From the Ashes a Fire Shall be Woken
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 16, Part 261
Old Battle Axe
February 14, 1453
“Here is where I cut my foot,” Frodo said, pointing with his toe at a charred spot on the ground, in the center of which an old axe-head rusted. Some brown vine had already begun to twine it, stripped by winter, and grasses encroached upon the burn, straw-pale until the new growth of spring should replace it. “And this black streak, here, is where I dripped blood as Bergil carried me. And over here...ah, this is the spot...he cleaned out my wound in a way that I had hoped never to be cleaned again. Life disappointed me in that ambition, I’m afraid.” Frodo turned to the round-eyed man-child beside him, who had turned as pale as the grasses, and said, “He had to tear the flesh wider, you see, to make sure that he had washed it thoroughly. Has your father told you of the pestilence that Sauron has bred in these lands?”
“A...a little. Um...a lot.”
“Guard your skin, lad. It is all that stands between you and a horrible death.”
Her eyes twinkling, Mattie murmured, “Of course it does,” but Boromir didn’t hear her.
Boromir asked, “Uh, Master Hobbit, why did you choose this spot for our noontide meal?”
Frodo smiled grimly at him. “Happy memories. Life was so much simpler, then.”
Boromir came over and studied the axe curiously. “The Haradrim did not make this axe. It looks like Rhun work, by the shape of it, though it has runes of Harad scratched in close to the haft, here, where they usually added war-curses handed down in the family. The soldier must have traded for it, and then personalized it.”
“Charming,” Elboron drawled. “It chills my blood, sometimes, to hear the things that you study, son of mine.”
“The King says...”
“I know what the King says,” Elboron sighed.
Frodo sidled close to Boromir and asked, as softly as he could, “Can you read what the runes say?”
“Oh yes, Master Hobbit! I know all sorts of runes!” Proud to display his knowledge, he recited (too loudly for Frodo’s tastes) “It says that anyone unfortunate enough to survive a wound by this axe will wish himself dead anyway. He shall live to bring disgrace upon his father and turn his mother’s hair to frost. He shall wed a scandalous wife, his firstborn son shall die unweaned, his favorite female relative shall run off with unsavory company, his livestock shall die untimely, his lands shall wither under drought and then the storms shall gouge them, and dragons shall cross his path.”
“See how the writer cut the plural-rune on ‘dragons’ more deeply than the rest? That emphasized pluralization of part of the curse typifies the mid-north region of Harad. The especial attention to domestic dishonor narrows it down to the Tsoras clan, who survived enough scandals of their own to put it in their heads to wish the same upon their enemies. However, this one borrows part of the Changit Clan curse, about a son’s death, to replace the usual Tsoras imprecation about misbehaving daughters, which...”
“Boromir!” Elboron barked.
“...leads me to believe that the carver of the curse himself lacked a married mother, as often happens in Tsoras clan.”
“Boromir, that is quite enough!”
“But Father, he asked! And I only repeated what the axe had to say.”
“And then elaborated to an unseemly degree.”
“I only meant it in a scholarly fashion.”
“That is ever your excuse.”
“Father, I may study what I please!”
Not even a bird dared to peep. Father and son eyed each other as though the senior would gladly strike, and the junior would bear the blow with unrepentant defiance. In that moment Frodo could glimpse what Elboron’s grandsire, Denethor, must have looked like in one of his moods. Then Elboron sighed once more and ventured an ironic smile, which his son returned.
“Yet at least I am still enough your father to tell you that it is time we saddled up and rode away from this depressing place.” More quietly he murmured, “As if one could find anywhere in the vicinity not depressing.”
“Oh, I know a few,” said Mattie, mounting Melody. Frodo could hear the wind in leaves again, and the calls of winter-birds. He rode close enough to Mattie to hear her whisper, “I could have dealt with a misbehaving daughter.”
Frodo leaned over and whispered back, “Some misbehaviors wouldn’t even trouble me a bit. I would have liked another busker in the family, for instance.” And that made Mattie laugh despite herself, and relieved the tension of the moment. But then Frodo found himself murmuring, “I wish my sister Rose would misbehave, just a little,” growing melancholy in his own turn. “I worry that her idea of good behavior will do her too much harm.”
“She seems much on your mind today.”
“They each preoccupy my mind when their birthdays come around. All of my siblings.” He tried to laugh at himself. “And with my family, that leaves me often preoccupied!” Then he shook his head, staring off into the distance. “They seem so far away.”
