Elycia (elycia) wrote in lories_friends,
Elycia
elycia
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Fic: The Age of Enlightenment (Part 2 of 3)

Title: The Age of Enlightenment (Part 2 of 3)
Author name: Elycia
Fandom: The Lord of the Rings
Pairing: Frodo/Sam
Word Count (this part): 5,815
Rating: NC-17
Disclaimer: Middle-earth and its inhabitants belong to the Tolkien estate, not to me, however much I might wish otherwise.
Summary: As his thirty-third birthday approaches, Sam has high hopes for his future job security at Bag End. But events lead him to wonder whether Mr. Frodo has entirely different plans for him.



Part 1

***

Though Sam ordinarily enjoyed a bit of chit-chat, on the journey to the Southfarthing, he found himself extraordinarily grateful that Alton Reed was one of those hobbits who preferred long silences, saving Sam the trouble of affecting a cheerful demeanor. The progress of the Reeds' creaky old pony-cart seemed excruciatingly slow, and throughout the first day's travel, Sam had fought the temptation to jump off the seat and trot alongside, just to distract himself from the aching sorrow in his gut. The inclination remained strong on the second day, but more because of the stabbing pain in his hipbones from hour upon hour of sitting on a hard wooden bench while riding over bumpy roads.

He and Alton had spent the night sleeping under the open sky instead of lodging at an inn, the better to protect the goods in the cart from theft, and Sam had been grateful for the stars' silent, familiar comfort, even as he'd shivered in the cold. But now, he found himself almost unwillingly curious as the sights became progressively less familiar. He perked up with interest to see plants that he didn't recognize along the roadside, and he nearly fell off the cart trying to get a better glimpse of a passing bird he'd never seen the likes of before. He marveled to see flocks of sheep grazing in wide valleys far greener than anything in the Westfarthing would be so early in the season, and he laughed in delight to see lambs already at least a month old cavorting at their mothers' sides.

"We're nearly there, Sam," Alton finally announced, startling Sam out of his study of a distant patch of wildflowers. "You want I should drive you right up to the main house?"

"You don't need to do that, Alton," Sam declared. "It will do me good to get in some walking after all this riding." And I might even be able to feel my poor numb arse again by the time I get there, he added to himself.

"You sure? It's a long lane, near to a mile, I'd reckon," his companion volunteered. "And it looks like you've enough to carry and then some."

"It ain't so heavy as all that," Sam lied plausibly. "I know you've got deliveries to make and all, so just you drop me off and go about your business."

"All right, then," Alton agreed; and though his tone was properly polite, Sam could tell his companion was relieved.

Not ten minutes later, Alton tugged on the reins to halt the ponies, and he gestured across the road to a lane marked by a huge, overgrown archway woven of thick grapevines. "That'd be it, then, Sam," he said. "Give the Pebblemarks my family's regards, if you would. Might remind them to place an order next time I'm selling," he added with a wry smile.

"I'll do that," Sam promised, chuckling. He climbed stiffly down from the seat and retrieved his parcels from the cart, then stopped to give each of the ponies a gentle nose-scratch before waving farewell. As he watched the cart draw out of sight, he found himself imagining how it would feel when some future transport dropped him here for good, and his throat felt suddenly tight. But then he squared his shoulders and took up his load, turning his back on the road with grim determination and heading down the path Mr. Frodo had chosen for him.

Once he passed beneath the archway and the hedges that surrounded it, Sam noted with some surprise that the road to the main smial marked a fairly straight line between two of the most enormous cultivated fields Sam had ever seen in his life. Each side sported row after neat row of what looked suspiciously to Sam like dead, gnarled bushes, but he had sufficient acquaintance with dormant plants to know that those woody stumps would sprout leaves and tendrils almost any moment. Curious, he stopped to count how many vines comprised a row, but he gave up in the seventies when distance made it nearly impossible to distinguish individual plants.

