From the Ashes a Fire Shall be Woken
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 15, Part 260
The New Old Morannon Road
February 13, 1453
Frodo tried not to clench his eyes and fists too often as the party rode out from Osgiliath the next day, with the cold eastern wind hitting the sweat upon his brow. The brief snow already had began to thaw, making a frigid mush of everything in a way that reminded Frodo disturbingly of the Marsh of Nurnen. But he had other reasons to shiver.
The boy wanted to stop and study every crumbling scarp and war-machine wreckage along the way, oblivious to those who hovered over the remains with hollow eyes. Frodo did not bother holding up his lens here, for the malice of these spirits beat down on him like the wind; not one of them hankered after release, but only missed, with a festering ardor, their old ability to harm. Truly, one could hardly find a worse place to experience the Sight of Valinor!
Then let go of it, Gandalf suggested, floating along beside him. You were never meant to have it in the first place.
“I could as well let go of all my scars, yet expect my skin to stay intact. It has become a part of me.”
The maia’s sigh ruffled the chill air. I suppose that you are right. We have made some grievous mistakes with you, I fear.
“Oh, don’t take it too hard–I’ve made more than a few of those mistakes, myself. At least you make better company than Sauron.”
Well, unlike him, I have responsibilities. I cannot accompany you every minute of the way, you know.
“Thank heavens! It says something that Sauron used to bribe me with the offer to leave me alone for a few hours.”
Hush, now–the boy finds your half of the conversation rather too interesting.
Frodo roused himself to notice his embodied companions. The boy flushed at being caught staring, then turned aside for some ruins more complex than most, possibly a command-center. Elboron said to Boromir, “Later, lad. You may always return here as a man.”
“Yet already it all falls apart, Father! What might pass into oblivion before I have had the chance to study it all?”
“You have better things to study than the workings of our blessedly vanished enemy.”
“Listen to your Father,” Frodo rasped, as he stared at a particularly nasty entity with burning eyes, worse than any man or orc, enchained by light to the rubble of a wall. It kept beckoning and pointing to one corner as though trying to entice them to unearth some buried treasure there–releasing who knew what upon the world. Frodo felt somewhat nauseated.
Boromir turned betrayed eyes to the hobbit, but spurred his donkey to hasten after the mule. Frodo murmured to his wife, “If I’d had any idea just how haunted the world could be, I would never have ventured out of Bag End!”
“It will get better soon,” she murmured back. “Then worse, I fear. We haven’t crossed the pass yet.”
“How did you ever endure it, fortnight after fortnight?”
“Numbed to the brink of death, and poisoned on morbidity before I ever smoked a pipe.” He saw that she looked somewhat pale, herself. “I don’t know whether it’s worse for me or you, but it’s certainly worse than before for my own part–to know that they’re all out there, still, and yet not to see them. Brrr! How do I know if I merely shiver at the wind, or pass right through a ghost?”
“I won’t let that happen, dear one. I will steer you safely, as you once steered me.”
Eventually that war-torn land did give way to the slope on the eastern side of the river, as they rose on up to the Morannon Road. But now Frodo had a different trouble. For here the ghosts of men, not orcs, thronged up and down the miles. To his dismay, they seemed to see Frodo, and turn to him, and soon they stumbled towards him, their rotten hands outstretched in pleading, eye-sockets and mouths and wounds agape.
“Back! Back!” he cried. “I cannot help all of you!” His companions stared at the gasping hobbit, but he could hardly see them at all through the fog of crowding phantoms.
Allow me, said Gandalf, who sang out a word and cast forth a glorious light. Spirit after spirit lunged into the light and dissipated on it, released. I could do nothing for them until they asked for help, but bless you, my boy, you gave them enough hope to ask! The wizard-spirit grinned, his teeth a flash of white, and sent out another burst to roll glowing across the countryside.
Now Frodo laughed for sheer relief, euphoric from the potency of the light, which traveled with them even as Gandalf did, unseen by all the rest. The others in the company didn’t seem the least bit mollified by his sudden shift to levity. “I’m glad to see you enjoying yourself,” he couldn’t help but say to the maia.
