5th November 1419 S.R.
From one of the old western windows, Frodo looks across the muddy stretch that used to be his lawn and the sheds that huddle on the Hill's slope. Some have already been knocked down, shattered to a heap of tar-stained timber. A soft rain veils Hobbiton, and the wetness revives scattered patches of green, so that they glow gently against the raw earth.
Frodo forces himself to remain by the window, to trap this desolation in his sight. How long will it take, until he is accustomed to such a bleak overbearance of sky, instead of the walnuts, the poplars and sturdy oaks? How long until the gashes scabbing the landscape cease to jar recollections out of him?
He can still picture the broad crown of the party tree, the garlands of glory vine and nasturtians wreathed around the southern windows, shivering softly in a breeze. But when his glance drifts over splintered wood and muck-puddles, he is no longer certain if the bean-row stood to the right of the cabbage bed, or closer by the tomatoes. Frodo chews on his lip as he strains for an answer to this suddenly vexing riddle that Sam could easily solve for him. Surely every detail of the garden is mapped out in Sam's memory, and with every ounce of will and wish, he'll nurture those recollections to full bloom, as quick as he can. He works by the torn hedge now, untangling pieces of trash that he throws onto a wheelbarrow where the refuse already piles high.
Through the drizzle, Frodo watches him, the fluid stretch from hip to shoulder as Sam unbends and turns to the side. His curls hang limp and dark around his face, but spots of heat stain his cheekbones. Instead of reaching for the wheelbarrow, he stands for a moment and chafes his hands together, his shoulders set hard. Starting at dawn tomorrow, he will dig his shovel into the cleared patch by the hawthorn, his sleeves rolled up over his elbows, and turn the trampled soil for a winter-planting. He'll whistle defiantly as he works, and when he tells Frodo about his plans to expand the kitchen garden, he'll name every single herb and vegetable as if they were friends invited to a long-delayed gathering. But during those painful moments of stillness, when Sam looks across to the Water, defeat hangs about him, although his neck is unbent.
The tightness in Frodo's chest becomes abruptly unbearable, and he turns away from the window. As he walks down the dim corridor, the sound of his own footsteps seems to chatter back from every wall, until he moves through a drift of echoes. The sound of Bilbo's voice reciting whimsical poetry floats along the scarred wainscoting, the Gaffer's grumbled remarks about coming changes in the weather guard the back door, and even Lobelia's shrill, indignant tones hang on the air like an ash-cloud beneath the flue. As Frodo looks into the former dining-room, his glance falls on a carved stool that's now missing a leg, and he remembers how Bilbo sat hunched on it one afternoon, surrounded by a throng of young Bolgers and Boffins, spinning a fanciful tale about a hobbit shrinking to the size of a mouse.
Frodo steps over a woven rug that has been left in a ruffle by the parlour door, its floral patterns riddled with careless trails of soot and dirt. Although the room glares stark and empty, it seems to have shrunk next to his memories. His imagination cannot squeeze in all the furniture, or the merrily jumbled hoard of books, maps, mathoms and remembrances there once was, and the thick, musty smell takes his breath away.
He quickens his pace as he walks on towards the entrance hall. Through the open door, a grey flood of daylight casts a half-circle over the tiles, like washwater, lending them a mild gloss. Someone has
cleaned them, the day before, and not with a dash of water tossed from the bucket either. Someone must have scrubbed the stretch from here to the doorstones meticulously, to remove the tiniest dribble of blood, and the danger of a curse seeping into the very ground that enfolds the smials. Frodo stares down at the regular patterns of dark grooves that run between the tiles. He doesn't remember a single drop of blood welling from the wound as Saruman fell, his white hair spreading out into wisps of smoke.
His cure is beyond us.
Frodo runs fretting fingers down his trouser seams. His own words have taken on a sting that finds its mark more easily than Saruman's malicious jab, but that isn't what nearly makes his head spin for a moment.
Was it Sam who returned during the bustle and turmoil of the past day to clean Bag End's stoop? The picture leaps too readily into Frodo's thoughts, etched sharp to the finest detail. He can see how the thin creases around Sam's knuckles smooth into white as he chafes the coarse brush back and forth across the stone. Frodo raises a hand to his mouth and bites the first knuckle to drive this unbidden image away. Against his own skin, his breath is harsh and strangely heated.
Beside the door, shadows encrust the corner where Bilbo used to lean his walking stick upon returning from one of his jaunts. A hum or a whistled tune would slip into the depth of the smials, and more often than not, that sound would suffice to fetch Frodo from his room or the window alcove in the parlour. He lets his head sag against the panelling and looks up at the row of wrought-iron pegs. On any given day during those years, the folds of woollen cloaks would surround him here, swing over him with a soft rustle and whiffs of pipeweed.
The faintest sound alerts him, and with a quick tug to his waistcoat, Frodo steps from his remembered refuge.
Sam stands on the doorstep, a shadow against the flat, grey daylight. "'Tis clearing now," he says with a tip of his head to the sky.
Frodo nods, and his glance dips to the washed tile again, but he can't bring himself to ask about it.
"Won't you come out with me, Mr. Frodo?" Sam's touch is light on his elbow. "A breath of fresh air will do you good."
The moment clasps Frodo in a memory of Sam shuffling his feet on the stoop, inviting the Master of Bag End to take a look at the butterfly bush or the lilies with a shy duck of the head.
"Oh, it certainly will," Frodo answers, the moist air brushing a chance welcome across his face. "In fact, I was just on my way out."
Together they step over bleached boards that litter the ground as if a raft had come apart on the sea of mud. Sam scuffs his toes against a wooden peg with a look of frank disgust. "I'd not even use that
for firewood now, not that we're short of it."
