West of the Moon
A Tolkien Fanfiction Archive
Sam takes stock as summer draws to a close.
Sam lingers by the lych gate, the soft wood of the old timbers familiar to his hand after months of Highday visits. He'd have taken his customary rest on the narrow bench inside the gabled shelter, but a breeze has risen from the west and Rosie will be sore annoyed if he catches a chill on her account. He buttons his jacket, wishing for a thick scarf or a cup of ginger tea by the study fire. This tag end of summer is cold as a snowball and the walk through open meadow harder as the weeks pass. Once winter falls--
On the way a wonder: water become bone.
Not yet though. Beyond the far bank of the river, shovelers forage amidst the sedge, green heads nodding one after the other. A brisk rain at noontide has drawn the colour from the heavens and the world below is drenched with it--a spray of scarlet rosehips by the fieldstone wall, a mound of earth dark as pitch, a clump of berries on a yew branch. The air is not so sweet as in Ithilien, but it will do for any ordinary hobbit or a duck that loves to dabble in the shoals.
A crow, less fond of wet weather perhaps, falls in a steep dive from the height of the wych elm to the low stand of blackthorns. It hunches there stiff as a broom handle, throat feathers ruffled, and stares into the tall grass with an enquiring eye. A second crow trails in its wake and then another, until a racket of crows stipples the trees, tattered coats stark against the fading yellow of spent leaves. The wealth of sloes will soon make a fine harvest, but the noisy intruders have more important concerns seemingly, for the first crow dips its head to croak a warning and the rest follow suit. Crebain out of Fangorn and Dunland, says a voice in Sam's head, but they're no such thing. The words surface and retreat like sticklebacks in shallow water. Crebain.
Bury deep, pile on stones, yet I will dig up the bones.
"It's early for flocking. Such a ruction," Sam observes, ignoring the outlander who has come to dwell with him of late.
Mama learned him a crow spell when he was a wee sprout, and by the time he was big enough to tag along of his gaffer, he knew his numbers to the count of twelve. He'd been proud as punch and Mr. Bilbo, him as was Master at Bag End before--well, before--had given him a hornbook so he could be taught to form his letters, too. They were crooked as chicken tracks on the parchment, with a way of being skittish when you least expected it, but Frodo had guided his hand. That rhyme now--
"How does it go? One is for sorrow, two is for mirth, three is a wedding and four is a birth, five is for riches, six is a thief, seven is...." Sam scratches his ear. "What is seven again? If I had a pinch of memory-powder I might--"
Fly away home.
No, that wasn't right. Every year, when lady birds roamed the smial in search of crannies to hide from winter's frost he had sung that cradle rhyme to Frodo; he loved it better than any. Frodo-lad that was, o' course, not--. Heigh ho, he'll remember the other by and by, if only he can put it from his mind.
There's a sharp gust of wind and the crows arc upwards into the bleached September sky, their claws grasping air that would have been a hobbit's curly head in a different season. Sam flinches and feels for his cloth cap. The flock is uncommon fidgety even with soil newly turned in the garth--Sancho Proudfoot that was, laid to rest after a fit of the ague--and Sam thinks there must be a polecat in the undergrowth to rouse them so.
He slips the loop of hempen rope over the gatepost as he's done each Highday since Mid-year, and gives a final nod towards the willow that sits with its roots deep below water. One crow has stayed behind to bob gleefully on the shoulder of the old pollard and Sam's fingers cramp up tight as he watches it.
"I'm not a bird, Mr. Frodo."
Frodo's hand nudges Sam's fleetingly.
"So I'd guessed," he says, a flicker of amusement in his tone. "There's a book at Rivendell which you'd have enjoyed all the same. It contains a chapter on foretelling the future by the flight of birds. That would be a useful sort of knowledge for a gardener, I daresay."
"Also," Frodo continues, as if Sam hadn't spoken, "I discovered a receipt for liniment to ease the pain of a sword blow." His voice falls to a murmur. "I foundered in the library though; it was too immense. Bilbo's room was homelier."
Sam tries to get his mind around the notion of a library big enough to thwart his master's skills, but gives it up with a shrug.
"A liniment? That would be yarrow and comfrey mixed with a little goose fat. As for marvels and suchlike--" Sam peers past the edge of the flet, glad that he doesn't have to bed down so far from the earth when he's at Number 3. "I don't need a book for those, sir. I'll just keep my eyes open. Mr. Frodo, did you see--"
But he can't describe the blooms dotting the sward at Cerin Amroth, and of courseFrodo had seen. Their own Hill would be fairer than a hedgerow full of may-blossom if he were to seed it with flowers such as those.
"--a mist over Bywater Pond, but green and pale," Sam mutters, while Pippin squeals in mock fear at the long drop to the forest floor.
"I'm sorry, Sam. I didn't hear. Pippin is being rumbustious."
Sam shifts further from the plaited screen and gathers his blanket.
