Quills and Thorns: 1. Quills and Thorns

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1. Quills and Thorns

Hamfast studied the object in his hands intently. Was the quill sharp enough now? Would it cause the ink to blot on the page, or would it allow him to shape his letters smoothly and evenly? Would it be good enough? He just wasn’t sure. Surreptitiously he looked up to see if he could ask but Mr Oldbody was looking over Ruby’s shoulder, across the room. He was holding her chubby fist gently in his own and helping her guide the chalk on her slate in the large looping style he favoured, and that he had passed on to all the Gamgee children, like a legacy. Hamfast sighed. He wished he could still use chalk and a slate, but at fifteen he had been decreed more than old enough for grown up writing tools and that was why he was staring in such despair at the quill in front of him. How hard could it be? It was only a goose feather. A fine goose feather admittedly, white, chosen specially by Mr Oldbody but never the less, just a goose feather.

But it wasn’t really the goose feather though, was it? It was all that it implied. It was the pristine piece of parchment on the desk before him, looking so accusingly at him, in all its clear white emptiness. It was the knowledge that he really ought to be better at this by now. It was the fact that he really shouldn’t be as clumsy as he was after all Mr Oldbody’s patience and care. Resigning himself to the inevitable, Hammy lifted the lid from the little glass inkwell and dipped the newly sharpened quill into the glistening blue-black ink. Then very carefully, with a tiny tongue-tip poking out, he began to shape the first letter of his composition.

A Elbor…

Oh no! Hammy looked at the large round drop of ink that had somehow, despite his care, inevitably fallen from his pen. Quickly he blotted it and then looked critically at the result. His heart sank. Why did these things always have to happen to him? It had fallen just where he would, in a different world, a world in which he was good at this, have been scribing the next letter. Now the ‘e’ would either be squished to one side, far too close to the ‘r’, or miles away on the other side of the blot, where it would almost look like it belonged to a different word. And he had only managed to copy – count them – six letters before he had ruined it. The fact that it didn’t come as a surprise to him, and probably wouldn’t come as a surprise to Mr Oldbody either, was beside the point. He did so want to succeed.

Resentfully he stared over at his biggest sister, Elanor, who was reading over a newly arrived – and beautifully calligraphed – scroll, with obvious enjoyment. It was all right for some. Some people took to their letters like ducks to water. Some people had been made assistants to Mr Oldbody, just so they could rub younger brother’s noses in it. Some people had… And then Hammy found himself sighing and letting the resentment go flowing away like water, as his innate honesty reasserted itself. It wasn’t Ela’s fault. It wasn’t anybody’s fault. Just his. That was the problem.

Relief came in the form of elevenses, brought in rattling on its tray by Merry-lad, and he sighed, sat back and looked longingly out of the one small window the schoolroom boasted. The clematis looked like it needed a prune, and Hammy wondered if he could just nip out and have a quick look. He went and poured himself a cup of tea and then wandered back to the window, somewhat absently, and leaned outside, leaving the cup balanced precariously on the sill. The rich scents of earth and growing things came to him then, and the sound of a bumble bee buzzing lazily around the honeysuckle. The lawn could do with a little trim too, he decided.

He sighed again. It wasn’t up to him, though, was it? The Bag End gardens were Da’s responsibility, always had been, and when he was too busy with Mayoral duties, it was Frodo-lad’s, since it stood to reason that Frodo-lad would inherit the place, and Da knew that. If he was lucky, Hammy was allowed to help sometimes, but he knew Da preferred him in here, learning his letters. Bettering himself, Da said. Learning Elvish as well now, although Hammy had no idea what use that was going to be, and anyway, Ela, or even Pippin-lad, was far better at it than he would ever be.

