From the Ashes a Fire Shall be Woken
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 30, Part 276
Ruby and the Letters
August 5, 1454
Sam Gardner kept a desk-drawer for all of the letters from his son, here, in the locked study, deep in the hole and windowless, lit only by a skylight (cut from cloudy natural crystal) directly over the desk. A cone of golden sparkles seemed to spread down over the wood and papers, as sunlight twinkled off of dust motes in the air.
Silent as a thief, Ruby stole in and closed the door behind her. (Her brother Merry had shown her where Papa hid the keys, some time before. Merry never held much with secrets.) She turned the smaller drawer-key slowly, so that it made only the faintest of clicks, quieter than her breath. There she found them, unfolded and neatly standing between dividers marked with months and years, some of them damaged in transit, warped with rain or stained by Mordor dust, some as pristine as if Frodo had only just penned them that afternoon. Most of them bore curious borders, illuminated more skillfully as time went on, mainly with the strange vegetation, vistas, and wildlife of Nurn, some with pictures sketched in as well, of his friends and household.
Ruby liked to open the drawer sometimes, just to breathe in the scents of old, pressed flowers, or maybe even peek into the letters themselves a bit, to look at the pictures, mainly, picking them out at random and slipping them back into the exact same place so that nobody would catch her at it. But mostly Ruby just liked the smells. Sometimes the things that she read from that drawer kept her up at night, or did strange things to her dreams. So she left them alone. Most of the time.
She felt like a random sampling now, however. She proposed a game to herself. She would read one page from one letter for each month of a year, starting with whatever month her hand touched, closing her eyes. She thrust her fingers in, gripped paper, and saw, “March, 1453. March it is, then.”
Ruby studied the page, bordered with alien spring blossoms, and a couple of lizards peeping through the sprays. What with all of the pictures, and Frodo’s large print, the pages didn’t hold all that much. She challenged herself not to peek at the page before or after, no matter what, just grab one random one for every month for a year.
...don’t know what I would have done, if she hadn’t come out looking for me just then. Or I do know. I do know. And in the dark, too! She had Seregril with her for company; perhaps my dream gave her the idea. Anyway, together we uncorked the bottle, and poured its contents into the earth, which could make better use of it than I could.
March 4, 1453– We have restored enough fields to do some planting. Bleys’s old gear suits Curry just fine; she has taken to the plow like she was trained to it, which she might well have been. We moved in arcs; straight rows encourage erosion, here.
Some of the Nurnings wear decorations in their skin, where they have made cuts or prickings and rubbed in charcoal–sometimes in swirls of many parallel lines together. I felt as though I practiced this art upon the skin of Middle Earth. I looked back on my work, and found it a fair adornment..
I know, it sounds positively barbaric to Shire sensibilities, but in lands of slavery, when you own nothing but your own hide, you will carve some memory of loveliness right into your living flesh, just...
...acquired a dog, Papa. A great, lean beast, big enough for Trickster to ride, with a long snout and short, velvety black fur, almost as glossy as a reptile’s scales. I have named her Dragon, and encourage her to crisscross my path frequently. So much for the curse upon that axe!
She has proven quite the rat-catcher! A local tanner has started to make me a patchwork winter weskit, sewing together all of the little pelts into a kind of checkerboard of brownish-gray backs and whitish-gray bellies. Rat-fur is coarse, granted, but when you clean it and brush it, and make sure that the pieces all go the same way, it can become silky enough.. Bergil laughed when I told him, saying that it was as good a way as any to take the appellation of “rat” and make the best of it.
Dragon gets along famously with Seregril, although I think that sometimes Seregril gets a little bored with Dragon’s lesser intelligence. Still, it gives her a four-footed friend to teach a few tricks, and someone to hunt with. Seregril might not be able to bite, but she can smell a trail better than a common hound. So she...
...managed to avoid getting trampled in the Maypole dance, though I must say that I grew in admiration for Uncle Nibs to see him bravely dancing with us, among all of those gigantic Big Folk legs, kicking and stomping away! Mattie danced as lightly as a flower, drifting out from underfoot like a breeze-blown petal. For me the dance was more sport than art, but I worked up a healthy sweat at it.
