I Will Not Say the Day is Done
Nor Bid the Stars Farewell
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 12, Part 109
Into the Withy-Dome
(February 29, 1452)
Frodo felt lightheaded with hunger; Elenaril had not permitted him food since she hastened to his rescue that morning, and the dragon-blood in him expanded his hunger to a roaring emptiness till even his companions looked and smelled like meat. Yet food did not fully occupy the hobbit's thoughts; he had the oddest feeling that he had done something like this before, though of course that made no sense.
To his utter embarrassment, he wore only a towel wrapped about him and over one shoulder, descending the stairs into a roomful of women; he knew that soon he must lose even that. When he walked the towel-edges split just a little over his thigh and revealed the jag of his injury, once hardly more than a scratch, now a ridge of raw discoloration. Bergil and Fishenchips, scrubbed up and rested, wore naught but towels as well, and being twice his size had to move still more carefully than he, the cloth covering only the space between waist and knees. Frodo had almost forgotten the extent of Bergil's scars, and now he saw that Fishenchips bore his own share, too, mainly lash-marks across his back. Elenaril came down the stairs behind them in a sort of sleeveless linen shift (that she would keep throughout the healing) that revealed splatters of burnt skin across her right arm, which she must have thrown up to shield her face too late. "I suppose Mordor is like that," Frodo said to himself. "Mama mustn't let it surprise her if I come back with a few marks to show for my stay."
Kila stepped forward to say something, but Elenaril interrupted her. "There is no helping it, my friend. We have no male healer to go in with them." The herbwife smiled, unaware of the look that Fishenchips suddenly shot her way, and her scarring made the smile just a little crooked. "At least my blindness comes in handy this one time." Then she leaned close and whispered to the old woman, "Find Mattie lodgings as far from here as possible. Her heart will go out to Frodo in his trial, but her spirit is chaotic."
Kila grumbled back, "Her spirit travels. She is no ordinary poppy-fiend."
"Try to discourage her from smoking any more tonight; she has had enough to keep her till the morning, I believe. Occupy her thoughts. Tell her about the wedding."
Kila nodded, and went upstairs. When she came back down again with Mattie, the little bard twisted her arm out of the old crone's clutch and pulled Frodo aside into a storage-nook within the staircase spiral. There she whispered, "I have made my resolution, regardless of your spells. I'm going to quit." Quickly she kissed Frodo on the cheek and fled with Kila before the shocked hobbit could utter a word. But his heart sang out so loud it roared!
Twilight verged on night by the time the healer, her patient, and the men went out the door into a deep blue-violet world, with stars a-twinkle overhead in between the ghosts of sea-mist roving into shore. Against this backdrop, when Elenaril led them to the eastern side, the last warmth of the sunset radiated its farewell behind them, while before them, as though in emulation, the coals of the fire-pit, mysterious yet inviting in the cold, glowed in the same warm tones. In such radiance, the whorls of scars on Bergil's chest gleamed like the embossed gold of Rhun, and Fishenchip's hook shone red about the edges. The apprentice-woman named Sandstorm stood beside the upraised earth, as stiffly as a sentinel, but instead of a weapon she held a fan of long, golden-brown feathers.
Bergil rubbed his eyes. "I could have sworn I built that mound on the western side."
"You did," Elenaril said. "It is a common mistake. I had some of the villagers move it while you bathed and rested." She put a hand on his arm. "I am sorry, beloved. Not seeing, I did not realize that you put it in the wrong place. The West is a good direction that we must neither envy nor fear, where the elves find their final refuge, and where all our souls must one day go--but not today. We, the children of men, are the people of the sun that rises in the East. Although Sauron did his best to pervert what is true, yet our hope lies in that direction, and the Valar of the West eagerly await the dawning of that hope."
Bergil looked on her uneasily. "That is not a lore that I have learned."
"I have learned much in a hard school," she replied. She approached the mound. Sandstorm presented the fan to Elenaril and stepped aside.
"Back when I had eyes," said Elenaril, holding up the fan before her, "upon the onslaught of the serpents, I watched the clouds build suddenly over the desert, boiling up in great, dark billows, clawing down the mountainsides on jags of lightning, roaring thunder, blotting out the sun. So must the sky have looked at the fall of Numenor.
"The snakes attacked; men fell to the left of me and to the right, while I stood there in horror, unarmed, watching venom melt the flesh of all those in my charge, hearing the screams around me, in every direction that I turned, screams and violence, and the storm rampaging. I thought that it all ended here, all of the months of marching for naught, all of my healings for naught, my birth for naught. And the screams went on.
