In Mordor Where the Shadows Are
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 18, Part 89
Of Matters Seen and Unseen
(February 13-14, 1452)
"Why do you call me that?" the herbwife gasped. Frodo blinked away more of the matter from his eyes till he could see the trembling of her fingers on her hood. If she could have stared at him she would have; instead she stood there, frozen and yet quivering, like every muscle could listen to him. When he looked beyond her face he saw the slenderness of her form in that fashion that Men love, graceful and yet strong, and he felt how a captain of the Ithilien Rangers might long to wrap his arms around that waist, though personally he ached to nourish her and round her out. Twice his height and yet so pitifully small! "I have had no name save 'Herbwife' for many years now--no name, no face." Her voice tightened as she asked, "Why do you hail me by a name that praises eyes as bright as stars?"
"Elenaril? Because that is what Bergil calls you. I traveled here with Bergil for my guardian." Silence answered him for one long-stretching moment. Frodo looked about the room, the walls lined entirely with shelves of jars full of whole and powdered herbs, seeds, nuts and beans, strips of bark, thorns and spines, dried-up flowers and shriveled pads of fungi. "He told me of his search for you." Bunches of more herbs and flowers dried from the rafters, alongside bundles of tangled roots, and they made strange shadows from the many honey-scented candles that flickered in glass holders hung about the room ("For our sake," Frodo thought, "For she lives in unending night.") Strings of drying fruits and bulbs framed every window and each door. "He has spoken much about you."
"Has he?" she asked faintly. "Even now?"
"Yes. He has. And this gives me the insight to hear what goes unsaid." Frodo reached for the lens around his neck, but discovered that bandages bundled both of his hands. Wedging the lens between his muffled palms and holding it up, he saw dried blood upon the jewels around the rim.
"This? I cannot see what 'this' you refer to, Frodo Gardner."
"Sorry. A pendant talisman of perception. It's also a magnifying glass."
"Ah--the object that you clutched so hard when first you came to me. Even when you went into a trance I had to pry it from your fingers. I knew you must have derived some benefit from it worth the cuts it gave you." She paced about the stool in the center of the room, in a circuit so familiar that she had worn a path in the earthen floor. "But Bergil! Here? Again? Despite everything?" Her voice, strong with authority throughout his healing, suddenly became as fragile as a little girl's, when she asked, "How is he, Frodo? He labored in his fever for so long, that I...I feared damage to his mind."
"He's just fine," Frodo assured her, "Fully intelligent and a leader of men. Except, " as Frodo only just now understood, "he lost all skill with numbers."
"That is not so bad," she reflected. "Not as bad as what might have been. Oh Frodo--I have worried so!" She fretted in her pacing, wringing her hands, grimacing as one sometimes does when forgetful of what expressions look like. Her hood fell back completely to unleash a cloud of moonlight hair; the shadows of herbs and roots kept passing over her "face" like they tried to sketch some features there.
"He will be overjoyed, Elenaril, to learn that you're still alive!"
"No," she said, almost a moan. "He will not rejoice." She stopped her pacing and clutched at her chest unselfconsciously, knotting the fabric of her gown in hand. "He screamed, Frodo. He screamed when he first opened his eyes, and saw what nursed him when the shepherds brought him in."
"He was out of his head," Frodo told her. "He didn't know what he was doing--he didn't know it was you. And he doesn't remember any of that now. At least...not except in dreams."
She smirked, mirthlessly. "So--I am become the subject of his nightmares. I am not surprised."
"Nightmares have a bad reputation that they don't deserve," Frodo said as sternly as his hoarseness allowed. "They try to tell us what we need to face."
"Face!" she snorted like an oath. "Some things cannot be 'faced'!"
"Perhaps--but you are not a thing."
After a deep breath, she lowered her hand and said, "You are chatting entirely too long for a patient who has spent the last three days talking nonstop. I will ask but one thing further of you, and then you must rest." She drew a mirror from a pocket in her gown, polished it by feel upon her apron's hem, and handed it to Frodo with a confidence that belied her sightlessness, for she knew exactly where she'd put him. "Tell me, Master Gardner, if your coloring varies at all from its usual tone, whether flushed or pale, or if it has any odd cast of color."
He studied his reflection. "Well, I haven't seen my own face in days, Ma'am, so it's hard to say. Browner than it used to be this time of year, but the sun shines harder here than in my own country, even in the wintertime." Also thinner, he noticed, much, much thinner--and he had never weighed much for a hobbit. He could just barely make out the faintest lines of old scratch scars from the infection he had survived in the Ephel Duath, but he knew they'd only show up at close range. "The eyes look somewhat sunken," he said. And haunted--but of course.
