Following the Other Wizard – Chapter 4: Village of Death

by May 12, 2004Stories

Chapter 4: Village of Death

They did not speak again of Gandalf’s names for the hobbits, but Frodo did not forget. He treasured Sam’s title of Hope Unquenchable – it was so apt, so perfect. He rolled it over his tongue as he rode, and it seemed to bring Sam close to him, clear-eyed and faithful. Not for the first time, he thanked the Valar for Sam’s presence in his life.

But Gandalf’s name for himself struck him with wonder every time he thought of it. Endurance Beyond Hope – no, he thought, I don’t deserve such a title – but he knew he did. All the words of comfort that had been offered to him since the Quest had broken against the stone wall of his self-condemnation, but this touched him to the heart. He could not deny that he had been hopeless, nor that he had endured.

Was that enough? he wondered. The Ring is gone, although it was not my hand that destroyed it. Was endurance all that was required of me? Endurance, and mercy? The days slipped away, sunrise and sunset, the slow miles unwinding under his pony’s feet, and he pondered the question.

Radagast had many friends to visit. There was a hawk he had fostered when he lived at Rhosgobel, and had resettled here in the North when it was grown. A deer he had rescued from wolves, who brought her twin fawns to him with a mother’s pride in her mild eyes. And – typical of the wizard’s impartial care for all creatures – a wolf they found lying by the shore of Lake Evendim, worrying at the stub of an arrow buried in its shoulder.

“There are Men on the eastern shore, rebuilding the ruins of Annuminas,” said Radagast. “I think you ventured too close, my friend.”

The wolf growled and stretched out his neck to lap thirstily at the lake water. The wizard felt around the arrow’s broken shaft that protruded from the wound. “We will have it out, Greyling, but you must be patient. No biting, mind!” He drew a packet of herbs and a small pot from his sack, and Frodo went to look for firewood.

It was a difficult business, and before they finished Frodo was enlisted to hold the wolf’s head, for the creature could not restrain itself from nipping at the arrow as Radagast worked to extract it with the least damage possible.

“If Sam could see me now!” he exclaimed, his hands buried in the wolf’s ruff as he struggled to hold it still.

The wizard chuckled. “He’d tell you to watch your fingers – and so you’d better! I said no biting, Greyling!” He tapped the wolf’s snout smartly. “Hold his mouth closed, Donkey. He is not ill-natured, but it hurts him and his instinct is to bite back.”

Frodo got his hands around the animal’s snout, looking steadily into eyes that were ice blue, like a winter sky. They were distant with pain, but as he held on to the wolf with gentle pressure, its eyes cleared and looked back at him pleadingly. Pity rose in his heart and he bent to kiss the smooth fur of the creature’s forehead.

“Hold on, Greyling, it’s nearly over. Radagast is a good physician.” The wolf seemed to relax a trifle and remained still, staring into Frodo’s face. At last the arrowhead was out – a cruel, barbed thing it was – and Radagast was massaging a pungent salve into the wound. As soon as Frodo released its head, however, the wolf turned and began to lick itself.

“Won’t he lick off your medicine, Radagast?”

Radagast only laughed. “Some of it, no doubt. It will be as good for him inside as out, to stop that gash from turning foul, and he won’t get it all off – I rubbed it in deep. Well, as long as we’re here, we may as well stay the night. Make us some tea, will you Donkey, while I clean up?”

So the summer passed away, and flocks of birds began to gather in the trees, wheeling above them in practice flight for the long migration south. Over breakfast one morning Radagast sat back and looked Frodo over critically.

“We need to find you some new clothes, I think, Donkey. You are nearly in rags.”

Frodo looked down at himself. In truth, his shirt was threadbare, and his jacket and trousers stained and full of small holes, the result of pushing through too many thickets and bramble patches. It was odd that he hadn’t noticed before; he had always been fastidious about his appearance. Only the Elven cloak was still whole, and it needed a good wash.

“We will stop at a village I know and get what you need,” said Radagast. “Then we’ll turn south and follow the birds away from ice and snow, before winter takes these lands.”

