Fear - Chapter 22
Into the sanctified quiet of predawn, Primula Baggins woke. Curled against her beloved, she could hear his heart beating a slow and regular rhythm. Beyond it, there was the high, sweet whisper of her son's breath, but all else was silent.
She slipped noiselessly from her bed and as she moved through her morning rituals, a cloak of stillness seemed settled upon the dark. Even after she had stoked the fire and walked out to the privy, there was no blush of dawn on the horizon. Perhaps it was earlier than it felt, but Primula could almost sense the whole world was holding its breath, loath to let go of this precious moment. She contemplated the stars and marveled at the silence before slipping into the smial again.
Neither of her lads had stirred; the big nor the little, and she leaned back against the closed door to watch them sleep. In every race and throughout the history of Middle-earth, mothers have arisen before all to count the sleeping heads of babes and contemplate the peaceful ease that has crept unawares onto their mate's furrowed brow, but this contented hobbit lady was only dimly aware of the ageless call she answered.
Hobbits did not hold much with superstition. To most, even elven magic, which their own legends acknowledged, had nothing to do with them and they, therefore, had no call to be meddling with it. But even the most staid and practical hobbit would give a nod to the West once in a while, and unless there was good reason not to, would heed the warnings of a dream. There was no harm in it. And while Primula was neither the most foolish gossip nor the most educated and wise, there were some things she chose to believe.
On the day her son had been born, when she had first laid eyes upon his sweet face, she had seen the ghostly impression of another beyond it. It had Drogo's brow and bright eyes like hers, but they were wiser and more sorrowful than any hobbit's she had ever seen. In that moment love had pierced her; deeper than any she had ever felt. She knew this was her son as he would someday be and, in that moment, she lost her heart to him.
Though she acknowledged the fleeting sight was most likely a product of her exhausted imagination, she had held to that vision. However fanciful she knew it to be, it was her proof, through those first days, that this child would live. She had seen nothing like it in the still face of her firstborn. It had been a comfort to believe it, and so she did for a long time, but this last terrible injury had shown her that that comfort was founded on something she had not wholly trusted - herself.
'Nothing is for certain in this world…'
Drogo's words came back to her and she let his rich voice drape over her memory. Though she loved her husband, she had the feeling she understood this better than he did. She could make some things certain. She could believe in the promise she had been given at Frodo's birth. She could live her life as if the precious gifts she had now would always and ever be hers. What good had fearing the future done her anyway? It had made her close her heart and shun the very thing she had lived for.
But believing in herself and the vision of Frodo she had had at his birth meant believing in all that she had seen. The image of him, alone, throwing flowers on the Brandywine came to her. She sighed. She knew what that vision meant too, but if she was to believe in herself and her own strength, she must accept it all. One must take the bitter with the sweet. But acceptance did not mean one had to dwell on the bitter. Living afraid of what she could not change was not really living, and it was time she got back to the business of it.
It was as if a weight was lifted from her heart. The last foothold of fear was gone and she felt almost giddy. It was time to live again and enjoy and love and hold what she had now. She stood and, with a gentle smile and a light step, went to her sleeping son. She kissed his brow and drew the curtains of his alcove, then turned to the entry of the smial that served as her bedroom. Drogo was still sleeping but the morning's mystical hush was slowly giving way. Time was resuming its course, as it always would. Primula reached for the buttons of her nightdress and began to undo them. She would no longer waste a second of it.
That September was one of the finest in the memory of even the eldest Brandybucks. Each day dawned bright and clear, with that crisp coolness that seems to stir the body with restlessness, and each afternoon lingered as if the sun were a jealous lover, loath to part with its golden Shire. Sheaves of ripe barley and oats littered the fields and the normally busy Bucklanders positively bustled to bring them in. The leaf harvest was rich and plentiful and the cured and cut plant was barreled and piled on wagons to be shipped to storehouses from Michel Delving to Bree. There were bountiful winter vegetables too, and the stores of parsnips and potatoes, turnips and beets were filled to such bursting as to dismay even the most upbeat child. It was a glorious autumn and it was topped off for Frodo Baggins by having his favorite cousin, Bilbo, at table for his birthday feast. He did note that it was also Bilbo's birthday but as everyone was so overjoyed to see him hale and healthy again (or nearly so), the celebration focused mainly on him.
