From the Ashes a Fire Shall be Woken
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 11, Part 256
The House of Mardil
The hobbits slept until the afternoon, in the quarters that Frodo had occupied before, and they woke curled up in each other’s arms. They said no word as they donned the freshly-laundered black clothing, embroidered, in many shades of green, with delicate-winged mayflies fluttering about the strange foliage of Nurn. When Frodo rang the bell-rope, a servant brought them a fine breakfast, chiefly featuring a dense, brown bread, full of nuts and fruit, so tasty that Frodo did not regret the absence of butter. Fresh skim milk washed it down. Frodo caught Mattie’s eye, and she gave him a tentative smile.
When they had finished, the servant led them through a hall and down some stairs, to a larger room with an enormous bay window displaying a splendid view of the Field of Pellenor and the Anduin beyond, and Emyn Arnen beyond that, blue with distance. Two sat on the cushions of the window-seats, who turned and rose as the hobbits entered. One, a lean, tall man, looked strikingly like Lord Faramir save for the blondeness of his hair. The other, a youth, resembled this man in turn, in features yet not in build, being more compact and sturdy, with nut-brown curls, a ready smile, and a sparkle in his eyes.
The servant bowed and announced, “My Lord Elboron and Young Lord Boromir, may I present the Royal Gardener, Frodo Gardner, and his wife, Mistress Matthilda.”
Frodo and Mattie bowed, as well. “At your service,” they said, one after the other.
The son of Eowyn and Faramir smiled and answered, “The chief service which my son and I require for the moment is companionship. Come! Sit with us by the window.”
The boy bounced on the cushions in his excitement, looking to Mattie. “I hear that nobody alive knows the Poros Pass better than you do!”
Startled to be the one consulted, Mattie blushed and smiled. “Why, I suppose that one could say so. But what inspires so much interest in the Poros Pass?”
Elboron answered for the child, “Only that we plan to travel that way, ourselves. The King suggested that you might find the journey more pleasant with company.”
“What?” Mattie became flustered. “Surely you wouldn’t want to take a little one to...”
“I am not little--I get to help them build the canal!” Boromir crowed. And then a warmth of joy flushed through Frodo, remembering his promise to the spirits of that pass. “I shall begin my apprenticeship there.” He stuck out his little chest and proudly declared, “I am nearly a man, you know.”
Elboron looked slightly embarrassed, yet forced a smile to his lips. “For one year only. And then you must become squire to a lord, as an heir to the Stewardship should.”
Boromir simmered down just a little, then perked up again as he said, “In Arnor? They have amazing ruins up north!”
“We shall see.” Then Elboron turned apologetically to the hobbits. “Such a thing, as this, an heir of our line apprenticing to menial employment, would not have pleased my grandfather, if what I have heard of him is true. Yet Tinros and I will not stifle the spirit of a boy with so much enthusiasm for any honest labor.” Frodo got the impression that there was more to it than that. “And it may come, some day, after my own father and I have passed on to our crypts, that the King of that time might have need of a steward who understands well the ways of men with shovels.”
“More than that, Father–already the workers have come across an ancient millstone and part of a foundation! There may wait, in the soil of that pass, still more remnants of a forgotten people, of whom little record remains. Oh, to think that I might be the first in ages to lay eyes on things once held in living hands an age or more ago!”
Frodo saw love in the boy’s eyes–love for people who had lived out their lives without history, until he himself should rediscover them, bring something of them back to life. The hobbit read there the Numenorean obsession with immortality, yet transformed, turned into a gift to bestow on others.
The boy went on. “And think also, Father, of the lost arts of our forebears: to carve roads and great monuments, to shape the course of lands and rivers.” His hands mimed out shapes of topography as he spoke. “What men once learned, we can master yet again!” A childish pride lit up his face. “Why the things that I have already discovered help in the delving of this very canal!”
Elboron’s face became stern. “Have a care, lad, that in such work, aspiring to share in the labors of the Valar who shape this Middle Earth, that you keep in mind to serve them and not supplant them.”
Boromir looked suddenly cowed, hurt..and maybe just a little resentful. “I am not the only one,” Frodo thought to himself, “With both a dead and a living father. Surely, had Boromir of The Cloven Horn ever had the chance to beget a son, this would have been him.”
