From the Ashes a Fire Shall be Woken
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 31, Part 278
Letters Over Years
Old Sam Gardner eventually had to commission the making of a cabinet to hold all of the letters, with drawers for each year that his son had spent abroad. A nice piece of work, too, carved with strange flowers; he had carefully traced the prototypes from the letters onto tissue-paper, and brought them to the carpenter, so that now the carvings ran up the legs to the sides on each corner, all the way up, and branched out horizontally top and bottom, to frame the body of the cabinet like illuminations in the margins of a page. One such flower also centered every knob.
The pressed flowers that came with the letters eventually made their way to the walls of Bag End, respectably mounted and framed. They looked like proper hobbit decorations, especially for a family known for their green thumb, until one looked closely and realized that no such plants grew anywhere near the Shire.
Seasons came and went. The breezes that wafted over The Hill now puffed chill with frost, now perfumed with spring and scattered petals, now heavy with the warm hay-mow aroma of summer, now smoky and wafting autumn leaves. Year by year the Gardner children grew taller and wiser, and most of them scattered to various apprenticeships, though they continued to swarm over and into Bag End at the least excuse, with all of their friends and additions to the family, and the Master and Mistress of the hole never lacked for company at meals.
Sometimes, when leisure and the weather gave him leave, folks could see Sam sitting under his Mallorn tree, writing his responses to Frodo’s letters with a thoughtful frown, his ink-pot hidden somewhere under last year’s leaves or in the thick, green grass, while birds sang in the branches overhead. And every month, year in, year out, Bleoboris Brandybuck rode up to his door with the latest packet from the shores of the Nurnen Sea.
One day a storm shook loose two branches from the Mallorn-tree, silver against the lawn’s bright green, straight and sturdy, though the second was of little length. Sam found it, in fact, the proper measure for a hobbit’s walking-stick, and the other suitable in height for a woman among men. So carefully he cut away the twigs and sanded the two limbs smooth, then oiled them against all weathers. A smith shod them in bronze for him. Then Mistress Rose plaited two long strands of her hair into sturdy cords, and cut them off, and worked them through the holes that pierced the tops, as loops to go about a traveler’s wrist. These the Gardners then sent off to the land of Nurn, as wedding presents for Rose’s brother Nibs and Raven of the South.
That year Nibs Cotton left behind all lands found upon a map, taking his bride home, with the blessings of the family firmly gripped within his hand. Rose cried some, but half at least from happiness that Nibs could fill his heart once more. They never heard from him again. Yet sometimes, in his dreams, Sam would catch glimpses of the brother of his wife, and see him full of joy, with beautiful, dusky children laughing on his knee and gathered all around him.
Sometimes, in taverns, or at lunch in the fields, or at a courtroom break, Sam would make mention of his son’s adventures. The news grew tamer by the year, so more and more would gather ‘round and listen. The hobbits understood farming-talk, and attended to it comfortably; they would argue this or that means to remedy a convalescing land, praise a good harvest, or commiserate on misfortunes of the weather, as though it all had happened down in Longbottom or over in Deeping Coomb. Indeed, some people started to forget that they had ever feared the name of Mordor. Sam would smile sadly when the younger folk would say the name as lightly as they might say “Bree”; they couldn’t possibly understand the horrors that he’d felt there–nor would he want them to.
Many men had moved to Gorgoroth, it seemed, and some said that ents and entwives met them there, and some called that all nonsense, but all agreed that prosperous times had come to Mordor’s folk, for that land had ceased to need the charity of the Shire long ago. Yet fields remained around the Sea of Nurnen, made greener with good tillage and with trees to keep the moisture in the soil. Frodo Gardner still had work enough to do.
On the whole, the weather in Nurn had steadily improved. Increasingly the rains came in their proper measure, and the healing soil held in more and more of it without the devastating flooding of the past. Some said that the trees had much to do with changing the patterns of the air. Yet Sam also noticed that his son had ceased to write anything about aridity of soul.
Some stories meant something only to Sam’s family, or those friends close enough to have followed Frodo’s course with interest. At first they only knew the names that came up without faces, yet as Frodo’s drawing-talents grew they learned the images that went with each, and came to feel as though they knew his neighbors personally. Over time the figures on the pages grew sturdier and broader, the days of famine long since passed.
Aloe had grown broad in the hips after her second child, but liked herself that way, and walked more saucily than ever by her husband’s side, as if to taunt all the men of Seaside with, “You’ve had your chance, but Harding is the lucky one, Harding knew my worth.” Yet she also broadened in wisdom and in justice, and as she grew so grew those she led. In time Tar Elessar made her the Lady of all Nurn. Cork, who led the contingent of farmer-families westward, became the Lord of Gorgoroth.
