Through Shadows to the Edge of Night
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 22, Part 52
(December 29, 1451)
Frodo put the letter carefully back into its envelope and slipped it inside his weskit, just over his heart. “Excuse me, please,” he husked, and went off the trail into the bushes, something he knew the others would not question, and there he wept in silence. Men might display their emotions with heroic abandon, but he found himself constrained by the presence of a fellow hobbit unknown to him. Then he dried his face on his sleeve, practiced smiling, and rejoined his party. “The afternoon’s getting on,” he said. “Shouldn’t we keep an eye out for a good place to camp?”
“I have done nothing else for the past half hour,” Bergil observed, “Though I would not expect you to notice.” He gestured around him at the uneven ground and the sharp flakes of rock that seemed to approximate soil in this stretch. “If you can find anywhere that we can spread three bedrolls and shelter the animals besides, do let me know.”
Mattie spoke up. “I remember a place, not so far from here.” Proudly he said, “Nobody knows this land like I do, in all of Middle Earth.” Under his breath he murmured, “No one in a body, at least.”
As Mattie led them off the road towards an unpromising split between boulders, Bergil asked Frodo, “What news of your home, my friend? Good, I hope, yet I see that your eyes have reddened.”
Frodo averted his face. “Mixed news, as one might expect anywhere, and of a rather personal nature, begging your pardon. Mostly I weep because I’m a sentimental fool who loves my family too well.”
“If that is folly, Frodo, then I grieve for all the wise.”
Frodo went on in silence, slipping now and then on the loose stones, rough against his feet. He had almost forgotten about Sauron as the road got harder, but now his father’s letter brought his worries back to him. It dawned on Frodo that he headed straight into an enclave of deranged spirits who once called Sauron master, and who would by no means ignore his sudden presence in their midst. Why had the nasty little devil kept so silent lately--was he up to something?
Mattie and his horse squeezed into the crack in the rock, and though the horse barely fit she seemed strangely eager to plunge into that dark, uncomfortable passageway. The goats took heart from her and crowded in after. Bergil hesitated at the threshold, then looked back at Frodo and shrugged. “I have not come this way often, and I do not know this place,” the man admitted. “Last time I slept on top of a boulder when the night overtook me, for I found no better space.”
“I smell something herbal ahead,” said Frodo, and stepped in, Bergil following. “That’s promising, at least.” Shadowy stone walls angled up on either side of him, reaching so high overhead that they reduced the sky to a lightning-jag of dimming blue; while the rock did not hem him in as much as Bergil, he could not have extended his arms much to either side. “But I catch another scent, too--something unpleasant.”
Bergil sniffed and frowned. “Brimstone?” Then his face brightened. “A hot spring!”
At last they emerged in twilight’s eerie glow, and gasped at the blossoming green canyon before them, soft and aromatic despite the tinge of sulfur on the air. Luminous fumes of steam showed them where a hot spring bubbled into a pool, and then spilled into a stream that vanished into greater mists below.
“Why, this is fantastic!” Frodo cried. “I had no idea that such a place could exist in the Ephel Duath--however did you find it?”
“I had help,” said Mattie. Then, when Frodo seemed to wait for further explanation, he turned to him with an odd look and said, “You would not believe me if I told you.”
Bergil asked, “The water--is it safe to drink?”
“Safe but not pleasant,” Mattie said. “The goats won’t mind, though, and Ol’ Stumblehoof here has tasted worse.” He rubbed his horse’s muzzle affectionately. “Not being goats, yourselves, you might prefer to stick to what you’ve brought while you can. The spring has a natural soapiness that imparts a bitter taste, but it serves well for bathing--at least up here.” Under his breath he added, “You would not want anything to do with what the water becomes by the end of its journey.”
“Bathing?” Frodo exclaimed, “Oh most noble Mattie! Show me where to go!” Then he paused in thought, saying, “Fascinating--all this vegetation, then, has adapted to alkaline soil? That sounds useful.”
“Ever the gardener, Little Master,” Bergil said with affection, ruffling Frodo’s hair in a most impertinent way. “No doubt in the morning you will want to study the greenlife in more detail, but for now we need to make camp while the light lasts.”
“Let’s hurry, then--dark or light, I want that bath!”
When they had attended to the camp, Frodo and Bergil followed Mattie to a mist-enshrouded pool high up on the slope, fed by a little waterfall that chuckled with a music like a childhood memory of the land before Sauron came to mar it. Mattie soon disappeared in the fog, but his splashing told them where to go. Eagerly they shed their clothes and found their way by feel over water-smoothed stones, into the bath.
It amazed Frodo to find such a moment of heaven right here in the Ephel Duath that had so tormented his father, but when he sank into the hot and satiny mineral-water with Bergil and Mattie, steam curling over his head and his toes warming up so exquisitely that it almost hurt, he could not have imagined greater pleasure in Valinor itself. Even the smell became agreeable to him, if only because of its association with luxury. Frodo tasted the water. Bitter and oily, just like his father had described the waters of Mordor long ago--but Papa had never found enough to bathe in, or he would have thought better of it.
