The Adventures
of
Frodo Gardner

Volume VII
Now Lost, Lost to Those From the East, Is Valimar!
By Dolores J. Nurss

Chapter 22, Part 232
Changing the Plan
November 30, 1452

Frodo hated what he had to do next. A part of him would not stop screaming against his actions, and his body groaned with the effort, but he seemed to have no choice. Mattie had gone to shop, she said. Well, so must he; he knew it the minute his eyes caught the forgotten coin, glinting in the dust under the little table with the basin on it. With difficulty he levered himself out of bed, got down on hands and knees, and fetched the coin. That would suffice.
 
He made the mistake of not averting his face when he stood up, and found himself staring into the mirror–something of a shock, since he had not had access to any such thing for longer than he could reckon. He would have liked to say that he did not recognize those sunken features, the jutting cheekbones, the skin grown pallid in the mine and marked with sores, as lined as a hobbit twice his age, but the sad truth was that he did. That sight convinced him of the madness of his plan. Yet the madness convinced him of his helplessness. The eyes gazed sadly back at him as he shook his head.
 
He went out, bent in stature, in naught but his night-shirt, shivering as the wind blew through it, but better covered than he had gone of late. It took him awhile of wandering, resting often on any bench or pile of stone that he might find (feeling now acutely how his hipbones hurt, having nothing left of cushioning to sit upon) but he knew too well the way to what he sought.
 
He found the old hut with the fallen wall replaced by a weathered bar. Rain began to blow down on him, soaking his flannel and making it cling to his bones as he approached. Despairingly, he knew that his body no longer even wanted this–yet his mind could not fathom doing without. And his body, he knew, would relearn soon enough. He knew his way to the stool over by the rubble, where a hobbit could climb up. He recognized the stained spot on the weather-roughened bar, from leaning arms shaped smaller than the human run.
 
“One mug,” he said, proffering his coin, hating himself with a desperate passion, as though if he could just hate himself enough he could stop what he was doing.
 
“Why Pongo! I thought ye dead! Where have ye been keepin’ yerself these days?”
 
“Never you mind; just fetch me what I’ve paid you for.” One man-sized mug would do, for someone of his weight, now that his body had unlearned a greater need.
 
He smelled it as the barkeep poured it, inhaling deeply with all the longing in him. He took the first big gulp as soon as his hand could clasp upon the mug...and spewed it all over the ground, along with breakfast. Violent cramping doubled him over on the spot, toppling him from the stool, and not a drop of the drink remained with him.
 
“Awrrr–ya had too much already afore ya got here! Now I’ll have to clean that up–I’d make ya do it yerself, if I thought ye able.” He came around with a shovel and a bucket full of sand. “Pongo, ye’re the most worthless wart I’ve ever laid eyes on–next time ya disappear, do a better job o’ dyin’, will ya?”
 
“Who are you to complain?” a tenor voice countered, “When you’ll take a coin from him as good as any other?”
 
But Frodo did not look up; he just crouched with his hands before him in the mud, overcome with illness and utter wretchedness, when he felt a firm clasp take hold of him.
 
“Up you go,” Mattie said, helping him to his feet. “I figured I’d find you here, when you didn’t turn up at home.” She sighed and wiped his mouth with her kerchief, none too gently. “I had hoped you’d find the way too far in your condition, but I should have known better.”
 
“Mattie, I...I...”
 
“Don’t you dare say you’re sorry!” She dusted him off roughly, smacking the mud away. “I know you are, and are not.” And then she put an arm around him to help him walk with her, for he shook with the exertion of having arrived there at all. “I know everything you’re feeling, better than you do yourself, because I’ve had more practice at it. Come along now, one step at a time, this way.”
 
After a few hobbling paces she added, “That would be the vermifuge.that made you sick–part of the tea that I’ve been giving you. You must have picked up a dozen different parasites from drinking unboiled water, and you’re starved enough without carrying anything else around to share your suppers, so I thought I’d better do something about it.” She guided him around the shards of a pot that had shattered in the street. “But spiritous drink does not agree with medicines for parasites–luckily for you.”
 
“So you will not let me say that I’m sorry? How about if I say that I’m frightened, then? Bone-sick, shaking frightened. I...I have no idea why I did what I just did, or how, for that matter. It just happened, and I hardly seemed to participate at all.”
 
“That I will accept. You should feel fear. Nothing should scare you worse than having no control of this at all–not dark lords, not dragons, not drought. Fear keeps you asking for help. You have to always ask for help. If you want help, that is.” And she looked at him sidelong.
 
