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Lord of the Rings Drabbles, etc.

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I did not take my Ring when He first offered.

I had no need of power: no neighbors seeking to wrest my kingdom from me. I had no need of magic to measure my days or rule my realm. I thought there was no need that human strength would not suffice. I was young, and strong; I had my land and there was time aplenty left for wife and heirs.

Then came the pain. The wasting-disease had hold of me, relentless. I went to Him, and asked for power, but the truth was that I did not wish to die.

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I’m not supposed to bother visitors, but I can watch from here, and no one ever sees me. It’s Dwarves this time. Cranky dwarves. Elladan says that Dwarves are always cranky and when I was little I was scared of their beards, but I don’t remember that.

Still, they’re not all Dwarves. They’ve got a Wizard with them, and one more. I try to see, but now they’ve gone inside, and all I can remember is curly hair, ruddy cheeks and big bare feet. Someone new. Someone without a beard.

Someone my size.

I wonder if he’ll want to play?

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I always loved him in silence: in the still quietness of evenings in the garden, when he’d sit in his favorite chair and send smoke rings out to greet the first shy glimmerings of starlight. I loved him in the quiet rustle of pages: in the dust and ink scented library and the skittering of his pen whispering counterpoint to my slow pencil as we construed our lines. I loved him in the clattering kitchen; in the taste of his honeycake for my tea. I loved him in the bang of Gandalf’s fireworks at our party.

I shall miss him.

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It’s not the reading, mind, that worries me. All my children can read, and did their time at Gammer Brockhouse’s the same as yours, but Samwise, he went along to school already a-knowing enough to read a bit, and that was Mr. Bilbo’s doing. And it’s not the stories, except that bless the boy he’ll listen to them all day long whether he’s heard ‘em before or no. All youngsters listen to stories. But Samwise, he listens harder. It’s time he set Elves and Dragons aside. And how’s he to do that when he’s up at Bag End a-meeting Dwarves?

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Éomer sat up abruptly. Beside him Éowyn stirred, but didn’t waken. Everyone else in the long hall was sleeping too. The only movement was the slow pacing of the king’s guard. He lay down again and tucked the blanket higher over himself and his little sister, trying not to think about the smell of the loft where they’d slept until now. He was surprised that Éowyn could sleep so easily here. Except that it had been a long ride, and she was only seven. He tucked her hair back. “It’s all right, sister,” he promised. “I’ll take care of you.”

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He sends me to cajole and coerce my kindred into sending mumakil and men to support the coming battles, so I go, as is my duty. The desert is bright, but soon I come to jungle and the ancient paths that are kept clear by constant effort. And in those hot, green shadows I ride and remember my home and the ivory stool which was my throne. I remember my sons, tall and strong, their bright smiles flashing white in dark handsome faces as they gathered to pay respects to the pale stranger who came to bring me my Ring.

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"Take the day, Sam, and don't worry about planting season. It isn't every day a hobbit comes of age. It should be a splendid party, and of course I'll stop by. Save some of the Gaffer's homebrew for me."

I'll need it, truth be told. Wasn't it just yesterday you needed my help to get over the pasture stile? When did you stop stumbling over feet too big for the rest of you? You've turned into a fine young hobbit, as handsome as the morning, and I've not changed at all, except around the belt.

When did you catch up?

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Even mountains begin to fall, if you watch them for more than an Age of the world. The River has built new islands and channels from the silt that once was farmland and forest far upstream. The coastline bends in where cliffs have tumbled, and sand beaches have tucked themselves into sheltered corners that did not exist when my subjects fished along these shores. The fortress I built has crumpled, but I go on. Neither stone nor creature is left in these lands to compare what I am now to the Man that I once was.

Only the Sea remembers.

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The secret to 'taters, the Gaffer says, is to dig deep.

You've got to give them room to grow, you see, and to stretch their roots out in search of water and the kind of earth that'll feed 'em right. A shallow bed means small potatoes, that's what the Gaffer says.

The secret to 'taters, Sam says, is salt, and a little butter.

You've got to spice 'em careful like, and not overwhelm the good solid taste of the 'taters themselves. Baked or boiled, mashed or fried, salt and butter are their friends, Sam says. Good friends make everything better.

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There are advantages to being a wraith, of course, which compensate for the inconveniences that are inevitable whenever He calls. Fortunately, most of my conclusions have been reached by observing the others, rather than personal experimentation. Some blades can harm us, and fire will burn, but when was that ever not true? We cannot walk through walls or people, although walking off of a cliff is not so much dangerous as distracting. Strictly speaking we are not discorporate, like ghosts, although we are invisible. Which is just as well, because how else could I turn the pages of my books?

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It’s different for Brandybucks, or maybe just for me. When I asked to go for a borderer, Father said it wasn’t right for the future Master of the Hall to run Wild and set me to learning the account books. It’s a good thing Uncle Paladin volunteered to teach me, or there‘d have been no peace in the Hall.

The Thain expects a different kind of heir. Pippin’s meant to learn to keep accounts like me, but he’s meant to learn how to plan a journey, and how to read maps, too.

I like his lessons better than he does.

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"I'm coming, too," Pippin said, ignoring the looks the other conspirators shared across their mugs of beer.

"Now, Mr. Pippin," Sam said, reasonably.

"It's no use, Sam," he answered cheerfully. "I'll raise such a fuss as you've never seen if you don't let me come, and then what will you do?"

His cousins met this ultimatum with roars of laughter.

"More fuss than the time he wanted that pony, do you think?" snorted Folco.

"Or when he squalled for that last piece of pie?" asked Fatty.

"Or when…" Merry began.

Pippin sighed and drank his beer, thinking of another plan.

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To hear the Elves tell it, there was nothing that Men knew or built or wrought before some long-eared busybody deigned to intervene. There is no art they will concede us priority – not brewing or baking, not spinning nor weaving. According to them even the fruits of fields and orchards came to humankind at second-hand. Before the Elves we must have been naked and hungry, wandering in the dark alone. That is, if you believe the Elves. There have been times when an Elf has strayed into our hands. Good times. There are lessons that I can teach to Elves, too.

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Well here's a fix and no mistake. I've got this letter all writ out to send along to Buckland, at least as much as I was able to work out from what old Gandalf said when I was a-listening under the window last night, but I ain't yet sealed it. So should I break my promise to Mr. Merry so he won't hear no more, which is bad, especially considering it's certain sure now that Mr. Frodo's leaving the Shire? Or should I send the letter and have Gandalf turn me into a toad when finds out what I've done?

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The Brown Lands they are now, but I remember how green they were when first my armies marched this road. There was plenty to spare, and some of the farmers were quick to accept our protection in exchange for what we needed. But the disobedience of the others, and the resistance fostered by the Elves was like a leaking wound, and little by little we were forced to slay the villagers and burn the fields, until the battles were fought on salted earth.

This time, we will do things better. This time we’ll be careful not to burn the fields.

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The worst part was the books. Never had a book come into Bag End without finding a permanent home. Frodo was torn between leaving them for the Sackville-Bagginses to ignore or sending them to Buckland where they’d gather dust until such time as his disappearance became his assumed death and they’d be dragged back to Bag End or sold at auction.

In the end he packed them, because no one would believe he would leave them behind, but on each flyleaf he wrote the name of the person who would love that book best, with “gift of Frodo Baggins” underneath.

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Treyson Goodchild had had the pans made for himself to take on fishing excursions. and kept using them when his children grew old enough to come along. There was a third pan, fit with legs, but it went north with Will Goodchild while the other two stayed in Overhill with Dan. Bell was Dan’s youngest child, and by the time she was born the pans had been shoved to the back of a cupboard in favor of larger skillets, fit to feed more than a hobbit or two. She found them while she was still a fauntling, and played drum on them with her spoon. Later she made mudpies in them, pretending to cook like her mother did.

It took a hard scrubbing and a good bit of sand to get the rust out when she wanted the pans for picnics with Ham Gamgee. He liked her cooking and he liked her too, and she and her pans came to Bagshot Row, and stayed a while. Their honeymoon meals were cooked with them, until time and Mr. Bilbo equipped the kitchen with good cast iron. But her daughters did their first cooking in the small pans, and her sons too, and thought no more about where they had come from than they thought about the moon.

Bell died, and the children grew and moved on, except for Sam, who found the pans useful for an egg or two and a bit of bacon to be shared with his aging father. And when at last he was packing to leave home as well, he hesitated over the nestled pans until Hamfast asked him why he was dithering over carrying a pound or two of tin when he was sure to want a bite to eat on the long walk to Crickhollow.

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It wasn’t until the bags were sitting on the porch that he realized that he would never see Bag End again -- not the way that it should be – not with the Sackville-Bagginses moving all their truck in tomorrow. He padded softly through rooms, remembering. Chalk and pipeweed and Mr. Bilbo saying the names of the letters. Soap and flour and his mother rattling pans on the stove of a morning. Leather and iron and dwarves leaving marks in the floor with their hobnailed boots. Books and fireworks and Gandalf’s voice rumbling like approaching thunder. Ink and parchment and Mr. Frodo wandering out to listen to tavern-gossip for a while before going back to his books.

He paused in the doorway of the empty study and put a hand on his stomach, wondering if it were possible to be homesick before you’d even gone off. For half a moment all he wanted was to run for Bagshot Row and put his head under the covers.

But there was no turning back. “A drop of beer, that’s what you need, Sam Gamgee,” he told himself, and went to the cellar to find it.

Malt courage was better than none at all.

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I don't think I've ever worked as hard as I have this week. Folco had most of the things from Bag End arranged before we came, but there was still quite a bit in the last cartload. Still, arranging things is easy compared to arranging for ponies, and unearthing travelling gear from the storerooms at Brandy Hall. I bought enough food to keep us on our feet as far as Rivendell, I hope. I've even brought in extra bathtubs so we can leave the night you come if you want. And Pippin wrote a song.

Oh, won't you be surprised!

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Mithrandir said to watch for two, but here there were four, and under Tom Bombadil’s wing. Not coming by the Road, either but riding to meet it from the south, as if no dangers lurked beyond Deadman’s Dike. Three of them wore heavy woolens despite the lingering heat of the day, and he might have thought them borderers, for they all wore swords, had it not been for the fourth, with his scholar’s softness and the oddly familiar set to his chin.

Tom’s eyes twinkled as he spotted the watcher, “No ordinary travelers,” they said.

And Aragorn nodded. “I know.”

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Hoy, Mr. Frodo, there's no need to go making a todo. Mr. Pippin's only telling the same stories as get told in every pub in the Shire, and in the same order too. He'd a been on to Old Noakes' pig what vanished for a week and turned up wearing some poor lass's petticoats and all if you'd just left well enough alone. Twas only hobbits listening before, but now the men are staring too, and even the dwarves have turned to see.

We'd best just hope that Mr. Bilbo didn't sing that same song when he come through Bree.

