From the Ashes a Fire Shall be Woken
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 21, Part 266
In the Hidden Place
February 18, 1453
“Are you sure that you’re all right?” Frodo’s wife asked him yet again, over the clangor, as they rode up the red-clay road alongside the half-born canal, now weaving through the shanties and the tents, now veering towards the brink.
“Quite. I can’t help it that I am not of the line of Elros, and cannot summon souls back into bodies quite as tidily as they do.” He swerved his steed around a great block of stone that some labor had discarded in their path.
“And what would you have done if you couldn’t get back into your own body? We could have lost both of you!”
Frodo shook his head and laughed. “Oh no–the Lords of the West won’t let me off the hook so easily–or rather, the Ladies. Yavanna will not let me die until I have fulfilled her will in Middle-Earth.”
“Well, that’s a comfort, at least.”
“Frodo...” she looked at him with so much hurt in her eyes that he felt ashamed of himself.
“Not like that. I don’t mean that.” He gazed out over the sere landscape, above the line of low roofs and tent-peaks. The countryside did not look near so torn-up on the higher slopes, still showing a number of thorn-bushes, and even a wizened tree or two, in all of their dry, disheveled grace. “It is just that I know now that so much worse can happen to me than death.” At the look on her face he added, “Don’t mind me; I worry too much.” Then he laughed a little, nervously. “And in case any wild spirits misunderstand my intent, I repeat that I have no desire to die before my time.”
“Well, it comforts me, at least, if not you.” Mattie rode closer to him, reaching out a hand to him. He reached back and clasped it briefly. “As full of travails as life might be, call me selfish, but I would rather not face it alone.”
“No, beloved,” he said softly. “I would not call it selfish, to want me by your side. I gave you that right when I swore marriage to you.” He looked away and said, “I have not always honored that vow as I should.”
“I have you now,” she said simply. “Nothing else matters.”
They rode in silence for awhile. Frodo admired the beauty of those rough peaks and ridges, cliffs corrugated like folds and wrinkles rippling in curtains of gold or ochre-red, accented with surprising bursts of green, wherever stone could cup enough dirt and moisture to allow a plant to grow. It surprised him, how many outcroppings of rock that he recognized from having only passed here once before–and how different they seemed in the context of so much labor and commotion in between the two main peaks. Those hills reminded him of a pair of most respectable elders, hitherto seen only in very proper places in the fullness of their power, now suddenly spied uncomfortably seated at a party for the young and rowdy, starting to feel the downward slide of age.
Frodo liked the rhythm of riding, the feel of it, a soft and steady beat that rose up through him from his steed. It seemed to give structure to the noise below, make it more bearable. He glanced down into the great, man-made rift. “How do men endure so much commotion? Down there, right next to the work, the sound must hurt. I would have gone deaf by now.”
“Most make plugs of wax and oil to fill their ears–I have seen them. The foremen, however, must listen for orders shouted from higher-up, for the safety of their crews. In the healing-pavilion I passed someone having his hearing tested. They do it with different sizes of bells, you know.”
“I do recall some sort of tinkling or ringing going on in there, now that you mention it, though other matters held my attention at the time.”
“Doubtless the King will pension those who go deaf in his service, even those who find employment where it doesn’t matter.” She sighed. “Yet who can recompense a man for never hearing his son’s first words, or his daughter’s wedding-vow? It is, indeed, an expensive enterprise. I wonder if it’s worth it?”
“Have you noticed how swiftly and easily we pass this time?”
“Indeed. Having an actual road to traverse does help. The path I used to ride before barely qualified.”
“Yet can you feel any resistence whatsoever to our climb? I see them, Mattie, all of the mad spirits of this place. They stand in ranks alongside the canal. They watch the work, all war between them forgotten. They know that when the Backwards River flows its proper course again, rejoining the Poros River and uniting the Nurnen waters with the greater sea, then they shall all go free.”
“Well, I am glad to hear you sounding more hopeful on their behalf than a couple of days ago! What has changed your mind?”
