West of the Moon
A Tolkien Fanfiction Archive
Sûlinîr (sound of the wind's grief)
Spring returns, and Sam has a journey before him.
Author: Cara Loup
(Though this story takes place after Frodo's departure from the Havens, everything said in here assumes a love relationship between Sam and Frodo during and after the Quest.)
(sound of the wind's grief)
Spring 1422, S.R.
Spring has come. Swift and careless, it lights bursts of yellow in the bristling gorse and drives the grass to a riot, so that it grows in ruffled waves all across the garden. It didn't steal in either, it came with the cloudless spell at the end of Rethe, in a proud blast that stilled every wind.
Sam has watched it through the bedroom window: how the slanting shades cast by the window's leading have changed their angle a bit at each rise of day. Soon now, the Sun will catch him with a stabbing glimpse where he lies upon the bed, and he will look into the eye of dawn, caught between the ragged lines that cross on the covers. He must get up before that stab of light.
He stands at the back door, one hand clutched to the frame, to look across the garden that slopes away before his feet. Last year's beanpoles throw long, spindly shadows that lean and cross like the stakes of an old weir. Between them, the raw morning light runs to waken sprinkles of colour in the grass and among the bushy clusters in the kitchen garden, where some herbs have lived out the winter. One by one, flowers and blossoms are plucked forth by the light clawing towards them.
He remembers all their names, for that kind of knowledge can't be buried even by the cruelest winter, but if he were to speak them now, it would be like turning them under, giving them back to the tired earth and the frost that lies deeper still. So he stands in the open doorway, blinking against the glare, his toes curled about the threshold like a bird's claws round a dry branch. He's watching the trails that the shadows make in their flight from this chill, clear daybreak.
Some yards to his left, Rose sits on an overturned pail and works on mending the scuttle that she uses to carry the firewood. She must have noticed his coming at once, but she's careful not to look up too quick. In the cloudless day, her curls gleam, rich as walnuts, and her fingers are patient with the wickers that she bends and plaits. On a blanket beside her, Elanor sits, holding herself up with both fists knotted into the wool.
Some days ago, though it might just as well be weeks or hours, they've had a small party to celebrate Elanor's first birthday. The Gaffer, Widow Rumble, and Tom and Lily Cotton all gathered round the large dining-table in the front parlour, while Marigold helped Rose in the kitchen. Sam sat by the hearth, in a stuffed chair, watching them all in their cheer and awkwardness.
His Gaffer showed the most of it, his neck stiff and his eyes darting about as though he should bolt from his chair the moment that the rightful Master of Bag End stepped into the room. He'd never learn to sit here at peace, Sam thought, and didn't want him to.
It's the one clear thought he remembers, and how the sudden, sweet smell of plum-cake took his breath away. He moved his feet near the fire, one after the other, as if shifting logs, so close to the flame that Rose sent him a worried glance before she caught herself. There was a bit of singing later, when daylight had fallen away behind the windows, and the voices of Rose and Marigold carried the tune as if they were tossing handfuls of barley to the evening wind. But there was no wind.
Sam steps away from the door without letting go of its frame until the very latest moment. His legs move like stilts through muddy water, and he needs to set his mind to it, to the limbs that stagger beneath him. He's been ill through the long winter, and their neighbours have come offering help till Rosie told them that she needed none. From his bed, Sam heard her voice grow sharp and sure as a scythe, and what stirred in his chest in a tight twitching might have been regret, in another time.
The line of her back is proud now, without seeming stiff. She bends over her work, smiling to herself and the frayed old basket she's mending, as her husband walks those few, dragging steps. His knees feel like clotted snow in the blue flood of Spring that's come once more, against all his imagining. He lowers himself slowly, gripping at the wild-grown grass just like Elanor grips the blanket. There now.
Sam sits close enough beside his daughter to hear the curious burbling sounds she makes on each draw of breath, perhaps shaping her own names for the flowers she can't reach. Her eyes flit across everything, caught by the spiky gorse bush, the shaggy head of a dandelion that grows where it was never allowed before, the white glimpse of a birch shoot that's planted itself by the hedge. One of her small hands pulls loose from the blanket and weaves after her glance.
Sam raises a hand to steady her, and though the movement is clumsy, Elanor finds his touch without wavering. Wrapped round his thumb, her fingers squeeze as hard as her toothless gums do. Her quiet eyes take him in - with the same eager pleasure, Sam fancies for a moment, as she takes in all the spots of colour and light that make up the garden.
"'Tis the same lucky spell in the weather as last year," says Rosie, in as calm a tone as though they've been out here often, both of them busy with their proper work. "Perhaps there's such a blessing on each new year now."
