He Clasped Her Fast, Both Flesh and Bone
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 2, Part 186
The Unhistoried Ones
June 22, 1452
Frodo figured that the mud baths had to lie somewhere nearby, because they descended into a valley full of mist. Twisting desert growths emerged and dissolved back into the grayness in strange poses, like wizard’s runes of unknown but surely ominous meaning, or the poses of dancers startled in dark rites. The temperature dropped so suddenly that the hobbits’ teeth chattered, yet sweat ran down their faces in the humidity and plastered their curls to their foreheads; it felt stifling to have to sit so close together on the donkey’s back, but the rough ground below them better suited iron-shod hooves than hobbit feet, even if Mattie did still wear her boots.
Mattie turned this way and that, where she rode in front of Frodo this time, dread overtaking her gaze. “I cannot see them,” she whispered, and Frodo caught the words.
“See what, beloved?”
“The spirits of the pass. I used to see them best of all in the swirls of fog.” She whirled on him. “We’re in danger, Frodo! I have become useless as a guide--absolutely wretchedly hopelessly useless...”
“Stop it!” He clasped her in front of him. “I ran all about this land the other day and no harm came to me. The Mad Maiar cannot attack wayfarers all the time, not when they’re so bent upon each other.” He held her close despite the clamminess, and she melted against his chest. “It is just another danger, Mattie, nothing more. Life doesn’t stop for danger, dear. Why, you could trip upon your own doorstep and split your head wide open like a melon fallen from a cart, or cough at precisely the wrong time and drown on a cup of tea. But if you cower away from every risk you will starve alone in the dark, so you might as well go out and live.”
He kissed her neck in front of him. “Yes. Live,” he said lightly, though the question disturbed him. “In the joy of all that’s real. And never, ever, ever, use the word ‘useless’ on yourself again, my darling, for your very existence fills me with such joy that this serves use enough, even if you should become crippled and frail and old--as happens to most of us. You are your own purpose, and it delights me beyond words.” And then he leaned around her and kissed her on the lips.
She nodded when they drew apart, and said, “I will try to see it more like that.” She laughed shakily. “After all, since I feel the same way about you, why should I not believe it of myself?” Yet as they rode down a slope he saw the trouble still upon her face. And the donkey’s ears, too, flattened, as though none too pleased himself. Almost without sound Mattie murmured, “Have you noticed, Frodo, that everything around us has died?”
Frodo squinted against the fog. He had grown used to how some varieties of perfectly healthy desert trees would have leaves so tiny that at first glance they seemed as bare as maples in the thick of winter, but those still had a living greenish cast about their bark. Yet all of these, he now could see, looked dry and whitish-gray, like old bleached bones. Broken branches hung down here and there, over the spongy mass of lifeless thorns. Scattered among them, the lacy ribs of unfleshed kaktush stuck up from the brush. Frodo watched as Bleys took care to step over the skeleton of a snake, a series of pallid arcs stretched out across their path.
“Something must have poisoned the soil,” Frodo said, “seeping into the water-table after things had grown, killing them slowly. It would not surprise me, considering the uses Sauron has put upon the land.”
“All of this...something haunts me with familiarity.” Mattie shook her head. “I doubt that I have ever passed this way in even a relatively lucid state of mind...yet so much of my past now seems as murky to me as this fog...” She frowned deeply, and Frodo waited for her to remember whatever she must, as the path crested a hill and then dipped down. But when they rounded a twisted tree with one dead bow stuck straight out like a gallows, Mattie cried out, “Turn back! This is the wrong way! I know this place! I remember it!”
“Why?" Frodo asked, but he did as she told, turning Bleys around to climb upslope. “Where did that way lead?”
“Do not ask,” she begged him, “At least until we get to someplace better.”
But when Bleys tried to hasten, all too eager to obey the order to flee, the ground slid under him, turning into a river of gravel that swept him backwards so that he fell and the hobbits flew from his back. All three of them tumbled downhill, feet and boots and hooves to the air, gravel-scoured, bruised and bleeding, into a bowl of land surrounded by dead trees.
