Thanks to Calanthe and Catherine for beta-reading, and to Eykar and Nikki for very helpful comments and discussion.

Sun in the Stone
by Cara J. Loup

Both or neither, neither and both... Bill's hoofs rang on the rutted road, every clip and clop skipping through Sam's head. Once again, he felt the spores and shoots of impatience rise all through him. Don't be a fool, Sam Gamgee.

For miles ahead, the East Road stretched on straight and grey under the clouded sun. Small puffs of dust stirred beneath Bill's lively step, swirling from the upper layer of dirt that had dried again since the last night's rains. The air still carried moist scents though, and the resin-smell of firs recalled the departed frost.

Sam sucked in a long breath for patience and shaded his eyes against the light that thinned the clouds to a veil. He could have rode on northwards, following the byway that wound up to the edge of the Bindbale woods, but instead he'd set himself on this wide, eastward track. Now, close on mid-day, the road was empty before and behind him. Far ahead, it disappeared in a haze, a deep furrow in the land that was carved ages before.

With a short whistle, Sam slowed Bill to a trot. On their right, less than a furlong away, he could see the Three-Farthing Stone, a blanched finger against the meadow and the darker rim of evergreens off south.

"Here we are then." Bill pricked his ears, and Sam leaned forward to pat his neck. "How if we took a short break? I've a carrot in my bag for you." Bill snorted, agreeable to the plan, but his ears kept twitching. He must have noted the tautness in his master's voice, just as Sam himself did.

"I don't know," he said softly. "'T might be a fool's errand, and wouldn't be the first either."

He brought Bill to a halt where a path cut through the road-bank. Reins wrapped round one hand, Sam swung his leg over the crupper and hopped off. In the ground lingered a chill that the sun couldn't chase this early in the year. As he led Bill into the wide, flat dell, he felt a sharper attention gather inside him, rousing to listen for the quietmost stirs in the land, if there were any.

Only a dim slice of shadow lay at the stone's foot where the loam was bare and trod down hard from many a visit paid over the years. There were countless tales about the stone's marvellous history, but no-one knew aright who'd set it there, or who'd carved the markings on its three sides. Many centuries ago it must have been, for the runes spelling East and West, and the circle of the sun drawn on the third side, had withered to shallow grooves and were dappled with yellowed bits of moss and stonecrop. You had to lean close to see the scores at all. Daylight pooled on the stone's bald crown, so it looked near white.

Folk said it could keep cool at noontide, or glow as coal in mid-winter, and at a touch it let you know your blessing. There wasn't a traveller in the Shire that didn't stop to pay the stone a visit, but not all dared to try their luck.

Sam paused before it, watching the stone that reared from the quiet as ever it did, but it struck him then that there should be another on the far side of the road, raised and fashioned like a rightful twin. The notion seemed like a memory breathed out of the stone itself, ancient and worn thin with time. Sam lifted his eyes for another long look around.

In this one spot of all the Shire, things seemed unchanged and untouchable. Like a flame on a short wick, his relief flickered to disappointment – all seemed so remote, so silent – and back again. Perhaps he'd still come to an answer here. His heartbeat sped to small, hard knocks at the bottom of his throat.

Make up your mind, for love of the Shire! You can't have it both ways.

He'd never tried his blessings and wasn't wholly sure he would now – not till Bill nudged the back of his arm, and Sam could feel his soft snort more than hear it, like an encouragement to lift his hand. Then, before he'd drawn half a breath, the stone lay cold and rugged under his palm. Lifeless to the touch, like the black of winter.

That's because the sun's weak yet, and my hand hot from the reins, Sam reasoned with himself, squeezing back the tears that sprang behind his lids, heated as the stone ought to have been. What's to become of us?

"Well, Bill, my lad..." He cleared the rough edge from his voice and turned to scratch the tuft between the pony's ears. "There's no sense in askin' a stone's advice, I reckon." Each word strained against a weight in his chest, at the hopes wrapped so tight round his heart. I won't be letting go, Frodo. Never that.

He stood back and blinked at the sky, where the sun was a blurred disk behind the clouds, silver more than gold. At that moment he remembered himself, stretched out on Bag End's lawn, many summers before...

As though it was now, he could smell grass just beginning to flower, and the scent blew over him, warm and restful. Mr. Frodo had been away on a visit to Tuckborough and Mr. Bilbo off to market, leaving Sam by himself in the flourishing garden. He'd set to mow the lawn in the afternoon, but when he took his mid-day break, the tended green looked so inviting that he lay down flat in the middle. He couldn't now recollect if he'd napped for a bit or merely closed his eyes, but when he looked up, the sun was right above him, and an odd stillness lay all about. His own heart's pounding dropped straight into the grass and the ground below, and it seemed there was naught in the world but him in that shadowless place, and the day's eye watching from above. A long thrill pierced him, but a moment later Mr. Bilbo's voice rang from the gate, and Sam jumped to his feet in a flustered haste.

He looked on that memory now as though it were a drawing in one of Mr. Bilbo's books, the sort where you might see mountains or a forest peek out just above the horizon, and wonder what path led into that picture, or out of it.

With a shake of his head, Sam reached for the saddle-bag and found the promised carrot among his own provender. Bill had taken to cropping the clover and chickweed, but he swung his head back the moment Sam held out the carrot.

Those were clearer days, he thought, as though a taint had come to the sullen daylight. In years before, most every choice used to grow as trees did, steady without fail, to present itself like a missed acquaintance, in a company of pleasant thoughts. But now, for all his thinking, he couldn't seem to make up his mind.

He couldn't wed Rosie for his Gaffer's wishing alone, nor the Cottons'. In earlier days, that wishing would have been his own, but when he reached for its threads inside him, he found them frayed and tangled in knots of regret.

I'd wrong her, he would have told his dad if he could, and he'd wanted to tell Frodo the same, save that Mr. Frodo deserved better than being burdened with doubts that couldn't be helped. What am I to give her now?

Sam batted his hand against his breeches. He wouldn't turn back to Bywater ere he'd found an answer; leastways that was certain. As he reached for Bill's dangling reins, his glance fell on the ground. Deep in the grass glittered rain-drops, and he noticed then how thick and juicy all the greens had grown. It was here that he'd blown the last dust from Lady Galadriel's box off his palm, with a wish so large it embraced all the Shire.

It might be too soon yet to see aught of his wish take root. All he could do was travel along the paths where its scattered traces lay sleeping. Sam set his foot in the stirrup and climbed back into the saddle.

* * *

There should be a party... Towards the end of the day, Sam rode through the Bindbale forest where the old tracks lay smothered in bramble and deadfall. A large and cheerful party, he thought, to celebrate Mr. Frodo's coming home, once Bag End's been set all to order again. Music and merry voices would pour from the windows, and rich smells would fill the kitchen where he'd wrestle with a storm of pots, platters and bowls.

And fireworks! Sam looked up into the crowns of twisted pines and firs, leaving it to Bill to pick their path among the thickets. Gloomy as the afternoon was under tree and cloud, he could paint the dull sky with his fancy, with bursts of wild colour – green stars and yellow suns whirling about silver spray as fine as a fountain's. As quick as that, he could picture Frodo in the Party Field, too, his head tilted up as he watched, and his lips parted in surprised laughter.

For a moment, Sam could feel the sound ripple and rise through him with a breathless hope. Then the forest's quiet took over again, sprinkled with tardy plops of rain on their earthward journey from one layer of bearded branches to the next, with occasional trills that passed high overhead, and rustles in the undergrowth.

Dusk threw long and ragged shadows across the path when they passed out from under the pines' eaves. On the right stretched weed-grown fallows, and not too far ahead, the village of Bindbale lay hid in a woodless fold cleaving the country. Grey-bellied clouds were fastened to the sky like soaked laundry, crushed together over a yellow rim in the west. Sam caught a smell of burning pine-cones on the air. Evening was about to settle without a breath, as though willing the land itself to sleep.

"Ho now!" Bill tossed his head at Sam's sudden tug on the reins. In the outgrown tatters of a hedge by the roadside, he'd spotted an odd-shaped bundle that set a chill in his blood.

Sam swung out of the saddle so fast that he nigh twisted his foot in the stirrup, and plunged towards the hedge, dropping into a crouch where shadows clustered. From the tail of his eye, the bundle had seemed like a living form, curled in desperation against the quickthorn's grudging shelter, small enough to be a child. What he'd mistaken for pale curls though were strands of flax spilling from a stuffed burlap bag.

Sam reached for it with shaking fingers and cursed his foolish misgiving. There wasn't a need for conjuring ghosts of trouble when trouble as real as blight on the summer-crop stalked most everywhere. He pulled the bag from the bristling shade of the hedge and felt soft materials yield under the coarse cloth. The fastenings were half undone, and at a tug revealed a heckle with long teeth and a pair of spindles wrapped in a kerchief. Underneath, folded garments of patched wool and drap lay bunched together. A musty smell went up from them.

"Have you lost something?"

Sam swivelled round at the sudden question, for he'd heard none approach, and the air seemed so still and thick as to be churned to butter.

In the middle of the road beside Bill stood a lad in baggy clothes. His shadow angled hard towards Sam, and the day's shrinking gleams caught russet on his curls, reminding Sam of Frodo – so sharply that he missed his breath and failed to reply.

"You've a look as if you're mighty bothered," the lad said. With every moment, the light settled a bit more and drenched his face in watery shadows. "Can I help?"

Sam climbed to his feet on an instant start of suspicion. "Were you watching me?"

The stranger didn't seem to mind the question, but didn't answer it either. "I'm the post messenger from northaways," he introduced himself, in the singing tones that made Sam think of his uncle Andy and folk over in Tighfield.

"Sam Gamgee," he answered, thinking that the lad seemed a sight too young for his job, "out of Hobbiton."

The other tipped his head lightly. "Of course."

Do you know me then? Sam almost asked, but it might be the cant of his own speech that marked him as a traveller up from the south.

"'Tis a bag full of someone's clothes and gear that I found." Sam turned halfways, stealing a glance at the dark bundle and the flax breathing from the thorn in a short twist of wind. "Who'd throw such things away?"

"Perhaps a body that was run from the village," his new acquaintance said, as though it were the most common notion, "thinking to ease the load."

Sam's stomach clenched at that, drawn tight about a gnawing grief.

"But who knows..." With a quick sideways step, the post messenger approached the hedge. As he stooped to inspect the bundle, Sam could see that his locks fell long and untidy against his jacket's collar. "Who knows what the tale behind this bit of puzzle is," the lad muttered and dug his hand deep into the bag. When he pulled it back, he held a ball of dyed wool.

"Why, this reminds me!" he exclaimed, straightening. "You've heard of Miri Longfoot's coloured path, I expect?"

"Not as I seem to remember." In truth Sam couldn't recollect ever hearing the name of Longfoot either. Beside him, Bill swished his tail mildly.

"Miri Longfoot came walking down from the North Moors..." The messenger's voice ran soft with the lilt of story-telling. "In her pack she carried seedcakes and several hanks of wool – in blue, red and yellow, aye. No fawn on dainty legs was she, and she walked a fair stride to the mile, to see her son and his firstborn after a score of years. But – what do you know! – she'd not gone far when the autumn rains soaked her right through. All her clothes were dripping, and the wool turned heavy as bricks on her back. Shame, you! says she, shaking her fist at the weather-clouds, but I shall lighten my burden and get on the quicker!"

