Now Lost, Lost to Those From the East, Is Valimar!
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 27, Part 237
The Thirsty and the Hungry
Frodo straddled the cedar-bough, tying another bottle carefully in place over a spray of needles, and sealing the opening with the tree’s own resin, heated between his hands. Then he looped more string around other branches, to help this one carry the weight. Already the glass surfaces of bottles and jars sparkled throughout the tree, as he stared out from the fair little islet to the miles of swamp beyond.
He murmured to himself, “A pity that so many poisons have leeched into the water, that mere boiling cannot save it.” He hoped that little enough remained upon the glass when they had rinsed the vessels out, after which he and Mattie had reamed them out as deeply as they could with sticks on rags. Aloud, he called down, “Mattie, did you jettison the condiments far from here? Much as I like sharing with neighbors, I do not want something fanged and clawed nosing about where I sleep, looking for more.”
“Yes, though it seems a crying shame to abandon food in the middle of a wilderness–especially when you’re still quite a few meals shy of good health.”
“We need water more than food right now. Besides, those preserves and sauces would only make us thirsty. And I did let you keep some.”
“The spicy carrots. Yes, I know.”
“More than that. You really did overpack.” Then he smiled and said, “And I’m rather glad you did.”
Mattie hiked up her skirts and climbed up to join him in the bole. “It is rather nice up here, gazing through the branches.”
“Yes–and bug-free.” He breathed deeply the resinous scent that insects seemed to dislike, then patted a bough with a smile. “What a useful creature you are, and well met!” He had already found some tiny cones with seeds in them, and tucked one in his pocket.
Mattie said, “Perhaps we could make camp up in the tree, for safety’s sake, like elves.”
“Elves only do so when they have no steeds to worry about.” Frodo glanced down at Bleys grazing beneath his feet.
Mattie studied the bottle that Frodo had just strung up. “Explain to me again what you have done; I don’t entirely follow you.”
“You know that trees draw up water from roots deep in the earth?”
“Yes, yes, everybody knows that much.”
“Where do you think it goes?”
She shifted, trying to find a comfortable way to sit in the lumpy wooden cup. “Into making leaves and wood and sap, I suppose.”
“Yet the tree keeps needing more water.”
“Well, it does grow.”
“Not that fast. And it has another use for the water. In order for sap to circulate, some moisture must leave, so as to pull the rest behind it. Elves have written quite a bit about the process.”
“Now we get to the part that I don’t understand. I never see water dripping from trees, except for rain and dew.”
“They breathe it out, in a kind of steam or mist, so little at a time that you do not see. But they do exhale purified water from their leaves. That’s why everything looks so stark and clear in desert-lands. We get so used to the faint mist from trees that we don’t even notice it until it’s gone.”
Mattie shifted again, restlessly. “So little at a time–in other words, this will take all day.”
“I’m afraid so. But look–some of the bottles have already begin to show some condensation.” And indeed, jewels of water glistened in a cluster within the farthest glass. “We might get a bit to sip now and then, early on, and enough by nightfall to let us go further in search of a clean spring, or maybe another feeder brook like the one we left behind.”
Mattie shuddered. “Traveling by night! I have always avoided it when I could in these lands–especially now, with so little moon to light our way.” She climbed down, still speaking to him. “Well, we might as well get some rest before the evening, then, if there’s no help for it.” She shouldered the saddlebags and climbed back up with them. “But I have slathered as much of the preserves onto bread as I could. I want you to eat all that you can as soon as we get enough water to moisten your mouth.” She hooked the bags over a bough, then nestled into a hollow, with her clothes-bag for a pillow, finally comfortable. She smiled up lazily at him. “And by the way, I’m glad to see you taking the lead, coming up with a solution. I told you it would all come back to you.” And then she fell asleep almost in two breaths.
Frodo stared at her. “How weary she looks! Downright exhausted, at least as much as I. Oh Mattie, what have I put you through?”
He dozed a bit, himself, propped up against a bough, then woke to find a little water gathered in the jars and bottles. He shared some with Mattie, then climbed down to pour the rest into the canvas bag for Bleys to lick at eagerly. After that he joined Mattie again, to feast on a rainbow of jams and marmalades, till he could fit in no more. He thought of that first shipment from home, his mother’s preserves come all the way from the Shire, and how he had baked them into cookies to share with Crookyteeth–trying to forget about Mattie. Already she had fallen asleep again, yet he whispered over her, “How grateful I am, that you did not try to forget about me!” He tipped his own head back to rest a little more.
Braying woke him up in a flash. He nearly fell out of the tree before he realized where he’d slept. The little donkey pulled and pulled against his tether, screaming with fear. From his height Frodo saw what Bleys had smelled: gray streaks shooting towards them along the ridge. “Mattie, wake up! Where’s Sting?”
“My sword! They’re coming fast, and we can’t pull Bleys up into the tree with us...”
