From the Ashes a Fire Shall be Woken
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 1, Part 246
Smeagol crawled through the marsh on all fours, sniffing the wind, testing the frigid mud with burning fingers, mud seeping through his rags. “Thisss way, gollum, gollum” he hissed to those who stumbled after, struggling to clear his sore and rheumy throat. Or sometimes he himself staggered after, and Smeagol went before, a slinking blur that now and then would whine and gaze back anxiously with luminous golden eyes.
And sometimes the hobbit woman leaned upon his arm, and sometimes he leaned upon hers, and then he would remember his own nature, and even sometimes which Frodo he was, but not how it came to this, tottering through an endless marsh with fire smoldering in his bones.
The day had started out well enough. He sometimes remembered that. Warm. He had appreciated that, and the cooling breeze on his wet rags. Nearby Mattie sat, staring vacantly at the Dwarf Kit, not even opening it up. “I don’t feel like breakfast this morning,” she had said. He saw jewels glisten on her brow, directly on the skin, glittering in the early light. In December, outdoors, in a half-frozen marsh. For one brief, lucid moment, Frodo’d thought, “We’re in trouble.”
And sometimes he remembered, and worried. And sometimes he didn’t, quite. “It’ll be all right,” he whispered to himself. “Just slipped back in time, that’s all, but I know how it’ll all work out, I’ve done it all before. Bergil and I will...but no. No Bergil. No goats to lean on. Mud a-plenty, but none of it heals. And the baby. The baby. The baby...”
Frodo swam through heat. Teeth dragged the pack right off his back, but he hardly cared anymore, except to stupidly notice a lightening of his load. Something soft thumped into him behind the knees. Then for a moment he flew, but no, he merely toppled forward. When the cold hit the heat in him something exploded: water and fire and ice and flesh!
Then jaws closed on what remained of his sleeve and dragged him up through the shattered ice, out of the pool, onto the bank. Seregril shook the frigid water off of herself and Frodo watched the droplets fly. For one shuddering moment his fever dropped and clarity returned. “I am sick,” he thought, lying on a soggy knot of sod, staring up at the swirling mists. “I have a fever.” He turned his face and saw Mattie’s sweating, splotchy face nearby. “And my wife has a fever.” He sat up. “And the baby has a fever.”
Frodo added these things together in his mind. Then he forced himself to his feet, and helped Seregril push Mattie into the pool in turn, then dragged her out again when the shock made her seize up, held her dripping body till it stilled and Mattie looked at him with awareness in her eyes. “Drastic measures,” he said to her. “We have to fight this any way we can.”
She nodded, saying, “We need a dry place to rest. It’s no use trying to march like this.”
“That’s what we’re looking for, m’love.” With aching limbs he pulled the pack back on. “A dry place.” They trudged on, shivering violently, clutching each other for warmth. “It won’t be long, now.” One splashing, mud-squishing footstep after another. But in time Frodo forgot all about what they sought, as the fever crawled over his mind again.
He did not know when Smeagol finally found them a nice, dry islet to rest upon, sheltered between the arching roots of one of the pungent trees, A big, wet tongue licked his face anxiously, and Mattie’s too. In a faraway whisper his wife sang out, “Sister of the air, sister of the air, cool us, cool us, cool us...” and a gentle breeze fluttered over them, easing the fever somewhat as the warg kept licking them again and again.
Who knew where the fever might lurk in a place like this? Shimmering in the unclean water all around them, nestled into sores upon the skin, or wafting on the fetid air? Perhaps it shivered in the chills of the night before, a dank sleep upon the gelid ground. Perhaps it lingered unsuspected in the food that the orcs had given them, harmless to the Iingolug-Hai. Perhaps it lurked in a starchy root that the Gaurians had said was safe to eat. Perhaps they had not dug deep enough for clams. Who could say?
Great monsters swam in the shallow waterways of Nurnen Marsh, vipers slithered across the mud, and violent cattle would toss you as soon as look at you, hyacinths would drown you in their treacherous beauty, quicksand would swallow the unwary, yet none of these had killed anywhere near the majority of those who perished in or near the marsh. Nobody knew quite what did, whether one breathed it, or ate or drank it, absorbed it through the skin, or caught it from an insect bite. Yet Fever lorded over every other kind of death, King Fever carried off more captives to the Halls of Mandos than any other peril in that land.
Night came, and day, and night again after. Seregril had difficulty uncorking water bottles with her teeth, and bringing them unspilled to her invalids, but this she managed anyway, whining with the effort, with more than canine skill. They had stocked up on plenty of water, forgetting that they no longer had a donkey to provide for besides themselves. Luckily for them.
Food didn’t seem to matter, for neither Frodo nor Mattie could eat. Sometimes Seregril would disappear, and come back licking bloodied chops, but she never left for long. Frodo stared up at the wind-whipped boughs, and his gardener mind took note that it stayed green well into the frosty weather, but of course it had needles, not true leaves, even though they grew softer than the needles of the pine, and left a springy humus piled in between the roots, snug beds for Frodo and his wife.
He passed in and out of dreams. Sometimes the tree above became a hazel, gigantic for its kind, spreading motherly arms out over them. Sometimes Smeagol sponged off his brow tenderly, and sometimes a great hound licked him. Sometimes he lost all sense of weight, and he danced with his wife and son amid the blowing apple blossoms, till their feet took off from the ground, and his child, so light, so free, wafted away with the petals to his grandmother’s waiting arms. And at times he felt a gnarled old hobbit-hand in his as he lay in Rivendell, a touch as cold as death, spreading a delicious, ghostly coolness up his arm to soothe his struggling heart.
