West of the Moon

A Tolkien Fanfiction Archive

 

 

Another Way of Leaving
If Frodo had not been given the choice to go to Valinor, what then? If he leaves, where can he go? Death is an escape, if he dares. Or is there some other way?
Author: jodancingtree
Rating: PG
Category: AU-Angst/Drama

 

1. The Last Adventure

He left the note for Sam propped against his pillow, the pillow he wouldn't need tonight, or ever again.

It was a suicide note, of course, but he hoped Sam wouldn't guess that. He'd worked hard on that note, for the little it said. Trying to say thank you - a hopeless task - how did you thank the one who followed you into the pit and dragged you out again! Even if you didn't want out, even if the pit was the only proper place for you, after the Ring.

He hadn't said that, only thank you. Only that he would never forget his faithful friend. For certain he wouldn't, not if he lived to be hundred, which was no part of his plan. He'd written that he couldn't face a lifetime in the quiet Shire, that he needed a new adventure. And that was true enough.

The last adventure. He shuddered in spite of himself. He'd know, before this night was out, what lay on the other side of death, if anything did. He hoped nothing did.

Oblivion, that was all he wanted. An end to pain, to memory, to the burning need for that thing which he hadn't had the strength to destroy, but which had been destroyed in his despite. It was good - good! - that the Ring had been destroyed, and his deepest regret was that he had not gone into the fire with it. It had taken his hope and his integrity, and it was the most savage irony that it had left him his life. A life he no longer wanted.

Well, the Ring was gone and could do no more harm. He was its last victim, and he would see to it that he was the last. His wounds pained him more and more, and he felt the darkness spreading in his mind. The melancholy that was daily harder to dissemble, the self-loathing that made him hide away in his study, seeing no one but Sam and Rose, writing, always writing.

The writing was done now; the book was finished. Nothing more he had to do, and so he would leave, before his darkness spread out from him and infected everyone around him. It was too much to bear, that he might drag Sam down with him, after everything Sam had suffered for his sake already. And Rose - how nearly he had robbed her life of happiness, taking Sam with him on the Quest. If he had known, back then, how Rose loved Sam, would he have taken him along? But Sam would not have allowed himself be left behind!

Useless questions. All in the past and beyond changing, for good or ill. If Bilbo had never picked up the Ring in Gollum's cave - but then Gollum would have killed him. If Bilbo had taken the Ring to Rivendell, instead of leaving it to him. If. If.

He locked his door from the inside and climbed out the window. He'd had to wait until the smial was quiet, everyone asleep, and he needed all the remaining hours of darkness. He knew that they slipped in at night, to check on him. He'd lain in the dark sometimes, feigning the deep, slow breath of sleep, while candlelight flickered in the half-open doorway. He wanted no one checking on him tonight.

The stable was at the bottom of the Hill, and he risked a light once he was inside. Easier to saddle a pony when you could see what you were doing! He'd thought about walking, but Sam would be quicker to believe he'd gone adventuring, if he took the pony. It gave him more scope, as well, where he could go to slay himself. He could get a good ways from Hobbiton in a single night, if he went mounted.

He would not do the deed at Bag End. He'd decided that from the beginning - what surer way to send Sam into the darkness, than for him to find his master's stiffening corpse, bloody from wound or face distorted from hanging - he wanted to save Sam from the dark, not pitch him into it! Not at Bag End, and not anywhere that his body might be found.

I need the Ring again, he thought wryly, so I can disappear!

Drowning would be good, but still, not near Hobbiton. Drowned folk sometimes surfaced, much the worse for their time underwater. A quick leap off Brandywine Bridge would do the trick, if not for Merry. If he surfaced in the Brandywine, Merry would come to hear of it, might even be called in to say for sure who it was, this waterlogged body. Merry had suffered his own brush with the dark, on Pelennor Field. He feared for Merry as much as he did for Sam.

At last he remembered the cave. He had found it years ago, long before the Quest, when he used to hike far afield for the sheer joy of it, hoping for a chance meeting with some of the Fair Folk as they passed through the Shire on their mysterious comings and goings. Down at the edge of the Green Hill Country, it was, east of the Tookland.

He had been beating his way through the brush, some little distance from the path, enjoying the feeling of being unseen, even if anyone passed by that unfrequented spot. And he had fallen in a hole! He'd twisted his ankle and lay for a moment catching his breath, and when he recovered he looked around and found that the hole was the entrance to an underground room, a natural cave with rocky sides and bottom.

He didn't know why he had kept it secret, but he had. He'd taken refuge in it sometimes, when he was caught by bad weather in the area, but never when he had a companion with him. He'd kept the knowledge of it to himself, and now it came to him as the solution to his quandary.

It had been a shelter to him, off and on through the years. He'd used it last the summer before the Quest, when he'd roamed the Shire saying farewell to his old haunts. Now it would be his last shelter. There he could do what he had to do, and the cave would be his tomb.

The pony saddled, he slung his saddlebags on its back and doused the light. He hadn't packed much - a snack and a water bottle - a blanket in case the night was chilly. He'd suffered enough in Mordor with cold, hunger and thirst - there was no need to repeat that. Just get to the cave and use the sword, and suffering would be at an end, his own as well as the danger of causing any more of it to those he loved. Sting hung at his belt and he ran his hand over the scabbard before he mounted the pony. Soon.
 

2. Hail, Sting

The trouble with riding was that it gave him too much liberty to think. He imagined the scene in the morning, when Sam would find his door locked. He wouldn't think much of it, not till mid-morning probably, when Frodo didn't appear. Then he would come knocking, softly at first, then loud and importunate, shouting his name. Finally he'd fetch tools and have the door from its hinges, fearing what he would find inside the silent room.

And all he would find would be the note. Frodo had thought of leaving the starglass for him - he had no need of it himself, where he was going! And Sam would treasure it, for its own sake as well as for his master's. But the starglass would give away his real intent, for certainly he would not leave it behind, were he truly going adventuring into the wide world. So there was only the note, the compassionate, lying note, for Sam to find.