May 2, 1453–The ship came in. Much to my delight, we received a shipment of draft-horses from Rohan, a welcome gift of sturdy, hardworking beasts, yet to my surprise hardly taller than a Shire pony. If equine kind had their equivalent in dwarves, they would look like this: great muscle packed into short space. I never knew that Rohan bred such animals. The letter from King Eomer apologizes for their size, but says that we need horses which can do much work on little fare, not great steeds built to bear armored men into battle.
Speaking of which, I am not quite sure what to make of Tom naming the new foal “Frodo-Lad.” I suppose his explanation, that I rove far, from what he has heard...
...excellent news! It’s about time that someone received your name. Well, meeting little Samwise Brandybuck face to face will be one more joy to look forward to when someday I return. I am more relieved than I can tell you to hear that Hyacinth and her son came through without mishap. After my own experience, and that of Uncle Nibs, and living in a land where losing mother or child or both happens with heartbreaking frequency, I cannot take childbirth for granted.
June 30, 1453--The month has not passed without worries. The summer rains should have started by now. They haven’t. Oh well, we have had more than our share since last year, and the reservoirs are full. I shouldn’t let it bother me. But I look up at that cloudless sky, under a blistering sun, and it quails me, Papa. I remember the last drought all too well. The memory of going unbathed seems worse in retrospect than it probably was at the time, the sores and the smell and the slow erosion of self-respect, but I do not want to go through that again, ever! Even worse was watching the crops wither that I worked so hard...
...that Borlas planted thrive and reach up strong branches to the sky, on every street-corner, around each courtyard, in fact everywhere throughout the village that he can find or clear a place to dig. We have become much greener for his time among us! And shadier–an especial gift considering the season. Before, every summer, Seaside had resembled a great clay oven, trapping in the already-excessive heat of the sun. I had not realized just how much an urban forest of trees could change all that. I will always thank Borlas in my heart, no matter how grim his demeanor.
And why so grim? I only recently found out, when Bergil spoke with me at tea. It seems that during the War, while everyone thought Bergil in the most danger, lingering on in Minas Tirith as he did, a band of orcs attacked a caravan of refugees outside the safety of the city walls. Borlas came out all right, but he witnessed quite a bloodbath, hiding in the bushes with his mother. He feared most, he later said, that the orcs might have brought trackers with them, to sniff him out, and so he prayed that their own stench might mask...
...found her absolutely beside herself, her hands scaled in dried dough, and all around her Mattie found withered loaves left in the hot, dry air unbaked. “Lanethil has left me!” she cried, over and over. “I am ugly, fat and ugly, and nothing like an elf at all!” But that did not make sense to me; Lanethil always found her fascinating, attractive in her own way, and he cares little for the females of his own kind.
Well, we eventually got out of her that Lanethil had had a dream, and that this compelled him to undertake a journey. We reassured Pearl the best we could, that this had nothing to do with her, and that he would in all likelihood return, as soon as he fulfilled whatever the dream demanded of him.
Yet privately I have my misgivings. We have no idea when he might return. What is time to an immortal? A few decades might seem as nothing to him, until he revisits his home and finds his wife elderly, or dead. Pearl took her risks, marrying him, but she did it knowing what he is. I had not anticipated a complication like this, however.
And what of their...
...skimped on the summer rains this year. And the toll begins to show upon the reservoirs. Have I done this, somehow? Does the land pay the price for my clarity? Yet I drink freely of water, and of tea, and all our fresh fruit juices. Shouldn’t that suffice? I wish Lanethil would come back and explain it all to me!
Leaves have just begun to fall, carpeting the streets in gold and red and orange like a splash of sunset flooding over the land. The Beauty–oh mercy! Papa, something happened yesterday. I picked up one of those leaves, and its color, its detail, its curling edges, all became too glorious to bear. And then I looked beyond it to all the rest, and just crumpled, right there in the street, in terror. I cried out for someone to stop the autumn. Somebody threw a cloak over me and brought me to Elenaril. She put me in a darkened, quiet room with a cool cloth over my eyes; she dared not use those herbs, permitted only to a healer, to calm a fretful spirit–not on me. Papa, I fear that nothing can ever fully cure me. For I see the Real...
