The West Wind came to Eriador from over the sea, and although it could not bring to Middle-earth the music of far-off Valinor, each year it nevertheless would bring a great gift: clouds, born of the gray ever-changing water. Over the havens of the Elves it carried them, past a lone shipwright pacing the sea wall and watching the gulls circle and dive. Above the Tower Hills it lifted them, past an elf-maid who stood uncertain, torn between Middle-earth and the song of the sea. Across the downs of Eriador it rolled them, great mountains of billowing gray on the darkening grasslands, until at last it bore them safe to the Shire. There hobbit farmers would look skyward and bless the West Wind and its gifts. For they knew that once again it had brought them the Spring.
As often as not the wind-borne clouds broke over the Shire and a cold drizzle would soak the earth. The well-tended roads ran with water, carts got stuck in the mire, and laughing hobbit children jumped in puddles and ran away with muddy feet. And one day the hobbits would look about them and see tight red buds on the trees and fields arrayed in pale green, bearing the promise of another rich summer and bountiful autumn.
But now at the heart of the Shire there lay a thing that did not love the wind or the rain or the hobbits that they nourished. It was a Ring, hard and dead, and thought by many to be beautiful. Never in all its long history had anyone willingly parted with it, for it was precious, as precious to all who bore it as it was to its maker. Never, that is, but once. One of the hobbits had cast it aside, and that was a new thing in the long slow years of the Ring's hungry malice. It now had another Bearer, but he, too, was a new thing, for he kept the Ring unknowing, as carelessly as if it were no more than a common trinket, close by him but never close enough. The Ring's maker was far away, calling it with a will that grew stronger with every passing day. The Ring heard the call. In its way, it answered. And the West Wind faded and died, and the clouds did not come.
Frodo woke with a start, his dark curls moist with sweat and his neck aching where it had been pressed against the couch at an awkward angle. A heavy book sprawled open across his chest, restricting his breathing. His hands, damp in the heat, stuck lightly to the binding and smelled of its leather. "Sweet Lady," Frodo muttered as he looked at the page he'd been studying. It had folded over and crumpled when he had surrendered to sleep and allowed the book to fall against him. A verse in Bilbo's cramped writing had become blurred where Frodo's sweat had soaked through his linen shirt.
Frodo groaned as he pulled himself upright. His memory teased him with disconnected shreds of the nightmare that had broken his sleep. Something had been calling out to him, something vile and hateful, and it had been right here in Bag End. He rubbed his eyes and stared down at the smudged ink, hardly able to see it in the dim light of the study, which was heavily curtained to block out the worst of the heat. The book would never be the same. What would Bilbo say? Wherever in the wide world the old hobbit had gone since his departure last autumn, he would perhaps forgive the damage to his book if he knew how unaccountably hot the Shire had become.
Never had the Shire known such heat and so little rain. At first the warm spring weather had seemed glorious. Though Sam soon took to watching the sky with a worried frown, Frodo had reveled in day after day of bright April sunshine. The curtains in Frodo's study were flung open so he could surreptitiously watch Sam as he worked in the garden. And if it got unseasonably hot, well, so much the better, for the study was cool, and while Sam worked he would strip off his weskit and unfasten his shirt: one button, then two, then three, and soon the warm southern breeze would tease open the shirt enough to show an expanse of golden skin beneath.
As April turned into May, the breeze died and the temperature continued to climb, and to Frodo's secret delight Sam would dispense with the shirt altogether. Sam's skin grew brown in the sun, and drops of sweat would wander down the muscles of his chest and stomach and lose themselves where his skin met the damp cloth of his breeches. When Sam rose from his labors the harsh sunlight molded his body into planes and angles that Frodo knew he would dream of the next morning as he lay in the tangled sheets of his hot empty bed.
All that work would make Sam thirsty, so he would fling his shirt loosely over his wet shoulders and come to the dark, cool second pantry of Bag End, where he stored the well water he drew for Frodo each morning. Frodo would accidentally-on-purpose run into him there, and Sam would pour a tall glass for each of them, insisting that Frodo have his first. As Frodo toyed with the rim of his own glass he would watch Sam raise the water to his lips and tilt his head back, eyes half shut, and swallow, swallow, swallow. In the closed stillness of the pantry Frodo could hear every drop of water go down Sam's throat and could almost feel Sam's breathy sigh as he put the empty glass aside.
Delightful as all this was in its horrible tormenting way, soon even Frodo began to see the weather as a curse. The summer had not even properly begun, and yet every stream in the Shire dwindled to a trickle; the smaller ones dried up and vanished. The Water and the Brandywine oozed sluggishly, lower than even the oldest hobbit could remember. The edges of their beds turned to mudflats that dried and caked and cracked with each day of merciless sun. Up in the rocky moor country in the Northfarthing some of the shallower wells ran dry. Everywhere the normally green and pleasant Shire turned brown: grass wilted, flowers never bloomed, and the very leaves on the trees curled in on themselves as if they were trying to escape the heat as best they could.
Bag End was better off than many places, for Bilbo had long ago indulged his independent Tookish streak by installing a deep dwarf-made pump well at the bottom of the kitchen gardens. Some of the more conservative hobbits had grumbled to see such a novelty from a Baggins, who should, they thought, have known better. But they had been relieved when Bilbo at least refrained from imitating the folly of his Took relations, who had gone so far as to install a system of pipes bearing water into the interior rooms of the Great Smials. This innovation was still the cause of much talk in Hobbiton, for what was the use of building a nice dry hole if you then went and piped water in? The Tooks had gone their own way, however, as they always did, despite glum (or hopeful) predictions that the damp and rot in the walls would bring the whole place down. Bilbo's little pump had been tolerated as being less Tookish than it might have been. Now it looked as if the pump might keep Bag End and its extensive gardens supplied with good clean water through the driest summer the Shire had ever known.
Or so Frodo thought. Sam was of a different mind. One hot day in the middle of June Frodo looked up wearily from an elvish translation and was surprised to see Sam standing before the desk. Frodo inhaled sharply and nearly knocked over the inkstand. He reached to grab it and Sam did too; for a fraction of a second their fingers touched and they both drew back as if they had been burnt. As they watched in horrified fascination, the inkstand wobbled threateningly atop the paper-strewn desk. At the last possible moment Sam steadied it, glancing nervously at the paralyzed Frodo, and then stepped away as carefully as if he were walking on Frodo's best porcelain plates.
"Begging your pardon, Mr. Frodo," Sam said. "I did knock, sir, but you didn't hear it, seemingly."
"There's no need to apologize, Sam, you know that I'm always glad to see you," Frodo said, thinking it was fortunate that Sam didn't know just how glad. Frodo had once caught himself thinking that Sam's presence transformed the musty book-crammed study into a grove of living trees. Of course he would never say such a thing out loud. With a little spasm of self-loathing Frodo told himself that his feelings for Sam were as unwelcome as his metaphors were ridiculous.
But now Sam seemed troubled. He was twisting his hands together in front of him, and he stared fixedly at a little blue vase of flowers on Frodo's desk. The flowers were none of Frodo's doing. They had simply appeared that morning as they had every morning in this summer after Bilbo's departure. It was just one of the many little things Sam did for him without being asked.
"Thank you for these," Frodo said, pointing to the flowers and wishing he could put both Sam and himself at ease.
Sam drew a deep breath. "It's the flowers I've come about, sir," he said.
"What about them?" Frodo asked. "Everything looks lovely, by the way. I've no idea how you do it."
"Water," Sam said. "It takes water. And it's water that we don't have enough of. It's got to stop, sir."
Frodo immediately assumed the worst. "Sam! Has the well -- "
"The well's fine so far, but who's to say how long that'll last? I can't be wasting good water on the flowers no more, sir. Not that and keep the kitchen garden green as well. And if you've got to choose between turnips and roses, it's the turnips you'll be needing the most, I'll warrant, for all that they're not near so fair."
Suddenly Frodo felt ashamed. He should have asked Sam to do this long before, not waited for Sam to work up the courage to ask him. The flowers were so beautiful, and so blended with thoughts of Sam in Frodo's mind, that he could hardly imagine Bag End without them. But he said nothing of this to Sam, who continued to look at the little blue vase, his face unreadable. "Of course," Frodo said, trying not to sound as grieved and worried as he felt. "You must do whatever you think best."
"I'm sorry, sir," Sam said. "I know how you like to see the roses and all."
Frodo ached to see Sam apologizing over something like this, as if he were somehow at fault for the cloudless sky and the parched earth. "Don't worry about the flowers, Sam," Frodo said. "Others have lost far more than I. It's nothing, really."
"Suppose not, Mr. Frodo," Sam said. "All the same, it'll be a sad day when there's naught in bloom at Bag End, and that's a fact." And something in the droop of Sam's shoulders when he said this made Frodo want to leap from his chair and hold Sam close and tell him that he himself was the most beautiful thing at Bag End or near it. But Frodo fought to keep his head, as he so often had done before; and as so often before, the moment passed. Sam was nothing if not sensible, Frodo thought, and if Sam could be sensible then he could be as well. Surely it would break neither of their hearts if the roses didn't bloom that year.
