The Apprentice - A Bilbo and Sam story

Special thanks go to my Beta, naias, for her unwavering support and encouragement, her most gentle critiquing, and her insights, wisdom and undying love for Tolkien's hobbits.


THE APPRENTICE

Bilbo Baggins set down his pen and ruefully contemplated his half-written letter. It had been a mistake trying to write here in the dining room with the afternoon sun shining hazily into the room and the open window admitting the distracting sights and sounds of a fair autumn day. The flight of a flock of starlings, twisting and turning in practice for their impending migration kept catching his eye. And there on the rose bush just outside the window a fat brown spider spun one of her last webs of the season with fascinating determination and grace, never mind how much the tiny creature reminded Bilbo of her distant Mirkwood cousins. And finally Hamfast Gamgee was moving about just out of sight in the vegetable garden, murmuring contentedly to himself as he worked, and from time to time humming or singing.

Bilbo took up his pen again. There was this letter to write and many others as well, extending invitations to his birthday party only ten days away. Ninety-eight years old he would be, and that was as near to a hundred as no matter, some would say! He sighed. So many years now since he had returned from his adventures, though his memories were undimmed and he looked almost as young still as that long ago day of his homecoming. And felt it, too, with his eyesight and hearing as keen as ever. Indeed, every word of Hamfast's quiet singing out in the garden was clear to him. His gardener had been a mere lad newly apprenticed to Old Holman when Bilbo had climbed the Hill with a treasure-laden pony. Now it seemed the Gaffer had somehow surpassed Bilbo in age; and he had long been suited to his nickname. Still, Hamfast had spent those intervening years profitably - with a good marriage, and a half dozen fine children to show for it, and a solid reputation as arguably the best gardener in the West Farthing.

'And what have you done, Bilbo Baggins?' he asked, then admonished himself. "Not gone on any more adventures, and not even finished writing the story of your long ago adventure, without even the preoccupations of wife or children or vocation to give as excuses." Yet he was comfortable with this simple, solitary life, or had been until an unease had recently beset him. Maybe it was just the usual twinge of wanderlust that tickled him from time to time, making him dissatisfied with everything he wrote, as if there was something else he should be doing that would one day make a better story. Bilbo stared pensively at the translation of the elvish poem he had worked on earlier, and then set aside in the vain belief that letter writing might be easier to accomplish first. Perhaps he should return to the poem, after all.

But now another distraction came - the piping voice of a hobbit lad; he couldn't see the child through the window but he'd been hearing his eager chatter all summer - Sam, the youngest of the Gaffer's sons. Today though Sam's tone was unusually wistful. Bilbo frowned and down went his pen again as he listened.

"I've come to help, dad. Mum said I should. She's having a lie-down. She said Daisy's got plenty to keep her busy what with Marigold to look after, and all. Daisy don't need me underfoot, mum says. So here I am, at your service."

Bilbo smiled. Sam had been following his father into the garden since he'd first begun tottering about on his own two feet. But this past summer he seemed to have begun his apprenticeship in earnest, young as he was, coming up several times a week for a few hours, though before today it was always in the morning. In fact Bilbo was quite sure he'd been up with his father early this very morning. This would be a long workday for such a small hobbit. Bilbo cocked his head as he tried to reckon Sam's age. Was he eight already? No, not even that yet, surely, but then he was no expert; children were almost entirely outside his ken.

He heard in Hamfast's voice his approval of the child's arrival. "That's right, son. An extra hand lightens the load, as I always says. Here now, you pick out the potatoes while I turn the soil. Mind you knock the dirt off, and set aside them that the spade's cut. A rotten potato spoils the basket. And we keep the baskets in the shed. Run and fetch one, now."

"Yes, dad, I can do that, sure enough!"

Bilbo grinned at Sam's quick recovery of his spirits; he was as excited now as a child sent to fetch a bag of sweets.

Very soon Sam returned and Bilbo sat back, listening to the rhythmic thrust and lift of Hamfast's digging in the potato patch, and to Sam's ceaseless comments following behind his father. "Look at this one dad, it's the biggest yet, and no mistake!" "Here's one round as a ball!" "There's a lot of little taters, still. Will Mr. Bilbo boil them the way mum does, do you suppose?" Seemingly no child's game of treasure hunt could have pleased Sam more than digging the potatoes at Bag End.

For some time Sam's conversation was restricted to these exclamations over the size and shape and knobbliness of the potatoes he was collecting, with comments on whether the particularly exceptional ones would be best baked or fried, mashed or boiled, and speculations as to which his mother and sisters might be making for their supper that night. His father's laconic responses subdued him not at all. Then Bilbo heard the interest turn to the worms.

"I'm burying the worms you've dug up, dad, so as to stop the sun from burning them, if you understand."

"No, son," Hamfast replied a bit sternly, "you leave them be and they'll dig new tunnels for themselves soon enough. They want a way to come out of the ground, and with you smothering them they don't have it."

"Oh," came Sam's quiet reply, "but I've already buried some."

The Gaffer didn't pause in his digging. "Never mind that now, just you leave the rest of them be. A worm can take care of itself, it don't want any help from Sam Gamgee."

Sam made no response and from his silence for the next few minutes Bilbo guessed he was quickly unearthing his hapless worms while trying not to fall behind with the potato gathering.

Then the digging stopped, and it seemed the Gaffer now shared Sam's job. Slowly and seriously he began to explain to his son all the help a gardener gets from the many good creatures that inhabit a garden - how the bees and butterflies visit each flower to set the fruits and vegetables growing, how the tunnelling worms leave behind the rich gift of their castings, and loosen the soil so it can drink up the falling rain, and how the snakes and spiders keep down the creeping pests and the flying insects. From Sam's eager interruptions anticipating his father's lesson Bilbo guessed the lad had heard this before, and from his father's pleased responses, that he was a good student.

