How long he lay in a stupor beneath the spreading branches of the pine, Neithan was unsure, but when he awoke from his fit, it seemed that his mind was clearer. These episodes often ended the same way that they had begun. Lhûnwen, ever gentle and gracious, would walk out of his memories and into the present. She never accused or mocked him the way that others did, the way Hallas and Vorondil ridiculed him. Their cold, condemning eyes were always damning him to eternal perdition. Perhaps they had the right, and for that matter, so did Lhûnwen. But when she came to him, her eyes were languid and tender. Neithan felt the rage coming back over him. Why was it that wherever Lhûnwen was, there was sure to be the cockscomb Hallas, and always beside him, the arch judge and tormentor, Captain Vorondil?
He wondered why he could no longer see any of them at the present moment, but perhaps such spirits kept appointments of their own, and no mortal had the right to question them. Who was he to challenge their comings and goings? He was alive and they were...? The Disembodied... the Elevated... yes, Elevated was the correct designation for those in their state. The thought that they might inhabit a parallel, unseen world that existed right beside the visible world was an intriguing one, for he knew that at whatever moment they chose, they could step out of the portal that divided the planes and appear right beside him. Just as suddenly and as mysteriously, they could draw the curtain aside and retreat back into that world to which he could not enter.
He was having trouble recalling just what it was that had disturbed him to such an extent that he had suffered another... episode. He could remember a wedding, but whose was it? Piecing together what had gone before sometimes required great deliberation... He was sure that the festivities had begun at twilight the night before... that was when the Midsummer bonfires burst into flame. The betrothed couple was feted and toasted, and the whole clan had made merry. He had sat at the high table... Everything was beginning to come back to him now, and a smile grew upon Neithan's face, illuminating his dark eyes with the strange lucidity which comes with mania. He had been hesitant to offer a toast to a couple who belonged to a tribe whose declining numbers made their extinction upon Middle-earth almost a certainty. Still, good manners had compelled him to raise the cup in their honor.
When he had held the vessel aloft, he heard Lhûnwen’s silvery laugh and felt her gentle touch on his elbow. She pulled his head down to whisper promises in his ear, her voice tenderly beseeching him to follow. What could he do except honor her requests? The toast completed, he had left the table, believing that he heard her siren song weaving its way in and out of the wind. His staunch friend, the chieftain of the Wild Men, had halted him, pleading with him not to answer her call, but Neithan brushed him aside. He questioned whether the little man was ever really his friend. Perhaps he, too, had turned against him and was like all the rest, prying in his affairs and plotting against him. Why did good friendships always have to sour?
No, no - what was he thinking? The people of Druadan Forest had been friends to him for well on to ten years. He would not let his mind become cloudy again, his thinking fuzzy. If only he had a stout draught of ale, the drink would make his agonizing headache go away and drive the serpents from his brain.
Oh, they were there all right! Thousands of them! Coiling and twisting through the pulp of his brain, tunneling and mating and laying their eggs! Then when their spawn hatched and broke through the eggshells in the mush of his mind, he could smell the stench of putrefaction in his nostrils, taste it in his mouth, feel it oozing through his brain! No one knew about the serpent nests but Neithan himself. He could tell no one about them! He guarded that secret, knowing that if anyone found out, they would only lie about him and call him stark, raving mad, and he was not mad!
"I am not mad! No!" he told the tree, emphasizing the point by pounding his fist into the bark until his skin sloughed off, bleeding. No one had the mind or the comprehension to understand that he saw things which others did not! He put his bloodied hand to his skull and tried to feel the vibrations of the reptiles as they crawled through his head, but they were quiescent now, unmoving. Perhaps they were lying in wait... but no, he remembered now... Lhûnwen, who could gentle even the fieriest wild beast, had settled and soothed them and put them to rest in the cluttered passages of his mind.
Was that her face staring out at him from the blood-streaked bark? "Lhûnwen?" he whispered as he raised his hand and touched her image with his bleeding fingers. But why did she look so solemn? Playfully, he outlined the rounded contours of her face, rouging her cheeks and highlighting her mouth with the dripping blood. He peered closer at her face, rubbing over the surface with his hand. Closing his eyes, he remembered her when she was still alive. When he looked back at the tree, Lhûnwen's face had disappeared. Where had she said she was going? Furrowing up his brows, he pondered upon the question. Yes! He now remembered. What a strange spot that she had chosen for a trysting place.
