He was lying on a heap of ashes in a sea of fire. A vast black mountain loomed above him, blocking out the sky, and from its blasted sides rivers of molten rock ran down. A foul black rain fell from the sky. The air was acrid with noxious fumes that made his head swim, and heat seared his tortured lungs. It was only a matter of time, he knew, before the rising sea engulfed the rock—and him.
Gasping for breath, he opened his eyes. But no fiery doom beckoned, no black mountain blocked out the sky. He was lying not on ash-covered rock, but on a soft fragrant mattress in a bower formed by tree branches that swayed gently above him. Through gaps in their young leaves, tendrils of golden sunlight reached to touch his face and bare arms like a blessing.
The air he breathed was crisp, clean and pure, so pure that his lungs protested, but he gulped it in great, greedy draughts nonetheless. It had been so long since he’d breathed of air that wasn’t foul with the stench of… what?
The dream was swiftly fading from the edges of his mind, elusive as the darting silver fish he’d tried to catch by hand long ago in the pool of water in… where? He couldn’t recall. Every thought seemed to slip away from him; the harder he tried to catch them, the faster the threads of memory unraveled before him.
He stopped trying. The memories would return when they would, or never. He couldn't force them to stay.
An unexpected rumbling noise startled him; it was his stomach, demanding attention. He laughed softly to himself as he sat up, the mattress rustling, and looked about him. A low table with legs made of intertwined branches stood near at hand. There were crockery bowls and cups and plates on it; a large earthenware pitcher; and serving dishes filled with food. A pair of low wicker chairs was set ready beside the table.
A whiff of something enticing caused his stomach to rumble again and he realised that he was ravenously hungry. He made to rise, but on flinging back the coverlet, deep green in colour and skillfully embroidered with gold thread, he discovered that he was naked. He hesitated, wondering if he had anything to wear. His glance fell upon a garment of pristine white, carefully arranged across the foot of the bed. Was it for him?
He leaned sideways and pulled it to him. It was a simple robe, woven of some soft material that was as light and downy as a chick’s fluff. He slipped it over his head and the folds settled about him, hugging gently to his frame. It was a relief to cover his nakedness, but not for shame, though he knew he was thin, much too thin, his ribs and hipbones protruding, his stomach sunken. No, it was fear that drove him, for his naked body appeared oddly translucent, as if it were formed of pale mist that might dissolve at any moment. The sight left him unsettled, frightened, and feeling very, very alone.
Warily he stood, hoping his insubstantial limbs would bear him. Relieved when they did, he took a tentative step forward. The rush-strewn ground felt reassuringly real and solid beneath his feet. He walked to the table, the soft brush of fabric against his legs comforting and familiar.
He sat down in a chair, which barely creaked beneath his weight. He noticed that one of the sturdy earthenware plates had crumbs of food left upon it, and the cup beside it was partially filled with liquid. Someone else had eaten here, he realised, his heart beating faster. Who? And where had the unknown person gone?
Curious, he shifted in his chair and surveyed the rest of the bower. A second bed he hadn't noticed stood close beside his own. It was empty, but the covers were disarranged as if it had been slept in, too. So he had company here in this place, wherever and whatever it was. A surge of gladness rushed up inside him, bubbling and leaping like a fountain. He could sing and dance for happiness. He was not alone, after all!
His stomach complained again, loudly, and he returned his attention to the table. Singing and dancing would have to wait, he decided wryly, and he examined the contents of the serving dishes.
There was a tureen of soup, a light clear broth whose aroma made his mouth water, and a basket of bread, and a crock of butter and a jar of amber-gold honey still in the comb. A plate held thin slices of sweet ripe muskmelon. Eagerly, he ladled soup into a bowl, filled a plate with the food, and poured himself a cup of water from the pitcher. The water was sweet and cold, as if just drawn from a deep well. He felt that he could drink and drink of it, yet never be satisfied. It had been so long since he’d tasted water that wasn’t brackish or oily, though how he knew this, he couldn’t say.
He ate with good appetite, but was soon full, as if his body were unaccustomed to such bounty. Surely a hobbit ought to be able to eat more than this, he thought. A hobbit? He tested the word in his mind. Hobbit. Yes, he was a hobbit. Smiling at this small victory, he pushed his chair back from the table and stood.
He’d remembered what he was. A hobbit. But who was he? His smile faded. He heard a voice in his mind, a familiar voice though he could not name its owner: “Tell me, who are you, alone, yourself and nameless?” I don’t know, his mind replied, frightened. I don’t know. As if in answer, another voice spoke, a beloved voice as familiar to him as his own, though it, too, could not be named: “Sam my dearest hobbit, friend of friends.”
