Now Lost, Lost to Those From the East, Is Valimar!
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 21, Part 231
She knew what to feed him, what he could hold down and at what stage in his recovery. She knew a tea for his fever and a broth that eased his sore stomach while nourishing him. She had bathed him and cleaned his sores with gentle hands, combed all of the tangles from his long-grown hair, and laid him out on clean sheets in a little rented room, off on a quiet street out on the edge of town.
Frodo thought that he recognized the place at first, then realized that one apartment in Squatting Rock would probably look pretty much like any other: stone walls built out of mine debris, a creaking wooden floor and a matching ceiling between him and his upstairs and downstairs neighbors, occasionally sifting down dust when someone walked above. A little window let in light through the cloth tacked over it. A few spare, rough-hewn furnishings, and a built-in ledge to hold a mat for a bed.
To Frodo it seemed like Rivendell, a haven of peace and cleanliness too good for him. He had blankets, and a pillow, and not much of the cold wind got in through the little gaps and holes here and there, much warmer than the well, and dry. A little fire burned in the grate, under a chimney with a good draw. He wore, he noticed, a warm flannel night-shirt, and Mattie changed it for him frequently, and brought it back fresh, sprinkled with lavender-water and dried on the stair-rail just outside the door. And every night his wife climbed up into bed with him, and cuddled up to his bones, and comforted him through his nightmares.
He did remember crying out in pain when she had first thawed out his toes. She had murmured, “It always does hurt, coming back to life, doesn’t it?” Yet afterwards it felt good, his feet wrapped up in a warm, woolen scarf underneath the blanket, after she had carefully cleaned away tiny patches of dead skin here and there and bandaged them back up. Maybe his whole life could become like that, once he finally thawed out from his days and weeks of numbness.
And she had nourished him. He had forgotten how consoling it could feel, this nourishing from a loving hand. Mattie gave him the clear broth first, and the mild, sweetened tea, then phased in dry little bits of bread, and then soft curds, then other foods. The sickness and the shuddering gradually subsided, leaving nothing behind except exhaustion. He knew that days and nights had passed, but he did not bother to count them. He had not counted such things for awhile, now, not since he left his father’s letter behind, unfinished.
He often ran his thumb across the ring that she had restored to his finger, and that touch reassured him; when he could open his eyes, he could stare at it for hours, till his eyes closed on their own again. After awhile he began to wonder how much it had cost her to redeem it, and how much trouble it took for her to find it. But he didn’t dare to question too much, he just felt it on his hand and valued what it meant.
A day came when he felt better than before. He realized that he had hardly spoken to his wife the entire time. She stood nearby at the basin, washing up the breakfast dishes. “How did you find me?” Frodo asked her, surprised at the faintness of his voice.
Mattie dried the last dish, then climbed up to sit on the edge of his bed. “I never gave up, Frodo. The prince saw something in the palantir that showed how you might still live, so I never put on widow’s weeds. I came through Squatting Rock three times, but I didn’t think to search the mines for you. I thought you’d turn up in some garden or a farm.”
“I didn’t even know they had farmland out here.”
“It’s pretty rocky, but they have a patch or two on the south side. Mostly though, they live off selling coal.” She mused a moment. “The Prince did say something about you being somewhere dark, very dark...I should have made the connection.” She shook her head and laughed faintly, wryly. “I took it for symbolic. Eldarion did, too.”
Suddenly Frodo slapped his forehead. “I missed seeing Eldarion and Eowyn off! Were they mad at me?”
“Frodo, they were scared to death for you. You disappeared into the night, in no condition to fend for yourself.” She sighed. “Poor Eldarion! Long he conferred by palantir with his father, through the horror of the burning hands. I heard loud cries and sobs, and when he came downstairs his eyes looked red and swollen, and he trembled all over. At first we could get nothing out of him except, ‘He shall never forgive me!’ over and over.”
“Forgive him? The King got mad at him?”
