A Bit of Rope: 17. Fen and Fever

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17. Fen and Fever

            The final stretch was, by good fortune, the easiest of all. A tumbled pile of fallen rocks had grown over the years at the base of the cliff, greatly lessening the steepness of the climb. All trace of a path worked by the hands of the men of Gondor had vanished. The way sloped gradually downward, and though it was difficult and unpleasant to clamber and leap from stone to stone, they no longer needed the rope. Twisted trees had taken root among the fallen rock, growing more thickly as they went on. To their right, a deep pool formed at the base of the falls, its waters boiling and foaming before spreading out. When at last they came to the bottom of the pile of stones, the river had become broad and swift.

            Sam peered out into the deepening twilight. He had climbed up onto a low ledge of rock sitting by itself like an island. It seemed to have lain there long, like a barge run aground, for a thick mat of moss and even a trio of stunted evergreens clung to it, their thick roots draped over the stony surface. On the far side of the ledge the ground fell off gradually. In the distance, land blended into open water, standing still and dark about the boles of dying trees. As far as he could see in the dwindling light, water and dead trunks stretched out. They were nearly to the fens.

            He looked back. Frodo and the wizard were picking their way down and across the last twenty yards of tumbled stone. Gandalf was moving slowly, leaning hard on his staff, and Frodo stayed near him, glancing up worriedly. Sam slid off his pack and dug out a few packets of food and his water bottle. As good a place as any to stop for tonight, he thought. He looked longingly at his cooking gear and box of salt; but no doubt Gandalf would once again forbid the lighting of a fire. If one could be lit in this damp... He glanced about at the thought of fire, searching for the glimmer of torches or campfires. Nothing. At least this Wetwang place isn't likely to appeal to Orcs, either...

            Frodo and the wizard arrived and climbed up next to Sam. With no delay, Gandalf lowered himself to the mossy ground, sat and bowed his hooded head. Cautiously, Frodo took the staff from his loosened grip and laid it aside; the wizard did not protest. He knelt near him. Sam silently opened and offered the water skin.

            "Here," Frodo said quietly. "Drink first, then lie back and I'll see to your arm."

            Without a word, Gandalf flung back the hood and drank deeply. His face was drawn and ashen beneath streaks of mud and new scrapes.

            "Sam, I suppose we shouldn't light a fire to heat water..." Frodo whispered.

            "You most certainly should not..." the wizard muttered.

            "...but try crushing a handful of athelas in a small pot of water and cold-steeping it for a while," Frodo went on. "If you're right about the potency of the herb when it is young, perhaps even a weak brew like that will do something."

            He turned to the wizard and took the nearly empty skin from his trembling left hand. He swung off his own cloak and folded it. "Lie down, now," he said gently, pressing on the wizard's shoulder. To his relief, Gandalf made no argument, but silently did as he was told. The hobbit arranged his cloak beneath his head as a pillow and loosened the clasp of Gandalf's cloak, folding it back to uncover his right arm from hand to shoulder. A sickly odor wafted upward.

            Frodo opened his pack and withdrew the leather kit that Boromir had given him; he'd tucked the small knife within it for safekeeping. He tried to still the sudden trembling of his hands. He heard the shifting of fabric, and turned to see that the wizard was rolling up the sleeve of his loose robe. Beneath, the thinner fabric of his under-tunic was stretched tightly over his arm, now swollen from fingertip to above his elbow. His hand was dusky red.

            "You'll have to cut the sleeve," he muttered. "I cannot roll it up."

            This will be practice, Frodo said to himself, for what I must next do. He unsheathed the blade, and laying the blunt side against the wizard's skin, he sliced smoothly upward. The fabric stuck; Frodo peeled it back. He closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath before opening them again.

