Sam's face kept coming into his dreams, shocking him awake as if someone had pressed cold steel against his throat. The mask of grief on Sam's honest, dirty face, looking up at him without seeing him…
He lay trembling in the dark; beside him Radagast snored gently.
Frodo had known before he ever reached the Shire that there was no going home for him. The Ring had burned into him as if his very soul had been branded; waking or sleeping, he craved it as a starving man craves food. He had stood at the Havens with Gandalf and Elrond, hoping against hope that they would invite him to go with them into the West, into the realm of light and peace where evil was cast out forevermore. The invitation had not come, and he saw now that it had been a fool's hope. No mortal was permitted to make that passage, and himself least of all, tainted as he was.
So Elrond had kissed him solemnly on both cheeks and wished him well, and Gandalf had embraced him, shrouding him for a moment in robes of snowy white. For that one moment he had felt safe, but then Gandalf had kissed his forehead and turned away. The gangplank was drawn up and the ship sailed, Gandalf in the stern holding up his hands in farewell. Frodo had watched until the white sails disappeared over the horizon, and then he had ridden home in despair, keeping up a façade of cheerfulness for Sam while his heart seemed to dry up and blow away on the sea breeze.
He was left with his shame and self-contempt. He set his teeth and bore it, spending his days writing the book, the story that had to be written, the Ring and the War and the return of the King. But nightmares haunted him and his mind began to wander; it was all he could do to finish the book, and when it was done his strength was spent.
He had crept away from Bag End in the middle of the night, intent on finding a place where he could end the pain and his life at one blow, without grieving Sam, or Merry, or anyone who loved him. And he'd ended hiding in a tree with the Brown Wizard, who had walked into the middle of his attempt at self-destruction, and called him Donkey and given him an apple for breakfast.
Sam had ridden after him, fearing the worst, and Frodo had hidden, still trying to protect his dearest friend, to conceal what the Ring had done to him. And Sam had stared up at him without seeing, his face streaked with tears – Sam was not deceived; he guessed what Frodo had come there to do!
So it was all out in the open at last, and finally it was Sam who begged him to go with Radagast. Sam saw hope for him with the Brown Wizard; Sam still believed that he could heal from the Ring. Frodo could not deny him that hope, even if he did not share it himself.
There was a soft whinny in the darkness and a rustle as the horses moved about, before they settled down again. Radagast shifted in his sleep, throwing his arm across Frodo as if he would shield him from some peril. Frodo lay staring up at the moon, shining pale and far away, a thin sliver in a black sky. Maybe there was healing in the wilderness. There was danger; he had journeyed enough in the wild to know that. If he could not find peace, he might at least find an end. He was willing to settle for that
Chapter 1: Father Bird
Even after a month traveling with the Brown Wizard, there were days when Frodo felt as if he'd been stood on his head. Radagast was as different from Gandalf as – he tried to think of an apt comparison – as different as an elf from a hobbit, he supposed. Or a dwarf.
They rose in the half-light when the birds began to call, and while Frodo cooked their breakfast, the wizard wandered about, chirruping back at the birds and poking into the underbrush, and not infrequently climbing a tree to peer into a nest. Frodo watched in guilty amusement when Radagast took to the treetops; it was such an unlikely spectacle, the old man with his long robe hitched up, climbing casually among the branches, sure-footed as a squirrel.
"You're not fooling me, you know, Donkey," the wizard called down to him one morning. "I can see your shoulders shaking from twenty feet up. Why don't you laugh out and enjoy it? Very healing, laughter is; it'll do you good."
Frodo looked up in embarrassment, stammering apologies, but Radagast just grinned down at him. "I'm well aware how odd I look up here, lad, and I won't be offended if you laugh. The fact is, I don't care how I look, and neither should you. Pay attention to what you're doing, that's all. Right now you're burning the bacon."
His attention jerked back to the task at hand, Frodo swore – he had, indeed, burnt the bacon – and then laughed, at himself as much as at the wizard. By that time Radagast was sitting on a branch half-way up the tree, a nest in his hands and the parent bird perched confidingly on his shoulder.
He had wondered at first where they would find food in the wilderness, but at mealtimes Radagast simply reached into his mysterious sack and pulled out what was needed. It was a strange thing, that sack, hanging limp across the horse's back in front of the wizard as if almost empty, yet he took the most motley collection of objects out of it! It seemed to hold whatever he needed at the moment.
