam’s memories sharpened by the same regret? The past years of contentment seemed to beckon to Frodo, as bright and seductive as the golden radiance that had spread through his dream.

"I would–" But where an honest answer should have followed, or an effort to offer what he could, a single sound caught in his throat, broken and wretched.

Frodo snatched a hand to his mouth, his head light as if it had been scoured out at a breath he could not draw. This was not crying, it was struggling for air, and he could scarcely see Sam, his arms half-raised and empty. I have nothing to give you, only danger.

If only something could hold, root and hide him here. But when Sam gripped his upper arms as if to steady him on his feet, when his breath escaped in a gasp, Frodo could feel the pressing weight dissolve in a flush along his breastbone. He let his head drop forward, releasing the air that had burned in his chest. Against his cheek he felt the swift drumming of Sam’s pulse, one fear to another, and yet his own was sheltered for a moment in the crook of Sam’s neck.

He could not dare to remain like this longer than it took him to regain his breath, but for that brief span, his fingers curved around Sam’s shoulder and traced the slow ebb of a fearful tension; he felt how Sam’s grip lightened, no longer digging through his sleeves but trembling, how his thumbs moved in an awkward half-circle before his hands dropped away.

"Sam..." Frodo stood back to look at him, all the heat of that unsettled moment still in his face. "I do not wish to leave. I do – but then I don’t. It seems easier when I think of Bilbo, and yet... the Shire is so dear to me, and now it seems I haven’t had the time to know and treasure it as I should have."

Sam nodded slowly, his eyes full and gentle with thought, and that look seemed to reach out a closer embrace than their brief, clutching hold. "I wouldn’t be choosing to leave either, but take me with you, Mr. Frodo."

"I can’t ask it of you."

"But don’t you see? ‘Tis a boon that I’m asking..." Sam drew a hard breath. "And I won’t ask it again."

On the edge of Frodo’s vision, the moon swam among ragged clouds and rendered everything sharp, clear black set against dark silver, as if gathered up to a sickle’s blade before it dips to slice the grasses.

"Yes, Sam." He breathed out, and Sam bowed his head, moonlight glittering on the slow course of a tear that ran down the side of his face, unheeded or perhaps unnoticed, until it dripped from his jaw.

Just barely, Frodo stopped himself from reaching up to catch it or brush it away, though the wish rose quick as a shiver to his fingertips. He could see the fine balance in which Sam held himself, and although he’d had years to learn its span and measure, it seemed stretched to a new reach now, like a fan of rime-covered bracken at the day’s first glance, each slender frond splayed and sparkling white, that he dare not disturb. To the bottom of his chest where the night-air warmed in fits and starts, he could sense how much had changed, left raw and unknowable. He watched Sam straighten his shoulders, a slow ripple of relief or purpose settling his frame.

How would it be? Once they had set out, could they still share a moment’s quiet, at the summit of day, and wonder at the crooked shape of a tree, or laugh about the wood-grouse, clucking and hissing as it courted its mate? Could he still ask Sam what the birds were chattering about, and could he say show me how to bear this, you’re so much readier to leave than I am–?

"Sam." Frodo cleared his throat, "I don’t know how to..."

"If you’re thinking to thank me, sir..." Sam shook his head and began anew when his voice had steadied. "‘Tis my turn for that, and no mistake, but I won’t stand on it, or we’ll have ourselves another quarrel." The hint of a vexed smile pulled at his mouth but gained no purchase. "And truly I’m sorry for pressing you so, but would you wish for me to stay behind?"

"No..." Frodo stopped to consider, determined to seek out the very edge of truth, but the image of Sam at Bag End’s door that he’d summoned so easily had vanished, like a thing out of mist and shade. "I still believe that I should, to spare you the grief of leaving and the perils that lie ahead," he said honestly. "But I can’t."

Sam bit down on his lip as if to catch a quick reply and ducked his head, but the crinkles around his eyes traced out a real and startling joy.

"Well, that’s settled then," Frodo said, his voice wavering only a little. Relief poured through him, humming in his blood, and rose far too quickly to his head. "I believe we have both earned a rest now."

"Aye, ‘tis late enough to be early." Sam nodded to him, smoothing a hand over the ruckles in his nightshirt. "Sleep well, Mr. Frodo."

"I will," Frodo said quietly. "Now I will. And you, Sam..." When he turned, the moon had retreated into a scattering of clouds, gliding among them in a silken grey that lit their borders. Frodo walked the short distance to Bag End’s gate in their company, a fretwork of shadows shifting about his feet.

He had already reached over the gate to pull up the latch when he glanced back and saw Sam halt lower in the Lane, the white of his nightshirt hazed as a patch of moonlight. Frodo gathered his breath with a smile that Sam could not see, and stepped back into his garden.

* * *

He woke to a morning that fell with thinly veiled brightness through the window-panes, and knew at once that he’d slept longer than he ought. Frodo glanced from the window to his own hand where it splayed against the sheet, traversed by a blurred band of daylight. It seemed that the spell of cloudy weather was already breaking again, and as he turned onto his back, a wave of memory and awareness travelled through him, as if to urge him upward.

