Through Shadows to the Edge of Night
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 24, Part 54
The Water Sprite
(December 29, 1451)
Frodo stared in horror at the emaciated creature before him, her fangs bared in hunger insatiable, her tangled hair half-obscuring eyes that stared like she could devour him just by sight. He backed away till he tripped on his britches, caught himself by a thornbush and frantically kicked away the cloth, then turned and ran blindly into the fog. Nothing now eased his path--thorns shredded his chemise as the stones tore at his feet, twigs whipped his face bloody, roots bruised his toes and tripped him. Still he heard that delicate laughter in his head, maddening and teasing.
Suddenly she appeared to his left, snapping at his arm! She howled out her laughter when he veered to the right, and it sounded too beautiful, and it sounded insane. Again she appeared to his left, and again, and each time he veered from her jaws, scrambling up a slope. Higher he ran, and higher still, sobbing for breath, clawing through the foliage, wheezing on the scent of flowers that seemed to cloud his mind.
The thorns had always rent him, he realized, his feet bled from sharp stones before he’d reached the water. Some spell had fallen on him the moment he’d agreed to follow the apparition--he knew that now--he’d only imagined the ease of the run. And still it gummed up his thoughts, so that he could plan nothing, just act on every panic that rippled through him. He knew he had to pull himself together and think, but he just couldn’t do it! The thought kept repeating itself, going nowhere as the bushes smacked him and he ran himself ragged. He tried to shake his head but that only made him reel and slip on gravel--then he scrabbled to his feet again in terror as her chuckling drew near.
Some spell--or those detestable flowers! Every time he breathed their scent he felt dragged from his body, struggling to control it from a distance, careening into everything, unable to think. He tore at ghostly petals and cursed, still running as fast as his ripped-up feet could carry him.
The hag snickered right in his ear! He felt claws tickle his ribs--he jumped crashing into branches to get away, heedless of his bruises, as she mocked him right behind. Then the ground gave way underfoot--he stumbled over some fume-enshrouded brink. He fell...fell...he couldn’t tell how far in the fog, just seconds stretched to aeons by having absolutely no point of reference whatsoever, flailing around in the dark and the mist, his chemise flapping around him in shreds.
KERSPLASSSSSH! Cold slapping pain shocked him! He choked on the slimiest, most nauseous water he could imagine, and all the time that wild laughter rang inside his head. He fought for the surface, but weeds and roots entangled his limbs, his head whirling, his chest ready to explode! He tore at the weeds, kicking hysterically, but the more he struggled the tighter they bound him. His feet hit something round, stirring up old bones till a skull floated past his eyes and he so desperately wanted to scream! But the air hunger expanded in him, closer and closer to the bursting point as he raged against the weeds...
...And then something round and flat glinted in the water as it drifted down, down towards him, the only beautiful thing in that nightmare depth, pale pink jewels set all around the rim, trailing its horsehair cord. In the delirium of suffocation he swore he could feel it radiating love like an invisible light. It brushed his fingers and he grasped the lens with his final strength. Something recoiled from him; the weeds fell apart in rotten strands and he popped up like a cork. He gasped in air with loud sobs and retching. He managed to drop the cord around his neck once more, and swam...
...but where? He could see no shore in the fog. He paddled about, already exhausted, suspecting that he circled but unable to orient himself; nothing existed but the noisome water and the icy, clouded air. His breaths came labored in the stench and his heart pounded; he knew he could not keep this up for long. He actually found himself starting to nod off in the water, awakened with a foul splash when his face hit the pond.
Then he heard Mattie’s voice ring out in front of him:
“Water sprite, water sprite, remember who you were!
No one ever called you here to lure your lovers down
Into weedy bowers without light or hope or air
They will find no pleasure in your bed of silty brown.”
Frodo swam towards the high tenor voice, dogpaddling because he couldn’t bear the thought of dipping his head underwater one more time.
“Water sprite, water sprite, renounce your cold desire!
Dying lovers cannot sooth the ache inside your breast.
Who can love or comfort you, drowning in your mire?
Who can make you smile when amongst the weeds they rest?”
“I see him!” Bergil cried. Frodo heard a loud splash as the man dived in. Soon he felt strong arms encompass him and tug him towards the shore.
Frodo gasped, “Once again you save my life, my friend,” as Bergil carried him out of the water.
“You will have to cook me more meals, then,” said Bergil. “But I could have done nothing without Mattie. He led me here, he found your lens, and he hurled it into the water--he seemed to know exactly where to throw it, too.”
“Most priceless thing I ever touched,” he heard Mattie mumble, “more valuable than gold. But no use whatsoever where the poppy keeps her hold.” Mattie sighed and the sound just broke Frodo's heart.
Frodo sank to the ground, too sick and exhausted to stop himself from saying, “What are you, Mattie--some kind of demented Bombadil?”
“I met Tom Bombadil,” the hobbit said quietly, swaying where he stood and staring into nothing, “singing through the shadows. Out among the Barrow-Downs, the tall hills and the meadows.” Plainly Mattie could not entirely be called “awake”, though he stood there and he spoke. “He warned me...” His face lit up. “He sang to me of living, then, of sunlight, song and laughter. ‘The dead have found their own true path; you needn’t follow after!’” For one moment he seemed more present, and he looked directly at Frodo, though his tiny pupils looked unnatural in the dark. “For awhile it all seemed to make sense. I felt good all the way home, till I found my Dad trying to...” His brow crinkled for a moment as his eyes lost their focus. Then his face smoothed out again and he smiled. “I don’t have to remember that.”
“Come along, Mattie,” said Bergil. “And Frodo--do you need me to carry you?”
“I can walk, thanks.” But his head swam as he tried to stand and he sat back down again.
“The devil you say,” Bergil retorted, and picked the hobbit up, a soggy little bundle hoisted onto the man’s dripping shoulders. “It will not take long,” he said, “though you gave us a pretty run, indeed. A trip to the hot spring to wash off the slime and the cold, and afterwards ointment for cuts and scratches.” His voice sounded a little too light, as though he tried to reassure himself more than Frodo. “And then to bed with you! I shall take the rest of the watch tonight.” Frodo drowsed against him, too exhausted to try and puzzle out what bothered the Ranger beyond the obvious.
Mattie murmured to no one in particular, “Bombadil...he taught me songs...” but then his brow furrowed as though trying to remember something, and not having much success. “I know he taught me...”
As they hiked towards camp Frodo studied Mattie from Bergil’s back, watching the hobbit drift through the mists like a sleepwalker. He thought to himself, “So, it’s not entirely ‘poppy-gendered lies’, after all--at least some of the time. And still not worth the price!” he said fiercely to the curiosity stirring up inside. Forcefully he reminded himself that the Gamgee family knew a thing or two about powers gained from the Enemy.
Frodo wondered if Mattie could answer questions as he was right now, but saw no harm in trying. “That thing...I thought any spirit associated with water around here would follow the side of good. Was that one of Sauron’s, or one of Ulmo’s?”
Mattie did not look at him, but answered softly, “She does not remember.”