It was more than a few days before Frodo could walk without pain, and they camped there in the open, waiting for his foot to heal. Even so, his heart was light, and he lay with the injured foot propped up on his pack, watching the clouds and the flight of birds. He was himself again; for the second time he’d had the chance to let go of life, and instead he had held on with all his strength. Not this time because someone was calling him back, but because he wanted to live.
“I’m healed, Radagast,” he said softly, marveling, and the wizard smiled.
“You are indeed, my Donkey.” Radagast sat with his pipe, sending rings of smoke dancing off across the prairie. “Now you must find your purpose. What is it you wish to do with your life?”
Frodo grinned. “Follow you – and make sure you eat properly,” he said, and Radagast laughed so hard he brought on a coughing fit and had to lay the pipe aside.
They went on at last, moving into hilly country, climbing slopes that grew steadily higher as they pushed south. One day they came to the top of a hill higher than any they had yet climbed, and Frodo gasped and stood still. He had never expected to see it again, but he knew this place. The marble pavement, the tall stone chair on its pedestal… His knees buckled beneath him and he sat down hard on the ground.
“Amon Hen, the Hill of Seeing,” said Radagast. “Have you been here before?”
Frodo bowed his head. “When I fled from Boromir – I had the Ring on, and I sat there -” He was shaken by a tremor so violent that it rattled his teeth. “He nearly had me,” he whispered, seeing again in memory a terrible Shadow that seemed to reach out from Mordor to seize him. He sprang to his feet. “Come, Radagast, let us leave this place. It is accursed!”
The wizard put a comforting arm around him. “Not accursed, Donkey, but you need not stay here. Go on down to the river and start making camp. I wish to look where we are going, here where I can see far and clear, but I will join you soon.”
Frodo went, more shaken than he wanted Radagast to see. He wasn’t looking where he was going and fell headlong over a tree root within the first ten paces. After that he went more carefully, and came out at last on the green lawn of Parth Galen. By the time Radagast appeared, the campfire was going and Frodo was splashing in the river, dunking his head in the water as if it could wash away evil memories.
“Before it gets dark I want to look for something; come and help me, Donkey,” Radagast called. Frodo waded out and dried off, and the wizard led the way back under the trees. “Look for piles of brush; poke around and see if there’s anything inside,” he said.
Frodo stared at him for a moment before he understood. “You’re looking for the other boat? Of course; Aragorn hid it here, didn’t he, before he went after Merry and Pippin.”
Aragorn had been in a hurry, that long ago day, and it didn’t take them long to find the abandoned boat. It was covered over with branches hastily lopped from nearby trees, and buried under the leaf-fall of the passing years.
Radagast turned it upright and dragged it down to the water, and Frodo followed with the one paddle that remained; the others had rotted away from lying on the ground. The boat was still sound however; the next morning they crossed the river in it, and the Elven craft hardly leaked at all. They upended it above the high-water mark, but didn’t trouble to hide it before they left the riverbank and started up the steep hill.
The rough slopes of Emyn Muil were as pitiless and unforgiving as they had been when Frodo and Sam had struggled to find a way through them, but they were not lost this time – Radagast had a bump of direction that never failed. Frodo was bone tired by day’s end, but it was physical tiredness only, not the sinking, hopeless weariness of the last weeks of the Quest.
They stood at last looking out over the Marshes. The sun was westering behind them, casting out long rays of golden light, but to the East it was already dark. Deep, purple darkness; no angry red glow on the horizon this time. The Mountain was sleeping.
“Will it sleep forever now?” Frodo asked. His voice broke the silence, and he looked back as if something might be behind him.
“Forever is a long time, Donkey. But I think the Mountain will rest for many years now, perhaps for an age of the world. Your finger bought us a long spell of peace when it went into the fire. Costly for you, but I think it was well spent.”
“And it would not have been better if the rest of me had gone with it.” Frodo could smile as he said it, and it proved how far he had come, not only in miles, since he traveled with the wizard.
“No, indeed! The rest of you has other work to do. Come, we will find a place to camp.”
“Will we have to go through the Dead Marshes?”
“Not a passage you would relish, eh, Donkey? Nor would I. We’ll find a way around them – we can travel openly, you and I, not hunted and in fear of our lives, as you did before.”
The Dead Marshes were the least of it, but Frodo could not make himself speak of his true dread. They were traveling openly, as the wizard said, and the Ringwraiths were no more. They could walk boldly into the Morgul Vale, up the road and across the bridge to the very gates. There would be no need to take the Straight Stair, the Winding Stair, the lightless, airless tunnel…
He stumbled and nearly fell, and Radagast caught him by the elbow. “Stop here, lad, this is as good a place as any to spend the night.” Frodo was shaking as if with ague and sweat shone on his forehead, but he made no sound. Radagast eased him to the ground, a blanket under him and another around his shoulders, before he turned to make a fire.
