3. A Bird with One Leg
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, 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?"
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.