My name is Sam, he thought. Sam.
He spoke the simple word aloud. "Sam." His voice was a raven’s caw, hoarse and rusty, either from disuse or irritation, but he gained courage as further knowledge opened to him. "I am Samwise Gamgee, a hobbit of the Shire." Queer. He knew that there was such a place as the Shire, and that it was dear to him, but he couldn’t hold onto the images that flitted through his mind, brief and bright as fireflies.
Don’t ‘ee go a-looking for trouble, Sam-lad. It’ll come looking for ‘ee soon enough. Yet another voice he knew but couldn’t name.
Sam took the sage advice regardless, and stepped out from the shelter of the bower into a spacious glade, surrounded on all sides by trees. The sun spread soothing warmth over his neck and shoulders; the grass, lush and emerald green, felt cool beneath his soles.
Scattered through the grass like living jewels were tiny flowers of different colours and kinds. Some he recognised, though their names eluded him, a fact which he found oddly embarrassing; some were as unfamiliar to him as the sight of his own feet planted among them. His feet. He stopped and studied them.
It wasn't the strange translucence, to which Sam was already becoming accustomed, but their appearance. The thick curling hair that should cover them was singed or entirely burnt away. Numerous scars marred the skin, some old and healed, some new and raw. His toenails were ragged or entirely torn away. And yet... his feet did not pain him. It was surpassing strange.
He wandered aimlessly through the glade for a time, feeling life and vigour steal into his wasted body, nourished by the food he'd eaten, and by the purity of the air and the balm of the sun. Wonder grew in him as he went. Every blade of grass, every leaf, every twig, every flower, was perfect, unbruised and unblemished. He might have been walking through Arda on the day of its creation. And then there was the music, faint yet heart-piercingly sweet, which seemed to come not from some outside source, but from everything around him, as if sky, earth, flower, grass and tree were the instruments, each providing its own unique note that wove in and around the others to form a single, harmonious song. The music thrummed inside him, and he understood that he, too, was one of its instruments.
But there were other songs, their source easily found for they came from the numerous birds that flitted from tree to tree, or soared high overhead, or wheeled and dove across the glade. It had been so long since he'd heard birdsong... Sam frowned, for a vague impression came to him of great wings beating with powerful, measured strokes, of air rushing madly past him as he was carried - where? Why?
Unanswered and unanswerable questions—there were so many of them. And it was getting harder to put them from his mind, for despite the beauty and serenity of this place, something was missing, something that mattered deeply to him. He had to discover what it was.
He came upon a footpath that led from the glade into the woods. Without conscious volition, as if his feet possessed an independent will, Sam turned down it. The path meandered through the trees as if in no hurry to reach its destination, but though he knew he'd once journeyed through another wood where the trees were malevolent and delayed travellers on purpose, he sensed nothing but good-will here. The path was unencumbered by fallen limbs or tree-roots, and ran smooth and even underfoot.
Nevertheless Sam's stamina soon began to flag. The strengthening effect of the food he'd eaten was wearing off, and the comfortable bed in the shady bower beckoned to him. He should go back and rest. But as he was about to do so, he heard the cheerful babble of water over rocks, and realised there must be a stream nearby. He imagined dangling his feet in the stream, how refreshing the water would feel as it ran over and around them, and that decided him. He continued on, and around the very next turning, he saw the stream ahead. The path led straight toward it, then curved to the right, wending along the stream-bank through great masses of pale-green ferns with delicate lacy fronds.
When Sam reached the bank, he discovered that it was steep and sheer, and offered no obvious means to descend. Under other circumstances, he wouldn't have hesitated to jump down to the silty stream-bed, but in his weakened condition, he'd doubtless end up on his bottom in the water. Not to mention that he didn’t entirely trust his semi-transparent limbs. A short distance ahead, however, the path disappeared, plunging downwards out of sight, and he set off with renewed energy and purpose, certain that easier access would be found if he went a bit further along.
At the point where the path began its descent, Sam stopped to stare. Here the stream tumbled, sparkling and bubbling, down a rock-strewn slope until it spilled into a round pool, dappled by sunlight. Wide flat stones formed a ledge around the rim of the pool, except where a small spillway allowed water to escape on the far end, so that the stream could resume its course.
But it wasn’t the pool that held him spellbound—it was the sight of a slight, dark-haired figure seated on one of the stones with his back to Sam. The stranger was clad in a white robe identical to Sam’s, and beyond all doubting he was the mysterious other sharing the bower with him. Best of all, he was a hobbit, too.
