Now Lost, Lost to Those From the East, Is Valimar!
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 18, Part 228
The sea had dried up. All of the ponds had dried up, too, without a trace, and the fields had vanished, and they took the summer with them. This cursed mine occupied their place, carved into the slope behind the town, where Frodo dug for coal deep within its tunnels, blackened from head to toe. His hair hung long and tangled, always getting in the way, yet for some reason he never bothered to bind it back. He wasn’t even Frodo anymore, but Pongo Sallet. Sometimes he knew, acutely, that he dreamed, and sometimes the nightmare gripped him as vividly as life.
He kept on hoping that he could wake up soon, but he found himself trapped in that vague stage of a fading dream, where everything becomes fuzzy all around you, and moving grows more difficult and unsteady, usually right when something nasty decides to chase you. Nothing chased him this time, though, just Master coming by with his pay for the evening.
“Here y’go, Rat.” The hobbit latched onto the bottle and guzzled as hungrily as a starving baby. For a little while the nightmare became dreamy once again. Shire brandy didn’t even taste like the Shire anymore, didn’t taste remotely like anything Frodo or Pongo or whoever would even want to swallow, it burned the throat and challenged the gut, but it kept Sauron at bay, so what did it matter what anyone might call it?
Daynightdaynight, time flickered over Frodo in the queasy way that dreams can have, now dragging slow, now rushing past so fast that he could hardly grasp it in numb fingers. He shivered without respite, for cold drafts blew unceasingly, and his flimsy summer tunic had long since caught on rocks and worn down to a rag, till he only had a scrap left to knot about his loins.
Whenever the skies outside grew dark and the other miners trudged away, Frodo crawled into his hole with his pay beneath his arm, into this appendix off of the main tunnel: an old, leftover station for goblin overseers long-since gone, but it stood above the level of the occasional flood, and a rusted grill with an inside latch blocked the opening, and that made it safe. When the aching sunlight glowed in the distant tunnel’s mouth, he ventured out again into the rest of the mine, full of pain and trembling, and worked some more until his pay could make the nightmare soft and dim.
He seldom stepped out into the light itself, except when he had missed work for one reason or another, and then he only scuttled out long enough to beg or steal, before retreating once again from the headache-pounding sun. Yet often now even the sun seemed dimmed, as the nightmare worsened, perpetually drizzling in an un-desertlike gray sky, little different from the tunnel roof, dampening his mood and slogging his steps in mud.
“Ya call this a load, Pongo? What am I gonna do with ya? What good are ya?”
He found it hard to reply. “I can wriggle in where no one else can reach–you said so yourself.” His mouth never seemed to quite do as he wanted.
“That mattered to me last week, when ya actually brought coal back out with ya. But now often as not ya creep into some garnfersaken nasty burrow or other t’take a snooze out o’ me sight. Look, I’m a reasonable man, Pongo. I give ya the pay the way ya wants it, but now I not only has t’give ye an advance in the morning or ye’re not fit fer work, I gotta fork over another in the middle o’ the day, and I find meself payin’ ya more and gettin’ less back. I’m gonna hafta cut ya loose.”
”No! Please!” In his dream he threw himself on the man’s feet, sobbing all over them while the Master looked down in disgust. “Would you turn me out of my only home? Without the mine I have nowhere else to go!” Shudders wracked him so hard that he knew he had to get paid very soon, or the nightmare would turn really bad indeed, horrible things would crawl in the shadows, Sauron would attack him body and mind, twisting muscle and gut and heart, everything would go wrong. “Master, I will die!”
“Ya poor cuss. Ye’re dyin’ anyway. Mebbe it’d be a kindness to let some wild beast finish the job up quick.”
“Please. I will do anything!”
“When was the last time ya had a bath, Pongo?” Master asked, wrinkling up his nose.
“Give me soap and water, and I will bathe, I will do anything. I have nothing in my hole but the dirt I sleep on, else I would have cleaned up better, I swear I would!”
