21 Halimath, 1421
Sam tugged on Strider’s girth. The pony sometimes swelled his belly and then released his breath so the girth would be loose when Frodo tried to mount; it was an old trick he had from the Minas Tirith days. But the leather strap was properly snug, so Sam stepped back and nodded. ‘’Tis all right and tight, Frodo,’ he said.
‘Thank you, Sam.’ Frodo gathered the pony’s reins in his left hand, placed his left foot in Sam’s cupped hands, and Sam boosted him lightly into the saddle.
When Frodo was settled in place with his feet in the stirrups, Sam went to Bill, waiting patiently a few feet away.
‘We’re off on another adventure, Bill-lad,’ he said very softly, stroking the chestnut’s whiskery muzzle. ‘There won’t be no wolves nor no snakes this time, but that don’t mean it won’t be hard.’
Bill turned his head and nuzzled his master’s chest, whickering softly. Sam blinked against the sudden sting of hot tears. You’re naught but a great watering pot, Sam Gamgee, he scolded himself.
‘All aboard, Sam?’ Frodo asked, as he had that long ago day they first left the Shire. His expression was self-contained as ever, revealing no hint of his emotions, but if he’d slept a wink last night, Sam was an Orc. Telltale dark smudges had appeared beneath his eyes, and Huan had been hovering anxiously around Frodo since he arose, aware that some worry was oppressing his spirit.
‘Aye, I’m ready.’ With a final pat, Sam mounted Bill. There was no point to saying anything more. Sam understood all too well what this moment meant to Frodo; no clumsy words of his could ease Frodo’s grief over the parting that lay ahead of them.
Frodo nudged Strider with his heels and the pony, his dappled rump shining, set off at a swinging walk with Huan pacing at his left side. Before giving Bill his head, Sam cast one final glance at the garden dressed in its autumn finery and at the smial that was now his beloved home. His gaze dwelled on the front door with its glossy green paint and the shiny brass knob set precisely in its center: in so many ways, the beginning of it all. Almost, Sam imagined he could see the queer sign that Gandalf had scratched upon it one long ago April day at the start of Bilbo’s Adventure. His heart grew heavy at the thought of the kindly old hobbit who had taught him his letters, transported him with tales of enchantment and, most importantly of all, brought Frodo to Bag End to be his heir and in the doing changed Sam’s life utterly. Oh, but Frodo was not the only one who would miss Bilbo Baggins.
Blinking against tears a second time, Sam bade a silent farewell to Bag End, chirruped to Bill, and followed after Frodo, as he always had done and always would.
The early autumn morning was as fine as any hobbit could wish. The Shire had never looked more lovely or more at peace, and Sam’s heart lightened as they rode gently along, allowing the ponies to set the pace. Perhaps Frodo, too, was feeling the effects, thought Sam, for the golden light shimmering on the fields and the heady scent from the apple-laden trees in the orchards was surely the best possible reminder of why he was choosing to remain in Middle-earth rather than forsake it for a new life in the West. Of the part that Frodo’s love for him had played in that decision, Sam tried not to think lest guilt overwhelm him.
Huan didn’t take off and go roaming as was his usual wont, but moving with his effortless daisy-cutter trot, remained steadfastly by Strider’s side. Even when a rabbit bolted out from a hedgerow right under the bay pony’s hooves, causing him to snort and toss his head, Huan watched it scurry away without giving chase. He sensed the gravity of this outing. It was no jaunt for pleasure.
They headed southward in the direction of the Great East Road and crossed the Road at the Three-Farthing Stone. From there, they continued south toward the Stock Road, where they found Merry and Pippin, resplendent in their armour and Elven cloaks, and with packs and blankets strapped behind the cantles of their saddles, awaiting them. Frodo had sent word to his cousins at Sam’s urging, for he knew the journey to and from the Grey Havens would be less difficult and sorrowful for Frodo if the four Travellers went together.
