From the Ashes a Fire Shall be Woken
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 3, Part 248
Of Death and Birth
January 5-6, 1453
Still weak from his recent fever, and exhausted from so much happening, Frodo drowsed in and out of awareness in Quickbeam’s arms, his own arms trying to warm his wife and baby against his chest. Sometimes he’d open his eyes to a gray landscape, but he couldn’t stand to see so much death, he’d quickly close them again, and hold the living to him, listen to their heartbeats and their breaths–Mattie’s slow ones and the quick, labored breathing of the child born too soon.
After awhile, though, he forced himself to gaze out upon the ruin that they crossed. “Blinding myself to sorrow never got me anywhere good,” he muttered to himself. Mattie’s shoulder pressed the lens against his heart; Frodo thought that he could make out faces, charred faces in the dead trees, all gaping in horror. Times past, he might have shrieked to see such things, but he just looked on dully. After a year in Mordor, give or take, nothing shocked him anymore.
He heard dwarven voices: “What’s this? What’s this?” “A baby born among us?” “Quick–who knows about babies? Who among us had brothers, and learned something of their birth?” “Better than that–I stood in for my brother-in-law for my sister, when her husband died in a mine collapse.” “You, then–tell us what to do, and be quick about it!”
Calloused hands reached up as Quickbeam lowered the hobbits down. Dwarves carried them into a small, stone house. Short legs ran to bring back steaming water. Frodo remembered something. “I have mer,” he said. “They say that it has healing properties, though I do not know how to use it.”
“Mer? Mer! It is only the best of wound-dressings, and guaranteed to protect a new mother from childbed fever. Quickly, then–hand it over!” Frodo dug out of his pack the pouch of resin-crystals, and the dwarves lost no time making a tincture of it. Then Frodo stood by meekly, as a stranger inspected and cleansed his wife where he had thought that only he should gaze. “No tearing–that is well, at least. But such a tiny child! Do all hobbits begin so small?”
“No...” Mattie husked, then spoke more clearly after someone brought her water. “No. This one came early.”
Worried murmurs washed over them, and Frodo could hear the baby’s gasps above them all, seeming to grow in urgency. “Curse the smoky air!” he cried, and coughed.
The dwarves drew bath-water. After Frodo cleared his throat a couple times, the dwarves turned their backs, shrugging, while he bathed his wife and son and bundled them up in blankets, knowing himself silly for wanting this pretense of modesty, craving its reassurance all the same. Then he washed up, himself, accepting spare clothes from the dwarves to replace his rags, before huddling down with his family upon a mat laid out for them. He thanked the dwarves for all their help, drank some water, and then drowsed with his arms encompassing his loves.
“What do we do next?” one dwarf asked. “With so early a bairn, shouldn’t we do something?” But nobody could answer.
“Oi! Oi!” a familiar voice shouted outside, nearing by leaps. Frodo roused and poked his head out the door, where he saw Gimli running towards them. “The scorched tree has split, and Legolas comes forth soon! I need water, and towels, and a blanket.”
“Legolas!” Frodo cried, and grabbed up all these things, blanket thrown over one shoulder, towels over the other arm, and a basin with a kettle in it in his arms. “Elves know healing arts beyond us all.” He scrambled out to follow Gimli back to where the willow smoldered, panting with the effort, dizzy from trying to keep up.
Gimli stopped and Frodo ran into him. The hobbit saw Legolas then, up ahead, newly fallen from the heat-cracked trunk, all curled up and naked as a newborn, himself, green and sticky with sap. Frodo hastened past the dwarf, then recoiled when Legolas’s head snapped up at the sound, his eyes completely filmed over in green. But then the elf blinked several times, and his eyes became almost normal, if utterly blank in expression.
“Hold, lad, hold!” Gimli grabbed Frodo’s arm with the force of an anchor, so that the hobbit almost lost his feet. “He cannot help with any birth, not as he is right now. Can you not see? We have two bairns on our hands.” Then Gimli handed the hobbit a towel, and together they bathed the elf, even as Frodo had bathed the newborn before, and Gimli combed out the damp and matted hair. When they had done, Gimli wrapped Legolas in the blanket, and while Frodo watched his back for smoldering limbs in danger of falling, Gimli picked up the elf in his arms (despite his friend more than doubling him in height) and carried Legolas back to the stone hut.
Embers gleamed inside the tortured wood that arched their path, red and bright like evil eyes. Yet their care and weariness could scarce take note of fear. Frodo grabbed the dwarf’s hood and stopped him just as a dead bough cracked and fell into their path, sending up a swirl of sparks, shimmering in the thick, brown air. Frodo said, “A widowmaker, the foresters call those, in the aftermath of fire–or would that be the fall of an entire tree? I cannot remember.”
