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Disclaimer: Lord of the Rings is owned by J.R.R. Tolkien, his family, New Line cinema, etc. I have written this story for my own enjoyment.
Credit: www dot Tuckborough dot net.
Note: This chapter amended on 10/07/2012.
Frogmorton, 1435 Shire Reckoning
It was late afternoon by the time Sam returned to the inn. It had been an extremely trying day. What should have been a relatively smooth discussion over materials and costs had turned into a shouting match between the Shirriff and Helman Fallowborn, the mason. Helman spent over an hour insisting that a wooden floor would be folly after the recent fire, and advised that the entire post be slabbed for safety‘s sake.
Robin argued that, although practical, slabbing the entire building was unnecessary, provoking the mason’s ire by insinuating the he was sure to benefit more from it than the Shirriff-post. Fallowborn was greatly offended at the slight to his character and accused Robin of calling him greedy. A heated argument commenced shortly thereafter, one which only escalated when the carpenter, Bango Brightfields, returned from his lunch and accused the pair of trying to exclude him from the proceedings. It was at this point when Sam decided he'd had enough.
Sick and tired of petty arguments, he smartly informed everyone that if they did not sit down and talk like sensible hobbits, he would see to it personally that workers from Hobbiton were brought in to undertake any and all repairs on the building. The realisation that none of those present may receive any trade was enough to create an uneasy truce and force a compromise: Bango was commissioned to craft a new office desk and chair, whilst Fallowborn would lay paving only in the office.
Now, almost an hour after concluding the matter, Sam was back at the inn with an ale in hand and feeling very thankful that his business here was over. He missed Rose, especially last night when the nightmares had returned. At home, his wife was always there to hold him and whisper comforting words which soothed him. But she hadn’t been there last night, and if he’d felt tired this morning when he woke up, he felt absolutely drained now and wasn't looking forward to another night away from her.
He fingered the note from Merry that Florabella Goodenough, the kindly matron whom he had met that morning, had given him on his return. It read:
I’m in Budgeford with Estella, visiting Fatty at the moment. We’re on our way home tomorrow, so I’ll stop by the Floating Log for the night while Estella goes back to Brandy Hall. We can have a few ales and laugh at poor Pippin having to entertain his crusty in-laws!
Merry’s personality was so imbued in the short note that Sam had to chuckle. He fingered it fondly, wondering how his friend had received the note at Fatty’s home when he had despatched it to Brandy Hall. Certain that the matter would be explained when Merry arrived, he smiled at the obvious good humour it contained. It had been a few months since they had seen each other last and Sam couldn‘t wait to see him again.
As if the very thought had conjured Merry up, the sound of hooves pulled Sam from his thoughts and he peered out the window and over the courtyard, spying a familiar pony being led into the stables by an unnaturally tall hobbit in a deep blue coat. The new arrival was met by a stable-lad, the latter of whom patiently received instructions from the well-dressed hobbit on how his pony was to be cared for during its stay. He grinned as the hobbit turned round and made his way towards the inn.
A minute later, Meriadoc Brandybuck walked into the Floating Log, resplendent in velvet coat, rich brown breeches and a golden-coloured weskit. Scanning the room, he quickly spotted Sam andhurried over to clap his Hobbiton friend heartily on the back.
“Sam! What an excellent idea this was! A night of freedom from the wives, with just us lads drinking and catching up on important matters like ‘When will Robin Smallburrow be old enough to make a decision on his own?’” Merry laughed aloud at his own wit.
“Merry!” admonished Sam, looking around to make sure no one had overheard his boisterous friend poking fun at their local Shirriff.
They both sat down and Sam spent a moment examining his newly arrived companion. Merry looked very well: pink-cheeked, bright-eyed and brimming with good humour. He was obviously delighted to see Sam in return, and the gardener fervently hoped that he didn’t present too poor an appearance. He really wanted to avoid the barrage of well-meaning, but uncomfortable, queries regarding his state of health.
“How are you, Merry? And Estella?”
“Oh we’re both very well. Expecting some good crops this harvest. We spent a couple of days with old Fatty, what with it being his birthday. One of his neighbour’s sons is with the Messenger Post, the very one you gave my letter to, actually, so he knew to bring it straight to Budgeford.”
“Well, that answers one question,” said Sam, sipping at his ale.
Merry continued. “We left Fatty’s after lunch. Estella returned home, though she left me strict instructions to behave myself and not to corrupt you.”
“It’s a bit late for that,” Sam grinned.
