In Mordor Where the Shadows Are
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 16, Part 87
More Precious than Gold
(February 11-13, 1452)
"What a splendid day for a journey!" Frodo exclaimed, as the desert showed in broadest majesty the heaps of clouds as brilliant-white as a dragon's hoard of diamonds, with sinuous shapes of blazing-blue between. They traveled down an old cracked road of Sauron's manufacture, wide enough for convoys of crop-laden orcs, now silent of their footfalls, with only wind to whistle across the ancient stones, claiming some of the road back in drifts of sand.
"Aye, splendid it is!" Fishenchips stared out wide-eyed at the landscape before him, adjusting his pack on his shoulders but unable to take his eyes off of the erosion-sculpted earth and the desert blooms to either side. Every thorny, haggard plant bedecked itself in a lace of flowers like Mayor Aloe in her grandest homemade finery; the man inhaled their perfume with amazement, having never known the like.
Frodo glanced at him. "You're new to hiking, aren't you?"
"I took many a hike in childhood, Guv, back when th'orcs owned me. But 'twere long ago, and not to anyplace like this. Burnt-over battlefields, pretty much, and one the same as t'other." He grinned when he said, "But I think I can remember the way of it."
"We won't make a hard march of it, Fish. You've got nobody to keep up with but me, and hobbits aren't exactly known for setting much of a pace."
At first Frodo enjoyed the hike immensely. The rising sun shone on the sand till it sparkled like piles of gold. The light in every petal glowed as through transparent jewels. The thorns began to resemble weaponry to guard the jewels; Frodo found that he wished he had some rather like it. He grew increasingly aware of how little the mithril corselet actually covered; the scar in his shoulder ached with memories.
He carried the funds for their travel, to pay for food and lodging in Bristlescrub when they arrived, and for provisioning the journey home. But the pouch weighed upon his pocket and his mind. Did bandits lurk in the crevices and canyons of this hungry land? Surely they must! For that matter, how much did he know, really, about Fishenchips? Could the man have leagued himself with outlaws of the wild? Could all his history be a tale to set Frodo off his guard?
Jealously the hobbit clasped the treasure 'round his neck--and clarity flooded back to him. Fishenchips still looked about him with the wonder of a man who had spent most of his life on one small vessel closer to a boat than ship; to picture him conspiring with desert bandits suddenly struck Frodo as so absurd as to frighten him. In a strained voice, Frodo asked the man, "Do you know anything about dragon-sickness?"
"Summat. Sometimes it befell a crewmate after battle with a sea-monster. I've seen 'em dive right overboard with a full bag o' pay, calling us all thieves and mad to get away, but o' course ever man o' them what did it sank to their deaths, still clutchin' all that gold. Why?"
"Because Sauron hasn't whispered to me since yesterday, yet I still mislike my thoughts."
Fishenchips looked at him sharply, and then said, "Oh."
"Oh? What do you mean by 'Oh'?" Frodo shrilled.
"Nuthin', Guv!" Fishenchips threw up his hands when he saw Frodo's hand on the hilt of Sting. "I wouldn't rob ye, if that's what ye're thinkin'."
His throat quite tight, Frodo rasped, "How did you know that that was what I was thinking?"
"Because that's what everbody with dragon-sickness thinks! That everbody in the whole blinkin' earth is out t'rob them."
Frodo forced his fingers to unfold from the hilt, to fan out wide and away from it. Sweat poured down his face till he wondered if a fever had him. "Help me, Fish," he whispered.
Slowly but loudly Fishenchips enunciated, "Put yer hand back on that talisman o' yourn, back where it belongs." When Frodo did so Fish sighed with relief and said, "That's what Bergil told me t'tell ye. He worried this might happen after ye eyeballed that seaserpent yesterday."
"Bergil's been watching me?" Frodo cried.
"O' course he's been watchin' ya! Guardian, remember?" With concern he asked, "How're ya feelin'?"
