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Chapter 8 – Voices in the Dark
Buckleberry was a hive of activity when Dody stumbled back to the hill. Work had stopped in the fields as the hands tending the pipeweed plants gossiped excitedly among themselves. It had to be about Frodo, Dody thought. He caught the sad shaking of heads and the worried glances up towards Brandy Hall but was afraid to approach any of the field hands to hear what was said. He was certain his guilt would show in his face and they would know he was to blame for the injury. He had already condemned himself as much as he could bear; their censure would have broken him. He thought about going to his family's farm shed to find a saw, but worry gnawed his mind. Was the child dead already? Sick fear filled his belly and he knew he had to find out how Frodo fared. It would have been smarter to stay away from the center of the activity, to continue with his planned retrieval of the necklace, but he found he simply could not go on until he knew the condition of his cousin.
The front entrance to Brandy Hall stayed open on fine summer days, but a crowd of older hobbits usually lounged on the broad porch that edged the front garden. That place would surely be busier than usual now, with gaffers and gammers gossiping over the incident. Dody wasn't thinking of slipping in that way, but he hoped the increased activity would draw attention, and hobbits, away from some of the lesser-used entryways to the hall. He crept up the hill to the north side of the main door and found a small entrance that was unattended. He listened intently but after hearing no one behind it, he pulled the knob and peeked around the side of it. Cool blackness greeted him but no sound. They must be keeping onlookers away or perhaps this side entryway, used mainly by the hobbits quartered in that smial, was empty because its inhabitants were busy spreading gossip in the rest of the Hall. Whatever the reason, Dody was grateful for their absence. He slipped inside and closed the door behind him.
It took a moment or two for his eyes to adjust to the dimness, but hobbit eyes are made for seeing in the dark and before long he could make out the passage. This entry was fairly close to his Aunt Primula's rooms and Dody hoped he could sneak along the way and listen from outside the apartment to what transpired within. It was risky, and he was trembling with fear, but he was desperate to know what had happened to Frodo. Perhaps his young cousin was all right? Had he spoken to anyone? Was the necklace mentioned? Self-serving thoughts rose, unbidden, to the forefront of his eager mind and Dody tasted bile in the back of his throat, hating himself for thinking them. It would be GOOD news if Frodo recovered, he insisted to himself, and weighing the merits of any other outcome was unconscionable. Still… Dody's devious mind worked feverishly, as if guilt and conscience were academic concepts that had already been accepted and set aside while it dealt with more pressing problems. He found himself wondering what course of action he should take if the worst had happened. What would he do if Frodo were dead? He would still get the necklace, most certainly, and he would return it - that wasn't even a question any longer – and then?
That was no question either. Dody knew what he would do then. His fettered morality screamed its discontent but his coldly terrified mind smothered its protests like the dousing of a candleflame. He knew with utmost certainty what he would do. If Frodo had indeed been killed, he would erase any hint of his involvement; return the necklace and do anything in his power to make certain no one ever found out that it was his actions, his folly that had killed his precious cousin.
Footsteps in the smial ahead. Dody froze and sank against the wall. They stopped a little way ahead just beyond a bend in the corridor and the sounds of two voices drifted towards him.
"Well, you have certainly ingratiated yourself, Ms. Burrows," came the deep baritone of a male hobbit.
"I was called to attend the child, Doctor Clearwater. What would you have me do? Refuse?" A clear female voice answered, a touch of irritation coloring it. "I was at his birth, of course they would call me." Dody recognized Doctor Clearwater, but the female voice was not familiar to him. There was a healer in Buckleberry named Burrows, perhaps it was she who spoke?
"But clearly you can see he needs more than your simple skills can manage," the doctor replied. "You must see reason and convince Mr. Baggins to let me take over his care."
"I don't think that's wise, doctor. You've seen the way the parents feel about you and I don't know about Drogo, but Primula is barely holding on. Did you notice how she's breathing? The stress is getting too much for her, mark my words. If there'd been trouble in that room between us or between Mistress Brandybuck and Drogo, she'd have been overcome."
The doctor's voice was edged with disgust. "Don't try to teach me medicine, girl. I was practicing when you were but a whim by the riverbank*. Of course I saw her. Why do you think I agreed to meet with you out here?"
