He Clasped Her Fast, Both Flesh and Bone
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 8, Part 192
June 30-Lithe 1,1452
Night fell and still the woman rode on with the hobbit in the crook of her arm. Frodo’s stomach growled with hunger, and his bruises throbbed, his torn skin burned, his cramped limbs buzzed and every breath he took came at a price, but that did not worry him quite as much as the way that Eowyn slipped back and forth between silence and unintelligible muttering. At last she pulled the horse to a halt beside a thicket of thorn-trees. She put the hobbit down and said to him, “Get some rest, little one. I will watch tonight.” Frodo’s elflike night-vision saw her cold, mad smile. In a melodious voice, entirely too calm for the situation, she explained, “I have no need of sleep.”
“Um, I tried that before, myself, and it never worked out to anything good.”
“You see, little one, I am older and wiser,” she told him. “I can do many things that you cannot.”
“Oh. Right. Well. Carry on, then.” It occurred to him then that the sooner Eowyn exhausted herself, the sooner he could escape. Frodo did not feel much like resting; he had spent most of the day confined to the posture of an infant in arms, and he ached to stretch his limbs. He stamped around a little, getting the circulation back in his legs. He tried swinging his arms, too, to work the kinks out of his back, but his rib didn’t like that much. While the horse shivered in his sweat, forgotten, Eowyn took a stance facing out across the open spaces, her hands upon her sword.
Frodo asked her, “Couldn’t we have a bit of a fire, Milady?”
“I like the dark.”
“So do lots of other things around here,” he grumbled, but she gave him no reply. He did see her point, though–the stars shown in seas and lakes of midnight sky, interrupted here and there by mountains of clouds touched with just a hint of luminescence by the waxing moon. Across the miles he could hear crickets, and distant owls, and the croak of those strange desert frogs that crawl out from their own deep-buried tombs in the clay to life once more whenever the rains might fall. It took only the faintest brush of moonlight to turn the tumble of thorn-brush all around them into a living silver lace. The beauty took his breath away. Yet not everyone could afford such luxuries in the Ephel Duath.
“Have you brought any food, Milady? Or more to the point, any water?”
“No. I do not need food, either, nor quenching. The wind sustains me.”
Sighing, Frodo turned to the horse. “You poor thing,” he murmured. “You’re all in a lather!” Nothing else convinced him more of Eowyn’s illness. Frodo poked around the thicket until he found several trees sprung low from the same root, cupping a little rainwater between them. After quickly slaking his own thirst (and finding the water slightly bitter with tannin, but potable) he led the horse to it. “Here you go, big fellow. Not much I fear, but better than nothing.”
He found a brush in the saddlebag after he took the gear off, then clambered up (carefully!) on the relatively thornless base of the boughs to curry as much of the horse as he could reach. The golden-brown animal glowed faintly to his enhanced sight, and looked near-foundered. “How did Mattie ever manage with Stumblehoof?” he asked himself, attempting a precarious stretch to curry the neck. “She must have had something worked out. I wish she was here to tell me how she did it.” His grip tightened on the brush. “No, I do not. I am glad she is far away and relatively safe. I just hope that none of that blood I saw belonged to her!”
Hunger and fear do not make an encouraging combination. Frodo studied whether or not he could cut and haul thorns all by himself to make a stockade around them, but even if he had had Sting with him, his side ached miserably and the thorns looked so much bigger than himself.
He finally sighed and sat down at the roots of a tree near where Eowyn stood unmoving. “Oh valar and good maiar, whoever might be listening–I know I haven’t exactly pleased you lately, but do think of Eowyn! She cannot help having slipped completely off her rocker like this.” Momentarily he thought that here was yet another phrase to add to Legolas’s list. “Do please watch over her and protect her. Many would grieve if some wild beast finished her off.”
The horse soon had licked up every drop of moisture he could reach and now ambled over to Frodo’s side, the whites visible around his eyes as he startled, when howls broke out in a sudden chorus in the distance. “There there, big fellow,” Frodo said, reaching up to pat the animal. “That must be miles and miles away–too far for any wargs to catch a whiff of you.” The horse calmed down a bit. It broke Frodo’s heart to see the good beast nosing at the thorns, looking for something fit to eat, but he was no goat; again and again he drew his muzzle back, startled by a prick. “At least I started the day with two good breakfasts,” Frodo consoled himself. “I hope you did, too, fellow,” he said to the horse.
He leaned his head back against the tree. No thorns stuck out at all around the brief stump of trunk, praise Yavanna. He tried and tried to remember everything about his own experiences that might show him how to return Eowyn to herself. He sniffed the air for sage, but smelled only the perfume of those kaktushes that bloom at night for the nourishment of bats. Still, that smelled pleasant enough, and put some heart in him.
Frodo made another heartening discovery. If he crossed his arms tightly over his chest, and braced his shoulder hard against the tree, coughing became bearable. No fun, not something he would want to do until he absolutely had to, but he could manage. Slowly he cleared his lungs of dust. And as he did so he found his mind also clearing, better able to focus on the latest crisis.
