From the Ashes a Fire Shall be Woken
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 23, Part 268
Good Memories and Bad
February 20, 1453
Frodo took the lead, winding up and up the slope. He would have found this path in any state of mind. He recognized each twist and thorny bough, each dip and rise, the stone outcroppings and the bursts of windblown herbs (now budding with new promise) around their upward-winding path; they almost seemed to sparkle in his vision. The hobbits had traveled so far from the main road that anyone else might have become permanently lost. Yet Frodo had visited this horn of the pass so many times, in sleep more often than awake, that he almost seemed to know it better than the Shire.
“How swiftly we travel in the saddle,” he remarked, “without even trying! Not a day goes by without some landmark.”
“Do you lead where I think you do?” Mattie asked him.
“Don’t you know?”
“It seems a strange thing to me, yet I never came this way until the day you brought me here, if I guess correctly where we head. And I was in no shape to take much heed of the landscape, then.” Her brow furrowed. “I wonder why I never did before? I thought I knew these hills better than anyone alive.”
“You do, except for this part. I guess you just weren’t ready for it, till last year.”
“But a place of water, and shelter? I homed in on oases especially.” She closed her eyes suddenly, tightly. “I am not sure that I want to go now, either.”
“I have barely let go, Frodo. We brought Harding into being, there.”
“And also our marriage. That still lives. Come with me, please, in honor of our marriage?” Then he smiled at her opening eyes and said, “Besides, Bergil and I had a hard time finding anywhere to rest on this side of the Pass. For comfort’s sake at least go with me?”
Solemnly she answered, “I always go with you, when you don’t evade me.”
“What do you see around you, Mattie?”
She gazed out from the saddle, scanning the hills and the canyons. “Beauty. All of the golden-rosy colors of the stone and clay, all of the growing things in their fantastic shapes. Thorns in bloom, and tiny plants about their feet, with flowers smaller than my fingernail. Wind-sculpted rock and land and tree, precipices and pinnacles that sharpen loveliness almost to the pitch of fear. And sound...the musician in me takes in the sound most of all–the wind, husky with its long, dry journey, blowing about the peaks; the birds, calling to each other about spring upon its way...spring...I can smell the first blooming already, Frodo, as the wind carries up more than dust: it bears the warmer weather rising up from Mordor proper. Spring!” she sighed, and he saw her weariness. “Not even my winter can last forever.” She looked at him again. “You lead me to a good place, husband; I will set my fears aside.”
“You are not the only one afraid,” he murmured.
“And what do you fear?”
“Home. I can feel how close we come to meeting them again: everyone that I love east of the Anduin–everyone that I let down.”
“Then we will face our fears together.”
He did not know, all the same, how she would react to the sight of Stumblehoof’s cairn, as they came around a bend and reached the shelf before the cave where they had made their vows. She said nothing, at first. She climbed down off of Melody and went to stand beside her horse’s grave. Something in her stance, rigid, almost too upright, made Frodo keep his distance for a moment, just to allow her a few yards of privacy. Frodo heard nothing but the wind and a distant hawk. Then came a soft whimper, scaling up an octave, and he saw Mattie slowly twist in on herself, falling to her knees, one shaking hand reaching out to the stones.
He jumped from the saddle and ran to her. Yet, coming up behind her, Frodo heard her whisper, “Thank you.” Then Mattie turned to him, her face tear-washed. “She prepared me, you see. I had forgotten how to deal with mourning, if I had ever truly known. If I had not first practiced on a horse, to lose a child would have broken me.”
“She was, indeed, a good and faithful animal.” Frodo helped Mattie to her feet, then turned towards the cave...and winced at the absence of a sheltering tree.
“You miss her, don’t you?” Mattie asked, putting an arm around his waist. “It’s all right. Wandlimb saved our lives. Without her Harding would have died before his first breath. I don’t blame her, Frodo. I don’t have room to fault anyone for what they do when out of their minds.”
“Look,” he said, forcing a smile. “The smokehouse still stands. Perhaps we can hunt something and stay awhile, long enough to smoke us a rabbit or two.”
“Rat, dear, not rabbit.” She smiled back at him. “We left the territory of rabbits some ways behind. And you know, darling, that we have to move on, or we’ll miss the regular ship to Seaside. For you don’t have the money, this time, to commission a special cruise.”
He wouldn’t meet her eye. “See, over there? And smell–oh smell! How beautifully those bushes flower, right by the threshhold of the cave; Hazel–Wandlimb, I mean–must have hidden them from my sight before. When I first came through these hills, you know, I saw all such bushes only as thorns, something to wrench up–gingerly–to make a shelter for the goats. They had no leaves, then; they looked like something dead already, mere bones of foliage. What a difference, in the turning of the seasons!”
“How fragrant!” she sighed. She smiled again, more easily. “You needn’t worry about me, my love. I am quite healed enough to get by on. Health is not an absence of all suffering.”
Frodo helped Mattie to unlade the donkeys, haul their water, and set up camp within the cave. He sniffed, then followed the smell with his eyes. “Look–sage! It has grown right up to the side of the hill. Surely that must mean a blessing, don’t you think?”
“It might, at that.” She smiled on him as one might indulge a child.
Indeed, he sounded almost boyish when he said to her, “We could make a home forever here, you know, just you and me. Did you see that lower shelf to the side out there? It looked broad enough, I think, for a garden sufficient to support two people, with a bit of work to fill it up with proper soil. We could divert some of the underground stream down to water it. And oh, what a view we’d have beyond!” He turned to her with earnest eyes. “And why not, love? Why not stay here, safe from city evils and demands?”
“Silly lad–who would ever hear me sing? Do you think the hawks and hares applaud?”
“Hares? I thought you said...”
“All right then, I allow that some occasional hares and rabbits might sometimes find their way up here, after all.”
“And deer. And doubtless other creatures good to eat, or simply to watch pass. And I would hear you sing, beloved. I would hang on every note.” But then he looked past her and saw the elder hobbit frowning, his arms crossed sternly across his buttonless waistcoat, tapping one wooly foot. “No, don’t look at me like that!” he cried to one she couldn’t see. “Haven’t I given enough for the Nurnings to get by on? Haven’t I suffered enough?” Then he dropped his eyes. “But no...you’re right. You did not rescue my life from my own folly for nothing.” He turned to Mattie and softly said, “Songs need shared with more than one. And so does garden lore that could make a living off the ledges of a cliff.”
Mattie kisssed Frodo, then said, “I knew you would come around. Now excuse me while I freshen up a bit.”
“You look good even in the dust of the road.”
“I look better without it.”
“Or anything at all,” he added with a leer more made of gallantry than intention, for his thoughts filled him with such melancholy as he dared not let her see right now.
Mattie went on in to the secret spring deep within the cavern. From inside, her voice slightly echoey, he heard her call, “Come on in whenever you feel like remembering why we married.”
Yet Frodo sat outside for awhile, gazing long on Stumblehoof’s cairn, fingering his necklace. Glass of May, his little not-quite-sister who had loved him more than anything that she could own, now lost to an enchanted forest. Beads from the bones of Bleys: how brave the beast who had fended wargs from him! Cedar beads that kept him safe from insect bites, a gift from trees that defended him and gave him water at need. Teeth of a warg who turned out to be a friend. Cord of horsehair, from his childhood companion, slain on his account on the access-road to Gondor. And far in the back, where the collar hid it from view, that lock of softer hair, woven in so tight that none could see it now, but he still could feel it, or imagine that he could--that little lock which he had snipped in secret, of a newborn hobbit’s curl.
He sighed, rose, and went into the cave.