Frodo had no desire to go among people – the wizard’s quiet presence was a balm to him, but his spirit was still troubled and he wanted no other company. There was no denying, however, that he needed new clothes.

The village was in a little bowl-shaped depression, a few acres cleared from the encircling forest. There were a couple of dozen dwellings, small houses with steep, wooden-shake roofs, each one in its patch of garden surrounded by a log fence.

It was quiet, too quiet. The sun was high in the sky, nearly mid-day, and yet there were no people working in the gardens or, indeed, visible anywhere at all. Frodo and Radagast picked their way down the steep decline cautiously, expecting any moment that someone would appear to challenge their approach, or shout a greeting, or in some way let them know they had been seen. But there was no one.

“There’s something wrong here, Radagast.”

“Wrong, indeed. Stay here, Donkey. Or better, take Smoky and see if you can find some water – I think there’s a well -” He waved vaguely toward the other end of the village and dismounted, handing the reins to Frodo, and striding toward the nearest house. Frodo waited while he ducked into the low doorway, but he did not return and there was no outcry, so he led Smoky away to look for water.

There was a well at the far end of the clearing. Frodo slid off Strider’s back and hauled up the bucket, pouring water into the stone animal trough that stood handy – there was a hitching rail, as well; plainly the village was accustomed to horsemen. Smoky and Strider came eagerly to drink.

Suddenly there was a high, keening cry, and a small figure burst from a house across the clearing. Whoever it was paused in front of the house, looking wildly in all directions, and then ran straight at Frodo.

“Help me, you’ve got to help me!”

It was a lad of Frodo’s own height, but with a young face, a child of ten or eleven summers, Frodo guessed. He wound the reins hastily round the hitching rail and hurried to meet him.

“It’s Mum – my mother. She’s -” He didn’t finish but dragged Frodo bodily across the clearing and into the house.

The inside was dimly lit, but even in the half light Frodo could see signs of trouble – clothes and bedding thrown about the room, dirty bowls and cups on the table and a few on the floor, no fire on the hearth, an upset water pail. The child gave him no chance to look further, but pulled him to a bed that stood in one corner. A woman lay there, curled on her side, her face startlingly pale in the shadowy room. She was dead.

Frodo went down on one knee and took her hand. It was warm and limp in his – she had just died, then. The boy grabbed him by the shoulder and shook him violently, shouting.

“Help her! You’re a healer, aren’t you? You came with Radagast; I saw you – you have to save her!”

He turned to catch the child in his arms. “Shh, shh – it’s too late, lad, too late for anyone to save her. I’m sorry.”

“No!” The boy broke free and threw himself across the woman. “No! Mum, answer me! Mum!” He listened, but there was no answer, and he collapsed in tears, his face hidden against his mother’s neck. Frodo knelt by the bed, rubbing the lad’s back in slow circles, feeling utterly useless.

At last the storm of tears ceased, and the lad lay quiet, still clinging to his mother’s body. Frodo got up and began tidying the room, folding the clothes and laying them on a chair, picking up the dirty crockery and piling it in the basin that stood on a chest against the wall. There was a rack of firewood by the door, and he got a fire going and looked round for a kettle.

“I’m going for some water,” he said, touching the child’s arm. “Will you be all right for a few minutes?” The tousled head nodded without looking up.

He was almost to the well when Radagast appeared from one of the other houses, walking faster than Frodo had ever seen him move. “Donkey! I wondered where you were. You’ve been inside?”

“Yes, in there.” He nodded toward the house. “There’s a woman just dead in there, Radagast, and her son. We came too late.”

“Too late for her and many others. I wish you had not gone inside, Donkey. I would not have had you exposed to this.”

The water pail was full. “Exposed to what, death? Do not treat me like a child, Radagast!” He began walking back toward the house, and the wizard fell in beside him.

“Not death, infection. There is not a house untouched by it – the whole village is taken by pestilence!”

The fearsome word sent a chill through him, and he willed himself not to let the wizard see. “Can you treat it? Can you save any of them?”

