Fairer Than Grey


As Sam crested the last hill he glimpsed, finally, the Sea. It seemed to go on forever: its placid grey surface reflecting the unbroken grey clouds, mile after mile, league after league, until water and sky became one at an invisible horizon.


He stared at it for long moments, wondering at its vastness, and at his own temerity. Was this right? Could he dare to hope that he might be permitted to follow Frodo? That maybe, even, he might be permitted to find him, to hold him close, to speak with him of things so long kept secret, so long kept silent? Was the little shell a summons? “Oh Fro, me Dear, your Sam is here. You’ve waited all these years, but not much longer. I’ll find a way. I promise,” he said.


Sam descended the slope to a broad beach, nearly level and covered in fine brownish sand. The Sea lapped at it calmly, as the summertime Brandywine tasted its banks. Sam felt drawn to it. Slowly he approached, leaving faint footprints on the firm sand. He hesitated at the edge, his natural fear of water asserting itself, then he walked into it, cautiously but deliberately, until his knees touched the surface. It felt warm. “Like a swimming-hole in the sun,” he thought. Small fishes came and swam about his legs, and nibbled at his toes.


As evening fell, grey under the clouds, Sam came to the Havens, but they were silent, and no lights shone upon the docks, and no ship lay there. “I’m too late,” he thought. The Shipwright’s house still stood, but it was dark and decrepit. Sam opened the door, and a deep silence flowed out to greet him; his footfalls scraped and echoed through the empty rooms. Climbing the stairs, he reached finally the topmost room, its large windows looking out over the Sea. A bed was there, long disused. He lay upon it and gazed at the darkening Sea. “I’ve failed you,” he whispered. He buried his face in his hands and sobbed deep, wrenching sobs into the gathering night.


Finally weariness took him and he slept. For awhile his dreams were chaotic, filled with shouting and the clashing of weapons, the booming of drums and the tramp of marching feet, all shrouded in indistinct grey. Gradually these faded, and a single pure note, as of a voice, hung in the air. Vision came to him then, while the note still held, and it revealed to him briefly the Sun rising behind tall mountains, and clouds of rose and stark white and royal purple floating about their peaks, and a little grey ship upon the Sea flitting between their long dark shadows.


He woke early the next morning, subdued daylight from an overcast sky peeking in the windows. He wandered about the Havens. There were stately houses, built of wood and stone with tree-planted courtyards. They seemed large enough to have housed dozens of Elves each, but all were falling into disrepair: mortar had pulled away from stones, foundations had cracked, and the courtyards’ trees had outgrown their places, pushing walls and lifting roofs.


There were other buildings, too, which seemed to have been workshops of various kinds. In one of these, between two long docks, Sam found wood: long planks – carefully laid -- of a light-brown color in various thicknesses; strong oaken beams; and tough, dark-hued pegs. Tools there were, too: saws and hammers and adzes and planes and chisels and clamps and forms. And sealed vats filled with a sweet-smelling, sticky, viscous stuff: pine pitch. While Sam never had apprenticed in carpentry or joinery (and certainly not in ship-building), he knew the tools and their uses: one of his best friends had been Tolo Burrows, who had crafted probably half of the best holes in Hobbiton.


And so a thought came to him: “What if...I think I might just try. It can’t be near as hard as Mordor. And I ain’t going to no fiery mountain at the end of it, neither!”


He roamed about the workshop for a time, his soft footfalls echoing in the rafters, wondering whether it was right for him to use the Elves’ tools and materials. “It sure seems they left this stuff here a-purpose, for someone to use. But, unless I’m bad mistaken, no one has: not the beautiful houses, not the tools, not even the wood. Perhaps they’d not take it amiss for me to build a little boat, just enough to take me to Mr. Frodo?”


Opening a door, he entered a smaller room off the main workshop’s north side. On rough wood pilings there lay the beginnings of a boat’s hull: the keel-rib and gunwales – made of strong white oak – were joined in graceful curves, and some of the cross-ribs – carefully shaped of a fine-grained brown wood – had been installed: rabbeted and fastened with pegs they were. All told the hull was about twelve feet long. A day-sailer, perhaps: strong and light for teaching and for pleasure upon the water.


Sam gazed at the hull, trying to work up the courage to dare the open Sea in such a craft. Though he knew little of the Sea, and had feared and avoided bodies of water all his long life, once before he had overcome his dread, swimming in full gear into Anduin above Rauros to pursue Frodo – lest he go to Mordor alone. He smiled at the memory.


“Welcome, Master Samwise. I have been awaiting you,” spoke a clear, musical voice.


Sam spun about, blushing. Before him stood an Elvish figure: tall, flaxen-haired and grey-eyed with long, slender hands. He kneeled and held out those hands to Sam, palms upward. Cautiously Sam approached, his gaze locked upon the figure’s face, upon his eyes. “S–sir, I didn’t mean to intrude. I – I thought the Havens were a–bandoned.”


“And so they might seem. But nonetheless I would help you find he whom you seek.”


“How, how –” stammered Sam, laying his hands upon the Elven figure’s, but taking not his eyes from his face. He found it difficult indeed to do aught but stare.


“It is given to me to know these things. Be at peace, young one, and together, if you will, we will complete this little craft.”


“But who are you, sir?”


“You may call me Ossë, a friend of Círdan and of the Elves of the Havens.”


“Círdan? The Shipwright, sir?”


“Yes. Master of the Havens he was, and also a dear friend of the one whom you seek.”