‘Because they are, of course. But I think your parents have Rose well in hand. And if they do not, then the Tailor of Deephollow does.” And now Frodo took his turn to chuckle in spite of himself, albeit uncomfortably.
Boromir asked, “What is that smell, Father?”
“Brimstone,” Elboron answered. “If you remember your studies of the ways of the earth-element, you will recall why this area interacts with fire and water, and so abounds in choleric/sanguine/melancholic activity, not least being occasional boiling fonts of...”
“No,” Mattie interrupted. “The nearest hot spring lies leagues away.”
“Ohhh no!” Frodo groaned. “That cursed axe!” He pointed ahead. “Look!” When the boy started to ride forward, Frodo grabbed his reins. “No, not you, milord! Stay here. Let me investigate.”
“No,” Mattie corrected, staring at the burnt swathe up ahead athwart the road. “I shall. You have suffered too many exposures already.” At that Boromir’s head whipped towards Frodo. “And I still know a tune or two that might help, with or without a harp.”
“Neither of you shall ride forth,” Elboron said. “I have trained in every sort of warfare from my childhood. Battle is my birthright.”
Yet Frodo saw the sudden pallor of the man’s complexion. “And how many dragons have you fought?” he asked.
“I know all of the principles of warfare with...”
“Stay here.” Frodo bolted forward before anyone could stop him.
He slowed as soon as he went out of convenient range. He felt the sand-colored donkey tremble between his legs as the sulfurous odor grew stronger and stronger, burning the back of the throat and making the eyes water. Yet Courage lived up to her name and stepped forward anyway, gingerly but surely, ears flattened back, poised to flee at the least excuse. The closer they drew, the worse the stench, until Frodo realized that it surpassed anything similar that he had ever smelled before, not even when the Blue Dragon had held him right before her mouth.
Now they reached the great, slimed slough of char, wallowed through the winter-brittle weeds, and Frodo had to pull his kerchief over his face. Even the donkey coughed. He dismounted and tossed a corner of his cloak over her muzzle. He heard a loud buzzing; at first he thought himself close to fainting, but then he realized that the sound came from outside of himself, as though he approached a hive of bees.
Frodo studied the ground before them. No, not slimed after all. The glistening turned out to come from shiny flakes still clinging to the blackened stems of grass: dried slime, not fresh. He looked further down the slough, and winced at what he saw. “It is all right,” he called back to the others, then choked. “It is quite safe,” he gasped. “But you will want to cross swiftly, anyway.”
When they all rode up near enough to see what Frodo saw, not even Boromir wanted to investigate the dragon-corpse at closer range, though the boy stared in awe at the reptile under its cloud of flies. They rode on in silence for awhile, mainly because they did not want to breathe too deeply until they had traveled far enough for the wind to blow the smell away. Finally, when she dared to open her mouth, Mattie exclaimed, “Cross your path, indeed! The curse didn’t specify anything about menacing.”
“Or about scandalous wives staying so,” he answered with a wink.
Boromir stared at them, then nodded to himself.
Mattie’s hand went to her belly without even realizing it. “Was that all that this has been? All of the suffering? Nothing more than a forgotten curse left over on a dead man’s axe?”
“Not all,” Frodo replied. “Vaire weaves her own tapestries from any thread that might spin out of the Great Music...”
“Thread spinning out of music?”
“...And Sauron already haunted me by then. No doubt I let him steer my step without me even knowing it. As helpless as he had become, I think he needed to ride whatever residual of hatred lingered in the runes.”
Elboron cleared his throat. Frodo did not need to turn to guess at the glance that the man exchanged with his son. With some acerbity the hobbit added in a louder voice, “We must not forget that Sauron never actually died. Nor, for that matter, that Saruman’s wretched spirit never returned to the True West. We must all, always, guard against their whispers in the dark.”
“Of course we must,” Elboron said too smoothly.
Frodo sighed, and slumped a little. Men of the Fourth Age would just have to blunder through their own adventures, the hard way. Then he knit his brows, frowning over something. “By the way,” he asked, “did anyone notice anything unusual about the dragon’s body?”
Boromir said, “I could hardly see anything of it through all the flies.”
“One could still make out the posture.”
“Is that not the usual position for a dying dragon?”
“Arched backwards in a circle till snout touches nether heels? Tail curled tight about the throat and body? No. I have never seen a dragon die that way before. And with jaws clamped shut–their mouths hang open when they die.” Frodo glanced back over his shoulder. “Sauron’s pestilence must have caught up even with his own allies.” He turned to Boromir, and said, “Guard your skin.”