"Go on outside, Sam," Rosie said. She was stood, hands on hips, under the archway into the kitchen, flour on her fingers and a scowl on her comely face, "You've got that look again, and it'll do you good to be out in the air."
"I'm not..." he put down little Elanor with guilty relief, a bit vexed that his wife had not been fooled by his pretence of normality, "I'm trying not to dwell on it, Rosie, only..."
"I know what the date is as well as you do. Go on. There's that new bed to be planted. I'll have tea on the table soon as it's dark."
He paused in the doorway, looking back at her sympathetic scowl. "Ah, Sam," she said at last, "Can you never give over worrying? Is this going to be with us forever?"
"I don't know, lass," he pulled on his gardening boots and picked up the spade which leant - as always - just beside the door, "I hope not."
An hour later and he knelt beside the last bush. He bedded it in firmly and sat back to reach for the watering can. The new bank of roses looked right pretty, though this had been a bad time of year to plant, and he didn't know if they would bloom or die. Die, most like. For I don't have the gift of it any more. Not since...
Times were even the good clean dirt on his hands reminded him of Mordor filth, and today especially the beloved faces of his family only brought back the look in Master Frodo's haunted eyes as he boarded the ship for Valinor. It was the first anniversary of the day when Master Frodo sailed away from home and kin to something like death, and today Sam could not abide his own bliss.
The sky was fading towards twilight, and the roses gave out a swooning sweetness greater than the herb-gardens of far off Gondor. Life in the Shire was good, and when all was said and done it wasn't fair that Master Frodo was not here to share it.
I looked to see our children grow up together. He'd teach them book-learning, I'd teach them the plants, and we'd all live together happy ever after, like it says in Mr Bilbo's book. Why, after all my hard work, must it all come to naught?
He didn't feel, sometimes, that anything he did would ever prosper again. Not after he had failed so badly in the quest of the Ring.
"Mae govannen, Samwise Gamgee."
"Lor bless me!" That sudden steel and silver voice had set his heart a-lurch as it had not done since Mordor. He found himself on his feet, gazing openmouthed at a towering, cloaked shadow who had appeared noiselessly and effortlessly as a dream amid the nodding harebells on Sam's front lawn.
The shock passed, and instantly he felt - as always in the presence of the elves - a lift of spirits, as if the world had been renewed. "Legolas?"
"Nay," the figure took down its hood, and hair the colour of mithril and moonlight spilled glistening from its folds, "Tis I."
It can't be! The tall elf was clad in simple travelling gear of Lorien-gray, with a bow at his back and the silver handles of two long knives - smooth from centuries of use - at his shoulder. There was a star on his forehead, but no other sign of royalty. Almost he could have passed for a simple wood-elf, but for the keenness and depths of his gaze. "Lord Celeborn? I can't... How...?" What am I going to do?
Sam well recalled the state and glory of Lothlorien And he's top elf now that Elrond's gone. I don't think there's money enough in the whole Shire to give him a proper welcome. Oh lor! ...What is he doing in my garden?
"Peace, Sam." It was hard to tell with the lordly elves, but Celeborn appeared to be amused, "May I not visit one of the greatest heroes of the Third Age?"
"Meaning me?" Sam made a great effort not to look beside himself for Frodo. "Why Lord, I expect you can do whatever you wish, but...your people? You surely haven't come alone?"
"I have my household with me even now, though your eyes may not see them. I thought it ill advised to enter the Shire in pomp."
"They'd have thought the world was ending." Sam agreed, dazed, "I don't know where we could put you up, for it seems wrong somehow to have a Prince of the Elves and his court staying at the Green Dragon."
Celeborn laughed, as easily as if he was truly the wood-elf he resembled, "Alas that I shall be deprived of the experience! We will trouble you not for lodging, for I would speak with you tonight, and in the morning depart unheralded for the Havens."
"You're not leaving Middle Earth, Master?" Mention of the Havens brought it all back - the failure, the fact that despite all his striving the world withered like
comfrey in the frost. Everything fine goes away and I cannot keep it safe.
