From the Ashes a Fire Shall be Woken
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 10, Part 255
The King's Jugment
By the time the hobbit and his jailer had reached the Citadel proper, Frodo had become so sweaty that he wondered why anybody had bothered to bring him a basin to scrub up with in the first place. He arrived at the door into the palace living-quarters quite out of breath and shaky in the legs, blinking in the brighter illumination of many chandeliers, golden light shimmering on all of the polished surfaces of wood, stone, and metal. A Tower Guard took over, unsnapped his chain, and escorted him to a strangely familiar room.
“Frodo!” Mattie collided with him in an enormous hug. “Oh, I worried about you so!” She tugged him in, and the thick rug felt good to his stone-weary feet.
Frodo looked around him. He had visited here before. In fact he almost felt as though he’d slipped about in time again. Two hobbit-sized, overstuffed chairs now sat before the fire rather than one, and no bottle of wine sat upon the side board, but other than that nothing had changed. The roasted chicken smelled just as swooningly delicious, and the golden butter shone like puddled satin on the piled vegetables.
“Go ahead,” a deep voice said from the door. “As a healer trained, myself, I think that we may allow you butter for a special occasion.”
“Your highness!” Frodo exclaimed, spinning around to bow to the familiar, lanky figure in a worn old robe.
“Now, now, have a seat and fill up your plate. You did not stand so on ceremony at your own table, when I came to you as Strider.”
“I had not been your prisoner, then, your Highness.”
“Your idea, not mine. Sit! Eat!”
Frodo lost no more time. He dove into the piled plate with genuine silverware, surprised at how hungry he felt. It suddenly occurred to him that his nerves had kept him from eating all day long.
The King leaned on the side-board and said, “I hope that the gaol met your exacting standards. Do you feel sufficiently punished for what you could not help? Or does this touch upon more than your breach of exile?”
Frodo looked up from his food, glanced at Mattie, then gazed back at the King. “I cannot even keep track of everything for which I deserve punishment.”
Elessar sighed, then pulled up a chair from the corner, and sat down opposite the hobbits. “No one can, Frodo. We may all thank our stars that Justice and Mercy share one source.”
“I don’t know anyone in the Shire who has done as many terrible things as I have done.”
Elessar pared himself an apple. “And how much of that can we attribute, I wonder, to a lack of opportunity? Or temptation? Yet when Saruman decided to take over the Shire, he found some willing enough to turn in their neighbors for their own petty ends. Naturally, no one ever talks about such things, these days.” He laughed, ruefully. “They have all become former freedom-fighters, without exception.”
“At least that shows that they want to be better than they’ve been.”
“And you do not?” Elessar offered him an apple slice. Frodo ate it with a bit of chicken. The King waited for the hobbit to reply, but when Frodo did not he said, “I know you do, Frodo. The shameless do not send themselves to prison. Indeed, I count you better than your worthies of the Shire, for you have never, so far as I can tell, ever pretended to be better than you were.”
“You did not know me in Squatting Rock.”
“Conceded. Yet even in that case you insist, now, on pointing out a few months of hypocrisy. Frodo, all of the Ainur Unfallen love a humble heart. When will you put aside your sole, persistent trace of pride, and accept that you have received forgiveness for everything?”
Frodo looked up from cutting more chicken. “Everything?”
“Shall I make it official? I suppose I must, that being my office.” He raised his hand over the hobbit’s head. “Frodo Gardner, son of Samwise, I hereby declare your exile at an end!” Then, lowering his hand, he softly added, “I could not have devised more punishment for you than you have already inflicted upon yourself.”
“There is still the matter of my resignation. Did you get that in the mail?”
Elessar raised a brow. “I did. And I promptly tossed it into the fire. Frodo, I am not in the habit of dismissing those who suffer wounds in the line of duty–not even if they stab themselves in the foot. You seem to have recovered sufficiently to resume your responsibilities. Your post awaits you in Seaside, if you would have it.”
Frodo paused a long moment, fork halfway between plate and mouth. Then he nodded. “I would. I can hardly believe it, myself, but I would. Mordor calls to me.” He paused to chew thoughtfully before continuing. “The land...Strider, the land reminds me of a beaten, ill-used woman, stained yet not by her own doing, honorable in heart though forced to degradation. Now that we’ve driven off her captor, everything in me longs to lift her up and clean her up, bind her wounds and comb her hair, nurse her back to health and sanity, and remind her of just how beautiful and true she really is. I would see her adorned, sir. I would see her laughing and plump and fruitful!”
Mattie gazed on him with misted eyes, while the King smiled and said. “I know. And that is why I want no other for my Royal Gardener. There are some, Frodo, who would abandon an ill-used woman as too stained for love.”
“Then they are brutes with no sensibility!” He stabbed the chicken with his fork. “The bravest, strongest, most inspired in the face of adversity, coolest in a crisis and wisest in the triumph of the light, are those who have conquered great suffering. Why should we expect the female to differ from the male in that regard?”
“Why indeed?” Then Elessar turned to Mattie, his face gentle and grave, and said, “As for you, dear soul–I have no words sufficient for what you have suffered, yet take comfort in this much, at least. You have faced the deepest sorrow that life could ever summon for you, and you have prevailed over it.”
She wiped her lips and said, “I did not manage alone.”
The King smiled. “We never do.” He leaned over and threw another log into the fireplace, and said, “And now tell me everything–all of your adventures, for my palantir has shown me only jumbled glimpses and I fain would know the tale entire.”
