He Clasped Her Fast, Both Flesh and Bone
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 25, Part 209
The Kaktush Wine Festival
July 13, 1452
Frodo tried to smile as he heard the off-key singing outside. This one holiday the people of Seaside observed out of doors at night, trusting that the bonfires and torches everywhere, not to mention the loud noise of their revelry, would fend off the predators. Some inevitably would fall prey anyway, but probably in about the same numbers as the evening’s conceptions, so it all worked out, more or less.
Elenaril said, “Your move, Frodo.” Fishenchips had earlier gathered up leftover ends of wood from the remodeling, and whittled pegs and a hole-pierced checkerboard for a game that his “sister” could play, with the sides distinguished by rough or polished wood.
“Oh. Yes. Of course.” Frodo studied the board, and jumped one of her pieces. Outside something crashed, and many voices laughed uproariously.
Now Elenaril’s hands fluttered over the board, each piece held firm by its peg. A sudden smile tweaked her lips as she leap-frogged over one piece after another, gathering them each in turn, and made it all the way to Frodo’s side of the board. “Crown me,” she said.
Frodo replaced her peg with a taller one, carved with a jagged circle on top. “Well played!” he said ruefully, suddenly realizing that he had only three pieces left, himself, with no possible way to move without putting each into a trap. “Well played indeed.” Outside people clapped and cheered for heaven knew what.
“Oh, I used to love this game as a child! We’d draw our boards with a bit of plaster on the streets of Minas Tirith, and play with light and dark stones.”
“Believe me, I can tell you’ve had practice.”
Outside music approximating the Springle-Ring struck up, and feet pounded out the beat. Elenaril asked, “Is that your uncle’s voice I hear singing?”
“Afraid so,” Frodo said with a smile, and made the first of three doomed moves. The game ended quickly. Elenaril excused herself to retire to her bed, scooping up the sleeping Spring from the bench, but Frodo sat up awhile longer. He listened in vain for the sound of a harp, but nothing like that came through in the crowd’s clamor, though musical instruments of many kinds rang out here and there in cheerfully clashing melodies.
Frodo rose and almost barred the door by habit, then remembered that Bergil kept popping back in to see how his wife fared, often carrying kaktush candies or other small offerings, feeling guilty that she could not join him in the celebration on account of the child that she carried, though she reassured him many times that she did not care, she enjoyed many other holidays much better than the Kaktush Wine Festival.
“It must be a sight out there,” Frodo thought to himself. Suddenly it occurred to him that he could watch the whole thing from the best vantage in Seaside, without having to mingle into the midst of it. So he climbed the stairs all of the way to his top floor (what was left of it) carefully made his way to the gap, and found some of the boards already nailed in place. Hobbits are nothing if not surefooted; he soon sat out on the very end of a long board just starting to create the basis for the bay window, leaving him outside but high above the crowd and with his feet dangling over them. Wistfully he thought of Trickster, off away with Mattie–the monkey would have made the perfect companion for a perch like that. He would have liked having Mattie with him even more.
Quite a sight greeted him indeed! Torches and bonfires lit the streets of Seaside like strands of necklaces beaded in flame, and in that ruddy light people thronged in the street, laughing, dancing, hailing each other with good cheer. Some few did brawl here and there, but more than half the swings missed and the turmoil never lasted. More threw arms around companionly shoulders, or kissed in the fluttering firelight. Frodo could smell the wine clear up here, sweetening the bonfire smoke, but that did not worry him with all bottles safely out of his reach. “So rough, these Nurnings, and yet so beautiful–like the kaktush itself, I suppose. It does my heart good to see them happy.”
Bah! These wastrels squander their energy to no purpose.
Frodo shrugged; if he couldn’t have even a monkey for companionship, he’d settle for a has-been dark lord.
I used to punish this festival hard in my day–it left them unfit for work the next morning. It surprises me to learn that I failed to stamp it out altogether.”
“Oh, it has its purposes. Legend says that it brings rain–even in the worst drought years a little rain will fall.” Frodo looked up at clouds massing in the distance. “Before the night ends, by the look of it–I see flashes of lightning, just the other side of those hills. The revelers will continue, in any case, until the first drops fall.”