"Not I." Something in the grimness of the elf's voice made Sam raise his head, "I will not abandon my home while there is breath or strength in me to defend it. If I struggle against the tides of fate what of it? Have I not done the same all my life?"
The fact was, Sam thought, he understood very little of what Lord Celeborn was saying, but there was something about the tone - the bloodyminded determination to struggle on to the bitter end, and maybe further - that reminded him of himself. "While there's life there's hope, as my Gaffer says," he muttered under his breath, as he had told Master Frodo so many times on their journey. And in offering the old, worn out comfort he felt a mite better.
"He is wise." Celeborn reached down to touch one of the half-open flowers and his grim look smoothed. "No, we go only to conclude some matters of trade with Cirdan - and because I wished to look on the sea again. But it came to my mind that you and I might watch out this anniversary together. For we share a grief I deem no-one else in this world will understand."
"I don't know about that." Abashed, and faintly awed at the kindness, Sam scuffed a worn boot against the soil and looked away.
"Then walk with me, Samwise, and we will discuss it."
The moon had risen, a half circle of ivory in a sky caught between blue and dusk. The Hill fell away into distances sheened with faint mist, and, glimmering between clouds, Earendil rode the evening breeze to shine among the branches of the Party Tree.
A curtain twitched in the hole across the way, and fell again fast as Celeborn's still, intent face turned towards it. He had a glow like the moonlight about him, an eerie and lovely sight to catch the eye of a hobbit busybody. Sam smiled for the first time that day. That'll give the Gaffers at the Ivy Bush something to think about.
They came out of the town and, turning off the road, passed under the shadow of the trees. Here, where no prying eyes overlooked, Sam began to catch, now and again, movements that proved them escorted by fair and deadly guards. Starlight on pale hair, the shape of a bow outlined briefly against the sky, a laugh, soft in the shade.
With the same startling nonchalance as the Elf-Prince had shown, appearing in the garden, Orophin of Lorien stepped out of the gloom. Celeborn spoke to him briefly in his own language and with a bow, and a smile to Sam, he lead the rest of his company away. In less than a step they vanished as if they had never been. There were no more movements save those of the wind in the boughs.
Stars shone over the clearing, and Sam threw himself down in the grass with an ache for all those long days of journeying with Mr Frodo, all those days before the way got so dark.
"It's not right for me to feel alone," he said, firmly. "I'm not the only one to lose a friend to war. My grief's not so strange at that."
"Would you treat arrow-shot with the same medicine you would use on a broken bone?" Celeborn was stern, "Think not to call all wounds the same, Master Gamgee, or how can you heal them aright?" His tenderness had an unmerciful flavour, sharp as his knives. "Was not Frodo's sailing from the Havens but the dregs of a loss you had begun to taste even before you entered Lorien?"
Sam's breath failed him. How does he know? Merry and Pippin had looked at him like he was making a great fuss over nothing when he tried to explain . 'Just think of it as if he's on holiday, Sam.' Lady Arwen, who gave Frodo a jewel to help him through the hard times, had not thought that Sam was in need. Elrond himself - though they had spoken in Gondor, after Strider's wedding - hadn't seemed to see it. Sam had begun to doubt if his own heart was telling him the truth, until now. "That's just it. It's like I was losing him all the way. Ever since we started from Hobbiton I couldn't keep hold. I don't see how you'd know, Master, but yes, that's it."
Celeborn had spread his cloak on a low branch of oak and sat canopied by fading leaves. His expression mirrored that Sam had seen on the face of Legolas, when Gandalf fell. "I know, Sam, because I saw it on you, and recognized it for something we share. I know well the hopeless sorrow of having less power over the one I love than that which she bore. Have I not also been the close companion of a Ringbearer? Like you, I could but watch as it wrought its changes in her. Like you, at the end, when all seemed won, I lost her."
"It's not right!" Sam hadn't thought to cry out in the face of another's grief, but it came bursting out of him as if it had waited too long to be heard, "After all he went through, after all my work and trouble, and he's not here to share the prize. It's not right!" His throat grew tight with tears, "And every time someone honours me or calls me a great hero - begging your pardon Lord - I feel such a fraud. For it was Mr Frodo who carried the hopes of the High Folk to the mountain. I had only one thing to do and that was to bring him home safe, and I failed. I failed!"
