Following the Other Wizard - Chapter 10: Catching Up With Death
All too soon it was spring; the snow was melting and small flowers were blooming in the grove. One day Radagast sighed and said, "It is time to be going, Donkey. There is work for me to do, out there."
Frodo had been copying an old map on a piece of parchment; Rhosgobel had hundreds of maps, and he had come to like them as much as Bilbo himself. Finally he had determined to make one for his own, and mark all the places he had been. He looked up, pen in hand. "Where are we going this year?"
Radagast got up to fetch his pipe from the mantel; he sat filling it and tamping it down, his eyes on the fire. Finally he took a coal from the hearth with a pair of tongs and lit the pipe. Only then did he look at Frodo.
"You may stay here, Donkey, if that is your wish. Indeed, that is why I brought you to Rhosgobel, to give you a home if you do not choose to go farther with me. I am going to Mordor."
The pen slipped from Frodo's hand, a splash of ink falling on his careful lettering, spoiling his work. "Now? This spring?" he whispered.
"I had hoped to wait longer, another year or two. But Mordor grows on my mind; I am needed there and I must not tarry longer." He smiled down at the hobbit, his face tender. "You are nearly healed, Frodo. You can finish your recovery here in this house, all on your own, and then go wherever your heart desires. Or you may stay and make this your home; you have learned enough to tend the hurts of the wild creatures when they come here for aid. Would you like to be the new Bird-tamer of Rhosgobel?"
"I -" Frodo stared across the table at Radagast. "I had rather be the Wizard's Donkey," he said at last. "How long before I have to decide?"
Radagast considered. "Spring is here, and I will not take a horse into Mordor. I will take my boat as far down Anduin as I may, but much of the journey will have to be afoot." He smoked thoughtfully. "I can give you a week to think about it, Donkey. Then I must go."
They said no more, and Frodo went back to his map, but he had lost interest in it. He rolled it up and went outside. A squirrel he had been taming chittered from a high branch, and he held out a nut; he had gotten in the habit of keeping a few small treats in his pockets for their "neighbors". The squirrel raced down the tree-trunk and ran up his leg; it sat on his shoulder while it ate the nut, its fluffy tail tickling his ear.
I could do it, Frodo mused. I could be the new Bird-tamer; I could stay here all the rest of my life and be happy. Happy? said another part of his mind, and he answered firmly, Yes, I am happy. I do not have to go to Mordor.
But then Radagast would go alone. Could even the wizard want to go to Mordor? What if I had had to go alone? He shuddered. I would have died, without Sam, but even if I hadn't --
To be alone in Mordor didn't bear thinking about.
In truth, his decision was made at that moment, but he waited out the full week to be sure. He lay in bed at night deliberately passing scenes of Mordor before his mind's eye; he had shied away from the thought of that cursed land ever since he awoke in Ithilien to find himself, unbelievably, alive; now he invited the memories in. Can you endure Mordor again, Frodo Baggins? Even with Radagast for companion, can you bear to go back there? But if you do not, Radagast will go alone.
At week's end Frodo came to breakfast carrying his traveling pack. He filled a leather pouch with pipeweed from the jar on the mantel, wrapped up his pipe, and tucked pouch and pipe into the top of his pack, lacing it shut.
"Ready to go," he said.
Radagast set down the fork he was using to turn sausages in the pan and came to bend over him, holding him by the shoulders and looking into his eyes. "Are you sure, Donkey? You do not have to do this; I do not need protection, you know." He smiled, but his eyes were suspiciously bright.
"You may not need protection, but you do need a companion. No one should go alone to Mordor, Radagast, not even you!
"I would be very glad not to go alone, and I could ask no better companion." The wizard smiled down on him, but his eyes were troubled. "I have one stop to make on the way, however; you had better hear what it is before you commit yourself, Donkey."
"I have already --" Frodo began, but Radagast held up a hand and he fell silent.
"You imagine, perhaps, that I will stop in Gondor, speak with the King before I go on to Mordor. It would be courteous if I did so, and it would be hard for you, being at court, but you would bear it. It might even be good for you." He paused, and was silent so long that Frodo wondered.