Only because it will put out their fires–what a waste of wood!
“Yet they will depart in gratitude for a purpose served.”
What, just because it lures in some of the most frivolous of the maiar of the air, to watch them make fools of themselves?
“Perhaps. I’d rather meet a maiar in the mood for mirth than one of those poor creatures obsessed with a never-ending war. In any case the festival meets other needs as well.”
Ohhhh really. The caustic tone stung Frodo. What “needs”?
“Well, to make merry once in awhile, you know, in a land that laughs too rarely, to blow off steam, to bond with one’s fellows...to forget for awhile the cares of the world.” He felt loneliness welling up inside him.
If you believe such rot, then why do you not join them?
“Oho! Is that your game? You pretend to oppose this festival in order to entice me to believe that I’m pulling against you by going down there? You know what would happen if I did.” But that thought made Frodo feel lonelier still, lonely and peculiar, banished from custom and conviviality.
Are you so convinced that it must end badly? On a night like this, one little tippler would not stand out no matter what he did.
“No,” Frodo said firmly. “I must...I must make sure that I remain ‘fit for work in the morning.’”
Sauron’s laughter hurt his head. You would not accomplish much without the help of the rest of them. Oh go on! Join the rest of the fools. What point could you possibly make by this sacrifice?
“Well...the point...the point that I ask nothing of my wife that I myself do not stand by.”
Ah yes–the wife that you have not seen for how long? Why even now she must be...
“Shut up, Sauron!”
Oh, you do not mean it. I can feel your will turning to water already–so weak that I cannot see why I even bother with you, for I find hardly enough here to sustain me.
“Not really. Isn’t that why you hate having lost Mattie, and me? Because a hobbit’s will is the strongest thing you’ve ever tasted?”
Oh very well! I suppose I must concede as much–are you satisfied, now? In fact, you could prove the point quite well, rub my face in it if you desire, simply by going down there into the crowd, mighty hobbit that you are, and resist all proffered...
“You just never give up!”
If I did, I would not be Sauron the Dark Lord, now would I?
“Except in love. You did give up on love–because you never really had it in the first place.”
And I suppose you think you do?
“Oh, look over there! Fireworks!” The bright bursts of color stood out gaily against the massing clouds–now drawn somewhat closer. Suddenly Frodo felt like a child again, watching one of his father’s displays, or hearing his descriptions of the marvels that Gandalf could unleash, once upon a time.
Do not try to change the subject. I will wait you out and come right back to it.
But Frodo ignored him, staring below him in fascination. Under the shifting colored lights, the crowd had cleared space almost directly beneath his feet, and in this space Lanethil danced. Oh how he danced! He sprang like a deer and then, almost before his feet brushed the ground he bent whipped around like a tree in a hurricane, and drew up tall again, then lunged, then changed and changed and changed! His arm now became the wing of an eagle, now the thrust of a spear, his feet skipped like fire or flowed like water over stones, he could seem by turns as boneless as the wind or as spiky as a thorn, always matching the music perfectly no matter how different warring musicians improvised to the crashing of fireworks overhead.
Then, as the show above subsided, Lanethil reached into the crowd, and to Frodo’s surprise drew Eowyn into the dance. The aging woman looked flustered at first, but she swirled where he moved her, sometimes folded close against his breast, sometimes whirled around him at arm’s length. With a final spin he left her there, in the clearing amid the crowd, while he went over to lean against Pearl’s soft shoulder–but Eowyn did not stop dancing.
Frodo watched the crone at first skip out the light steps of a girlhood in the fields of Rohan, eyes closed and her face carefree, cheeks flushed in the firelight, freed by the wine. Sometimes her moves seemed abrupt, coltish or boyish, yet always exuberant. Now all the nearby musicians found themselves drawn into a single song, a kind of musical spell cast over the company, for Lanethil played his flute and Eowyn danced to his tune. Before their eyes she seemed to grow in grace and consciousness, to fair maidenhood, ingenious in innocense, flirting with the edge of her skirt.
