From the Ashes a Fire Shall be Woken
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 4, Part 249
January 6, 1453
The morning light looked brassy, harsh. Then, as Arien rose above the smoke, the day actually darkened somewhat into a brown twilight that lasted all day long, the sun appearing as naught but a dim red moon in the dirty sky, casting eerie, blue-green shadows, and all of the colors, of face and clothing, stone and wood, seemed subtly wrong. Meanwhile everyone’s lungs longed and longed for fresh air, yet had nowhere to turn for it, and would not, doubtless, for days. Frodo sat just outside the dwarvish hut and wondered if the Pall of Mordor, during the Siege of Minas Tirith, had looked and felt like this. He felt a sudden stir of sympathy for Denethor; such strange and gloomy weather did not incline the heart to hope.
Most of the ents had not yet left to seek their wives, but stomped about the ruin, finding and extinguishing caches of hot coals here and there, or helping dead trees, still smoldering upright, to fall somewhere safe, that they might put out the last of their fires. Frodo could hear the sizzle when the Shepherds of the Trees scooped up great armfuls of the patchy snow to dump on embers. He could hear the crackle of little fires still persisting, scattered throughout the countryside, a sound that seemed to try and imitate a rustling of life.
Hope! What could Denethor have held onto, after losing one son and believing that the other could not survive? What could the future matter, with no blood of his to occupy it? “That’s selfish thinking,” Frodo told himself. “Papa never thought he’d live through the destruction of the Ring, never have a chance for children, nothing–but he wanted some future for everybody else.” Selfish thinking, maybe, but at least now he understood a little better. And maybe Papa could only dismiss the future of his line because he had not yet held a child of his own in his arms, not yet gazed into those enormous eyes and recognized a part of himself. To have and to lose–that changed everything.
After awhile riders out of Rohan arrived, armed with shovels and buckets and all else that they could muster to fight the last of the forest-fire, having seen the smoke and fearing its spread to their grasslands beyond. Side by side with terrifying ents they labored, for in time of war or time of peace, Rohan did not raise cowards. Frodo heard them at work, near and far, at points all around him, all of the shoveling and stamping, the shouts and the crashing wrecks of trees, yet he himself did nothing, sitting just outside the door of the dwarves’ stone hut.
One must resist selfishness, Frodo told himself, or burn with Denethor in hopelessness. “Wife,” he called into the doorway. “”How fare you?”
Silence answered him at first, then Mattie’s faint voice. “I held him within, you know.”
“Yes. I know.”
“Our hearts beat together. For months and months, and I didn’t even know. Yet I felt something. I made all of those journeys looking for you, yet I never felt alone. I always felt like I had a part of you inside me, crying out for you, helping me to someday find you. I didn’t understand. I didn’t bother to try, because it didn’t seem to matter, to question how it worked, it just did. I just knew that you left something with me, something blended of you and me. I thought it was our marriage.”
“At least we still have that.”
After awhile, he heard a splashing sound. He peered in, and saw Mattie washing the body for the funeral, tears dripping off her chin yet her face stony-grim. Frodo saw that without realizing it, she took care to hold the lifeless head above the water in the basin.
Eventually a leech assigned to the eored came by, asking many questions. He stooped into the dwarf-hut, first to examine Mattie, then the little corpse, then finally he called Frodo in to examine him as well, listening to the hobbit’s chest, probing his belly, performing all of the necessary indignities required of his profession. Frodo didn’t care. “Rest,” the man said. “Drink plenty of liquids, especially a tea from the tips of the spruce...” and then he faltered, looking out the window. “Just rest,” he said. After he left Frodo went back out and sat by the door some more.
Men dug a grave so tiny that it might have served for a pet. Frodo watched them at it, not moving from his seat. He watched dwarves nearby chisel a stone to mark the spot. When they finished he finally got up and went over to read it. “Here lies Harding Gardner, son of Frodo and Matthilda. Born 1453. Died 1453.” He nodded, and the dwarves wrestled the stone between them over to the hole in the ground.
Mattie should have lain abed, yet when Frodo turned around he saw that she stood nearby, staring at the grave without a word, her arms crossed, teetering just a little in her weariness whenever she’d shift her weight. She might have been her old self, masculinely garbed in clothes that the dwarves had spared for her, their bagginess making her look even thinner than she had become. Her face looked just as waxen as it had a year before. Longer curls fluttered from the hood on the winter wind–that much had changed. Other than that...Frodo noted that grief can make a person’s pupils contract in pain, and much crying can puff up the eyes as much as poppy-gum.
“Where is my harp?” she husked. “I’ll need to sing a dirge.”
“Gone,” he answered. “Broken.”
She nodded, not surprised.
“The men brought back the parts, though.” Frodo dug into a pocket of his borrowed clothes. “Here. The pegs, from Stumblehoof. You can give them to Lanethil when you ask him to make you a new harp.”
Then she turned her head and gave him the queerest look, before gazing back into the grave. He put the pegs back in his pocket.
Legolas came up beside them. “You will have other children,” he told them in a helpful voice. “Mortals are prolific; we envy that in you, sometimes.” Frodo just turned and stared at him. “I am sorry–have I offended again?”
“You have no idea,” Frodo rasped, “what you are talking about.” He turned away. “How could you? Do elves ever even lose children?”
“Only to violence, or extremity in the wild,” Legolas conceded, “And that so rarely as to figure in our legends.”
