For Into Darkness Fell His Star
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 38, Part 179
Goodly Beasts and True
June 16, 1452
“Frodo?” Mattie sounded tense. “Wake up, Frodo!” He opened his eyes to night–no, not night, for the first gray glow of dawn outlined a trunk and branches spread before the opening of the cave, and some little light trickled in, to glimmer around Mattie’s dim shape when she leaped to her feet again, pacing and pacing within the cave’s confines. “It happened while you slept, Frodo, but I couldn’t sleep the night through, it wore off, I felt it wearing off and it woke me, so I had to cower here wide awake while it all happened right outside!”
“Hunh?” Mattie spoke so rapidly that Frodo could hardly understand her. “What happened?”
“Maybe wargs did it. I think it must have been wargs because they sounded all houndish, you know, the way they do. But when I tried to look out the tree but I must have hallucinated that but I can’t possibly have because it all wore off I felt it wear off, and yet there it is–look! Look! The tree before the cave! How could we have gotten in if the tree has not moved?”
Frodo rubbed his face. “It’s all right, Mattie. Hazel is a friend of mine. She is not quite what she seems.”
Wide eyes stared back at him, struck dumb by this information, till at last Mattie managed to gasp, “What exactly are you in league with, Frodo?”
“I hardly know myself, anymore. I must keep Hazel’s secrets, but I am sure you will figure out her side of things when your mind clears.” He turned over the bag of clothing that he used for a pillow and snuggled back down against it.
She paced in circles around him. “But my mind has already cleared–achingly clear, like ice and shards of glass! And clearly did I hear the neighing screams of a horse in pain!”
Frodo sat up at that. “What are you saying, Mattie?”
“I knew those neighs, though never in so much agony and fear–wargs killed Stumblehoof, Frodo! I do not know what became of Bleys; he might have escaped, he might have died, I only had ears for my own horse–but Frodo, Stumblehoof died last night!”
“Oh Mattie!” He held up arms to her and she sank down to hold him tight, sobbing into his shoulder. He felt the shaking in her, and knew that things would soon go much worse for her.
“Oh Frodo, Frodo, I had no friend more faithful in all my days! She never judged me, never failed me.” Sobs wracked her, but then she gasped for air and spoke again, in a flood, as though she couldn’t stop. “We, we knew each other’s movements like the leg knows the foot, and her warmth alone comforted me in the cold of Poros Pass. Other h-horses would not always cross, but it sufficed for Stumblehoof to feel my lack of fear and so to trust in me, and, and I never let her down, Frodo, I swear I always found the paths to lead her out of danger, she might well be the only creature on this green earth that I never disappointed. Nor did she ever disappoint me–she came to know my every need without being told; even when I could hardly hold my seat she made sure that I never fell, and, and when I could not easily climb down from her she would feel my difficulty through the muscles of her b-back and she would kneel for me.” Frodo patted her, feeling at a loss for words. Her face contorted, clutching his tunic, the fabric twisting in her fists. “Oh but I miss my pipe so bad!”
He drew back from her, in shock and disgust, disentangling her fingers from his clothes.
But she glared back at him with red, wet eyes. “How do people do it Frodo? How do they deal with hor, horrible losses like this from day to weary day?”
“I don’t know,” he replied. “We just do, I guess. Nothing else you can do, really.”
“Oh yes there is,” she sobbed, “I know there is!” She pounded the ground with her fists. “And if I had the wherewithal right here with me I would do it!”
Then Frodo gripped her and held her before him, staring into her bloodshot eyes and sodden face. “Listen to me, carefully. Stumblehoof deserves your tears–no creature on earth has ever deserved more tears from you, not even the parents who couldn’t be bothered to stay alive for you. So cry! Cry! Feel everything! It would dishonor her memory to hide in clouds of smoke from just how bad it hurts to miss her–can you understand that?”
She nodded, her mouth trembling. “I will try to understand.”
“Good enough. That's all that any of us can do.” And she sank back against him again. “And go ahead, Mattie–cry for your mother as well. Never mind the fools who forbade you at the time. Cry for your mother, your father--cry for everyone you have ever lost but dared not mourn before. How can you find and cleanse a wound that you never allow yourself to feel?” And so Frodo consoled her the best he could, as the sun finished rising and the morning wore on.
It came to Frodo that he smelled blood. He realized that he had smelled blood for a long time now, but had tuned it out. But now the increasing heat made the odor stronger by the moment, beyond ignoring, wafting through the cave mouth in between the boughs that mercifully masked whatever carnage lay beyond. He looked down on Mattie, wondering if she could smell it, too, or if her tears and early withdrawal choked her up too badly. “Here,” he said after a time, handing her the waterskin. “Weeping is thirsty work. And have you eaten breakfast yet?”
“I...I find I cannot face the thought of food right now.”