And all his clothes. He'd forgotten that he should have packed some clothes, to give credence to his lie. He hoped Sam didn't stop to notice that he'd taken only what he wore on his back. He was three hours out from Hobbiton when that thought came to him - too late to go back and rectify the mistake.

It was hard to leave Sam. But he had Rose and Elanor, and Bag End would be his as well. The papers were all drawn up, legal and properly witnessed, left with Merry for safekeeping. Merry didn't know what he held, of course. He'd given him the large, sealed envelope, told him to hold it safe. Merry had looked at him strangely but forborne to quiz him about it, merely remarking that he was getting as odd as Bilbo in his old age, and Frodo had laughed and agreed.

Sam would grieve for a while - not too long, he hoped, since he would believe his master had gone seeking adventure of his own will, as Bilbo had. Sam had all he needed for his happiness, and the only threat to that happiness was moving away from Hobbiton at a steady trot.

He forced his mind away from Sam.

Merry would be all right. His brush with darkness had left him stronger, wiser, as Aragorn had said it would. So long as no horror overtook him - like finding his cousin drowned in the Brandywine! - Merry was good for a long and productive life. He'd make a worthy Master of Brandy Hall.

And Pippin, blessed, unquenchable Peregrin! He'd come nearly unscathed through captivity and terror, battle and near death under a mountain Troll. His laugh was as contagious, his smile as bright, as the day they'd left the Shire two and a half years before. He'd suffered, certainly, and been made the steadier by it, but no shadow had taken up residence in him. Suffering had tempered him like a fine sword. What a Thain he would make, when the time came! Frodo didn't think he had anything on his conscience where Pippin was concerned.

He had for Bilbo, though. His conscience ached over Bilbo. Word of his death had come from Rivendell late last year. Almost Frodo had gone to visit him on his birthday, but his wounds were hurting him and the book was nearly done - he had put it off until the spring, and that had been too late. Then he had a new pain to bear, in his heart, because he had not gone back in time to say good-bye.

Oh, Bilbo. If there's anything beyond -- if there is, I'll see you soon. I'll say hello, Bilbo, and never again good-bye.

Aragorn - he said he thought there was something beyond. I guess I'll know by morning.

The land was rising around him now, billows of rounded hills, like ocean waves in the moonlight. Like the waves around the Elven ship he had watched departing from the Grey Havens, carrying Gandalf and Elrond and Galadriel into the West, into the land where mortals could not go. Middle Earth had seemed very drab to him, when they had gone.

The pony slowed to a walk, climbing. Frodo had halted several times, resting the beast. The pony was a bit of a problem, what to do with him. At least he had no particular markings, not like the white strip on Merry's pony. Strider was a plain brown, strong and good-hearted, but in appearance nothing to set him apart.

If I take off saddle and bridle and turn him loose in the woods, he'll find his way to a stable somewhere. Not likely that he'll go all the way back home, where he'd be recognized. Best do it before I get there, though, and make sure he wanders off before I hike to the cave. I didn't want him hanging around the entrance, waiting for me to come out!

Another hour, maybe less. He touched Sting in its scabbard. Soon.

Like Turin Turambar, he'd die on his own sword. That story had always made him shudder. To find everything good in your life turned inside out, to be brought down in your very hour of triumph, your beloved wife not only dead, but the one woman in all the world you should not have wed --! Well, he'd missed that evil, at all events. In all his failure and shame, at least he hadn't awakened to find himself married to his sister! Of course, he had no sister.

"Hail, Gurthang," he muttered, remembering the end of the tale. "From no blood wilt thou shrink. Wilt thou take Turin Turambar? Wilt thou slay me swiftly?"

The moon was sinking behind the hills. He was nearly there. He pulled the pony up and swung down. Unbuckled the girth and lifted down the saddle, eased the bridle off. The pony butted up against his chest, questioning.

"No, I haven't got anything for you. I'm sorry, I should have thought, should've brought an apple or something." He leaned against the silky neck, his hand playing with the pony's mane. "Sam would have remembered to bring you an apple, Strider, even if he was going off to fall on his sword! I'm afraid you got a poor bargain in masters. I hope whoever finds you will be good to you."

He backed away and slapped the pony's rump. "Go on, now! Off you go and find a new master - make sure it's someone who'll remember to bring an apple for you!"
He waited ten or fifteen minutes as Strider ambled slowly away, until he could no longer see the pony in the dim light. Then he draped bridle and saddlebags round his neck and hefted the saddle. The cave was perhaps half a mile further on, and it was awkward carrying the saddle and picking his way over the rough ground. The night grew darker as the moon set, and finally he stopped and brought out the starglass to light his way.

When at last he reached the cave he was sweating and panting from exertion. He dropped the saddle in and climbed down after it. Then he moved deep into the underground room, holding the starglass before him. He set the saddle down and sat on it, leaning back against the wall. He was exhausted - he hadn't had this much exercise in months.

He'd had no idea it was this much trouble to die. I'll have to catch my breath before I can slay myself, he thought. It struck him funny and he laughed softly.

At last he stood, unbuttoning his shirt. It would be morning soon. He was determined not to see another morning. He dropped the shirt on the ground and drew his sword.

How to do this? The cave wall was rough and pitted - he felt along it with his fingers till he found an indentation that seemed about the right size, and fit Sting's hilt into it.

Did it matter if it actually pierced his heart? That might be a little tricky, aiming the point between his ribs. So long as it went clean through him, it should be effective enough. He held the edges of the hilt as well as he could, arching his back a little to fit the length of the blade between his body, just beneath his ribcage, and the wall.

He pressed his body slightly against the tip to steady it, and a drop of blood appeared.

"Hail, Sting," he said, remembering the story, postponing the moment. "Wilt thou take Frodo son of Drogo? Wilt thou slay me quickly?"

He took a deep breath and steeled his nerve to fall forward on the blade, and a cold whisper answered him.