She was testing him! Testing him, the same way that she had often tested him when her heart had been beating and alive, before the blood had stilled in her veins, before she had been laid in the tomb. "Never doubt me, Neithan... never, my darling, for I shall always prove true. Follow me, and this time I will allow you to taste the nectar that I once forbade you."
"Yes, yes," he whispered hoarsely. Lhûnwen! Ever the temptress and the innocent, two polar opposites oddly manifesting themselves in the same person. Sugar and spice, poppy and hemlock, honey and serpent's bane. He would trade his soul, his very right to the afterlife for one night cleaving to her breasts. If he should be slain as his mortal flesh drove into the chillness of her icy cave, he would count it but a cheap price to pay.
"Kiss me," he begged. "Take my lips in yours and suck my tongue, my heart, my blood, my being into your soul! Strip me of life; consume me and make me a part of you!"
Caressing the bark with his lips and hands, Neithan felt a tickling in his right ear. Moving his head to the side, he watched unalarmed as the head of a serpent peaked out of the chamber of his ear and turned to gaze at him from a set of beady amber eyes. Coil upon coil of mottled brown and yellow scales, greased from the wax in his ear, slowly slithered down his arm and began to wind around the trunk of the tree. He watched in fascination as the reptile climbed higher until its shape was lost among the branching limbs. With the cessation of the hallucination, now not even a trace of Lhûnwen's face remained engraved upon the trunk.
He looked upon the rough surface in consternation. Then, shaking his long, dark hair, he mocked himself. "How absurd! You are kissing a tree, you damn fool."
After the departure of the serpent, his head no longer throbbed and pounded. The mists and vapors which had haunted his mind for the past few hours had blown away, dissipating with the dark of night. Then, turning his back on the tree and his madness for the time, he walked eastward through the Stonewain Valley, whistling as he ambled along in the first faint light of the dawn.
Warming his back by the bright blaze that had newly been built in the open fire pit, Fritha watched as Fródwine, carrying a basket of apples, came inside the house. Following behind him through the open door were the servant girl and Frumgár, struggling to carry a heavily laden basket of apples between them.
The autumn had come, and the vibrant aroma of apples mingled with the acrid smell of the smoke which rose slowly in a column to the vent in the peak of the roof. Today his mother and the servant girl would core and peel the ripe red apples in preparation for drying them for winter. His brothers, being older and taller, would drape the full strands of apples across the wooden pegs in the rafters. Chewing upon crunchy pieces of flavorful fruit, he watched as the deft fingers of the women sliced the apples into large earthenware bowls before stringing thread through the pieces.
"Let me help! Can I hang them on the rafters for you?" Fritha begged.
"No, little brother, you are far too short. Wait a few years," Fródwine rebuffed him with a laugh. As the servant girl handed Fródwine a long piece of thread laced with strung apples, she smiled shyly at him. Though his neck and face flushed ruddy with embarrassment, Fródwine pretended not to notice the pretty girl's attention. After quickly attaching the two ends of the thread to pegs in the ceiling beams, he reached for another strand from her outstretched hand.
"Here, Fritha, you can hand them to me as I tie the strings on the beams." Standing on a stool under one of the long rafters, Frumgár smiled down encouragingly at his little brother.
"No, I want to do it by myself!" Being denied what he considered his rightful place as center of attention, Fritha was on the verge of pouting. "I will fetch another stool and then I will be tall enough!"
"No, you will not... Only if you grow another foot or two," Frumgár giggled in good natured amusement.
"Go out and play, little brother. You are only in the way here," Fródwine smirked at him, until their mother rebuked her elder son with a disapproving stare.
Everyone in the room was staring at Fritha. This was not the kind of attention that he wanted! He could not help it when he felt tears spring up in his eyes, or when his lower lip began to tremble.
"Crybaby!" he heard Fródwine's derisive exclamation. "Only little girls cry!"
