The second summer after Frodo returns to the Shire, a story is requested of him. He spent the first year return dodging questions about what he saw, accepting pies and stews from all over the Shire; the forest-coloured quilt Mrs. Gamgee left in a basket along with supper because she heard Sam say he's cold more often than not these days, even in summer. People talked around him rather than they talked to him. Their conversations trickled off whenever he walked close enough to overhear. When they did talk to him without pretence, he could always tell when someone wanted to ask him forthright about the journey but held back for propriety’s sake. There were times he sometimes wished they'd come out and ask how much a Ring of power weighed around his neck, whether the shriek of a Fellbeast is as wretched as they could imagine, what the King is like in person. He wouldn’t answer, except for the last question. Still, that would be better than everyone he knows dancing around him like he’ll shatter if looked at the wrong way, careful footwork keeping them from stumbling over something too important.
It is Midsummer Eve. The air smells of spiced ale and newly-burst berries, the last streaks of pink-kissed sky illuminating every bright and beautiful thing out to play. At the centre of the glade, there is a large circle of hobbits joined hand-in-hand, laughing like youngsters as they pull each other along in a dance that is more of an exercise of trust than anything else. Rosie Cotton is among them, a crown of vines and blue salvia twined through her hair. Sam likewise has a salvia bloom threaded through the buttonhole in his best vest, the one he was first given in Minas Tirith when his old one was scant more than scrapcloth. He keeps touching the flower tucked over his heart, careful fingers ghosting over it enough to remember it’s real but not enough to crush such a delicate thing. He looks down with a flush quite different from the one brought on by drink. It is Midsummer Eve and they are alive in the Shire where everything is green, and the first tears of starlight in the sky begin to bleed through the sunset, and Sam is so beautiful.
Frodo would spend the rest of his life with him if given the option. If he could make peace with the fact of his being allowed to grow old when he had resigned himself to dying young.
“Oh, please just one story, Mr. Frodo!” pleads young Bryony Hornblower, who is sitting so close enough to overlap on the hem of his cloak. At her words, the congress of children surrounding her begin to chime in with their agreement. He is unsure whether they are simply desperate for a break from his recitations of Bilbo’s poetry or, more likely, whether they have been waiting for an opportunity to ask for a story after being advised against it by their parents. A dozen little voices ring out at once, brimming with politeness, but there’s hunger present too.
It isn’t only the children. The more commotion they make, the more eyes they draw from the assembled Hobbits. Reproachful tongue-clicking from mothers and gentlehobbits at how unthinking their children can be without acknowledging that they are no less hungry for a tale. The pleading grows incessant enough to reach Merry from where he is having some sort of loud debate about horses (claiming superiority in his knowledge, of course. He’s an esquire of Rohan, don’t you know? Appointed by the late King). His cousin whirls around on the bench and gives a look that conveys ‘I will do something ridiculous to change the situation if that is what you need’ without so much as a shift in his countenance. Pippin also looks up from his plate, a carrot paused halfway to his agape mouth. Sam was the first one to notice a Something of Potential Destructive Quality brewing, and cut through the assemblage sword-swift to take his place at Frodo’s side, one warm hand lingering on the small of his back.
Frodo wishes he could share a story for the children. He wishes for nothing more in the whole wide world, except to be free of what he has endured. If he could, he would recount the softness of elvish beds and the awe-inspiring light in Lady Galadriel’s eyes. He could talk for hours of Aragorn’s compassion, of Gimli’s surety with his axe, and light-footed Legolas traipsing over the snowy pass at Caradhras as though he weighed nothing. But, talking of the Fellowship before it was broken would mean talking of Boromir before the Horn of Gondor washed up in two on a riverbed, delivered straight to his brother’s hands. It would mean remembering the way the rock at Moria crumbled and shook beneath their feet before taking Gandalf down with it. It would mean recounting the way the Nazgûl’s blade carved through him like air. Frodo wishes he could remember the moments of beauty he experienced, could live in the pockets of grace that nearly lifted him from his feet, but there is no acknowledging the good without also the bad.