"'Twas nothing, sir. If I had my druthers I'd be on the ground, not clambering about like a squirrel after nuts, that's all."
"Don't worry, my dear." Frodo stretches out and settles the elf-cloak over his shoulders. "Isn't there a rhyme in the West Farthing on counting crows? I've forgotten it, if indeed I ever knew it. It might lull us to sleep."
Frodo may not have known the rhyme, but Sam did.
"Aye, there is. It goes--"
"One is for sorrow."
The narrow track is mudchurned from the lych gate to the Grange and here, where the way is overhung by tangles of scrub elder, the mire becomes a puddle reaching to the corner of Farmer Whitfoot's cow pasture.
A single leaf, its edges drawn up like the frame of a coracle, is all that troubles the smooth sheen on the pool's surface. Sam leans forward in wonder, careful of his footing on the wet verge, but the leaf spins away, shadow tracing the border between water and sky. Only the pallid splotch of an old hobbit's face remains below a scrap of grey heaven.
There is a tale from times past, he thinks, of a foundling and his magic plantain leaf. The lad keeps it snug in the bottom of his knapsack with a loaf of barley bread and two slices of bacon. Yet the leaf will change to a boat at need and carry its master to the other side of the river. Maybe this is another such, and if Sam weren't feeling the cold in his joints he would surely wade in after it, though the flood be over his head and him almost drownded.
He blinks at the sting of water in his eyes and the sudden access of shivered light that mars his vision. When his sight returns, the wayward leaf has nudged the far bank, and lies stranded in the shallows.
He should have turned for home long since; nonetheless, well after the glow of Frodo's star-glass has dimmed and the ship's wake spun out to a slender, twisted thread, Sam stands on watch at the quay, his heart freighted with sorrow.
He waits to hear again the sails' snap beneath the vast roar of the waves, yet when he lifts his head to gaze into the uttermost west there is nothing beyond the havens but deep hills of water and the gloomy line of unfamiliar trees edging the shore. Stone, sea-wrack and a slow passing.
He lets it be.
"Two is for mirth."
"Muck going and muck coming back," Sam says as he steps through the gate from Grange Lane. If Mr. Bilbo's dwarf boots are still hidden behind that stack of seedboxes in the potting shed, he'll fetch them out directly and give them a fresh coat of dubbin. He's too old to wander about the countryside with wet feet in all weathers. The garden will rest below a pall of fog by nightfall and a stout pair of boots will be most welcome when he earths up the leeks on the morrow. A fellow who can barely recollect his one hundredth birthday doesn't mind folk saying he's crack-brained as long as his feet are dry.
Cracked or no, he isn't so muzzy-headed that he could forget a village stripped bare of chestnuts because the wood had gone for fences and spiked gates and dirty, tarred huts. Nor has he forgotten the unlooked for bounty of that first crop after replanting. It came sooner than was altogether natural in trees that were otherwise slow to fruit, for despite a smutch of powder in the hole, a tree will grow at its own unruffled pace, and even a master gardener in whom patience was planted deep during the long trek through dark country can be surprised to find that his saplings are suddenly higher than an oliphaunt.
Sam knows that he was only a means by which a great work might be wrought, but so it is for everyone and none go unrewarded.
A few motes of dust remain in the box, no more substantial than the fluff in the corner of his breeches' pocket or the fine ash on the kitchen grate. But Frodo has said that every grain contains a virtue and since virtue has been sadly lacking in the Shire Sam won't suffer any of it to go to waste. He cups his hand and the dust sifts into his outstretched palm. It nestles in the creases, faded inky lines on a fragment of vellum, and he holds it close for a moment while words of blessing come unbidden. Then his fingers part and the dust takes wing.
As it flies it changes, from scattered specks of grey powder to a cloud measureless as a flock of seagulls athwart the sun. It darkens the sky above the Three Farthing Stone, and in its depths there lurks a dazzle that not even Mr. Gandalf's dwarf-candles could match. Sam is rooted to the ground for sheer bliss as the last of the Lady's gift falls over the land in a shower of sparks.
"Well, I'll be," he says.
The oaken gate swings shut behind him with a sound like the clamour of bronze tongues or the crack of banners lifted in the wind and the way ahead is lit by a radiance that is both shadow and memory. All has been washed clean, and the street, the Old Farm, the Mill and the Yard shine, newly minted, below a heaven white as a snow-drift.
"Three is a wedding and four is a birth."
Now Frodo tells him of the City--its gardens and stone-flagged terraces; its tombs, stairs and hidden nooks; its domes and vaulted ceilings; its brilliance, by day and by night. And Frodo tells him further of the tunnel, the belltowers, the black carven pillars, and the Tree in the silent courtyard. But there is nothing in this outlandish place to rival the splendour of Frodo in his own skin, and nothing more silent than his master's body as Sam covers it.