They wasted no time in pointing their ponies’ noses eastward, riding two abreast on the relatively narrow track through the rolling Green Hill country. Pippin rode alongside Frodo, and Merry rode behind with Sam. There was little to no traffic on the road save an occasional rider for the Quick Post galloping past with a wave and ‘halloo’ before vanishing in a cloud of dust toward Stock or Tuckborough.
‘How is he, Sam?’ Merry asked lowly, though such a precaution was hardly necessary, for Pippin was keeping his cousin occupied with a longish report of the goings on at Great Smials, where he and Merry had been in residence for the past few weeks.
‘Well enough,’ Sam replied, his eyes fixed on the slender, upright figure in the saddle in front of him. The sunlight glinted on the threads of silver that wound through Frodo’s dark curls, one of the few outward signs of the toll the Quest had taken upon him. ‘He’s sad, o’course, for he’ll miss Mr. Bilbo something fierce.’
‘But what if he decides to leave with Bilbo?’ Merry’s brow knit with worry. ‘Pip and I have discussed it, and it seems not unlikely. He’s always been so fond of Bilbo and understandably feels a sense of duty toward him.’
Sam sighed and mopped the back of his perspiring neck with a faded green neckerchief. The sun was well up now and it was growing warm. ‘He’s told me he means to stay. But if he goes, I’ll go with him, that’s certain.’
‘Of course you will,’ Merry said at once. ‘We’ve never doubted that for an instant. It will comfort both our hearts to know that Frodo has you with him. And you’re not to worry, Sam,’ he continued with a reassuring smile. ‘We’ll look after your gaffer. I promise you that he will never want for anything.’
‘You’re a good friend, Merry, and Pippin, too,’ Sam said. He swallowed a lump in his throat and added, ‘Most like it won’t be necessary, but I’m that grateful nonetheless.’
No more was said on the topic, but Merry’s promise eased Sam’s mind. For there was no way of knowing if, when the moment of truth arrived, Frodo might not decide to take ship for Valinor with Bilbo after all. Not out of Sea longing, for that worry at least was laid to rest, but out of love for Bilbo, who had been as a father to him. Sam had prepared for the possibility; in his jacket pocket was a painstakingly written letter for his own father that he would give Merry to read to the Gaffer if need arose.
They stopped at mid-day to rest and fill their hungry bellies that had been protesting (Pippin’s loudest of all) for several miles, for they had not taken a break for elevenses. They watered the ponies at a stream then turned them loose to graze while they ate a simple but satisfying meal of bread, dried meats, herb cheese and fruit.
Huan drank his fill at the stream, standing belly-deep in the gurgling water. After he climbed out, he had a good roll on his back in the thick grass, damp-darkened blue legs flailing while he wriggled back and forth, emitting grunts of pleasure to the amusement of Merry and Pippin. When he was finished, he got up, shook vigorously from nose to tail tip, and trotted over to investigate the food on offer.
Frodo fed Huan several slips of dried mutton and two of the rusks he’d packed for him, and to Sam’s relief the little whippet ate them with good appetite. Huan was a bellwether for Frodo’s moods; it seemed that, for the moment at least, all was well.
Replete, Huan stretched out in the sun for a nap, while the hobbits filled up the corners, nibbling on delicious iced biscuits that Pippin had appropriated (as he put it) from the kitchen at Great Smials. They talked desultorily of this and that, avoiding any mention of the topic that was uppermost in all their minds. Frodo spoke and smiled without constraint. Eventually, refreshed and with bellies pleasantly full, they packed up the remains of their luncheon and retrieved the ponies (who had strayed only a little ways as grass was plentiful) and continued on.
They made their next stop as the sun was fading at their backs, and mist and shadow gathering about the feet of the Green Hills. Frodo reined in Strider by a sheltered hollow on the downside of a hill.
‘We can spend the night here,' he said. 'There’s no pressing need for us to go on; Bilbo and the others won't reach the Woody End until dusk tomorrow.’