"Then you also should listen to what I found when I looked the boy," the healer's voice countered, her irritation matching the Doctor's. "He's in trouble. He's eyes are goin' wide and they aren't responding to light like they should. And his breathing’s shallow and getting shallower. You saw how pale he is. He's responding to sounds a bit, but not nearly as well as I'd like to see and he's gotten worse just in the short time I've been looking after him." She paused. "If I don't do something fast, that boy will die, sure as anything." Dody could hear her shifting around uncomfortably in the dark passage. "Now, if you REALLY want to help them, you will do what I suggested and help me, not try and take over the case for your own benefit."
The doctor was silent for a long moment. Dody longed to get away, but this discussion was exactly the information he had been hoping to get, and though it filled him with despair, he was rooted to the spot.
"He's bleeding on the brain then," the doctor said thoughtfully. His tone was sad and resigned. "Daisy, you may want me to take this case from you after all. Drogo Baggins already blames me for the loss of one child; I doubt he could hate me more than he already does. I know he seems a soft and kindly sort, but he's a force to be reckoned with. I'd not wish his wroth on you." The doctor paused again. "Believe it or not, Daisy, I respect you as a midwife - and I am glad you are there to help with births. I've not got the touch for it and I know it." Another thoughtful silence. "But you really should leave the real doctoring to those who've been trained for it."
"I've been trained more than you realize," came Daisy's quick answer. "Mame Twofoot was my teacher in more than just midwifery. She had books that were translations of the oldest texts I know, - elvish texts - and they were treasures of medical knowledge. Mame Twofoot was a formidable doctor herself, and you know it. She taught me well."
"Training is one thing, girl, but you've never handled anything like this." The doctor's voice sounded cold, haughty and mocking. "What do you really think you can do for the boy? Would you bleed him? Dose him with elderflower? He's bleeding on his brain, child. What do you realistically think you can do?"
There was a long silence then, and Dody wondered what was passing between the two healers. Even from his hiding place he could feel the tension in the air. Finally, Daisy spoke. "I can make a hole," she replied softly. Her voice was trembling though whether it was from disgust, wounded pride or fear, Dody could not tell. "It would let the blood out and relieve the pressure. It won't be pretty, but it should work."
The doctor scoffed, contempt again coloring his tone. "It's called 'trepanning' - and it's as dangerous as leaving him lie. Have you ever treated a head wound like that?" There was a pause but Daisy Burrows did not answer. "Uh… I thought not. You wouldn't have been so quick to suggest it if you had."
"What would you do?" Daisy asked pointedly. "As you said, if nothing is done, the boy will die. What other option is there?"
For a moment it seemed that the doctor was at a loss for words, but his answer, when it came, chilled Dody. Though the words were generous sounding, there was something in Clearwater's tone, something Dody almost doubted he heard, that reminded him of a cat toying idly with a doomed mouse. He wondered if Daisy perceived the nuance herself.
"Trepanning carries its own hazards, girl," the doctor said. "You have to be careful, VERY careful, that you don't disturb the tissues around the brain. You must cut bone only and you must keep everything clean - boil your tools if you must, and wash the skin with distilled spirits before you start."
"I've done surgery before this, Albarus." Daisy replied dryly.
"But not THIS kind," the doctor shot back angrily. "If you are not more careful than you've ever been you'll risk brain fever. Have you ever cared for a patient with brain fever?" In the brief silence, Dody imagined he saw the healer shake her head. "No, of course not, but I have. A patient can die of that too or they could live after the fever and that's even worse." Dody could hear the soft brush of rich fabrics as the doctor moved. His clothing sounded different than the homey stiffness of Daisy's petticoats. "You may find you wished you'd let that boy die rather than put his family through something like that."
After another long silence, Daisy sighed. "I can't just let him die, Albarus. I have to do something. If it kills him, then it kills him - but he's dead if I do nothing. You know that. If there's a chance, I must risk it."