“Drink this, Donkey.” A mug of some fragrant herbal brew was held to his lips, and he drank. After a few swallows he took the mug himself, warming his hands on it gratefully and inhaling the steam between sips.
Radagast busied himself at the fire, humming tunelessly, bringing out a pot and various foodstuffs from his bag and putting supper on to cook. All the while he watched Frodo without seeming to. Finally he put a lid on the pot and came to refill Frodo’s mug.
“You are braver than you are wise sometimes, Donkey. Why do you not tell me when something troubles you?”
Frodo shrugged. “It was as you said, a phantom.” He drank a long swallow of his tisane. “We will not have to pass the – the Spider -” He drained his mug in one gulp. Radagast filled it a third time and gave it back to him.
“Ah.” Now the wizard understood. “Ungoliant’s child. That is a phantom to be reckoned with, indeed. I had forgot that she lairs in the Morgul Valley.” He sat down by Frodo, slipping his hand under the blanket at his neck to massage the old scar. Frodo felt the icy pain ease and disappear.
“I could leave you in Ithilien, Donkey, while I go to Minas Morgul.”
Yes, Frodo thought, please yes! Leave me in Ithilien! I fear the Spider as you feared the Nazgul, and she is still there, perhaps – she would not fade away when Sauron fell. But how will we enter Mordor, if not through the Morgul Pass?
He sat up straighter. “I am going with you,” he said.
They had no difficulty in avoiding the Dead Marshes.They came down from Emyn Muil onto the old Orc road, stone-paved for the speed of the Dark Lord’s servants. They passed between the Marshes to the north and the Wetwang on the south without setting foot in either wetland, and came out at last in North Ithilien. Frodo inhaled the remembered fragrance with delight, and it brought back other memories.
“We could stop and see Faramir,” he said, “if we knew where to find him.”
Radagast looked at him in surprise; in all their time together, it was the first time Frodo had expressed a desire to visit anyone. “I can probably find him for you, Donkey, if you would like to see him.”
“I would. He was a good friend when I sorely needed one. And also he might send word to Sam…” His voice trailed off.
“Homesick, Donkey?” the wizard asked, but Frodo smiled.
“Not homesick, no. Don’t send me away, Radagast! Only I am healed now; Sam would like to know that.”
“He would.” The wizard’s dark face split in a wide smile. “He would indeed!”
Ithilien was not deserted now, as it had been when Frodo saw it before. They passed many villages, pleasant enough places with neat houses and flourishing gardens, but every one of them was walled. The larger ones were protected by walls of stone; the smaller hamlets might have only a palisade of logs, their tips filed into points, but there was no village without a protective barricade. Frodo and Radagast saw no sign of any enemy, but plainly the returned settlers of Ithilien were on their guard.
The people greeted them kindly, however, inviting them inside for a hot meal and a place to spend the night. When Radagast asked if the land was really so unsafe, even now, so many years after the War, someone always had a story of an attack away off somewhere, on another, unnamed village. One man said he had seen an orc in the woods the previous autumn; later Radagast told Frodo privately that it sounded more like a dead tree seen in the twilight and transformed by fear into a monster.
They reached the Crossroads at last, and found that a stone fort had been built there, garrisoned by soldiers of Gondor. A little town had grown up around the fort, walled like all the others. The place even had an inn, presumably for the King’s officials who had business in Ithilien, and Frodo found ale in the common room almost as good as that of the Green Dragon back home.
When they came down for breakfast the next morning, a soldier was waiting for them. “Your pardon, sirs,” he said, “I have orders to bring you to the Commander’s quarters, to take breakfast with him.”
Radagast raised his brows. “Do you? Well, that is a kindly thought. Very well, my friend, lead us to the place.” He smiled, but the man was sober-faced, stiff and correct.
They followed him through streets that were already busy at this early hour, into the fortress and up a narrow stairway that turned a sharp corner every fourth step. “For defense,” Radagast said quietly to Frodo. “Two men could hold this staircase against a horde of enemies.” It was another reminder of the watchfulness of Ithilien.
The Commander’s quarters were spacious and comfortable. Tapestries hung from the walls and a thick wool carpet warmed the cold stone floor; a massive table was set for four persons, but there was no one in the room. Their guide opened the door for them and saluted smartly, then retreated back down the stairs.
“Well,” said Radagast. “Come on in, Donkey; I suppose our host will join us soon. A fine room this is, for a fortress, even if the view is somewhat straitened.”
There was a single window in each wall, taller than a man but so narrow that even Frodo could not have squeezed through. A branched candeladrum on the table held a score of lighted candles, the flames dancing in the drafty room. Suddenly a door opened and two men came in. One was plainly the Commander, stern-visaged with grey hair and beard. The other —
“Faramir!” cried Frodo joyfully, and the man laughed and came forward with outstretched hands.