“I will try, but I fear for you, Donkey. Still, you have spent only a few minutes inside – if I send you away now, you may be safe enough.” They stood at the door of the house, and he caught Frodo’s shoulder to stop him going in.

“I thought I was to learn healing. Isn’t that why I ride with you?”

“To learn healing, yes, but not to tempt death, lad! Even now it may be too late to prevent your catching this illness.”

“Then let us think no more about it.” Radagast still gripped his shoulder, and he pushed the wizard’s hand away. “Have you forgot how you found me, Radagast? I may not slay myself, you say, but must I run if Death comes seeking me?”

Radagast had not forgotten. A row of poison mushrooms on a stick, over a too-hot fire – he sighed. He had hoped the summer in the wild had given a happier turn to Frodo’s thoughts.

Frodo’s voice softened at the expression on the wizard’s face. “Who will help you care for these people, then? Here I am, healthy and strong, and willing to learn. Teach me what to do for them.”

He went into the house and filled the kettle. The boy inside gave a strangled cry and ran to hug him around the waist.

Radagast had spoken truly; there was no house untouched. They gathered those who were sickest into one house, the better to care for them, and those who were on the mend in another. These, Radagast decided, were no longer a danger to others, so the women and older children who had not yet been stricken were set to tending them. The men who were able were sent out to dig graves.

Radagast himself, and Frodo, took over the care of the sick. The lad whose mother had died carried water and wood for them, and shadowed Frodo whenever he came outside. They tried in vain to chase him away, for this house was the focus of infection and most of the villagers would not come near it, but the boy would not leave, although they did not allow him inside.

“‘Twas just Mum and me,” he said, when they tried to send him back to the other children. “My father is dead, and this was his village – we have no kin here.” And he went back at night to sleep in his own deserted dwelling, but all day he hung about the door of the sick house, ready to run any errand they might send him on.

He begged Frodo to come with him when his mother was buried, and Frodo was disturbed to see that indeed, he seemed to be alone in the village. There were others buried at the same time, their families gathered about the graves, but this child stood apart, with none but Frodo at his side. It seemed that no one would even help with the burial, and after the words had been spoken, the two of them worked alone to fill the grave. At last one of the men nearby finished the grave he had been working on and came to help them, shoveling fast without looking at the boy, and turning away without a word as soon as the task was done.

It made no sense, Frodo thought; the father’s family must have been kin to the boy, but there was no time to pursue the matter. They had nearly a dozen patients to care for, most with raging fevers that necessitated frequent sponge baths and sent them off their heads besides, prey to terrifying waking dreams. One man was particularly violent, flinging Frodo off with such force that the hobbit was thrown across the room, when he tried to bathe his limbs in cool water. Frodo picked himself up and came back to try again, with Radagast to hold the patient down, but the man died that night.

The days grew cooler, and when he stepped out to send the boy for water, Frodo saw that the forest around the village blazed with autumn color. He shivered as he stood for a few minutes to talk with the child – he was so lonely, this waif who stood alone even in a time of such suffering, when all differences in the village should have been laid aside.

“I have not even asked your name,” he said contritely.

“Nano,” the boy said. “And you are Donkey – I heard Radagast say.”

Frodo grinned. “That is his name for me. Do you know him, then?”

“Of course. He comes every summer, but he was late this year. Is he kin to you?”

Frodo stared. “Kin? He is a wizard; I’m a hobbit! How could we be kin?”

Nano looked surprised. “You are not a young wizard, then? But he seems fond of you, as if you were family.”

Frodo leaned against the wall of the house, laughing helplessly. “A young wizard? I doubt there is any such thing, but certainly I am not one!” He pulled himself together; he had lingered out here long enough. “Go on, Nano, the water, please. I must get back to work.”

The next morning when Nano appeared, he carried a bundle of clothes. “You are not dressed warm enough,” he told Frodo. “We’re the same size, so you can wear some of my things.” And he would not let Frodo refuse. “I have enough to share!” he insisted, and “You helped me bury my mother,” he added softly. Frodo thanked him and took the clothes.

There were only two patients left in the house when Frodo woke one morning with burning eyes and a blinding headache. He staggered to the water bucket to splash cold water on his face, and Radagast took one look at him and steered him back to his bed.