He received many gifts, but, because of his injury, he had not been able to prepare any presents for others. His relations were gratefully delighted to be able to help him in that regard. For his father, Uncle Rory and Aunt Menegilda had had a beautiful yellow waistcoat made. It was of very rich brocade with brass buttons in which Frodo could see his own image. For his mother, they had given a comb carved from the wood of an oak tree and covered with fanciful creatures that Frodo couldn't quite identify. Drogo had gotten a leather-bound book as his gift for Bilbo, but Frodo, fanning the creamy blank pages, felt compelled by those wide expanses of empty paper and wished he could have kept it. Finally, knowing his uncle would make much better use of it than he could, he wrapped the precious thing in a piece of blue wool and a ribbon and set it by the fire with the rest of the presents.
Frodo was feeling better. Not himself as yet, and Mistress Daisy warned him he might never feel exactly as he had before, but at least the headaches were gone. He could very nearly do everything he had done before, though at a slower pace than was his wont. He would go on long walks with his parents and buggy rides with his uncle Bilbo, but they weren't ready to let him out to play with the other children of the hall yet. Even Dody was gone, spending his days with Mistress Daisy, and though Frodo might have preferred a livelier companion than his dour cousin, he still missed the company of those closer to his own age.
The other thing that bothered Frodo was that he felt different than he had used to. He couldn't put his finger on just how, but something fundamental about the world seemed to have changed. The sun was as bright and the trees as yellow as they had ever been in autumn, but he seemed to see them now with new eyes. His mother, laughing, assured him it was because he was growing up, and doing it so fast that he had no time to get used to new vantage before he had grown some more, but even in her joyful reply there was something Frodo could almost perceive, but not.
It was good to hear her laugh again, though. It was no longer the laugh that could brighten up any day like a ray of unexpected sunshine, but it had surprising strength in it. It made him feel safe in the way only his father's arms had before. She was not afraid of him any more, either. Whether it was his halting walk or his father's return that had done it, Frodo didn't know, but she had come back to him, and was, in fact, more attentive than she had ever been before. Perhaps she was sorry for pushing him away, or, having almost lost him, realized how dear he was to her. Frodo didn't care. He was delighted with the change. She was at last his dear mother again, and father, whose love he had never questioned, was there with them both. No matter what strange awareness seemed to fill the very air around him now, Frodo was no longer afraid of what lay ahead.
After Bilbo had returned to Hobbiton, Drogo sent an invitation to Dody Brandybuck. Drogo was savoring the last days of good fishing and wished to treat the boy with an outing to assure his nephew that all was forgiven and that he really was grateful for all he had done. Dody was given leave from Daisy, who was a very easy mistress, and joined his uncle at the great hall early on a Saturday morning in late September. Frodo was there, blinking tiredly, but leaning against his father in easy content. His manner suggested he was feeling very important and grown up at being invited to go fishing with adults, and that, despite his sleepiness, he would not have given up his place for the world.
"You look much better, Frodo," Dody said as the three of them walked down the path in the early morning light.
The youngster beamed. "I am better!" he agreed enthusiastically. "I've only had one headache all month, but mother and father still won't let me out of their sight!" He rolled his eyes dramatically. "While fishing is all right, most of the time grown ups are terribly dull company." He jumped a bit and whirled playfully in front of them. "See? 'Right as rain'. Since you're a healer now, will you tell them it's all right for me to play with the other children?"
Drogo laughed and Dody held up his hands.
"Well, now, I'm not a healer yet, and even if I was, your parents would still have final say. You'll have to find your reprieve somewhere else, Frodo."
The youngster scowled playfully, but was off again a moment later, running ahead of the older hobbits, darting off the path when something caught his eye and running back, breathless, with some other wonder for his father to examine and nod gravely over. The child covered more than twice the distance his companions did from Brandy Hall to the river and Dody shook his head in amusement.
"He certainly seems fit, though you'd know better, uncle. Was he always this… energetic?"