Without a thought now for falling, Sam ran recklessly down the slope, his arms wind-milling wildly. As he reached the bottom, the unknown hobbit turned his head, smiled at him, and said, 'Hullo, Sam.'
Thunderstruck, Sam halted as abruptly as if he’d walked face-first into a wall. Had Gandalf spoken a spell, the effect of those two simple words could not have been more potent. His memory came flooding back in a torrent. He knew the dark-haired hobbit almost as well as he knew himself.
'Frodo!' exclaimed Sam joyously.
It was indeed Frodo, whom Sam had last seen when they stood hand in hand on that desolate island of ash in a sea of fire, before exhaustion and the noxious fumes overcame him at last and he lost consciousness. He understood now the nagging sense of something missing—or rather someone—for it was Frodo whom he had missed, it was Frodo without whom he could not feel complete, even here in this wondrous sanctuary where they inexplicably found themselves.
Sam ran to Frodo and knelt by his side. Tears blurred his vision.
'Frodo,' he said again, and the next moment they were exchanging a fierce embrace, and Sam’s tears flowed freely with joy and relief. The body in his arms, though, like his own, emaciated from long privation, felt solid and real. As on another occasion, Sam could have stayed like that in endless happiness, but questions crowded his mind, questions that he hoped Frodo could answer.
'My dear Sam,' Frodo said when they drew apart, and he was smiling again, 'don't cry.'
'They're tears of happiness,' Sam replied, and wiped his eyes on his sleeve. 'I was afraid I'd never see you again.'
'Nor I you, but beyond all hope, here we are together.' His smile widened. 'Sit down, Sam, and put your feet in the water. It feels so blessedly cool.' He patted the smooth rock with his right hand.
Sam saw that the third finger was missing, only a stump remaining, and he wished, oh, how he wished that some of his memories were but bad dreams.
'Does it hurt?' he asked, taking the injured hand and cradling it gently between his own.
'No, Sam,' Frodo assured him. 'It doesn't hurt. I can see that I am wounded, but it is as if some veil exists between me and my physical body that keeps pain at bay.'
'I'm right glad,' Sam said in a husky voice. He kissed the maimed hand and let it go. 'It's the same for me, and I reckon nothing queerer has ever happened to Sam Gamgee, which is saying something.'
Frodo laughed, a merry laugh, and the happy tears returned to Sam’s eyes. 'I thought I'd never hear you laugh again,' he said.
'It’s impossible to be sad in this place,’ Frodo said, looking around him. ‘Now do sit down, Sam dear.’
Sam sat. He swung his legs over the edge until his feet were dangling in the water beside Frodo's. It was indeed blessedly cool and even more delightful than Sam had imagined. But the greatest blessing and delight of all was the hobbit sitting close beside him.
'Frodo, what is this place?’ Sam said. He hesitated then asked the question that had been most nagging at him. 'Are- are we dead? I always thought the Halls of Waiting were great dusty rooms, like in the mathom-house, only filled with people, not old mathoms. Leastways, that's what Mr. Bilbo told me. Unless all of this,’ and he made a sweeping gesture with his hand, ‘is one of Vairë’s tapestries.’
Frodo was silent. He remained deep in thought for a time with his lips pursed and his eyes unfocussed. His feet moved back and forth in the water, gently stirring it. Finally he spoke. ‘I don’t think this is part of the Halls of Waiting. I don't think we're dead. I certainly don't feel dead. I have hunger and thirst and weariness, and is it likely we'd be provided with food and drink and a place to sleep if we were dead?'
'I reckon not. But what about this?' Sam said, pointing at his legs, through which the sun shone as much as it shone upon them. 'I got a proper scare when I looked at myself after I woke up - wondered if maybe I'd become one of them wraiths. You don't reckon...'
'No.' Frodo gave a reminiscent shudder. 'No, Sam, with the Ring destroyed I don't see how that could happen to us, and besides, I can sense no threat here, no evil or malice, only welcome and great good-will.'
'Then how do you explain it? Where are we?' Sam said in puzzlement.
'Listen,' Frodo said, unexpectedly. 'What can you hear?'
'Music,' replied Sam with reverence. 'The most beautiful music I've ever heard.' As he listened now, he discovered that the song had changed; it sounded even sweeter and nearer to his heart. And then he realised why: it was Frodo's presence in the song. 'We belong to it, don't we, and it belongs to us.'