Even with his enhanced vision Frodo could barely see his companions in the fog, just general hints of their shapes and their movements. Now and then the fume cleared back enough to make out faces, but everything below the water mostly fuzzed from view. Just as well, Frodo thought. He understood that Breeland hobbits held by somewhat shyer customs than the Shirefolk.
“Now feels like a good time for a song,” he sighed, as two weeks of grime and travel melted off of him, and every muscle loosened like he floated in a dream.
“I have one in mind,” said Mattie. “It came to me yesterday--something on hobbit history from the ancient days.” Frodo thought that Mattie might have looked in his direction, but he couldn’t tell for sure. “The Shire has forgotten most of these stories, perhaps, but we from Bree live closer to the edge and keep such tales in mind.” Then he sang out in a sweet, high voice so haunting it could have melted the stars down to sparkling tears:
“Oh, will you come dancing, come dancing, come dancing,
Oh will you come dance in the springtime with me?
The flowers all bloom and the kid-goats are prancing,
Oh will you come dance in the springtime with me?
“Oh no I will not dance, will not dance, will not dance,
Oh no I will not dance in the springtime with thee.
Red petals like blood fall against my hand glancing,
For my true love has marched to the northern country.
Oh turn the year backwards, turn backwards, my darling!
Lull the field’s new green sprouts back to sleep in their seeds,
Let the flowers fold up, aye, and silence the starlings,
Let the soldiers march backwards from the war’s trampled meads!
“Oh will you come singing, come singing, come singing,
Oh will you come sing in the summer with me?
The sweet fruit all ripens and the sun makes us lazy,
Oh will you come sing in the summer with me?
“Oh no I will not sing, will not sing, will not sing,
Oh no I will not sing in the summer with thee.
For the fallen fruit rots like the soldiers so crazy
So crazy to march to the northern country!
Oh turn the year backwards, turn backwards my lover!
Let the peaches shrink back to their innocent pips!
Blanch away summer’s green from the trees and the clover,
Bring back my dear archer, and his lips on my lips!
“Oh will you come harvest, come harvest, come harvest,
Oh will you come harvest in autumn with me?
For the berries drip juice and the grain has gone golden,
Oh will you not harvest in the autumn with me?
“Oh no, I will not reap, will not reap, will not reap,
Oh no I will not reap in the autumn with thee.
For the scythe of the swords has cut down the beholden,
The soldiers beholden to the King of the Free!
Oh turn the year backwards, turn backwards, my precious!
Let the grain turn to green and sink back in the blade!
Unbrew the new beer, empty kegs shall refresh us,
Refresh my dear love lest his memory fade!
“Oh, are you not hungering, hungering, hungering,
Are you not hungering in the winter alone?
For the wind blows in snow and your grainery’s empty,
Oh do you not hunger in your hole all alone?
“Oh yes, I shall starve here, shall starve here, shall starve here
Oh gladly I’ll starve in my hole all alone!
For my darling has died in the cold northern country
And I hear his ghost call me in the winter wind’s moan!”
By the liquid sound nearby, Frodo could tell that he was not the only one to fidget at Mattie’s choice of music. More than the sadness disturbed him, though he couldn’t quite put his finger on what bothered him the most. “That is not what I usually think of for a bathing song,” Frodo said as lightly as he could.
Bergil laughed, a little uneasily. “We in the East know that you must take Mattie’s music in whatever mood he finds himself. It is all well-sung, no matter what its burden.” Then, sympathetically, he said, “I take it you had a rough time of it last night, Mattie?”
Mattie let his feet float up in front of him and for an instant the mist revealed them--pale, soft feet, strange on a hobbit, with the fur rubbed thin. “Some would call it that,” he said. “But nightmares and night visions are better sung than told.”
“Nightmares!” Frodo exclaimed. “Is no one in this accursed land free of them?”
“No one,” Bergil murmured, barely audible above the water.
Mattie said, “It is a shame, really, that nobody else remembers that we hobbits sent archers to the King’s defense, in the battles against Angmar. None came back alive, you know--that sacrifice should mean something.”
“The Gamgee family remembers,” Frodo said, “That and many other things.” Then he chuckled and said, “But not usually in the bath!”
Mattie looked wistfully at him, his hair dripping lank and damp-darkened. “Oh Frodo, if baths could wash away such tales, we would never come out to dry!” A gust of breeze parted the steam between them to show that now the hobbit hugged his knees tight to his chest, curled up on a ledge of rock just below the surface. At the same time Mattie noticed May’s magnifying glass, glinting through the water. “Interesting pendant,” he said with a sudden gleam in his eye. “You must prize it highly to even wear it bathing.”
