With some apprehension I present the final chapter of this story, and I hope not to disappoint. If you've followed this far, perhaps you're willing to come a bit further?
It has been a long road and I owe many people my thanks. Foremost I want to thank everyone whose interest made the story worth writing. I'm extremely lucky to have been able to share this with such wonderful readers.
And now for the story…
Like a bubble of air in water Sam flew up to the surface of his light slumber, for he was certain that someone was staring at him. Quizzically his eyes opened and at first he beheld nothing, but as he rose he felt a presence behind him. He found he could turn but slowly and suspense boiled within him, until his eyes caught a fair flicker of a white-robed figure moving in the trees. Half-hidden behind branches, two eyes pierced him through, straight to the very marrow of his thoughts, and he stood fixed in the gaze of the Lady Galadriel.
Silently she beckoned him forth, and he came.
She led him through forest and glade, in swift stealth as a shadow among shadows or a flame among flames. Sam struggled to keep up but at last she stopped, standing before richly carved stone pedestals and a great grey fountain.
"Not idly do we make our journey," she said. "Will you look into the mirror?"
He consented without question, for her look was intense and his neck-hairs stood on end. Yet it was not without fear that he crept up to the shining bowl while the Lady filled it with shimmering water. Waiting for the water to grow still, Sam mustered his courage to speak boldly.
"I've looked once before, beg pardon, my Lady. What shall I see now?"
"As before, you will see what you may," she said and smiled gently. "Look now, but do not touch the water!"
Feeling clumsy under her eyes Sam climbed onto the pedestal and leaned over the basin, seeing not his own reflection but only churning blackness. He was held fast, bowed to the water's surface and unable to look away if he wanted to, staring deep until the blackness began to change. Swiftly there swirled a green hill bursting with flowers, and beneath it a grand smial. It was Bag End for sure, but changed, looking a little grander and a little older.
How wondrous the Shire seemed! In the fields and among towering trees many children played, their voices high and overflowing with laughter. Just as he tried to see their faces the water shimmered out and he saw the familiar sitting room of Bag End instead. Curled up in a chair was a very fair young lass of perhaps fifteen, a book in her lap, and tears stood in Sam's eyes for somehow he knew it was his Elanor. Golden-haired and elegant as an Elf, she was even more beautiful than he had imagined.
She was reading aloud, Sam realized, though he could not hear her. And then he saw Rosie, listening to her daughter's words, her eyes proud and strong. She held maps in her hands.
Before Sam could even guess which lands were marked upon the parchments the scene had changed. He saw a bright flash, like a sword glinting in the sun, and a dark pony bounding near a gallop towards a white city in the distance. There was such happiness everywhere, and celebration was thick in every land! The next image rippled in the basin all too briefly: there was a crowd, and upon a platform he thought he saw Queen Arwen bestow something upon his sweet Elanor...
Then he was taken somewhere else, to a windy hill-side, moon-lit and strange. He saw Frodo lying in soft repose, reeds swaying around him, his face enthralled with peace. It was but a moment and then all was gone, and the water was again still and dark. Sam reeled backwards.
"O," he said, "O! It's all too little and too much!" And he shed tears of mingled joy and sadness.
"What say you, Samwise of the Shire?"
He was sure the Lady Galadriel could see in him every swift-sailing thought, and he quivered, blushing and agitated. Yet he felt no harsh judgement from her, and no censure, just a sharp press of questions. He faced her as if to be tested.
"Does not your home call you?" she asked.
He sighed a little breath. "I reckon Rose's not expecting me," he answered. "I won't say it's easy for me, thinking about her and my little one. But I feel called to Mr. Frodo, if you follow me."
"You would abandon all this that you have fought for, your home and country? Do you truly love him so much?"
I love him, I love him! It swelled inside him without words, and she nodded slightly in recognition,
but he knew that she wanted to hear his claims, his reasons and purpose. And so he slowly began to speak, his embarrassment turning numb.
"I do love him, but there's more to it than that. If all I wanted was his kiss, or a night with him, like some tweener's dream, I'd not be in all this trouble. And if I just thought we belonged together as like brothers, I could send him off with a clear heart. But I want to make him happy, see, and I've a notion that making him happy is the most important thing I could do. I believe I could do it--I hope I could heal him." And, fearing himself foolish, he hung his head.
Above all wonders, the Lady took his hands between her own, a sensation so kind and lovely he could not lift his eyes from the ground. Yet somehow he could still picture her face as she smiled upon him. He felt a spreading warmth as she breathed upon his hands, and she spoke a few soft words he did not understand.
"You shall not be denied," rang a voice in his head.
* * * *
Awaking to cool morning air and fir tree boughs hanging close above him, Sam sat up and tried to put his mind to rights, and set straight what was from what wasn't. It was no easy task and he scratched his head, finding his hair impossibly tangled, and muttered, "Best not to let queer dreams make queer thoughts, as the gaffer says."
A fire was his chief concern, now that the rain had stopped and they'd need to cook breakfast and dry the damp from their things. Frodo was still asleep and Sam arranged their blankets snugly around him, bending to lightly kiss his brow, before struggling into a spare set of clothes from his pack which were now more cold than wet. He'd have to keep moving to warm up, so he crawled out quickly to check on the ponies and was glad they'd been reasonably sheltered by tree-cover as well. From his pack he fed them an apple each and went off in search of dry wood.
They were travelling light but Sam had planned a big breakfast for this very morning, and he wasn't about to give it up. He was far too clever with camp-cooking to be thwarted and soon he had a nice spread laid out that he hoped would tempt Frodo's appetite. Thinking they could stay here all day if they wanted, Sam decided to carry all the dishes back to their burrow and let Frodo eat there while his clothes dried by the fire.
Despite a bit of noise Frodo still hadn't woken and Sam found himself reluctant to disturb him. Smiling, he sat by him and watched him breathe as he had many times before when Frodo slept. His bare shoulder peeked out from under the blanket but he did not appear chilled, which was something to be glad of. Very carefully Sam touched the back of his hand to Frodo's neck and found it happily warm. And there were no worry-lines creasing his face, he noted. Sam sighed and watched him and wanted to snuggle down beside him, gathering him to his chest just as he had the night before. Perhaps it would happen very naturally, without need for words: he imagined the two of them lying together all afternoon, awake but not caring to move, and Frodo would realize within those warm hours that Sam loved him.