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Not one night has passed since I saw them lying in the barrow, their faces pale and still and the blade bright across their necks. They sleep better in this warm firelight. Sam snores, and Pippin winds the blanket round him as he turns. But Merry shivers -- even in sleep I see fear on his face. Does he dream of the wight, or of Black Riders? I rescue the blanket and cover him again. He tucks against me, the way he did when he was small. Heed no nightly noises, I whisper. The horns do not cry for you.

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Strider he says keep going, Glorfindel he says we must hurry and Frodo doesn't say anything, except with his eyes, and they're enough to make me want to try to run without Elves' or Rangers' words. But it's hard to run when you're tired enough to trip on a blade of grass, and your legs ache like you've had a fever for a month.

Walking's fine, if you've long legs to walk with, but I'd never planned to walk to Rivendell. I miss the ponies we meant to ride. Father will miss them too when we come home without them.

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This isn't fun anymore. It wasn't exactly fun before, when our ponies got stolen, and when the Black Riders tried to kill us except that we weren't there, and Weathertop was scary more than it was exciting but it didn't hurt at least it didn't hurt me, and now all I can think about is how much my feet sting on the road and won't there please be a verge to walk on instead, and why do my legs hurt so much from walking when I've had to walk most places ever since I was born, except for when I was riding?

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"My cuts, long or short, don't go wrong," I told young Peregrin, and if he had his breath he'd throw that back in my teeth. Climbing this ridge was foolishness – the pony barely made the climb, and Frodo hasn't the strength left to stay on his feet. He shivers so hard it's a wonder that his bones don't break with it. But there's no going back. We'll have to risk a fire tonight, and hope it won't be seen. Tomorrow I must find a path to Rivendell, and a better one for hobbits at that.

Another mistake will kill him.

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Twenty miles at least, and more than we could have gone without Glorfindel's aid, it's true. But I am weary, as I seldom am, from taking the night watches and from worrying about the hobbits. If it were not for our guide I would have gone astray because my eyes had closed of their own.

The grass is soft where we stop at last, and I fall into its comfort as bonelessly as Pippin does. But sleep will not come until I see that Frodo too is resting.

How he keeps the shadow still at bay I do not understand.

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Just a little farther, Bill, I tell you, and a little more than that, until you must think I've no sense at all about ponies and their bellies which can't be filled when no one stops long enough to let them eat. I don't suppose that Elf's got a special drink for ponies too. But I've some oats for you I've saved, since there's been no chance to have a fire. At least your load's got lighter as we've gone along and et the most of it. And you can eat grass, which wouldn't do me no good at all.

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I hate to ride while the others walk, but I do not think I could manage to keep up anymore. The cold has spread from my shoulder down my side and if it were not that I can see the reins Glorfindel has wrapped around my wrist I would not know how I've kept from falling. I'm getting sore too, because the saddle is not sized for hobbits, no more than the horse could be. But I do not complain. In a strange way, I'm grateful for the pain. I don't think you can still get blisters if you're dead.

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The Road was easier to walk than the paths had been through the hills, but he'd more to carry now than one small twolegs and his hooves were getting heavier with every step. He let his head droop to save strength, and pushed on, waiting for the fire of a whip curling across his withers. But it did not come.

Gradually he realized that the apple-sharing twolegs was coaxing him forward with a hand on the halter and making soft noises. "Can't keep calling you 'Bill'spony'. It takes too much breath, and I've none to spare. So come along, Bill."

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A hundred years to find a mare too stupid to dash herself to death in my presence, and ten foals from her belly. Centuries to breed the herd, mares put to stallions chosen for increasing strength and intelligence. I stood at every birth and coaxed each trembling newborn with soft hushings, filling their noses with a charnel breath before they’d known the living air. A thousand years to create nine companions for our road.

How many leagues did they carry us, only to die within sight of our task’s end? The River has taken what was left of my heart.

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He slid to the ground as soon as the horse stopped, but his feet stung when they hit the ground and his knees gave way. He could only watch as the Elves carried Frodo inside.

And then someone was tugging him upright and he turned to face an elderly hobbit, who tsked brusquely as he brushed away the caked mud on his face and then stopped, peering with growing recognition at his face. “Samwise, I thought it was you!” he said, and his voice was achingly familiar.

Bilbo?

“You’ve grown,” said Bilbo, just as Sam’s tired head said, “You’ve shrunk.”

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Young Meriadoc and Peregrin I didn’t know, and if it hadn’t been for Hamfast’s nose in the middle of his face I doubt I would have recognized my friend Sam as the burly hobbit who carried you inside. But you, my child, I knew you in a heartbeat. You haven’t changed at all. The tears that you cry in your sleep follow the same curves as they did the last night I stood by your bed, long ago.

Have you forgiven me, yet? Or has keeping the Ring preserved your grief as well as giving it up has preserved mine?

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He lay in bed as long as possible, staring at the ornately carved beams on the ceiling above. But it was no use. How could he sleep in this great soft bed when his poor master was being tended by Elves and Wizards down the hall?

Carefully, he slipped out of bed and found his trousers, still damp from a hasty washing, and slid them on over his nightshirt. Mr. Merry and Mr. Pippin wouldn’t miss him, not for hours yet, and maybe if he sat up with Mr. Frodo for a while he’d find himself tired enough to sleep.

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His hand is colder now.

It’s been cold for days, but holding it tonight is like trying to hang onto the metal handle of a pump at midnight on a winter night. The chill creeps out of him and into me, until I have to switch off hands. My fingers ache, my joints are as stiff as Dad’s and nearly as swollen, and I blow on them to try to warm them a little, but even my breath is cool now, and the blankets Lord Elrond wrapped around us don’t help much.

I wonder if we’ll both die of frostbite.

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Bachelor stitches my sisters would call these, if they ever saw them, lumpy strips of thread just holding two edges of cloth together. I didn’t want to waste no time there by Weathertop; I just wanted the holes mended, so the cold outside couldn’t get to your poor hurt shoulder. Still, you’ll need your good coat and weskit, if … when you wake up, and I’ve time and to spare, and Lady Arwen’s lent me a needle, so I can mend them proper now.

I wish I knew how to stitch fine enough to protect you from the cold inside.

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Merry wondered if he should offer to change places. From his vantage point he could see that Frodo’s appetite had recovered nicely, but Sam, forbidden to serve at the high table, was fussing. Then again, every time Sam twisted around to look at Frodo sitting up at the high table, Pippin had a chance to slip another bit of potato, or slice of meat onto the gardener’s plate. Pippin blushed defiantly when he realized Merry had noticed, but Merry smiled and discreetly topped off Sam’s glass of wine. “Best eat up, Sam,” he said, “You wouldn’t want Frodo to worry.”

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His chief counsellor Elrond calls me, and it is an honor, but it means that I must be at every meeting in this room, and just taking my chair is enough to make my mind wander. Especially since I’ve heard the story of how Isildur took the Ring at least a thousand times. I heard Gandalf’s report about Saruman and the Ring too, and he said it in fewer words when his dinner and a bath were waiting for him.

The fate of the world hangs on our words, and all I can do is concentrate:

I will not yawn.

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Frodo was safe, and sleeping, but if Sam had been listening a-right at that Council, then their troubles were only just started. He went out onto the balcony that overlooked the valley, thinking, even though there was little use in his trying to find a way around what all the Elves and Dwarves and Wizards and Men had planned out. So he sat for a while, listening to the comfortable discussions of the waterfalls and wishing there was a way to bring some of the peacefulness of Rivendell along with him on the journey.

Far above him the stars glittered.

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“You’ve got to cook with your nose,” he tells me, as if I haven’t been master of Rivendell’s kitchens for a thousand years, so I set him loose in the pantry, watching him concoct a posset for his master which ignores all I have learned about which spices summon sleep. And yet when he shares a spoonful with me and we debate whether or not to add more sugar I know that here is another who will always be welcome in my domain.

I do not tell him which spices are hardest to replace. I made that mistake with Bilbo.

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He'd love this place, my brother. I can almost see him standing beside the waterfalls with his face turned up to the caress of the mist. He would not linger for long -- not once he heard the singing coming from the Hall of Fire. But his Elvish is better than mine; he would not be so shy of asking when he heard a strange word. By now he'd be trading poems with the old hobbit, and asking Lord Elrond for the use of the library.

Perhaps if he were with me, I would not be so ready to go home.

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“Dear Marigold,” it said, in her brother’s careful hand,

“I haven’t leave to tell you why, and I won’t, in case you find this before the flour’s gone, but like as not you already know I’ve gone a mite farther than Crickhollow. Mr. Frodo’s got to go, you see, and I’m to go with him and how far and how long is more than I know. But I’m like to see Elves, if Gandalf don’t turn me into a toad for writing you. Tell them that might miss me that I’m sorry I didn’t say more. Especially Dad.”

“Love, Samwise.”

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You should’ve kept your party clothes if you meant to impress that Man what’s come from Gondor. The green you had last night was as fine as anything he’s wearing, or finer, and he‘s too proud of hisself to look deeper. I don’t expect he can see past the rough edges, no more than we could in Bree. He hasn’t seen the way the Elves treat you, nor walked a while in your care. But I should ha’ guessed sooner you was more than you seemed. Tis only folk from tales as has verses made for them. Polite verses, anyway.

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There are times when Sam wonders who the Sackville-Bagginses have hired in his place. Have the flowerbeds been properly mulched, and are the coldframes ready for the coming spring? Has anyone thought to turn the muckpile? Will they know how to coax the blossoms from the rarer plants, the bush that was carried in a bundle all the way from Laketown, or the shy blue flowers that he has only ever seen at Bag End and Rivendell? It’s none of his responsibility no more, he scolds himself, and tries to plan for Crickhollow instead.

But he dreams of Bag End.

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On Longnight he danced with the others, and leapt the midnight bonfires, but afterwards he left the singing and went to the room which had always been his to wait for morning with the plashing and rumble of the waterfalls singing the sleepytime song of his childhood through the window.

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Not much use in roasting a goose this Yule, I suppose. Tis too much trouble to travel now, with all these Men about, and better for my girls to stay where they are. And my lads can't leave their families neither, for all that Chief Pimple says the rules make things safer. I've a bit of ham laid by, and taters in the bin and it'll do. If my Sam were home he'd be mixing up some sage dressing like his mother's. I never saw a hobbit to beat that lad for adding a bit of this or a touch of that, and he'd find a goose, if I know him, if it meant working long past sunset to earn the coin for it. "What's Yulefeast without a goose to share, Dad?" he'd ask me, if he were here.

But it's the sharing, not the goose, that makes the Yule.

