From the Ashes a Fire Shall be Woken
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 26, Part 271
The Wound in the Land
Frodo stumbled forward, gaping. The red clay walls of the crevasses looked gory in the sinking sun. Biting insects whirled within in pulsing clouds, breeding in the stagnant pools. Bare, gnawed ribs of earth jutted up between them. From the road he could look right up into one raw crack in the earth, and saw how an alluvial fan of mud had spread out over the cobbles, for all the world like a congealing gout of blood.
He went in. His feet splashed cold in the water, soon slimed in red, themselves. He shivered, cut off from the sun. He looked up at the rising banks that quickly rose way above his reach, and then above the reach of Lanethil himself. Dead plants drooped over the edge up there, and naked roots hung out from the sides, pale and hairy and unfit for light of day.
The elf walked quietly right behind Frodo, ignoring the soiling of his boots. In his ever-soft voice, Lanethil explained, “You saturated the land in your own ruin, Frodo. The soil drank too deeply for its own good. We suffered storm after storm, throughout what should have been the driest months of the year, drowning the fields alive, washing away the topsoil, sending floods to whittle our land down to a skeleton. I knew the day when you broke free at last–our first day free of overcast.”
Frodo stared aghast around himself. “How can you possibly forgive me? It seems that I have done more damage than ever I did good!”
“Because you led me back into the warmth of company. And because you brought me to my wife. And because you saved me from my own folly, in my turn. Not to mention the fact that our trades came into their own, here in Nurn, without interference from those who had devoured our wares for bribes, so that we could still buy food. Most of us did not go hungry at all, and my wife saw to the remainder. At this point I doubt that Nurn would starve again no matter what might pass. You have done that much good.”
“Yet I could do more. I wouldn’t want Nurn to rely on trade alone. My Papa used to tell me, ‘Trade is a fickle beast, Frodo, now licking one hand, now another, now biting where it once had doted. Fashions shift, new markets open as others dry clean up, and changes in one place make goodness knows what impact in other places far beyond their sight.’”
“As fickle as the farmer’s weather at least,” the elf laughed. “Yet your father speaks with his accustomed wisdom, Frodo; no one should rely on any one thing overmuch. And yes, you could do more. And you shall. And you must. You have returned to us at last.”
“But how can you even want me back? I must have hurt you horribly! Especially you. Yet I...I have hurt everyone.” He whirled on the elf with a splash, gripping his arm, staring up into the not-quite-human eyes. “Can’t you fix it, Lanethil? Can’t you do something from your own connection to the earth? From elvish magic?”
“I respond to her needs, yet you are the earth, and the earth has become you. I do not even come close, Frodo. No power of elf or maia, I think, has caused this thing to be; I can toy with theories as much as any of my kind, yet I cannot really understand it.” Then he gently pried Frodo’s fingers loose. He turned the hobbit forward once again, laid a hand on Frodo’s shoulder and gestured down the long ravine. “Yet take heart in this, Frodo–yes, in the very nightmare itself. Perhaps all has unfolded as it should. Perhaps you needed, for all of our sakes, to drain the land’s illness to the dregs: Mordor’s ensorcelment and enslavement.”
“Why on earth should that hearten me?” He felt himself tremble all over, as though he had quit the grog only yesterday.
“Because, Frodo, by breaking free, yourself, you lead the land towards health and freedom. You truly did have to become one with us. I am sorry that it has hurt you so much, that it has hurt everyone so much. But I feel, with all my heart, that good will ultimately come of it. You heal us all as you heal yourself.”
The words could not have calmed Frodo more if Lanethil had cast a spell on him. The meaning sank slowly into him; it changed everything. “Perhaps,” he said slowly, “I could forgive myself, then...” But then the hobbit turned wide eyes to Lanethil. “But if the land and I are one, how can I ever go home? My real home, I mean, in the Shire. The King has just given me his pardon, yet my exile will never end, it seems.”
“Nay,” Lanethil said with a smile.”You will return to your natal country when this land grows into her health and no longer needs you. You will not be one flesh forever.”
“Like...like a child born?” He found himself laying hands on his feast-rounded tummy, for all the world like Mattie.
“Someday, yes. Every spring brings forth new birth from the old year’s dying, every year of the sun a new beginning.”
“Oh dear! I don’t think I’m qualified, precisely, to be a mother.”
“Perhaps you have already passed through the most painful part. Nurn persevered. She–barely–survived separaration from you. Yet even after birth the babe will need nursing and training , for awhile. Plenty of work remains for you, Master Gardner.”
Together they walked on down the ravine, deep in its shadow. Frodo felt the cold mud and puddles chilling his feet, and the nagging insects biting him everywhere. He laid a hand upon the clay bank and said, “Even so I am sorry–I am soooo sorry!”