            The red circle that had surrounded the entry wound just this morning was lost within the angry redness that spread from the back of his hand to his elbow, with an ugly black scab in the center. Brand new bruises and a dozen fresh scratches were layered on top of the deeper injuries. The red streaks had reappeared and lengthened. Frodo followed their lines and saw them continue on beneath the wizard's rolled up sleeve, creeping toward his shoulder. Remembering the exit wound, he carefully tilted Gandalf's arm outward. Another black, circular scab appeared, surrounded by red.

            Frodo swallowed hard. He felt Sam's warm breath on the side of his neck. "Tell me what I should do," he said.

            Gandalf glanced at his arm and shuddered. Beads of sweat broke out on his face. "You must open it widely, directly through the entrance and exit wounds," he said quietly as he looked up at Frodo. "Straight along the length of the muscle, not across. From here, to here..." He pointed with his left hand, indicating a mere two inches above his wrist to just below his elbow. Frodo's eyes widened. "Cut at least an inch deep...more, if it seems right. You'll know what I mean: if there is pressure still, open it again." Frodo nodded as the wizard went on. "Far too much fluid has built up within my arm. Already my sense of touch fades, and my grip is weaker by the minute. If the pressure is not relieved, even if the wound heals, my hand will be useless."

            "Shouldn't we heat that blade, to cleanse it?" Sam said as he watched over Frodo's shoulder.

            "The wound is already corrupted," the wizard said. "It won't make any difference." He caught Frodo's eye. "Do not be alarmed if I faint," he said with half a weak smile. "And be warned that the release of what festers in my arm may bring on quite a chill in me; but it will pass soon, I'm sure."

            Sam brought the pan of athelas water, and a second filled with clean water. He had torn one of his own shirts into squares. "To clean up whatever comes out of there," he whispered.

            There was no more delaying it. Frodo leaned forward and placed one hand on the wizard's elbow.

            "A moment..." Gandalf muttered, raising his left hand to stop him. "Sam, best that you come to this side and restrain me if necessary... One never knows." He nodded to Frodo once Sam was in place, ready to pin the wizard's left arm to the ground.

            Quickly... Do it quickly... Frodo bit his lip and pressed hard, making a single, long, deep stroke. The wizard drew in a harsh breath and twisted toward Sam. Dark, thick pus and a surprising amount of blood poured from the new wound, and with it a sudden increase in the odor. Frodo fought back the urge to gag as he began to mop it away with trembling hands.

            "No! Finish it..." Gandalf groaned. He rolled back toward the right and turned his forearm outward; his eyes were clamped shut and his sweating face was contorted with pain. "Now..."

            Frodo's second attempt was less skillful, for his hands were shaking badly. He pressed down to complete his initial, too tentative stroke. It was well he did, for more foul material drained from deeper within. Unfortunately for all of them, Gandalf did not faint, but grit his teeth in silence as the two hobbits wiped away the purulence and blood, pressed on the swollen flesh to express more, and bathed the wounds in athelas water. Sam held his trembling arm still as Frodo bound it again.

            Within the quarter hour, the first of several violent chills began to shake him. They wrapped him in every blanket and cloak they had. But soon he was burning hot, and the hobbits helped him shed the coverings and loosen his robe. Frodo supported him so he could take a few sips of the athelas-water. Gandalf swallowed a mouthful and gave the hobbit a small, strained smile of gratitude.

            "My thanks, Frodo," he whispered hoarsely. "Are you certain you have no Dúnedain blood in you, my friend? You have the touch..."

            Through the long night the hobbits crouched nearby, bathing his face as his fever rose and bundling him up as the chills racked him. The wizard tried to reassure him, but Frodo frowned with worry as the cycle of chills and fever repeated itself again and again.

            "D...do not fear!" Gandalf said through chattering teeth. "The poison is simply working itself out...rather violently, I'm afraid..."

            Near to midnight, an exhausted Sam placed the untouched packets of food back into his bag. He looked at Frodo glumly. "I know you won't get a lick of sleep, Mr. Frodo," he said quietly. "So, if it's all right with you, I think I'll try to catch a wink. One of us should try. Wake me in two hours, or if anything happens, Master...promise?"