“It is you, Frodo! We had word from Gimli months ago, that you had been in Rohan — when I heard that a halfling had entered the town in company with a man in brown robes, I hoped it might be you.” Faramir bent to kiss Frodo’s forehead, his hands on the hobbit’s shoulders. “Commander, I would have you welcome Frodo, son of Drogo, who carried the Ring to Mordor.”
The officer stared at Frodo in open wonder before bowing deeply, and Frodo blushed but bowed in return. “And this is my friend and teacher, Radagast of Rhosgobel, of the same Order as Mithrandir,” he said.
The men greeted Radagast with respect, and Faramir led them to the table. “If my memory serves me, Frodo, your people are renowned trenchermen. I hope you are in good appetite, for I had the cook prepare a breakfast for six strong men, or four halflings.”
Frodo laughed. “You invited Sam and me to supper when we had been half-starving in the wilderness, Faramir, but I will not deny that I am ready for breakfast! I think I can uphold the honor of the Shire this morning.”
Servants brought in platters and covered ramekins till there was hardly any bare space on the large table, and if breakfast stretched on toward lunchtime, there was plenty for them to talk about during the meal. The Commander ate silently, casting curious glances at Frodo and the wizard, but Faramir was full of questions.
“When did you leave the Shire, Frodo? Two years ago – and you are exploring Middle Earth, are you, in the company of this brown wanderer?” He smiled at the wizard. “I have heard of you, sir, from Mithrandir, but he gave me to understand that you seldom left your home west of Mirkwood.”
“I have been traveling in recent years,” Radagast said placidly, “and I have found some good friends I would not have met, had I stayed at home — this hobbit being the best of the lot.”
“Yes,” Faramir agreed with a smile, “he is a gem, in truth, and I also am proud to call him friend. So where are you going now, the two of you? To Minas Tirith, I hope; King Elessar will be eager to see you.”
Frodo took another slice of beef without answering; he did not feel equal to explaing to Faramir where they were going now. “No,” said Radagast. “We are not going into Gondor, I’m afraid. I have work to do in Mordor.”
Faramir lost his smile, staring from the wizard to Frodo. “Mordor! And do you go with him, Frodo, back to that accursed place?”
“Yes, I do. Radagast’s work is mine as well.”
“What is there to do in Mordor, for either of you?” Faramir demanded. “Only hunting down and destroying the last of the Enemy’s servants, and that is a mission for armed soldiers. There are no birds for you to tame in that land, Radagast the Brown.”
“That is my task, to bring back the birds — to bring healing to a land that has lain under a curse since the Second Age.”
Faramir shook his head. “I think that is beyond the scope even of a wizard. The Valar themselves would be hard put to restore that land to life – and it is no place for Frodo! He has suffered enough; if you are his friend in truth, you will not drag him again to Mordor!”
“He is not dragging me, Faramir. I go of my own will.”
“Do you know clearly what you go to?” Faramir had risen and was pacing around the room as if he could not sit still. “It is a dead land, Frodo; if anything it is worse than when you went before, for the Mountain has spread its noxious waste for furlongs all around. There is no water, and any living thing you find there will be vile or poisonous – or worse. We still send in patrols to hunt down bands of Orcs! You are not armed?” he asked the wizard.
“I have my staff; that is all the protection we need.” Radagast looked at him kindly. “There are more deadly perils than Orcs in this world, my friend. One of the worst is to have no purpose in living. Frodo has come through a fierce battle for his life, and he is well and strong, ready for the challenge. I will watch over him, be sure of it!”
Faramir regarded him doubtfully, then turned to Frodo. “There is plenty to be done in Ithilien, Frodo. I would be glad to have you by my side as I work to restore this land; you need not go to Mordor to find labor worthy of your efforts.”
Frodo went to him, drawing him over to a chair. “Sit down, Faramir; you are too tall for me.” He met the man’s eyes, speaking earnestly. “I would stay with you gladly if I could; you are a true friend and I wanted to see you again. I told Radagast so.” The wizard nodded. “But I will not let Radagast go alone to Mordor, and he is bound to go there. He saved my life and I would be an ingrate to abandon him.”
The wizard frowned. “You must not come with me out of gratitude, Donkey,” he said, but Frodo grinned.
“Out of gratitude, out of friendship, what does it matter? I am going, Radagast, and you will have to send me home tied in a sack to get rid of me, as my cousin told the Master of Imladris! But Faramir,” he turned serious again, “there is a favor I would ask of you, if you are willing.”
“Anything that is in my power, Frodo.” He smiled faintly. “Out of friendship — and gratitude.”
“Can you find a way to send word to Samwise, in the Shire? I was — unwell, when he saw me last. I would like for him to know that I am well now.”
“I would send a rider for that purpose alone, Frodo, but there is no need. We have regular couriers going throughout the Kingdom now; one of them will take your message. Would you like to write a letter?”
