35. Even the Dregs Are Sweet
November came in with cold rain and wind, and Frodo ordered a double load of wood from a young hobbit in the village who was saving up so he could marry his sweetheart at Yule. The fellow was glad to split and stack it for a few extra coins, and Sam smiled as he counted them out.
"She's a fine lass, that Dilly of yours! Mind you treat her well, Longo, and you'll be as happy as I was with Mistress Rose."
Longo grinned. "That's what I'm hoping, Mayor Samwise," he said. It was six years since Sam had ended his last term as Mayor, but the name still stuck.
They had nearly a month of dreary weather, and when it was not actually raining it looked as if it were going to. Sam and Frodo stayed close by the study fire, reading or playing chess. Frodo was long out of practice, but Sam had become expert at the game; he was embarrassed and Frodo amused when Sam took every game.
"You must have been listening, when I taught you years ago," Frodo said cheerfully, and Sam cleared his throat.
"Guess you didn't have much chance of keeping up your game, traveling around like you were, Mr. Frodo. Not much for chess, Mr. Radagast wasn't?"
Frodo grinned. "No – we played Orks and Tarks more than anything else. That and knucklebones."
Sam stared at him blankly, and Frodo chuckled. "Kings, lad – only you don't ask an orc to play a game of Kings, if you're wise! And Canohando liked to throw knucklebones by the fire of an evening."
From the corner of his eye Frodo saw Sam struggling to keep a straight face. He looked at him direct, quirking an eyebrow, and Sam gave it up, leaning back in his chair laughing and shaking his head.
"All right, Mr. Frodo! You've been wanting to tell me about them orcs of yours ever since you got home, and I wouldn't listen. Nothing I wanted to know about orcs that I didn't know already – but an orc that plays Kings is worth hearing about, I have to admit! You'd better go ahead and tell me."
Towards the end of the month the storms blew themselves out, and Frodo woke at last to a morning of terrible brightness. Sunlight dazzled his eyes when he pulled back his curtains, and he squinted, trying to guess the time. Long past breakfast, that was certain; more like midmorning. Sam had not come to wake him and so he had overslept himself.
He was afraid, and he almost ran down the passage to the kitchen. Sam would not have overslept; Sam never overslept. The kitchen was full of light and deadly silent, and he took a breath to steady himself before he turned to open the door of the little bedroom. Sam was old - oh, Elbereth, but he was old! Younger than Frodo, really, but he seemed older, and Rosie had died even younger. It took all the courage Frodo could muster to walk into that quiet bedroom.
My turn to draw his curtains, after all the years he did it for me, he thought, careful not to look at the bed. But when he did look, Sam lay flat on his back, eyes open, and he was breathing. Hearing those raspy breaths, Frodo breathed again himself; he hadn't noticed that he had stopped.
"Sam? Are you all right?"
It was a stupid question; of course Sam wasn't all right. He turned his head, the movement achingly slow, and his eyes held some dreadful knowledge. "I can't move my legs, Mr. Frodo. Nor my arms. It's an awful way to go."
Frodo sat down on the bed, smoothing the snowy hair back from Sam's forehead, thinking even as he did it how often Sam had wakened him that way, a gentle hand brushing the hair out of his eyes. "Do you hurt anywhere?" he asked.
"No, I just can't move. It was easier for Rosie; she went to sleep, is all. You'd better send for Elanor, Mr. Frodo, and the other children. It's their place to do for me until – well, as long as needs be. I don't want to be no burden on you, and you only home a little while after all those years away."
Anger welled up in Frodo, anger that Sam should be brought to such helplessness, and even more, that he would think himself a burden. He bit down hard on his lip; anger would not help; it would do no good to rail at death, and age, and sorrow. He bent his head, and his will, to accept what was.
"No, I won't send for Elanor," he said, and half smiled at Sam's confusion. "I won't, not if it means you'll shut me out, now when I can finally repay a little of my debt to you." Sam started to protest and Frodo stopped him with a hand laid lightly across his mouth. "Just answer me this, Samwise Gamgee! If I'd wakened this morning unable to move, would you have sent for Merry and Pippin, for my kinsfolk, to come care for me?"
"You know better nor that, Mr. Frodo."
"I do," Frodo nodded. "You would have done everything for me, right to the end, all the way to putting the coins on my eyes and planting flowers on my grave." Am I going too far, he wondered, saying the unspeakable, the unthinkable? But what else had Sam been thinking of, lying there unable to move since early morn? What else but death?
