He Clasped Her Fast, Both Flesh and Bone
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 6, Part 190
Questions of Sanity
June 30, 1452
The next morning, Frodo rolled over and looked into his wife’s wan face. He sat up suddenly and cried, “Mattie! Are you all right?”
“Nothing to worry about, my love. It is simply nerves, nothing more.”
Frodo poured her a cup of water and asked, “Are you sure? You look like you woke up in a spider’s larder.”
“Yes. I am simply out of practice in dealing with fear.” She turned her face away, embarrassed.
Frodo fetched them both fresh tunics while Mattie washed up for the day. “What are you afraid of?”
“Her,” Mattie said faintly. “What she might do to me–or to you.”
Frodo made himself laugh. “Oh, don’t let Ol’ Eowyn trouble you.” He hugged his wife. “The King hisself gave me a clean bill of health, remember? And you are not the madwoman that Eowyn set out to hunt. I have faith that someone wise in her profession can tell the difference.”
Yet Mattie turned a troubled gaze to him. “That is not my only fear, Frodo. Something has gone wrong. The earth in me senses something pounding like a fevered pulse. The water and the fire in me senses something hot and spilled. The air in me discerns a smell that sickens me.”
Frodo combed her curls for her. “Few days have passed since your ordeal, Beloved. You might perceive all manner of frightful things that have no truth behind them. You yourself told me that random worries could plague you, long after all physical symptoms have passed by. Is it possible, in fact, for those physical symptoms to pop up now and again for awhile after the initial siege? You do not look well.”
“I don’t know,” she whispered. “I have never lasted this long before.” Then she shook her head and smiled, color returning to her cheeks. In a nearly normal voice she said, “There–it has passed already. Nothing to fret about, as I said. Just a bad, bad case of nerves.”
“I hope so,” Frodo said, and mixed up a nice porridge for their breakfast, with good cold milk drawn up from the cooling-well outside, and honey, and butter, and handfuls of Eastern almonds, and just the gentlest sprinkle of that red-bark spice that he now could hardly face porridge without. Mattie devoted herself to her breakfast with a gusto that belied her recent anxiety.
“You see? I am quite recovered , and I shall not fear an old woman of the Rohirrim, “ she kept saying between mouthfuls. “I have changed indeed. Surely she will see that, Frodo, won’t she? Surely anyone can see?”
“I am certain of it,” Frodo said again and again, with words and with caresses. “Everything will go just fine.” He kept his own fears to himself.
Besides, he had things to take care of before their mid-morning meeting with the Lady Eowyn and Prince Eldarion, things that took a good deal of his consideration. Their ship would arrive in a couple of days to take them back to Seaside and the Sea of Nurnen. He negotiated supplies for their passage for his wife and all the crew besides, fodder for Bleys, and for Elenaril he bought a little pair of baby’s slippers such as human children wore, with bells on the toes so that the mother could always find her child when he reached a mobile age. Frodo stayed so busy, in fact, that nine o’clock caught him completely unawares, and he had to dash to get back to meet the others on schedule.
Before Frodo and Mattie walked into the Tea Room that morning, converted into a dining room for their meeting, past the swords of noble lineage left beside the door, they heard the elder lady and the young prince in argument. “No, you do not understand!” they heard Eldarion protest as they stood at the door, as quietly as only hobbits can. “It has nothing to do with any desire of mine, nor policy of my father’s. I speak only out of concern for you.”
“Yet if I believe you, that would mean that you fancy me ignorant of matters to which I have devoted more years of study than you have lived. Hardly a better outcome, Elda.”
“Please do not take it that way–no one can exercise the same objectivity upon themselves that they might muster for another. I am not yet satisfied that...why, good morning, Master and Mistress Gardner! Do come join us.”
Eowyn and Eldarion looked strikingly different this morning, sitting around a pleasant table, waiting for their own breakfast while inviting the hobbits to join them. Clean-scrubbed, rested and to all appearances now quite calm, silver/gold or sable hair brushed into glossy cascades, they had put on fresh clothing (pale green for the Lady of Ithilien, black for the Prince of Gondor) and their court manners as well, their perfect postures signifying that they meant business. Only Frodo, with the Glass of May, could have detected the lingering aura of shock and fatigue, still haunting their gaze, from their strange travels.
Brandybuck Mercantile kept special chairs on hand, high-seated and handsomely turned, with a step that doubled as a foot-rest, the whole set up on wheels, complemented by a rail built into the table to let a hobbit pull the chair in close to his food unassisted, so that Big Folk and Little could dine comfortably together. Frodo appreciated the dignity of this far more than he would have believed, having lived now some time among the furnishings of men. And second breakfast looked good, like a warm and flavorful visitation from the Shire.