When he stalked through the garden two days ago, his reddened eyes blazed with fury. Worse than Mordor, this is...
But his anger couldn't disguise the pale misery clutching his face, or the desperate disbelief. Only his bristling will holds it at bay, and he's stretching himself thin between the need to restore Bag End, his Gaffer's advice and queries, and the Cottons' enveloping hospitality.
As they round the western corner, Sam casts another long look across the Water, a dull silver ribbon that weaves in and out of sight. His gaze swings to the fog-swathed outline of Bywater and the Green Hills beyond, to embrace the whole of the Shire.
"How long, I wonder?" he mutters, and the question seems to hold him captive.
"I don't know, but..." Frodo's half-formed reply falters midway. For a breathless moment, it is as if a sweep of light skimmed across the slopes and fields, painting them in rich green, raising slender trees to crown them with a mist of white blossoms. Translucent colours span the horizon and blow in a sliding wind. Frodo's chest hollows at the thought that he is watching across a distance of many years.
He blinks to find Sam study him with a worried expression and musters a smile. "It only takes time, Sam, nothing else. The Shire will be whole again."
And you, Sam...
A familiar ache slips through Frodo's chest. But where –
"Ah, I wish..." Sam pulls up his shoulders and offers a tight little smile of his own. "'Tis patience as makes a gardener, as my Gaffer would say. And he'd give me a fine scolding for fretting so." His glance drops to his mud-spattered hands. "If you'll wait a moment..."
He walks over to the pump and briskly pushes the handle until water spurts in a white rush over his fingers. As the dirt is washed aside, Frodo notices a small cut across his knuckles and a bruise just below Sam's left thumb. Ever since their return, his capable hands have been without rest, to the point of careless, as Frodo has never known him to be.
"Now..." Sam wipes his fingers against his jacket, the skin reddened by the cold water. "Let me show you something that's good for a bit of cheer."
Small rents have appeared amid the clouds, and glints of afternoon dapple the hillside, glancing in bright darts off the puddles. Sam picks a careful path to the tapering rear of the garden where tough evergreens are tucked into unshorn pockets. By the turf wall, yellow wintersweet blossoms sway on the shrub's bare branches.
"Here's a fine spot of colour now..." Sam bends to cup a hanging flower in his hands. "They've opened to greet you home, Mr. Frodo."
They bloom only for you,
Frodo wants to say, they always have.
He leans closer, into the unexpected spell of a lush fragrance. When his glance slips to Sam's profile, a crinkling smile eases the harder lines at the corner of his eye, and stray sungleams brush across his drying hair. He catches Frodo's gaze as he straightens, and they stand facing each other, strangely shy, while the vivid scent draws a close circle around them.
"There's the holly bush, too..." A new warmth shades Sam's cheeks, and the husky tone of his voice lights clear as a touch on Frodo's skin. "'Tis bearing a sackfull of berries this year."
Where they stand now, they are in full view of the footpath that skirts the gaping sand-pit, but if a neighbour walked by, he would notice nothing unusual. A gentlehobbit and his gardener shaping sensible plans, both a little worse for the wear after the recent upheaval. But then, not a hobbit lives between here and Bywater who hasn't known hardship during the Occupation. The passing neighbour would nod at them and wish them a pleasant evening in spite of all that, and perhaps remind Sam that the first draught of ale will be served in the Green Dragon tonight.
A sudden tiredness seizes Frodo and sinks like a cloud into every fibre of his body. Since they have crossed the Shire's bounds, he seems to be straining against a constant pull of sleep.
"We should go back inside," he says without a clear reason.
Sam answers with a slow nod, and his fingers brush Frodo's as they walk back to the front entrance.
The door opens with a rattle before it jams against the tiles. Frodo pauses just inside. What has he imagined for this moment? Surely not this – not this wild impulse to turn on his heel, to take Sam's hand and walk down to the garden gate without a backward glance, until they're following a road that sweeps out in endless twists and turns.
"Mr. Frodo," Sam says softly and moves closer. "It can't feel like home now, but it will, I promise you." He smells of rain, of peat-smoke and pine. Of wet earth, when he opens his arms for Frodo.
Frodo repeats to himself, our life,
and then he's clutching Sam to him, so hard that a startled breath huffs from the broad ribcage. The fingers of his maimed hand wind into Sam's curls, tracing the scattered paths of sunlight, and their lips meet over the waiting of hours. When Sam's mouth opens against his own, a desperate pulse leaps through Frodo's chest and sparks painfully bright in his temples. He's pressed against the length of Sam's body, so close that their heartbeats meet in a twining tangle between their chests. If he moves but an inch away, he will slide back into a long, empty drift from one moment to the next, he will forget that forever is –
"I'm not leaving," Sam breathes against his mouth, "and you ought to know that."
"Yes, I..." Startled, Frodo pulls away, but Sam's sure hands stroke up his back. His own fingers dig too hard into Sam's jacket, seizing the familiar weather-stained cloth. Everything, everything has changed and can change yet again.
"Frodo," Sam murmurs, "Frodo..." His fingers run gently over the sides of his face and stray into his hair while his thumbs trace slow circles at Frodo's temples. "You shouldn't come back here till it's all fixed and set to rights." His touch moulds Frodo's face with infinite tenderness, light as rain.
"You shouldn't have to do that for me," Frodo returns.
"Ah, but I want to."
There's nothing so beautiful as Sam's smile, even if it is borne up on a slight tremor. But the air around them is too stale to breathe, and impatience beats sharply against Frodo's ribs.
How can they live here?
* * *
(continued in: First Frost
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.