He held his breath for a moment, enfolding it like a fading dream. But the last night was lodged in his marrow in a manner that no dream ever could, the clear, night-washed scents of leaf and grass surrounding that final glimpse he had had of Sam from Bag End’s gate, and a myriad moments ran from it. Each took shape and pulled free, like droplets from a settling mist seeping through dense underbrush, through the robin’s trills, until they pooled together in the space around his heart.

Was this how a choice felt when it reached across years? Frodo stretched his back slowly and wished he could linger over the memory, inspect its pull and half-mended seams. But he had a guest to think of, and a day about to slip away from him.

As he picked up his clothes, the slim chain rustled from his trouser-pocket, glistening against the dark cloth like a rapid trickle over smoothed stones. He caught the Ring in his palm just before it could fall. Almost weightless, it rested there, and when Frodo held it up, the daylight settled dull and flat on its surface, repelled, it seemed, instead of kindling that burnished gleam from the depth of gold. Thoughtful of what it hid, Frodo slipped the Ring back into his pocket, attached the chain to his belt and combed his fingers through his curls. Grooming himself properly would have to wait until later.

When he reached the kitchen, the table was already littered with bowls, tea-cups, and half-emptied plates. Beyond the open window, the day steamed grey and green as if rousing itself from a fog that had covered Hobbiton and the entire vale over night. Gandalf towered by the small fire, filling his pipe from the worn old satchel.

"Good morning," Frodo said from the door. "You should have called on me to prepare your breakfast."

Without hurry, Gandalf retied the satchel and slanted a mild glance in his direction. "Thank you, but with help from Sam, I have managed to breakfast quite pleasantly."

"Where is he?"

Gandalf raised his eyebrows, as if Frodo should well be able to answer such a question for himself. "In the garden. Planting your potatoes, I believe."

"It is time for that." Frodo dropped into the chair that Gandalf had pulled out for him, and the warm scent of sage tea wafted around him with the faded charm of an old acquaintance. "Sam’s Gaffer has been clucking over his seed potatoes for at least a fortnight."

"And perhaps you shall yet have the pleasure of eating them," Gandalf replied from behind. "Although I urged you towards a decision yesterday, we have many preparations to make, and many questions to consider."

"Do we?" Frodo tipped his head to the side and glanced up, along the folds of Gandalf’s robes that showed the length of his travels in threadbare patches and small rents, to his shoulders that stooped slightly in the confines of the kitchen. "I suppose the preparations will fall to me," he said drily, "while the considering will be your part. Am I not right?"

"You have a keen wit, my dear Frodo." The corner of Gandalf’s mouth curled slightly, and he tapped it with the pipe that remained unlit. "For a hobbit, of course. But I don’t doubt that you will join me in my labours, whether I advise it or not." With a flick of his wrists that shook the wide sleeves back from his hands, he seated himself on the bench across from Frodo, apparently content to observe a hungry Baggins at breakfast.

When he had finished porridge, eggs and a slice of almond-cake, Frodo stacked the dishes by the wash-basin and approached the kitchen window with a light step. It didn’t bother him, he discovered, that Gandalf watched his movements from the side.

Out on the lawn, Sam was now turning the newly mown grass with a rake and whistling under his breath. The sound barely reached the smial and wound into drowsy air currents that seemed to gather below, along the hedge, where the darker greens blended away into a bank of slowly separating mists. Frodo laid a hand against the sill and listened to the whimsical tune that climbed and dropped, faltering only to set in anew at an unexpected pitch. In his chest, a swift pang caught at the melody, and perhaps he would always feel it now when he looked at Sam.

Behind him, Gandalf lit his pipe at last, and the smoke was drawn towards the window, blowing past Frodo with its fine, tart smell. Outside, Sam leaned forward to untangle something from the rake’s grasp, the whistled notes low between his teeth as he tugged on a root. Tossing it aside, he unbent in a slow stretch and drew the back of his wrist over his forehead.

I shall remember this, Frodo thought, this is what I’ll take with me – and it pulled strangely at his breath, as if the memory had already seized a place for itself. Just then, Sam turned sideways and met his eyes with a steady look.

Frodo held his gaze, though his first impulse was to glance away. Sam must have known all along where he stood, where exactly his eyes were resting. For that moment’s stillness, he felt as if he brushed the edge of another presence, cool and close, and then it seemed as a place where nothing was – until Sam lowered his head for a brief nod and resumed his work.

We will go together. Frodo held the words in his mind, like a find that he needed to cup in both hands, the shell of a vinyard snail maybe, or a mouthful of water. His hip leaned to the sill, he turned back to Gandalf.

"I won’t ask how you knew my decision."

"A wise choice, for my knowledge in this matter is hardly of the greatest importance," Gandalf replied. "It is you who must be certain." Bright curls of smoke wreathed his face and masked a touch of quiet humour, so fleeting that Frodo wasn’t sure if he had merely imagined it.

"I know," he said, while the breeze from the garden slid past the casement and ruffled the shirt along his back. "That, I know."

* * * * *

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