Bilbo thought back to when Sam's older brothers, Hamson and Halfred, had been young. Hamfast had brought them up to the Bag End garden, too, and they had each spent some years in what Bilbo had thought was their apprenticeship; but he could not remember them starting to come regularly when they were as young as Sam, nor their possessing Sam's earnest enthusiasm for the plants and soil. Indeed, he hadn't seen either of them here at Bag End this past summer or two at least, and he had long understood that neither of them was to be a gardener, after all.

And so the progress of Bilbo's desultory letter writing suffered under both his musings and his amused attention to the exchanges between father and son. Time passed unnoticed until he heard the Gaffer say, "well, seemingly Mr. Bilbo's not coming out this afternoon to choose his vegetables for his supper. Like as not he's busy with his writing or summat else. Go on and ask him what he'd like then, Sam, and I'll finish up here. And see that you minds your manners."

"Yes, dad!"

Sooner than Bilbo could have thought possible the bell at his door jangled, very loudly at first, and then much more gently as if to apologise for its overenthusiasm. Down to the entrance hall he trotted and swung the door wide. There Sam stood on the threshold. If he was eight years old or even seven, Bilbo thought, then he was short for his age, and he hadn't grown much during the summer as far as he could tell. But Sam made up for this lack of height with an admirable sturdiness, and young though he was Bilbo could see the promise of strength in him. So there he stood with soil caking his hands and knees, and a smear of dirt across his nose. Curls of his short chestnut hair clung to his sweaty brow. Silently Sam regarded Bilbo with eager brown eyes shining out of his flushed, tanned face.

Bilbo put his hands on his hips. "Well, hullo Sam Gamgee, what brings you to my door this afternoon?" he innocently asked.

Sam grinned. "Hullo!" he replied enthusiastically, and then, as if remembering himself, said seriously, "I mean, good afternoon, Mr. Bilbo. I'm up here working, with my Gaffer in your vegetable garden, if you understand," he gestured towards the subject piece of land, "and begging your pardon, sir, but me dad's sent me to ask, because you've not come out to the garden, if you follow me, so he says 'what would you like from the garden for your supper'. And he says I'm to get it for you." Sam straightened his shoulders and, as if suddenly aware of his filthy hands, hid them behind his back. "I'd be that pleased to do it, too."

"Would you now," replied Bilbo, his eyes twinkling. "And how is my garden this afternoon?

"Well, sir," Sam replied earnestly, "we're digging the potatoes and they're as fine as the ones at Number Three, and no mistake."

"Are they indeed!" Bilbo exclaimed, "then you and I must be eating the finest potatoes in the Shire, Sam!"

It took a moment for Sam to puzzle this out, then he beamed. "That's a fact, Mr. Bilbo! The Gaffer grows the best potatoes, don't he?" He gazed expectantly up at the old hobbit.

"That he does." Bilbo agreed.

Sam's cheeks grew even rosier and he asked eagerly, "what will you be wanting, then, Mr. Bilbo?"

"I think I shall follow any recommendations you have to make, Sam." Bilbo regarded him seriously. "What do you suggest?"

Sam gazed blankly up at Bilbo, and asked haltingly, "begging your pardon, sir?"

Bilbo chuckled. "How would it be if you chose for me this afternoon?" Sam nodded uncertainly, so Bilbo added, "but I will need a few potatoes, some carrots, an onion or two, beets and a turnip. Can you get all those for me? And anything else that you think an old hobbit might like for his supper."

Sam now nodded vigorously. "Yes, Mr. Bilbo, I can do that, 'course I can. I help me mum do that almost everyday." And without another word he scampered off.

Bilbo went down to the kitchen to put the kettle on the heat for a pot of tea, then padded along to the cellar deep in the back of the hobbit hole to choose some meats for his supper. He visited the pantry on his return trip for a nut loaf to have with his tea, and finally busied himself getting the tea things ready. It was some time before the bell jangled again. Sam at the door bore a basket laden with the requested vegetables and others besides.

The overabundance astonished Bilbo. In his eagerness Sam had gathered enough to feed a family as large as his own. But Bilbo smiled at Sam's anxious, upturned face. "Thank-you, my lad, that's splendid," he said, making to take the basket from him, but Sam would not relinquish it, saying "let me carry it for you, sir."

So Bilbo led Sam down to the kitchen, matching his pace to the small hobbit burdened by a load almost beyond his strength. Finally Sam made it to the worktable in the middle of the room. While Bilbo began to pick and choose what he would need for his evening meal Sam stood gaping at the large and well-appointed kitchen.

Bilbo glanced at him with veiled amusement. He could not remember the lad ever being in his kitchen before. "Is there much more for you to do in the garden today?" he asked.

"No, sir. Me dad's all done," Sam replied rather vacantly as he turned in a slow circle on the spot. "He's gone home now, to see how me mum is keeping and ask if she needs a hand. He says I'm all done, too."

Bilbo watched Sam pause in his rotation to give the nut loaf on the counter a brief, longing look. It could not be later than 3:00 o'clock. The lad surely wouldn't be wanted at home for his evening meal for a long while yet, and perhaps he should better acquaint himself with this one so clearly destined to some day be his gardener. Let the letter writing wait.

"I'm just making a pot of tea, Sam. Would you like a mug, too, and a slice of that loaf to go with it?"

Sam's eyes widened and then his face fell. "The Gaffer says I'm not to bother you, Mr. Bilbo, if you're busy with your writing, and all."

Bilbo reached down a second mug and plate from the cupboard. "Well, as I said, I'm making tea, and I mean to let my writing rest while I have it, so you will not be bothering me. I wouldn't have asked you, Sam, if I didn't want you."

Sam grinned. "That's all right then, Mr. Bilbo, isn't it?"

So Bilbo filled a basin with warm water for Sam to wash up with, and then, because the lad insisted on helping, gave him plates and cutlery to take to the dining room table. When Sam did not return to the kitchen Bilbo laded his tray with the rest of the tea things and went to investigate. He stopped, unnoticed, at the threshold to the dining room. Sam knelt on a padded chair at the table, bent over the drafts of Bilbo's letter and translation. His mouth hung open, but he barely breathed, so intent was he as he looked from one page to the other. His hands he held suspended just above the table, as if afraid they would soil the pages if he put them too near.

