He Clasped Her Fast, Both Flesh and Bone
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 16, Part 200
Two Young Fellows
Frodo woke up stiffly on the stone bench downstairs–not how he had hoped to spend his first married night back home! But only upon arriving did he realize that the little cot which had served him so well by himself could not accommodate a couple. So he had done the gallant thing and ceded it to his wife. Then he stayed up late settling everybody else into various accommodations, often doubling people up; he wondered if the tower had ever held so many people at once. At least no duty required him to offer hospitality to Lebadoc Brandybuck; that hobbit preferred the lodgings of men, and repaired straightway to the Blue Dragon before his departure to the hinterlands in the morning.
Frodo sat up and hugged his knees. “How will I ever, ever afford a household this size?” He felt a fool for having squandered his bonuses on his honeymoon--how could he have foreseen the bite a fine could take out of his wallet? Not that he regretted striking the messenger one bit--he just wished he had saved up for the privilege in advance.
“Well, I might as well fix us all breakfast while we have it!” He pulled on his tunic, and the vest and belt, and padded over to the kitchen-half of the room. But he stopped, halfway, hearing steps so soft that he looked up the stairwell expecting a fellow hobbit. To his surprise he watched instead the Prince come down, his bare feet as slender as an elf’s.
“I thought you could use some help,” the man told him, his deep voice as soft as ever.
“Oh, but you’re a guest!” Frodo tucked a dish-towel into his belt by way of apron. “A hobbit knows his duty, sir.”
“And a wise guest offers anyway, if he hopes to receive a second invitation.” Without further ado Eldarion rummaged the hanging shelves. “Where do you keep your cooking-oil?”
“In that barrel over there, under the window. The bottle’s inside, mostly immersed in sea-water. The water keeps it cool and fresh, and deters the ants.” He shuddered. “You do not want bitten by a Mordor ant!”
Eldarion stopped halfway while pulling the bottle out, and stared curiously at Frodo. “Money concerns you.”
“Stop that! I mean...I’m sorry, your highness, but...”
“Please do not refer to my title. I am Gwaithendil, remember?”
“Oh gosh yes, I’m sorry!”
Eldarion sighed and dried the bottle off. “So am I. I committed an indiscretion, I fear. I apologize. I have not yet mastered my parents’ control, you see, on the talents which they have given me by birth.”
“There, there,” Frodo said, hopping up on a stool to chop onions. “We both know the difficulties of bearing responsibilities while young. Think no more of it.”
Eldarion heated oil in a pan and then scooped up Frodo’s onions to throw them sizzling in, setting off an aroma fit to wake a sleeping stomach up to growl. “And you should think no more about financial worries, my little friend.” Frodo glanced up from chopping garlkh as the prince added, “Do you imagine that I would have fined you so strictly had I not expected a still greater wedding-present to make up for it and then some? I have already told my father, by palantir, of your change in status.”
For a second Frodo couldn’t speak. “I...I am honored beyond words! But I have become so expensive to the Royal House...”
“Not nearly as expensive as sending aid to Mordor, only to have it stolen away before it arrives.” Then the Prince felt a sharp thwack! of a dishtowel snapping him. ”Why?” he cried, and then laughed when he saw the hobbit’s grinning face.
“That’s for keeping me on tenterhooks for the entire trip home!”
Still laughing, Eldarion replied, “I meant the fine to punish you–did I do a fair job?”
“All too well. Here, you will want some of this in the eggs. It will give us all orc-breath, I fear, but you will defend yourself best by eating the same as everyone else around here.”
“Thank you–I shall remember that. Oh, and do not trouble yourself about a bed, either, for I shall purchase... “
“Privacy!” Frodo cried.
“But thank you! Thank you very much. Oh, but shouldn’t you keep your purse-strings close if you wish to pass for a student of herblore?”
“It will not cost so much. A lean human bed may fit two hobbits comfortably, if they set it out sideways. And I need to buy one for myself, anyway; I might as well give you a wedding-present of my own while I do so.”
Frodo glanced at the eggs sizzling in the pan, and tried to stop his next thought before the prince caught it.
“Fear not, Frodo–I do not intend to serve a miserly breakfast. In addition to these, I found some beautiful, fresh loaves of what I believe the Shirefolk call ‘cramsome bread’, not to mention equally fresh butter to go with it, tucked in with the dry goods–someone must have provided them as a gift for your return.” He raised one brow, smiling, and said, “Someone who knows how to pick locks, yet means no harm.”
“Crookyteeth!” Frodo exclaimed. “Pearl, I mean, Pearl! I taught her the recipe for cramsome bread. But I meant no criticism–honestly! I am used to short commons by now. Still, with the size of my household as it has become...”
