My gaffer is tired out from all the excitement, and I take him off to bed soon's we get back to the Cotton farm. Mrs. Cotton has made a room ready for him, and I reckon it's a sight better than where he's been sleeping since the Row was dug up and ruined.
'He's had a bite to eat, Sam,' Mrs. Cotton tells me. 'Though we're on short commons these days, so it weren't a proper meal.'
‘I’m that grateful, Mrs. Cotton,' I reply. 'And don't you fret: things will be changing for the better now, you'll see.'
A wondering look comes into her eyes. 'Seems like a dream, Sam, it surely does. We thought the dark days were here for good and all.'
'Aye, I take your meaning,' I say softly, remembering waking in Cormallen and wondering the same. 'But 'tis no dream. The dark days are over, and the King has returned.'
‘Don’t ‘ee fuss, Samwise. I ain’t no child,’ my gaffer complains testily when I pull the coverlet up over his shoulders and smooth it. But I reckon I can’t help myself. And I reckon he knows it, too.
‘All right,’ I say, and give one final pat to the quilt. ‘But I’m that glad to see you again,’ I add, and stoop to kiss his brow. 'Sleep well, dad.'
As I move soft-footed toward the door, he says, as if the words were being pulled from him like bindweed from the soil, ‘I’m glad to see ‘ee, too, Sam.’
My eyes sting with tears, but gladsome ones.
Commons might be scarce, as Mrs. Cotton said, but there's beer enough to go around, and proper good beer, too. Farmer Cotton, he's a canny sort, and he kept the best safe hidden, at the bottom of an old dry well.
Mr. Cotton and his family and farmhands are jubilant at the ending of the troubles, and many is the mug raised in celebration of the routing of the Ruffians and in honour of those who lost their lives.
But beside me Frodo sits in silence with his hands cupped tight around his mug, as if it were made of priceless gold and jewels and a thief had his eyes on it. He watches the others, his expression quiet-like and withdrawn, as it's been too often since we passed that cursed hill where he got stabbed. It's plain as a pikestaff that something is bothering him and bothering him bad. Something more than the sorrow of knowing good hobbits died in battle when he would have had no one killed, not even that Saruman.
I want to ask what's wrong. I want to help him, like I always have. Only I can't, not here and now; no, it will have to wait until later, until we're alone. But then Frodo rests his maimed hand on his thigh, and I take hold of it under the table where no one can see. It lies cold and still for a moment but then closes around mine like it had around the beer-mug. I soothe it as best I can with my thumb, in slow, gentle strokes, but I can't say as it helps none.
Matters don't improve when Mrs. Cotton and Rosie serve our dinner, Mrs. Cotton apologising all the while for the poorness of the spread, and Rosie dimpling at me betimes and letting her curls tease my face when she sets my plate in front of me. It makes me that uncomfortable, especially when her breast presses into my shoulder, and I know she's done it a-purpose. It's my turn then to avoid Frodo's gaze, for there's naught I can say at table in front of the others, and once, well, once I reckon I'd have welcomed her attention. If she thinks I still do, I reckon she has reason.
I feel caught twixt a rock and a hard place, so to speak, befuddled, and most of all worried about Frodo, who's barely touched his food. Mrs. Cotton notices, too, and bites her lip.
'Ain't it to your liking, Mr. Frodo?' she asks anxiously.
It's plain that Frodo hasn't thought how it will look to her. He says apologetically, 'Of course it is. It's only that I'm a slow eater, Mrs. Cotton.' He raises his maimed hand. 'Not too good with this, I fear,' he jests, but the jest falls flat. Mrs. Cotton don't know where to look, not wanting to seem rude by staring at the stump of his finger, and the other hobbits murmur low among themselves, no doubt wondering how Frodo came to lose a finger.
Frodo makes a show of picking up his fork and eating several bites and smiling. Even if it chokes him and makes him sick to his stomach, he'll clean his plate now rather than let her think he don't like her cooking. That's the kind of hobbit Frodo Baggins is, see, and that's why I love him like I do.
Celebrating is all well and good, but there's work to be done on the morrow, hard work, and no time to be nursing sore heads come morning. So Mr. Cotton drains a last mug, sets it down and says, 'Time to turn in, lads.'
Mrs. Cotton shows us to our room. The farmhouse is large but overcrowded with hobbits already, so we'll be sharing, Frodo and me. Not that we mind. It would go harder with both of us to be separated, and that's a fact, like as if the tree atop Bag End were uprooted. It don't bear thinking on.
She apologises as she holds open the door. I reckon she's afraid a gentlehobbit like Frodo will find the room lacking, but Frodo smiles kindly at her and says, 'It looks very comfortable indeed, Mrs. Cotton. Thank you.' His eyes meet mine for an instant and I know what he's thinking: such a room would have seemed to us fit for a king at times on our travels. 'I'm sorry we put you to so much trouble at short notice,' he adds.
But she laughs and says, 'Not a bit of it, Mr. Frodo. Why, to have you and Sam home again and them Ruffians chased off is the best piece of news we've had in months. I'm only sorry Bag End ain't fit for aught but pigs and chickens to live in.'
'I'm sure we will soon get it set to rights again,' Frodo says, but that haunted look has returned to his eyes.
Mrs. Cotton don't linger, but tells us to let her or Rosie know if there's aught we're needing, and then she leaves and closes the door behind her.
The room is tidy and simply furnished. There's a bed barely large enough to fit two hobbits, a clothespress on one side, and on the other a sturdy oak table with an oval mirror hanging above it and a basin, ewer, soap and towels laid ready on top. Simple, aye, but it will do us fine.