"Edgy...excited...but all wrong. Feverish, maybe...no, now I feel a chill."
Fishenchips winced, but he said, "That's not so bad, maybe. "Tain't often a bloke knows he's got the sickness, but those as do are the only one's 'at recover. An' I hear yer kind has resistance to such things." He went to put a reassuring hand on Frodo's shoulder, but the hobbit skittered away from him, terror in his eyes. "Okay, okay, no harm meant. Just don't you go runnin' off to die in th'desert. Bergil told me to try sumpin' if you seemed in a bad way."
"And what is that?" Frodo found his free hand clutching at his pocket; he forced it to unclench.
"Just take some o' that gold o' yourn and look at it through that lens..."
"Indeed not! What, expose it in the open air for all to see?" He whirled to the man. "Why do you want me to expose my gold, right here, right now?" He shouted, "Where are they, Fishenchips, your cohorts lying in wait for me?"
But instead of denials, Fish asked, "Who gave ya that talisman?"
"My sis..." Frodo stopped and gulped for air, memory of May driving away fears of theft. "My sister."
"You just think on her, then, Guv. Think on everbody ye ever loved an' those as loved ye back. That's how they beats it, the ones as recover." This time when Fishenchips reached out to him Frodo managed not to flinch. "Keep 'em in yer head fer the rest o' the journey, Guv."
"Journey?" Frodo said faintly. "Aren't we turning back? I can't go on like this."
"Ya gots no choice, Guv. Th'best herbwife in the business is the ol' crone what lays ahead, not back in Seaside. Dragon-sickness is a bear to beat, but she'll know the way of it, if annerbody does."
An old tale haunted Frodo' s memory about the Master of Lake-Town, who had caught the dragon-sickness back in Bilbo Baggins's day. He had run off with the treasury to starve out in the woods; years later elves had found him, his finger-bones still buried in the coins, as though his last compulsion was to touch the gold, just run it through his fingers one more time. "One more thing to survive!" he sighed. "How am I going to see my way through?"
"I'll stay with ya, Guv." Fishenchips patted him on the shoulder and Frodo endured it as a discipline, though every muscle in him shrieked to flee.
"Where are you, Sauron?" Frodo muttered. "Why aren't you taking advantage of this? That was what you and the dragon concocted between you wasn't it? To gang up against me?" But all he found inside him was an echo of a wail, some distant hint of Sauron's mourning for his beauty lost, gnawing at his anger and his shame at his defeat in Numenor. Frodo chuckled grimly, as Fishenchips watched him muttering to himself. "Lost your treasure, did you, Sauron? Serves you right. Clinging to the evanescent flesh. Gold lasts. Jewels last. A face--what of it? Here today and gone tomorrow. No, the treasure's the thing. The treasure. The treasure."
"I heard about yer dad," Fishenchips interrupted, and Frodo lost his train of thought. "What's he like, up close and personal?"
"Like leather," Frodo found himself saying. "Tough and soft at the same time. Not at all like gold."
"I daresay not--gold is hard and flimsy at the same time."
"You're right," he said with some marvel. Then, "Fish, I'm having a hard time of it."
"Good--glad yer sayin' so out loud. Keep walkin'. Tell me about yer Mum."
"She has hair like gold in dim firelight, all red and shimmery, and emerald eyes, and..."
"But what's she like? Ya know, in her heart. 'Sbeen so long, Frodo--tell me what 'tis like to have a mum to raise ye."
"Comforting. Cozy. Like a soft, warm cloak that you can wrap close around you through the wildest storm."
"Good, good--can ye take a mum's love with ye where'er ye go?"
"Why yes, you can. Good as money in the pocket it is, nice round coins clinking in the pouch..."
"Whoa, there, little buddy! Tell me what yer mum'd do when ye pleased her special."