Goldie and Daisy began to play pat-a-cake in the corner and the cheerful slapping noises echoed round the room and set his teeth on edge until Hammy thought he would scream. He couldn’t hear the bee any more, or anything from the garden, and suddenly all he felt was an unreasoning anger, unformed and inexplicable. Hastily he turned then, and began quietly clearing up the tea things, anything to stop his fingers shaking, and to distract his unruly thoughts. He’d be no use to anyone, and certainly no use to his unfinished composition, if he didn’t manage to calm himself. He asked and received permission from Mr Oldbody to take out the tray. At least the chore would give him a few moments alone.

Mum was in the kitchen, humming as she rolled out pastry. The back door was open and late morning sunshine slanted in, turning the kitchen golden and warm. The geraniums were bright on the window sill, and Mum’s humming was soothing to his prickly nerves. He took the crocks to the big sink in the scullery and began to pile them up, ready for Dilly, Mum’s maid of all work, to wash later when she came in. Then he heaved another sigh and prepared to go back to the schoolroom, finding his footsteps lagging and unwilling.

“Here now – Hammy-lad, what is it?”

Mum had paused in her work, holding her floury hands away from her apron, and was regarding him with concern. Hammy felt another jolt of guilt. It was bad enough he was an ungrateful brat, there was no need to worry Mum as well.


The word sounded sullen even to him, but he hadn’t meant it so. Mum had that little crease between her brows that she got when she was thinking.

“Come here then and let’s see.”

See what? Hammy thought in bewilderment, but he turned and reluctantly ambled over, trying to lighten his expression if not the heaviness in his heart. Mum took his chin in her hands and turned his face this way and that as though trying to read a particularly difficult word. Like Gilthoniel thought Hammy desperately, or Fanuilos, and despite his intentions he winced at the thought of the unfinished work left waiting for him still to do. She frowned at him then.

“You look like you have the headache, Hammy-lad.”

If only he could use that as an excuse, to escape into the garden, into the nook under the apple trees where it was shady and cool, and he could make himself useful turning over the compost heap… No, it wouldn’t be fair. It wouldn’t be right. He didn’t have a headache.

“No, not really,” he said with a sigh.

“Still… I think you should go and get a bit of air, Hammy-lad. Get some colour in your cheeks. I’ll make it right with Mr Oldbody.”

He opened his mouth to protest, even as a wild surge of hope struck him like a shaft of sunlight, but whatever he was going to say was swallowed by Mum’s sudden exclamation as she noticed the smudge of flour she had managed to leave on his cheek, and the vigorous scrubbing with her apron that followed. He was laughing when he managed to escape its smothering folds, and quite forgot his protest as reason and desire met in one all encompassing longing to just be outside, in the air, with the grass between his toes and blackbirds singing in the hedgerow.

He left Mum with her hands on her hips smiling at him as he ducked out of the back door, and then just stood on the grass and breathed in and out for a while. He felt all his sullen unreasonable anger dissipating like morning mist, shredded away by warm sunlight on his head, and the smell of the honeysuckle curling in his nose like perfume. He remembered then, with a jolt, that he had left his tea cup, forgotten and untouched, on the schoolroom window ledge. He had been granted this small reprieve unlooked for, and it seemed a selfish thing to him, an unlucky thing, to leave the job that had unknowingly brought such joy incomplete and undone. So he trotted round the edge of the smial, keeping his head ducked a little, not wanting to be seen and be the cause of resentment among his siblings, Mum and her tale of headaches not withstanding.

He retrieved the cup easily and began to make his way back to the kitchen door. The gravel of the path was cool between his toes and he curled them in delight, as he idly scanned the borders, partly looking for weeds and partly drinking in their beauty. Then it occurred to him, as he paused and eyed a particularly persistent dandelion, that he might as well drink the tea, since he had it poured, and it wasn’t yet gone cold. Waste not, want not, as his Da might say.

So he stood, blinking a little, in the brightness of the day, looking over at the roses and away towards the kitchen garden, and a distant happiness humming inside of him, as soothing as Mum’s song. The schoolroom might have been a world away, was at least another day away, and he wondered how he’d never realised that lukewarm tea was the most delicious drink on earth.

