From the Ashes a Fire Shall be Woken
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 18, Part 263
The Poros Canal
February 16, 1453
They heard the commotion some ways away. At first they felt it more than heard it, a rumbling unease that reached deep inside the body. Then it came to them like thunder on the horizon, though the skies had cleared of clouds upon a crisp, cold day (yet a strange haze hung on the air to the east.) Gradually, after a few miles, it sorted itself into a range of noises: thumping, grinding, clanging, crashing bedlam. Sometimes an especially loud sound stung the ears and nerves. As they drew closer it became still louder and more layered, and now they heard voices shouting back and forth across the clamor. But the real surprise came when they rounded a great spur of rock and saw what lay beyond.
The hills stood naked all around a deep canal in the making, stripped of brush for campfires, the mud churned up and rutted with the tracks of wheels. Piles of rocks accumulated here and there, dragged out of the way, waiting for hands to mortar them into new purposes. Clouds of dust hung in the air, laden with the smoke of so many campfires in one hemmed-in space, staining the sky itself. Sauron could not have wreaked more havoc if he’d tried.
Frodo stared in astonishment. He had never seen so many human beings all working together on a single thing in his life. Here he had thought his community projects in Seaside had been something, but now he saw thousands upon thousands of men ahead, as far as he could peer down the miles of the new-made gorge, that they themselves had carved straight into the hills ahead and getting deeper as he watched: men who shoveled earth, sledge-hammered rocks, pulled at ropes on pulleys, pushed heaping wheelbarrows, raised up scaffolding, built retaining walls, or ran after dwarf advisors with armfuls of scrolls.
Under awnings, a softer sort of men sat at camp-tables and scribbled away at stacks and stacks of paper, all held from blowing away by rocks upon the rattling pages. Supplies needed accounted for, how much brought in, how much expended. Lists of tools broken, when and why, had to square with replacements coming in. Schematics needed reviewed, disapproved, revised, approved only to fail when topography turned out not to agree with the plan, and then revised all over again. Measurements needed taken, of hardness, moistness, angles, and distances of every kind, to try and prevent the next set of plans from failing.
Laborers became another kind of resource listed on the ledgers. Records needed kept as to who worked for how long, at what tasks and at what risk, and how well, and also note made of who dropped out for legitimate reasons, who skipped work for causes less acceptable, who required injury pay and how much would they need in herbs and bandages. Disciplinary actions and commendations both needed processed, with appropriate cuts in pay or bonuses bestowed. And the nature of humankind being what it is, under all circumstances, scribes had to continually change records to account for marriages, births, and deaths, the same as in a more permanent community.
For along topside, on either bank of the canal, a great host of women toiled in a veritable city of tents and covered wains. Mudstained hems fluttered over the toes of unwomanly boots, hard stares glinted from beneath heavy winter hoods, chapped faces had no time for cosmetic arts. It had not sufficed to hire the strong backs of men alone; so much remained that they could not tend readily for themselves after a day’s hard labor. So the women, some on the payroll, some bound by matrimony, swept out the temporary shelters, hung out steaming laundry in the chill February air, hollered after children, gathered firewood, mended torn work-clothes, or stirred great cauldrons of the sort of soup that needs to boil tough meat all day long. Still more women loaded donkeys with water in endless shifts, and drove them, one after another, out to the laborers. Returning handmaidens piled their empty bottles up by the new-dug spring, to wait for still others to refill them.
Men who brought in wives to share in the labor got double-pay, for Tar Elessar was nothing if not fair. Since this also went for those who wed on-site, many an outcast “camp-follower” became an honest woman by the King’s largesse, and never told anyone afterwards that she had made her vows under the man-made cliffs at Poros Pass, her boots firmly planted in the churned-up mud, calloused hand clasping calloused hand.
One broad, white pavilion quivered and snapped in the wind, and silhouettes moved vaguely within. Women went in with linens and baskets of herbs, and came out again with bloodied rags for the tubs of the washer-women. Sometimes a groan or scream rang out from that place, piercing through the noise. A labor of this magnitude could not get by without injuries, so the King provided for all contingencies.
“Good heavens!” Frodo finally breathed. “I had no idea of the scope of what I had asked for.”
He climbed down from Curry and stared at the torn-up slopes like someone surprised by a stab. But then he felt Mattie’s hand in his. “Do not grieve for the land,” she told him. “You see here surgery, not the mayhem of the enemy. Tar Elessar’s men seek to restore what should always have been.”
“That is how it begins, anyway,” Frodo said in despair. “But what they learn here, they will practice elsewhere, for baser reasons.”
“I cannot answer for that. I only know that a good thing happens right here, right now. Painful, yet healing.” She turned to him, “Don’t let guilt become a habit, Frodo. Not everything you do goes amiss.” She shook his hand a little, “Darling, think on it–the Trapped Ones will all go free! Surely you must see that?”
“Yes,” he said. “I see them. And most do rejoice. But some also mourn. Some have genuinely come to love this land, however it has tormented them to stay here. They might receive, as part of their penance for taking the wrong side, reparation work right here, as they desire–yet they do not know for certain. They brace to throw themselves on the mercy of an enemy whom they fear to trust. Most of all, though, in this hour, they look at the works of men, and wonder if it differs all that much from the works of Sauron. They wonder if surrender will make any difference at all, or if they shall find themselves on the wrong side no matter what.” Frodo looked at Mattie. “I wonder if anyone who has not fallen understands the sheer courage that it takes to change one’s course? How much more faith you sometimes need than one who has never let faith go?”