With a snap of his wrist, the post messenger threw the woolen ball up into the air and caught it again in his other hand. "What do you think she did? She tied a thread of blue round the nearest tree, aye, and then to the next, and a fence-post after, till she'd reached her hank's end!"

"And wasted a stretch of good wool," Sam put in.

"Ah, but the colour running aside the lane pleased her no less." The lad smiled, tossing the wool from hand to hand. In the twilight, it was hard to guess its colour that might be a washed-out bay. "Down the dale and uphill she went, with a yellow thread knotted to the trees, and a red one next, aye. Miri Longfoot sang a song full of cheer and nibbled on wet seedcakes as she went marking her path in gay colours." The messenger laughed. "Her pack was empty as a larder in spring when she reached her son's home at last!" He let the wool drop back down on the burlap bag. "But she'd spun him a fine tale, and I wager her son was glad enough to see her, wool or no wool."

Sam chuckled, squinting at the chattersome hobbit in the dimness. "'Tis you spinning me a yarn from straw and fog, I shouldn't be surprised."

If he wasn't much mistaken, the lad's mouth bent with a sly grin. "Believe as you will," he said and rummaged in his pouch, retrieving a felt hat that he pulled down over his curls. The sagging leather bag at his hip seemed empty; he must have delivered the day's post without picking up any new letters. "Miri Longfoot was a great-great-aunt of mine, I'll have you know, on the mother's side."

"Well, then..." Sam gave him a slow smile in return. "I've a rare new tale to bring home with me, I reckon."

"What about this find of yours?" the post messenger asked, prodding the bag with his toes. "Will you take that along, too?" He sounded wistful of a sudden.

Sam shook his head. "If she that lost it ever comes back, 'tis here that she'll look."

"Quite right, I expect." The post messenger touched his thumb and forefinger to the crooked brim of his hat. "A good evening to you, and a wholesome rest."

"You're not spending the night at the tavern yourself?"

The stranger seemed to be smiling as he stepped back into the road. "I've a ways to go, and no mind for stopping till the moon is out."

For the second time now, he reminded Sam of Mr. Frodo. Something to the straightness of his spine, the ease with which he carried himself – 'less it was his own mind reaching for such a resemblance from his loneliness.

"Good night then, and safe travels." Sam turned and climbed briskly onto Bill's back, scanning the grey span of road afore them. As he gathered up the reins, he threw one last glance over his shoulder, but in the sinking gloom his eyes found no more trace of the other. It was then that Sam realised he'd never thought to ask the lad's name. Where in his mind had he been?

Tiredness crept through his bones when Bill trotted down the vale, from no labour worse than riding fifteen miles or more without stopping. Long fields sloped away on the west side, and the scent of earth freshly turned bespoke the ploughmen's work during the day. South of the thatched cots and farmsteads grew some bent orchard trees, struggling for growth in the hard soil. The chill evening air sank into Sam's clothes, and right then he wished for naught but a bite and bed.

The local tavern wasn't far now, and a torch burned at the open yard-gate, bright enough to dab ruddy glimmers across the painted sign over the door. The Short Settle, it read: None too inviting a name, but then folk out here had always had a reputation for being blunt, and mistrustful of travellers, so near the forest that hemmed in their crofts and fields with its tangled, hoary gloom.

Fireshine played in the two small windows, and the tavern door opened wide ere Sam could dismount.

"Master Gamgee, it must be!" a stout hobbit called from the threshold, hands planted on his hips. Catching Sam's look of surprise, the taverner added, "We've two of your party supping on our last ale and vittles, but I should've guessed by the looks of you." He nodded towards Bill. "You're riding that pony o' yours as one used to farin' abroad, I might say."

So his approach had been watched for. Sam climbed from the saddle and resettled his pack on his shoulders. "Bill's trod a fair five leagues today. He's good and ready for a rest now. As I am, Mr.–"

"You'll find our stable no worse than our board." The taverner clapped his hands sharply. "Mat Blainsdell's my name, bidding you a good welcome."

A bow-legged boy appeared to his beck, shuffling up from the back of the yard. Sam let him take the reins with a murmur in Bill's ear and a pat to his flank. Traces of a fire blackened the posts that carried the stable's sloping roof, Sam noticed as he followed the taverner indoors, but how recent those marrings were, he couldn't tell.

Inside, he was met by a double hullo! from Will Hoarbower and Footy Bywell, a pair of foresters he'd parted with on the East Road, the day before. Both the lads' families hailed from the North-farthing, and they were hoping to visit kin over in Needlehole when their work allowed.

"We'd nigh given up on seeing you tonight, Sam," said Footy, and Will added, "Old Blainey's kept his keg under lock and ward, to save the last drop of ale for you – more's the pity."

"Right he is!" called the taverner from the kitchen door. "A long road makes sore throats, I've always said, and we've scarce got enough now for shortcuts."

Sam unfastened his jacket and with a quick glance about pulled up a stool for himself. A grizzled dog lay sleeping by the fire, and at a smaller table on the other side of the hearth, a lone hobbit was smoking his pipe. A local landholder, Sam guessed by the closely threaded wool of his coat, and like enough a Boffin. Yet his curls dropped in a shaggy tousle over his forehead, and his linen collar looked to be missing a wash somewhat sore.

"How was your road then?" Will asked, drawing Sam's mind back to nearer company. "Did you come up on aught unusual?"

"Naught worth the telling," he replied shortly. The forest damp still lingered between his clothes and his skin, and a clinging quiet seemed to lie thick on his tongue. He wasn't in a mood for mentioning the post messenger either, nor his strange discovery by the wayside.

Inside a minute, the taverner returned with a filled mug that he set down in front of Sam. His wife followed with a supper tray, bearing half a loaf of bread and a thin-looking lentil soup. While she hurried back into the kitchen at once, Blainsdell took a seat by the long table.

"As I was sayin' ere you came in–" Footy glanced over at Sam and gestured into the round, "–we've cleared ground down near Waymeet for a tree nursery, as our master gardner calls it, but now that he's here, he'll 'splain it better than I could."

Was that a snort or a huff from the landholder? Sam soaked a piece of bread in the soup. "'Tis much the same as growing leeks, or corn of any sort. You draw the furrows as you would for wheat, and sow the nuts and acorns – or haws and keys, for that matter."

"You don't say." Blainsdell batted at the dog that had strolled up and stood sniffing the soup's warm, greasy scent.

"'Tis in autumn as you'll want to do that kind of sowing though." Sam dipped a large wooden spoon into the bowl, stirring the pale lentils that swam on top. "Spring being near as it is, we've planted shootlings taken from the woods further south."

"Aye, them ruffians cut down a grand old glade of beeches to make room for their 'housing'." Footy snapped his fingers with a disgusted look. "Dank and varmint-ridden sheds, more like! Now there's to be trees again, all in good time."

"And when, do you reckon," asked a gravelled voice from the other side of the room, "will those new trees be ready for hewing?"

The notion of renewed felling touched Sam like a sharp wind in brooding weather. Arms braced on the table, he slanted a quick look over his shoulder. Mr. Boffin, if such he was, held the pipe clamped between his teeth. Smoke curled from the corner of his mouth in a thick, bluish skein. Sam chewed his bread and swallowed it down careful before he answered.

"In twelve or fourteen years, mayhap. But they'll give mast for the hogs and cattle a lot sooner, and there's plenty of uses as all the cuttings can be put to." More than that, dry beech-leaves would serve to soften many a mattress better than straw, and the leaves of ash and elm would feed the cows in winter when the hay-stores ran short – as any landholder with a sound head ought to know.

On the stool beside Sam, the taverner cleared his throat, without doubt wary of a quarrel arising under his roof.

"Your sheep and cows will destroy the saplings long before they can be of any use," the gentlehobbit retorted, "unless you protect this nursery of yours with a proper fence." His tone let on plain that he thought such efforts sheer loss of time.

Will glanced down into his emptied mug and pulled a sour face, but Footy wasn't daunted. "We'll keep 'em staked and bushed about with thorns, if needs be. 'Tis all well in hand – meaning no harm, Mr. Boffin."

Sam gave a nod and felt a brief stir of pride. Footy took to the work with much ease, having grown up as a farmer's second son, but Will, like most former bounders, paid less mind to forestry than he did to the wherewithal of folk and their flocks. By now, Sam thought he could tell by the grip and turn of their hands, splicing roots or trimming spurs, how each of his helpers would fare at their new job. All through the past week, he'd shown them how to choose shoots and plant saplings, bedding them down in leaf-mould and rotted fern. At long last, all the plantlings stood in a field of supple wands, their lower ends covered only to a depth of three fingers, so the tender roots might draw air through the loose soil.

"It takes some labouring to start," he said, "but the work will grow less with each passing year, and the rewards worth all the tending."

"In a donkey's age, perhaps!" The landholder knocked his pipe against the table's edge, scattering clumps of ash into the rushes on the floor. "Why should we spare the soil and labour, if both could serve the tillage, and better so?" He rose with a harsh twist that set his chair scraping against the floor. "It was grain and nourishing meats that we lacked during this miserable winter, on account of all the mischief bred in the Westfarthing, by that wayward Baggins lot." With that, he stalked to the door.

Sam set his teeth against a hot reply. Mr. Frodo would have had a swift answer for such slander, his courteous tone baring the finely honed edge as warned even the slowest to take heed. Sam wrapped his fingers round the pipe in his pocket, and the polished wood slid along his palm like a soothing touch.

When he looked up again, Mr. Boffin sent him a cross look from the doorstep. "If you mean to busy yourself with the curing of trees, Master Gardener, take a look at our wretched orchards."

"I'd be pleased to do that tomorrow," Sam answered evenly, "with your leave, sir."

"I don't suppose it could do any harm. But don't expect to change customs that surpass your own lifetime, or your ancestors', as it were." Boffin strode from the common-room without a good-night, or a thank 'ee for the taverner.

Blainsdell sighed, watching after him, and shook his head. "Ah, but we've been hard set since the snows, and Mr. Boffin no less than the rest of us. His wife died of consumption this Afteryule, and their youngest, too, as was barely out of the cradle." He scratched at his jaw, then folded both hands atop the table, adding in a rueful tone, "Besides, we've more than enough forest hereabouts."

Sam bent over his bowl and spooned up the last mouthful of soup. Though he felt for Mr. Boffin's loss, it didn't seem to reach past the hardness that'd settled about his heart, like a tight shell grown there just when the frost dissolved in the soil.

"Ill times indeed..." Blainsdell rubbed his thumbs together and lowered his voice, "There's been a murder in these parts..."

"You don't know that for true, Mat!" his wife chided. With firm steps, she came over to their table and began clearing away the dishes.

Sam glanced from her to the taverner who frowned, his lips pursed. Rampant felling and burning had torn deep gashes into the south border of the Bindbale forest, yet there'd been no sign that the ruffians had ventured far into the dense, unfriendly tangles. Seeing that, Sam had supposed that the village was spared further grievance.

"I know what I've heard," Blainsdell muttered, "and it don't take more than a pair o' keen eyes to guess the rest, I say!" He set his palms flat on the table. "Hob Thorney was found dead on a dunghill by the Norcross farm ere the end of Blotmath. Him that ran with the louts and helped them in their grabbing and thieving! He used to do rounds with the post like a decent body, but this last summer he carried off more than letters hisself. His dying weren't no accident, mark my words."