"You know you would have, Sam, and I would do no less for you. If you love me, don't ask me to stand aside now, when I can finally do for you. You'll break my heart."
He took Sam's hands, lying limp on the covers, and gripped them tight. After a moment he felt an answering pressure, weak, but Sam was squeezing his hands.
"Thank'ee, Mr. Frodo. It'll go easier, having you by me."
It was cold in the room. Frodo lifted Sam's hands to his lips, one after the other, and laid them down. "I'm going to get a fire going in here and make you some tea. Could you eat something?"
Sam shook his head, but when Frodo brought him some thin porridge a little later, he was able to swallow it. Frodo helped him sit up and packed pillows all around him, held the mug to his lips and fed him the porridge. When Sam wouldn't look at him for shame, he teased him out of it.
"Now, Sam, you did the same for me, that time I downed a bottle of brandy at one sitting and half poisoned myself! Remember that? You did more than just hold a mug for me to drink, that time, and I brought it on myself, my own foolishness. You haven't done anything to be embarrassed about, nor left the carpet in a state to need a week's airing, so don't let this worry you. Just remember, you'd do the same for me – and you have done, more than once!"
He had to send for Sam's children, of course. It was their right to be there, and in truth he couldn't have done it all alone. They came, and they cooked and carried water, washed the bedclothes and kept the fires going, and they sat with Sam and shared memories of their growing-up, till the little bedroom rang with laughter. Many a story Frodo heard, of mischief and merriment, all the family life he had missed by being away, and that Sam had not had time to tell him, or had not thought to tell him. And he told stories, too, of his travels with Radagast and the reclaiming of Mordor. Frodo suspected the children did not believe more than half of it, but Sam listened this time. He glossed over the danger the orcs had been to his own life, but he did not think Sam was deceived.
"You didn't really go and give Arwen's jewel to that orc!" Sam chided him after the children had left the room.
"Yes, I did."
Sam shook his head. "I don't know, Mr. Frodo. It don't seem like she would've liked that, Queen Arwen wouldn't. It was you she gave it to, and she wouldn't a given it to no orc."
Frodo smiled; it was the old argument about Smeagol, all over again. "Arwen herself would have given it to Canohando if she had known him. He needed it, in any event, as I did not by then. He had no Samwise, you see, nor any Rose, either, to help him." Sam snorted, but said no more.
There was laughter in Sam's bedroom, but it was a hard time for all that. They called for a healer, of course, but he could only suggest such horrors as bleeding Sam "to let the bad blood out" - Frodo took him by the arm and led him out of the room, paying him double the usual fee and shutting the door behind him with a decided thump.
"I am a healer," he told Sam's children, and he put forth all the skill Radagast had taught him, but to little avail. Sam never complained, but his helplessness was bitter to him, and though the paralysis in his arms eased a little, he could not feed himself. He tried from time to time when he had a good day, but it always ended with the spoon slipping from his hand, spilling its contents on the coverlet.
"It'll be a mercy to be finished with this. I wish I could die and have done with it!" he muttered one day when he thought himself alone. But Frodo was behind the door and heard, and it cut him to the heart. He could not wish it over, no, and him without his Sam. Yet it was wrenching to watch Sam flounder when he had always been so strong, and heartbreaking to realize Sam's life was a burden to him now. He went and knelt by the bed, his arm across Sam's chest and his head next to him on the pillow.
"You'll leave me soon enough, dearest of friends. Don't begrudge me these last days with you, when I've missed so many."
Sam groaned. "You weren't meant to hear that, Mr. Frodo."
"No, I know I wasn't. Sam, will you understand me when I say, I wish you didn't have to go through this – but I'm glad I'm here to go through it with you?"
Sam nodded. "I'm glad of that too. I know it's no use to say I couldn't bear something, but I don't know how I could've borne this, if you hadn't a been here with me." With difficulty, he raised an arm to give Frodo a clumsy hug.
Finally one morning Sam didn't wake, but lay all day in a heavy sleep. His children slipped in and out to sit with him a while, saying their farewells, but Frodo didn't stir from his side all day, holding Sam's hand, rubbing it gently between his own, and bending once or twice to kiss his forehead, when they were alone for a few minutes. He didn't say much; there wasn't much they hadn't said already. Only now and again he murmured, "No hobbit ever had a friend like you, Sam, dear Sam. Thank you for being my friend." Near sunset Sam gave a deep, shuddering breath, and that was the end.
Frodo rose and called Sam's sons and daughters, but he himself went outside into the cold, unseeing and alone. I will always be alone now, he thought. I came home for Sam, and Sam is gone. He walked down into the old Party Field and leaned against the mallorn that Sam had planted and been so proud of, and there he wept until he had no more tears.
