From the Ashes a Fire Shall be Woken
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 2, Part 247
January 5, 1453
“Hazel, please let me down.”
She whom Frodo called Hazel tracked her mate by scent; all else vanished from her mind. She knew the place where many years of his leaves had piled up, decaying with the wasted pollen of springs long past. She stalked through Fangorn Forest, seeking, not yet acting, carrying the struggling entings as the burden that her shame had assigned to her. She climbed the mountainside with marveling feet, to feel soft humus again and not the grit and clay of Mordor. Somehow this made her heart ache all the more.
“It’s all right, Hazel, You can set us down, now. We’d be better off, you know, if you set us down.”
The trees swayed out of her way, half in deference, half in fear. She knew that she did not resemble their mistress from the days of old, yet they, too, inhaled the esters that she gave off, and recognized her. The old, cracked wood, the swollen knees, the stumps of half-broken boughs still dangling here and there; hard to believe that anyone had ever called her beautiful. Hard to believe that she had walked these forests long ago–nay, ran!–with heart as light as a blossom on the wind, returning each year for the Spring...O heady Spring!
“Hazel, I’m hungry.”
No spring lay on the land today. Winter whipped the barren boughs around her, and snow patched here and there atop the drifts of leaves. So untidy, the piled detritus, the clutter of old, dead branches, the frostbitten, rattling weeds. She pushed through thick wads of debris, dry and brittle beneath the thin, damp mat of the surface, oh yes, very dry indeed where the scanty snow didn’t reach. The ents had really let things go, she thought. It would serve them right, then. Not even the purifying snow could save them now.
Frodo heard his wife moan, and his heart raced at the sound. He tried to twist around to where he could see her better, but all he could glimpse was a strand of her hair caught in the wind, still gray from the mud dried in it. The ground grew uneven as Hazel began to scale a mountain slope, lurching and stumbling, yet mad to go on, faster and faster. Mattie sort of yelp-gasped with every jolt. Frodo struggled to try and reach her hand to hold it; he failed, but then a sole of his foot met hers, and their toes interlocked.
Now up she climbed, where trees grew few, and flurries of snow blew past. The entings in her arms wriggled and squeaked at her now and then, but she ignored them, she ignored everything except for the scent that beckoned her, with love and rage and grief and guilt, and pain beyond all understanding. She entered through a mountain pass, and stalked down the other side, eyes fixed on the tower in a bowl of forest, not one leaf left upon the naked boughs. It seemed fit. She did not believe in spring, not anymore. How fitting that it all should end thus, stripped bare of pride and pretense, even dignity naught but one more crumbled leaf, long lost upon the wind. Why shouldn’t it be the same for him as it had been for her?
Hazel stumbled hard, slid for yards, then pushed herself back up to her feet again, oblivious to the green streaks left upon the rocky mountainside, or the seeping scrapes from hip to foot and elbow to wrist. Mattie moaned louder now, crescendoing into a wail. A sudden gush of hot liquid hit Frodo’s foot. “Hazel! Stop! You’ve got to let us down!”
The old elvish song said it all; she knew what she had to do to make reunion possible, to make the ent-husbands understand. She steered towards a boulder jutting from the frost-browned foliage on the younger forest’s edge. She dropped the entings onto the frozen grass, forgotten, their noises mattering nothing anymore. She reached to the boulder and splintered off two fistfuls of the wind-bared flint. She strode forward, into that new wood, with so many juvenile trees, yet even so just as messy as the older forest. She leaned way down, down to where the leaves and twigs had fallen into great, untidy mounds, and she brushed the damp outer layer away with just one sweep. Now she crashed the rocks together, once, twice, thrice, watching the sparks fly like little stars, of the sort that you see in pain.
Frodo hit the ground with a thump that left him seeing stars; the harp snapped under his back. Pain buzzed suddenly in limbs gone numb and trying to wake up again. Mattie’s outcries dragged him up out of the shock of his fall; he crawled to her as fast as his cramped limbs could allow, and found his wife gasping and whimpering on the ground, clutching at her belly, her skirts soaked in birth-water. Frodo exclaimed, “Oh heavens, oh heavens, it’s all happening too soon!” Mattie let loose a full-fledged scream. “This can’t be good at all!”
”Hazel” watched the first tuft of yellow light waver over the blackening straw and she blew on it, and she fed it twigs and leaves and bits of bark to help it grow. She reached up to a trusting bough and snapped off branches, one by one, ignoring a sudden, supersonic shrill. The branches dripped resin that the flames nursed on hungrily. Now the entire forest shuddered at what no ent had ever done before, sending forth a panicked sussuration as she grabbed larger boughs and larger, ripped and splintered greenwood that sent up a column of thick, black smoke, her dark eyes glinting as she grew more violent. Now she grabbed a horrified tree about the middle and leaned against him hard, pushed him groaning from his roots, then threw him whole into the spreading fire, and heard his scream too high for mortal ears–but why spare him? Why spare anyone, of anything? Suffering ruled the world! What gave them the right to grow up glad and free of care?