“...economy would seem the wisest course–especially when all shall feast later. Your household would do well to fill up at the expense of others while they can, and so should save their appetites. But in case you choose to start the day heartily anyway, I have also brought sausage.”
The prince laughed. “Did you not know? But you had many distractions at the dock. In a few days the village shall celebrate their chief physician’s birthday, and have invited her entire household to dine with her–no cooking or expense for you, my friend.” He flipped the eggs, then looked again at Frodo. “So why the anxious face?”
Frodo blushed. “It is just...I do not feel, er, comfortable about public feasts these days, certainly not in Mordor...”
Understanding dawned on Eldarion. “Ah. It is Sauron, is it not?”
“Sort of. Yes.”
The prince took the eggs off the heat and laid a kindly hand on the hobbit’s shoulders. “You have nothing to fear. No one in Seaside would serve strong drink at the guest of honor’s table, when she goes with child.”
Frodo brightened. “Well, in that case I accept the invitation gladly!” Frodo bowed. “I hope our little village’s fare has improved enough to please a prince of the realm. It has not been long since we became capable of feasts at all.”
Eldarion smiled somewhat wistfully. “Alas, I shall not discover, this time, the worth of your cooks–aside from your worthy self.”
“No. I promised to deliver the mail, and at least convey the returning mail to the ship before it leaves. My father hopes to send someone to pick it up soon.”
Frodo became wistful in his turn. “How wonderful for you, that you can speak to your father any time you please!”
“My poor friend–you must feel so lonely, betimes.” The prince turned a kindly face towards him, but then recoiled with a snarl, dropping the oil-flask to shatter on the floor. Frodo threw his arms up in defense, convinced for an instant that the man would strike him. But Eldarion shuddered and wiped a hand across his eyes. “It is not you, Frodo. Not you at all,” he said with a shaking voice. “It is just that as my heart opened to you I perceived...”
“My stowaway. I am sorry.” Frodo bent to pick up glass from the pool of oil, stepping gingerly. “I am so very, very sorry. He is my disfigurement, you see, much like Elenaril’s face. But he is not who I am.”
“I understand that,” said Eldarion, and joined the hobbit in cleaning up. “I wish...I shall...I owe you cooking-oil. I shall fetch some shortly, when I shop for beds, before I leave. I shall...how shall I find a horse to deliver the mail? Little Bleys cannot carry me and the mail besides!” The prince suddenly looked very young indeed, though twice Frodo’s height. He sat down on the floor, staring blankly, oil dripping from his fingers. “How can I possibly...this land breeds despair. Did you know that?”
Frodo tiptoed around the oil and broken glass, and gave Eldarion’s shoulder a hard squeeze. “Resist it! You simply brushed up against something nasty, but it cannot really hurt you–not anymore. You shall feel just fine in a minute or two. Listen–the town of Squatting Rock has a few horses, from their days as an orc garrison, and they’re half a day’s journey away for a man on foot. I’m afraid you’ll find nothing there but tired old nags, and you really can’t push them, but Mattie never pushed Stumblehoof, anyway, so you can complete this run at an amble just like she used to do. And at least a former orc’s horse will shy at nothing–that’s right useful around here.”
Eldarion smiled wanly and wiped the sweat from his brow. “I do feel better, already. Thank you. Now let us clean up this mess before it hurts someone.” But he had gone quite pale, and Frodo saw the fingers shaking that reached for the glass...
“Don’t!” The hobbit cried. “Do...not...touch...the...glass! Please sit perfectly still, sir, and let me clean it up.”
“I do not understand,” but he drew back his hand.
“Sauron wants to shake you up enough to make you cut yourself–I believe he hopes to leap to you.” Quickly Frodo cleaned up the area nearest to the prince.
“But my father told me of his weakness, how he can only...”
“Eldarion, what are you thinking right now?”
“I...?” He winced. “Unhappy thoughts. It has nothing to do with you, Frodo...”
“Sauron showed me a mirror of myself. My arrogance, my carelessness for the privacy of others, my...”
Thwack! “There you go. Punished enough?” Eldarion’s eyes widened at the towel-wielding hobbit, and then he rocked back laughing, color returning to his face and sparkle to his glance, as Frodo added, “Because that’s about the maximum you deserve, you know. Sauron can make any flaw look huge.”
“Thank you, little warrior! Who knew that the Perian could drive back a great and fallen maia with a flick of fabric?”
“The sillier the weapon, the more it wounds his pride. Laughter works best of all. Keep that in mind, Elda–especially when it takes the hardest work to remember anything funny at all.”
Eldarion stood up while Frodo finished the clean up. “Did Sauron try to...”
“Yes. Now toast us up some bread, if you please.”