At last he sighed. "No, Donkey, not to Gondor. My business is not with Elessar and his kingdom - he has prepared long to reign, and he needs no help from me. My task is to bring what healing I may to the land, and also to a certain hobbit, and a brown wanderer who himself needs to face his phantoms and be whole."
"A brown wanderer," Frodo repeated. "You? You are whole already, more than anyone I ever knew!"
"And yet I ran witless and afraid, when the Nine left Minas Morgul to seek the Ring. You stood against them, wounded though you were, and a maiden and another halfling brought down the King of Angmar. I failed of my calling, Donkey, more than you ever did."
Frodo had no answer for that, other than to reach out and clasp Radagast's hand for a moment. He understood too little of the wizard's "calling" to say, No, you did not fail.
"Where are you going, then?" he asked.
"To face my fear at last. Will you go with me to Minas Morgul? The Wraiths are gone now, but I can think of no other way to deal with them."
Frodo felt goosebumps rising on his arms, but his voice was steady. "I will go with you wherever, Radagast. You gave me back my life."
"Ah, well, you have repaid me for that; you have given me back my courage." He cupped his hands on Frodo's head, and his touch was benediction. "Whatever I have done for you, Donkey, you have done as much for me. If you are certain you want to come with me now, I will be glad and honored to have your company."
They left that same day. Radagast was intent as Frodo had not seen him before; there was no casual drifting along on this journey: Mordor was the goal, by way of Minas Morgul, and they would reach it as promptly as might be.
They were not able to take the boat as far down the river as Radagast had hoped. Anduin was filled with snow melt from the mountains, a roiling, rushing flood, and their narrow boat rode it like a stick cast in the water. Frodo ricocheted between terror and exhilaration as they bounded downstream, the boat spinning like a top when Radagast was not quick enough with his paddle. The wild ride came to a sudden stop when they swept round a sharp bend onto a logjam that spanned the river, running into the jumble of fallen trees and branches before the wizard was able to swerve into the bank.
Radagast was thrown into the water, the paddle flying from his hands. Frodo had been clinging to the gunwales and the impact knocked him on his back, banging his head painfully against the bottom of the boat. He bounced up at once, crying the wizard's name, but Radagast was already climbing up onto the logs, drenched but apparently unharmed.
"Time to walk," he said. "Hand me my bag, Donkey, and your pack; we'll leave the boat where it is." They picked a precarious way across the logjam to the near shore, holding on with both hands and placing each footstep with care. When they reached solid ground, Frodo at once began gathering wood for a fire. Radagast regarded him with amusement.
"Is everything that happens occasion for a meal to a hobbit, even being dumped in the river?" he asked.
Frodo rolled his eyes. "Only when one of the party is soaked and shivering, Radagast! Then a hot meal seems a sensible idea for anyone, hobbit or not. Does nothing that happens ever shake your composure?"
The wizard gave a hoot of laughter. "You have turned healer indeed, if you are going to take me for your patient! Very well, Master Physician, I will find myself dry garments while you get that fire going."
They had come out on the western shore of Anduin, not where Radagast wanted to be, but the river was too turbulent to get across, even if they had not lost the boat.
"Never mind, by the time we get far enough south, the water should be calmer," he said. They ate and rested for a while; then they went on afoot. A few days later they came out from among the trees to rolling grassland, the new growth already pushing its way through the dry stalks of the previous year.
The spring sky was high and pale blue; now and then a startled bird erupted from the prairie a little way ahead of them, squawking complaint as it flew off. Radagast would whistle after it, and Frodo laughed to see the bird swerve in mid-air, changing course to swoop around them in a wide circle. Sometimes it actually landed on the wizard's outstretched arm before it returned to its hidden nest somewhere in the grass.
They walked for many days, and the landscape changed little. The air seemed clear enough to drink, heady as fine wine, and far to the west they could see a hazy line of mountains. Frodo felt strong and well as he had not felt in years, and then it came to an end suddenly, like falling off a cliff.
