As the first flush of spring graced the rolling hills of the Shire, four hobbits could be seen making their way down the slopes of Hobbiton. Meriadoc Brandybuck and Peregrin Took rode ahead in mail-shirts that gleamed silver and caught numerous eyes. They sang songs of merriment between bouts of laughter. Behind them rode their cousin, Frodo Baggins, whose thinning frame was hidden beneath a long grey cloak. He smiled at his neighbours as he passed, but his eyes looked distant, his gaze far away. Last came Samwise Gamgee, in simple hobbit clothes, humming a tune his gaffer had taught him long before he knew of elves or Rings or anything that lay beyond the borders of the Shire.
“Well, this seems just like old times!” Pippin said, finishing a song and reaching into his pocket for an apple. “The four of us off on an adventure!”
“Indeed.” Frodo said. “But I’ve had quite enough of adventures, I think.”
“Of the bad kind, I agree.” Merry gave his elder cousin an encouraging smile. “Have hope that there are only good ones from here! Pippin and I shall return for Sam’s wedding in May, and you shall have to find some excuse to come visit us in the summer! It’ll be your turn to get married next, dear Frodo, as you’re the oldest. Do you think you could find someone by next spring?”
Pippin hurried to swallow a mouthful of apple to add, “Really, Merry, I know our cousin is capable of exceptional deeds, but I think that task is quite beyond him!”
Frodo laughed, but didn’t reply. While Pippin’s jests were familiar, they had taken on a new tone. Once stemming from naiveté, they now seemed to veil worry, as if they were part of an act to please Frodo. Pippin had learned to control his tongue, and while Frodo admired his wit, he did not need it at his expense.
He turned his gaze to where the road led them around a slope to where the Battle of Bywater had taken place several months ago. His gaze grew distant and his face taut as he thought of all the hobbits and men who had fallen there. The others followed his gaze and fell silent as well.
After a while, Pippin shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “We ought to build a memorial here. A garden or something. To remember folk by, but also to make it less gloomy. It used to be beautiful here, remember Merry? Wasn’t this where we stopped to pick blackberries on the way to one of Bilbo’s birthday’s all those years ago?”
Merry nodded, lost in thought. To Frodo, he looked older, calmer, like a river after a great storm.
“There aren’t any blackberries now.” Sam frowned and scratched his head. “Nor any berries that I can see. But we’ll plant some as a start. I sprinkled a bit of that elven dust up on that hill there so hopefully something good will come of it.”
“It certainly will,” Merry said. “To think, we’ll have elven trees here in the Shire! Just wait until next spring—after this mess is fixed up, the land will be more splendid than ever.”
“I sure do hope so, Master Merry,” Sam muttered.
Frodo nodded his agreement and rode forward in silence. It was strange to think that this time, a year ago, he had been farther from home than ever before, that he had given up hope of ever returning. And yet here he was, with his friends at his side, riding as if nothing had changed.
But it had. The land had been mauled, broken and drained. Homes had been destroyed, rivers ruined. Worst of all, blood had been spilt in the Shire. That, Frodo believed, would take far longer to mend than Saruman’s scourging of the land.
“Well, Sam,” Pippin’s voice broke Frodo from his thoughts. “This is where we part ways.”
Frodo looked up and saw his pony leading him to where the four farthing stone shot up from a patch of wildflowers between perpendicular paths.
“Right,” said Sam. His face took on a look of determination as he pulled a small box from his pocket. “There’s something I want to do first.”
The others sat in their saddles, waiting patiently as they watched their friend trudge through the dirt path to the base of the stone. Merry and Pippin rubbed their arms, whistling fragments of old walking tunes. Frodo pulled his cloak tighter around him
A cool wind was rising, rocking the branches in great waves. Frodo kept his eyes on Sam, noticing one more how little his dear friend seemed to have changed. Standing there at the foot of the stone in a loose vest and faded trousers, Sam seemed such an ordinary hobbit, it was hard to imagine he had ever left the Shire. Yet he had. He had faced more pain and torment than any soul should ever have to face, done more for middle-earth than any hero of ancient songs or tale, and yet here he was standing in the centre of the Shire as if he had never left. Frodo could not help but marvel at the thought.
It seemed a long while Sam stood there, staring at the box, before he dumped the contents into his hand and cast them into the air, causing a shower of grey dust to scatter in the breeze.
Merry and Pippin cheered and Frodo clapped alongside them. Sam gave a sharp nod as if affirming something to himself before turning back to the others.
Frodo could not help but smile. Merry was right, the Shire would heal and flourish. Flowers would sprout from the barren fields and vines would cover felled trees and scarred trenches. It would be different, but just as beautiful. And his friends would be there to appreciate it.