Now Lost, Lost to Those From the East, Is Valimar!
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 9, Part 219
July 21, 1452
The storm-clouds in the distance built throughout the morning, cloud upon cloud piling up on the horizon; Mattie watched from a perch high up in the tower’s eastern wall, wishing that the new windows faced out that way, even if they did lack glass. Even so, it surprised her how easily she could climb up the bookcase that she had recently bought, to reach this slot of stone, without anything to weaken her or dizzy her balance. She saw that the men worked in a hurry, trying to harvest as much as they could before the storm arrived. The tower of cloud, white in the beginning, rapidly grew darker and more looming as it drew near, rumbling menacingly deep in its throat, flashing now and then like a temper barely held in check. Mattie could see a dark wall of blur coming their way under its edge, strangely ruddy, not like any storm of the soft lands of her birth. She knew well what that meant, here.
She climbed down, filled the baths in each room (feeling a particular pleasure to pour cool water into the ceramic tub that she had bought herself) a job that soon left her sweating and puffing enough to desire to bathe, herself, as she struggled up and down the stairs to haul the buckets. But at least she needn’t heat the water in the summertime.
The child followed her around, too small to help. Mattie asked, “What is the matter, pet? Frightened by the lightening?”
Spring gave her a queer look. “When I used to be a dragon, I would run out and dance in storms like this. I liked to play dodge with the lightningbolts.” She frowned, trying to puzzle things out. “I don’t feel that way no more. I’d rather stay dry inside today.”
Mattie tousled the little girl’s short hair, laughing, and said, “It is just as well. You never were immune to lightning, you know. You just thought you were.” She picked up two buckets and carried them up the stairs. “You were a very, very lucky little girl.”
“You, too,” Spring said, following her, struggling over the tall steps with legs as short as Mattie’s. “You used to be a dragon, too–I heard you singing dragon-songs.”
“Yes, you are quite right, my dear.” Mattie reached the second level and poured more water into Bergil’s tin-crate bath. “We are both very lucky girls, to not be dragons anymore.”
Then Mattie climbed back up to her perch and felt the weather change on the skin of her face (still sensitive with bruises.)
“Can I come up there with you?”
“I don’t think so,” Mattie called back down. “Hobbit-girls have nimbler feet, you see. But don’t feel bad–you will someday grow up tall and fair, and I shall stay the same size always. Soon enough you shall look out windows without having to climb the furniture.”
“What do you watch for?”
“My husband,” Mattie sighed. “I want to see that he makes it home all right.”
After a pause Spring said, “When I was a dragon, I didn’t worry about anybody.”
“Same here,” Mattie answered softly, and then laughed. “And in that we are also lucky to be girls again. It gets lonely, not worrying about anyone.”
“I’m going to go fetch Pansy,” Spring declared, and ran down the stairs. For thus she had named her latest doll, after Mattie had explained that the flowers embroidered on the kerchief from which she had made the doll-dress were called pansies, and that many hobbit-girls in Bree shared the same name. Spring had, in fact, made quite a collection of dolls by now, and started on a sampler to try her hand at finer needlework; Elenaril had remarked that the child had the makings of a promising seamstress someday. Spring returned with this and several other dolls, and played quietly on the floor while Mattie gazed out on the fields beyond.
The wind dropped to nothing–and then suddenly whipped up more wildly than before, bending the young trees that Frodo had planted nearly to the ground, while all the vegetation as far as she could see flailed about in a dance of ecstasy verging on hysteria. Everyone in Mattie’s sight tied kerchiefs over their faces and threw thin-woven shawls over their heads, knowing what came next.
Mattie climbed down and fetched her own kerchief and shawl, herself. Soon the air turned brown and thick with dust, stinging the eyes, choking the breath. “Go downstairs, Spring,” Mattie said. “You’ll find better air in the stairwell, away from the windows.” Mattie squinted against the onslaught as she knew the others outside must do; she watched them load the final baskets and leave the fields, their tunics pushed this way and that around their bodies. When the dust blew directly into their faces, they lowered the shawls over their eyes and peered the best they could through the gauzy fabric to find their way; she wished that she could do likewise and still see them, but instead she held up her hands and tried to peer through her fingers. Thus she saw that Frodo and Nibs went forward more surely than the others, their bare feet feeling for their paths, their baskets clutched tightly in front of them and the thunder rumbling behind. Mattie saw the lightning-strokes come closer and she bit her lip.