When he snapped from his daydream he saw Frodo's blue eyes staring up at him.
"Hoy," he whispered just under his breath.
Frodo stirred, stretching and yawning. "Has the rain stopped?" he asked sleepily.
"Aye, but you rest; your Sam's got breakfast ready here."
Sitting up slightly, keeping the blankets tucked securely around himself, Frodo eyed his breakfast. "Goodness! What's all this for?"
"Your birthday," Sam said shyly.
Frodo appeared rather taken aback, smiling a few moments later. "A cheery feast to chase away the wet chill, anyway! I think a woodland party in a burrow beneath a tree is exactly what I wanted. It reminds me of something at Brandy Hall--a very long time ago, really, when I was young."
"I hope you don't mean to say as you're old now, as you're hardly that."
"Well no, I won't be breaking any records. Hand me a plate, would you? I find I'm quite hungry."
Sam did so with a twinge of pride, doling out hearty portions of everything. "Here you are. Happy birthday, Mr. Frodo."
"Thank you, Sam. I'm surprised the scent of it didn't rouse me out of a dead sleep; it's wonderful."
Sam sat back against the tree-trunk, light-headed as if he'd been somersaulting down the Hill, seeing Frodo smile so easily.
"This reminds me a bit of when I was a young thing, too," Sam said, though the time and place had nothing to do with it.
They ate together, laughing at small things in the manner of children. They were so far away from everything! Far away from their old life, and far away from recent memories too. It filled his heart with ease as if his errand were simple. When Frodo laughed, it seemed it would be such an easy and wondrous thing to speak his heart, like running up atop Bag End to see a magnificent sunset-splendor. Indeed, it was almost impossible to resist, so greatly did he long to bring him happiness.
Frodo finished a fair piece of what was on his plate before leaning back and rubbing his belly contentedly.
"Your fine cooking has made me sleepy, Sam!"
"There's no harm in having a nap. That'd be best, really, as your clothes won't be full dry yet anyhow. Are you warm enough?"
"Yes, but we'll end up sitting about like Bilbo's trolls if we don't break camp soon. So fetch me my clothes and I'll be out to help you in a minute."
"There's no hurry," Sam replied quickly. "There's no hurry. And you're only inviting a cold if you go about in damp things. I'll have none of that."
"I daresay yours aren't dry," Frodo argued. He sighed and looked at Sam fondly, in a manner that had never failed to get his own way. Quietly he said, "I know you mean to give me a good birthday, Sam, but it can't really be like when we were lads. We must ride on soon." As if he didn't intend to say it, he added, "I'm hoping to see Bilbo today."
Sam closed his eyes briefly. Every word and thought in his head had faded like the day's last light. He was supposed to be asking questions, because he was supposed to believe they were headed for Rivendell, which was yet many days away. But Sam wouldn't act a part. Nor did he want to hear Frodo's answers, for suddenly it felt too near and too painful.
Frodo was watching him, waiting on him, seemingly. Sam silently gathered the dishes.
"I won't be long," he murmured and scrambled out.
The fire smoked before him and he fell to his knees as if grieving. Still he fought the great tide of sadness that threatened to break upon him and he held to hope, as he had once looked to the last patch of clear sky while flame and molten rock curled near. A fool's hope, mayhaps, but better than naught. He stared at his hands and willed himself to determination.
Searching his pack for the letter he'd stowed there yesterday evening, and found it rather worse for wear but still legible. It burned through him as a stab of lightning; it was like a map of his quest laid out before him and responsibility renewed his vigour. He got to his feet. He could go on. Quickly he went to tend to the ponies.
He'll fight you every step, Sam Gamgee, he thought to himself. But of course he will! He don't want me giving anything up for him, as it were. Like he's gone and won this prize just for me to enjoy, and he can't have any of it.
"How can I make him see different?" Sam murmured as he rubbed down old Bill. "He won't think he deserves it."
Even if you make him see, then what'll happen? It won't be up to you in the end.
To that he had no answer. Bill nudged him and Sam smiled and fed him another apple, petting him affectionately before giving Strider the same treatment. When he next looked back at their camp he saw Frodo by the fire, dressed and warming his hands.
"Shall we go on, Frodo?"
Frodo studied him strangely for a moment, then nodded, his hand reaching to check at something in his pocket even as he tensed and tried to act as though he were merely straightening his weskit.
His heart's the trouble and you know it. This is no easier for him than it is for you.
Sam poured water over the fire and a sharp wind rose, reducing them to shivers. It was fixing to be a comfortless day.
"Here," Sam said as he placed his own cloak around Frodo's shoulders, running a compassionate hand down his back.
Frodo trembled and looked away.
* * * *
He hummed to himself most of the long day, to quell his anxious heart. It was best to quiet his thoughts though they whispered at a delirious pitch despite his efforts, and twice he sang words without meaning to: I will not say the Day is done, nor bid the Stars farewell. In weakness he thought of turning back; either to look at Sam, or to head home, for the two actions seemed almost the same, yet he did neither. It was not a strength of simple conviction but rather unrecoverable dreams of peace: fool dreams where somehow everything turned out all right. Often he thought of how glad he'd be to see Bilbo again.
Perhaps it was an escape, or perhaps he wearied of his confusion, for he found himself dozing between sleep and wakefulness, where swift dreams flew lighter than air. The scent of the Sea was thick in his nostrils, its breeze hard in his hair, and the taste of salt upon his lips. He could hear it, sweeter than any lullaby and more beautiful than poetry. He felt himself tumble down among reeds and sand, gloriously, to be uplifted by a crashing wave that cradled his limbs and rocked him ere it drew thin, depositing him upon the wet shore. Above him, stars were being lost to the quickening of the blue sky. Around him, he felt the warmth of another person's body, as his head was pillowed softly in someone's lap. He turned his head and pressed his nose to his companion's shirt, breathing in Sam's scent.
He had dropped his reins; Sam's hand was upon his arm. "You're tired, Frodo."
He was tired, but it was not something sleep could cure. "You caught me in a day-dream, I'm afraid." Awaking, he saw that the twilight was descending; several hours had sailed past since they last stopped. But something was happening, for the air and light were changing, and it felt timeless and enchanting as Lothlórien had, as if part of him would wander there forever.