Then, as Sam stared, unable to withdraw, into Ossë’s eyes, he saw briefly – as in Galadriel’s mirror – a fair white shore, and a light shining across a broad, gently-rippled bay, and he heard the cries of sea-birds strange to his ears. Recovering himself, he bowed his head. “Thank you, Sir Ossë,” he said very quietly.



It was a fine, clear day when finally Sam’s boat was ready to be launched. A warm, steady wind flowed down from the hills in the east. “Come! The wind is up. Let us try our little craft!” said Ossë, the sun sparkling in his eyes. She was a strong, simple boat, much like the Elves’ day-sailers, but with a weighted keel to keep her upright in heavy seas. Her mast was stepped about a third of the way back from her bow, and she carried a mainsail of a light, tan-colored fabric, but no jib. Together they dragged her to the water’s edge, driving a stake into the sand to moor her. There Sam practiced moving about her various stations without losing his balance: from her stern near the tiller, to her mast, to the little storage area at her bow.


Then, wading, they laid their hands upon her gunwales and blessed her. “Be light before the wind, strong and steadfast upon the open Sea, and faithful to the hand that guides thee,” they said together. Then for a moment they gazed, silently, into the West, their hands clasped over her stern.


Boarding, Sam tightened her mainsheet as Ossë directed, then raised her sail. Fastening the halyard to a cleat upon the mast, cautiously he worked his way back to the stern, taking the tiller. “Now loosen the mainsheet, and we’ll be sailing,” said Ossë. Gingerly Sam did so. The sail ceased flapping and filled evenly, and the craft began to move.


“Aiiee!” exclaimed Sam, nearly toppling over the stern into the shallows.


They spent that day, and many following, sailing about the Havens in fair weather and foul. Quickly Sam became steady upon the water and lost all tendency to sea-sickness. With Ossë’s ready friendship and gentle correction, he came to understand the little boat’s temperament, and how she worked with the wind and the Sea, and how to handle her in a variety of conditions.


As Sam became more accomplished, they talked more of things other than sailing. Sam mostly wished to discuss his hopes and fears for his journey, but Ossë said little of himself, preferring to talk of Sam’s concerns, or of the beauty of the Sea and the sky and the shorelines, of the fishes and the otters and the gulls, and of the unclouded stars and the free wind upon the water. When Sam asked him about himself, Ossë would say only, “When you arrive, Círdan will tell you all of me you may wish to know, for our friendship is long indeed. And upon those shores, or in those waters, always you may find me, for there my heart is.”


With that Ossë shed his mantle and leapt into the Sea, his fair slender form glistening in the mild Sun. Seeing him so revealed, Sam was strangely reminded of Frodo as he had been in Lórien: slim and hard and tough, with a faint glow welling through his skin as a star’s light wells through mist. But Ossë swam unlike any hobbit. Completely at home he seemed in the water, plying it with the porpoise’s joy, the otter’s unsinkable gracefulness, and the fish’s silent swiftness. And indeed as he swam schools of fish came, boiling in sprays from the water, their sleek bodies flashing silvery green.


There’s more to know about him, and no mistake, thought Sam.


And so they spent the day, Sam sailing about the bay and Ossë swimming alongside, no longer master and student, but simply two creatures sharing their enjoyment of the Sea. In the late afternoon Ossë came to the gunwale, asking, “Master Samwise, would you wish to learn more of the Sea? Come, shed your wrappings! Douse the sail, tie yourself to your little craft, and leave her to her own wisdom!”


Sam hesitated. Though he had become reasonably comfortable in the boat – something he had thought impossible all his life – the idea of leaving her and plying the Sea, clad only in his skin, made his stomach clench. He returned Ossë’s gaze with a mixture of curiosity and fear, and made no answer. For a moment he considered the strangeness of his life, how he had doubted and overcome doubt, how he had feared and overcome fear, how he had wished to love and had loved. And how he sought now yet a greater love.


Smiling suddenly a fierce smile, he released the halyard, dropping the sail upon the deck, shed his clothes, and tied one end of a long, soft Elven rope to the mast and the other to himself. Ossë offered a hand, and Sam sat upon the transom, gingerly slipping a foot into the water. It was warm! He gasped in surprise. Then, closing his eyes and trusting wholly to Ossë, he pushed himself from the boat.


He landed in Ossë’s arms, and then he was floating upon his back. “Kick!” exclaimed Ossë, sounding oddly like Merry had years ago when he had tried (unsuccessfully) to teach Sam to swim in the calm slow Brandywine. Feeling Ossë remove his supporting arm, Sam kicked hard. He opened his eyes, but saw only the sky; not even a shadow of Ossë’s form was visible. “And paddle with your arms, too, my dear hobbit!” said a voice, now wholly Merry’s. He obeyed. The Sun warmed his face and long, feathery mares’ tails reached across the sky. He felt light and peaceful and protected. Glancing to his right he glimpsed his boat’s mast swinging gently.


That evening Sam ate his last meal with Ossë: green herbs and fresh scallops harvested from the shallows. When they had finished, Ossë took his hand. “Now you are ready. The way is open. Go with a light heart upon the Sea, and to that which is beyond, trusting to your learning and to your luck, and to the little craft we have built.”


Under Elbereth’s misty stars Sam thanked Ossë, bowing before him deeply and reverently. Turning to the east, towards the Shire, he spread wide his arms and spoke his thanks to Middle-earth, and to its peoples, to which he would return now only in thought. Then, looking upon Eärendil hanging low in the sky, he stepped into his little craft, and raised her sail, and loosened her mainsheet, and a light wind arose and bore him slowly into the West.


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