From the Ashes a Fire Shall be Woken
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 19, Part 264
Secrets of the Earth
February 17, 1453
The time had come to move on, for the hobbits to part with their human company and make the final stage of the journey alone–at least until they reached the river. Yet they would travel alongside the canal-in-progress for many a mile, They intended to thank Elboron and Boromir for their company when they would pass them on the way out. For the boy, no doubt, had already begun his apprenticeship, his soft noble’s clothing folded away, exchanged for the rugged fabrics that suit a rugged life. Frodo smiled, remembering the King’s own secret garb, preserved for whenever he took it into his head to revert to Strider.
Frodo and Mattie, in fact, had just about gotten everything packed up and ready to go when they heard the scream. “Poor beggar,” Mattie murmured. “I hope the King pays men well for the danger that they undertake for him.”
Frodo nodded, securing his sleeping-bag behind the saddle, when the second scream rang out. Suddenly he dropped the rope and started running. “That’s Elboron’s voice!” Mattie scampered quickly after him as he bounded from rock to rock, skidding a little on the gravel now and then but keeping his feet, listening through the clamor of construction to one man’s sobs and groans, horrifically loud, distinct from all the rest.
The sounds led him towards a mudslide, where dark red soil, lately unsettled by the loss of brush and the fall of rain after, had slid away to create a newborn cliff, stretching down to where the earth cracked open in an even deeper rift. Frodo ran down the slope beneath that bank; he barely noticed traces of clay-ruddied old stonework, until lately buried, poking from the new cliffside like bones freshly exposed in sliced-away flesh. Down, down he went, jumping over a corroded weather-vane lying half-submerged across his path, skittering across a crazy-quilt of shattered roof-tiles, hurtling towards the steeper wound.
“There they are,” Frodo panted, pointing down inside the ravine–far deeper than he had expected. Darker earth showed where even fresher rocks had fallen. The two figures looked pale below, the man down on his knees with the boy’s limp body pulled up onto his lap. Something about the rift amplified the man’s sobbing, sending it to echo up the sides.
“Halt!” a woman called to their left. They saw an herbwife struggling down the slope with a basket of splints and bandages, her skirts knotted up out of the way, her sturdy legs almost blue with cold. Behind her two men carried a stretcher, with some difficulty, down the practically vertical descent. The matron shouted at the hobbits, “One mis-step could rain down more stones upon them. Stay where you are and let us do our offices.”
Frodo froze, hand in hand with Mattie. He stared in horror at the air above the human heads, where a battle took place that he could have described to no one, though it came back to haunt him many times thereafter in his nightmares. It had faces, he could say that much, though nothing like what he had ever thought of as a face before, merging and separating, bending and snapping into different wild expressions. He saw good and evil and confusion, fangs and claws and spiky, melting forms, wings and delicate folds, and shimmers of a luminescent brown or something like a brown, that normal eyes could never register. Lost energy spattered away from the tangle like blood, crackling in the nerves of all who stood too near.
“Watch out!” Frodo cried, before a tail swiped cliff and dirt and rocks came tumbling down. But a kick of something like a foot sent the largest rocks bouncing harmlessly away. The dirt settled down on Elboron’s hair and velvet-clad shoulders and across the body of his son, and he showed no sign of noticing.
“Sing, Mattie,” Frodo pleaded, gripping her hand too hard. “Sing like Bombadil would sing, if he were here.”
“Sing what? What do you mean?”
“Sing them to sleep, before they bring the whole mountainside down!”
“Them!” He pointed, though he knew she couldn’t see. “They don’t know what they’re doing. They don’t know which side they serve. They...just sing!”
“I need to know what they are, Frodo. Tell me!”
“Earth-spirits.” He knew it only when he said it. “Crazed earth-spirits, fighting over Boromir, or maybe for the treasure that he just unearthed,” and only then indeed did he see the earth-clogged chest beside the pair below, a small thing, something that a boy could carry easily.
Mattie nodded to him, wide-eyed, then sang:
“Ho now, rock and sand, soil, clay and rubble!