For dying flowers were the least of the Shire's problems. Most of the Longbottom Leaf crop was lost. Sweet-acrid smoke hung over the Southfarthing for days as dry crops were struck by lightning and burned. Cattle sickened; calves were lost as their mothers' milk failed. Farmers stared at fields where nothing grew as it should, and they hung their heads in despair. Weather-wise gaffers muttered in their ale and spoke of some strange magic, declaring that not even the lack of rain could account for all these troubles. It was as if the Shire was being squeezed dry by giant hand.
Hobbits are resourceful creatures, but nothing in their experience had prepared them for this. Even in Buckland, where the ingenious Brandybucks had long harnessed stream and river to do their bidding, fertile water-meadows grew barren when they could no longer be flooded. Previously, even in the driest summers, the meadows had been a reliable source of as many as four cuttings a year of rich grass, feeding cattle in Buckland and the Eastfarthing and beyond. But now they were failing, for they were irrigated by a system of wares and trenches built when no hobbit had dreamed that the Brandywine would fall so low.
A few days after his encounter with Sam in the study, Frodo received a frightening letter from his favorite cousin, Merry Brandybuck, begging him to come to Buckland and help with the repair of the water-meadows near Brandy Hall. In his teens, Frodo had involuntarily spent several months doing such work, as a punishment for pilfering mushrooms. He now also knew something of the principles underlying the water-works, since Bilbo's extensive library contained several treatises on irrigation that Merry was anxious to consult.
Frodo did not want to tear himself away from Hobbiton and from Sam, but Merry sounded half-desperate in his letter; Frodo suspected that what Merry really wanted was not his expertise -- which was minimal -- but his company. At nineteen Merry could be as fickle and careless as the next teenager, but he was the son of the Master of the Hall, and at times he showed quite clearly that he took to heart the responsibilities he would someday inherit.
And at Bag End Frodo was feeling a bit desperate as well, not least because of Sam. He was unsure of Sam's feelings -- or rather, he suspected that Sam had no feelings that his Gaffer would not consider perfectly proper. The Gaffer had already taken to glaring suspiciously at Frodo whenever they chanced to meet, particularly if Frodo was with Sam. Even if the Gaffer suspected nothing, it would be wrong, horribly wrong, to pursue Sam. He was so young, and not only Sam but much of his family depended on Frodo's good will for their livelihood. So Frodo had said and done nothing, and it was perhaps this burden of unfulfilled love that accounted for the feeling of dark misery that had hung over him almost since the day Bilbo had left.
Or perhaps it was something else as well. Lately he'd had strange dreams almost every night, and when Sam went home for the day Frodo often felt he was being left alone in Bag End with ... something. Something he did not want to face. It was silly, of course: the heat was affecting him somehow.
The last thing he wanted was to trouble Sam with all this. So Frodo set out for Buckland almost at once. Sam seemed neither surprised nor upset when Frodo announced his resolve to go. He silently helped in the preparations and even packed Frodo's things himself, while the farmer who had offered Frodo a ride waited in his cart. Frodo, somnolent in the heat and dreading the journey, had of course put off the packing until it was almost time to go.
As a result Frodo had no idea what he did and didn't have with him until he got to Buckland, and for the duration of his stay he was haunted by the feeling that he had left something crucial behind. He more than half suspected that the something was Sam himself, but it might as well have been his left arm, so intense was the feeling that half of his soul remained in Bag End. But he tried to put the matter out of his mind, and for some of the time at least he succeeded. For Merry's letter had not exaggerated. The drought was bringing Buckland to its knees.
"Will this awful summer never end?" Frodo said to his cousin one day, dizzy with the heat and every muscle sore from unaccustomed labor. "I never thought I'd long for winter, but I'd rather see the Brandywine freeze solid than endure much more of this."
Merry stared across a field of straggling half-grown corn and kicked at the dusty soil beneath their feet. "Winter is what I fear most, Frodo," he said in a low voice that the nearby hobbit-children would not be able to hear. "If the crops fail, what food will remain even in Brandy Hall come February? And what will there be to plant for next year?"
The cousins exchanged a worried glance, and without another word they returned to work. The water-meadows at least were a problem that might be solved, even if the drought continued.
Frodo drove himself mercilessly, appalled at the slow withering of the country he had known and loved from childhood. Each night he collapsed into his narrow cot in the room he shared with several distant Brandybuck connections who had also been drafted into service at the Hall. After the other hobbits said their good-nights and extinguished their candles, Frodo would lie awake, too hot and even too tired to sleep. He listened to the quiet breathing of the others in the dark and wondered if Sam also slept back in Hobbiton, and whether Sam had yet succeeded in persuading the Gaffer to stay indoors during the worst of the afternoon heat.
Eventually Frodo would slip into restless dreams in which he came home to Bag End and found it deserted. He would search for Sam everywhere and never find him. But it seemed that in the empty tunnels of the smial a dark presence waited, and he knew that if he turned the wrong corner he would find not Sam, but some cruel thing that hungered for him and called to him night and day. Frodo would moan in his sleep until at last he woke to another cloudless dawn and another day in the heat, as weary as if he had never slept at all.
Then one day, Frodo and Merry found themselves having an interminable argument with a stubborn waterman who insisted that no trench needed to be dug as deep as Mr. Merry wanted, no matter what Mr. Baggins's books might say. Frodo had been out in the sun for hours, and all at once his usual dizziness and headache got so bad that he could no longer stand. His skin was as dry as dust and it burned, burned like fire, like the white-hot sun above his head. He sat gasping on the ground, unable to see in a haze of whiteness. But then he was soaked through and almost choking on the water that someone held to his lips. A dark shape loomed above him. "Merry," he said weakly, and his cousin looked sick with relief.
"Don't try to talk," Merry said, as Frodo struggled to sit up. "We're getting you back to the Hall. No Frodo," -- for Frodo was trying to speak -- "no arguments. Do you know what has happened to you?"
Frodo nodded slowly, and even that little effort made the world spin. Heat sickness, they called it; he had seen it happen to others, though mostly to the very old and very young. Over in the Marish, he had heard, two hobbits had died this way when they worked for too long in the sun. But they were old gaffers, a voice in Frodo's head complained. Frodo thought that he should have been stronger. He had come of age last autumn and by rights should have been better prepared to be useful now. For the past year he had done nothing more strenuous than mow the lawn on those rare occasions when Sam would let him get within ten feet of the toolshed. And oh, how he longed for Sam at this moment: for Sam's strength, Sam's endurance, Sam's plain hobbit-sense that would probably keep him calm and collected in an earthquake. Sam's smile -- Frodo buried his head in his hands and felt wetness on his face, his collar, his hair. Of course. Merry had given him water, some of the precious water that never should have been wasted on a single lazy hobbit in the prime of life.
"I'm sorry, Merry," he said wretchedly. "I haven't been myself."
"Silly old hobbit," Merry said. "You've done work enough for ten. Get back to the Hall."
So Frodo allowed himself to be led to what little shelter from the heat the Hall might afford and rested in his room as the Brandy Hall healer directed. But the sleep that came to him was no blessing. The moment his head touched the pillow the horrible thing from his dreams was calling him, calling in a voice he hated but could find no way to escape. He started awake and stared at the ceiling for a long time.
When the shadows lengthened across the bone-dry fields, Merry returned and sprawled in the chair beside Frodo's cot. "The Sheriff is starting back to Michel Delving tonight," he said. "He can take you to Hobbiton if you'd like."
"I want to help."
"You have. And I can't tell you what it's meant to me to have you here. But Frodo -- " Merry sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "You've done the work of ten, but even ten more of you couldn't save Buckland now. We're beyond any help other than rain and cool weather. We've more than the meadows to worry about." And Merry proceeded to give a long explanation of seed germination and tuber formation that Sam, no doubt, would have understood perfectly. All Frodo understood was that within the next week, Buckland had to have rain. If there were no rain, or if it came even a week or two late, by February and March the hobbits would starve.
"Merry -- " But Frodo could say nothing more. There seemed to be nothing to say.
"Go back, Frodo," Merry said gently. Go back to Sam. He's the only hobbit I know more stubborn than you are, and I can't imagine anyone else who can keep my favorite Baggins from killing himself with overwork."
Frodo protested, but not as much as he might have done. Exhaustion had sunk into his very bones. With no hope to inspire him, he could do little else but obey an instinct that pulled him to Hobbiton and Sam like a wounded animal returning to the far-off country of its birth. He did not even want to think about how much he wanted to see Sam again, to touch him, if only just once. He wanted this more than he wanted to save Buckland, more than he wanted to see Merry or even Bilbo. He wanted it more than he wanted water after a long day in the fields. He thirsted for it so much that to get it he was ready to face the strange dread that haunted him at Bag End, for he felt -- though he could not for the life of him explain why -- that Bag End now held both the thing he most loved and the thing he most feared in all the world.