Drogo laughed again. "Oh, yes, though it's early yet. Wait till he rubs all the sleep from his eyes and has his breakfast tea," he shook the satchel he carried to indicate where their breakfast lay, "and then you shall see 'energy'. I dare say we will need to send him off to play or he will scare every fish away from our lines!"
Dody rolled his own eyes at the prospect of having to deal with an even more rambunctious child and grinned wryly. "I suppose, then, that I shouldn't set my heart on fish for dinner?"
The late fall sun was warming the bank quite pleasantly by the time the three hobbits settled down for elevenses. The heavy coats the early morning chill had warranted now served as comfortable seats and after the meal had been eaten, Drogo lay back on his to look at the clouds and have a pipe. Frodo curled against his side and promptly fell asleep in the crook of his arm. Dody sat watching the two of them for a while before he too pulled out a small clay pipe. He looked at it for a few moments, turning it over in his hands, before shyly asking Drogo if he would be willing to spare him some of his weed.
"Dame Burrows is a kind mistress, but she's far from rich. She pays me in food, lodging and education, but little else. And Menegilda would never allow me to use my legacy for an indulgence like pipeweed."
Drogo chuckled and passed over the pouch and the boy began inexpertly filling his pipe. The older hobbit's smile faded as he watched. When Dody had finished, he looked up. Though Drogo masked it quickly, Dody caught the sad pity in his eyes. He blushed, wondering if he had somehow displeased his companion, and quickly handed the pouch back. The other hobbit took it and held out for the pipe as well. After a moment's uncertainty, Dody gave it to him.
"There's a trick to it," Drogo said softly, leaning up carefully so as not to wake Frodo. He beckoned Dody for a closer look and cupped the small vessel in his hand as if it were a fragile egg. "You use your thumb like this," he pressed slowly into the bowl and then began turning the pipe so as to cover the entire surface of the packed leaf. "You hold it like this and press down till it's firm but not to the point of breaking the clay. You will get a feel for it. Then, once you have that layer evenly packed, you put in a bit more and pack it down the same way. Fill it till it is to the brim or just under." He handed it back to the boy. "It becomes second nature after a while."
Dody nodded and smiled a fleeting, sheepish smile. He took a glowing stick from the fire to light it and passed the ember off to Drogo. The two of them sat in silence for a long while after, gazing out at the water. Dody took a couple of puffs on his pipe, but mostly let it smolder. He was not used to it yet, and didn't like the odd flavor it left in his mouth, nor the faintly queasy feeling it gave him. His gaze wandered towards his companions again. Drogo had leaned back and was absently stroking Frodo's fair brow. The boy was deep in slumber, his little features half buried in Drogo's jacket. Dody did not doubt the child would sleep till luncheon (which Drogo had also brought) after the morning's early and vigorous exercise. He frowned, a faint curiosity stirring him. He felt the need to ask a question, but wasn't certain how Drogo would respond. Finally, he just asked it.
"Why did you look at me that way just now, Mr. Baggins? You looked so sad."
Drogo's eyes flicked over to his and he paused, as if considering. He took the pipe from his mouth.
"Because a thought struck me that I found sad. That is all."
"What thought? If you don't mind my asking."
Drogo sat up on his elbow and returned the boy's even and open gaze. "I only realized," he began, "That you likely had no one to teach you the ways of pipe or the rod." He sighed. "You deserve more than a few kind words or a day's outing now and again, but that's all I can give, and that made me sad." He flushed a little and frowned. "I am sorry, Dody. My feelings are ungenerous in this matter and it shows in my words no matter how carefully I speak them. Better I had said nothing." He looked down.
With a spreading shock, Dody perceived Drogo's meaning. No one to teach you what your father ought. He shivered despite the sunlight and stared at Drogo who had begun pensively caressing his son's dark head. The love on Drogo's face was fierce and sweet and he found himself thinking that his own father had never looked at him with such tenderness. He drew in a sharp breath and blinked back unexpected tears.