And so the conversation went, on and on. That journey became a blur to Frodo, harder to remember than his crossing of the Poros Pass, more dreadful than his bloodloss before the gates of Moria. He tried to keep his focus on the faces of his family, but sometimes they would turn in his mind's eye to statues of gold and jewels, lifeless, cold, and precious. Then the images would shatter to reveal the real thing, the far more valuable memories of flesh, the actual past like when his sister Elanor had tried to feed him mud pies, or when his brother Robin had dared him to climb the Party Tree to the topmost branch, or when Pippin-Lad had shown him where the tadpoles swam. Priceless memories.
Fishenchips made him talk about his family without stop, rambling on over harvest-feasts and housework, trips to Longbottom or Buckland, the Gaffer showing him how to graft a plum, his mother tending to a scraped-up knee, his father carrying him on his shoulders about the fields. Frodo talked himself raw, becoming in time as incessant and incoherent as Legolas in madness, until, unable to squeak another word from a burning throat, he'd topple into an exhausted sleep right by the side of the road as Fishenchips watched over him.
But then the dreams would start. Once he dreamed he'd come across an old troll's trove, long abandoned east of Bree. Eagerly he loaded more and more of the booty onto his pony, till Billie-Lass collapsed with a piteous neigh, her back broken. The neigh rang in his ears for hours after he awoke.
On the next occasion he dreamed of underwater treasure. He wallowed in the cool, hard gems, bedecked his every finger with a ring, crowned himself, and draped his neck with so many necklaces and pendants that the chains weighed him down till he moved as one deformed. Then he saw Sauron stalking towards him--the nightmare form of a fallen angel rotting in the deeps, the tatters of the flesh half on the bone, as one surviving eye burned brighter and brighter the more his hatred built, till it caused pain to look upon. And Frodo could not move! He could not stir from the burden of his gold! But just as the bones of hands reached out to throttle him some other stepped between, holding up a mirror like a shield that flashed in watery light. The Dark Lord screamed, recoiled, and Frodo fled to wakefulness again.
And then he dreamed he was Gollum, stretched out entranced upon a bed of gold within a barrow-down. But the elvish jailors let Gandalf in to talk to him, questioning him, endlessly questioning! "Who is your precious? Where is your treasure? Where is it really?" At last he cried out in agony, "Gamgee! The Shire!" and the barrow-gold released him suddenly to wake as Frodo Gardner once again.
Another time he dreamed that he left Brandy Hall in the dark of night, there to encounter himself in a gazebo all too near the High Hay. A conversation ensued, somehow both affectionate and cold, though he could remember not a word of it. At some point his other self put a friendly arm around his shoulders, as chill as a loveless grave, and slowly, irresistably, tightened it around his neck! Only at the last minute did Frodo remember to push the Glass of May against the wight, to escape and wake to an icy dawn in a thorn enclosure, a watchful Fishenchips keeping the fire burning close beside him.
Each time he roused, his manservant would give him water and they would move on. And the sand would look again like gold, and the clouds like piled pearls, and the sky shone with the blue of dragon-scales. At night the stars would seem as diamonds, scattered just beyond his reach, though he wearied himself trying to stretch up and fondle them. And Fishenchips would pepper him with questions once again.
Frodo recited the names of all his kin, and their degrees of kinship, and their birthdays. He tried not to think of birthday-presents, but dwelled instead upon the fun he'd had at parties and hayrides and the like. And through it all Fishenchips kept a grip on his shoulder, telling him, "Ye're doin' good, little buddy, ya just keep that up." The very smell of the man frightened him as a stag fears the scent of wolf, but he forced himself to abide his touch, even reaching up to clasp the unrelenting hand--for he knew himself just a breath away from bolting off into the desert with his gold clutched to his breast. Instead he held tight to the lens hung from his neck until his hand would cramp, and then he'd just switch hands. "Yer doin' just great, Guv. Keep talkin'. Keep walkin'. No man could do so well."