Dusk found Frodo and his luggage packed in the Sheriff's cart. "Good-bye, dear Frodo!" Merry cried. "Remember us to Sam and the Gaffer!"
"Good-bye!" Frodo said. "Remember, Merry, there is only so much that even you can do."
Merry's only answer to this was a tight smile. As the cart jerked down the lane from Brandy Hall, he dwindled to a small waving figure fading into the gloom. When the cart rounded a bend his voice floated across the lawn. "Good-bye! Be well! And do see if old Bilbo's books mention any elvish magic that can change the weather!"
With that, he was gone, and the cart turned northward to meet the Road at the Brandywine Bridge. As the last hint of red left the western sky, the moon rose and washed the dry countryside in its dead silvery light. Brandy Hall sank behind a ridge, and in the dark meadows a tattered line of dim orange lamps flickered where a few hobbits continued their desperate labor by lantern-light. Through the trees to his left Frodo could see an occasional flash of white as the moonlight gleamed on the Brandywine.
As they made their way to the bridge the Sheriff told him news of the rest of the Shire, and none of it was good: dried wells, failing crops, and everywhere Merry's same fear. "I don't know, Mr. Baggins, but that we'll be eating our old mathoms come winter if there's no rain soon," he said, shaking his head. "You don't suppose there's anything to what Mr. Merry said?"
"What about?" said Frodo.
"About the -- elvish magic. Never had much truck with Elves myself, but I hear tell they can talk to the sun and stars and such," the Sheriff said, sounding embarrassed but determined. "Do you reckon they have a magic that can bring us rain?"
Frodo almost laughed, but he did not want to offend the Sheriff. And in the time it took him to restrain himself, he realized that he did not really know the answer to the question. "I haven't heard of such magic," he said carefully.
"That may be," said the Sheriff. "But who's to say? That Mr. Bilbo of yours, now. He knew Elves, dwarves, wizards, all kinds of strange folk in and out of Bag End. Mind you, old Bogle who was Sheriff before me didn't like it, so many strangers in the heart of the Shire. But Mr. Merry's right, I reckon. Your Mr. Bilbo might have written something about it in those books of his."
"I shall certainly look into it," Frodo promised. It wouldn't hurt to try. Now that he had decided to return and could not with good grace go back to Brandy Hall, he couldn't think of what else he would do at Bag End, other than be a burden to Sam. And Sam had too much else to do already, caring for his family in Bagshot Row.
For most of the long miles to the bridge, the only sound was the clop, clop, clop of the ponies' hooves on the dusty road. They met few travelers. Though the moon was near to full and the night clear and fine, the heat kept most hobbits close to home unless a journey was absolutely necessary. Lulled by the motion of the cart, Frodo dozed off until the Sheriff's cheerful greeting to the guard at the North Gate shook him from another unhappy dream. Then the Hedge loomed above them and ponies' hooves echoed on the stone pavement of the Bridge. They had left Buckland and entered the Eastfarthing. "Best catch some more sleep, Mr. Baggins," the Sheriff said. "From what Mr. Merry said it seems you need it. The moon won't set till late, and I mean to press on to Frogmorton tonight and change ponies there. It'll save the us a bit of work in the heat of the day tomorrow."
Frodo remembered little of the rest of the journey: the rustle of paper-dry leaves, the dust stirred up by the ponies and the cart, the dull wonder that the heat could continue to bear down upon them even after midnight. When they reached the inn at Frogmorton, Frodo felt as tired as if he'd been pulling the cart himself and wordlessly followed a drowsy servant to a small airless room in the back. But he woke before dawn, his heart hammering in his chest after an evil dream he could not quite remember. He had wanted so much to find Sam, but something else was waiting for him.
Something was angry at him for neglecting it for far too long.
So plain was Frodo's exhaustion the next day that he had to work hard to persuade the Sheriff that he was well enough to go on. But he succeeded, and they left with fresh ponies before the morning heat grew too intense to make Frodo change his mind.
Then the worst part of the journey began, for the Road bore due west and the sun shone at their backs, hot and relentless like a great hand pushing them into the earth. The air shimmered before them, and the dust raised by the passage of other travelers was so thick that Frodo's eyes were streaming and he had to hold a handkerchief over his mouth to breath. Frodo wandered in and out of a dream of an empty Bag End garden, and struggled to open the door of the toolshed so he could hide from the thing that pursued him. Then the Sheriff woke him with a hand on his shoulder. "Here you are, Mr. Baggins," he said, and the dream became real. Bag End lay before them, but Frodo had no sense of homecoming. Sam was not there, and all the flowers were dead.
Tired, alone, and uncertain of what to do with himself, Frodo went to his study and sought magic in the only place he knew to look for it.
An hour later he laid yet another book open on his desk and smoothed the yellowed page. If there were such a thing as elvish magic, he hadn't found it here. It was odd, Frodo thought. Despite their air of enchantment, Elves as far as he knew didn't do magic; they simply were magical, which was quite a different thing. Sometimes their language itself seemed magical to him, or it did if he stopped trying to understand it and started to listen. He remembered long winter evenings by the fire in the parlor when Bilbo would read elvish verses aloud, speaking too quickly for Frodo to follow him easily. Frodo would watch the snow piling up against the windows as he listened to Bilbo's sonorous voice ebbing and flowing above him, his head resting on Bilbo's knee. The words would blend with the crackling of the fire and the cold kiss of snowflakes on the glass to make a strange music that brought to his mind the rushing of a clear brook in Spring.
But that music was not to the purpose now. The Shire needed water, not a dream of it. Frodo slammed the book shut and stretched, trying to get the cramp out of his neck. The air in the study was close and heavy with heat, and he'd had no water since the Sheriff had stopped at the Bywater inn. He supposed he should go the well and draw some, but dreaded the chore now, when the mid-afternoon sun was at its fiercest. There was always the beer-barrel in the cellar. But Frodo had already learned the hard lesson that in heat like this beer only intensified his thirst.
If only elvish magic could do the work of drawing water. But there was no magic in the Shire, unless, Frodo supposed, you counted Gandalf's fireworks on the rare occasions when he visited. Or there was always Bilbo's Ring.
The Ring. Though Frodo owned it now he had not, as it happened, seen it very often. Bilbo had been protective of it, rarely allowing Frodo to see it and never allowing him to hold it. Perhaps he would have if Frodo had asked, but Frodo had never asked. The Ring seemed to be a strangely private thing, a thing so wholly Bilbo's that Frodo could not imagine him without it. When Bilbo astonishingly left it behind, Gandalf had insisted that it be kept in its envelope. Frodo had scarcely had a chance to touch it before it was sealed away.
And there it had remained, for Frodo had trusted Gandalf from his childhood and generally followed his advice. Gandalf was a wizard after all, and when a wizard warns you about a magic ring, it's best to pay attention. Frodo could vaguely remember that in the spring he had dreamed of the Ring once or twice: dreamed of finding the envelope and opening it and then -- something would follow after that, something dark and exciting and hard to define. But when Frodo woke from these dreams, troubled and oddly tired, he would hear Sam whistling cheerfully in the garden, and all thoughts unrelated to Sam would disappear like mist.
But now when he closed his eyes, Frodo could remember the Ring as if he had held it five minutes before. It had been so perfectly round, so smooth, so heavy in his hand, gleaming in the firelight of Bag End on the chill September night of Bilbo's departure. Frodo wondered now why he had never opened the envelope. The need to do so was so blindingly obvious. His beloved Shire was dying, and he owned a magic ring. Just what the Ring might do Frodo did not know, but he never would know unless he tried. Frodo licked his dry lips and swayed slightly in his chair, picturing the precious circle of gold in his mind. It would feel cool, he knew, as he slipped it on his finger; cool or even cold, like falling into a coffin made of ice ...
A door slammed in the rear of the smial. "Mr. Frodo!" Sam's muffled voice: he must have come in from what was left of the kitchen gardens. Frodo's eyes flew open and his heart turned over in his chest. More doors banged open; Sam was checking the bedrooms, moving much more quickly and loudly than was his habit in Bag End. "Mr. Frodo!" He had reached the pantry, then the parlor, and then he was just down the hall. The study door flung open, and a panting Sam appeared. His face was flushed and dripping, and his half-open shirt clung to him in damp places on his chest and back.
"Mr. Frodo," he said, sagging against the round doorframe, "oh, Mr. Frodo, you shouldn't ought to have come without telling me, not with no water drawn and not a soul to look after you here, seeing as how you've been sick and all ..."
"Sam -- "
But Sam was exclaiming in alarm; he had seen the books. "Now, what have you been doing, wearing yourself out by reading? Rest is what you need after a journey like that, near two days on the road in this heat, and after you took ill in the fields yesterday." And to Frodo's surprise Sam strode across the room, hauled him unceremoniously out of his chair, and pushed him toward the study door.
"Sam!" he said indignantly, "I'm not an invalid."
"Begging your pardon, Mr. Frodo," said Sam, in a tone that begged for nothing, "but you are at that. The Sheriff told me all about it when I met him in the Bywater Road. We're lucky still to have you, those were his very words, and I came near to dying myself when I heard ..." With that Sam's strong arm was about Frodo's shoulders and pulling him down the hall.