Slipping from his pony he began to walk, looking about with wide eyes, listening. His heart ran fast, and he began to sing:
"Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate;
And though I oft have passed them by,
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun."
"What is it?" Sam asked.
"The Elves are coming. Can you hear it? Can you feel it?"
Sam slowly nodded, looking not to the woods but to Frodo. "Are they coming for you?"
The simple question brought home the full impact of what was happening and Frodo wanted to bolt, tears coming to his eyes. He steeled himself and one hand instinctively wrapped around Sam's. "I've kept this from you and I am sorry. In Minas Tirith Lady Arwen told me that if I were yet weary, I would be permitted to pass into the West in her stead. I am leaving, Sam. I am wounded too badly to have rest here, much as it grieves me. I shall go over the Sea with Bilbo like I ought, and at last I may find ease."
"You deserve it, you do," Sam replied fiercely, almost shouting through his tears. "You deserve the world.
'Tis a hard cruel world if you've no relief from suffering. And as long as you've any unhappiness, we haven't really won, or so it seems to me."
"Please, Sam," Frodo whispered, wanting him to stay his words.
"You deserve more, if you don't mind my saying so. Frodo me dear," and he looked at him hard, "I can't send you off if the Blessed Realm won't heal you fully, or make you happier than you've ever been. It's too cruel to chance your not getting all you've hoped for, and me not knowing how you're faring!"
"There is no other way!" Frodo cried, as Sam hushed him and stroked his hand. Sam's eyes were intense and beautiful and Frodo felt inexplicably afraid. Sam was so close, staring at him as though no one else existed.
Over Sam's shoulder Frodo saw the gleam of the company's approach, sadness and promise mixed together. He shook, feeling somehow that he had better run now before it was too late. He could hear them singing.
"A! Elbereth Gilthoniel!
silivern penna miriel
o menel aglar elenath,
Gilthoniel, A! Elbereth!
We still remember, we who dwell
In this far land beneath the trees
The starlight on the Western Seas."
"Let me come with you," Sam said.
Frodo stood in a rush, his head spinning, breaking away to approach the company. My beloved! Farewell, farewell! If I look any longer into your eyes I will be bound too tight.
Music grew louder in his ears and began to calm him, and as he came through the trees he saw the Elves. To Elrond and Galadriel he bowed his head, but Bilbo captured his attention instantly, sitting hunched atop a little grey pony. Frodo stopped short, grief sharp within him, then came breathless to his side.
"Hullo, Bilbo," Frodo said quietly, sad fondness in his eyes. When he squeezed the elder hobbit's shoulder, Bilbo awoke, blinking and puzzled to see Frodo all at once. "Happy birthday, Uncle."
"Yes, happy birthday to you, dear boy," Bilbo said, his wits returning. He fumbled for Frodo's hand and the younger hobbit provided it. "Are you coming?"
"I am. We will go together."
"Good, good." Bilbo was nodding again shortly, and Frodo closed his eyes for a moment, leaning to kiss Bilbo's brow. He felt a sudden urge he'd never known before, a desire to take care of his uncle as he had taken care of him, and with that thought he carefully arranged Bilbo's cloak around his shoulders. When he stepped away he found Sam close at hand. Frodo sighed deeply, suddenly more tired than the day's journey warranted.
"I should have come sooner, I think. I have repaid him poorly."
"Don't you talk that way, Mr. Frodo," Sam replied, his voice hitching. "Let's go say our hellos like proper, now."
The hobbits bowed to the Elf-lord and Lady, and for a moment Frodo feared judgement but there was none to be found in the eyes of the Elves. Elrond announced their names before all the company with grave words of praise that Frodo still never expected to hear. Galadriel smiled upon them and for a fleeting moment Frodo was warmed by hope unlooked for.
He had forgotten how her voice rang like a bell. "Lighten all solemnity from your heart, if you can! You will be well-honoured among us these last days East of the shore, to light joy against sorrow."
Frodo bowed graciously. "Thank you, my Lady," he said with shining eyes, "but I would beg of you to impart all honours on Sam, because it is my birthday and I have nothing to give him."
Sam seemed slightly mortified beside him, but he held his peace, and Galadriel smiled with something near affection.
"What would you have in your honour, Samwise?" Galadriel said as she stood before him. Sam blushed terribly and studied his feet, but not before shooting Frodo an exasperated glare.
"I've long wanted to thank you, your Ladyship," he stammered. "For the garden-box I mean, but other things too and I don't want to seem ungrateful, as it were. And to be sure I wouldn't ask for a thing, except it's urgent, if you follow me."
"I know all that you would say," Galadriel replied mercifully, "for you have already told me."
Frodo watched in wonder as the Lady briefly took Sam's hands and bowed her head low over them, and kissed them. Sam breathed in fast and deep and shivered as Galadriel retreated.
"Sam?" Frodo whispered to him, but he blinked and kept silent.
It was clear the Elves intended to ride on, and the hobbits went back to their ponies. Sam, his eyes still distant, nonetheless came to attend Frodo and help him mount. With an action purely practical and fleeting, Sam steadied his elbow and braced his back as he swung his leg over Strider, but something had happened: at the touch of his hands a child's tune suddenly came to Frodo's mind, and in his heart memory of a time when it made perfect sense to sing senseless songs. He remembered the trees where he had loved to nap, and Bilbo chiding him in jest for being idle as he tucked a blanket over him; and Frodo felt a vast warmth enter him and he sighed smilingly.
It was but a moment and then it was gone, and Frodo found he wanted the feeling back terribly. Looking down at Sam he saw surprise written upon his face.
"Come, Sam! Ride with me," he choked, and bounded quickly towards the company, shivering. He fell in behind Bilbo's pony, trying to set his will and battle the conflict in his heart.
"Hail, Elf-friend," a voice said beside him. Frodo turned and saw Gildor Inglorion of the House of Finrod riding near. The Elf's sharp eyes searched his face for many moments, then he bowed gracefully from his mount. "Long it has been since I last saw you, and far you have travelled, Ring-bearer!"
Reunions could be but bittersweet for Frodo, as he dreaded startling and saddening his old friends by the changes that were so noticeable in his person. But Gildor did not continue to speak of it, nor did he observe him too carefully; indeed, he laughed softly.