"He was a post messenger then?" A chill inched down Sam's breast and wound itself about his ribs. He couldn't have met a ghost in the dusky road, and he wouldn't picture that ruddy-haired lad sprawled limp amidst the muck and mouldered straw, either.

"For a good fifty years or more, aye," Blainsdell replied, trailing his wife with a galled look as she withdrew into the kitchen, the lacings of her apron swinging as she went. "'Tis his son that goes round with the post these days, but most folk won't give him a word for ten days of fair weather." He waved his hand, and his eyes settled on Sam once more. "Well, you'd know more of killing and such evils than we do, I'll be bound. Tales about the Battle of Bywater've grown thick as hops, if you didn't know!"

Neither Will nor Footy had joined the battle, and Sam could feel their expecting glances as he wet his throat with a sip of beer. "I didn't have much part in it myself. 'T was Mr. Pippin Took and Mr. Merry Brandybuck leading the fray."

The taverner nodded with an eager gleam in his eye. "Aye, Buckland's heir owns a marvellous horn as will waken all hobbits within miles, so I've heard, and it brings a fighting mood even on the sickest."

"The King of Rohan's sister gave it to him, for his courage and faithful service," said Sam, remembering how Pippin had smiled when the horn-call leapt clear over the muddy Bywater Road to the Woody End, at the end of the battle, tears streaking the dirt on his cheeks. But Mr. Merry had his mouth set in a grim line as he lowered the horn, his fingers seized tight about its etched silver.

"We could use such a call, surely, or summat like it, to rouse us from this low peck o' troubles." Blainsdell heaved another sigh and looked to his wife who'd got busy by the hearth, stoking up the fire. "Drear as the winter was, 'tis hard to believe that this year'll turn aught to the better."

"Don't be so glum, Mat." His wife set the poker aside and swung round, smoothing her apron. "The mothers among us know a thing or two of growth to come. Why, our own Daisy dreamed of the pear-trees carrying so much fruit, the village entire couldn't bring enough barrows nor baskets to collect them all. See if 't won't happen, come the time!"

"Dreams and gossip!" When she laughed at him, Blainsdell blew a noisy breath out through his nose. "Let's hear some news from the South, if you please, Master Gamgee."

Readying himself with another swig of ale, Sam began recounting the labours and repairs afoot in the West- and Southfarthing, and next the deaths and childbirths of the past winter. The taverner took special interest in the fortunes of the Pickthorns in Overhill, being related to them by way of a cousin who'd removed some thirty years ago. While Sam answered his questions as best he could, he listened to his own voice repeating news he'd handed out before, and a dull feeling of time wasted crept over him. All round him, the room seemed adrift in a flurry of shadows, sliding further and further away from him.

He sat back gladly when Will's turn came to report the latest goings-on in Waymeet and Whitwell, till Footy took up to describe how the fierce frost had glazed all the southward roads by mid-winter, so that only the hardiest tried travelling those polished bands of ice.

The snow had piled high on the Green Hills, Sam remembered, but now he imagined threads of blue and red twined among the trees' black crowns. Over hill and down slopes the coloured yarn went, weaving a confounded path against the smooth rolling white.

When next he looked up, Will was starting to yawn, and Footy slouched against the wall, his eyelids drooping.

"Well, lads, I've enjoyed the chat with 'ee, but now you've worn out your tongues, I can tell!" Blainsdell set both hands on the table and pushed to his feet. "Look for rugs and blankets beside the hearth. There's a trough full of clean water out in the yard for washing, if you want it."

Neither Will nor Footy seemed eager to make use of it, but Sam got up at once. Glad to catch his breath from the smoke and stifling smells of the common-room, he stepped out into the yard.

The torch had burned down to a mere gloaming, and clouds covered the sky from one end to the other, swallowing all shapes into a murky haze. The moon wouldn't be out at any hour, this night. As he walked over to the trough, Sam thought of the post messenger who'd have to find himself some nook to sleep in now, without catching a glimpse of the silver horns as he'd hoped.

The trough was carved from a rough block of stone, filled near to the brim. Still as dark glass, the water lay against the grey lip of stone, neither star nor lit window mirrored on its surface. Sam dipped his hands in to spatter his face and neck till the cold runnels wound under his collar and raised goose-pricks on his chest.

Drying his hands on his sleeves, he looked around, through the wisps of his own breath. On all the horizons, a black band of trees rose, barring the sky. The country seemed fenced in, and held down so firm by the windless air that he wondered how folk bore it.

The thought put old memories in his mind – of his dad smoking a pipe at the day's end, and his mam coming to join the Gaffer on the stoop of Number Three. Without a word, the Gaffer would set his arm about her waist. He wouldn't look to her, nor she to him, but a quicker puff of smoke flowed from the corner of his mouth that twisted up in a smile. For a spell the two of them would stand like that, while another gentle eve filled the Hobbiton dale like a bowl. They'd been wed thirty years and four, when Bell died.

Sam turned to look south, where Bag End lay, and Bywater. On the evening before setting out, he'd climbed the Hill's slope, watching as the long shadows ran together and drowned all the land. The bare fields and winter-worn meadows had the look of a patched table-cloth, spread over the earth, so thin that a gale could snatch it up and shake it out, till everything tumbled together: the Cotton farm and the Green Dragon and the Bywater Pool and Bag End –

He shook himself sharply. The night's breath was crawling up his arms, and he'd yet to look in on Bill.

There wasn't a light in the stable either, but Sam found the right stall without much groping about. Bill was swinging his tail from side to side in long, ponderous strokes, and whickered with plain impatience.

"We'll be off again in a day or two," Sam told him, sliding his palm up the sturdy neck where the blood pulsed warm and thick.

On his way out, he noticed the stable-boy, crouched between the boarded wall and a stack of creels in one corner. By his uneven breaths, the lad was wide awake, though he huddled close under a blanket.

"I'll thank 'ee to look well after my Bill..." Sam retrieved a farthing from his pocket and dropped it into an outstretched hand that rose from the dark like the pale belly of a perch.

"Be sure of't, sir." The boy's eyes blinked white at him. "G'night."

When Sam slipped back into the common-room, Footy was already snoring, and Will smacked his lips in sound slumber. Like as not, he was dreaming of full tankards with froth slopping over the rim. Both of them had made their beds on the long benches set hard by the wall. Sam pulled out a rug for himself and placed it in front of the hearth. Short of provisions the Blainsdells might be, but the fire flared bright from solid logs, and faggots were stacked high beside the hearth.

Sam sat down cross-legged before it, drawing the pipe from his jacket's deepest pocket. It was Frodo's own, one of the spare pipes that he'd left back at Crickhollow, and which had arrived in a packet from Mr. Merry one day.

Have you got your pipe, Sam? Frodo had asked him when they stopped half a mile outside Waymeet, where a sycamore stood broad and hale among the burnt banks and hedges skirting the road. He'd replied that there wasn’t cause for packing it, seeing as how the weed was so scanty.

Well, that won't do. A telling start of delight tugged on the corner of Frodo's mouth, as though he'd fully expected Sam's answer. You may be away for a fortnight, and you'll miss a good smoke before long. Quicker than Sam could object, Frodo handed him the pipe and a small satchel broidered with slender leaves all along the bottom. Do you know, this was my very first pipe, a gift from Bilbo. A fond smile grew from the memory, and Frodo hearkened after it with a quiet, wondering look.

Too tired now to smoke, Sam cradled the pipe's smooth weight in his hand, running his thumb over the whorls that patterned the glowing wood near the bowl. His fingers were colder than the wood, just as Frodo's had been that morning, till Sam warmed them with deep-blown breaths.

Folding his jacket up for a pillow and laying the pipe beside it, Sam stripped to his tow shirt. The fire hissed gently as he settled, a blanket wrapped round his lower body.

"Sleep well, Frodo," he murmured with scarce a sound, only to feel the words take shape in his mouth.

Ever since he'd left the Cotton farm to move in with his Gaffer, the long nights tossed him back and forth, from ragged dreams to fitful waking. Dazed and raw, he'd listen hard for Frodo's breath – the marvel of Frodo's sweet, slow breaths beside him – till he remembered, with a dull ache struck through his bone and blood, where he was. Such a habit couldn't be broken by time, or aught else in the world.

* * *

I promise you, he said to none but the air that shimmered wet and misty in a brief beam of sunlight. From the other side of the ridge floated voices like sawdust tossed on the air. Sam climbed down from the back of the cart with several coils of rope slung over his shoulder.

A mere furlong from here stood the ruins of a cottage where an old ditcher had lived with his wife. None knew where they'd come to, nor the flock of wild rabbits they'd kept in a cooped warren that ranged from one side of the dell to the other. Mayhap they'd fled before the robbing packs could assail them and ransack their home. The cottage had been plundered, at any rate, and the fences knocked down in several spots, but scouring autumn storms and snowfall had swept over it all, blurring the traces. Some time last summer, the ditcher must have disappeared, and since then there'd been no-one to look after the mending of the road where it angled round the limb of the woods and cut across the long, western ridge.

As Sam climbed its steeper side, sunlight edged the brown and dry knotgrass beside the road. The groping rays thinned again quick, buried in clouds, but from those glisters came the memory of burnt stumps, row after row where once an orchard had been, and tiny tips of green perking through the charcoal crust of earth and ash. That had been in the south of Waymeet, and it pulled the idea for tree nurseries from his head like a rhyme long known. The soft wood-ash covered the earth like a blanket, and it'd nourish the soil in years to come, but that didn't make the damage easier to look on, whether in Waymeet or any other place.

Sam tightened his fingers about the ropes as he walked down the ridge on the other side, towards the cheerful bustle below. Where the road took a sharp turn, a long saw dragged its grinding tune from the trunk of a fallen field maple, mingled with the chopping thunks of hatchets and the grunts and shouts that the workers flung back and forth. There were five of them now, since Will and Footy had been joined by three lads from the Woodruff farm, two miles to the south.

"Hoy!" called one of them when he spotted Sam with the ropes. "Not long and we'll have this big ol' lump to bits, won't we?"

"It might take a space longer," Sam replied, "but it can't hurt having the ropes handy."

For answer, the lad tackled a thick branch with a wide swing of his hatchet that missed the notch he'd already made. The flesh of the tree gleamed from the injury, stark against the loam-grey bark. Yet the maple hadn't been axed out of spite, it was toppled by a storm after long years of rot had done their gnawing from inside. For months it'd blocked the road from Bindbale to Needlehole for all carts, though few had tried to make the passage, seemingly.

Sam hooked the ropes over an ash's broken branch and wandered some yards into the undergrowth, where the maple's unearthed roots stuck up like jaws gaping round a mouthful of soil and stones. Beetles and borers had tunnelled through the yielding bole, and its bark was stripped off in places. From the torn roots and the pit of earth below wafted a sour, musty smell that brushed Sam with a fleet disquiet.

Shaking it off, he reached for the smaller one-handed saw he'd left stuck between the old tree's claws and resumed cutting such roots as were still lodged in the ground. Though the biting chill was lifting, a thin mist hovered in the hollows among the trees. On his left, the trunk of a sturdy oak was green with ivy, and some of those ruthless vines as thick as his arm.

As he traced their patterns across the rugged bark, his mind turned again to Bag End's garden where he'd left so much work half-finished or barely begun. He'd grow ivy and grapevine over a lattice by the kitchen garden, for one, to make a bower of shade for Mr. Frodo till the trees had grown tall again. On warm days, the scents of herbs would steam up to that green roof, and sunlight would stitch through at the ruffling of a breeze, touching Frodo's brow and hands and the book he might be reading...