“And you do well to feel sorrow, and to pledge yourself not to harm yourself again, for even among ordinary souls self-harm does not confine itself to one alone.”
“‘Go not to the elves for advice’ my people say, ‘for they will say both no and yes.’”
Lanethil chuckled. “Your people say rightly, for we live in a world so broad that it has room in plenty for opposites to coexist. Yet all that I said remains.”
“I have to hope so, for you’ve given me more hope than anyone so far.”
“This folly, as I said, may well work out for the best in the long run--not only in the mysterious ways of which I spoke before, but on the practical side as well.” He looked around him. “Elves know how to make good use of such gashes in the soil. We try to find the use of all that befalls us, rather than bemoaning our lot. For we believe that not a leaf drops without a note to mark it in the Great Music.” The elf pointed. “There, and there, one could lay pierced pipes to bring rain down to the roots in drier seasons. And we may now fill the remainder of the hollow with far more fertile earth, if we bolster it well to keep it from eroding away again.”
“Yet so much work lies ahead of us!”
“Your uncle has begun much of it already. Besides those things which I have already counseled, he has led Seaside in the rebuilding of terraces and soil, and in the creation of flood diversion channels that I do not doubt have saved some lives, and will save more in the future. Certainly none have perished.”
“Oh what a relief–and good for him! I had not expected so much imagination from him, I blush to say.”
Lanethil smiled. “In that you are not far wrong, for he followed plans sent here from Gondor. Yet he did adapt them to our terrain and conditions, you have to give him that.”
“Did no crops survive at all, then?”
“Some. Like you, the land weakened to the brink of death, yet never fully died.”
“Can I see him? Uncle Nibs, I mean. Did he get my letter?”
“Yes, he received your letter. And no, Frodo, I would not count it wise to see him yet. Give him time to prepare himself. He has news that he might not know how to tell you.”
Frodo gave him a puzzled look. “Then his reluctance–it’s not entirely about me?”
The elf grinned almost like a man. “It is never entirely about us, Frodo. Yet come; I think that I smell beef upon the spit, seasoned as only my wife can cook it.” He led them back out, to fresher air and the warmth of the setting sun.
They came down as twilight began to settle, watching the last of the fieldworkers ahead of them on the road. Frodo could see his uncle’s back far ahead of him, the only hobbit among a throng of weary men. Nibs looked much thinner, from here; his clay-caked clothing hung loose, and his back seemed just a little bent.
They came into the village, just as the earliest owls began to hoot and the first bats flittered forth, while the last light faded down to violet. “Hi, there’s Bergil!” Frodo shouted. “Bergil, over here!” He waved and called, but just then the evening wind whipped up and whirled all his words away.
“Never mind,” said Lanethil. “That is not Bergil, and you would only confuse him if you meet him before his brother.”
“Nay, his younger brother, Borlas. He has come to care for Bergil, although he mislikes the very smell of Mordor.” Lanethil smiled rather affectionately. “I can forgive much rudeness when a man defies his own distaste for the sake of one he loves.”
“But I thought that Bergil was the last of his line.”
Lanethil raised one brow. “No doubt that once was true–before you shifted in the Web of Life.” Then the elf smiled. “I see that this does not alarm you as much as it might have done before–excellent! You have grown stronger, then.”
“Or seen so much strangeness that nothing hardly shocks me anymore. Is that strength, or a surrender to madness?”
The elf laughed outright. “You are at least no more mad than I, myself, though that does not say much. Come–you will stay with us tonight.”
“Won’t they expect me back at the Tower House?”
“No one lives there anymore. Elenaril, Spring, the baby, and Fishenchips now stay at the hospital at nights, for Bergil’s sake.”
“He...is he that bad off, then? Still?”
“He grew very bad off, for awhile. Yet he has taken a turn for the better. Everything took a turn for the better since Mattie found you. Though sometimes it might briefly seem the worse.”
Pearl soon greeted them at the door, wiping the sweat from her brow with the corner of an apron now stained with the juices of fresh-sliced vegetables. A hearty beef aroma wafted out with her, redolent with innovative spices.
“Here, now,” she cried, “not another step till ye’ve both cleaned up yer filthy feet!” She filled up the door to block them, shouting, “Dovey, bring us a basin, dear.” The plump young maid showed up so quickly that Frodo figured they must have heated the water in advance; he wondered whether Lanethil had mentioned their destination to his wife, or whether she simply knew from knowing him.
Another girl brought towels, thick and soft, and the two servants dried their feet before Lanethil or Frodo could reach out for the cloths. Pearl beamed over them and said, “Supper’s ready, such as it is, but I could’ve made ye a fine meal indeed had I but more time. Ah well, I shall make the rest o’ the calf into pies to send home with ye, and that should make amends. ‘Tis still cool enough fer them t’keep awhile, if ye eats ‘em quickly.” She winked at the serving-maids. “You two’ll get yer share, never fear. They’s enough in that calf fer everbody, and bread t’go with it in the bakery. But oh, I fear it mightn’t of cooked enough fer tonight! A proper beef-calf takes some time.”