“Well, that’s what I said! But she believes you to be a fully respectable hobbit and won’t hear of me unduly influencing the Mayor into behaving like a drunken Bree-lander.” Merry paused, blinking in confusion. “Odd, though; she never warns me to behave myself around Pippin, and he’s the Thain.”
“And a lost cause?”
“A reasonable assumption, Mayor Gamgee! In fact, it was he who corrupted me!” stated Merry, looking for all the world as if he actually believed what he’d just said. With a shrug, he continued to happily chat away about how the downfall of his character, going to great lengths to explain how it only came about after his unfortunate introduction to his younger cousin.
Florabella stopped by to take their order. A mere minute after she left to hand it in at the kitchen, the proprietress sent a couple of ales over to the two friends while they waited.
Merry took a sip of his, relishing the bitter taste while regarding his companion over the brim of his mug. It had come as a bit of a surprise to him to find Sam looking thinner than at their last meeting, and it was with some concern that he noted the dark rings around his friend’s eyes. He was anxious to know what was wrong, though willing to allow him to broach the subject first. And if he didn’t ... Well, Merry would drag it out of him! One did not stay the Master of Buckland for very long without obtaining the ability to manipulate those around him.
Still, he couldn’t stop himself saying; “You look tired Sam. Had a bad day?”
“Not bad exactly, just very long,” replied his friend. “At least all’s well at the Shirriff-post now, so I can go back to Hobbiton tomorrow and leave Robin and the others to see that all’s taken care of as agreed.”
A loud clatter sounded from the kitchen, making both hobbits jumped.
“A word of warning,” Sam began, in a low voice. “The new cook is a young lad by the name of Farlibar, and he’s somewhat anxious that his food should please. He may lurk over us until we approve, but after that he should leave.”
“Anxious to please, eh?” Merry eyed the kitchen speculatively and Sam wished he’d not said anything. He recognised that evil gleam.
“As the Master of Buckland and cousin to the Thain himself, I’m used to eating food of a certain standard. Let’s hope he can meet it.”
“Don’t give the poor lad a hard time, I don’t think he can take it. He seemed nervous enough to have served food to the Mayor; if you start going on about Masters and Thains, I’m not sure what he’ll do.”
Merry pretended offence. “Why Sam, you wound me with your doubt! You know I would never torment someone just because they’re a little nervous.”
Sam rolled his eyes at Merry’s ridiculous claim, then groaned as he spotted the subject of their conversation making his way towards their table with a truly enormous tray of food.
He smelled trouble.
“Evening Mr Mayor, evening sir,” said the young cook, nodding at them as he placed the tray on the table and unloaded platters of food. “I’ve brought you and your guest some of my finest fare for your dinner.” Farlibar removed the tray and stood in front of them, clasping it nervously while they loaded their plates with the delicious consumables.
“Let's hope so, for I am used to only the choicest ingredients and the most succulent cuts of meat,” announced Merry grandly, looking (in Sam‘s opinion) uncharacteristically serious. “I would be most disappointed if this establishment was unable to provide them.”
The Master of Buckland stared poor Farlibar straight in the eye and repeated, “Most disappointed,” in the gravest of tones.
Merry began to leisurely inspect the food they had been served. “Soup, mashed potatoes, sliced beef, dumplings, gravy … what, no vegetables? Who eats beef without vegetables?”
Rolling his eyes, Sam removed the lid of a dish that had been placed in front of his friend; it contained a small mountain of peas and carrots, covered with slowly melting butter.
“That‘ll do, I suppose,” muttered Merry (thoroughly enjoying himself). Farlibar was beginning to hop nervously on the spot. “What’s for dessert, then?”
Raising his chin proudly, the cook revealed that his famous apple crumble and cream would be served, as well as buttered fruit scones. It was obvious that the lad was oblivious to the stranger’s identity, certain as he was that this would impress the well-dressed guest of the Mayor (because everyone loved his apple crumble).
“Famous apple crumble?" drawled Merry, cocking an eyebrow. "How can it be famous when I’ve never heard of it?”
Sam shook his head in resignation.
The cook flushed red from the neck up at Merry’s arrogant tone. “It’s very much loved and praised in Frogmorton and hereabouts!” he exclaimed. “Why, I’ve been told the Thain himself declared it to be the best crumble he’s ever tasted. If it’s good enough for the Thain of the Shire, it ought to be good enough for other folk!”
He glared at Merry, daring him to contradict.
Fortunately, no contradiction was forthcoming: at that moment Sam delivered a swift kick to Merry’s shin under the table and he, understanding the message, helped himself to a mouthful of beef and mash instead.
As much as Merry hated to admit it, the beef was extremely good; it had a rich meaty taste and the potatoes were creamy and smooth. In fact, he thought the cook had done very well indeed. But he didn’t have to tell him that.