'I knew you'd understand,' Frodo said, smiling at him. 'Yes, we do and it does, and that is why I believe we are in Aman - or at least, some part of us is in Aman.'
'Aman?' Sam was dumbfounded. 'But how can that be possible, Frodo? And how did we get here from that terrible mountain?'
Frodo's forehead furrowed as he considered Sam's question. 'I don't know; we must have been rescued, and our bodies brought to safety while this part of us - a spirit form, perhaps - was sent here. Where our physical selves are now, I cannot say.'
'Maybe Mr. Bilbo's Eagles came and fetched us,' Sam said, and he was only half in jest, for that vague impression of great wings beating and the air rushing around him was in his mind.
'Bilbo would be delighted if that were true,' Frodo replied, a smile in his eyes.
'Well, however we got here, I'm gobsmacked, and that's a fact. Not that you being here is a surprise, but me? Plain Sam Gamgee? I reckon someone somewhere made a mistake.'
Frodo slipped an arm around him and hugged him. 'Nonsense! I am very sure it was no mistake, Samwise the Stouthearted.'
Sam blushed. 'You're not making fun of me again, are you?'
'I wasn't then and I'm not now.' Frodo rested his head against Sam's shoulder with a small sigh of content. 'I should not wish to be here without you.'
Sam's heart swelled with happiness at Frodo's words, but his curiosity wouldn't leave him be. 'If we are in the Blessed Realm, why aren't there no Elves about?' he persisted. 'Where did our food and these robes come from?'
Frodo laughed and sat up. 'Oh Sam, I am reminded of when you were a child, endlessly filled with questions for me and Bilbo. But I think, my dear Sam, that it is not for us to question this gift we have been given. Gandalf once told me that we must make the most of the time that is given to us, and so we must sleep and eat and walk in the sunlight to build our strength, and perhaps,' he mischievously flicked water at Sam with his toes, 'bathe in this delightful pool.'
Sam grinned and returned the favour. Frodo was right, he decided; the whys and wherefores weren't important. They'd survived - that was what mattered. Maybe they'd learn the full story later, but for now there was a delightful pool in which to bathe.
'All right, a bath it is,' he agreed.
They swiftly removed their robes and slid down into the pool. The water was no more than breast-high, perfect for hobbit-bathing, so that Sam had no fear of Frodo having to rescue him again from drownding. Nevertheless, he moved cautiously around the pool, lest he encounter any unexpected dips or hollows, and was grateful that the bottom was sand not slippery mud like the Bywater Pool. He watched a little enviously as Frodo dove fearlessly beneath the surface like an otter and emerged laughing, his hair sleeked back and water streaming down his neck and chest.
Frodo shook his head, sending a spray of glittering water droplets through the air, and said, 'Isn't it wonderful, Sam? Why, I can't remember the last time I felt truly clean.'
'Nor me neither,' Sam said, and the longer they bathed, the more remote did the endless terrible days of torment as they crossed the plain of Gorgoroth become.
After a time, they grew weary and a little chilled, and the sun-warmed rock beckoned. Sam wondered if he would have strength to boost himself out of the water, but discovered a ledge jutting out step-like from the side of the pool. It might have been put there on purpose for their use, he thought, and wondered.
He and Frodo lay side by side, cushioned from the hardness of the stone by their discarded robes, while the sun's gentle warmth and a light breeze dried their naked bodies. Drowsiness stole over Sam. He heard Frodo crack a sleepy yawn, and glanced at him; his eyelids were drooping shut.
But before they slipped into healing slumber, Frodo's hand sought Sam's and clasped it.
'Just in case,' he murmured.
They woke together uncounted hours later, as the sun was beginning to dip toward the horizon. They rose and shook out their robes and put them on. Sam's heart smote him at the sight of Frodo's wasted frame and the scars, cuts and burns that covered it. Only the knowledge of the mysterious veil, or whatever it was that prevented Frodo from feeling pain, kept Sam from bursting into tears again, and not tears of joy this time.
'I'm hungry,' Frodo remarked, as his damp head popped through the opening in the top of his robe. He sounded almost surprised. 'I hope dinner will be waiting for us.'
'There's only one way to find out,' said Sam. He held out his hand and Frodo took it.
Oddly, the walk back to the glade seemed much shorter. Sam could have sworn that the path through the woods, which now ran straight and true, had had many twists and turnings. What a queer and unaccountable place they'd been sent to, he thought.