Yet gradually the music slowed, and took a minor turn. Sad now the steps and heavy, and increasingly bent the woman appeared–yet not with her true age at all. Rather, she seemed a young thing bearing an ancient burden upon her. Now she would straighten, but as one defiant of hardships that she should not face. Sometimes she would freeze for a beat, in this proud pose or that, but then the pride would shatter into a thousand ice-needle movements, angular and edged, and then slower, stiffer, frosty moves would follow. And then at times she would run, around and around the cirque that the crowd had made for her, like some trammeled thing desperate to escape. And Lanethil played on.
A breath of spring softened the moves, brought curving lines back to the dance–a new hope, a memory of girlhood joy intermingled with full-grown hope. Yet the dancer matched the music tentatively. Muscles stayed tensed; with eyes shut she seemed to watch with her skin, wary.
The flute shrilled! Eowyn contracted abruptly, clenched in as though a spear thrust through her heart! For three beats of silence she balanced thus, and not a soul in the whole drunken crowd dared breathe or make a sound. The flute skirled out a marching-song, and somewhere Frodo heard great shells and beast-horns blown upon like trumpets. Eowyn straightened, and danced to a martial measure; people in the crowd could not resist stamping the beat out for her, for the flute compelled them. Frodo saw the seven sword positions in dance-form, the lunge of the knee, the earth-skimming arcs of the toe. The music grew more epic, faster, more desperate, and Eowyn charged into it, and the feet of the crowd thundered in no order at all, like the hooves of a host of horses, and Frodo could have sworn that he heard a cry upon the air, chanting, “Death! Death! Death!” The woman’s dance became terrified, triumphant, unstoppable! One arm abruptly curled down like a broken thing, but the other one swung, swordlike, swirling her completely around...
...as she swooned to the ground.
But the music did not stop playing. The crowd ceased their stamping, yet no one could leave, no one could reach for the fallen woman while the music cast its spell. All of the instruments fell away save one. It grew softer and softer, sweeter, kinder, a lone flute indeed. And slowly Eowyn rose, her eyes still closed, rose like a brand new sprout, fragile from the earth but growing stronger, stronger, stronger.
The other musicians came back into the song, one by one, as it grew full and rich. Then Eowyn’s face lit up with joy, and she danced once more with heartfelt abandon, the steps of youth enhanced and magnified by womanhood, great skirt-swirling leaps, running steps, with grace beyond the scope of youth, her head thrown back and her hair wild on the wind, her mouth wide open in a smile of ecstasy.
More intricate the dance became, as though she grew in knowledge and understanding with every stanza of the song. More mature became her motion, more restrained but not at all like the crushed maiden in the first part of the dance, rather self-restrained by choice, master of herself. Sometimes she danced with a partner that they could not see, in tender moves of joy. Sometimes she seemed to cradle babes in arms, or run skipping with young children hand in hand. Sometimes her hands seemed to open books, sometimes she swooped low as though to pluck some healing herb up from the earth, though often she reached up high, in celebration.
At the last she ran again in circles, but this time with freedom in her face, and her eyes open. She touched hand and hand and hand, all around the crowd, and those she touched went wide of eye, stumbling back with smiles, as though she passed some healing on. Finally she spun into the center of the circle once again, stopped dead with the music, her hands raised high, she threw back her head and in a loud voice cried, “I am the Lady Eowyn of Ithilien, Princess of Rohan, Shield-Maiden of the Mark, Herb-Mistress of Gondor, wife and mother and sister and friend–and I am whole!” And the crowd applauded in an uproar.
Frodo whistled and applauded with the best of them, close to knocking himself off of his perch, though he caught himself in time. “Good heavens!” he exclaimed. “If Lanethil can do that, what beautiful power survives within the earth, just waiting to be freed?”
Then he felt something wet hit his hand, and another on his shoulder. He stood up on his plank. Below him the crowd cheered again, laughing and whistling across the entire village, as the rain grew heavier and heavier, and he cheered with them, tossing his hat into the air and catching it again, barely keeping his footing yet not at all afraid. Fires went out all over the village. He turned and went on inside, satisfied, one with the crowd. And the rain sounded sweet where it ran from his eaves, and the air smelled fresh, and he curled up on his bench in utter peace.