...have more than recovered from my starvation of last year. Indeed, I am afraid that my belly has become nearly as convex as it had once been concave before, and twice as broad across. Do you remember how Rosie-Lass added all of those extra gores and buttons to my clothing, in the hope that I would gain some weight? Well, I am afraid to say that I have released my last button and still feel rather tight about the waist and arms.
Yet everyone insisted upon pressing more and more food upon me at my birthday celebration, till I felt well-nigh dizzy with their generosity. I do not think that I have ever weighed so much in my life! Yet I do not regret it much. I feel more solid, more rooted in the earth. Muscle makes up most of me, I hasten to add. Bergil has even said that I now look strikingly like you, in your younger days.
I did smell beer, and the aroma seemed to say that the good people of Seaside had greatly improved upon their brewery skills, since last I tasted it, but folks saw to it that I had neither room nor opportunity...
...returned last night, it seems, bringing back bags full of raisins for Pearl. Raisins! I have no idea where he has been to find any such thing. But Pearl didn’t care about that, she is just so happy to have Lanethil back home. I expect that we shall see nothing of either of them for three days at the least, and then we shall have raisin-cookies for Yule. Oh I can hardly wait till Pearl gets back to work! Not that I would rush her.
But that’s not the main thing, of course. We have our smith back! There never was any question of him wanting to leave Pearl. Yet people here tend to automatically think ill of themselves. What he’d been about he wouldn’t say, for “Now is not the time.” Typical cryptic elf!
November 14. 1454--Perry has become a lively child, pointing at everything and naming it, not always in an intelligible fashion, but close enough that those who love him know, for instance, that “Oggie” means “Dog”, by which he means Seregril. And when he tries to say my name, it comes out “Fodo”, or sometimes even “Fododo.” One time, excited to see me after days...
...nothing left in some of them but silt. We should have had some rain, at least, in the autumn. Now we face the winter months, and in Mordor these run dry.
Everyone prospers, nonetheless. The ceramic and glass trades do well. Bead-craft, among other things, has come into its own. I hope that I have chosen the right necklaces for Mama and each of my sisters, and for you and my brothers the most suitable beaded hat-bands.
Could you make a journey to Buckland for me, Papa? You will notice one necklace with long, tapered beads, silvery on one side and pale green on the other. Could you venture into the Old Forest long enough to leave it on a twig for May?
For Mama, of course, I send the rose-cut beads in a delicate shade of apricot. Rather than a necklace, the tiny beads in vials are for Rosie-Lass. Women here sew them into patterns onto clothing. I think she might like the look of that. Elanor, of course, gets the necklace with the star-shaped golden flowers on the sky-blue beads. I have no real rubies for my sister of the same name, but perhaps these bits of garnet-glass...
Ruby fingered the necklace that she never took off, even sleeping in it, even bathing in it, lifting the strand to wash her neck. Then she put the page back and reached for one from the next month.
...doing so much better! He has not had a fever for months, now, and can walk almost normally, with a cane. He has also put on enough weight to look almost like himself. He can carry Perry on his arm, now.
Bergil’s brother, Borlas, will take the same ship as this letter, heading back to Ithilien, having received a call to become Boromir’s manservant. I’m afraid that the boy’s misadventure has paralyzed him from the waist down. Yet he remains muscular in the arms, I hear; we can thank the Valar for that. He does need someone to lift him onto and off of ponies, into and out of excavations, etc., and to help him rig up the various poles and handholds by which he can make his way hand-over-hand in his own suite. Lord Faramir has commissioned dwarves to smooth the curbs and cobbles of all Ithilien’s crossroads for the sake of his grandson’s wheelchair, which, I understand, the boy propels quite swiftly by himself. He is by no means defeated! What else could you expect of a grandson of Eowyn?
Borlas’s time spent caring for Bergil recommends him as Boromir’s valet, along with his family’s record of serving...
...has married Seregril, on the night of the dark of the moon. Few came to the wedding, for the peril of the hour, but they could choose no other time. One night a month they have, to be husband and wife, yet he tells me that sailors often don’t have that much. I had always expected that if romance ever came to Fishenchips, it would take some surprising turn, but I could never have predicted this!