"A pity we do not have with us fare good enough for a birthday party. Our jewel among hobbits shall share the best of my plate, lest his appetite go unsatisfied!"
"Mae govannen," Frodo replied, and laughed gratefully.
* * * *
Late in the night the company stopped to take refreshment and Frodo stayed by Bilbo's side, speaking frivolities and reporting Shire-news in close conference. It struck Frodo how full of ease Bilbo was, and the respectful tending the Elves paid to the elder hobbit gladdened him, as caring for Bilbo took his mind off his own troubles. But when Frodo finished explaining about the flourishing of the forests and gardens Bilbo grew quiet, and Frodo wondered if talk of the Shire was not too painful in the face of their departure.
"So finally you are going to come on an adventure with me, my lad!" Bilbo said, rousing from a doze.
"Our last and best, hmm? Perhaps they'll sing of Nine-Fingered Frodo and the Ring of Doom tonight. Sam's been asking to hear it."
Frodo smiled weakly. "That's too heavy for such an evening. I'd rather they sang of the Stout-Hearted Shire Gardener."
"I don't doubt it. Yet his tale is yours, and yours is his, as anyone can see. If the Dúnadan were here we'd have a fair verse for you in no time. But I'm too tired now... Just give me some notes, as it were, if you can think of some good lines about your stout-hearted gardener." The old hobbit lay back and seemed nigh on sleeping, but he peeped at Frodo with one sharp eye when he wasn't looking.
Frodo tucked blankets about him, his voice coming softer. "Good lines indeed! I owe him more than Smaug's full horde. That's what they ought to sing of. And how all my thoughts forever on begin and end with him. They call him loyal but that's an empty word for all he did, which I don't think anyone can really understand; for grace gave him strength and virtue and beauty to surpass the best of Middle-earth, and at the end I thought he was blessing me every time he gazed on me. What that felt like and what it means to me is too thick to translate into words, I fear."
Not opening his eyes, the elder hobbit clasped his hand. "I know, my boy."
Frodo went still and silent, for confessions were too difficult and he knew Bilbo would drop off soon. A long time after the elder hobbit began to snore he sat listening to troubled memory, and was consumed by it until Sam came for him.
"Why don't you come to bed?"
"I'm not very tired, Sam," said Frodo, which was not true.
"I reckon the Elves only stopped to give us hobbits a rest. We'd best take it." Sam reached out and took him by the hand, refusing to yield to argument. He had set out their bedrolls a few paces away and here Sam pulled him down, his movement fluid and swift and easy. In a heartbeat they were well-wrapped together beneath the blankets. They lay enfolded in an embrace.
Sam's hands lay upon his breast and in his hair, his body pressed close against Frodo's back. Frodo shut his eyes so very tightly, feeling his mounting surrender. Sam's hand was beyond warm where it gently touched his chest: it was a feeling strange and strong that called to him louder than thunder. He was quivering with challenged self-restraint, for he felt called to give in to all that he wanted: to turn and face Sam with utter release, to speak and touch in love. He was all but lost to this thing that summoned him in cadence to Sam's soft caress.
Blood pounded in his ears. O, wasn't it like putting on the Ring at the last moment? Sam went slack upon him, having slipped into sleep at last, innocent and beautiful.
Frodo turned carefully and took him into his arms, his mad reasoning spinning a thousand justifications. Sam slept on unaware, and truly Frodo was still tense with control, for it was not freedom of touch he most desired but the sweeter freedom of honesty. Delicately he brushed Sam's hair away from his temple and moved ever so slightly to kiss him there, then kissed his cheek and was painfully tempted to taste his mouth and let him wake as his kisses came stronger.
Dear beautiful Sam! To hold him was like a glorious summer. To breathe his scent was a homecoming.
In that moment Sam offered a thousand promises of bliss but Frodo dare not listen, for all his heart's desires had been offered once before by the fell voice of the Ring. Shuddering as he was lured towards his desperate fulfilment he at last forced his hands away, in a great upheaval of fear and condemnation. He fled under the moon that night, and again for three nights hence.
* * * *
The days passed like clouds over the moon, but for Elrond many days had drawn so swift while he lingered here. As he kept watch over his mortal friends, he wondered at how short and strange their lives were, so full of doubt and pain, and yet how bravely they were borne. He had long known that Elves ought not claim superiority overmuch, when their lives were less burdened by such terrors, but before his eyes he was seeing now a supremacy unmatched by any fair-hearted Elf dwelling in the smallest and simplest creatures of the world.
Though it was deep into the night Bilbo Baggins was restless and sat up unhappily, and Elrond came swiftly to his aid, bearing cushions and fine quilts.
"I am no longer made for sleeping out of doors," Bilbo grumbled. "How my bones ache!"
"I have a tea that will ease them," said Elrond with some concern. "We shall soon get you comfortable, and you will remember how fine a roof the star-scape makes." So saying, Gildor was at their side with a steaming cup, and Elrond fashioned a clever bed soft as any in the Last Homely House.
Bilbo sipped his tea slowly, smiling again as he found warmth and comfort replace his pains. He looked about for his heir and saw him fast asleep beneath a few blankets, entangled with Samwise. "It seems to my ailing eyes that a star has fallen here upon the hill!" Bilbo exclaimed. "Am I imagining it, my friend? They glow brighter than flame, dear lads! Do you see it?"
Elrond nodded gravely. "Their spirits boil beneath the surface, white and roaring as the foot of Rauros. Middle-earth will never see its like again."
"Nor has it ever seen such a thing before, I dare say, yet you don't look surprised."
"I have grown accustomed to being surprised by them, as Mithrandir warned me would happen. Truly I do not know how this spectacle has come to be. Perhaps it is because Frodo and Samwise are among Elves and honoured that their virtue shines, but it gleams brighter than any. It is a great sign."
"Of what, I wonder?" Bilbo murmured as his eyes began to close.
"For that we shall have to wait," said Elrond, covering the now-sleeping hobbit warmly. "Rest well, little master."
The Elf-lord was moved to go walking, and draw tales of ancient times from the silent trees. He went into the woods, taking rest in the manner of his people, listening to the evensong of the world. When he came to a small clearing he sat upon a smooth stone hewn of old.