The party just seemed to roll along like a goodwife’s sponge, leaving a broad streak of cleanliness in the troubled landscape. Frodo watched Gandalf wax in exuberance, the maia’s gestures growing more graceful and powerful, swirling around and around them into what Frodo eventually saw become a dance, insubstantial robes and hair and beard fluttering like white flame, as the wizard hurled his balls of splendor and bolts of blessing to the weary crowds of spirits as fast as they could approach. And Frodo felt joy to witness it, pure joy. If he listened, he could hear the music that the wizard danced to–the music of reality itself, the tones that made up the rocks and the earth, the sky, the wind, the donkey that he rode, even Frodo’s very self vibrating with music, all of creation singing, all building to the greatest of all harmonies. Even the dissonance of the ghosts added to the beauty as it resolved into release at the touch of Gandalf’s blaze and rejoined the greater Music, melody after melody fading, fading gladly into the west.
Gradually, throughout the day, Frodo felt himself adjust to his new level of perceptions, aided by the cleansing power that washed over everything around him. He could see straight through Gandalf, to the beauty of the countryside beyond, for even though many feet and wheels had beaten and expanded the track to a road, much loveliness remained to the left and to the right, where the slopes had known thirty years of recovery from what evil had brushed them in the Dark Lord’s day. Frodo felt peace. A deep, heart-filling peace.
His wife seemed to take comfort in his calming. He rode close enough to reach out a hand to her, and Mattie reached out, too, and laughed as they brushed fingers. He could hardly believe that the day had begun in fear. Elboron still watched Frodo from the corner of his eye, and Boromir followed paternal example without even realizing it, but it didn’t ruffle Frodo’s happiness one bit. Who could frown when Gandalf rejoiced?
Frodo noted in time that in the common world the shadows grew long, and the light took on that curious, autumnlike richness that revealed the grand finale of sunlight before the fall of night. Yet even as the sun set the travelers saw firelight ahead of them, welcoming and cheering in a darkening landscape. Soon they reached a kind of camp on the verge of evolving into something very like an inn. Muscular men settled in for rest on the way to labors ahead, or spent their pay on the way back, while frank-eyed women served them food or laundered their clothing for pay, pulling the now-dried shirts and leggings down from the lines strung from tree to tree, amid the tents and carts and temporary shacks. Yet Frodo also saw the beginning of stonework, a more permanent building in the making, and men of a more settled nature than the itinerants slapping on the day’s last mortar and settling the stones into place.
The party soon found a large and well-established stable where they could entrust their steeds for a few too many coins, but the animals seemed to get excellent care, there, so they did not begrudge the money. Then they stretched their legs awhile, seeing the sights of the encampment.
Well-trodden paths made a grid among the ramshackle structures, and men walked down them lighting torches. People stepped in and out of pools of night and flickering firelight, hard-working commoners made mysterious by the shifts in degree of visibility. Silhouettes turned into homely folks with ruddy faces and back to silhouettes. Sometimes a metal buckle or a cloak-clasp glittered, or a dull gleam shone on leather or a polished hilt of wood or antler. Sometimes the shadows in a fold of cloth looked cavern-deep.
Amused, Mattie murmured, “It did not take long for the sellers of trinkets to set up shop,” as they strolled past booth after booth of knicknacks for the traveling trade.
“Hold on,” Frodo said and doubled back to a pottery stall. Here one could find the mugs, flasks, and simple bowls that men often carried on the road--and sometimes broke along the way. “Isn’t that Nurning work?” He traced a finger over designs once called “Umbaric”.
“You’re right!” She grinned. “It looks like Seaside’s efforts have finally begun to spread.”
Their legs soon tired of stretching, except possibly from a sitting position towards a campfire. Elboron, Boromir, Mattie and Frodo joined a number of others in the warmth and glow of a large campfire. The wonderful, smoky smell of outdoor cooking beckoned them. They spread out blankets on the ground and gladly parted with more coin for the bowls of boiled grain liberally soaked with broth and vegetables and bits of meat.
A man peered through the fluttering light at them for a moment, frowning. Then he called out. “Mattie? Is that Mattie Heathertoes?” He rose up to his feet. “You owe me money!”
