This afternoon there are two. Maybe there had been more, though no doubt they are one with the ashes in the fireplace now, but two were saved from the flames. I pick them and flatten them with my hand and I read.
The paper is smooth, bordered with intricate gold patterns, adorned at the top with the crest of Gondor. But the hand that wrote on that beautiful paper might as well be a child's. The lettering is big, written with a clumsy hand, smudged and spattered with ink. Runes. You never do set much store by runes, do you, all straight lines and dots, with none of the graceful curls and elegant curves of the tengwar script. But runes are kinder on your poor hand, aren't they?
The creased paper shakes in my hand as I read it and start to tremble. I sit on the footstool by the fire, supporting my head in one hand, the paper still clutched in the other.
"Why do you write all the time, Master Frodo?"
The kitchen at Bag End was warm and fragrant from pies being baked in the oven. Sam sat on the bench by the table, writing carefully on his large copybook. Frodo sat beside the hobbit lad, watching Sam's quill move squeakily across the paper.
"Because I have so much to write, Sam. Yes. That's it. Don't linger there too long; move on before the ink starts to drip. Make the stem a bit longer so no one will mistake it for an n. Don't forget the tehta. Good, but …" Frodo shifted and held Sam's little hand in his, their fingers met near the tip of the quill.
"Here let me show you. Don't grip the quill, hasn't Bilbo taught you that? Hold it gently. Think about holding violet stems; they are fragile, and if you pinch too hard, they will break. Gently."
Sam watched as Frodo took the quill in his fingers, twirling it to show how light his hold was. Long, soft, fair fingers, noted Sam, who could not help comparing his brown, stout digits to those of his young master's, and, looking at Frodo's well-trimmed, clean nails, wishing he could hide his along with the traces of dirt under them.
"Don't put too much pressure on the paper so you can move faster. Think of the quill as hovering over the paper, instead of dragging on it; light touch. Butterflies, not snails. Can you do that?"
Sam tried, twirling the quill experimentally in his fingers and scribbling a series of meaningless zigzags on the paper. He turned hopefully to Frodo. Frodo nodded. "Now with ink. Camellia."
Sam bent his head over his book and started writing again, hoping he had copied Frodo's ease and speed.
"Asphodel," said Frodo.
Sam blinked and immediately scribbled. His face was bent over his book, brows drawn together in concentration, but he managed to mumble, "So what exactly do you write, sir?"
"Oh, plenty, Sam. Letters, mainly. My plans and journal. Interesting things that I saw or did in one day. No, put the tehta… Ye-es, like that. My thoughts and ideas too, sometimes. And of course, recipes. Petunia now."
"Why do you need put them into writing?
"Why? Oh, for many reasons, Sam. You're really getting very good at this. Bilbo is very lucky to have you for a student. He will be happy to see how much your writing has improved. He was worried that leaving you for a fortnight to Bree will set things back a long way. Now Marigold."
"Must be the teacher, sir."
"I have the feeling that even the most incompetent teacher will be able to coax a sterling scholar out of you, Sam. You're a marvel. Now here's a tricky one. Daffodil."
"I'm going to do that too, sir, when my writing is better."
"Do what, Sam?"
"Write things that happen. Write what I do in the garden."
"That's a good idea, Sam. Why don't you do that? Writing things down helps us remember. So if we write about something that makes us happy, we can feel that joy again when we read about it…"
But what about memories so dark that forgetting them is difficult in itself? I read the paper again, and this time I cannot stay the tears.
"So many scars. It's frightening how Sam could walk in that accursed place with me, with so many cuts and gashes on his body and still only think about my well-being. The most horrible is, of course knowing that I was aware of none of them. If Merry had not told me, I would still have harbored the conviction that at least Sam had been mercifully spared the most grievous injuries. I knew I could not expect to complete this quest and come out unscathed, and I knew I had not the power nor skill to protect Sam from harm. But how could I have been so blind and deaf to his suffering? Why did I not remember him falling and stumbling and injured so badly that the wounds left those scars all over him? Did I inflict any of those wounds on him? Had I ever attacked him, thinking he was trying to take It from me? Did he fall when he carried me, crushed under my weight atop those sharp rocks? Did he get injured trying to protect me from myself? I am haunted by all these uncertainties, by this vast hollowness where I cannot remember how Sam got hurt."