Sam realised that Frodo had never told him, nor had he thought to ask, where and when they would be meeting Bilbo and with whom he would be travelling from Rivendell. Sam's thoughts had all been for the end of the road, for the Havens and the ship that would bear Mr. Bilbo away forever.
Though it had been many months since the Travellers had camped together, they easily fell into their old roles: Pippin went off with the cook-pots to fill them with water, and Merry gathered wood for a fire, while Sam fed and groomed the ponies and Frodo organised their campsite. Sam to his surprise discovered that he had missed this comfortable, familiar routine, and their days on the Road, just the four of them. There had been fear, hunger, cold and worry, aye, but also friendship, caring and even laughter.
They ate around a cheerful fire under the open sky with a brilliant net of jewel-like stars shining down, for there were no Black Riders from which to hide now, and their beloved Shire was at peace. When they were done, Merry and Pippin carried the pots and pans and crockery to the stream to wash them. Snatches of laughter and song drifted back to where Sam and Frodo still sat by the fire with Huan. The little whippet, foot-weary after the hours on the road, had settled down with his chin on Frodo’s ankle, but his bright dark eyes remained open, watching his master attentively.
‘Sam, I’m cold,’ Frodo suddenly said.
The air was nippy, and Sam could faintly see Frodo’s breath as he spoke, but both had put on their Elven cloaks and the fire nicely warmed their toes. But he immediately scooted closer and put his arm around Frodo’s shoulders. There was cold like Caradhras and then there was cold of another sort.
‘Better?’ Sam asked after a minute or so.
‘Much,’ Frodo said then added with painful honesty, 'I shall need your strength in the coming days, Sam.'
'Then you shall have it, Frodo, every last bit of it.' Sam tightened his hold and blinked back the tears that always came too easily to him. He had no notion what thoughts were running through Frodo’s mind that had caused him to make such an admission - whether he needed Sam's strength to stay or to go. But either way, it made no difference to him. He meant what he’d said to Merry: if Frodo at the last decided to sail, Sam would go with him and Huan, and Bill would come, too, if Sam had aught to say to it. He loved the Shire and he’d grieve to leave it, but he’d go, aye, and without looking back, because he loved Frodo more.
'Thank you.' Frodo took his hand and cradled it between his own. ‘My dearest Sam,’ he whispered. 'What ever should I do without you to carry me when I am in need?' Then he raised Sam’s hand to his lips and softly kissed the back.
Merry and Pippin returned shortly, the washing up done, and joined them by the fire. The four hobbits took out their pipes and leather pouches and tampers, and soon were puffing contentedly away. Grey smoke rose in lazy curls and the pipes’ bowls glowed orange in the dark.
Sam listened to the soft hooting of an owl away in the woods and wondered if there were owls where Mr. Bilbo was going and if the stars were the same and what the sea was like that he would soon see with his own eyes for the very first time. He'd dreamed of it, or rather, shared Frodo's dreams of it, but he had no idea if the dream-sea was at all like the real one. Snatches of the song Legolas had so often sung in Minas Tirith came to him then:
To the Sea, to the Sea!
The white gulls are crying,
The wind is blowing,
and the white foam is flying
Almost it seemed to Sam that he could hear the gulls' mournful cries...
'Penny for your thoughts, Sam,' said Merry around the stem of his pipe.
Sam came back to himself with a start. ''Twould be a waste of good copper, Merry,' he said. His pipe had gone out; he leaned forward and knocked the ashes from the bowl using one of the rocks that ringed their campfire. 'I reckon we should get some sleep. 'Tis late.'
In truth, it wasn't all that late, but Frodo's left eyelid was drooping as it only did when he was bone-weary. And Huan was giving Sam a reproachful look that said as clearly as words: You're not taking proper care of Frodo. Can't you see he needs rest?