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I’m not sure that Lord Elrond really would have had me tied in a sack, and to be honest I’m not sure he would have needed to. We’ve been walking and walking and it all looks the same in the dark and the wind keeps blowing so hard that I think I’ve forgotten what it means to be warm. If it weren’t for Frodo needing someone to remember to ask him questions that make him smile I’d feel as if it would have been better for me to go home and warn everyone except they wouldn’t have believed me anyway.

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Sam had rearranged the contents of his pack three times already that night. The first time he had found the needle and thread to mend Pippin’s trousers. The second time it had been to locate the bag of thyme that Pippin had sworn was in the outside pocket and actually had been under Sam’s last pocket-handkerchief at the very bottom of the main bag. And the third time it was to find a flint to replace the one in Pippin’s tinderbox.

“Sam, have you got…?” Pippin whispered.

Sam opened a baleful eye. “No,” he said, and went back to sleep.

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The rain they’d left behind at last, and the dark nights were not so dark. Colder of course; a clear sky always meant cold this time of year. But that didn’t matter. Frodo could hear Sam and Pippin singing softly as they walked.

“The joy of winter is the sky,
so blue and bright it greets the eye.
The sunrise burnished bright with gold,
is warmest when the air is cold,
And sunset too is warm and red.
And when the sun has gone to bed,
The moon shines with a kindly light
And guides us safely through the night.”

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He took up the long leather coat and set it on his knees, threading the leather needle from his pack with heavy woolen thread. The coat had seen long service, judging by the other repairs, and Sam wondered how many battles it had seen. Or had the other rips been made in practice too? No matter. It would be easy enough to mend.

Boromir was counting cadence as Frodo sparred with Aragorn again and Sam found himself humming to the rhythm, vaguely pleased that the Men had found out now what Sting could do, with a hobbit’s arm behind it.

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The stones of Mirkwood barely know my kin, even though my father’s halls lie underground. Our lives are more entwined with the trees and other green things. The mosses by the river recognize us, and tiny ephemeral flowers learn our names. But when we are gone, as we must go, then will the memories fade, as they have faded in lost Eregion? The Song is faint, a soft, gruff melody that echoes more through the soles of my feet than in my ears.

It is strange to learn that even the grass, perennial as sunrise, will forget the Elves someday.

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That’s another fire we can’t have, Strider says, and Pippin’s not the only one was hoping for another hot meal before we went on. The cold’s got into my bones this past fortnight, what with all the walking we’ve done. Bless me if I haven’t started to creak when I move. I can feel the Gaffer’s aches in my fingers and knees, and I was hoping not to have that parcel in my pack for a good many years yet.

Still, the sun is out, and if it ain’t too warm, it’s bright enough. It’ll do. It will have to.

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Baraz, Zirak, Shathûr

How often have I drawn thee? Enough to know thee when I watched Balin’s company begin their journey along this road. Enough to know from afar.

But mountains change, depending on the place from which you view them. The Lonely Mountain has not the same shape from Near as Far. I did not realize what it was that I felt was wrong about thee three until we topped this rise and I saw thy outlines strong in the shapes I know by heart.

Now do I stand where Thráin stopped and looked back to mourn lost Khazad-dûm.

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By summer I easily tolerate intruders, so seldom do they come to trail their insolence over my slumbering shoulders. But this is glorious winter, when the cold has wakened me, and the only sounds I wish to hear are the sweep of snow and the howl of wind.

One soft-footed Elf, and four nearly as quiet; and the Wizard, who makes no more racket than he must; two Men, and a pony I might suffer to pass, but for their comrade, whose arrogant clatter echoes painfully in the plundered places deep within.

I’ve a score to settle with you, Dwarf.

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Somehow I imagined that mountains were much like hills -- just a bit taller -- but in three hours we’ve already climbed far higher than any hill the Shire has to offer. We’ve left the trees behind, except for twisted evergreens that lie nearly flat to hide from the endless wind.

Were Bilbo’s mountains this high? His path this narrow? The drop so steep? He talked about the bite of wind, and the breath of snow, but by the hearth in Bag End it sounded no worse than climbing to the top of the Great Smials with a toboggan at my heels.

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Gandalf is our Captain, Aragorn lieutenant and guide. Though all my training has been to lead, I have followed like the rest.

But there are followers and followers, and I remember the man who saved my first command from disaster. “A captain keeps his eye on the task,” he said, “and a sergeant keeps his eye on the men. Between them a Company has a chance, if the sergeant is willing to speak up and the Captain is willing to listen.”

We are not all Men, but I have been watching. It is time to speak.

Are you listening, Gandalf?

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Never had he thought that snow could come down sideways, though down it must have come to grow so deep so quickly. And never had he felt such bitter cold. His teeth were chattering hard enough to crack, and it wasn't until Boromir stopped to kneel before him and snug the hood of his cloak tighter against his ears that the spasms eased. He watched the Man through snow-laden lashes, too cold to protest having his mittens adjusted like a child gone numb-fingered from a snowball fight, and too breathless from the mountain and the wind for words of gratitude.

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This isn’t going to work. Legolas might make it through this storm, but the rest of us are lagging. Elladan and Elrohir said nothing of Caradhras’ malice when they returned to Rivendell -- perhaps they went unnoticed. But the long cold has proved as dangerous as the long dark.

Would we could take the Gap of Rohan! But if Theoden still holds true it is clear from what Gandalf has learned of his court that not all the Rohirrim are as trustworthy.

Too long has it been since I knew the Mark, and not long enough since I ventured into Moria.

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Cold be hand and heart and bone… and other parts of me too, that would be much happier warm. It seems like every other time we’ve been in trouble something’s tried to chill us to the core. The wight in the barrow, and the Riders and now the mountain – or whatever is hiding here.

I’m glad that Gandalf has made a fire, but standing here in the cold and dark reminds me of Weathertop and how nightblind we were when we turned away from the flames to try to see what was attacking us. My teeth were chattering then too.

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The fire is dying now, the last embers collapsing into the slush beneath the hearthstone, and I breathe a little easier. It had not occurred to me that traveling in the company of the One Ring would prove to be so difficult. Narya’s protections have worn thinner each time Frodo and I have stood together near an open flame – although I do not yet know if Frodo has realized the danger. He has grown so quiet on this trek; I do not think he would volunteer his thoughts and I do not wish to give him more to think about.

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It wasn’t as if he’d never slept in the dark.

When the summer days grew hottest he’d go to the darkest cellar in Bag End to wait for evening, and stretch out on the cool stone floor with his head pillowed on his arms, breathing the good green scent of dirt caught in his sleeves and the heady bread-smell of the ale barrel. He’d fallen asleep that way more than once when he was a littling, waking with Mr. Bilbo’s oldest blanket tucked over him and the master telling his Gaffer not to shout.

He wished he could sleep now.

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"I'm all right, I can walk. Put me down!" Aragorn doesn't mean to be rough, but he caught me up so quickly that I'm glad to be put down, to go carefully down these stairs without being jarred while he and Gandalf argue over our heads. But it is harder work than it should be. I'm gladder still of a chance to stop.

Sam is more careful; the arms he wraps around me are gentle, inviting me to lean into his sturdiness without haste or force. He's as frightened as a deer – his pulse is racing faster than mine – but he murmurs reassurances, hobbit-nonsense that contrasts oddly with Gandalf's mutterings from up there by the door. It isn't all right, and it won't be better with a cup of tea, and a bite to eat, Sam, unless you mean to find them somewhere beyond this wretched darkness. And yet I am comforted, like the fauntlings with skinned knees who sniffled belatedly on the garden steps while you came up to ask me permission to raid the teacakes. There's a whiff of flour and cinnamon from your clothes under the iron tang of blood. I close my eyes and remember home.

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When Sam looked down into the tumult of water it seemed as if the river was standing still and he was flying back upstream towards the Dimrill Dale. His toes curled around the taut rope beneath his feet, desperate for purchase. How had Pippin managed to step across so lightly? Had he closed his eyes the whole way, or had he been so glad not to have to make another leap in the dark that even a strand of thread would do?

“You wanted a rope,” he reminded himself, tried not to think too much of bridges, and went on.

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A nice little hole with a bit of garden of my own, was all I told Merry she’d offered me, and didn’t mention it was Bag End’s garden I saw my feet standing in – I planted those lilacs myself, and I know their smell.

I wonder if she offered him the same thing. He’s loved that hole as much as Frodo ever has. I saw how he walked each room after the last party. If he hadn’t decided to come along with us I expect he might have bought it himself.

But it wouldn’t be home nohow. Not without Frodo.

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His tears he took with him, when the loss felt too heavy to share, and so discovered a slumbering kitchen garden at the edge of the City of the Trees, and a walled orchard. An Elven maiden worked there, pruning the pear trees, and after watching for a little he dug out the pocketknife that Bilbo had given him and set to work beside her. His fingers sought out the best places to trim the soft wood, and he murmured to the trees as he worked, promising it was for the best.

“You’ll grow back all the stronger, come Spring.”

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Whose little pony are you, to be wandering into my stable like you’ve been here betimes? Old Barliman he’s got ponies a-plenty, and oats are dear, what with all the troubles. But I don’t suppose as he’ll mind if I feed you once, and get these burrs from your hide.

Hold still, lad. How can you be so sure I’ve sugar in my pocket? Just a bit more brushing, now. You’re the image of a pony I once knew. Bless me if you’re not the very one. Why did they send you home?

Why haven’t they come back with you?

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Three fragile strands of golden hair, braided together as gently as a goldsmith twists the wires of a brooch, wrapped around a button of wood, tucked into a pouch that once held lesser jewels, and hung from a thong that lies beneath his armor, so that the pouch falls near his heart.

I do not tell him that his ring of hair is the same size and shape as the Ring which Frodo carries next his skin. It is enough that I can see his eyes and remember why it was that once my people and his shared our lives.

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We've left the Lady behind and all that good green land, to follow this deep swift river as far as it can take us. I've been watching Strider paddle and he seems to know how, but every bump of waves makes my stomach hurt and my fingers tighten on the gunwales. I turn my head to ask how you are feeling; you've fallen asleep in the bow. Are you so tired then?

If I'm careful I can twist around, and I will, somehow. There are blankets here to wrap you in against the chill of wind and water.

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I never knew how wide the wild world was until he took us from Bree and into the Midgewater Marshes and us half a-trot just to keep him in sight. Moors and forests, mountains and rivers, wondrous places and nightmares in the dark he led us safely through. And now we’ve found another bog to cross and a worse guide, and though ‘tis easier to play at follow-me-leader from tussock to tussock with someone whose legs are the right size, I can’t but wish that someday we might meet with Aragorn again and share a pipe beside the evening fire.

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Nine days by Pippin’s fingercount, since last I sat and stretched my legs like this and longer since I had the comfort of pipeweed to soothe me. Gimli’s head is not so sore, even Legolas is better for a good meal, but we three are better still for the chance to listen to the comfortable chatter of hobbits debating matters of importance as lightly as Shire genealogies. The tale goes from one to the other, whips and pain and orcs discarded as distractions, but I have learned to listen for what is not said when a hobbit tells a tale.

