Through Shadows to the Edge of Night
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 25, Part 55
Shreds, Bones, and Scattered Petals
(December 30, 1451)
Frodo went out on a picnic with his siblings, watching after the little ones as he strolled at Billy-Lass’s side, in a perfect Shire spring with the apple-trees in bloom. They wandered past a green bank with mats of heather at its base, bees buzzing in the flowers and the perfume as thick and warm as honey in the sun. He rested his hand contentedly on Billy-Lass’s back...and felt her shoulder-blade through the fur.
“Frodo! Look!” May called out, but he ignored the child to study his pony more closely. How had Billy-Lass grown so gaunt?
“Not now, May--something’s wrong with Billy-Lass.” The pony ambled on past him now as he stood rooted in horror--she seemed to waste right before his eyes. “Billy-Lass, you fool!” Frodo exclaimed, “Have you gone grazing in the Barrow-Downs again?” The little mare tried painfully to turn her face to him, but Frodo saw that she had turned into a skeleton indeed. “No, Billy-Lass! No--you’re not dead! You can’t be!”
“Come back here, girl--come back right now and stop this nonsense!” Obligingly, the pony tried to walk backwards, but the motion made the bones fall apart. “No Billie! No!”
As Frodo ran forward and tried to catch armfuls of beloved bones he heard May sobbing. “Look! Look! Oh please look, Frodo!”
“Billie-Lasssssss!” Frodo wailed, and sat up in the dim blue light before the dawn, confused to find himself lying in a bedroll on the hard, cold ground, with no bones in sight. Then he stroked the cord about his neck, remembering. “Nightmares,” he muttered, and stretched. “They spare nobody out here.”
Frodo's eyes felt sticky, and his elflike sight seemed to fail him, for all seemed dim, silhouetted more often than not. He found his britches and his mail shirt spread beside him, and his face burned to remember how they’d parted company. A strange chemise lay there, too, in place of the swamp-fouled rag he’d worn. As he pulled it on he noticed a sickly-sweet odor, somewhat like burnt flowers; he suspected that Mattie had donated the shirt sometime last night. “I guess he does have a ‘sharing heart’,” Frodo said under his breath.
He looked up and saw Bergil blowing on the coals of their fire, stirring up some red-gold light with every puff. The breakfast-things lay near at hand. “Here--I should fix that,” Frodo said, pulling on his pants.
“My turn,”said Bergil, with his back to the hobbit. “You just rest.”
“I know, but you saved my life again--remember? You and Mattie--I owe you both breakfast.”
Grimly, Bergil said, “Let us make sure of that before you pay off any debts.” He rose from the thin new flames, now crackling through the kindling, and came over to the hobbit; Frodo could barely make out the man’s face in this light, but he thought he saw anxiety creasing it. “How do you feel?”
“Feel?” Frodo asked bewildered. “A little rough, like I’ve got a cold coming on, but no big deal. Not surprising, either, considering the dunking I had last night. Oh, and my skin itches, now that you mention it.” He went to scratch his shin and saw his hands webbed with dark red welts. “What on earth?” He pulled up his britches and saw his legs and feet in the same shape.
Bergil hunkered down beside him. “You think that is bad, Frodo? You should see your face.”
“The evil water infected every laceration you suffered in your run. I sustained a few, myself, but I am not so bad off.” He sighed. “I had hoped that the salve would stave off the danger, but I fear it did little good. We reached our camp too late.”
Frodo felt at his face and found the skin ridged and stinging to the touch. “What does this mean, Bergil?” Infections should not move so fast!
“I cannot say, Frodo.” He looked away. “I am not an herbwife.” In profile Frodo saw a nasty scratch suppurating on Bergil’s cheek, as the daylight spread. “Well, we must go about our business as though it means nothing at all, and hope for the best.” He stood and went to fetch water for breakfast.
While Bergil cooked, Frodo dug his flower-press out of his pack (thankful for his father’s foresight in packing useful research tools) and hobbled about on sore feet, taking snippets of leaves and flowers, and whole herbs from tip to root when he could, bound between thick pads of his precious paper. He juggled his ink-kit, too, to jot notes beside each specimen as to whether it grew in sun or shade, near to water or far, in deep soil or in the cracks of rocks. The magnifying glass showed him details of cells and veins, nodules and rootlets, that practically sang to him of the properties of every plant, if only he could decipher them. And he even tasted the soil to confirm its bitterness--yes, these plants had indeed adapted to conditions that would kill most crops.
But his hand could barely close upon the pen; the skin felt stiff and every laceration burned. He found himself a little lightheaded, too, in an achy, unpleasant way. Repeatedly he stripped off his jacket and loosened his collar, boiling in his sweat, only for the wind to suddenly hit him like a plunge into icy water, setting him to shivering again.