"Gurthang am I not! Do not shame me, Ringbearer!"

He trembled with shock and cold - the cave was drafty without his shirt - and the tip pierced a little deeper, drew more blood. There had been no voice; it was his imagination. Don?t fail at this, Frodo. You can at least die, if you can do nothing else!

"I have drunk no innocent blood till now," said the whisper. "Do not shame me!"

He recoiled, shrinking away from the steel, and it clattered to the rocky floor. "I am not innocent," he protested, staring down at it. But the whisper hung in the air, "Do not shame me!" Blood ran down his body from the shallow wound.

He stooped finally and picked up his shirt, using the shirttail to staunch the flowing blood, then picking up the sword and mechanically wiping the tip clean.

Why had he thought he could use Sting? The sword had defended him against Shelob, against the orcs of Moria - it was almost like asking Sam to slay him. It was ancient, forged by the Eldar in the dim past, his ownership a brief moment in its long history. But it was an honourable blade, and would be shamed to slay the master it had defended. He burnished the blade, made sure no trace of his blood remained on it, and slid it back into its sheath.

How, then? It would be morning soon.

He had no rope, but he had the pony harness. He could contrive to hang himself with that, could he find something to hook it to. He held up the starglass, searching, but the roof of the cavern was far above his reach, and he could find no protuberance on the wall that would serve his purpose.

There were trees enough, outside, but that would leave his body in plain view to anyone who passed by. There would be inquiries, and word would get back to Sam and his cousins, soon or late. He needed a way to die inside the cave.

At last he sat, cold and worn out, and pulled his shirt back on. How typical, he thought bitterly, that he couldn?t even compass his own death! The saddlebags lay beside him and he pulled out the bread and meat he had packed, an age ago, it seemed, not merely yesterday evening.

Pity he hadn?t thought of bringing poison, not that he?d know where to find any. Poison would be ideal - creep far back in the cave and swallow it, and he?d never be found, never again bring sorrow to any living soul. And then he realized - he did know where to find poison! In the woods, under the leaves. It was spring. There would be mushrooms. Bilbo had taught him long ago to recognize those that were safe to eat - but of course that meant he knew the others, as well. The ones that would feed him death.

It was still dark, but it would be morning soon. When it was light enough to see, he would go mushroom hunting one last time. He lay down with his head on the saddlebag, pulling the blanket over him, to wait for daylight.
 

3. A Bird with One Leg

He woke early in spite of his sleepless night. Time pressed him now; he had counted on not waking to this dawn, and he had a sense of being tardy.

Late for my own funeral; Uncle Sara always said I would be.

He drank a swallow of water from his bottle and went outside. It was cool but not unpleasantly so, and the woods were misty. He thought there might be rain later - Sam could have told him what time it would come! - but with luck he'd never know. He found a stick to turn over the damp leaves still coating the ground from last fall, and commenced the hunt.

Two hours later the saddlebag he carried was full. He wasn't sure how many of the mushrooms would be enough, didn't want to make himself deathly ill, but not dead. Better have a regular feast of them and make sure.

He found a dead tree and broke off enough dry wood for a fire - everything on the ground was too damp to burn. If he was going to feast on mushrooms, they'd have to be cooked. Ever since he'd raided Farmer Maggot's fields in his youth - and nearly made himself sick on raw mushrooms, followed by the beating and the desperate race to the river - well, he'd never liked them uncooked, after that! He wouldn't be able to force down a bagful, raw.

Once again he wished he had Sam's foresight - Sam would have brought a pan. He broke off a green branch and threaded a row of mushrooms on it, held it over the fire. A moment later he heard a step behind him.

"You've got too much fire and not enough coals, lad. You need to let that blaze die down a bit before you try cooking over it."

He froze, disbelief and despair and a crazy, ironic laughter struggling in him. A leg descended into the cave entrance, followed by another, and a tall man in dusty brown robes squatted beside him.

"Forgot to bring a pan, eh? They'd be better fried in butter."

Frodo nodded, not trusting himself to speak. If only this stranger didn't ask to share his breakfast! How to get rid of him? It could not possibly be this difficult just to die!

The stranger was looking through the saddlebag. "Mercy of mercy, lad, you're no judge of mushrooms! You've got a couple of Death Angels in here! Lucky for you I came along!"

Frodo bit his tongue.

"Or maybe you are a judge, eh? You've got nothing but Death Angels. What have you got on that stick?"

His hand flashed out and twitched the stick away from Frodo.

"Nothing but Death Angels. Whoever taught you your mushrooms didn't wish you any good - or else you know well what you've got here. Which is it, lad?"

Frodo looked him full in the face, too frustrated, too desperate, to pretend.

"I know my mushrooms," he said flatly, courtesy deserting him for once in his life. "How is it your business what I have for breakfast?"

The stranger was dark, his skin near as dark as his robes, lined and leathery. His hair was black, untidy, grizzled with grey, his brown eyes like deep wells in his face, peaceful.

He held Frodo's eyes while he placed the stick in the midst of the fire and followed it with the rest of the mushrooms, dumped unceremoniously out of the bag. He ran his hand around inside the bag, making sure every scrap was cleared out of it. Then he reached into a deep pocket somewhere in his robes and brought out two apples.

"Since you're having breakfast in my dining room, I'll provide the meal," he said equably.

"Your dining room?"

"Oh, one of many! I'm not here often, I have my rounds to make. I haven't seen you in some years, lad."

"Seen - me? But I've never seen you at all! Who are you, then?" In truth he reminded Frodo of someone - almost, but not quite.

"Your manners have gone begging, have they not? It is for the visitor to introduce himself and state his business. But as it happens I know who you are, and having seen what you cook for your breakfast, I fancy I know your business. You are the Ringbearer, and you have come here to die. Am I right?"

Frodo sighed and bit into the apple in his hand, a little surprised to find himself hungry.

"That was the idea, but it seems to have gone awry, like the rest of my life."

"And it having gone awry, you're anxious to throw it away."