"Perhaps," Sam means to answer, but out comes a rasp from his unused throat. He moves his tongue about his mouth and tries again.
"The days are grown warm," Rose continues with a little chuckle, "so warm that old Farmer Highgrove's starting to mutter 'bout the lack of rain."
Aye, he would. Sam nods. Out here, he can smell the grass, a keen whiff where the sun is now melting off the dew that shivers at the tip of each blade. He can feel Spring touch the shell of his heart, where his memories have gathered in a thin crust.
"Your tree's in bloom, Sam." Rosie lowers her voice and can't know that she's repeating to the word - to the word what another voice said, close by Sam's ear, the year before last. Look, Sam... That memory wells from a deeper pit, quick as nightfall. It sets the ground rolling and buries Sam under a myriad grains of frosted earth, under a thin netting of grass. He can feel the daylight glance over him as if it's found a sleeping bulb that has yet to split open. As if to say: This, too, can grow.
But it takes all the believing that he's once called his own, and Spring isn't enough to quicken what may be left. After a time as long or short as it takes the cool, sparkling air to fill his chest, Sam turns his head to look on his wife. An uncertain smile crawls about the corners of her mouth, but then she tucks it away and picks up the scuttle again.
"I'll go and look at it," Sam mumbles, but perhaps it's more of a claim than he can speak to. Perhaps the rousing jab that's come after the memory is another spark of his fever, his dreams that he never recollects. Perhaps he should hold it fast inside and not let it grow an inch.
* * *
He doesn't set out on his short walk to the Party Field till dusk has come and with it a flock of clouds skimming across the sky. There must be a wind then, a wind lifting to drive the clouds across night and into some faraway cove, so that each day can start out bright and warm. It can't be felt near the ground though, by the sheltered front door of Bag End, where Sam leans on a walking stick. Faint shadows spring up and vanish again under the clouds' flight. He sets his feet among them, one after the other, and walks a bit steadier than he did this morn. The faded light is soothing, like a voice talking in the distance to somebody else.
The mallorn stands like a single pale flower on the sweep of grass. All its new-grown leaves and blossoms strain upwards and glisten strange in the twilight that's sapped the day's hues to leave naught but this inward brightness.
Mayhap there'll be another time, Sam thinks as he nears the tree, when he'll lift his hands again, to feel the young foliage rustle at his fingertips. Maybe the scent arising from the blossoms will fall about him as a calming rain that cloaks the world away in a grey mist. This Spring he'll make do with having come so far.
He lets the walking stick drop into the grass and stands under the tree that's grown to be twice his own height, if not more. It's shooting up as if to make one year do for a full score and seems to drink in every drop of light, so that it may stand guard when he doesn't. Even while no breath of wind stirs the slender leaves, there's greater movement in the mallorn than Sam can feel in himself.
For a slow spell he stands, gazing up through the ghostly web of leaves while the sky darkens. He's all awake now, more awake than he's been in a longer time than he remembers. The stillness, and the chill leaching through his clothes, join him to the tree, to the slow pounding of blood that's driven through his veins, whether or no. He holds himself rigid as he's watching through the loose splay of twig and leaf.
In the gaps between the boughs, the sky hangs in a strange patchwork, ribbed with foaming clouds that will have disappeared by morning. Held gently on the darker, windless airs, they're caught between light and shadow, balanced at the vanishing tips of the mallorn's branches.
The tree spreads its limbs so far to embrace the vast lands of the sky, marking paths where they cross the lit seams of clouds. Sam imagines stars where they're not to be seen, gleaming shadows that sing in voices of their own remembering. All is at one here, full and enclosed in dark blue, dull silver and black, open between the edges of branch and cloud.
He lingers, surprised when his stiff neck starts aching, when his fingers prickle on the brink of turning numb, as if such things should've gone out of him. What is it that he sees? The sky so close that it's as solid as the ground that the mallorn roots in. It leavens down to him like the fine snow that melts midway through the air as it falls, touching skin with a cold wisp of wet: the stillness of beginning to forget, beginning to remember. Clear and cold like an edge of light to the frost. Now he must leave.
* * *
When he rides out on one of the scarce-travelled roads skirting fields and pastures, he thinks only of losing himself in the woods. The bright, tilled lands will dwindle at his heels like a fever dream does in waking.
He's set himself on a northern road, for that's the one direction, the one part of the Shire they never travelled together. The forests lie before him, joining West to East in a dark, ragged band bracing the country that's been touched by Spring. Pines and fir-trees cast a long shadow breathing nobut cold.
