In Mordor Where the Shadows Are
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 17, Part 88
(February 13, 1452)
Frodo stumbled into Bristlescrub, glazed-eyed and mumbling, "...and then one winter it snowed mustn't think of snowballs like gigantic pearls but Merry-Lad always and then after Mama mixed the snow with berry syrup like a maiden's lips but the chaperones wouldn't even let us sit together on the same the first time I sat in the saddle Billie-Lass gave me this look like what in the world do you think you're doing..."
He knew that they had reached Bristlescrub because Fishenchips said so, brave Fishenchips, so loyal that Frodo almost entrusted him with the pouch of coins that weighed him down like death, almost, not quite. He couldn't see the city, himself, only a golden haze that stung his eyes. He felt the ground harden under his feet, pounded by many feet before him. He heard people all around him; convulsively he grabbed at his pocket, but Fish told him, "Easy there, little buddy, nobody's gonna hurt ya," and he had to believe him, because his life depended absolutely upon trusting this man.
His servant made inquiries. They turned down several alleys and entered an aromatic place, dim so that the golden haze cooled to a softer brown and Frodo sobbed with relief. He kept on babbling because he didn't dare stop, though hardly a sound escaped his cracking lips. Slender fingers felt at his brow and cheek.
A beautiful voice, feminine and soft, said, "His chill has passed back into fever--a healthful crisis. He may be out of his head for now, but it sounds like he strives hard to find his way back."
"That's a fact, Ma'am. He done real good on that count. Why, he even fussed about m'health not long ago."
"Is that true? Good for him! And yes, you do sound weary. Soon I will see to your comfort, good man. But first, tell me--what color are his eyes right now?"
"Yellow all the way across, and just as blind as...um..."
"As blind as me?" The voice sounded amused.
"I din't want to say, Ma'am."
"That is quite all right, sir--I have known for some time. There should be a stool in the center of the room. Will you lead him to it?"
Frodo felt himself guided to sit on a bit of hard wood. As fretful as a child worrying about the pain of setting a bone, he asked Fishenchips, "She is going to cost a lot for her services, isn't she? She'll want everything I have, of course she will, and then..."
"...And then ye'll get well enough to see yer family once again," Fish repeated in a firm, tired voice.
"Oh. Yes. Yes, of course."
The woman said, "Amiable chap, for one with the dragon-sickness--this should go well." Frodo heard her groping among jars, opening lids and sniffing at the contents."What are your names, good man? And is your charge a child or a dwarf?"
"I'm Fishenchips, and my master is a hobbit named Frodo Gardner."
The woman gasped, and Frodo heard something drop from her hand. "Really? Any relation to Samwise Gardner?"
"His son," Fishenchips had tears in his voice. "His blitherin' eldest son." His voice cracked up an octave when he said, "And the kind o' family-life they have..." The mariner could not continue. Frodo found tears welling up in his own sticky eyes, so that for an instant he could almost make out shapes around him. But it hurt to try and see so he closed his eyes again.
Silence filled the dimness, till the woman said, in a less confident voice than she used before, "Why do I feel that my life is about to change? Change so much that it will have to hurt, for better or for worse?"
"...Papa told stories of Beren and the spider not Ungoliant of course not Ungoliant who ate jewels and devoured herself for greed I dreamed I was Ungoliant so hungry but they all turned to gold but I broke my teeth on them anyway teeth raining down like pearls I can walk the bottom of the sea and gather all the pearls I want but then there are the fishes nassty fishes not worth the trouble but I never visited that secret pool..."
"It doesn't matter," the woman sighed. "Change will come. It never fails us." Frodo heard her rummaging around again. "Fishenchips, you sound half-dead. Go through the door behind you. You will find a bed, and next to it a basin of water to wash off the dust of travel. Sleep deeply. What comes next is private." Something rustled, and then crackled. Frodo smelled smoke with an herbal tinge.
The herbwife said, "This may not be kingsfoil, but Yavannah has not altogether turned her back upon these lands. Sauron never could eradicate this weed." Philosophically she added, "It is also tasty on a bit of meat, if you can get some."
