Through Shadows to the Edge of Night
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 20, Part 50
(December 29, 1451)
“Well, well, well!” Bergil exclaimed. “And by my fortnight’s beard--if it isn’t Mattie Heathertoes!”
“Heathertoes?” Frodo cried, “The rider of the post? Well met, indeed!” He ran back towards the horse, whose rider sat up lazily and stretched.
“Ey? Did someone, perchance, call me by name?” The hobbit tipped back the cap that had shaded his pale eyes, blinked at Frodo below him, then grinned and slid down off the horse’s back. “My word--another hobbit, a brother of the North Country! The sun, the moon, and all the blinkin’ stars shine on our meeting, friend!” Frodo found himself face to face with a surprisingly slender fellow of his own kind, all knees and elbows, with gingery curls and an easy grin displaying less-than-perfect teeth and all the goodwill in the world. Boots bundled up the stranger’s feet, which surprised Frodo, but it did seem to make sense, as he found himself tucking one foot under the other, trying to warm his toes. The two clasped hands and laughed with delight, then suddenly embraced right there among the boulders and the thorns, as long-lost cousins would, which of course they felt like in that land. “Mattie Heathertoes at your service,” said the post-rider.
“Frodo Gamgee at yours and your family’s.”
“Gamgee, is it--not the Mayor’s son? Then count me doubly honored!” Mattie swept off his cap in an elaborate bow.
Frodo said, blushing fit to die, “Oh please--I travel as a gardener and a goatherd, not a politician.” He laughed, saying, “No one would let me into Michel Delving smelling like I do right now.”
“But no one warned me to expect so tall and striking a fellow as stands before me now.”
“I am? I mean, uh, I guess I am, tall that is, for a hobbit, anyway, but not particularly striking, though, I’d really rather not strike, not unless you’re an orc, of course, and hey, I’m babbling, aren’t I?”
Mattie chuckled. “It doesn’t matter--anything said in a hobbit-voice sounds sweeter than the larks to me.”
“Come, come, join us...or no. The post must ride swiftly and...” He stopped. Mattie did not look inclined to ride swiftly anywhere that day.
“Oh, tosh! Not on the Nurnen run. Why do you think I volunteered? You’ll find no hurry out in these parts, not since the Dark Lord died and all his whips fell still. You can take your time and enjoy the scenery, write poetry in your head, and find the breath to sing songs. I can’t imagine why every post-rider in the business doesn’t vie with me for the job.” He took his horse by the reins and ambled beside them as they followed the goats to the next green stretch.
Bergil smiled and said, “The haunted pass might have something to do with it.”
“Oh, that! The wisps of half-forgotten thoughts, phantoms whose hands pass through the hilts they once gripped in their might. I have my own way of dealing with ghosts.” He winked. “Mainly, I ignore ‘em. Drives them crazy, if you ask me.”
“Better them than you,” said Frodo. What a fine twist to his day! Already the sun felt warmer, the greenery looked brighter, and he could smell the sweetness of those strange white flowers over the odor of the goats.
Mattie asked him, “Are you familiar with the Barrow Downs, my friend?”
The sun passed behind a cloud once more. “No more than I have to be,” Frodo said uncomfortably.
Mattie chuckled. “Ah, we hobbits are so predictable! Most of us, anyway. In my childhood, though, I used to ride through the Barrow Downs by choice, for the sheer curiosity of it.”
“You didn’t! Really?”
“And why not?” Mattie said with a grin. “It is quite serene by day, you know, if you take care not to fall asleep there or outlast your stay. Sometimes, if luck flirts with you, you chance upon jewels sparkling in the sun like flowers of light, or piles of pale gold coins like an outcropping of shiny mushrooms.”
Frodo shivered, remembering the wight. “I would not touch such gold or jewels for all the world.”
“Ah, why not? That’s what it’s out there for. Surely the son of a Traveler has heard of Tom Bombadil?”
“More than you might guess.”
“Then you know how he breaks open the haunted hills to expose their treasure to the daylight and destroy their spells--he wants them pilfered far and wide! If you don’t get greedy, if you take no more than you need at the time and leave the rest in the grass, it will bring you no harm. How do you think that the Rangers bought their odd mug of beer now and then, in the years before the King, when nobody paid them for the work they did guarding the villages of Arnor?”
“If you have such treasure, why do you ride the post? I thought...” Frodo shut up and blushed.
Mattie looked on him gently. “It’s all right, Frodo. You thought only hobbits of poor means would take on such work, so far away from home. And you’d be right, of course.” He smiled sadly. “I had a thirsty father, you see, who needed all that I could find him to buy comfort for his aching heart. Not a penny or a bead remains to me.” Mattie shook his head. “He died years ago, poor soul; he needs no further care from me.” Then he smiled almost too brightly. “And so he freed me to seek my fortune on the world’s wide roads--it is not a bad life for one like me.”