Feeling vaguely overwhelmed to realize what a task it must be to keep this gargantuan property producing at top yield, Sam slung his sacks back over his shoulder and began trudging down the road once more. He hummed one of Mr. Bilbo's old traveling songs to set a pace, and before long, he topped a slight rise to discover the road ending at a gate not unlike that at Bag End's front entrance. But, to his curiosity, he didn't see a smial beyond it. Mr. Frodo had told him that at least twenty hobbits shared the vineyard's main dwelling at any given time, and Sam had expected something on the size and order of the Mathom House at Michel Delving.

Perplexed, he set down his burden and opened the gate, which, unlike the one at Bag End, squealed loudly. A chorus of barking greeted his ears, and a moment later, three small feist dogs came pelting toward him from behind a long row of blueberry bushes, making a great deal of noise but wagging their tails so hard Sam wondered that it didn't unbalance them. He squatted down to let them sniff his hands, and when he chanced to look up, he saw a nicely dressed hobbit approaching.

The fellow's face looked pleasant enough, and he was smiling warmly, but Sam's heart sank nonetheless. The other hobbit had to be in his late seventies by Sam's estimation, maybe older. And that meant he could well be looking for a younger successor--perhaps one just come of age?

"Sam Gamgee?" the hobbit queried.

Sam nodded as he stood up. "At your service, sir," he said, bowing in respectful greeting.

"It's a joy and a privilege to have you here," the other hobbit said pleasantly, with a lilting tone that reminded Sam of Mr. Bilbo. "I'm Colson Pebblemark, the manager here. Come on inside and have some of my wife's special recipe. It'll perk you right up!" He gestured toward the blueberries, which Sam suddenly realized were in bloom.

"I'm already finding myself surprised to see what a change two days' travel can make," Sam declared, pointing at the bushes as he took up his parcels again. "Those won't bloom for a month yet in the Westfarthing, and I saw peach trees blooming, too, on the way here, or I'm a rabbit."

Colson laughed--a bright, heartwarming sound--and clapped Sam on the back. "Good thing you ain't a rabbit, Sam, or these dogs wouldn't be near so friendly," he said, gesturing to the animals running rings around their feet. "But you're right. For all it doesn't seem that far, we get different weather here than you folks, especially down here away from the hills, and the plants grow the better for it. Now if we just don't get one of those awful late frosts, we'll be putting up preserves right and left come summer."

As they passed the row of bushes, Sam was startled to see an enormous door set into the ground, like an outside entrance to a cellar. The door was prominently decorated with a huge brass handle instead of a doorknob, and the area all around was graded in various levels and bordered and contained with decorative stones; clearly, a fine flower garden would be blooming here in a few weeks.

His escort laughed again to see Sam's confusion. "The ground's right flat hereabouts, Sam," he explained, "so we take the meaning of 'hobbit hole' to be 'straight down.'" He pulled on the handle, and the door lifted up easily to reveal an elegant, very wide stone staircase lit amply on both sides with fancy lanterns. "Go on in," he said, gesturing Sam ahead of him.

Sam complied, descending a few steps and then pausing to make note of how the older hobbit eased the door shut. He reached the floor, following his host's lead by removing his coat and hanging it on one of a plethora of pegs along the wall. The two of them rounded the corner together, and Sam gasped aloud.

The residence was enormous, with four hallways going off in different directions, and the activity within reminded Sam of an ant-hill. Hobbits of various ages, most of them female, hurried to and fro, all of them seemingly very intent on their tasks. "How long must it have taken to delve all this?" he said softly, glancing overhead and all around.

Colson Pebblemark laughed once more, and Sam decided that his host was a genuinely cheerful person. "This land has belonged to the Baggins family or their forebears since first it was claimed from the wild," the old hobbit said, steering Sam down the right-center hallway. "It was Bilbo Baggins's great-grandfather as began the digging here, though we've added on quite a bit over the years. My wife says the place will look like a great mad spider one of these days, with legs going off every which way."

They arrived at the kitchen, which was so much bigger than Bag End's that Sam wondered how they ever managed to keep wood enough in stock to maintain its operation. Three young hobbit-maids were busy cooking something that smelled wonderful, making Sam's mouth water.