“Sam, love, I want a word with you.”

Mum must be talking to Da, Hammy thought idly, he must have come in early from Hobbiton. Hadn’t he been inspecting the tithe-land in Holly Bottom this morning?

“O’ course, but let me put the kettle on, at least, Rosie-love. Even walking’s thirsty work in this heat, I’m thinking.”

There were quiet sounds of water being pumped and the scraping of chairs and the clattering of crockery, the kitchen window being open and sound having a tendency to carry on the Hill.

“What is it then?”

“Sam, it’s Hammy. I’m worried about him.”

Hammy came back from his dreaming with a jolt. Worried about him? What could Mum mean?

“What? Is he sickening for somethin’? He looked fine this morning at breakfast.”

“No, no. He’s well. That’s not what I mean.”

Hammy clenched the china cup to him a little harder, feeling guilty. Not this stupid made-up headache again?

“I want to know when you’re going to find Hammy a trade, Sam. He’s old enough by far to ‘prentice to someone, and it’s high time he did.”

There was a little pause, and Hammy could feel his heart pounding like a drum in the silence. They were thinking to ‘prentice him? His thoughts swooped and dove like swallows, in the shock of it. He might have to leave Bag End, and the family, and that was a sad thing, and he felt a pang, but, oh, he’d be out and about in the Shire, learning something useful! A trade, Mum said? What kind of trade?

“’Prentice him? Where’s this come from then, Rosie-love? Is he not still learnin’ with Mr Oldbody? Still practising his letters, I thought. Anyway, he’s just a teen, far too young to ‘prentice.”

“You were years younger than Hammy is when you began helping out your Gaffer with the garden at Bag End.”

“That was different.”

There was another little pause, and Hammy didn’t dare draw breath.

“How is it different, Sam?” Mum’s voice had gone brittle, like glass, and Hammy felt a pricking behind his eyes. He hoped nothing would cause that glass to break, not when they were talking about him.

“It just is, that’s all. ‘Prenticing’s not for Hammy.”

“Not for any of our children. That’s right, isn’t it, Sam? ‘Prenticing’s not good enough for them, not for the sons and daughters of the Mayor!”

“Oh, Rosie, don’t be a ninny-hammer! O’ course it is, it’s just…”

“A ninny-hammer, am I? Well, I’ll have you know, Samwise Gamgee, that there’s none so blind as those that won’t see! He hates it, Sam. Truly hates it. And you haven’t even noticed!”

Hammy felt himself tremble, there on the path, like an aspen shivering in the wind. Was it true? Did he hate it? The quills and the inks, and the careful precision from clumsy broad fingers? The hot stuffiness of the schoolroom? The droning of declensions read aloud? The dustiness of shuffled parchments, shifting against each other like whispered secrets? He raised his head until his eyes dazzled from the light, feeling a tugging in his being, only half-recognised, that spoke to him, and said yes, yes he did hate these things. How could he not have realised?

“Nonsense! He’s getting an education, and right glad he’ll be of it one day. He’s learnin’ his letters and his numbers, he’s bettering himself…”

“Just because you had to plead with your Gaffer on bended knee to let you learn your letters, and then beg Mr Bilbo to teach you out of the kindness of his heart, does not mean that everyone will take to it like you did, Sam!”

Hammy heard the sudden scraping back of a chair, and hasty footsteps sounding unevenly across the flagstoned floor.

“And running away don’t change it neither!”

He wished they’d just stop yelling at each other, he always hated it when they yelled. Absently his hand crept to his mouth and he began biting a hangnail, wondering whether he should just creep away, knowing he shouldn’t really be listening, not to this. Guilt sank into him like a stone in water, knowing they were arguing about him, that he was the cause of it, and he shut his eyes. Then there was a softer tone, Mum no longer all sharp glass and cutting anger, just Mum again, and he sighed a little in relief.

