He Clasped Her Fast, Both Flesh and Bone
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 10, Part 194
Old Faces, Old Friends, and Others
By the next day, Frodo sat up in bed for a proper ham and eggs breakfast, and felt on top of the world. Mattie laughed to see his enthusiasm for the food, and then cried, and laughed again, and hugged him so hard that she knocked over his cup of tea, and then apologized repeatedly while she mopped up the mess.
“Don’t worry, darling,” he told her with a wink. “The sheet looks nice in that shade of beige–they might as well dye the entire thing in tea. In any case, it is not our sheet.”
“Oh Frodo!” she exclaimed. “I was just so worried–so very, very worried!”
“I’ve only been a little sick, and only for a day.” He chuckled and took her hand. “No swampwater invaded my little cuts and scratches this time, merely good ol’ Mordor dirt. I see no need for so much fuss, beloved.”
“It wasn’t that. Not entirely. When I saw that crazy woman drag you away, I thought I would never see...” and then she stopped, hand on her mouth, staring up at the door.
Frodo looked up, too, and saw what had caught her eye. “Hello, Eowyn. Won’t you come in?”
The woman hesitated, then entered, her eyes downcast. She sat down on a chair by the door, her gray hair limp and unbraided, her eyes on her folded hands in her lap. Frodo’s heart hurt to see her thus, remembering her as she had always been before.
Abruptly she looked up, clenching her hands, yet her eyes fixed on the wall opposite her, still not meeting eyes with the hobbits. “I have come to apol...not that any apology could suffice. But I had rather hoped...” She stood up suddenly. “I think I had better leave. I have no real business, here.”
“Stay, stay! Frodo gestured to a closer chair, beside his bed. “The only reason I see no point in your apology is that you have nothing to apologize for. Surely you of all people must understand that? After all of the patients you have treated?”
Then Eowyn did look at him, as she sat close, trouble in her gaze. “I have lost something,” she confided. “I have found a hole in my mind–a great, smoking hole burned into my brain, empty except for the pain, and with that it overflows.” She closed her eyes for a moment, swallowed, and said, “It has blistered edges. I can feel them.”
“You don’t mean...not literally, surely.”
She opened her eyes again. “Nay, not in the flesh–but no less real, Frodo–the hole is every bit as real as I am, this wound in the very substance of what it means to be Eowyn of Ithilien. I cannot think through it, Frodo, only around it. I get lost sometimes, trying to think around it.” Suddenly she snarled, and her fists smote his bed. “Years! I have spent years acquiring the wisdom I needed for my profession–and where is all that now? Where is the calm? Where is the self-assurance that reassures the patient? Where is the knowledge and the understanding of hearts? I cannot even understand my own!” She leaned back in her chair, then, exhausted by her own outburst. “I am not young, my friend. How can I rebuild all of who I used to be, this late in my life?”
For a long moment Frodo stared at her, speechless. Then he touched the lens about his neck, and his face changed. He nodded once, then quietly he said, “Mattie, please go ask Prince Eldarion to join us. I have an idea.” He held the woman’s hands until the Prince arrived, telling her, “I must make sure that he hears this, too, Milady, for I cannot trust your memory by itself right now.”
“I understand,” she said, but it sounded more like a beaten soldier saying, “I surrender.”
When the Prince arrived Frodo addressed him. “Eldarion, do you remember how your mother, with your father and Gimli’s help, fashioned a gemstone by which the one who carried it could recognize Legolas, no matter how much he had faded?”
“Indeed I do. I gathered the star-washed waters in which she bathed it, and the moonlit herbs in which she burned it, and I myself cast it through the sunlit air which she infused with song.”
Frodo turned back to Eowyn. “You must be patient. You may not need another lifetime in which to rebuild yourself, but you still must wait some months.” He tried to smile. “Can you soldier on till then?”
She nodded. “I am a wife, and a mother, and a grandmother. I have my duties. I will endure.”
“Good!” He squeezed her hands, then spoke to Eldarion once more. “Your mother might have to invent something new, standing on the ancient lore. But do you think it could be done, if Eowyn herself became the gem, if all who have loved her and known her bent their memories of her towards her as your father and Gimli did towards the stone, flooding it with the very essence of Legolas? So many do love her and recall so many things about her–all of her family, in Ithilien and Rohan alike, all of her friends, all the patients she has healed, all who rode with her, fought beside her, healed beside her, taught or learned from her.”