“There cannot be another Harding, not among my sons. It would burden a child too much, you see, to have a dead brother for a namesake. No, by Shire custom we must wait. The firstborn grandson must take that name, if ever I have one.”
Gimli brought out the tiny body, wrapped up in his own woolen scarf. Frodo stepped forward, a jerky reflex. Suddenly Mattie turned wide, crazed eyes to Frodo and cried, “Don’t you dare add anything of Harding to your horrid necklace! Not hair, not bone, not tooth–let me bury all of him, what little there is of him, intact.”
“What? Wife, I...I wouldn’t!” He stood there as she burst into tears and flung herself on him, pounding his chest weakly with her fists, then hugging him, hugging him like she’d squeeze the breath from him. He felt twin wet spots, from breasts that had no one to suckle them.
“I need you,” she whispered into his chest, clinging to him tight. “Oh Frodo, how much I need you!”
“That’s all right,” he murmured to her, “I need you, too.” He wrapped her in his embrace, and even when she drew back again he kept one arm about her (much smaller) waist.
Gimli handed the body to Frodo, and Frodo gently lowered it down by the ends of the scarf. It bothered him that Harding had landed in a way that bent his head to one side. He started to climb down, but Gimli held him back. “Easy, lad,” the dwarf said. “Harding cannot feel a crick in his neck. Leave it be.”
He looked to his wife. Mattie nodded to him, then turned again to the grave. She sang, in a tear-hoarse voice, without any instrument to accompany her:
Here lies hope, and here lies future,
Here lies might-have-been.
Here lies a wound no leech can suture,
Here lies end before begin.
Here lies all the reason for,
And all the reason not,
And all the seasons once in store
For all that I once sought.
Here lies music left unsung,
A bud that never bloomed,
A harp unplayed too soon unstrung,
This life too soon entombed.
And now my years seem long indeed,
And time drags empty on;
At least from weariness you’re freed,
My too-soon-absent son.
At least you need not ever feel
The grind of lonely hours,
Of going on without appeal
To cold, unyielding powers.
So sail on, son, to distant shores
Where none shall ever mourn,
While I hang back to lock the doors
To futures never born.
Gimli muttered, “Methinks I mislike this song.”
But Mattie caught the words and replied, “You are not the one who had to sing it.” Then she bent, and took a handful of dirt, and released it onto the scarf below. And Frodo stepped forward, and took up his own handful of dirt, and dropped it, watching the earth fall down, down down...
...and then he woke up on the ground, hoping with all the desperation in him that he had dreamed it all, he would rather even open his eyes to the darkness in the mines of Squatting Rock. Yet he knew better. Brown sky stretched above him, and he could still smell smoke upon the air. When he turned his head he could see the new-turned earth.
“Both of them fainted at the same time,” a dwarf explained to the eored medic who knelt between Frodo and Mattie.
“It does not surprise me,” said the leech, “for grave illness beset them ere they arrived. I marvel that they stood at all. We must take them to Edoras.” He gazed at each of them in turn. “The mother, at least, must receive better care than I can give her here, and both look far too drawn.” He rose to his feet. “Gather their things together. We must ride swiftly.”
Frodo let himself be carried, as he had for days, like an infant himself, or maybe not even that, maybe something limp and empty and without life, a doll with the stuffing knocked out of it, for he felt no particular desire to will his limbs to any action, anyway. A blanket wrapped him, nestled in a rider’s arms, and somewhere another rider bore his wife. Right now he appreciated what he had resented on other occasions: that men so often mistook a full-grown hobbit for a child, without even realizing what they did. Sometimes he did not want adulthood anymore. Yet responsibility would not let him be. He stirred uneasily when the horse began to move. “The flower-press...”
“We have everything with us that you carried in your pack, little master. Rest, now.” And so a fatigue greater than responsibility, of illness and grief and a sleepless night combined, overtook Frodo.
Hours passed, of ash-blown wind and dim brown light, and silence, so much silence, even the hooves of the horses muffled in the thick gray drifts. After awhile the hoofbeats changed to something more familiar, as their steeds sped across living lands, sending up an aroma of bruised winter earth and frosted grass. Yet the smoke remained with them, leagues and leagues beyond the ruined forests. Frodo later heard that it reached as far as the Southfarthing, and Longbottom saw a scattered snow of ash.
Sometimes his horse would draw alongside Mattie’s, and they’d glance beyond the arms that held them, their eyes sometimes meeting. Once he heard a brief, fey laugh, and realized that it came from her. His hair stood on end. But it did not really sound, after all, like her giggles in her poppy-days, for it ended in a choke of tears.
They switched horses often on the way, for their beasts labored in the smoke. Meals came and went; Frodo watched his body eat, from some fleshly instinct, yet he tasted nothing except ash. On these breaks he would sit beside his wife. Sometimes their hands would meet, sometimes their knees, sometimes they would not touch at all, yet could feel each other’s presence nearby. That much, at least, felt real, certainly realer than the food or the journey or any other thing.
At last they reached Edoras by nightfall. No bustle of city life overtook them this time, for folks had stayed indoors all day long, to avoid the murky air as much as possible. Not much light spilled into the streets, just faint lines of gold illuminated the edges of closed shutters. Pale drifts of ash scuttled down the cobbles on the wind. No moon nor star could penetrate the gloom.
And all the while, throughout the journey, Frodo thought, “The thread...just one slim thread...the thread...”