He hadn't thought of Dodinas in months. The respite from his father's house had seemed strange and uncomfortable at first, but he was at last getting used to it. This summer had been one of many changes and revelations, and he did feel differently, but he had not recognized the nature of that difference. It now came to him as clear as day. He wasn't frightened any more. Dody had always lived with fear. That was simply the way things were, but now that he could step back and examine his life from a little distance, he saw it clearly for the first time. Everything he'd done and become was a product of it and yet he'd been blind to the fact until that moment. He sat back, astonished and turned the new revelation over in his mind.
"You know," he said, after several minutes. "You'd be amazed what a child can get used to." The words had been spoken softly, but the bitterness in them shocked even him. Elation and outrage rose hot in him, at last given an enemy as target again, but shame checked them both. Wasn't his rage the very thing he had sworn to forsake? And to feel it directed towards his father… No matter what the hobbit had done to him, that seemed the worst failing of all. He looked away, embarrassed of his thought and of speaking so venomously and saddened that his new temperance could be overcome so quickly.
"If you wish to speak, Dody, I will listen in confidence. I sense that you have a great need to talk." Drogo's face was kindly but sad again. Dody trembled. His need to unburden his heart was indeed very great, though he felt unwilling to reveal his unwholesome thoughts. Neither was it his manner to speak so openly. Only his mother had ever truly known his heart. For a long while nature and necessity fought in him.
"I thought it was my doing," he whispered finally. "That I was so base a creature that he was right to deal with me as he did." Dody hung his head low and his dark curls fell over his face, making it easier to speak somehow. "It never once occurred to me that what he was doing might be wrong. Even now it seems evil to think it." He wiped his eyes and looked out at the glittering river. Seeing Drogo's face now would silence him and he needed to say this while he had the courage. "Perhaps it was easier to think I had no worth, and to become a creature that deserved contempt, than to consider that my father might be…" Tightness bound his throat and Dody fell silent. Tears fell from his tightly closed eyes and for many minutes the two of them sat still as stone. Finally, Dody mastered himself again and wiped his eyes.
"But he can't hurt me any more," he sighed. "I got away from him. I am bitter, and maybe I'll always be, but he can't touch me again." He drew himself up shakily, but unbent. "I'm also my mother's son and vowed on her memory to put aside anger. I'll be all right." A fleeting smile touched his lips. "You gave me something, too. You and my aunt, though on her part begrudgingly." At that, Drogo snorted. "And now my mistress continues to give it. The trust and faith you all showed me was…" Dody paused, searching for the right words. "Humbling," he looked back at Drogo and gave a slight shrug. "And a little painful. Like salve to a wound I didn't know I had."
Then he paused, and both hobbits thought long on the words that had been spoken. Drogo puffed silently on his pipe and Dody dumped the half burned leaf out of his and pocketed it. The sun climbed to noon. It would soon be time for luncheon. Dody looked back at his companions and met Drogo's gentle brown eyes. Frodo still slept.
"That was a welcome gift," he said. "And I do believe you, but it seems one word from my father holds the weight of ten from anyone else. I wish I could forget him. I wish I could leave what he's done behind and truly make a new start." He shook his head angrily. "I don't understand it. I know he was wrong, but…." Finally he looked at Drogo imploringly. "I'll never be rid of him, will I?"
Drogo took his pipe from his mouth. "Perhaps not," he answered. "The words our parents give us are held dearer than most realize, even when those words are foolish or cruel. You will not, I think, be as Dodinas was, and pass on the legacy of abuse to your own children. And that alone makes you worthy, my friend."
Dody frowned. "What do you mean, Sir?"
Drogo shifted uncomfortably. "Again, you induce me to speak when propriety demands I should stay silent!" He shook his head. "I was not privy to the workings of your family's house - even now that I am married into them, I am not one of the Brandybucks - but I sat at Gorbadoc's table for many a year, and kept my eyes open. Your grandfather was a good hobbit, but stern, and more forgiving to his guests than to his own. I don't think he ever liked Dodinas or perhaps he simply was disappointed in him, but there was never much love lost between them." He frowned again. "It was never spoken of, but I saw your father with bruises of his own often enough to guess things were not as they should have been between them. I say this, not to excuse Dodinas, Dody. I doubt you will ever forget what he has done, but perhaps healing does not come from forgetfulness, but from forgiveness?" He looked at Dody very meaningfully. "Knowing these things, could you, perhaps, someday, forgive your father?"
