Now Lost, Lost to Those From the East, Is Valimar!
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 34, Part 244
Three Steps to a Decision
December 19, 1452
Now it was Frodo who stopped often to give Mattie a rest, through that damp and tortuous countryside. With his arm’s help, she sat down on a half-rotted log and smiled up at him, from behind stray locks of hair, beslimed from head to toe with the marsh-mud that they’d had to splash through, her face wan and drawn. It panged Frodo to realize that she had become drawn, in fact, for some time now, while his own troubles had occupied him. She asked him, “Is this how married life always goes, taking turns on being the weak or strong one?”
“Pretty much,” Frodo said, rummaging through his pack, “from what I’ve seen of my parents. And when both feel weak at the same time, they just sort of lean on each other and muddle through together.” He found the squat, black jar that he sought.
Mattie’s smile faded. “I wonder what went wrong with my parents?” She wrinkled her nose at the astringent scent when Frodo opened the jar. “Why couldn’t they have leaned on each other?”
Frodo bent to rub some orkish ointment on a cut on her foot as she briefly bit her lip. “I can’t say,” he said softly. I don’t suppose anyone could say, now.”
Mattie gazed off thoughtfully, across the miles of shifting mists. “It seems strange, now, to think of Mama carrying me, just as I carry the grandchild that she will never see. And to think that those ruffians attacked her even as I nestled within her–over a mere bar-tab!” She looked to Frodo. “Why did Matt Heathertoes have to rescue us? Where was my father?”
Frodo shook his head. “I have no idea.” Not knowing what else to say, he wiped off his fingers and dug again into the pack. “Here–we both should eat something.” As lightly as he could he asked, “And what marvel of orkish cuisine have we here? Ah–garlkh pickled slug-paste, with mushrooms! Almost the last of the edible stock.”
Mattie grinned. “Is it my condition, or does that actually sound delicious?”
“Let’s just say delicious, for now. Do we have any bread left to spread it on? Ah yes, here we are! Good ol’ wry-bread. I had no idea that the ‘coarse gray loaf’ that Uncle Pippin once described could come to taste so scrumptious to me. I am not so sure that the wheaten loaves of the Shire would satisfy me now.” Spreading the preserved slug-fluff on slices, he added, “Do you recall that last breakfast from the Iingolug-Hai, of snails fried in butter? It wasn’t half bad, once I gave it a chance. A little indigestiony for me, but you did tell me to watch out for fats.”
“I wondered how they came by the butter.”
Between mouthfuls Frodo said, “Well, I suppose if anybody could milk a swamp-cow, it would be an orc. But some things are best not asked, I’d reckon.”
“Do you think it’s all right?” Mattie asked, looking at the sandwich.
“The preserves? Sure. Lulthak told me that not even orcs can abide spoiled slugs.”
“No–all the different things that we’ve been eating.” Her arms wrapped around herself
protectively. “Clams and spiders and fish. We have gotten careless, Frodo. Nurnings never eat anything from the Sea of Nurnen.” She looked pale. “What if I have poisoned my child?”
Frodo shook his head and took another mouthful of sandwich. “Don’t let it trouble you. The Iingolug-Hai may survive infections, but not poison outright. Whatever they can eat, we can, so long as it be fresh and clean.”
“But what if it’s fell in some way, like dragon-meat?” Her eyes grew wide. “What if my baby comes out wrong?”
“Do you ever feel a desire to dine on me?”
“No!” She stared up at him, appalled.
Frodo laughed. “Then I wouldn’t worry, if I were you. I know what that sort of poisoning feels like, and I don’t sense any of it here. Eat as much as you want, for yourself and for the child.” Then he smiled on her, saying, “I knew in my heart the wholesomeness of your rounding out, beyond any question of beauty. I knew.”
Mattie winced, holding her tummy, and then suddenly laughed. “Your son shall be a dancer,” she said. “I think he’s practicing his jigs already.”
“Or my daughter. And if a girl, I expect that she shall waft across the dance-floor as lightly as a wind-blown leaf.”
“Definitely a son,” Mattie replied. “Ladies do not stomp and kick with such abandon.”
Frodo took his turn to laugh. “A vigorous lad, then, full of life and joy!”
She glanced down and then up again, but sideways, suddenly shy. “If I do bear a son, may I name him Harding?”
“After the Captain of the Guard, you mean?”
“Yes. He kind of looked after me. He kept ruffians from harassing me in the streets, once word got out that you weren’t coming back anytime soon,, and he always inquired as to whether I had enough for the table, and he would find gigs for me so that when I came home I could go straight to work, bring in some more money, so that I could go out again.”
Frodo felt sorrow well up inside. “I should have been there. I should have taken care of you.”
Mattie just shrugged. “You’re here now. That’s all that matters.”
“Of course you may name our son Harding. Anyone who has been good to you deserves my gratitude.” He reached to help her back to her feet, but froze instead. “Mattie, do not move.” He stared into yellow eyes just inches from his wife’s right shoulder. Then he said, “Mattie, sing. Sing of stars.”
Mattie began to tremble, for now she could smell the canine odor and hear the panting in her ear. Yet she sang, as clearly and sweetly as ever she could:
”There sails across the skies a lonely star
Set apart from the gyre of the rest,
And I can feel it, though he rides out far,
For among all heaven’s lights I love him best.”