That was the truth he had never been able to make Merry or Pippin see, the truth that had been driven further into him - like a piece of Morgul blade - every time Frodo despaired, every time Frodo yearned for his lost Ring and lamented that Middle Earth was empty for him. No, before that, even, every time he got that look of far-off obsession on him, every time in Mordor he had treated Sam like a stranger or spoken to Gollum like some great Lord of Doom, and Sam knew he was fading and whatever took his place would have no more use for Sam than a man has for an ant.
"We both failed. If failure it is."
Sam was used to folk telling him how wonderfully he had done. It made him cringe. Celeborn's plain speech, his talk of failure, was like coming home - a relief that now he could stop pretending; deal with things as they really were. To his astonishment he found himself weeping, not caring that the Lord of all Elves of Middle Earth was quietly watching him grope for his handkerchief or wipe his streaming nose. "I should have held on. There should have been something else I could do."
The fit of weeping passed, and Sam looked up, ashamed of his outburst, but feeling lighter for it. "I'm sorry, Master, I...just..."
"No apology is needed, Sam. I am glad to see you get the poison out."
Above the glade the sky was now dark and full of stars, so brilliant that the grass on which Sam sat still showed green. He linked his arms around his knees and pulled them close, freed from despair long enough to think more clearly about what had been said. He had no idea why Celeborn would lower himself to claim he had anything in common with Sam, let alone failure. Hard as it was to think it, though, it was harder to believe he would lie.
The still face of the elf was grave and inhuman, as remote and sharply present as the stars. "I thought the Lady's Ring was good?" Sam faltered, fumbling towards understanding. "She surely didn't bear what Master Frodo bore, not for all that time?"
But he couldn't help remembering her in the Mirror-glade, when she said she had long desired to take the One Ring, when she transformed herself into a Queen of Despair - beautiful, terrible and deadly. He had forgotten she said she wanted it.
"The elven rings were not made by Sauron, it is true." Celeborn leaned leaned his head against the bole of the tree and closed his eyes, as if beset by memories. "Yet they were made through his council and using his craft, and their power was in thrall to the One. Their strength was less, and they did not begin to gnaw at the mind of their user until after many years on the hand." He gave a bitter smile. "But my Lady wore Nenya for an Age of the world. Ever she would struggle in thought with Sauron, growing wearied and darkened to no purpose. Had she but set it aside she might have dwelt at peace, as Elrond did, who did not touch Vilya except in great need."
"I thought...the borders of Lorien, she guarded them with it."
"Indeed. Yet the realm of Thranduil was defended only by the valour of his archers, and did not fall. Needless was her reliance on the ring."
"You said this, to the Lady?" Sam blushed, remembering how Galadriel had rebuked her husband for speaking ill to Gimli. He had somehow not imagined it could go the other way - that Celeborn might dare oppose her. I wouldn't a'dared tell her she was wrong. You could dash yourself to pieces against her like a boat against a rock. He was suddenly very glad that he was only a hobbit, and he had a wife of Rosie's cheerful sweetness to go home to.
"Frequently." Celeborn's wry smile died swiftly. He caught Sam's gaze. His eyes were dark green as the holly of Eregion. They did not lay bare the soul as his wife's had, but there were thousands of years of thought behind them, profound and sad. "Often she said to me 'to bear a ring of power is to be alone.' And I would say 'take it off then, and be with me.' But she would not."
'You can't help me, Sam. No-one can.'
Sam squeezed his eyes shut, his throat aching again. It must be true, or how could he see so clear? If Frodo had died it would have been devastating, of course, but death comes to everyone, and he would have known how to deal with it. There wouldn't have been no blame. I wouldn't a'been...angry with him. I wouldn't have failed.