Eldarion thought a moment. “We certainly could not bury her in burning herbs! Yet my father told me of the healing lore cherished in secret among the Nurnings, as the Herbwife of Bristlescrub has described to him. Perhaps we could try something like the withy-dome. We might yet devise what Eowyn needs, by blending lores.” He nodded. “Yes! The more I consider, the more I think we could do it. An excellent suggestion, Master Perian!”
Eowyn burst into tears, embracing Frodo, then reached out for Eldarion and drew him close, too. Frodo patted her, saying, “It shall have to wait until Gimli finishes his vigil in Treegarth, you know, and we shall need time to send for everyone who knows you to gather from across the land. Merry will come, I am sure of it. And as for Gimli, that brings on another thought...Milord, you might also consider the healing arts of the dwarves in this; for somehow, with their crystal lore, I’d wager that they’ll strike closer to the mark than anyone.”
“Astute of you. We must learn from all of the races while we still have them.”
Frodo dried Eowyn’s tears on the tea-free corner of his sheet. “You do understand that it might not work at all.”
She nodded. “At least you have given me hope. I have faced worse odds than this.” And then she blinked, sitting up straighter. “I remember that! I have not lost all!”
Frodo said, “Remember, too, if you can, Legolas cradled in a green and healthy tree that Saruman had once burned down to the stump. You might discover more and more of yourself returning to you, in the coming days, even before your loved ones gather to restore you.”
“Yes. You might be right.”
They all started when Turquoise knocked at the door. “Begging your pardon, Lord and Lady and all–but the supply-train has arrived, and the ship shall sail by noon. Master and Mistress Gardner must make ready for their journey, if they’re up to it.”
It did not take Frodo long to prepare, for he wore nothing but his linen tunic, nor did his still-short hair require a comb, though his feet looked better after a quick brush-up. The mirror showed him a bruised-up face already beginning to color; a few more days would make it lurid indeed. He sighed; at least he felt much better than he looked. He blessed Mattie for doing all the packing while he lay ill (including an extra bag or two to hold all of the household items that she had bought from Brandybuck Mercantile–various essentials that the bachelors of Tower House had never thought to get.) Nobody would let him carry anything. Jasper insisted that Frodo ride Bleys to the docks, perched between brand-new saddle-bags, though he declared himself in perfect health by now, and almost believed it, himself.
To his surprise two hobbits, not just the expected messenger, waited by the dock. “Uncle Nibs!” Frodo cried, recognizing the broad shoulders and potato-like features, and he ran to the older hobbit, who hugged him way too hard. “Easy!” Mattie scolded. “He has a broken rib!”
Nibs Cotton let go, a strange, pained look on his face, as he took in all of Frodo’s scrapes and bruises. “Will your troubles never cease, lad? It’s all one misfortune after another for you!”
Frodo laughed. “It does seem that way, sometimes. Still, this is nothing compared to much of what I’ve seen. But what brings you so far from the Shire, Uncle? You’re the last person I’d have taken to wander off after an adventure.”
“You,” the hobbit said bluntly. “I come all this way for you.” He stared at Frodo, then realized it, and gazed off over the unhappy town of Riverborn. “I don’t think much of adventure, any way you look at it, but I do my duty by my blood. I did it in Sharkey’s day, and I ain’t a different hobbit now.” His weathered face carried a hard, scared look, not liking the road ahead of him one bit, yet determined to walk every step of it anyway.
“Well...thank you,” Frodo said, bewildered. “And what duty might that be?”
Nibs stared again at his nephew, searching him up and down with his eyes. “To take the load off you. Replace you, if you’ve got the sense to let me, help you if you’re as stubborn as your father and won’t go home till you drop dead or you finish your mission, whichever comes first. I’m a good farmer, Frodo. You’ve got the book-learning, I’ll give you that, but I’ve learned a bit from the land herself that you might find handy..” He crossed his arms, his feet planted apart and immoveable. “Fancy manners would have me ask your leave at this point, say, ‘Will you have me?’ or some such thing. But you will have me, by your leave or no. You’ve writ some things that’s got the whole family scared for you. Now, I understand you’ve had some fine healings now and then, and the King hisself persuaded me not to tie you up and send you home against your will. But you don’t always know your own best interest, even now, and he agreed to that, and he put me on the payroll as part of your staff, so don’t even think you can turn away my help!”
