For Into Darkness Fell His Star
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 24, Part 165
The Smith's Other Art
May 27, 1452
Who knows how differently things might have unfolded if Frodo's hoe had not hit the stone? The blow jarred all through his body and rattled his teeth, and the clang, so different from the chuh! of cleaving through soil and the roots of weeds, made him pause and turn the tool upside down, to study the new-made dent. He didn't mind too terribly; a break from labor would do him good, and he always enjoyed his visits to the smithy.
Hoe on his shoulder, he walked down through the streets of the village, listening to the sounds of different kinds of shops: the whir of potter's wheels and the slap of clay, the soft scrape of leather-workers fleshing the skins of goats, the shush and clatter of the shuttle in the loom. With food had come industry: the strength and will to create, the hope that something would come of labor, the desire to make or buy nice things beyond survival. He did not hear the clangor of hammer upon anvil, but that did not surprise him; Lanethil often got ahead of his work.
But Frodo heard something else, when he drew close enough. He slowed when he realized that the elf spoke with another before him. The hobbit's approach happened to come from behind the shop, so he lingered a moment, to allow Lanethil to finish his other business, first.
"I have seen many kinds of beauty in my day, betimes in places no one else expected. But a gorgeousness like yours...well. Only from afar. The privilege, to be here, with you, to touch..."
"Coo! Ye're just sayin' that!" Frodo froze at that voice.
"Nay, I mean every word! I had not thought to fully value you as beauty must deserve, still less to hold you close, softer and kindlier than any I have ever known in a long, harsh life. Indeed, I suppose I had willed myself not to see your shapeliness, when I thought you pledged unto another..."
"Pledged? Awww...ye're the marryin' kind! How sweet!"
"Alas, I was, but my wife died long ago."
"Poor, poor Lani!" Lani? "That must of been so hard fer folks as marry. Why, I never thought of it before--every person who makes that bond stands harf a chance o' seein' their lover die!"
"Ah, but 'tis a glorious heartbreak, my dear! To look back upon years and years of love, and to end not in argument, not in disdain, not betrayal, but to last until the body can last no more--what a different, better ending to a tale of love!"
"Ai, but ye sound as sweet as Frodo hisself!" Frodo shuddered to hear that. "So--ye dinna think me fat?"
"I find you lovely--and lovelier still to embrace than to caress with eyes alone. I have, truth be told, explored lean charms ere now, and delighted in what I could find, but until the halfling opened my eyes with appreciation, I had not realized that here, too, beauty of a different sort could thrive--beauty of abundance, beauty of generosity!"
Frodo sank his head against the cool mud brick.
"Then I needn't slim meself to please ye?"
"For health one might...and yet, oh darling of my bliss, I see with open eyes now--I see the winsome heart beyond all form..."
Frodo came around the corner, clearing his throat rather too loudly. Not minding his feet, he stepped on the tines of a broken rake, uncharacteristically dropped to the ground, and after a smart smack to the forehead, stumbled flailing into a shelf full of freshly repaired pans and buckets, knocked at least half of them off with loud rings to announce their brand new dents, then caught himself against a number of long-handled tools resting against the wall for their owners to reclaim later, all of which clattered noisily to the ground, so now there he stood before the staring couple, off-balance and lurched against the wall, but trying to the utmost to look as nonchalant as possible, meanwhile entrancing the attention of two people too stunned to let go of each other's embarrassingly close embrace, the passion of which no doubt had caused the normally meticulous smith to drop the half-mended rake carelessly to the ground in the first place.
Frodo rubbed his bruised brow and then pushed away from the wall to lean on his hoe while he inspected his foot for punctures with exaggerated interest, giving the couple time to release each other and hastily smooth their clothing, and then for Crookyteeth to scoop up armfuls of misshapen pans and beat a hasty retreat for the bakery. At last the hobbit lowered his foot to say, "I...I brought my hoe, to, to...oh curse it all!" Frodo threw the implement to the ground while Lanethil just stood there proving that elves could blush.
"Frodo, I know this must be hard for you to discover..."
"Does she know you?" he cried, suddenly pressing forward till he practically tread on Lanethil's toes. "Does she know what you are?"
"Does she know that you're practically an orc?"
"Oh, that is hardly fair!" Lanethil spun away, but Frodo could still see his ears turning red, where they poked from his mussed-up hair.
"Does she know that you must chew wood, like a, like a common beast?"
Lanethil turned back with a sigh, obviously struggling to compose himself. "Frodo, you are distraught. You know not what you say. You have no claim on the maiden, and yet you..."
"Of course I have no claim on her! I have no claim on anybody because there is nobody here for me! I am utterly alone here, far from all the ladies of my own kind, and you have no idea what..." And then he stopped dead, and took his turn to blush. He waited long for some reply, and when none came he muttered. "Of course--what a fool I am. You know better than anybody."
Lanethil laid a hand on his shoulder. "Come, Frodo. Let me buy you a..." and then took his turn to fall suddenly silent.
"You were going to offer to buy me a drink, weren't you?" Frodo started to laugh. "Or, you could offer to walk me to the bakery, maybe, to drown my sorrows in cookies while we mourn our tragedies together?"