Why leave your ancient home? Why should you cause trouble?
The olden box belongs to men, it isn’t yours for keeping,
Yours is the long, cold sleep, the roots and deep rain’s seeping.”
Far below them Frodo saw Boromir’s hand stir, and they heard a faint, high moan. “Keep singing!” Frodo urged. “It’s having an effect.”
“Sleep now, folk of clay, retreat into the mountain,
There greet your water-kin, of hidden brook and fountain.
There speak of men who come to roll you in your slumbering
Out of their dancing way, the river unencumbering.
“It’s working! They look dazed, they drop away, forgetting the battle. They fade into the slope. They...no, it’s only one. A single maia of the earth, warring with hisself.”
The healer made it safely to the injured boy. “My lord!” she cried. “You should not have moved him.”
“He is my son,” Elboron said helplessly, holding onto the broken body. “He is my son.”
See? He made his decision. I only did what he wanted.
Frodo turned and found himself face to face with the being that he thought had melted back into the clay for good. “What do you mean?”
He said what he wanted yesterday. The shifting form made Frodo queasy from just trying to focus on it. I cannot reach the other scholar; I am bound to my place. Yet I can relieve him of this one.
“No, no, you don’t understand! He spoke in jest. He did not mean...”
Part of him meant it.
“And do you always know for sure what you mean, yourself? Or which part speaks the loudest? Look at him weeping! How can you say that he wanted this?”
The chaos of features seemed to waver in doubt for a moment. Yet he moved the body, worsening the injuries.
“He didn’t know what he was doing! He...and you don’t either! You both made mistakes–so undo them!”
I cannot do that, Frodo Gardner. You know the dangers of going back in time.
“You...you know me?”
All of this land knows you. And with that the spirit slid into the ground beneath his toes.
Frodo turned his eyes back to the people down below. He and Mattie watched the herbwife clean and bind the bleeding brow, while one of her assistants held the head rigid. Then the other man slid a lengthwise slat from the stretcher. With exaggerated care, the three of them eased this wood between the boy and his weeping father’s lap, then bound their patient carefully but thoroughly to it, so that neither neck nor spine would move. Cautiously, the men transferred Boromir from Elboron to the stretcher, where the herbwife splinted the broken arm. Then came more bindings, before the men lifted the stretcher up to begin the long climb up the treacherous slope.
“The mudslide happened early last night,” they heard Elboron say, his voice echoing strangely up to them, yet as clear as if he stood by their side. “Boromir ran out when he heard the sound, and I ran after. He could see the ruins in the moonlight. I told him to wait until morning to study them further; barely could I restrain him, such was his excitement. Even so, I forbade him to climb down, bidding him only to observe from a distance for now. I did not realize the danger. I never imagined that my son would disobey a direct command. I should have tied him to the tentpost!”
The other men said nothing, carrying Boromir upward, while the herbwife climbed beside them, keeping an eye upon her patient. Sometimes they tipped the lad nearly upside down to lift him over the steepness of the slope. Elboron followed after, and as he drew nearer the hobbits could see the streaks down his cheeks through the dust, as he bore the box so bitterly won, its ancient carvings choked with dirt so that none could make out the design.
“Will he be all right?” the man asked thickly.
“We cannot tell yet, sir.”
“Will he...will he still be a scholar when he wakes?”
“If he wakes. We cannot tell yet, sir.”
Sometimes earth would crumble underfoot and one or the other of them would stumble just a bit. All would freeze, waiting for the soil to settle, then begin again the slow ascent. Sometimes they had to pause to puzzle out the next steps, so much harder than the descent, when two must travel tandem uphill with a burden held between them. As the rescue-party drew still closer, the hobbits could hear Boromir’s labored breathing, too young to sound so desperate. “Not again,” Mattie gasped, clutching her husband’s arm. “I can’t stand this again, Frodo!” Pleading eyes stared at him. “Do something!”
Frodo could only answer by wrapping his arms around her, his own heart beating terribly.