He Clasped Her Fast, Both Flesh and Bone
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 19, Part 203
A Reunion, of Sorts
“We must do it by night,” Elenaril had advised, in her capacity as a healer, well-versed in the ways of poison, “When the sea-winds will blow the smoke away from the houses–we do not know what evil such a smoke might carry.” After a show of argument the Mayor conceded to the necessity. Not just the dangerous hour troubled her; it clenched her heart to deliberately burn a large chunk of field growing food. Yet when the Master Gardner informed her that this new vegetable, these rich and starchy “taters”, could draw poison from the soil, she bowed to the necessity, clasping Harding’s hand in her anxiety, though only Frodo’s sharp eyes caught it.
Another sword shrilled when Lanethil plunged its glowing metal into the water. Harding had quickly sought and spoken to the bravest and the hardiest of the villagers (Fishenchips and Bergil among them) winning promises to meet at twilight in the potato patch above the town. Now he and Lanethil labored side by side, making swords for them all, more swiftly than ever they did under the whips of Sauron. Sweat darkened and curled the Dark Elf’s locks as he bent over his work, glistening between the furnace and the blast of summer wind, and the bared muscles of the mortal beside him shone like polished stone. All day the pounding rang through the village, skipping across the walls in a shattering of echoes. All day people brought fuel for the fires from their own meager store, eating their noon meals cold. Sparks flew up, and steam, so that it seemed a dragon lived within the village. But the people would not quail this night, from the things that crept by darkness.
Nor did Frodo and Nibs, nor any other farmer, sit idly by. They flooded the fields all around the one condemned to burn, but left that one to parch, even shoveling stone and gravel from the irrigation ditches so that these would dry the quicker under the relentless Mordor sun.
Frodo could hardly wait to finish digging, eager to unleash the life-giving gush onto the protected fields. It never ceased to gratify his heart to see each pond filled to the brim, so that they had all that they should need. Even Nibs smiled to watch the sun sparkling on the water–he had seen enough of sere lands on the way to know what treasure lapped the surrounding stones. Nibs bent to the water, splashed his entire head, and then soaked his hat before plopping it back on, to cool the rest of his labors. Frodo laughed; small wonder that hats in his family never kept their shape through a summer.
Clouds amassed on the horizon. “Wait,” Frodo whispered. “Wait please, until after our night’s business–and then rain down as much as you desire, O Mordor-bound maiar of water and air, and refill our ponds again. I know that I have no right to ask, as stained as any spirit in this land, but wait please anyway, in hope of better days and cleaner souls to come. I will hope beside you, and together we shall make this land a place for people better than ourselves.”
Remembering his sin, Frodo looked over at his uncle in his dripping hat, grateful to have not, after all, snipped that particular thread in the Web of Life. “No sense brooding on it,” he told himself as he returned to his work. “It will make itself plain soon enough, I suppose, whoever it must be.”
He gazed out over the fields, and the village down below, at all of the men and women at their labors, and at the children beside them, helping as they could or playing within line of sight. Then something opened up in Frodo’s heart. Because it might have been any one of them that he had cut short, they all became infinitely precious to him. Every one of them, somebody’s Ma or Pa or brother or sister or spouse, uncle or aunt, child or friend. Had some wizard, at any point in his life, asked him if there could be such a thing as an expendable person, he would have answered, “No, I suppose not,” and would have thought that saying so made him a good person. But because he had found himself put to the test and had failed, because he had shortened some unknown life to save Mattie, the question left the realm of the hypothetical–now, too late, he felt in the flesh his kinship to all who lived. His remorse became a beauty aching in his breast, and his delight in his fellow creatures became a pain that he would not want eased.
After the noon meal Frodo left the field for Nibs to supervise. He, Bergil and Fishenchips, and the other chosen warriors, repaired to their beds to catch some rest before they faced the night ahead. Frodo tossed back and forth across the width of his new and broader bed, trying to find a cool spot, certain that he could never rest in the hottest hours of the day–and then he fell into a heat-stunned sleep after all, the distant clamor of the anvil weaving into his dreams, armored knights clanging at each other rhythmically in a strange martial dance, while a beautiful woman looked on, smiling, at the blood that rained down, drenching the fields.