"The Fellowship could have used a bag like that on our journey," he said one day, half in jest. "Why didn't Gandalf have one?"
"We each have our own gifts, lad. Gandalf was far better protection against the Shadow than I would have been – and you, by the by, are an excellent cook! I haven't eaten this well in many years – I must remember, in future, always travel with a hobbit to do the cooking."
Which made Frodo laugh again, as the wizard had intended.
They traveled erratically, rarely going in the same direction two days running, camping for days at a time if they found any creature in need of help. They stayed a week at a little hut deep in the forest, caring for an old man they found there, racked with fever. Radagast nursed him back to health, and Frodo cut firewood and stacked it, till the woodshed was crammed full. The first night his palms burned with blisters, and he tried to hide the pain while he cooked their supper. There was no hiding from Radagast, however, and Frodo went to bed with his hands well smeared with strong-smelling salve. By the end of the week he had a fine set of calluses and nurtured a secret pride in his competence with an axe.
Some days he almost forgot the Ring. Almost.
One night they were caught out in a storm, cold rain and lashing wind, and no shelter to be found. They wrapped their cloaks tight around them and pulled their blankets over their heads, huddled in the open, and Frodo half woke in the night, groping frantically for the Ring and calling for Sam. His fingers closed on Arwen's jewel, and Radagast pulled him close and wrapped his own blanket around them both, talking softly in a language Frodo didn't understand. He calmed and fell back into uneasy slumber, soaked in rainwater.
By morning the rain had stopped, but it was too wet for a breakfast fire. They ate apples and cheese from the wizard's sack, and spread their blankets and cloaks over bushes to dry. Under one bush Frodo found a ruined bird's nest, washed away by the storm, and a little distance away, the drowned nestlings lying in the mud. He squatted down, touching them sadly, and felt one tiny heart still beating. He scooped that one up hastily and carried it to Radagast.
"Get it warm, Donkey, and then we'll see. Hold it against your heart."
"But what kind is it?" he asked.
Radagast shrugged. "A ground-nester of some sort, by the looks of it. The Elves concern themselves with naming all the kinds, Frodo -- I just take them one by one. You may name that one what you like, just so you save its life."
At that moment he longed for Bilbo, who would have known what kind of bird it was, or not knowing, would have looked it up in one of his books. Who would have thought as Frodo did, that it mattered what kind, and would not have been content to simply make up a name. He bit back his frustration and set himself to saving its life, if he could. He unbuttoned his shirt and held the bedraggled creature against his bare chest, pulling the still-damp shirt closed over his cupped hand and going to sit on a rock in the sunshine.
The air was loud with birds. They took up where the frogs had left off at dawn – the frogs called all night, every night, in every little pond and puddle. Well, Radagast had promised him frog song! He smiled to himself, nestling the chilled, damp baby bird to his breast, feeling its heart thudding against his fingers. The frogs made a very different music from the Elves of Rivendell, but it had its own charm. Easier to translate, too. He thought he knew what the frogs sang through the night hours.
We're here – we're here – we're here -!
And I'm here, too, he thought. Against all odds, I'm here, and my heart is beating, and I'm going to save this little bird's life, or I'll know why not. He stroked the small head delicately with one finger. "Cuina," I'll call you. "Alive".
He had thought they were journeying at random, with no real destination, and then the eaves of the Old Forest loomed before them and he remembered Radagast's intention to visit Tom Bombadil.
The Forest was as breathless and unwelcoming as it had been four years previously, when he entered it with Sam and his cousins, but it no longer alarmed him. It was like passing a savage guard dog in the company of its master – as if the trees gave respectful, if reluctant, passage to the wizard, and therefore to him also.
And he didn't particularly care whether the trees killed him. There was that as well. But no, he remembered, he still had the baby bird to save. He reached up to caress its downy head and was rewarded with a soft cheep.
Radagast had made him a soft pouch out of a scrap of fur he took from his sack, so now the little bird rode in comfort, its makeshift nest hung by a thong round Frodo's neck. The wizard had laughed as he slipped it over his head. "Poor Donkey, we're always hanging things around your neck, aren't we? But I hope Cuina will prove less troublesome than the last burden you carried that way."
And Cuina was no trouble, or not much. Frodo was kept busy catching gnats and flies to feed her – Radagast had assured him the bird was a female, though how he could tell defied understanding – but catching the insects was more sport than chore. There were plenty of the creatures in the air, this time of year, darting around them as they rode, and he had only to keep his seat on the pony while he caught them between his hands, then drop them into Cuina's gaping beak.