Alas, they cannot have children. Mattie told me something about cycles of the moon not matching up right, and Fishenchips confirmed that they have no hope of it. Then he squared his shoulders, like the man he is, and said that everyone who comes to House or Barn of Healing shall be their children; the Valar work in mysterious ways.
I am at least vouchsafed one child of my own, some time in the future. A melancholy thought, to think of him or her growing up alone, when I had such a happy childhood, myself, surrounded by brothers and sisters. Yet I see a great blessing, too, in this special gift, all the more precious for its rarity.
And yet my life seems arid...
Ruby saw no letters for March of 1454; the collection stopped with February. She frowned; it seemed to her that Papa should have had several more than that by now. She shrugged, and pulled out another page for February. “This will just have to do,” she said. “The game allows for twelve pages.” She noticed immediately that the handwriting on this one veered all over the paper:
...miserable heartless wretch has barred the door to me! I chided her of COURSE for her vindctiveness, holdig the past aganst me like that, just because I barred the door to her a few times YEARS ago, but then I heard her on the other side saying, “No, I do this out of gratitude,” Gratitude???–whats that sposed to mean anyway. I mean what the Anband is THAT supposed to mean? And all because of one little merrrymaking over a brew I’d never tasted before.
Well, to Mordor with her! Im staying at the Blue Dragon now. I am just fine and I am tired of people asking! Who needs her? Oh stop looking at me like that Bilbo! Everybody leap to conclusions. I am not derelct in any duties absolutly whatsoever Aloe has no right to threten me. Whyd ever let anybody talk me into think I cant enjoy a drink now and thn? I tell you, when I turn in after a hard day in the fields, that first mug tastes just like coming home...
Ruby dropped the letter in horror. She stepped back, knocking over a waste-basket...
“Hello? Hello? Who’s in my office, now?” Ruby shrank against the desk as the door opened too fast to let her actually dive under the furniture like she wanted. And there stood Papa. He looked at her, and the letter on the floor, and back at her.
She knew the penalty. Gingerly she held out her hands. He nodded, picked up a ruler, and gave her a sharp smack across the palms with the flat of it, but it startled more than stung. “You know not to come in here, Ruby!”
“Yes, Papa. I’m sorry.” She watched the red anger in his face slowly pale down to sorrow as he shook his head.
“You just had to read that one, did you, lass?” He picked it up. “I can recognize the wandering script from across the room.” He put it back in its place, then straightened and absentmindedly slapped the ruler against his own palm a few times, as though testing the blow. Then he looked at her again. “And I can see plain enough that you’re already punished plenty, Ruby, for not respecting my privacy. Scared sick, are you? And not just of me. Frightened for your brother?”
Sam laid the ruler aside and put an arm around his daughter, then sat in his chair and tugged her onto his knee. “Well, Ruby-lass, I lock things away in this room that can set my children to worriting unnecessarily. You’re too young for the burdens that I tuck away in here. Mayor business, family finances, letters from the King–it’s my job to do the worriting around here, not yours.” She nestled her head against his chest and listened to his heart beat. “So how about it, lass? Will you let your ol’ Papa carry what’s too heavy for a little mite like you?”
“I...I guess so. But...” she glanced over at the drawer.
“But now you know something that you can’t unknow.” He kissed her head. “Poor dear! But that’s the price you have to pay. That’s exactly what happened to your brother, you see. He learned more about the dark things of this world than was good for him.”
She whirled in his lap to stare at him, wide-eyed. “Will that happen to me?”
Sam hugged her. “No, no, no. You’ve got your Papa with you still, to steer you straight. And sometimes the proper antidote for too much of the wrong kind of knowledge is more and better knowledge to balance it.” He shifted to pull another letter out of his pocket. “Here. This arrived yesterday. I have finished it just now. You might as well know the rest.” He unfolded the paper and handed it to her. “Help often comes from the strangest quarters, and so we should never fail in hope. But I tell you, in all my peculiar life (and I’ve led a lively one, I can tell you) I’d never have expected help from this!”