Sam is grateful to come under their eaves where frost still clots the lower branches, where beds of fallen needles still sleep beneath scattered white, and ice crops cling to the edge of every swelling brook. He rides where the ground is level enough, but mosttimes he walks while Bill follows in his footsteps.
He's determined to keep on in this direction for as long as it takes. His feet must know the way, must find what he can't, or freeze to the hard soil. When he gets too tired to walk further, the skin round his ankles may be torn by rock or bramble, but in the cold that lingers here, very little blood wells from the scratches. The cold lies about him like armour, seamless and tight.
It's not that he doesn't recollect coming here before, and how he loved the trickles of Spring that crept far enough under the forests' shade to bring wood anemones alive in small glades and dot the sprawling moss with white blossoms. How he followed paths that wound here and there in his yearning for a place that could enfold him and bring him home. Such a thing can't happen again, he knows. He merely wonders if grief will come, riding in an endless wave out of the thickly laced shadows and the tangled roots.
For now, he has the will to steer his feet straight on, to rouse himself when the parting daylight spears across the deep piles of needles that glow russet for a space, to shake out his heavy winter-cloak, grown wet from sleeping on a crust of snow. He walks between dusk and daybreak, keeping the sunrise on his right and its setting to the left as he steps over the shadows' long bones. They seem to hover a breath above the ground, barriers thrown out like fallen branches.
At noon, the day may touch the pines' trunks high above his head, and there it shimmers like moonlight. At night, he can press his hand into the snow when it aches too hard for a heartbeat not his own.
This far away from the heart of the Shire, only the birds' voices tell of Spring, long past dusk and through the dead hours before dawn. Their trilling and warbling runs in strange currents through the forest and reminds him of the sounds Elanor makes when she looks on a world without names. Sounds of wonder and glee that he can endure because they touch on naught as he's known before.
The moon has thinned to a hair, and soon the sky will glisten like a polished slab of black ice. When Sam stops too long, staring up through the dark cage of branches, it's Bill's snort beside him, the steam of his breath that starts him walking again, with a prickling warmth through his forgetfulness.
"I shouldn't have taken you," Sam grumbles, though the sounds fall from his chapped lips in a hoarse bleating. They understand each other.
* * *
The country is changed, unknown to him when he steps away from the shielding band of pines. Low, bare ridges cross the plain that's strewn with rocks, and heather grows in dense patches where trees find the soil too thin and dry. Sam climbs into the saddle to let Bill pick their course, now that his feet have failed him. Bent low under the bright day, he keeps his hands knotted into the long mane. We're out of the Shire, my lad. Have they crossed the river then, among the many white waters hurtling down from the North?
Out of the Shire. And the air sings strangely in his chest, not a part of him but a force seeking to lighten him with a promise of wind. He whistles like a bird and wants to run on all fours as the day streams past. Perhaps he's left himself behind in a dream under the new moon, caught in the fringe of trees like the teeth of a fence. So long as he rides with his arms wrapped round Bill's neck and his face pressed into horse-hair that smells of winter, he can believe that.
Evening sets in when Bill stops, his coat steaming. They're high up in a country cleft by ravines, at the foot of a wide hill. Crags rise from its top in a low crown, and the sight of them comes in a rush to Sam's breast and head, together with a cold slap of wind. But this place isn't Weathertop, and the light retreats with harsh, slicing beams from a direction he wouldn't have guessed. How did he stray so far East? Only to find himself in a memory rising up like mist and shadow out of the ground. He can't stay in the middle of that sourceless flood, and so he scrambles up the path that cuts through the hill's overgrown flanks with gravel and splintered stones. He's awaited here before nightfall, and may it come quick - quick as the wind snatching his laboured breaths.
Near the crown, the path runs through a broken wall that barely comes up to Sam's waist. Tall, bleached grasses grow atop that wall and in all the cracks. At their feathered tips weaves the last bit of daylight. The wide hilltop is a jumble of sunken buildings, bramble-thickets and fallen blocks, surrounding a flat space near the middle. Sam walks on grass that's oddly fresh and soft under his feet, and the feel of it crawls through him like a touch long missed, long fled.
It's then that he discovers he's not alone. He halts, bewildered, and looks to the tall figure seated on the stones before him. Carved like a statue, he is, if it weren't for the wind blowing dark strands back and forth across his face.
"I am glad you could come, Sam," the man says, rising from his seat with slow care, as though Sam might startle and bolt.
Sam tips his head back, and all the lengthened shadows on the flat seem to snap about him. He's forgotten how tall Aragorn is, tall enough to look out over the walls into the empty lands below, through hours or days of waiting.