He remembered, at some point, unpacking his flower-press and writing-kit. He remembered pausing over a page with the moistened brush in hand. He started to write, “December...” only to see that he wrote in water alone, having forgotten to rub the brush against the ink. Then he realized that he did not know the date, in any case. So he dried his brush, put it away, put everything back neatly into the pack, and then collapsed against the fragrant litter between the roots, thoroughly exhausted.
No healing mud. No goats to lean on. No place to go to even if one did have goats. And a baby.
Seregril whined and rested her head on Frodo’s shoulder. But the fur felt too hot; Frodo tossed restlessly. He sat up in the dark. “We have to get out of here!” he cried. He struggled back into his pack. “We have to get home!” He made a few steps. “Come on, Mattie–let’s get going!” He slung her harp over his shoulder to motivate her. But before he could straighten from bending for it, the ground hurled up to smack him in the face, and gravity held him down like a giant’s foot shoved against his back.
“Burning...” he murmured. “We all shall burn. Beregond won’t make it in time. The flames...they’re everywhere!” He tried to push the flames away, vague flickering rays, but his hand passed through nothing.
Seregril growled, then barked, then howled. Frodo felt the ground beneath him shake to a stolid beat. Seregril acted like she’d lost her canine mind, louder and more frantic by the minute, then came the wild growls of a wolf sinking teeth into flesh. Then Frodo heard her yelp–a sharp, piercing cry of pain–and then Frodo didn’t hear her anymore.
Long, stiff fingers lifted Frodo gently up off the ground. He felt a pause and then the figure bent again. He could pry his eyes open just long enough to see the other woody arm pick up Mattie, too. “Burn...” he murmured. He felt a bead of resin pressed into his lips, and it tasted good to him, bittersweet; he sucked on it like a piece of candy.
For a moment his mind almost cleared. He halfway opened his eyes again, and stared between lashes up into the deep-lined face. “Hullo, Hazel,” he rasped. She looked so sad! “Aw, don’t worry, dear one–once the ents have lost everything, like the entwives have, they will come and find you all again.” Then his mind slipped the rest of the way from his grasp, and he hardly noticed anything he said at all. He fell asleep to the rhythm of long, slow steps, swooping through the miles. All would be well again.
Day. Night. Day. No keeping track of it all. Evidently she carried their waterskins for them, for every so often Frodo found a nozzle in his mouth and the leather bag gurgling against him, rehydrating him even as the sweat poured off. Sometimes he found more resin pushed between his lips. Mostly she carried him, and his wife. And the baby. All would be well. She’d know how to take care of a baby. He didn’t have a thing more to concern him, just nestle in the cool, stiff arms and ride.
Occasionally, the straps of his pack would gall him, but he ached so much all over that it hardly registered. “Burning,” he’d murmur whenever the fever got too bad, although his voice often failed and trailed off, just to “Burrrrn...” Sometimes he would open his eyes, and stare up into her deep, unfathomable ones, and feel reassured, not fear the fever anymore, just surrender to it, and lie still. Somewhere in her breast he came to hear a woody heartbeat over time, learning, by habit of his ear pressed close, to recognize the muffled, rhyhmical clicking deep inside of her. It comforted him.
When they forded the river he at first mistook the rushing sound for his own blood seething in his ears. It didn’t last very long, anyway. They might have crossed more than one, but it never seemed to last too long, not even the one so wide and deep that water touched him as Hazel swam, no wading here, even for her. Somehow Frodo remembered the flower-press, all at once with an almost lucid gasp. He managed to twist in Hazel’s grip, freeing the pack just in time and holding it up as high as he could, then stuffing it with tired arms up behind what might have been a giant ear. Then the water rose clear to his chin. That jolted him in his fever, but then it felt good, then horrible, then it passed and Hazel dried them in the warmth of her bellows breath as they rose back up to land. He saw the pack above him, reached up, tugged it toppling down onto him, and hugged it in his arms. He fell back asleep, lulled by the mile-eating strides.
Fever gave way to chills so bad that his teeth chattered and he shuddered all over. She only held him closer, up against the hardened breast, cuddled together with his wife for warmth. The chills passed, and he began to actually feel well, even hungry.
Then he opened his eyes all the way, and looked at the arm that held him, and saw the wolf-fangs imbedded in the barklike hide, that and the stains of blood. He struggled to rise up. “Hazel,” he cried, “What have you done?”
But she would not let go of him; he could no longer move an inch against her grip. Now he couldn’t even free his arms around the pack, she pressed him so close, and he had to breathe shallowly. Over her arm he saw that the land did not resemble anything like Mordor–a sea of grass stretched out around them as far as he could see. “Let me down, Hazel.” No response. “Thank you very much for saving me and my wife. I appreciate it. Now please let me down.” The strides did not even slow down. “I’m hungry, Hazel. And my wife needs food for the baby.” Nothing changed.
He stared again at the bloody-rooted fangs. “Oh Seregril,” he whispered. “What curse lies on me that all four-legged friends come to a bad end in my service?” He finally managed to twist a hand around to where he could pluck them out, and Hazel didn’t even notice. He slipped the teeth into a pocket where the fabric scrunched up close to his hand. And then his heart went dark, and he fled awareness, and did not open his eyes for a long time after.
When he finally did, Frodo looked up into the mad, dark eyes above him, that glared ahead with so much powerful intent. He did his best to twist, under his cramped conditions, to see wherever she gazed, and thought he glimpsed a forest in the distance, nestled against a mountain range. With his face pushed up against her chest, he heard the deep word rumble, barely vocalized: