The Thing with Feathers

by Orangeblossom Took

A heavy spring rain pelted the windows of Bag End and beat the petals off Bilbo’s prize roses and ran in rivulets down the rolling hills of the Shire. Despite the weather, Frodo Baggins sighed in contentment. He loved having his little cousins to visit and he had just put Pippin, who was the current guest, to bed. Now he was reading in Bilbo’s most comfortable chair and listening to the rain.

He was feeling drowsy and thinking he really should put out the lamp and go to bed before he fell asleep in this chair with the lamp still on when he felt a tug at his sleeve. Eight-year-old Pippin was looking up at him with large hazel eyes.

He ruffled the fry’s curls and said, “What are you still doing up, Pip? You should be in bed?”

“I can’t sleep, Frodo,” said Pippin, “but I think I could if you told me a story.”

Frodo smiled and replied, “Uncle Bilbo is better at that sort of thing than I am, Piplet, and it is late. Why don’t you go back to bed and he will tell you a story tomorrow?”

“But I want you to tell me a story,” insisted Pippin.

“Well, okay,” said Frodo, “but don’t blame me if it is not up to Bilbo’s standards or if you are yawning at breakfast tomorrow.”

“I won’t, I won’t,” promised Pippin as he climbed up into the chair next to Frodo, though he felt somewhat ashamed at acting like a baby but Frodo was so soothing, somehow and, though Pippin had only lost his mother, they had the bond of both having lost parents.

Frodo, for his part, truly adored children and was more patient and loving with them than was common for a tweenager. He thought how nice it would be to have a wife and children. He could see a grown-up Rosemary Whitfurrows bustling in the kitchen while he sat in front of the fire telling a story to their child. Well, he was happy to do so now for his little cousin.

“This is a story Bilbo told me when I first came to live here,” he said and began, “This tale begins, as all tales must, in a long ago time in a kingdom far away. It was as fair as a kingdom of Men as you could hope to find in those days, my dear, and it had a golden-haired king and a queen with hair light a raven’s wing. The king and his knights had gone off hunting a white boar and, when the queen saw the knights come back bearing her husband’s gored body, her screams shook the castle.

Now, not long before he died, the queen had made know to the king that they were to have a son and, several phases of the moon after the death of the old king, the new king was born. Queen Fiachna put away her grief and was an able regent. Her son, who she named Brennus for his hair was as black as hers, had a wonderful childhood. He was loved but not spoiled and had the finest tutors as well as the nicest toys. He was kind and polite to everyone, from lords to servants.

One fine spring day, Brennus and he tutor had taken their lessons outside so they were the first to see the arrival of the king of a nearby kingdom. This strange king had black hair like his mother but his skin was deathly pale and his face was severe.

The strange king left but he came back again and again and, eventually the queen married him. Many said she must have been under a spell and so she was for, every time she looked at the dead white face, she saw the golden countenance of her dead husband. She scarce seemed to notice Brennus anymore and said nothing when her new husband dismissed the boy’s tutor and committed petty little cruelties against him.

Once, when the strange king had left on some mysterious errand of his own for a few days, the queen came out of her fog long enough to show her son secret stairs and tunnels and back ways out of the castle before her new husband came back. She also told him to run north into the woods and seek his old tutor if anything should happen to her. This was well for, after that, the queen became very ill and lay in her bed, unmoving and unspeaking.

When his stepfather’s men crept up the stairs to Brennus’ room that night, they found an empty bed. The young king was already running north through the dark woods.

He ran and he ran until he could run no more and was sore and hungry and thirsty. It was dawn when he stopped to lay down under a tree and cry.

He watched a magpie flit from branch to branch above him and was startled when the bird asked ‘Why are you crying, boy?’

‘My father is dead and my mother is probably dead and my stepfather sent men to kill me. I am hungry and tired and cold,’ sobbed the boy, ‘I know I shouldn’t cry but it is good to talk to you, even if you are only a bird.’ He opened his hastily-packed sack and shared his only crust of bread with the magpie.

‘If I were you, young king,’ advised the magpie, ‘I would keep going north another four miles. You will find a clearing with a little stream and a cottage. I think there may be help there for you.’

‘Thank you,’ said Brennus courteously and he resumed his journey.

The magpie was as good as its word and, with some trepidation, the boy knocked on the door of the strange cottage which looked rather like and overturned bird’s nest and had flowers growing in its thatch. An old man in brown robes answered the door, and old man Brennus recognized. ‘Radgast,’ he cried.