"Sam," said Frodo, planting his heels on the floor to slow their progress. "I'm fine, really I am. Or as fine as anyone is in this heat."
Sam tightened his hands on Frodo's shoulders, and studied him disapprovingly with the warm brown eyes that Frodo had longed for every night since leaving Bag End. "Right worn out you look to me, sir, and drawn, too, like they've not been feeding you right in Brandy Hall." His tone softened. "Oh, Mr. Frodo, have you had aught to drink since you came home?"
"No, not yet, but Sam -- "
"Not - another - word," Sam said, squeezing Frodo's shoulders for emphasis. "Not one more word. I'll be going to the well to get some water, like as I ought to have done this morning in case you came. But before anything else I want you in that bed of yours, and I want you there now."
Frodo felt himself blush to the tips of his ears. Surely it would never occur to Sam that this might mean -- But apparently it had, for Sam's eyes widened and his rosy lips parted in an "oh" of dismay. And that was too much for Frodo. Without thinking he leaned forward and brushed Sam's lips lightly with his own.
For five terrifying heartbeats they stood stock-still, brown eyes staring into blue, their lips less than an inch apart. Then Sam closed the distance, his lips on Frodo's feather-light and soft for a fraction of second and then a mere whisper away for longer, lingering so that Frodo felt the heat and moisture of Sam's breath. Frodo moaned and parted his lips to speak. But Sam made speaking unnecessary by reaching a warm brown hand behind Frodo's neck and pulling him forward into a bruising kiss, searching Frodo's mouth with his tongue as if he never intended to stop. And Frodo never wanted him to.
When Sam at last released him Frodo gasped as if he had run all the way from Buckland just for this kiss. He had forgotten to breathe. This was probably bad. Sam may very well have been right, he realized, about how ill he was. "Oh, Sam," he said, or tried to, but the heat of the smial and the heat of their bodies and the lack of air merged into an overwhelming weight that snuffed out his consciousness like a candle. His knees buckled and he would have fallen, but Sam reached down and caught him up in his arms. Frodo retained just enough awareness to feel himself being carried and then laid down upon something soft.
"Sam," he murmured unhappily, for the strong arms that had held him were gone.
"Right here, Mr. Frodo," Sam said. His thick fingers brushed a damp curl off Frodo's forehead. Frodo struggled to open his eyes; it was as difficult as if he were under twenty feet of blood-warm water. Sam was sitting on the edge of the bed mere inches from where Frodo lay, his round eyes almost black in the half-light of the bedroom. "There, sir, you rest easy now." He stroked Frodo's hair gently.
"Sam," Frodo said, feeling overwhelmingly happy and deeply foolish at the same time. He kissed me, he finally kissed me, and I fainted. "I'm sorry Sam, it's so hot --"
"There now, Mr. Frodo, we'll soon have you put to rights. Let your Sam take care of you." And Sam's hands went briskly to Frodo's collar and began undoing his buttons. Frodo made a surprised noise and Sam shot backwards, placing his hands firmly at his sides and turning the color of one his prize roses. "Begging your pardon, Mr. Frodo, but I didn't mean -- that is, I wasn't trying to -- oh -- " In his embarrassment and annoyance Sam muttered a word that Frodo had never heard him use before.
"Why not?" Frodo said before he could stop himself.
Sam's fingers strayed back toward Frodo's hair, and his warm brown eyes raked Frodo's body with a gaze that somehow made Frodo richly aware that he was lying hot and sweaty in bed with his shirt half-open in the middle of the afternoon. But after a second or two Sam pulled away and took a deep shaky breath. "Sir," he said, "it wouldn't be right, not with you like this, I'd be taking advantage. And like as not you don't even know what you're saying," he finished glumly.
Frodo turned on his side to face Sam and seized his wrist. "Samwise Gamgee. Are you suggesting that I kissed you because I'm off my head in the heat? If so -- " With the tip of his index finger hhe traced a gentle circle on the wrist he'd captured. He wished he could distill the essence of every poem he had ever read into a few words. But no words came, or the ones that did seemed like pallid ghosts of the feelings that lived and breathed within him. "If so," he said at last, for he had to say something, "then you do yourself a disservice."
"Sir," Sam said, and Frodo's heart contracted, for he recognized the tone: it was the way Sam spoke when he reminded Frodo that he'd left his books out in the garden or forgotten to have his tea. It was the voice he used when he was about to say something sensible, and sure enough, he disengaged his hand and proceeded to fluff the pillows around Frodo's head. Frodo stirred impatiently; pillow-fluffing was not at all what he'd had in mind. But Sam showed every symptom of being adamant. "No, sir," he said, "I won't have that. You're ill."
"Sam -- "
"Now," Sam said, his jaw thrust slightly forward in a stubborn expression that Frodo had long ago learned he could not argue with. "You've taken bad in this heat and you need to cool down. Don't you go taking this the wrong way, sir, but I'm going to get you out of that shirt." And he pushed Frodo onto his back and continued the business of unbuttoning where he'd left off.
During this treatment Frodo lay quiet, which seemed to him at once a reasonable course of action and completely mad under the circumstances. Sam made quick work of the buttons. He jerked the shirt out from beneath Frodo's breeches and tugged the suspenders from Frodo's shoulders as if he were removing the harness from a horse. Then he eased the shirt open and slid it down Frodo's shoulders.
At this point Frodo did something he hadn't done in months. He shivered.
"Are you cold, sir?" Sam asked incredulously.
"Of course not," Frodo said.
Sam said something which might have been "um" and undid the buttons at Frodo's cuffs. He extracted each arm from its sleeve and pulled a wholly unresisting Frodo up a bit so he could remove the shirt completely. As Frodo sank back onto the pillows he thought, he's going to fold it, isn't he? And he couldn't help smiling when Sam did just that, concentrating on each motion as if his very life depended on the shirt being in perfect condition. Then he stood, the shirt neatly folded but no cleaner, of course, than it had been before. Frodo wondered what the point might be of folding something so clearly destined for the laundry.
"Water," Sam said succinctly. "I'm going to draw some, and while I'm gone you're not to stir out of that bed, do you hear?" And with that he turned and stomped purposefully toward the door.
"Sam," Frodo said. "Don't you want to -- stay -- at all?" It was a question he would never have found the courage to ask if he had not suspected the answer. But suspecting and knowing were two different things.
Sam snorted and glared at the doorframe as if it had offended him personally. "Don't know as how you can ask that question, after what I just did to you in the hall, fool that I am."
"What we did together," Frodo corrected, "and you're no fool."
"Anyone but a fool knows there's a time and place for everything."
"Sam. Look at me. What we did made me so -- "
"I made you worse," Sam interrupted. His voice sounded choked and strange. He did look at Frodo then, and Frodo shivered again at what he saw: fear. Frodo had never known Sam to be afraid of anything.
"Oh, Sam, no -- "
"You're ill, and I made you worse." Sam shook himself and rubbed fiercely at his eyes with the back of his hand. "Now don't you go telling me it's not so, sir, because it is. And I can't have that. What would the Gaffer say if he found out you'd come home at last and I'd not made you well?"
"I don't care what -- no." Frodo stopped himself, feeling that anything he might say would send him hurtling over the edge of a conversational precipice. "I admire the Gaffer immensely," he said cautiously, "you know that, don't you?"
Sam nodded once. "Reckon you do."
"But I care less about what he says than -- what you feel." There, it had been asked, the question that had tormented Frodo for -- for he did not know how long, but it felt like decades. And now all he could do was lie in his bed, staring at Sam in the doorway.
Sam was silent, and for a terrible moment Frodo thought that a single kiss was all he would ever have of him. But at last he spoke. "Well then, sir, if you must know." Sam's voice was quiet now, even and low. He looked away, his profile a shadow in the faint light coming from the shuttered windows. "I reckon that right about now, keeping you is more important than having you. I can't lose you, Mr. Frodo. I couldn't bear it. Not every green thing and you as well." He turned and walked away.
When Sam left all the air in the room seemed to go with him, and Frodo realized for the first time how stiflingly hot the bedroom had become. Outside the afternoon sun beat down with its full force on the south face of the Hill, as if it were trying to break through the windows and expose Frodo's dark hiding-place. The heat made it difficult to breathe and impossible to think, particularly with Sam's kiss still resonating through Frodo's body like the echo of a thunderclap in a stony mountain pass.
Remembering Sam's arms around him gave Frodo a fluttery feeling in his stomach that had nothing to do with the heat. But when he remembered the haunted look in Sam's eyes, he felt overwhelmed by a confused grief. Not every green thing... Frodo hated the heat; he loathed what it was doing to the Shire; he was terrified of what winter might bring. He had not thought it possible to feel worse about the whole affair. But for Sam it seemed to be different: the drought had sent him into some private hell of his own where Frodo could not follow.