“Mattie hasn’t eaten for days–how will she find the strength?” Frodo shoved back her skirts while she writhed in pain the while, then tried to wash her up the best he could with water from the waterskin. Too cold! Shivering couldn’t help, but what should he do? What should he do?
Screams. Dimly the entwife noted that one of the entings had been hollering for awhile, stupid brat. She’d have smack her for it, if she had the time, but she had a fire to build. “Hazel” pulled down another tree and shoved him live into the coals. Twigs took flame first, writhing into destruction, then more flames ran up the bark, devouring branch and root, then boughs, then eating into the trunk. And the fire spread. She watched, nodding, as the conflagration leaped to trees that she didn’t even have to drag down.
“Hazel, stop it!” Frodo stumbled up to the entwife and beat at her with a fallen branch. “Stop and get us help–Mattie’s gone into labor!” The entwife brushed the hobbit aside, bruisingly, and yanked at another tree.
“Ho Tom Bombadil,” Mattie gasped in a ghost of a tune, “Tom Bombadillo...” but she shrieked with another contraction before she could sing any farther, and it didn’t matter anyway, Tom couldn’t help them, the Old Forest lay many leagues away and he never left his land. The crackle of burning drowned out all else, and it had nothing good to say.
Frodo ran back to Mattie, beside himself. “Too soon!” he thought. “Too soon!” He had seen his mother ripen many times–she had grown much bigger than this, over more months than he and Mattie had been married. Frodo held Mattie’s hand while she sobbed and grunted and screamed, leaf-crumbs sticking to the sweat upon her skin, her face contorted in pain. “The blow can’t have helped, dropping to the ground like that.” That had happened to a goat, once, he remembered, back in the Shire–the nanny fell down a bank, then gave early birth to a tiny dead kid. He coughed on smoke and dragged over the pack. “Surely I must have something in here that will help,” he said, but then he couldn’t think of a single thing that might. He fingered his lens, but his fever-blunted brain could not recall whatever he needed to magnify.
Fire roared and cast a yellow glare on everything. Mattie choked on foul air right when she had to gasp in great, heaving lungfuls of the stuff. Ashes whirled upward like the ghosts of autumn leaves, and fell back down like a poisoned snow. And still Mattie struggled in labor.
Mattie opened her eyes and pleaded, “Help me up. I need to do this squatting–that’s what the old wives say. I need to lean on you.” So Frodo helped her up onto her feet and knelt beside her, oblivious to the twigs beneath his knees, while she held onto him and pushed with all her might. Frodo heard the nearing crackle, he felt the heat at his back and fear, great fear, but he didn’t know what to do–Mattie couldn’t run with him, and days of illness had left him too weak to carry her. Now they heard the crash of burning trees collapsing to the ground. The fire’s roar filled Frodo’s ears as he held Mattie tight, and the temperature rose till the soles of his feet began to sting like the first hint of sunburn on the shoulders in the summertime.
Angry trumpeting rang through the conflagration, coming closer, closer–Frodo dared to hope. He couldn’t turn around, but he knew when the ents arrived by how their shouts changed to a wail of grief to see who fed the fire–voice after woody voice all keening at once in overlapping waves. He heard stomping, and the sound of fire grew more distant, but he only dimly noticed, because suddenly a child–his son!–came forth in a dark red gush and a cry, and then the afterbirth tethered to the little belly, and Mattie laughed through her tears.
As Frodo lowered her back to the ground, Mattie told him how to tie off and cut the cord, but he discovered that he knew that already, this part at least didn’t differ all that much from the birth of a colt. Then she pushed down the rags of her chemise and took the still-wet baby to her breast, weakly, sweetly murmuring to him, and Frodo knelt there in the ashes and the leaves, holding his family in his arms. And he felt them trembling in the cold, and knew that the fire had passed beyond any danger to his darlings. If love could radiate like a sun, he could warm them clear to springtime.
And his heart sang to gaze on the screwed-up little face...and then it sank. No baby should come forth so tiny that he could fit in a hobbit’s hand! Frodo saw now the knobby back, the spine bare of almost all save skin, the same, in fact, true for every staring bone on this poor creature trying to be a baby and not quite ready yet. Frodo said no word, as Mattie murmured, “Harding, oh my little Harding Gardner!” Nor did he say anything when, once again, long, stiff fingers picked up him and his beloveds, and the pack as well, fingers that smelled different from the ones before, fingers and then arms that gently carried them away from that place of tragedy.