A loud crack and a shout ripped Sam away from the thought. A big limb had given way to the axe, and one of the Woodruff boys had climbed onto the trunk, capering about and waving his arms. The others had paused in their work. Will stood rubbing his wrists that must be sore from handling the saw since daybreak.

Sam walked up to him and clapped his shoulder. "Here, let me take over now."

"Lop away!" answered Will, and the Woodruff lad hopped down from the tree.

He joined Sam at the cut near the middle of the trunk and rolled his frayed sleeves back up over his elbows. Specks, the others called him, likely on account of his stained front teeth.

Between them, they soon had a steady rhythm going, while the others kept hacking root and branch away. From the corner of his eye, Sam saw Footy tie a rope into the maple's withered crown. As the blade bit deeper and deeper into the wood, the pull and push of the saw went through him, up his arms and down his spine. A pleasant heat bunched in his limbs, seeming to catch the hidden sun as it rolled behind the clouds.

Scratch and scrape the saw went for over another hour, till Sam could feel the slight shivers in the wood gather to a snap and called a warning for Specks to mind his toes. Within moments, the trunk split and sagged, pillowed on its crushed boughs.

Sam stood back and stretched his shoulders. High grey clouds were pushing each other up the sky, but without a sudden gale they wouldn't break before the job was well finished. All as remained to be done in this spot was dragging the cut log to the sides of the road.

"We could get our cart-pony for the pullin'," suggested one of the lads.

"We'll be done twice over in the time it'd take to hitch her up," Footy returned. "Let's earn our lunch with a hearty pull, lads!"

Soon enough, they were all leaning into the ropes. Together with Will and Specks, Sam applied himself to the bottom part of the tree, still holding fast to its erstwhile cradle.

Step by step, they hauled it towards the bank. Along his back Sam traced every quiver of the bole as it moved sluggish over the pitted ground. His breath and Will's puffed out in accord, with a grunted "Heave!" every now and then. With his feet braced to the earth and the rope straining taut over his shoulder, Sam gave himself up to the effort, to the force that ran through them all and the earth itself. It was the kind of work that'd always made him wish for a dance and a lively tune afterwards.

"There!" Specks cried as the trunk settled into a bed of mould, clear away from the road. The others had lugged the broken crown lengthwise across the ditch and into the dry sedge. Then they were all laughing, slapping each other's backs and mopping their sweaty faces with their shirt-tails. On his brothers' orders, the farmer's youngest made a dash to the cart beyond the ridge to fetch their lunch.

"'Tis hungry work, and no mistake!" said Footy, rubbing his stomach.

They all settled on the maple's trunk to eat the spiced shortbread and onions from Mrs. Woodruff's kitchen. Through a fringe of oak-boughs, Sam blinked at the mid-day sun now washing splotches of silver into the clouds. He remembered sitting side by side with Jolly and Tom Cotton at the Yule dance, their bellies filled with fresh oatcakes and goat-cheese, brimming mugs in their hands.

Fierce as the winter was, there'd been a buzzing expectation on the air, and the lofty space of the Marshes' hay-barn steamed all with laughter and light. The farm-hands had taken much care to sweep every corner, for fear of sparks drizzling from the rushlights and torches, but a dusting of the old summer smells still hovered everywhere.

Alongside Tom and Jolly, Sam had watched the lasses join up in a long line for the new year's first dance, as they always did. Arms linked, they'd started out slow, while Maggie Twofoot alone raised her voice to the song, amidst a gentle sway and a tapping of feet. But each time Maggie circled back round to the first line, another voice joined in and another, and they came forward a few bouncing steps, dust starting to swirl over their fresh-brushed toes. Round and round the song went, till they were all stomping and kicking their feet, skirts swirling in the lively rhythm, tossing their heads so their braids leapt as the torches' flames. They'd formed a circle then, facing outwards, that tightened and opened up like a ragged, living bloom under a mellow sun.

Beside Sam, Tom was rocking back and forth on the bench, stirred as they all were by the vigour in the dance. There wasn't wife or widow among them as didn't catch a fair flush to her cheeks, every bit as lovely as the sweetest maid. Sam set his eye on Rosie, who never missed a step of her shapely feet, catching in the sway of her body the sweep of corn-stalks in the wind-raked fields, and the hope for a good year to come.

Like all the other lads confined to the long bench, he'd clapped his hands and joined the shouts that spurred the dance to a wilder pace. They might be gaunt with the winter's scarce rations and weary from labours seeming endless, but the lasses' untiring reel blew off the cares like a strong wind, as though nary a hardship might touch them. Sam could see it rise to Rosie's face, mingling with the sweat-sheen on her cheeks: a lusty strength as could weather the hardest blows and unbend as easy as the grasses of spring.

He'd touched a bit of that when they danced, later that eve, when she fit herself into his arm and stepped lightly to the fiddles' tunes, but he'd seen it clearer from afar.

How shameful, he thought now, looking down at the crumbs on his lap, how shameful it would be, refusing such a gift. Worse only was not to honour it well.

No rain fell in the afternoon. When Sam wandered over towards the cottage, the sun even found a few rifts in the clouds and touched glancing fingers to brambles and mossy stones. Deep in the woods, a stock-dove cooed from a full chest, but the lads' voices were lost behind the dam of trees. He'd left them collecting the ropes and tools and such firewood as could be laden on the cart, to visit the ditcher's old home.

It was a tumbled heap of broken timbers and rotting thatch now, but once the cottage must've leaned against the steep flank of the ridge, where the roots of pine and fir clawed the brink, some of them groping hapless in mid-air.

Sam walked a couple of steps down the slope, for a better look at the rabbit warren in the dell. Between the torn fences stretched a bumpy range of mounds and burrows, grass cropping up in scabs here and there. As he paused, wondering if he should climb to the bottom, a strand of sunlight fell past his shoulder and touched a tree growing near the edge. Drops of resin glistened on the reddish bark – and recollection came over him with the piercing whiff of pine...

At the height of summer in Ithilien, that scent had spread through every gully and glade. Rich and heated, it was blown from hanging boughs and the carpet of fallen needles, enveloping the spices of stranger trees. The forest floor crackled wherever he walked with Frodo, and silver dots danced restlessly, as if flitting over the surface of a swift-moving river.

Like a cloudless noon returning, the memory slid through him: the constant weaving motion among the boughs, clusters of fine, long needles lacing the sun, and how their soft shadows played across Frodo's face.

There is so much here that reminds me of the Northfarthing uplands, Frodo had said, turning to look at him with bright eyes, and yet the Northfarthing never knew such a season.

Though it hadn't indeed, Sam could believe that it might, right then. As if the pines were made to sparkle in such brilliance: warm as the sun and crisp as starlight, so pure that his skin prickled. And when a sudden wind rolled through the forest, it seemed to answer with the sound of the sea – as Sam fancied it might sound, leastways.

He shook himself, feeling the day's cold like an unexpected draught. The bewitching scent was gone as if a slow ripple had passed, and spots of sunlight moved over the grounds below.

There was something odd to that small enclosure of mounds and hollows, where the shadows wavered and shifted at will. Sam watched them with close attention, as if something might be revealed in that half-formed –

A twig cracked somewhere nearby. Were there footsteps approaching from behind?

Sam stiffened with near alarm – though surely there wasn't cause for it – and turned only after a long moment.

"Hullo, Sam Gamgee," said the post messenger, stepping from the thickets a short ways further downhill. He couldn't have come by the road, and the leather pouch at his hip looked no heavier than it had the last time.

As he walked up with easy strides, Sam noted the confident set of his jaw and the lines on his brow that made it impossible to mistake him for a mere lad. His frame seemed heavier than it had in the twilight of the road, and there wasn't a lick of likeness with Mr. Frodo either.

"Good day to you," Sam returned. "I'd be greeting you by name too, but I forgot to ask about it when we met."

"Ah! I wondered that you didn't ask." The other winked at him. "Why don't you take a guess!"

"I thought – well, I'm thinking it might be Thorney," Sam said slowly, watching his face. "Wasn't your father–"

"My father?" The post messenger interrupted with a queer little laugh. "No, my name's Liff – Liffson Gammidgy."

Sam didn't know how to answer that. Was the post messenger passing him a fib, for shame of his dad's doings? But, his pouch being empty or near to it, perhaps he'd not said the truth about his job either. He might be a roamer without a place to call his own. Mayhap he'd come here thinking to search the old cottage for gear he could use or trade.

"My dad's grandad's name was Gammidgy," Sam replied at last.

"So it was, I dersay." Liff pulled up his shoulders.

If they'd met by chance in a tavern, they'd soon get busy unravelling the tangles of their family trees to some distant knot, if it could be found. Sam wasn't too sure he wanted to think of Liffson as kin though, even several times removed. But the fellow seemed friendly enough, and too solid to be a ghost, at any rate.

Liff edged closer to the brink now, his toes curling about a gnarled root. "This cottage was built on the wreck of another," he said as though remembering, "and before that, there was a snug little hole dug into the slope... But the ground is loose and chalky here, and when the trees on the ridge got swept down in a storm, the slope began sagging till it buried the hole, hearth, rafters and all."

"When was that?" Sam asked, wondering if Liff might have lived in this place himself.

"Long ago, aye," he murmured, smiling to himself. "Very long ago."

And how would a hobbit your age know about it? Sam couldn't help questioning, though his suspicions had all blown away as he listened to Liff talking. He could almost see it himself now, the subtle changes in the shapes of slope and dell, the softening where roots had mouldered in the soil and grass covered the rotting stumps.

"They look a sight like tiny smials, don't they?" Liff pointed down to the field of rabbit-burrows. "Holes and smials as a bird's eye might spot 'em."

Sam nodded. He'd thought the same, and yet an uneasy stirring came with it – perhaps for being away so long, till the ways and measures of the Shire seemed lost to him. I didn't know distance nor danger. And I didn't know –

"'T ain't much of a home now to anyone, hobbit or coney. A pity, that is." Liff ran his fingers through his shaggy curls that looked a dull copper in daylight. "Well, I should be going." He turned away so quick that he'd already put several yards between them when Sam caught himself.

"Where are you off to now?" he called after him.

"I go and go and go," Liff answered, nigh chanting the words so they floated like thistledown on a lazy brook. "From the road to the fields and the forest, over hill and stream I go, and back to the road, aye."

Sam swallowed against a troubled tightness rising to his throat. Can I help you? Is there aught as you need?

But before he could voice any such question, Liff gave him a jaunty wave and headed up northwards into the forest.

A cold light fell through the trees. Upright and separate, the pines rose in a stern row, seeming to guard a secret passage. Down the ridge flowed the crisp, faintly bitter scent that always stirred with oncoming dusk.

Sam filled his chest with a long draught. The light had shrunk to frosty seams along the side of each tree but seemed all the clearer for it. He laid his palms together as though he could gather those bright threads in his hands. Perhaps there'll be a season such as we've never imagined... perhaps it takes but looking close and true.

It was such a sure knowledge that he longed to bring back home, like armfuls of blooming larkspur and honeysuckle, when Frodo opened the door for him.

Sam turned away southward, where pines and firs dwindled among patches of scrub. Shadows slanted in hard black ribbons across the slope, and of a sudden he wanted to run back to the others, run all the way ere nightfall could catch up.