‘It is I dear boy,’ said Radgast and hugged Brennus before he continued, ‘there is strong dark magic surrounding your stepfather and I have been trying to find a way to break the spell on your mother but I am afraid I have been too late.’

Brennus’ eyes opened wide, ‘Are you a wizard then, Radgast?’

‘That I am,’ said the old man, ‘but a poor one, I fear,’ and he shook his head ruefully.

Brennus asked, “Do you know what he has done to mother?”

There was great sadness in the wizard’s eyes and he said, “Your stepfather is steeped in black witchcraft, my boy. He has stolen your mother’s heart and hidden it away. Without it, she is as one dead.”

‘There has to be something we can do,’ said Brennus.

‘There is,’ said Radgast, ‘if you can find her heart before the sun sets on the third day, she will wake up. If not, she will be gone forever. Your stepfather has hidden it in the northernmost woods of the world. You must have some hot tea and porridge before we do anything else.’

Brennus thought he wouldn’t be able to eat but the porridge smelled so good that he ate the whole bowl then asked, ‘Master Radgast, how am I going to find her heart? I am just a boy and can not go far or fast.’

‘Ahhhh, but I am a wizard and can turn you into a swifter form,’ said Radgast.

Brennus thought of how the Magpie helped him and his own dame and his mother’s black hair and asked, ‘Can you make me into a raven?”

‘A good choice, my boy,” said Radgast and, in less time than it takes to tell about it, the black-haired boy was a black-feathered bird, a raven. ‘Look for a deep pool in a bluebell wood,” cried Radgast as Brennus flew swiftly away.

For the next two days, Brennus flew and flew without finding a wood. He got very hungry and, when he saw a little mouse scurrying on the ground, his raven instincts took over and he had the little creature in his beak when it pleaded for its life.

‘Please don’t eat me,’ it squeaked, ‘let me go and I will do you a favor.’

Brennus did not know what favor a mouse could do him but he let it go. He asked it, ‘You haven’t seen a bluebell with a deep pool, have you?’

‘Yes,’ squeaked the mouse, ‘it is just a little north of here.’

Brennus thanked the mouse for the information and, with better confidence, continued his flight north. He finally came to a wood carpeted with bluebells and found a deep pool underneath the tallest, darkest fir trees he had every seen. There was a faint glow at the bottom of the pool and he knew it was his mother’s heart.

He tried holding a branch in his beak to fish it out but not branch he could hold was nearly long enough. He began to cry in despair when a fish spoke to him.

It asked, ‘Why are you crying, boy?’

‘My mother’s heart is at the bottom of your pool,’ he said, ‘and she will die if I don’t get it out.’

‘If you bring me an emerald from the ring of the king for the bottom of my pool, I will get it for you,’ said the fish.

Now, Brennus had no idea how to get such a thing. He couldn’t go back to the castle. He was flying by a stream when he felt his hunger again and saw a frog. Again, this creature spoke and begged for its life, promising to do Brennus a favor.

Brennus let the creature go and it swam away to come back with a large emerald. ‘A scary Man dropped this by my home not long ago,’ it said.

Brennus gave the fish the emerald and, as the light turned golden and the sun began to sink below the trees, Brennus was flying swiftly home with a little golden casket containing his mother’s heart in his beak.

Wonder of wonders, her bedroom window was open. He set the casket on her chest and it slowly sank into her body. As it did so, color returned to her face and her eyes opened. Like her son before her, she left the castle by the secret ways before her husband noticed she was missing. Brennus flew back out the window.

The queen and her son met at Radgast’s cottage and had to decide what to do. They had a hard choice to make.

‘He has joined with a stronger darkness than his own, my dears,’ said the wizard, ‘and that gives him power none of us, including myself, can defeat. You can seek refuge among the Elves or choose another life…’

Mother and son looked at each other and though of flying. The read the choice each had made. Radgast smiled and, soon there were two ravens flying above his cottage.

Sometimes they were human, mostly they were ravens and they lived long and happily in the trees around the little cottage and some say they fly in the northern woods still. As for the strange king, they say he died and haunts barren lands as a tormented spirit. Let any who doubt this tale go forth and find the truth for themselves.”

Pippin shivered, “That was scary but good,” he said. “Do you think we will have adventures, Frodo?”

Frodo shuddered. “I hope not,” he said, “adventures can be nasty things. Why would I want to leave the Shire, anyway? Still, I do love reading about them.”

The tween and the fry fell asleep in front of the dying fire as the rain slowed, then stopped, and stars were revealed. That is where Bilbo found them the next morning, curled on his best chair with rays of fresh morning sunlight streaking across their faces. He smiled and went to make them breakfast quietly.