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Folk who live for centuries seldom celebrate birthdays, and the first of March meant little more to me than a reminder of all I have not yet accomplished since my mother died until Bilbo came to live at Rivendell. He cannot resist a birthday, his own or anyone else's, and knowing how things go among hobbits I have been glad to bring him pipeweed as thanks for the poems he bestows on me in September.

But of all the birthdays I have ever known, this is the one which has given me the gift I treasure most.

Gandalf is alive!

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If I weren’t swaddled like a fauntling in cloak and blankets I’d probably not be falling asleep so much. But perhaps I would anyway. It’s not like I need to balance, or pay attention to the road. Gandalf is busy thinking, and Shadowfax knows the way. He hasn’t stumbled, not once, since we left Isengard -- his gait is as smooth as the pony on rockers that has been the mount of every Took-babe since Gerontius was born. It makes me dream of the nursery, and of home, when Mama’s arms would hold me the way Gandalf’s arms do now.

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Merry lay on the soft pallet that the Rohirrim had laid out for him and stared at the shadows that danced on the smokestained ceiling of the great hall. He hadn't had so comfortable a bed since Lorien, but it felt empty, and cold. He'd fallen out of the habit of sleeping alone. Ever since they'd left Crickhollow, Pippin had been there beside him, stealing the blankets or yawning through his turn on watch. Without him close by, Merry scarcely dared to close his eyes. Without Pippin sleep was different, and dangerous.

He felt like he'd forgotten how to dream.

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This lake is the loveliest thing I've seen since Lorien, hidden by trees, touched by the warmth of spring, with only iris-swords set to guard it. The water is as sweet as the air -- even Smeagol appreciates it. He dives like a heron in search of supper. "It'll take the stink off him some, and about time." Your eyes are tired but they crinkle at the corners. "A bath wouldn't hurt you none, either, sir."

"A bath?" I repeat, as if I'd forgotten the word.

"Why not?" you say. "The water isn't hot, but the sun has warmed the shallows," and take a bar of soap from your pack as if it were a commonplace to have such niceties so close to the Black Land.

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For all that he wanted to be done and finished, Frodo was grateful to leave the Black Gate behind. He’d cast his trust on Smeagol, and the land they walked through rewarded that trust, for Spring lay on it and the grass was soft beneath their tired feet. “A change is as good as a rest,” was what Sam said, reaching out unthinkingly to touch the flowers they passed, as if they were strolling along with no particular destination in mind. Frodo envied him his patience; but how could he begrudge the delay when the green wind soothed his soul?

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As lovely as Lothlorien had been, and that was lovelier than Sam had words to say, it hadn’t set as right with his heart and hands as this empty land. Ithilien reminded him of the Shire, and small woodlands tucked beyond the fertile fields. ‘Twas quieter than home, but he thought it looked like the Shire might have looked to the first hobbits across the Brandywine. Here was a road, and there walls, half-fallen and covered with ivy, but the people had gone away and for just this little while nothing worse than the trees and the flowers had dominion.

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The flowers made Smeagol sneeze, they did, and the light hurt his eyes, though the Yellow Face was hidden for a long time behind the nearby mountains, and crept out well after the sky had turned blue. He did not like this land, in spite of crunchy birds and careless rabbits. The hobbitses weren't careful here; they forgot that touching left a scent on frond or leaf. Sam-hobbit made a foolish fire while Master was sleeping, and Smeagol had to go quite far to find a hollow tree for his bed. He dreamed Sam called him to share the food, but he covered his ears to keep from hearing the quiet friendly conversation of the two friends. He did not want to taste the mingled herbs and meat. It reminded him of long-ago picnics beside the river, of makeshift meals, and a shared spoon and other things now best forgotten.

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So much is blighted here, but much remains. Stones stand for centuries, but my father’s city has not this green strength, reborn in spite of fire and ax. Each Spring I see hope in the little things which push up through last autumn’s fall, or twine around the ruined homes as if to hide the work of war.

And in this dreadful Spring hope lies in little things. Would I have had the will to let the hobbits go had I never noticed how the daisies spring back up to the sun after the boots of armies have gone past?

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Out of the good green grass they rose, as if they had been hidden by mist where no mist lay, and stranger than any stranger we had ever known. An Elf from a tale, and a Dwarf with pride enough to offset his lack of height. And Aragorn. A Man he is, more like to Boromir than the Dunlendings or my kin, but touched by magics beyond the reach of mortalkind. Never did I doubt him once I had seen the Flame of the West and destiny bright and terrible in his eyes.

Would that he rode with us now!

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White Wizard, your bite went deep. Too many men lie sleeping in the mounds before Helm's Deep, and too many boys are riding their fathers' horses. Hama, my old friend, would you be proud to see your Haleth there amongst the rest, or frightened as I am to know that he will meet you in the summerlands before he sees his fourteenth summer in the Mark? Yet that is the way of fathers and sons in this bitter year. One is sacrificed to the schemes of Saruman, and the other rushes headlong to die for the fragile hopes of Gandalf.

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Hush Windfola, and do not mourn. Your master has gone without you, but there are many here who would be glad to groom the blood from your sides and soothe the fears from your eyes. And yet one fear they do not see, and would let you stand watching as all the herd you love goes off to distant battle. You could not stand on a battlement, nor turn an orcish arrow, yet you were made for war. The horns cry and you would follow. I know your fear, and I bring you comfort. You will not be left behind.

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I suppose I should be grateful for the darkness; without it I should have been sent back by now, to sit in Edoras and wait for news that couldn't come when not a man can be spared as messenger. But I have fought Orcs before, which is more than some of the Riders can say. Children they are, who speak in gruff whispers lest their voices betray them and make a show of scraping their chins in what passes for morning.

I cannot help but wonder. Would Theoden King have bid me ride beside him if I had a beard?

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This makes up for so much. The recalcitrant digestion, the incurable tendency to bite off the heads of the orcs who are meant to tend them, the molting feathers that stick to my robes; these are nothing compared to the view which I now command. The very mountains are like pebbles beneath me.

Even better it is to bend my mount and fall without fear, diving to soar over farmland and fortress, my own shadow sweeping across the upturned faces of the gathering armies.

I shriek out my delight, and watch the frightened ants scatter.

“Look at me! I’m flying!”

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Is this what halflings are meant to look like, so rosy cheeked and bright eyed? Do they scamper soft-footed like him in their faraway land? The other two moved carefully, like old men after a cold night. It was only the wine that lent color to their faces.

He stands by Father’s chair and listens to my tale, tipping up on his toes to listen all the harder when I speak of his kinfolk. His curls tumble over his forehead, and I remember Sam’s lank hair, and Frodo’s brittle locks against his pillow.

I should have given them more food.

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There isn’t much resemblance to Boromir really, not much more than any of the other Men here, until he gets that stubborn set to his chin, and then you can’t mistake it. And his voice is like Boromir's voice except softer until he's saying something he thinks has to be heard. Their eyes are alike too, come to think of it, grey as a spring storm rising when you can’t tell if it’s going to be the kind that sets everything growing faster or the kind that will knock off all the leaves

I wonder what his smile looks like?

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“We all like walking in the dark,” you said, when we set out from Bag End, and it was true enough then. But a starlit road when the wind is warm is a friendlier place for walking than a rainswept moor, or snowclad mountains. And outside dark is nothing next to the fenced in dark of the underground.

I’d got fair tired of the dark before we ever found Stinker, and following him ain’t made me like it no better. We’ve climbed for hours in a darkness that should’ve been day, and now he wants us to go in there?

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A warm hand closed around the Ring, and in Its own, inanimate way it knew the long journey would continue. The old servant wasn’t dead, but no matter. It had discarded living servants before. It wasn’t capable of frustration, but even the long patience of metal and magic could not have borne coming so near to the edge of puissance only to turn away again.

The taste of the new one’s mind was familiar. The minion, then. A stronger back and a weaker will. And frightened too. It sent a whisper of desire to meet that fear.

Put me on!

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Mr. Frodo’s waiting for me, but this won’t take long. I daren’t leave a single thread caught in these thorns, nor yet any thorn that drew a drop of blood. I’ve seen old Gollum sniffing out his way too often, like a dog seeking a fox, and I won’t risk thinking that he can’t get by that tower now that the orcs have murdered one another.

Threads and thorns tangle in my hand, and there’s not enough thread to dull the points. It hurts to keep holding on. Guess I’ve known that for a while.

But I won’t let go.

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It would be convenient if I knew precisely what it was that the Elf Lord said when foresight touched him at that battle long ago. The words came to me in various guise, and no battle yet has proved him wrong. Then again, I have battled only living Men since then. I’ve avoided Elves, and graveyards.

But as she stands before me, holding her sword as high as if the terror of my presence does not touch her, I must consider. Was there an adjective in that prophecy or not? Was it the noun that mattered? Capital M, or small?

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Sam was right.

The Ring has changed, now that we are in Mordor. It weighs more, on the chain and on my mind. Before we came within sight of Mount Doom it was only half aware, and the temptations it presented were simple.

The desire to hold…

The desire to hide…

But by the light of the Fire I see myself enlarged, empowered, avenged upon the Orcs who pawed at me, and admired by all whom I once held in awe. This temptation is harder than any, for in many ways the Ring is already mine.

The desire to have

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I dreamt that you were weeping.

The nightmares I remember are tangled, jumbled; I am naked and frightened one moment, and being stripped of my clothes the next, forced to drink and eat of things best forgotten, and aching from blows that have not yet fallen. Twisted throughout are fevered imaginings: Pippin in bright armor, Merry riding among a host, Aragorn and Gimli and Legolas on a ship at sea, Gandalf's ghost on a white horse. False images. False hurts. Even the orcs did not do all that I imagined in my fear or I would bear the scars.

But as we lie here in the thornbrake, waiting for the night, there is time for you to tell your side of what befell. In your hoarse whisper I hear the tears you shed for me; the pain of the choice you made when you thought me dead, and the terror of the choice you made when you knew I lived. And memory comes back to me, of gentle hands that brushed the webs from my face and settled my unlimbered body like an image on an Elven tomb.

I dreamt that you were weeping.

But it was not a dream.

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Frodo wondered, as Sam slept the sleep of the exhausted, whether anyone would ever tell the Gaffer what had happened to his son. Faramir, perhaps, or Aragorn, or a messenger riding up to the row of smials below Bag End with a letter that would take the old hobbit an hour to puzzle his way through. But none of them would know of Shelob, nor Cirith Ungol, so the tale would be forever incomplete. “Samwise the Stouthearted,” he whispered, “Hero of the Age,” and smiled at the memory of a hobbit-lad battling dragons in the garden with a muddy trowel.

