From the Ashes a Fire Shall be Woken
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 20, Part 265
What Caught the Boy's Attention
February 17, 1453
The hobbits made it back to camp ahead of the rescue party, which had to move so slowly, so carefully, up the unstable slope. There they relieved their donkeys of their burdens and assured the animals of reasonable comfort, acting as quickly as they could. They hardly had time to secure their gear within their tent before they hurried out again, all thought of leaving today forgotten.
Then everything slowed down. Suddenly haste made no more sense; arriving in a minute or an hour would likely not change how things turned out. Indeed, reluctance to find out more dragged at their steps, even as another part wanted to find out very much indeed. Thus Frodo and Mattie trudged uphill to the long, white pavilion, dodged a woman rushing out who shouted, “For the Valar’s sake, somebody should fetch his wife!” and slipped in under the flap that she had thrust aside.
They found themselves in a sort of hall between many small, translucent “rooms,” marked out by linen veils. Here the couple could hear, as they made their way down the passageway, all of those little moans and rasps that did not carry over the outside noise, and all of the questions, of “Will he be all right?” “Who is his next of kin?” “What shall I say to the children?” They often had to sidestep grim-faced women and men walking briskly with purpose, almost as unaware of Mattie and Frodo as if the hobbits had become ghosts, eyes never dropping to their level. “Congratulations–‘tis a boy!” “My condolences–‘tis too late.” “Confound it all–‘tis not enough!” Sharp smells of soap vied with the bittersweet perfume of herbal tinctures, the stench of infection, and the raw, ever-present odor of fresh blood. “How much longer?” “How bad is it?” “How could he?”
The hobbits asked questions, themselves, the same ones over and over, until someone stepped aside with them, not too busy to at least point out a direction. The place turned out to have more than one corridor. “Can you feel that?” “Can you raise your arm?” “Can you even understand me?” It seemed that one could fit a hobbit village within that monstrous tent.
Yet at last they found the bed where the pale boy lay, his face twitching a little now and then, at times murmuring unawares and incomprehensibly, yet not opening his eyes, while his father sat nearby, covered in mud and oblivious to it, gripping one slender hand that had curled up against the bandage-bound chest like the claw of a dead bird. A cast of clay encased the other arm. Boromir looked so small, stretched out stiff upon the bed, next to his giant of a father. The boy shivered, so Elboron tugged the blanket up to shoulder-level with his free hand as best he could. On the bedside table sat the box.
In a husky voice, not taking his eyes off of his son, Elboron said, “I found mud on his hands, and under his nails. I believe that he dug...that thing...out from the cliff with his bare fingers, having no shovel with him. I believe that this might have caused the rocks above to fall.”
And then he said no more; they might as well not have come in at all. For awhile the hobbits stood and said nothing, either. Then Mattie, restless with idleness, started to clean off some of the dirt from the carvings. Abruptly she recoiled. “This is not the work of men,” she gasped. “Maybe we should toss the wretched chest into the nearest fire, unopened.”
Elboron stirred, to look at her with reddened eyes. “No,” he said softly. “It is too dearly bought for that.”
An herbmaster came up behind them. “Ghastly work, though–and it does not surprise me, not in the least.” They found his bluff manner grating. “I have sons, myself, and they all go through this phase, on the edge between childhood and manlike youth.”
“Go through what?” Frodo asked.
“A taste for the grotesque. Oh, fear not; it rarely lasts. Yet, for a space of several years, ugly things appeal to boys.” The man chuckled. “I went through it, myself,” he said as he pulled a camp-chair up to the bedside, forcing Lord Elboron to stand and move out of his way. As soon as Elboron released the hand, it snapped right back against the boy’s ribcage again. “I filled the margins of my studies with doodles of orcs and balrogs. I desired dragons. I collected the bones of rodents and of frogs.” He shook his head, smiling to himself.
In bitter tones Elboron whispered, “His tastes shall be his own–so said the King.”
The leech pulled back Boromir’s eyelids one by one, holding a tiny oil-lamp near, and his smile dropped away. “Pupils uneven and nonreactive,” he said in a grimmer voice. He tried to lift the unbroken arm from where it curled, but now it wouldn’t budge. “Limbs in rigor before he has even died...”
“He shall not die!” Elboron protested. Frodo looked on him with pity.
“...breath loud and labored.” The leech stood up. “My lord, I suggest that you make your peace with your son. It is my experience that patients can often, in these twilight states, hear whatever we might say–for so report the few who awaken from them.”
“What mean you...what...Boromir, Boromir, son, listen to me! You shall not die! You must not die. You have so much yet to discover, so much to unearth...be the scholar that your grandfather desires, with my blessing–please! Be anything, so long as you live.” His voice broke as he said, “Sons should bury their fathers–it is not meet to push ahead of your sire to the Halls of Mandos out of turn!” Yet Frodo, looking up, saw Boromir’s spirit in the other world, floating in a corner of the tent, strangely impassive, already distant.
“And what was this, for which the lad risked everything?” The herbmaster reached for the latch on the box. Frodo flinched, but nothing evil sprang out, that he could see, when the healer pried loose the sealing clay and flipped the lid back. Scrolls lay within, wormy, mudstained, yet still for the most part, by some strange chance or art, intact. The leech picked one up and his eyes widened. “Good Este save us!” he whispered.
“What?” Frodo cried. “What is it?”
“Medical notes. Horrible case studies...experiments...oh, how wicked!” His objective manner shattered, he picked up another scroll, wincing at what he read. “Someone must have stolen this chest and buried it here, many lives of men ago, though whether before or after the building of the ruins I have no skill to say.”