The wind now blew so hard that some of the baskets overturned and men frantically scrambled to scoop up their contents again before the weather turned still worse. Mattie saw Frodo half-stagger off his feet in the blast; he lurched into Nibs, and between them, leaning into each other for support, they managed to trudge forward, bent over their baskets, trying to keep the pods within from blowing away. Now hail pelted them all through the dust (stinging her bruises) and the folks outside ran, everyone ran, but they did not go far before the hail gave way to rain, so fast that the first drops sprayed them with airborn mud, rain mingled with the dust that had preceded it, slicing sideways at a razor angle. Mattie brushed hail off of her sill, and wiped mud-rain off of her face, letting the purer rain behind it wash her clean. “You can come out of the stairwell now,” she called out to Spring, and heard the child go to her own room.
Lightning crackled and roared directly overhead! Mattie watched Bergil run back for the hobbits and herd them on ahead of him, close now to the tower-house at last. Mattie leaped down and fairly flew down the stairs, so that she could be there to throw the door wide for them. “Kila saw it coming before any of us,” she told them as she brought over a basin for the hobbits to wash their feet in before taking another step, while Bergil pulled off his boots, leaned against the wall. “That’s why we held no weddings today–Kila counseled against it.” Lightning flashed through the darkened windows, and thunder rumbled after. Mattie laughed, in that saucy way of hers. “My but you are all a sight! Come now, upstairs, clean yourselves up proper. Bergil, Elenaril must wait out the storm with her patients, but she is safe and sound enough at the hospital; she hopes to come home if the weather lets up before nightfall, but if not, you needn’t fear for her.”
They had not gotten far up the stairs before they heard a frantic pounding on the door. “Gwaithendil!” Mattie cried. “I forgot!” She ran back and let in the wide-eyed, soaked-to-the-skin young man, looking so bedraggled and woebegone that she threw a towel around his shoulders even before she shouted, “Boots off! Now!” Then she repeated her message, this time mentioning that Eowyn, too, awaited better weather at the hospital.
Now she could at last go up the stairs a final time, close the bedroom door, and embrace her muddy husband, so wild-looking with his hair every which way, his eyes red with dust and burning for her. She kissed his gritty cheek, then tenderly helped him out of weskit, belt and tunic, and she stepped out of her own things while she was at it. Saying nothing, she led him by the hand into the tub with her, the water refreshing them both, and they bathed each other, still saying nothing, the water-music tinkling all around them, lightning-flashes glinting on wet skin. The curving ceramic, so much smoother than their old makeshift tub of dented metal, had ample room to cradle them both comfortably close together.
The storm still raged an hour or so later as they lay side by side in bed. Aromas wafted up from below, where somebody cooked lunch. “I hope it’s Nibs down there,” Mattie said. “Your family knows their way around a kitchen.”
Frodo sniffed and said, “I’m afraid it’s Bergil. He always uses too much onion. Anyway, it’s his turn.”
“Even too much onion smells good to me right now,” Mattie sighed. “I’m famished!”
Frodo laughed and traced his fingers about the curve of her tummy. “You have gotten used to enjoying your meals plentiful and often.”
Mattie laughed right back and nestled up to him, saying, “And what if I have? You prefer me cuddly.” They arrived late for lunch.
Around the table, as the household sat in contentment after, turned out to be a rather good meal after all. Bergil asked, “What do you make of that rumbling in the distance?”
“Thunder,” Nibs said, wiping his mouth. “More of the same. It sounds like one storm right on top of another.
Spring scooped up the last of the pea soup with her bread and said, “The thunder sounds crunchy.”
Frodo leaped from his seat. “That’s not thunder!” He ran to the door, grabbed his broad straw hat and tossed Nibs his own. “The rain overstrains my dams–we need to go!”
Mattie called, “I’m going too!” on her way for her own gear, while Nibs cried out, “Wait, why? What can we do about it?”