"You make an excellent father bird, Frodo," Radagast told him. "That nestling will be as chubby as any hobbit by the time she learns to fly."
"She'll be a proper Shire bird, then," Frodo retorted. "The Shire is a generous land."
"It is that, and it grows generous folk. There's none could deny it, who knew the history of the Ring." Frodo blushed scarlet and was silent.
They heard singing coming along the path before them, and pulled their mounts to one side to wait. Tom Bombadil came in sight, dancing with long steps, kicking up his heels, his yellow boots like flashes of sunlight in the forest shadows.
Hey now, come now, Spring has come again now!
Come and greet the morning, then, merry Summer's coming!
Merry dol, derry dol, Goldberry is coming!
Back home from a-visiting in the flowing water,
Home to Tom she's dancing now, pretty River-daughter.
Hop along, my merry friends, for you'll be home before us,
In the garden take your rest until we come to meet you.
Round the table we'll take mirth, when you come to supper:
Fruit and cheese and honey sweet, white bread and butter.
Yonder comes my lady fair, bright as sparkling water—
Tom will bring her home with him, lovely River-daughter!
He laughed and doffed his hat to them where they stood, but he didn't stop, continuing along the path until he was out of sight and only echoes of his song came back to them, mingled with the voices of birds high in the trees.
"Come along, Donkey; we'll wait for them in the house clearing. Tom will sing Goldberry home again now, after her visit to the River."
The house, when they came to it, was larger than Frodo remembered, low and homely-looking, with a little meadow of grass and wildflowers before it and the Downs rising behind. They followed the path around to the garden in back and dismounted, stretching their legs by walking along the garden paths, while Smoky and Strider wandered through the meadow, cropping the long grass.
"Sam would like this," Frodo said. "It was autumn when we were here, and raining besides – he never saw the garden."
"Sam would like it indeed, and even he would learn something here, fine gardener though he is. I'm hoping Goldberry can give me seeds to take to Mordor, some plants that have a healing virtue for the soil there. She and Tom will know, if anyone does, what can be done for a land so ruined."
Frodo remembered the slag pits of Mordor and shuddered. "You really mean to go there? But not for a few years, you said."
"Not for a few years, no. Not until my Donkey is healed enough to leave me, if he does not wish to go with me."
Frodo stared out across the garden, bright in the sunshine, bees humming around clumps of fragrant herbs. He would be sorry to part with Radagast when the time came – could not imagine how he would go on without him, if it came to that. But even less could he imagine returning to Mordor.
Desolation crept into his heart, as it had so often since the Ring went into the fire, and he felt for Arwen's jewel on its chain round his neck. His hand found the little bird instead, warm and questing against his fingers, looking for food. He shook his mind free of the cobwebs and scanned the garden for some morsel Cuina could eat.
He was still feeding her when Goldberry came around the side of the house, purple water irises twined in her hair, singing clear liquid trills without any words. She wore a long garment of the same purple as the flowers, and her golden hair flowed down her back in ripples and little curls. Bombadil capered around her like a young goat, blowing shrill, sweet music on a willow whistle. They didn't cease their music-making as they passed Frodo and the wizard, but Goldberry smiled and beckoned to them, and Tom flapped his elbows comically as he went by, plainly wishing them to follow. Radagast laughed and pushed Frodo ahead of him, and his deep voice rang out in counterpoint to Goldberry's trills, singing in a language Frodo didn't recognize.
Frodo had dreaded having to talk about the Quest, but old Tom asked no questions. He welcomed his guests as if he'd been expecting them, made the acquaintance of the baby bird and let her nibble at his fingers, and sat them down, washed and refreshed, to a meal of strawberries and salad and white cheese, bread and butter and honey.
"It's long since you passed this way, Radagast Bird-friend," Tom said when they had taken the first edge off their hunger. "I had thought you gone with Gandalf, over the Sea."
"No, I linger on, the last of my Company in the West. The great work is finished and so the workers depart, but the clearing up is yet to be done. I need your knowledge of earth and water, yours and Goldberry's."
Goldberry's voice was lilting, like music. "Such knowledge as we have, we will give gladly. But does this small one go with you? Surely he has finished the task appointed him!"
"Donkey goes with me only as far as he desires. For now we bear one another company."
"Wizard's Donkey?" said Tom, grinning. "That's a fitting nickname! Only have a care, Friend Wizard, not to overload him."