There, in the center of this dire glade an altar stood, formed of a heap of skulls, orc and human and horse skulls piled up, braced by leg-bones here and there, to uphold a shield laid out like a concave table. Behind it rose a fan or screen of broken spears, rusted swords, bills and axes notched in battle. Crude stone figures stood to either side, chipped with little skill from the native granite of the hills, unrecognizable except to differentiate the male one from the female, and to see that both held before themselves what might have passed for weaponry. Something about them, perhaps the lopsided tilt of shoulders and hips into accidental swaggers, felt that if the stone-cutter had found the skill to carve faces into the heads, the expressions would have sneered. Compelled against his dread, Frodo stood on tiptoes and saw within the shield the black flakes curling, where blood had once brimmed it and then dried up. Spilled blood also darkened the skulls where it had overflowed.
In a low voice Frodo asked, “What is this place?”
Mattie swallowed, and then answered, “The worship-grounds of Makar and Measse–a cult that even the Dark Lord banned, although I think he more resented the competition than anything.”
“Makar and Measse? I have never heard of them.”
“You wouldn’t learn of them in elvish histories or in tales from Numenor. They are fallen Maiar, I believe, though they claim to be the banished Valar of War and Violence–brother and sister spirits steeped in blood. As soon as Sauron fell, they gathered worshippers around them from among those wandering unmastered. You run into their disciples now and then, scattered across Mordor.” She shuddered, remembering something. “ Less cunning than Sauron himself, they are perhaps more evil.” Unconsciously, she licked some of the blood off of her hand. “And unlike him, no one has vanquished them.”
No one ever bothered–they have ever been bunglers and an embarrassment to Morgoth. You need look no further for reasons why the old tales deigned not to mention them.
Frodo whispered, “Sauron’s speaking to me again–this can’t be good.”
“But how?” Mattie asked. “With no poppy slaves nearby to draw upon?”
I can also sup on ghosts who refuse the call of Mandos, remember, though the effort nearly costs more than the benefit these days. And ill-made specters crowd the air within this bowl--even more than the blood of their sundered bodies saturates the soil.
Now that he mentioned it, Frodo did find the air stifling to breathe. He did not feel out in the open at all, but sealed within some crypt to slowly suffocate; he could almost smell the reek of rotting souls. “Let’s get out of here!” he cried, and tried to scale the slope again, more frantically this time, Mattie at his side and Bleys leaping to attempt escape. But the loose sands only drove them down again, bloodying them more than ever.
“A trap!” Mattie cried. “A trap–and I have no song to sing us out again!”
“Hold on!” Frodo grabbed her arm, though he felt half-mad with fear himself. “Sauron called Makar and Measse bunglers. They can’t have made so clever a trap, then, can they?”
“He would say that about any rival. Oh Frodo, I have witnessed such horrors here.” She grasped him hard, the whites visible all around her irises. “I remember now–I had hoped it all a dream, an awful dream. The ghosts enact their atrocities over and over, for those to see who can.”
“Let go of me!” He flung his arms out to break her grip, then fell back from her to the ground, panting. He stared up at her astonished. “I...I am sorry. For some reason I...”
”Sorry?” she shouted. “After you dare to insult me like that?” And she pounced on him before he could rise up from the ground, her fingers locked about his throat.
Oh my. Entertainment at last!
Horrified, Frodo wrestled her hands away from his neck. “Wait, Mattie, something’s wrong...” But when she only spat in his face in reply a red haze went over his eyes. He flung her off of him and pinned her on the ground instead. And then he felt a leer distort his face, as he said, as though a stranger to himself, “You haven’t gotten a lick of strength back yet, you know. You are utterly at my mercy...wife!” And then her neck seemed the most desirable thing in the world to him, as slowly he bent towards it...but instead of puckering for a kiss, his lips drew back and bared his teeth...
“NO!” he cried and flung himself away. “This is not me! This is not you–Mattie, remember who you are, who we are together. We married, remember? We love each other!”
She struggled, folding in on herself, then looked up at him wildly, her hair hanging in her eyes. But no words passed her lips.
“Mattie, I am your husband. You are my wife.”
She pounced on him, her nails dug into him. “You married me all wrong!”
He struggled to hold her hands. “Mattie, you idiot, listen to me! I love you! Do you hear me? Will you ever listen?”
“You cannot love me! No one can ever love me!”
At the moment he found it hard to believe, himself. As he bent her hands backwards the red haze began to seep once more across his vision...
WHAM! He found himself and Mattie both flying through the air, above the treacherous gravel slopes, landing just outside the circle of trees. The pain when he hit the ground sent stars sparking through him, but he sat up anyway, his mind clearing of its fog, and he cried out for joy, “Bleys! My donkey saved us, kicking us both free!”