The smoke now enveloped Frodo so that he choked on it. He heard the whiffle of a fanning motion and he leaped to his feet. "You are trying to burn me alive!"
"I am cleansing your spirit. Do not be afraid! I hold in my hand a bundle of herbs, smouldering at the tip, but not really on fire. I know the path around your stool by heart, and you are smaller than most of my patients; I will not burn you--if you stay still."
Frodo coughed and said, "Do what you must, then--I might as well get my money's worth." He held onto the seat to keep himself from bolting.
She laughed. "You are strong!" she said, and wafted more smoke onto him. "Most of my dragon-sickness patients need tied down."
He did not remember much that happened after that. He went into a sort of trance, but where or how it began he could not say. He thought that he wandered far from home, and could not find his way. He saw nothing, heard nothing, he even wondered how he wandered, for he felt no feet and touched no land. But then he did hear something, faintly at first. A voice kept calling him, calling, calling--he could not tell from which direction. There seemed to be no directions. Yet little by little he found that he could orient himself upon the voice.
He saw something--finally! Up ahead. He saw a person trapped in a yellow cage, pacing, fretting, feverish...starving. The prisoner had no food. Pity moved Frodo, till he came closer and felt a spiritual sense of utter cold--a wight! He remembered that chill too well--it had to be a barrow wight! In loathing and horror he began to back away. But then he heard the prisoner muttering, "...and then my sister Goldilocks what a splendid name Goldilocks but musn't think of that think rather of the time she fetched me the first ripe peaches with her face all flushed from running..."
"He loves!" Frodo cried, outraged. "He does not deserve imprisonment!" In a fury he rushed forward again, he grasped the yellow bars and found the metal soft. With all the strength in him he bent the bars back, back, his heart bursting, his breath heaving, aware for the first time that he had heart and breath. At last he widened the gap enough to pull the prisoner free. He embraced Frodo Gardner and absorbed himself back into himself straight through the lens and into his heart.
"I did not know that I had any capacity for greed at all," he found himself whispering, now one, now whole. "No matter. I can love that part, too. I shall be greedy for accomplishments. Every harvest, every well-filled belly in Nurn, shall be my gold."
Frodo woke upon a rough rope cot, to a wet cloth daubing at his eyes with some sort of solution, soothing and cool, that trickled in between his lids to dissolve the film within. The female voice said, "You gave me quite a turn, there--for a moment I thought I wouldn't make it back, myself. I see that your troubles began long before the dragon crossed your path." He tried to open his eyes, but the lashes stuck together. She bathed his eyes some more, pouring liquid upon them, catching it with the cloth again. "I am not the King, I fear--I could not free you altogether, though I have driven away the dragon-taint. Yet I think you will find your lot somewhat easier for a time. Your enemy has sustained several great blows in a row, I could tell that much, and mine was not the least. He has pulled away for awhile to lick his wounds." He heard the price of her labors in her voice when she said, "And what an enemy you have, poor waif! I have fought him in this room before--yet I smell no trace of poppy-gum upon you. You must tell me later, when you are stronger, how you ran afoul of the Fallen One."
From an overworn throat Frodo croaked, "That I will. And thank you! I see no possible way that I could repay what you have done for me."
The beautiful voice chuckled. "My fees are far more modest than your delusions made them, Frodo Gardner. But your attitude encourages me."
The cloth withdrew, and Frodo found that this time he could open his eyes. Faster than the healer expected, in fact, as hobbits are wont to heal. She had not yet pulled down her hood before he saw the face--or what stood in a face's stead. Venom had melted it like Lord Lossarnach's, only worse; she had lost both eyes, nothing remained of her nose but nostrils, and her mouth had become an almost lipless slash. Long white hair framed it, yet the hands upon the hood looked young--her hair had turned white not from age, but from horror. Frodo remembered Bergil's nightmares, and suddenly he understood.
"Fees cannot suffice to thank you," he rasped, "Elenaril."