Dinner was indeed waiting for them as Frodo had hoped. The table had been cleared and reset, and another light but nourishing meal was laid in readiness. The soup, this time swimming with tender vegetables and succulent bits of meat, was piping hot as if just lifted from the stove; the bread when they sliced into it let out wisps of steam as if the loaf had just been removed from the oven. A pale golden wine, crisp and refreshing, accompanied the food, and set a pleasant fire running through their veins that banished weariness. There were ripe purple berries of a kind unknown to Sam but so bursting with flavour that the gardener inside him immediately craved to grow them, and more of the sweet muskmelon for afters.
'It don't sit right with me to leave all them dirty dishes for someone else to deal with,' complained Sam when they had eaten as much as their shrunken bellies could hold and risen from the table.
'Poor Sam,' Frodo said sympathetically, 'but I think for this little while at least, you will have to grit your teeth and bear it, as you did at the feast in Rivendell.'
'Hmph,' was all Sam said in reply, but he soon enough forgot his small grievance.
He and Frodo strolled through the glade in the deepening dusk and watched as the multitudinous stars winked into life in the vault of the heavens. Never had Sam seen stars shine with such brilliance and intensity, and as he stared skyward the music around them swelled into a joyous chorus that thrilled through him. Every atom of his being responded; he was utterly transported, swept away by its beauty. He remained lost in enchantment until Frodo's voice softly speaking his name released him from the spell. He discovered tears were running down his cheeks.
'Frodo,' he said, but couldn't continue. It was beyond him to put his experience into words.
'I know,' Frodo replied. 'I know.' There was a telltale trail of starlit silver glimmering on his cheeks, too.
They returned to the bower to discover that their mysterious benefactors had been busy in their absence. Several lanterns hanging from the tree branches had been lit and were shedding warm golden light. The table had been cleared, while the covers to their beds were turned down and the pillows plumped. Plain but beautifully cut silken nightshirts were laid out ready for them to wear, and there were earthenware ewers filled with hot and cold water, basins to hold the water, fragrant herbal soap and soft linen towels at the ready.
Sam stood with hands on hips and an incredulous expression on his face as he took it in. 'Well, if that don't beat all,' he said, scratching his head in amazement, and was rewarded by Frodo's laughter.
'I don't believe I've ever seen you so flummoxed, Sam,' he said.
'How'd they do it?" he asked.
'I've no idea, but I'm not going to worry about it and neither should you. Let's go to bed.'
They washed their faces and hands, changed into their nightshirts, and Sam blew out the lanterns. When he turned, he was surprised to see the pale oval of Frodo's face and his nightgowned form in the bed that Sam had slept in. He moved toward the other bed, but Frodo shook his head. 'We'll sleep sounder if we sleep together,' he said, and Sam knew that he was right. Worrying about each other's whereabouts was inevitable after the perilous months on the Road, and reaching out to check if Frodo was with him and safe was a habit too deeply ingrained to be easily cast aside.
Sam slid in beside Frodo, who drew the covers up over them as they settled back. The air was growing cooler, and the warmth of Frodo's body was welcome. Even more, it spelled comfort, security and home, and marvellous as this place was, whether it were Aman or somewhere else, it was still strange and unfamiliar. I can sleep now, Sam thought, a deep content filling him, and he did.
The next day passed much as the first had, and set the pattern for their time there. They slept, ate, bathed in the pool, and walked side by side under sun, moon and starlight or stood entranced by the myriad beauties around them. Neither had the slightest urge to venture beyond the confines of the glade and the woods between it and the stream. Everything they needed was at hand, and the short journey to the pool was the height of their ambition after the privations of their journey to Mordor. They spoke very little; words seemed unnecessary when a glance or a nod or a touch would do instead.
The days slid seamlessly one into the other, and as during their time in Lórien, Sam lost count of how long they had spent there. Despite his best efforts, he never was able to catch so much as a glimpse of the Elves, or whoever was caring for their needs – it would have taken a temerity unthinkable in one so humble even to allow of the thought that the Valar themselves waited on them. But he and Frodo rose at the end of every meal, bowed with a hand over their heart, and thanked their unseen friends for their kindness.
As their strength returned, and their appetites with it, the food they were served grew more varied. Soups were replaced by hearty stews or roast joints and root vegetables – the sort of simple fare that Sam had craved – and there were also fruit tarts with custard filling and luscious cream-filled cakes to tempt a hobbit’s sweet tooth. Day by day the hollows in Frodo's ribs filled in, his hip bones became less prominent and his face grew fuller. The stump of his finger was healing along with the cuts and burns. Sam noticed similar changes in himself, but it was the changes in Frodo that made his heart sing.