The others made no argument, and in short order the fire was banked, the ponies tethered, the bedrolls were spread out in the most comfortable spots they could find, and they were settling down for the night. Frodo moved at once into Sam's arms, that were ready and waiting to receive him.
'Good night, love,' said Sam softly, drawing the blankets up around their shoulders. 'Sleep well.'
'And you, my Sam.'
They exchanged a good night kiss, aware that Merry and Pippin were lying where they could see them but not minding in the least, and then Frodo rested his head on Sam's chest with a tired sigh and closed his eyes. Huan wriggled his way under their blankets and stretched out so that his radiant heat warmed the soles of their feet better than the fire had. A stray thought crossed Sam's mind that he'd far rather have had Huan as their guide on the Quest than that Gollum, and he mentally shook his head at his foolishness as he stroked Frodo's hair in a slow, soothing rhythm. Go to sleep, he silently urged him. Go to sleep.
Before very long, Frodo's breathing deepened and evened and sleep overcame him; but Sam for once didn't follow right after, even though he was tired enough to do so. Instead he lay wakeful, caressing Frodo's silky hair while he listened to the familiar night sounds of the Shire and the occasional half-hitched snore from Merry or Pippin, or foot-stamp and whuffle from one of the ponies.
The great bowl of the sky was strewn thickly with stars, and one shone brightest of all: Eärendil. But for once the sight of the him sailing the ocean of the heavens in Vingilot with the Silmaril bound upon his brow did not put Sam in mind of Frodo's star-glass or of the great tale in which he and Frodo had played a part. No, it was of Mr. Bilbo that Sam was reminded, of the old hobbit seated in the Hall of Fire in Rivendell the night of Frodo's recovery, with Strider and an audience of Elves gathered round as he recited the poem he'd written about the famous mariner.
It was right queer, Sam thought. Days went past that, caught up in the busy, useful life he and Frodo shared, memories of the Quest didn't once cross his mind. But now, lying out under the stars with Frodo and Merry and Pippin, it was impossible not to think of that dark time. Unconsciously his arms closed tighter around Frodo, as if to protect him from perils that no longer existed in their world.
What he couldn't protect him from was the grief of loss, and that knowledge was like a stab wound to Sam's faithful heart. But Frodo had asked him to be his strength, hadn't he, and come what may, he would be, Sam vowed. He lay a little while longer awake, staring up with stinging eyes at the midnight sky, until sleep crept over him and his eyelids drooped. His last conscious thought was that Eärendil could be seen in the West, so not all the stars there would be strangers to Mr. Bilbo... Comforted, Sam slept.
Frodo was up and dressed and starting breakfast by the time Sam stirred, roused by the scent of frying sausages.
'You should have wakened me, Frodo. You shouldn’t ought to be making breakfast,’ he said as he scrambled guiltily to his feet with more haste than grace.
‘I didn’t want to disturb you. You needed the rest.’ Frodo turned the sausages sizzling in the frying pan. ‘I’m all right, Sam.’
But you’re not,’ Sam wanted to say. He knew every line, every attitude of Frodo’s body better than his own, and the set of Frodo’s shoulders, braced as if against an expected blow, told him more than any words. He held his tongue, though.
‘It can’t be time to get up already, can it?’ complained a blanket-muffled voice. In one thing Peregrin Took hadn't changed. He still hated to get up in the morning and made sure his companions knew it.
'Oh, put a sock in it, Pip,' said Merry good-naturedly. 'It's a beautiful morning.' He yanked the blankets off Pippin and then gathered up his soap and towel. 'Hurry up, the stream awaits us.'
‘Are you coming, Huan?’ Pippin said to the little whippet, who was watching their antics with his head cocked to one side. ‘I’ll throw a stick for you,” he added as an enticement.
Both Merry and Pippin truly loved Huan, and Pippin especially delighted in playing with him. Huan, having accepted them into the small circle of hobbits whom he trusted, normally responded to Pippin’s overtures with an enthusiastic bark and a mischievous gleam in his dark eyes. But not today.