“It is only a cold,” he told himself firmly. “And Bergil is an old granny to worry over scratches.”
Near the hot pool, groping for cresses through the thinning steam, Frodo found the shreds of his old chemise discarded by the side. The smell of it nauseated him. He only dimly recalled Bergil lowering him into the pool last night, washing the slime away, and then rubbing ointment all over him afterwards; he must have been dead on his feet to allow Bergil to fuss over him like some slack-limbed doll. With a stick Frodo picked up the rag--not even one so thrifty as his mother would try to sew those tatters back together. His chest and arms burned with a scratch for every rent in the cloth. He tossed it back down and went on gathering herbs.
Mattie still slept in his clothes when Bergil called Frodo back for breakfast, a ratty old scarf wrapped about his neck and tucked into his weskit to try and make up for the lack of a shirt. They roused the bare-armed fellow only with difficulty. Frodo handed him a chemise from his own pack. “I brought spares,” he said. “There’s no need for you to do without.” Mattie stared at it a moment in his hand, reached for the buttons of his weskit, and then stopped, blushing furiously as if aware of his company for the first time. “Breelanders!” Frodo thought. “What do they think they’ve got that we haven’t seen already?”
When Mattie tottered off to the bushes with the garment, stumbling on shadows, Frodo remembered Legolas with a pang. But you could not put a hobbit into a tree for healing the way you could an elf, and expect him to survive the experience; Mattie would have to find some other way back from his chosen madness--if he ever did.
The hobbit returned, sat down and blinked dully at the steam-soft air, making no move towards his bowl. Bergil whispered to Frodo, “It appears that Mattie smoked more than his usual last night--you were right, Frodo: he did feel ashamed.” He bit his lip. “I hope he draws no harm from it.”
“Of course he draws harm from it,” Frodo growled under his breath at Bergil, then he went and knelt by the rider. “Here, Mattie,” said Frodo, holding the bowl out to him. “At least try to eat something.” In truth Frodo had little stomach for food, himself, but he didn’t let that stop him.
Mattie replied, “They do say that restless spirits walk the barrow downs by night...places like that, you know...Poros Pass, and parts of Mirkwood, too...draws ‘em in...the lost ones...the ones who dare not go...”
“Uh...right. Listen: it’s oatmeal. Doesn’t it smell good?” Did his father look so gaunt, once, starving in these Shadowed Lands? He had never seen a hobbit with a face so thin.
“And I have seen for myself...but not her...can’t find her...”
“Come on, Mattie, eat something. Bergil mixed in good barley-sugar from the Shire. We even have a little butter left over from Osgiliath. You’ll like it, Mattie--please?.”
Mattie smiled up at Frodo suddenly. “My, but aren’t you the motherly one! And I mean no harm, good sir...no higher praise than to compare anyone to that most sacrosanct of offices, the Mother.” He took the bowl and sat up a little bit, admiring the good, hot food. “Mmmm--it does smell delicious!”
“Eat, then. There you go--you can use all the breakfasts you can get.” When he got Mattie to spoon in a little oatmeal Frodo said, “You’ve never mentioned your mother before, in all our talk.”
“Conditions have to be just right--just precisely right--to discuss something so...do you remember your own mother, Frodo?”
“Of course I do. I only saw her last September, after all, and she’s written to me since.”
“Yes, certainly...how could I forget? Your mother yet lives. I hardly remember my own, but ah, the memory I do have left to me...exquisite bliss...the greatest happiness of my life, Frodo.” He sighed as he smiled, staring off to visions Frodo couldn’t see even with the magic lens. “I recall how she held me in her arms, dancing around and around the orchard with the fruit-trees all abloom. I remember how the petals fell against her face, and soft against my own, and their scent mingled with hers. I remember that she sang to me...” Then his face clouded. “I can’t remember the song, Frodo. I keep trying to recapture it, but...” He shook his head. “If I could just relive the bliss of that one moment, I am sure it would all come back to me, and I would sing the song so sweetly that Mandos himself would relent, even as he did for Luthien long ago--he would let my mother come back to me...could you please pass me my pipe, Frodo?”
“I think,” said Frodo, “that you had enough last night to last you for awhile.”
Bergil frowned a long moment at Mattie’s gear, then suddenly nodded and picked up the pipe and a battered little tin. “You can have it, Mattie, if you finish your breakfast.” When Mattie just stared at him he said, “Go on, lad...your mother would want you to.” Obediently, Mattie dipped in his spoon, while Bergil sat nearby, the cold pipe and the poppy-gum in hand.
Frodo looked at Bergil. “Tell me you’re not going to give that to him.”
“He needs it, Frodo--we have no healer to help him do without.”
“But not for awhile yet, surely! Let him come awake a little from the last time.”