Sometimes he pondered the queerness of being in two places at once, as he and Frodo seemingly were; and he wondered where his body was, and who was tending it, if anyone was, and if the changes he noticed in himself and Frodo were apparent to them, too. But his pragmatic nature was more concerned with ensuring that Frodo continued to eat well and get sufficient rest, and the truth was that even thoughts of the Shire and his gaffer, or of the fate of their friends, were remote, as if the veil that prevented them from feeling pain, kept worries of the mind at bay, too.
One sun-drenched afternoon a few days or a week or more into their stay - Sam had no means of telling - he and Frodo took their accustomed walk to the quiet pool in the woods. Sam had not been mistaken about the path; it adjusted itself according to their mood and was always shorter and straighter when they returned to the glade after bathing or when they visited the pool twice in one day.
When they reached the pool, they disrobed and lowered themselves into the water. It was always the perfect temperature, Sam had noticed; warm as bathwater in the cool of morning, so that tendrils of mist rose from the surface, or refreshingly cool when they had a second swim in the heat of the afternoon, as today.
Sam was growing more comfortable in the water, and with Frodo's encouragement was even attempting to swim a little. He could manage a simple doggy paddle from one side to the other without floundering, and was no longer afraid to duck his head under the surface for a few seconds. The fact that the water reached only to his chest helped of course, as did the presence of Frodo, with his calm demeanour and readiness to steady Sam if he faltered. Whether he'd have the nerve to attempt such feats in deeper water or without Frodo nearby, Sam rather doubted.
And more worrisome still he had no way of knowing if he'd even remember these lessons once he was returned to Middle-earth and the body from which he was temporarily (he hoped) separated. It was a thought that he quickly put from his mind whenever it intruded, for the idea that he could forget this magical place and their time in it was grievous indeed.
He stored up such memories as he could in his heart, therefore, hoarding them like a squirrel gathering acorns against a harsh winter, in hopes that if all else was lost, these at least would remain: the glint of sun on the far-off snow-capped peaks of the Pelóri; the strange but heady scents of herbs and flowers whose identity Sam would never know, for they did not grow in Middle-earth; the piercing brightness of the myriad stars strewn across the midnight sky, and the glorious music that rose each evening in celebration of their beauty.
More than any other memories, however, Sam tried hardest to hold fast to those of Frodo - laughing and lithe as he swam through sun-dappled water, or rapt with wonder as he listened to the star-music - for who knew what perils or sorrows might await them on their return?
But that afternoon Sam had other matters on his mind. Frodo had been attempting to teach him to float on his back, thus far without the slightest success because Sam simply couldn’t bring himself to trust the water would bear him, spirit-body or no. It made no difference how often Frodo told him to relax, he remained rigid as a plank of wood. But unlike a plank, he didn’t float on the surface but went straight under and emerged sputtering and red-faced with embarrassment.
‘All right, let’s give it another try,’ Frodo said. ‘Lean back against my arm, Sam, and let your legs go.’
Biting his lip, Sam leaned cautiously back. Despite the presence of Frodo’s arm at the small of his back, he found it exceedingly difficult to release his toehold in the sand and let his legs fly away from him. He managed it at last, but immediately felt them start to sink.
‘Relax, Sam; I’ve got you. Now hold your arms out to the side and tilt your head back,’ instructed Frodo in a soothing voice.
With an effort, Sam spread his arms then unglued his chin from his chest, to which it was obstinately stuck, so that he was staring up at the flawless deep blue of the sky. His legs drifted up until he was horizontal, and for a tantalising second he thought he’d finally got it. But the water lapped unpleasantly around his ears and jowls, and haunted by the memory of the dark waters of the Anduin closing over him, he couldn’t help but imagine it creeping up and into his mouth and choking him. He tensed, looked down, panicked as suffocating coolness touched his lips, and floundered as his feet instinctively grabbed for the safety of the bottom.
‘Maybe we should forget the idea, Frodo,’ Sam said miserably, his ear tips aflame. ‘It's a waste of time, that’s clear. Gamgees aren’t meant to float like boats – too hard-headed, I reckon.’
Frodo smiled with amusement. ‘Gamgees are hard-headed, that’s true, but that doesn’t mean they can’t float. That was the best effort so far, Sam, so don’t let’s give up just yet. I really think you’re starting to get the hang of it.’ He held out his arm again. ‘Now come on.’ His tone brooked no nonsense.
Sam sighed. He ought to have realised Frodo, as hard-headed as any Gamgee and as stubborn a Baggins as Mr. Bilbo if not more so, wouldn’t give up that easily.