            Frodo nodded mutely. The sounds of Sam's heavy breathing came within minutes. He sat beside Gandalf, who had finally drifted into sleep, and gazed at his lean pale face. What would they do if he died, now? What would you have done if he had fallen in Moria? the thought came. You would have gone on. And so they would go on, somehow, if the wizard did not awaken. How, he did not know. For you must. Nothing else matters.

            Sam woke to the dawn's light and the distant, piping calls of a hundred thousand hidden water birds, afloat in the fens. He sat up. Frodo had fallen forward and lay across Gandalf's chest, fast asleep. The wizard's left hand rested on the back of the hobbit's head. His eyes were open, and he smiled wanly as Sam gasped in surprise.

            "Good morning, Sam," he whispered hoarsely. "Any chance you have a bit of water to spare?"

            Sam scrambled to find a full water skin as Frodo stirred. Gandalf ran his fingers lightly through the hobbit's brown curls as he raised his head. Frodo's eyes sparkled with tears of joy.

            "Oh, Gandalf," he cried. "I was so worried!"

            The wizard's face was still lined and pale, and he had dark circles beneath his eyes, but a smile played on his lips. "I told you I was made of fairly sturdy stuff," he chuckled.

            He drank his fill, and Sam and Frodo ate hungrily, having skipped every meal the day before except breakfast. Gandalf swallowed a few bites of lembas.

            Frodo checked his arm, finding that the bandages were soaked with blood and foul liquid, but the swelling was much reduced. He bathed the dreadful, long gashes in athelas water and prepared to bind them up again in clean cloths. "These are so deep," he said. "Wouldn't they heal better if they were stitched?"

            "I'm afraid that would defeat the entire purpose," he replied. "If you stitch them, the pressure will simply build up again. I'll have some rather ugly scars, but I prefer scars to a hand that is too weak to hold a sword...or even a pen."

            At Gandalf's request, Frodo cut away the dangling, ruined sleeve of his inner tunic and discarded it. "When we come to clean water this morning, I am planning to do that laundry I mentioned yesterday." He sniffed and wrinkled his nose. "Perhaps a bath, too--of everything but this, of course," he said, holding up his bandaged right arm. "We shall soon commit ourselves to the intimacy of a small boat for days on end, as there are no landing places in the fens. We will eat, sleep, and everything else afloat. No sense in making our close quarters more unpleasant than they must be, by overpowering us with my stench."

            They had few tasks to do to break camp, and they were soon on their way. The wizard led them at an angle toward the river and downstream, picking his way between rocks and choosing the driest path. The shoreline slowly flattened and softened. Anduin became a wide, slow moving stream with but a narrow channel of swifter current that followed the western bank. They looked north and saw silver Rauros. Curtains of mist were draped on his shoulders, and dancing foam surrounded his feet. On the west shore, the southernmost summits of the Emyn Muil were golden in the morning light. South, the main stream veered slowly eastward, and the vast wetland called Wetwang in the Common Speech and Nindalf in Sindarin stretched as far as they could see. The northern reaches of the hills of Ithilien were a vague suggestion of grey in the distance.

            The hobbits watched as Gandalf removed his boots, waded to his knees and gazed downriver. Frodo seemed to hear a murmuring voice that called silver one, graceful little swan, hear my voice. The wizard searched in the shadows of the eastern bank for several minutes.

            "Ah! There she is!" he said at last, pointing downriver. Frodo looked, and for a moment he saw nothing but water and reeds and the occasional dying tree. Then, a slight rocking motion caught his eye. It was the boat of Lorien, floating low, caught in the reeds, a hundred yards away downstream.

            "Well!" Gandalf said. "She has landed closer than I dared to hope...although it is still a bit inconvenient." He reached up and undid the clasp of his cloak and dropped it to the ground, and immediately began unbuckling his belt.

            "What are you doing?" Frodo said.

