I am such a bitch, aren't I? I didn't really mean the last chapter to be so nasty towards my fellow obsessives, but I can't help thinking that venomous Mary Sues (besides being a dime a dozen) are just too easy to make fun of. The Dark Ladies are thinly veiled versions of characters I've read over and over again in hundreds of stories, either originals or fanfics; modern, badly-spelled and ungrammatical versions of Coleridge's Geraldine (or the Nightmare Life-in-Death), or Stoker's "bloofer lady," or any one of Voldemort's putative wives, lovers,  sisters, daughters or mothers, about whom you may read to your heart's content in the Harry Potter section of this site. The Evil Mary Sue has become a stereotype on the order of the Unlikely Hero or the Comic-Relief Best Friend. It's open season on her, my dears, as you will soon see.

Disclaimer: as before, LOTR and its characters and related indicia are the property of the Tolkien estate, no copyright infringement intended and no money being made.

MEETINGS 4

            "What have you been doing?" inquired Elrond, sweeping into the laboratory with a flourish of embroidered robes. "It smells like a distillery in here."

            Alex looked up at him with bleary eyes. "How appropriate," she said. "What brings you here, my lord?" She was still bent over the workbench, having spent the night trying to extract the active principle of athelas and failing miserably. It was quite unlike any other herb she'd ever met, and its actions in vitro seemed to be, for lack of a better word, magical.

            "I need some poppy juice," said Elrond, crossing to the cupboard. "And wormwood. Where'd you put the wormwood?"

            "Third shelf, green bottle." Alex yawned. "Who wants absinthe at this time of the morning?"

            "Not absinthe," said the elflord, carrying several bottles to the table. "Poor Boromir is no better.  I had hoped a good night's sleep would ease him, but....." He trailed off, measuring, the tiny green bottle held up to the light.

            "What's wrong with Boromir?" asked Alex, innocently.

            "He seems to have eaten something that violently disagreed with him," Elrond said mildly. "I've not seen anyone be sick so many times since the last time Frodo was brought here for aid. I was going to ask you if you had any idea what might have caused it."

            She shrugged. "I haven't the foggiest. Apparently he does commit dietary indiscretions, however. He probably just got a bad mushroom or something."

            "Nevertheless," said Elrond, "he can keep nothing down, and the purging is quite dramatic. It will take him days to regain his strength."

            Alex kept her face perfectly straight as she watched him stirring a dark syrupy liquid in a beaker. "How sad," she said.

            "Indeed. You could come with me and hold his head, if you're not doing anything important. Here." He tossed her a long pale robe with wide sleeves, which she put on over her grey gown. "It will afford you some little protection," he added.

            Alex nodded and followed Elrond out of the workroom, down long echoing almond-coloured hallways lit by a strange sourceless glow and decorated with branching featherlike patterns, past little courtyards alive with sparkling fountains and swaying rose branches, through chambers inhabited by pale elves playing chess in velvet dressing-gowns, to a suite of rooms not unlike the one Frodo lay in. It was dim; a faint sour smell hung on the air.

            She noticed vaguely that Elrond was giving off a very pale glow in the darkness, as if he was slightly radioactive. The lines of his robes seemed limned in faint light. Now that is interesting. I wonder if all elves glow in the dark, or only the healers?

            He bent over Boromir, who stirred and groaned weakly. Alex stood back with her arms folded and tried to keep a nasty smile from spreading on her face. "Boromir," said Elrond gently. "Can you drink a little of this?"

            She circled round to the other side of the bed and slipped an arm behind the Man's shoulders, helping him to sit up. Elrond administered a spoonful of his mixture, and they both waited to see what would happen. She was in time to get the basin from the bedside table, and for a few moments they were busy with cleaning him up; he moaned miserably and tried to twist out of their grasp. "Be brave, Boromir," she told him, not unkindly.  "You're not the only person in the world to have been ill."

            "Indeed," said Elrond, a little crossly; one of his beautifully embroidered sleeves had received a little extra decoration. "Young Frodo was terribly brave when he had this, a few months ago. Buck up, man."

            "....'m.......dying...." groaned Boromir.

            "No you aren't." Alex took the syrup from Elrond. "Let's try again."

            As she spooned opium and artemisia into Boromir's mouth, she took the curse off; and this time the medicine stayed down. "There. Now get some rest, you'll feel ever so much better when you wake up."