Dody stiffened. "No," he said. The word came out flat, vehement and final, and the boy shook with chill at the thought. "I… No. It's not in me to forgive him."
Drogo sighed. "I understand. But don't dismiss the notion entirely. In time, you may feel differently, and though I do not pretend to understand what you have gone through, I think that may be your only road to true healing."
Dody had no words to answer him. Instead they sat for a long while in silence until Drogo lay back down beside his son again. Dody stretched out on his own jacket. The morning had revealed much to him and he was weary in mind if not in body. The passing clouds soothed him and he watched them for a while, savoring their clean innocence. Before he knew it, he was asleep.
A startled cry woke him a little while later.
"Frodo!" Drogo called again, desperately. The fear in his voice roused Dody completely. He leapt up to find that the two of them were alone on the riverbank and the sun was just past its height. Little Frodo was nowhere to be seen. Drogo, struggling to his feet, was scanning the water with a growing terror in his eyes.
"He was gone when I woke! Blast! Where has that boy got to? He knows better than to stray near the river!"
Dody looked upstream at the grassy banks that lead towards Bridgefields. There was no sign of a small figure anywhere along the river's course.
"How long were we asleep?" he asked.
"Less than an hour. Curse it! I had him held close and thought I would wake if he stirred! What kind of foolish laggard have I become to not even be able to watch over my own child?" He turned to Dody and the terror on his face was like a slap of icy wind. Drogo was beside himself and panicking. It was plain he feared his son had gone into the river.
"We'd have heard a splash," Dody said him quickly, suppressing his own sick dread at the thought.
Drogo didn't waste another moment. "Start looking!" he ordered. "I will go downstream, you up. Be quick. Call if you see anything - footprints or any sign - be quick now!" And before Dody could say anything more, Drogo was off, scanning the ground as he ran south along the fisherman's path for any indications that the child had gone that way. Dody looked around their little picnicking spot, but footprints, mostly Frodo's, were everywhere. He had been scampering about them busily all morning. Dody ran to the periphery of the tamped grass and gazed into the waving fields of the floodplain to see if he could pick out any sign that went away from their camp.
Many lines crossed and re-crossed the grasses behind their fishing spot. The tracks of deer or cattle coming down to drink at the river mingled with later ones of Frodo's own. The morning's dew, which might have indicated the freshest track, was long since burned off. Dody peered across the fields. They'd camped at a point where Buckland itself was very narrow. He could see the High Hay looming in the distance and before it, on the far side of the Buckland road, a wood.
That was the wood.
The patch of trees that Dody had been running in when he'd tossed his mother's necklace high into the air.
The patch that contained the very tree Frodo had fallen out of.
A different kind of chill seized Dody and he scanned the field between the river and the road. Yes, there was a faint trail of bent grass leading off in a more or less straight line towards the forest. Dody looked back but Drogo was already out of sight, calling frantically downstream. Dody shivered and looked north again. He could see nearly a mile along the near bank. Frodo would not have walked further than that while he and Drogo slept, but… He looked back at the wood. But he could have crossed the field. With a sudden, strange certainty, Dody knew that that was what Frodo had done. He took a few steps and stopped, wondering if he should call to Drogo, but the old fear of discovery returned and kept him silent. This was a part of his buried past and he could not yet bring himself to speak of it. Not even to Drogo. He turned and dashed eastwards.
The signs were faint to start with and disappeared before Dody was halfway to the road. He risked a few quiet calls along the way, to make certain he had not passed Frodo in the long grass, but they had not been answered. He reached the road, puffing and wheezing and scanned the dirt beside the track for prints. A little ways north of where he came out was a clear footprint. A small child had crossed the road and the line of his progress disappeared into the grass on the other side. Dody followed like a hound on the scent.
Soon he came to the little path that he and Seredic, Marmadas, Darroc and Milo traveled that fateful morning a lifetime ago. He scanned the landscape to get his bearings and turned south, not even looking for prints any more. He knew where Frodo had gone.
