He Clasped Her Fast, Both Flesh and Bone
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 5, Part 189
Frodo knew, and did not know the face of the woman who strode towards him, almost staggered, except that the proud form would not relinquish control to mere extremes of exhaustion, so that each step had a faint jerk to it, caught just short of unbalancing. He had known that face in the grime of travel before, yet not so thick that the features seemed almost charred. He had seen that silver-gold hair toss wild in a gallop or dishevel in the throes of battle, but never before matted, as though days had gone by too overtaken by the demands of survival to tend to basic grooming. He had known animation in those eyes, yet not the searing stare of one who has strained her sight on miles and miles of horror. Only once before had he ever glimpsed a gaze to match it, and that had been in a dream: he had once, in sleep, beheld his father trudging through the wastes of Mordor, gaunt almost beyond recognition, with just such a look about the eyes.
The man with her also seemed familiar yet unfamiliar. He had known someone like that before, the lean jaw, the gray eyes, the tall and lanky strength, but with silver hair, not black, a face more lined, though this younger version had seen weather enough for its years. Yet these younger eyes, too, stared a thousand miles in just a few yards, as he let the old woman lean on his own weary arm (“Had she ever leaned on anyone before?” Frodo wondered.) They stopped in the middle of the Tea Room of the Brandybuck Mercantile Trading Post, glancing about at the soft chairs, the rugs, the cheery bouquets in vases upon the polished tables, as though at hallucinations, not to be trusted.
Turquoise said, “Your pardon, Master Gardner, for disturbing you, but Prince Eldarion and Lady Eowyn insisted upon laying eyes on you and Mistress Gardner before they would take their rest.” At that Eowyn’s head whipped around to scowl incredulously at the scarred young secretary, and then at Mattie. Her hand stole to the hilt of her sword as she turned back to the couple, her eyes wide, bewildered.
Frodo stepped in quickly. “Begging your pardon, Prince and Lady. All of this will make much more sense after you have fed and bathed, and taken a bit of a rest. I can see that you have had a cruel time of it, and are not yet ready to properly appraise the situation.”
At that Eowyn laughed hoarsely, and in that laugh became more like herself. She relaxed, her hand slipping away from the hilt. “And here I thought I had come to evaluate your sanity, among my other duties. But you speak wisely, my little friend; whatever else might have passed, it does my heart good to see that wisdom beyond your years still has some place with you. Except...” and here her eyes strayed towards Mattie, “Mistress Gardner?”
“Long stories need comfortable listeners,” Frodo insisted, reaching up to pat her on the arm. “Go–take care of yourselves.”
Eowyn nodded and began to turn aside, yet Eldarion remained and she looked to him, concerned, her arm still upon his. The young man stared off into the distance, wavering a little where he stood. Now it seemed more as though he leaned upon the crone, rather than the other way around. Softly Eowyn told him, “Come, Eldarion, your ordeal has ended for now. You have fullfilled your mission, so that mine may finally begin.” To the others she said, “The poor lad has struggled long and hard with the Palantir of Isengard, to find and rescue me in the wilds. Still, his father judged him ready.”
“Barely,” the young man husked, his voice like the faintest breeze from a distant country. He closed his eyes tight and swayed. “Time and again I almost lost myself in all of the shifting ages and places, swirling within the globe, its cirque expanding to a universe, contracting again to an orb of crystal night gripped within my hands. Ada tried to guide me from afar, but...” and here he shuddered, his eyes flying open, unseeing, “He had only the Palantir of Anor. Truly no one else has the will to peer beyond the flames, between the burning fingers.” As they watched the sweat beaded anew upon his brow. “Sometimes...sometimes when he would contact me, mind to mind through the Palantiri, I would see those burning hands in the distance, coming closer, reaching out to me...”
Eowyn put an arm around his shoulders. “Hush, lad. It is all right now. You have fulfilled your duty, and need not peer into the Palantir again, not until you are safe once more in the Citadel and your father can guide your lessons in the comfort of your home, scanning pleasant, distant places. Already you have advanced in technique far beyond what you would have learned in Minas Tirith without urgency to drive you–your father must be proud of you.”
“Yes...proud.” Eldarion lifted his head a little. “I am truly a Telcontar. I may go home unashamed.”