“Not too bad,” he remarked grudgingly, knowing the flustered cook had been expecting a more effusive answer.
Farlibar’s eyes widened in affront. Not too bad! What did that mean? That it was good? That it was bad, but not overly so? He was not used to people being so vague about his cooking skills! Generally, Farlibar was a shy hobbit, but he was an excellent cook and he knew it! He took great pride in the preparation of all his dishes and derived great satisfaction from watching people enjoy his meals. Why, only last week the proprietor of The Green Dragon had tried to solicit his services for his own establishment, but he had refused! Mistress Goodenough had given him his first real job and he was grateful to her for it. He would not repay that generosity by running off at the first sign of pastures new.
Who then, was this pampered, arrogant, stuffed shirt, who sat there casting doubt on his one, true skill? Perhaps he was touched in the head? Well, Farlibar would be happy to clear his head with a good whack from the tray. That should do it nicely!
Sam, spotting the blanching of the cook’s podgy fingers as they tightened on the tray, grew slightly alarmed, so he quickly dismissed the lad with a deft compliment on the magnificence of their fare. Farlibar nodded in thanks, but stiffened when Merry snorted. Turning on his heel, he returned to the kitchen, refusing to acknowledge the mayor's guest any further.
“Now then, Mr Merry, that was a bit much! The lad doesn’t know you and won’t understand your humour.”
“Oh, come on Sam. It’s just a bit of harmless fun. I’ll make it up to him with a healthy tip. What do you say to that?”
The offer mollified Sam enough to continue with his meal and the pair ate for several minutes in silence. Then:
“Why did you call me ‘Mr’ Merry?”
Caught off-guard, Sam looked at his friend in surprise. “Did I? I didn’t realise I had.”
To his chagrin, he found Merry was watching him in a manner reminiscent of Rose - a look that was slowly beginning to vex him. Why the fuss? He was fine - just needed a good night’s rest, that’s all.
“You don’t call me that anymore unless your upset or worried,” observed Merry casually. “Don‘t think I haven‘t seen you're not yourself, Samwise Gamgee. You’ve lost weight; you look haggard.”
“Don‘t you go imagining things now, Merry. I’m perfectly all right! You know that Rose is expecting again, and I’m run off my feet with so many little 'uns already on top of all my duties as Mayor. I’ll be fine once I know that Rosie and the babe are both safe and well.”
He took a gulp of his ale, hoping his friend would not pursue the topic. To his relief, Merry didn’t, and they finished the rest of the meal discussing the general goings on in the Shire, particularly in Buckland and Hobbiton. Sam made a concerted effort to eat as much as he could during dinner, unwilling to give Merry the opportunity to comment on his health again.
With the main course finished and their plates cleared away, it was to Merry’s great amusement to see their dessert delivered by the proprietress, Mistress Goodenough. Clearly Farlibar didn’t trust himself to come anywhere near the Brandybuck, and Merry proceeded to crow victoriously. Sam ignored him, opting instead to concentrate on his apple crumble. When the last scraping of custard was licked from their spoons, and the final scone polished off, the two hobbits retired to the fireplace where they each produced a pipe and began to puff away on some Old Toby.
As a room was already prepared for Merry, they briefly debated whether they ought to remain by the fireplace or move upstairs for their supper. In the end they remained where they were: Sam didn't mind either way, really; he was content to be wherever his friend was, though he may have been less so had he known what said friend was thinking …
For Meriadoc Brandybuck, called the Magnificent by his fellow hobbits, was determined to make Samwise the Stubborn tell him exactly what was bothering him before they parted ways tomorrow.
Several hours later, Merry sat alone in his room, sipping a mug of tea, and feeling more frustrated and concerned than ever. Sam had skilfully averted all of his attempts to win his confidence and admit that something was troubling him.
And something was troubling his stubborn friend, Merry could see it. He could feel it!
It wasn’t merely Sam's rather alarming appearance; Sam wasn‘t Sam anymore. The usually sunny, confident hobbit had been snappish and distracted several times throughout the evening. Oh, he was very apologetic when Merry pointed it out to him, but instead of explaining his behaviour, he simply claimed that he was tired.
Not that Merry doubted that for a second, given his haggard appearance, but it was frustrating to know that he deliberately avoiding the real issue - that he was not confiding in him. Yet what could he do? Master of Buckland or not, even he couldn’t sway Sam Gamgee when Sam Gamgee was having none of it.