Lanethil embraced her, saying, “You could never cook a poor meal if you tried, wife of mine.”
She giggled, poking him in his lean belly-muscles, saying, “I shall make a fat man o’ thee yet, dear love–just give me time!” and let them into a cheery home, full of candlelight and glow of hearth, where Mattie slept, spent, upon a couch with Pearl’s shawl thrown over her and streaks upon her cheeks. “Poor wee thing!” Pearl sighed, shaking her head. “I wouldn’t want harf her troubles. Well, if I can’t put the roses back in her cheeks it won’t be fer lack of trying!”
Just then a thumping came at the door. “Who?” Pearl exclaimed. “At this hour?” They heard loud breathing, and when Pearl unbarred the door there stood Fishenchips, braced against the lintels, heaving to catch his breath after a run clear from the House of Healing, one step ahead of nightfall. “Come in! Come in, good man! We’ve food enough fer another, if ye don’t mind spendin’ the night.”
“I could do’er, glad enough,” he said, wiping his brow. “Thankee kindly, Mistress Pearl, Lanethil.” Then he dropped his kerchief at the sight of Frodo and joy spread over his face like dawn. He bear-hugged the hobbit clear off the ground, crying, “There ya are, ya li’l rascal! I heard ya came in with th’cargo and took off fer the bakery–I came as fast as I could get away.”
“Oh Fish, I am so glad to see you, too!” He suddenly realized just how much he missed the former mariner, even the scent of him after a hard run.
“And Mattie? Where is Mattie? Oh, over there...oh.”
“She has had a horrible time, Fish; we should let her sleep at least until supper’s on the table.”
“Not until I check ye out, first.” Fish said, but Frodo nudged the man’s hook away from his shirt.
“No need, my friend; Leech has already given us both thorough examinations, and pronounced us fit, except for being a bit underweight in my case.”
“Which I aim to fix,” Pearl declared.
“The platter steams,” Lanethil called from the dining-room, “The plates await filling and emptying again, as often as you please. And my wife has outdone herself–a feat that I had not thought possible.”
So they went in and Frodo and Mattie had everything to say all over again, while Fishenchips mumbled “Ya don’t say!” around mouthfuls of food. The man sat on the very edge of his chair and listened most keenly when Frodo spoke of the wargs, but did not interrupt. All leaned close when Mattie spoke of the fearful joy of realizing that she went with child, and all at table stilled, suspecting where the story had to go, for there she sat, delivered yet without a babe in arms. Still, they could not bring themselves to interrupt as she spoke of fever, and of Hazel’s brutal rescue, and the fire of the entwife’s madness, and at last, soft-voiced, the death of Harding Gardner.
Silence filled the room, and dimness. But Mattie herself stood to prod light back into the dying hearth, and she lit more candles, and drove the conversation on to the consolations given her throughout the remainder of her journey. Frodo told them of his visit from the Valier, and their dream-encounter with their son, and of the strange fate and rescue of Boromir son of Elboron.
At last Frodo got to the part that he most dreaded. But he stood upon his chair to reach eye-level with the company, and made his apologies to Fishenchips, Pearl, and Lanethil as gracefully as he could.
Fish listened quite cheerfully, and replied, “Think nothin’ of it, li’l buddy. One thing y’learn in me trade is patience–patience fer th’patients, hee hee. Ya ain’t the worst in these here parts, Frodo. Ya came back, din’t ye? Plenty o’ folk never do.”
“Sourfruit pie,” Pearl announced, thumping the plate down before the conversation got too awkward. “But not sour at all, oh no, not the way I fix it, just refreshin’-tart, an’ light an’ fluffy as a cloud–perfect thing fer a last dessert.”
Fishenchips’s eyes twinkled over the abundant serving that Pearl set before him, as he said to Frodo, “I’ll have something t’show ye, if ye don’t mind, first thing i’ the morning.” But his eyes had begun to droop before he could explain or even lift his fork. He yawned extravagantly and then blinked in surprise. “Beggin’ yer pardon, Guv, but I pulled an all-nighter at th’hospital afore this.”
“Rest, rest, by all means, good man! I will still be here tomorrow, and for quite a few tomorrows to come.” Frodo felt half-stupified by feasting, himself, and looked forward to laying down, as well.
So the cook and smith laid out fair cushions on the floor for their three guests, and by some skill or magic those cushions felt as soft as feather-beds, and stayed all together underneath their charges, and the blankets that Pearl and Lanethil wafted over them settled down on them as light and warm as a summer breeze. Frodo fell asleep before he even knew he’d closed his eyes.