In time sand and clouds, kaktush-blossoms, stones, and stars, faded behind a yellowish haze. None of it seemed as bright as gold could shine, or as colorful as jewels. Fishenchips urged him to look through his glass, but he feared to let go of the thing for one minute. Even when he swooned the aching fingers did not let go. And then he rose up again, opened his eyes, and could not tell Fishenchips from a kaktush till the man reached out to him.
"What's happening to me?" he croaked. "Fish, am I going blind?"
"That's a good sign, Master Frodo. That means that..."
"You want me to go blind?" Frodo shoved away from him and stumbled back. "Get away from me!"
"Hold on now, Frodo! Listen to me!" But Frodo ran, sightless as he was, crashing about into thorns and plants with razor-edged long leaves, till at last he tripped upon a rock and fell face-first into the grit.
"Easy! Easy!" Fishenchips ran up to where the hobbit lay sobbing and sat down beside him.
"You're going to murder me!" Frodo cried and tried to scramble up to his feet again. But Fishenchips gripped his ankle and wouldn't let him go.
"No I'm not, not after ye saved m'life on board the ship."
"Yes, and a fine gratitude you've shown me, too!"
"Yeah, that I have. Think on how I've watched over ye this whole trip long. I coulda murdered ye twenty times over if I'd wanted to." Frodo sat back down. Fishenchips cleaned up the hobbit's scratches and pulled out the spines, one by one, and said, "I care about ye, little buddy."
In a small, hoarse voice, Frodo asked, "Then why do you want me blind?"
"'Tis a temp'rary thing, Guv." He poured more water onto a handkerchief and daubed at Frodo's face. "If'n ye fight the dragon-sickness, if'n ye refuse t'see things the dragon way, then ye don't see much at all. A golden film spreads on the eyes, and ye either see the lies it shows ye, or nuthin'. 'Tis more hopeful t'see nuthin', just for now--that means ye're gonna get better. Ya just gotta hang on for now, 'sall. Can ye do that for me? Can ye do it for yer Mum and Dad? They'll miss ye sore if ye runs off into the desert like ya nearly did just now."
Frodo clutched at May's glass with both hands. "I...I can't do that to Mama and Papa."
"Then let's go, Guv." Fishenchips helped him back to his feet.
Frodo fell into a walking dream upon that long march, after he ran out of words. He followed a whisp of gold just out of reach. But gradually, in his mind's eye, he could see it more and more clearly. A horse's tail. Then he saw it belonged to Billie-Lass. She walked ahead of him, slowly, to his pace. If he followed her, she would lead him home.
"Bristlescrub's not far away," Fishenchips told him at last in a straining voice. "I can see the thorn walls up ahead."
"I'll have to take your word for it."
"Stay the course, Guv. Just a little farther, now. The herbwife'll see ya soon."
"See me?" Frodo cackled. "'Twill be the blind leading the blind! But carry on, my good man! We shall...how much will she cost, do you think? How much, Fish? Tell me how much!"
"A small price, yer mum and dad would think--they wants ya t'come home safe and well someday." The man sounded weary and somewhat hoarse himself; only now could Frodo hear how the deep voice cracked.
"Fishenchips--you haven't slept for days!" And then he realized something odd, something uneven about the sound of the man's steps beside him. "And you're limping...good grief, of course you're limping! What with the pace you've kept up, when you've hardly walked so much before..."
"Good, good," the man murmured. "Ya noticed. Compassion. That fights th'sickness. 'Member how ya scratched up Bergil's face?"
"How I...oh my good heavens! I did, didn't I?"
"He knew yer troubles hadn't ended when ye got over that just a shade too fast. But ye're past the worst, so to speak. Yer heart's comin' back." Fishenchips patted him clumsily. " That's the real Frodo talkin'. Yer gonna live."
"Fish, I will never, ever forget what you have done for me."
"That goes both ways, little buddy. That goes both ways."