"Oh, that would go well!" And Lanethil laughed, too.
Frodo's laughter subsided. He bent to pick up the remaining pots and pans and buckets "Poor Crookyteeth. It can't be easy, finding herself caught in the middle like that."
"Especially when her heart, if given full rein, would choose you over me."
Frodo stared at him while the smith studied each piece of metalwork for damage and sorted it accordingly. "Do you really mean that?"
Lanethil turned away to rummage through a chest. "Every time I please the dear lass she will exclaim that I have acted just like you."
"But you...but you're..."
Lanethil glanced over his shoulder. "Practically an orc?"
"Oh, Lanethil, I didn't mean it! I just felt so...what is that?"
"This?" Lanethil emerged from the trunk holding a crystal flask of deep ruby contents. "Oh, merely a cordial of my own devising. The kaktush fruits ripen, and soon shall cry out for fermentation. The time approaches when I shall need empty bottles." He went over to his work-table where a couple metal goblets already sat next to another flask with nothing but a little dregs in it. "And so I ought to see about the emptying."
"About your offer..."
"Oh, I do not intend this for you, have no fear. It is just that after that unfortunate encounter I feel like I could use a bit of reinforcement..."
"You did almost offer to buy me a drink..."
"Which of course I take back--not that I ever completed the offer." He filled a goblet for himself.
"Good--because the Blue Dragon is far too public a place..."
"...for gentlefolk who desire discretion?" And then Lanethil looked at Frodo anew with an impish smile. "Besides--they have nothing to offer of this caliber." He hesitated, then poised the flask over the second, studying Frodo with one raised eyebrow.
"Oh why not?" Frodo exclaimed and came over, kicking aside the last couple pans. "You have persuaded me, Lanethil. I have not tasted any such thing since the King came to my aid. Perhaps I have no further need to fear an occasional draught now and then."
Lanethil nodded, and poured the other drink. "Indeed--how can one be sure of the extent of the healing without at least one test of the boundaries?" He raised his own, saying, "Of course, you needn't listen to me--among elves I have never been numbered among the wise..." Then after a hearty swallow he wiped his mouth and declared, "Then again, wisdom does not suit every hour."
Frodo stared up at the work-table. "Lanethil...um...there remains the matter of our different heights..."
"Oh. Yes. Of course." The smith nudged over a nail keg, went into his quarters, came back out with a dusty old cushion of real Haradrim silk, the fringe a bit raveled and the hue faded to a warm pink, and he set this atop the keg, and then set the hobbit on top of that. Frodo noted that the hands that lifted him felt warm.
"This is not your first...you plied poor Crookyteeth with drink!"
"You plied her with cakes. I tell you, Frodo, she has a harder head for my enticements than for yours." He bowed with almost exaggerated elvish grace, then took another sip. "Besides, as I said, bottles need emptying, and sharing hastens the work." He drank deep, then sighed and smiled. "Ah, I have not lost my old skill, if I say so, myself. In any case, Frodo, I made the beverage quite mild."
Frodo took a gulp, and gasped. "Mild for an elf!" Yet he also had to admit that the deep, fruity flavor, with nuance upon nuance shifting in the mouth, surpassed anything that he had ever tasted, save for the wine of the Mirkwood elves at the healing of Legolas, and even that did not carry the same savor of the exotic as this potion of the desert.
Lanethil pulled up a keg for himself and sat beside the hobbit. "Wine recommends itself for the discussion of broken hearts." He raised his cup to Frodo. "A toast to the mysteries of human women."
Frodo clinked his flagon to the elf's, and savored a second swallow, feeling a warmth steal through him more congenial than the hot sun outside the workshop's shade. "Hearts? Plural?"
"Mine as well as yours, my dashing little friend, and the heart as well of our mutual desire. You have given me a hard act to follow, as men would say, for I fear that our ravishing Crookyteeth will never forget you."
Frodo smiled into his cup. "You really do think so?"
"I know so. And who else might console our poor baker, in all of this village, except for the next best thing--the man who might once have been an elf." He finished off his drink with a flourish.
"You are an elf!"
"Here, let me freshen that for you." After pouring a refill for himself as well, Lanethil leaned one elbow on the table, musing. "Am I, Frodo? It has been so long. Aside from immortality, and a certain swiftness at the forge--which ages of experience could explain away--how do I differ, really, from everyone around me?"
Between sips Frodo said, "Those are big differences. Big, big, big. I mean really big!"
"Yet not the most essential." Lanethil gestured broadly. "How long and how far I have fallen!"
"Aw, you have done well, my friend, more than, I mean, beyond, yes, that is the word, beyond what anyone could have expected." He finished his drink and patted the elf's arm, causing the elf to splash a little wine in the refilling of the hobbit's cup. Frodo felt himself positively tingling with sympathy for Lanethil, who after all couldn't help it if he came in second to a dashing foreign hobbit.
"You think so, Frodo?"
"Ab-so-LUTE-ly! Do you think, uh, think, that any lesser being could come up with such a delectable beverage?"