There is a reason he bolts the door to Bag End three times before he can sleep. And there is a reason why he sometimes wakes to the feeling of an unknown key turning in the lock. It’s the same reason why the four of them spent the first nights back in the Shire lined up together in Frodo’s large, almost-forgotten bed, in a home more memory than corporeal. The same reason why Sam moved in down the hall some nights and on the pillow next to Frodo others. Because neither of them can bear the lonely stillness.
Something in his throat shrivels the way each word ached through cracked lips on the cliffs of Mt. Doom. Sam’s hand is so warm against the velvet of his jacket. How amazing it is that he can still be warm after all they’ve experienced.
“Now don’t you go overwhelming Mr. Frodo like that,” he chides, and the children fall silent at once. “He doesn’t need to tell you anything if he’s no wish to!”
“Actually, I was going to say that they’d be much more successful if they asked you for a tale,” he tilts his head to look up at Sam, presses his own hand into Sam’s on the small of his back. It is an exchange of trust, this look. A giving of permission. Frodo cannot talk of the wonders he experienced all across Middle-Earth, but Sam can. And he knows that whatever tale Sam will choose, he will honour the truth of the matter.
Most everybody knows some degree of the story, as it stands. Poems and songs of the Ring-bearer from Hobbiton are in no short supply. One bard even travelled so far as from South Harad so she could find adequate words for the blue of his eyes. The Smallest Hands, the Biggest Burden is catchy and quotable, with whole stanzas entering unprompted into his mind when he thought he’d finally forgotten them.
Sam stammers an excuse that’s less to do with being unsure if he can bring himself to speak of their quest, and more to do with the nerves from so many eyes on him. There’s rather a lot of ‘oh I couldn’t do it justice’, and ‘I wouldn’t know where to start’, and ‘it’s not really mine to tell’.
That last one takes the air from Frodo’s lungs. He wants to shake Sam until he stops hiding inside himself, even now. Of course, it’s yours, he wants to say. You carried the Ring when you carried me. There’s no story without you. The Shire wouldn’t still be standing if not for Samwise the Brave. He pulls Sam down on the blanket beside him. Their knees knock together before their bodies fall into place. Now it is his hand on Sam’s back and the warmth is beginning to converge at the meat of his palm. “Tell them about Rivendell,” he murmurs against the shell of Sam’s ear, “you were so excited to see the elves.”
Once the stories start, it is unclear when, if ever, they will stop. Most often, it is Sam who tells them, though on occasion, he’ll hand the reins over to one of the others (“if it’s stories of Rohan you’re after, you’d better ask Merry. He shared the Queen’s horse in battle, he did.” or “I first saw Minas Tirith half a ruin. Sauron would have razed it to the ground if Pippin hadn’t lit the first beacon”). When Gandalf visits, he is the one whose feet the children sit at, whose direction the parents turn to, not in disdain or caution, but wonder. He speaks of vanquishing the Balrog with such frequency, Frodo is sure he could recite it from memory. The children love it almost as much as they love to hear about that fateful night in the Prancing Pony, the first meeting with the man who would be King. Before he was Elessar, before he was even Aragorn. Nothing but a ranger from the North with the presence of three men and the heart of twenty.
“Sam almost fistfought the King the first time they met,” he says, unable to keep the smile from his face.
Sam mumbles for at least half a minute. Something about how Frodo going off with a disreputable man in a tavern filled with disreputable men couldn’t be a sign of anything good and how it wasn’t only him. Merry and Pippin were right there with him. Three Hobbits against one Man may have given them a fighting chance.
“I had a stool,” Pippin recalls.
“Yes, and Merry had a candelabra,” Frodo finishes without looking at him. “But Sam, all you had was your fists. That’s all you needed.”
Colour punctuates Sam’s cheeks. It travels all the way up to the tips of his ears, all the way down to the hollow of his throat. “There wasn’t much else furniture for me to take! Gandalf told me to keep you safe.”
“You made a promise, as I remember. ‘Don’t you lose him, Samwise Gamgee’, and you stuck to that promise to the end.”
