For Into Darkness Fell His Star
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 33, Part 174
The Shipshape Stable
June 13, 1452
"Come along, Mattie; a little work will do us both a world of good."
Frodo looked terrible, Mattie decided, as she climbed down the ladder after him into the hold. She studied him all the way through the galley, back through the pantry into the storage area, threading the narrow pathway between the crates of pottery. His bruises from the day before had colored up and swollen, and he had that fragile, frightened look in his eyes again, at odds with his smile, that he always got while trying to pretend that everything had gotten back to normal, when they had not.
And when had she learned to read him so well, anyway? These past months since they met blurred in her memory, yet snatches surfaced more and more all the time, some of them filling her with so much pain that she ached for her next ration, she yearned to fog each memory back away again in clouds of perfumed smoke--more and more smoke, if only she could have it, softening the edges, hazing back the guilt, more and more until its power let her drift all the ways away into the final retreat of death!
Frodo handed her the man-sized tools available, then stopped, peering more closely at her in the barnyard-scented dimness. "Cravings bad again?" he asked her gently.
"Yes." A shiver ran through her, but she bit her lip and straightened up, then tried to smile as jauntily as possible. "Just the tapering, that is all. I can handle it." When had he learned to read her so well, for that matter?
Frodo led her to the stern, to the animal enclosure where their steeds awaited landfall: Bleys, Stumblehoof, and Pippin's pony, Goldenrod. "Then you're doing better than me," he murmured as he filled the water-troughs.
"Frodo, why do you have Stumblehoof's and Bleys's tack all laid out on the fence?"
"Well, we do go ashore tomorrow. Why waste time?"
"But not Goldenrod's?"
"Oh, I am sure that Uncle Pippin can manage quite quickly enough for his purposes."
"Where are his things, by the way?"
But Frodo only smiled mysteriously as he filled another bucket at the water-barrel.
Stumblehoof knew ship-travel as well as any horse living, and munched his fodder contentedly as soon as Mattie put the feedbag on him, and Bleys had an innately tough constitution that seemed to take surprise at nothing, but Goldenrod had only gone afloat one time before. The pony rushed to Frodo's side as soon as the hobbit had climbed into the enclosure, nuzzling him and pressing close in a skittish way, so that he nearly knocked Frodo over a time or two while the hobbit tried to muck the stable, the animal's eyes so wide that you could see a rim of white.
"Easy lad, easy!" Frodo soothed Goldenrod down. "We only sail for five days, Goldie; tomorrow you shall feel good sod under your hooves again, or at least steady rock and gravel." He finally managed to get the feedbag on the pony's muzzle, then stood with an arm around him to keep him calm enough to eat, while he watched the shafts of sunlight sparkle with the golden dust of straw.
"Five days," Mattie said, breathlessly. "That would be about how long it takes a hobbit to recover from the abstinence sickness, give or take a few." And then she sneezed.
"You're kidding!" Frodo stared at her. "You mean we came so close before?"
Mattie shrugged, concentrating on pitching straw. "It would have taken longer last time, anyway." She smiled in an embarrassed way. "I had smoked so much in the days before that the abstinence sickness didn't really start for a day or two." Then the smile dropped away. "It hardly matters. I have done it twice in my life already, all the way through." This time her grin had an edge of scorn to it. "It at least made my return less expensive." She sneezed a couple more times, and shook her head. "Curing the body is only half the battle, I fear."
"But at least with Uncle Pippin rationing your dose, tapering you down, this time should go easier."
"For the flesh, at least." Mattie dabbed at her nose with the kerchief. "He has cut it back so close that it gives me the snuffles now and then. Good of him to do it for me, though."
"He only means the best for you." Fingering his lens, Frodo said, "Just don't trust him all the way--his idea of 'best' and mine don't always agree."
"He had no choice in what happened yesterday, Frodo. And I...I ruined everything, suggesting smoke for you. I'm sorry. Oh heavens, Frodo, I am so sorry, sorry, sorry!" She pressed the handle of the rake against her brow and wept. His kindly hand upon her back surprised and comforted her.