"Then, in a great clap of lightning, almost the last thing that I ever saw, I witnessed one of the mighty eagles of Manwe descending from the sky, talons outstretched, coming straight at me. I did not move; if Manwe wished me struck down, then struck down I would be, for I had nothing left in me to dispute the will of heaven. But just then a great serpent reared up and spat venom into my face--I felt my eyes become two furnaces of pain! I felt my nose dissolve, I felt the skin melt down my cheeks. And I heard my own screams added to those around me, yet it seemed I could not howl enough, my lungs could not draw breath enough to give voice to all my pain!
The herbwife shuddered, yet stood straight and uncowering as she spoke on. "And yet, somehow, even through my own shrieks I heard the eagle of Manwe do battle with the serpent that had reared to kill me. I heard the keening and the flap of wings, I heard the hissing and the slithering. I had never been the target of Manwe's wrath.
"Rain pounded down upon me, then, washing me clean before the venom could eat in deep enough to slay me. I heard a great uproar all around me--water tore the land to either side, trees ripped from the roots, boulders tumbled through the flood, and over all the thunder crashed. I heard men cry out to each other; but soon the flood carried their voices far away. Such floods kill, and many must have died that day, but I have since heard that a number of the regiment survived, their rain-drenched wounds much less than might have been; without that deluge not a man of them would ever have returned to Gondor in the flesh.
"The pain and the cold soon overcame me. Shivering I fell to earth and left all knowledge of my body for a time. I wandered long in dreams that taught me much, dreams that I cannot now, awake, describe."
She paused a moment to sigh. "I came to myself when the sun broke free of clouds above me once again, warming my body yet lending me no light. And so I crawled a little in the mud, shivering like fever, trying to orient myself by touch. The whole time I wondered why I could not see, but without any desire, really, to solve this puzzle, to put the memories back together. I discovered by feel that the flood had split, and carved a narrow island, upon which I'd survived. I found the body of the snake that had done me harm, and my fingers felt great rents torn into the stinking flesh; I pushed it away from me, and I heard it topple off the bank of my little island. And then I found the feathered body of my rescuer, dead on my behalf. I knew that I would have to achieve much good in the world to repay so dear a sacrifice.
"I soon lost consciousness again, for the pain had not abated much. Foragers from Bristlescrub found me there, my sore face pillowed against the eagle's body. They carried me and the eagle both back to their village, and the herbwife there healed me. When I woke and told her my profession it came to her as no surprise; she already knew my destiny by how the people found me. While I rested long in recovery, and lingered longer still to learn, she made a fan of the eagle's feathers for my use.
"This is that fan."
Elenaril turned towards the withy-dome and the sunset beyond. Blindly she held the fan before her, stretched out to the west, yet at that moment no one had ever seemed less blind to Frodo, poised as though she could see clear to Elvenhome and beyond. Long she stood in silence, as a gentle breeze stroked back her long white hair, though until that day they had only known the wind to blow to or from the Sea of Nurnen; she shivered in the cold like they all did, yet she welcomed that breeze as though it warmed her. The last light of the sun shone on the scar that had become her face, but Frodo saw that evil's mark had only touched the skin, while a holier power had marked her that same day, deeper than the scar and through it, too, deeper than bone and brain and blood and anything the Enemy could touch. Looking fully on her face as he'd never done before, and not through half-averted eyes, he noticed for the first time the faint impression of feathers on one cheek.
"For my life and my calling I thank Manwe," she said, "and all of the Heavenly Host; still more do I thank the One True Power that they serve. I dedicate my healing to the service of that Power, to which I owe my breath and being." She turned and laid the fan upon the mound. "I turn that healing towards the hope that yet awaits unborn."
To the others she said, "If you mean to go through with this healing, then you must lay upon this mound one thing so precious to you that you did not part with it even when you parted with your clothes. Leave it here, in the care of the Servants of Creation, and when you come back out again, take it up with renewed commitment to serve as well." She pulled a ring from her own finger. "This ring my true love gave me many years ago, in a promise that I thought I could never see fulfilled. Consecrate me, Manwe, to faith and the fulfillment of all promises." She laid it on the mound.
Bergil stepped up and did likewise. "Here I place the mate to that which Elenaril surrenders. Consecrate me, Manwe, to love and the fulfillment of all hopes."
Fishenchips watched them, grinned a little nervously, and then unstrapped his hook and tossed it on with the rest. "Well hey, Manwe, if ye're chief o' the same folks as had a hand in fightin' Sauron, as I gather, then I'll give ye my right hand, such as it is. I don't know much fancy-speech, but...how would ya put it? Consecrate me to givin' a helpin' hand and what strength I gots to all 'at's good."