Before she could say a word, Frodo stood up and said, “The name is Gardner, now–Mattie Gardner. But as her husband I will gladly pay any outstanding debts which Matthilda might have incurred.”
The man looked thunderstruck. “Matthilda? Matt-hil-da? You mean, he...she...”
Mattie smirked. “He means that I fooled you all for many a year, Barty!” Frodo saw that she forced the smirk, and had in fact paled behind her bravado.
“How much?” Frodo asked.
“Fifteen silver pennies.”
“They were coppers,” Mattie cut in, “And though I asked for fifteen, you only gave me ten.”
The man only hesitated a moment, then grinned. “I thought you hadn’t noticed.”
“Oh, I noticed a lot more than anybody reckoned in those days. Frodo, please give the man ten copper pennies.”
“Those days?” the man asked, as he held out his hand and Frodo filled it. “So you’ve changed, have you–or think you have?”
“She has changed,” Frodo insisted, shifting his hand from his purse to Sting’s hilt, “And in more than her attire.”
In a helpful voice Mattie added, “You might wish to know that my husband has fought ruffians, an orc, a watersprite, a dragon or two, a whole nest of dragonets, and I lost count of how many wargs. He has the battle-scars and the experience to prove it. I would advise against angering him overmuch.”
“Well, then!” another voice called out, breaking the tension. “Sing us a song of his adventures! Unless that, too, has changed and you’ve forgotten all your music.”
“Let someone lend me a harp, and and you shall see whether I have. My husband broke the last one.”
“What?” Frodo cried, “I couldn’t help it, I...” then he sat down and shut up, and let Mattie sing his praises. It sounded strange to him, to hear his own tale (at least the better parts) set to music like that. He did not know whether Mattie had been concocting these songs for some time, or improvised on the spot, but they embarrassed him terribly and at the same time glowed inside him, warmer than the fire. Did his father feel like this at the Field of Cormallen? Yet Frodo also felt ashamed, for his memory filled in the darker gaps of his story.
Pay it no heed, lad. Someday you might read what the elves have written to fill in the gaps in the accounts that men have sung of Turin. But most people remember what they need to remember. And men will always need heroes, to inspire them to try and be better than they are. Even the heroes themselves need that.
“Gar, Mattie, ye haven’t lost yer touch one bit!” said one fellow in the dialect of Nurn. Frodo found that the accent made him homesick. “Ye’re better than ever ye were, and that’s sayin’ sumpin’–why, I never heerd such pickin’!”
“Thank you, Gouty. And that’ll be enough for now,” Mattie finally said, handing back the harp. “I’ve built up a fearsome appetite–I could use another bowlful, if you don’t mind. And if you’ve got some fresh-baked bread to dip into it, I’ll pay you double.”
The cooking-woman said, “You’ve sung for your supper well enough–keep your pursestrings tied.” Others agreed and reached into their own packs for ways to express their appreciation. Soon Mattie had more barley-stew, bread, cheese, dried fruits, and sausage than she could consume all by herself by even the greediest standard, and so she shared the rest with Frodo. The listeners offered beer as well, but she turned it down before Frodo could open his mouth (which he appreciated.) The tea that the cooking-woman served them tasted fresh and warmed their vitals wonderfully.
“Darling,” Frodo began to say, as Mattie cut herself a third helping of sausage and folded bread and cheese around it, with a pickle thrown in for good measure. But he could find no further words. He watched her eat as though she fed him, after a month’s starvation.
She pressed a dried pear into his mouth. “Here–you can use this more than me.” More softly she said, “I am a hobbit, Frodo, not a man, nor even a woman of men. I have stopped lying about everything else. It is high time that I stop lying about that. Besides,” she said with a wink, “I need to get in practice for the delicacies of Brandybuck Merchantile, ahead. Now pass me the mustard, please. Thank you.”
“I love you,” Frodo said, ladling himself another bowl of barley. “Jolly or lean, I love you.”
At last, filled to the brim with contentment and good fare, the two hobbits followed their human companions to the tent that they’d set up, wrapped their blankets and their fur-lined cloaks about them, and fell fast asleep.