As he rounded a hazel-thicket below the ditcher's old home, he spotted a little girl wriggling past the sloe and hawthorn that grew above the road.

"Hallo there!" Sam called, quickening his steps.

She pulled her skirt away from the prickly bushes and came sauntering towards him. "Ma's makin' supper back home," she said between flying breaths, "and Specks says to fetch 'ee."

"That's very kind of you," Sam answered, "and your Ma." The Woodruffs had eight children to feed, and the girl's face was peaked as a vixen's, but her cheeks glowed with lively colour.

"Our ol' Poll's calved this aft'noon!" she told him, gathering her skirt up again in one small fist before she leapt down to the road. "Guess how many she had!"

"Two?" Sam asked.

"Three!" Grinning proudly, she held up three fingers. "An' would 'ee know how big they are?"

"I can't guess!" Sam smiled at her unchecked excitement.

"Big!" The girl paused to spread her arms as wide as she might. "Much bigger'n our little Tom." She let her arms drop, her grin fading to a puzzled look. "Granny says 'tis an ill sign, but Da says no! It's for good."

"Does he now? It's a marvel for a cow to have more than one calf, so it is."

A short ways ahead of them, her brothers were busy lading the cart and fastening the traces to their pony's collar. Nearby, Bill stopped chewing the winter-grass and whinnied at Sam's approach.

"Why, straggle along!" Will called. "We was just startin' to wonder if you'd missed your step in the woods."

And how had it got so late? Twilight inched forward, draining the day's colours to a tired grey, save only for a yellowed border over the moorlands out west. "Say, did you happen to see a stranger on the road, or nearabouts?" The question slipped off Sam's tongue quicker than it came to his head. "A red-haired fellow with a post bag."

Will shook his head. "Not a hair, red or otherwise. Were you hopin' on a letter, maybe?" He grinned at his own joke and bent to fling the next fardel of sticks onto the cart.

The little lass had strolled over to Bill and wrapped her fingers into his thick mane.

"Would you like to ride him with me?" Sam reached over her shoulder to unwind the reins from the pommel.

She dipped her head and spun towards him, but what she said was, "Will 't be a good year?"

Sam looked at her thin, eager face, and strove for an answer he could give without doubt. "Aye, it must be. I think it must be."

* * *

Where am I, I ought to be running...

It was a thought twisted by sleep, or a whisper from a dream snatched away in half-waking. The soft hum of a voice seemed to slide warm through his senses, clearer than the words, and a sharp thud under his breastbone answered it. Was Frodo awake now, too, in their bed at the Cotton farm, listening out into the quiet?

Sam pushed his cloak off his shoulder and knuckled his eyes. Through wooden slats seeped faint grey lines, the merest shivers of daybreak searching towards him across the trodden earth. He watched them as if those small splinters might leach away the warmth kept close in the tightness of his skin. More than memory or dreaming, it marked each aching point where he was halved by longing and pared away from the place where he ought to be. He slipped a hand inside his shirt, touching the spot where Frodo's palm would often rest. His own heartbeats drummed a dim and fretful rhythm on the bone.

Get yourself up now, Sam, he commanded himself. Dark it might still be, but the nip of a morning breeze crept over the ground, insistent as a call to work. He shook out his jacket that'd served as a pillow and breathed the moist scent of clay.

When he stepped from the empty barn where he'd slept, Bill moved like a shadow among a loose fringe of trees by the old field.

"Good morning," Sam said softly, the sound of his own voice seeming like a notch carved to keep count of time. He'd left Hobbiton more than a fortnight ago, most every night spent in a different place. But now, each day as he got up, his feet tugged him to the south and west. How much longer? he asked himself, as though an answer might arise like a sudden landmark out of the fog.

Will and Footy had taken their leave to look in on their folk in Needlehole, but work still waited in Frogmorton and thereabouts. Sam had set himself in that direction by a long eastward loop that ought to take him to the Oatbarton Road first.

Slowly, his eyes made out the humped shapes of hillocks in the distance, charcoal against smoky grey. The morning seemed to start off as cloudy as the day before had ended, and he could smell the coming rain like the earth's own breath.

Hands thrust into his pockets, he walked towards the wooded rise on the north side, hoping to find a stream or pool where he might wash and refill his waterbottle. Deep in the thicket on his left stood old crabapple-trees, but a footpath struck past that patch and wound up the slope where tall beeches grew.

In the stillness, Sam heard the rain set in no later than he'd come beneath the bare spreading boughs. A drowsy sound it was, mumbling on either side of the slowly climbing path. Further up the rise, the dark shapes of rocks lay jumbled in a dry fern-brake, as if they'd pressed up through the soil in year after year. Sam headed there, thinking he might get a glimpse of the road from the top.

Within moments, the rain's voice rose everywhere, with taps and patters that fell on the branches above, on moss and mould and his jacket's shoulders. The air was full of its myriad sounds – stronger here, and brittle there, and like a chuckle in other places – weaving unseen threads from end to end in the twilight.

Sam breathed the humid air in deep, and if it hadn't been for the trickles crawling out of his curls and down to his collar, he might have lost all sense of himself. The space about him stretched and widened in silken-grey, the soft, deep shades seeming to waken as every rain-drop made its way into the ground, touching root, seed and bulb.

When he stopped and turned, the barn's shingled roof glistened black as jet below, and between the trees, the field gleamed in the first winks of day. The rain grew no stronger and settled into the faint music that it called from the woodlands. Sam could feel it ease through him as he continued on the path, guiding his steps like a well-known voice. See, Frodo...

But then he couldn't tell what it was that he might've added – it seemed vast and shapeless as the rain's swell, running so soft and patient as if it might span the distance from here to the great river that wandered over the fields and plains of Gondor.

Sam laid his hand to the wet silver bark of a beech, and it felt like touching the skin of his innermost memories. The summer nights had seemed both long and short in the South, but there'd been one night in the White City that lay cupped in his mind like a hidden well.

Beside him on the wide bed, the line of Frodo's bare arm and shoulder caught the candle-glow like the sunset's fading over the hills, afloat in the hazy distance. But his voice wasn't, it was clear and curious, ambling through the day's sights and discoveries, while his fingers took their own paths over Sam's skin.

Between talking and touching, hours had washed by and carried them past sleep, past the candles' guttering, till time lost itself in the tenderness that filled Sam's breast to bursting. He couldn't stop kissing Frodo's face, hands and neck, till it seemed he was tasting and shaping the pale silver that pulsed so warm to his touch. Daybreak was starting to creep through the window, and a deep stillness came with it.

He remembered looking up to find Frodo watching him, the desire in his eyes as ancient as the starlight, and it pierced him so near and true that it seemed almost too much to be borne. But Frodo's arm clasped him firm round the middle, and he drew Sam close again, his lips at Sam's ear for the gentlest whisper. Strange words they were, and in after days, Sam couldn't be sure if he remembered them aright.

These are not my arms that hold you, Frodo murmured, I feel as if... as if I was remade to be your – to be... this, here.

What Sam did recall, clear as the battering of his own heart, was the deep note that the words struck up within him. It wasn't the first time that he'd known Frodo in his blood, with a pang and a swell strong enough to stop his breath. But for the first time this feeling seemed to leap out of him, over the glinting edge of walls and towers and into the sky, as if he should be flung there.

Sam leaned his forehead to the beech's trunk, moist and solid in its watchful rest. And so it is, whether or no. He belonged to Frodo in ways that weren't Shire custom, and he'd known it all along, as sure as his Gaffer's name was Hamfast. But every now and then he'd fancied they might live in such a fashion that none would take notice. In Crickhollow, they might have. Sam shook his head at the notion, foggy and rootless as it was. He couldn't imagine Frodo anyplace but Bag End, in his own home and garden, where he'd find his surest foothold again. It wouldn't be long now, either.

And I'll be living in the Row as I used to, close enough... Sam stepped away from the beech and climbed over a fallen branch that barred the path. If he married Rosie, wouldn't he wake every morn as he had today, his breath and skin shaping the place where Frodo ought to be? And what if I do? he asked back. That wouldn't hurt none but himself, and he'd welcome the truth of it, and keep it locked fast inside him.

A merry sound reached his ears just then and stopped him mid-step. Not far on his left, a runnel trickled and purled, hastened by the rainfall. He turned towards it and shoved past the slapping boughs of reedy young trees that strove for space among their elders.

He'd never questioned that he'd wed when time came, for marriage tied families close together, as surely as the roots of separate trees joined in the ground, twining and grafting on each other for strength and new growth.

He remembered, too, how for years he'd been grieved to see Mr. Bilbo and Mr. Frodo live all on their own in the proud and rambling spaces of Bag End. The parlour Mr. Bilbo used for special dinners had once been the bedroom of Mistress Belladonna, so he'd told Sam. In so large a smial, each member of the family could pick a room of their own, and Sam had oft pictured this chamber full of lace and flowers, breathing a perfume like mingled rose and mint.

But Mr. Bilbo had no wish to bring a wife into his home, and though Mr. Frodo had considered it of times, naught ever came of that. Years of serving him had passed till Sam thought he understood how his heart twined itself with the world beyond Hobbiton and his own kin, through books, stars and wanderings, and listening to strange voices on the borders of the Shire.

We're like that now, him and me, Sam thought as he pushed another curtain of dripping branches aside. We'll stand apart, in a place where none else'd think to look. It'll be neither or both of us now, and that's certain.

He'd come to a glade of sorts, and some yards to the left, a silver glint leapt against a dark rock-face or a cleft in the slope. Approaching it, Sam saw that the spring splashed down on a flat stone it'd hollowed to a basin, and from there tumbled on through a furrow in the ground. The roots of beech and ash bent over that narrow channel, near hiding it from view.

When Sam knelt down by the spring, the air was teeming with its fine spray. He drank deep from his cupped hands, water sprinkling his forehead and dribbling from his chin. It tasted faintly of the moss through which it ran before pooling in the stone hollow.

Footy would grumble less at the taste, Sam thought; he'd oft complained about the boggy water drawn from farmland wells near the moors. Sam smiled to himself as he filled his water-bottle. He missed the easy company of foresters and helpers – and then again, he didn't. After a fortnight, he'd grown impatient now and then, as if their talk and laughter kept his mind off the land they were tending.

There was an odd sort of relief though to being among others who didn't know him. They'd never heard him sing 'Now A Crusty Old Badger Came Wandering' with the Cotton lads in the Green Dragon, nor watched him graft camellias in Bag End's garden. Most of them had seen Mr. Frodo at the fairs, at a time or another, but like as not the tales they'd heard were made from smoke and gossip about the Bagginses going off on wild adventures.

Now that he thought on it, Sam wondered if Liff had picked up any of those rumblings while he roamed up and down the Northfarthing. Though to all seeming, his own tales were made from different stuff. No-one in Bindbale, not even Taverner Blain-sdell, had heard a peep about the Longfoots, as it were. All that Sam's inquiries earned him were curious looks.

He stoppered his water-bottle and sat back, thinking how he should ask his dad about their Gammidge connexions, once he'd returned to Hobbiton. But the Gaffer could no longer account for all the family's branches since he'd moved down from Tighfield, and Sam held a strong suspicion anyways that naught Liff had told him was quite the truth. If he was a post messenger indeed, his name should be written in the scroll of office kept at Michel Delving, and Mr. Frodo would know.