Mattie himself spoke up. “Oh, I’ll be all right. You just help me onto ol’ Stumblehoof and I’ll watch over you in...in t’other place...while you watch over me here.” He peered up as though he saw shapes roiling in the steam of the nearby spring. “Something has made them more restless than usual, you see. With the pipe I can go halfway into their world. I can see them, and talk to them, and clear your way. You can’t do that, brother.” He giggled a little, staring out beyond them, but his eyes looked sad. “Nobody can but me.”
Frodo shuddered, remembering Papa’s account of what it felt like to go halfway into the world of spirits, in this of all regions. “I don’t want you to do this for me, Mattie.”
“Oh, tush! I’d have to anyway, as riled up as they are right now, to get over the pass, myself. Better we both have company, and watch each other’s backs.” Mattie handed Bergil his empty bowl, in exchange for the pipe. He dropped in a little, black ball of gum, lit it from a twig in the fire, and then took a few sighing puffs, squinting at them through the smoke. Frodo caught just a whiff of that intriguing burnt-flower smell, and then made himself move upwind. “Interesting...you.” An incredulous smile twisted half of Mattie’s face. “You have riled them up, my brother.” He leaned towards Frodo as though trying to peer through his bones. “Or something...someone...about you...”
Frodo blurted, “Can you talk to the dead because you’re halfway dead, yourself? Isn’t that slow suicide you’re smoking?”
Mattie only smiled mysteriously, saying, “Did you know, Frodo, that I was born for the dead?”
“Begging your pardon?”
“My mother’s human friend, Matt Heathertoes...used to come by with his big ol’ human-sized ciderpress, they tell me, hauled up in a cart to do her apples for her, in return for a share o’ the crop...Bes’ li’l orchard in Staddle for raisin’ cider apples...we had the sweets, the bittersharps, the aromatics, all in the right proportions...” Mattie drew long on his pipe and sighed a smoky breath. “He died in the troubles, you know, killed by Sharkey’s men...she hid in the press...my Dad agreed, everybody agreed...good thing to have another Mattie in Breeland again...and so she named me.”
“First and last name both?”
Mattie shrugged. “Why not? It’s not like my father’s name was any use to us. But my Mum...” He frowned, staring like he could see things miles and years away. “Folks got angry, later, though...should never have...not after all Matt did for her...and then folks never did think much of m’Dad, so they kind of forgot to mention his name at all. Nice of them...” He smiled again, as he started to nod where he sat. “They liked to call me Mattie...wanted to see the hero, really...big, brave man who died to shield a poor li’l pregnant hobbit...brigands twice her size...all over a stupid tab for cider...”
As Mattie slumped forward Bergil teased the pipe from the drowsing hobbit’s fingers and snuffed it out; Frodo saw more infected scratches on the man’s hands. Frodo forced himself to join Bergil at packing up and rounding up the goats, though he gladly would have slept, himself. Bergil asked, “Did Mattie hint at what I think he did? Is he half human?”
Frodo glanced back at the sleeper while hanging his flower-press off of his pack in a canvas bag to dry. “No--of course not. He’s a bit on the small side even by hobbit standards. Hobbits often have human friends in Bree, and they look after each other in times of trouble--especially where a mother-to-be is concerned.” Frodo watched Mattie curl up tight against the winter chill; he sighed and unpacked a blanket that he’d just rolled up, and spread it over the hobbit. Frodo shivered in his own cloak as he did it, till the next wave of heat made him sweat.
But then Mattie spoke some more, eyes closed; Frodo wondered whether he even knew he spoke aloud. “Poor Mum...blight in the orchard...a sign, she said...the petals fall an’ the fruit won’t set...din’t d’serve to live, not in the place of a good man like that...third year runnin’ the fruit won’t set...should never of backtalked those bad men, tryin’ t’buy cider with their worthless bills...missed her friend so bad...”
Bergil put the saddle-bags and the horse-blanket on Stumblehoof, and then lifted Mattie onto the patient old mare’s back, where the hobbit lay as comfortably as if on a bed, still mumbling in his sleep. “...dance aroun’, dance aroun’, as the petals fall...always did help the baby sleep...” They herded the goats and the horse towards the passage back to the uphill road. “...she sang sooo sweet...laid me down on the soft, green grass beneath the tree...her own fault, she said...dangled like a petal couldn’t make up its mind to fall...So Dad cut the rope, carried her in...no wake...folks got angry...she had no right...not after what poor Matt did...hush...mustn’t cry...she cried enough for all...” His murmurs blurred into snores as they squeezed between the walls of stone, but not before Frodo caught the words, “...cursed trees never bore again...”
Frodo exclaimed, “His life is nothing but tragedy from beginning to end!”
“And still he sings,” said Bergil.