Struggling to control the urge to cry, Fritha stomped out the open doorway. He called to the hound that lay sleeping at the stoop and walked away into the woods, where he sat down upon a stump. He was tired of being picked on by the bullying Fródwine, who always seemed to have something hateful to say about him. He thought about running away and taking the loyal dog with him. Who knows what adventures they could have? Maybe they could fight dragons or find treasure. Until he could make up his mind on this important matter, he sat on the stump and sulked. The dog lay comfortably at his feet and looked up at him with trusting eyes. Fritha blinked back tears of frustration and anger.
"Wake up, lad, wake up!" He felt a large hand on his shoulder shaking him roughly. "What are you doing down here?"
Fritha looked around him in confusion. Why, only a moment before when he had blinked, it had been clear daylight, but now the stars were burning brightly in the heavens! In that split second that it took for his eyes to close, he must have fallen asleep! And where was the hound? Reaching down at his feet, he found that the animal was no longer there. Even his beloved pet had deserted him!
Fritha could not see the man's face clearly, for it was in the shadows, but he was sure that he did not know him, whoever he might be. Fritha was not even sure where he was. Everything seemed strange and unknown, as though he had been walking in his sleep and woke up, lost and alone.
"Why - why, sir, I really do not know." Fritha answered honestly as he looked questioningly up at the darkened figure. "Where is my dog? He was with me when I sat down to rest."
"Dog? There was no dog with you when I found you." The man seemed puzzled about something. Perhaps he, too, was lost and could not find his way.
"Maybe he got scared and ran away," Fritha mused out loud.
"Well, I do not know about any dog, but you cannot stay down here! When they start burning the fires, your flesh will melt off and nothing will be left of you but your bones! Get up, lad, get up!" The man reached a hand down and hurriedly pulled the small boy to his feet.
"Certainly, sir! I surely do not want to be burnt up." Fritha scratched his head and looked around. "Where am I?"
"Hmmm," the man seemed thoughtful, "you are about mid-level. The workmen have already piled up three layers of limestone, and the wood to burn it between the layers. Soon the stoker and his assistants will be here to light the fires. They will be working another long night, I wager. We have to get out of here before they torch the wood or we will be incinerated!"
"Really, sir? What is this place?"
"Why, lad, you mean you do not know that this is the Nimgil Lime Kiln!"
Fritha blinked his eyes. "I neither know what the word means nor what a lime kiln is." A confused look came over Fritha's face. "Why can I understand you, sir? I do not know much Westron."
The man shook his shaggy black mane. "Sorry, boy, I have no idea what you are talking about."
"Oh," Fritha shrugged, at a loss for what to say. "How did I get here?"
"My guess is you fell down here the same as I did, but I am going to take you out of here." The man looked down at Fritha and took the little boy's hand in his. "You need to come with me." Fritha eyed him questioningly, but the stranger's voice was kind, and Fritha followed him as he led him through a long, dark tunnel.
"You fell, sir? You mean tonight?"
"Why, no, boy, it was back in late winter! You know that is the time when they burn great quantities of stone. They process it into lime for spreading on the fields during the coming spring. The night was bitterly cold then," the man shivered, "and I climbed up to the top because of the generous heat of the fires. Being a vagabond, I planned to enjoy the warmth of the kiln before wandering on in the morning. I must admit that I drank liberally of the full flask of wine that I had with me, for I needed its fire to keep me warm as much as I needed the heat of the oven. Perhaps it was the fumes, or perhaps I drank too much... Whichever it was, son," he laughed grimly and patted Fritha's shoulder, "I am still here. Now, come along, we have a long way to go before we come to the end of the journey."
"Sir, I still do not know where we are going." Fritha looked up in uncertainty at the man.
"You do not?" The man looked confused. "Right up ahead you can see the dawn sun shining through the entrance. I will stay with you a while, though, before I have to leave you."
In the light of early dawn, Fritha could see the man clearly. He was a woe-begotten looking fellow, a little past middle aged. His hair was tangled and greasy, his beard ill-kept and thinning in places. He was dressed in tattered, rumpled clothing. He beheld the world through tired eyes set beneath bushy eyebrows which were furrowed in a perpetual expression of weariness. His forehead was wide and broad, etched with lines of worry, and the corners of his lips tilted downwards, reflecting the sadness of his unfortunate life.