""I place no load on him at all," said Radagast. "He picked up the nestling of his own accord."
Frodo nodded. "Cuina is no burden." He flushed under Goldberry's searching look. "I am learning healing," he said. "I could not stay in the Shire."
"Indeed, you could not," she said softly. The conversation turned then to matters of healing, especially for the land, and Frodo listened silently as he ate. When supper was over, Tom rose and led them to the bedchamber where the hobbits had slept before.
"Early to rest this night, for Tom and for his lady! And you must be weary too, from many days' journey. Tomorrow is soon enough for long conversation," he said. And in truth, Frodo's eyes were heavy. He lay down and dropped into sleep as if it had been a dark hole to fall into.
Cuina roused him early, calling shrilly for breakfast. He slipped outside, leaving Radagast snoring in the dim room. Mist still lingered in the hollows, though the sun was beginning to light the Downs above him. Being a father bird was an endless chore.
He had not slept well, and his head ached. His dreams had been all of the Quest, a hopeless, stumbling climb through the Emyn Muil, with Sam always just out of sight while he hurried to catch up. He was in no mood to beat the meadow, wet with dew, for a bird's breakfast. But Cuina's wide mouth gaped up at him hopefully, so he waded into the tall grass, parting the long strands to find insects still sluggish from the night's chill. The baby bird eagerly snatched each one that he found, nipping at his fingers. Before long he was wet past the knees and his feet were numb with cold.
There was a trill of song behind him, and he turned to see Goldberry, gowned in sunshine yellow, her hair in two plaits over her shoulders. "Frodo, you are up betimes," she said. "I had not thought that hobbit folk were such early risers."
Cuina stuck her head up over the edge of her fur pouch and cheeped, and Goldberry laughed, coming over to touch the nestling's head with one slender finger. She warbled a snatch of birdsong, and Cuina listened with her head cocked. When Goldberry stopped, the little bird cheeped again, then haltingly sang the melody back to her.
Frodo hardly breathed, listening in wonder as Goldberry whistled another snatch of music and Cuina imitated her. The mist began to break up and float away, light flooded the garden, and his head stopped aching. Goldberry leaned down and came up with a small yellow spider in her hand, which she fed to the baby bird.
"Frodo, you are sad at heart," she said gently. "When last we met you were afraid, but now you're full of sorrow."
He nodded, not answering. A gnat flew up from the grass in front of him, and he caught it and gave it to Cuina.
"I failed of my Quest, Lady," he said at last.
She lifted her arms wide, as if she would gather the whole bright garden, green and fragrant, and give it into his hands. "Look, Frodo, raise your eyes! Here there is no Shadow! Some part, in all your Quest, you must have finished truly."
"I could not cast it away." His voice was low with shame, and he bent to his bug-catching, careful not to look at her. He held another morsel to Cuina's beak, and Goldberry reached out and took hold of his wrist. He stiffened, enduring her touch, as she examined the scarred hand with its missing finger.
"You see, Lady. It was – taken from me."
He dared a glance at her face. She met his eyes with an intentness that abashed him, but he could not look away. And she did not release his hand; she held her finger to his scar as if she sought to press healing into his very flesh.
"Ring-bearer, you were named, and you bore it truly, to the very Crack of Doom, nearly to your dying. Ring-destroyer you were not, and no one ever called you! That one followed at your heels, to his own undoing."
He shook his head. Ring-bearer, Ring-destroyer. Of course he had been meant to destroy the Ring; that was why he had been sent. She was trying to comfort him, but there was no comfort in this specious argument.
"No, Frodo, never think Goldberry speaks idly! You remember, Gandalf saw – before you ever started – you could not cast the Ring in your own fireplace! Don't you believe he knew you could not destroy it? But you were faithful still – you brought it to the Mountain. There was another sent, to finish when you faltered."
"Smeagol fought me for it and overbalanced – he did not intend to destroy it!"
She smiled sadly. "No, he did not intend, but it was intended. Smeagol was caught indeed – even had you cast it deep in the Fire's core, Smeagol would have followed. In truth he was enslaved to it, but you are breaking free."
It was as if one of the chains around his heart snapped and fell from him, and he took a deep breath of relief. Smeagol's fiery end had haunted him – if he had not hesitated, if he had cast the Ring into the Fire at once, the creature need not have perished so. But no –
"He would have, wouldn't he? He would have thrown himself after it." He did not need her quiet "Yes." He knew it in his bones – a few years longer, possessing the Ring, and he would have done the same. But now he was breaking free.