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When Tom Bombadil gave me my sword I felt awkward with it, like I was playing at Heroes and Dragons the way that lads do while their chores are waiting.

When Boromir offered to teach me to use my sword I was nervous, but pleased with the lessons in case they might prove useful.

When Aragorn returned my sword to me at Isengard I was grateful and glad to feel the weight of it again on my belt where it belonged.

When Eowyn stumbled my sword was in my hand and I struck without a thought.

I miss my sword.

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Who are you to want to know about my shieldsister? Can I trust you with her, fragile as she is? I did not save her from the Witch King to watch her heart be broken once again. I know that she is beautiful, after the way of Men and Elves, and you are not the first to ask, just the first to think he might command.

The Steward? But I am sworn to Rohan, and to her in her Uncle’s stead.

Boromir’s brother? That’s better. I owe a debt to Boromir that cannot be repaid.

But I loved her first.

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“Come on, Samwise,” Bilbo said and perched the youngest Gamgee babe on his shoulder to save Bell the trouble of chasing him as she plodded sturdily up the path with one hand supporting her rounded belly.

***

“Come on, Sam,” Frodo laughed and swung the giggling gardener’s boy onto his back before lining up with the other tweens for the piggyback race and a chance at winning the young piglet that the Mayor had put up as prize this year.

***

“Come on, Mr. Frodo,” Sam cried. “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you and it as well.”

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I can feel It. Not Its weight, thank goodness, or I’d not manage to carry you a step, but the Ring is there between my shoulder blades, and every time I stop to hitch you up a little and get a better grip on your legs, or when you shift your arms to ease the pressure on my neck, I feel Its shape carving a new hole in my skin.

I remember how warm and heavy It was on my finger. How smooth and perfect It felt. How It gleamed as if it were something pure.

I want It.

No!

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When I can, at dawn, and sometimes dusk, I go to the meadow where our horses graze and call Firefoot to me, and then elf-fashion ride a while, until sleep or duty beckons. It is easier to be a king from the back of a horse: I see more clearly, somehow. Even Aragorn – Elessar – is easier with his fate when he is riding. And he has always known he would be king.

Théodred, Théodred, cousin and brother, why did you never take a wife? Why did you never father a son who could take this bitter joy in my stead?

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He’d borrowed a book on medicinal plants from the herb-master, because fretting about Pippin and Aragorn reminded him about galenas and westmansweed and it was better to wonder if pipeweed grew wild in the South than to think about the armies marching to the Black Gate or Frodo and Sam somewhere beyond the bleak fence of mountains to the East.

It got into his pack in the confusion of joy, and he was glad of it at Cormallen, for the long sonorous passages that let Pippin fall asleep, and for the pictures of flowers he could recognize through his tears.

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The nightmares were the worst of it, Merry decided, after the first few hours he'd spent watching the others. Pippin could be shaken awake if you were gentle, and coaxed into taking another dose. Sam would settle again with a touch and a lullaby. But Frodo struggled, and did not seem to hear, and at last Merry sent for Aragorn, in hopes that he had athelas.

When the king came he scooped up the Ringbearer and set him against his shoulder. And Frodo sighed and slept while Aragorn walked till dawn like a father comforting a fauntling fretful with fever.

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April 6, 1419

Happy birthday, Sam. You owe me a mathom. To tell the truth all the present I want from you today is for your eyes to open. Not that I’m expecting it. Strider says you won’t wake up until you’ve started healing, and that cut on your head bleeds whenever they change the bandage. The orcs had some stuff that healed me up, even though it hurt a lot. Never thought I’d wish I had orcish medicine, but I do. I want to do more than just sit and talk at you and Pip and Frodo.

Come on, Sam.
Wake up!

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I shouted as I’d been taught, but when the Ringbearers came before us the words caught in my throat. We'd thought to see two more like the Squire of Rohan, small folk, but proud -- not wide-eyed starvelings clasping hands for comfort as they walked.

One was clad in leather – orc gear, scavenged in great need. The other wore the tattered remains of a much-mended suit. Through gapes in their clothes I could see the red lines of scars new-healed.

So small they were, to brave the shadow. My heart overflowed with pity and joy. “Praise them with great praise!”

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"Are you hungry, Sam?" Pippin asks again. Bless me if I know how to tell him that I’ve et more food in the past two hours than I’d eat in a week at home. He’s got a nice bit of cake on that tray he’s carrying too, and it isn’t like he couldn’t stand to put on a few pounds his ownself, but I can see in his eyes he wants to me to take it, so I nod and thank him. Merry’s put some in front of Mr. Frodo, too, and our eyes smile ruefully.

But it’s good cake.

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Two weeks of sleeping, if Gandalf were right, and you’d have thought that would be enough to prove that it was safe enough to sleep the night through. But the noisy Man feet of the guards outside the grove sounded worse in darkness; the jangle of mail and creak of leather too close for comfort, until Sam hitched himself up against the headboard and Frodo could see brown eyes glittering wakefully in the dim starlight, and feel a hand resting warm on his shoulder. He sighed, and smiled, and let sleep come.

At midnight, he awoke and they traded places.

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They’d left the boats in Osgiliath and set up camp for one more night so as to reach the Gates in the morning. Pippin, sent to fetch the Walkers for supper with the soon-to-be-king, found Sam scowling across the Pelennor fields at the distant spires.

“Is that it then?” the gardener asked sourly, nodding toward the city, which was stained pink by the fading light.

“Yes,” Pippin said proudly. “Minas Tirith. Minas Anor now.”

“And I suppose they’ll be having us sleep near Strider?”

“I expect so. In the palace, if not nearby.”

“And that would be near the Gate?”

“No, of course not. It’s all the way up at the top.” Pippin pointed to the high banners, scraps flickering like distant flames in the glow of sunset. “It’s a great honor, Sam.”

“To you it is, perhaps,” Sam grumbled, “But to me it’s just more blessed stairs to climb.”

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Frodo stood with his companions, watching as Aragorn walked towards the walls of Minas Tirith. Pippin was tiptoe-dancing with excitement, and Merry was dividing his attention between the ceremony and trying to keep a rein on the young Took. Sam had an odd expression, half delight and half dismay.

“What is it, Sam?” Frodo whispered. It couldn’t be stagefright. Sam had already talked his way out of any part of the ceremony.

“Just thinking of Bree,” Sam whispered back. “I owe a vote of thanks to old Butterbur for remembering Gandalf’s letter when he did.”

“And why’s that, Sam?” Frodo inquired.

“Well, Strider meant to come with us,” Sam said. “And I couldn’t think of but one way to stop him, him being so big and stronglike. But wouldn’t it ha’ caused no end of trouble if I’d hit the King of all the Western Lands in the family jools?”

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Though it was early May by the Shire reckoning, this day was cool and grey and rainy. “‘Tis bound to be good for growing things,” Sam thought, standing in the doorway that led to the balcony. If rain had fallen since the black rain on the mountainside, he had slept through it.

Now he put out a cupped hand, and when the pool was brimming in his palm he brought it to his mouth and drank. Clean water, and cool; not even the Green Dragon had ever served a draught so wonderful.

“Try this,” said Frodo, handing him a cup.

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There came a morning that he just didn’t want to get out of bed, didn’t want to be cheerful, didn’t want to smile and nod at the strange tall people who watched whenever they walked through the cobbled streets. The job was done, wasn’t it? Over. He’d earned a rest, hadn’t he? Just a little one?

“Time enough to rest come evening, Sam Gamgee,” he reminded himself, “and feeling sorry for yourself won’t put breakfast on the table.” But for once his Gaffer’s words were not enough to push him out of bed. Tears leaked out through his eyelashes as he twisted his face around into the pillow. “Mr. Frodo will be waking soon, and Gandalf and the others. And there’s that feast tomorrow, and someone’s got to see that Pippin’s tunic has been mended.” But sleep was as close as a heartbeat, and somehow he went from listing the things that needed doing to dreaming that he was doing them.

He roused once, to the sound of voices, and the blanket being tucked higher.

“He’s not sick, is he, Frodo?”

“Just tired,” came the reply, and a soft kiss on the crown of his head. “Sleep, Sam.”

He slept.

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It’s all topsy-turvy here, Merry thought sometimes. He and Pippin, who had always had servants to bring their plates and mind their clothes, were doing the serving now. Not that it wasn’t an honor, of course, and it did have the side benefit of access to the kitchens. Still…

It must be the air. Frodo could never get enough of the sun these days; you could always find him in the gardens. And Sam had begged Gandalf to show him the libraries where he had sought out the truth of the Ring and forever had his nose in a book!

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“Sam, you're looking a bit green,” Frodo said, worried.

“I’m feeling green, begging your pardon, Mr. Frodo,” Sam replied miserably, setting down the tankard and leaning on his elbow to stare at it wistfully. “You don’t suppose they put something odd in their beer here, do you sir?”

“I should think you would have noticed three pints ago if they did,” Merry said, “and it certainly hasn’t done Pippin any harm.”

“Maybe you should have something to eat, Sam,” Pippin suggested brightly, co-opting the tankard when Sam ran for the back door of the tavern. He grinned. “Works every time.”

Chapter Text

“What on earth made you do it?”
“Hobbits don’t have … ouch… banisters. We hardly ever even have stairs. And I’d been going up and downstairs all day.”
“Stop squirming. Going down is the easy part.”
“Maybe for you tall people it is. Besides, Pippin dared me.”
“In that case I should have him apply this ointment, shouldn’t I?”
“No thanks… he’d have far too much fun.”
"And who says I’m not?”
“What was that? You’re mumbling.”
“Just thinking of an appropriate duty for Pippin tomorrow.”
“How about polishing banisters?”
“Sounds good. Now, move your legs out, there’s another blister underneath…”
“Yeow!”

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I’ve always known my place, and kept to it as best I could. Hamfast’s son, and gardener lad, servant’s child to old Mr. Bilbo, and servant in my own right to the master whom I chose. Hobbit-of-all-work, I became because he needed me, and glad to follow his path. And if I guided him to the mountain as much as he guided me then it was because we were both in darkness.

Now Elves and Men bow to me, and my shirts are made of silk, and I can no longer tell where I should stand.

Behind him, or beside?

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They don’t understand, these Big Folk, what it’s like to find yourself the size of a fauntling; to have to run to keep up, and hunt out chairs with rungs between the legs so you can climb them, and then still need a book beneath you to find the table. They don’t understand why you have to look away or get a crick in your neck when talking to them.

They don’t understand that you might be older than they are. That they look as much like children to you as you do to them.

But some of them try.

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Considering that it ain’t been more than a few weeks since we come to Minas Anor, you’d think we wouldn’t have piled up so much truck to sort for what should stay behind. Clean clothes must come along, Mr. Frodo tells me, and warmer stuff to fit under the armor when the summer’s gone by. He says the seeds for useful herbs won’t take much room, nor the small gifts that folk have given. And I know what he’s like to decide about the books we found in the marketplace.

