Words: c. 2500
Characters: Aragorn and Sam, with appearances by Frodo, Merry and Pippin
Summary: En route to Weathertop, Aragorn tries to ease Sam's distrust by talking about an interest they both share.
I wrote this a month ago, then launched straight into Voices at the Door, and forgot about it. This was inspired by The Refuge from the Storm, by Larner, a lovely story which includes a scene of King Elessar tending a humble cottage garden. This prompted me to wonder if Aragorn and Sam ever had gardening conversations during the journey of the Fellowship. This is the result.
The sun was faint behind a veil of cloud, and the air was thick with the moisture of stagnant things. The hobbits were doughty; although they complained, they never balked at the demands Aragorn was laying upon them. He had known strong men who had endured less, and with less goodwill.
"We will stop for lunch," he told them, "and for longer this time. Yes, Master Peregrin, long enough for hot tea and a fire and a pipe taken at leisure."
He watched them busy themselves with the important business of eating, glad that they could still take pleasure in such things. A hobbit would find contentment even in the Land of Shadow, if his meal was good and he had a friend at his side to share it with. They were a lesson to proud men everywhere.
Afterwards, while the others took their ease, Sam wandered away a little, as if he was searching for something he could not find. "What I wouldn't give," Aragorn heard him murmur, "for the sight of a decent growing thing, but there aren't any, not anywhere."
"On the contrary, Sam," Aragorn said, stepping up behind him. "These are not the true wilds, and there are places in Middle Earth that would make this seem a garden."
Sam took a step away, his face etched with his usual caution. Aragorn smiled at him, but it did not ease. Sam's distrust was a good thing, Aragorn reminded himself, for it showed Sam's care for his master. In the dark days that had fallen upon the world, distrust was a sad necessity, especially for a group that carried such a burden. But, yet, Aragorn foresaw that trust would be needed before the end. Trust given to strangers, beyond all wisdom and reason, would be the saving of them all.
And perhaps, he thought, I am just half-sick of being distrusted.
"There is sedge," he said, "and bullrushes. And back there, unnoticed beneath Master Meriadoc's uncomprehending rear, is a fine patch of sphagnum moss. A wise man of Arnor once counted a hundred and ninety-seven different types of moss within ten leagues of his home."
"Moss." Sam sniffed. "I meant decent growing things. Fruit. Vegetables. Beautiful things. Flowering things."
"You have come here in the waning of the year," Aragorn told him. "In the summer, the place was alive with bright yellow irises. They call them yellow flags, and long ago, more than one great lord used them as his badge and banner."
"Long ago," Sam said with a sigh, wrapping his arms around himself as if he were cold. "Not now."
Aragorn crouched down beside him. "There are still flowers, even now. This is sundew. See those little drops of water on its spikes? If the sun was shining, you would see them glisten like a thousand jewels."
"Sundew." Sam leaned in. "Begging your pardon, but it doesn't look much like a flower. It looks… evil, somehow."
"It eats flies," Aragorn had to tell him.
Sam shuddered. "Ugh. Although if it would eat some of these midges, I wouldn't complain." He let out a breath. "I used to think of plants as such gentle, homely things. It's as if… as if… if there's garden, then nothing can be that bad, because it means there are people there who love the land enough to do the gardening. But then I saw the Old Forest."
"There are dreadful places that are full of plants," Aragorn said, "and places, too, of surpassing loveliness." Lorien, he thought. Ah, Lorien! "And there are terrible wastelands where no living things grow, but there are also beautiful deserts, far away where no man walks." He stood up, and brushed his hand across the withered flags. "But you are right to cherish your gardens, Samwise Gamgee. The gardens of the Shire are precious indeed."
"Oh," said Sam, "I expect they're just silly little things, compared with the gardens of the elves and the cities in the south."
"Not at all," Aragorn said gently. He remembered the gardens of Minas Tirith, slowly neglected as the city dwindled and turned towards war; by now it would be a place of cold white stone, unadorned by anything green. "The elves have gardens more beautiful, but theirs is a beauty of twilight, a mirror turned on days that will never come again. But the gardens of the Shire speak of peace and simplicity and all good things. If they wither, then the world is lost."
For a moment, Sam's face was wistful, as if he was seeing distant things, things beyond words. But then he gave himself a little shake, and the barrier of suspicion was back again. "I don't know about such things, Mister Strider. All I know is how to grow a good crop of runner beans, and how to grow beautiful flowers that make your heart sing, if you know what I mean."