Bilbo walked noisily into the room. Sam started and scrambled down from the chair. A crimson flush crept out from his ears and flowed over his face.

"Begging your pardon, Mr. Bilbo," he whispered, ducking his head.

"I'd forgotten I hadn't put these things away," Bilbo said, putting his tray on the table. He looked curiously at the child; he had always assumed Sam couldn't read, but now seeing him so entranced by the pages he wondered if perhaps he could. "Do you know your letters, Sam?"

"Oh, no, I doesn't, Mr. Bilbo!" Sam answered, aghast, stepping back from the table. "I wasn't reading those marks on the paper, begging your pardon!"

"All right, Sam, I understand you meant no harm." Bilbo looked keenly down at him. "But it's not proper to read another hobbit's writings without his leave, as I think you already knew. You must remember that from now on."

Sam nodded, looking thoroughly abashed, and took a further step back, saying softly. "I never saw writing close up before, Mr. Bilbo, so I took a peep."

Bilbo regretted his sterness. He gestured Sam back into his chair, saying lightly, "I was wondering if you could read, because I know your parents aren't able to teach you."

"No, they ain't." Sam climbed into his chair and immediately began to peer at the papers again. He looked up at Bilbo and asked with amusing scepticism, "do those marks really tell you what to say?"

"Yes, indeed!" Bilbo began sorting his drafts into neat piles. "It is very useful, especially for an old hobbit like me, who would like to leave the stories of his adventures behind for others to read and remember."

Sam leaned closer with bright eyes, and his voice was hushed. "Are these them - your adventures, and all?"

"No, Sam." Bilbo took the working copies of both documents from their piles and standing next to Sam placed them on the table in front of him. "This one is a letter I am writing to a young cousin in Buckland, and the other is a poem I am translating from Elvish - the language the elves speak."

Sam stammered eagerly, "there truly are elves, ain't there, Mr. Bilbo! Tom says not. Tom Cotton that is. He's my friend from Bywater. He says there's no such things as elves. He says there never was no dragon, neither - course that don't stop him from playing dragons, does it?" Sam sounded rather offended by this seeming insincerity on Tom's part. "But you've seen elves, Mr. Bilbo, haven't you - real ones, and all?"

Bilbo looked curiously at Sam; surprised to see in his eyes the same brightness they'd possessed when he'd spoken of the garden. He sat down next to him. "Yes, Sam, of course I have, 'real ones and all', as you say! There are many creatures beyond the four farthings of the Shire that few hobbits have seen, but that doesn't make them any less real. In fact many folk of the wide world give less credit to the existence of hobbits, than hobbits generally give to the existence of elves, and dwarves, and dragons."

Sam's steadfast stare told Bilbo he was speaking beyond the small hobbit's understanding. He smiled apologetically and tried again. "Indeed, there are elves, Sam, do not doubt that. I daresay you've heard me tell my tales before, haven't you?" Sam nodded fervently. "So you know I've been to Rivendell and Mirkwood and seen them there." He leaned close and said conspiratorially, "did you know, Sam, that elves sometimes travel through the Shire on their way to the sea or on other journeys. But they are skilled at staying hidden and so are rarely seen, and then only if they want to be. From time to time I meet up with them - here in the Shire." He nodded and gave Sam a knowing look, chuckling at Sam's eyes like saucers.

For just a moment the lad was too full of understanding to speak, then he asked, "could I see an elf here in the Shire one day, do you think, Mr. Bilbo? Might an elf talk to me?"

Bilbo returned to sorting the papers. "Stranger things have happened, Sam," he glanced down at him, "but you need a quick eye and a willing heart to see an elf who does not wish to be seen. And of course they only travel by night through the Shire - long after your mother has you tucked into your bed, I daresay."

"Yes, Mr. Bilbo." Subdued, Sam ducked his head, then peered at the writing on the papers again.

Bilbo studied him thoughtfully. He was sorry to have squashed the small hobbit's hopes, but it would not do for the lad to start looking for elves behind every tree in Bywater and Hobbiton. Bilbo knew well enough that if his stories entertained his neighbours, it was often at the expense of his reputation, and knew as well that the few who gave them full credit suffered a small measure of the same treatment he received. He slipped a wayward page into its proper pile and asked, "I expect you like honey in your tea, do you, Sam?"

"I does, Mr. Bilbo, thank-you," said Sam, never looking up.

"So do I. Give me a moment to fill this pot then, it's almost empty." And off Bilbo went through the kitchen to the pantry, leaving Sam to determine if by dint of staring he could begin to understand the incomprehensible.

Bilbo took several minutes in refilling the honeypot and then in choosing some crackers and a wedge of cheese to go with them. To his surprise when he came back he found Sam in the kitchen, and he stopped at the doorway to watch him. The lad had dragged two chairs over to the stove, set the empty teapot on one of them and now stood on the other to carefully lift the whistling kettle off the heat. He placed it on the first chair next to the teapot, (on a potholder he must have fetched off the hook), hopped nimbly down and then poured the water over the tealeaves Bilbo had earlier put in the pot. Not until he was done did Sam notice he was being watched.

"The kettle sang, so I made the tea," he explained proudly.

"Thank-you, Sam," Bilbo replied, now coming into the kitchen to find the cheese knife and board. "That was very clever of you to manage so well, though you should have left it for me. Your mother wouldn't have been pleased if I'd given back her son all red and scalded."

"But at home I does it that way all the time!" Sam exclaimed with a trace of exasperation as he began to drag the first chair back to the small table in the middle of the kitchen, "'cept that the Gaffer, he's made a little table next to the stove for Daisy and May and me now, too, so we can reach, and we set things on it, not on a chair, like here." He pushed the chair firmly under the table. "But I always make the tea. Or almost always, because I can never wait for my supper without asking." Sam took the teapot from the second chair and walked it over to the table. "So I ask if it's ready, and when I does, I has to make the tea."