When he went back in at last, Elanor and her sisters had taken over, washing their father and dressing him in his best. When they had done, Sam's sons came to coffin the body, but Frodo would not allow it.
"We'll do it in the morning; there will be time enough, before folk begin to come," he said. "Let him stay as he is for tonight. He looks so peaceful, you might almost think he slept."
They bowed to his wishes – it was what their Da would have done, after all. And when some of them would have kept watch and Frodo asked to watch through the night by himself, they yielded to him in that, as well. But when they came in the morning, Frodo wasn't in his chair by the bed. It stopped them for a moment. Then Elanor said softly, "Here he is." Frodo lay on the bed beside Sam, his arm around him and his face hidden against Sam's shoulder. "Mr. Frodo, wake up, sir. It's time," she said, and touched his back, half fearing to find him dead as well. But he opened his eyes and sat up, rubbing his hands over his face.
"I'm sorry," he said. "Not the proper way to watch beside the dead, I know, only –"
Elanor took his hand and helped him up. "Da would've been pleased," she said gently. "There's hot water ready in your room, Mr. Frodo, for you to wash up, and one of the children will bring your breakfast tray."
She was a good manager, Sam's eldest daughter, and Frodo let himself be managed. The day passed in a blur as half the Shire trooped through the smial to bid farewell to Mayor Samwise. He had been greatly beloved, and it comforted Frodo in his grief to see the esteem in which his Sam had been held. On the second morning they buried him next to Rose, and the old cemetery was packed to the white picket fence with hobbits come to pay their respects. Bag End was thrown open afterwards to serve hot cider and slabs of spice cake to everyone who stopped by.
Frodo remained in the background, and there were few who noticed him. Thain Peregrin was there, of course, with Diamond, and the Master of Buckland had come with Estella; they had been visiting the Thain when word came of Sam's death. They stayed on at Bag End for a few days, and Frodo sat late by the fire with Pippin and Merry, smoking and talking, retracing in memory the paths they had followed together with Sam. Those evenings stayed in his mind like glowing miniatures, bathed in light, in the cloud of sorrow that had closed around him. Pippin had always, even from babyhood, been able to make him laugh, and that had not changed.
At length there was no one left at Bag End but Frodo and the Gardners, and it came to him abruptly that this was no longer his home; it was the inheritance of Sam's children. Where shall I go? he wondered, and lay awake most of one night pondering the question.
Merry or Pippin would find room for him and gladly, either one of them, and certainly they had plenty of space. He thought back to the Hall of his childhood, warm and boisterous and crowded. Even as a child he had yearned for a quiet corner where he could be alone to read and think. Now, after years in the wilderness with only Radagast for company, he did not think he could bear the teeming, anthill life of Brandy Hall. And the Great Smials would be the same or worse, even apart from the protocol and formality that had been funny when he visited, but would be hard to bear if he could not get away from it.
There was a family living at Crickhollow now or he would go there, but surely there must be a little smial tucked away somewhere, where he could spend whatever time remained to him. Near Hobbiton, he hoped; he would like to stay near Hobbiton, where Sam had lived his entire life apart from the year of the Quest and one visit to Gondor. He buried his face in his pillow as grief took him by the throat again.
After breakfast he asked Elanor if she knew of a small place he could rent, and she turned to him with a look of astonishment.
"Why, Mr. Frodo? Are we so hard to live with?" Frodo stammered apologies, explanations, and she smiled. "There's no need for you to go anywhere, sir. I know it's crowded here right now, but we'll all be going to our own homes in the next few days; there'll be no one here but Fro and his family, and he's only got the four."
"Young Fro might like to have his home to himself, however," Frodo said with wry humor. "The smial should not come equipped with a long-past owner, like a ghost in the back bedroom."
Elanor laughed. "Oh, he'd have a ghost, right enough, did he fail to make you welcome! Da would come back and haunt him sure! Don't you worry, Mr. Frodo," she added seriously, "we think Fro has the best luck of the lot of us, getting Bag End and you thrown in for good measure! If you get weary of him and Daisy and want a holiday, some time, you can come to any of us and we'll be delighted to have you."
"Thank you," Frodo said, deeply moved.
"Do you know what it meant to Da, having you come back?" Elanor asked softly. "I don't think he ever once spoke of you, all those years, without saying you'd promised to come home again. And we're that thankful, all of us, that you were here when he was stricken. It was you that carried him, Mr. Frodo; if you hadn't been here, he might've turned bitter at the end. You kept him from that. Fro will give you Bag End outright, if you want it; he told me so only yesterday. He won't move his family in till you say the word."