What followed was another silence, but at last Doctor Clearwater spoke. His words were gentle but there was a faint hint of triumph in them. "Very well, child. He is your patient. You do what you see fit. You've got the trust of the family and I hope it goes well for all your sakes. If you can take some advice from someone who's done the surgery before, then listen well. Keep the area clean. Scrape the hair away from the place you'll make the hole, just like you would around a gash you'd stitch up and clean it with soap, water and spirits. It must be perfectly clean, mind you, PERFECTLY. And don't touch the spot with anything that's not been boiled clean first. Even dressings. When you cut, make sure you cut nothing but bone. Nothing at all. There's a thin layer of white skin-like stuff under the skullbone and you must be absolutely sure you don't even nick that. Mind that… it's probably the most important thing to remember. That layer keeps the brain safe. Nick it, and you might as well smother the boy then. I can't stress that fact enough."
"I'll mark it, Albarus."
"You do." There was the sound of shifting feet in the dust and Dody, engrossed in the conversation, came back to himself with a start. "We'll go speak to Drogo and Primula now. If Drogo's of a mind, maybe he'd let me take Primula back to Menegilda's quarters for a lie down. She's been my patient most of her life and she'll fare poorly if she's to watch you cut a hole in her boy's head."
"I agree. She's going to need care too. I can't think of a better physician for the job."
"Huh…" Clearwater grunted somewhat unsympathetically. Daisy's attempt at flattery did not seem to have impressed him. "My dear, if you can pull this boy back and he's whole afterwards, I'd say you're more a miracle worker than physician."
Daisy muttered something under her breath, but at Clearwater's inquiry repeated herself louder. "Luckier perhaps, doctor, but I've learned that sometimes luck and courage are all we have to trust. Let us hope this boy has plenty of both."
"He'll need it," was all Clearwater replied.
At that, the two began walking back down the hall the way they had come. Dody sagged to the floor, completely spent and trembling. No, the nightmare was not over yet - nor did it sound as if things would end well. The child was injured as badly as his worst fears had imagined. His stomach churned with turmoil and his mind could not settle on one course of action. Unbidden, a silky, cloying, despised voice whispered in his ear.
Frodo could still die… and then no one would ever know you had a hand in his fall.
Dody shivered, feeling slightly nauseous. Guilty hope crept into his heart but he hated himself for feeling it. Had Frodo already been dead, he would have felt horrible but his way would have already been set. With the boy alive, his path was less clear. In the turmoil of his mind his conscience tried, again, desperately, to berate him. How could he even secretly want the boy dead? What kind of monster was he to take advantage of a child's demise? How on earth could he live with himself knowing he had done so?
The theft was already known. Darroc, Marmadas, Seredic and Milo would spread word of that soon enough, but Dody realized he no longer cared what they said. He would almost welcome whatever punishments that act would mete. There was some precedent for thievery in the ancient history of his race. In the long forgotten past before they had settled in the Shire, hobbits had lived as vagabond wanders, surviving by what they could 'gather', but they had never killed their own kind. Only the big folk did that. It would be shameful to be thought of as a thief, but Dody couldn't even think how his people would treat a murderer. Even imagining it made him weak with fear. They might banish him, perhaps, but to where? What family in the Shire would accept a hobbit whose careless selfishness had killed a child? He shivered again. No matter what the outcome, no one could ever know that his foolish crime had caused this calamity. Gaining such a reputation would finish him more surely than even casting himself into the Brandywine.
His thoughts strayed to those muddy waters. They would not shun him. The river’s dispassionate surface would close over him and the fell little voice that whispered dark dreams in his ear would be silenced forever. Dody felt the self-pity and melancholy well up inside him again, but with it came a sad weariness. As just as such an end might have been, he suddenly realized he did not want to die. Perhaps it was selfishness, or the certain knowledge that he would never have the strength of will to end his own life, but he desperately needed some other option.
For now, all he could do was get the necklace. He would say he found it on the forest floor just as Seredic suggested. He would bring it back and hope to return it to Marietta's jewelry box before the gems were even missed. Perhaps luck would be with him and the whole incident would be forgotten as concerns for Frodo spread through the Smial. Perhaps his young cousin would not be able to tell the reason for his fall… some way or another.
He stood shakily and stumbled back towards the entry.
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