“I wouldn’t dream of it, Uncle Nibs!”
The older hobbit relaxed his stance a little. “The King, he says you’ve got yourself experience about this land that I could never reach for all my years a-farming in the Shire, and that you’ve got all manner of uncanny knowhow, besides, hard won, and if it’s driven you half-crazy, well, we shouldn’t waste what it cost you. So you’re the boss, and I’m not to argue with that. But he also says that I know things that you do not, and if you’re smart, you’ll listen to me, too.”
“Oh, absolutely! And trust me, it is such a relief to not have it all on my own shoulders alone–believe me, it is, Uncle Nibs!”
He looked away again, just for a moment. More quietly, he muttered, “I’d have come sooner, but I had some mourning left to do.”
“Your wife. Yes. I remember. I understand..”
Then the dour hobbit allowed himself a smile. “At least I’m pleased to see you’re not the only hobbit here in town. Who is this fine young lad?”
“Forgive my lack of manners! This is my wife, Matthilda Gardner.”
The smile dropped into a scowl. But before Uncle Nibs could say another word, another hobbit stepped in front of him. “Begging your pardon, Master Gardner,” and then he smirked at Mattie, not addressing her at all. “But before I have you arrested for harboring a criminal, I have gifts and messages for you, from your alleged father.”
Frodo glared at the pock-faced fellow before him. “Just exactly what do you mean by that?”
The messenger snickered. “Oh, word travels fast among the messengers–you needn’t pretend any longer. The Mayor of Hobbiton, it seems, claims children that he never sired. I always thought such a large brood seemed a bit too much to brag about. Or hasn’t he told you that you might not be his?”
Frodo smacked him across the mouth before he even knew he would. “Say what you will behind our backs, but think twice before you utter such things to a Gardner’s face!”
“Or a Cotton’s!” Nibs cried, grabbing the messenger by the back of his neck and shaking him like a dog would shake a rag. “It’s my sister that you’ve insulted, you sorry little boil!” Nibs flung him aside.
The messenger sprawled in the dirt, wiping his bloody mouth. “You’ll see what the King has to say about abusing a Messenger of the Post–and consorting with a known criminal, hiding him out from the law like you’ve done!” He glared openly at Mattie now. “Do you think I’m an idiot? I know who I’ve replaced, you know--who you’ve decided to disguise as female kin–how much gum did he promise you in return? Couldn’t you at least have shoved a skirt on him and made up his ugly face before calling him your wife?”
“Frodo,” came a soft, deep voice behind him, “I fear that I will have to fine you, in my father’s name, for striking a rider of the King’s post.” Prince Eldarion stepped up to join them.
“Splendid!” Frodo growled as the hobbit on the ground broke into a grin. “Put whatever price on it you please–I’d pay the same again to have another go at him. Uncle, could you please pick him up off the ground and hold him in range for me? My broken rib limits my reach.”
But the Prince said, “The second blow comes free of charge, for as of this minute I have relieved Pongo Sallet of his position. He may ride back to Gondor for his severance pay, and thence wherever he will–home, if Bree will have him. We, however, do not need such civil servants representing our government.”
“Never mind,” Frodo said with a cold smile, as the crestfallen hobbit picked himself off the ground and dusted himself off. “I have decided that he is not worth hurting my chest any worse.”
Eldarion continued, “I should also inform Master Sallet that Matthilda Gardner, once called Heathertoes, and ere that Greenbanks, is indeed female, has already paid the price for her crimes, and has rehabilitated herself to my satisfaction. Master Sallet listens far too avidly to rumors and not enough to truth.”
Pongo worked up his face as though trying to come up with some retort, but then sped off at a swift walk.
“Your highness,” Mattie ventured, “I will finish his run as a volunteer, on the shore of the Sea of Nurn. No one knows that land like I do.”