She kissed him on the cheek. “I know, love. I know. Yet it all proves worthwhile, in the end.”
He shook his head, gazing out to the East. “Poor Sauron! He couldn’t quite make it. Few understand just how hard he tried.”
“Yet he made his own choice, Frodo. He chose not to submit in person to the Valar. He refused the healing that he needed.”
“How did he know for sure that they would heal him at all?” Frodo raised his free hand, gesturing at beings that Mattie couldn’t see. “How do these know?”
She squeezed his fingers. “Because you do. Because the person who promised to rejoin the rivers fell, as they did, and received healing, and now returns to prove that Nienna still dispenses mercy from Valinor. Husband, I can no longer see what you do–if ever I did, without distortion–yet I can feel, through you, more than mourning. I feel hope in these hills. Perhaps you stand too close to tell, but it may be that the only reason so many fallen maiar dare to accept amnesty at all is because it comes through you.”
“Come! See!” They heard Boromir shout. They followed the voice to the boy, who stood by a dwarf spreading charts out on a jutting rock. “See? I discovered this scroll, myself, in a copper tube buried in the rubble of Osgiliath, when my family vacationed there last year. And now Master Lori says that it holds secrets lost even to the dwarves!”
“That would be Mistress Lori,” the dwarf said with a bow. “Lori, daughter of Nori, at your service.” Frodo wondered if he imagined it, or if her beard really was finer and more silky than the average.
“Matthilda Gardner at yours.”
“Frodo son of Samwise at yours and your family’s,” Frodo said, bowing in his turn, and then added, “And if I am not mistaken, your family and mine has been at each others’ service for quite some time, now, indirectly at least, through our own service to the Baggins family.”
“Ah yes, the Baggins family. Most remarkable hobbits!” She dimpled in a way at odds with her rugged features.
Boromir blurted, “Daughter? You are...female?” and without realizing it his finger went to the downy corner of his lip.
The dwarf smiled sadly and said, “Yes. I see no purpose in hiding my nature any longer. Secrecy has become pointless in a race with no future. I have born five sons–one would expect at least one daughter.”
Frodo saw the look on Mattie’s face and whispered in Lori’s ear. At which the dwarf reached out to Mattie and said, “My dear, I am so sorry! Forgive my prating, please!”
Mattie crossed her arms tightly against herself. “It is all right. You couldn’t know.”
After an embarrassed silence, Lori turned back to the scroll. “The channels which we cut through stone, deep in the hearts of mountains, require altogether different lore from channels carved from the surface-soil under the open sky. Earth must find its angle of repose, else all will tumble down upon the heads of any sailor unfortunate enough to navigate the course. We have much to learn here, alongside men.”
Boromir picked up another scroll, in the runes preferred by dwarves. His eyes widened and he breathed, “I wish Barahir were here to see this!”
Elboron came up behind him. “Your brother Barahir does his duty in the armies of the King, as well he should. He may become a scribe in his later years if he pleases, yet nobles have duties that they must first fulfill.”
“But Father,” Boromir pressed. “What if he never comes back?”
“Then we shall honor him for a short life well-spent. Yet he will return, son, never fear.” Elboron smiled wryly, patting the shoulder in front of him. “Whatever Vala has punished me with three scholars in one family has not yet finished with me.”
Mattie stepped forward stiffly. “Then you would account it a punishment if your son returns alive?”
Elboron flushed. “I did not say that.”
Frodo told him,“Take care in what you do say, my lord, here of all places. I know that better than most. Dark spirits hear dark words in this country, and grant the worst of accidental wishes.”
Mattie’s tense face had gone pale. “Do you have any idea,” she asked, “how much I would give to have my son alive again, even if he grew up to be a pickpocket? And you demur at a scholar!”
Boromir meanwhile laid a hand on his father’s arm, and in a quiet voice said, “Theodred has no love for scrolls. He longs to be a warrior. Could he not make up for the faults of his elder brothers, when he grows old enough?”
Elboron blinked at him, then looked to Mattie, then back to his son. He threw a rough arm around the boy’s shoulders. “Forgive your old bear of a father! Study is no fault, not in you, not in Barahir. I was never pupil enough to suit my own father; I should not punish you simply because the grandsons have succeeded where the son has failed.”
Frodo remembered his conversations with Eowyn. “My Lord, you have not failed your mother. She values warriors in the family.”
Elboron nodded awkwardly, his face still red. “Come, Boromir. You need to meet your trademaster, and receive your quarters–if you hold to your resolve to go through with this.”
“I do, father, for a season at least. I need these skills, and these strengths, if I am ever to unlock the secrets of the earth.” But solemnity never sat long upon the lad, and he soon grinned. “And no one can say what my shovel might chance upon along the way. The ash of eruptions can sometimes preserve as much as it destroys.”
Frodo said to Mattie, “We had better find our own quarters, beloved–if anyone can ever sleep in all this racket.”
“Oh, I’m sure it will all quiet down by fall of night, my love. Men need sleep as much as anyone else.”
“For now.” Sometimes he could remember snatches of Saruman/Sauron’s vision of the future, where lights shone out the whole night long, and nothing ever silenced the Machine.