Is there any reason at all to record terror and torment, Mr. Frodo? Will you ever write anything sweet and joyful again? The thought is too painful to bear.
"Mr. Frodo?" Sam walked around the tall man-sized chair and gazed at his master's face.
Frodo was sitting propped by many cushions at the desk in the spacious study of his quarters, his face wearing a look of pained disbelief, his left fist jammed into his mouth to stop him from sobbing, but his tears left wet tracks on his ashen cheeks, and pale, damp florets on the paper lying on the desk.
"Sir?" Sam called cautiously, giving Frodo's arm a gentle touch. "Shouldn't you be in bed now? It's late. Is something wrong?"
Frodo slowly turned to look at Sam, his eyes too bright and confused. "Look," he said in a small, quavering voice.
Sam stood on tiptoes and peered at the paper in front of Frodo. Frodo had obviously meant to write something and had even scrawled a few lines on the paper. But they were hardly legible. They looked pitifully like the meaningless squiggles that children made.
"I cannot…" gasped Frodo miserably, staring helplessly at Sam.
The only outward sign that Sam was horrified and grieved at the loss of something as distinctively Frodo as his neat, elegant handwriting was a series of rapid blinks. But then he smiled cheerfully and scurried away only to return with a wooden footstool. He placed it beside Frodo's chair and stood on it, one arm flung around Frodo's shoulder.
"Now, sir, don't take on so," he said soothingly, picking Frodo's quill from its resting place across the paper. "It's naught but stiffness, I suppose, sir. How long since last you held a quill?"
He slipped the quill into the space between Frodo's thumb and his first two digits. He had to suppress a shudder when he saw blue ink stains where there never was any, standing out like tiny bruises. "You'll get used to it, sir. Why, when I was learning my letters, Mr. Bilbo once said I held my quill like a spade." He closed Frodo's fingers on the quill and steadied them with his own hands; brown, sturdy fingers on pale, trembling ones.
"No, Sam..." whispered Frodo, shaking his head. "I've been doing this all night. It did not get any better."
Sam breathed deeply and guided Frodo's hand toward the ink pot.
"Remember, sir, butterflies, not snails," he whispered as he poised Frodo's hand over the paper.
"What?" choked Frodo.
"The quill should hover, sir," explained Sam, adjusting the quill's position. "Not drag."
Frodo turned his head slightly and met Sam's solemn expression. "Very well," he whispered. "Butterflies; I'll bear that in mind. What should I write?"
"Well, start with the easy ones, sir, like I did with Mr. Bilbo. Write them names and words. Shall we begin with yours?"
A wry smile broke on Frodo's lips. "Sam, I appreciate what you are trying to do. But if it were a case of stiffness like you told me, what makes you—who spent these past months doing everything but writing—convinced you can help me?"
"It ain't so much helping as remembering it myself, sir," said Sam thoughtfully. "I reckon tackling this together is easier than doing it alone."
Frodo stared long at Sam, and a smile quirked the corners of his mouth. "I've known this would happen, you know," he said. "You have become a warrior, and now you are a wizard."
"Beg pardon, sir," said Sam firmly. "I'm not a wizard nor a warrior neither; just a plain gardener and a ninnyhammer, is all. And we could sit here and chat till sunup if you like, but that ink is getting dry."
"Right," said Frodo. Sam took a surreptitious glance at his master's face and heaved a breath of relief. The look of haunted grief had disappeared, replaced by something reminiscent of determination.
They wrote Frodo.
Even with Sam's steadying hand it was difficult. But at least what they wrote was readable. They wrote Samwise, Sam, Merry, Meriadoc, Peregrin, Pippin, Gimli, Legolas, Gandalf, Faramir, and Boromir and by the time they came to Aragorn, they argued which of his name should be used for practice.
Finally they decided on Estel.