Sam thought of him in the Town Hall that he'd never entered himself, under a white vault of a roof. But Frodo must have returned to Bywater a week ago, if not sooner, and he'd lay beneath the dark rafters of the Cottons' roof now – asleep, Sam hoped, closing his eyes as if the wish could travel with the rain's music to spread a comforting blanket over Frodo's limbs, and rest through his mind. Sleep without fear, love...

When he opened his eyes again, a grey sheen brightened about the spring and glanced across the rocks cradling it. Moss grew in thick patches all over them, and roots had squeezed through the cracks in a spidery weave, yet the day's drowsy glimmers showed that they weren't boulders assembled by mere chance but cut blocks, fit together in a snug row. Large they were, too, not quite so huge as the stones from which the White City was built, but near enough.

Rising to his feet, Sam walked a few steps to the right, where the old wall disappeared under root and soil. There was no telling if these weathered stones had been part of a dike or a fastness of sorts, but they'd not been set here by hobbits. Sam passed his fingertips over their rough edges as if he might feel their age, or discover their trace in the tales he'd heard so long as he remembered.

Those stories remained like a shadow on the very brink of memory – of a battle fought back in the days when a king still kept his seat in Norbury, far out to the north-east. He'd learned the full tale of that war from Aragorn, during idler hours in Minas Tirith, but there was a part that Aragorn himself hadn't known: of hobbit archers marching out to that battle, and not one of them ever returning.

When Sam looked along the sunken old wall, he could picture them as he'd never been able in years before: walking abreast in silence through the bare trees, with their bows slung crosswise over their backs and their heads bent, as if they were pushing a wave of frosty air up before them. Long ago, whispered Liff's voice in his mind, very long ago.

Sam shook himself free of the cold wanting to settle between his shoulder blades. Growing daylight crept sideways over the top of the ridge where a line of younger beeches stood like a brittle fence, and he remembered Gildor saying, It's not your own Shire. Others dwelt here before hobbits did, and others will live here again when hobbits are no more. The knowledge of it was in his voice, drifting calm as yellowed leaves on a river.

Well, then I won't be here neither. Sam turned back to the spring. A cloudy chill had gathered at the bottom of his chest, from breathing the mist that still clung to the slope perhaps, or from filling his stomach so quick with the icy water. He wouldn't let it spread any further.

By now the spring sparkled in a pale glimpse of dawn, and Sam groped for other recollections as he sat down beside it once more. Stirred by the restless flow, the water slopped against the stone rim. It took no effort then to think of the Bywater Pool, and summon the very memories that'd taunted him so in Mordor. A feverish dazzle they'd been amid ash and fume, but now they opened up calm and cool like early spring. Slow ripples lapped along the Pool's edge, beneath the old willows' shade, and mirrored the band of rain-clouds driven up from the west.

In that kind of weather, Rosie's brothers wouldn't let her wade in deeper than her skirt's reach – though that always seemed too short for a time, as Sam recalled. She'd grown right quick in a single run of seasons, thin in the legs and slim about the waist, till she stood a head taller than Nibs. Not but what Nibs caught up in later years.

Sam drummed his fingers against the full water-bottle. When Rosie stalked out too far, Tom or Jolly would send pebbles skipping across the Pool on either side of her, and she'd swing round with her braids flying. She'd laugh when Sam thought she might be annoyed, but the bright heat in her cheeks lingered a good while. Rosy as ripe apples they were, grown safely at the heart of the Shire.

Sam pushed to his feet and followed the small stream down towards the barn. Honouring the gift she was shouldn't be any harder than giving praise to the fresh and wholesome water he'd found here. It wouldn't be.

* * *

I must be further from the road than I'd thought. A sudden gust grabbed Sam's scarf and sent it flapping over his eyes before he could tuck it back under his cloak. The clouds were growing thick again, but a fierce wind raced among them, whipping their shapes to rags and tatters.

He'd left the Bindbale Wood firmly behind now. Just over his left shoulder he could see its southern fringe trail out like a dark mist, about a mile away. Before him, the land opened in soft dips and swells dotted with spinneys as barred all view of the road. Still, he should reach it afore nightfall, Sam reckoned, if he kept following this overgrown track running vaguely eastward.

He rubbed his eyes with the heel of his hand. The sun had passed noon not so long ago, and he already felt a weariness rising, like grey waves that rolled in the wake of Bill's steps. It might be the country lying so bleak and lonely in every direction – if it wasn't looking ahead to days that flowed away like a mirthless fog. Sam straightened his back, impatience chafing him. Ever since returning to the Shire, he'd learned a new resolve that felt hard and strange inside him, but it needed carrying forward: that was the way of it.

Up ahead, a broad hill loomed from dense clusters of trees that laced their branches above the path, forming a knotty roof. They'd barely entered that stretch when Bill startled and stopped, his head swinging as he sniffed the air.

"What's that now?" Sam stared ahead, but the path curved about the hill's foot, and there was naught to be seen save trees and bramble on the raised banks. Sharp blasts tousled the frost-bitten crowns of oaks and elms, but amidst their creaking and rustling, Sam thought he heard a low whistle that resembled neither bird nor wind.

With an odd sense of expectation, he slipped to the ground and loosed his scarf. Windy it might be, yet the weather had warmed, and milder scents blew through the hollow passage. Though he led Bill onwards with a soft tread, the whistling broke off when they came around the bend.

Up on the bank, between sprawling roots, sat a shaded figure. Sam would have recognised him even without the copper strands that spilled out from beneath the felt hat.

"Well, it seems I should've expected to meet you on the road once more," he said, walking up slowly.

"Our paths cross because neither of us is going by the straight route, perhaps." Liff rose to his feet in a smooth motion.

"I'm on my way to the Oatbarton Road," Sam answered stiffly, "and to Frogmorton from there."

"Belike you are." Liff smiled, winsome and careless as he often seemed. "But if you keep after this path, it'll take you further north than you need to go. Let's walk up this hill, and I'll show you a shortcut."

What is it that you want with me? Sam almost asked. Confident that he'd follow, Liff sprang up the bank and strode away through the trees.

Sam fastened the reins to Bill's saddle with a shake of the head. "Wait for me," he murmured. "It won't be long."

Though the trees grew close at the bottom, he could see open glades ahead after climbing the first few yards. Stunted alders surrounded the hill's bare crown that rose from the thickets like the bald head of a buried giant. Liff had slowed his pace, but when Sam reached his side, he sped up again, his empty pouch slapping his hip at each stride.

"The road is another five miles from here," he said as they crossed out into the open where briars and nettles grew in scattered clumps. "How do you like all this travelling?"

"I wouldn't call it that. Not – well, not within the Shire bounds, I reckon."

Liff said nothing for a while, seeming to ponder his answer. In the windy quiet, Sam thought he could hear the gush and spatter of falling water.

"Do you know where the Northfarthing ends and the Eastfarthing begins?" Liff asked suddenly. "Can you see the boundary?"

Without awaiting a reply, he stalked on towards the top, across blunt stony ridges that broke the ground here and there. The wind tore at Sam's cloak as he stepped onto the hill's flattened brow.

"There's your road." Liff flung his hand out. "If you're certain that you mean to go as far."

Turning eastward, Sam frowned at his grudging tone more than the words. Beyond a thick woodland thatch, the land leveled out, and a hedge marked the road's course. Straight below, the hill's steep flank dropped away into the wood's brown tangles, and somewhere near rang the water's restless splashing.

"Whereabouts do your folk live?" Sam asked, watching Liff from the corner of his eye.

A magpie fluttered up from the trees below and sailed leisurely past the slope ere Liff answered.

"Northope, it used to be, aye." A haunting loss seemed to muffle his voice, and Sam couldn't summon further questions at that.

"It must be lonely." The words were rough in his throat, sounding feeble and hollow at the same time.

"I've strayed far from my long home, you might say." Liff grabbed the brim of his hat before the wind could knock it off. "But now! There's more as you ought to see before we part ways."

He was off again quick as a squirrel, plunging left and down over the hill's hard, bare shoulder. Sam could do aught but follow him into a clutch of birch and alder. As he caught up, Liff thrust out his arm.

"Careful now!" he said, pointing ahead.

Only a scant three feet before them, the ground dropped away. Overhung on all sides by shrubs and branches, a narrow gorge gaped in the hill's flank, as if a mighty axe had cleft it open at a stroke. Water rushed and gurgled from pale rocks, but on either side of the spring showed mossy banks among the low, bushy alders.

Moving cautiously, they edged along the outcrop till they stood where the water hurtled down a sheer drop, frothing white against the dark surface of a pool that stretched out lengthwise, a good ten fathoms below. At first the height dizzied Sam, but it passed again quick enough. The trees and the hillside fenced off the wind, and the water's lively echoes sounded everywhere.

"This is the Dragon's Trough," Liff said in a lowered voice, "leastways that's what I've named it."

"Well, it might suit a young dragon, mayhap," Sam replied with a dubious glance at the pool that couldn't be wider than twelve feet, as far as he could see it, but Liff shook with laughter.

"I've ne'er seen no dragon in all my born days, and neither have you, I'll warrant!" He dropped down on a flat rock, still chuckling.

"I know someone that has though." Sam sat down beside him. "An old and nasty dragon it was, living under a mountain where it slept on mounds of treasure, till its belly was crusted all over with jools and gold."

Leaning forward to watch the waterfall, Liff nodded, looking thoughtful and nowise prepared to doubt the tale as most others did.

Dappling sunlight crept through the clouds, and strayed across the mossy pads on the stones that lit up plush and green. In a little nook on his right, Sam noticed that amidst the last year's withered ferns young fronds were poking up in tight curls. Down along the gorge, dabs of fresh green answered the sun. As he sought them out with an eager gaze, he marked the glitters of a stream, half-hidden by the trees below, that wound out southwards from the pool.

The fleeting touches of daylight seemed to work a marvellous change on the place, and memories came crowding into Sam's head – of his favourite tales and rhymes, and Mr. Bilbo's voice as he stood by the hearth in his study. His pipe bobbing at the corner of his mouth, he'd gesture with both hands, or walk up and down the room as he spoke, while Sam listened from his place at the table, every thought of his writing lessons swept clear from his head.

Gandalf once told me that dragons can put you under a spell, Mr. Bilbo said, until you forget your own name and everything you ever held dear. And it isn't difficult to believe, don't you know! Once you have looked a dragon in the eye, quite alone and very afraid... Striding up quickly, he leaned across the table, and the sunlight caught the side of his face, sparking a golden glint in his eye.

A dragon's glance can pierce you to the marrow, he went on, and his voice fell. It is red and alive with memories of fire.

He'd all but flinched at that, Sam remembered, and for a moment he'd thought he knew what it meant. To be frozen in forgetting by such a hard, relentless stare...

But I didn't, he thought now; he'd known nothing of such a fire as roared from the roots of mountains, nor what it meant to be truly alone, sundered from his own heart. In the end, he realised, it was the knowledge of these things that drove Mr. Bilbo from his home and the Shire.

"I never saw no dragon," he said aloud before the silence could turn to brooding, "but I did see a living oliphaunt, once. Nigh as big as this hill here, it looked to me."

"Grey as a mouse, big as a house..." Liff murmured, his mouth curled with faint humour, but to Sam's eye his attention seemed to be a'rambling again. "Nose like a snake, I make the earth shake! I know the rhyme, see." He got up and wandered over to the side with restless steps.

"And more, I'll be bound," Sam said after a pause. "Down on the path, I heard you whistle a tune."