Bergil and Elenaril did indeed move on, with three children now in tow, but not before Bergil gave Mattie Gardner fine new songs to sing, with almost elvish power in them. Tar Elessar often sent messengers (or came himself in disguise) to consult their wisdom in Bristlescrub, yet they would not leave Mordor without command, and the King would not wrong them to issue any. The one time that they ever set foot beyond their chosen land was to attend Beregond’s funeral. In time people forgot the old name of Bristlescrub, and called the canyon the Oasis of Elenaril. But the family visited Seaside often, and always found there welcome.
Starboy, used to budgeting for grog, yet now able to save his money for the first time in his life, left Mordor entirely to study in Minas Tirith. He became an astronomer of some renown, and the steep steps of his observatory, demanding a steady tread, kept him faithful to the healthier path that he had chosen. Frodo and Mattie, meanwhile made other friends who shared in his affliction or others very like it, and they kept each other encouraged and rich in clarity.
Lanethil forged a blade for Eldarion at the King's request, yet refused all wealth offered for the making of any more. He said that few were the men with the wisdom to wield such a sword. As for the blade that he had fashioned for the arms-dealer to buy back Sting, it later turned out that it held a flaw, hidden in the structure and cleverly covered over, that caused it to snap at the first hard use.
Pearl developed, with Lanethil’s assistance, a dough that one could roll out into sheets transparent-fine. When buttered raw and layered before cooking, these sheets produced the most delicate, flakiest pastry that any mortal had ever bitten into. She made a famous confection with it, filled with a paste of dates and nuts, but Frodo liked best her turnovers of spinach and goat cheese.
Lanethil and Pearl together enjoyed the blessing of a son, a beautiful child with wide, grey eyes, who did not cry as common children do at birth, but sang. He had a head of blazing auburn hair, just like his maternal grandmother, or so said Pearl–the first child of even partial elvish blood to wear that hue since the line of Feanor died out. In just a few short years his father had begun to school him in the harp, and Mattie to teach him simple songs to play with in his bird-bright trill.
Lanthil also taught songs to Mattie, to add to her considerable repertoire. Yet Mattie penned many of her own, mingling the influences of elf and dwarf, and eastern and western men, with the hobbit folksongs of her childhood, and her own uncanny learnings from the darkest to the brightest corners of her past, till she forged an alloyed music of such strength and beauty, poignancy and grace, that the power of her harp and her voice became a legend in its own right, surviving her for generations after her life (though Sam did not know about this, of course) growing in the telling, when tales of her husband mingled strangely with those of the other Frodo as the mysterious little savior of Mordor.
Fishenchips had become a healer of renown, especially with the songs that he’d learned from Lanethil. He soon held a special place among leeches as the expert on all non-human creatures, high and low, as he seemed to have a gift for seeing how to adapt common remedies to beings that he had never seen before, or imagine new ones to fit their needs. He became Lanethil’s physician of choice, for one thing, and the person to go to for help with lifestock or pets or injured wildlife, for another. And when an envoy from the Iingoluk-Hai at last reached the settlements of men, Fish traveled far to treat the infected wounds that resulted, saving Nurn from a diplomatic disaster. Seregril stayed ever by his side, in human or in wolfish form, and he returned her ferocious loyalty in the face of all criticism.
Boromir The Halfling (for so men called him, from his half-living body) had, with help from Borlas, uncovered the traces of an entire nation of men, pastoral folk who had preceded Sauron’s takeover. Their lore taught Fishenchips new things of use for his Barn of Healing, and Frodo ways of farming the region before the Dark Lord marred it. The young man himself had discarded his wheelchair for a sort of vehicle of his own devising, something like a bowl on smaller, pivoted wheels, shaped for sitting with a belt and back support, his matchstick legs folded before him. He propelled the thing by gloved hands to the ground. With this device he could easily slip between barriers, turn in tight radiuses, and leap curbs and sometimes even steps. By the time he reached manhood he had the strongest arms in all the two kingdoms.
(His tale, also in time intermingled a little with that of the two Frodos, as a “halfling” who could apparently travel through time. Ages after the forgetting of all true tales, the peoples in the margin between east and west would sculpt tiny figurines as guardians for field or garden, and they gave them Boromir’s long beard.)
News did not come from Frodo’s letters only, but messengers spoke often now of the great canal completed by the King of Gondor, and the linking of the Sea of Nurnen to waters of the greater ocean. The hobbits talked of trade and how it might affect their lot, for better or for worse. Privately among themselves, Sam and his family, and a few choice friends, discussed the freeing of the prison’d spirits of that land, and of a great taint drained, evil diffused, good released, and changes for the better in the place that needed it the most. Within a few years’ time Sam read in Frodo’s messages accounts of fish-fries on the beaches of a sea made wholesome, and the dwindling of monsters in the deeps.