“Ah, Sam. He’s as truly your son as ever a lad could be, can’t you see that? He loves the land, he loves green and growing things, he’s never happier than when he’s out up to his ears in muck and soil, tending some shoot, or planting out some seedling or another. He’s got it in his bones, more than any of our others. And all you want to do is hole him up in some dusty smial, and make of him something he’s not. Sam?”

There was quiet and stillness. Hammy heard the bee come buzzing nearer. He bit his thumb and winced as he pulled at the reddened skin, and opened his eyes, squinting a little in the light.

“I just want something better for them, Rosie-love. Something better than ‘keep your place’ and ‘don’t be looking above your station’ and ‘that’s good enough for the likes of us’. I just want…”

“I know…”

“I just want them to have what I couldn’t have…”

“I know, love.”

And Hammy ducked his head in embarrassment and took his fingers from his mouth, as certain as the day was long that his parents were being soppy now, but very glad all the same that they were.

“So you think we should ‘prentice Hammy, then, you say?” There was the sound of his Da clearing his throat, and his voice was roughened and deep.

“And right soon, if we don’t want him pining away. I was thinking of sending him to my brother Tom, to learn the farm maybe. I think he’d like that. And after that he can decide if he wants to stick with gardening, or go on with farm work. And don’t look at me like that, Samwise Gamgee. There’s nothing wrong with gardening, if that’s what he chooses, it’s an honest living.”

“I know, love. It’s just that…”

“Leave them to do as is best suited, that’s what I say. Come now, Sam, you’ll have folk think that you’re ashamed of what you were, and I know for fact that you’re not!”

“O’ course not! But…”

“But what?”

“With his booklearnin’ he’d make a right good foreman for a farm, I’m thinkin’. And that’s better work than gardening. Not so hard on a body.”

“And what was I saying? Isn’t it up to him in the end?”

“Aye. But it’s hard, love. You want me to stop my plannin’ and my worritin’ over my lad just like that… T’aint that easy.”

“Not stop, never that – I don’t think we’ll neither of us ever stop doing that. It’s just he’s growing up, Sam-love. They all are. And we have to let them get on and do it.”

“I know.”

And there was silence from the kitchen once more, but a comfortable silence this time, loving and peaceful. Hammy barely thought about it, happy in an absent sort of way that all was once more right in his parent’s world, but finding his own tumultuous thoughts to be far more urgent, now that he was able to give his full attention to all that he had overheard. His hands were clumsy on the cup, and he was breathing fast, like he had been running. He was to learn the farm! Go and live with Uncle Tom and Auntie Marigold, and their brood, and learn to milk the cows and tend sheep, and plant barley, and oh… His heart gave a little skip – never open another book or scroll again, if he didn’t want to. Oh joyous wonderful day! He wouldn’t even be that far from Bag End and all the family, as it turned out. Wasn’t he just the luckiest lad alive? There was a sudden bubbling of notes from a thrush, somewhere away beyond the kitchen garden, a liquid murmuring of sound that reached up to the sky like silver music, and Hammy felt his spirits lift with it and soar gloriously.

Then later, he thought, getting carried away, when he was grown up, and he’d finished ‘prenticing, he would get to choose – farm-work, or a foreman’s job, or gardening, or perhaps… He discovered he couldn’t even compass all the dizzying possibilities that such a choice gave him. He found he could almost forgive those Elves for all their book-learning, for surely even they would understand such joy in life, and in the living of it? And his toes curled in the now-warmed gravel, and he breathed in the scent of honeysuckle, and he hugged himself in delight. For the future, with all its promise, opened up ahead of him in his mind’s eye like a Road going ever on, and the birds were singing there, and wildflowers bloomed in the hedgerows, and sunshine lit the path, and… It was going to be beautiful.

This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.

Story Information

Author: Nickey

Status: Reviewed

Completion: Complete

Era: 4th Age

Genre: General

Rating: General

Last Updated: 10/20/04

Original Post: 08/24/04

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