Steam curls from the top of the ewer and I say, 'Why don't you wash up first, Frodo, and I’ll start unpacking.' I set my candle down on the chest and my pack on the bed.
'All right,' Frodo replies, laying his pack beside mine. 'It's very kind of the Cottons to take us in.' He goes to the dresser, picks up the ewer and pours a measure of hot water into the basin. 'That is, to take me in.' His pensive gaze slides sideways to where I'm opening his pack and laying his things on the bed: pitifully few, and travel-stained, even the fine garments we'd been given in Minas Tirith. 'I expect you would always be welcome with open arms.'
There's no point denying it, and so I don't. I go about my work, listening to the soft splash of water as I hang his Elven cloak in the press and stow his undergarments in a drawer, and finally I ask quietly, 'Will you tell your Sam what's wrong?'
Frodo’s head is bent, and his curls, overlong after our weeks on the road home from Rivendell, fall forward, hiding his expression from me.
'Nothing is wrong, Sam,' he says, picking up a towel and drying his face and hands. 'Why, what could be wrong? As Mrs. Cotton said, we're home and the Ruffians are chased off. Of course, Bag End is a pigsty, the Row dug up and the Party Tree cut down, but that is of little consequence, for it will soon be set to rights again, as I said to Mrs. Cotton.' His voice grows increasingly brittle, and his fingers twist the damp towel this way and that.
I leave the unpacking and go to him. Taking him gently by the shoulders, I turn him toward me. The blind look in his eyes, almost as he used to look when the ring had him in its grip, tears at my heart.
'Oh Frodo.’ I fold him into my arms. 'Love, it will be set to rights again, and as soon as may be. That's a promise.'
He holds himself stiff, rejecting my clumsy attempt to comfort him. But then there's precious little comfort to be had or to offer, after seeing Mr. Bilbo's tree a-lying dead in the Party Field, and Bag End's garden choked up with weeds - such of it as is left, what with them ugly huts and the heaps of trash everywhere - especially knowing I'll have to look at them again tomorrow.
'But what about me, Sam?' he says at length, so softly that I can barely hear him. 'Can I be set to rights again? But do not expect me to wish you health and long life. You will have neither. That is what Saruman said. You heard him. He might have fallen low, but he was still a wizard and had the gift of foretelling.'
Knowing what I do, such as I ain’t supposed to know and Frodo has no idea I do know, a chill runs through me and for an instant I seem to hear a far-off sound like the cry of a bird, a sea-bird. But me and Frodo didn’t make it all the way to Mordor and back again to give up just when the future looks bright. Where there’s life there’s hope, as my Gaffer likes to say, and haven’t I lived to hear him say it again? And at least I understand now where the problem lies and what is bothering Frodo.
‘Gift of foretelling?’ I say scornfully. ‘Fine use he made of it. Why, name one thing he got right, Frodo. All his grand plans came to naught, and he ended up a ragged beggar by the side of the road. Don’t you go a-heeding aught that old blackguard had to say. I reckon Gandalf would agree with me, too.’
Whether my words make any difference, I can’t tell. Frodo holds his pain close to him, he always has, and he don’t answer me. There’s times, like now, I’m half tempted to shake him and beg him to listen and believe, but I can’t. All I can do is hold him, like I am, and love him, like I always do and always will.
‘We’ll get started on clearing up the mess around Bag End first thing,’ I go on, trying to sound cheerfuller than I did earlier outside its front door. ‘By the time you get back from Michel Delving, things should be looking a deal better.’
'Sam, it hurts more than anything that you should have had to return to this, after all you did and how greatly you longed to be home again,' Frodo says. 'My dearest, I am so very, very sorry.' And at that he lets out a sigh and droops against me, overcome by weariness and grief.
'Don't you never apologise for what ain't your fault, Frodo,' I say, soothing my hand between his shoulder blades; the bones stick out like spars, and I wish he didn’t have to go off to Michel Delving in the morning without me to care for him. 'Besides, a job of hard work never hurt a body. Of course, I meant to be a hobbit of leisure when we got home, and loll around on a velvet cushion eating cake until I grew fat as the Old Took and it needed ten hobbits at least to help me to bed at night, but I reckon that ain't a-going to happen now.'
'Oh Sam,' Frodo says, and then he laughs, as I meant him to. He looks up, the laughter lingering in his eyes and on his lips, curved so sweetly. The candlelight gives his pale skin a cast like wildflower honey, and a stray drop of water glistens on his cheek, begging to be kissed away.
So I do, and my mouth lingers, for there’s naught to match the softness of Frodo’s skin, nor the taste of it neither. His breath hitches and catches, and he says my name again, but he’s not laughing now, and his hands grip me hard. We look at each other, and the wanting rises inside us, and I marvel anew at this unexpected gift we’ve been given.
‘We won’t have the chance again for a while,’ I say.
‘Yes. But Sam, should we? Here?’
I can guess what’s in his mind, or maybe I should say who, but I don’t reply, not in words, that is. There’s a better way to answer him and set his mind at ease, and I take it. The bed is small, especially compared to those we shared in Minas Tirith and Rivendell, but it only means I have to hold Frodo the closer and tighter, and he hold me the same, and well, I reckon that suits us both fine.
Later, after Frodo falls asleep, I lay awake a while, thinking. Aye, the Shire’s been hurt, and hurt bad, but not past mending. Nor is Frodo. They can both be set to rights again, and they will be, I vow.
I ain’t no wizard, nor want to be, but as I lie there in the dark, I seem to see the future stretch out before me, like Mr. Bilbo’s Road, and it’s all golden and gleaming. Only it won’t sweep me off my feet but keep them firmly fixed right where they are: at home in the Shire.