"I do." Aragorn smiled at him, suddenly wanting more than anything to see the suspicion leave Sam's eyes. There was such a bond of friendship between the four hobbits. It made a man far more aware of loneliness than when he hunted alone. "I am not unfamiliar with gardening myself."
"You?" Sam was plainly incredulous. "But you're…"
"Only a Ranger?" Aragorn supplied. "Indeed I am. But I have travelled in distant lands, and sometimes I have settled, for a little while."
"In distant lands?" Sam sniffed. "Heathen places with heathen gardening practices."
Aragorn laughed, and fought the urge to ruffle Sam's hair out of sheer affection for all hobbit kind. "Indeed," he said. "But I have settled closer to home, too. Although we are a wandering folk, we do have homes." He let out a breath, but he looked not north, where his people made what little home that they could, but east, towards Rivendell. "Although we return to them seldom," he murmured, "and never for as long as we would like."
"What do you grow, then?" Sam was clearly still deeply sceptical.
"Things to eat," Aragorn said. "Even a Ranger accustomed to the wilds grows tired of foraged fruits and seeds, and longs for a good vegetable pottage or potato pie."
"My Gaffer grows good taters," Sam said, "the best in the Shire."
Aragorn raised his hands, showing Sam that they were empty. "Peace, Master Gamgee. I make no claims to rival your Gaffer. I was always best with herbs and plants of healing."
"Hmph." Sam narrowed his eyes. "I don't know much about things like that. Although I know comfrey; that's proper soothing for the skin. And feverfew; that's good for fevers. But flowers… That's what I love best. I wanted to make Master Frodo's garden the nicest in Hobbiton, but that's all gone now, and that's the end of it, and nothing more to be said."
"It may not be," Aragorn said gently.
"And green things," Sam said doggedly, almost defiantly. "Good things to eat. Did you grow runner beans in this garden of yours?"
Aragorn was suddenly keenly aware that he was being tested, and that by his answers he would be judged. Sam folded his arms, his chin jutting fiercely. Aragorn remembered his first interview with Ecthelion, whose keen eyes had demanded the truth. Sam was no Ecthelion, but in his own way, he was just as great, and his decisions held just as much power. Had it not been for Gandalf's letter, the fate of the Ring could have been decided by just such a moment as this.
"I did," Aragorn said.
"On canes?" Sam demanded.
"Yes," Aragorn lied meekly.
"What about tomatoes?"
Aragorn girded himself up for the coming ordeal, and told him.
"What are they talking about over there?" Pippin asked, breathing out a contented cloud of smoke. "Ooh, I think the smoke keeps the midges away. I'd better have some more."
Merry shifted position, wrinkling his nose. "I don't know what I'm sitting on, but it's damp. Soft, but damp." He looked over to the place where Sam and Strider stood in deep conversation. "Sam looks quite overwrought. Do you think Strider's threatening him? Should we do something?"
Frodo shook his head, frowning. "I'm not sure… I think… They seem to be…" His frown grew deeper. "Talking about turnips," he said.
"Turnips," said Pippin, tilting his head to one side. "Oh."
"It's what you'd expect from Sam," Merry said, "but Strider's a Man."
"Don't Men eat turnips?" Pippin asked, as he stuffed more weed into his pipe. "They don't seem to eat many things, or have anywhere near enough meals in the day."
"… artichokes!" they all heard Sam shout.
"Oh," said Merry. "I think there's time for another cup of tea. Jump to it, Pippin my lad."
The moon was pale behind the clouds when Sam crept quietly to Frodo's side. Frodo was not sleeping, although he had been lying still for many hours, hoping that others would think him asleep. Whenever he opened his eyes, he saw the still figure of Strider standing on distant watch, a dark statue against the pale silver sky.
Frodo sat up. "What is it, Sam?" he whispered.
"I don't trust him, Master Frodo." Sam jerked his chin towards Strider's unmoving form. "How do we know he's leading us to Rivendell? I say we leave him here and strike off on our own, just the four of us and Bill."
"We can't," Frodo whispered. A bird shrieked somewhere, far away. Strider's head moved towards it, just a little. "We're far off the road now. I don't clearly know where we are."
"Then it's how I feared," Sam said darkly. "He's led us into a trap. We're entirely in his hands. I still say we should leave him."
"What brought this on, Sam?" Wind stirred the alder trees by the stream. "I thought you were beginning to trust him."