Behind her Mattie heard a canine whine. Voice shaking a little, she sang on,
“I still recall the blaze of blue-gray eyes
Of alloyed steel. Not man nor elf could fill
The boots in which he stepped. No greater prize,
Nor sadder, could outshine his Silmaril.
“His captive children left behind...” and here Mattie faltered, saying, “I cannot sing this song. Not right now. Maybe another...”
The warg growled. The hair rose on the back of Frodo’s neck, as he said, very carefully, “Seregril...Seregril...remember who you are.”
The warg’s ears laid back and she growled more loudly. Mattie shook visibly, now.
Frodo hissed, “Whatever you do, Mattie, do not act like prey.”
Seregril barked once, loudly, and Mattie shut her eyes tight, her mouth open and quivering, but she didn’t move.
“Seregril,” Frodo pleaded, “Remember who you really are. Who you want to be again.” He saw a couple spots suddenly darken on Mattie’s shoulder, and realized that Seregril drooled. Slowly, not taking his eyes off the warg, Frodo drew the magnifying glass from within his shirt, the pink gems glittering oddly between the beads of bone and cedarwood. “Seregril, I know why you have followed us. I know why you left us meat. You are better than the rest. If anyone can renounce the madness, you can.”
Now the warg trembled as much as Mattie, whining again. A golden light alternately dulled and shone in the troubled eyes. Then she growled once more, her lips drawn back from fangs, while tears rolled down Mattie’s face but the hobbit held herself absolutely rigid. The warg sniffed at Mattie’s neck, all of her hackles on end.
“Seregril...remember the dark of the moon.”
Teeth tested the hobbit-skin. Mattie couldn’t take any more; she shrieked and bolted for Frodo. Seregril followed after, snapping on Mattie’s skirts, thrashing them in a snarling fury till they ripped, then lunged again–yet Frodo shoved himself between them and thrust the lens at the maw. “Seregril, make your decision now!”
The warg yelped like a kicked dog and cringed back, ears flat. Mattie huddled kneeling behind Frodo, her breaths loud and fast.
Sternly Frodo said, “I do not know of any way to liberate you from wolf-form, Seregril Suldae, but if you want freed of the madness, at least, then walk towards me. Take three steps. If you can just take three steps towards me, I know–I know–that you can go free that much. Wouldn’t it be worth it?”
From her cowering position Seregril snarled, all her teeth bared, like a thing driven vicious with pain. Then she barked, leaning forward, but then cringed again as Frodo brandished the lens at her.
“You know what I’m saying–you feel its truth. If I ask too much of you, then run away. You have that right. But I don’t think you want to run away.” He stared into the golden eyes as if he could drive the insanity from them with a glare. “You know. If you can take those three steps towards me, of your own volition–right here, right now, while still in wolf-form, you can break the madness. Anyone can embrace sobriety with the bottle locked away, or foreswear lunacy by the dark of the moon. But you have to step forward NOW!”
The warg whimpered, lowering her head nearly to the ground. Then she took a step, halfway to the side, still cringing from the lens, but whether to run or to approach Frodo neither of them could say. Nevertheless, Frodo said, “One...that is good. One step.”
Shivering, her tail between her legs, Seregril slunk forward a little more, this time more in Frodo’s direction.
“Two...very good! You can do this, Seregril. Come on, girl, you can do it.”
The warg froze and suddenly bared her teeth, growling again, her shoulders drawing back within her rising hackles, as if to pounce or flee. A froth began to bubble at her mouth.
Cold sweat broke out on Frodo’s brow, but he coaxed her, saying, “You’re close, Seregril. You know what you want. One more step. Come and get it.”
Seregril stepped forward. Through the lens Frodo saw not a wolf’s but a woman’s half-crazed face, tears streaming down the cheeks, though everything beyond the jeweled frame remained in shaggy fur. At the same time the warg looked through the lens at Frodo, and saw truth there, also. She licked the lens, then Frodo’s hand. Then Frodo knelt and scratched behind her ears. She tumbled to the ground, feet up, her belly exposed, looking at Frodo imploringly. Frodo rubbed her belly, and she twisted back to her feet, panting happily now, wagging her tail.
Mattie burst into tears, collapsing onto her own lap. But then the hobbit pulled herself together, stood, and dried her eyes on the rags of her apron. “G-g-good girl,” she whispered, still shaking, but not letting that stop her from reaching out to pet Seregril. “Good girl!” A tiny bruise on her neck showed where a tooth had not quite broken through the skin.
Frodo also made much of the wolfling, petting her and saying, “You did it! Queen of wolves! You broke the madness! Now we shall find a cure for you, if we have to climb to the moon and back. Come with me, Seregril, and we shall find sages, people who know things that I cannot begin to understand, and we shall make you whole again, or at least happier.” He gave her the rest of his slug-sandwich, which she snapped up almost too eagerly, his fingers dodging barely in time.
Mattie swallowed, then forced a smile onto her pale face. She leaned towards the warg and stared into the golden eyes. “All right, then...the first order of business, now that we have your inestimable help, dear lady Seregril: can you sniff us a safe way out of this marsh, towards the dwellings of men?”
At that Seregril frisked about and wagged her tail in the affirmative, then trotted on ahead of them, with many a glance back over her shoulder to make sure that the hobbits followed. “Shades of my father’s day,” Frodo murmured to himself. “Yet wolves stay loyal, once won over, I imagine, much like hounds.”