"You are probably dehydrated, then. You can lose moisture from your body by talking so much. I will give you all the water that you want."
"Also I have a round bruise on my brow...but I remember what caused that. Bergil mashed my lens into my forehead to try and protect me from the dragon."
"Swift thinking," she murmured. "That is the Bergil I remember--no, he has not suffered too much harm." She found Frodo's hand and took the mirror back from him. "You, on the other hand, need rest--and plenty of it. Be at peace, little wanderer. Sauron cannot disturb you for awhile." As she pulled a rough blanket over his no-longer-feverish body, he heard her murmur to herself, "For now I suppose he must be absolutely saturated with the power of that talisman, bruised and cut like that; it has reached beyond the skin, and absorbed some of his blood. In some ways they are one, now." Her steps receded with her voice. "How much can one little body bear, or even one great soul?"
She came back with a waterskin. He drank deep of the water; it had a sour tang to it, yet not unpleasant; somehow the sourness had an almost springtime savor to it. And then he sank back onto the pillow and the interweaving ropes, and closed his eyes for a long, long time.
Somewhere in his sleep he heard a man crying, earth-deep sobs so hard that they must have racked a body already worn to extremity, as a higher voice chanted softly over him, in a language no one native to Mordor would have learned. But gradually it faded back again. He turned over on the heavenly softness of his feather bed and snuggled the silken quilt up about his chin.
"How much can he bear, do you think?" This voice, masculine, sounded young and strong, and yet so enriched that Frodo somehow knew that it used to be old indeed.
"His father bore a great deal, and our Frodo bore even more." That voice sounded earthier, somehow--and strangely familiar, though he'd never heard it awake. Old it seemed, indeed, and yet as suffused with youth as the other with antiquity.
A snort of skepticism. "And look how well that worked out! We can't bring hobbits here for healing every time. Durable they may be, yet not indestructable."
"We can at least heal his spirit a little, old friend. It has worked for me."
"Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes! Listen to me! What is it like, old friend," and here Frodo heard a note of sarcasm only tolerable between those who've loved each other long, "to dwell outside of time? Even I have forgotten what that means."
"Stranger than I can put into words, and yet not strange at all, I suppose. It seems like I have always been used to it."
"Aspects of me, of course, still exists in time in either direction, whether puttering about in the kitchen, or exploring realms of which I couldn't speak even if allowed. So I feel absolutely crammed full of details, including many quite ordinary ones, if that makes you happy."
"It does not, altogether. I still wonder how you have managed this, and why you get away with it."
"As to the purposes of those who grant permissions, I cannot say. But I am not a ghost, Gandalf. Námo and I are in complete agreement on that point, and I have never refused any call from him--especially when he calls me to dinner."
"Námo, is it? So you are now on a first name basis with the Vala of Death?" Laughing, the wizard said, "And what use do you have for food?"
"Since when have I ever let lack of need stop me from a good meal? But you of all the maiar should know that you'd get further asking questions of Námo's brother."
"I have. And he is nearly as closed-mouthed--and to me, chief among his servants! Finally I understand what your kind must endure, perpetually full of questions and never getting answers enough to suit you."
Frodo heard laughter as rich as spring flowers and summer fruit, autumn leaves and a cozy fireside in winter. "Oh Gandalf--I am so happy! One universe cannot contain the breadth of my happiness. I can explore everywhere, everything!"
"Did our Frodo know that Námo bore you to his brother in Lorien before taking you to Mandos?"
"Did? He does!"
"That's right. You must visit him regularly throughout time, in all the many Valinors and Elvenhomes in the realms of dreams."
"Visit him? In some I live with him."
"In Valinor? Or the Shire?"
The hobbit paused and sounded serious when next he spoke. "The worlds where he remained in the Shire are not places I like to visit, although sometimes I do for pity's sake." In a bracing voice, he added, "Fortunately in most worlds we made the right choice."
"And how does that less fortunate Frodo view your visits?"
"As a consolation in his sleep. But never mind pestering me for information. The important thing is Sam's poor boy. What are we to do for him?"
Doubtfully the wizard spoke. "He has been through too much. Sauron exerts every last vestige of his dwindling energy on revenge, and scrabbles for more with no better motivation." The speaker clucked his tongue. "What a fool I was, to think that stripping him of power would keep the Dark Lord from ever troubling us again! I might have known he'd grasp at one last straw."
"How can you blame yourself? Even Sauron failed to realize that he'd left behind a scrap of power outside the ring, so slight that he didn't even miss it, until he had lost all else."
"Poor Frodo! I had prepared his namesake the best I could for what he had to face, but no one foresaw a need to brace the Gardener's son. Another sight of Valinor at this time, even veiled in dreams, might overthrow the poor lad's mind. Yet he must have something to remedy so much damage done." Frodo heard pacing around his bed, heavier than the healer's tread. "We made mistakes with your soul-son, my friend, exposing him to more of dark and light alike than he could bear."
