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The Gardener's Tale

9

The bright winter sun reflecting off the water of the lake shone into Sam's eyes and made him drowsy. He had thrown himself down on the little beach when they reached shore, slumping against a stone pier that reached out into the lake of Nan Hithoel, so glad was he to be out of the boat and on dry land again. The fear and sickness he always felt on water receded and he let the sun warm his cold tired limbs.

As if far away he heard the others make camp. The keels grated on the stony beach as the little boats were drawn up and unloaded. Gimli was making a fire and Merry had gone off into the trees to gather firewood. Gimli and Aragorn were arguing about the route they would take next, Gimli's gruff voice rising in indignation. Did they ever talk about anything else any more, wondered Sam. He wished the feeling of sickness would pass. Light hobbit footsteps came down the beach. Merry had returned. His clear voice cut across Sam's thoughts.

'Where's Frodo?'

Sam jumped up as if struck. He looked wildly around. What a fool he was! For days, ever since they left Lothlórien, he had known Frodo was thinking something over, planning something. Now he was gone. This was what he had meant to do all along!

The others were looking about as if not comprehending. Why should they? They did not know him as Sam knew him. Frodo had seen Gandalf, who was a father to him, fall in Moria, and in Lórien in Galadriel's mirror he saw others succumb to the Ring. Frodo could not bear to sacrifice his friends. He was going on alone.

Before Sam could move, Pippin and Merry ran off into the woods shouting for Frodo. Aragorn called after them to come back but they ran on. Despite his own anguish Sam thought 'They'll be lost!'

The Fellowship was in turmoil; Legolas and Gimli, without waiting for Aragorn's orders, charged off into the trees to look for Frodo. Before Sam could move Aragorn seized his shoulder. 'Sam! Follow me!'

Sam did not want to go with Aragorn; more than anything he wanted to go after Frodo. But he struggled after the long-legged Ranger as he followed the trail of the two young hobbits. The trees grew thicker, a green gloom settled around him and a deep deceptive silence. The music of the lake water fell far behind. From up ahead Sam could hear Aragorn's voice calling him to hurry, but it grew fainter and fainter. At last he could hear the voice no more; Sam was alone.

These woods were nothing like the forests of the Shire, full of light and sunny glades and well-trodden paths. These were thickly grown; their branches even in winter keeping out the light. Shafts of sunshine gleamed through to illuminate great fallen tree trunks, covered with moss and grass like sleeping giants, waiting to trip the unwary. Tall stone statues of kings loomed up in front of Sam, their stern regal faces broken by time and the fury of orcs, their hands struck off and their arms extended as if in warning. Sam looked desperately around; he was lost.

Out of breath and scratched, he climbed towards the top of the hill. The trees here thinned and he found himself in a stand of birches. Their bright shivering leaves and silver bark were dazzling after the dark wood. Below great ferns grew to Sam's waist. As he paused to get his bearings his sharp hobbit ears made out sounds coming in his direction. Aragorn was coming back! They had found Frodo....but immediately Sam knew this was not Aragorn, nor any of the Fellowship.

It was a great crashing and rending through the trees, like a herd of stampeding cattle. Sam felt the forest floor shudder beneath him and was afraid. He crouched down in the ferns, watching through the delicate green fronds as the sounds grew nearer. Then they plunged over the crest of the hill and charged down the slope, streaming past Sam on all sides; orcs, not the low scuttling black-armoured cave spawn of Moria but great dark-skinned goblin creatures, mansize or even bigger, giants to a hobbit, their massive shoulders encased in leather armour and their long black manes streaming after them as they ran. The silver winter light gleamed on their bared tusks and they slashed at the ferns with their long steel scimitars and bellowed to each other. Even moving as fast as they were their glowing yellow eyes searched the wood and they smelled the air as they ran. Despite his fear Sam thought of a hunt and wondered with terror what it would be like to be their quarry. Then he realised with a shock that the quarry must be Frodo.

Hardly daring to breathe, Sam crouched down in the ferns till the orcs had passed, almost afraid his pounding heart would give him away. He did not dare look up till the last chilling whoops and yells had died away. Then he stood up, shaking and wondering what to do next.

He looked up the hill; where was Aragorn? It was useless to follow him; even if he had evaded the orcs he was too fast for Sam to catch him now. 'Think, you ninny!' said Sam to himself desperately. 'Your legs are too short so you must use your head!' Instinctively Sam looked down the hill. The boats! Frodo had gone back to the boats!

Then the realisation dawned on Sam that Frodo had left him behind. Tears sprang into his eyes and he thought his heart would break. He rubbed his sleeve across his eyes. 'That's hard' he said to himself. 'Cruel hard, to leave his Sam behind'. The bright birch grove seemed suddenly desolate and alien. There was no point to any of it any more. Sam swallowed hard. 'Well, Master, I'm not so easily left behind!'