'I'm going to Mordor alone.' That was the nub of it alright - that Frodo could choose to be alone, needed to be alone, when all Sam had ever wanted to do was help. In the end he had to face the fact that his love and devotion were not enough. Not even when they were returned. Love was no match for the power of the Ring. And didn't that mean that evil was stronger than good? That Mordor was the reality, the Shire only an illusion?
"How afraid I was," the music of the elvish voice was frayed into uncertainty, "When I permitted you into Lorien. I could barely breathe for terror, knowing the One Ring was within my Lady's grasp, trusting, yet not fully certain, that she would not succumb to its temptation."
At this new insight, Sam rallied from his despair. He had always thought of Lorien as a place of safety, where the folk dwelt in bliss and nothing could trouble them. Learning otherwise was like walking into Moria - discovering dread and splendour such as he had never imagined. What a noodle you are, Sam. Head too full of your own affairs. You missed everything. "I wonder you let it in then!" he said, shocked.
Amusement flared briefly in Celeborn's eyes. "I know not how it is among Hobbits, but among elves a husband does not command his wife's obedience. It was her right to face that trial, and mine only to advise and hope. Besides, your company needed aid. I would not give Sauron the victory over me by allowing fear to rule my deeds. Yet I trembled in my heart as I greeted you."
"You hid it well, Master."
"I was not so courteous as I might have been."
"As a matter of fact," Sam said, surprised by a flash of fellow feeling, "I rather liked that, Sir. It reminded me of my Gaffer. He calls a spade a spade. Very forthright he is, but you know where you stand with him."
Celeborn laughed. "Then if it pleases you I will be more rude with you in future, Master Gamgee."
Sam laughed too, and thought how Rosie would be pleased to hear it. She would be at home right now, trying to get little Elanor to eat up her sprouts before demanding pudding. She would be...
He jumped up. It's been full dark a long time. And Rosie said... "Oh lor! My tea!"
Too late he remembered who he was talking to. The Lord of Lorien had deigned to visit him, had tried to console him, and he'd acted like his dinner was more important. Furious with himself for giving offence, he clenched his fists, I need Master Frodo, he would've known what to say. He wouldn't a'been torn in two between plaguing his wife and insulting a Prince.
"I was going to invite you to dine with us," Lord Celeborn's voice was mild, hard to read, "But I see you have something more pressing."
Sam Gamgee, you're nowt but a ninnyhammer! He threw himself on the Lord's mercy, "I'm sorry Master, I've got no more manners than an orc. But it's Rosie, see? She knows I was upset, and now I've disappeared. What is she going to think?"
"That you will return when you are ready?"
Sam shook his head like a horse tormented with flies, "Hobbits don't work like that, Master - begging your pardon - we don't have the time to wait, like your folk do. She'll be beside herself worrying. I must go home."
Looking hard for signs of condemnation Sam saw instead the slight quirk of a private jest. Elrond had given him the same look when he came bursting into the Council to demand his rightful place at Frodo's side. What it meant he wasn't sure, except that his lack of tact had not been held against him. And that's mercy enough from the elves. Right sticklers they can be for proper behaviour. It seemed his rudeness had been taken for more evidence of empathy.
The Prince of Doriath rose silently and put on his cloak. "I am loath to come between a husband and his wife. Yet there is more to say. I will return with you."
They walked in silence for a while, Sam content to go slowly now he brought his explanation home with him. At last Celeborn sighed and said, "Though our situations differ, are they not sufficiently similar for you to heed my words?"
"I'd listen to anything you told me, Master!"
"But you might not believe I perceived truly."
Sam thought of himself in the clearing, wailing like a child with a skinned knee - something he would not be explaining to Rosie. "Oh, you've shown that right enough, my Lord. I can't deny it."
Celeborn stopped. They stood now on the bridge over The Water, and, though lights shone yellow from windows all over Bywater, stars were shattered on the surface of the stream. Around them both fell a great silence. "Then heed me in this, Samwise Gamgee." For the first time the elf-lord spoke like a king - immovable, stern. "I tell you you did not fail."