            He curled up on his side under the covers. She grinned to herself; it would be a while, she thought, before he said anything about malingering halflings again. And if he did, it was the work of a moment to lay a constant low-grade stimulation to the nerves that governed his gastrointestinal tract.

            Elrond looked at her consideringly, but said nothing; he pulled the covers more snugly around the snoring Boromir and set a glass of water on the bedside table before leading her out of the room. In daylight, the glow he gave off was totally unnoticeable.

            "You are a strange person, Alex," he said absently as they returned to the workroom. "Very strange indeed."

            "Thank you, your lordship."

            **

            Frodo tossed feverishly, his hair clinging damply to his forehead, muttering something about a dark heart in a tide of silver. Despite her crude antibiotic therapy, his fever had risen, and risen again, and his cough was tight and painful and low in his chest. More than ever she wanted a closer look at the little things pretending to be bacteria, but it would have to wait until more powerful lenses could be ground, and they were having a difficult time finding crystal of the right clarity. All she—and Elrond—could do was to treat his symptoms empirically, bathe him in cool water when the fever rose too high, try and ease his pain. Alex hated to admit it, but she had no idea what was wrong with him.

            "It is unnatural," said Elrond quietly, after they had left his room. "Unnatural. Something dark is eating at him from the inside."

            "But it doesn't make sense," she wailed. "None of it."

            They were disturbed by Legolas, who poked his blond head round the workroom door with the air of one who hopes to catch his superior in an embarrassing position. "Lord Elrond," he said. "We have guests."

            ***

            "So you are healers too?" inquired Elrond, seated in his throne-chair with his fingers steepled and his arched eyebrows raised a little further. Alex was standing unobtrusively behind the pillars at the edge of the hall; every other pair of eyes was fixed firmly on the three tall, slender figures who stood before Elrond.

            The tallest, whose black hair was unbound and reached to the floor, made a deep obeisance. "We have a little skill, my lord. My name is Sepulchravia de Mortuis. These are my sisters, Aurilienduilienar Eosiriel the Morningstar and Enitharmon Urizelaien. We come to serve you, and to study under you."

            "I see," said Elrond, a little weakly. "And...such high-born ladies have studied in a House of Healing?"

            Sepulchravia's perfect porcelain face tightened briefly. "My lord, our past is not a happy one. We have been driven from our home. I...." She bowed her lovely head. Elrond blinked a few times, as if to clear his vision.

            "I am sorry," he said. "Your business is your own. I welcome you to Rivendell,  my ladies. We are glad to see you come."

            All three of them curtseyed to him with deep, slow grace. "We are honoured, Lord Elrond," said Sepulchravia. "May we be allowed to visit the Ringbearer?"

            Alex, watching, felt her hands curl into fists. They were so beautiful, all three of them, as lovely as Elves but without that odd otherworldliness the Elves wore like a crown; they were tall and slender and curved in and out at the right places and she wanted to kick them all firmly in the shins. And those names! One of them was a blatant rip-off of a William Blake character; one of them, Tomb of the Dead, had stolen her first name from Mervyn Peake; and the third had thrown a bunch of Tolkien's female names into a blender, hit "puree," and tacked on a bit of Milton as a title. Honestly. And none of them had hair that stopped before their ankles.

            She shivered. Unless she was blessedly wrong, the three things that stood before Elrond's throne were some of the most purely evil beings ever to traverse SOFA-space.

            Well. Fire could be fought with fire. Stepping back into the shadows, Alex closed her eyes and concentrated; she appeared to  glow faintly purple as the air molecules around her hit the intense temporal field and were immediately ripped apart. Her hair rippled and grew, falling down her back in its white torrent; her face changed subtly, her nose shrinking and becoming charmingly retrousse, her cheekbones sculpting themselves, her lips becoming fuller. Similar alterations manifested themselves beneath her gown; it found itself suddenly clinging to a much riper and curvier form, and then the gown itself changed into a long white kirtle last seen in a Pre-Raphaelite painting called The Accolade. White gems sparkled at her throat and waist; when she opened her eyes, their owl-yellow had become a deep tawny burnished gold, the lashes sooty black and much thicker than they had any right to be in a time before Max Factor. She smiled a curvy smile and stepped out of the shadows.