“What on earth were you dreaming?” Mama asked him as she woke him for breakfast. “You looked plumb horror-stricken in your sleep.”
“I don’t know, Mama, and I don’t care,” Frodo answered, “now.” His mother stepped out while he dressed, but he knew that she stood close to the door. “I’ve got work to do. There’s blight in the potato-patch, and Papa and I need to stop it before it spreads.”
“Nibs’ll help,” she said, taking his arm as he left his bedroom. “You can count on my brother, son. Don’t let the gossips fool you–you can always trust our Nibs.”
“Oh, is he well enough to work, do you think?”
“Just as good as gold,” his mother said with a smile. “Better than gold, in fact. He doesn’t hold with gold for very long, you know–and you shouldn’t neither. It never did your namesake any good.”
“Thank you, Mama–I shall remember that.”
She kissed his cheek at the door. “Don’t you go messin’ with foreign queens, neither. They can break even the stoniest heart.”
Frodo laughed. “Ma, I’m married, now–remember?” Then he went to join the menfolk at labors that did not sit long in the memory, yet satisfied him deeply throughout the heat-drenched day. They moved rhythmically to a metallic drum played by a footless old Nurning sitting by the fields. Happily they labored, side by side, till the sunset burned down to its embers, then they made their way home in a glow of contentment.
Someone kept knocking at the door. His family tried to ignore it, sitting by the fireside at Bag End. The knocking would not let up. Mattie pursed her lips over her knitting, working the needles faster. Several times Frodo started to stand up and go for the door, but each time, his father would grab his arm and pull him down again. “There’s nobody you want to entertain, this time of night. There’s nobody decent out there.” But at last Frodo broke free and headed for the door, if only to get away from the fire (what had possessed his father to build it up so high in the middle of summer?) and get a breath of cool night air.
He opened his eyes before the door, however...and found himself lying on sweat-soaked sheets, in his tower-room, in Mordor. The late light showed him that night must soon fall upon the town.
Frodo donned his clothes and went down the stairs, Sting heavy on his belt. He stepped out under a brilliant sky as the sunset caught fire; he glanced towards the west sometimes as he went, but he did not stop for it. “I must commission lower windows, bay windows perhaps, so that I can enjoy such sights more often,” he told himself. Men joined him, walking towards the fields by twos and threes, nobody saying a word. And they all bore swords. By the time they reached the top of the fields, the first stars had begun to show up high in the east. Hands loosened blades in their sheaths all around him, and he did likewise.
Lanethil joined the band, carrying the torch. He looked slimmer than the men and yet strong, as deadly-graceful in his moves as Kitty, wide of eye and wild of hair, beautiful and dangerous, firelight chasing across his features. Behind him, hard and sturdy women bore bundles of wrygrass-straw tied up so tightly that these could serve for logs. It surprised some to see the herbwife, “Dinwen”, among them, but Frodo nodded–all of the bravest in the village had gathered indeed. She, however, lived up to her adopted name and said no word, and he let her have her silence in peace. By now the sunset had deepened to bloody hues, fading into a smoky murk. The last, deep violet light spread over the world.
“Wait,” Lanethil said, softly, “until the wind changes.” The men stood and they waited, still saying nothing, though howls in the distance made their scalps prickle, all eyes on the torch and on which way the flames bent. More stars came out. Women scattered some of the straw across the potato-field, then piled bundles particularly upon the place that had poisoned Nibs. Crickets sang loudly in the fields, and bats danced twittering over a nearby pond, darting after insects. Some of the women hastened down the slopes, then, to their homes, eyes often glancing back over their shoulders, but others went to stand beside their men, drawing daggers out. The sky continued to darken. Moths battered them, all diving for the torch-fire, but the people hardly moved. When full dark had fallen the fire bent away from the sea and the village below the plateau. “Now,” Lanethil said, and plunged the torch into the straw.