The child on his knee has grown quite antsy, either by Frodo’s failing grip to keep her from tumbling to the ground, or by the lack of excitement. Sam’s mouth has fallen open just slightly and Frodo remembers how, near the end of their journey, when he couldn’t recall the grassy hills of his home, the only proof he had that green ever existed was the colour of Sam’s eyes.
Pippin interrupts whatever moment they were hurtling towards with a loud gagging sound which makes the children erupt into a round of giggles. Around them, the picnic is getting packed up , and Frodo finds plate after plate of leftovers pushed in his direction.
“It wouldn't have been much impressive, even if Sam had managed to take Aragorn in a round of fisticuffs,” Merry shrugs, “he’s surprisingly easy to knock over.”
Frodo receives a visitor once, from the farthest reaches of Gondor. Visitors from Gondor are not quite the novelty they were a few years ago, though most come in an Official Capacity, and some visitors are from far more exotic locales than the great kingdoms of Men. The wizened old man on his doorstep has skin like tree bark, milk-white eyes, and a hunched spine. Despite looking moments from collapsing on Frodo’s doorstep (which sees a fast remedy by Sam fetching a cup of water and helping him to a chair), his voice is steady.
His speech is slow, careful, the way one unwraps a wound, “I lost three of my grandsons to the War of the Ring. On the battlefield. In Osgiliath before it was overrun by Orcs. During the siege of Minas Tirith."
Frodo is unsure of what he could possibly say in response, what he’s supposed to say. What does this man seek to gain from this encounter? Whyever would he travel so far only to tell him this? He must have some other motivation, some other need. If he seeks to make Frodo feel guilty, he succeeds. If it’s absolution he’s after, Frodo has no idea how to give that to him.
“I’m sorry,” he begins and of course his voice comes out as a horrible rasp like he’s trying to fight back tears despite dry eyes. There’s nothing more he can say. He’s sorry he didn’t destroy the Ring before it came to this, but wasn’t he trying his hardest? He’s sorry that this man lost his grandchildren, but that story isn’t exactly unique. Everybody lost something in the War, if not a loved one, then themselves. He’s sorry that such an artefact of evil existed, but wishing things had turned out different won’t do anything to change the past. Sam hovers behind his chair, ready to expel their visitor if he tries anything.
“You didn’t let me finish,” the man says. “I lost three of my grandsons to the War of the Ring, but not all of them. One would have died at the Black Gate if you hadn’t destroyed the Ring when you did. And for that, I am grateful.”
This time Frodo does feel his eyes begin to sting at the corners and before the tears start falling, Sam is already handing over a handkerchief, his other hand holding tight to his shoulder.
“I would ask one favour of you.”
“Of course,” Frodo answers. He’d give anything to this man who travelled all the way from Gondor.
The man asks for Frodo to lay his hands on his face. He seeks no promise of a miracle from this action, only wants for the hands that tossed the Ring into the fires of Mount Doom against his skin. When they’re done, after Frodo politely asks the man about his grandsons, about the ones that fell, about the one that survives, he thanks them for their time and heads off on his way.
Many months later, Sam and Frodo have long forgotten their visitor from the south. There have been others in the time since, and they have never spoken of that particular visit with anyone else. It didn’t feel like it was theirs to share, just theirs to sit with until it faded from memory. His likeness is carved by the Dwarves and stamped onto medals to be worn, ironically, around one’s neck. In the great hall of a small town just outside the land that used to be Isengard, is a relief of his face decorating the wall. The artisans used sapphires for his eyes, gold leaf for the chain around his neck. Frodo thinks such precious treasures would be better used to rebuild the town, but can no sooner tell the townsfolk that. When he walks to the far edges of the Shire, under the tree-lined paths where he used to sit and read in the comfort of his own solitude (something he can no longer do for a lingering fear of ambush), he swears he hears the trees whisper Ring-bearer.