“Yes, my Lord and friend.” Taking care of the young prince seemed to do wonders for Eowyn, pulling her up straight, softening her eyes.
Frodo fingered his lens and thought, “So it has gone, day in and day out, the young man and the old woman taking turns being the strong one, tapping on opposite kinds of strength, spinning something powerful between them. These few weeks have bound them in friendship for life.”
Mattie just stood by Frodo’s side in silence until Turquoise led the visitors away to accommodations of their own. Then she turned a stricken face to Frodo, saying, “Is that how everyone will react to our marriage?”
“Eowyn is an old warhorse, and too tired for diplomacy; think nothing of it.” He led her to a comfortable loveseat, scaled to hobbit size and probably imported all the way from the Shire. “Here; it is tea-time. Let me pour you some of this excellent brew–nobody knows tea like the Easterlings.”
“But that is how everyone will think, won’t they?”
Frodo sat down the pot he had poured, and stroked her cheek. “Perhaps. But I do not care, Matthilda. Now try one of these cakes, why don’t you? The jhinjir ones are particularly toothsome.”
In a small voice she asked, “Have I been so terrible?”
“What matters is who you are now. In time you can make amends for the past, as opportunity allows. But right now you need to concentrate on building the new you, the you that you were always meant to be, so that you can become strong enough to face whatever honor demands.”
“Build? With what? The sharp-edged fragments of a shattered life? What can anyone make out of such refuse?”
Frodo sipped his own tea and said, “I’ve heard that you used to frequent The Cloven Horn in Osgiliath. Remember the beauty of that inn? Built out of scavenged ruins, isn’t it, to something unique and utterly remarkable.” He leaned back against the cushions, his eyes half-closed in memory. “Remember the sunset over the river, shining through the window-shards–that’s what lies ahead for you, Mattie. Remember the warmth where weathers once blew wild, the hospitality where war once tramped, the curious and jumbled grace built high amid the wreakage, more fair in its way for all that it has been through, like nothing else could be.”
Mattie said little after that. When they returned to their lodgings she went about the tidying of their room in a thoughtful silence.
“I’m amazed,” Frodo said, watching how much she accomplished while he still went about looking for a cleaning-rag. “How did you learn such efficiency at housekeeping, when you have lived from a saddle for most of your life?
“Oh, there’s nothing to it, really. I cannot remember a time in my childhood when I didn’t take care of everything in my father’s hole.” Then her eyes clouded. “And yet it is not nothing, after all. After all these years...what if my reflexes forget something? Something important?”
Frodo pulled the broom from her hands and asked, “Would you miss the open road, living as Mistress Gardner?”
She gazed full into his eyes and asked, “Would you stop me from a cross-country ride if I did?”
He laughed and said, “I’d join you! But it scares me sometimes, how different the life ahead of us might look to you.”
Her eyes did not waver from his. “Does the future hold anything not frightening?” She took the broom back from him. “You have become so used to life that you have no idea what a terrifying business it is–how many possible mistakes stretch across our paths like snares, how many unforeseeable chances prowl like predators all around us, barely out of sight. I had not walked fully in this world for a long, long time–I appreciate how awful it can be.” She stopped sweeping and looked at him again. “And by that I mean that it fills me with awe. The more the poppy dulled me, the more I craved excitement to fill up the lack, to make me feel as though alive. Now that I live once more indeed,” and here she laughed, resuming her sweeping, “I find myself quite overwhelmed enough wondering whether I can conquer the dustbunnies in time for company.” She laughed again. “It will take some time, I think, before I can aspire beyond the simple life of a homemaker.” She bent to reach her broom under the bed. “And harpist. I shall always have my harp.”
“And you shall teach our children to sing as sweetly as the songbirds of Doriath, no doubt about it.”
Mattie blushed and smiled, but did not reply.
Later, though, with everything cleaned up and nothing left to do but take their pleasure in each other, Mattie leaned her head against Frodo’s breast and asked, “What must it have been like for her to put aside her sword and clasp a broom instead?”
“The Lady Eowyn? She has servants for sweeping. And believe me, she still has need of a sword now and then, in her line of work. The sort of patients that she heals do not always agree with her idea of their best interests.”
“Will you? If she has come for you?”
Frodo clasped her close. “She cannot have me. I have escaped dragons; I do not fear the Lady of Ithilien.”