‘Remember: keep your arms out to the side and your head back,’ Frodo said as Sam leaned back. ‘Now let your legs go... Excellent, Sam!’
And just like that, to his amazement, Sam was floating, like the puffy white clouds drifting high above him. It was a queer sensation, but not unpleasant. His limbs felt weightless and he moved with each gentle bob of the water as if he were a part of it. Now if only he could keep from thinking about how near that water was to his mouth, he’d be fine. But of course the instant the thought entered his brain, he started to tense. Frodo, whose arm was lightly supporting Sam’s back, noticed at once.
‘You’re thinking too much,’ he said. ‘What’s needed is a way to distract you…’
The next thing Sam knew, Frodo’s face appeared directly above him, framed by the sky that, blue as it was, was no rival for his eyes. Sam scarcely had time to wonder what Frodo had in mind when a pair of soft lips were pressed warmly against his own. It was a distraction, as Frodo had intended, but too great a one, for so startled was Sam by the unexpected kiss that he completely lost track of where he was and what he was doing and sank like a stone.
Firm hands grasped his arms and pulled him upright. Sam was too shocked even to sputter this time. He blinked away the water streaming into his eyes and, mouth hanging open, stared dumbly at Frodo, standing a hand’s breadth away and breathing rather hard. His mind was in a whirl, unable to form a single coherent thought, but his lips tingled and burned where Frodo’s had touched them. Then as if a shuttered window inside him had been flung open, self-knowledge illuminated his soul, and he knew beyond all doubting that he wanted to feel their touch again.
Frodo had released his hold on Sam’s arms. His cheeks were pink as damask roses and uncertainty clouded his expression.
‘Sam, I- I don’t know what came over me,’ he said haltingly. ‘Forgive me.’
‘I’ll forgive you for nearly drownding me,’ Sam said, ‘but not for kissing me.’
Frodo’s face fell.
‘Because,’ he went on, ‘saying I forgive you is like saying that kiss was wrong.’ Sam drew a deep breath, as if he were about to duck his head under the water, and bravely took the plunge. ‘But it wasn’t wrong, leastways not to me. And well, if you wanted to try it again, I’d not say no, though,’ he added with a glimmer of humour, ‘I’d prefer we try it standing up this time, if you don’t mind.’
'Mind? Oh Sam, my dearest, most beloved Sam.' All the glory of Aman shone in Frodo's eyes as he opened his arms wide and invited Sam into them.
What their second kiss lacked in expertise, it more than made up for in heartfelt longing. Their eager arms, slick and wet, wound tightly around each other as the kiss deepened. So heady and potent was the effect of the kiss on Sam that sky and water tilted crazily around him, and he no longer knew down from up. He managed somehow to keep his feet - though he did rather lose his head. But then, so did Frodo.
When their quaking limbs threatened to sink them both beneath the surface, they broke apart just long enough to scramble, breathless and laughing, onto the ledge and their discarded robes.
On that makeshift blanket they made love with abandon, all restraint, all caution thrown to the winds, guided by instinct, passion and a profound sense of rightness. They lay dazed and dazzled in the aftermath, tangled together like flotsam tossed upon the shore. It was Sam, not surprisingly, who spoke first.
'Well, I hope we didn't give no one a shock,' he said. 'Here or in that other place.'
Frodo chuckled sleepily, and tightened his arms around Sam. 'They'll just have to get used to being shocked if that's the case, Sam. I'm not giving this or you up,' he said firmly.
A statement for which there could be only one possible answer, and it didn't require Sam to speak a single word.
Thus began a new phase in their stay, one of bliss such as Sam had never dreamed of. The gentle pattern of their days altered little, but they found every excuse to touch, and to kiss became as natural as breathing. Swimming lessons gave way to other, more pleasurable lessons, at which Sam proved as adept as Frodo, and they practiced by sun, moon and starlight. So the remaining days slipped past, and neither tried to count them.
Sam watched Frodo in the lamplight. He was holding his nightshirt in his hands, as if preparing to draw it on over his head. But he remained unmoving, a slight frown between his brows, and for the first since their arrival in Aman, he looked serious, even sad.
'You can feel it, too, can't you?' asked Sam quietly. All day a queer sensation had been growing in him, and it could no longer be ignored. It was time to return; they both knew it.
Frodo nodded; his overlong curls, no longer limp and lustreless, gleamed like freshly polished rosewood. Though still thin by hobbit standards, he was twice the hobbit he'd been when Sam discovered him by the pool after waking. The stump of his missing finger had healthy pink skin across it, and his cuts and burns were nearly healed now.