The stars glittered upon his silver harp and the deep sky seemed to drip into the blue gem of his ring. The trees appeared like stone carvings, fluid and twisting against the indigo sky but immovable and immortal and caught in time. Elves liked living things but they liked stone too, for its permanence reminded them more of themselves. Beyond all this he could hear the distant toss of the Sundering Seas, which constantly testified to the coming of the End. It was odd that until now all the songs of the Valinor had carried a mythic quality. Still he found it hard to think how the night air would slip through empty Imladris, and the Last Homely House would grow cold.
It was a long and lonely song he played, yet beautiful too. With the stirring wind a few leaves fluttered round him and Elrond watched them fall in the moonlight. This land ever tossed and shivered with life and death! How long he had tarried here, loving the turn and change of things! He breathed a sigh, tracking leaves borne far away upon the wind, thinking how this world would go on after he had passed.
There was a soft rustle, and Elrond recognized the sound of a hobbit moving lightly among the bracken. A moment later the Ring-bearer emerged and approached him quietly, merely sitting by him while he played. They sat together companionably as the moon made its passage across the sky, the hobbit's face tilted upwards and his eyes shut. Finally when the song came to a slow close like the gentling of breaking waves upon the shore, Elrond put down his harp and the two regarded one another.
"Iorhael," Elrond greeted him. "What keeps you from your rest these nights?"
Frodo was not quick to answer, his gaze dropping to Elrond's harp. "Was that a song of the Undying Lands? I think I heard Queen Arwen singing it once."
He nodded. "Were my voice as fair as my daughter's I would have sung the verse. But she is not here."
There was a common theme between them; they both suffered to leave behind someone they dearly loved. Frodo's face glowed palely, seeming sad and intelligent. "It is hard to leave this world behind," he murmured thoughtfully. "We are offered the fairest passage, but as wondrous as the Valinor may be, I would be happier to find peace in my homeland."
"Have you much uncertainty of your path?"
"Some," he admitted, though he seemed reluctant to say more.
"Speak now, Frodo. You ought not depart ere you heart is settled. Regret is a plague among mortals, as my long years have taught me."
"I know," Frodo whispered, visibly moved. "In truth I am lost, and I wonder if I can even trust myself."
Elrond waited, wrought with patience, and the pair sat in silence for a long while. Then Frodo removed something from his pocket and slowly, not looking up, held it out to the Elf.
In the hobbit's open palm, a very tiny gold ring rested benignly. It was a hobbit's ring, of hobbit make, dull from wear and bearing many small dents. Conscious of Frodo's shame, Elrond took the trinket from him as if relieving him of a burden.
"It is Sam's wedding ring," Frodo said in anguish. "I found it in my pocket. I don't know how."
"He has not said anything to you about it?"
"No, and I cannot bear to ask him, for I fear I have done something terrible."
"You have not, I am sure," Elrond said with authority. This fair creature who flickered before him like a firefly was pure of wrong, as was his beloved. "Be eased! This is a burden of good, not evil."
"What if I've stolen this from him?" Frodo choked, his face in a grimace of bitter weeping. "I won't be able to live with myself, and yet I can't give it up--I can't give him up. I love him," he confessed at last.
Elrond knelt swiftly before him, marvelling at the strength of love burning in the hobbit's breast, a love Frodo somehow thought was wrong.
"That is written upon you for those to see it who may," he said and smiled gently. "But it is no impure feeling that binds you to him, Frodo Baggins. Think! If you were bound to the One Ring you cannot be blamed, for Sauron's will was formidable. Yet surely you would say that it is your will that loves Sam, not that of darkness and shadow. This I know: you are not guided by evil, nor are you capable of it."
Were there a pond nearby, he would have bid him to look and see his own light, that which Frodo most needed to see.
Perhaps Frodo believed him by words alone, for he bore a look of wild hope beneath his tears. "Then how did this come to me?" he asked, gingerly taking back the ring.
"Will you not ask your companion?"
Frodo shifted restlessly and Elrond rose, taking up his harp once more. Softly he played and the moment drifted, and Frodo swayed as if lulled near sleep. He had shut his eyes and when he opened them again, he said, "O! Nimrodel!"
"Yes. For you are not the first to face such a difficult choice."
"No, and I can learn much from such company. None among those songs is free from sorrow." Frodo stood, looking gravely up at the stars. "The fairest passage is also the most painful, it seems."
The hobbit spoke wisely, Elrond thought.
"But in truth, I feel as though my choice was taken from me. It is not out of faithlessness that I leave, but weariness only. Do you believe me that I cannot remain?"
"None would ask you to! Do as you must, Frodo; I am an Elf and can offer you no greater advice. But when you have crossed the Sea, if you find your sorrow at his absence to be very great, you need not be alone. For it shall be long before I may watch the glimmer of a clear sky and not mourn the grace of Evenstar diminished."
Frodo's eyes shone anew, filled with compassion and gratitude. He reached forward and placed his little hand upon the Elf-lord's, and met his gaze, and thus spoke his thanks silently. Elrond was again struck by the pure light within him and began to think he would grieve supposing Frodo and Sam were torn asunder. It would make a song to rival fair Nimrodel, perhaps.
"I suppose it must be so, for I can only love him from afar in any case," Frodo said with quiet acceptance. He smiled bravely and looked down at the ring as he warmed it in his palms. Again his face grew puzzled. "If I truly didn't take this from him, how...?"
"I wonder if you are not afraid of the answer," Elrond mused. "Go now and rest, and be with him a little while. When the question grows too heavy, you will ask him."
* * * *
A thousand of Bilbo's stories Sam had heard, a thousand he believed, and a thousand turned out to be true. It had worried his Gaffer something awful, his lad putting stock in miracles. The Gaffer once marched him back to Bag End after his bedtime so Bilbo could assure him that certain fantastical monsters weren't real, but Sam refused to believe this even from the mouth of his storyteller. After that Bilbo said he'd have to watch his words around the impressionable Gamgee, but he never did; in fact he seemed to delight all the more in spinning tales for young Sam.
It was a fairy-story he was now leading, and he knew it. Yet as they rode his determination to believe in it did not falter: it only increased. And though Frodo held his distance with defence, keeping his thoughts to himself and staying close to Bilbo, he did not despair, here as the end came near!