The old oak stood just as it had that spring and Dody, remembering the image of Frodo lying so very pale and still below it, hesitated. At first sight, Dody could see nothing, but a movement in the canopy drew his gaze upwards. His quarry was there; looking lost and worried, and, unbelievably, perched in the tree, on one of its lowest branches. Dody called out his name and though Frodo started, the relief on his face was clear.
"Dody!" he cried. "I can't get down! I just came to see and… and the stick was down there, and I climbed up it but it fell over and I couldn't do anything but climb up further!" His words came in a rush, but the little boy seemed more annoyed than upset. Dody jogged over, his initial fright becoming anger.
"What in blazes did you think you were doing running off like that!" he shouted. "Do you realize you've frightened your father near to death? And I'm done in from worry too! What has possessed you, Frodo?!"
The little boy cringed and Dody immediately felt sorry he had shouted so. "I don't know," he apologized. "I woke and you both were asleep. I'd got up without waking father and it was so pleasant to be on my own again for a little while, I had a notion to go exploring. It's been so long since…." He looked down and Dody could see his face coloring. "When I looked out at this wood, I just felt I had to come here. It wasn't far and I would hear father if he shouted." Dody came to the trunk and looked up into the tree.
"When I got here," Frodo continued, "there was that stick lying against the tree and it looked so familiar. I knew I could use it to climb up and I did, but as I reached this branch, I heard father shout and it startled me so that I jumped and knocked it away." He shrugged, sheepishly. "And now I can't get down," he concluded. "I tried answering, but he couldn't hear me, and then I couldn't hear him."
Dody nodded sternly. "You can explain that all to Drogo, once I've got you down, and don't be surprised if you get a thrashing for what you've done. He's worried sick. But stay there a moment."
The branch Frodo had used to climb on had indeed fallen away, but the distance from the ground to the one he sat on was not great. Dody stood below it and held his arms up.
"Just jump, Frodo. I'll catch you," he said, but Frodo shook his head.
"I won't drop you, I promise. You can trust me."
The little boy's worried expression deepened. "I can't, Dody. Once I got up here, I got scared. It's much higher than it looks from below. My head is spinning again and I feel sick. There is something about being high up. I… I never used to be so afraid. I can't jump. I just can't. Could you please come up and get me?" The pallor and unspoken fear in Frodo's face stirred an answering guilt in Dody. He was to blame for this. He could not bury or forget his own deeds any more than he could those of his father. He lowered his hands and looked up at Frodo.
"Can you move at all?" he asked gently. "Give me room to climb up?"
"I…I'll try." The boy closed his eyes for a moment and then carefully transferred his death grip on the low branch to one that was slightly higher and stood, backing up against the tree's trunk. "Is that enough?" he asked, shakily.
"It will have to be," Dody answered, jumping and catching the low branch easily. He swung his feet over the bough and worked his way straddle it. A smile lit Frodo's face.
"You made it! Oh, that was a neat trick, Dody. I should like to learn that someday."
"Not today. Now, can you come to me?"
"Never mind. I'll come to you." Dody pulled himself forward and when he was just beside the boy, Frodo suddenly let go his branch threw his arms around him.
He was trembling. Dody hadn't noticed it from below, but the boy was shaking like the bronze leaves that still covered the old oak tree. Hesitantly, Dody stroked his back to reassure him. Frodo was terrified but Dody knew better than any what good reason he had to be. Coming here at all was a feat. Any other would have avoided this place forever. And yet Frodo had come back to this very tree and climbed into it, either out of innocence or courage, and faced his fear. Dody stroked his dark head, both surprised and impressed. He already respected the boy's courage, but this act endeared him. What a brave, precious treasure of a hobbit this little one was! The older boy murmured softly and spread wondering hands over the small back.
"It's all right," he soothed. "I've got you now. You won't fall. I will never let you fall again." He held the little boy as his shivers eased and wondered which of them needed this comfort more. Little Frodo had become dear to him, as dear as any living being, and he had grown to love Drogo and Primula too. They had made their way deep into his selfish heart and worked a great change on him. And yet, one vestige of his former life remained; a dark secret that festered and ate at him. He had almost cost this child his life.