For answer, Huan apologetically flattened his rose ears and went to Frodo’s side, making it plain where his place was.
Sam followed Merry and Pippin down to the stream. It was indeed a beautiful morning, as Merry had said, but Huan’s behaviour had put a damper on their mood, reminding them of the sorrowful purpose of their journey. The usual water fights and bathing songs were absent as Merry and Pippin plied soap and wash clouts in the chilly stream.
It was a subdued group that travelled on after eating and packing up. Sam now rode by Frodo’s side; Merry and Pippin rode silently behind them. The only sound was the jingle of harness and the rhythmic clop of the ponies’ hooves on the dusty road. Ever and anon Sam glanced at Frodo sitting too straight in the saddle. His face was impassive and pale as marble. He never looked at Sam, but they rode close enough that sometimes their knees brushed; and Sam didn’t think that it was always by accident.
They halted twice to water the ponies and have some food, but they lit no fire and ate their bread and cheese in haste. Sam was put in mind of the country of Hollin and their journey through that lonely desolate land abandoned by the Elves. Yet to him this was in a way worse, for they were in their own beloved Shire and their journey was ended; but he wondered if there ever truly was an end to sorrow or toil.
A strange sensation crept over Sam as the golden day wore away and the sun at their backs began to cast long shadows on the road before them. Ahead, he could see the trees of the Woody End, some just beginning to show a hint of autumn colour at their crowns. The road descended in a gentle slope toward the woods, and as they rode into its fringes, he felt a jolt of recognition.
‘If that isn’t the very tree you hid behind when the Black Rider first showed up, Frodo!’ said Sam pointing to the left. ‘It seems like a dream now.’ But Frodo made no reply.
It was evening, and the stars were glimmering in the eastern sky as they passed the ruined oak and turned and went on down the hill between the hazel-thickets. Sam was silent, deep in his memories, but behind him he could hear Pippin, low-voiced, exclaiming and pointing out the familiar places to Merry. Presently Sam became aware that Frodo was singing softly to himself, singing the old walking-song, but the words were not quite the same.
Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate;
But now again I pass them by,
For the day has not yet come when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun.
Hearing this, Sam rejoiced even in the midst of his sorrow, but then all else but wonder was driven from his mind, for as if in answer, from down below, coming up the road out of the valley, voices sang:
A! Elbereth Gilthoniel!
silivren penna míriel
o menel aglar elenath,
Gilthoniel, A! Elbereth!
We still remember, we who dwell
In this far land beneath the trees
The starlight on the western seas.
Frodo drew Strider to a halt and the others followed suit. The four hobbits and Huan waited silent in the soft shadows, until they saw a shimmer as the travellers came towards them.
There was Gildor and many fair Elven folk; and there to Sam’s wonder rode Elrond and Galadriel. Elrond wore a mantle of grey and had a star upon his forehead, and a silver harp was in his hand, and upon his finger was a ring of gold with a great blue stone, Vilya, mightiest of the Three. But Galadriel sat upon a white palfrey and was robed all in glimmering white, like clouds about the Moon; for she herself seemed to shine with a soft light. On her finger was Nenya, the ring wrought of mithril, that bore a single white stone flickering like a frosty star. Riding slowly behind on a small grey pony, and seeming to nod in his sleep, was Bilbo himself.
Elrond greeted them gravely and graciously, and Galadriel smiled upon them. ‘Well, Master Samwise,’ she said. ‘I hear and see that you have used my gift well. The Shire shall now be more than ever blessed and beloved.’ Sam bowed, but found nothing to say. He had forgotten how beautiful the Lady was.