A letter, he hadn’t thought of a letter! “Yes, please. May I borrow paper and ink?”
Faramir gave him what he needed and they left him alone to compose his message. He worked an hour on it and it was a thick missive when he was done, but only he and Sam ever knew what he had written, unless perhaps Sam showed it to Rose. He sealed it and gave it into Faramir’s hand.
“It will go tomorrow,” the man promised. “Is there anything else you need, Frodo? If I cannot persuade you against this venture, at least I would have you as well-supplied as I can make you.”
Frodo smiled up at him. “There is nothing we need; only your goodwill. Thank you for sending my letter.” He took Faramir’s hand in both of his, but Faramir went to one knee and embraced him.
“Go with my blessing, Frodo, and may the Powers protect you both! Walk cautiously in that land, for there is still danger there.”
“We will be watchful,” Radagast assured him.
They left at sunrise the following morning, Faramir walking them to the town gate, for they would not linger in spite of his exhortations to stay a few days and rest. They bade him farewell and took the road into the East. When they entered Morgul Vale it was still deep in shadow, but as they walked the sun climbed above the mountains and the valley filled with light.
It was mid-morning when they came to a place where the road split, the left fork continuing farther into the gorge and running more steeply uphill. But the right-hand fork ended abruptly at the edge of a shallow drop, the pavement broken off as if it had been hacked away by giants.
Frodo looked from the broken road out across the valley. A narrow stream ran along the bottom and on the opposite side was a bare, stony ledge in a cleft of the mountains. There was nothing more, and yet –
“This is the place,” he said.
The city he remembered had seemed to grow out of the very rock, its towers and battlements gleaming with fell light in the mountain’s embrace, its iron gates a maw with jagged teeth. It was all gone. Even the pale flowers whose deathly reek had clouded his mind that dreadful night, had vanished. There was nothing left but the broken road and the stream, and the empty shelf of rock partway up the cliff.
“Elessar has been very thorough,” said Radagast. He sounded relieved.
“I had forgot that he said he would have it destroyed,” said Frodo. “He said the evil would linger here for a long time, even so.”
“No doubt!” said Radagast. “I would not make a home here!”
Frodo crossed over to the other side of the road. The old stone wall was still there; it seemed to be the only man-made thing left standing. He followed it till he came to the gap in the wall, and stood looking through it at a narrow path that wound up the side of the mountain.
“You are certain this is the place?” Radagast asked quietly behind him, and Frodo started.The wizard laid a steadying hand on his shoulder.
“Yes. That’s the path we took to Cirith Ungol – it looks the same as it did then.” His eyes traced the path unwillingly, but he could not see the fortress that had guarded the high pass, not from here. He hoped Aragorn had destroyed that tower as well.
“We are not going that way, Donkey. Come, we have walked all morning. It is time for a rest.” Radagast went and sat down on the road’s edge, his legs hanging over the broken part, and reached into his bag. He brought forth his pipe and a pouch of leaf; Frodo smiled and drew out his own pipe.
“I didn’t know we had any pipeweed left,” he said.
“Faramir gave it to me; he said it is some of the best.” The wizard filled his pipe and passed the pouch to Frodo. “I’ve been told that Saruman was inclined to mock Gandalf for his love of this leaf your people grow. Perhaps he would have been less precipitous in his actions, had he taken time out for a pipe now and again.”
“He came to like it later,” Frodo said dryly. “It caused enough trouble, Saruman’s taste for our leaf, but it did not seem to make him any wiser.”
“No, perhaps not. That is a sad commentary on pride, Donkey. When pride comes in the door, wisdom flies out the window. Remind me of that, if it seems needful.” He puffed at his pipe, staring across at the empty space where the City of the Moon had been, and Frodo sat smoking and swinging his legs, reflecting that he doubted he’d ever need to warn Radagast against pride.
At last the wizard stirred, knocking out his pipe and tucking it into his belt. “There is nothing left here but water and stone. If I failed to do my part in defeating this evil, it is defeated all the same. Come, Donkey! Let us put Morgul Vale behind us. If we make long legs, we can reach the pass before the day is spent.”
They turned away from the site of the old city and followed the left fork of the road up the valley. Before long the road curved around the side of the mountain, and the hollow of the razed city was lost to sight. Radagast brought out a skin of some mild, sweet drink, and they passed it back and forth between them. He handed Frodo a little bundle wrapped in leaves.
“Lembas?” Frodo said in surprise, and the wizard smiled. “Do you like them? We’ll eat while we walk.”
When they reached the top of the pass, the sky behind them was a splendor of gold and crimson. They sat there for a while, watching the display of light and color, eating more of the lembas, until the red sun sank below the horizon. Then they turned their backs on the West and started down the mountain into Mordor, where the shadows lie.