Bergil said, “It should not surprise anyone that a perian could find happiness even here, before the Poros Pass, where men have died of fright.”
“Fright is what you make of it, my friend. Besides, ghosts and other odd spirits, and the old tales that go with them, inspire some of my best material. A poet and a bard should familiarize himself with matters ethereal, wouldn’t you say? Here in the Ephel Duath I find good company for my brightest and my darkest moods.”
Frodo exclaimed, “Did you say bard?”
“I have that reputation, yes.”
“Join us by all means, then! It has been too long since I’ve heard a good song, Mattie. I’m afraid we go at the pace of a grazing goat, though, so it might delay you somewhat...”
“Who can deny me a single, splendid afternoon in the presence of my own kind? I carry just two letters, neither of them marked as ‘Urgent Business’--as if they ever were, out here. I don’t expect much more awaits me at the other end.”
“Well, then--stay for dinner! Spend the night!”
Bergil tugged Frodo aside for a moment behind a twist of rock, to whisper, “I will not deny you the pleasure of your countryman’s company, but before you hand out any more invitations--especially on my turn to cook!--I think you should know something.”
“Mattie--and I mean him no harm, mind you, I do enjoy his songs--has a bit of a reputation for light fingers.”
“Indeed! Do you mean to say that he’s a thief?”
“Not so loud! Say rather that the usual boundaries between ‘mine’ and ‘yours’...how shall I put it?...escape his notice.” With an ironic smile Bergil said, “Our Mattie has a sharing heart.”
“How could such a fellow keep his position with the postal service, then? Surely I’d not trust any package home to him.”
“Perhaps because they have no better to replace him. No one else wwould want the Nurnen run.” With a fond shake of his head Bergil added, “Besides, we all would miss his music. We men of Ithilien know his limits, and we compensate. It would hurt to think of a merry soul like his chastening in a jail.”
“Ah well, I suppose that he’s good enough in his way. I understand that Bilbo Baggins tried his hand at burglary for awhile. And they say no mushroom was ever safe where my namesake went, at least not in his youth.”
Bergil stared at him with raised brows. “Pippin Took never shared those stories with me! Perhaps you could...”
“Later--our guest must wonder what we’re discussing behind his back.”
“Doubtless he guesses well enough,” Bergil murmured, but went back with Frodo anyway. Just in time, too, for the goats had cropped the vegetation down to the cracks of stone it sprang from, and had raised their eyes to look for more. Bergil clapped Mattie on the shoulder with a slightly strained grin and said, “‘Tis agreed, then--your road and ours shall merge for awhile. But mind you walk downwind of us when you smoke that pipe of yours.”
“Goat-herders objecting to a smell?” Mattie laughed. “My--that is a first!” Then he rubbed his hands together as they strolled, saying to Frodo, “So, my brother--what news have you of the north?”
“More about the Shire than Bree, I’m afraid. For one thing--and I think you need to know this--we have ceased all trade of pipeweed to Rohan and other parts where it does men no good. Some have reacted rather violently to hobbits after that, I fear.”
“Indeed...thank you. That does sound useful." Then a vulnerable look passed over his face as he asked, "Any news from Staddle? I hail from there, you know.”
“Just gossip--none too reliable, at that. But did you ever know a fellow called Falco Tunnelly?”
“Fallible Falco? I grew up with him! We used to fish together. Why? What’s he up to?”
“Well, you wouldn’t believe this--I am not sure I do, myself--but they say that he’s stolen the heart of a woman of the Big Folk, one Cherry Carter...” And so they chatted as they walked, while Bergil indulged them and did most of the herding by himself. Eventually, though, Frodo felt his throat go dry and hoarse from too much talk. When he went back to one of the pack-goats for some water he passed the gray horse and its mail-bags--and suddenly remembered why he’d run back to greet Mattie in the first place.
The post-rider said, “So...do you think that Brandybuck Mercantile might have any interest in...”
“Begging your pardon, Mattie, but before we say any more, you wouldn’t happen to carry any mail addressed to Frodo Gamgee, would you?”
“Why...yes, of course...what a fool I am to forget--and with only two letters in the bag, at that! You know, I did think it strange to carry mail from the Shire’s Mayor to Mordor, but then...”
”Papa? You’ve got mail from Papa?”
“Well yes, it so happens that...”
“Out with it! Please! Now!”
“Hold on...here it is. Fat little bundle, isn’t it? Not at all like what I usually...”
Frodo snatched it from Mattie’s hands and cracked the seal. Oh surely, surely, Papa would have gotten his first letter by now--what joy, what relief he must have felt! Even as Frodo grinned with anticipation his eyes watered to think of the reception his letter must have had, as he unfurled the parchment and began to read while he walked, oblivious to a thornbush right in front of him. Bergil soon found he had to shepherd the feet of one letter-blinded hobbit along with all the goats.
Mattie smiled rather sadly, if any had noticed, as he walked beside the others, leading his horse to their pace, as always traveling alone.