Bilbo stared down at Sam now beginning to drag the second chair, quite entertained by this rambling talk that assumed a greater knowledge of the ways of the Gamgee household than he possessed. "Why does asking for your supper mean that you make the tea?"

Never stopping in his journey with the chair, Sam replied in a tone of exaggerated patience, as if explaining the obvious to a child somewhat smaller than himself, "because if I ask for supper before me mum and me sisters has it ready, then I has to help make it. Me mum says if I can't wait patient-like then I mustn't be a nuisance. She says I can help get ready what I want so much. Sometimes I mash the potatoes, or sometimes I stir the gravy, but mostly I makes the tea." Sam pushed the second chair into place. "So I almost always ask because I like helping, that much, if you understand." He grinned up at Bilbo, reached the teapot down from the table and carried it off to the dining room.

Bilbo shook his head bemusedly while he loaded another tray with the crackers, cheese, nut loaf, honeypot and butterpot and followed Sam into the dining room. He saw that Sam was again avidly examining the papers, though he was now brave enough to lean on his elbows and chance touching them. When Bilbo set down the tray Sam looked up and asked, "who learned you to read and write, Mr. Bilbo?"

Bilbo took the chair across the table from his guest, and thought about this question while he poured the tea and handed Sam his mug. "My parents did. I did not go to any of the schools some of the Hobbiton families organise from time to time. I learned from my own mum and dad easily enough."

Bilbo stirred honey into his tea, trying to recall exactly how his parents had converted him to literacy. He would sit with his mother or father on the sofa while they slowly read aloud to him, saying each word as he pointed to it. Gradually - hardly even realising it was happening - he had begun to recognise the word before it was spoken, not because he was familiar with the story (often he wasn't), but because the incomprehensible marks were somehow transforming themselves into sounds in his head. Now suddenly he felt again, as if the long intervening years had no dimming influence, the thrill in the pit of his stomach that had come when he'd first interrupted his mother to finish reading the sentence she had started.

He glanced at Sam. He knew his was not the usual way a child learned his letters. He knew he had from the beginning possessed a strange facility for words and language - after all, he had begun to teach himself Elvish in just the short time he had spent in Rivendell. And with the books Elrond had given him on his return visit he had been able to make a proper study of both Sindarin and Quenya. Though true enough, Gandalf lent him help when he visited and when he met up with elves in the Shire he perfected his pronunciation and grammar.

As he watched Sam studying the papers with a slight frown Bilbo found his thoughts drifting back again to his own childhood. Once he'd begun to read he'd graduated to proper lessons at the very table at which he sat, and almost he could feel himself as a small lad, with a page of spelling to practice with his father beside him, smiling indulgently at his indignation with the vagaries of pronunciation and spelling. From his father he had inherited a passion for books, and into him his mother had instilled the Tookish spirit of adventure and a fascination with the half-mythic tales of his ancestors' journeys. Many an afternoon he'd spent setting such a tale to paper, and many an evening was passed delighting his mother with his reading of it. He smiled wistfully. He had not thought of that time of his life for many years.

Coming out of his reverie Bilbo turned to Sam to apologize for his inattention, then saw that food had served as a powerful distraction and that Sam was using the lull in the conversation to see to his tea. He had taken a piece of nut loaf from the serving plate, drizzled honey onto it, and was now giving his tea the same treatment, temporarily diverted by the mesmerising strand of clear gold that streamed down - thick and slow when he held the honey wand just over his mug and fast and thin when he raised it high above. Bilbo sat back, quietly watching: as amused by Sam, as Sam was by the honey.

Finally, Sam stirred his tea and took a sip. His eyes over the mug again strayed to the papers on the table. He swallowed, used his sleeve for a napkin and asked, "do those marks really tell you what words to say?"

Bilbo nodded. "They do."

Sam cocked his head. "How?"

Finally Bilbo asked, though he was quite sure of the answer. "Would you like to learn to read, Sam?" To his surprise Sam's face clouded as if the question were an especially serious one and it seemed that he struggled with the answer to give.

Sam stared stonily at the papers, then whispered, "I don't need to know how, Mr. Bilbo." He slumped back in his chair. "Me dad says he's never had no call to read. He says no Gamgee's ever learnt his letters. And he says no Gamgee's ever come to no harm from not learning neither, meaning no disrespect." Sam leaned forward again to gaze longingly at the half-finished letter. "But I just wondered, if you understand, how them marks could tell you what the story is. If it's like looking at the sky and knowing that rain's coming? Or looking at a dog, and knowing it'll bite you if'n you ain't careful?"

"Not quite, my lad." Bilbo hesitated, considering the mournful longing in Sam's eyes. Then he wiped his hands on his napkin and selected a scrap of parchment. Sam's eyes widened as he watched Bilbo brandish his pen and say, "every letter - every separate mark - means a certain sound, and so if you put the letters in the right order then they will make a word." He made a large 'S' on the paper and pushed it across the table to Sam. "That is the letter 'S' for you, and it tells you to make a sound like this." Bilbo demonstrated: "ssssss". Quickly Sam shifted around to kneel on his chair and bend over the paper, examining it closely. Bilbo went on. "The word 'snake' starts with 'S', and that makes the letter 'S' easy to remember, because it looks like a little snake, doesn't it, and it sounds like some snakes, too, or so I've been told, though none of the snakes we have in the Shire make a hissing sound."

Sam nodded, staring fixedly at the letter Bilbo had printed. Finally, though it seemed his mind was still on the letter and his eyes never left it, he said in a distractedly conversational way, "I like snakes, don't you, Mr. Bilbo? My dad says that snakes are a gardener's friend, and that a snake'll eat the pests that'd eat the plants. He's made a little snake house in your garden, did you know? A pile of flat rocks in the sun, just by the raspberry canes. He's let the grass grow 'round it. So as the snakes'll be safe and warm. We has one in our garden, too." He put his finger on the letter and traced it, as if trying to settle its shape into his memory, saying very softly, "ssssss".