It caught quickly, spreading through the potato plants. Flames leaped and grew, driving back the darkness with a blaze of orange light that fluttered over faces and tunics, glinting in eyes and on the naked blades of swords and knives. Frodo brought around a small barrel, and every man and woman dipped their kerchiefs into its water, then bound the cloths over their mouths and noses, as he had already done. The smell of smoke still came through, and sometimes stung the eyes, but hopefully no one would breath particles of anything deadly tonight.
The flames looked weird in a lovely kind of way, how they wavered and danced across the field, smoke curling around the roots of burning plants, sparks crawling through leaves like living things, more smoke and sparks spreading upwards into the night sky, billowing away. Frodo coughed and let the women tend to their task of limiting the fire’s scope. He turned outward like the men, his little sword in hand for whatever good it might serve; he gazed half-blinded for a moment from having stared into the fire, but soon adjusting to the dark in a way that no one else save Lanethil could do. Their shadows writhed before them with flashes of orange light spilling out between. Beyond them, though, the village looked so peaceful. In the dark you could forget where you were.
Long they stood thus, as the firelight slowly died, but they had to stay even after the last flame failed, protecting the women who watched the ground smoulder, their eyes gleaming in the lurid red glow, making sure that no fire leaped up again, rekindled from buried sparks when least expected. A sleepy contentment stole over Frodo. Maybe fathers felt like this, protecting what they loved. He remembered dreaming something pleasant about farming with his father. What had his mother told him about not taking gold?
A voice called out in the distance, too far to distinguish. Frodo snapped back to full awareness. What need might drive someone out at night, without a whole company of sword-bearers? The voice called again, this time so close that he almost made out the words, and could almost place who the voice belonged to. Then it called a third time:
“Fishenchips? Is that you?”
Frodo’s heart raced with recognition!
“Fish, can ya help me, man? Come help me to the fire.”
Harding grabbed the hook and would not let go. “Don’t answer,” he said quietly. “It cannot be who it sounds like.”
“Fishenchips–help me! I’ve been so cold for so long...”
Frodo thought he glimpsed something, and his hair stood on end. Nearby he heard the hiss of Lanethil’s drawn breath.
Fish pulled his hook free and immediately Harding leaped in front of him, sword out. But the former sailor cried, “Are ye mad? Can’t ye hear who that is? ‘Tis Captain Watersheen!” He rushed the guard–metal clashed on metal as a silhouette drew near with lurching steps.
Harding protested, “No that is not who calls ye, man!” Other men leaped forward to stop the sailor/healer, and some turned the other way, swords braced before them towards where they’d heard the voice.
“But he’s injured!”
Frodo whispered, behind his kerchief, “Injured isn’t half of it,” staring at what Fish couldn’t make out in the dark.
Fishenchips pleaded, “He needs help!” Again he tried to dart around the swords; the cloth fell from his face, revealing his agony. “The shipwreck...Leech lived, why not Watersheen?”
“Leech came back months ago,” Harding answered him.. “Think, man–nobody could have survived this long. Now step back afore I cut ye.”
Fish bellowed, “If anybody could, the Captain would! Lemme past!” He tried to dodge around the blades, though he nicked himself more than once, caring nothing for his own blood. ”Lemme past!”
A dark form loomed on the edge of human sight. Frodo stared at details that no mortal eyes could see but his, and the full shock drove all words from his throat.
“Fishenchips–help me!” Watersheen’s voice cried out, closer still. “I’m sooo cursed cold, man, I can hardly move–I need ya!”
Fish roared in anguish, battling back the swords with his own and his hook, sustaining more cuts, but nobody would let him past.
“Fish, please!” The newcomer begged. “Who else believed in ye? Who else stood by ye when the rest o’ the crew despised ye? Who else slipped ye Belzagar’s ring when t’others looked away to toss his body overboard?”