At first the Lady and the Prince desired only to hear the adventures of the hobbits, who answered their questions between bites. Simply and with searing honesty Mattie related all that had passed since she had abandoned her mail and fled into the wilderness. It moved Frodo to the trembling point to hear the entire story in one piece, from Mattie’s fear of being forcibly parted from her precious flower-gum and the measures she took to avoid this at any cost, to the growing horror at what it had made of her, to the dawning resolve to part herself by choice. Frodo listened now for the first time to the entire tale of selling Trickster, then the harp, then the full account of Mattie thinking that she overheard bad news of May at the Cloven Horn, even as she eyed a clothesline just beyond the inn; from this she had planned to steal a human child’s pretty ruffled skirt, that would have revealed her femininity only so as to despoil it for more gum. Tears ran down the chiseled face of Eldarion to hear the shame in the voice of the young hobbitess, and the resolution to regain integrity at any cost.
Then Frodo joined Mattie in telling of their journey together, that began before they ever set foot upon the ship. The false start, the resolve to not give up, the voyage towards healing far from temptation, the escape from Uncle Pippin’s well-meaning apprehension, the ordeal in the wilderness, the triumphant wedding that to their minds sealed their victory for good. “My only regret,” Frodo said, “and it is a small one, is that right now the harvesting of grains goes on without me, that I first planted at the thaw. Yet I shall rejoice in other harvests,” he said grinning, and putting an arm around Mattie, “with this goodwife by my side.”
“And what shall you harvest?” Eowyn asked. “Fields of blowing poppies?”
Frodo’s face reddened as Eldarian glanced sharply at the woman. Tightly the hobbit answered, “Grain, milady. Wrygrass seems particularly suited for the climate.”
Eowyn stared at Eldarion’s shocked face and seemed to remember herself. Graciously she said, “I have no wrygrass-bread to offer you, but would you care for a slice of this ham, Master Gardner?” Eowyn slid a plate over to Frodo. “The local hocks leaves much to be desired, from what pigs feed off of around here, but this comes from Ithilien; I laid some by before I departed into the wild.”
“I am used to Mordor ham by now–but thank you. It does look good.”
“I have tasted wrygrass, in my study of herbs–slightly bitter, not for every taste, and little wonder that few have cultivated it till now. Yet it does complement the sweetness of ham surprisingly well; I wish you joy in the fresh loaves of your future.” Eowyn then turned to Mattie, who loaded up her plate all over again. “My what a big appetite for such a little lady!” Again, everyone at the table tensed. Eldarion cleared his throat. A little flustered, Eowyn added, “But do not let me stop you–it does me good to see your gauntness fade and health fill in its place.”
Mattie blushed. “Forgive me for seeming greedy, milady. I have gone too long with too little taste for food until recently.”
“You have indeed.” Eowyn leaned forward. “And now?”
“Now? I have what I have always wanted–freedom, love, and purpose.” Mattie looked to Frodo. “The real things, not pretty illusions to stand in for their lack.”
“Indeed? And what would you do if Frodo left you?”
“MADAM!” Frodo protested, shoving so hard away from the table that his chair went careening into the wall behind him. “I would never do such a thing!”
Eowyn turned a cool, gray gaze upon him. “A husband may leave a wife in many ways, Master Gardner. Mordor holds a thousand means for you to die, even if you do not come to repent this ‘marriage’ of yours, and find it easily dissolved in light of its irregularities. Or your work could so enthrall you that your wife sees less and less of you, and feels herself a widow in all but fact.”
Frodo turned red, but stood up on the step of his chair and bowed. “Thank you for warning me of these pitfalls. I shall take care not to let them happen.”
“Anyone may die, Frodo, at any age. Care might not prevent it.” She turned back to Mattie. “And so, ‘Mistress’ Gardner, do you think you could hold onto clarity without your ‘husband’s’ support?”
Mattie straightened herself, dabbing at her mouth with a napkin. “Vaire of the Valier took my beloved horse as sacrifice in return for my life. I have the right to demand of her that she help me keep it. Whole life, I mean.”
“Good–you recognize the need for aid beyond yourself. Yet I will ask you clearly, Matthilda Gardner: Do you ever desire to smoke the poppy gum these days?”
Mattie turned white. She looked to Frodo (pushing his chair back to its place) and then to Eowyn, then licked her lips, looked away, looked back. “Yes,” she finally said, but in a husky whisper. “All the time.”
A smile briefly warmed Eowyn’s cold face. “Well that at least might bode well! Honesty may yet keep you safe, Matthilda. Vigilance is ever the price of freedom–and not merely the vigilance of the sword.” She finally allowed herself to finish the last few bites of her own breakfast before conferring with Eldarion in the tongue of the Rohirrim, in which he answered fluently. Frodo watched her face gradually return to stony coldness, though, and he frowned.