"That's right Sam, and can you hear the "ssss" at the beginning of 'ssssnake'?" Bilbo drew the sound out.

Sam cocked his head. "Like this, Mr. Bilbo! Ssssssssnake!"

Bilbo nodded, and masked his great amusement behind a benign smile. "What other word can you think of that begins with an 'S'?"

Thoughtfully, Sam traced the letter again with his finger. Bilbo looked pointedly at him, raising his eyebrows. With a sudden blush and some hesitation, Sam answered, "Sssam?"

"Very good, my lad. Just the word I was thinking of, too. Very good indeed." Sam beamed and blushed again. Bilbo handed him the quill and found another scrap of parchment. "Can you make an 'S'?"

Holding the quill with more confidence than Bilbo had expected, Sam painstakingly drew the 'S', trying to reproduce as best he could both the idiosyncratic curl Bilbo had given to the start of the letter at the top, and the flattened bottom of the lower curve. He glanced shyly up when he was done.

"Very good, again. You've made an excellent copy of my rather poor way of making an 'S'. I should have given you a proper example of the letter. You see, everyone, once they have been writing for a while, develops their own special way of making each letter; they make each letter a little bit differently from the way everyone else does. Now I will make you as perfect an 'S' as I can for you to copy, so that you will learn how to make one properly yourself."

Sam looked swiftly up at Bilbo. "Am I to learn how to read, then, Mr. Bilbo?"

Bilbo started. He had not properly considered what he was doing; he had simply been enjoying the novel experience of a solitary visit with a rather small hobbit, and following the lead of his guest's curiosity. "I don't know, Sam," he admitted, "I haven't thought beyond this afternoon." Bilbo looked down at his eager face, still smudged with dirt, and tanned from the long summer's apprenticeship spent in the garden of Bag End; he knew already from their short visit that he would not begrudge the time it would take to teach such a one as this. But the decision was not his. "We will have to see how it goes, and what your father has to say about you visiting from time to time to learn your letters."

Sam's face fell, then he looked hopefully up. "But if me dad says 'yes' will you learn me, then?"

"I will," said Bilbo firmly, and was gratified by the smile that lit Sam's face. He watched him pick up the quill again to carefully print several more S's. "This ain't my name though, is it, Mr. Bilbo? It's just the 'sssss'. Could I learn my whole name, leastways?"

Bilbo carefully printed it out and passed the paper over. "That says 'Sam', which is enough for you to be going on with today. Any more would only get you muddled, and if I'm not mistaken, that is what you're called by everyone who knows you."

"'Cept if I've done a bit of mischief, and then they say 'Samwise', or me mum'll say, 'Samwise Gamgee', like as not." He chose a clear spot on the piece of parchment and began to practice his name. When he completed the first effort and carried on with a second attempt without pausing for approval Bilbo picked up his letter to Frodo to make a try at finishing it, feeling suddenly determined to give proper hints of the plans that he had dithered over for so long. Since Sam had his only quill he excused himself to get another from the study and on his return found the lad had finished filling the small parchment scrap with his name and was now intently studying the envelope Bilbo had already addressed to Frodo.

Sam looked up as Bilbo sat down. "That's the same word here and here, isn't it, Mr. Bilbo?" He pointed in turn to the address and the return address.

"That says 'Baggins', Sam. I am writing to my young cousin, Frodo Baggins, so his name and address is here," and he pointed it out, "and I have put my name and address in the corner, in case the letter can't get to Frodo for some reason, and then they will know to send it back to me." Bilbo slowly read out the addresses, pointing to each word as he said it.

"There's a Baggins living in Buckland!" Sam said with wonder. "Don't the Bagginses belong in Hobbiton, then?"

Bilbo smiled sadly. "Frodo belonged to Hobbiton once, and still should, to my way of thinking. But he was visiting relatives with his parents at Brandy Hall when they died suddenly, and so he stayed on there with the Brandybucks, his mother's family, to be raised by them. That was eight years ago now, when he was almost twelve."

"They died?" Sam asked, shocked, "I never knew mums and dads could die."

"Everyone dies some day, Sam," said Bilbo, rather surprised by Sam's response, "surely you are big enough to know that."

"But not before you're grown!" Sam protested. "Folk die when they get old. They don't die when they still has children to finish growing, do they?" He looked worriedly at Bilbo. "Were they old, your Frodo's mum and dad?"

"No, not so very old, Sam, though perhaps older than some." Bilbo gazed at the ceiling, calculating. "Drogo was 72 years old, and Primula was twelve years younger than him, if I'm not mistaken, so sixty years old." He smiled gently at Sam. "Not really very old at all."

Sam whispered, "I never knew that could happen." He took up the quill again, turned over the paper and wrote out his name once more, but this effort, perhaps simply because he was not copying, was worse than any of the others. A sudden wind billowed the curtains of the open window, drawing his attention. Eagerly Sam scrambled down and trotted over to peer at the sky, now darkening with clouds that had been far off an hour earlier. "Look, Mr. Bilbo, the clouds are coming, do you think it might rain? I hope it does. Look how dark the clouds are."

Bilbo went to the window to stand next to Sam. "It certainly looks like rain. That would be a welcome change after this long, dry summer, wouldn't it?"

"It would, sir. And if it rains it'll cool down, and me mom'll stop feeling so poorly." He glanced up at Bilbo. "She don't like the heat, not this year leastways. She don't eat when it's hot, and me dad says the not eating makes her tired. That's why she's always been wanting a nap this summer, he says. So he says if'n it rains she'll feel better. And me dad's right about 'most everything, isn't he?" Sam stared up at the clouds and said fervently, "so I hopes it rains." He turned again to look up at Bilbo, meeting his eyes, "she'll feel better then, won't she, Mr. Bilbo?"