Her gaze dropped to Huan, standing still as a statue by Strider’s left side. ‘And here is one whom I have greatly desired to meet.’ For a long moment Galadriel looked deep into the whippet’s bright dark eyes that looked back fearlessly into her own. ‘So small and yet so valiant - like your master,’ she addressed him in her deep voice. ‘Well have you rewarded the Ring-bearer’s kindness to you. Huan of Valinor was known to me, and I say to you now that though that great hound were among this company, Huan of the Shire, you should not stand in his shadow.’
Huan whined low in his throat, as if in acknowledgement of Galadriel’s words, and his tail tip stirred, and the Lady smiled upon him.
Under any other circumstances such acknowledgement of Huan’s worth would have had Frodo’s eyes shining with pride and his face alight with joy. Now, however, he seemed hardly aware, for his gaze was fixed on Bilbo, still sitting with his chin sunk to his chest and his eyes closed.
Then Bilbo woke up and opened his eyes. 'Hullo, Frodo!' he said. 'Well, I have passed the Old Took today! So that's settled. And now I think I am quite ready to go on another journey. Are you coming?'
The songs of the Elves faltered; Sam held his breath.
‘Bilbo dear, I can’t go with you,’ Frodo said quietly, and unconsciously he held out his right hand to Sam, who took it in a tight clasp. It was cold and trembling. ‘I thought it was my time, I believed that I had been too badly wounded to stay in the Shire. But it seems there is still a place for me here after all. I am healed and whole again, thanks to Sam and Huan.’ He bit his lip, clearly struggling with his emotions. ‘Oh Bilbo, can you ever forgive me?’
Bilbo looked from Frodo to Sam and back again, and last of all at their clasped hands. Then he smiled, a smile of ineffable happiness that made him look very much the old Bilbo Baggins that Sam recalled from his childhood. ‘Forgive you? My dear boy, could you possibly think I would mind? Why, there is no news that could make an old hobbit happier. You’re still young, Frodo-lad, and the Shire should be your place for many years to come.’
But tears were glimmering in Frodo’s eyes.
‘I see now that you and Sam were meant to be together,’ Bilbo went on, ‘like Beren and Lúthien, if Elrond doesn’t object to the comparison.’ But far from objecting, Elrond was smiling. ‘I could not wish for a better ending to my book: and Frodo and Samwise settled down together and lived happily ever after to the end of their days.’ Then he fixed Sam with a stern look, as he’d used to do when Sam was a lad and he caught him daydreaming of Elves instead of working on his letters. ‘See to it that my Frodo-lad is happy and never wants for anything, Sam Gamgee.’
‘I will, Mr. Bilbo,’ said Sam, who was quaking inside. ‘You have my word on it.’
The twinkle that always lurked in Bilbo’s eyes sprang into life and he said, ‘I hope you bought him something nice with the last of the Smaug vintage I gave you.’
Caught off-guard, Sam blushed a little, recalling not only what Bilbo had said when he gave him the little bag of gold in Rivendell on the journey home, but Yuletide and the gifts that he and Frodo had exchanged in front of the fireplace in their bedroom, and especially what came after.
Frodo unexpectedly laughed at that and said, ‘He did, Bilbo dear.’
‘Good, good. I’m glad that’s settled. Well, what are we all sitting about for? Sitting is for an easy chair by the fire. Ponies are for riding.’
At their first halt, after they’d dismounted from their ponies, Frodo introduced Huan to Bilbo. ‘I never thought to see a Baggins with a dog,’ said Bilbo, shaking his head in wonder. ‘Cats were always more in our line, don’t you know.’
Huan woofed, sounding indignant, and the old hobbit chuckled, delighted. Thereafter, whenever they stopped for rest, Huan would climb into Bilbo’s lap and curl up there. Bilbo would gently stroke his fur until he nodded off, and Huan would remain perfectly still and quiet with Bilbo’s hand resting softly upon him until he awoke again. More than once, Bilbo could be heard to say, ‘I’ve quite taken to your Huan, Frodo-lad. Makes me wish I’d gotten a dog years ago.’