In the depths of winter, a story reaches Hobbiton of a blind man who regained his sight after being touched by the Ring-bearer. Whether the story has any grain of truth to it matters not. This is what happens with stories like his, they take on lives of their own. His story belongs not only to him but all Middle-Earth. It’s become theirs to do what they wish with. What matters less is the truth to a story than what people choose to do with it. Everything green and good about their world was almost lost forever. Who is he to judge how people he will never meet have divined meaning from his journey? As someone as well-versed in poetry as he is, he must admit it makes a compelling story. A similar course of events happens with other aspects of their journey, some with more honesty to them than others.
Merry swears, up, down, and sideways, that before the Rohirrim rode into battle, Théoden King blew upon his war-horn with such ferocity that it shattered like crystal in his hand. Of course, this was also regaled in a Gondorian tavern, and Merry had already had a half pint at the time of telling. Though his voice wavered as it is liable to do with drink, there was no fog over his eyes.
(“I swear on my life it happened! I swear on my sword! Spent the whole battle with my ears still ringing! You must have heard it from the city walls, Pip!” he insisted, “should have seen the way the orcs turned and ran when we came toward them!"
“I was a little busy when that was happening,” Pippin responded.)
Frodo cannot count himself among acquaintances of the former King but, having met his blood kin, somehow, does not doubt that such a thing was possible. The Queen of Rohan fell the Witch-King of Angmar with a single stroke of her blade, she must be of prodigious lineage indeed.
“Is it true,” Lobelia Sackville-Baggins begins in an arched tone, “that you slew Shelob with naught but a frying pan and a light?” One would think such tragedy would have humbled her, but it appears to have done the opposite. Now that she’s related to the Hero of Middle-Earth she carries herself such as she’s expecting a royal decree to knight her for this relation alone. She hasn’t stopped lobbying for Bag End either. Rather than let Frodo live out his days in peace and deferring to him, she’s taken to insisting that Bag End is too modest for someone of his heroism, and that he ought to have a new dwelling built for him, on the far side of town where he wouldn’t be disturbed. Frodo would take her up on this offer only if the promise of being undisturbed applied to unwanted relatives specifically. This is especially pointed as she has taken to visiting them at home, glaring down at Sam’s dirty hands as he weeds through the front garden to make room for wallflowers next spring.
Lobelia Sackville-Baggins seems to have an opinion on every single facet of Frodo’s life. The majority of them are far from complimentary. He’s received enough criticism for the company he keeps (despite Merry and Pippin not only being heroes in their own regards, but having higher-ranking official titles than him), his decoration of Bag End (at least what she can glean from all the time spent peering through their windows), the unbecoming state of his fingernails (understandable) and, who decides to share Bag End with. Loving anybody lower than at the very least, a knight, is a cardinal sin for someone of Frodo’s legacy as far as she’s concerned. Luckily for him, and, more luckily for Sam, who has to deal with her disappointed looks, her concern does not matter at all to them.
“I’ve no wish to discuss that, ma’am,” Sam says, which is far more courtesy than she deserves.
“But you did, didn’t you? Kill Shelob?”
Sam’s hands remain buried in the dirt where the tremors cannot be visible. He has the same cornered expression, the same painful openness Frodo sees sometimes in the very early mornings when the thrashing wakes him. Sam must get night-terrors as often as he does, though they manifest in different ways. While Frodo goes deathly still, when the strangled breath in his throat is the only indication that his heart still beats, Sam shudders and shakes. Some nights Frodo must pin his wrists to his sides to keep a stray hand from catching him on the cheek; he covers Sam’s body with his own until the aftershocks are all that remains. It does not help to wake him from one of these terrors. Gandalf confided in him that this was attempted in the Houses of Healing. When Sam woke, he knew not where he was, nor his own identity. A fever persisted despite his otherwise recovered health. All Frodo can do when these terrors happen is hold on and pray they end fast. He isn’t scared of Sam hitting or kicking him without meaning to. Sam would never hurt him. Even when he’s gripped by these spasms of fright, he’d never hurt Frodo.