"I was running through a bit of song there..." Stopping close by the rushing water, Liff set his hands on his hips and swayed back and forth like a reed. At first he merely hummed to himself, but then he spoke a verse in a clear, high tone.

"I'll hold my bridal in a hedge,
where wind blows sharp through thorn and hair,
where holly guards the moorlands bare,
and fallen leaves shall be our bed."

"Oh, stop it!" Sam snapped before he could check his tongue.

"What's to be upset about?" Liff gave him an odd look, a hint of amusement flickering round his mouth. "You must be used to sleeping under moon and stars."

Sam rose and stepped up to the stony brink, his toes clenching on the rocks. He sucked his teeth to trap the sudden anger, and after a moment it sank back, turning its keenest edge to the inside of his chest.

"Aye," he murmured, staring down at the churning pool, "that I am. But not through every day of my life..." Our life, he was thinking: the Shire used to be our own home.

All in a moment, Liff's little verse had jarred it loose: the longing, and the fear that he kept under harsh guard. Or maybe it was the fear keeping him, lacing its threads through all his heart's needs – the tighter the more he tried to give it no heed. But now that he turned his mind to it, he could feel it rise like frost on his breath.

Where shall they live? his own words came back to him from days of waiting in Rivendell, like a mockery echoed in the water that dashed down heedlessly.

Liff was watching him, he realised, and the stronger light showed weary lines beneath his eyes when Sam returned his glance. He swallowed, fumbling for words. He'd no cause to lash out at Liff, a poor gadling who'd been willing to share some cheer and his tales, no matter if they were true or mere fancy plucked from his own head.

"'Tis a good place for trying out rhymes though, wouldn't you say?" Liff waved a hand at the steep, encircling hillside. "I'd like to hear one you've learned on your travels, if you don't mind."

"How about this then..." Sam cleared his throat.

"The world was fair, the mountains tall,
in Elder Days, before the fall
of mighty kings in Nargothrond,
and Gondolin, who now beyond
the Western Seas have passed away.
The world was fair in Durin's day.

Sam paused, remembering how Gimli's voice had meshed with the dark of Moria and called up slow echoes as belonged to the slumbering past.

"Durin's day..." Liff had listened with his head bent, but now his eyes twinkled. "The world was fair, when dwarves and their like made such poesy!" He threw his head back and laughed, loud and deep from his belly. Sam wondered at his strange mirth, but it touched him with pleasure and sadness alike.

Liff tugged on his hat that sat awry on his curls. "I shall remember that, aye."

When he held out his hand, Sam shook it, but of a sudden he didn't want Liff to leave, as if there'd ought to be more words spoken between them that hadn't yet been found.

"What are you up to now?" Awkward though he felt about it, Sam gestured at his pouch. "You carry no letters."

Liff shrugged. "Would you want to write one?"

"Well, I–" It was a sharp pang that broke him off, and Sam glanced down at the tumbling water. All the words as I have can't say enough, and he knows anyways. He knows.

"There's no need for it," he said at last.

"Well, then." Liff smiled when he looked again, seeming oddly pleased. "Fare thee well, Sam Gamgee."

He didn't turn back on the way he'd come. Once Liffson had strode off northwards, pushing through the undergrowth with the intent of a hunting badger, Sam started looking for a path down to the pool. Between rocks and brambles, it was a tricky climb, and he grabbed for the support of sturdy young trees more than once as he scrambled into the gorge, but the ground got less craggy towards the bottom, and there the alder thickets opened onto a fringe of long, bleached rushes and nettles.

Hot in the face, Sam turned to look up the dark hog-back of the hill. Blood was coursing through him with a fresh vigour and drove out all the tiredness as had troubled him earlier.

"Goodbye," he said, letting out a long breath, "and be well on all your roads." But whoever Liff might be, he seemed to want for nothing, not even company.

Beyond the clough, the pool widened further than the glimpse from above had shown. Swelled by all the recent rainfalls, it reached towards feathered reeds and a copse on the far side. Through sedge and dog-nettles, Sam walked towards the stream that flowed out at the narrow southern end, singing over flat rocks and dragging at the rushes on the banks. Everyone said that the road to Oatbarton marked the meeting of North- and Eastfarthing, but perhaps this running water was the boundary Liff spoke off.

It must be the stream, Sam thought now, that travelled all the way down to the Bywater Pool and joined it on the north side, after wandering through tall reeds in countless bends and bights. Folk might know it by a different name this far north, but in Bywater they'd only ever called it the Brook.

How many miles from here? Passing flashes of sunlight played at the edge of the pool as Sam crossed a stretch of mud to crouch down beside it. He dipped his hands in and watched the ripples disappear again, his own skin seeming pale and lost under the surface. But only a few yards further out, a bright reflection swam on the water: Sprays of tiny leaves swayed back and forth on slender twigs, their young green so transparent that it shone like gold.

All but breathless, Sam fixed his eyes on the sight, small and far away as a recollection that floated up from the bottom of the pool. Like a magical glimpse of Lσrien it seemed, of its beautiful trees guarding those secret shores. Had the young mallorn in the Party Field opened its leaves yet?

At the thought Sam nigh reached into his pocket where he'd long carried the Lady's gift, even after he'd finished planting all the seeds. The small box was carved from silky grey wood, smooth as wonder to the touch. When he'd left the Cottons' household to move back to the Row, he'd placed it under Frodo's pillow, like a charm.

The flick of a breeze stirred the water, scattering the gold sprinkles so quick that Sam bit his lip in disappointment. But when he sat back on his haunches, his fingers still dripping, he saw that it was a reflection, tossed there by the flighty sun. In the copse on the other side of the pool, a pair of birches stretched their crowns high, and at their tips danced young leaves. Sam blinked at them, his heart taking a sudden leap, and verses from a song whispered in his memory.

I sang of leaves, of leaves of gold, and leaves of gold there grew,
Of wind I sang, a wind there came and in the branches blew...

The same wind seemed to tousle his hair now, as if to tug him awake from a heavy dream.

From the first day of returning to find the Shire so changed and wounded, he'd been frightened – frightened that the earth itself no longer knew him. But now, when he looked down at the prints that his hands had left in the mud, when they glistened with the water that seeped in slowly, there was no cause for such fear.

He stepped back from the pool and turned in a slow circle to take in all the sights. The sun was setting in the overcast west, but in the south and east where the clouds had frayed to straggling ribbons, the sky was tinged with faint purple and amber, spreading their soft sheen everywhere. In the fleet dapples of gold, the small blossoms of cowslip, rockfoil and bluebutton showed their faces. From the alders' feet sprouted shoots thick with buds, and among black stalks, nettles bore their first splays in vivid green. Sam ran his fingers through those saw-edged leaves only to feel their sting and prickle.

And the smells! The day's wet brought such fervour from earth, scrub and wood that he thought he'd get drunk on the rich scents alone. Rose shimmers filled the air to brimming and brushed his skin like a fine, cool cloth. Perhaps he'd feared, too, that his hands no longer knew how to make things grow. But now, now he could believe –

As he breathed the countless mingled scents and shifting hues, something touched his upturned face as clear as sunlight. A flock of small birds shot out from the copse, wheeling about each other – and he laughed till his eyes swam.

See, Frodo... What had stirred him with questions at dawn felt like an answer now. Spring will come, Sam. What better time for a new beginning?

More than the memory of Frodo's voice, it ran through him with Frodo's own strength and kindness – joined to him heart and will, blood and bone.

It was a long time ere Sam turned aside. The colours had faded to dusky greys, and the hill's shape ran into the shadows of gnarled old trees that lined the brook. If he followed it for a span, he figured that he should come back round to the path.

He'd not gone far though when Bill strolled towards him from the underbrush and snorted a greeting.

"Liff sent you here, didn't he?" Sam pressed his forehead to Bill's nose and stroked both hands down to his muzzle. "We're bound for home now, Bill my lad. 'Tis time."

* * *

Out on the East Road, the air seemed warmer and heavier, and a haze covered the ground like a sheet of dust turned to daylight. Sam slowed Bill with a click of the tongue.

From the pool he'd followed a boar-track through the woods till they struck a path trailing the Brook. It crossed over to the east side after some miles and broadened into an old cart-road skirting fields and hedges. When it branched away from the Brook, Sam stayed on its course that would lead him back to the larger road. Perhaps, he was thinking, perhaps he'd ought to pay the Three-Farthing Stone another visit ere his journey could reach its end.

And there he was now, amidst the many reckless starts of spring. Every linden wore green trimmings about its ankles, the willows' crowns showed a pale tracery of unfurling leaves, and yellow wood anemones peeked from the shadows. Many times along the way, he'd stopped to look, touch and smell – and memories shot forth at every turn. Of Marigold munching whortleberries in her first Highday dress till she had it stained all over. Of Halfred tucking a buttercup into his shirt's fastenings before he wandered off to work in the Haywards' fields of Overhill, his knapsack swinging. But here, by the road, it was the scent of quickly grown grass that put Sam in mind of the Hill's gentle slope, glistening beneath the touch of dayrise. He sat silent in the saddle, stilled by the sweet ache that passed through him, like a stray sunbeam.

"Well, Bill, shall I try my blessings again?" Sam asked, but the words weren't half out when he knew that he wouldn't. Even from several yards away he could see that wild green tufts surrounded the Three-Farthing Stone, as high as his knees. Amid them, the stone seemed to doze in the cloudy afternoon, like a bear on the first day out of his winter-burrow.

As Sam looked on, the strange notion flitted through his head that his touch to the stone might've called up Liffson to keep him company – then he chuckled at his own foolishness. But of one thing he was certain: he wouldn't meet the fellow anywhere outside the Northfarthing.

Back to your own road, Samwise... He nudged Bill who'd been nosing through the clover away from the bank. Straight ahead and far in the west, the sun rode large behind the clouds, and there was something odd to the light, filling the air with glints and veils.

In such a light, he could imagine Elves travelling this same path, through the wide, ancient world, on their way to the Havens. It set him thinking of Lσrien again, and how you couldn't tell if they'd made the land, or the land made them. But treading this grey band of a road, they'd pass like shadows under the sun, adrift between one place and the other. How could they bear to leave?

A vague uncertainty crept over Sam, and he looked back eastward. In the distance, a high waggon was puffing up the dust, driving out of Frogmorton. Well, there was a sight all solid and familiar. He'd not forgotten about the work as lay in that direction either, but there was no business afoot that couldn't wait a few days. No more delays now, Sam Gamgee, he told himself.

Bill didn't need more than a word to fall into a lusty canter. Bywater was still miles away, and even at this pace they'd not reach the farm before dusk.

On either side of the road, shadows were crawling out from shrubs, hedges and the old trees' remains. Most of the lopped wood had been cleared away and carried off by now, but those sad stumps hadn't been removed. So long as their roots stayed in the ground, Sam thought as he turned off into the lane that ran northwards to Bywater, their memory wouldn't be lost either.

Though daylight was dwindling away, he couldn't have missed that all the field margins were snowed with small blossoms – speedwell, squirrel cup, dwarf bay, he guessed, and so many others. Among the nested roots of a large beech, young shoots grew in sheaves, some of them already wearing the first green. The trees were waking at last, to put forth what they'd gathered all winter, in the pale, still light as filled their crowns. Clad in leaves, the wind would stir their voices into that endless flow of rustles and whispers, day and night. Sam caught himself whistling Liffson's odd little tune and smiled.