Sam was glad of Merry and Pippin’s company on the journey, though he’d been thinking not of himself but of Frodo when he’d convinced Frodo to ask them along. For Frodo never left Bilbo’s side, day or night, during their ride to the Havens, and to watch his tender care for the old hobbit he loved so dearly pierced Sam like an arrow with pain both sweet and bitter. Merry, who always saw so much, said quietly to him, ‘Frodo will be all right, Sam. You’ll see.’
Sam held fast to Merry’s words, but even more to the times that Frodo met his gaze calmly and steadfastly with no hint of regret or reproach. Sam sat with Frodo and Bilbo at times when they stopped for rest or meals, but he spoke little, only listened as Frodo told Bilbo all that was happening in the Shire, and showed him the Red Book, and read to him until he fell asleep, his head pillowed on Frodo’s shoulder.
Six days their journey took, six days that passed like a dream to Sam, for so it was to travel in company with Elves. None saw them pass, save the wild creatures; or here and there some wanderer in the dark who saw a swift shimmer under the trees, or a light and shadow flowing through the grass as the Moon went westward. And among them, fair as they were, to Sam’s eyes Frodo, the light inside him shining with a clear radiance, was even fairer.
They went about the south skirts of the White Downs, and came to the Far Downs, and to the Towers, and then for the first time Sam looked on the distant Sea; and so they rode down at last to Mithlond, to the Grey Havens in the long firth of Lune.
As they drew nearer, the white gulls of Legolas’s song appeared, wheeling overhead, their cries sounding mournful to Sam’s ears, as if to echo the sadness of the parting that was imminent; and the Sea was exactly as he’d seen it in Frodo’s dreams that he had shared. It stretched, iron-grey and immeasurably vast, to the far horizon beyond the harbour, and Sam thought that if he’d had to stand and watch Frodo sail away across it without him, he could never have borne such grief.
As they came to the gates Círdan the Shipwright came forth to greet them. Very tall he was, and his beard was long, and he was grey and old, save that his eyes were keen as stars; and he looked at them and bowed, and said: 'All is now ready.'
Sam looked at Frodo; his face was pale and set, but he guided Bilbo gently with a hand at his elbow and his steps did not falter. At Frodo’s side Huan walked, and ever and anon he glanced up worriedly at his master, sensing the turmoil inside that Frodo would not let show.
Círdan led them to the Havens, and there was a white ship lying, and upon the quay beside a great grey horse stood a figure robed all in white awaiting them and on his hand was a ring with a stone that was red as fire. Tears started to Sam’s eyes at the sight of Gandalf, for he knew that the wizard meant to take ship, too. Yet at the same time his heart was filled with gladness, for Bilbo’s sake.
The Elves moved forward toward the ship, but the hobbits stopped. Gandalf came to them, and leaning on his staff, smiled down at them. ‘Well, here at last, dear friends, on the shores of the Sea comes the end of our fellowship in Middle-earth. Go in peace! I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.’
Then Bilbo bade Merry and Pippin farewell, and next Sam; and the tears ran freely down Sam’s cheeks as he embraced the old hobbit. Images from his childhood flashed through his mind, of lessons learned and stories told, and more than anything else, of love freely given.
Last of all Frodo and Bilbo embraced, and they did not separate for a very long time. ‘Do not be too sad, Frodo,’ Bilbo said, touching his cheek tenderly. ‘For your time may come, and Sam’s, too; we Ring-bearers must stick together, don’t you know. Take care of yourself, and be happy, that’s all I ask, until we meet again.’
Frodo only nodded, bereft of speech.
Bilbo turned toward the ship, and drew a deep breath of the salt air. The wind was singing in the rigging, and the setting sun bathed the ship in golden radiance, and his face lit with sudden eagerness. ‘Yes,’ he said as if to himself, ‘I’m quite ready to go on another journey.’ And moving with a sureness that belied his years, he went to Gandalf, who was holding out his hand, and took it, and was led aboard. And the sails were drawn up, and the wind blew, and slowly the ship slipped away down the long grey firth.
