Another Way of Leaving: 5. Donkey's Shadow

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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.

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.

Story Information

Author: jodancingtree

Status: Reviewed

Completion: Complete

Era: 3rd Age - Post-Ring War

Genre: Drama

Rating: General

Last Updated: 03/15/04

Original Post: 03/10/03

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