“Oh, this?” Frodo tried to sound casual, remembering the other hobbit’s reputation. “My sister gave it to me. It is just a toy of hers, but dear to me for her sake.” He held it up to his eye comically--and then dropped it in shock. “Mattie! Are you ill?” For an instant the hobbit had appeared to him exactly as he had always pictured Gollum--gaunt, insatiable, and utterly wretched.
“What--me? Couldn’t be better!” The mist settled back down between them; Mattie’s face seemed to fade back into it, little by little. “Or, well, I was thinking a pipeful would make the moment perfect. So, if you will excuse me...” He smiled rather painfully and sank still deeper into fog; only by sound did Frodo know that Mattie had exited the water.
When Mattie didn’t come back, Frodo said, “Oh, drat! I embarrassed him.”
“I doubt it,” said Bergil. “I have never met anyone so hard to embarrass as Mattie Heathertoes.”
“But he is ill, isn’t he?"
“One could say that.” Bergil washed his face as though to end the conversation.
Frodo looked at the man through another gust of clear air. “How long have you known?”
“You know very well what.”
“Not in the least,”said Bergil, as he took inordinate interest in cleaning between his toes.
Frodo hesitated before he could bring himself to say, “That is not pipeweed that Mattie smokes--is it?”
After a silence Bergil said, “No. It is not.”
“That I’ve known? For years. Everyone around here knows Mattie.”
Frodo smacked the water with a splash. “Then why hasn’t anyone cured him?”
“Why, he has never done anything violent, of course.”
“He steals--isn’t that reason enough?”
“Not when he does more good than harm. We all know and accept him as he is, Frodo.” Then, pointedly, Bergil said, “He does not want healing.”
“You do not know him! I saw, Bergil, I saw him through my lens--he desires healing more than life itself!”
“That may be,” said Bergil, as he scrubbed his chest and neck with many a splash, “but if Mattie does not know himself, what can we do?”
Frodo climbed out of the water and toweled himself off furiously where a cold wind beat the vapors back. “How could this happen to a hobbit of all people?
“It happened,” Bergil said as he, too, emerged and dug a towel out of his pack. “It shows the strength of the periannath that Mattie has done so well despite his fall, that he has found his niche.” He rubbed dry his hair and beard. “We wink at much, Frodo, because in a way we admire Mattie Heathertoes. No man could have kept on working as he does.”
Frodo whipped around. “Is he useful?” he asked with acid in his voice. “Is there no other way that a post rider can endure the Poros Pass, crossing every fortnight, month after month--for how many years?”
With a sharper voice Bergil said, “He chose this run, Frodo. Nobody forced him. And nobody forced him to find the method that he chose to bolster himself for it. And do not dress so violently--you will tear your sleeve.” The man pulled on his own chemise rather roughly, himself, shivering a little. “How? Even the periannath are not immune to pride. I am sure that Mattie did at first enjoy the quiet and the...mystery...of this run, for he always asked for the duty others shunned. Soon the postmaster stopped rotating riders to brave the pass, as he used to do, so that none would have to face it too often.” Bergil tugged on underwear and britches and tucked the shirt in. “But then Mattie saw how the rest admired him for his choice, and boasted often in the taverns that only his kind could long endure the madness of this run, and he the best of all. So when it did begin to tell on him at last, how could he then back down?” Bergil sighed as he sat on a rock to pull on socks and boots. “So Mattie did whatever Mattie had to do, to keep on traveling the road he put before himself.” The man rose and stared out over the mists that glowed in the rising moon. “He became one with the madness.”
“How horrible! And you--all of you--accept this?”
“Mattie pays for his little thefts with songs, as I have said before.” Bergil pulled on his tunic over his shirt and laced it up. “And he has no family to ruin by his vice. Frodo, in a hard, cold land he has found his own version of happiness--who are we to deny him that?”
“Happiness? Don’t you see? Mattie has no family because he can never go home! We have no poppy gum in Arnor. Do you have any idea what it would do to a hobbit to know that he can never return to the fields that his fathers tilled before him, that he...he cannot rejoin his own kind and marry?”
Bergil gave him a dark look. “I have some idea, yes--we are not so different, Frodo.”
“I-I am sorry, Bergil.” Then suddenly he straightened and said, “No, I am not sorry! You must be very different indeed, to take something like this so lightly.”
The man threw his cloak about him in a fury and glared at Frodo. “Oh, you are so young! Intelligent, perhaps, insightful beyond your years, no doubt, but ignorant of much that the old and weary know.” As he shouldered his pack, he said, “You listen to me, Frodo, and listen carefully. You are going to Mordor. You are going to live among people who have had to make all manner of compromises just to get by. You will find heroes and villains in the same skin. You will find good and evil mingled strangely, and you will have to thank the Valar and all their stars that any good survives at all. You are so far from The Shire that the distance stretches far beyond mere miles--do not let hot springs and winter-blooming flowers deceive you!” Then he stormed off to fix supper and wake Mattie for the meal.