It’s a good thing Strider says that we’ll have ponies.

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When we got to Helm’s Deep Gimli took Legolas off into the deeps, and Legolas come back so dumbfounded that Mr. Pippin couldn’t leave well enough alone and he asked Gimli to take him down to see. Then Mr. Merry wanted to go, to keep their tallies even he said, though his hand was on his swordhilt when he said it. My gut started aching when Mr. Frodo spoke up, but there wasn’t no use in staying behind. And I’ll have to say that Gimli’s caves were a good bit nicer than that tunnel Gollum found.

They smelled better too.

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All he wanted to do was curl up again on the lumpy ticking of the bed he had once shared with his brothers, with the quilt his mother had made wrapped high over his shoulders and the starlight showing dim through the tiny window on the far wall. No featherbed had ever been sweeter, not in the palace of the King, nor even in the storied halls of Rivendell, than lying in the well-known darkness and listening to the familiar grumble of voices and the slap of cards as the old hobbits talked in the kitchen deep into the night.

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At first he was frightened. His eyesight hadn’t been its best for a good while now, and the dim light from the tiny fire didn’t go far in the smoke that escaped from the badly built chimney. He’d learned to distrust knockings at his door, but he’d gone to answer, lest the flimsy barrier be shattered. And when the invader swept him into a hard, metal-laden hug he would have put his cane to good use if it weren’t for the touch of tears against his cheek and a longed-for voice repeating in his ear, “I’m home, Dad, I’m home.”

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I should have come back sooner. If it hadn’t been for Bilbo, waiting at Rivendell, I might have. But there are a lot of things I might have done if it hadn’t been for Bilbo.

Yet if it hadn’t been for Bilbo I should never have loved this place. I close my eyes and see bright sunlight on the floor; I smell the beeswax Bell Gamgee used to polish the wooden paneling once each sevenday.

I want to ignore the corruption, the black speech scored into the curved walls.

I cannot ignore the words carved into my heart.

Ash nazg...

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Remember that tree, Mr. Frodo? It had the sweetest apples in the Shire. And that shed there, it’s right in the place where the daffydowndillys always bloomed come spring. The well’s been fouled – something’s dead down there and please don’t let it be Lotho. Though probably ‘tis. Saruman had to know we were coming. He’s left his filth smeared on the kitchen floor, and there’s not a bite of food nor drop of drink in Bag End I’d trust not to be poisoned.

You go along back to Farmer Cotton’s, and let me get started. I’ll make it right.

Somehow.

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I’m measuring out the flour for the morning’s baking when Miss Pervinca comes to find me. “It’s Pippin!” she cries, swinging me round with tears in her eyes and laughter in her voice. “He’s been seen riding up the back way from Bywater!”

“Are they sure?” I can’t help but ask, not wanting to hope just yet. “Is he alone?”

“I don’t know, but it won’t take long to find out,” she counters, pulling me out to the courtyard apron and all. Half the hobbits in the Smials are tumbling out of doors, but we are ahead of them and reach the watch tower first.

Then out of the trees we see them come, not one alone but seven, not one of them the right shape or size. In the lead rides a fine straight figure on a pony like none I’ve seen in the Shire. He’s wearing black over something that glints like metal in the light of the torches at the gate. Not till he pushes back his hood can we recognize his bright curls.

“Pippin!” Pervinca calls, and he waves back, grinning like he’d never left at all.

That’s one of our brothers safe at any road.

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"Sam!" he called, and then remembered. Sam was gone. Of course. It wasn't as if he could send the Lady's box around the Shire on its own. Sam had to go too, if the trees were to be planted.

Frodo hitched up against the headboard and hugged his knees, waiting for his breathing to steady. This was ridiculous. He was a full grown hobbit – there was no cause for him to have nightmares because he was alone.

And yet… When was the last time he'd woken without Sam somewhere near? He counted back the days until he knew.

Cirith Ungol.

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It will be a hungry winter for all that we’ve found most of the crops the ruffians stashed away. Befouled, some of it, and too little set aside for planting; we’ll have not a scrap to spare come Spring. A good winter to sit by the fireside and be thankful that there’s wood a-plenty, the gaffers say. Warmth is half of hunger satisfied.

We have to convince each village that the rationing is fair, and I’m glad that Freddy Bolger wanted to ride with us. We let him do the talking. Pippin and I look too well-fed to be trusted.

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Soft I called them, before they went, but they’ve come back hard and cruel besides. No matter that we need a mill, it must come down to please them. No matter that the gears are mine, for the land went to pay the cost. No matter that they’ve turned Lobelia against me. All my hard work gone for naught. All my dreams smashed down. There’s nothing left but anger and their laughter in my ears. Especially his.

But he rides alone, planting his foolish trees. And when he’s gone they won’t laugh no more. My dreams won’t die. His will.

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Rosie’d always known that Sam had a streak of mule as wide as his father’s, but he’d come back more stubborn than he’d gone away; planting trees across the Shire when every hobbit with sense had hunkered down to wait out the lean times by a warm fireplace. It was all she could do to get him to sit down to a meal, and seconds he wouldn’t take, not if others went without.

“But you look hungry, Sam,” she’d protest each time.

“Not hungry enough for lembas yet,” he’d reply, and nod to Mr. Frodo with a slow, secret smile.

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Three miles to the village, and he needed more saplings. Sam paused in the scrap of woodland and looked over the prospects, wondering which saplings were the offspring of the ancient oaks which had been felled and dragged out of the copse and which would prove as scrawny as the scruffy trees Saruman’s men had left behind. “Damn fools,” he said, for the hundredth time, dry-eyed now as he’d learned to be in spite of the ragged stumps that were all that were left of trees that had witnessed the first hobbits to come this way from across the Brandywine.

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I've done things that I never believed I'd do, not even while I was doing them. And it ain't done yet, for now I'm out visiting places in the Shire I used to think were stranger than news from Bree, and tucking a bit of Elven magic under each sapling like I thought I had the right.

But today beats all; for here I am, with a teacup on one knee and a plate of sandwiches on the other telling all the Hobbiton gossip to Lobelia Sackville-Baggins and her Bracegirdle relations, and I'm blessed if the old lady ain't smiling.

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A lass's heart is a funny thing, and I can't say as how I cared twopence when Sam told me he'd be going off to Buckland. I'd Dan Sandheaver coming around after all, and Tim Brockhouse and they were just the most persistent of the lot. If I thought of Sam it was in much the same way as I thought of Jolly or Tom, and how's a lass to get fluttery about a lad who's more like a brother than a beau?

But then he weren't gone a day before I found myself wanting to go up to Bagshot Row and tell him a bit of news, and feeling all lost-like when I remembered that he wouldn't be there. Still, Buckland 'tisn't as far as all that, and I sat down to write him a letter, same as I would Jolly, if he went off to work somewheres.

I've got it still, tucked up in a drawer, though it's too long to send through the post now. I've kept writing in it, you see, in spite of what everyone said. I'm in the habit of speaking my mind to Sam Gamgee now.

Do you think he'll listen, Mr. Frodo?

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He’d apologized once for not having a home to bring her to, and she’d told him that it didn’t matter, but she’d wondered all the same how it would be to live in a hole that belonged to neither of them.

But as he made their breakfast she realized how well he knew the rhythms of this place, could put a hand to every pan and plate, and coax the pump to work without considering its quirks. As he reached for the salt he cast a smile over his shoulder and she smiled back.

He’d brought her home after all.

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I can’t blame you for wanting things to go back to the way they were before, but too much has changed, and you most of all. You stepped back from honors in Minas Anor and defer to my wishes still, but I saw the hobbit you became on the plain of Gorgoroth. I still see him in your eyes. I hear him in your voice when you sing an Elvish ballad. Half of Hobbiton calls you “Master” already, and the rest say “Mister”. Set aside the golden mail and you will be noble still.

You belong in my world now.

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Darkness and a scream, and stumbling out of bed with one hand trying to wave away spiderwebs and the other seeking a sword before remembering.

Darkness and despair, and a loved voice thick with weariness saying “I’m here,” and the cool glass pressed into his grasp.

Light, so bright it shows through clasped hands and escapes through the gaps between fingers to illuminate the midnight tableaux and glint off tears already drying in the warmth of so much tenderness.

Light, and a crisis safely passed as his master sighs into better dreams, and her hand leading him back to bed.

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Hush, now, little one, your mam needs a mite more sleep, I'm thinking. So come along with your old dad, and we'll watch the night together for a while. Softer than Gandalf's beard you are, and sweeter than all the flowers of Ithilien, and why you'd want to come to a plain hobbit like Sam Gamgee I don't know. But you're here now, and as pretty as the stars in the sky. Come along with me, and I'll show you them.

There, there, no need to fuss. I didn't drop Mr. Frodo on that mountain and I shan't drop you, neither, for all that there's no more bones to you than a lump of dough waiting to rise. I'm strong enough to carry you. I'll carry you to the high towers of Gondor or to the Sea, if that's what you wish for most. I'll carry you to the moon.

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He no longer needs a candle, not even when the moon is new, nor in the deepest chambers of Bag End. On cloudless nights he reads by starlight, lest Sam notice he is wakeful, for Sam needs his sleep, and Rosie too. They are sharp-eared these nights – he hears their soft colloquy each time the baby protests her hunger – but exhausted too, and after the gentle fuss of feeding they are soon asleep again and it is safe for him to walk through the midnight smial and watch a while enchanted at the cradle as a sated Elanor investigates her toes.

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The last time everything in Bag End had reminded him of Bilbo, but now Frodo looked around him and saw Sam. Sam was the mended chair, and the vase of chrysanthemums on the desk. Sam was the song Rosie was singing in the kitchen and the clack of the baby’s rattle, the smell of the bread, baked fresh for their journey and the sweet scent of the kingsfoil he’d planted by the window. Sam was the neatly cobbled mends in the cloak resting now on Frodo’s shoulders.

Sam was here, with the scent of ponies on him, bending to pick up the packs by the fireplace. “Are you ready, Mr. Frodo?” he asked, straightening with the burden, the pale line of the scar on his forehead barely visible under his tan and sunbleached curls.

Frodo picked up the Red Book and took one last look around.

“Yes, Sam,” he said.

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I don't know where my head's been, thinking Frodo would really go off to Rivendell alone. T'wouldn't be right, any more than it would be right for me to send him. But here's Mr. Bilbo and Elrond and Galadriel and all, and won't none of them see Rivendell again, so he won't be alone, at least. The sea's been in his dreams for months now and I can't deny it.

Still, hard as it is, at least I won't have to pretend that I can't see how the light shines through him, nor the cracks that have started to show.