Sam also felt something for him, that was clear, and under other circumstances this discovery would have sent Frodo over the moon with joy. But at the moment Frodo thought he was giving Sam nothing but another cause for panic. Keeping you is more important than having you. Frodo's heart sank as he wondered what, in practice, this might mean. To Sam, Frodo was not a source of comfort or strength but a burden, like an exotic rose that would sicken and die if Sam did not tend it with the utmost care.
Frodo did not wish to be tended with the utmost care. He did not know exactly how he wanted to be treated, but the kiss had given him a fairly good idea. It had also given him some idea of how he wanted to treat Sam: an idea that included many things, but not simply lying here like a feverish child while Sam pampered him. Sam plainly needed pampering himself, if only Frodo could get him to hold still long enough.
Frodo turned restlessly in the bed, wondering how he could possibly survive until Sam returned. In early spring, when it had been cooler and when the shutters had been left open all day, he had been able to look from the bed to the window boxes and see the flowers Sam had planted for him. Now there was nothing in the room to remind him of Sam's presence.
It was clearly the sort of room that had been inhabited for a long time by lonely bachelors, a room where first Bilbo and then Frodo and allowed their love of order to be overwhelmed by their love of things. The bookshelves held the overflow from the extensive collection that occupied the study and the parlor: elvish poetry, histories of the Shire, genealogies, herb lore, Bilbo's notes for a history of the hobbits of Bree. And in the face of Sam's quiet disapproval, the bookshelves and just about every other flat surface also held miscellaneous odds and ends that the Tookish part of Frodo found irresistible: interesting rocks; a toy cart made in Dale; a creamy, slightly translucent object that Frodo had been assured was a genuine seashell. On the desk amid piles of unsorted papers was perched an ingenious dwarf-made device for synchronizing the elvish and Númenórean calendars. Next to it was a worn leather ball used in Brumble, a game wildly popular among the Brandybucks; Merry played it to wicked perfection and Frodo played it fairly well when he kept in practice. High atop one of the remote corner bookcases there lurked a dirty teacup, right where Frodo had absently put it a month or two ago. Sam either had not found it or had assumed Frodo meant it to be yet another form of eccentric decoration.
The room felt choked with things, all of them his and Bilbo's. Perhaps, someday, it would contain some of Sam's as well? At this forbidden thought Frodo curled happily on his side and had to remind himself to breathe. Not that Sam was as burdened with objects as Frodo. He had less money, of course, and unlike Bilbo he had never returned from a long journey into the Wild bearing a hoard of treasure and a magic --
The Ring. How had Frodo forgotten it?
Sam had put it completely out of his mind. Yes, a hard cold voice said inside him, you were all set to save the Shire, weren't you, and then you allowed yourself to be distracted by a gardener. But Frodo resisted this voice. Sam is not just a gardener, he thought. A thousand memories rose unbidden to Sam's defense. Sam in the garden, planting a bed of petunias with as much care and attention as he would rock a cradle. Sam striding cheerfully up the Hill, a bag of potatoes swinging from one hand. Sam pruning the Bag End hedges beside his Gaffer, unobtrusively finding ways to take on the most burdensome parts of the task himself. No, Sam was not just a gardener, and if Frodo could not find some way to make him happy, he thought they would both go mad.
And yet, and yet. Perhaps the Ring could help Sam as well. Surely Gandalf would not think the Ring so dangerous if its sole power were to make its wearer invisible. Such a beautiful thing, such a precious thing: it must be able to do more. Why, there was no end to what the Ring would let Frodo do. Sam did not want to see the Shire die. Very well. Frodo had a sudden vision of himself, tall and fair and wise as the Númenórean kings of old, a master of wind and weather. With the Ring he could throw off the heat like an unwanted blanket. With the Ring he could bring rain: a long soaking rain that would save Merry's crops in the nick of time. With the Ring he could make the Shire as green and lovely as before. Even lovelier: the Shire would become a paradise on Earth. All would know that Frodo had made it so; all would admire his kindness and his wisdom; Sam would have no choice but to forget his ridiculous scruples and adore ...
Frodo sat up, unable not to. He grunted and jerked forward, as if a dark tendril had twisted its way into his beating heart and tried to pull it from his body.
He would take the Ring. He would take it now. It was his by right. "My birthday present," he said, half-aloud.
"Sir?" Sam's worried face was peering down into his own.
"What is it?" Frodo snapped, startled. He had not heard Sam come in. He'd had no idea that enough time had passed for Sam to return from the well.
"Are you all right, sir?"
"Of course I'm all right. I've done nothing but rest in this wretched bed since you left."
"Well," said Sam, placing a pitcher of water and a glass on the nightstand, "it's a rest that's done you no good at all then. You do look awful, sir. Pale as wraith, begging your pardon."
This was not the sort of remark he'd dreamed of hearing Sam make in the bedroom. And for the second time today Sam had come between him and the Ring. Of course it wasn't deliberate -- unless, perhaps, it was. A foul suspicion grew in Frodo's mind. He glared at Sam and snatched the glass from the nightstand. "Samwise," he said. "I'd thank you to stop begging my pardon. It's unnecessary, and it's annoying. And I'd also thank you to knock before you come in. Kissing me doesn't give you the right to tramp in and out as you please."
For a fraction of a second Sam's face was a study in pain, and then all expression vanished as completely as if he had put on a mask. "Here's the water when you need it," he said. "And you do need it, begging -- " He stopped. One fist clenched at his side, then opened slowly, the fingers uncurling one by one. "You need some real rest, now. I'll be in the kitchen if you want anything." Then, as an afterthought: "Sir." And before Frodo could say any of the words of apology that rushed to his lips, Sam was gone.
Sweet Lady, Frodo thought for the twentieth time, what possessed me?
He sat alone in the dark and airless study, feeling more unhappy than he ever had in his life. Frodo had grieved before. But however he had suffered at the absence of his Buckland friends, at the departure of Bilbo, and even the at death of his parents, he had never until now been poisoned by the knowledge that a loss was his own fault, and that he deserved it.
Sam would not speak to him. Or no, he would speak to him, but not with him. When Frodo had finally felt brave enough, or desperate enough, to emerge dry-eyed from the bedroom, Sam somehow always found a way to be elsewhere. When Frodo went to the kitchen, Sam was stepping out to the pantry; when Frodo went to the pantry, there was some chore to be done in the parlor; when Frodo thought of an excuse to enter the parlor, Sam was just on his way back to the kitchen. And something in the way Sam never quite looked at him silenced Frodo as effectively as if he had been tied to a chair and gagged.
Now Sam had left, at least for a time; he had muttered something about needing to pick up fresh eggs so that Frodo would have something nourishing to put in his stomach tomorrow morning. The nearest farm was less than a mile away; Sam should have been back. But it was nearly dusk and still he had not returned.
He would come back, of course, and in a way that was bad. If Sam had stormed from Bag End swearing never to darken its doors again, Frodo would have felt some hope of being able to reach him. But this wordless compliance was a new thing in him, and Frodo had no idea how or whether he would ever be able to get past it.
Sitting here would do no good, Frodo decided. He rose and picked his way through the unlit room to the equally unlit hallway, banging his shins against an end table only once in the process. From the hall he found his way to the front entrance without further incident, and opened the round green door.
He paused at the threshold. To his right the last sliver of orange sun dissolved against the horizon. The lane down the Hill curved pale and dusty beneath the violet sky. A few lights gleamed from the direction of Hobbiton in the dim distance. The air was warm and perfectly still. Somewhere a dog barked. Sam was nowhere to be seen.
Frodo frowned slightly; there was something he was forgetting. Perhaps it would be foolish to wander all over the Hill looking for Sam. Perhaps now would be as good a time as any to investigate the Ring. At the thought he felt a strange tightness in his chest, and he turned slowly back toward Bag End, half against his will. He was as tired as if he had been swimming for hours in a heaving, shoreless sea, and he longed to stop fighting and let himself drown in its bitter salt waters.
But something deep within him cried Sam, Sam like a prayer to the empty night. As he stared out into the dusk to look for Sam one last time, he saw the evening star shine pure and clear across the Water. And it seemed to Frodo that for an instant it shone as bright as the sun and the moon together.
Frodo's breath caught in his throat. The stars had not abandoned the Shire. And if the Elves had the right of it, the Valar had set them as a beacon of hope to Middle-earth, an echo and a promise of the light of far-off Valinor beyond the sundering seas. Suddenly all Frodo's troubles seemed a little thing in a world containing such beauty, distant but perfect. Half-understood phrases came to his lips, phrases that Bilbo had read to him long ago. "A Elbereth Gilthoniel," he said, his voice little more than a whisper, "le nallon sí di'nguruthos."
Frodo's heart felt easier then, as if something that had closed around it had loosened its grip. For a moment he watched the evening star hang low in the fading sky. Then he stepped outside and drew a deep breath of Shire air, rich and clean even in the heat that had tormented it for so long. He knew what he had to do.