It was a glorious afternoon, unseasonably warm, the sunlight pouring down like thin honey. Frodo had taken off his shirt to let the warmth strike his bare skin; it felt heavenly, like bathing in light. The grass was above his knees, bowing and rippling in the soft breeze.
He was happy. There was a cry overhead, and he looked up to see a great eagle soaring against the blue as if it were the very spirit of life and freedom. It was so beautiful it brought tears to his eyes, and he did an awkward little dance step, somewhat hampered by the tall grass. He stepped on something, something that writhed under his foot, and it bit him.
It was like fire burning through him, cold fire that tore through his veins and ate its way toward his heart. Last time it was my neck, he thought as he fell. He knew the sensation of poison flooding his veins.
Radagast's face was above him, and he clung like a drowning man to the peace in the wizard's eyes. Even now, peace. "You said I would catch up to death at last," he whispered.
"Do you still wish it, Frodo?" The wizard's voice was gentle.
Frodo shook his head slightly, his body responding only sluggishly to his will. His eyes held to Radagast's face, the one fixed point in a world that lurched and spun dizzyingly around him.
"Then let us send Death about his business, for today at least." The wizard spoke with authority, and he bent and lifted him in one smooth motion. Frodo lost his fixed point and fell away to darkness.
When he opened his eyes again he could see nothing, and he thought he had gone blind. There was something over his face, and he reached up and pulled at it. It came away in his hand - only a scarf that had been bound across his eyes. The darkness was thinner without it; there were shapes and shadows, and he turned his head and saw a little fire, and the wizard sitting beside it.
"Radagast? Why the blindfold?" He had to push to make his voice loud enough to hear; there seemed to be no energy behind it. But the wizard heard and came over to him at once, touching his forehead and down along the sides of his neck.
"How do you feel, Donkey? The blindfold was to keep you sleeping while I worked on you. Can you sit up?"
He could, with help, with propping. Between them they got him leaning against a rock, a blanket folded behind him for padding and another wrapped around him for warmth. Radagast brought a mug of some warm, pungent broth and fed it to him, mouthful by mouthful.
He slept again, and when he woke it was morning. There was a good smell of something cooking, and his insides curled with hunger. He tried cautiously to move his limbs, and found that he could get to his knees, but not put weight on the injured foot.
"Wait a moment, lad, and I'll help you." The wizard got him up, brought him to the fire, put a bowl of food in his hands. He made short work of it and looked up with a smile.
"More, please?" he said.
Radagast chuckled as he refilled the bowl. "When you lose your appetite, I'll know you're beyond curing," he said. "How's the foot, Donkey?"
"We'll stay here a few days and let you mend."
"Radagast?" Frodo hesitated. He was afraid the question would earn him a rebuke, but he had to know. "Did you - kill the snake?"
The wizard gave him a long look. "Why would I kill her?" he asked.
"Because she - it - bit me. It nearly killed me."
"You came into her home, not watching where you were going, and did a dance on her back. Wouldn't you bite, under the circumstances?"
Frodo lowered his head, his hand kneading a place on the back of his neck that throbbed with remembered pain. Radagast came to sit by him, pushing his hand away and massaging the old wound with gentle firmness.
"This was no monster of evil will like Shelob, Donkey - only a wild thing that felt itself threatened. Look where you're going, another time."
"So my life is of no more value than a snake's?" Not to a wizard, he thought. A hobbit is just another bit of wildlife that he looks after until it dies at last.
"Ah, no, Frodo." Radagast turned Frodo's head gently till he was staring deep into the wizard's eyes. "Your life is of great value, though you did not think so yourself, a while back. You are of great value, to me and to all who love you.
"You caught up with death yesterday, indeed, and you might have gone with him. I am glad you did not wish to go! I would grieve to have lost you, Donkey, perhaps as much as your little gardener back in the Shire."
He gathered the hobbit to him, and Frodo yielded to the embrace, wrapping his arms around the wizard and rubbing his cheek against the soft brown robe. He had grown very fond of Radagast, he realized, as he had been of Gandalf years before. It was good to love someone, and to be loved.