"And again I ask, how is that your business? I know now who you remind me of - Gandalf! I did, or tried to do, what Gandalf commanded me. And I am broken by it, and my life is broken. I only want to be done with it. A dozen times on the Quest I nearly died, and now I cannot manage it! How can it be so hard to die?"

"As eager as you are to part with life, it would seem life is not yet ready to part with you."

Frodo didn't answer, pulling up his knees and laying his head on them. Hopelessness and self-hate washed through him, a cold tide that chilled him to the marrow. He closed his eyes.

He heard the stranger move away, rustle about in the bushes, and return.

"Look here, Little Donkey."

"What did you call me?"

"Little Donkey - it's what you are, you know. A little donkey, patient and willing, loaded far beyond his strength and nearly broken by the load. But not quite broken - with care and gentleness, there can be healing."

Frodo shook his head, lifting his face to the stranger. "I wish there could be, I do wish it! But Gandalf said I'd never heal - and Saruman - the darkness is inside me now, and I cannot bear it! And it deepens, every day it deepens..."

The stranger squatted next to him, and cupped in his hands he held a tiny bird's nest of woven grasses. There were three speckled eggs in it, shiny and clean looking, beautiful in their simplicity and promise.

"Don't touch, Donkey," he said softly, and Frodo pulled his finger back. "Wait."

They sat in breathless silence, and then there was a whirr of wings and a bird flew between them and landed on the nest, standing for a moment before she fluffed her feathers and settled down on top of the eggs. She had only one leg.

The nest lay in the stranger's hands, and the bird sat in the nest, seemingly unafraid, her one leg tucked beneath her.

"Is she broken, Donkey? Or is she healed?"
 

4. The Other Wizard

He was too full of wonderment to answer. After a few minutes, the stranger carried the nest, the bird still sitting in it undisturbed, over to a bush and replaced it carefully on the ground. Frodo got up and went to look, but once the robed man had stepped back, he was hard put to see either nest or bird, even though he knew roughly where they had to be.

"How did you know it was there?" It was the least of his questions, but the only one he could frame in words.

"Filit? Oh, she nests in the same spot every year. We are old friends - I come each spring to check on her."

"Filit - little bird," Frodo translated.

"I am not very creative with names, I'm afraid."

Frodo laughed, finding suddenly that he liked this man who mingled his peremptory ways with such gentleness.

"No, you certainly are not! 'Donkey,' indeed - at least you could have said it in some Elven tongue!"

"But you are a hobbit, you see. Elvish would not fit - whereas Donkey suits you exactly. Meek, but stubborn. Why do you believe yourself beyond healing?"

The stranger was pacing about, scuffing at the ground with one sandaled foot. He stooped and came up with a mushroom.

"We could use that bag of yours again, Frodo Donkey. One apple does not make a breakfast."

Frodo obediently fetched the saddlebag and helped search for mushrooms, not Death Angels this time. When the bag was full they returned to the fire, now reduced to coals. The stranger rummaged in a cloth sack that Frodo hadn't noticed before, which lay on the ground next to the cave entrance. He brought forth a small pan of some shining metal.

"No butter," he said cheerfully. "Have you still got some water in your bottle, Donkey?"

"How do you know I have a water bottle?" Frodo was finding the fellow's prescience a bit uncanny.

"You wouldn't stray from home without water, not after Mordor. If you have any left, pour it in the pan. I'll find us a bit of wild thyme for flavor."

Frodo did as he was told, sitting cross-legged by the fire, stirring the mushrooms with a peeled stick. The man returned with some leaves of thyme which he shredded into the pan.

They ate in silence. They had gathered two or three varieties of wholesome mushrooms, but Frodo regretted the Death Angels - the food warmed and filled him, but brought him no closer to his desire. The darkness would return, and he was so weary of resisting.

"If you had a beast, Donkey, worn down and injured, but a good beast at heart - how would you care for it?"

"I don't know - I wouldn't know how to care for it. I'm not good with animals; I didn't even remember to bring an apple for my pony last night!"

"No - he told me about that. He said you were sorry, though."

Frodo stared at him, the last mushroom halfway to his mouth. "My pony talked to you --!
No, this is too mysterious - who in Middle Earth are you? You're like Gandalf, only - are you the other wizard? The one who talks to birds?"

"Radagast the Brown, yes. The foolish animal-lover who sits all day under a tree talking to the birds and worse yet, listening to them! Yet the animals are wise. They make little noise in the world, but they live closer to their purpose than many of more pride, Elves and men and wizards."

"And their purpose is --?"

"To rejoice in being alive in the midst of a living world, and so delight the heart of Eru who gave them life."

Frodo moved restlessly, breaking to pieces the stick he had used for stirring the mushrooms, dropping it bit by bit into the fire.

"Our friendship would prosper better if you would speak your thought, Donkey. It serves no purpose for you to darken like a storm cloud."

Frodo shrugged. "You paint a pretty landscape, Aiwendil (1) - your name in Quenya suits you very well! But nature is not quite the idyll you make it sound. They feed on one another, those wise animals of yours."

The brown man beamed on him. "That is a name I?ve not heard in many years -- I had forgot you are scholar as well as burden-bearer! You are right, Donkey. There is much amiss in creation, and the beasts know pain as well as blessedness. You have yourself helped in amending that evil, and I believe it is part of your life's purpose. Yet it is not your only purpose, and you are not the only soldier striving against the Dark. The animals kill sometimes, and they suffer death, but they do not despair. I have found no bird flying deliberately against a tree, to destroy her life."

"You would get on well with Sam. I don't believe he has ever known despair."

"Sam? Ah yes, the little gardener who followed you to Mordor. He has had his hands enough in the good earth to draw strength and wisdom from it, although he could not tell you what he knows. You could more easily lose your shadow, than that lad! He'll be searching for you."

Frodo looked around in disquiet. The sun was high, the early mist all burned away. Sam had probably broken into his room by now. Would he set out in pursuit, or would he let his master go?