Lanethil held up his cup, smiling a little crookedly, causing Frodo to wonder just how much "emptying" the elf had engaged in before either he or Crookyteeth had arrived. "'Tis good--I must admit as much, a particularly excellent vintage, for the drought seemed to concentrate the flavors. Ah, fair elixir of the kaktush fruit! Our secret consolation, even in the darkest days, in Sauron's choking shadow."
Oh, not all that secret!
"Shut up Sauron!" Frodo laughed, and Lanethil laughed, too.
"May I say that, Frodo? I have always longed to say it."
"Be my guest."
"Shut up, Sauron!" And they both nearly fell off their barrels with mirth, but recovered their balance enough to recover their cups and polish them off again.
Well, if silence be the price for entertainment, why should I not sit back and seal my lips, enjoying the spectacle? I have paid good coin for less.
"Tha's right! We showed him, din't we? Pour me another, ol' pal!"
"Are you sure?"
"Whaddya mean, am I sure? Sauron has fallen silent! Doesn't that deserve a celebration?"
Of course I have. Absolutely mum. You showed me.
"I see your point. Here you go, then...and a little more for me."
"Alas--an unfortunate name. Focusing on her only flaw like that. A being so sweet, so generous, so..."
"...round. A delicate, delicious creampuff." A little more would go down sweet...there you go. "Should we rename her Creampuff?"
"I think not, Frodo. Goats do not give off cream, and she has never tasted it."
"That never stopped Fishenchips. But very well! Cupcake, then?"
"An excellent choice! Cheers! A toast to a most sublime renaming!"
"Aye! Bottoms up!"
"Now Frodo..." Lanethil leaned against the table, tapping it with his finger. "One must never, ever, ever say that when toasting a lady."
"Why n...oh. Quite right. Quite right. Well, Cupcake it is, then. The sort that mounds up and overflows the pan, luxurrriously topped with lots and lots of butter icing..."
"It saddens me to remind you that we have no butter, either."
"Ah, but that much she has tasted, at least, for the King hisself brought butter to my pantry, and I, I served her with my own two hands, her lips agains' my fingers, her dear little tongue licking up the crumbs that clung to butter on their tips..."
"Ohhhh, most fortunate of rascals! Say no more or I might slay you in a fit of jealousy! Here--will more wine stop your mouth, oh shameless one?"
"Thanks...but you might 'member that li'l trick. It makes her chuckle when you, you feed her dainties hand to mouth." Just a splash more? Why thank you! That hits the spot, as they would say in the Shire. "An' surely the cooking of an elf'd surpass the skills of even the most renowwwned of hobbit chefs, such as myself."
"You would say this to me? Reveal so priceless a secret?" Lanethil's eyes watered. "Oh Frodo--how generous of you! How very, very, very generous!" And he threw his arm around the hobbit's shoulders just a bit more roughly than Frodo had expected of an elf.
Frodo found that the next words caught in his throat. "Just make her happy, Lanethil. That is all I ask." Another swallow eased the rasp a bit. "Jus' make dear Crookyteeth happy."
"Cupcake, remember. She shall be Cupcake, evermore."
"Shall we go and, um, inform the lady in question of her fortunate renaming?"
The elf sprang up from his keg. "Why not? Oh, I can imagine the delight upon her blushing face!"
Frodo started to climb down from his own keg, grabbed the table and reconsidered. "Uh...Lanethil? Could you do me the honors?"
"Oh yes...of course. It always seems so normal, talking to you, that I forget how short you are."
"I am not short!" Frodo protested as Lanethil lifted him down. "I will have you know that among my own I am considered quite tall and dashing." Frodo grabbed ahold of Lanethil's belt while his feet reacquainted themselves with the ground. "Onward to the bakery! Ohhhh Cupcake!" he called. "We have a new naaame for you!"
"Shhhh!" Lanethil cautioned as they headed down the street, the elf steering the hobbit as best he could. "We needn't tell the entire village before we tell the luscious maid herself."
"Cupcake, Cup*ip*cake, what a perfect name, if I do say so, myself. Of course, she more resemembles a whole compendium of cupcakes, arranged first with a couple..."
"We needn't say that, either, my good fellow."
"Oh, she will be so happy when she sees us, and we tell her the good news!"
But when they entered the bakery a wave of hot air, heavy with a cloying redolence of honeyed muffins, suffocated Frodo and made him reel away from Lanethil, turning all things nauseously topsy-turvey, Crookyteeth's disapproving face the last thing he saw at an impossible angle before darkness overtook him.
And then firelight flickered before his eyes, as he pulled himself up off the grit of a black pavement, staring at all of the sharp edges of crumpled metal and smoking, burning substances unknown to him, as out of it crawled a revenant, a blood-drenched creature with bared bones and severed parts, grinning teeth gleaming in the fire-washed light through a rent in the cheek, only one eye to burn at him. Frodo grabbed onto the wheel of some gigantic and crush-fronted vehicle and moaned "Ohhhh no! Not again!" and then started to giggle hysterically.
"My dear Frodo!" the bleeding mouth before him croaked. "So glad you could return to me!"