“Burn it!” Mattie cried. “Such evil should never have seen light of day!”
The herbmaster turned to her with owl-wide eyes. “Burn it? Do you understand what I say?” He rested a trembling hand upon the lid. “This box contains scroll after scroll of everything that we need to know to combat Sauron’s evils! It documents precisely how he bred his plagues, and concocted his poisons, and protected those who did these evils at his bidding. What Sauron has made we may yet unmake by this lore, or lessen the spread of damage at the least.” He turned to Elboron. “Your son, my Lord, has saved uncounted lives.”
In a tear-choked voice the father said, “At the expense of his own.”
The healer lunged forward, touched the neck, pressed ear to chest, then sank to his knees and rested his brow upon the cot.
Elboron could barely speak at all when he said, “He was mere weeks away, I believe, from his growth-spurt. I would have bought him a horse. I would have bought the finest h...ho...oh! Oh! Oh!” and he fell upon the body sobbing when the leech rose up, defeated.
“Honor him for a short life well-spent,” the healer said softly, a hand upon the heaving shoulder before him. “Boromir of the House of Mardil has died in the service of his King and Country. Many shall live because of him.”
“No...” Mattie whispered, then wailed, “Nooooo! Not again. I can’t face this again!”
A strange fury took the father at the hobbit’s outcry, “No!” he cried, striking the body. “No! You cannot do this to your mother, to your brothers, to your grandsire, to me!” Blow after blow rained down. “No! No! No!”
“Boromir!” Frodo shouted as well, to the phantom in the corner. “No, don’t leave! Don’t you dare turn away from us! Stop!”
“No!” Elboron kept shrieking louder and hoarser, striking his son with every cry. “No! No! No!” But Frodo hardly heard him as he ran after the spirit.
“Wait! Where are you going?” Frodo cried out.
The boy glanced back, his face still blank. “Mandos calls me.”
Frodo almost turned away at that. Then suddenly he lunged forward and grabbed Boromir up into his arms. “That’s not Mandos, you little fool, that’s a crazy earth-maia who can’t figure out his own course, let alone yours–now get back into that tent and put your body back on! Your father has lost his mind without you.”
“Father...? But he always was an ass.”
“Yes, yes I quite agree–that doesn’t mean that he deserves to lose a son. We all behave like fools at some time or other–and you are no exception, young sir--but the foolishest thing you could possibly do is follow any old voice that calls you, without checking for credentials.” Frodo kept grappling with Boromir, who seemed more slippery and bendable than anything should be.
“But why should I follow you?” The boy did not look at him, but leaned yearningly towards the ravine where he had fallen. “You speak of credentials, yet Father calls you mad. Why should I heed a known lunatic over an accused one?”
“Because you don’t believe a word your father says, and this time you’d be right. I’m not really mad. I do see things, certainly--like you out of your body. Doesn’t that tell you something? Yet you can believe every word when your father says that he loves you, Boromir. He doesn’t have to understand you to love you.”
The shade hesitated.
“Come back, lad. At least see your father one last time.”
“I...yet the call...” And he started to drift away, as though he had forgotten all about Frodo.
“Not that way, you idiot! You’re headed east, not west!” Frodo ran after Boromir and tackled the boy again, wondering when or how he had let go. “Here...let me show you...what the devil?” For Frodo’s hand passed through his lens when he reached for it, which turned out, after all, to merely mimic his lens in spectral form. “Oh good heavens–I’m not in my body, either!”
Boromir flowed out of his arms like mist. But Frodo hardened his resolve and clasped him a third time. He could force a semblance of mutual solidity if he kept his focus sharp. “Come along now, lad–you don’t know your own best interest right now.” Frodo wrestled the boy, step by step, back to the pavilion-room. “Trust me–you do not want to go haring off after fraudulent voices. You’d just wind up as one more spirit haunting the Poros Pass.”
“No...it is Mandos...” Boromir reached out over Frodo’s shoulder. But he grew weaker and the hobbit stronger, for will mattered here, not their absent bodies. In the end Frodo picked him up like the child that he was, and Boromir seemed to shrink to the size of a hobbit-babe, or maybe Frodo grew.
They entered the tent to a strange scene. By some grace of Vaire time seemed to have slowed around them, so that they had not actually left the room a full minute, judging by how slowly the man’s fist came down upon the lifeless chest, how Elboron’s hair lifted up in the air with the effort and drifted leisurely back down again to settle on the shoulders.
There. Frodo saw his own body lying on the pavilion’s earthen floor, his wife kneeling beside him, chafing the limp hand in dreamlike moves. “Here–find out the truth!” Frodo shoved Boromir’s head down, pressing the phantom ear into the Lens of May.
“By the Valar!” the boy exclaimed. “You spoke the truth–that is not Mandos who calls!” With that Boromir sprang up and leaped right through Frodo and Mattie both, and back into the young body that flailed beneath his father’s blows.
Time sped up again with a jolt. The body inhaled with a loud, long gasp, then choked and coughed. Elboron drew back in the shock of hope, all blows ceased, and then he fell forward once more to kiss his son again and again, raining tears down on the young face. The leech stood there stunned, before reaching around Elboron once more to feel the side of Boromir’s neck. He whispered, “I have never seen the like. My Lord, you have forced the heart to beat once more!”
Frodo embraced his wife, melted into her, then felt her shiver him back down her arms, into his own body. He felt the queerness of sensations reattaching themselves, a frisson of transition. Then he opened his eyes to the most beautiful face in his world. He smiled up weakly, and murmured (out of hearing of the men,) “I listened, wife. I wouldn’t let you go through that again.”