He raised resentful eyes to the wizard. "If not for you, by now there would be no danger of him finding me." His voice was bitter.

"Not alive, at any rate. It is an odd chance that I was here this morning, Donkey."

"How so? You come here every spring, you said."

"These four years I have come. Before that I had never seen your Shire. I came the first time seeking Gandalf, with a message from Saruman. And then I sped back to Saruman, for the fear of the Nazgul was upon me. But my speed was nothing to Gandalf's, and I came in sight of Orthanc to find him there already and marooned atop the tower! I sent Gwaihir to him, for I cannot fly, however much I talk to birds! But I gathered my courage and went back to the Shire, in case there was any aid I could give here."

"Was there?"

"Not to hobbits, but there was a bird caught in a snare. I rescued her, but her leg was broken and it would not mend. At last I cut it off her, and then she healed clean. It was while I was tending her that I saw you here, lad. Then the summer was ending, and I carried her away with me to the south, but in the spring I brought her home. Each year since I come to see how she does, and every year she nests here, by the cave that you call yours, and I call mine. So I was here, when your misery drove you here, seeking death."

"And not finding it."

"Death flies from you, it seems, yet you will catch up to it at last. Or you might find healing first, by that same tenacity. The choice lies with you, Donkey - which one will you pursue?"

Frodo shook his head hopelessly, staring at the ground.
"I would not know where to look for healing."

*******

Footnote:
(1) aiwendil - bird-lover
 

5. Donkey's Shadow

"If I had a donkey broken with overwork and ill treatment, I?d put him out to pasture. I?d put him where there was cool grass and enough trees for shade, but not enough to block the sunlight. I'd have him sleep at night under the open sky with the stars of Varda wheeling over his head - where the only sounds were birdsong and the wind in the treetops. And I?d place no burden nor harness on him, but let him wander at his own sweet will."

"And would he heal?"

"If life was still strong in him - as it is in you. There?s a natural end to mortal kind, Donkey; they?re not meant to live forever, not in Middle Earth. But until that natural end comes, a creature will try to live, to heal itself, if you give it what it needs for healing."

Frodo was silent.

"What have you done since you got home, Frodo?"

"Helped clear the ruffians out of the Shire, been Acting Mayor for awhile, tried to help hobbits who were hurt in the Troubles, wrote the story of the War."

"So the broken-down donkey came home and instead of going on grass to recover, he got a new burden and went back to work."

"Gandalf said -- "

"Gandalf is rich in wisdom," Radagast interrupted him. "Gandalf is beyond me, and above me - but yet, he does not know earth and water as I know them. The birds and beasts have a humble wisdom of their own, and they have much to teach you of life, and of healing - if you are meek enough to learn from them."

"I will try to be meek enough." He bowed his head and his voice sank to a whisper, but the wizard heard. "Otherwise I must find a way to die, for the darkness grows and grows in me, and soon there will be nothing left of Frodo Baggins."

The wizard regarded him soberly. "Your sword is wiser than you are, Donkey. It shrinks from innocent blood."

Frodo groaned. "You, too? I am not innocent! I claimed the Ring; I took it for my own!"

"You are not guilty, unless you slay yourself in your pride."

"Pride! Say shame, rather, and you'll be nearer the mark!"

"No, Frodo - pride. Because you were not the hero you wished to be; you were not able to resist to the end." The words were like stones hitting him, although the wizard's voice was gentle. "You gave yourself to the task, with all your heart, and you were not strong enough for it. And now you wish to die, because you do not see yourself truly."

Frodo made a sharp gesture of denial. "No. I see myself only too clearly."

"And find yourself worthy of death. But that is not for you to decide, Donkey. Moreover, you have brought home an infection with you. Morgoth's evil is a sickness indeed, even at third hand, through his servant, through the Ring. But the Life that moves earth and stars is greater still, will you open yourself to Him."

"Him?"

"There is no life without Person, Donkey."

Frodo sat quiet, trying to wrap his mind around the strange things this wizard said, but Radagast looked up suddenly, and rose.

"And now if you do not wish your little gardener to find you, you had best take to the trees with me."

And to Frodo's stupefaction, Radagast hitched up his robes and grabbed hold of a branch, climbing neatly and without fuss into a tree, until the brown of his garment blended into the crisscross of branches high above. Frodo started to grin, but there was a jingle of harness not far off, and he got up hastily and caught at a branch over his head, pulling himself up with some difficulty and following his mentor into hiding.

Sam came into view, riding his pony. They were moving at a good clip and Frodo held his breath in case the pony stumbled into the hole at the cave's entrance, but Sam pulled him up and dismounted, leaving the reins dangling.

"Wait for me, Bill, while I check."

His voice was raw with grief, and he lowered himself into the hole and went into the cave as one long familiar with the place. Frodo glanced at Radagast a few branches above him, and the wizard nodded. You'd more easily lose your shadow.

Sam came out carrying Frodo's sword, looking both puzzled and relieved. He squatted by the remains of the little fire, spitting on a finger and touching the coals.

"Not long out," he said thoughtfully, looking around. "But where have you got to, Mr. Frodo? Strider's gear is still in the cave, so you're not riding, seemingly. No point going bareback, when you've got a saddle. Nor you wouldn't leave Sting, not unless -"

A visible shudder ran through him and he lowered his face into his hands, then mastered himself and got to his feet, looking up into the trees. Not high up, where hobbit and wizard clung to the branches unseen, but a couple of yards from the ground - about where a body would be hanging, if it had kicked free of a pony before it hung. His face, turned up toward Frodo but not seeing him, was grimy and streaked with tears, and Frodo's heart turned over with pity. He began hurriedly climbing down.

"Sam! Sam, no, I'm all right - Sam, don't look like that - !"

Sam was upon him almost before he touched foot to ground, catching him in an embrace that drove the breath from his lungs and made his ribs hurt.

"Mr. Frodo, you're alive! I was so afraid - Elbereth, but I was afraid - !"