Eldarion shook his head. “Nay, Matthilda. Though I appreciate the generosity of your offer, even on your honeymoon, my ban must stand against the practice of your old profession. Your habitual route abounds in old, accustomed temptations, far from those who love you and would steady your resolve.” Nibs gave Mattie an uncomfortable, puzzled look while the Prince went on. “I shall deliver the mail myself. You needn’t look so surprised! My father has already recommended that I gather firsthand intelligence on the lands that I shall someday rule, traveling it humbly even as he has done.”
Frodo shook his head. “But what about Eowyn? She cannot make it home by herself, the way she is. And I wouldn’t want her to have to put up with Pongo for company.”
“I think of Eowyn most of all in moving forward. The Herbwife of Bristlescrub has spent long years studying remedies for the lingering ills of the Enemy. I would study at her feet for a time, and bring the Lady of Ithilien with me. I conferred with my father as soon as we parted this morning, and he agrees, and has passed word on to Lord Faramir, who also wants the best for the woman that he loves, though he misses his wife dearly.” Eldarion shuddered; did he really mutter “Those burning hands!” under his breath, or did Frodo pick that up from his mind? Frodo’s acuity seemed to return altogether too fast these days; perhaps he should damp it down a bit, maybe on board the ship with a glass of grog or three...
“Shut up, Sauron,” he muttered under his own breath. “Good guess, that Eldarion would hold the death of Denethor in mind.”
Well, I do have to keep my hand in the game now and then...or in this case someone else’s. Frodo caught a gloating picture from Sauron’s memory, of the old steward’s tormented face, and he shuddered, himself.
Yet now the Prince smiled again, extracting a hobbit-sized chest from the general pile of goods to load on board. “As my first duty at the post, I shall be pleased to present you with a gift from your family.”
Frodo opened up the chest right there on the dock. “Clothes! Exactly what I need! And what fine work Rosie-Lass has done for me, too! “ he exclaimed, holding up some good, tight-woven britches, double-stitched at every seam, sturdy enough to take on anything Mordor had to throw at it. He laughed, then, at the tabs and gussets along the sides. “That would be Mama’s suggestion–to make them adjustable to all shapes and sizes.” He sorted through chemises in various bright Shire dyes, kerchiefs in even more variety...and then he stopped in horror.
He lifted out the coal black waistcoat, with a border embroidered in running ponies. Barely in a whisper he asked, “What has happened to Tom?” Then he clawed through the rest of the clothes, flinging garments out at random. “But then where is the rest of the mourning garb? What happened? What happened?” He came across a black belt, embroidered with a silken imitation of little pink gemstones, and he felt like the life just drained from him. “May?” he gasped, “May, too?”
Firm hands clamped on his shoulders. “Easy there, Frodo-Lad. It’s not quite as bad as it looks. But, well...when you read the letter you’ll understand better.”
Frodo stared at him with big eyes. “Not quite as bad–but bad indeed, am I right?” He gripped Nibs’s arm. “Am I right, Uncle?”
The sadness in the older hobbit’s eyes could have swallowed up the sun. “Just read your father’s letter. Later, on the ship. First we need to get our luggage all aboard. Ships!” he muttered. “Well, I never!”
At the very last minute, after they had loaded their gear on board, and settled Bleys into the hold, yet another hobbit leaped in from the gangplank right before a sailor drew it up. Frodo didn’t recognize him at first, so thin had he become. But the fellow grinned at Frodo full of wild joy, and his eyes burned in a way that took Frodo by surprise. “Lebadoc Brandybuck,” he said at last, when recognition finally sank in. “You have traveled far from the baths of Brandy Hall.”
Lebadoc laughed. “The baths! I had better things to do. I travel as a merchant, now, with Brandybuck Mercantile. I’ve been angling for more of a role in the field for quite some time, you know. I’ve helped the business more than anyone will ever know; it’s about time that I got a taste of it, myself.”
“Pity. The Masters of the Bath share an old and honored tradition.”
“Soap scum! Quickly washed down the drain and forgotten.”
Frodo shook his head and turned away. Surprised, then, he saw that his wife’s eyes also burned, and not with joy, glaring at Lebadoc Brandybuck.