He Clasped Her Fast, Both Flesh and Bone
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 9, Part 193
Tender Loving Care
June 30-Lithe 1,1452
“...a good ten pounds at birth, at least; I told Tinros that she surpassed me as a warrior on that day.” Eowyn croaked more than spoke; she had talked the whole night through. “So it came that Faramir suggested that they name him Boromir, which pleased Elboron and Tinros both, but now it seems he resembles his grandfather in all save looks, a burly scholar of a boy.” Her sleepless eyes burned, staring into the fire; her hands twitched now and then to her side, though they had both agreed that for now, and the dangers of the Ephel Duath notwithstanding, Frodo should keep her sword. “Of course, the sturdy little fellow does like to use all of that muscle of his to dig about in ancient ruins, with any scribe or teacher hale enough to follow his lead, seeking clues to gaps in the texts that he has read.” Frodo fought wave upon wave of sleepiness; sitting on the uncomfortable sheath no longer helped to keep him awake. “He was born as blonde as I am, but his hair has darkened over time, halfway in color between his mother and my son. He might yet make quite a warrior...”
Frodo jerked himself up from nodding. “Now, now,” he interrupted. He shivered a little bit from, he realized, fever. His abrasions had gotten tender and puffy, he noticed.
“...but he has asked to become a scribe instead–a new kind of scribe, a reader of old stones and the forgotten things of men. Elboron, bless him, has resolved to support him in his strange vocation, and the King has taken an interest in the discoveries that he has already stumbled across. Mayhaps his little brother, Theodred, shall someday take his elder’s place in glory’s field...”
Frodo shifted uncomfortably, throwing more wood into the fire. “Let’s move on past glory for awhile,” he said. “What else can you say about your grandson?”
Eowyn’s head jolted back like he had slapped her. Then she blinked and the anger left her reddened face. “Oh. Yes. You are right. Well, Theodred...Theodred can ride like Eorl returned, though his hair flies behind him as black as his mother’s. I would almost swear that he knows some way to speak the language of horses, just out of our earshot. My brother gave him a colt of the Mearas and they have become inseparable.”
“Theodred sounds a lot like my little brother, Tom.” Frodo sounded a bit hoarse, himself. “Perhaps they can ride together, someday.”
“Yes, I forgot–the halfling babe who chose the little toy pony. How fares he, now?”
“Well, I suppose. The last I heard he had already began to make a name for himself in riding competitions.” Frodo frowned, though, trying to remember some disturbing dream.
Eowyn reached up to stroke her horse’s muzzle; the steed had not left her side all evening since she began to remember herself. “Theodred would despise me for how I have treated Goldebert.”
“No more than if you had fainted from the saddle and neglected him that way. Accidents happen, Eowyn. You couldn’t help it.”
“Yet I...part of me consented. Part of me lusted for the thunder of battle in the blood once again.”
Frodo gazed up at her sympathetically, as the horizon just began to color with light. “I know. I have been through something similar. But would you condemn a child persuaded to open the door to a robber? Even if you had strictly forbade him to heed the knock of strangers? The child may have consented to open the door a crack, but not to have it forced the rest of the way, nor to see his home ransacked. We are children next to the maiar, good or bad. Sometimes all we can do is face up to our smallness and ask for help.”
Eowyn seemed about to reply, but instead she rose up to her feet. “Horses...I hear hoof-falls...”
Frodo now could hear them too, a subliminal rhythm at first, then growing even as the morning-songs of desert birds began to wake the wilderness. He stood up by the woman (his toes curled protectively around the sheath) and awaited the riders, suddenly acutely conscious of just how weary he felt, and thirsty from long-talking, and hungry, too, but most of all heart-aching for the lack of Mattie...and yes, he could soon make out the riders themselves, headed for the fire’s orange glow amidst the twilight’s blue. And that one horse, that at first appeared riderless, catching up in a gallop with the frontmost runner, did it not in fact carry someone tiny in comparison, yet well-accustomed to steeds too big for her?
“Mattie!” He shouted, though it hurt his chest. “Mattie! Over here!” He waved, though that hurt even more. “ Ohhh my dear, dear Mattie!”
He saw the lead rider clearly, now, and several more behind him. Eldarion’s face looked pale, amid the black hair floating on the wind, and he held his side as he rode. Turquoise and Jasper behind him looked on him anxiously. But his stiffness did not keep him from leaping off his horse, gliding through the air with elvish grace, before he landed and stumbled like the wound-weary man he was, yet he hardly missed a beat to run to Eowyn’s side, something in his hand, even as Mattie practically flew down to collide with Frodo, hugging him so wonderfully warmly that he didn’t care at all how much it pained his broken rib.