Darkness had hold of Sam's heart, unreasoning but terrible, like the despair he had felt at the mere sight of Barad'dur. "I did!" He turned away, looking down to the trodden mud of the road, "You might a'brought your Lady to the point where she could give it up. I didn't. After all my striving he still chose it. He claimed it. Frodo failed and I failed to help him. That's the long and the short of it, Lord, you can't take that away."
"Don't be a fool, Sam!" Celeborn's fair voice was cold as carved marble, "There is blame enough in the world without shouldering an untruth." Looking up tentatively, Sam saw him frown at the water, which glimmered dimly in his reflected light. The next moment he had stepped forward, ablaze with impatience and certainty. It was as if a veil had been dropped and the creature who had seemed so sad and gentle had transformed before Sam's eyes into something legendary - a hero of the First Age. Torn between terror and a kind of giddy delight, Sam recoiled.
"I tell you, Sam, you were the stronger. Without you Frodo could not have come even over the Emyn Muil. Your love was the only thing which brought him far enough for his own mercy to save both himself and the world. When he would have died, you brought him back. That he lives still, and is slowly returning to joy, is your doing. Hear me, Samwise. You did not fail. You triumphed."
Sam staggered away from this frightening praise. The back of his knees nudged the parapet of the bridge, and he sat down heavily. Covering his face with his hands, he wept. If only it were true! Bless me - what if it is true? As the tears fell, he felt the anguish in his chest loosen. Maybe he wasn't to blame? Maybe love was greater than evil after all. Maybe, just maybe, Sam had done enough. For the first time since the Field of Cormallen, he gave up his clutch on shame.
No need to hold on to something so heavy, or so unwanted. Not if it's not true. At length he looked up, his eyes swollen, and said the only thing which had not changed. "I miss him."
Celeborn's anger had passed, swift as a strike of lightning. He smiled sadly, "As I miss Galadriel. But is it not enough for us to know they are in a place where they will be at peace? Surely you would rather Frodo was healed than remain with you in sorrow?"
"I suppose. But it's cruel hard."
"It is, Sam. Yes it is."
Sam scrubbed his wet hands dry on his jacket. He felt renewed somehow, though still very shaken. "I feel...better, Master. But Lor! You did put the fear of
death on me!"
The elf-Lord laughed, though sorrow lingered in his eyes, "I am not a healer like Lord Elrond. I am a warrior, and my hand is ungentle. So, if you do not desire further medicine, you will remember what I said."
Sam snorted with unexpected humour and then quietened. Shyly, he said, "I'd rather have you angry with me, Master, than live in a world where there were no elves at all."
"Rest easy on that, Sam. For I and my people are not going anywhere. The Exiles from Valinor have returned to their home, but for those of us who never heeded the call this is our home, and we will not abandon it. There will always be Sindar, and Silvan, and Avari in the woods of Middle Earth, for those to see who can."
Then maybe the roses'll bloom after all, Sam thought, turning towards Bag End with greater content than he had had all this year. And maybe it's enough to know that I can join Frodo, when my work here's done. Even if Rosie can't come with me we'll all be together again soon enough. He looked curiously at his companion - the fair young face which was countless thousands of years old - and wondered what it was like, not having that hope to look forward to. "The elves call Death a gift, don't they? You reckon at the end of our lives there really will be a happy ending."
Celeborn drew his cloak around himself as if he was cold. "We know nothing of the Doom of Men," he said, "But we know that the One who created the world is good, and therefore any gift of his must also be good. There have certainly been times of late when I have envied it."
"Oh." Feeling like a fool, Sam thought hard to try and find something to say to that. He was still pondering it when the road took a sweep round The Hill, coming within view of Bag End, and Rosie threw open the garden gate and came charging towards him like Master Merry faced with a horde of orcs. "Sam Gamgee, where have you been! I've been that frightened!"
Her tear-dazzled eyes focussed finally on his companion, and went round as saucers. She put her hands to her mouth to cover a small squeak, and Sam had to swallow a smile - Rosie would not appreciate him laughing at her shock.
"Rosie, this is Celeborn, Lord of Lorien. Prince of all the Elves of Middle Earth. He came to..."