“Lie down, Donkey, and no arguments! You are my patient now, and I am a stern physician.” Frodo felt no inclination to argue; the room had spun like a hoop rolling downhill when he stood up, and it was a relief to close his eyes again. He felt a damp cloth bathing his face as he fell back into sleep.

When he woke again it was night, and he felt as if he were being baked in an oven. He struggled to sit up, unbutton his shirt, and then Radagast was there helping him, rubbing him down with cool water and holding a mug for him to drink. He tried to speak, to say thanks, but he was so weary, too weary to talk. He nodded instead, and the wizard stroked his hair.

“It’s all right, Donkey. Go back to sleep; I’m here.”

While he slept, Nano crept into the room. Radagast sat by the bed dozing, his hand lightly clasping Frodo’s wrist, and Nano curled up at the end of the bed and waited. When Radagast roused an hour later, the child was sound asleep.

“Lad, get up! What are you doing here?”

Nano was wide awake on the instant. “I have come to help you,” he said. “Don’t send me away, please don’t!”

“You will be ill -”

“No, I already had it; I was one of the first. Let me help you with Donkey, Radagast!” His eyes were like coals burning in his face, and the wizard gave in.

“Very well, lad. Fetch some water, then, and sponge him down while I make a tisane for him. His fever is up again.”

Frodo woke, and slept. Sometimes it was dark, and the Mountain blazed before him; terrifying cries filled his ears and he cowered, pulling the bed clothes over his head. Other times he woke to dazzling light that blinded him, his skin burning like fire and itching so that he tore at it with his fingernails. Someone held his wrists and bathed him with cool water. “Rest, Donkey. Rest. We’re here.”

Then he was drifting. As if he had been in a little boat, and the current was carrying him away, farther and farther downstream. He looked back and it seemed he saw Radagast standing on the shore, looking sad, and he tried to wave but his arm was heavy, too heavy, so he just smiled his farewell. And then someone grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him, shook him hard, and a voice exploded in his head, “No! No! Donkey, come back! Don’t die, please don’t die!” There was a sound of violent weeping, and a heavy weight fell across his chest. The water of the river rose about him in a wave that seemed to reach the sky, and he slipped into unconsciousness.

He stood on the riverbank, the boat drawn up beside him, and he had to choose. Forward, or back? Sunlight danced on the water and the sound of its rushing away to the Sea was like music. It was all his desire, to follow that shining river path, his face to the light, and he bent to slide the boat into the water, but something made him hesitate.

There was another path, on land, that stretched back the way he had come, along the riverbank. It was overhung with branches, dark and gloomy, and he looked at it with distaste. But someone was calling him, back there, and he stopped to listen. The voice was faint, hopeless and melancholy as a bird that calls in the night watches, and he felt suddenly that he could not ignore it. He left the boat and started back along the shadowed path, hating every step.

He tried to open his eyes, but the light was too strong. He raised a hand to cover his face, and a voice said, “Radagast, he’s awake!”

“Donkey? Can you hear me?” That was Radagast, but who had spoken first? He shielded his eyes with both hands and squinted into the light. A boy sat beside him, grinning as if all his wishes had just come true. Nano?

“Let go, Nano, before you squeeze him to death and all our labor is for nothing!” Radagast was laughing, and Frodo took a deep breath as the bone-crunching tightness around his ribs loosened.

“There, lad, try and open your eyes now; I’ve closed the shutters.” Frodo peered out between his fingers, but the room was dim and he lowered his hands and looked around. They were alone in the house, Radagast and Nano and himself, and the room was swept clean, not the shambles the sick house had been, with a dozen patients on pallets all over the floor.

“I didn’t die.” It was a little surprising; he had been sure he was dying.

“No, Donkey, you didn’t die. Nano here wouldn’t let you go.”

Frodo’s eyes went to the child sitting on the edge of his bed, face alight with happiness. He reached out weakly and his hand was caught in a warm grip that seemed likely to break his fingers.

“Thank you, Nano,” he whispered.


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