Bilbo forced a smile. "I expect she will, Sam. I hadn't known she was feeling poorly. I will speak to my physic and ask him to call in on her, all right?" He studied the clouds with greater purpose now. "And I will hope for rain, every day from tonight until next Wednesday, and then just one cool, clear day for my birthday, with your leave. And then more rain, and perhaps a frost or two."

"Thank-you, Mr. Bilbo. That should do the trick, as me dad says!" But still Sam watched the sky anxiously while he asked, "will there be a party for your birthday?"

"Yes, indeed, but a different sort of party this year." Bilbo turned back to the table and led Sam with a hand on his small shoulder, to guide him away from the view of the sky and the worry for rain. "Frodo's birthday is the same day as mine - imagine that! So he is coming to celebrate with me."

Sam nodded knowingly. "Same as Rosie and Jolly."

Bilbo raised an inquiring eyebrow.

"The Cotton twins, if you understand, Tom's little brother and sister. They has the same birthday, too."

Bilbo laughed as he refilled Sam's empty mug and cut him another slice of nut loaf. "Not quite the like me and young Frodo. Your twins are the same age, too, and Frodo and I are certainly not! So especially for him we'll have a bit of a fair in the afternoon in the common field. I will invite the local lads and lasses - even the small ones of your size - to play at games and sports, and there'll be a band for dancing. Nothing fancy, just a chance for Frodo to mix more with the Hobbiton youth."

Sam took the mug Bilbo held out to him. "Am I to come, then, Mr. Bilbo?"

"Yes, of course! Didn't I just say so? And your brothers and sisters, too. It will be a splendid afternoon!" Bilbo felt an uncommon thrill of anticipation as he considered it.

Sam grinned, "me sisters and me will come sure enough, Mr. Bilbo, if the Gaffer says so. And the Gaffer'll say so because it's you, if you understand." Some of the enthusiasm left Sam's voice. "But me brothers is in Tighfield, both of them, since this spring. Mum says we won't see them 'til the Yule."

"Are they both apprenticed to your Uncle Andy now?" Bilbo asked, somewhat taken aback that he had not been aware of the long absence of his gardener's two elder sons.

"Yes sir, gone to be rope-makers like me uncle and me cousin." Sam was concentrating now on cutting himself a slice of cheese and choosing a cracker to go with it, "so my dad says I'm to be the gardener, like him. He says some Gamgees makes rope, and some Gamgees keeps gardens, and he says I was born to keep gardens, and no mistake!"

Bilbo raised his eyebrows at Sam across the table, then struggled to keep the amusement from his face as Sam soberly returned his gaze. "Were you now?" he asked mildly.

"I was, truly, Mr. Bilbo," Sam said with great conviction, setting down his cracker, "my dad says so. He says he was, too, and he was 'prenticed to Old Cousin Holman, that was your gardener afore me dad. The Gaffer says ropemaking weren't for him, he always wanted to be a gardener. And I'm the same, just like him!" Sam's eyes shone.

"So you like to come up here with your father, do you?"

"Yes, sir, of course I does. I come up near every morning now, since spring. I planted them beets, Mr. Bilbo." Sam gestured towards the kitchen, to the three representatives of the crop that Bilbo had taken from the basket and set on the work table to be washed and cooked. "And they took nearly ten days to sprout. I looked for them every day, near enough. Then they poked their little green sprouts out of the ground. And I watered them, and thinned them and weeded them." He sipped his tea nodding at the recollection. "Did you know me dad gave me your beets to look after, Mr. Bilbo?"

"I didn't know that, Sam. They're excellent beets. You've done a fine job."

Sam's face flushed. "I've started early, me dad says, sooner than me brothers ever did. Mum don't like it. She says I'm too little to be working. But I'm not!" Sam puffed out his chest. "The Gaffer told her he can't keep me out of the garden. He says its time to start me learning proper. So I comes along with him." Sam nodded and concentrated on his cracker for a minute, then looked up at Bilbo curiously "Was you ever 'prenticed, Mr. Bilbo?"

Bilbo laughed. "No, I was never apprenticed, Sam, I do not have a trade like you will."

Sam furrowed his brow. "Begging your pardon, but what does you do then?"

Bilbo hesitated; he was not sure how much he liked this question. "I am fortunate enough to live what some might call a life of leisure, Sam. I write, when I feel like it, and I read, if it pleases me. I take long tramps all over the Shire when I want exercise, fresh air and pleasing vistas, and I visit my relatives in Buckland and Tuckborough when I have a need for company." He failed to add that he, along with a few of the other more well-to-do families of Hobbiton, also discretely occupied themselves providing relief to the needier families, through gifts of money, food, clothing and the like, mostly anonymous.

Sam sat picking at his nut loaf (his third slice) and mulling this over, then said, "mum says you never had no wife and children."

"No, Sam, I never married. Some hobbits don't."

"Mum says she don't know what she'd do without us. She was that sad when me brothers went away. And she says she's glad it's the Gaffer's as is training me up, so as I'll always be close at hand, leastways till I'm grown. She says Halfred and Hamson ain't grown yet, and now she don't get to watch them grow, Aunt Primrose does. That's Uncle Andy's wife, she's that nice. So's Uncle Andy. He's me dad's brother. He's the roper." Sam seemed to run out of things to say. Pensively, he picked up his half-eaten slice of loaf, but then put it down without taking a bite. "I miss me brothers, too. They shared my bedroom with me. There's the boy's room and the girl's room. I was all by myself when they left." He rubbed his eyes with his sleeve and worried the button on his tunic as he spoke. "So after a bit mum put Marigold in with me, didn't she? So as I could sleep. Cause then Daisy still had May, and May still had Daisy." He looked up and smiled now. "Marigold don't snore, neither, not like Halfred!"

Bilbo smiled back at Sam. He had not expected to be so well informed about his gardener's family by its youngest son, and was somewhat chagrined to discover how little he knew of some issues of import. But he said nothing; the information seemed to need only silence to prompt it.