Frodo held a sword to his throat once, a hair closer and he would have seen a pinprick of red blossom on Sam’s neck. He remembered thinking about how little effort it would take to slice the skin open. Hardly any at all, it’d be like snipping a loose thread. He wasn’t himself and Sam isn’t always himself at night. What’s an unintended blow during a night terror?
Sam’s hands are trembling below the dirt and the colour has drained from his face, all the way up to tips of his ears, all the way down to the hollow of his throat.
“I have to ask you to leave our property,” Frodo says, holding back a snarl. “And I know not how you heard of that matter, but pray you never speak of it again, for your own sake.”
Lobelia opens her mouth again to reprimand him for such rudeness, but Frodo has no cause to hear. He plunges his hands into the upturned flowerbed and plucks Sam’s from the soil. The wallflowers and the weeding can wait. He doesn’t look back.
Sam allows himself to be led inside, allows his hands to be rinsed and lathered until they’re pink from the soap. He lets Frodo change him into his softest nightshirt and lets Frodo guide them both to bed despite the mid-afternoon sun bleeding in through curtains that are far too thin. They lie facing each other, as they often did on rocks or dirt or the occasional grass. Sam pulled away from this the longer they travelled, citing Gollum’s presence as the reason for his facing away from Frodo at night. Such a wretched creature doesn’t deserve to see this. I’ll have no Gollum spying on us in the night, he said. Though Frodo didn’t agree with this entirely, he also couldn’t fault Sam for his thinking. Love isn’t anything to be ashamed of, but it’s such a large thing to keep on display.
“Where do you go at night?” he whispers. They have not moved for the better part of three hours. The sun is beginning to creep down below the tree line and Sam’s hair catches fire in its dying light.
“Everywhere. Sometimes I’m on the side of Mount Doom, sometimes Weathertop, Shelob’s lair, the bottom of the river. Sometimes I’m here but you aren’t.”
“And where do I go in these terrors?”
“I don’t know. Away.”
“You can’t promise that.”
Then, a pause, a shift. The light dances and twists around them and Sam’s hair is Dwarven gold. He inhales like he’s preparing for a blow. “Tell me something real.”
“Your name is Samwise Gamgee, son of Hamfast Gamgee and Bell Goodchild. You live at Bag End in Hobbiton with me, and you sleep on the left side of the bed. Your favourite colour is orange, your hands are always warm, and your breath is terrible in the morning.”
“You would have fought the King of Gondor for me. You almost drowned trying to follow me. You were right about Gollum and you carried me when my legs could not. When I forgot the Shire, you brought me back to it.”
It is a long time before Sam’s eyelashes come down heavy on his cheeks, when he softly begins to snore. Frodo feels the arms around his chest grow heavy with sleep and the warm weight of fine blankets around them. When they wake, Sam is happy to inform him that his sleep was deep and devoid of dreams. It is so different from their time on the road, he finds himself not quite used to unconditional comfort. Maybe that will ease with time. Maybe he cannot slip back into his old life the way one can a winter glove stowed away in a coat pocket, but he can make a new one from a similar cloth.
Things will never go back to the way they were. He wishes they hadn’t changed at all. He wishes the Ring was never his to bear, that its chain adorned the neck of another and he was never tasked with anything more than the simple gaiety of a hobbit. And yet, he knows he wouldn’t change this if given the chance. He does not know how he could continue to live in a broken world. This is the price he’s had to pay for peace. He’s paid for it in scabbed skin and a mangled hand, weighed-down joints protesting at every step and a heartsickness so great he wonders if anyone has ever died from it. Frodo Baggins cannot afford to be selfish. He left any traces of vanity behind him long ago. His life is his; his choices, his troubles, his pains, they belong to him alone. It is not a question of ‘what if I could take it all back’ that he needs to ask; it is ‘how do I move forward from this’.
It is a cool, drizzling April for Sam’s birthday. The burnt orange wallflowers in the garden will bloom in the coming months and, despite the rain, there’s a racket against Bag End’s door shortly before noon. Frodo opens the door in his pyjamas with an old robe thrown overtop as Merry and Pippin spill in through the entryway, their hoods doing little to keep the rain away.