“Who do you ask for help, Mattie?”
 
“Vaire. For Stumblehoof’s sake.” She glanced away. “You might want someone different.”
 
“Do you know what hurts the worst, Mattie? I can’t even blame Sauron anymore. All of this...I became this...only after...what if I made everything up? What if Sauron never spoke to me the entire time?”
 
“Oh, he spoke to you. I knew him, myself, Frodo, though not so intimately as you had to suffer him. But think of what everybody has told you about him...”
 
“Yes, yes, they told me so often that it would infuriate me to hear it one more time–no, I take that back. I have no right to bridle at anything anybody says to me anymore. Repeat it all again.”
 
“What do you think we’ve all meant when we kept saying that he needed to draw his power from you? Frodo, in the state he’s in, he cannot even imagine without your help. It feels like it was you all along, whispering to yourself, because in one sense it was. You have always had certain tendencies, deeply buried, which Sauron came across to exploit.”
 
“Mercy...no.”
 
“That paradise that he showed you, as you described it to me? He never showed me that. He showed me what I wanted.”
 
“Yet I never desired that sterile world, not until he...” Then Frodo’s eyes widened, as he held tightly onto the lens around his neck. “Saruman’s dream! Lebadoc told me...yes, that makes sense. He, Sauron I mean, really thought that he confided something personal, but there isn’t even any personal left...I mean, it’s all...it’s...” Suddenly he couldn’t remember his point. “Find me somewhere to sit down, Mattie, or leave me here on the road if you must. I cannot take another step.”
 
“Oh yes you can, just around this corner, here. An old friend has waited long to see you.”
 
“Mattie, no!” he cried. “I couldn’t possibly...how could I explain...look at me, I’m not even dressed!” He tried to struggle but she held him firmly. Then a bray came around the corner and he stopped. “Bleys?”
 
He found new strength. He hastened forth without Mattie’s help and threw himself onto the big, furry neck. “Oh Bleys!” he sobbed. The donkey bent around and nuzzled him. Then, concerned as for an ailing foal, the big tongue lashed out and licked him. Frodo laughed even as he dodged, and then came back and hugged him again.
 
“And now I really must rest,” Frodo said, gray with exhaustion.
 
“Agreed. Here, let me give you a leg up and Bleys can carry you. Have some of the water while you’re up there; I imagine you need it.”
 
Then, for the first time Frodo noticed the bulging saddlebags and the pack behind the saddle. “Yet he is already carrying so much. What is this, Mattie?”
 
“Bleys won’t even notice your weight, not until I can put a good many meals into you, and by then the baggage will have lightened.” She boosted Frodo up into the saddle. “We shall only go home long enough for you to dress–your family had sent another shipment of clothing as they had promised to do, before news came of your disappearance. I brought along what seemed prudent for the season.”
 
Only the part about his family registered on Frodo. “Oh merciful Nienna! Papa must wonder why he hasn’t heard from me.”
 
“He knows as much as I do, or will when my latest letter reaches him.”
 
“You told him? Everything?”
 
The hooves clopped a number of times before Mattie answered. “I had to. Whatever he might have imagined would have hurt him worse than the truth. I sent on your last letter with a notation as to your disappearance and of what the Prince saw in the Palantir, and every month I apprised him of anything that I might have turned up in my search.” Thoughtfully she said, “In his last letter he actually called me daughter.”
 
“Oh my!” was all that Frodo could say, rocking on Bleys’ back. “Oh...oh my!”
 
“In fact, I sent him the latest letter today, or at least left it for the messenger’s next tour. He will need an explanation as to why he will not hear from either of us for awhile.”
 
“Uh...where are we going, my love?”
 
“As far from temptation as possible, until you grow stronger–the same as you did for me. Look in the front flap of the bag to your left.”
 
Frodo undid the fastener. “A flower press! And my ink-kit, and paper–Mattie, you amaze me!”
 
Mattie grinned, leading Bleys along. “Plus enough provisions to live quite comfortably, even in the wild. I also wrote the King to inform him that you would be back on the job as of December first.” She looked up with concern at his stunned face. “I know you feel poorly, and all of this must daunt you. I promise that we shall start out slow, Frodo, and we shall not go far at all this day before the fall of night, but you and I shall embark on a botanical survey of the Nurnen Coast. It is time that you remember who you are.”
 
“Sweet tears of Nienna!” he breathed, and no amount of weariness could hold back his grin.
 

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