"I will not blame you, Mattie. I might have done the same, in your situation." She felt him sigh as she turned to hold him tight, dropping the rake. With his cheek nestled against her head, he told her, "I am the one who should apologize--if any words could suffice! I, I just wasn't ready to learn..." he broke out in a sweat and Mattie let go--reluctantly, for his hugs eased the edginess like nothing else could short of poppy-gum.
"Take a deep breath," she advised him. "It helps me, too." She took his hands. "Here, together, now, in...out...in...out...better?"
He nodded. "Oh Mattie, I want to prove that I am not the lunatic that people think I am--but after yesterday, I even wonder, myself." He picked up his own rake from where he had leaned it on the fence. "No, I'm all right, really. In most matters I...it is just...I suppose I have a sore spot yet about time, you see. I didn't know."
"That, that when Vaire repaired the rift in time she had to shift me over slightly, like pulling fabric a little out of line to stitch up a tear." He concentrated on his raking like he looked for treasure hidden in the straw. "See, in the history that I remember being born into, my Uncle Tom should still be very much alive, it was Frodo Baggins who died when I was a tiny lad, not the Gaffer, and the Gaffer only a little past ten years ago. Now I find it all scrambled up. That is all." He shuddered. "I think that's all. I don't know. My whole life might be full of little thorns, discrepancies to snag on, inaccurate memories. My Uncle Tom...oh heavens, my Uncle Tom..."
She rushed back to him, held him as he wept. "No wake, no year of mourning...well, I had those things, but not for Tom, at least not the way I remember it--no sharing the memories of him, polishing each one like keepsakes to set up properly on their own special shelves..." She felt every sob shudder through him as for a moment he lost the power of speech. Then..."Tom, he...he liked to go fishing. He taught me how to fish. How to swim, too--something my father couldn't do for me. He, he taught me how to make a whistle from a blade of grass, held between the hands just so. He stood kind of tall for a hobbit, used to be the tallest, they tell me, till Uncles Merry and Pippin grew, and oh, stout as an oak tree and just as unbudgeable when he set his mind to something, but Mattie, he could dance as spry as you could wish all the same, danced with his wife on holidays, so light and lively that you'd think him all made up of cattail fluff, swirling her 'round and 'round so that everybody cleared a space for him and Aunt Marigold--oh, to think of Aunt Marigold without him!"
"There there," Mattie said, patting his back. Could there be any more meaningless words in the world, than "There there"?
"Papa...he and Tom would go out hunting now and then, bows and arrows you know, bring back rabbits sometimes, or pheasants in season, or sometimes nothing at all except the stories, the things they saw, tramping about in the woods. Uncle Tom's catch, mostly; he said he brought my father along mainly to scare the game away. He would always laugh, say he couldn't understand how such a bad shot could have won so much renown as a famous warrior, and Papa would laugh back, because he knew that shooting arrows had nothing to do with his end of it, and he didn't need to be good at everything. Oh, Tom would tease Papa about a lot of things, but not about elves, not like a lot of folk did, because that was one thing they'd shared back in the old days that even Papa's own brothers couldn't understand--that yearning to see elves. And when Papa'd talk about the elves that he had actually known, ate with, traveled with, fought beside, Tom would fall silent and listen, a gleam in his eyes, pure pleasure for my father's sake. That silence meant more sometimes than all his words." Frodo laughed a bit. "I feel some relief, actually, just talking about it with you, Mattie. Uncle Pippin couldn't begin to understand."
She laughed shakily, herself. "Don't stake too much on my understanding, Frodo. I'm the one whose favorite pastime is hallucinating." Then she winced. "Was," she corrected.
In a softer voice Frodo confessed, "I did think myself sounder than...well, I must have been pretty bad yesterday, wasn't I?"
"Don't you remember?"
He smiled lopsidedly and returned to his chores. "I think I wish I didn't." Then, in a firmer voice, he said, "The discrepancy cannot differ all that much. Vaire would have slipped me into the closest equivalent time-thread to the one that the letter damaged..." And then he glanced her way and she wanted to shrink so bad...
"The letter I gave you." She drew back a few steps. "Outside of time. Frodo, I had no idea I could do that!"
He shuddered again, but said, "Pick up your rake again--let's get to work."