Sam stared out the window. "Do you think me brothers miss Hobbiton? Mum says so. It'd be that hard to go away from your home and your family, don't you think, Mr. Bilbo? Even if you still was with your aunt, and uncle, and cousin." He looked wistfully at Bilbo's unfinished letter. "Maybe if they could write it wouldn't be so lonely. Is that why you write to your Cousin Frodo, and all, so he won't be lonely for Hobbiton?"

Bilbo had not quite thought of it in these terms, and he suspected Sam might be right, though he only said, "I write to him to tell the interesting things I've been doing, and give him the news of Hobbiton, and to talk about certain ideas I have and of the stories I'm writing. He is a very bright lad, and willing to listen to his old uncle's musings. And this time I'm writing, as I said, to ask him to come for a visit to celebrate our birthdays together."

Sam looked through the doorway to the many doored passageway leading along the front of the hobbit hole. "Does he have his own bedroom when he comes? When I go to Uncle Andy's I sleep in Anson's room with him. He's older than me brothers, but he likes having me stay in his room, and all."

Bilbo pointed to the second door down the passageway, "Frodo usually has the bedroom I had when I was growing up."

"Did you share your bedroom when you was little, Mr. Bilbo?"

"No, Sam, I've always had a bedroom all to myself," Bilbo cocked his head and chuckled, "a good thing perhaps, as I've been told that I snore."

Sam grinned. "Did your brothers and sisters all have their own bedrooms, then?"

"No," said Bilbo, somewhat surprised that Sam knew so little of the recent history of the Bagginses, "there was only me growing up in this hobbit hole."

Sam nodded wisely, "same as me cousin, Anson - he's got no brothers or sisters, too. But now he's got Halfred and Hamson, don't he? Cousins can be just as good as brothers, don't you think?"

"Yes, I'm sure they can."

Sam took a bite of his nut loaf. Bilbo waited patiently while Sam chewed and swallowed; and was duly rewarded when he said, "my dad says 'a friend's just a friend, but kin's kin' - do you know what that means, Mr. Bilbo?"

"I can guess," Bilbo said mildly, "but what do you understand it to mean?"

Sam frowned, "I think he means that your kin are always that close to you, they're family and family's always closer than friends. Family's what you count on and what counts on you, what you'd do anything for." He looked anxiously at Bilbo. "Did I get that right, Mr. Bilbo?"

"I think you're right in explaining what your father means. Is your father right, though?" Bilbo was thinking of Gandalf, and of Thorin and the other dwarves, and how he had become bound to them during his adventures, and in the end would have done anything for them. With one exception, he had no living relatives about whom he felt so strongly.

Sam nodded his head vigorously. "I'd do anything for me mum and dad, or me sisters, or Hal or Ham."

"I'm sure you would, but do you think friendship can't be like that, too? Do you think only your family can be first in your loyalty?" Bilbo didn't know why he was asking Sam such a question. It was really no business of his how Sam was being raised, and certainly there was no crime in Sam's father instilling familial loyalty in him. Still, he was curious to discover how steadfast Sam would be to his parent's teachings.

"The Gaffer says so, don't he, Mr. Bilbo. Do you think me dad might be wrong?" Sam set his jaw stubbornly, but his face was anxious. Seemingly he was not used to hearing his father's wisdom challenged.

"No, I'm not saying that, Sam," Bilbo quickly replied, "I only wondered what you thought. If that saying of your father's matched your experiences --" Bilbo stopped, suddenly realising how ridiculous this was. The lad was just eight years old at best; he could not have any experiences on which to base a contrary opinion, and was certainly still far too young to be questioning his father's infallibility. Bilbo gave Sam a sheepish smile, "I am turning into a silly old hobbit, aren't I? This is what comes of living alone for almost fifty years, perhaps."

"Well, but it don't matter, Mr. Bilbo." Sam smiled with relief. "I just remembered. The Gaffer says scratch a friend and you'll find a relative, if'n you go back far enough - like the Cottons, if you understand."

"Oh, do you mean to say that Tom the dragon-doubter is really a cousin or some-such of yours, Sam?" Bilbo said in mock astonishment.

"He truly is, Mr. Bilbo" Sam answered most seriously. "Mum says Holman the Greenhanded as is my great-great-grandfather, if you understand, well, he's Tom's great-great-grandfather, too. And that makes us third cousins, she says. So Tom's kin to me, ain't he!"

"It would seem that he is, Sam, and you have found a solution to your problem.

Silently Bilbo poured Sam some more tea.

Sam gazed around the spacious dining room then glanced rather uncertainly at Bilbo. "Do you wish you wasn't alone Mr. Bilbo? It looks like a big hobbit hole."

Bilbo set Sam's mug before him and poured tea for himself, saying easily, "I have lived alone here since my dear mother passed away, and that was fifty-four years ago. It is a long time to be alone, isn't it, but then the longer you are by yourself the more settled you are to it."

"But you weren't alone all those years were you, Mr. Bilbo? Don't forget your adventures, you was gone near a year with the dwarves wasn't you?"

"More than a year, Sam. No, I have not forgotten my adventures. I sometimes wonder if I don't owe my enduring youth to them." He held his arms out wide. "Time has barely touched me since I came back."

Bilbo watched Sam's eyes search his face quizzically, and he understood that a hobbit who looked fifty when he should have looked 98 was still simply old to one as young as Sam.

And suddenly Bilbo felt the weight of those unseen years, not as time passed and running out, but as time gone by with little to show for it - time that in contrast to his journey into the wide world had flowed along like a desultory stream, waiting for the long rains of late autumn, or the melting of the winter snows, or at the very least an early summer's cloud burst to give it youth and vigour, give it a new course or a deeper bed. He had long surpassed both his parents in age. He was their only heir, but he had no heir himself. His long life would only delay the end of the Bagginses of Bag End. A long life leaving nothing behind meant nothing. Bag End in the hands of the Sackvlle-Bagginses was worse than nothing. His tales and translations without a sympathetic caretaker would be better not left behind. Bilbo stared at his letter to Frodo. Suddenly he realised Sam was talking, and had in fact been nattering away for quite some time while printing his name again and yet again.