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You try to hide the hurt in your eyes but it flashes before habit sends your gaze to your toes for the moment that lets you pull your face aright. I hope that you miss the flare of disappointment that haunts me, in return. It's what I wanted, what I planned and worked for, but part of me was hoping that you'd beg to follow me once more. I'm going to the Moon, Sam, or as near as may be. And how will I ever manage to reach the end of my journey when you are not there to carry me?

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The Shire needs you now, as I once did, whole and sane and sensible. The Ring is destroyed, but the shadows linger, and Merry and Pippin are not ready to heal the hurts yet festering. They have not set aside their swords, nor all they learned in battle. Faced with injustice, they think not first of mercy; they have not felt the power of pity, as you did at the very threshold of Doom.

And there are hobbits who are in need of mercy. Or had you thought I did not notice when you made your peace with Ted Sandyman?

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When he was sure that they both were sleeping, Sam left their tent and went to find Galadriel, too caught up in his thoughts to do more than nod to the Elves who bowed as he passed. Days and nights flowed together when you travelled with Elves, but by the curve of the moon it had been a week, and it couldn’t be much farther to the sea. If he were going to ask, it would have to be tonight.

She was sitting with Elrond, and Gildor Inglorion, and Glorfindel and Erestor stood by them, and they all shone as if they’d been a-swallowing stars, shone like Frodo did too, and Mr. Bilbo sometimes if you squinted, and Sam would have turned around and gone back to bed if it weren’t for the moon and knowing that the time to speak would never come again.

“Beg pardon,” he began politely. “Seeing as how you’ve been there… Is it a nice place, across the sea? Do they have mushrooms there?” But then courage failed him and he had to look down at the ground as his true questions tumbled free. “Will they be lonely? Will you keep them safe for me?”

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The waters of the sea are wide, as wide as all the world, and her colors ever changing with the light and wind and clouds. I did not know the sea was like this. I could not imagine such a thing. Even now I search for something to relieve the endlessness. A flight of birds, a splash of dolphins, a bit of land.

And one thing more… a funeral boat, grey and light, that carries a lost friend. Boromir, Boromir, if Rauros did not overset your coffin, surely the sea could not. I would like a chance to say goodbye.

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Will Whitfoot had come to him with Frodo’s will when he’d returned from the Grey Havens, all signed and correct, but his tears had made nonsense of the words. It wasn’t until Quarterday that he realized how much had changed. That was when the rents came due.

All morning they came, small farmers, with their silver and copper, waiting patiently as he wrote the amounts in the ledger, and touching their caps to him when he gave them the receipts. Rosie gave them tea and sweet rolls; they touched their caps to her, too.

A messenger from the Southfarthing, with twenty gold as his share of the pipeweed crop; Ted Sandyman, scowling, with a long tale about how the cost of building the new mill prevented him from paying his due.

All the property Lobelia had left to Frodo, and that Lotho had left to her, bought with Saruman’s money. All the income from the properties that Frodo had got from Bilbo, and from his parents long ago. All of that and Bag End too.

And Sam remembered the glorious lies of the Ring, and the one small garden in a free land that he had chosen instead and wept.

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I never liked him much, the treacherous wretch. He’d had too much time to talk to his precious self, and got an earful of lies as thanks, if you ask me. And I don’t know as how we’d have got far if he’d ‘a been eating the lembas bread too, for there wasn’t barely enough as it was. Heaven only knows what he did eat, most times, and so cold and raw it would have choked me.

But still, I can’t make up a mess of fish and chips no more without thinking of him and his poor hungry eyes.

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At sunrise he looked mostly to the South and to the East to find the troubles he might mend while they were minor, and the messenger boys learned to be ready to run when he came down from the tower frowning and the Counsellors kept their mornings clear.

But at sunset he looked to the North, to the Shire and the smallest of his knights, and came down the stairs smiling more often than not, and the boys would run to summon Gimli from the Gate, Legolas from the gardens, and supper from the kitchens.

Sometimes, he came down singing.

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He’ll take it on in the end. It’s not just Mr. Frodo’s telling him so, but that he knows it’s a job that needs doing. Not that half the village hasn’t been bringing their troubles up the Hill already. Old Will was never much of a Mayor for anything but the banquets, nor ever needed to be, but times have changed, and my Sam changed with them. He’s got the heart to care about what folks need, and the hobbitsense to tell when what they want isn’t what’s best for them. He doesn’t see it, not yet, but he will.

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Sometimes he'd sit and turn the pages blindly, starting over each time with the enthusiastic scrawl at the front of the book that grew more and more spindly until it was replaced with another hand. But even the neatly flowing script stopped too soon and the expanse of empty vellum began.

Words tumbled in his head, trying to be sentences, sentences hoped to be paragraphs in vain. It was no use. The writing that came from his pen was too round and careful-like; as if he thought the pen might bite.

He couldn't even imagine the letters on the page.

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Not much had been saved. Sam sifted through the box of cookware and threadbare linens, smiling as he recognized his sisters’ stitchery on the edges of the tea towels.

Near the bottom of the box he found the things that the Gaffer had packed first.

A drawing of his mother. The herbal that Bilbo had given long ago. The carefully rolled family tree.

And at the very bottom, one thing more.

It wasn’t much – just a willow-whistle he had made for his tenth birthday, when he thought he was too old to give bunches of flowers like the babies did. It hadn’t worked well – it hadn’t worked at all really – but he’d given it to his father, because there wasn’t time to make another.

Sam turned the wood in his hands and remembered the way that the knife had slipped and the bunny-ears of the bandage his mother had tied on his finger. Hal and Ham had laughed at him, and his father had been gruff in his thanks, spending more words on the damaged hand than the gift. He’d never even tried to get a tune out of it.

The next year Sam had gone back to giving flowers.

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What were wizards like? Well, Frodo-lad, I only knew the one. An old man he seemed like, old even when he first visited the Old Took. A beard as long as a hobbit’s blanket, Gandalf had, and I saw him tuck Mr. Pippin up under it when we were so cold on Caradhras that time. But you couldn’t mistake the strength in him.

Saruman? By the time I ever saw him, his staff was broken and his powers gone. His wisdom too, if he’d had any to start with. He weren’t no wizard no more. Just a bitter old fool.

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Frodo-lad thought of it first, one summer afternoon when he had spent more time tracing the lines of his namesake's maps than practicing his letters, but he could not keep the secret from his mother when he needed both a cork and bottle from her store, nor his father who was guardian of parchment and ink. In the end it became a tradition for the Gardener children to write letters all the winter long and launch them come spring just below Bywater pool, brown bottles bobbing to the Brandywine and beyond. News from home to wash ashore on beaches faraway.

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They came across the fields by starlight, but small babies care little about the time and she was often wakeful. Soft shimmers in the grass were all she could see till she learned how to find the tall, bright figures amid the shadows. Up to the tree in the Party Field they went, every one, and most never passed the green door again.

But now and then a youth with ancient eyes would be caught between two longings and morning would find him in the garden, bewildered, until breakfast and babies and a dose of hobbitsense would send him Home.

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“How come you have trouble names and we don’t?” Pippin-lad asked, when he grew tired of playing with his namefather’s pipecleaner.

The Knight of Gondor left off telling his story and raised an eyebrow at the child sitting on his lap. “Trouble names?” he asked.

“Yes,” said the child. “When you’re in trouble you’re not Pippin, you’re Peregrin. But I’m always Pippin unless I’m just Pip.”

“That’s not so,” his brother Merry-lad said from his perch beside the elder cousin. “You’re Pippin-Get-In-Here when you’re in trouble.”

“And when he’s in trouble,” said Merry, fondly, “He’s that ‘Fool of a Took‘.”

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No matter how carefully you tried, in a hole full of children things got mislaid. So when he saw the box again he paused, remembering how it felt to stand on the green grass of Lorien and take it into his hands for the first time.

“G for Galadriel, and for garden,” he whispered, tracing his finger over the carved rune gently. “G for a gift that’s never stopped being given, no matter all the years.”

“G for Goldilocks!” his small daughter crowed, shaking it to make the pretty pebbles she’d collected make a noise as they rattled about inside.

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Worth more than all the Shire, Gandalf said, and seeing as how it saved Mr. Frodo’s life I can’t say as I value it much less. But I’d not trade one hobbit’s life for it, so here it stays unguarded, and unregarded too, most days. But it’s a useful mathom nonetheless: when a youngster joins the Borderers, he wears the dwarves’ coat until he’s toughened up enough to bear proper hobbit gear.

It’s funny how often they come to me, those gawky tweens, to ask for stories about the hobbits as wore that coat before them. Would-be heroes, eager to be like the Master and the Thain, who want to hear of battles with orcs, and wolves. Solemn youths, their eyes still flickering with memories of the year that the Shadow darkened their childhoods, who want to hear of the Council of Elrond, and Parth Galen, and hard choices made to protect the ones they love. And if they spend the long night watches battling ethereal cave trolls, or climbing moon mountains of ice and fire, tis well. The more that know the stories, and believe, the more I’ve done the task you set me.

The Story will go on.

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The seashore on a night with no moon is as black as the tunnels that worm through Cirith Ungol. Leastwise it is to me, standing here with the tears blurring my eyes and light from every star like nothing compared to the memory of the starlight shining through his hand. Yet I come every few years and look at the horizon.

Sometimes it’s the children what makes me stop at the water’s edge, and sometimes Rosie-love, but mostly it’s the memory of boat and water that keeps me from wading out to follow him.

Who’d keep me from drowning now?

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I don't remember you waddling, not even with Tom; I was far more excited that year about finally being a tween than I was at the thought of another baby in the smial. I knew all about babies, or thought I did. A dozen brothers and sisters in twenty-one years is quite an education in some ways.

But I didn't know about the way that my toes would disappear, or that the distance to the privy would be discouraging after the tenth trip of the day.

Or how frightened I would be.

And you did this thirteen times? Oh, Mum!

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After the Fairbairns had properly greeted Samwise, taking from him his soaking cloak, showing him to the best chair in the parlour, propping his feet before the fire and giving him a cup of tea fixed to his taste (after each grandchild had taken a turn bestowing a hug and a kiss, of course), the whole family settled down about him, the littlest ones on the hearthrug, the biggest ones scattered about on chairs, with little Rose on the footstool at her grandfather's feet, playing with the snowy curls atop his toes.

He didn't have the heart to say goodbye.

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That evening Sam stood in their garden listening to something only he could hear, and it seemed to Elanor that light shone out of him like hearthfirelight glinting through the cracks of a poorly repaired chimneystack. His sleep was brief, and broken by the nightmares he'd never had in her mother's arms. She sat by his side through the wee hours and held his hand in the shadowed room, hearing parts of the old story that she had never known. His hand felt as fragile to her touch as he did to her heart.

She knew he would not stay.