"I wasn't certain," says Aragorn in a softer voice, but he begins to smile when Bill strolls over to him and nuzzles his hand with long, thoughtful breaths. Bill's eyes close, then he lowers his head and wanders aside to champ the short, sweet grass.
"That pony's wiser than I am," Sam hears himself say, without the croak in his voice that he's come to expect. "He brought us here."
Strider chuckles - for he's Strider again, not the King bearing such a vast load of memories, and he's clad in rough leather garb. He leans back against the stone and starts filling his short pipe.
"Then you were wise to follow," he remarks, striking flint to rock. His boots are spattered with mud, and sparks fly briefly as he stoops, catching the fleet fire ere the wind can whisk it away.
He seems at ease here as he would be in any other place of the world, yet Sam can't breathe for something dark and thunderous swelling inside him, a lightless blaze swallowing up all the air. If his limbs have been as snow-capped logs before, now they're consumed in a shapeless, heated flow. He sways on his feet. Strider looks at him with narrowed eyes and dips his head as though he's foreseen this, too.
"You weren't by the Sea." It's too much said and leaves Sam's throat feeling chafed and swollen. He bends his gaze to the ground where the shadows have dissolved into a swamp of grey. The Sun has sunk behind the walls.
"That road is not for me to take," Aragorn answers him, in the calm tone that Sam recognises. It brooks no argument, but there's a hint of something more to it, a patient notion that will take shape with the course of time. It's in this voice that Aragorn spoke to him below Weathertop, when he'd done what he could to tend -
"And not for me neither." He might as well be speaking thorns, and the words leave him gagging on a scoured iron taste.
"Sam," Strider says sharply. Clasping Sam's arm with the quick grip that never fails to meet its mark, he pulls Sam across to sit beside him. It's a well-deserved rebuke, too, for speaking out of place, out of time.
Sam clamps his fingers round the edge of rock, thankful to be steadied even a bit, and nods, an apology as much as it's agreement. Smoke from Strider's pipe curls round them both and flows across the ground that looks untouched by years. When they raise their heads, they'll be facing out West, but Sam doesn't lift his glance further than the tumbled remains of a rampart, a house, or a watchtower. Leastways he knows where they are. The King's old city of the North, spun into Shire-tales of haunted clefts and starless forgetting.
"Will you have this place built all anew?" Sam asks at length, gathering his breath.
"I think not." Aragorn blows out another ribbon of smoke. "It is many years since I last came here, with Halbarad as my only companion. The moon was full, and we did not sleep but lay awake, listening to the wind in the grass. It seemed to me then that peace finally grew here, whether or not we would have it so."
Perhaps that's true, but it's the kind of peace only the stones can know, in their agelong mercy. Sam pulls up his shoulders, and his sideways glance catches on a movement to his left, among the walls lower on the slope. Between the broken pillars of a doorway, he spots a horse swishing its tail and the shadows of men not far behind. There's a full company of them, Sam is certain, guarding the grounds in a wide, silent circle.
"The house will always remember those who dwelt in it," Aragorn says as if reciting from a tale. "I shall make my dwelling by the shores of Lake Evendim. Here I shall linger only to waken memories."
Sam takes in a sharp breath, ice-cold with the jab of wind that's racing away from the North Downs. Though he can't see their full reach, nor the mountains far off to the East, he can feel what it would be like to climb to heights where the snow never melts, and the air's so thin that it's breathing naught but starlight. But above the ruins the dusk is mellow, lowering itself like one layer of grey cloth after another.
Sam stares down at his hands, limp things and grey as dust in the twilight. But for the first time in years too long to count, he notes the tiny nick of white in the soft flesh between his thumb and forefinger, where he pulled out a splinter with his teeth as a lad.
"If the city's to remain like this, why not leave the memories on their own?" he mutters.
Aragorn smiles strangely when Sam looks at him. "That is not my choice," he says, sucking on his pipe that casts a mild glow up his face but leaves his eyes in darkness. "Help me start a fire, Sam. The night will be cold."
On the other side of the stone-heap, someone has dug a fire-pit, and a stack of wood has been placed by the wall flung out at an angle. Crouching beside the pit, Sam snaps the dry branches that will make the best tinder between his fingers. His hands are stiff, and the sounds crackle through him, one by one in the silence, till he grits his teeth. Snap. Crack.
He stops at Aragorn's touch to his shoulder and feels that his brow and back are running with sweat. He sits back in the scant shelter of piled stones and razed wall, weakened by his effort and ashamed of it.