'It's like an invisible cord is tugging at me,' Frodo said. 'I believe, my dearest Samwise, that when we wake tomorrow morning, it will not be in this place.'
Sam couldn't help it; he teared up. Frodo dropped the nightshirt heedlessly to the floor and they held each other fiercely. 'I know I should be glad,' Sam said thickly. 'We'd not be going back if you weren't strong and well enough. But I'll miss it, Frodo. I'll miss our bower, and the pool, and the woods, and the star-music.'
'As shall I,' Frodo replied.
'And I'm afraid,' Sam choked out, the hot tears dripping from his chin onto Frodo's bare shoulder, where they clung, glistening like diamonds. 'I'm afraid we'll forget, and I don't never want to forget.'
Frodo cupped Sam's face between his hands and looked deeply into his eyes. 'Let us not waste even one precious second of the time that is left to us in talking,' he said, and drew Sam to their bed.
And by that Sam knew that Frodo shared his fear and had no answer for him.
Later, hovering on the verge of sleep, his hand held tightly in Frodo's, Sam thought he saw two shining figures in shimmering silver and gold robes standing before him. They were smiling and holding up their hands in a gesture of farewell like the one Galadriel had used when the Fellowship departed from Lórien.
'Namárië, Bronwe athan Harthad,' one said.
'Namárië, Harthad Uluithiad,' said the other. 'It has been our delight and honour to serve you, Ring-bearers.'
'Let the sweet forgetfulness of sleep take you now so that you may answer the summons from beyond the sundering sea.'
'Th-thank you, my lord, my lady,' Sam stammered, wondering, or thought he did, and then he knew no more.
When Sam awoke, he found that he was lying on some soft bed, but over him gently swayed wide beechen boughs, and through their young leaves sunlight glimmered, green and gold. All the air was full of a sweet mingled scent.
He remembered that smell: the fragrance of Ithilien. 'Bless me!' he mused. 'How long have I been asleep?' For the scent had borne him back to the day when he had lit his little fire under the sunny bank; and for a moment all else between was out of waking memory. He stretched and drew a deep breath. 'Why, what a dream I've had!' he muttered. 'I am glad to wake!' He sat up and then he saw that Frodo was lying beside him, and slept peacefully, one hand behind his head, and the other resting upon the coverlet. It was the right hand, and the third finger was missing.
Full memory flooded back, and Sam cried aloud: 'It wasn't a dream! Then where are we?'
And a voice spoke softly behind: 'In the land of Ithilien, and in the keeping of the King; and he awaits you.' With that Gandalf stood before him, robed in white, his beard now gleaming like pure snow in the twinkling of the leafy sunlight. 'Well, Master Samwise, how do you feel?' he said.
But Sam lay back, and stared with open mouth, and for a moment, between bewilderment and great joy, he could not answer. At last he gasped: 'Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What's happened to the world?'
'A great Shadow has departed,' said Gandalf, and then he laughed and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count. It fell upon his ears like the echo of all the joys he had ever known. But he himself burst into tears. Then, as a sweet rain will pass down a wind of spring and the sun will shine out the clearer, his tears ceased, and his laughter welled up, and laughing he sprang from his bed.
'How do I feel?' he cried. 'Well, I don't know how to say it. I feel, I feel' – he waved his arms in the air – 'I feel like spring after winter, and sun on the leaves; and like trumpets and harps and all the songs I have ever heard!' He stopped and he turned towards the bed. 'But how's Frodo?' he said. 'Isn't it a shame about his poor hand? But I hope he's all right otherwise. He's had a cruel time.'
'Yes, I am all right otherwise,' said Frodo, sitting up and laughing in his turn. 'I fell asleep again waiting for you, Sam, you sleepyhead. I was awake early this morning, and now it must be nearly noon.'
Their eyes met, and a thrill ran through Sam. Everything around him, even Gandalf, faded away, except the slow smile blooming on Frodo's face and in his eyes. In them, Sam saw the sunlight glinting on snow-capped mountain peaks, he saw a peaceful glade with jewel-bright flowers scattered through lush green grass, he saw an ever-changing path through quiet woods, and a sun-dappled pool ringed with broad flat rocks. He saw bright stars burning in a midnight sky, and heard a glorious music that rose to the heavens. He heard, too, Frodo's laughter, merry and bright, and his whispered words of love and longing as they lay together that last night.
Sam smiled back, a smile of ineffable joy. It hadn't been taken from them, any of it.