             "The boat can't come to us against the current, and I'd much rather swim without the encumbrance of all this extra weight," he replied as he undid the fasteners at the front of his robe.

            "Swim!" Frodo cried. "Gandalf, you are not going to swim! Those wounds will just become infected all over again!"

            "But..."

            "No!" the hobbit said firmly. "I can swim, and quite well, mind you. I'll do it."

            Sam looked terrified. "You, swim? But Master, it looks so far!"

            Frodo smiled as he started peeling off his outer clothing. "Don't worry, Sam, I'll be back in no time. Gandalf, can you teach me a few of the words you've been saying in Silvan, so the boat won't be afraid of me and float off?"

            "Of course," the wizard beamed. "But are you certain you want to recite something you don't understand? Remember how much trouble that got me into!"

            Frodo laughed. "I'll have to trust that you won't teach me any insults!"

            In a few minutes, Frodo, in only his thin under-tunic and breeches, had waded into the water and set out. Sam stood wringing the mithril mailshirt in his hands, the picture of misery as he watched Frodo's brown head bob up and down and his arms appear and disappear.

            "He'll be fine, Sam," the wizard said softly.

            The hobbit saw his lips moving in a silent recitation, and he felt a deep sense of reassurance flowing outward over the river, toward the gently bobbing boat and the brown head moving toward it, trailing a long 'V.' Don't be afraid...a friend is coming. Wait for him...wait for him... Strength to the swimmer...steady, now...have no fear...

            Frodo was halfway to his target when he became aware of the Ring about his neck, rolling and dragging at the chain. He kept swimming, but with each stroke, it seemed heavier. He switched to an easier, though slower stroke, keeping his head up at all times. The water seemed to grow colder. The boat slowly came closer. His teeth started chattering, and his arms and legs felt thick and clumsy. A voice within him laughed quietly. I'm too heavy for you, aren't I? Why not just leave me behind? Who would ever know that I didn't just slide off your neck into the stream? Why not rid yourself of your burden, and let someone else worry about Me for a while?

            His head was dragged down and forward; he slipped beneath the surface. Fighting a sense of panic, he reared up and gasped, paddling hard. For a moment, he lost sight of the boat. I've lost it! Where did it go? His wet head turned back and forth as he kicked rhythmically to stay afloat. There! He saw it again, not ten yards away. He drew in a deep breath and switched back to a swifter stroke, using all his strength to cross the rest of the distance. Kicking hard and reaching out and up, his hand closed around the gunwale. He had it!

            The boat rocked back and forth. It was half-full of water, but the oars were still securely strapped in place. Frodo fought to ignore the voice in him that was angry now, muttering and hissing. Leave me be! he thought. The boat seemed to tremble in his grip.

            "Silver one, gentle one," he said aloud, his voice quivering as his teeth chattered. "Telperevé, Alqualielle! Come along, now, little boat." He kicked hard and pushed the boat upstream, and when it was clear of the reeds he pulled himself up and slipped inside. He unfastened one of the oars and began paddling back toward where Sam and Gandalf waited. The current was still strong enough that Frodo had to paddle vigorously to reach them, which helped warm his chilled body.

             Sam and the wizard pulled the boat up onto firmer ground and tipped out the water, leaving the craft on her side to drain fully. Sam took off his own cloak and rubbed Frodo's arms and legs, then wrapped him in it. Gandalf took the minutes while Frodo warmed up to 'do laundry.' Stripping to his breeches, he shrugged awkwardly out of his one-sleeved tunic and waded forward into the water with his cloak and robe flung over one shoulder. He rinsed out his Orc-befouled clothing, managing somehow to keep from dampening his bandaged arm, and tossed them to shore. Then he splashed handfuls of water over his neck, face and chest. Sam watched for a moment, then joined him, fully clothed, ducking his head beneath the surface with a splash.