"Sam," he called softly. No answer but the mournful cry of an owl. Well, Frodo thought, it shouldn't be too hard to find Sam; he hadn't gone as far as Bree after all. Frodo strode down the garden path and vaulted lightly over the low fence that separated it from the lane, not bothering with the gate. But he turned from the lane almost at once, for it curved out of the straight way to the farm, and Sam almost always cut across country when he was on foot.
Dry unmown grass brushed against Frodo's legs as he made his way south. It was here that Bilbo had held his final birthday-party. For a day and a night the field had been invaded by a happy mob of hobbits eating, drinking, and dancing, and knowing no grief that more ale and seed-cake wouldn't cure. Already the Party seemed to belong to a distant and less troubled age of Middle-earth. But Frodo smiled at the memory, and as he did, he could almost hear the music and the hobbits' voices around him again, as if the grass and trees remembered them too and could give life to the smiling shadows of the past. Brandybucks flirted with Tooks, who flirted right back; jolly Bolgers told jokes that had been ancient in the days of the Old Took; disdainful Sackville-Bagginses wondered how much the whole thing had cost; old Bilbo himself enthralled children with tales of trolls and dragons.
The vision disappeared as someone cleared his throat a few yards away. Frodo stepped briskly toward the sound, recognizing it as immediately as he would his own face in the mirror. "Sam," he said.
"Right here, Mr. Frodo." Sam was leaning against the great tree in the middle of the field, the tree where Bilbo had given his final speech. A half-empty crate of eggs and other provender lay at his feet. In the dim aftermath of the sunset his sweaty golden curls had darkened to bronze. He twisted a fallen leaf in his fingers, and he still would not quite look at Frodo.
"Sam," Frodo said. "I missed you."
Sam looked up slowly. To Frodo's surprise Sam reached forward and took Frodo's chin in his hand, his dark eyes looking into Frodo's with great seriousness and concentration. This inspection had a predictable effect on Frodo's ability to breathe.
"Well?" Frodo said after a time, when he was almost but not quite capable of controlling his voice. "Do I meet with your approval?"
"Aye, you do at that. That's all right then."
"Your eyes, Mr. Frodo. Your eyes are -- your eyes again. They had gone all funny afore, must have the heat that done it." Sam's hand drifted from Frodo's chin to trace the curve of his jawline.
"Oh, Sam, I wasn't myself," Frodo said, feeling obscurely that this was not just a figure of speech.
"I know that." The fingers slid lightly across Frodo's face. "But now you're back, I'd have known it in a heartbeat if I'd only had the sense to look. You're back, any fool could tell it now, with those eyes lovelier than the stars."
Frodo blinked in surprise. He had never heard Sam get so poetic before. Frodo didn't believe his eyes were a good feature and had never imagined that anyone else would, for blue eyes were rare in the Shire, and his had made him the target of considerable teasing from some of his rowdier Brandybuck cousins. But if Sam was teasing now, it was in an entirely different sense. Frodo didn't think he was teasing at all, not with his dark eyes so solemn. And now that they were standing only inches away from each other -- how had that happened? --Frodo could see that Sam's eyes were also red and swollen, as if Sam had spent a good part of the time he had been away crying.
"Dearest Sam," he said, taking the hand that caressed him and kissing it, "I can't tell you how sorry I am that I said those terrible things."
Sam raised his eyebrows and shifted against the tree. "Well, I won't be begging your pardon any time soon, I can tell you that."
"You can beg my pardon as much as you please, as long as you let me beg yours when I need to, and oh, Sam, I need to now."
"Never meant to make you beg, sir," said Sam, and just as Frodo was wondering what Sam might possibly mean by that, Sam removed his doubts by half-smiling and adding, "begging your pardon." Sam freed his hand and slid it down Frodo's shoulder and around his waist. And then they were all tangled up in each other and Sam's lips were covering his. By some transition Frodo didn't very clearly follow, it was Frodo with his back against the tree, the bark digging into his shoulders as Sam's tongue sought and got permission to explore Frodo's mouth, his neck, the hollow at the base of his throat. At the feeling of Sam's lips on that sensitive spot, Frodo could not stop himself from making a strangled noise of longing, and Sam abruptly drew back, panting slightly.
"Still with me?" he gasped, looking at Frodo with grave concern.
Frodo closed his eyes and swallowed hard in frustration and embarrassment, but he had to admit that the question and the concern were reasonable. "Yes, Sam, I'm feeling much better than this afternoon, and I'm not a porcelain doll, so can we please ...?" And he reached for Sam, but Sam was adjusting his slightly rumpled shirt with a finality that seemed to preclude opportunities for further rumpling.
"Samwise," Frodo complained. "You're not being fair."
Sam looked at him in a way that left him in no doubt that he wished to continue -- though a glance at Sam's breeches commmunicated the same information more quickly and clearly. But Sam's chin was thrusting forward again in the familiar expression that Frodo was coming to dread. "This is a field, sir," he said, and behind the husky longing in his voice Frodo could hear a faint but unmistakable echo of the Gaffer.
"Really?" said Frodo. "I never would have guessed."
Sam wisely ignored this. "There's a time -- " he began, but Frodo had leaned forward to kiss the soft place beneath his ear. "Sir!" Sam protested, but spoiled the effect by tilting his head back slightly with a muffled "mmm." And Frodo had wanted this for so long, and now he wanted to keep doing it forever, for the skin beneath his lips was warmer and silkier than anything he had ever dreamed. But then he found himself back against the tree, pinned there by Sam's strong hands at his shoulders. It would have been very pleasant if Sam hadn't insisted on keeping him an arm's length away.
"Sir," Sam said sternly. "There's a time and a place for everything, and this is not the time or the place."
"It seems to me to be the perfect place," Frodo said, though by a perfect place he meant at this point any place where Sam happened to be.
"Not in a field," Sam said, and the echo of the Gaffer was loud and clear. "And not in this one most of all," he added in a lower tone more clearly his own.
"Why on earth -- " Frodo said, thinking of several uses to which the field's darker corners had been put during Bilbo's party, particularly by Merry, who at eighteen had already known the most astonishing -- But then Frodo knew. "Oh! Sam," he said. "I'm an idiot, of course, I'm so sorry." Without letting go of each other, they turned as one to a point over Sam's shoulder and to his left. The moon had not yet risen, so they could as yet see very little, but there came across the field the distant but perfectly clear sound of a door slamming in Bagshot Row.
Oh, no, thought Frodo. Sam cleared his throat, very deliberately let go of Frodo, and backed away to a slightly more suitable distance.
"Um, Sam," Frodo said, "Do you suppose that anyone -- saw that?"
"The Gaffer may be old," Sam said, "but he ain't blind." Frodo's horror must have shown on his face, for Sam laughed and said, "Don't you worry, Mr. Frodo, I won't let him do you any harm."
"Don't be silly. It's you I'm worried about."
Sam glowered, and if Frodo thought he had seen a stubborn look on his face before, he now realized that he had been mistaken. "Reckon me and the Gaffer have had this one out already, if you take my meaning, sir. He knows what's what, and he's had his say and I've had mine."
Sam and the Gaffer at odds. Now there was an argument Frodo would not like to be in the middle of. But Frodo thought the argument never should have happened at all; it never would have happened if Frodo weren't being so selfish. "Sam," he said, "you're so young ..."
"Sweet Lady," Sam remarked. "Don't you be starting on that as well, sir. I'm old enough to know my own mind. Been old enough for that for years," he added, and Frodo wondered if Sam's nights had been tortured and lonely for as long as his own. "And you only just came of age yourself, Mr. Frodo, so there's no need to go putting on airs about it like you're a gaffer in a corner."
Frodo couldn't help laughing at that, but he did not want to let the point go. It was too important. "Very well," he said. "I won't put on airs. But since I've only just left my tweens myself, as you say, I remember very clearly what it's like to be in them. And no matter how much you try to pretend, you can't look me in the eye, Samwise -- " and here he cupped Sam's face gently in his hands -- "and tell me it isn't hard for you sometimes."
Sam nodded hesitantly.
"Especially this summer," Frodo said, "am I right?"
Sam tried to look away, but Frodo wouldn't let him. "Sam," he breathed, "oh, Sam, you can tell me. If you can't tell me then you'll never tell anyone, and then where will you be?"
Sam's face crumpled. "Oh, Mr. Frodo," he said, and he fell into Frodo's waiting arms.
Frodo had not known how many green and beautiful things had died.
Until Sam poured out his soul to him that night, he had never even known how many green and beautiful things had lived in the Shire. Frodo could tell an oak tree from an elm, and a peony from a rose, and in his wilder days with the Brandybucks he had learned the fastest way to denude a field of its mushrooms, but that was about the extent of his woodcraft. Sam on the other hand had made these things his study and his passion since the time he could talk. He could put a name to everything that grew, to all the plants that were in Bilbo's books of herb lore and dozens of others that weren't. Some of the names Frodo suspected that Sam had made himself, names for mosses and for tiny ferns that perhaps no speaking creature but Sam had ever noticed or cared about. And for each of these things, Sam knew the proper growth and season. Sam had learned long ago not to mourn if some of them failed to thrive, but it had been almost more than he could bear to watch them all die, one by one.