As the sunset drew close, Sam found the pace gentled still more, and he rode contentedly with his pipe between his teeth. The air was so refreshing he kept tilting back his head to breathe still deeper, admiring the sky as it quivered with pale transforming colour. White and grey birds were flying out, streaming above him. Their cries sounded distant and mournful and joyous all at once, and he was strangely moved to watch them. But, riding up beside him, Frodo had gone very still and shut his eyes, looking peaceful.
"Where do they come from, do you suppose, and where are they going?" asked Sam dreamily.
"They are sea-gulls, Sam, flying inland for sleep and shelter."
The Sea, the Sea! He felt as though its cold waters were crashing upon him, dragging him down to the deep, lonely bottom. As they crested a great hill wind came sharply over the grass, drying tears that he had not noticed on his cheeks.
He looked out to the rolling hills below and his spirit shook, for great white Towers rose into the sky. Dimly he heard the voices of the Elves rise in song, but Sam's head swam as they approached the Towers so tall and dazzling.
"A marvellous sight, is it not?"
Sam wondered who had spoken and looked beside him, where Gildor had come without him hearing. Sam turned without responding, wanting to share the moment with Frodo, but he had gone back to see that Bilbo was kept warm against the wind.
"From their heights one can see the Sea spread out below. It is a long climb, but I will take you if you wish."
"No, no thank you!" Sam replied. "I don't hold with heights, not one bit." Then he suddenly felt weary, and his limbs trembled, thinking that the Sea lay just beyond the hills. O, how vast would it be? So wide and deep as to fill his mind and heart to the brim!
"I've been in one Tower and found it enough," he muttered. I will not say the Day is done, nor bid the Stars farewell.
"Master Samwise? Are you unwell?"
Tension mounted in his breast and his ears filled with roaring; he slipped from old Bill and spun unseeing, seeking Frodo. He took a few stumbling steps before his eyes rolled back in a swoon.
* * * *
From his place by Bilbo's pony Frodo saw Sam fall, and he ran out with a yell as Elves raced fast behind him.
"Sam!" Frodo called, falling to his knees and taking him in his arms before Gildor could.
Sam's eyes snapped open and he tried to stand, but upon seeing Frodo he relaxed. "Frodo! It's me, I've come!" he cried strangely, wrapping his arms about him hard.
"What? Rest, you've scared me," soothed Frodo as he stroked his hair and hugged him to his breast.
"It's all right," Sam murmured. His eyes were all unfocused but calm, and Frodo was watching him quietly, drawing his fingers down Sam's face. "It's all right," Sam repeated softly, smiling. "It's real, I've come."
With great tenderness Sam's fingers searched out the spot where Shelob had bit him, stroking, then he leaned forward and kissed him there on his neck, a hot damp touch, as his hands slipped under his cloak and jacket to run along the faded whip mark. Frodo's head whirled, for his hurts had never been touched this way and it was like being inside a song, as Sam had once said.
His eyes were closed when he felt Sam's breath upon his face, and then there was a most gentle pressure against his lips, Sam's mouth upon his, dry and warm and yielding.
It was a dizzying moment before Frodo broke from his shock and began to respond, weak with wanting. He reciprocated just on the brink of his control, trembling and feeling tears tumble down his cheeks as Sam's mouth opened to him. It was brief, and all too soon Sam made a careful retreat.
Frodo could but gasp, his heart throbbing anxiously. It was like one of those half-remembered dreams that made waking so bitter: for a moment, the world split asunder and Sam loved him.
Sam squeezed his hand. "I've got to get you out of here. At once, see!"
"Sam!" Frodo cried in anguish. Afraid, he did not protest when Elrond bent to take Sam from him. But by then Sam was already blinking and he seemed to break from his confusion. Elrond peered at him intently and called his name and Sam answered with a blush, insisting he was well. He did not remember falling.
Frodo stood back, ready to faint himself and unable to look at anyone. He dropped to the grass, sitting with his knees tucked under his chin. It didn't mean anything, you know it didn't, he repeated to himself. Yet hard as he tried he couldn't believe it. The memory of Sam's mouth throbbed undeniably upon his lips; the memory of Sam's hands pressed hotly upon his back. Vaguely aware that he was still crying, he wiped his face with his hand. It was fear that overcame him: slowly he realized he was afraid that Sam loved him, for against this his defences could not hold.
* * * *
The board was set; Gandalf stood beside Shadowfax in wait, and the sun's last light faded and the Sea roared, and the tall form of Círdan came down from the gates leading a host of Elves, and with them, three halflings. Here at the end of an Age there were a million thoughts and memories to consider, but the wizard's attention was fixed keenly upon the hearts of two small mortals. To Shadowfax alone he spoke of his hopes, and what he had Seen.
Yet for all his wisdom he was unprepared for the intensity of the scene before him, as the Company drew near. Blazing before him with purest quality and resolve were Frodo and Samwise, so overwhelming Gandalf thought he would have to shield his eyes--nay, his heart!--from its splendor. He laughed low and long in wonder, and Elrond held his gaze meaningfully, coming to greet him.
"They seek a triumph greater than we have yet wrought, Mithrandir."
"Indeed! I would be very sore of heart if they should fail." But looking upon them with fond amazement, he could not imagine that they would. There would be yet one more surprise brought by halflings, even here in the grey twilight.
"Samwise says Frodo will fall ill in a few days, while we are yet sailing. None can spare him that, I fear."
Elrond spoke with certainty and long Gandalf had feared it was so, for had he thought there was any remedy to be found for his friend, he would have searched out every corner of every land. But Sam walked forth as a beacon of hope everlasting, his will so firm Gandalf could not deny it.
Yet he could see the pieces were in disarray. Frodo remained many paces back with Bilbo, greeting Gandalf with eyes that would rather not see too far. Samwise was closer, shooting painful looks back at Frodo and panicked looks forward.
Before them waited the magnificent white ship, and gulls wheeled round its masts, and the grey sea rolled in against its sides. Sam stared long at it, his face thick with emotion, and finally Gandalf herded him close with an arm about his shoulders, moved to pity by the depth of fear and sorrow so bravely kept. He said nothing, feeling in Sam a quest the hobbit had to bear alone. So too was Sam silent, breaking away when Frodo came at last, and Gandalf embraced him too.
"My dear hobbits," Gandalf said quietly, "an end is come."