Suddenly he was starving. "I think Cuina has had enough for now. Is there breakfast inside for a hungry hobbit?" he asked. Goldberry laughed merrily and took his hand again, leading him into the house.
They stayed many days with Bombadil, and Radagast conferred long with Tom and Goldberry while Frodo roamed the outdoors, finding food for his nestling. By now he had a hearty respect for parent birds, watching them fly back and forth to their nests feeding their broods, even as he labored to feed his one little orphan.
"It's a good thing I only have the one," he told Bombadil ruefully. "I don't know how I'd manage, if I had three or four!"
"You'd have to find a partner, then, to help you with the bother!" Tom laughed. "Your little bird is fortunate in her foster father."
One day he came upon a grove of trees all in bloom. They were a-buzz with bees, pushing in and out of the blossoms, and as he watched one bee backed out too quickly and tumbled head-over-stinger toward the ground. Suddenly a brown hand reached out, stopping her fall, and he realized that Tom was sitting there in the long orchard grass. The bee righted herself and walked deliberately up one of Tom's fingers before she took flight.
"I thought she would have stung you," Frodo said.
"Thought she'd sting Bombadil? Not that little lady! Look now, friend Frodo." He unfolded himself from the ground and went over to the tree, holding out his hand to a cluster of blossoms. First one bee, then three or four more, left the flowers and alighted on his bare skin, and he bent his face over them, seeming to whisper something to them. At length he stretched out his arm, and they flew away. But the last one to leave his hand veered by his face in passing, landing just for an instant on his nose before she joined her sisters among the blossoms.
"What did you say to them?"
"I told them who you are, how you feed your nestling. Now you are a bird to them, in the tall grass rustling."
Frodo pulled a face. "First a donkey, now a bird! Before long I'll forget that I started as a hobbit!"
"Be sure you remember that, until you understand it!" Bombadil spoke lightly, but he rested his hand on Frodo's head as he spoke, and Frodo grew still, listening. "A hobbit's all you ever were, not hero out of legend." Then he laughed and leaped away. "You may yet be many things, before you reach the ending. But hobbit still, beneath it all – don't forget that, Frodo!"
It was little enough, and yet it eased his mind. He was only a hobbit, when all was said and done, and he had done the best he could. The deep peace of Bombadil's house began to work on him, and he slept dreamlessly night after night and woke at dawn to his duties as father bird.
Cuina lost her soft down and sprouted feathers. She startled Frodo one morning by hopping out of the pouch, when he bent to catch a spider for her, and hiding in a clump of grass.
"Hi! Cuina, come back!" He held out the spider, and she crept forward and snapped it out of his fingers before she ducked away into the grass again. Feeding her became a game of hide and seek, as he first had to find an insect for her and then find her to poke it into her beak. When she was satisfied at last, she refused the pouch and rode back to the house on top of his head, pulling at his hair.
She led him a merry chase for several days, hiding behind baskets and bits of furniture inside, or in clumps of grass or under the garden plants outside. When she was hungry she would hop to his feet, cheeping piteously, and follow him as he hunted bugs for her. It was a relief when she caught her first caterpillar, all by herself, and then within a day or two she could feed herself and was beginning to flutter up to his shoulder from the ground when she wanted company.
A week later she flew indeed, soaring high above the trees and breaking into song as she rose. He followed her with his eyes, caught between regret at losing her and a leaping joy at seeing her so free, thrilling to her song. "A skylark!" he whispered. "Now I know what kind you are!" She hovered in the sky, her song floating down to him, and then suddenly she dropped and the next thing he knew she was sitting on his head again, tweaking his ear.
Radagast chuckled beside him. "She will find it hard to see you leave, Donkey. You cared for her too well."
Frodo had been trying to persuade the bird off his head and onto his finger. He stopped with his hand still upraised. "Are we leaving, then?"
"Yes, it is time. I have learned what I may from Tom and Goldberry, and Goldberry has given me seeds. Summer is upon us, and there are calls I must make in the Northlands, before the cold comes again," said the wizard.
"And Cuina will stay here." It would be a wrench to part with her, and his heart contracted.
"I would expect it, Donkey. If I were a bird, I would not leave Goldberry's garden." Radagast laughed, laying an arm across Frodo's shoulders. "Would you?"