“Still in your jammies? And past elevenses?” Merry clucks as he sweeps farther into the house. “Get dressed, why don’t you? There are festivities afoot!”
“Where’s the birthday boy?” Pippin asks, methodically unpacking two very heavy baskets, one of which contains an entire roast chicken (among other delights), the other, a cake not yet iced but still impressive in size.
There has been a steady stream of presents over the previous two weeks which Frodo has learned to be creative in hiding. There are only so many spots in Bag End where Sam would not look. From Rosie Cotton is a bottle of Elvish wine that she found under a floorboard at the Green Dragon with a note dictating ‘for one who is worthy’ and decided Sam was the only one who fit this description. All over Hobbiton, their kinsmen have been sending pies and soups and jams and jellies. A green-covered book with a white tree on the spine and title Tales of Gondor in ink that shone at the right angle arrived with several lengthy letters. From Éowyn Queen comes a thick tan riding cloak with a horse-head clasp. There is also a frying pan, to replace the one he tossed from the mountainside, judging by the sturdy craftsmanship, it can only be Dwarven. It came in the same bundle as a small pouch of seeds, a rare flower that can be grown only in the fertile grounds of Mirkwood, and a vial of such same soil to help it along.
Frodo brings these presents and others out after dinner. Everyone has eaten their fill and then some. A board and counters have been set up but there have been no moves to commence a game. Presents are doled out one by one, at each Sam’s cheeks glow pink and he mumbles that this is all far too much for him. But, even so, the wonder on his face is clear as day.
The last present is another book and, by far the easiest to hide. Frodo excuses himself to the drawing-room, trying to ignore the whole menagerie of insects making a mess of his insides. The book is very large, its pages weathered, and spine cracked. A stifled gasp marks its entrance into the room.
“Bilbo’s book,” Sam whispers, his eyes wide.
“Not just Bilbo’s,” Frodo corrects, for there’s a whole world wrapped up in it. “Go on, open it.” he urges.
Sam does, touches the cover like it will turn to dust under his hands, scarcely breathes as he takes in the opening pages.
“There and Back Again… A Hobbit’s Tale by Bilbo Baggins,” Merry reads, quite well considering his view of the text is upside-down.
“And The Lord of The Rings by Frodo Baggins,” Pippin finishes. “Oh Frodo, you finished your book! Didn’t know if you ever would.”
“It’s not quite finished, there’s some room for an ending yet.” He is looking at Sam when he speaks, and hides his hands under his thighs so Sam will not see them tremble. The world is so big and yet so small, narrowed down to space for love to come through. The world is so big, and they are so small, and he hopes that this is enough. It is the only story he will ever be able to tell. This is how he can tell it, not spoken for everyone to hear but written down to be sought out.
“Look at the final chapter,” he instructs, and his voice wavers the tiniest amount, but maybe that is okay. Maybe not everything must be perfect.
Sam’s hands—hands that slung his wasted form over his shoulders, hands he pulled from the depths of the river and which bandaged his wounds, hands he’s felt holding his waist like finest china, brushing his hair from his face, hands that can wield a spade as easy as a sword—flip through the pages one by one and Frodo’s hands are trembling.
“A Word on Samwise the Brave, an Epilogue of Sorts,” he reads, voice scant more than a whisper. It breaks before he can say thank you, he buries his face in his palms and weeps.
“Shall I read it to you, or would you like to do that yourself?” Frodo asks, sliding the book back over to himself.
“Please,” is all Sam can manage.
“Very well then.”
There will come a time, perhaps soon, when the characters of this story no longer populate the world in which they belong to; when all adventures fade into stories and names into history. It is at that time which I implore you to remember the bravest and most stout-hearted of hobbits, Samwise Gamgee. Without him, the Ring of power and Sauron’s evils would still be poisoning all that we hold dear; without him, the Ring-bearer would not have made it out of the Shire. It is to him that we owe our freedom, our safety, and our unity. Frodo wouldn’t have gotten far without Sam.