            By the time the morning Sun had risen over the heights of the Emyn Muil above them, the damper but cleaner-smelling travelers were launched and moving slowly south and east. Frodo and Sam adamantly refused to allow the wizard to take an oar. Gandalf perched mid-boat with their baggage, Frodo steered from the stern and Sam knelt in the prow, with a determined set to his jaw masking his trepidation. They headed into the heart of the fens and vanished from the sight of friend or foe.

 

            There was little to distinguish one hour from the next as they drifted through the Wetwang. The first day they wove between sullen bare trees and floating rafts of deadfall. The light was soft and dappled, but by mid-afternoon, a cold mist gathered. Darkness crept slowly over them. They ate while adrift, they relieved themselves off the edge of the boat, and when Gandalf finally allowed them to tie up at a stump in the pitch-black night, they slept in pairs, rocking slowly back and forth, curled up on the curved bottom amid their bags and the constant damp. 

            The next day they left the last of the dead trees behind and entered the realm of grass. The wind hissed endlessly through the dried vegetation, and the mist settled early and thickened as the day crept on. Winter had not fully let up its grip on the Wetwang, which was well for them in one respect. The stinging insects that would in just a few weeks invade and swarm the fens by the millions had not yet hatched. Only flies, grey in color with a splotch of russet on their backs, lived in the Wetwang year-round. But they were bad enough, pestering them by buzzing about their heads, crawling into their hair and ears, and creeping beneath their clothing. The flies bit, leaving red welts that itched intensely.

            "Ah, that any of us still had some leaf," muttered Gandalf as he swatted the back of one ear. "Smoke would be just the thing to drive our small tormentors away."

            They purposefully kept a slow pace, paddling only when the currents seemed to cease. They steered by the generally southward current, and by the pale, hazy Sun; they hardly saw any stars. They spoke little, for the vastness of the fens seemed to inhibit speech. Frequently, they would silently emerge from between tussocks of grass and reeds and come upon a fleet of hundreds of floating ducks, all dabbling and bobbing for vegetation and the tiny insects that scooted about on the surfaces of the still waters. They saw black ducks with round white heads, and brown ducks with iridescent blue wings; geese of pearly grey with orange bills; and flamboyant multicolored ducks, seeming to have been stitched together from patches of bright green, bronze and orange silk, with brilliant yellow stripes outlining their eyes. The hobbits were delighted, for the birds ignored them and went about the business of eating and floating, and did not flee from them. The reeds were full of nesting blackbirds of a kind Sam had never seen, all calling squeakily.

            "See those bright patches on their shoulders?" he said. "Like scarlet epaulets on an officer's coat!"

            "Yes, and their call is like that rusty hinge in the garden shed door, back at Bag End, opening over and over!" Frodo laughed.

             Sam saw schools of silver-green fish beneath the surface of the waters. He asked about trying to catch one for dinner; the wizard shook his head.

            "For one thing," he said, "We are not that far from unfriendly eyes, and a fire would be ill-advised...even if one could be lit. Without a fire, there is no point; I for one am not fond of raw fish. And for another, the Wetwang is the drainage for another great fenland: the Dead Marshes, north and east of here. While we have no choice but to drink of these waters, I strongly caution against eating anything that lives downstream from that dismal place."

            He went on to explain the origins of the Dead Marshes and what seemed to lie below its stagnant waters. Sam shuddered.

            "Thank goodness we didn't find ourselves taking that route," he said.

            In all, they spent five days and nights in the Wetwang, and the time might well have been restful--flies notwithstanding--for they moved forward with little effort and more certainty that no enemy eyes were watching than they had known since Lothlorien. But one thing prevented the hobbits from feeling much at ease: the wizard.

Despite a dramatic improvement in the swelling and redness of his arm, Gandalf's fevers and chills would not abate. He held his right arm even more stiffly than before. He ate almost nothing, and it seemed that he was wasting before their eyes. For hours each day he sat in silence in the middle of the boat with a frown on his ever-paler face. For several nights Frodo was forced to inflict more pain upon him and push out more of the foul material that continued to collect deep within his flesh. The athelas seemed to have no beneficial effect, as a cold-steeped tea, a rinse to wash away the purulence, or as a poultice. He made no complaint, but he also gave them no argument when the hobbits insisted on taking over all the paddling. That alone was enough to make Frodo worry about him.