“Mebbe I’ll take ye up on that,” and his voice grew speculative. “See, I’ve got a plan where yerself and I might do a little business yet. Follow me.” The man turned towards his own hovel and Frodo scrambled after, hunched over. In this dream, he sometimes noticed, he could not fully straighten to his proper height, but he’d only briefly wonder why, and then lose himself as Pongo once again.
Inside, the man filled up a dented old wash-basin with tepid water and threw a bar of harsh lye soap at Frodo. “I want ya totally clean, ever nook and cranny. And don’t bother puttin’ that revoltin’ rag back on when ye’re done; I’ll find ya sumpin’ presentable.”
It actually felt good to make himself clean for a change. Frodo scrubbed and scrubbed as if he could wash the nightmare off of him, watching the water turn black, and it almost seemed to work. The dream became a little clearer, and Frodo hoped that it might improve. But as soon as he stepped out of the water, the shivering turned to shudders and queasiness, and he felt treacherously close to Sauron’s next attack.
“Here y’go, laddie.” A cracked old mug pressed into Frodo’s hands just in time. “Payment in advance fer t’night’s work–double yer usual wage, mind ye, this here’s just a start. I’ll need ye to relax, see, not go jitterin’ about.” Master finished drying Frodo off, patting down all the spots that the hobbit had missed. “I’ve got a soft heart, Pongo. I wouldn’t send annerbody to do the work I’ll ask of ye without a bit o’ numbin’ first.” He took a shaving-brush and whipped up some suds from the soap. “And ye’ll get more t’morra mornin’, if ye do a decent job. Poor cuss--the more ya ferget, the better.”
Only after several urgent gulps did the tension release Frodo enough that he could calmly ask, “And what work might that be?”
“Just ye do as ye’re told, when ye’re told. Try not t’think about it too much.” Then Master knelt, to Frodo’s vague surprise, and lathered up his feet. “Just smile and let yerself slip off t’lala land if it gets too tough–I’m payin’ ye enough t’manage that, I think.” Frodo giggled at the tickle of the brush–this dream surely took some curious turns! “G’wan, have more–I don’t care this time. ‘Tis the perfect job fer summon as can’t do much ‘cept lay about annerway.”
Master opened up a razor, saying, “Hold still, now,” and he shaved the fur right off of the hobbit’s feet. “I’d let ye do this fer yerself, but I don’t trust yer hand fer it. Go on, take another swig–it’ll do ya good. Now step wider apart–here, lean on me shoulder. There y’go.” And he kept right on shaving, up and up. “Ya need a refill? I’m good fer it t’night. Here’s another fer ye, ya poor li’l rat. I’m not a bad man.”
The dream grew hazy, random details blurring in and out without cohesion. Frodo recalled being carried, he didn’t know where; it just felt warm, being held like that; it almost reminded him of something lost. He recalled being put on his feet, told to turn around, but he fell when he tried. That was all right, though, he didn’t feel it when he hit the floor; it was only a dream, after all.
Then things phased out again, and the next thing he knew he found himself sitting on a real bed, incredibly soft and inviting, finishing the last of his advance in something close to contentment while the men shouted at each other. Perhaps the nightmare might turn into a better dream. Perhaps it might be wonderful.
“Curse ye, ya tomfool, I asked fer a boy, and that ain’t no boy!” Even the drink tasted better, of a quality he hadn’t tasted in a long, long time. “Ya think I don’t know the difference? Look at the shriveled little monkey!”
“Ya could at least give him a try, fer all me trouble.”
“Have ya lost yer little pea-brain?” Frodo tipped the mug back and drank the final swallow, which seemed to shimmer all through him. “I had smooth skin in mind fer me money–does that scrofulous hide look smooth to ya? It makes me sick to even think o’ touchin’ it.”
“Have a heart! I just couldn’t bring meself t’catch a real child.” Then the cup slipped from his hand, and he closed his eyes, and he heard it shatter, in an exquisite, tinkly sound. “This’n don’t know what’s goin’ on, an’ he’s dyin’ anyway, gots no future t’ruin." Frodo slipped backwards onto a pillow as soft as nothing at all, blessed nothing, and everything became perfect. “Couldn’t ya pretend?”