Eldarion now turned to Mattie, but he did not speak at first. Instead he gazed into her eyes as though into small, twin palantiri. Frodo watched a shiver pass over his wife, and Eldarion mirrored it. At last the Prince broke away and turned to Eowyn once more. “Truth has taken up the stronger position in her,” Eldarion told the healer. When Eowyn stared back, just as cold as ever, he said a little more sharply, “She answers to the best of her ability. She cannot yet face all dark memories; even so, she grows in strength, day by day. To doubt her now would only weaken her.” For a moment their eyes locked. Then the younger man said, “Be fair, Eowyn.” Again, the healer’s haughty expression gave way to trouble and confusion.
Eowyn laid down her fork. “Then I will pronounce this judgment on you, Matthilda Gardner, under the authorization of Tar Elessar. I declare you convalescent from your criminal insanity, no longer a danger to yourself or others--so long as you take all reasonable steps to protect and continue your healing. In order to maintain your freedom, however, I must recommend that you never again return to your old post as a messenger, nor cross the Poros Pass alone until the King should mend it.”
Eldarion then said, his young voice firm, “As a Prince of Gondor I must now pass judgment in my father’s name. You are hereby and forever relieved of duty in the King’s Post. The severance pay and entitlements normally owed to a departing messenger you shall not have, but relinquish them in fine for your many thefts and interference with the mail.” In gentler tones he told her, “The law could have dealt much more strictly with you, Matthilda Gardner, yet we recognize the role that enchantment played in all your crimes, and grant you mercy for that reason, taking especial note of how you voluntarily fought the enchantment off. In recognition of this, then, your fine shall go towards the support of the Cliffside Asylum, for the healing of other unfortunates like yourself.”
“I...I thank you, my Lord.”
Now Eowyn turned towards Frodo, who suddenly lost all appetite for second breakfast. “Here we have a harder case to test. Here we have something not cured simply by laying a bad habit aside.” Her eyes narrowed as she leaned forward. “Here we have a demon–one of the foulest of all demons–whom we cannot drive forth without still further harm.”
Foulest? Oh really! The old battle-axe has never met Makar and Measse, then, although I think that they would get along together all too well.
Reflexively Frodo muttered, “Shut up, Sauron,” before he could stop himself.
Eowyn sat up straight. “Is he here right now? Part of the dialogue?”
“He takes exception to your use of the word ‘foul’. I don’t.”
Eowyn grinned incredulously.
“He does not like your amusement, either.”
“I daresay not!” Then Frodo glimpsed (or thought he glimpsed) something unsettling in the healer’s mirth, but forgot it as Eowyn said, “Yet you seem to take his displeasure well in stride these days.”
“I think he finally realizes that whenever he attacks me, he not only damages himself but recovers more slowly each time afterwards.”
Eowyn dipped toast into her egg’s yoke thoughtfully. “Even so, Sauron has ever proven resourceful beyond our expectations–as we can see by the mere fact of his presence here at all. He will try other means to harm you, Frodo.”
“Don’t I know it! I’ve lost count of all the ways he has tripped me up, or tried to.”
“And yet here you remain,” Eowyn said appreciatively, smiling strangely. She rose from her seat. “Come, friend, I should like to speak with you outside.”
Eldarion caught her sleeve. “Is that wise?”
She pulled her arm away from him and fire flashed in her gaze. “Who are you, young whelp, to question me?”
He leapt to his feet. “Eldarion son of Elessar, of the House of Telcontar, Prince of Gondor and Arnor and heir to the throne!” Yet alarm, not pride, inflamed his glare.
But what really shocked Frodo was seeing Eowyn crumple into tears like a little girl. “Elda? Why’re you pulling rank on me, Elda? I have dandled you on my knee, Elda. I brought you your first toy soldiers. I delivered you on the day that your mother gave birth to you.”
“Eowyn, I am sorry. But you have grown so strange, ever since...”
”I changed your filthy diapers and wiped your snotty nose! And you expect me to RESPECT you?” Now the woman shrilled like a hag, cords quivering in her neck, her eyes bloodshot and bulging. ”Semi-human brat of a sneaking Noldo witch and a heartbreaker vagabond!” She snatched up the knife from the ham, in a hand that showed she had not forgotten her swordcraft with her manners.
Not taking his eyes off of her, Eldarion took up a chair as shield and weapon, and told the hobbits, “Get behind me. I will try to see you safely to the door.” They didn’t waste a minute scrambling to obey.
Eowyn pointed the knife at Frodo, crying, “Give him to me! He is not yours, he is mine, he trespassed my precinct, he is mine! Keep the little wench if she amuses you, but give me the Dark Lord’s mule.” Angry tears ran down her face. “Oh, but Sauron will feel every pain that I inflict upon the animal who carries him–I shall make sure of that! Give me my revenge for ages of humiliation!”
Then she rushed the group, and Frodo hardly knew what happened next, just a tumble of furniture and limbs and screams and blood, and just as he thought he had rolled free and went crawling in search of Mattie, he felt long fingers grab him and drag him by the ankle out the door. “Mine! The old woman cackled, “He is mine! Sauron is mine, mine, mine!”
Oh my. It seems that she has met Measse, at least, or someone very like her, after all.