"Good day t'ye, Master Samwise. How be you?"
The voice in Sam's head stumbles to a halt and he wakes to find himself in the lane, the rain-soaked fronts of the miller's cottages at either hand.
Mosco Burrows is standing in the doorway to the Grange with his collar up and the granary cat curled atop his feet.
"Middlin', but better by and by I expect," Sam answers. "That's a nipping wind, if I do say so." He gets out his pipe, prepared to stop for a chat though he's sure that he has business elsewhere if he can only remember what it might be.
"Aa." Mosco nods his head. "D'ye reckon it'll fair up?"
"Oh, aye. It's still the arse-end of summer." Sam frowns and tucks the pipe back in his pocket.
"Tell that to our old bones. It's the season for woollen undervests, I fancy."
Sam has known Mosco since before Frodo came to Bag End and thinks of him as 'young Mosco', although he must be going on ninety-five.
"It's wet as sump yonder." He jerks his head towards the gate and Mosco grimaces.
"Visiting day, is it?"
Mosco's a good lad, and at any other time Sam would stay to share a gossip but he can no longer hear for the rushing in his ears.
"Talking trees! I don't rightly understand it, but my cousin Hal will be that chuffed!"
He trusts that he hasn't spoken the words aloud, but if he has then Mosco, who has bent to pluck the cat from its perch, is paying him no nevermind.
Frodo takes his hand and--
"I'll be getting on then," Sam says. "It's a steep climb and I'm wet-shod."
Mosco eyes the clouds, which are breaking apart before a stiff south-westerly.
"You've earned your rest," he answers, as Sam faces the Hill.
"Five is for riches."
This is what he sees when he turns at last to look down on what has been accomplished here by Frodo's leave.
He sees chestnuts marching two and two from the granaries to the Overhill Road. In spring the flowers will be cream borne on a haze of green, the lane roofed by broad-spreading branches at all times and floored with blossoms, leaves or spiny burrs.
He sees river banks lined with willows and himself but a nub of a lad gathering willow down every year to stuff the Widow's mattress for naught but a copper farthing and a twist of barley sugar.
He sees hazel bushes behind the Old Mill Yard instead of the copse that was grubbed up and burnt by ruffians before the Scouring. One autumn long ago he found a double cobnut there and they two shared it, each one's half a secret wish.
He sees quickbeam, laden with ripe berries, and elms that mark where a stinking chimney once stood. He sees beech trees near the village outskirts and knows this will be a rich pannage season.
He sees holly and linden, ash and oak. He sees it all.
Yes, he thinks, this is just as she said it might be, only Lorien is not far off but here--spring and summer, winter and leaf-fall. The Shire has been healed and so has he, but it's time to go in.
"Six is a thief."
Sam latches the window and raises the wick on the brass lantern. He'll brew a pot of tea later, but for now he's content to be snug indoors. He fills his biggest pouch with Longbottom Leaf, then shuts the book he'd left on the desk earlier, smoothing his palm across the leather before slipping the volume in with its kin. 1482. The accounts from Mr. Bungo's mastership and Mr. Bilbo's, too, are stored in the muniment room at the Mathom-house for want of a safer haven. Bag End is neither Great Smials nor Brandy Hall; there's only the loft, and that's damp. 1401-1482. Those volumes are here, bound in coarse pigskin with the years stamped on the spines in gold leaf.
A second book waits on its wychwood stand, and Sam readies his quill to finish the day's work. As he touches the red cover, he hears the gate click shut. He turns to the window and he remembers.
"I feel very small..."
The words come to him where he kneels, or tries to kneel, below the open window, but it's hard to skulk in the flower border with the Gaffer's best grass edger in one hand and his own grubber in t'other and the blood thrumming so loud in his ears he can scarce hear what Mr. Gandalf says. Sam fears he might faint and make a fool of himself twice over, but he's so full of anguish he's like to burst and Mr. Frodo isn't going away by himself is he, bless him?
'I do love you so' he wants to say, and 'don't go', but there's no time. Not a morsel.
"Seven is a journey and eight is grief," he says, both then and now, and his voice echoes in the stillness.
"The only journey I wish to take is into the Land of Nod." Frodo yawns and burrows deeper into his cloak. "What would your Gaffer say if he saw us sleeping in a tree?"
"He'd say we're mad as May butter, o'course, and this is what comes of mixing in with elves and other queer folk. He'd say he don't hold with--"
Frodo's eyes have closed and Sam, thinking his master has found some measure of peace, lays his cloak over Frodo and curls up alongside him on the bare boards. And then--not yet, but soon enough, as is the way of things-- they sleep together for the long night.
"Elanor," Sam says, though she's not here, and there is only the murmur of the incoming tide on a distant shore. "It's come."
Nine is a secret.
Ten is for laughter.
Eleven is for love.
Twelve is for joy hereafter.
And I will live in him all the days of my life.
Back to Slash Story Listing