Frodo stepped up, and he saw only one thing that he could do. He lifted the horsehair cord over his head and placed the magnifying glass upon the mound, to twinkle in the dying light. "Love and sacrifice gave me this lens, and the cord it dangles from. The elves say that it gives me insight, but I'm finding out that all that is meaningless if you don't see through the lens of love. So consecrate me, Manwe, to insight from the--ow!--the heart." Bergil caught him when his leg buckled and held him up till he could find his feet again.
Elenaril smiled and said, "Now you are almost ready." Little Tamarisk came up with a small bundle of sage and placed it in the herbwife's hand, fresh-lit from the fire. Elenaril took up her fan again and used it to waft sage-smoke on each of the others, front and back, from head to toe. Tamarisk did the same for her.
Elenaril led Frodo, Bergil, and Fishenchips into a low door in the withy-dome that the men had to bend (very carefully) to enter, while the top of it brushed Frodo's curly head. He felt like he pushed into a cushion of pure heat to go inside. Apprentice-women pulled a skin down over the opening, and now the heat engulfed him, thick and soft and smothering, illuminated only by the glow of stones in the center pit that had heated in the fire all day long, already fading but no less hot that he could feel.
Elenaril took Frodo by the hand as though he were the blind one, and led him in a full circle in the dark within that oven space before showing him where to sit--as though the temperature hadn't made him dizzy enough. Frodo's voice sounded high and querulous in his own ears when he asked, "What are you going to do to me in here?"
"Sweat the dragon-blood out of you. It is still quite possible; you only absorbed a little."
"Probable," Bergil said, settling down beside him sans his towel, onto the softly crackling sage.
"You're not helping!" Frodo mopped perspiration from his brow with his towel, before Bergil tugged it away from him, but more drops sprang up instantly. "How am I supposed to breathe in here?"
"Slowly and deeply," Elenaril replied. And then she dashed water and herbs upon the rocks. A pungent steam went up, increasing the heat tenfold till Frodo's head reeled and he felt like he would die, as the stones went dark and they all became as blind as The Herbwife of Bristlescrub. Frodo felt a panic rise in him; he had gotten used to his lens lending him elvish sight in the dark--had the dragon-blood devoured his gifts? Could he ever get them back again? The sweat ran down his body in rivulets and he began to thirst, but when he asked for something to drink, Elenaril said no. Frodo heard a rustle now and then, but for the most part the others hardly moved. The smell of sage overpowered him, and he suffocated on steam.
Kindly the healer said, "Lie down if you like. Do not fight what happens here. Let your muscles relax, one by one. Let the sweat pull poison from your soul and body." That sounded like the most sensible suggestion he had heard all evening, but when he did lie down he lost his orientation in the dark; he felt himself rotating, round and round, tipping this way and that in a swelter without relief. And now he found that he could not readily sit up again.
"Let yourself relax," Elenaril repeated. "You have much to let go of." To the men she said, "Bergil, Fishenchips, can you find the drum we placed in here?" When they assented, she told them, "Beat a rhythm...like this..." she clapped her hands to demonstrate, "attuned to the beating of a healthy heart...yes, on the same drum...a little more in synch, please, a little more evenly...there. You have it. The heartbeat of Yavanna, of all herbwives the Mother."
Frodo sprawled naked on the sage, not quite aware of whether his eyes remained open or closed, and that drum-beat drove straight through him until nothing seemed quite real. At some point Elenaril began to chant, but not in words, rather in vowel-sounds that wafted him away like a river that he floated upon, or maybe drowned in.
Everything rippled now. The heat, the sounds, the earth beneath him, his own flesh. At some point, he could not quite say when, it all fell apart, like something that had never quite been real to begin with, a child's frail if pretty craft depicting something greater still.
Too much! He fainted from that reality, into a vision closer to his scale. He swam, in cool relief, weightless, swirling through the ever-dappled underwater light, swam towards a treasure-trove, upon which waited, tiny with distance, the most beautiful person he had ever imagined, an elf perhaps yet more than elf, his red hair billowing about him and his gaze afire.
"All of this is yours," the being proclaimed in dulcet call. "Come down and claim it!"
But as Frodo neared, the waters growing darker and heavier around him, he saw the rotten tatters of the flesh, the empty socket beside the burning eye, the grinning teeth where lips had fallen away! He tried to flail back to the surface, but he had swum into a riptide and it gripped him fast, pulling him downward, downward, the weight crushing him and the breath stopped from his lungs, down to where the dead thing grabbed him in a fierce embrace, the fingers of one hand knotted in his hair, the other arm so tight around his waist it seemed to squeeze the life from him, the mouth pressed raw against his own in fetid kiss.
"At last, my precious Frodo dear, my very own!" said Sauron right into his mouth. "At last I make you mine!"