He looked at her, concerned, but then climbed to his feet. “Well I can, and I really must. Come–try to swallow a little, at least. You might not get another chance for awhile.” So, after he raided a saddle-bag, he sat down with her again and persuaded her to chew a little chicken jerky and a spoonful or two of gruel, while he finished his own breakfast (sparingly, regretting that in the past month or so he had let himself become accustomed all over again to Shire-sized helpings.) “Try this apple jelly on a bit of bread,” he told her, passing her the precious jar that had traveled all the way from his mother’s kitchen. “Apple-jelly can help an ailing stomach.”
“No. Not apples. Please. I cannot bear the memories. Not right now.”
“You must bear all of your memories, Mattie.” But he put the jelly aside. “Even the ones that hurt make us who we are and strengthen us by how we come to terms with them–without them we become little more than wraiths.”
She broke down into tears again. “Stumblehoof–I have too many memories of Stumblehoof...all the good times...” She grabbed Frodo and shook him, her face wild. “Why do such good memories hurt so bad?”
Instead of answering he rose to his feet. “Come, Mattie. We must face what lies outside.”
She went white. “No...nooooo...”
But he would not let her draw away from him. “Yes, Mattie. The horror of actually seeing cannot equal that of guessing in the dark. Trust me, dear.” He tucked her arm in his. “Trust me.”
The boughs parted easily for them, as Frodo knew they would. They did not have far to go, for right in front of the cave lay such bones and offal as the wargs had left behind, red in the blinking-bright sun against the pallor of the sand. Mattie’s trembling became violent, yet Frodo did not let go. After the initial shock, in which the slaughter dominated the eye, the scene seemed finally to shrink down to its proper proportion–so little left of what had once been a great beast, such a pitifully small stain of red on the sweeping landscape of the Ephel Duath. Wind rolled over the mountainsides from the vastness of the plains beyond, and one tiny breath of that wind stirred a bloody clump of fur as though it still had some life in it, even as other gusts fingered the curls of the staring hobbits.
“Stumblehoof served you well indeed. Shall we honor her?”
“Well, we have neither shovel nor pick, nor anything else suitable for such hard ground, so I expect that we shall have to build a cairn. Heaven knows we have rocks a-plenty to hand.”
“Frodo...I do not think I can...”
“Of course you can, Mattie. Your muscles ache for action–too long have they slumbered under a spell. You might feel a little better if you give them something to do.”
And so the rest of the day found them, both weary to begin with, hauling stones throughout the hot and dusty hours, and piling them around and around, over what little remained of a once-dear horse. Frodo found his own memories stirring, but they came to him bittersweet now, full of gratitude for the years that he had enjoyed his own pony’s company.
Wiping sweat from his brow after clunking yet another stone into place, he asked, “Did I ever tell you about Billie-Lass–the pony I owned since childhood?”
“No. You never did.”
“Bandits shot her out from under me on the way to Mordor. Her loss weighed fresh upon me when you met me.”
She said nothing, but her hand briefly clasped his before she left to stoop, groaning, for more stones.
“We had known each other since childhood, and cherished our time together.” He lifted the glass around his neck. “The cord on which this hangs I made from her mane.”
Mattie looked up at that. “The wargs did not leave mane nor tail of Stumblehoof for me.”
“Then take and clean a bone. Later you can carve it into pegs for your harp. That way she will always sing for you.”
She nodded, but then turned green about the jaw. “You do it, Frodo. Please. I cannot...not right now.” So he reached into the half-finished cairn, wrenched loose a stout rib, and stepped away a bit so that Mattie need not watch him scrape it clean with a sharp stone’s edge, frowning at the grisliness of the task, but making a workmanlike job of it. After that he carried it to the trough that no longer had beasts to water, and there he washed the blood away in clear red swirls that dissolved into the pinkening water...fading...lost. He splashed the water that remained out onto the thirsty land as Hazel nodded over him in an unfelt breeze. The gardener in him knew the value of that blood for the soil, and the rest of him stood back, slightly appalled that such details even now could never leave his mind.
“Here, Mattie–I shall set the bone high upon this stone to dry out properly. You shall be glad of it, later.” Then they both went back to work, until the cairn stood solid and complete, with such dirt as Frodo could sweep up poured into the interstices so that no smell would reach them and worsen the coming ordeal.
For a moment the two of them stood in silence by the grave. Then Frodo said, “Sing for her, Mattie. You must know a thousand dirges.”
“I...oh heavens!” The tears ran anew down her face.
“You can do it. No one deserves better from you.”
“But I...I cannot! Not now, so shaky, so...sick, yes sick already! And maybe not ever, Frodo–I have forsaken my inspiration. Nothing sounds like a song to me anymore. Maybe I can never sing another...”
“Don't think that way! Mattie, you became a bard before you became a poppy-fiend. Who knows what you will accomplish once you break completely free?”
She shook her head, and tears spattered the dirt before them. “I know what I cannot do right now.”