“Oh, livid! At length we learned that the King faulted Eldarion for sending you all alone to the Blue Dragon, saying that he should have had you meet Lebadoc in the marketplace, or sent a delegation of you and Nibs together, or had Mayor Aloe arrest Lebadoc for disturbing the peace so that you could meet with him in jail, anything save for what he had done.”
“Oh my! It never even occurred to me that Eldarion might get in trouble.”
Matthilda shook her head. “Poor young lad! Eowyn gave him much comfort from her own perspective, as a mother and a grandmother herself, saying that parents often judge their adult children more harshly than servants, fearing that any mistake reflects upon their upbringing. Yet she also told him that this fury would pass, true-hearted parents cannot sustain it forever, and that Eldarion bore no fault worse than inexperience, which Elessar would soon see clear enough.”
Mattie got up, and fetched Frodo some tea. “Here. You might as well have this while you’re awake. Anyway,” she said, climbing back up, “as it turned out, the King did just as Eowyn said; he apologized for his wrath by palantir, first thing in the morning.” Mattie gazed out the little window, whose cloth she had pushed aside to reveal a patch of clouded blue. “Yet when a sensitive fellow like Eldarion hears such words as, ‘You have done worse than slay the firstborn son of one of my dearest friends and allies!’ it takes him a long time to get over it. Elda stayed up all night, murmuring sad songs over my harp, before he could soothe down the elvish half of his blood, which feels things so keenly.”
Frodo closed his eyes, almost overwhelmed by the pain. “I have hurt so many, so terribly!”
“Anyway, Eldarion and Eowyn missed their ship, in order to stay and help me look for you, but the King soon sent word about pirates sailing again off Umbar, so they had to hire a boat out special, and leave. Tar Elessar had no choice except to summon them, they told me.”
“I know. It is the law. The King and his heir cannot both leave Gondor at the same time, and someone had to mind the throne, so that one or the other could set sail for Umbar.”
“To top it off, Frodo, most of the pirate crews seemed deranged by some sort of spell–indeed, they turned out to be former prisoners, themselves, broken and retrained, so as to to make up a whole fleet around a single ship of real pirates–so this required the Lady Eowyn’s attention.”
“Awful–yet interesting. I wonder if they managed something like what Saruman did to Lebadoc?” Frodo took a deep sip of the sweet, herbal tea. “Poor fool! I do think that he loved Saruman, if you can believe it. Loved him like a father, and held his own kin after in contempt.”
“These days I will believe anything. Oh, and I should mention that Bergil tried to find you, too, going forth a little ways, except that of course he cannot travel far these days, on account of his frequent illnesses.”
“Oh dear–that still bothers him?”
“Yes, I am afraid so. On the positive side, the ague might have finally begun to wane. We cannot easily tell, since he has become so spent over the long run. Yet he has often given me comfort, for as he surrenders more to his deliriums, they have become as visions for him, and from these he has seen hope for my search for you. Indeed, he himself told me the name of the town in which I found the ring, though he did not know of any such a place, himself. Green Pond Valley. It wound up all the way into the mountains.”
Frodo kissed the ring, but could find no words.
“Lanethil and Harding looked for you, too, of course, when work could spare them...”
“Oh my–I have to pull myself together!” Frodo grabbed a comb where Mattie had left it on a jutting rock of the wall, and started frantically raking at his hair, without even sitting up. “Lanethil wants me for best hobbit, I have to get well so that...”
“Frodo, the wedding took place without you.” Gently she pulled the comb from his hand. “Harding was the best hob...man.”
Frodo stared at her, suddenly quiet. At last he asked, “What day is it?”
“So long as that...a month after my birthday. I missed my birthday.” His eyes grew wide “I missed most of autumn!”
She laughed, though she looked close to tears. “Happy birthday, anyway, my love. I had hoped against hope to share it with you, but I am just happy to share any day with you at all.”
“Autumn–everyone calls it the fairest time of all in the desert,” he murmured, staring up at the planks above his bed, “not too hot, not too cold, and the insects which had wakened in the spring go back to sleep. I looked forward to it, Mattie, my entire time in Mordor. Yet I saw naught but coal by day, and hectic fires in the night.”