"We've got seven families living here right now and a few single folk as well," Colson explained. "The lads are mostly out in the field, but you'll meet them in an hour or so when they come in for the night. The girls are busy enough this time of day, too, getting supper ready and such, so I think we'd do best to get our drinks and hide ourselves in the parlor." He winked at one of the lasses, who nodded emphatically, drawing her brows together in an exaggerated scowl. With another good-natured laugh, the old hobbit retrieved a bottle from a gigantic, walk-in pantry and grabbed two mugs off a sideboard, then gestured Sam out of the room.

"That sassy one is my youngest daughter," Colson said by way of explanation, "though I sometimes lose track of which folks here are my own offspring and which have just lived here so long I've forgotten who their real parents are." He filled the mugs and handed one to Sam. "Drink up!" he encouraged.

Sam took a sip, unsure whether the beverage was fermented or not and having no wish to find himself choking in surprise. To his pleasure, it turned out to be a sweet, refreshing blend of wine and fruit juices, with strong overtones of blueberry. "So most of the folks here stay on for years once you hire them?" he queried, genuinely curious but nonetheless dreading the answer.

"A fair number of them do," Colson answered thoughtfully. "But some don't care for the work and go on to do other things. I remember one fellow who worked here eight years and then decided of a sudden he hated everything to do with grapes! Last I heard, he'd apprenticed himself to a furniture maker."

They both chuckled. Then Colson continued, "I understand you've worked for Mr. Baggins since you were not much more than a bairn yourself. Is that so?"

"Well, my old dad was Mr. Bilbo's gardener when I was born," Sam explained, "and once I was big enough to follow him around, I just copied what he did. Then I started taking on more of the chores as his knees got worse each year. By the time Mr. Bilbo left the Shire--I was twenty-one then--I was doing most of the work, and my dad only came up once a week or so to check on things. I've never worked any other place than Bag End. I was lucky Mr. Frodo kept me on after his uncle went away." He sighed and stared down into his drink for a moment, willing the pang of sorrow down from his throat back into his stomach where it had resided more or less constantly since he'd left Hobbiton.

"Mr. Baggins thinks the world of you," his host said quietly, making Sam jerk his head up in surprise. "I'm fortunate he lent you to us, knowing how he depends on you."

Sam knew he was staring owlishly at his companion, but for the life of him, he couldn't stop. "I… I love Bag End, and all that grows there," he finally managed, lowering his gaze and forcing a more normal expression. "But compared to what you do here, I feel like I've been keeping a little bean-patch all my life."

Colson roared with laughter. "It takes some getting used to, I reckon," he said, "but when it comes down to it, grapes are just grapes, and wine more or less makes itself if you put the right things together and then leave it alone long enough. It's all the same thing any gardener does. We just do a powerful lot of it at once!"

For the first time in days, Sam felt a genuine smile warm his face. "It's a pity you won't be here at harvest," his host continued. "It's perfectly mad, of course, but we try to make a game of it, seeing who can get the most bushels and all that--and then there's the pressing, and that's a party you'd scarce believe in its own right." He smiled and drained his mug. "But I know Mr. Baggins wouldn't want you gone that long even if I was the last one here cutting grapes all by myself, and that's a fact."

The hobbit-lass Sam had seen in the kitchen suddenly stood in the doorway, beckoning. "Pa, there's another stir as needs you to settle it," she said tartly. "Mama's at the door keeping things peaceful for the moment, but she says they want you."

Colson shook his head ruefully and rose. "Sam, please excuse me a moment," he said. "Unfortunately, this happens several times a day."

"I'll be fine here, sir. Take your time," Sam replied, glad for the chance to have a moment to himself.

Alone in the huge parlor, Sam sipped the last of his beverage and sucked his teeth, wondering exactly what words had passed between Mr. Frodo and the manager of the vineyard, and why Colson Pebblebrook seemed so sure Sam's place was secure at Bag End. Of course, there was still the matter of the permanent position having failed to materialize, but maybe--just maybe--Sam wouldn't be fated to spend his future tending endlessly similar rows of grapevines until he was cross-eyed.