But Rosie's eyes had narrowed. She pushed her curls aside with a work-roughened hand. "I don't care who he is. Haven't you done enough, Sam Gamgee?" She rounded on Celeborn like a sparrow chasing away a hawk from its nest. "You great people have had enough from him. Leave him alone now. He's not doing no more for you."
"Rosie!" Sam shouted, mortified. "Don't talk like that to him! He's..."
"Don't you tell me what to do, Sam Gamgee. I'll talk how I want to anyone. How can they..."
"Rosie..." he took her arms and tried to calm her, all the while conscious that his domestic life must look like a ruination to the Lord.
In the back of his mind, he thought perhaps this outburst was no more than fear. Fear that he'd be drawn into some other scrape, and she'd not see him again for another year, or at all. He couldn't let her keep on thinking so. But all the same, this was not how the introduction was meant to go.
"Rose. Lord Celeborn came to help me. Don't you remember what I told you? His wife was on the same ship with Mr. Frodo."
At the explanation the fire went out of her slowly, she blinked awhile, and her hands rose to press against her lips. Sam congratulated himself. Nothing enthralled or silenced the lasses like a tale of doomed love.
"I'm so..." she said, shaking her head. "I thought when Sam disappeared... I was so..."
All the sorrow had fled from Celeborn's face. He was smiling. "I see we also have in common the valour and fearlessness of our Ladies. You are truly fortunate, Sam."
"I know it, Master." Sam laughed, and Rosie looked at him as if she saw the dawn after a long night. Sniffing back tears and anger alike, she patted her skirts into better order. Then, with great effort, she gathered herself and looked back up into the Elf-Lord's eyes. "I ...didn't know. I'm sorry. I'm right honoured you'd come to talk with my Sam. I hope it helped."
"It did, Mistress Gamgee. My heart is the lighter for it."
This too came as a surprise to Sam. I helped him? But I didn't do nothing.
"I'm sorry you lost your Lady," Rosie was clear eyed now, thoughtful with that deep insight Sam treasured in her, "You didn't think of going with her?"
"Many times. Indeed I might sail even now if I wished. But as Sam chose to stay, so do I."
It did Sam's heart good to see Celeborn treat Rosie with grave respect. But she'd started him thinking now, and the words burst out of him before he could rein them back. "I have Rosie, Lord, and little Elanor. What do you have?"
Sam was aghast at his own boldness. That had been meant as sympathy, but as soon as it was out had sounded more like prying.
Still, there was only a trace of bitterness in Celeborn's eyes as he answered, "I have my land and my people. It is enough...barely."
Trying one last time to be of some use, Sam brushed his hands along his jacket and looked up, "It don't make it no easier, though, do it, Sir?"
Celeborn laughed, gently. "No, it does not," he said, "But I have hope. Even if I leave not this land, one day the world will end. After that, who knows? Some have said the elves will be utterly destroyed, but that seems to me hard to reconcile with the character of Iluvatar, and I believe the world will be made anew. Then, perhaps, in a land we can both love, I will meet my wife again. As long as there is that hope, I can bear the waiting."
Sam was silenced, mazed by the thought of years so endless as to feel like despair. But the Elf-Lord smiled as he bade them both farewell. "And remember, Sam. If ever you wish to take your daughter to see the elves, you will be welcome in Rivendell, or Lorien, or in Eryn Lasgalen, anywhere my influence lies."
He turned and leapt down onto the Road and passed into the darkness singing. They lost sight of him almost at once, but for a long time his voice filled the empty spaces of the land with a desolate but beautiful music.
"'When Winter comes, the winter wild that hill and wood shall slay;
When trees shall fall and starless night devour the sunless day;
When wind is in the deadly East, then in the bitter rain
I'll look for thee, and call to thee; I'll come to thee again!
Together we will take the road that leads into the West,
And far away will find a land where both our hearts may rest.'"
Silence fell, and Rosie turned, her eyes full of unshed tears and wonderment. "Oh, Sam!"
"I feel better, lass. A lot better."
She threw her arms around him and wept into his shoulder. "Oh, Sam. I'm so glad you're home."