But when he looked down into the glade he saw the donkey frothing at the mouth, dancing grotesquely, kicking again at nothing they could see, then sending up a roar like some fell Mordor beast indeed, so that they clapped their hands upon their ears.
The donkey charged up towards them, roaring again, his great teeth snapping at them, his eyes rolling wild. And then he tumbled down once more, defeated by the gravel slope.
“What is this madness, Mattie?”
“Madness indeed!” She cackled, so that Frodo’s heart lurched to hear it. “Pockets of it lie all over the region of the Pass. Makar and Measse simply took advantage of a spot in tune with their own crazed agenda, to feed like burrow-spiders on anything hapless enough to step too near their lair.”
As I said. They have little actual power of their own.
“Then you and they have much in common, Sauron” Frodo growled.
“Frodo–you’re bleeding!” Mattie snapped out of her laughing-fit to dab at the scratches with her kerchief. “Did...did I do that?”
“Neither of us did things to be proud of, love.” His fingertips brushed the yellow start of bruises on her hands. “We forgot our better parts.”
She curled up weeping. “Do I even have any?” He looked on her in fear, wondering if her mind might break completely on the transition she had made. “Maybe everything good about me was just one more pipe-dream.”
“No...no...” He put his arms around her and drew her close, smoothing back the damp locks from her face, to kiss her brow. “You have so much goodness in you that not even the poppy-spell could contain you.”
Again Bleys roared, springing into the air like he would bite the sky if it gave him half a chance. Frodo watched in horror as the hooves crashed down on scattered bones, splintering them, then sought more to crush around the glade. “How on earth will I ever get my donkey back?”
Leave him, Frodo. You have gotten out alive, more by luck than any cleverness of your own. Take your luck and make the best of it.
“But I can’t just leave Bleys behind–I promised him I’d take care of him!"
Try not to be such a fool about everything. You have to sacrifice the animal. If you attempt to get it back, you will not only lose your ass but your life as well–and after I suck out what little nourishment I can of your spirit before exhausting more than I can afford, I shall find myself stuck here in the middle of nowhere, far from my lovely poppies or anyone who values them, waiting for the unlikely event of some new host passing by one of these years with enough of an injury to enter--most likely something repulsive and beneath my dignity.
“So you’re just going to let them get away with it? Taking my donkey to feed their foulness?”
You act as though I care.
“Of course you care! Not about Bleys–I’m not a fool. But about letting Makar and Measse win.”
I beg your pardon?
“Will you just stand by and let them win another sacrifice? Haven’t they grown strong enough in your absence as it is?”
Strong...indeed they have, now that you mention it. Revolting–they do not deserve such strength! It was I–yes, I myself!–who taught them first the art of supping from the dead, not that they deserved such rare delights. I the Necromancer, I the Dark Lord–how DARE they feast when I go hungry! And the voice grew louder and louder in Frodo till his head ached with it.
“Then will you leave me to do battle with them?”
Will I...oh, clever little hobbit! What a nasty turn of cunning you have developed–learned from me, no doubt, even as these thieves of lore have learned more from me than is good for their small wits. No, my friend, I will not abandon you so easily–Son of Samwise Gardner.
Frodo sighed. “In that case, teach me how to free my donkey, lest your enemies grow stronger still–and you stand by to let it happen in your presence.”
He heard no answer, but when he opened his mouth to say more a song spilled out instead. It choked and wrenched him like vomiting, but he could not hold it back. He could not understand the words and did not want to; they made his entire body shudder and they burned his tongue. Mattie stared at him, then nodded as though remembering something. She added her own voice in harmony–if harmony you could name such discords–as she took Frodo’s hand.
Remember that we share all burdens. And this time it was not Sauron’s voice that rang within his head. Though the sweat beaded on his brow, he found that he could endure the awful song with her voice added.
Their combined voices worked swiftly. A quiver shot through the mists all around them. The donkey’s roaring pitched up to a scream. Bleys reared up on his hind legs and light seemed to flash all around him. Then he twisted in a leap and ran slowly up the slope, his hooves flying furiously through the pouring gravel though he made slight progress against the tide, his eyes glazed over and his tongue hanging out. At last he reached the brink and collapsed unconscious at their feet.
Frodo curried whatever fur the donkey’s faint had left in reach, patting the heaving side and speaking soothing words. When Bleys revived a little bit Frodo squirted water into his mouth, and patted some more water about the long face. Shakily Bleys won back to his feet and they led him away from there, neither of them riding him for a long while afterwards.