Sam had thought himself incapable of ever hoping for anything again, but now he could feel a familiar spark flare in his chest, dispelling some of the gloom that had taken up firm residence therein. And for the first time, he felt a certain pleasant anticipation of going home in two weeks, instead of a pressing sense of impending doom.

The rest of the evening went by in a confusing blur of new faces and more new names than Sam could ever hope to remember, not to mention a lively communal supper that rivaled any inn Sam had ever visited for sheer noise and chaos. Not long after, Sam found himself lying on a surprisingly comfortable bed in a room shared with two of the other unmarried fellows.

"You sure you can find your way to the privy and back, then?" one of his roommates said with exaggerated seriousness. "We've had newcomers get lost the first night and not be seen for days."

Sam chuckled, pleased to know that he fit in well enough to invite some teasing. "I'll be all right," he said. "So long as you make sure I get up when you do so I don't miss early chores, I'll be fine. I'm not sure yet how you manage without being able to hear the roosters of a morning."

"Oh, don't worry about that," the room's other occupant chimed in around a yawn. "This place is noisy enough by six you couldn't sleep if you were stone-deaf."

Sam grinned. "I'll bet this is what it's like at Great Smials or Brandy Hall," he mused.

"Who'd want to be there?" the first hobbit snorted. "Too many gentlehobbits, if you ask me, and all of ‘em wanting something from you every minute. Give me a field of vines and let me do whatever most needs doing, I say, instead of having some fancy-pants choose my chores for me."

"And me!" the second hobbit agreed emphatically. "Sam, you'll love how it is here, how nobody bothers you if you know your job and do it right. In no time I'll wager you'll want to leave old Mad Baggins's gardens as far behind as you can."

Sam smiled pleasantly, but he felt a pang of deep sadness. "Could be," he answered noncommittally, not wishing to offend. "Good night then, lads."

His roommates were snoring within minutes, but to Sam's annoyance, he remained awake despite being entirely exhausted. He found himself reviewing his last, confusing visit to Bag End, the one his master had requested he make to retrieve provisions for the trip. To avoid facing Mr. Frodo alone, Sam had pressured his father into accompanying him, insisting that all three of them should consult together on how the grounds should be managed in Sam's absence. When the three had sat in the study to discuss plans, Mr. Frodo had been unfailingly polite and proper, as was usual, but Sam had sensed an undercurrent of tension, as though his master was under some dreadful strain of which he couldn't speak. It all reminded Sam of how lads would steel themselves when they played the old dare-game of walking blindfolded through a roomful of scattered, set mousetraps.

Then, as the Gaffer and Sam had been heading for the door to leave--each of them carrying a huge armload of packages for the journey--he'd chanced to glance over his shoulder, ostensibly for a last glimpse of Bag End. But he'd caught Frodo's eye instead, and for a long moment, the two had stared silently at one another. Still feeling the sharp sting of being sent away from Hobbiton even after… well, everything, Sam had set his jaw and given a sharp nod, polite but cold. Frodo had nodded back and turned away, but Sam was sure he'd seen his master wince. Sam had thought to wonder if Mr. Frodo's shoulder was sore again, but he'd immediately forced that idea and the memories it evoked solidly into the back of his mind, telling himself that it didn't matter, and he didn't care nohow.

Sam rolled irritably from his right side to his left and flipped his pillow over. Unfortunately, insisting to himself that he didn't care was completely ineffective on a sleepless night in a solitary bed. In fact, Sam admitted with self-disgust, he cared far, far more than was good for him, and if his heart could have had its way, he would have packed up his things that very moment and set out to return to Hobbiton on foot, where he would willingly spend the remainder of his days haunting Bag End like a ghost, observing his master's everyday routine from a distance and tormenting himself with the memories of what that lovely pale skin felt like under his own oiled hands.