“Try to sing something from memory, at least. Later you can write a song especially for Stumblehoof.”
She gulped and nodded. Slowly, in a quavering voice, without her harp and devoid of her usual nuances, she began,
”Mandos patient, M-mandos strong,
Recall the good, forget the wrong!
For good shall linger with us still,
The wrong into the earth we till.
“Keen-eyed Mandos, read her soul,
Release her from remembered dole!
We celebrate the joys now past,
The rest into the earth we cast.
“Mandos dark, yet facing light,
Prepare this soul to make its flight.
Our pains shall molder all, but then
Our souls shall reunite again!”
“Better?” He asked her gently as he put an arm around her. Mattie nodded and leaned her head against his shoulder.
Suddenly her eyes widened at a black animal hair that had worked into the weave of his tunic and not washed out at the latest laundering. She drew back and cried, “Frodo! I forgot! You lost Bleys, too!”
“I am glad to hear that you have thought of that. Yesterday you might not have cared.” Then he smiled, recognizing and resisting a trace of bitterness, trying to lighten his tone. “I have this much hope, at least. Bleys, wily child of the desert that he is, has twice the wit of any horse–he might have yet eluded the wargs, especially when they had an animal more than twice his size to feast upon.” At the sight of her face his eyes dropped and said, “I am sorry–my tact failed me for a moment.”
She stared at him. Neither said a word. Her sudden burst of sneezing snapped the silence; she turned abruptly and hastened away from him, back into the cave.
Long Frodo sat alone upon a boulder after that, gazing down upon the cairn, weeping quietly for the donkey that he might never see again, that might not even live, until darkness overcame the landscape and weariness filled him to the marrow. He went into the cave.
Mattie looked worse than ever, now, sneezing often, sniffling and shaking nonstop. He said nothing to her at first, going back deep into the cave where the light did not reach. There he found the spring as a cold, wet touch in the dark. He followed it to the point right before it spilled deep into the earth, and there washed off the long day’s grime. The cold water shocked and refreshed him; he hoped that Mattie would find sobriety much the same–refreshment and cleansing after the initial slap of chill reality.
Then Frodo returned to the area lit in a dim red glow by a fire built beneath a drafty fissure in the rock, and she stared at him, fear naked in her face, and he stared back, wondering what on earth to say in a circumstance like this. “Would you like me to stay up with you?” he offered at last.
She shrugged, not looking at him. “Nod really. I *sneeze* fide dat I desire sub tibe *sneeze* by byself.”
That sounded too good to hope for–and then his heart sank at a different thought. He didn’t want to, but he asked, “Mattie, is there any possibility that you might have hidden more poppy gum somewhere?”
She stared at him, and then she stunned him by pulling off her tunic right in front of him. Uncle Pippin’s ministrations had somewhat softened the lines of her bones in sleeker, healthier flesh, so that while she remained yet heartbreakingly slender she looked far more desirable than before. Little plumlike breasts now swelled up from her ribs, and her hips had lost some of their concavity. She shook the tunic, turned it inside out before him, and shook it again, displaying its every seam and fold, but he had eyes only for the secret flower that he had never before witnessed in a full-grown hobbitess. Acidly she asked him, “Where do you theek thad I could hide *sneeze* adythig?” and she pulled the tunic back on again. Frodo started like she had splashed him with cold water.
He found his voice and said, “I, I still want to hear you deny it out loud, Mattie.”
”Doh, I do dot hab ady drug, ady idtoxicat, ady cobford of ady kide whadsoever!” she shouted in a rush. “Do you *sneeze* theek thad I would dot hab throwed byself idto Stubblehoof’s wake by dow if I did?” But then she stared, griefstricken, at the reaction in his face.
“Mattie? Are we wasting our time here? Do you plan to go right back to the pipe as soon as we return to the cities?”
Then her manner softened as she said, “Doh.” She actually laughed. “Good heabeds, doh!”
“Doh? You mean no, right?”
She nodded. “I do dot wish du suffer so *sneeze* horribly for doh good reasod. Ad *sneeze* you are right. Ab, absolutely. *sneeze* Stubblehoof *sneeze*...Stubblehoof deserves b-better of be...” then her weeping made her runny nose still worse and she could not talk.
“With your leave, then, I will lay down for awhile. I shall trust you.” And so he cast himself down upon the ground to try and sleep while he yet could.
It came to him, as he tossed a bit on the thinly blanketed hardness, that he might have snapped Bleys’s thread in the weave of history. Then, guiltily, he hoped it had been Stumblehoof’s. Yes, perhaps that had been it, Mattie’s horse for Mattie’s life. But it did not seem fair to make her pay the price for his decision.
“But I hadn’t cared about fair, then,” he reminded himself. And that memory burdened him most of all. Yet the day’s labors told on him more than his guilt and fear. “Wake me if you need me,” he said one last time to Mattie, and then fell asleep before she could reply.