Frodo tied his kerchief around his head to keep his hat snug. “We can flood the fields–they can stand it, I hope.” He tied his hat on with hasty fingers. “But if we don’t, the whole system will burst and a wall of water will crash down onto Seaside, worse than any flash-flood in history!”
Now Bergil hastened to block the door while Nibs and Mattie made ready. “No! Wait! Do you not hear the same storm that hurts my ears? You could die out there!”
“And if we do not go, then we who have a tower to take refuge in shall be the only Seasiders left alive.”
The ranger blanched, but squared his shoulders. “Then let me go in your stead. Seaside needs your knowledge, Frodo.”
“You?” Mattie challenged, “A father to be?”
The man hesitated, but doubt troubled his face. More gently Frodo said, “It will be all right, Bergil. Only hobbits can do this. We stand at half your height, which gives us half the risk of a lightning-strike.”
“Yet a hobbit cannot by himself throw the levers to release the waters.”
“And that is why it will take three of us. Let us go.”
The man relented. As soon as they stepped out the door the rain lashed them like it tried to drive them right back in again. The hats kept the worst of it out of their faces, enabling them to see beyond a curtain of drips, but not very far. When lighting flashed overhead Mattie screamed and clutched at Frodo, but forced herself to run with him uphill to the farming-lands, nonetheless, holding onto her hat against the blast. Fear! She had spent most of her life evading it. Now it invaded her, crawled under her skin, conquered her heart and forced it to labor double-time. And she let it happen. And she kept on going.
Slogging through mud, they reached the first pond. Over the thunder Frodo shouted, “Try not to pull any muscles at least until we reach the end, Uncle!”
Nibs grinned through the rain. “I’ll do my best, Nephew, but it looks like we shall have to pull all the stops.”
“Try and limit that to the stops in the waterways, if you can.”
It did indeed take all three of them to haul down the lever that would send water rushing into the irrigation system, into fields already drenched. Nibs, as the heaviest, grabbed the farthest and highest end, and dangled from it with his feet off of the ground before the others added their own weight and effort and slowly dragged the thing down. Water overflowed the system, bubbling up between the rows until a sheet of flood covered the vegetables entire.
“Some of those...plants...won’t survive,” Nibs observed, as they ran, panting, to the next pond.
“And some will...Uncle,” Frodo panted back. “Some always...will.”
Love. Fear. The job at hand. These things wrestled for Mattie’s soul. In the end Love won, allied with the job. She poured herself into her labors, the ordeal of mud-trammeled running to pond after pond, the wrenching effort to help pull lever after lever, till the ache of her limbs occupied her more than the terrifying flashes that cracked a tree right before her eyes. Pain, too, she had evaded for years, but she had already faced and conquered that enemy in the Ephel Duath.
“We’re doing it!” Frodo shouted with joy. “We’ve turned the tide! Just two more ponds and we can all go home.”
“And I still haven’t injured anything as yet,” Nibs answered, grinning fiercely as they ran to the next body of water that slopped over its rim, the slopes slippery with mud.
And suddenly an ecstasy cut right through Mattie’s struggles, so great that it felt almost like she had taken up the pipe again, yet deeper, stronger, rooted in her hobbit nature–that triumph which cannot come to pass without great trials. She could do it–she could do anything that love demanded of her!
She looked beyond her feet now as she ran, up to a stony outcropping just beyond the farthest pond. She blinked rain out of her eyes and saw (or thought she saw) a tall figure standing high up on a ledge, long, pale hair wild in the wind, completely unprotected. She gasped when lightning struck the crown he wore, and in the flash Mattie saw Lanethil’s glaring face, seemingly oblivious to the sparks that ran all up and down his body, causing his hair to rise and dance like snakes. Then the rain fell too thick to make out much of anything beyond the work at hand.
“That could not have happened,” she thought to herself as she threw her body against the second to the last lever. “How long might hallucinations linger after one has quit the poppy gum? Especially when one has smoked it for as many years as I?” She didn’t dare tell anyone else what she had seen, not even later when they made it back to home, so soaked that they actually felt chill and appreciated the blankets with which Bergil warmed them. She did not believe in it, herself.