He saw his former actions clearly now. He was not entirely responsible for Frodo's fall, but he shared some of the blame for it. He'd paid for his folly in blood and heartache, but it still pained him that he had once had more concern for keeping his involvement secret than he had for the tender life in his arms. In the light of young Frodo's remarkable courage, his cowardice shamed him, but he knew what would make it right. It was time to accept his due at last.
"Frodo?" he said softly. The boy eased his grip, apparently feeling safe enough to do so now and looked at Dody.
"I've something to tell you."
Frodo blinked expectantly.
"I… I think I know why you fell out of this tree."
The boy's eyes widened. "Was it this tree? Oh, my… It felt familiar." His mouth gapped in surprise and he looked up into the crown above him. "I still can't remember anything about it."
"Yes. It was this tree. I was here that day. I had stolen something from my stepmother. It was foolish and wrong, but I had done it anyway." Dody felt a thrill of keen terror, as if he were about to step off a precipice, but plunged onwards. "The older boys who were with me wanted to take it back, but I refused. I… I ran, but couldn't get far." He stopped and drew a deep breath. "It was a necklace, a very special necklace, and I threw it up into this tree so that the other boys couldn't force me to return it." He slumped, humbled. "It went high and got caught on a branch way up in the top. Near, I think, to where you were sitting." He looked into Frodo's clear blue eyes. They were riveted on him. "I believe you tried to reach it, Frodo, and that you were trying to get it when you fell. I found it there afterwards."
He drew a deep breath and looked away. "I am to blame for your fall, Frodo. Because of my spite and stubbornness. It was my fault." Then he closed his eyes and felt the shame and weariness flow out into his limbs. The feeling frightened him, but made him feel curiously lighter, almost euphoric, as if a great weight he had not been aware of had lifted. It still hung over his head, waiting to crush him beneath it, but the secret was at last in the open.
"Oh!" breathed Frodo. The boy looked around himself again, at the ground below and the brown, leafy canopy above, then back to the slumped figure before him. "Well," he said, and paused as if unsure what to do next. He frowned. "Well, you're sorry, aren't you?"
Dody shuddered and turned again to look at him.
"Yes!" he said in a bare whisper. "I am sorrier than you will ever know. I almost killed you, Frodo! And you and your family have been better to me than I ever deserved. Oh, yes! I am so very sorry."
The wind picked up, rattling the dry leaves above them as Dody bowed his head. His eyes closed and he sat, still as a stone, as if awaiting judgment. Frodo fidgeted uncomfortably.
"Dody?" he asked pointedly. "I want to get down. Father is calling and you said he was worried. But I need your help. I am sorry you feel so bad, but it's really all right. I didn't die and now I'm hungry. Would it help if I said I forgive you?"
Dody looked up, slowly.
"You said you're sorry, so I forgive you." Frodo said. "I'm all better now and there's no real harm done." He smiled hopefully, obviously more interested in possible lunch and normalizing relations than matters of fate and justice. Dody stared at him, confusion and disbelief vying for control of his emotions.
Nothing more extraordinary than a little hobbit boy stared back at him, and yet Dody felt hope stir within him.
"You forgive me?" he asked.
"Of course!" answered Frodo. "You didn't mean to hurt me."
Dody let out a breath. "No, I didn't," he murmured. "I was so much different then, but no. I didn't mean to hurt you. Not even then."
"See? Everything's all right!'
Dody blinked and with sudden astonishment, realized the weight that had hung over him was gone, evaporating as if it had never been. Relief filled his mind and with it came a keen and overwhelming sense of love. Could it truly be that simple? Could such plain words fix so much heartache? Dody focused on the young face before him. Frodo looked a little concerned, a little embarrassed and a little impatient, but quite earnest. He understood what Dody had done and still forgave him. This boy was a treasure, indeed! There were others, also hurt by his wrong, to whom would need to atone, and though he doubted they would forgive as easily, he no longer feared to meet their justice. The one he had harmed worst had forgiven him and he felt like a prisoner just released from the darkest dungeon.
Taken with sudden emotion, Dody pulled Frodo into his arms and held him tight until Frodo began wriggling in protest. Dody stifled a laugh. Treasure or not, Frodo was still a little boy who probably thought he was too big to be hugged and that saying 'I'm sorry' fixed everything. Dody hugged him closer.
