He Clasped Her Fast, Both Flesh and Bone
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 24, Part 208
Conversation Over Tea
July 12, 1452
“It may seem folly to dare serve my own humble offerings to the best cooks in town,” Frodo declared as he brought in a chilled (or at least tepid) pitcher of tea. “Yet I hope that the cheer of friends gathering at one table will make up for any deficit in the meal.” Then he looked into the eyes of one who had banqueted in the most celebrated halls of elfdom–and survived on the foulest scraps that Morgoth or Sauron could toss to a slave, and fell silent.
Yet Lanethil smiled, saying, “Nay, Frodo, good company makes the best sauce for any meal.”
Pearl fanned herself prettily and added, “Coo, Frodo, I didn’t know what cooking could be till I met ye.”
Ask her about Mattie.
“And how is Mattie doing?” Frodo asked as lightly as possible, pouring the tea.
Pearl dimpled. “Now Frodo–I mustn’t say a thing about a lady in seclusion. ‘Twould be bad luck, says Kila.”
See? They give away nothing.
Frodo sat down with them and reached for a biscuit. “Old Kila never says the same thing twice. It cannot hurt at least to nod if Mattie is well.”
Pearl nodded vigorously, and laughed, a loud “barnyard laugh,” as Frodo’s mother would have called it, but Lanethil looked on her with amused adoration.
Elenaril also smiled, saying, “Perhaps we should change the subject to one we may all discuss. How do the fields progress?”
Putting on his best company manners, Frodo answered, “Well, Milady. We converted four more acres to good, plantable soil this week.”
“That should more than make up for the loss of the potato field, then.” Lanethil averted his eyes at her words, staring at his long fingers, but saying nothing.
“I am afraid not,” Frodo told her. “No one wants anything more to do with ‘taters, now. They will only eat our carrots, turnips, and parsnips if we grow them in pots...”
“...And I can’t say I blame them,” Nibs interrupted.
“...while ‘taters themselves they regard as bad luck altogether.”
Nibs muttered, “Now that’s plain superstitious, if you ask me.”
Under his breath Frodo hissed to his uncle, “We haven’t.” Then he asked Lanethil, “And does the smithy do well?”
The elf answered, “Well enough, though I do not get enough custom to satisfy me. So I have followed your recommendation and started a glassworks on the side. I already have a couple of apprentices interested in the art.”
“Excellent! I promise to becomes one of your first customers, for I should like glass shutters in all of my windows before winter.”
“You shall have them–I promise work that would bring to mind the gardens of your home, if you would like. Mordor abounds in minerals for coloring glass, though one must handle them carefully.”
“Er–as to that, thank you very much, but I should like clear shutters for the top floor, especially for the new bay window that I’m having built. I want to watch sunsets, you see.”
Nibs leaned forward. “Oho! So that’s why you’ve been tearing up the place, is it?”
Lanethil added, “I can still fashion a delight for your eyes, Frodo, framing the clear glass in floral designs of jewel hues. I think you shall like the effect.”
“In that case I gladly accept–thank you!” Frodo exclaimed. “Won’t Mattie be surprised?” And then he turned to Pearl, asking, “And how fares business at the bakery?”
But she just dimpled and said, “Now, now, ye’re tryin’ to find out secrets again. I’d rather hear the news o’ the hospital.”
Fishenchips turned white and gulped at his tea. “Not fer me t’say,” he said.
Elenaril said, “It is all right, Fishenchips, to speak in general terms, so long as you give away no individual’s secrets outside the medical sphere.”
Fishenchips cradled his cup in hook and hand, staring into it. “Well, we’ve had some funny business lately, and it worries me.”
Frodo poured himself some more tea and stirred honey into it. “What is it, friend?”
“Some new evil’s come upon us that we can’t quite name. People goin’ nuts.”
Frodo laughed uneasily. “Well, that is hardly news, around here!”
“But ‘tis badder than ever, and in a brand new way,” the ex-sailor insisted, looking up again. “And ‘tis always the hardest workers, the ones as carried the most hope fer Seaside, not some layabouts as we could spare.” He buttered a muffin for himself. “In fact, that’s the very thing that goes wrong, though it hardly seems wrong at first.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just that they works harder and harder, burnin’ up candles by night, not content to shut their labors down at a decent hour.”