“There will be other autumns, dear.”
“I have already turned twenty-nine years old; still not quite an adult, by Shire reckoning. Imagine that.” He shook his head. “I have missed the Autumn Festival, then, and the anniversary of my departure from Bag End, and several family birthdays. I have probably missed the birth of Bergil’s son...and for what?”
“Yes, Elenaril gave birth to a beautiful, healthy baby boy. You should see him–his blue eyes sparkle like they’re full of starlight.” Then Mattie reached into her bosom. “As for belated birthdays, I do have a present for you,” Her own eyes twinkled as she smiled on him. “Something else which you have missed, perhaps.”
“I deserve nothing. But show me anyway.”
He gasped at the very first glimmer drawn from the throat of her chemise. Proudly she held up the magnifying glass, dangling from its horsehair cord, the pink gems scintillating in the dimness of the room, as it slowly turned in the air before them. “I bought it back, Frodo.”
“Mattie, you’re a marvel!” He started to reach for it, but then held back. “No. I do not deserve it anymore.”
“But it’s yours! May gave it to you.”
“Don’t you understand, Mattie? It’s no good for me anymore! I refused the gift–I wanted nothing to do with insight ever again.” He found himself weeping, helplessly. “I don’t see colors in the dark, anymore, Mattie. All I see is...dark.”
“Foolish, foolish darling!” She kissed him on the brow, then lowered the cord down over his head. “Don’t you remember? We share this gift in common, now. It is mine to give back to you, every time you lose it. Your insight will come back, dear love. Everything will come back.”
It felt good, the cord around his neck just like the old days, the lens cool upon his chest. And something did seem to flow back into him, perhaps simply from the reminder that things lost can return.
“How did you ever manage it? Or the ring–or anything?” He began to realize just how many adventures she must have had without him.
“Well, they both changed hands several times since you parted company, but not even the final vendor knew the lens’s worth. I came across it in Bristlescrub, and thought that it meant I could find you there. But then I thought the same when I found your ring in Green Pond Valley. When I learned my error, each time, I tried to trace back all the buyers and the sellers, but the trail always ran cold.”
“How horrible for you!”
She sighed, not contradicting him, yet taking his hand in hers. “Sting gave me the most trouble of all, in Thornhollow, for the Nurnings do know the worth of weaponry, if nothing else. The price asked would have bereft me of the means to continue searching for you. In the end I had to beg Lanethil for help.”
“Lanethil? But he must hate me, for missing his wedding!”
“He has hated himself, for in the weakness of his recovery he failed to realize how your aid in his treatment opened up a wound into your sole. He now wonders if the last trace of evil from the crown entered in and made permanent the harm that Sauron did to you. If he had said something, perhaps we could have taken better care of you.”
“No,” Frodo whispered. “It was not all crown or Sauron. Something in me chose.” His free hand clenched. “Yes, like a rat chooses to nibble at the cheese within a trap, I chose!” Then he shuddered and his hand went limp, for he did not have the strength to sustain anger for long, not even at himself. “So tell me,” he said to Mattie. “What did Lanethil do to help?”
Mattie grinned. “Made a brand new sword and then caused it to look old. Then he went to the dealer by himself, claiming that he’d found a genuine elven sword in the Dead Marshes. He insisted that he wanted to trade it for the knife, because (so he claimed) he fancied a ratfolk woman who would do anything for a rat-sized elvish blade of her own. Since the man had already met me, trying in vain to bargain for Sting, he believed Lanethil and not only swapped the weapons on the spot (for who would choose a knife in preference to a sword of the same make, unless smitten-blind in love?) but also offered our elf a handsome finder’s fee for anything else that he might fish up out of the marshes.”
Frodo sat up. “Do you have it here, now?”
Mattie tensed, just a bit, then smiled sadly on him. “Later, when you feel better, I shall reveal it to you.”
“But I have to earn the right to bear it again, is that it?”
“No, no, I understand. Too well I understand.”
“It has nothing to do with earning. It is just that until your feelings settle down a bit, you had better not keep any weapon handy for awhile. I have been through this, Frodo. I know how woe can swoop in out of nowhere until death beckons.”