Forgiveness. Dody could not suppress the smile that stretched across his face. It was a simple thing, but from it, Dody felt a surge of sudden love so bright and pure, that if Frodo had asked, he might have knelt before him and sworn fealty. It seemed as if no one had ever gifted Dody with such an astonishing gift, nor shone so brightly in his eyes. He felt held the best hobbit in the Shire in his arms, and wanted to sing his praises to the sky. And yet, who else would ever know how special this little one was? Even Frodo would not understand that he had done anything miraculous. Dody hesitated then and eased his grip on the child. Frodo was scowling at him, but not angrily, and looked as if he did not quite know what to make of his mercurial cousin, not that that was an unusual occurrence.
No, Frodo would not understand, nor was Dody entirely sure why the child endeared him so, but looking back on everything Frodo had done that summer and everything Dody had so admired him for, he thought he knew. Other than surviving the fall itself, Frodo had simply done what was right. At every point, and without fear or guile, he had acted as love and goodness demanded. From great lords and kings, one could expect such nobility and courage, but from a little boy, present and keenly mortal, such was dear and precious. And, Dody further realized, if such courage and nobility of spirit could come from a child, then how could he not expect it of himself?
That was the thought that heartened him. Frodo's humble example had inspired his own courage and summoned him to do what was right. A season overdue, perhaps, but it had come.
He wiped his eyes.
"Thank you," he said earnestly. "I could hold that secret no longer. I give it to you, Frodo Baggins, to do with as you will. Keep it for me, or do whatever you wish with it. I entrust it to you."
Frodo cocked an eyebrow at him as if he thought Dody was losing his senses.
"Very well. Can we get down now?"
Dody laughed out loud and embraced Frodo again. "Your wish, my lord, is my command!" he shouted and swung his leg over the branch. Frodo, seeing that the older boy was planning on jumping, clung to him frantically and buried his face in his neck. Dody laughed again and leapt to the ground.
"DROGO!" he screamed at the top of his lungs. Frodo slapped his hands over his ears, and scowled at his cousin again. The call rang out across the forest and into the fields beyond, joyful and beckoning. No one hearing that cry could mistake its meaning. Frodo had been found, and he was blessedly whole.
Dody put the boy down and bowed low before him. Frodo rolled his eyes.
"What has got into you?" he asked in mock disgust.
Dody merely grinned back at him. "You will probably never know," he said. "But you've done me a great service, Frodo. I will always remember it. I promise." His brown eyes sparkled and he knelt on one knee. "Would my lord like a ride on my shoulders back to his father? I think he would be greatly relieved to see you."
Frodo stiffened and the shadow of fear crossed his face. It was the height, Dody, remembered.
"I will never let you fall again, Frodo. You are my kin and dear to me and I would never see you come to harm. Trust me." He held his hand out and Frodo pondered the offer for a moment.
"I could try, I guess," the boy mused. "You're not as high up as that tree was and I climbed that." Dody bent his head and Frodo clambered reluctantly up. Rising, Dody clamped the small legs tight to his chest and started off at a brisk pace. Frodo gave a small yelp and wrapped his arms around his cousin's forehead, but after they came out of the trees and he could see his father waving frantically from the river and running towards them, he laughed in delight and forgot his fear. Dody's heart swelled, enchanted by the sound.
It had indeed been an astonishing summer, full of revelations and heartbreaks, but in the end, Dody felt as if he had emerged from deep water, washed clean of every taint. Nothing remained of his old self. He had a new life and a future. Only one remnant of the past remained.
His wasn't as simple a task as Frodo's had been. Nor did he imagine his father would respond with joy and love as he had. There were thick, old scars between them than could not be healed with 'I forgive you' no matter how earnestly it was said. Forgetting still seemed the easiest, most painless path, but it no longer seemed the right one. Dody could see that Drogo had been right and that the day would one day come for him to face Dodinas. One day, but not today. He needed to grow and come to really know his own worth before he would have the courage for that meeting. He squeezed the child's legs fondly. When the time came, the lesson that rode gleefully on his shoulders would not be forgotten. As a very special child had shown, the strength to do what was right was within him, if he had the courage to call it.