“I do not mean to wound you,” Elboron said more gently, “Yet we must remember that our ancestors did not do well in all things.” He sighed. “To think that a people given such a generous blaze of light should let it go out!” He clasped his son’s shoulder as kindly as he could. “So dig your ditches without shame, my son, and study the discards of forgotten folk. That pride so precious to our heritage has brought more woe than joy.” To himself he murmured, “And if so noble a lineage should fall to evil, what hope can anyone have?”
“Much hope,” Frodo put in, “from what I’ve seen in this world.” Elboron looked up, startled. “For I have known some among the lowest beings of Middle Earth to take the tiniest spark of light that they should chance upon, cherish it and blow on it and feed it every scrap of fuel that they could find, till their virtue has blazed up as a beacon in the saddest reaches of Sauron’s old domain. Who we begin as does not determine our worth, but rather who we end up being–who we make ourselves.”
Elboron eyed him oddly. “You answer a doubt that I did not voice, Perian.” And suddenly Frodo realized that the man had not actually murmured at all.
He pretended not to notice. He spoke then of those whom he had known in Mordor, from the sailors of the Backwards River to the Iingolug-Hai. Mattie soon chimed in with accounts of her own, sometimes breaking off into song to illustrate her tale on a level deeper than words alone could reach.
Elboron mostly listened with folded hands, as one displaying courtesy to strangers with quaint notions, but Boromir’s eyes sparkled to hear it all, as he questioned Mattie about whatever artifacts she might have discovered along the way. Frodo reflected, “No matter who his spiritual sire might be, this boy has much of Faramir in him, as well, and no proud and frightened man for a father, nor shadow looming in the East. And the blood of Eowyn the Healer runs strong. He has his own tale to write–may it be a good one!”
Boromir exclaimed, “So you have witnessed orkish magic! Our tomes say little about it, except to call it horrible. Yet this dance of power does not sound evil to me.”
Mattie stopped, flustered, while Elboron exclaimed, “When did you ever study the black arts of orcs? I shall have a word with your grandfather as to what sort of manuscripts you read! It troubles me enough the sort of nonsense that he fills you with as is.”
Frodo recovered his composure and said, “I do not know if it involved magic after all. Not entirely. Surely Lobbie Aadar believed that she worked some powerful spell, ignorant of any other way to reach beyond the limits of her flesh.” He fingered his lens thoughtfully. “Yet I think that her willingness to sacrifice for her people had more to do with dimming the elvish blades.”
Something about Elboron’s smile unsettled Frodo just a little. Mattie must have caught it, too, for she said, “You never did answer my concerns as to why you would take your son to a haunted land.”
Elboron nodded politely to her and said, “I daresay that the folklore of the Periannath includes all manner of ghost stories and legends about distant lands, and some might point to fragments of factual history from which the old tales sprung. All quite interesting indeed, and it fascinates my son, the scholar, no end. But we are all educated people, here. You need not worry about my son taking fright at shadows in the hills; he knows the difference between a story and the truth.”
“But father...” Boromir began, though a quick glare cut him off.
Mattie smiled right back at Elboron and said, “It is true–we ‘periannath’ remember many an old tale, and I remember most, being a bard of some reputation. And if I am not mistaken, we ourselves–our very existence as a people–were once regarded as nothing more than a fable with which to amuse children, both here and in Rohan. For that matter, some in my own country–again, until recently–regarded much of your own history as the fruit of ancestral imagination. So have a care with what you hear–a story and the truth might be the same thing in different garb.”
The conversation veered rather abruptly from the mysteries of the lands ahead to the practicalities of getting there. It seemed that the many tradesmen on the road had increased the comforts along the way in a short period of time, much to the delight of the hobbits. Frodo privately wondered, as well, if already some of the trapped spirits had begun to escape and take advantage of their amnesty. But then Elboron laughed, and said, “It seems that, in this company, I shall be the only one who shall ride on a full-sized horse!”
“No, Boromir,” Elboron said firmly, while Frodo felt his blood plummet. “Though I expect that you shall see your growth-spurt very soon, I cannot endanger you before then with a steed beyond your measure. Now, shall we go to the stables to see what ponies the King has found for the three of you?” And then all stared, aghast, at the change in Frodo’s face. Elboron immediately leaped up and swept away excess cushions, exclaiming, “Here, lie down–you look about to faint. Forgive me; I have heard that you and your wife had lately suffered illness; I should not have kept you talking for so long.”