On the fifth day the grasses diminished, and to their relief, the flies were left behind. The grass was slowly replaced by small trees supported by strange, leggy roots, with last season's waxy brown leaves still rattling in their branches. These trees grew together in thick clumps. As the day progressed, the clumps increased in size and became like islands, and they were forced to weave back and forth between the tree-lands.

They saw no more ducks, but Sam noticed a large, grey-blue heron with a pair of yellow plumes hiding at the base of a clump of trees. The bird stared at them as they drifted by, and abruptly took off with slow wing beats, its long yellow legs dangling below. On other trees they noticed small white herons perching together. Sam thought little of it until at noon he saw a splash from the corner of his eye. He peered to see the source, and saw an enormous turtle swimming slowly across the stream. The creature pulled itself up onto a low hanging branch, the back half of its shell still submerged.

"Mr. Frodo," he said quietly. "I think we must be coming near to land again. Herons are waders; they prefer shallow waters. And turtles have to have some dry land."

Frodo gazed about. The islands and water passages between were like a maze; he no longer had any real sense of which direction they were moving. A flash of white caught his eye as a small heron took off and flapped away.

"I'm sure you're right, Sam," he said. "The problem is, which way is land?"

It had become difficult to steer by the Sun, for the sky was always heavy with mist. The winding water passages had their own twisting currents, and the hobbits had no assurance that these were moving mostly southward any longer. Frodo gazed forward to where Gandalf sat, slumped in the middle of the boat. His head was bowed, and his breathing seemed shallow and rapid. He had said nothing at all since early that morning. He hated to wake him, if indeed he was asleep and not drifting into some sort of fevered delirium. But what else could they do? Perhaps the wizard, with his mysterious ways and hidden powers, could guide them, as he so often had in so many other pathless places.

"Gandalf," he said softly.

At once the wizard's shoulders stiffened and he raised his head. "Yes…"

Frodo winced at the weak, hoarse sound of his voice. Why isn't he getting better? What could be wrong? "Gandalf, I wondered if you could take a look around," he said, forcing a light, cheerful tone into his voice. "We're all bollixed up, I'm afraid. Land is near, I'm sure of it, but we don't know which way to go. These tree-islands are so confusing. Do you think you can help?"

He nodded slowly and flung back his hood. Sam looked back. It was his first good look at the wizard in the full light of midday. His face was gaunt and his once bright eyes were sunken and surrounded by dark circles and lines. His jaw was clenched tightly. He's dying, Sam thought.

Gandalf seemed to shake himself awake. He blinked hard, and gazed around. "That way," he said, pointing with his left hand. He had not been able to move his right arm in two days, and Frodo had devised a sling for him to wear, made from remnants of his one-sleeved tunic that they had sacrificed for fresh bandage material. "I'll try to stay alert to guide you. We should come to land soon, my friends; soon."

Slowly they moved onward, winding between ever-thicker and taller clumps of the odd long-rooted trees. Bit by bit, the tree-clumps were conquering the waters and reclaiming the fens, for other plants took root at their bases, and increased the thickness of the matted vegetation. The hobbits glimpsed a few four-footed creatures: a weasel scampering, and a pair of chattering squirrels. There was no doubt that land was near when they spotted the red-throated, brown-winged land birds so common that they even nested in the Shire. But without the wizard's uncanny sense of direction, they might never have found it.

Late that afternoon they landed their boat on a solid islet off the north shore of Ithilien. The fens, apparently, were unwilling to give up to the trees without a fight, for they could see that many pools and fingers of water penetrated the shoreline ahead of them. Tomorrow, they guessed, their feet would likely be more wet than dry. But it felt so good to climb out of the boat for the first time in days, that they did not give much thought to the morrow.