"Won't he?" Frodo asked, suddenly swept by remorse. He should have talked to young Fro before this, knowing he would naturally be Sam's heir. "Do you know where he is, Elanor? I must get this cleared up at once."
So Fro and Daisy went home only long enough to pack up their household and move to Bag End. The old smial echoed to the antics of four lively young hobbits, and mealtimes were feasts of good cooking and good cheer. After some negotiation with Fro, in which each tried to give the other the master bedroom, Frodo stayed in the room next to his old study – which was plenty large enough for his needs, as he pointed out in some exasperation to the young Master, besides being convenient if he wanted to sit up late reading. They all settled down agreeably together, and Frodo told himself daily how lucky he was, back in his old home, honored and well cared for by Sam's own children.
In the daytime he could believe it. In the daytime, surrounded by bustling family life, he managed well enough. He kept up his end of conversations, joined in the good-natured teasing around the dinner table, played chess with Fro sometimes and taught the game to the older children. They were all mourning Sam, but they kept up a façade of cheerfulness, and he felt this was healthy and right.
At night, though, sleep was elusive. He lay in bed as long as he could stand it, staring at the back of his eyelids, and then he got up and went into the study, wrapping up in a thick eiderdown to avoid having to light a fire. He tried to read, but he couldn't keep his mind on the book; tried to write, but it seemed pointless. Radagast would say I've lost my purpose, he thought, and he'd be right.
He felt like a burnt-out candle, used up. He had healed, at length and painfully, from the Quest, and had done what he could in the desolation of Mordor. The memory of the orcs rose before him and he wondered if they yet lived, wished blessing on them for the thousandth time.
He had kept his promise to Sam, had come home and been here to support him through the last battle. Is there something I still have to do? He opened the study window and stood with the cold air blowing over him, looking up at the stars, brilliant in the winter night. Isn't it enough yet? he asked silently. Can't I come home? And then he wondered at his own question.
One night it snowed. He looked out the window, and the ground was already covered, the air thick with flying snowflakes. The study seemed suddenly too small to hold him, and he wrapped his cloak around him, the same old cloak that the Elves of Lothlorien had given him a long lifetime ago, and stepped outside.
The stars were invisible, but the snow glittered on the ground and in the air, and he felt as if he were moving through stars, whirling, icy specks of light in blackest emptiness. Frightening, a little, but exhilarating too, and he reveled in it, feeling really alive for the first time since Sam's death. He stuck out his tongue to catch a snowflake.
Second childhood, he explained to an invisible watcher. I'm old enough; I'm entitled to a second childhood. It amused him and he laughed aloud, then choked back the sound, lest he waken someone inside the smial. He turned away from Hobbiton, toward the open field and the woods beyond.
The field was a trackless spread of white, like a new page not yet written on. He wrote his footprints on it, pushing against the wind that tried to unwind his cloak and spun icy particles sharp against his cheeks. Joy leaped up in him as he fought to keep possession of the cloak, blinking his eyes to free his lashes from the clinging snowflakes. The woods, when he reached them, were magical. There was no wind here and the snow fell straight down, a clean sweep of shining glory. Like Galadriel's hair, he thought, half dazed with cold and beauty.
There was someone leaning against a tree off to the left, and he turned that way. Whoever it was didn't move, just waited for him, and he had nearly reached the place when a piercing agony came out of nowhere and transfixed him. Pain burst in his throat and shot into his chest and down his arms. He gasped and stumbled, falling heavily full length on the ground, his face in the snow.
Then there was an arm around him, someone helping him to arise. The pain was gone as suddenly as it had come and he scrambled to his feet, a strong hand hauling him upright. He looked to see who it was.
"Sam!" he said, and felt the smile spreading over his face. He had a vague thought that he ought to be surprised, but he was only glad; he grabbed Sam around the middle, laughing, and Sam grinned and pounded him on the back. It was as if all the years between had never been; Sam was again the strong young gardener who had set out with him from Crickhollow, back when the Darkness was only a threat they ran from, before they knew its horrible reality.
"Are you ready, Mr. Frodo? I've come for you."
"I'm ready." Sam took his hand and they stepped out side by side, marching together as they had through all the long Quest, but they skimmed over the snow now instead of wading through it, and then they were climbing, up into the swirling flakes of light, higher and higher until it was no longer snowflakes but really the stars, that danced around them.