He sank back down onto his pillow with a sigh. “Yes, you are probably right. You still haven’t said how you found me, by the way.”
“Well now, that’s the strangest thing. I dreamed about dining with you and an elderly hobbit–on thin broth and tea, but quite happily–in a place that seemed familiar to me. You had the postal bags beside your chair that I used to carry for the Gondor/Nurnen run, and in my dreams it seemed to me, you know, in that way that dreams have, as though something had always been true and you’ve long known it and gotten comfortable with the notion, it seemed to me that you rode for the post, that that is how I knew you. Odd, though, that the bags held coal, not letters. Anyway, when I woke up I recognized the location as Squatting Rock and thought, ‘Oh no, I tried that one already!’ But the thought would not leave me be until I came here.”
She got up and fetched biscuits for them, and came back, sharing them with Frodo. “Again I asked if any had seen hobbits in Squatting Rock besides myself, and I heard the usual answer of Pongo Sallet, the messenger who had briefly taken my run–only finally I really listened, and learned that folks had seen him around recently, and in a sorry state at that. And then I knew.” She shook her head. “And so the rumors led me to the mines, and there I learned that you had lain there sodden in the streets, paralyzed with drink, on a night when wargs had terrorized the village. And in the morning none could find a trace of you.” She hastily gulped down a biscuit so fast that Frodo wondered if she’d even had time to chew.
Frodo waited while Mattie swallowed back a sob. “I almost couldn’t bear it for a second time, my love. I almost did what despair had always led me to before. If you had died from your poison, why should I survive my own? I knew the vendors here for what I wished–as I know the vendors in every town in Nurn.”
Frodo’s hand tightened on hers, as she found the breath to continue. “Yet on the way I happened to overhear another rumor, sweeping through the marketplace, and I lingered there to listen, having no reason to hasten to my destruction. People debated some strange tale of the ghost of Gollum wailing up from an old dead well, right here in town, not far from where you’d last been seen, as it so happened. Some speculated as to how the spirit might have traveled, in subterranean ways, from the gullet of the earth where once he fell, to surface once again in Squatting Rock–but why they couldn't say. And suddenly I laughed, and knew the answer to the riddle, though I still cannot say why it came so clear to me. I went there straightaway, bringing along the rope which you have always said to carry on the road.”
He kissed her hand. “Oh shame, that I nearly dragged you down with me!”
Yet Mattie hung her head, her cheeks flushed red. Barely audibly she said. “I lied, I think. To me as well as you. I wanted an excuse. I wanted to finally stop hurting. Giving up on you would do the trick, I thought.” Then she looked him in the eye. “Life always hurts. If it isn’t one thing, it’s another. It takes work to see past that, to the good things beyond, and I don’t always want to do the work.”
“Thank you! Thank you so much that you did!” He reached out and embraced her.
“I’d say you’re welcome, except that I owe my promises to Vaire, not to you.”
“Good,” he husked, “Because I am not strong enough to hold such promises.” He could barely fend back sleep now; the effort of so much conversation caught up with him. He let go, sank back, and said, “It hardly seems fair. Here I have clean sheets, good food, healing tea–everything that I did not provide for you in your own ordeal.”
“Yet you didn’t have Peregrin Took to feed you up ahead of time. Oh Frodo, have you any idea just how thin you have become? Each bone of your spine stands out like tombstones in a row. I came so close to losing you!”
“Small loss,” Frodo started to say, but she pressed her fingers to his lips.
“Hush! I know how you feel, but none of it is true. Your poor, battered mind cannot conceive of any use or dignity right now. You will have to take it on faith that I love you, that you matter very much to me, and that you have friends who will rejoice when you get well again, not to mention duties that could use your talents once these can return to you. Hush,” she repeated, “and rest. I will not speak too much of anything that lies ahead for you, lest the weight of the future overwhelm you, except to say that you have a place in all of my tomorrows. Sleep now, my beloved.”
And so he did, unable to do anything else for now.