Nibs declared, “Sounds commendable to me,” and made a kind of sandwich of two scones and some kaktush jam.
But Frodo scowled and asked, “Too much of a good thing, then? Is that what you’re saying?”
“Aye, li’l buddy. If they can’t find honest labor, they invent strange tasks, like sortin’ all the beans in the larder accordin’ to size, or countin’ the rocks in the walls. Oh, they seems happy to begin with, more’n the general run, burstin’ full o’ new ideas and plans. But then they gets so they fergets to sleep, fergets to eat, and they goes from bein’ a mite touchy or jumpy to waxin’ meaner’n’ Kitty with a thorn in her paw. Somewheres along th’line they starts to seein’ things as ain’t there and believin’ things as ain’t true, always sumpin’ out to get ‘em, one way or ‘nother.”
Nibs stared at Fish in silence, forgetting for a moment to chew. Frodo, meanwhile, thought back to the time when he had tried to do without sleep. Slowly he said, “Guilt can drive a person, sometimes, trying to make up for something impossible to set right. But why several all at once like this? Do they have any history together?”
“Not that we can find so far, though we keep axin’ questions. Some, in fact, come from out o’ town.” Fishenchips shook his head. “I sure wish we had the Lady of Ithilien handy, ‘cause some o’ these folks turn criminal-crazy–we’ve had murders happen fer no good reason.” He sighed heavily over a puff-pastry. “I expect we might have t’rope some o’ them folks up and march ‘em to her under guard, the way things go.”
Frodo looked thoughtful, almost ready to speak...but then he closed his mouth again.
Elenaril added, “The more advanced the case, the more fear seems to possess them. They always believe their acts of violence justified as self-defense. They do not become cowardly, but rather as warriors forever at battle, never at leave even to shut their eyes for longer than a blink–warriors without any army behind them, surrounded by an implacable host of foes, for they believe all hands turned against them, even those once most beloved to them. Most of the time I do not know how to comfort them.”
Fish said, “When we catch ‘em and bind ‘em, the spell does seem t’break. They’ll go on as nutty as ever fer awhile, then suddenly collapse into sleep. They can sleep fer days, then; nothing can wake ‘em fer long. But when they do wake up they beg piteously for escape, still thinkin’ we’re agin ‘em. But at least then we can feed ‘em up a bit, get ‘em back to some semblance o’ health.”
“Yet as soon as we release them,” Elenaril added, “the madness starts all over again–first the heroic labors, then the self-neglect and wasting, then the violence and fear. Some indeed have exhausted themselves to death.”
Frodo listened deep in thought. “Much of this smacks of the work of Makar and Meásse. But Sauron says that they are weak, and their influence does not travel far.”
Elenaril asked, “Where are Gwaithendil and Dinwen? For this matter might well concern them.”
“At the tanner’s,” Frodo answered. “The art of leatherworking interests Gwaithendil, for he hunts. And Dinwen goes wherever he does.”
Elenaril leaned forward. “Some things I do not yet understand about their case. Gwaithendil says that he cast Meásse out of Dinwen. Yet how did he do this? And when, and where? Did he cast her out in Nurn?”
“No,” Frodo said. “In Riverborn. Dinwen brought the wound with her, but not the weapon which made it.” He shuddered. “Makar made a try for me, once, and Meásse for my wife, but it didn’t take–I don’t think they ever met a hobbit before; they didn’t quite know how to grapple with our souls.” He took a deep breath. “I felt many things then that horrify me now, but not any particular desire to work. So I might have guessed wrong in connecting this new ill to anything having to do with them.” He thought for a moment. “What about the crown we found? Sauron made no bones about laying a curse upon it.”
Elenaril said, “Nay, the malady began before we found the crown.” She hesitated, then said, “As a matter of fact, the earliest symptoms began suddenly and all at once in a number of people, upon the arrival of Gwaithendil and Dinwen.”
Lanethil laid down his cup. “It is not the crown. I have examined its properties for days now.”
Frodo spilled his tea. “You WHAT?”
“Examined the crown. The mayor dug it up and brought it to my smithy, to see if I can extract the gold from the bone and free it from its poison. Some definite evil infests it, for the poison itself could not have...”