The man and the boy passed through the wide opening of the passageway, and Fritha could see that they were on the crest of a gentle hill. Beyond them a pathway ambled through a sun-dappled grove of trees. Dainty violets and yellow buttercups lined the path that wound lazily down the slope.
"Sir, are you taking me home?" Fritha asked uncertainly as he looked up at the man. The man was silent for a few moments and waited as Fritha bent down and picked a bouquet of the spring blossoms. "I surely would like to go home more than almost anything, but... most of all, I want to see my mother. I picked this bouquet of flowers in case we should chance to meet her on this path. My brother, Fródwine, says that she will soon be catching up with us, but she has not yet. I do not know what to think anymore," he murmured sadly.
"Well, I do not know about that, lad. I have never had the pleasure of meeting either your mother or your brother, but since they are related to you, I know they must be fine, upstanding people. Now come along, lad; we must hurry."
Fritha worked his small fingers between the man's much larger ones and held his hand tightly. "I do not know, sir, if you would think Fródwine was such a fine fellow if you met him, for he is a great bully and is often mean and spiteful to my brother Frumgár and me."
"I do not know about that, either," the man muttered as he scratched his scraggly beard.
"Sir, could you tell me some more about the lime kiln; I have never heard of any such thing before. Perhaps there are none in the Mark."
The man sighed. "There is not much to tell about it, son. There are limestone quarries back in the White Mountains. When the workmen have heaped up a load of lime upon the wagon, they drive their teams of oxen to the kiln. Then, if the oven is not full, they dump a load down the chimney shafts. Then the great fires are lit, for the lime must be cooked at a terribly high temperature. After the lime is burnt down, it is taken from the bottom of the oven, but it is still infernally hot. The fumes which exude from it are harsh and caustic and can burn up a man's throat and lungs. After it cools, the powered lime is removed from the bottom, loaded onto wagons, and taken to the fields by the farmers.
"'Tis a harsh and dangerous work, my boy." The man shook his head. "Sometimes when the drivers are hauling the lime, the material will start to slake and cause the wagons to burn. Then it is truly a deadly work, for when the lime heats up, the vapors are scalding and the fumes can cause men to smother to death!"
"Oh, sir, that sounds dreadful!" Fritha's eyes went wide at the thought of such a grueling and hazardous chore, and he tightened his hold on the man's hand.
"'Tis a brutal work for both man and best," the tired-faced man agreed, "but when there is work to be done and money to be earned, a man must do whatever is at hand to put food on the table and feed his children."
They came to the bottom of the hill. There, the forest fell away to a vast clearing. Before them was a great, wide green plain dotted by wildflowers. Far away in the distance, Fritha saw a great expanse of blue with sunlight shimmering upon the water in a glorious glow.
"What is that, sir, up ahead?" Fritha asked excitedly. "Is it a lake? I never saw so much water!"
"I suppose you could say it is like a lake, but it is much larger than that. That is the Great Sea." Halting, the man looked down to Fritha. "Would you like to board a ship and sail across it? You can if you want, you know."
Fritha's eyes, blue as the sea, were wide with wonder. "A ship, sir? Never have I been upon one! But I have a strange notion, though... I am not quite certain what it is, but I have the feeling that my father is waiting for me on the other side of that sea. Is that true, sir?"
"Son, I would not be surprised if what you say is true. Would you like to go see him?" The deep lines of worry that lined the man's face relaxed slightly as his weary slate-colored eyes looked out over the water.
Fritha wrinkled his eyebrows up, looking first at the sea and then at the man beside him. "Why, sir, I surely would!" he exclaimed. "But I cannot do that today. My mother is somewhere back there and will soon be here, searching for my brothers and me."
"The decision is yours, boy, but I made mine long ago. I will leave you here and you can decide what you want to do - sail across that grand open sea of blue or go back with me. Choose now, for one way or the other, I must be going."
Far across the great, vast distance, the seagulls circled and called over a calm and placid sea. As Fritha gazed down at the flowers, he thought a long moment before turning back to look at the man.
"I will think about it, sir," he smiled.