"I was," Sam admitted. "But…" He shifted position, but it was too dark to see his face. "He… He's got the most unnatural views on gardening," he said in a rush. "Oh, he tried to hide it at first, saying when he thought I wanted to hear, but you can't trick Sam Gamgee, not when gardens are involved. He doesn't know about tomatoes, and he has strange notions brought from furrin parts. You should hear what he has to say about artichokes!"
"Artichokes," Frodo chuckled. "My dear Sam!"
"It's not funny," Sam said. The cloud was thinning. In the light of the waxing moon, Frodo saw that Strider had turned his head. "You have to judge things by how you see them, and this is what I see."
The bird shrieked again, closer now, and more shrill. It made Frodo shiver. I don't think it's a bird, he thought, but he said nothing out loud. Strider was motionless again, standing guarding them throughout the night, going without sleep to keep them safe. He could have killed us at any time, he thought.
"Yes," Frodo said. "Yes, you do. And this is what I see. And this is why I trust him." He gave a breath of laughter. "Even if he does have questionable views on artichokes."
Sam touched his shoulder. "I just want to keep you safe, Master Frodo. We can't take chances."
Frodo looked up at the cold, uncaring moon. "We have to," he said. "This whole thing… Everything… It's all one terrible, fragile, desperate chance. And we have to trust. If we don't trust anyone, then the Enemy has won."
"But if we trust too easily," said Sam, "that might be what makes him win."
"I know," said Frodo, as the creature shrieked in the night. "I know."
White stone walls surrounded a square of bare earth, where scant and scrawny weeds were trying to grow. Sam was standing in the middle of it, beside the broken pedestal of what once had been a proud fountain.
"Are you mourning the lack of proper growing things?" said Aragorn, stepping up behind him.
Sam turned around with a start. "Your Majesty. Sire. I mean…"
"Strider will do," Aragorn said with a smile.
"Strider." Sam said it awkwardly, blushing as he did so. "I… Yes. Yes, I am that. They're such noble men and their towers are so lovely. How did they let their gardens fall into decay?"
"How indeed?" Aragorn said. He bent down to examine the broken pedestal. Some of the weeds that were pushing through the stonework would soon be beautiful. No, he thought, they would not be weeds. Gondor would cherish the wild flowers and the stray seeds that came blowing in from the wild, and would call no growing thing a weed. "Many in Middle Earth have forgotten the value of the things that the hobbits still hold dear," he said. "It will change. There will be gardens again."
"With artichokes grown in unnatural ways," said Sam darkly. "Begging your pardon, sir."
Aragorn laughed. "There is no need to do so, Sam. But maybe you can set me right. Gardening has been but a small part of the tale of my life, and doubtless I have picked up many wrong notions."
"You have indeed," Sam said, "begging your pard-- I mean, I'm sorry. Sorry. But you mustn't do yourself down, sir. With healing plants, I hear you show promise. That athelas of yours is something quite special."
"I am glad to have the approval of a master gardener such as Samwise Gamgee," Aragorn said with a smile.
"You're laughing at me," said Sam with a blush.
"No," Aragorn said gravely. "I would never do that."
"It wasn't that I didn't trust you," Sam blurted out, "it's just that… Everything was so frightening, and Gandalf, he'd told me to look after Master Frodo at all costs, and I had to be careful, because Master Frodo, he's such a trusting one, like when he trusted Faramir – Prince Faramir, I mean – and that Gollum. So I had to be distrustful for the two of us, and sometimes… sometimes I found myself trusting you, and that made me cross with myself, and I had to find a reason, a silly reason, to distrust you all over again."
"Not so silly," said Aragorn. "I once knew a man who determined another's worth merely by their choice of sword." He walked to the stone parapet, and stood looking out over the city. "There will be gardens again, Sam. The elves will come, and there will be light and flowers and all manner of fair growing things."
"That's nice," Sam breathed. "I would like to see it. But… I would like to go home, too."
"Maybe you will have both." Aragorn placed his hand on Sam's shoulder, and there was no sudden tension, no pulling away; Sam had grown past that months ago. "I was foolish that night. I was weary of distrust, and chose a foolish way to try to win your friendship. You were right to distrust me. And you were right in other ways, too. You can tell a lot about a man by his attitude to gardens and growing things."
"Yes," said Sam. "Yes, you can."
And together, side by side, they looked out at the city and saw the gardens that would one day grow within the white stone walls.
Note: Yup, it's a strange, disjointed story – disjointed both in structure and in mood - which is the reason why I didn't post it when I wrote it. I'm just posting it here for now, where barely anyone will read it. Please do let me know if you think I should post it a more widely.