“Wolves or wargs, one or the other. Never mind...” He rummaged in the deepest bag–of course none other could hold the weapon. He left the sheath behind when he leaped down by Bleys’s side, his legs remembering old training in his stance. From the corner of his eye he saw Mattie drop as well, a dagger in each hand.
You’re a fool, you know, to die for an ass, who will no doubt wind up warg-meat anyway, once you fall. You could stay nice and safe up in the tree.
“Shut up S...you’re not even here!” His voice went shrill, as the first wolf leaped up over the ridge and came at him, snarling. “You’re nothing but my imagination, guessing at what he would say!”
Borrow your foe’s strength.
Quickly he lunged with Sting so that the charging beast impaled itself right on it, teeth gnashing for a few futile seconds before it died. “Ha!” he cried with an hysterical grin, kicking the corpse off the blade.“Eowyn’s voice!” He swung ‘round just as another tried to circle to nip him from behind. “See, you’re not the only memory in my head, you vicious haunt!”
Sweep the ground with your feet as you fight. Frodo narrowly missed tripping over a root as he fended trouble off from Mattie, who had her hands full. “Thank you, Uncle Merry!”
Remember, Wargs hate fire.
“Gandalf! Thanks!” While Mattie covered him, Frodo leaped high and snagged a saddlebag on Sting, and before it could hit the ground he had already grabbed the oil-bottle out. In a dancelike spin he hurled it onto the coals of their fire and then muffled Mattie in his cape, falling to the ground with her, just as the bottle shattered and blew up into a fireball spattering burning grease and glass everywhere. He heard yelps all around him, fading in the distance. He looked up to see that Bleys, clued in by his sudden move, had retreated to the other side of the tree, as far as the tether would go.
Frodo climbed to his feet, and helped Mattie to hers. A smoke of burning peat began to rise. He went over to Bleys, to hug the furry neck and reassure the animal that no, he would never again leave him defenseless in the wild like he did that one time months ago, and he inspected the fur for burnt spots or shards, or maybe the nip of fangs, yet Bleys had come through quite unscathed, nuzzling him gratefully.
When Frodo came back, in the fire’s flickering, he stopped in surprise, for Mattie gaped with a grin of joy and astonishment, her eyes sparkling. “What is it?” he asked.
“You! You’re standing up straight again! Oh, beloved, you are so beautiful!” And she filled up his arms with her embrace, and his heart beat against hers, and he felt something important return to him. “We shall exercise you daily, of course, make sure that your returning flesh forms into proper muscle–but oh, it does my heart good to see you becoming yourself again!”
“I suppose that I shall have to start right away, then, walking beside Bleys for awhile. Come,” he said. “I think that our time for rest is over.”
“Indeed. Let’s gather up the water from the tree and move on before those wargs come back to see if the fire has died down yet.”
“The fire...” Frodo turned. Far from dying down, the flames leaped higher and higher, having found a dry bank of peat to kindle.
Mattie laughed. “Look at that pretty wall of flame, now–as bright as an autumn day in Bree! Hurry, love, let’s put a pool or two between it and us, and let it mount fortress-high before our enemies.
“No...” Frodo turned and looked at the cedar tree, and back at the rising fire. “No!” He grabbed up the canvas bag with which they’d watered Bleys and scooped up muddy marsh-water to toss on flames as fast as he could move.
“Treebeard says no!” he cried. “The tree served us well–it would be a Sauronish trick indeed to abandon her to burn to death behind us!”
“But the wargs...”
“One enemy at a time,” he said, running for more water.
Mattie nodded, then pulled a spade of the side of a pack where she had strapped it, and threw wet sods upon the burning dry ones in a few economical moves.
Frodo splashed more flames, lagging now with hauling so much weight. Sparks caught in his sleeve that he beat out wearily, before stumbling after more water. But the fire now leaped taller than Bergil, and its crackling began to resemble a roar.
Suddenly Mattie dropped the spade and stood quite still, half-closing her eyes. In a clear voice she declared, “Sister, thank you for the gift of your children, but it is time for them to go back to sleep.” As Frodo watched, the flames all bowed, then settled back into the ground.
With mud-caked feet she helped Frodo stamp out the last coals, as though nothing unusual had happened. Frodo said, “I had forgotten your link to a fire-maia.”
“And one each of earth, water, and air. It pays to have good friends.” She looked at him, then, and laughed, muddy and sooty as she was, and he figured probably that he looked no better, so he laughed back. “Come, my love,” she said, offering her hand. “Wargs or no wargs, you are absolutely right. We must cherish all of our friends, come what may.”
“But first, one for the road,” Frodo answered, rasing a bottle.
Mattie frowned, then smiled, and tapped her own bottle against his. “Here’s to clear springs ahead,” she said.
“Aye, clarity in all things.”
They drank their water, sharing with Bleys, packed up the bottles against future need, and then went on their way, their shadows long before them.