Before Frodo had a chance to open his eyes and see what Eldarion did with Eowyn, Turquoise clasped him and Mattie released him to topple into the woman’s scarred-up arms. The will that had fended off the fever’s full effects seemed to snap, and he felt a dim relief at letting it go. He let female hands, big and little, spread him out upon a blanket on the ground.
Turquoise handed Mattie an unguent-jar and then considerately turned her back, spreading her skirts to give the Little Folk privacy as Mattie pulled up Frodo’s tunic to dab every hurt with salve. It felt cool and soothing; Frodo lay there limp, letting his wife push him this way and that to tend him. He sat up when she brought a flask to his lips and he drank thirstily; it contained some kind of tea, cooled in their travels, that tingled in his throat and made him feel immeasurably better.
"Here, beloved--you must have missed this." She lifted the horsehair cord off of her own neck and settled it around his.
"May's lens! Oh, thank you!"
"It glinted like a beacon, as though a full moon shone straight down on it. We changed our path in the night because of it." Mattie helped him lay back down; Frodo never realized that the concern in her eyes could burn so sweetly. And then, to make everything perfect, he smelled the steam of athelas wafting over from Eowyn’s treatment.
Frodo turned his head a little the other way. He saw Jasper holding up a heavy leather bag, tarred and double-stitched along the seams, and from it Goldebert drank noisily. Frodo smiled and held Mattie’s hand, his eyes closing...
“Happy Lithe,” his wife whispered to him, the last thing that he heard before he drifted off to sleep. “Happiest Lithe of all my life, to find you still alive!”
Frodo little remembered the ride back to Riverborn. It seemed to last forever, as he drowsed feverishly on horseback, sometimes only held in the saddle by Mattie’s arms, but when they rode in amid the brightly-painted buildings of Brandybuck Mercantile, the sun still hovered at noon.
Frodo expected to be famished, yet he found that he could only take a little soup for lunch, and soon sought his bed again afterwards. He drank plenty of the medicinal tea, however; he couldn’t seem to get enough of it. He felt perfectly all right, rather pleasant in fact, if drowsy, so long as he lay still upon his bed; only when he tried to get up and about, or even sat up too long, did he feel ill.
“You’ll be all right,” Mattie told him as she pressed moistened cloths to his brow–sweet coolness. “The Prince has learned a lot about healing from his father. Why look–already the swelling in your infections has gone down.”
Eldarion himself came in and looked in on them some time later. He had more color in his face on his own account, now, though he still moved rather stiffly.
“How is Eowyn?” Frodo asked when he saw the grimness on the young man’s face.
“Resting, and herself again, for the most part. At least she reasons as of old, nor does she desire bloodshed for its own sake any more.” Then the Prince smiled as he felt the hobbit’s face for fever. “She might have gone beyond recall, had you not rendered the field-aid that she needed most. You surpass many twice your age in wisdom.”
“I surpass many twice my age in sorry experience, you mean,” Frodo murmured, and closed his eyes, letting the healing hands take his pulse and inspect his hurts.
“You heal swiftly,” Eldarion said. “I wish I could say the same for myself,” he added with a rueful smile. “If you rest well today, I shall pronounce you sound enough to take ship tomorrow, on schedule.”
“Just as well,” Frodo chuckled. “If I enjoyed any more Brandybuck hospitality, I should become as stout as Peregrin Took!” And with that he fell into a deep and peaceful sleep.
He woke some time in the evening, as his fever broke. Frodo tossed and turned in an aching fury, so that Mattie could hardly reach him to sponge off the sweat that ran from him like rain, but then he quieted after awhile, and felt cool without shivering, and found that the aches had passed, and that he could eat. Mattie lit a lamp and went running from the room; soon she returned carrying a loaf under her arm and a knife in hand, with Turquoise behind her bearing a tray. “Oh thank goodness!” Turquoise exclaimed, while Mattie sliced bread and spread it with jam and curds. “What could I have said to Master Brandybuck if you had perished in my care?”
“I don’ persh so eashily,” Frodo assured her with his mouth full. Long hunger made everything taste outrageously good! They gave him more soup, and a little bit of meat, and soon he felt sleepy again and dreamed in his dear wife’s arms.