Gandalf wrapped his cloak about him and stretched out on a mossy patch of ground with a groan. While Sam got out something to eat and filled their skins, Frodo went to crouch near the wizard. He had become used to tending him, and without asking for permission, he pulled out a clean cloth and spread it, slipped the wizard's arm from the sling, folded up his sleeve and undid the bindings. Gandalf hardly moved.

Frodo frowned again, as he had yesterday, and the day before, at the partly healed gashes and the surrounding flesh. The edge of each wound was now just faintly red, and the swelling had not returned. The odor of infection was mostly gone, and the drainage had slacked off. But something was terribly amiss, and the hobbit fought to conceal his alarm.

"Gandalf, I don't understand it. You said that you had nothing to fear from this poison, that you had survived worse… These wounds really do look better. Yet the fevers haven't stopped, and you seem to grow weaker each day. Have I done something wrong?"

The wizard's eyes fluttered open. "You have done nothing wrong. There is only one possible cause," he replied in a hoarse voice. "Rather, two causes, interlinked. The Orcs that attacked us came from Dol Guldur, an accursed place of sorcery, and the potions brewed for them by Khamûl, their wraith master, have an evil reputation. But more importantly, I have believed for several days that a piece of the arrowhead must still be lodged within my arm. Orc poison is one thing; but a wraith-cursed arrowhead fragment still saturated with poison is entirely another. That, compounded by the infection..."

"And the strain you placed upon it," Frodo said, "And that fall you took..."

"…things that could not be avoided. But I have nothing to blame for the heart of the problem but my own carelessness. Orc arrows are maliciously designed to splinter easily, upon impact or when they are withdrawn. I knew this, yet I did not look closely when I removed the arrowhead, back above Sarn Gebir, before Boromir withdrew the shaft. I discarded it into the darkness without a second thought. If a barb was missing, I would not have noticed." He gazed intently at the hobbit. "Frodo, I realize this has become far more than you bargained for, but I believe this wound should be probed, as yours was. I waited to say anything until we made landfall, for there was no opportunity for such a delicate task to be done in a rocking boat."

"But I was unconscious when Elrond probed my wound," Frodo whispered.

Gandalf's face was grim, but his voice was gentle. "If you cannot bring yourself to do it, I would certainly understand. It is much to ask. And do not fear. Even left as it is, the wound itself will not be a mortal one—not for me, at any rate. But it weakens me. If I am to regain my strength, and do you—or anyone—much good, the fragment should be removed."

He paused to search Frodo's face. The hobbit gazed back steadily. He seemed to have found the resolve to do what was needed. Gandalf smiled faintly and nodded. "I have a small knife in my bag; go ahead and retrieve it. If you find something, you will have more luck lifting it out with two blades."

This time the hobbits overruled the wizard's caution and Sam started a brightly burning fire. He used every skill he knew to keep it as smokeless as possible, and he heated two pots of water to nearly boiling. He watched as Frodo crushed a handful of athelas; their supply was running low. His Master paused, and frowned. Then he breathed on the leaves, as he had seen Aragorn do. Frodo looked up and saw Sam staring at him.

"There's nothing to lose by it, is there?"

"No, sir, there surely isn't," Sam said solemnly. "Mr. Frodo, when I watched Strider do it, when you were stricken, he would recite something, like a poem, under his breath. I don't know what he said, of course, and it was in Elvish, I suppose… I thought you'd want to know that."

Frodo nodded, and closed his eyes. Please, let the herb help him, he thought. He tried to translate the words into Sindarin… No, he thought; Quenya would be better. He paused, frowning. What might be some proper words? Think! It was no use. He could not think in Elvish, not now, when he was using all his concentration to steel himself for what he must do. The Common Speech would have to suffice. Give him the strength he needs to heal himself, and relieve him of this horrible pain. He sighed, breathed on the leaves again, and tossed them into the heated water.