Not all the news was good. Sometimes crops failed, and sometimes storms inflicted hurt, and now and then the spreading farms uncovered poisons or old curses that still lingered in the land. And some foul spirits never accepted amnesty, but clung to half-life out of spite, and wrought what harm they could. But all in all, the people of Mordor persevered, and grew in strength and grace.
Some storms swept over the spirit. Mattie slipped once, or almost did. Her husband found a tin in her possession of the poppy-gum. He escorted her to the gaol by himself, then sat on the other side of the bars, counting the little tarry balls, while she sobbed to him of the man who followed her and followed her, day after day, and she too ashamed to mention it to anyone, until at last she paid for what he offered. One hundred balls of poppy gum nestled untouched within the tin, same as the label said. She had no pipe, and Frodo believed her when she told him that she had sampled none of it; her clear eyes and her shame attested to the truth. Frodo took the opia to the midden heap, and ground the pellets under his heel, crushed into the earth, then heaped manure on top. Mattie spent three nights in lock-up and gave no complaint, and paid a simple fine. The man who sold it to her paid a stiffer price.
For when Harding caught the miscreant, the mayor named his doom, and he escorted the man outside the town, where she banned him for an outlaw. Even then, in Mordor, none could find a harder punishment, for wild beasts still roamed, and few could travel far alone. If he was lucky, the man might find some other town to take him in, but all then would watch him for the least infraction, and he must take the hardest work, and prove himself a citizen indeed. If word got out about his outlawry, then he must wander till he died–a sentence short and swift.
(She had offered the whip to Frodo, to deal out punishment himself. He almost took it. But he did not want to be the hobbit who would take that whip and wield it. Local custom satisfied, the option refused, the scoundrel left unscathed, his heart pounding in his breast.)
No other letter ever mentioned Mattie slipping up again. And as for Frodo, he backslid only once, himself, regarding his own affliction, in all the years since seeing the Vale of Gorgoroth, and that came at the very end, and Sam could understand, if not (for deep love of his son) condone, and that concerned the matter of the King’s recall.
Sam now read that last letter of all, the one for which he had no reason to answer, for the post would not find Frodo by the Sea of Nurnen anymore. With no small children about them any longer, Sam read aloud in the kitchen, and his wife stopped whipping eggs right in the middle, allowing the froth to collapse, making a little cry. She set the bowl aside and pressed close to her husband, reading over his shoulder.
Yet the lapse only lasted for a handful of days, and no one really blamed Frodo. Most even toasted along with him for all of the years and reminiscences, and along with him wept tears and burst into sudden laughter, and stumbled into sloppy hugs, like any proper wake. Elenaril and Bergil came to town to see him one last time, and others came from other villages, some who had only heard of Frodo by report, so that just when one party died out another started up.
“Some people could love you to death, if you let them,” Sam told his wife. Sam allowed that this wake lasted longer than it should, especially after the crowds had finally dispersed. But then, apparently, Frodo himself got sick of it, and pulled himself together before the next ship launched, with apologies to all and sundry, and so took sail in a sober frame of mind with his wife and livestock, as the King commanded. A dream might have had something to do with that; Sam found the writing difficult to read, and so could not be sure. Nevertheless, Frodo at least wrote his last impression of Seaside with a steady hand:
“The kaktush hedge around the city wall has grown up green and thick, and it was all in bloom on the day that I left, and the wind carried the perfume to me even to the dock. Many birds live in among its blades, and they all sang out that morning. The window boxes also bloomed, and the fields glowed green with fresh young sprouts. The town looked clean and prosperous, the clay walls sparkling in the sun, and chubby children played in the dappled shade of trees, and winsome maidens wore bright colors as they sashayed down the street with baskets full of food, and the men looked strong and healthy as they set about their work. I have been a criminal, and I have been a fool, and I have listened betimes to the worst of counsel, and I have sinned against the Valar themselves. Yet somehow, Papa, I got it right anyway. Somehow this sorry excuse for a hobbit managed to come and do what he was supposed to do, all barriers within and without notwithstanding.”
Sam read through the pages of travel, the sea-voyage turning into river-travel, and then by channel, to the rest of the river (now called for all its length from Nurnen to Lebennin the Poros) until it brought Frodo and his wife to the Anduin, then turned upstream to Minas Tirith faster than they could have gone on foot despite the roundabout route.
And then (Sam shaking his head as he read, mouthing a word never spoken out loud, that he had learned from his son’s letters) Frodo just had to go and meet the King...