He clung to Frodo convulsively, weeping, and Frodo patted his back and tried to comfort him.

"Sam, let go!" he gasped finally. "I can't breathe!"

Sam released him, pulling out his handkerchief to mop his eyes and blow his nose. "There, I'm being a ninnyhammer, as usual, but - when you were gone, Mr. Frodo, with your sword and all, but not a change of clothes and your mithril shirt still in the drawer - I was afraid you'd do yourself a mischief! I came along as quick as I could, but I was afraid all along the way that I'd be too late - "

Frodo's face gave him away.

"That is what you were going for! I knew it - I knew you wouldn't be going off on no adventure - like as if we hadn't had adventure enough for ten lifetimes already! Why, Mr. Frodo? After everything you've been through, to go and do that -"

He stood hugging himself, head down, sobbing as if his heart were broken. Frodo wrapped his arms around him, drew the tousled head to his shoulder, rocked him back and forth like a child awakened from nightmare.

"Shh, Sam, I didn't, did I? I'm right here, I'm perfectly fine - Sam, you'll have to stop crying, you're getting us all wet, we'll take pneumonia and die of it and Rosie will never forgive me..."

It had no effect; Sam was beyond seeing the humor in anything.

"Have you got a pan with you, by any chance, Master Gardener? And anything to cook in it? "

The hobbits looked up to see Radagast crouched over the fire, blowing it into life and feeding it bits of wood. Sam stared at him dumbfounded, and the wizard grinned at him, a flash of white teeth in his dark face.

"Well, you didn't come away with nothing to eat, did you? Even your master going off to fall on his sword, carried a snack! How well I understand Gandalf's affection for hobbits!"

Frodo laughed ruefully, shaking his head. "I did, didn't I? I don't suppose Turin would have carried a sandwich, now I think about it. Hobbits really aren't made for high deeds and heroic ends, are they?"

"Though they do them, at need, Frodo Donkey! Don't denigrate the high deeds you and your kind have already done, but do try to remember that you're a hobbit - it's almost the greatest strength you have. Now, Sam, what have you brought us for luncheon?"


Radagast had judged Sam rightly, and they divided the ham and ate it while the potatoes were cooking, cut up with butter in the pan. Sam had brought Frodo's pipe, too, as well as his own -

"Well, I hoped I'd be in time, Mr. Frodo, but it was almost the last straw, when I saw you'd left your pipe! I knew you'd never go off without that, the one Mr. Bilbo gave you in Rivendell - when I saw that, and your mithril shirt, I knew you weren't going adventuring, whatever lies you wrote to me!"

"I didn't want you to grieve, Sam."

"And you didn't think I'd grieve to have you go? Going at all, never mind without a good-bye or anything! Even if you'd only been leaving to find a new adventure, you shouldn't've gone without no good-bye, Mr. Frodo!"

Radagast interrupted. "Let me try that pipe of yours, Donkey. Gandalf and Saruman both took a liking to this weed you hobbits are so fond of, and I'm curious what they found to like in it. A strange pastime, blowing smoke rings."

Frodo passed the pipe to him, and the hobbits waited for his reaction - a violent cough, probably, with exclamations of disgust at the taste. Pipe-smoking was an acquired pleasure. But the wizard confounded them, puffing with evident enjoyment, and blowing quite a creditable smoke ring.

"Very relaxing - I shall have to get one of my own, I see. Sam, I think your master wonders how you found him so quickly."

Sam snorted. "It wasn't so quick as you think! I woke up before dawn and it was too quiet, like - I don't know, there was something amiss, is all. And your door was locked," he said to Frodo. "It worried me, that, and I went round and looked in your window, but I couldn't see you. So I went right in the window, to see, and you weren't there nor your bed not slept in, just the note. I went and checked around a bit and you'd left your mithril shirt and all your clothes - so I got Bill and started after you. I was a good while searching before I remembered the cave way out here, and by that time I was in a state - I rode Bill hard, getting here."

"But how on earth did you know about the cave?" Frodo asked.

Sam seemed a little embarrassed. "Well, Mr. Frodo, that last summer before the Quest, we were all watching you pretty close, in case you slipped off alone by yourself, like Mr. Bilbo - Mr. Merry told you that, you remember. I followed you many a time, that summer, and so did the others. Mr. Merry, he knows about the cave. I thought someone should know besides me, just in case."

If the wizard had not come, Frodo thought, appalled -

Sam would have found him here. He could guess what he would have looked like -- it was no easy death, poison mushrooms -- and he shut his eyes against the thought of Sam coming on that scene. Sam, or Merry. And he had thought he was sparing them!

He met a long look from the wizard and saw that he was not alone in his thought. Radagast stood up and came back with Filit's nest in his hands again.

"Look, Sam."

A smile spread over the young gardener's face, and he held out his hands. To Frodo's surprise, the wizard transferred nest and bird to him without hesitation, and Filit sat quietly through it all, looking from Radagast to Samwise in perfect trust.

"She knows a friend," the wizard said softly, and Sam cradled the nest as tenderly as he did his own baby girl back home, making soft twitters and cheeps at the little bird. She put her head to one side, listening, and answered at last with one clear note.

"That bird saved your master's life, Sam."

Sam looked at him in question.

"I was here to visit her, and so I was on hand to change his menu. He had a bag of Death Angels he was cooking."

"Mr. Frodo!

Frodo looked away, his jaw tightening. Why tell Sam, why harrow up his feelings? Right when he was looking so happy, talking to the bird.

"Filit was one of my patients, a few years back. Now it seems her misfortune has turned to grace for several hobbits, if the Merry you mention would be as grieved as you by Frodo's death."

"Aye, he would. Him, and Mr. Pippin and Rosie and a-many others. How could you do it, Mr. Frodo? How could you do that to us?"

Frodo couldn't answer. He looked down at his hands, rubbing at the gap of his missing finger. He didn't want to cause sorrow, yet he couldn't bear much more. He could see no way out of the tangle.