Not surprisingly, Sam's body reacted with enthusiasm to those particular memories, raising his aggravation level by several notches. Even if his roommates had been old friends of long acquaintance, Sam simply would not have taken a hand to his problem, so to speak; the thought of doing so with near strangers so close by was unimaginable. With a grunt, he raised himself up and flopped hard onto his belly, hoping to traumatize his erection into subsiding. Then he buried his face in his pillow, determined either to fall asleep or stifle himself, whichever might happen first.


***


The allotted fortnight passed far faster than Sam had ever imagined it might. He'd spent his first full day in the Southfarthing following Colson Pebblemark around like one of the feist dogs, making mental notes of a thousand things about growing grapes that he was afraid he'd never remember. But before long Sam found himself working as hard as he'd ever worked in his life. In particular, digging up rows of spent grapevines to permit fresh ones to be planted was a gut-buster, as his new friends were wont to call it. Sam would have sworn that some of the old vines had roots that went clear through the earth and came out on the underneath side, like the magical mountains in Mr. Bilbo's stories. Still, he found he loved the work. There was something different to do every day, all of it urgent and little of it boring. And he truly enjoyed the camaraderie he shared with the other employees on the vineyard. Having long since grown accustomed to working alone, he'd nearly forgotten what pleasure could be taken from teamwork on a difficult task.

But he still missed Hobbiton dreadfully, especially at night when the big residence was quiet and distractions were few. To make matters worse, Sam found himself dreaming of Mr. Frodo all the time, and they were the sorts of dreams from which he tended to wake abruptly only to find himself half-drenched in sweat, painfully hard, and so close to coming that he had to bite his lips or stab his fingernails into the palms of his hands to maintain control. He gave up counting the number of times he rose quickly from his bed, wrapped a knitted throw loosely around himself to conceal his condition, and raced to the privy to finish what his dreams had started, gritting his teeth as he spilled over his hand to keep from crying out.

By the time the day came for him to pack his things for the return trip, Sam found himself feeling more than a little conflicted. He had found the Southfarthing far more amenable than he had ever imagined he would. He absolutely adored Colson Pebblemark and his wife, who were two of the finest hobbits Sam thought he would ever have the pleasure of knowing. He had become fast friends with his roommates, found himself eagerly sought by workers assembling teams for tasks, and learned enough about wine-making that he felt sure he could do a passable job of it back at home. He'd quickly taken to the regional dishes; he was certain he'd gained at least five pounds since arriving at the vineyard! He had even enjoyed himself flirting with the many pretty lasses, knowing full well that naught would ever come of it. And he passionately loved the wide-open skies over the grape fields, the awareness of life about to burst forth that he could sense when he touched the vines, and the feeling that, having devoted his honest sweat and toil to the ancient vineyard, he was now a part of its storied history.

Even so, his heart longed for home. But now that the return was upon him, Sam began to worry in earnest what sort of situation would await him there. His last, stilted interaction with his master remained clear in his memory, and Sam knew he had reason to wonder whether two weeks' separation would have given Frodo a chance to reevaluate Sam's seduction in a rather less favorable light. For all that the Pebblemarks kept reiterating how valuable he must be to Bag End, fanning the spark of hope in his heart, Sam also battled a niggling fear that he might arrive back on the old smial's doorstep only to be dismissed from working there… for good.

And even if Frodo never mentioned their morning of shared desire again, Sam knew it might affect the relationship between them for ages, if not forever. Sam knew he could count on Frodo always to be excruciatingly polite, never rude; but he had also seen his master turn that politeness into the keenest of weapons when dealing with people he disliked (like his cousin Lobelia), and Sam knew Frodo could easily shred a slow-tongued gardener to pieces with words, should he be so inclined.

When buried in such contemplation, Sam often found himself thinking seriously uncharitable things about Bull Blackwater, who had advised him to take his course of action. But deep down, Sam knew any fault lay entirely on his own shoulders, and that he would have to bear the consequences much the same way he would bear a yoke of watering-pails on sunburned shoulders: it wouldn't be a job he enjoyed in the slightest, but he'd do it anyway simply because it had to be done.