This one did not grip him near so tightly, so that he could peer around the trunk and see Treebeard in more anguish than Frodo had ever imagined such a wooden face could show. Bough reached out to bough, at once restraining and embracing, twiggy fingers traced the withered cheeks, and the mourning, ash-blown wind sighed, “Wandlimb...Wandlimb...Wandlimb...”
Then Frodo gazed out farther, beyond them, and his jaw dropped on its own. As far as he could see the wrecks of blackened trees teetered this way and that across a Mordor landscape, with smoke swirling in between like some evil spell, coals still glowing here and there where ents still tried to stamp them out. He twisted forward again, but saw more of the same, miles and miles of the same, in all directions.
“It all happened so fast,” he whispered.
Softly came the reply, “As fast as wildfire, hoom, yes, that is what they say, men the horse-tamers. As fast as wildfire. But the horses of which they say this do not, hmmm, actually compare.” Frodo stared up into an unfamiliar face. “You may call me Quickbeam.” The ent tried to smile. “I like hobbits.” But the eyes above the smile swam.
“My wife needs help,” Frodo said as simply as a child. “She has given birth. Please take me to someone who can shelter us.”
The ent made sort of a long “uh hummm” that sounded like agreement, so Frodo, spent, let go of his worries and rode along, looking out past Quickbeam’s arm to watch behind him. Treebeard now intertwined his limbs entirely with Wandlimb’s, she whom Frodo had called Hazel all along. As the fires went out, one by one, other ents came around the couple, swaying very slowly, filling the air with their deep, dry groans.
We had thought ourselves so wise, we ents. We suspected all along that Annatar had meant no good in his dealings with elves and men and dwarves. Then, when we had confronted him he laughed, threw up his hands, and confessed as much. “You caught me,” he admitted, so charmingly contrite–or not. Not really contrite at all. Mischievous, one might say, yet in a way that somehow let us in upon the jest, that made us feel privileged to smile along with him. “Indeed,” he confessed (or boasted?) “I do plan to get rich off of the folly of the Impatient Ones. But what is that to the slow and rightly cautious Shepherds of the Trees, who have no need for gold? These little embarrassments of the greedy mean nothing to the forests, a mere prank to laugh at over rounds of ent-draught. Wise folk do not meddle in the affairs of fools–let them find their own lessons the hard way, if they insist.”
And so we winked and nodded, and let him come and go as he pleased. And often he would join us, for draughts or long, slow strolls, with humorous tales of the straits that men and elves and dwarves could find themselves in, from leaping in too fast. Among their follies he laughed about their hasty marriages, how often their females made fools of them, restricting their liberties, binding them to indoor lives cut off from open air. So many times he praised the joys of camping out with us, far from all such domesticated folly, where he needn’t fuss over chores or grooming or any such niceties as the feminine sort demanded. How lucky we were, he told us, not to have married nags like those among men, and elves, and even among the dwarves.
When we saw an uncomfortable resemblance to our own wives in his tales, Annatar commiserated with us. He nodded as we confided that they did not understand us at all, they wanted to hem us in with their little farms and gardens, when we loved the wild places best of all. He would clasp us by the limb, gaze up into our eyes, and bid us never let them fence us in, all lined up in neat little rows behind the garden wall. If the wives wanted us home in a week, wander for a month, and if they wanted us home in a month, take the whole year off! That would teach them their place.
Soon we bridled at everything that the entwives said or did, especially when they pleaded for us to return to them, at least in spring. We would not give them mastery over us! Oh no, we would go where we pleased and live as roughly as we pleased, for as long as we should fancy, farther and farther away from their cultivated fields, we would let our beards hang shaggy and our foliage grow untamed, we would not live meekly to please them, oh no, we would show them our authority over ourselves!
Then one day we couldn’t find them anymore.
In later years Men would say (those who remember such tales) that Fangorn and Wandlimb stood long together, long after the other ents had learned enough to wander off in search of their own wives. Year in and year out they stood together, intertwined, telling each other, in the slow tongue of the ents, whatever had passed since last they met, grieving together. Then, longer then that, they whispered, back and forth, all those careful, patient words that could heal the madness, as the seasons flickered over them, shudders of warmth and coolness, light and dark, wet and dry, so swiftly that they scarcely noticed, becoming as trees indeed, throughout the long years necessary to mend what had so grievously broken.
Some say that they stand there still, in a hidden forest sprung up from blackened stumps, grown high, grown old, fallen to ruin and new trees taking the places of ancient ones to die of old age in their turn--some hidden grove where axe dare not ring nor human foot has tread. And some say no, there are no hidden forests left, they stand together in a town square, rustling even when none can feel a breeze, where nobody knows what they are, except that the people dreaded to hew them down, and so the village grew up around them instead. No one knows for sure.
Yet this much some would still remember: If ever they should wake again to the outside world, and look around, and find not all to their liking, then woe to us! Woe to all too swift to lay the blade to trunk, too careless of the living woods, forgetful of the Shepherds of the Trees!