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
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.
"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
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
"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
"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 fer me? Can ye do it fer 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
"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."