By the time he emerged from his bedroom to join the jostling crowd in the halls on the morning of his departure, Sam had settled himself into a stoic resignation, knowing he'd have little choice but to accept whatever lot awaited him in Hobbiton. The Pebblemarks took his lack of enthusiasm to signify Sam's regret at having to leave their home, and he thought it wisest not to disabuse their minds.

At the household's first breakfast, his hosts distributed small glasses and poured a share of Mrs. Pebblemark's "special recipe" for everyone, to the raucous delight of the recipients. As Sam was trying to discern the reason for the celebration, Colson Pebblemark took his customary place at the head of the table and silenced the room with an ear-splitting whistle.

"Today, we must bid farewell to a dear new friend," Colson announced once the hubbub had died down. Suddenly realizing whom his host meant, Sam dropped his eyes in embarrassment, and he felt his cheeks go red-hot. "Now, Sam, don't be shy!" the old hobbit chided gently. "You've not been here that long, to be sure, but you've more than proved your worth. You've put your back to every chore without complaining, and you've made good suggestions that will save us time in the future. Everybody here likes you, and for my part, I know of more than one lass who will truly hate to see you leave!"

He laughed then, that bright, sunny laugh that Sam had come to cherish, and Sam laughed, too, despite feeling as though his face might spontaneously ignite. The lads on either side elbowed him good-naturedly and made suggestive noises; and the Pebblemarks' youngest daughter made a hilarious show of pretending to cry into her napkin.

"As much as I wish we could keep Sam here, though, Mr. Baggins wants him back, and I can understand why," Colson went on. "I just hope you know, Sam, that you are more than welcome any time you should want to vacation in a milder clime, or if you just find Bag End to be a little too quiet for your taste!"

Sam smiled broadly. "I thank you, sir," he said, making sure to speak clearly enough to be understood throughout the room. "I've found the Southfarthing to be a lovely place, and I can't imagine a better group of hobbits than I've found here. I'll miss my friends, and by that I mean to say all of you."

A cheer rose that all but shook the room and made Sam wonder for a moment exactly how well fortified the ceilings were in a hole as deep underground as this one. But the structure remained unaffected, and as the din subsided once more, Colson raised his glass.

"A toast, then, to our good friend," he said. "I don't imagine he's told all of you, being a modest sort, but this is a special day for him; he's now his own hobbit, having come of age today."

A few gasps of surprise went around the room, immediately followed by another cheer. Sam could hear people around him shouting things like "Why didn't you tell us?" and "You close-mouthed devil, you!" Though he could feel himself blushing again, Sam sat up a bit straighter and smiled proudly. Truth to tell, he'd all but forgotten the significance of the date himself in the vineyard's urgent hustle and bustle.

"Lift your glasses, then," Colson demanded loudly, settling the room once more. All the hobbits around picked up their drinks and turned to face Sam. "Here's to you, Master Samwise," Colson intoned with great import, and Sam could see his host's eyes glinting with emotion over a warm smile.

"To Master Samwise," the room echoed. Sam's heart swelled with pleasure. It was the first time he'd been called by that adult title, and it was a heady experience. Glass glinted in the lamplight as everyone downed his beverage; then the room erupted in a dull roar of chatter, and Sam found himself circled by hobbits pounding him on the back and offering congratulations.

An hour or so later, he stood under the enormous grapevine archway, awaiting whatever transport Mr. Frodo had arranged to pick him up. Happily, he revisited the scene at breakfast and the delighted surprise of his new friends when he'd brought out mathoms for each of them: tiny, cloth draw-string pouches for the lasses, good for keeping a few coins or bits of jewelry; and pocket-sized wooden whistles for the fellows, perfect for sounding an alarm or summoning assistance when working at a distance from one another in fields as large as the vineyard's. The Pebblemarks had been thrilled with their gifts as well: a large, brandied fruit-cake for Sam's hostess and a richly illustrated book on the history of wine-making that had once been Bilbo's for Colson (who was the only hobbit at the vineyard who could read and write). Sam spared a thought of extreme gratitude to Mr. Frodo, who had remembered the need for such gifts when it had never so much as entered Sam's troubled mind.