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I think I've forgotten what it means to feel warm, to sprawl beside a comfy fire in a well-built room that hasn't any drafts while I wait for the kettle to whistle and toast muffins. All I've done lately is crouch by a tiny excuse for a fire with the wind's doing its best to climb up my britches and down the back of my shirt and up my sleeves while my hands crack with chilblains, and all for the sake of a breakfast of porridge and tea that's only lukewarm half the time.

But at least it's an adventure!

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"I thought hobbits didn't wear shoes," Aragorn said, watching as Frodo paused to brush the snow and grit out of his footfur with a sturdy brush in preparation to don a pair of thick woolen socks with leather soles sewn to the bottoms. "Bilbo never has."

"These aren't shoes, they're stockings," Frodo muttered, fighting with a particularly stubborn piece of ice. "Bilbo had dwarf boots, when he got to the mountains. And he wouldn't need much in Rivendell; he can go warm his toes whenever he wants." He tugged the socks on and looked up at Caradhras. "I'm ready now."

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I think I've forgotten what it means to feel warm.

It's slipping away, somehow, the way my parents' faces did. Once, I looked through the sketchbook where Aunt Dora immortalized her friends and relations with determination if not talent. I'm certain that Father's chin didn't have quite that shape, but when I close my eyes I see him the way she drew him. It's better than nothing, but it's not the same as remembering.

Strider foregoes caution to make fires larger than we need. Merry and Pippin tease each other gently. Sam wraps blankets around me.

It's better than nothing.

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I think I've forgotten what it means to feel warm, forgotten what it is to feel rested, or well-fed, or comfortable. Worse, I've forgotten what it means to feel hope. Not that I had much hope left this morning, when we rode over the crest and saw the armies of the Enemy as thick on the Pelennor fields as mold on old bread. And now my dreams are foul and full of the bitter truth. There is no Elrond here to heal me now. I can hear Pippin crying nearby.

I swore to follow Theoden King, and soon I shall.

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I think I've forgotten what it means to feel warm, Mr. Frodo, and begging your pardon, but it's made me fratchety-like. I'm not best pleased with Mr. Merry or that rascal Pippin, fooling with my spices and all; nor Gandalf and Strider, neither, insisting on no fires day nor night and no matter how much rain or wind. That Boromir still treats us like children half the time, and as for the Elf and the Dwarf! Pride, Gandalf calls it, the way they go on at each other like tweens peacocking in front of a pretty lass. Making an uncomfortable journey worse for all of us is what I call it, and so would my Dad. A Dwarf does this, and an Elf does that, and nothing being done while they flap their gums. Let 'em do something useful I say, and until then they're all leaf and no taters.

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I think I've forgotten what it means to feel warm, but it's plain he hasn't. Lovelier than the ladies and flowers of Gondor? I haven't heard such nonsense since the summer my nurse insisted that I dress like a lady and my brother's friends all teased me to distraction. But then my Uncle fell ill, and sweet words were forgotten, replaced by whispers from Wormtongue and none but me to hear, or to see the glitter of hungry eyes following from the shadows.

'Twould ease his heart to see me, he says, but I have learned to fear being watched.

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Summertime's a busy time if you're a hobbit with a garden to tend to. There's beds to tend and seedlings to thin and the first sweet fruits of harvest to gather. The grass grows so fast after the rains that there's days it's all I can do just to keep it from touching sky. Mr. Frodo, I say, what you need is sheep, and that makes him laugh, and say he would, if sheep had the sense to eat the grass and keep out of the begonias. Sheep wouldn't share their luncheon pie neither, he says, and tucks into mine.

 

Autumn starts with haying, really, though the sun is hot and most folks think it's summer. But the harvest starts in earnest with the grass. Earlier on, our gatherings go into our bellies, if you see what I mean, and 'tis only a share of the squash that's like to end up in the cellar. But hay we gather for winter fodder, and when once we've garnered enough to keep our creatures through the cold, our heads and hands turn to what we'll need ourselves. The days are coming shorter now. Each sunset reminds us not to waste time.

 

Wintertime is make and mend. Long nights sitting by the fire, with our hands busy and our hearts full of songs. The Gaffer can still work wicker into baskets, though it hurts me to watch his bent fingers taking dents from the pressure of the work. He won't give it up though, not as long as he can see, and I suspect he won't give it up even when he can't. Daisy and May and Marigold, they spin and weave and dye, and stitch, and thank me for the help I gave them with the flax with a linsey-woolsey shirt for Yule.

 

Spring's the hardest time of year, the Gaffer says, and I know he means for his bones and his belly, with the ache of winter still bright and the pantry getting thin. He's in high fettle otherwise, starting the planting he's thought on for months, and fussing over us who're a-doing it.
Me, I love being up with the sun and seeing her home each night, and the good green smells in my nose. But sometimes when I fall bone-tired into bed I see that book Mr. Bilbo left me and wonder if somehow I'll forget how to read.

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In Gondor they celebrate the New Year in the spring, to commemorate the day that Frodo reached the Crack of Doom, and Gollum took the Ring into the fire. Aragorn thinks that we should do the same, but Sam says there's more about the day that he wants to forget than he wants to remember, and I just nod. Merry wishes we'd celebrate, I know, but it's different for him. He wasn't there like me and Sam were -- not that day anyway. I asked him if he wanted to celebrate the victory of Pelennor Fields and that shut him up.

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September was always a good time for birthday parties in Hobbiton, being nine months after the longest night of the year and the Yule feasts and all. It was a good time to have a party as well, with all the barns and cellars brim-full and plenty still hanging ready to be gathered and eaten without much to do but wash it clean first. And you could have an outdoor party in September, most years, without too much worry over any passing cloud. Not like a Spring birthday, Sam thought sometimes, where the sun might shine one year and folks might have to come through a late snow the next.

Still, in September you could never give out kites and send the hobbitlings out to play until their cheeks were bright as their eyes from laughter and wind. And all the food of autumn never tasted as special as the first bright berries garnered from vines and bushes to grace a birthday table after months without that sweetness. There might not be as much dancing at a Spring birthday, but it was sure to end by a fireside with singing and with stories, and that was good enough for Sam.

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With the Company in place on knoll, and the fire burning steadily, Gandalf told them to sleep if they could. And they could, much to their own surprise. There were miles to go come morning, and a fire was nearly as welcome here as it had been on Caradhras after so many nights without. Not even the howls of the wargs were enough to stave off sleep. Boromir and Aragorn stretched out with their swords in their hands, and fell asleep in moments, still exhausted from the work they'd done that morning in forcing a track through deep snow. Pippin curled up beside Sam, who meant to stay awake and keep an eye on Bill, but soon succumbed to the siren call of the tween's soft snores. Gimli napped like a cat, rousing frequently to look around before he closed his eyes again. Merry stayed on his feet, determined to take first watch with Legolas and Gandalf.

Frodo stretched out as near the fire as he dared, and studied Sting, wondering if the elven blade would warn of Wargs as well as orcs, but he was too tired to ask. He closed his eyes and dreamt of Farmer Maggot's dogs.

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Sam stroked Bill, and wondered how to say goodbye. He'd never failed to protect any creature in his care before. He heard the Doors behind him opening like a sentence of doom. The ripples of Boromir's stone refused to die away, and the others eyes were drawn to them, so they were caught by sudden fear and frozen when the Watcher struck, but Sam never saw the threat coming. As it was he only caught a glimpse of the roiling water after he'd cut away the snake-thing that had wrapped itself around Frodo's ankle, and then only through his tears.

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Legolas stood in the dark of Moria and listened to the blood beating fast and hard in his ears. He had not often felt such horror as he had before the gate, not in a long life facing the many creatures that plagued Mirkwood. He had almost forgotten such fears, almost forgotten that Elves could be so stricken. It shamed him to have stood helpless, or should have done had not the others stood equally frozen.

All except Sam, who huddled now on the stones by his master's feet, and wept with grief for a choice he did not regret.

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When last you visited the Golden wood, you came in joy, and in your face I saw young Elrond once again, delighting in the world and the strength of his body and the love he bore Celebrian. So like his brother was he.

But now you come again, and upon your face I see the marks of mortalkind. It is not grief which has changed you so, Aragorn, though grief and weariness shroud all your Company this night, but the choice of Elros. And yet your eyes still shine with living love.

My granddaughter, too, has a choice to make.

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The laments for the fallen are fewer now, from the companies arrayed around us, and from campfire rings I hear voices raised in saucier songs now that their owners are safe to think of home.

Legolas' songs are full of the sea, and when Gimli hums counterpoint I can feel the stones in the earth answering. Gandalf sings into his beard, in a tongue that none but he must know. The hobbits sing of beer and pipes and rest at the end of a long day's work.

But the only song I seem to know is the Lay of Luthien.

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Is this what you want, Frodo Baggins? Are you sure? Because I'm not always the easiest lass to have in the house. I've a tongue on me and not always the sense to keep it between my teeth, according to my mam. My temper'll be the ruin of me, Dad swears, though I ain't had much to be angry about since Sam's come home. And my brothers will tell you that I snore, though I doubt I snore any more than they do their own selves.

Sam don't mind none of it, but he has reasons.

Are you sure?

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"Are you sure? Couldn't it be a bit of a belly-ache, like?"

"I don't think I could be mistaken, Sam-love. It's not like it's never happened before."

"Well, that's true and no mistake…"

"I thought you'd be pleased."

"I will be, once I get used to the notion."

"Sam… what are you doing? Where are you going? It's the middle of the night!"

"I'm going to go plant another row of taters."

"Taters?"

"Well, you'll be hungry enough for two, and there's the other nine to feed…"

"Sam, come back to bed."

"It's like to be twins if I do!"

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Elanor considered her options. "Drop things on the floor" was beginning to lose it's charm, and while "eat the furniture" was all right when there was a new tooth coming in, and "tickle Daddy's toes" was usually good for making her parents forget about talking at each other and talk to her instead, it didn't always work when her Daddy had a sad face and was sitting at the desk in the book room.

Singing and doing a wiggle dance weren't helping either. Time to fall back on that good old fashioned standby, "baby on the loose".

"SAM, catch her!"

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Some folks slept better when it rained, Sam knew, lulled to sleep by the patter and plashing of the droplets against the windowpanes or the drum of a downpour against a canvas tent. But he'd never got the knack of it till exhaustion and the effort of trying to keep up with Strider and Gandalf during the night marches sent him to his blankets too tired to listen to the storms in the morning. Not even the rivulets trickling down his neck were enough to keep him waking.

Still, by Hollin he was glad for a chance to sleep dry.

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Gimli stared at the lights high in the trees above him and wished for sleep without dreaming, all too aware of the squared edges of the book which distended his pack and whispered of battles won and lost in the dark of Moria. He’d wrapped it in soft leather, cushioned it with blankets, but already more of the pages had cracked. How could so fragile a record survive the walk to Mordor and back? And yet how could Gimli turn aside from the Ringbearer, no matter what the Lady had asked him with her eyes? The Quest was fragile too.