"So I wonder, does he like it in Buckland, your Cousin Frodo? The Gaffer says the Brandybucks live on the wrong side of the Brandywine River. He says they're queer folk." Sam waited, then prompted, "is that true, Mr. Bilbo?"

"I would not call them 'queer folk'," Bilbo said recovering himself and speaking lightly. "The Brandybuck ways might be a bit different from those of Hobbiton, Sam, but still, they're Shirefolk all the same."

Sam considered this. "Your Cousin Frodo, is he still a Baggins, then? Does he still keep Hobbiton ways, so to speak?"

Bilbo stared absently at Sam a long moment before answering, as he considered, not for the first time, whether Frodo would soon be a Baggins in name only. Firmly he said, "Frodo will always be a Baggins, Sam, he was born one and nothing will change that, not if I have any say in the matter." He looked ruefully down at his letter - that he felt a sudden need to finish - and smiled at his small guest. "Now, why don't I give you another piece of paper, so you can practice your name a few more times before you go?" Sam nodded eagerly.

Bilbo reached an old book off the sideboard to use as a straight edge and drew faint horizontal lines onto a piece of parchment. He printed Sam's name again on the topmost line and then passed it over. "There now, use the lines to keep your letters from wandering."

He again noted how confidently Sam held the quill. "Have you used a quill before?"

"Yes sir," Sam looked up from the paper. "I make 'fives' for me mom or dad if there's summat needs counting or keeping track of, if you understand me."

"No, I don't," said Bilbo, again much amused.

"Well, sir, if me dad's counting how many days since, or how many days until, or how many pennies he's got saved for summat, or me mum wants to know how many dozen eggs she's sold, then I makes the fives for them."

"And what are 'fives', Sam?" Bilbo asked patiently.

Sam demonstrated - he made four short upright lines close together on his paper, counting up as he made them, and then drew a diagonal slash through them saying, "there's a 'five' Mr. Bilbo! And when you're done you count the fives, like this: five, ten, fifteen, twenty."

Bilbo nodded in understanding.

Sam looked thoughtfully at the envelope for Frodo's letter. "Do you know how many different letters there are, Mr. Bilbo? Are there a lot to learn?"

"More than two dozen, I'm afraid." He nodded at Sam's paper and said encouragingly, "well, you have learned three today, and that's a start."

"But I don't know the names of them other two, or their sounds. I only know their shape." Sam looked pensively at his name. "Like as not me dad won't want me knowing, neither." Bilbo saw him set his jaw defiantly, though he did not know at whom this defiance was directed. "My dad says Gamgees don't have no need for reading and writing, don't he?"

"Indeed your father seems to have gotten along well enough without it, Sam, but still he might find some use for reading and writing in his son."

Sam stared obstinately at his scrap of parchment. Bilbo saw the bright longing return to his eyes as he looked up and asked, "what are them other two letters called?"

But the jangling of the front bell interrupted them. When Bilbo opened the door he found the Gaffer standing on his porch in some agitation.

"Good afternoon, Mr. Bilbo, and begging your pardon, but do you know where my Samwise has got himself to? He's not come home from bringing your vegetables to you, which I trust he did like he was told. His dinner's waiting, and all." The Gaffer scowled. "It's not like him to go off without a 'by your leave', and he's got Bell worried."

Bilbo motioned his gardener inside, saying apologetically, "Sam's disappearance is my fault, I'm afraid. I've had him here keeping me company all afternoon."

Sam hovered at the doorway of the dining room and called excitedly down the passageway, "here I am, dad, begging your pardon, has it got late?"

The Gaffer scowled. "Aye, It's long past time you were home, as you should know, come along, then." He looked at Bilbo quizzically, "I hope he's not been bothering you, Mr. Bilbo, you just send him home if he is."

Bilbo thought with pleasure and some surprise how Sam had been anything but a bother. "Not at all. He's given me an excellent account of my garden, among other things. You have a true apprentice here, Master Hamfast. You haven't any doubt of this one's calling, I daresay."

"Aye," said the Gaffer, with a trace of pride, "he'll do fine so long as he listens and works hard. But gardening's learnt out of doors, not sitting at tea the whole afternoon, meaning no disrespect." Sam had disappeared. The Gaffer raised his voice. "Sam! I said come along - where have you got yourself off to?"

Sam reappeared and trotted down the passageway, clutching small bits of parchment. "I forgot my name!" He looked up, eager, but hesitant. "Mr. Bilbo's learnt me to spell my name." He held up the 'Sam' covered paper. When Bilbo encouraged him with a nod he went on, "and he says he'll learn me how to read and write proper and all, with your leave, dad. Some afternoons, perhaps, when I'm done in the garden?"

The Gaffer reddened. "What does a Gamgee need with reading, then?"

Sam stared down at his pieces of parchment, saying nothing, and so Bilbo said reasonably, "he may have no need for it, but surely no harm will come of it."

"You don't want Sam bothering you like that, Mr. Bilbo," said the Gaffer.

"Oh, I won't let him be a bother! He can come when I'm not busy. And lately there are too many hours, it seems, when I'm not busy." He put his hand on Sam's shoulder and gave it an encouraging squeeze.

Hamfast looked long at Sam's eager, imploring face, then grudgingly said. "All right, son, you can try if you want, though what good it'll do you I can't see. But mind it don't get in the way of the garden, because it'll stop as soon as it does, you mark my words."

Bilbo grinned, "Splendid, Sam! You shall keep me company some afternoons, and we will see what comes of that."

So Bilbo bade them good afternoon, and watched them walk side by side down the front path and through the gate. When they got to the road Sam slipped his hand into his father's and his piping voice started up and floated on the freshening breeze back to Bag End. Bilbo watched them disappear around the bend in the road, shut the door, and hurried off to finish his letter to Frodo.

THE END

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