“I have quite recovered from the illness,” Frodo said, as embarrassment sent the blood rushing back into his face. “It is just that in a year’s space I have lost two beloved steeds in my service, and I am not sure that I will ever ride again.”
Unexpectedly, Mattie spoke up. “And if two hobbits broke your heart, would you never love again?”
“My mother,” she said curtly. “And later my father, more slowly and more cruelly. So I ran away from my own kind, for years and in several ways at once. But it had to end, Frodo.”
“It...it is too soon.”
“Time does not wait for all of us. Do you think that a widow with children waits out the full year of mourning for a husband who can no longer provide for her? No, she marries again swiftly, because she must. And you shall ride, because you must. We leave tomorrow.” She took her hands in his. “Come to the stable with us. Once you actually meet the pony, you might find a change of heart.”
When they arrived they found neither horses nor ponies set aside for them, but a mule and three tiny desert asses. The stablehand grinned and said, “Tough beasts for a tough land! They can keep their feet on the steepest mountains, persevere across the stoniest plain, forage off the wild thorn, and kick the sass out of any wicked creature foolish enough to mistake them for prey. You just have to come to an understanding with them, ‘sall, rather than expect them to blindly follow orders. But once you gain their trust, they’s good. They’s good through and through.”
Faintly Frodo said, “I know their kind well. My Bleys...” He fought down a choke. “My Bleys took many wargs with him when he fell.”
Mattie spoke up, softly. “Bleys also rescued me, in a way more intelligent than any pony could have done.”
All of the little donkeys regarded the newcomers from the far end of the stall, but then one the color of desert sand ventured forward to the fence, straight for Frodo, and thrust her muzzle out for petting. “This one chooses me,” Frodo says. “I doubt that I have any say in the matter.” He looked up to the stablehand. “What is her name?”
“Courage,” the man answered, “But she answers to Curry just fine.”
“Courage,” Frodo said, reaching up to scratch behind the ears. “Precisely what I need.”
The man laughed and threw wide the gate and gestured them in. “Watch your steps, now, good people, especially you barefoot ones. Shall we see if the rest of you fine folk can find the steed that fits you best?”
Frodo somehow expected Boromir to choose the animal with the same nut-brown color as his hair, but instead he went to a darker donkey of especially muscular build. He hugged the animal and nuzzled against its fur. “You and I were meant for each other–I knew it the minute that I laid eyes on you.” The donkey seemed to agree, and nuzzled him right back.
“Amon, we call him,” said the stablehand, “for when he digs in his heels, you could no more move him than any hill. Are you sure that you’ll have him?”
“Oh yes,” the boy breathed. “I understand hills.”
“And stubbornness,” his father added.
The nut-brown donkey trotted up to Mattie expectantly. She smiled and petted her, saying, “I hope that you like music, my friend.”
The stablehand’s brow knotted. “Strangely enough, she does. We named her Melody, for you can coax her anywhere with a tune.”
Naturally, Elboron took Iron, the mule. “I have never ridden a mule ere this, but I expect that he shall teach me the way of it.”
The stablehand laughed. “That he will, sir! That he will.”
Yet jesting fell away when Mattie sang, softly to herself at first, forgetful of the people standing around her.
”Upon the road again I go,
Before me doubts, behind me woe,
Between suspicions that I know
Far less than I will need,
“On the Road,
On the Road,
Yet still I ride on without heed,
Upon the Road.
“Out there my heart beats with the hooves,
Before me hopes, behind me all
My stumbling between deep-cut grooves
Of wagon-wheels that met the call,
Long ere before my birth,
“Of the Road,
Of the Road,
Calling over Middle Earth,
Oh hark, the Road!
“Out in between uncertain fate
And a past I’d rather leave behind,
I’ll take my travels for estate,
I’ll take my luck with what I find,
For in-between hurts less,
“On the Road,
On the Road,
Than staying where I cannot rest,
Beyond the Road!”
Then she looked around her, at all who stared, and seemed to suddenly remember the company she kept. “I wrote that a long time ago, Frodo,” she said softly. “I’m braver than I used to be. I have a home, now, at road’s end. It is time that we go back to it.”