“Only Watersheen’d know that!” Fishenchips broke free and ran forward–and so did Frodo. The man fell with a scream, his foot pinned to the ground by Sting.
Panting for air, Frodo squeezed the man’s shoulder like Fish faced another amputation. Then the hobbit looked up, and terror froze him in place.
Captain Watersheen stood before him, very near, the ember-light glinting on his troubled countenance as he leaned on a staff of driftwood. In the darkness Fishenchips could not have seen the seaweed that draped his shoulders with the rags of his chemise. Only Frodo, with his enhanced night vision, could spy the tiny black crab that crept out over the rim of that rimy boot, scuttling down to the ground. Only Frodo, up this close, saw those eyes, filmed over with a pallid slime, and the ghostly green that glowed behind them. But worst of all, he saw the wind briefly blow back the tatters to reveal nothing between hip and rib save for a roiling, tortuous fog.
The Captain broke into a friendly grin, spoiled by the sand fleas that escaped his lips. “Well, if it ain’t the hobbit–Master Gardner, I should say.” He extended a fish-nibbled hand to Frodo, a couple of knuckles showing bone. “I haven’t forgotten the dried apples that ye shared. Will ye come and tip a shot o’ grog with me in fair exchange?”
Frodo stumbled back, his empty sheath slapping against his leg. “No. Noooo. I don’t know how you know these things, but you are not Watersheen.”
He backed into Fishenchips and fell, while the man groaned and pried at the Elvish knife impaling his foot. “Have ye all gone mad? That’s him! That’s him!”
Sudden light flared up again. Lanethil ran forward between the men, whirling a bundle of straw around and around in bright circles, whipping it into new flame. In the orange glare everyone could suddenly see clearly the horror that stumbled back, its rotting arms raised up in fear. But the elf showed him no mercy–he flung the brand. Then the bones and rags, the dried seaweed and the parchment-shriveled remains of flesh, took fire. The flames soon leaped up twice the man’s height, as they watched the skeleton within crumble, and then something went shrieking up into the sky, visible only as a disturbance shooting through the smoke.
While Lanethil stamped out the last of the fire, and the women keened (in a tired, practiced way) for Watersheen’s ashes on the wind, Harding strode forward, and with a muscled wrench jerked Sting from Fishenchip’s foot. Fish cried out in pain, but no pain of flesh alone caused him to collapse sobbing with his head landing in the hobbit’s lap.
Grimly Harding said, “Ya sailors consign yer dead to the deeps, but betimes they wash ashore, where unclean things borrow ‘em--even to borrowin’ whatever imprints o’ memory remain on what’s left o’ the brains--and then send ‘em lurchin’ into town, some nights.” He watched as “Dinwen” bound the healer’s foot, as wordless as ever. “‘Tis the second time ye owe yer life to this hobbit, here. I hope ye know that.”
“I am so sorry,” Frodo said, stroking the dark hair so much like his Uncle Hamson’s, “but I couldn’t stop you any other way. Better hurt than dead.”
Then Dinwen broke her silence to say, “You aimed well, little friend, striking mostly between the toes. He shall walk tenderly for awhile, by crutch or by cane, but he shall come to no harm in the long run.” Then a shudder shook her entire body as she gazed at the smudge where Watersheen’s body had unnaturally stood. “That kind...I know more about that kind than of old. It wanted a better body than the one it had found. You did the right thing, Frodo.”
Harding detailed off two armed men to see Fishenchips safely delivered into Elenaril’s care, followed by Dinwen carrying a torch in one hand and a bare sword in the other. Frodo thought that she almost looked like her old self. The rest of them continued their vigil until dawn, making sure that the burnt potato-field did not spread its smoulder. They had planned a day shift to take over after them, but they had no need. At the sun’s first light a gentle rain began, as sad and sweet as a penitent’s tears. Hissing steams went up wherever it found hidden coals. Frodo watched it, saying nothing, until puddles began to form. Then he turned and walked home in the rain.