            "My ladies," she said, and her voice was low and sweet and clear. "May I show you our little workroom?"

            "Who are you?" demanded the silver-haired one, eyeing her hair.

            "I am Alessandriella," she said. "I, too, know a little of healing."

            Elrond swallowed, staring at her. She gave him a little smile and led the three strangers out of the audience hall. On purpose, she walked just fast enough so that they had to lift their trailing skirts to keep up with her.

            She led them to Frodo's room, not without a little hesitation; these were some of the most powerful and unpleasant individuals she had ever met, and it took all her strength to stand idly by while they examined the feverish hobbit. The redhead and the silver-haired one hung back while Sepulchravia had a look; then they took their turns.

            "Well, my ladies?" said Alex, deferentially. "I await your wisdom."

            Sepulchravia straightened up and flicked her indescribable hair away from her face. "He is clearly suffering from an imbalance of the humours," she pronounced. "He must be bled at once. The sanguine and choleric temperaments are at war within him."

            "Nay, my sister," said the redhead with the long and unpronounceable name. "This is a disorder of heat. I concur that he must be bled immediately,  and treated with cooling preparations, but it is not the humours which lie at the cause of his infirmity."

            "I disagree,"said the silver-haired Enitharmon. "The theory of the four humours is out of date. He requires purging and firm doses of spirits of hartshorn, antimony and quicksilver."

            Alex rubbed at her forehead. I've  got a Galenist, a follower of Sydenham, and a Paracelsan in the same room. Shouldn't one of us be exploding right about now?

            "My ladies," she began. "If I might suggest something." All three of them turned to stare at her. "Bleeding would be….ill-advised at this stage of his illness. He needs all the strength he can get."

            "Speak not of what you do not know," said Sepulchravia coldly. "Bring me the fleam and blood-stick. We must save his life."

            "Nay, leave the bleeding," said Enitharmon. "You must have senna and cascara to hand, surely? And syrup of squills? We must purge him of this disease, both upwards and down."

            "My ladies," said Alex dryly, "please to follow me. I will bring you to our workroom where you may prepare draughts for him as you desire."

            "But the bleeding!"

            "We have no equipment for blood-letting, my lady. If you will allow me, I will see if I can find an appropriate knife."

            Grudgingly, the three women let themselves be shepherded from Frodo's room to the laboratory. Alex closed the door behind them and turned the bolt so gently that none of them heard the wards of the lock sliding home. She hurried back to Frodo, who was stirring.

            "What….who were those women?" he murmured.

            "They are the cause of your illness, I have no doubt," she whispered. "They're evil, Frodo. Pure evil." 

            "But they are so beautiful!"

            "Poison can be fair," she said dryly. "Listen to me. They want to take most of your blood away, fill you full of heavy metals and make you throw up. All in the cause of healing you, of course."

            "They…what?"

            "Don't worry. I won't let them get away with it.  Nevertheless I need to do a bit more research on how exactly they've made you ill, so that I can reverse the process. Tell me—did you encounter anything strange before you fell sick? Anything remarkable?"

            Frodo tossed his head feverishly, dark hair clinging to his forehead and slipping down the pillows like rain. "There was…a dark mist," he managed. "Days ago. Before I came to Rivendell….it hung in the hollows like shadows, and seemed to follow us…"

            "A dark mist?" Alex thought hard; it reminded her of Aboriginal reports of black winds scouring the land after the British nuclear tests at Maralinga. "And you fell ill afterwards?"

            "Not for a few days," he murmured, coughing. "We were already most of the way here….it only started once we'd arrived. You were there."

            She nodded slowly. "I see." Perhaps the dark mist had contained the little black spheres in his lungs. She couldn't think of anywhere else they might've come from.

            "You didn't feel anything….strange?"

            "You mean like the Ring?" he asked, coughing. She nodded. "Not really. There was an….uneasiness in the air, if you like….a feeling that things were changing beyond my control. Sting was glowing. I thought it was just the moonlight, but now…"

            She sighed. "I see. I'll do my best to spare you their ministrations, but I think Elrond's already been bewitched by their dark beauty, etcetera."

            Frodo moaned, inching down under the covers. "Alex, I'm frightened."

            "I know, love," she said quietly. "I know." She was sitting on the edge of his bed, and she took him in her arms and held him gently, trying to give him a little comfort in a terrifying world.