He loomed great in his dreams, his many arms reaching far, and the power that spread out from his fingertips reached farther still, for miles and miles. Birds flew around his head, high above the mists of the river. His toes dug deep into the bank, and snaked their way everywhere, in and out of the earth. Who could surpass him? Who dared?
Yet he could barely move. Sometimes it took him all day to shift a limb an inch. He rocked in the wind, trying to pull up his feet, but they would not budge. Hatred burned him for the animals who ran where they pleased, living lives too short to acquire any wisdom, possessed of little power, small almost beyond notice–yet the least of these could move! Even the ants could crawl up and down his body and he could not brush them aside! And they brought their stupid aphids with them to sip his sap, chewing him everywhere, itching like mosquito-bites. He had to wake himself–wake himself and seek revenge! He had done it before, with heroic effort. Once he had even walked.
“Mr. Tree?” He felt a tiny hand touch a knob of one of his roots. He could, if he roused himself, sing the wretched creature to sleep. He would, too, if a certain ancient meddler would just leave him alone. “Mr. Tree, why are you so unhappy?” But this new creature’s touch felt like none he had encountered for years upon long years. It did not seek him out for wood, nor for withy-wands to cut for basketry, it did not try to dig up his roots for dye, it did not even approach him to exploit his shade. Instead, incredibly, he felt the little fingers pinching aphids off his lowest leaves, where they hung down nearly to the ground.
Absurd! No more of this–he would not allow himself to waver. He sang the beast to sleep. He felt her curl up against his trunk, and he stirred himself to action. He could do it. He opened wide a crack, and she fell in. Vigor now raced up and down his sap. He remembered how! He woke up all the way. He had her right where he wanted her; now he would crush the interloper, and her blood and mangled bones would feed his roots, and he would have his moment of revenge!
But one outflung hand still touched him kindly, only on the inside, now, right up against the heartwood. In all innocense, apparently, not knowing what she did, her sleeping thoughts flooded into him before he had time to fill her mind with his threats and gloating so that he could taste her fear before he killed her. Half against his will, he listened to her thoughts, her dreams, the compassion that she felt for living, growing things like him, that other people did not seem to see as having life at all.
Could she understand him? Could any creature of blood? Yet insight seemed to overflow her, like that of the elves of old, though he could plainly smell she was no elf. Where had such a tiny thing, a mere sapling to her own kind, learned to perceive the thoughts of trees?
His wood shifted. He made some space for her, so that she could turn over, stretch out the little legs, still dreaming. He opened up another crack, just a bit, so that air would flow well, as she needed. He breathed in her breath, and it tasted good to him. He breathed back oxygen to her, and she sighed in her sleep, thriving on it. All night she slumbered within the shelter that he made for her. And when she woke he parted for her passage.
They had grown in communion throughout the night, and he felt the linkage strengthen faster in the day. He sensed the hunger in her. He spread out his power. Twigs shifted, paths opened up. She listened to his whisper on the wind. He brought her to old plum trees and berry bushes, and greens her kind could eat, he showed her where the feral beans grew wild, he showed her mushrooms hidden in the roots.
He felt a recent fear in her, but not of him, oh no, not of him. She had escaped some violence, someone bent on doing her harm–someone of her own kind! Anger stirred in him again, but not at her. Messages quivered from twig to twig, all across the forest. No one of her kind would get anywhere near her. He had ways to make sure of that.
And when she returned to him in the evening, hungry again after a day of rambling through the wonders of his woods, singing with the birds, dancing with the wind-blown weeds, feeling her fear ebb from her, she found that his roots in the creek now cradled a pool full of trapped fish darting in the water. She honored him enough to make no fire to appall him, but ate the fishes raw, crouching on his root in her mudstained dress. And she buried their heads and bones and innards by his drip-line in the soil, as those who raised her once had taught her to do, where he could feast on them, himself.
Then she washed herself in the river, leaving the dress to dry upon a twig of his. He did not mind that this time, when she returned inside of him, she swept together old leaves that he had long since shed, and made herself a nest. He felt the animal warmth that she gave off, and pictured how good that would feel, come winter when the frost made sluggish all his sap. And so the second night arrived, and they dreamed together, and Old Man Willow had never felt so loved...
Frodo woke up in the dark. He glanced over at his wife beside him, and remembered the strange feel of tenderness in a vegetative heart, and he lay there thinking for some time before he settled back down to dream of other things.