Gimli shrugged, saying, “A limb would do, for folks our size,” and they stepped around the bough.
Once they arrived, Gimli settled Legolas onto a mat near to Mattie and Harding. From the wall the dwarf took down a waterskin of elvish workmanship, blew off the dust and cobwebs, uncorked it and gave it to Legolas to suckle on, holding up the elven head with anxious care. Whatever it contained brought a rosier color to flush in the elf’s face, and generally seemed to restore him moment by moment. Frodo thought that he could almost recall its aroma from a dream.
Frodo could do nothing more, now, except to wait and see what fortune the Valar might deal out. He washed up all over again, scrubbing off the sap-glued ash, then noticed his old rags on the floor, not yet discarded. He drew Seregril’s fangs from the pocket, then pulled one of the dwarves aside. “Your people have skill in piercing hard materials–will you pierce these for me, with holes wide enough to thread upon this cord?” The dwarf nodded and took the teeth.
Legolas laid down the skin and sat up, looking about him with wide, fresh eyes. To everyone and no one he gasped, “She died to save me!” Then he swallowed and spoke a little more normally. “The willow-tree. She shielded me from the fire that took her life.” Still his eyes did not focus, as he moved his head slightly this way and that, as though surveying the room for something that no one else could see. “And yet she spent her last thoughts on comforting me. ‘Do not fear,’ she told me. ‘I will spring up again from the roots. We all will.’”
Then Legolas turned grave eyes towards Frodo, yet still did not entirely connect. “And your child will fare better than that, even. Beyond the Halls of Mandos lie marvels past the ken of elves, and Námo bears the children of mortals swiftly there and gently.”
“Harding will not die!” Frodo shouted, and then fell silent at all the staring faces.
Legolas blinked, then said, simply, “All mortals die, Frodo, late or soon.”
“You have talked quite enough,” Gimli said gruffly, yet gently he pressed the elf back down to lie. “Rest now.” He spared an apologetic glance over to Frodo as he tucked Legolas in once more.
“All right,” Legolas murmured, and closed his eyes.
Frodo couldn’t resist a moment longer. “Do you know anything about premature babies, Legolas? How best to keep them alive?”
Again the elf’s eyes flew open, but clouded once more, seeming not to see anything at all. “Do I...premature? No. Elves give birth precisely one year after conception. I know nothing about...about...” and his eyes fluttered closed again...then slowly blinked open and closed in rhythmical fashion.
Frodo turned away and sat down beside his wife and child. After awhile the dwarf he’d spoken to before returned and handed him the four pierced fangs, two larger uppers, two smaller lowers, which Frodo numbly threaded onto his necklace. He took care as to design: ruddy wooden bead, smaller fang, bone bead, larger fang, ruddy bead, lens, and then the same on the other side in reverse. If he could do everything perfectly, then by all his lost loves, perhaps, some magic...yet what do hobbits know of magic, beyond the enchantments of hope? His fingers caressed the strands of the cord. Billie-Lass. He winced to touch the beads of bone. He had never even had a chance to mourn Bleys properly. He tested the point of a fang against his fingertip, but found it quite rounded, harmless without the force of a warg’s jaws behind it. He might have even less of a chance to mourn Seregril, a loss soon eclipsed...but he didn’t want to think about that. Not yet.
And his fingers went back to the horsehair cord. A stout thread, yet severed all the same in the Web of Vaire. “I could not have snapped so thick a cord with both my hands,” he sighed. But a slender thread, now, one newborn...”No,” he moaned. ”Noooo...” He looked away, only to meet Mattie’s eyes, wide and pleading. The connection between them spoke; he couldn’t stop the thoughts, no more than stop those ragged little gasps at her breast, now breaking often into coughs.
One of the dwarves, brow furrowed with pity, asked, “Is it suffering, do you think?”
“Shut up, Mogi,” said another.
The third went out, and came back with an armful of half-charred branches. “No reason not to put these to good use,” he muttered, and pushed the wood into the fireplace in a tight-bound faggot. “The bairn could use the warmth, I daresay, and it wouldn’t hurt the mother, either.” Soon a fire crackled and the hut became cozier. But it didn’t matter how expertly the dwarves had made the chimney, they’d have had nothing save for smoky air no matter what they did.
Frodo leaned over and asked Mattie, “Is the baby breathing easier now, do you think?”
“Maybe a little. I think the warmth does help.”
A tureen of soup soon bubbled on the hearth, and the dwarves passed out bowls and spoons, and Frodo remembered his hunger. Turnip soup, such as dwarves like, but he hardly paid attention to the flavor. He urged Mattie to eat, too, and after a few reluctant swallows her body took over and she asked for seconds. Frodo saw a long, greenish hand pass the food. He looked up into the eyes of Legolas.