But what was he to do? Sam was clearly holding back. He had no doubt it had something to do with the Quest - which was the usual cause when any of the remaining Travellers experienced a severe bout of melancholy. And knowing Sam, that meant he was also missing Frodo keenly. They were all missing Frodo, though. Hardly a day went by when Merry didn’t ache at the thought of not seeing his older cousin again; or know that when he visited Bag End he would not see the person he missed most in the world, but someone else instead. This thought often made him feel guilty, because Sam lived in Bag End now, and Merry did not mean that he was unhappy to see Sam. On the contrary, he loved Sam like his own family. They had certainly been through enough together to warrant calling each other brother.
But Sam was not Frodo.
Merry was instantly ashamed at himself for the stray thought. He did not have to miss Frodo at the expense of Sam.
Of course he’s not Frodo! he berated himself. He’s Samwise Gamgee, and a good thing too, or we’d all be under the rule of Sauron right now!
He sipped at his tea again as he stared at the slowly burning fire. It really was too warm for it, but he loved the comfort of one; it made the strange room seem a bit more homely.
His thoughts turned back to the problem at hand. None of the hobbits particularly enjoyed talking of the darker moments they each experienced during the Quest. When Frodo left Middle Earth forever, it was like a further wound had been inflicted on them. But the trio of friends had rallied and become closer because of it, and when they had a real need to unburden themselves to someone other than their spouses, they would meet and talk with each other.
So it disturbed him that Sam was holding back and rebuffing him. It felt too much like his experiences with his elder cousin during his final years in the Shire.
True, Frodo had suffered serious wounds to his body and spirit during the Fellowship’s journey. Carrying the Ring for so long had ensured that he would never again be the carefree, innocent hobbit that Merry had adored as a child. He had become reserved, serious, withdrawn, and would not speak to his cousins about his troubles, presenting them instead with a façade of normality that they could easily see through but went along with for his sake. Things had only worsened on his return to the Shire, where he had been haunted by dreams about the hated object and plagued by annual illnesses.
Dreams and illness …
Maybe that was it! Merry slapped his mug on the table and cursed his own short-sightedness.
Sam had been a Ring-bearer too! Certainly, he had only carried it for a day or so whilst attempting to free Frodo from the Tower of Cirith Ungol, but that was on the very borders of Mordor! The Ring would had been extremely active in its attempts to return to its Master. And the more he thought about it, the more he realised that Sam was exhibiting similar behaviour to Frodo’s after the Quest had ended.
Why had he not considered this before?
In fairness, nobody had. Everyone had been consumed with worry over Frodo and Sam’s immediate survival after the Eagles rescued them, and were then too consumed with relief when both finally awoke. Even Gandalf and Aragorn, as concerned as they had been with the effects of the Ring on Frodo’s long-term recovery, had not been too worried about its effects on Sam. This wasn't because they didn't care, more that Sam had not carried it for long. He was also remarkably resilient, and had seemed to bounce back to his old hobbit self immediately on seeing Frodo well again.
But Frodo was not here anymore. Sam didn't have to wotty about ensuring his master’s continued survival, for the elves in Valinor were taking care of that.
So who was taking care of Sam? He had no jewel from the Queen to soothe him. Rose, Pippin and Merry could support him to an extent, but they could not aid him if memories of the One Ring were affecting him adversely. If that was the problem. And if it was, what if more care was needed than anything anyone in the Shire could offer him?
Merry was sure this was at the root of his friend’s current woes, and it made him more determined than ever to speak with Sam before they left Frogmorton in the morning.
However, he did not have to wait that long …
A mere two hours later, his sleep was shattered by terrible yells. Springing from his bed in alarm, he dashed to the bedroom door, fearing that a fire might have broken out. He flung it open, ready to rush to the aid of Mistress Goodenough; but instead of the expected clouds of smoke, or the panicked voices of stampeding hobbits, something more unpleast became apparent to him. Something which chilled his blood to the core. The screams, loud enough to rouse him from rest, were now piercing. They echoed down the hall, ringing through his ears and filling him with horror when he realised their source: they came from across the hall.
From Sam’s room!
Merry didn’t hesitate a second longer. Mustering all the courage that had seen him defy the Witchking of Angmar, he rushed over to Sam’s door and shoved it open, only to gasp in shock at the sight which met his eyes …
Author’s Note: Please forgive me if you found the pov switches a bit confusing - I didn’t realise it was until after I had posted elsewhere. Unfortunately I don’t know how to change it now without messing the whole chapter up. I tried to get a beta, but that didn’t turn out so good and this is the result…
Anyway, next chapter: The One Ring versus Samwise Gamgee!! Miss it if you dare ...
Kara’s Aunty :)
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