A rumbling sound brought Sam back to the present with a start. The noise quickly increased in volume. Then, to Sam's amazement, a sturdy wagon topped the rise, drawn by a pair of full-sized horses. Sam had worked with the occasional plow-ox, but he'd never seen equines this big before in his life, and his mouth dropped open in awe. To be sure, Mr. Frodo had promised the trip home would be faster than the Reeds' old pony-cart, but Sam had never imagined this!

The driver pulled the team to a halt beside the archway and leaned down from the seat to call a cheery hello. "Were you needing a ride, then, maybe?" he teased, hooking the reins over a knob between the seats and setting the brake.

"I'd like a ride, sure, but I'll wager it's these you're more in need of picking up," Sam joked back, gesturing to the casks of wine waiting alongside him. "I hate to think on what would happen if you took me and left them waiting here!"

"We'd both of us be in a heap of trouble, is what would happen," the driver answered cheerfully, climbing down from his perch. "Let's get these loaded, then, and be on our way!"

Sam helped the other hobbit heave the heavy casks into the wagon's bed and secure them; then he walked around the front to examine the horses more closely, speaking softly so as not to startle them, since they towered over him rather imposingly.

"They're wonderful," he declared, admiring the enormous feet and expressive eyes.

"They're good beasts," said the driver, climbing back onto the bench. "The one on the left is Sage, and the one on the right is Sir. They're both young yet, and they can cover some ground, believe me! But they're spirited enough; you have to keep an eye on them, or you'll be heading off to the Tooklands or such of a sudden whether you needed to go there or not!"

Sam chuckled and clambered onto the vacant side of the bench, tossing his sack--which was far lighter than it had been when he arrived--into the bed with the wine-casks. "Hang on, then!" advised his companion, taking up the reins and slapping them across the horses' backs with a sharp "Hie!"

Even though he was expecting it, Sam still nearly fell over the seat into the wagon bed as the animals set off at a brisk trot. He grabbed onto the underside of the seat, laughing hard. "This is a sight faster than any pony-cart, right enough!" he cried in delight.

"I should say!" the driver declared in mock insult. "We'll be back in Bywater before sundown, you know. Truth to tell, these two could go a lot faster than this and hardly get tired for it, but then we'd probably knock the wagon to splinters with all these pits in the road. You should see them run all-out in the pasture, though!"

Sam smiled to imagine it, picturing the sun gleaming on the one horse's shiny black coat and the other's dark bay as they raced one another over the fields. "I'll wager they're beautiful," he finally said.

"What?" his companion hollered, and Sam realized that with the wagon having reached traveling speed, the road noise would more or less preclude conversation. "I'd like to!" he yelled back.

The driver smiled and nodded, and both hobbits fell silent. Sam busied himself studying the plants along the road with new eyes, recognizing many he hadn't known on the way down, and studying the changes a fortnight had wrought, noting which trees and bushes were now showing signs of coming out of dormancy. He also observed other vineyards here and there along the road, and he assessed them with a degree of smug certainty that they were kept in a fashion far inferior to that of the place he'd just left.

Before long, though, Sam found the scenery insufficient to distract him from his concern about how he would be received on his arrival back home. If things went well, Mr. Frodo would welcome Sam politely and pleasantly, then give him a list of things that needed doing around the smial and grounds, just as though nothing untoward had ever passed between them. But Sam knew things could go rather less well than that. Any number of possible scenarios ran through his mind--ranging from the upsetting to the downright ugly.

Sam didn't even dare to hope for what would, to his mind, be the best possible reception: one of those lovely, heart-stopping smiles from his master, followed by an embrace that would say without words that everything was fine between them, and that Mr. Frodo didn't hold that awkward morning against Sam at all. But Mr. Frodo really wasn't one to go around giving hugs to other hobbits, especially not to his employees, and Sam gave himself a swift mental kick for even allowing himself to imagine such a thing.

Part 3
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