"It won't happen again, Frodo." She did as he said, her rake rattling a little against the deck from the shivers in her limbs. "That gives me another reason to give up the poppy-gum. Frodo, I have some kind of magic in me--I don't understand it, myself--but I can see that now, it is just too dangerous to surrender my mind anymore. If I have to denounce the magic, I will!" Her chin trembled, but she held it up.
"It isn't even your magic," Frodo said as he worked, not looking at her. "It is Sauron's, what he left behind, by accident, in his forgotten garden. What did you expect? Violets?"
In a small voice she said, "All I wanted was to give you a present. Something you would like."
"You said the same thing when you poisoned me. Mattie, please don't give me any more presents!"
She turned from him to fetch fresh straw. Only when she pitched it with a shaking hand did he see her tears.
"Mattie, I am sorry. You meant well--I know that. Oh lass, nobody knows better how well you mean. But the best intentions go awry in Sauron's thrall." He caressed her back as she dried her eyes, then he broke open another bale and scattered it across the boards by her side. "And no, I have not forgotten the times you have saved me and others by the songs that you have stolen from the dark. Some little light of your own survives in you, that makes such effort possible, that can still wrest evil powers to some good. Yet can you imagine how it shall restore you, to rip down the curtains between you and the rest of the light?" He forced a laugh. "I tell you what, Mattie--once you break free, you may give me all the presents that you please! I promise I won't mind."
Sniffling, not looking at him, she said in a low voice, "Give how I might, I cannot repay you for all that you have done for me. Thank you--thank you beyond all words--and especially for giving me a new harp, better than the one I lost."
"Not new, really." Frodo petted Goldenrod, who once again sidled too close to allow him room to work. "Lanethil's old one." Goldie smelled so much like Billie Lass...he stroked the cord around his neck. "Our smith says that he wants to make a larger harp, anyway, now that he can trade for the wood. By the way, Mattie, whatever happened to..."
"Sold it. I am as foul as everyone tells you, Frodo." Her face twisted up as much with anger as with grief as the hot tears flowed. "I sank so low that I sold my cursed harp!" And with the last straw down, she threw the pitchfork into the stack.
"Oh Mattie, no!" Frodo reached for her, but she leaned away from him, clutching her own arms.
"You don't want to touch me Frodo--that is not the worst of it. Before word came about your sister..."
"That didn't happen!"
"Before word came about your sister," she said harshly, "I thought to myself that hey, everybody knows that I'm female, now--here is one more thing to sell, after I spend the money from the harp--that'll be the next thing, the one commodity that I cannot run out of."
"No." she sighed, slumping against the fence. "I didn't. But I came so close. Who cares what anyone might do to a body reft of feeling? Oh Frodo, if I hadn't heard what I did..."
"But I understand, now!" He clapped her on the back. "You must have dreamed all that about my sister--because dreams will try to save us. And it did, Mattie, it did! The dream felt so real that it shocked you before you could throw yourself away."
She looked doubtfully up at him, her lip trembling. "I wish I could believe you. By Angband's gate, I wish I knew what was real!"
Frodo laughed, gently. "Around here I have a hard time figuring that out, myself." He hesitated, and then asked, "Oh, by the way--if you were so short of cash, how did you buy your latest tin?"
"Oh, Frodo--you are so careless about how you leave your coin just laying around for any..." They stared at each other. "Seriously. You should take better care." More silence. "Well for heaven's sake, Frodo--you have so much you don't even notice when a little goes missing!"
Frodo burst out laughing so suddenly that she flinched, and then she laughed along as well. "May it be the same for you someday," he said, and climbed out to the fodder-stack. He forked it over and she pitched it into the mangers. Then he climbed back in and they removed the bags of oats from the muzzles of horse, ass, and pony. "Some things I do know, though--like the fact that I have a long ways to go before I finish my work in Mordor. She needs me, Mattie...and I find that I need her. At this point I fear that if I went back home I would become my family's basket-case. Here I have meaningful work that only I can do."
Frodo helped Mattie up over the fence again.. "Come, let's wash up. It is nearly tea-time, and Uncle Pippin will want to see how many cakes he can stuff into us." Mattie saw him scowl when he didn't see her looking, as he went to check to make sure the tines of her pitchfork hadn't stricken some saddlebags, bulging with supplies, unaccountably hidden among the bales. "Uncle Pippin means well."