* * * *
Frodo had not the strength to spare eyes for Sam, looking instead at the white ship, letting it fill his thoughts too. He was almost completely taken, struggling upon the brink as his mind betrayed him, ever reaching to claim Sam!
With great effort he turned and began to walk up to the ship, staring as though he would burn it into his eyes, unable to see anything else forever.
This time I will choose to do what I came to do!
* * * *
Sam watched him, tension clamouring inside his chest. Already Círdan and the Elves were making the white ship ready. Frodo would not look at him, and now he was walking away determined and steady, drawn up to the ship single-mindedly. He was leaving; Frodo meant to leave him! Sam had but moments now and his panic grew, but his will was set: the Lady's last gift would not go to waste.
Upon the misty shores the little hobbit began to run, charging with his hand outstretched in offering rather than a sword.
He rushed before Frodo as if for battle, taking up Frodo's hand tightly in his own, his heart labouring. "'Tis beautiful, beautiful, this elven-ship that will bear you away! And peaceful it may be, but you've said naught of joy!"
Sam's voice and actions barely seemed his own. He drew Frodo's hand to him, and for a moment the elder hobbit stayed firm, resisting, his eyes wide in apprehension. Yes, they would fight.
"Please, Sam, do not speak of it!" Frodo pleaded, his tone one of warning. "I thought you would understand, Sam. It must be this way, there is nothing else for me! You must leave off, for I am weak, too weak; I would demand from you what you cannot give."
Frodo's raw emotion wounded Sam as a sword-thrust but he did not waver, and with great effort he spoke clearly: "I would give it."
This volley hit Frodo hard and he reeled, nearly moaning. He could not counter-strike, he but gasped and looked ready to flee, and Sam held him tighter still.
"Frodo," Sam whispered, the last mercy in a war that has already been won.
"Sam!" Frodo cried to the stars. "Tell me, I must know, did you give this to me?" Frodo's free hand scrambled to his pocket, and he wrenched his treasure out under Sam's eyes.
His ring! Sam had all but forgotten it, but seeing it bright in Frodo's palm gave him a thrill of new strength. "The night before we left, I gave it to you. And it's true I didn't mean to, but you needed it, and afterwards I wanted you to have it."
"Hold your words!" Frodo twisted suddenly and his hand slipped free, to his escape. He made to run, perhaps straight into the Sea, his back turned and his cloak flying.
Sam did not shout though his voice was strong. Nor was he seized by panic for his will was set with determination.
"I love you!"
* * * *
Frodo stopped and stood still. The wind blew. Frodo began to turn, and Sam spoke fast and light:
"I love you. More than anything else, Frodo dear. And I reckon I always have, but our hard journey brought your soul right up to the surface, as it were, and showed me how shining and lovely you are. How could I not love you, seeing that?"
Upon the wings of a great eagle, Frodo felt he was speeding beyond the moon, too fast to breathe. For a long moment he could but gasp, his hand pressed hard against his chest; now when he most needed to speak he could not force the words out.
His head fell forward upon Sam's strong shoulder, and Sam held him tight as he shook.
"It can't be, Sam, it can't be," Frodo whispered in tears. "It's a dream is all, a dream! O, but how can I bear to wake from it?"
"It's no dream," Sam replied softly, patiently stroking his face with his fingertips. "Feel it, it's all true." Carefully he squeezed Frodo's hand, then lifted it to his lips to kiss the gap of his missing finger. Frodo raised his head and stared into Sam's eyes, seeing there the beauty and spirit he had long loved.
"You've always been a work of wonder to me," Frodo said, his voice steadying. "I never tried to stop loving you, I could never do that, but I will not take anything from you! Sam, you are too bright for my heart, I can hardly bear it. I do love you, not merely for all you've done for me, but for what you are, for everything. O, Sam! There's a letter, I left it in the Red Book--"
Sam nodded, flushed and exhilarated. "I found it. I've got it here."
"You--you found it? You've got it? O!" And with a last burst of fighting strength within him, he again held out the ring. "But listen! You must go now, you have to go now. Take this, and go home to Rose and Elanor. It's all right. O! I shall be at peace, and you shall go on, and it will be all right."
Frodo clumsily tried to pass it safely to Sam's hands, but Sam crossed his arms firmly about his chest. "I gave it to you, Frodo. It's yours."
"Sam, I can't."
"Take it, Frodo, please. Keep it with you. Then I'll know you won't forget me, Havens or no. I think it will mean more on your finger than mine, if you follow me..."
As Frodo's tears finally spilled down his face, Gandalf approached them swiftly--too fast, as if danger were swirling down upon them. He dropped to his knees in a way more human than the ancient wizard ever looked, and took Sam's shoulders firmly. His gaze was hard and unrelenting.
"Samwise Gamgee, what do you mean by this?"
Sam wavered only a little in fright. "He's leaving me," he whispered. And then he shivered as if in pain, and indeed he felt his limbs were sore and a terrible weariness came over him.
"Samwise?" Gandalf said more softly. "Are you in pain?"
"Do not be troubled," a voice said, and all eyes looked up to the wondrous Galadriel, who fixed Sam in her gaze and slowly walked towards him. Gandalf rose and moved aside, reverently, but everyone else kept very still, especially Sam, who felt pinned to the spot. Galadriel came to stand before him, laying her beautiful white hand upon his brown forehead.
Sam felt as though a great light were entering him, spreading down from where she touched him, and he thought he could hear some kind of whispering inside his head but he did not mind, because it was so gentle and warm. Dimly he realized he had closed his eyes, and when he opened them he looked upon the shining face of the Lady, and he saw two tears slip free down her cheeks.
"There is black memory in his heart," she said, and let fall her hand from his forehead. "The mark of the Ring is upon him."
"No, no!" Frodo cried, hiding his face in his hands. "I can't bear it."
Sam was torn, trying to reach out to Frodo but feeling captivated by Galadriel's eyes. "I've no wound," he said softly. "It's just when he's gone that I feel it." Sam glanced at the host of people who now watched him breathlessly, embarrassed at the attention. "I carried the Ring for just a bit, hardly very long at all, when I thought he was gone from me. It was such a dark thing, and such a cruel time, and I remember it now when he's away."
Galadriel bowed gracefully and kissed his forehead, making Sam blush deeper, and released him from her scrutiny. Turning to Gandalf and Elrond, she said, "He is resilient, but against this his resiliency has not been tested. He could yet fade."