The complexity of the scent that was suddenly released was startling. The hobbits caught a whirl of fragrances: the cleansing fresh air of the high mountains; pipe-smoke; the Sea's briny tang; the dusty, moldy scent of old books; the fresh green of spring in woodlands; horseflesh and leather; the yeasty, nutty aroma of Barliman's darkest beer; and a sulfurous, fiery smell that instantly made Frodo think of fireworks.

He is all those things, and more, Frodo thought. "Will you help me, Sam?"

"You just tell me what to do, Mr. Frodo," Sam said.

They approached where the wizard lay on the ground. His eyes were closed again, but opened as soon as they were near. Sam knelt on his left side, ready to lean across and clamp down on his arm if necessary. Frodo placed the thin knife Boromir had given him next to the wizard's curious folding dagger, now opened, and laid them on one of the rags torn from Sam's shirt. He poured a stream of clean, scalding water onto each blade, cleansing them. He brought the pan of athelas-water and set it close enough that the scent wafted over them, but not so close that the wizard might thrash into it. Tucking a second rag onto the ground beneath the wizard's arm, Frodo caught Gandalf's eye; he nodded.

            Don't look at his face, only at his arm. He started with Boromir's knife; he was more familiar with how it felt in his hand. The only way to help him is to do this carefully. He forced the blade into the half-healed flesh, doing his best to pretend not to notice the wizard's choked gasp. Don't rush, feel for something hard.... A few drops of Frodo's sweat fell onto the now copiously bleeding wound. He dug more deeply. He's hardly moving; has he fainted? The wizard's sudden flinch and his hoarse groan answered the hobbit's question. Sam reached out and held him firmly by his wrist and elbow. Keep feeling...it must be right here, where the entrance wound was... Don't think of how much you're hurting him, think only of what must be done to help him... There! He felt a click as the blade brushed against something metal. Holding the knife as still as he could, Frodo reached carefully around and grasped the other blade in his left hand. He slid the second knife alongside the first. Carefully...pinch the tips together...

            An inch-long black sliver with a barb at one end was balanced between the tips of the blood-stained knives as Frodo cautiously pulled them free. He laid them down on the cloth and dared to look at Gandalf. His head was turned to the left, and his arm was limp. Sam had released him and was sitting back, looking at him solemnly.

            "He lasted through the worst of it, more's the pity," he whispered. "He was awake until the very end, just as you withdrew it."

            Frodo stared down at the wound on Gandalf's forearm, laid open again and oozing. Suddenly a cold sweat broke over him and the bile rose in his throat. He jumped up and stumbled away, doubled over and retched.

            When the sickness passed, he turned back to find Sam kneeling on Gandalf's right side, bathing his arm in the athelas-water. The wizard's eyes opened as Frodo came and crouched next to him. Gandalf looked up at him and smiled weakly before closing his eyes again. They bathed his face with cloths dipped in the athelas-water, and Frodo gathered all the spent leaves and layered them on top of the re-opened wound before he bound it again. There was nothing more to do, but to keep watch until morning.

 




This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.

Story Information

Author: Aiwendiel

Status: General

Completion: Complete

Era: 3rd Age - Ring War

Genre: Drama

Rating: General

Last Updated: 01/06/12

Original Post: 02/25/09

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Comments

WARNING! Comments may contain spoilers for a chapter or story. Read with caution.

A Bit of Rope

Larner - 17 Sep 10 - 6:52 PM

Ch. 17: Fen and Fever

At least they have proved competent, and Frodo was able to best the Ring.  Although I'm surprised the Ring would think to disappear below water again--water is the opposite of Its Master's element, after all.

A Bit of Rope

Aiwendiel - 17 Sep 10 - 8:05 PM

Ch. 17: Fen and Fever

Larner, you seem bent on leaving comments on every chapter! Thanks for your heroic efforts! I never thought of the clash of elements -- makes perfect sense. When I revise the whole piece (err... don't hold your breath...) I'll keep that tidbit in mind! A


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