It hasn't gone as well as you wished, has it, Mr. Frodo? But you're trying, you're learning, you don't give up. I'm right proud of you. But still at the end of the day, when I look into the study and collect the crumpled sheets of paper, my heart breaks all over again to see your pitiful, painful scribbles. Another thing left behind by that horrible Ring, that is. I know how important writing is to you, specially now, when you seem so bent on telling everything that has happened, and not for only Mr. Bilbo neither, but I suppose for all of us. I know it must have riled you that you can't seem to write as easily and as fast as you used to, but I think you mustn't push yourself so much, Mr. Frodo, and take everything easy. You've been through a lot and a body needs time to get back to normal. Plenty of time yet. You've nothing else to do once we get back to Crickhollow and you can write all you want then. I don't think it wise to recall all the bad memories when you can still see the smoke of Mordor from the garden outside and your hand is still healing. Write something nice; those Rohirrim songs are pretty lively, aren't they? Write some of them and see if it can't bring a skip and a beat to your blood.
I put the first paper on the table and smooth out the other one. Oh, stars! Tengwar! And look at how much better your hand is already. I wonder why you threw this one away. You fair glide through the paper and …
My eyes fly open and I hold my breath. Surely this isn't… You can't have … I must be wrong. But there it is…
The script has the graceful, sweeping curves that are so typically elvish that at first I was eager to read it. But then I find that the language isn't elvish; it's a strange tongue: harsh sounding and dark in tones, unlike the elves' sweet, musical speech.
Didn't Gandalf mention what the writing on the Ring read in the council of Elrond? Is this it? Is this what you saw when Gandalf threw the Ring in the fire at Bag End and told you to look at It after? If it is, Mr. Frodo, how can you remember it? You only saw it once, didn't you?
My eyes sweep once more over the paper and I cringe when I realize you have written that accursed rhyme over and over again so that the length of the paper is filled with a web of it, some sharp and clear, others wobbly and stained.
I stand quickly, still clutching the paper, my heart racing madly and my breath comes in ragged grunts. I run to your room, a wild scream locked in my throat, anger roaring in my head. Why, Mr. Frodo, why? You write it like it was a piece of love poetry, to be remembered and treasured. You write it over and over again like it was sweet words from a lover that you don't want to forget. Why, Mr. Frodo? Aren't there a lot of other things: poems, songs, lays, that you can write? Other than this madness? This poison?
I burst into your room without knocking and am just about to open my mouth to yell some sense back into you when I see that you're sleeping.
You didn't even change into your nightshirt; you lay there in your clothes, all rumpled and lumpy around you. You look exhausted, but peaceful, in your sleep. Your right hand—still holding a piece of paper—lies slack near your face.
I move closer and gently ease the paper from your fingers, my own hand shaking in fear. What have you written now?
This was written with an unsteady hand, but I can still read it. Word after word, line after line, my eyes trail slowly across your quill stroke, relishing each syllable and every sound. Tears come stinging to my eyes. The crumpled paper with the evil inscription falls from my fisted hand and rolls unnoticed on the floor. I have eyes only for that paper you have kept, the one you didn't throw into the fire.
"Though here at journey's end I lie
in darkness buried deep,
beyond all towers strong and high,
beyond all mountains steep,
above all shadows rides the Sun
and Stars for ever dwell:
I will not say the Day is done,
nor bid the Stars farewell."
A drop of tears falls on the paper, blurring the end of the last word. I hastily wipe it and try to swallow my sob for fear of waking you. But the catch in my breath must have been loud enough, because you stir and murmur, and suddenly your eyes flutter open.
"Hullo, Sam," you say with a little, sleepy smile. But then you frown and look closely at me. "What happened, Sam? Have you been crying? Are you all right?"
I take your right hand in mine and squeeze it happily. Oh, Mr. Bombadil was right when he said your hand is more fair without It, even now, with the missing finger and all. I return your smile—oh, I can laugh and skip about for joy—but I only smile at you. "I am, sir. I am now."
A/N: The song "Though here at journey's end I lie…" is taken from Sam's song in the Tower of Cirith Ungol in The Return of The King. Many thanks to Aratlithiel for proofing this.
For Niphredil of Ithilien, whom I love.