Now Lost, Lost to Those From the East, Is Valimar!
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 28, Part 238
Eve of December 12, 1452
As twilight took over from the day, they traveled, Frodo, Bleys, and Mattie, along the meandering gray ridge of rock, often broken here and there like vertebrae, or stepping stones, or uneven coins scattered across the mire, frequently awash in slimy water and slippery with old moss. The ridge rose and dipped as it went, now hill-high, now barely there at all. Even on the stony ground they dare not ride their beast of burden, for in the low places rock might give way to softness without warning, and Bleys carried enough weight already. Gray-green swamp stretched out to all sides, as far as they could see, yet the last sunset colors shimmered across the waters in swirls of contrast before the chill of night closed down completely.
Now the wind blew damp and chill over the marshes, stripping away (for one rare moment) the eternal haze, sparing only a bank of fog to the east. And so the earliest stars came out in the sky above, twinkling like some fond memory, nearly forgotten in the midst of troubles, a reminder that something existed beyond bleak.
Yet the rest of the view did not encourage the heart, of all the borderless, damp miles. They all felt acutely how little water they had tasted before their departure, even as their feet plashed through puddles and seepages unfit even for the donkey to drink. Then their way rose up again, another spine of rotted rock meandering across the waste, leading on to nothing.
Now they climbed up an unusually high ridge, that seemed at least to go on ahead for miles of dry footing, which Frodo welcomed, because his feet ached with cold and he longed for boots. He had heard that human beings who sustained frost injury in their feet stayed forever sensitive to low temperatures afterward, and he supposed that the same must hold true for a shorn hobbit. The velvet that he had grown back did not suffice against the pending winter; in normal times by now his fur would have filled out in luxurious curls for the season. Yet everything healed slowly for him these days. “An ent-draught wouldn’t hurt right about now,” he murmured.
“It would intoxicate,” his wife answered.
“Oh. Yes. Of course. I forgot.”
A sharp perfume made Frodo glance down at a stubby little treelet hanging onto the rocks at the base of the ridge. “Another mer bush. Fancy that.” He chuckled in a dry throat. “Seems pretty useless right about now.”
Mattie asked, “Where are we going, Frodo?”
“Where the land dictates,” he replied with a shrug. “Unless you want to try wandering through a bog that all save Gollum would find dangerous even by day.”
“I might give it a try. You forget again how the Four Sisters have blessed me. Earth and water I can perceive wherever they meander. We shall find no spring up here.” She led Bleys downslope.
“Can you find footing for a laden ass as well? Two feet might well stand where four cannot.”
“Then wait here.” She handed Frodo the donkey’s reins at the foot of the slope. “I might have to venture on without you for awhile.”
“Is that wise? That would leave neither of us with anyone to watch our backs.”
She kissed his brow. “Darling, we left behind the path of wisdom long ago. We must deal the best we can with what we have left.”
But he caught her wrist and hissed, “Hush! I hear something.” Footsteps crunched along the gravely margin of the ridge on the other side, coming closer. Frodo pulled his sword a little bit out of the sheath. “Not an orc, at least; Sting isn’t glowing.”
Mattie slowly drew her knives from their sheathes. “Many fell things walk these parts besides orcs, my love.”
They saw the woman’s head rise first above the ridge, flushed by the dying sun. She looked beautiful in her own way, after the lean fashion of some human beings: her high cheekbones and narrow chin balanced out the sort of jutting nose that pretty women disdain, yet which has its own strange sort of handsomeness. Keen yellow eyes gazed down on them like a pair of moons, hardly blinking. As she reached the top and stood there, regarding them, they saw that her hair, a shaggy blend of blonde and gray, spilled down her back all the way to her calves. Her weathered, sun-bronzed skin looked neither young nor old, but ageless. She wore a tunic of leather over leggings and boots, and beads of reddish wood, and when she came down the slope towards them she moved surefootedly. Only when she drew close did Frodo realize that she stood quite short for her kind, though still taller than the hobbits.
“Hail wanderers, and well-met,” she called down to them. “Do you have need of water? My people dwell not far from here, and we have enough to share.”
Mattie sheathed her knives again, yet slowly, eyeing the stranger carefully. “We could use some help,” she said, “And if your folk might like a little entertainment, I could sing for our refreshment. I do not know if the name of Mattie Gardner would mean anything this far from the villages that I’ve known, but I have no small reputation as a bard.”
The woman surprised them with a sudden grin. “We would love to hear new songs!” Indeed, as she spoke, she bounced from foot to foot in a puppyish eagerness, wiggling a little with delight. “Alas, for we hear too little from the outside world–including the names and fashions of the latest bards. Yet I forget my manners. I should tell you my name. Seregril. Seregril Suldae.”