He'd travelled in long circles about the land where he'd spent all his years save one, but now he was nearing the Shire's heart that welcomed him and claimed him for its own. How could he do aught but rush forward? Bill must be sharing some of that eagerness, for he trotted along with a fresh spring in every stride, his head high.

On the other side of ridge, orchard and fields, Farmer Cotton, Tom, Jolly and Nibs would now turn in from the day's work, and Mrs. Cotton would be stoking up the fire to fix their supper. And Rosie... Rosie would be setting out mugs and wash-basins, humming as she went. Full of warm recollections, these thoughts wrapped themselves about Sam.

Rosie had always been a part of his love, he knew now. Like the Gaffer, like Marigold, May and Daisy, like his brothers and the friends he'd found in the Cotton lads. She'd been part of everything that he once belonged to, and she'd belong to him after the same manner.

"But how to go about it proper?" he murmured, twiddling his fingers through the reins. He remembered how Nick Broadbeam had come round to Number Three one eve, bearing a satchel of the finest pipeweed for the Gaffer, his eyes sweet on Daisy who never said a word while her dad and the lad who'd court her talked, quiet and earnest at the kitchen table.

Sam frowned at the memory and himself. He should've thought to bring something, truly he should have, and he knew what sort of words his Gaffer would have for such lack of care and manners. Then again, there'd be time for it the next day...

From the top of the low ridge, he could now see glimmers across the fields as must be spilling from the farm-yard. Like glow-worms they looked in the drift of blues and greys, and they tugged his heartbeats into a saunter.

One of those gleams ought to be the candle burning in the foremost bedroom, where Mr. Frodo might be setting his ledgers and papers aside just now. It didn't take more than such an inkling, and Sam's mind was running over with all the things he wanted to tell Frodo – if he could get a word out for the joy of looking on him again after so many days. Most like, Mr. Frodo already guessed, anyhow, what he'd come to decide about Rosie.

He'll wish me well... Yet something cramped up tight and stubborn under Sam's breastbone, squeezing at his purpose. There is nothing that I want as much as your happiness, Sam. The words were set in his mind like stars, but now he wondered what they might've kept back.

I'll know, Sam said to himself, once I look in his eyes, I'll know – and it eased the troubling twinge aside, bit by bit.

Out of the darkening yard leapt a shout Tom or Jolly might've given as they carried the plough inside. When Sam rode up, one of the lads was just about pulling the door shut, and he jumped down in a hurry, leaving Bill by the gate. A brew of voices and clatters came through the door, and from the byre he could hear the cattle lowing and shuffling about. Sam climbed the steps and took another moment to wipe his feet ere stepping fully inside.

"Good evening! I'm back!" he called, though his voice wavered. In the sudden warmth and smoke, his eyes watered a bit, and the first he saw clearly was Tom with his feet in the wash-basin, grinning broadly at him.

His "Hullo, Sam!" brought on a merry round of greetings, but in the middle of it all, Sam noticed that the bedroom door stood wide open, and Mr. Frodo was nowhere to be seen.

"You're come just in time for supper," said Mrs. Cotton, "you've a good nose forsooth, Samwise."

"I've missed the taste of your cooking too long, Mrs. Cotton," Sam answered, slipping off his cloak – and then couldn't stop himself from asking, "Is Mr. Frodo off to Michel Delving then?"

"Oh no, he's gone no further away than Bag End." Farmer Cotton was wiping his hands on a cloth and tossed it over his chair's back. "It's been but a day and a half since Mr. Merry came out of Buckland with his furniture and all, and Mr. Peregrin too."

"Bag End." Sam heard himself mouth the name, and it seemed like a wisp of the oddest chill travelling through his breast.

"Aye, and right glad he is to be warming his feet by his own fire, I'll be bound." Farmer Cotton settled into the chair and sighed comfortably. "Though he's shown us more thanks than ever he owed, that he has."

With his cloak hanging loose in his grasp, Sam turned back to the door, half drowned in shadow yet only a few steps away. Confusion rushed up in him, quick enough to spin his senses about – and then it was as if the door swung out wider, and through it he could see...

Bag End, up on the Hill, and from the large round door, light poured in a living stream. Cradled in it, Mr. Frodo stood watching the evening rise, his head tipped a bit to one side as though he were listening. The light brushed his waistcoat's pine-green wool, hiding his face, but where it sloped away at his feet, it touched nobut torn ground and rough tussocks, instead of sand-strewn paths and a well-kept lawn.

Sam breathed in sharp, for it seemed a view as opened before him, not an image shaped in his mind. As if it'd take only one step –

"Well, Sam, sit yourself down," Mrs. Cotton's voice pulled him back. "Rosie!" she called, for the back door was opening right then, "Now look who's here!"

A basket in either hand, Rosie stepped in. She set her burdens down first and careful, as Sam knew she would, before sending him a smile. "Hallo, Sam. You've done a fair bit of travelling today, haven't you?"

He nodded, run out of speech for the moment, but Rosie's smile didn't fade. It brought a dimple to her cheek and called on so many things Sam had known well nigh all his life: The way her eyes turned to upcurved bows when she laughed, or how she'd pinch her nose when she thought hard on something.

Be with the people you love. Frodo wouldn't tell him aught else now.

"I've come to–" Sam broke off, noting the sudden quiet round the room. The cheerful talk between Jolly and Nibs had faltered, and their father looked on with narrowed eyes. A choking warmth settled against Sam's chest. He couldn't speak the words that the family must now be expecting with all of them listening.

"Rosie..." he said, his eyes still on her face, and held out his hand. Farmer Cotton's brows were starting to knit in a frown, but Rosie crossed the room with her quick and deft step. Her hand looked reddened and rough, as it would after a washday, and when Sam took it, her clasp was firm.

Without another word, he led her outside, into the moist breeze that rushed here and there over the ploughed fields. The sun had set, but a pale sheen clung to the horizon, out west. When he turned Rosie towards him, he could still see that glow, on either side of her.

With her free hand, Rosie wiped stray curls back from her face and tried to tuck a strand back into the braid that lay over her left shoulder. She was a fine and sturdy lass, Rosie, with the wind rousing colour to her cheeks, her braids agleam like hazel bark against the black furrows drawn for the planting. The evening cold didn't bother her to a shiver, and her strong fingers lay quiet in his. If there was aught more a hobbit could look for in a bride, Sam couldn't name it.

"Rose." He reached out with his other hand and covered hers in both of his, wrapping her fingers tightly, so she wouldn't feel the slight tremor as was starting upward from his wrists. "Will you be my wife?"

In the fading light, the change in her expression were hard to see, and it came about slow, setting in with a quiver round her lips. She tilted her chin up a bit and blinked, while the wind played with her hair and tugged it loose again.

It struck him then that she might say no – quick as light on a fast-moving river – and in the wake of that thought, as it sped its bright chill down his spine, ran the knowledge that he'd never once asked himself whether she'd want to marry him. Not since the day he rode up to the farm and Rosie said she'd been expecting him since the spring. The shame of it surged into his face, swift and furious, and surely Rosie saw it even in the dim.

"Oh Sam, of course I will," she said, biting her lower lip ere she reached over to touch his hot cheek. "Why, you've had me waiting a fair time, if you didn't know, without a wink or word that a lass can hold on to!"

"I–I'll be mending that," Sam promised, an awful croak in his voice that wouldn't seem to ease. "And we'll go about the courtship proper." He steered his mind towards the things as he should be saying now. How the kitchen in Number Three would be so much smaller and darker than it was here, at her parents' house – but still the Gaffer would be pleased to keep busy round the household, and they'd lay out a fine new garden for herbs and vegetables, all to her liking.

"If you worry that dad'll say no, you've no eyes." Rosie clucked her tongue, teasing for his own comfort, Sam knew. "And proper's not to say long, mind. You've already wasted a year!"

"Wasted?" Sam shook his head. "I wouldn't call it that." But then, she'd lived in the midst of worry under the ruffians' sway, with scarce a hope for better. Sam held her eyes and couldn't help but wonder what she saw.

"I've been away a long time... to far places, Rosie. Do you know who it is that you're having?"

"Maybe..." Her face fell serious as she looked on him. "Maybe I don't know, but I'll have thee anyways, Sam Gamgee."

"I won't be asking more." He felt all strange, light of head and bewildered as perhaps he shouldn't be, but there was comfort too, spreading warm and friendly inside him. "And I thank thee."

"Why, Sam, you're grown as courteous as one o' the gentry!" Rosie laughed – a high, merry sound of relief – and that he could make her laugh like this, Sam took for a promise of their good fortune.

"I know that you'll want to be looking after your Mr. Frodo," she added, squeezing his fingers in her grasp, "and well you should. 'T won't do for your wife to keep you from it." She leaned forward and pecked a quick kiss to his cheek.

When they walked back inside, all eyes were turned on them. Sam cleared his throat. "I've asked Rosie to be my wedded wife – with your good-will, Mr. Cotton."

Farmer Cotton set a hand on his shoulder and looked him in the eye for a long moment. "That you have, son, and my blessings."

On the other side of the room, Mrs. Cotton threw an arm about Rosie's shoulders as she sat down on the bench by the fire. Tom gave a loud whistle, and his brothers joined in, all of them bounding forward to clap Sam's shoulders.

When he glanced towards Rosie again, she held both hands to her cheeks as if covering the warmth that'd run there, or protecting it, maybe. She'd never looked so pretty before, flushed and glad, some tousled curls bobbing over her fingers, so pretty that it tore at Sam's heart.

"I'd ought to take Bill to the stable afore supper," he muttered, catching the pleased glances as passed between Farmer Cotton and his wife. From his wedding day forward, he'd be calling them Father Tom and Mother Lily, and they'd be his own family for true.

Fresh laughter arose at his back when he stepped out again, but Sam could guess well enough how they'd be chuckling at his awkwardness, how they'd tease Rosie and smother her in good advice. He'd heard the same, a time or two, from his Gaffer and his sisters.

With slow steps, he walked up to Bill and paused beside him, near the fence. Dusk had bleached all the colours and cloaked the fields, but even blind he'd still know the shape of these lands, as if he could touch them where he stood. All winter, his hope had shrunk as embers, but now it needed stretching to the far ends of the Shire.

Now... Sam laid his hands on the fence, the tough wood cracked by countless turns in the weather. He felt those cracks as if they were akin to a breach opening inside him, growing wide and deep. The evening breeze wakened his memories of every dale and brook, every hedgerow and pathway that he loved, till the very air brimmed with it – with a love he'd been born to, surging and stumbling outward in need of a hold.

That was the true gift he'd received with Rosie, for his love had found a hold in her. And he'd be sure to thank her for it, through all their days.

Everything's as it ought to be, he thought, and in his mind it sounded like his Gaffer's trusty old voice.

Less than two miles away, Mr. Frodo would now be seating himself at his own dinner-table, with his cousins for company and all the comforts of Bag End about him. Sam set his mind on that, on the warm shine of tapers sparkling on silverware, and a soft, contented smile playing about Frodo's mouth. That he couldn't climb back into the saddle and ride there straightaways shouldn't pain him one whit.

"Good night," Sam murmured. I'll be on your doorstep to say good morning with daylight.

Westward and a space to the south, the waxing moon swam among wisps of cloud, glowing faintly gold with the light of the vanished sun. Sam turned his eyes there, and breathed the cooled, clean air deep into his chest.

Both or neither. He'd known all along that it wasn't a choice for him to make. It just couldn't be home otherwise.

* * * * *

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