Strider is quick about lighting a fire, as he always was, even in the midst of a storm. The sparks that he strikes to the kindling flick taut shadows across his face. He sighs when flames begin to lick at the wood, dashing here and there to twine into the wind.
"Forgive me," he says, holding Sam's gaze as he sits down and crosses his legs.
Sam shakes his head because he doesn't understand, but more so because he's certain of one thing: that he doesn't want to hear more. There's naught that Aragorn could have done, and if he'd come to the Sea -
"If you will... tell me what you saw."
Sam never heard him speak with such reluctance before, and for a moment it keeps the surge at bay, the swirling giddy rush starting out of the ground beneath Sam's feet, like the tide gnawing on the shore till it crumbles away, bit by bit. It's long been part of his breath, every staggering step that he took, and with each ebb it leaves a harsh crust of salt that's slowly filling his breast.
Sam leans his back to the stone, to let the heaves pass and settle, as they always will. Lower on the slope, lanterns move in unseen hands. Small flames dance inside them like moths. Aragorn can't ask this of him, and he knows it. Stars have come out in the East, mounting slowly over the horizon as if they're laid there, one over the other, to build up the dome of night.
When Sam shivers from the heat of the fire that's lapping at his knees, Aragorn leans forward to wrap his large cloak round them both. He doesn't repeat his question, but he doesn't take it back either. Within this huddled spot of warmth, Sam feels as if he's been plucked out of the brace that held him all winter, all these months, like frozen soil. He doesn't have to answer, and they can sit here all night, watching the tent of the sky fill out with stars, with their backs turned to the young moon. But if he does answer, there won't be no going back.
Under the gliding fingers of wind, Sam closes his eyes. He could slip away into slumber that's ready to wash over him, burrow into the folds of Aragorn's cloak that smells of pipeweed and wild thyme. Stars prick through Sam's lids and sink on his breath, mingling with the taste of salt that crawls at the back of his throat. There's but one thing to tell.
"He left me all he had - save for his light."
A silver path on the water it was, running straight under the sky from the world's brink, thinning towards the shore till it was lost to a hair. Lost but strong enough to plunge a thread through his breath and bone that naught can snap, and he's choking on it now just as he chokes on the words, silver bile against the dark that swings about him.
"But you know the reason, do you not?"
Aragorn's eyes hold him with their soft, watchful glint when Sam looks up. The reason maybe, but not the way, nor the time.
Fast beats drive the blood into his face. The wind flows cool and tender on his skin, the mourning wind that slides through all the broken corners, that can't find its voice and can't find a rest neither.
"I cannot answer your questions, but let me say this..." Aragorn bends his head to kiss Sam's brow. "There will be a star to guide you."
Now it's Sam who can't make a reply, for it's not in him to question nor believe, aware as he is that the wind's keening has long lived in his breast. And with this, sleep can come, staggering up from the brown glow of the fire and the brittle white stars that whirl on the inside of Sam's lids, fitful as glowworms. He lets himself fall into it, as deep as he may.
* * *
He woke once more as he had so often, spent as though he'd been washed ashore from the dream of another - but his feet remembered the journey, from years before and years into the future. Winter-scents spread through the room, dipping their sharpest spurs past the casing of his heart.
Sam set his teeth and dug his heels against the soft mattress. The small motion brought a sleepy stir from Elanor, tucked close against his side under the blanket, so that only her curls showed. Morning lit a fine gleam on them, a brightness apart from her small body, like a reflection afloat on water. As he watched, Sam thought of his mallorn tree. Spring had come, and the new leaves opened round the blossoms, so pale at first they were almost white.
The Sun was rising and would soon reach the lower rim of the window, a brilliant glance already stirring in his veins, where something roused to answer for one piercing moment.
Sam didn't look away this time when the first flaming arrow met him. Now you see me, he thought. Now.
* * * * *
'...The King is coming.'
'He's coming here?' Elanor cried. 'To Bag End?'
'No, dear,' said Sam, 'but he's coming north again, as he hasn't done since you was a mite.'
(HoME 9: The Epilogue, p. 126)
1436: King Elessar rides north and dwells for a while by Lake Evendim. He comes to the Brandywine Bridge, and there greets his friends. He gives the Star of the Dúnedain to Master Samwise, and Elanor is made a maid of honour to Queen Arwen.
(LOTR, Appendix B: The Tale of Years)
A/N: The title is Goldogrin (or 'Gnomish'), one of Tolkien's earliest Elven languages that he explored in 1917. I was reading his Goldogrin dictionary at the time when I was writing this story, and the sound of the language stuck with me. SŪ ? LI ? NĪR = noise-of-wind with grief, to give a literal translation.
* * *
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