Sam put his arm around Frodo, Huan pressed tightly against Frodo’s leg, and Merry and Pippin stood close behind them. From his breast Frodo took out the Lady’s star-glass and held it aloft, and the light shone bravely forth as evening deepened to darkness, and the glimmer of the ship’s lanterns faded until there was only a shadow on the waters that was soon lost in the West.
Frodo put the star-glass away, but he did not move. Long he stood there, staring into the darkness, and Sam listened to the sigh and murmur of the waves on the shore, and knew that Bilbo was right, and that one day, years hence, he and Frodo would come here again, and a ship would be waiting for them. But there was no solace in the knowledge, for the grief was too near and too raw, especially for Frodo.
The wind blew chill off the water and Huan shivered, and Frodo said quietly, ‘Huan is getting cold, Sam. We should go now.’ He turned and led the way to their ponies. They mounted, and never again looking back, rode slowly away.
They travelled long into the night by unspoken consent, for they were anxious to leave the Havens behind, and finally made camp at the foot of the Tower Hills, in a sheltered hollow that to Sam’s mind served two purposes: to protect them from the wind and from rising in the morning to the sight of the distant Sea across which Bilbo was sailing.
Sam was deeply worried about Frodo, who had shed not a single tear, and now applied himself with his usual calm to setting up camp and caring for Huan. Such grief needed an outlet, but unlike Sam, Frodo had never been one to wear his emotions on his sleeve. Merry and Pippin were no help, for they had their own grief to bear, especially at the departure of Gandalf. Pippin wept openly; no knight of Gondor was Peregrin Took in that moment, but only a desolated hobbit, mourning the loss of one whom he loved.
Weary from their travels, but even more from the sorrows of the day, they ate a hasty meal and retired to their bedrolls. No stars were to be seen for clouds covered the sky, and only the light from the dying fire provided a measure of cheer. From long experience, Sam and Huan knew how to give Frodo physical comfort, and they arranged themselves around him, a living cocoon of love and security.
‘Sam,’ Frodo said lowly, ‘I’m sorry; I’ve been selfish. After all, you loved Bilbo, too.’
‘Hush now, you’ve been no such thing,’ said Sam.
‘I have, but... oh Sam, I will miss him so...’
Frodo began to shake in Sam’s arms, and a storm of weeping swept through him. But not a sound did he utter, though Sam’s shirt was soaked through with his tears. Sam held him as he wept, and stroked his curls, and murmured snatches of nonsense, for no words of sense were needed or wanted then; that would be for later, when the keen edge of pain had diminished.
Eventually, exhausted, Frodo fell asleep against Sam’s chest, but Sam slept not a wink, and neither did Huan. And if Sam’s own tears began to fall, and a pink tongue licked them away, well, that remained their secret.
In the morning the hobbits rose, with red-rimmed eyes and aching hearts, but the clouds had dispersed and the sun was up with a fresh breeze blowing, and their faces were turned towards home now as they travelled.
At last they rode over the downs and took the East Road, and then Merry and Pippin rode on to Buckland; and already they were singing again as they went. But Frodo, Sam and Huan turned to Bywater, and so came back up the Hill and went on to Bag End, as the day was ending once more. Yellow light shone from the windows, and Sam was glad that he’d left word with Marigold and Tom to light the lanterns each evening so that the smial would not be in darkness when they returned.
Hand-in-hand they went through the front door, and into the hall, and it might have been only Sam’s fancy, but a sensation of warmth wrapped around him, as if Bag End itself welcomed them back with a loving embrace. Huan let out a bark, and his nails made a familiar tapping sound as he danced around them in joyful celebration.
Frodo watched him for a moment, and then he smiled at Sam, a smile of unfettered happiness.
‘Well, we’re home,’ he said.