“That confused spirit who nearly killed Boromir. We cannot leave so many maia like that, no matter what the cost.” He shook his head. “Here we have thought of undoing Sauron’s damage only in terms of men. Even my labors to heal the land came simply from Gondor’s concern for feeding the Nurnings. Yet nothing is ever so simple. Men cannot prosper without all the rest of Arda,” he said with a wide gesture around him, “from the worm in the earth that turns the soil, to the mightiest beings of all. When we focus on men alone, we might as well treat one sore on a body full of plague.”
“What a lovely metaphor you choose–so much for hopeful! Shall we spend the rest of the journey thus, taking turns wallowing in gloom? Frodo, we have embraced our son, when we thought never to see him again! We have restored another’s child on the brink of death back to life. We have seen our dream of freeing the Lost Ones of the Poros Pass begin at last to come true. And we have both come back to life, ourselves. We have much to be grateful for, my love...and still more, come to think of it, if we take that path, right there, down into the canal.”
“What? Why on earth?”
“Trust your wife, dear.” She turned Melody down onto the narrow dirt trail, switching steeply back and forth across a slope pitched nearly to the angle of a cliff, and Curry followed after, Frodo thanking the King in his heart for the foresight of giving them sure-footed donkeys rather than ponies. Frodo braced himself to face the noise below, but just then someone blew a horn, and the only clatter that they heard after that came from men laying down their tools, chattering happily about the day’s work and the welcome that they could expect in the topside camps. Indeed, the hobbits barely made it down to the bottom in time before the floods of workers began their upward march to hot meals, warm tents, and the kindness of the tough, loyal women who would not let them face their challenges alone.
“All right, here we are. What next, wife?”
“We wait for the path to clear up the other side.”
“The...oh.” He nodded, suspecting at last what she might intend. It seemed that he had not recognized quite as many landmarks as he’d thought. They sat on their tiny steeds, in the shadow of a great, recalcitrant rock that men had slowly chiseled at while others cleared the softer clay away, and no one noticed them there, so intent were the men on labor’s end--which was just as well, because Frodo had run out of witty ways to reply to, “Oi! Are you a halfling, then?”
“Now,” Mattie said, and turned Melody towards the opposite path upward, with Frodo following close behind. Slowly the donkeys zigged and zagged up the steep sides, leaving the bottom of the canal breathtakingly far behind by the time they reached topside. Rather than continuing to follow the road, Mattie then threaded them in between the tents, each murmuring with their little family lives, redolent with the scents of food freshly served, past them all and up into the hills beyond; in no time at all they left the long, thin band of humanity behind.
The silence seemed deafening at first. Then the hobbits attended once again to the sound of wind through brush, and the rustle of small creatures, and the chatter of birds greeting each other before nestling down together for the night. Peace settled on them with every clop of hooves upon the earth.
Shadows lengthened, till they ran together into a common dimness. It did not take long for them to find themselves riding through a deep twilight, a last, blue glow behind the jagged silhouette of peaks, but Frodo felt no fear, for he knew now where Mattie led him. Slowly the stars lit up the deepening sky, and owls took over as the birds of daylight fell asleep. Frodo rearranged his cloak to shut it more firmly against the chilling air.
As hobbits will in travel, Mattie began to sing. Yet she did not sing the cheery songs of Hobbiton or Bree, but rather wailed in the manner of the east, the long and aching wrench of notes, the welling up melodies like tears that cannot hold their place, the minor-keyed quavers that vacillate between despair and hope, that ultimately know more about hope than tunes that keep it company by habit without effort. The songs of home. Frodo knew the melody well, so he added his own harmony to it, tuning in to the link between them till it sounded as though they had practiced at this euphony together.
After awhile they fell still, letting the silence of the land sing for them. In time the moon rose over them, just beginning to swell past the halfway point, and Frodo marveled anew at how desert country could incandesce within a silver spell, under that familiar light. It did not even take the fullness of the month to point up every twist of branch, every sharp-curved thorn, every looming rock, in shadows limned on brightness.
“Here we go,” Mattie said softly, turning them to the side, straight towards a great cliff of rock with a crack sketched black against its moonlit surface. “Men will not have discovered this. Few dare to peer into crevices in the Ephel Duath.”