In shock and silence the company studied the stout little hobbit before them. Sam swallowed and stood a bit taller. "I mean to go with him," he said. "And I'll walk into the Sea to follow him if I can!"
Gandalf's face softened, and he touched Frodo's tear-stricken cheek, and took up both the hobbits' hands. "Samwise, you were meant to be healed and whole--indeed. You must not be separated, dear hobbits. If you wish it, you shall go with Frodo."
Sam's face lit up with naked joy, but Frodo seemed caught in a net of anguish. "Gandalf! He can't leave Rosie and Elanor. He can't give up his life to follow me."
"You must let him choose for himself," Gandalf admonished him tenderly, "so that he does not watch your ship sail away, begging you not to leave him standing on the shore."
Afloat in fear and pain, Frodo turned to Sam, awaiting his words with a pounding heart.
Sam looked straight into Frodo's eyes. "I've been wishing for this, for you. I'll not leave you. You deserve the greatest happiness to be had, after all you've done! I've a mind to give it to you." He held out his hands, laying them upon his wounded shoulder. "I've a mind to take your hurts away. I'll chase out the shadows and fill you against emptiness."
Frodo sobbed quietly. "But you will suffer, Sam, for all you are giving up!"
"Rosie has an errand, Frodo, I saw it. I have a feeling she'll do something grand. I already told her what you are to me, and I said I was going to stay in Rivendell until you were healed." Tears bright in his eyes, Sam took Frodo's unresisting left hand, and slipped the ring on his finger. "Don't you understand?" he whispered. "I'm yours, and you're mine. It's the way things are supposed to be. I can't abide being without you, in any case."
Frodo gasped, shuddering. Sam gathered him up in an embrace, simply comforting at first and then changing into something else. Forgetting that there was anyone watching, he stroked the back of Frodo's head, caressing his hair, transfixed by his beautiful eyes and face and body, by every line and shade of him. Hesitantly, like a flower petal in the breeze, Frodo reached out to touch Sam's face, and traced his fine fingers over Sam's mouth. Finally Sam knew he was not afraid. In a single fluid motion they leaned in together to taste each other's lips.
They pressed hard and close, heat rising between them, hands sweeping at each other's waists and backs.
Frodo cried against his mouth, recognizing these impassioned touches that were born in darkest Mordor and only now breaking free! They could hardly get close enough, hands scrambling to unite in vivid worship of how hard and fast they were bound. Now all would be shared between them. With fierce need Frodo explored Sam's mouth and breathed him deep, then was gentled, yielding to Sam's insistent tongue.
At length they broke apart, both faces wet with tears.
"Do you feel that?" Sam whispered as he stroked Frodo's shoulder gently. To Frodo it burned like a lad's finest summer.
"We'll come back," Frodo whispered desperately. "I promise we'll come back. I can't keep you away from the Shire forever. When we've tarried long enough over the Sea, we'll return and help Rose and find peace where we belong."
"There now," Sam whispered and brushed the moisture from Frodo's face. "It's all right. I love you."
At that, there was a great thunder as Merry and Pippin rode up in haste. "You tried to give us the slip once before and failed, Frodo!" Pippin said through his tears. "You'll have to say a proper goodbye, now."
But as they dismounted their faces changed, for they could see something had occurred between Frodo and Sam. Sam pressed Frodo's hand and held it, by way of giving him strength.
"I'm going too," Sam announced, seeing Frodo was too overwhelmed to speak. "I'm going with Frodo over the Sea."
"Cheers!" Merry and Pippin cried, waking Bilbo from a nap. "This is the best news we could hear."
"Yes, yes, it's lovely my lads," Bilbo said. "I'll write a song for you..." but he was already nodding and the verse wasn't forthcoming.
Frodo wiped his eyes and squeezed Sam's hand, addressing his cousins. "Bag End and the Red Book belong to Rosie, but she may come to you if she finds she doesn't want them."
"Don't worry, dear cousin. We'll take care of everything. That goes for you too, Sam."
Sam was very much moved, though a great peace was already spreading through his heart. "Rosie guessed I might not come back. But could you lend a hand betimes, and make sure Elanor learns her letters, and knows I love her?"
Merry and Pippin nodded, earnest and tearful.
With that, all words seemed to fail, and the four friends looked wistfully at the silver ship. Gandalf nodded at Elrond, and gracefully the elves began to board. Merry and Pippin threw themselves at Frodo and Sam, and the next few moments were spent in embraces, kisses, and whispered farewells. Then the great sails rolled out and billowed, and a strange new wind brushed over the Travellers' faces. Bilbo was led up onto the ship, humming softly in his sleep. Gandalf turned to Frodo and Sam.
"It is time, dear friends."
Sam swallowed. "Sailing, sailing, sailing over the sea...are we really going to do something so beautiful?"
"You and Frodo deserve beauty," Gandalf said. "If there is any beauty in Middle-earth, it is in your debt."
Hand in hand, Sam and Frodo went to the shore, and Gandalf helped them up the step to the little boardwalk. Frodo stopped when they reached the top.
"It may yet be our fate to see the splendor of the re-born cities," Frodo whispered. "When the light of the Undying Lands fills us both and washes away all shadows, we will cross the Sea once more and set our feet on Middle-earth for a little while, until an end is come of the Fellowship of the Ring. We will walk again through your forests, the trees taller than mountains. And we shall see the King, the greatest and wisest of all rulers; and Merry and Pippin, powerful knights of the City and the Mark. And Elanor, Sam, for she will outshine us all, and one day you shall tell your grandchildren of your brave deeds." Frodo gripped Sam's hands very tightly. "It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them. But for all that we have given up, by the grace of this world it may be returned to us. Sam, I believe your ring, this ring, will prove stronger than Isildur's Bane."
Sam wept and the ship was drawn up from the shore. Frodo reached into his weskit and took out his star-light, and held it out for his friends to see as the ship passed into white mist. Soon the shore was obscured, but still Sam and Frodo stood looking back, arms around each other. Only the falling of night and the birth of stars and wind drew them away, turning in their embrace to face the new horizon and pressing kisses on each other's hands. Gently Frodo set his star-light down upon the ship's stern, for he knew he would never need it again.
And so it was that the last of the great shadow departed.