“Are you out of your mind, Lanethil? How could you even touch that thing?”
“Oh, I know all the necessary precautions for handling smelting-poisons. And at the Mayor’s request I told her exactly what she needed to do before digging it up.”
“That is beside the point! Didn’t I say...”
“Say what?” The elf drew himself up. “Does the Royal Gardiner outrank the Mayor of Seaside?”
“Never mind rank, Lanethil–where was your common sense?”
Only then did the Elf look troubled. He stared lost in thought for a moment, while none dared say anything else, before responding, “I am afraid that I have not known the joys of anything you might call ‘common’ for a long, long time, Frodo.”
Abruptly Nibs said, “Here lad, let’s get your tunic looked to before the tea stain has a chance to set. Upstairs with you...”
“Wait, Uncle, I can’t just...”
“Oh yes you can. What will your wife say when she comes home and finds out you’ve ruined your clothing?” And Nibs tugged at his arm so insistently that Frodo had to climb upstairs with him and leave his guests to Elenaril’s care.
As soon as they got to Nibs’s room (the rent in the upper wall now halfway filled with new stones for the buttress) the elder hobbit pulled the clothes off of him and poured water over the tunic into his washing-basin, saying, “Your Pa told me what Lanethil is. I’d not have believed it, except a body’s got to believe Sam Gamgee–‘scuse me, Sam Gardner–the most when he says the queerest things.”
“Yes,” Frodo said, pulling on a fresh tunic from the chest that he kept here until his own room became habitable, while Nibs scrubbed furiously. “Pa said right–Lanethil is an elf. Trust me on that.”
“And Sam also said that all his kind tie in close to the land, and that this here Lanethil has bonded tight with Mordor, sharing its ups and downs as no elf ought to do in so damaged a place as this.”
“You know more about it than I would have expected of you, Uncle Nibs.”
The hobbit looked up at that. “Maybe you don’t know it, but you’ve put on some airs, lad. All of you Gardners got yourselves more education than is usual for a Cotton or a Gamgee, and you’ve got the King’s ear, and your Pa at least has done some mighty fancy things in his time. That doesn’t make you a Fallohide, to just go assuming that we Harfoots don’t want to learn and can’t add two and two together even if we did. If anything, it ought to make you take more note of just how much your kin can think, and learn, and figger for ourselves. You came from us, Frodo–don’t you never forget it!”
“I am sorry, Uncle. I did not mean any harm; I just didn’t know how much my parents told you of my letters.”
“They told me everything I need to know to do my job, of course–what d’ye expect?” Nibs wrung out the tunic and hung it on a peg. He pulled a handful of wet cloth up close to study, and shook his head. “The blamed thing might just stain anyway–best if you dyed the whole garment brown.” He turned to Frodo. “Any road, as I was saying, your friend Lanethil can’t have good wit–not entirely–because he’s part and parcel of this addled country. The land’s been beat down so hard, slave to a tyrant for so long, that it can’t even grow much in the way of good weeds, let alone healthy crops, without somebody standing over it and making it obey. Lanethil thinks like a slave, too–Mayor says do this, and he does that. Don’t treat him like one of those fancy elves out of your father’s stories–he’s not that wise. I don’t care if he does remember back to the days before the sun and moon.”
Frodo nodded. “You have a point–a very good one. And I have put a lot of thought lately to how the poisoning of the land might affect Lanethil.”
Nibs handed Frodo his belt and vest. “See that you do put some thought into it. I heard all about the crazy spirits of Poros Pass, too, and seen for myself a few things that curdled my blood on the way over here. Now while this Lanethil might not be so powerful as one of them, an addled elf is plenty risky enough, if you ask me.”
“Tell me about it,” Frodo murmured.
“Let’s go down,” Nibs grunted. “And listen, and figure out how to separate the smith from that cursed crown, if we can.”
“I am not sure that is the right course,” Frodo replied, but he went down the stairs with his uncle. On the way he heard Nibs muttering, “I can’t believe I’m sipping tea by the Sea of Nurnen with a half-crazed elf, a hook-handed man, and a lady with no face! But at least the vittles hit the spot.”