“Frodo Gardner, at your service,” Frodo said, bowing, greatly relieved by the elvish-based name. Still, the meaning puzzled him. Seregril. The last part, ril, meant brilliance, he knew that much, because in his childhood passage through Gondor a lady-in-waiting named Elril had seen to the Gamgee children’s every need. The first part, though, Sereg...didn’t it have something to do with fertilizer? No, that couldn’t possibly be right. “I should have learned some Elvish beyond their gardening texts,” he murmured, shaking his head. At least his limited knowledge let him understand the surname, “Windshadow”, which sounded rather poetic, perhaps suitable to a family of hunters or warriors, renowned for their stealth. “I should like to see your village...what is it, again?”
“Gauria,” she answered. “We call it Gauria. Come. I will lead you.” Yet when she reached for Bleys’s reins, the donkey reared back with wild eyes.
”Bleys?” Frodo cried. “Easy boy, easy...you must forgive him, Seregril. He had a horrible fright earlier today, and it has made him jumpy. He is usually much more well-behaved than this.”
She nodded, her eyes still wide and unblinking. “I should apologize, not you. I forgot that the leathers which I wear give off a scent frightening to beasts.” She laughed. “What we must kill out here, betimes, should frighten anybody!” Then she nodded towards the saddle. “Go ahead, ride. I shall run ahead, and your legs, I notice, are shorter than my own.”
“He will like you better if you give him water; I don’t imagine that he feels up to any runs right now without a sip of something first.”
“Oh. But of course.” Seregril unslung from her back a water-skin, squirted just a little towards Bleys, and then coaxed the tiny donkey forward. At first Bleys flattened his ears and drew back as much as Frodo would let him, yet the lure of water became too great, so he stretched his neck out towards the leather bottle, trying to hold the rest of his body back as far as possible. Seregril squirted water in his mouth, which he lapped up thirstily, coming forward, becoming more trusting for the gift. After that Frodo had no problem with Bleys.
Seregril smiled over her shoulder and took off at an easy lope while the hobbits rode behind, into the bank of mist. She took frequent breaks, running in spurts as night slowly overtook them, yet they made good time overall. The ridge grew as they followed it, widening and rising in height, until it became a hill rearing up out of the marsh against the mist-dimmed stars, and then perhaps a mountain. Frodo marveled that they had not seen it before, but then the fog over the waters did hang thick; they could see that fog now as a pale ocean of cloud below and all around, as though they ascended the slope of an island in a milky sea. Now Seregril swerved to the eastern side. Trees began to loom through the remaining murk, squat and tangled for the most part, struggling to survive.
At last they reached a sort of hollow in the side of the peak, and when they descended into it they found a short stretch of cliff or high bank peppered with downward-leading caves, some of them mounded out in front like the most primitive of hobbit-holes. Before it a broad bowl spread out, where others strikingly like Seregril worked at many different crafts, with surprising swiftness of hand, without so much as a candle to help them; their golden eyes seemed to luminesce in the dark, though Frodo thought that this might be an illusion of his elvish sight returning. “You have arrived on our Making-Night,” Seregril explained. “We shall accomplish much before the rising of the sun.”
“Forgive my ignorance, but wouldn’t it be easier to weave baskets and tan skins with better light, by day?”
Seregril shrugged, and her long hair rippled. “It little matters to us. Darkness does not defeat our eyes...much like your own.” And here she gave Frodo a queer look, smiling. “Do not deny it–I know elvish magic when I smell it.”
Frodo touched the lens upon his breast. “Are your folk part-elf?”
Seregril looked sad for a moment. “We have a rather complicated ancestry.” Then she turned away, to call out to the others in a surprisingly loud voice, “Come allllll, come alllll! A bard has come to sing for us, in return for waaaaater!”
“A bard! A barrrrrrd!” “Oh, to hear a new music–when was the last I ever did?” “Just in time, too, for the gatherers have returned.”
Indeed, women climbed up the slope, carrying large baskets of edibles. In no time at all the entire village had drawn around the hobbits (many carrying their crafts with them to work on as they listened) as Seregril spread a deer’s pelt for them to sit upon. A bearded old man, much scarred and grizzled, yet leanly muscled, approached them without a word, and then sat in between Mattie and Frodo. He wore a necklace of what looked like teeth and claws, spaced with beads of ruddy wood, and he carried himself with an imperial air.