The elf blushed. “Forgive my foolish words, earlier. I...only now do I begin to remember the proper ways of speaking among those who walk.”
Frodo shrugged, and stared into the hearth. “Think nothing of it.”
The elvish hand clasped the hobbit shoulder. “At least I take comfort in seeing you well once more, though rather thin, I think.”
“I’m not sure, even now, if I’ve completely recovered from the...oh. You don’t mean the fever, do you?”
Legolas gazed on him with pity. “Gimli told me all that happened out in the broad world throughout the year, speaking to me under the willow-tree after every messenger arrived. I grieved for you, Frodo. All of the trees sang for you, after their fashion, at my request.”
Frodo chuckled faintly without mirth and shook his head. “Why did I ever imagine that I had any privacy, anywhere?”
Legolas smiled wryly, giving the hobbit’s shoulder a gentle shake. “I am the one who made an unbalanced ring of power, remember. You need not feel shame before me.” Yet his eyes remained haunted, and Frodo realized that the elf struggled to conceal some deep suffering.
Frodo stirred himself to sympathy. “You do not seem entirely well, yourself, even now.”
Legolas dropped all effort to smile. “I heard them scream, Frodo. The entire forest. Both forests. The fire spread clear over the pass. Treegarth has fallen, and Fangorn is no more.”
Frodo scowled into the hearth. “And the ents have found their wives. One of them, at least, and now they know where to seek the rest.” He shrugged off the hand and closed his eyes. “How did the web of Vaire ever get so tangled?”
“Even the flaws weave into the design, Frodo.”
“I know that! But I don’t regard the pattern from a nice, comfortable distance. When you feel the thread snap...” He felt his throat choke. Harding made a particularly loud gasp at that point. Frodo reached over to the tiny brow and stroked the thin locks with a finger, very gently, as though the tender skin beneath might tear. “Justice...I know what is just, never fear.”
Then suddenly Frodo’s face contorted and he spat out, “A curse upon justice! The Valar break us upon the wheel of time, and then they punish us for the offense of our brokenness!” He turned wet cheeks to the elf. “Why did you come to Bree with your message? Why did you ply me with Barliman’s brew and lure me to consent to what I couldn’t understand? I was a child, Legolas. I knew nothing of the wild world beyond the Anduin.”
Legolas stared at him without comprehension. He seemed to pass in and out of lucidity from moment to moment.
“Never mind,” Frodo muttered. “You’re still quite mad, it’s plain to see, and your year within a tree has wasted your time and freedom. Maybe you’re just another pawn of fate. Maybe we’re all just pawns.”
Gimli drew Legolas back to his mat. “Now now, lad,” he said to Frodo. “No need to go talking like that. Legolas will make a much better conversationalist tomorrow. Give him time.”
“It’s not him, it’s me. It’s the Valar. It’s everything and everybody and nobody and oh Lord, I’m starting to sound just like him, aren’t I?”
Gimli patted him on the back and sat down between the mats. “You have just been through a lot. An awful lot. Maybe only you know just how much.”
“But things will look better in the morning, is that it?” He glanced over at the struggling child, the tiny ribs heaving visibly, the neck stretching with each inhale. “Will they? It seems that I haven’t been through enough yet, by the Valar’s reckoning.”
“Now, don’t go talking about what you don’t...”
“...understand? I’ve met them, Gimli. Have you?”
Then Gimli stared, frowning, into eyes that had seen more than he ever wanted to know, and he fell silent.
“Oh, what a thread,” Frodo moaned softly, caressing his son in Mattie’s arms, his wife nestled against him. “Oh what a precious, precious thread, spun from matter more dear than gold, dearer than mithril, dearer than anything I could ever have imagined! Oh Vaire, Vaire, what have I done?”
Night fell. The baby had various needs, and Mattie and Frodo met even the humblest with gratitude, to be able to tend him while they could. Frodo felt deadly tired, but he forced himself to stay awake, and Mattie did likewise, gray smudges underneath her eyes; she, too, stayed awake and watchful by the hearth’s dim glow. Together they memorized every motion of those tiny hands, each quiver of the lips, the wide dark eyes that opened and closed, the curls of soft, sparse hair, the little feet that twitched. They dared not miss a thing. The dwarves sat up with them, not saying another word, for these were the most sensitive of all their kind. Together they shared what no words could describe. A dim, yellow light, harsher than a normal dawn, began to color the windows, and still the three hobbits huddled together, the gasps becoming more and more labored, then slower...slower...and then they stopped altogether.