Sam handed the nest back to Radagast and went to kneel by Frodo.

"No, now, Master, just forget I said that. I love you, is all, and it don't bear thinking of, you doing that. But I know how it is. I do. I near used Sting myself that way, up in the Spider's pass."

Frodo stared at him, shaken. "You, Sam?"

"Aye, me, Sam Gamgee. You wouldn't think my mind would run that way, would you? But I thought you were dead, see. Killed by that monster, and us so far from home, and me all alone in that horrid place. You looked so white and still and far away - it was more than I could bear."

"What stopped you?" Frodo whispered.

"I thought I had to go on, to finish. If He got the Ring, in spite of everything, it was like you'd died for nothing. And think, Mr. Frodo - if I'd a fallen on Sting, there in that pass, there'd've been no one to rescue you. It would have been all for nothing, and a hard death you would have had -"

His voice cracked and he gathered Frodo in his arms.

"Don't you think your Sam don't understand. I do, I surely do. But you got to go on, Mr. Frodo, just like I did. There's something more you got to do, else you wouldn't never have lived through the fire and all. What are we doing here alive, either of us? Who'd a thought old Gandalf could fly in and snatch us off the Mountain like he did?"

Frodo broke at last, his composure shattered, and he leaned against Sam's sturdy shoulder crying the unshed tears of the past three years.

There was no sound for a long while but his racking sobs. At last he quieted and the wizard spoke.

"You know your master will have to go away, don't you, Sam?"

Sam glared at him defiantly. "Begging your pardon, sir, I don?t know no such thing! He's home now, and he needs to stay at home! There's a-plenty for him to do right here in the Shire. I'll take better care of him, is all. I won't leave him, not for a moment. He won't have no more chance of hurting himself."

"Would you turn your love into a cage, Sam?" The wizard's tone was gentle. "That would not help him - mind or heart would break, and perhaps both. He must go away and heal. And then, if he is to relish his life, he must find his purpose."

"What purpose?" Frodo broke in harshly. "A new burden for me to carry? Did you not say you'd place no saddle on your broken beast?"

"In time - in a few years - I am going to Mordor," said the wizard.

The hobbits regarded him with horror.

"Now, Mr. Radagast, you don't want to be doing that, not that it's for me to tell a wizard what to do, but still! You won't find no birds there, not unless it's vultures cleaning up the dead!"

"That is why I will wait a while before I go. The depths of Mordor, near the Mountain and Barad-dur -- it will be many generations of men before life comes again to those places, if it ever does. But in the Morgai, where you found thorn bushes and little streams - something might be done there, to speed the land's recovery. I will go and see, at all events. I could use a little Donkey to companion me, if he is strong enough by then."

"No, you won't do no such thing, taking him back there!" Sam was on his feet, shouting, and he looked as if he might spring bodily at the wizard. "You and Mr. Gandalf! You need to find someone else to do your Quests, you great ones - you all but killed him last time, and you'll not take him there again!"

Radagast was silent, watching Frodo, who hadn't moved.

"You invite me to Mordor, as if it were some rare privilege!" The hobbit's voice was low, but he trembled with suppressed feeling. "I thank you for the compliment, but I fear I must decline - I'm not quite recovered from my last journey, you see." He wondered what would happen if he laughed in the wizard's face. It would be a savage laughter.

Radagast met his eyes, a wide smile splitting his face, and it seemed he knew perfectly well what Frodo was thinking.

"I think it would be a privilege, yes. And if I believe there may be healing for that ruined land, what does that say of your wounds? You have taken grave hurt from your burden, Donkey, but the land bore even greater evil and for long years. Yet Life is stronger than death, and it will burst out when all hope seems lost. As for you -- if you will go on grass for a time, you will be fit to help mend other hurts besides your own. Is that worth living for? You do not have to go to Mordor-- there is need enough in happier lands, for someone with hands of healing, and heart of pity."

Sam sat down close to Frodo, an arm around his shoulders.

"What do you mean, if he'll go on grass?"

"I would take him with me when I leave the Shire, away into the south. I have other small friends like Filit, that I check on from time to time, and the wild things of the forest need a healer the same as the creatures of barn and village. I would teach him to help them, as I do, and in so doing he would help himself. I follow the seasons without hurry, and my music is frog song and the cry of the curlew on distant lakes. Yet I think this year my path will take me first to Tom Bombadil, for Tom knows much of caring for the earth."

Frodo smiled in spite of himself. Old Bombadil - yes, he'd like to see him once more, and fair lady Goldberry. He thought suddenly that even if he didn't go with Radagast, he'd make his way to the Old Forest again, to visit Tom. If the Forest got him after that, well -

But Sam's words, and the wizard's, were sinking into his mind, and death did not seem quite so attractive. Frog song and the cry of the curlew - it sounded peaceful and remote, like cold water on a thirsty day -

"I think you should go, Mr. Frodo."

He twisted round in surprise, and met Sam's look, earnest and pleading.

"I'll miss you something awful, and the Shire won't never be the same while you're gone, but I think you should go. I couldn't put my finger on it, all this past year, what it was you needed - but this seems right, somehow. Well, not Mordor! But the going on grass -- and then maybe you'll come home again, someday, glad-hearted like you used to be -" His voice failed, and he put his face down on Frodo's shoulder. Frodo ran his fingers through the tousled hair, reflecting how Sam's thought had always been of ways to help him, never of his own comfort...

Sam got control and fumbled for his handkerchief.

"I'll never have no peace after today, wondering if you're off again to put an end to yourself. You'll be driven distracted with me following you around, Mr. Frodo. You'd better go with Mr. Radagast."

###

They slept in the cave that night, and Radagast told them tales such as neither of them had ever heard, of the ways of wild things and the creatures he had known in his long wanderings in Middle Earth. Animals they had seen only as threat and scourge - wolves and serpents - were as familiar to him, and as endearing, as Filit herself, and the hobbits marveled.