Mattie paled, and Frodo felt his own blood fail him. “Your highness...but I have such an ill tale to tell...”
Strider rose and kicked the log into place with a flurry of sparks, revealing a weathered boot beneath the robes. “Report, nonetheless, as your sovereign commands–and as your physician prescribes. I think that you will discover that though the night holds more dark sky than stars, yet the stars shine all the brighter for it.”
So, taking turns, Frodo and Mattie each told how they had spent the past months, Frodo adding whatever he could remember, as unexpected details surfaced in his memory, and brought him tears or (surprisingly) laughter. And the laughter at his own folly seemed to release him, more than all of the self-chastisement in the world, from the things that he did not wish to desire.
In between these revelations Mattie filled in the details of her search for her beloved, the travails and the discoveries, the set-backs and the sudden clues. Frodo marveled, for though they had traveled long together since, he realized that she had held back the tale in its entirety until now. Even as the King had said, the moments that most shamed her, the times when she had given up hope and returned to Seaside, made all the more poignant those moments when she turned around again and assayed another search. Frodo felt humbled, unworthy of such love. Then she caught his eye and held it, and for a second something passed between them: through her he remembered Mattie at her worst, and realized that nobody deserves love, it always comes as an unlooked-for blessing.
Now their tales wove more tightly together, as they reached the point when Mattie pulled Frodo up out of the well (and Strider questioned closely about the strange visions that came to Frodo in delirium, for the King had loved Bilbo before Frodo had been born.) Often Mattie and Frodo finished each other’s sentences, as they spoke of the days of healing, the lapse and recovery, and the journey out into the marshes. Tar Elessar listened raptly to the tales of the People of Gauria, and he leaned forward as one mesmerized when the hobbits shared all that they could recall about the Iingolug-Hai.
“I had always hoped,” he said at last. “Forlornly, calling myself a fool, quelling my hope when fate forced me to slay orcs as heartlessly as one might crush flies. Yet I could never drive from my memory the sight of that one warg-rider with his hand upon the muzzle of his dying beast. A seed, at least, of love, though seeds that fall into mortar never grow.” His eyes shone when he clasped Frodo’s shoulder. “What a blessing you have brought to me, to tell me that somewhere the seed has fallen into soil, that sprouts move towards the light! May Grumbull and Lobbie Aadar prosper in every good endeavor, reap sweeter fruit than they had ever imagined, and at long last die in peace, to come to Mandos Hall with good report. May Morgoth, in the final battle, quail to witness goblins ranked among the host opposing him, and read there his defeat before the first horn blows!”
He also took great interest in what the hobbits had to say about Seregril. “So one broke free, at least. Sauron, Lord of Werewolves, had the greater victory there, yet she has proven its imperfection. May others follow her example!” However, when Frodo told of her death at Wandlimb’s hands, the King smiled rather than frowned, and bade Frodo lend him the Lens of May for a moment.
He stroked a fang and said, “This glass might heighten your perceptions, yet not always your recollection, if you fail to ask for it. You have not only forgotten your family history–to wit, the battle of Hollin–but also everything that you ever knew about wargs. Seregril has not died.”
“What?” Frodo leaped up so fast that Strider had to move quickly to keep the hobbit’s plate from crashing to the floor.
“Did you not know that wargs vanish into dust when slain? They live long past the natural span for wolves, so that when unmade, the spell unravels and releases the flesh from existence. Yet I see four very solid teeth here in this necklace–therefore she must live.”
After that Frodo could not resist snatching back the necklace from the King’s own fingers, clutching it to his heart while his wife put her arms around him. “After, after all of these bereavements,” Frodo finally stammered, “it heartens me to hear that even one has turned out untrue.”
Then the hobbits finished their tales, as the fire sank to coals, of Hazel’s madness and the conflagration, the reunion of ent and entwife, and finally they summoned the courage to speak of the birth and death of Harding Gardner. Yet the tale did not end there; Frodo shared everything about his meeting with the three Valier, and their messages.
“So...” the King mused, “You did not so much commit murder as suicide. I did well, then, to lift your exile, for such an act goes beyond the jurisprudence of Gondor. And Vaire seems satisfied as to her claim against you, so who am I to dispute the will of a Vali?” As if in sympathy, the faintest hint of light began to color the blackness in the windows.
Frodo tried to find the right words to respond to the King’s grace, but his weary mind seemed to become more sluggish by the minute. He startled himself by yawning instead.
Elessar nodded, his eyes keen upon the hobbits. “You have given me a great deal to think about, my friends, and more than enough for two weary travelers who need their rest. Yet I must say one last thing ere we part. Some gift of foresight have I, as perhaps you have heard. And I say to you, Frodo and Matthilda Gardner, that though the night has ended, yet the dawn has not yet come in full. You must hold to your courage, and hope for the best. More consolations await you, ere the risen sun dispels the night entire. To your beds, then, good hobbits!” He rose. “Unless, perhaps, Frodo might wish to return to his bench in the gaol instead.”
“No, your highness. Thank you all the same.”
“Well, I am glad to have that settled, at least.” Strider clapped his hands together. “I have documents to pen ere I retire, confirming your change of legal status, and arrangements besides these to make. Then I too shall get my rest; the King at least enjoys the prerogative of setting his own hours.” He smiled warmly on the hobbits. “Sleep in as late as you please; I will see to it that none disturb you.” And with that he left.