As they sat against the tree and Sam said all of this, the words tumbling out between choked sobs and his head buried in Frodo's shoulder, Frodo realized how much his apparently stolid and common-sense Samwise lived in world of his own, a world inhabited by leaves and blossoms that he knew and understood as dearly loved friends. For Sam each flower in the fields had its own sweet voice, and so many of these voices had gone silent that Sam's world had become a drear and empty place. Frodo could not even imagine what it must have cost Sam to stop watering the flowers at Bag End.
Frodo said little during these revelations, in part because he dreaded saying the wrong thing and leaving Sam with the impression that Frodo was making fun his deepest secrets. And what, in any case, could Frodo do or say when Sam's enemies were the wind and the sun? No, he had no comfort to offer beyond kisses and murmured reassurances. But it seemed that this would do, to judge from the air of quiet content with which Sam relaxed against him when the talk was over and all the tears had been shed.
As they sat silent together, the full moon loomed yellow above the horizon, and to their dark-accustomed eyes the field grew bright beyond the shadow of the great tree. Frodo leaned his head back against the bark, one hand toying idly with Sam's curls, and thought of all the things that Sam had said. This tree: did it have a soul? Did it feel, know, think, as Sam seemed so sure that it must? Did it shrink from the heat of the sun, and did it miss the rain like a lover? When Frodo closed his eyes he could almost feel it: a great quiet consciousness, patient and still. Its mighty arms stretched toward the stars that wheeled above it in a stately and unchanging dance. Its roots sank deep into the earth, its first home, twisting around rock and through soil, and seeking, ever seeking ...
Soft lips touched Frodo's. "Come back, sir." He opened his eyes to the sight of Sam and smiled, and he thought, I shall never tire of your face, no matter how many times it is the first thing I see in the morning.
"Where were you?" Sam inquired somewhat anxiously.
"Right here, with you, under this tree," Frodo said, pulling Sam back against him. "I was just thinking about its roots. They were looking for something."
"Water, most likely," Sam said.
"Mmm. Looking for Ulmo, then."
"Sir?" Sam sounded more anxious now, and he smoothed Frodo's hair away from his forehead in a slow, deliberate motion that seemed designed to function simultaneously as a caress and as a way to check Frodo's temperature.
"I'm sorry, Sam, I'm babbling. Ulmo, the Lord of Waters. The Elves say that his spirit runs through all the veins of the world, and that he can hear news of all the needs and griefs of Middle-earth."
Sam was silent for a time, and Frodo was half-afraid that he would laugh. But he did not. "That's beautiful, sir," he said at last. "Makes sense, too," he added. Before Frodo could wonder what the elvish lore-masters would make of Sam's approval, Sam asked, "And what do you suppose the Elves would make of this drought?"
"I wish I knew," said Frodo. "Perhaps they have some magic that could end it."
"Don't think so, Mr. Frodo," said Sam.
Frodo looked at him in surprise. "What makes you so sure?" he said.
"Well, Mr. Bilbo told me a few tales of the Elves before he went away," said Sam. "Not near so many as you know, but enough to get the flavor, if you understand me. And it seems to me -- I don't rightly know how to say it. But the Elves don't try to change things, not in any tale I heard."
"Don't they?" said Frodo, frowning, and thinking of some elvish tales he knew that didn't seem to fit this description at all. "Some did, surely."
"Aye," said Sam casually, with the air of someone stating the obvious, "but it never came out right. Always turned out to be some trick or another of the Enemy in the end."
Frodo considered this for a moment. He thought of the maker of the Silmarils, mortally wounded by demons of fire and tormented by the knowledge that his kin could have no victory over the enemy that had deceived them. No, it never had seemed to come out right. Never.
"Change is not their way," Sam continued, warming to his theme, "not any more. In a way, they're like this tree ..."
Frodo quivered with something like a gasp, and immediately Sam put his hand to Frodo's forehead again. "Are you all right, sir?" he asked, his voice low and worried.
"Perfectly. I just -- " Frodo suspected it would be a bad idea to go on, but couldn't stop himself. "I was just picturing Elves with bark."
Sam removed his hand and shifted his weight so they were no longer sitting quite so close together, ignoring Frodo's inarticulate noise of protest. He fixed Frodo with a level stare, but Frodo saw with relief that the corners of his mouth were slightly upturned. "No," Sam said, "I can't say that was my meaning. Begging your pardon," he added, with a look that could have fried an egg in ten seconds as far away as Brandy Hall.
"Oh, Sam," Frodo said. He did his best to look penitent, and was surprised and delighted when this made Sam shiver -- actually shiver, Frodo could feel it --and mutter something about how those pretty blue eyes couldn't fix everything, no; nor could that smile, neither.
Realizing that it would be safe to trail apologetic kisses across Sam's collarbone, Frodo did just that, and asked, "How so, then?"
"What?" said Sam, breathing heavily.
"How are they like this tree? Apart from the bark."
"Well," Sam said, twisting so that Frodo found his lips touching cloth rather than skin, "if you'll just leave that button be and let me get some air for a moment. It's like this."
Frodo sighed, and curled cooperatively against him to listen.
"The tree reaches to the stars," Sam said, "but it doesn't try to pull them down from the sky. It seeks water like you said, and it reaches with its roots through this whole field, but it doesn't reach to other fields and take the water from there. It doesn't change. It just is. This field is its home, and it stays here, through good and ill."
"Yes," Frodo said, "I suppose it does." The image should have been a sad one, but it did not feel that way. It did indeed remind him of the Elves in Bilbo's tales: sad and yet merry, as if their history had ended and they were waiting for something. But that wait was somehow more joyous than all the doing and striving that had come before. "Sam," he said.
Sam smiled, a little wickedly. "And the bark, of course," he said, "keeps the Elves warm o'nights, and keeps the rot away, and --"
"Don't, Samwise, please; I said I was sorry."
"That you never did."
"But I did!"
"I was right here, sir, and would have heard if -- " Sam was forcibly interrupted as Frodo apologized again, the same way that he had before, and did so at such great length that Sam felt compelled to remind him once more that they were in a field, and that they had to stop. So they sat, listening as the tree did nothing, and just was, and didn't change. And Frodo hoped with all his heart that it never would, and that he and Sam could come to sit here beneath the Party Tree when they were old and gray, and find only that the tree had grown a little taller, and its roots had reached a little further.
Without quite knowing why, Frodo shuddered; some shadow whispered that this happy future could not be. Perhaps, he thought sadly, Sam did not, after all, feel quite the same as he did; kisses in the moonlight were one thing, a lifetime was something else. But Sam was with him now. And in the summer of this great dying, Sam needed what Frodo could give him, and Frodo resolved to provide it. "Sam," he said quietly, "I'm sorry that this summer has been so dreadful."
Sam laughed a little. "Never knew the drought was all your fault, sir."
"I just wish," Frodo said, and stopped, frustrated. "Oh, I don't know what I wish. That it had never happened, that you had never had to see it. That there was at least something I could do to make it easier for you."
"Well," said Sam, and then he was silent. He absently tore at the dead grass beside him.
"Well what?" Frodo said, taking Sam's callused hand and twining their fingers together.
"Well," said Sam, so softly that Frodo could barely hear him. Suddenly he looked very young and very troubled. "The Brandybucks are your kin and all, but Mr. Merry can come here as easy as you can go there, if you take my meaning. There now, I've gone and said what I shouldn't, and I'm a plain fool like the Gaffer always ..."
"Oh, no, no; you're not; I'm the fool, if either of us is," Frodo said, suddenly understanding. While Sam's world had been vanishing around him, Frodo had gone away, had abandoned him, had made it all worse. "I'll never be parted from you again, Sam," he said impulsively, "never; no matter what, I promise." And then he held his breath, afraid he had said too much too soon.
Sam sighed and looked up at him, serious as only Sam could be. "I mean to hold you to that, sir," he said.
They sealed the promise with a kiss. And something that lay hidden and quiet in Bag End whispered in impotent rage, and much of its recently acquired power began to fade.
Frodo felt a great happiness surge through him, one no less than what he'd hoped for on the rare occasions that he'd allowed himself to dream of something like this moment. But the feeling was not happiness alone: there was a sense of lightness, of freedom, as if some great weight that had been dragging at him for months had abruptly lost most of its strength. I want to go home, he thought, and for the first time in longer than he could remember, Bag End no longer seemed terrifying to him. And he very, very much wanted Sam to be there.
"Sam," he said hesitantly. "This is, as you have mentioned several times, a field." He didn't quite know how to go on with the question he wanted to ask.
Sam favored him with a smile that turned his knees into jelly. "I'm thinking we should be getting these eggs back to Bag End, sooner or later."
"Um," Frodo said eloquently. "Yes. Whenever you'd like."
In fact they went to Bag End almost at once, to Frodo's disappointment, since the journey interrupted an important discovery he was making about how easy it was to make Sam moan. But Sam's sense of propriety was returning with redoubled vigor. "The moon's well out now," he said severely, retrieving a button that had somehow become separated from his shirt, "and I reckon we've given the Gaffer and the rest of the Row enough of a show for the night."