“I don’t pay gold fer pretendin’–ya think I’m a child, meself? Garn–look at the mess it’s made. Somebody get that thing out o’ here!”
Rough hands grabbed Frodo, and only then did he realize that he wore nothing at all, the way one finds oneself in dreams sometimes. “The deal is off!” the stranger roared, “Yer debts still stand, ya fool, so don’t think ya can afford to look down yer nose at me just yet!” Somebody pitched Frodo flying out the door. It felt almost comical, the way he bounced across the ground without real harm. He tasted dirt and blood, and the dream would fade out, and then come back, and again he would taste the dirt and blood, and fade out again, and in, until finally he moved his head to one side so that he could breathe a little easier.
And after that it seemed that he could not move at all, yet it hardly mattered, for the planet moved in his stead, in slow, majestic rounds. He giggled at the sight of his fresh-washed curls, settled across the mud, glimpsed from the corner of his eyes between blinks. The slow opening and closing of his eyes revealed that he had now become an elf, and that seemed promising. Gradually everything darkened, moment by moment. He wondered if that meant that he could finally wake, or at least blend the dream with something better in the living night.
“Get up!” The hobbit urged him. “Get up–now!”
“Hullo, Bilbo,” he murmured to the ground, feeling as heavy as the Misty Mountains. With his ear upon the earth he heard the patter of paws running his way, matching a baying in the distance.
“I said get up! You are in danger, lad!”
He found that he could raise a hand, at least for a few moments. “Give me a little help why don’t you?” But Bilbo’s hand passed right through his.
“Frodo, if you can actually see me and hear me, if I do not merely whisper to your heart, then you are in more trouble than I thought. At least try to crawl, if you can manage nothing else.”
Frodo laughed, and with great difficulty succeeded in wobbling to all fours, his hair drooping down into the mud before him, tangled again already.
Bilbo fussed around him in a comical portrayal of panic, like something out of a children’s book. “Dear me, dear me, what can I...well, there is that. That will have to do for now. But oh my! This way Frodo–hurry, if you can. They are coming!”
It almost seemed too predictable, this nightmare. The menacing beasts, the inability to flee, and finding himself inexplicably naked on top of all else; Frodo couldn’t help but laugh again, and laughing made him fall back to the dirt.
“What are you waiting for? Get back up and try again–your life depends on it! Over here...”
But Frodo only lay there, chuckling in the dirt. “Why crawl at all? Why not fly? One can do that in one’s dreams, after all. It would make more sense.” Even as he said it he felt his body lighten up considerably, about to drift away at any second.
“Get back up and crawl right this minute, Frodo! This is not a dream!”
Something about Bilbo’s voice shocked him more than anything had managed to do in a long, long time. He made a final effort, crawled forward three feet, and tumbled straight into an abandoned well. He hit mud at the bottom, and it broke his fall with a noisesome splash, though it felt clammy and unpleasant.
“That will have to do for now, Frodo-lad. Thank heavens you didn’t have a tense muscle in your body, or the drop might have killed you.” Up above, the wargs arrived, sniffling and whining over the pit, until finally they broke out in howls of frustration overhead.
Frodo tried to hold onto the reeling mud, staring up at the slavering wargs high above him, till they finally gave up and pattered away. “What is going on, Bilbo? What has happened to me?”
“I am afraid that you shall have to figure all that out for yourself, once your mind clears up a bit. I will try to find you help the best I can, but it will take time–most people forget too much of their dreams for me to get through to them, and when they do remember, as often as not they pay no heed.”
Bilbo looked about anxiously, running his hands through his hair till it stuck out in disarray. “At least enough water still seeps from the sides of the well to keep you alive, though I’m afraid it won’t be comfortable. And no foul beast can reach you.”
The phantom drifted upwards, then hesitated over Frodo at the distant coin of starry sky, far above his head. “Poor boy! To think that a son of Sam’s should come to this. I wish I could do more for you, but I have my limits.” The voice faded as Frodo began to nod off. “I will visit you again, soon. I promise. I will try to find you help.”