Sam set off after the orcs. Their trail was easy to follow, trampled ferns and broken low-growing saplings made the going easy. Soon Sam saw the sparkle of water through the trees. At that point the orcs had turned aside to head parallel to the lake, away from the landing stage. Sam did not have time to wonder why. The undergrowth got thicker and Sam, hurrying desperately tripped and fell, cutting his knees and hands. But he did not feel anything, he just got up and ran on.

At last he saw the stone king who stood guard over the landing stage and beyond him the campsite, empty now, the fire gone out and the boats drawn up on the shore. But one was missing! Sam threw himself through the last thicket of trees to slide to a halt on the beach; there, a bowshot from the shore, was Frodo, steadily rowing away from land, leaving him behind.

With what breath he had left Sam shouted after him; 'Frodo! Mr.Frodo! Frodo! No!' For a long terrible moment Sam thought Frodo would not even turn and acknowledge him, but then he saw Frodo look back over his shoulder reluctantly, and pausing only for a moment in his rowing he shouted back;

'No, Sam!' then he turned back to his oar. Sam was too far away to hear Frodo whisper to himself; 'Not you, Sam. Above all not you.'

But Sam could not bear to be left behind. Without thinking he waded into the water, down the steeply shelving beach till the icy lake water reached to his waist. Frodo looked back at him and shouted impatiently; 'I'm going to Mordor alone!' and Sam replied at once 'Of course you are. And I'm coming with you!'

By now the cold water had reached Sam's chest and his breathing was coming in painful gasps. The stony lake bed sank away from below his feet and all his terror of water rushed back. But he kept his eyes on Frodo, nothing else mattered. He could never go back. His master had stopped rowing and was looking at him in alarm.

'Go back, Sam' shouted Frodo urgently 'You can't swim!' But it was too late. Sam had plunged out of his depth and was thrashing the water with his arms in a frantic attempt to stay afloat. Frodo had turned now in the boat and eyes wide in disbelief screamed 'Sam!'

The grey elven cloak spread wide on the surface as if to hold the hobbit up, but his clothes heavy now with water, and the sword that he barely knew how to use pulled him down and with one last terrified look at Frodo Sam sank suddenly under the dark lake water. A hand waved vainly above his head then he was gone.

All Sam's nightmares had come true. The cold lake closed over his head and his mouth and nose filled with water. He choked and stopped breathing. His body felt like a stone and he sank straight down, one hand reaching to the surface, where the sunlight sparkled playfully on the waves. His terror paralysed him and he could not try to swim back up. Below the timeless deep of Nan Hithoel stretched up to claim him and he yielded, his limp hands trailing above him. Before consciousness flickered out he did not think of the Shire, nor of the people he had left behind there. His last thought before darkness engulfed him was of Frodo.

Ages later it seemed he felt something grip his wrist, a hand as strong as steel. It pulled and he felt himself dragged up through the water to the light. Strength returned to him and he grasped the hand and held on as if to life itself and he was drawn up to the surface. He came up into the light and air and was blinded by the sun and looking up saw Frodo, holding both his hands now, tears on his face, leaning down from the silver elven boat to save him.

Sam rested for a moment with his hands on the gunwhale of the boat. His throat was full of water and he coughed and retched. Then Frodo took his arms and said gently; 'Up you come, Sam!' and with a strength Sam never knew his master had Frodo hauled the wet, shivering hobbit into the boat.

Sam fell into the bottom of the craft, still coughing and fighting for breath. He was chilled to the bone by the icy water. He looked up at Frodo, and his master's face was full of remorse and concern. He had to make Frodo let him stay. 'I made a promise, Mr. Frodo!' he said 'Don't you leave him, Sam Gamgee. And I don't mean to... I don't mean to' his voice trailed away into tears. Frodo said; 'Sam, it'll be the death of you to come with me.' 'It'll be the death of me to be left behind!'

And they stared at each other for a long moment. Sam was still struggling to catch his breath. Frodo was weeping. How he had dreaded this moment, leaving Sam behind. Now it was out of his hands; whatever bitter fate awaited him, Sam would be there too. Fierce joy overwhelmed Frodo.

'Oh Sam!' he said and threw his arms around Sam and clung to him as if it was he, Frodo, who was drowning and not Sam. Sam held Frodo tightly, as if fearful of losing him again, feeling his master's body shaking in his arms.

They could have stayed that way forever, but unfriendly eyes could spy them out from the woods on both sides of the lake, and the Fellowship would soon return and see them gone and follow them, meaning well but no longer able to help them.

Frodo gently pushed Sam away and they looked at each other. There was the ghost of a grim smile on Frodo's face. 'Come on then, Sam' he said and they each took up an oar and dipping it in the cold lake they made their way past the wooded slopes of the island of Tol Brandir till they were only a silver shard on the bright waters of Nan Hithoel.