“I’ll just bet that Eowyn suffers something like dragon-sickness,” he told himself. “Only guts and glory instead of gold. Well, I think I could work with that, at least.” He got up and walked over beside her. He tried to come up with some great conversation opener, but could only think of, “Nice night, milady.”
Frodo rocked on his heels with his hands on his hips (very like his father, had he known it) and said, “My stars, yes, a perfect night for tales of home and family!”
“No it is not,” came her soft reply. “Do not distract me during guard duty.”
“And who do you guard, Milady?”
“The weak. I must defend the weak.”
“Myself, in other words?”
She turned to him slowly, her eyes strange on him. “Yes.” And she turned away again.
But he went over in front of her. He hesitated, swallowing back his modesty, remembering that she had already seen everything when she had tended him before–and maybe a shocking act would get her attention. Then, though it hurt to move his arms that way, he pulled off his tunic and stood before her, unclothed except for the bindings around his chest. “You did this to me!” he rasped as loudly as he could with little breath; in the desert quiet she finally heard him. “You broke my rib, you...look, these raw scrapes on my arms, my chin, my side, all up and down my left leg–you did that. Look at these cuts in my right ankle–your nail-marks, Eowyn. This swelling on my jaw–you kicked me there. Also here, on my arm, where I tried to fend you off. Defend me? Who will defend me from you?”
She clutched her sword like she could squeeze the pommel off the hilt. She could not have looked more stricken if an arrow had pierced her.
Painfully he stooped and picked up the tunic again. “You have to remember if you want to stop the madness, Eowyn. I know. I’ve been through it.” With great difficulty he tugged the cloth up over his head. “Face it all–that’s the best thing for you. And then you have to concentrate, with every ounce of who you are, on its opposite–Love.” He struggled back into the tube of linen with an uncomfortable wriggle; it had gotten somewhat tighter than it used to be. “I did it. You can do it, too. Tell me about your family.”
But when his head emerged through the tunic-neck he saw a horror–Eowyn aiming her sword at her own throat. “I must defend the weak,” she whispered, her voice catching.
”NOOOOOO!” Quickly he ducked behind her so that tackling her knees would make them buckle–he had gotten pretty good by now at knocking Big Folk down to a manageable sprawl on the ground. The sword went flying; he leaped on top of her before she could grasp it again, yanking her head back by the hair to preoccupy her, till she rolled over and crushed him, grabbing his arms and pinning them down, frothing with fury over him.
“That’s better,” he gasped as conversationally as possible, though his rib fairly screamed. “A wife, mother, and grandmother has no business killing herself. You want to talk about duty? All right, then! You have a family. You owe duty to your family.”
She sat back on her heels, releasing him. Distractedly, she ran her fingers through her tangled hair, pushing it out of her eyes. “Duty...to my family?”
“That’s right, Eowyn.” Frodo sat up as best he could, dusting himself off. “They miss you. I am sure they must be worried about you by now. You have been lost for a long time in the wilderness.”
“But Eldarion sent a message home, by palantir...” She leaped to her feet. “Eldarion!”
“Yes?” He rose to match her.
“What did I do to Eldarion?” She grabbed him and shook him. ”What did I do?”
“You tell me.” His heart leaped for joy at her reaction, but he kept it to himself. “I didn’t see what happened.”
“A...a slash.” She released him, staggering backwards. “The ribs–I think--deflected the worst of it...but he fell, bleeding...”
Frodo dared to approach her. “Take comfort, Lady Eowyn.” He dared to lay a hand upon her arm. “Many people work at Brandybuck Mercantile; no doubt some of them know well enough how to staunch blood while others run for a leech.” Then he asked the most burning question. “And Mattie? What became of Mattie?”
“I think I knocked her out of the way. No blood, there.” Eowyn looked helplessly down at the hobbit. “What is wrong with me?”
“A good deal less than a few minutes ago, now that you recognize there’s something wrong at all. You have sustained damage from one of the foul spirits of this land. But you can get well again. Trust me. I have gone through it all before.”
“How...?” She clutched at the throat of her gown, then her eyes, looking down, saw the blood, and they widened. “How could this happen to me?”
“Just an occupational hazard of life in the wreckage of Sauron’s dreams. It could poison anybody.” She stared at him, her eyes moons of desperation. “Here, come look for firewood with me. We’ll keep you stable until help arrives.”
She looked around her, bewildered. “What must I do?”
“First thing, build a nice, big fire, so that rescuers can find us. There’s deadwood enough in the thicket, and those stone outcroppings look like flint to me. Then, while we wait, you can pass the time by telling me every good thing you can remember about the people that you love.”
Shakily she nodded, looking surprisingly young and vulnerable for an elder of the Big Folk. She turned towards the thorn trees, saw her horse, cried out, “Goldebert!” and ran to the poor beast. “Golde, oh Golde–how ill I have used you!” Goldebert knickered pitifully and nuzzled her as she stroked his neck and wept.
Frodo smiled to himself as he struggled to bend to the old leaves and twigs piled between the tree roots, gathering up the tinder. Things couldn’t help but look up, now.