Frodo heard a hand patting an arm or back--it sounded so solid, so real! "There, there. I never visited a version of Arda that showed any other choice. The few where you spared him fell into darkness entire." Then Frodo heard a chuckling that made him feel eased just to listen to it. "But you gave the clue, yourself, as to what to do with our sleeping friend, here."
"And what might that be?"
"A feast! Nothing better repairs the hobbit soul."
The wizard's chuckle answered his own. "You realize that he will wake up hungry all the same."
"But we aren't worried about his body, are we? The healer has that entirely in hand. Bolstering him with the Light once more will only overwhelm him. But food for the spirit, however exquisite, is too well-grounded in the hobbit nature to do him anything but good."
"Well, if I am going to consult an expert on hobbitry from outside time, I had best listen to him."
And so Frodo found himself, in his dream, sitting up in bed with a blindfold soft but firm about his eyes, aided by the touch of elven hands into a comfortable robe, and led to a comfy seat at table, where it seemed that they fed him the most wonderful of foods, things that he had not tasted for so long. Succulent slices of venison with potatoes in the gravy, juicy salad bursting with the life of the garden, bread as sweet and springy as a hobbit-lass's dancing step, mushrooms of a deep and dusky flavor sauteed in butter that tasted like light itself, and for dessert the most delicately flaky pastries whose fillings somehow tasted like fruit fresh off of the tree, yet as indulgently sticky-sweet as yuletide fare. And the beer he washed it all down with had to be none other than Barliman Butterbur's Wizard Brew, only ten times better--what it might have been, if only the purest of immortal hands had raised and harvested for it perfect grain sprung up from magic land. Yet it seemed equally true, as will happen in dreams, that he savored what he could not name at all, or perhaps that he ate laughter and drank song, till his soul expanded to the fullest, satisfyingly replete with healing and well-being.
A party reveled all around him the entire time. Though he could not see it, he joined in on the mirth and conversation, in a language he could not afterwards recall, but that somehow transformed his every thought into poetry. He heard and told jokes, where the events of his life made up the punchlines, not in mockery but in delight and appreciation, and no hardship seemed too terrible for wit. For a few gleaming hours he shared the perspective of the heights, even to the very stars, and all the prior facts of his existence became a wondrous entertainment. Never mind the Light of Valinor, too intense for mortal eyes; he celebrated in memory and in verse the homely light of Middle Earth, whose loveliness could be eclipsed perhaps, but not made less, even as candlelight has its own enchantment though the sun outshine it. Elves he could not see applauded him and raised up toasts to forgotten pleasures, as though recalling the amusements of a happy childhood, and no few wept.
As he lifted the mug one last time to his lips, he heard the hobbit-voice remark, "Gandalf, have you ever considered that if Morgoth had not introduced decay, there could be neither beer nor wine, nor cheese for that matter, even in Valinor?"
"Be careful what you say, old friend. You forget yourself."
"Not at all! I do not favor the marring of Arda, if that's what you think. What I am saying is that there is no bad thing that the Creator of All cannot turn to good. Sam's boy will come out the better for his adventures, you can be sure. I certainly did, and some of mine weren't exactly joys at the time."
"You only tell me that which I taught you before--which is exactly what I deserve! How you hearten me, old Dreamer!"
"I wonder why we didn't do this with my Frodo? Nourish his spirit in his sleep?"
"We did. You went back in time and suggested it yourself--to yourself, if I recall your account correctly. Even then you had some skill in traveling dreams."
"Ah, yes. Now I remember--it is not easy to keep track of everything, you know."
"I know. I had forgotten it myself, until just now."
"It all comes back to me. Frodo remembered nothing clearly afterwards, of course, except that he would occasionally wake up restored, from some dream of peace. But after awhile the Ring blocked or poisoned most of his dreaming. Still, we slipped in a few good ones while we could, didn't we, and I think they made a difference." Frodo Gardner heard the friction of hands rubbing together. "Well, nothing stands in our way this time. Sauron has not got the strength to block any dreams these days."
"These days--listen to you! You say it as though you mean it."
The hobbit sounded almost a little huffy. "Well, Gandalf, even one who dreams in an instant outside of time cherishes a few illusions now and then."
Frodo Gardner woke up strangely refreshed for one who had spent the night on a coarse rope cot after an ordeal. Neither blindfold nor film of disease blocked his sight of the sunlight streaming in between the ropes of fruits and vegetables. He sat up hungry and yet somehow satisfied. He stretched, and then scratched his head, trying to remember what on earth he had been dreaming about.