“Yaur, may I present Frodo and Matthilda Gardner,” Seregril said with respect. He nodded, still without speaking. To her guests Seregril said, “The Yaur is the mightiest among us. He claims the right to first food in all dining, and sits in the center of all passing, and takes what he will, for by his strength he makes the village strong.”
Then the villagers brought water for the hobbits, and for Bleys as well, and after sipping from each bowl, the Yaur let them drink their fill, laughing with a toothy grin at their thirst. Finally he spoke, clapping his hands and crying out, “Foooood! Serve our guests well!” With a laugh he added, “This one to my right has too little flesh for my liking, though the other is luscious enough.”
Then they laid out before the hobbits (and before each other as well) a feast like Frodo had not seen before, entirely of vegetables and a few late fruits, all of it raw, and with nothing in it like bread or anything that might take long preparation. He overheard someone say, “Oh, how wonderful! I get so sick of meat, betimes!” Frodo found the fare more than satisfying enough, and made inquiries as to the origins of the various roots and nuts served up before him, the succulent stalks, the rich and filling seeds, and even asked about the origins of the materials for the various objects which the Gaurians used, pulling out his writing-kit and jotting down as many notes as he could. “Who would have thought that a marsh by the Sea of Nurnen could hold such bounty?” he exclaimed.
“Indeed, indeed,” The Yaur chuckled. “And yet we have so little chance to enjoy it all. Feast while you can, my guests!”
“Oh really? Are the harvest-times so brief, then?” But The Yaur seemed to realize that he had said too much. Instead he turned to Mattie and commanded, “Sing. You may dine again after, yet my people starve for new songs.”
“May I satisfy your hunger as amply as you have mine,” she replied with a curtsey, and stood to clear her throat and tune her instrument.
“You keep on eating,” the Yaur growled to Frodo, pushing a bowl of starchy roots his way. “You have the greater need.”
“Sing to us of stars!” someone called out. “For we do love these nights the best of all, when no other light impedes their sparkling in the sky. And ever they give us hope, that someday...” but then the speaker yelped, and said no more. Yet another called out, “Yes, yes, a song of stars–and name her! This night we may hear the name!”
“You mean the name of Varda, called by the High Elves, and those who love them, Elbereth Gilthoniel,” Mattie said, tuning up her harp. And everyone around her sighed. “Well, I do not know the songs which elves might sing of her, yet such songs as I do know should while away the time.” And sweetly she sang:
O Varda, Queen of heaven’s vault,
Who scatters jewels of purest light
Untouched by mortal shame or fault,
What hope you give me in the sight!
For beggars may, along with kings,
And fools beside the proud and wise,
Receive the joy your mercy brings
To sparkle true beyond our lies,
Your gems impartially bestowed
To gleam forever in the sky,
Night-bursting gift to light the road
E’en for souls as lost as I!”
To Frodo’s surprise he saw tears run down the face of the old warrior beside him, and many others as well, who clapped and howled out praise for Mattie’s song. Then The Yaur noticed Frodo’s shivering. “Are you well, my friend?”
“Yes, simply cold. I’m afraid that I have developed some sensitivity to the weather of late. Might we have a bit of a fire?” Everyone fell deathly silent at that. “I’m sorry–did I say something wrong?”
The Yaur shook his head, saying, “Think nothing of it. We have suffered terribly from fire in the past, that is all, and do not willingly make use of it. Seregril–bring our guest the warmest of the pelts, and another bowl of berries, if you will, with plenty of honey on it.”
Mattie sang many songs that night, to much applause. Though he appreciated the music, Frodo could not stay up the whole night long, but curled up in the furs to sleep...
...where he walked in the gardens of the Shire as a little hobbit, learning all about gardening. Only instead of the Gaffer, he trotted after an elf who spoke to him in the ancient tongue, pointing out the preferences of this plant or that. “And over here,” the elf said, “the corn responds very well to blood-meal.” Only of course he said it in Elvish: Seregipor. And then he turned to smile at Frodo, but he wasn’t precisely an elf, not really–he was Drift, his eyes slimed over milkily in death.
Frodo cried out and woke up. Everyone stared at him. Mattie put down her bowl and wiped her mouth. “Nightmares again, my love?”
Wide-eyed, Frodo pointed at Seregril. “You...your name. It means Blood-Brilliance!” Villagers of Gauria slowly rose to their feet around him. “The moon...Mattie, where is the moon?”
“Beyond the horizon, darling–tonight is the dark of the moon, you know.”
“Exactly!” He leaped to his own feet, pulling out Sting. “The one night when wargs may return to their original forms!”