And so they brushed the grass from their clothing and started up the Hill. Then they started back down the Hill to retrieve the eggs, which they had forgotten. "Oh, bother the eggs," Frodo said, but Sam insisted.
"Reckon you'll be fair hungry come morning if you're up late tonight," he said cryptically. Frodo did not want to argue with that.
Sam would not, however, let Frodo carry the eggs himself. "No, I'll take those, sir," he said when Frodo made to pick them up, and that was that. Frodo sighed, and wondered when, if ever, Sam would dispense with the "Sir" and the "Mr." He decided not to ask; the battle over "begging your pardon" had been awkward enough, and Frodo didn't think that he had won it. And he knew that what Sam called him was irrelevant, because in every way that mattered, Samwise Gamgee would do just what Samwise Gamgee pleased, and in his own good time.
They came to Bag End up the back way so they could stop by the well at the bottom of the kitchen gardens and draw water. "Meant to do this afore," Sam said apologetically, "but I was in such a state that I left it." Frodo said he would do it, and Sam told him not to be daft, and they agreed at last that Sam would draw the wash water and Frodo would draw the drinking water. Sam managed it easily and Frodo with more difficulty, but at last the task was done, though both of them were panting and sweaty by the end.
Frodo looked ruefully at his sweat-soaked clothing. "I'm afraid this is the second shirt I've ruined today."
Sam gave him a critical look. "Suppose I'll have to get you out of that one too, then."
"Samwise," Frodo said, blushing a little. "That won't be necessary. I am perfectly capable of removing my own clothes."
Sam leaned against the well and folded his arms. "Let's see you do it, then."
All right then, Master Gamgee, Frodo thought, if that's how you want it. Ignoring his suddenly trembling fingers, he unbuttoned his shirt, making quicker work of it than he ever had in his life. It was probably that speed -- that and his consciousness of Sam's eyes on him, appreciative and even hungry -- that explained why he forgot to undo his right cuff and got himself stuck when he tried to remove the shirt.
"May I help, sir?" Sam said innocently.
"Oh, sweet Lady," Frodo muttered. "You tie me in knots, Sam."
"You're doing a fine job of tying the knots yourself," Sam said, reaching under Frodo's cuff with one hand and effortlessly undoing the buried button. He pulled the shirt away with a single swift jerk, looking at Frodo with the half-smile that gave him goose bumps.
"I suppose," said Frodo, "that you're going to fold that now."
Without breaking eye contact Sam dropped the shirt into one of their buckets.
"Sam!" Frodo exclaimed in horror. "Don't waste ..."
"It's wash water, ain't it?" said Sam. He bent to plunge the shirt into the water, and narrowed his eyes to consider Frodo appraisingly.
"No!" said Frodo, realizing what Sam had in mind only seconds before it happened. "Don't you dare -- don't -- OW!" Before Frodo could duck Sam swung the shirt toward him with perfect aim, scattering luminous drops of water in every direction and soaking Frodo completely as the cold, wet shirt slapped onto his chest.
"Now, sir, there's no need to wake the entire Row," Sam said, leaping up to compound his crime by sliding the shirt around to Frodo's back.
Between shivering and laughing Frodo was completely helpless. "Sam, you wretched -- OH that feels -- " Sam was standing at his back, one hand firmly around his waist to pin Frodo against him, and the other working the shirt across Frodo's shoulders and down his arm. "Wonderful," Frodo sighed at last.
Both of them gradually stopped laughing as the game became another thing. Frodo gasped and shuddered as a cold stream of water flowed down the small of his back. Sam's movements slowed. "All right then?" he murmured in Frodo's ear.
"Yes. Please. Don't stop." Frodo closed his eyes and leaned back as the cool wet cloth glided over him. No bath had ever made him feel so clean, for though Sam was gentler now he also seemed determined to be thorough, moving with quiet concentration along each finger, up the sensitive skin on the inside of Frodo's wrists and arms, in smooth even strokes from his belly to his chest, and in soft circles around each nipple, which tightened instantly at the touch.
Frodo turned in Sam's arms. "Now you," he said.
They unbuttoned Sam's shirt together, getting in each other's way, pausing to kiss fingers that kept getting jumbled up with each other and with the buttons and with the shirt. When the shirt was finally off, Frodo leaned down to dunk it in --
"Not that one," Sam advised tersely, his breath ragged.
-- to dunk it in the same bucket Sam hadd used, so the other could serve as drinking water. Frodo stood, dripping shirt in hand, his heart beating so quickly that he was sure that the Gaffer could hear it in Bagshot Row. "Now?" he said, and Sam nodded. The taut muscles in Sam's chest jumped only a little when Frodo first touched him hesitantly with the ice-cold shirt. Then Sam gave a long quivering sigh as Frodo roamed over the body he had ached to touch for so long, cleansing away the dirt and the sweat and the summer's desert heat. Soft skin glistened over hard muscle everywhere that the water had been, and when Frodo leaned down to kiss a few excess droplets from Sam's chest, they tasted of wet cloth and clean earth and Sam. Then Sam made a low impatient noise and took the shirt, wadding it together with the other and tossing them both into the hedge. And the sight of Sam inches away, the water on his bare shoulders sparkling at his slightest breath and motion, was so beautiful that Frodo thought his heart would stop.
"Sam," he said, and paused as their wet bodies came together, skin sliding against skin. Frodo felt Sam's damp hands frame his face, and the dark eyes loomed large before him, the shadows of their thick lashes etched clear in the moonlight. Then Sam took Frodo's mouth with his own, and if their last kiss in the field had been sweet, this one was urgent and thirsty.
"Sam," Frodo said at length, as best he could with Sam teasing at his lower lip with his tongue and teeth, "didn't you say there's a time and a place for everything?"
"That I did," Sam said hoarsely. He turned his attention to Frodo's upper lip.
"Well," Frodo said, "the time is here. The place is now."
"Right you are ... "
Somewhere down the Hill, a door slammed. Violently. They jumped and Frodo glanced nervously over Sam's shoulder, realizing they were in full view of the fortunately deserted lane. Sam muttered something inaudible into Frodo's hair and drew back, most definitely not letting Frodo go. He cleared his throat. "Actually," he said, "I'd say the time is a minute or two from now, and the place is your bed, sir."
Frodo laughed a little breathlessly. "I imagine I could settle for that."
They disentangled themselves and hastily gathered their things, winding their way through the kitchen gardens and up to the back door of Bag End. But at the threshold Sam paused, looking back to the moonlit landscape that dreamed beneath them. You are so beautiful, Frodo thought, and watched as Sam's curls, turned by the moon to golden fire, fluttered away from his face in the breeze and revealed a perfect pale eartip.
"Sam," he said at last, for Sam had stood as still as a statue for over a minute, scarcely seeming to breathe. "What is it?"
Sam turned back to him, eyes round with wonder. "The wind," he said.
The wind. Frodo realized then that he had been too caught up in Sam's curls to see that for the first time in longer than he could remember there was a noticeable wind, and that it was coming from --
"It's in the West," said Sam, his voice breaking. "Oh, Frodo, the wind is in the West."
Frodo's heart soared within him, for more than one reason. And he saw many years before him of love and hope, and of the green and growing life that no evil thing could conquer forever. But all he said was, "The rain will come someday, Sam."
"Aye, that it will," said Sam. "And if it does," he added, "we'd best be getting indoors."
Frodo's laughter echoed over the Hill and across the Water. "Dearest Sam," he said. "Whatever have I done to deserve you?"
Sam held the door to Bag End open with one foot and shoved the buckets inside. "That's the second fool question you've asked today, Mr. Frodo," he said. "Now are you coming in or no?"
At the heart of the Shire there lay a thing that did not love the little people who lived there, or the wind, or the rain, or indeed anything at all save the dark master that called it from far away. One of the hobbits had cast it aside, and as for its new bearer -- the Ring's attempts to take root there had been in vain. And the tendril of the Ring's malice that had been seeking nourishment in the Ringbearer's heart withered and died, for one path to that heart had been closed to it, at least for a time. So the Ring drew in on itself and waited. Its dreams were evil, but it slept.
Above the endless Sea, the West Wind stirred to life. The great gray clouds were no longer pent beyond the Blue Mountains but rolled across Eriador as before. Over the Gulf of Lune, over the havens of the Elves, and over the Tower Hills they came, passing at last a fair Hill in the heart of the Shire. There in the first dim light of morning, two hobbits lay curled in each other's arms, and they woke to long, slow kisses and the sound of rain on the window.
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Story notes: WARNINGS: Mostly book-based; behavior of the Ring is more movie-based.
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Archivists' Note: Solarfall made fanart for this story: Heat Wave.
Chapter end notes: (Elvish) Frodo's elvish is taken from Sam's "inspired" invocation of Elbereth in The Two Towers. It means "O Elbereth Starkindler, to thee I cry now in the shadow of (the fear of) death" (translated in Tolkien's Letters, 278).