"They all have their place - Eru makes nothing in vain," he averred, but Sam shook his head doubtfully.

"You watch yourself, Mr. Frodo, when you find yourself treating a wolf for the bellyache! You don't want to lose no more fingers."

And Frodo laughed, thinking for the first time in many months that the future looked possible, even promising.

At daybreak they emerged from the cave to find both ponies grazing under the trees, and with them a tall grey horse with a red rope bridle but no other gear.

"Ah, Smoky, you always sense when I'm ready to go, don't you? And you brought Strider along, that's good. Donkey, can you ride bareback? I'd as soon not burden him with that heavy saddle, if you can manage without."

"I can learn. I don't want to wear a saddle myself, so I won't put one on Strider. Shall I bring my sword?"

"Bring it along - even the beasts have tooth and claw for their defense! And bring the saddlebags - it's still the season for mushrooms."

Sam was cooking the rest of the potatoes, stealthily wiping away the tears that kept slipping down his face. They ate quickly, in silence. They'd done their talking in the night hours, and now there was only farewell.

"I can't ever thank you, Sam."

"Nor you don't need to, Mr. Frodo. Just get well again, and be happy. And - and come home again someday! Don't let this be the last good-bye."

"I'll come home, Sam. It may be a long time, but I'll come."

He rode away with Radagast, a slight figure on his little pony following the tall wizard on his grey horse. He looked back once to wave at Sam, who stood with Bill's reins in his hand, trying to smile through his tears.
 

6. Epilogue

He came to Bag End as the sun was rising, coming up the Hill through a chorus of birdsong. The summer lilac bush by the kitchen door was a mass of white, and he breathed deep of the fragrance as he fumbled with the latch and went in.

The kitchen was quiet, no fire on the hearth. He had thought Rosie would be up by now, the kettle steaming and breakfast underway. Well, she and Sam were old - he was old himself - maybe they slept later these days. He'd surprise her and have breakfast ready when she came in.

He worked quietly, not wanting to wake them. A pan of fried potatoes with bacon and onions was filling the kitchen with a tempting aroma, when he heard steps in the passage.

He turned to greet Rose, anticipating amazement, questions, cries of welcome, but it wasn't Rose, it was Sam. A Sam he hardly recognized, white-haired and wrinkled, his face drawn with grief.

"Hello?" Even the voice was quavery - age, or sorrow? "Hello? Who is it? Is that you, Frodo-lad?"

"It's Frodo, yes," he said, but he wondered. It was sixty years, at least, since anyone had called him lad, and Sam never had.

"Frodo? What are you doing here so early, they won't be here till mid-morning - Mr. Frodo!"

The halting steps stopped, the bowed head lifted, wide-eyed with shock.

"Mr. Frodo! Oh, Mr. Frodo, you've come, how did you know - you're in time for the funeral, I'm that thankful you've come today - oh, Mr. Frodo!"

He caught Sam before he fell, helped him to a chair.

"Rosie?" he asked, but he knew.

"She passed away the day before yesterday, Mr. Frodo. Just - slept away in the night, like. Peaceful. My Rosie, my sweet Rosie..."

He wept quietly, acceptance as well as sorrow. He was very old.

Frodo made the tea and slid the mug into his hand. "Drink, Sam."

"I'm that glad you've come, Mr. Frodo. Yesterday - I was so alone, yesterday. Even with all the children..."

"I'm here now, Sam."

He sat beside him, gripping his hand. After a bit he got up and filled their plates, coaxed Sam to eat. How many times on their journey had Sam hovered at his side, making sure he ate, when he wouldn't have bothered on his own account. Now it was his turn.

"Come on, Sam - finish it up. You don?t want to hurt my feelings, make me think you don?t like my cooking!"

"The children will be here soon, Mr. Frodo. Strange it is, to think you never met any but Elanor! There?s thirteen in all, you know. I thought it was Frodo-lad, when I heard you in the kitchen - he?s like my right hand, Fro is. He?ll be proud to meet Mr. Frodo Baggins as he?s been hearing about all his life!"

Frodo shuddered dramatically, teasing him. "What a thought, Sam! Do I have to face your family as some character out of legend? Can?t you pass me off as your long-lost cousin from Bree?"

Sam chuckled. "Should?ve come back sooner, Mr. Frodo, before the legends had a chance to grow." His smile faded. "I wish you?d got here a few days earlier, for Rosie to see you. She always had a soft spot for you."

Frodo?s eyes filled, and he squeezed Sam?s shoulder. "I wish I had, too, Sam."

In his heart he grieved for Rosie. Once again he was too late to say goodbye, and she had been a good friend to him, a lass of kind heart and quick tongue. The years he lived with them, after the Quest - they had been hard years, full of his private torment - but Rosie?s merry presence had been a comfort to him, like Sam?s unwavering love. Not their fault, that it hadn?t been enough.

At least he was here now, to stand by Sam in his sorrow. He would not allow himself the luxury of self-recrimination, that he had not come sooner. He would be grateful that he had come no later.

"So did you go to Mordor, Mr. Frodo?"

"I did." He pulled himself back from grief. There was time enough for that later; right now, if he could give Sam something to hold on to --

"It blooms now, Sam, the Morgai! Little spiny plants, but they bloom - and the thorn bushes are getting into Gorgoroth, a bit deeper in every year - and there are birds! Thousands of them, and animals - little skittering lizards that move so fast, they?re gone almost before you see them, and conies and foxes -"

"And snakes, I suppose," Sam interrupted drily.

"Yes, them too!" Frodo laughed, and Sam marveled at him. Frodo?s hair was gray, his face as lined as Sam?s own, but his eyes sparkled and his voice was strong.

He?s older than I am, Sam thought, and he felt a twinge in his rheumatic knee. But he?s happy, full of life - he?s like he was before -

"You?re healed, Mr. Frodo."

Frodo bent down where Sam still sat at the table and hugged him.

"I?m healed, Sam. And I?m home. Home to stay."
 

 

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