“Boromir might, once he recovers.”
Mattie laughed. “He might, at that.” She rode her donkey into the streak of shadow, and he pressed close behind.
Frodo remembered the scent that wafted towards him, of growing green things intermixed with a whiff of sulfur. Curry perked up and pressed close behind Melody, though the darkness became absolute, save for a thin strip of stars directly overhead.
When they came out the other side, they saw how mist glowed underneath the moon, in swirls and eddies wafting down from a point a little higher up the slope in the rock-walled bowl, where the sound of bubbling chuckled out an invitation. Vegetation throve here, thick and sheltered. Frodo loosened his cloak again in the warm, moist air. Here no war of spirits troubled the environs, he could see that clearly, now, just many small maiar of nature performing their offices in harmony. He wondered what pocket of blessing had found this place and made such a refuge of it. He sighed in contentment and resignation. “No one can ever know all of the stories in the world,” he told himself.
They set up a small camp, then hobbled their donkeys, leaving them to browse at will, and climbed up to the hot spring’s pool. Frodo grinned, saying, “I can’t believe that I actually bathed with you here, without realizing your gender!”
“Amazing, how people only see what they expect to see.”
“Not me,” Frodo sighed. “Not anymore.” He shrugged off cloak and jacket, and the sort of over-tunic that passes for a weskit in the land of Rohan, green-embroidered black chemise and belt and britches and his underthings. Mattie stood nearby as she similarly divested herself, glimmering in and out of the mist, a softened view that smoothed away the hard lines of her care, blurred down the postpartum wrinkles that puckered her belly, made her seem almost as young as her actual years. “You look good, my wife.”
She laughed, self-consciously brushing a stray lock back into place with her fingers. Then she vanished into deeper haze, and he heard a terrific splash. “Oh, it is so warm!” she cried. “Come and join me!”
He did gladly. The hot mineral water seemed to pull the miles and the months out of his muscles; his scalp tingled with pleasure as he let pounds of gravity lift off of his body, his feet floating up in front of him. A gust of breeze unveiled his toes for a moment; the wet fur had grown enough to curl, shiny in the moonlight.
“Where are you, darling?” he heard Mattie call.
“Over here.” Water tinkled as she moved, till she found him and cupped handfuls of liquid to pour warming down his back. Then they both sank in clear to the chin.
“Oh, Frodo, I had forgotten–completely forgotten!–how wonderful the water feels after a long and aching journey. I had lost the very meaning of ‘rest’, while ‘relief’ only meant a pipeful.”
He smiled up into the swirls, seeing suggestions there of dancing forms. “I seem to recall, though I cannot say quite where or when I heard it, that Gandalf still likes to don a body now and then, because it feels so good to go to bed when tired.” He caught a glimpse through the fog of her washing her hair. How long the curls had grown, since last they came this way! “I wonder what became of...ah, there you are!!” Then it suddenly occurred to him, looking directly now at what had caught the corner of his eye, that this being wasn’t the old wizard at all, nothing near alike. “Mattie...” He groped for his wife’s hand and clutched it when he found it.
“What is it, darling?”
He barely mouthed, “The water sprite.” What a fool–how could he forget? How could he so cavalierly assume some safety in this place?
“Are you sure? I have never known her to come all the way up to this spring; this is too clean a place for her.”
He grated, “I tell you, she is here!” He stared into the huge, dark eyes, as though no vapor hung upon the air at all between them: animal-eyes that seemed to have long since lost intelligence, peering through her tangles above her sunken, hungry cheeks, her lips slightly parted to reveal the fangs, but not in aggression, just open as though it took too much energy to close her mouth. “She is right h...she...” He stared in astonishment. “She weeps.”
“Something must have changed,” Mattie whispered, “For her to come here.”
One hand lifted, trembling, reaching out towards Frodo. He raised his own hand to her, and brushed the claws with his fingertips–a solid sensation, touching something hard. “I forgive you,” he told her. “Go in peace.”
Mattie watched his silhouette through the fog. She saw his hand drop, and Frodo stay unmoving for the longest time, before she dared to ask, “And has she gone?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Then let me wash your back.”