From the Ashes a Fire Shall be Woken
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 34, Part 281
May of the Old Forest
The trees had grown sleepy with frost. That’s what Uncle Merry had told him, unlocking the gate and stepping out of his way, wishing Frodo well. The spider-webs on the High Hay looked diamond-dusted, and silver mists coiled around the trunks of trees.
Frodo turned up his collar against the cold and walked on in, under the near-bare boughs and their brown remaining leaves. He heard the gate clang shut behind him but it didn’t make him pause. He met little resistence. He could see the spirits of each tree, and stare them down, make them doubt themselves. He sang, then, as he walked, tapping into that connection that he had with his wife. He poured out the intensity of one who has suffered much and demands now something back. Green memories hung about him, of trees planted in a land long stricken barren, of soil made from scratch where earth had turned to brick, of an entwife befriended who had wandered mad and alone for far too long, of a child buried deep beneath scorched earth as reward for all his service. Boughs that blocked his way bent easily away. Roots curled up to trip him sank back into earth, ashamed.
He fell silent once more. His footsteps rustled through the leaf-clutter and the frostbitten straw. The old wood groaned around him as he passed. Long swathes of moss brushed over him, and twigs touched without scratching. The last few leaves fell on him, and some caught in his curls. Damp scents led him closer to the Withywindle, and frost began to rime the weeds and bark.
Frodo stopped, and sat upon a fallen log. He brought out a simple clay flute, but one fashioned years ago by an elvish hand. And on it he played a tune unheard before within that wood: a haunting eastern melody, that knew all sorrow and all loss, that understood the heart so much it hurt.
A trill answered him from high above. Almost he mistook it for a bird. Yet the lens warmed upon his breast, and his heart beat faster when he recognized it for what it was. He continued to play his song. Another trill came, tentative, feeling out the tune, trying to find its way in. He simplified the melody, and she sang harmony. Then the song increased in complexity again, and she matched it, more certain of her footing. It went faster still and she kept up.
He played the final bars and dropped the flute back into his pocket. One trill continued, faltered, and fell to silence, too. Then Frodo drew the lens out of his shirt.
“I brought it back, May. Just like I promised I would. I brought it back unscratched, though I think some elvish magic must have preserved it, after all that I’ve been through.” And he held it up, and gazed through it, and found the savage, green-streaked face high above him on an arc of willow-bough, hidden in one final burst of yellow foliage fluttering around her.
With a sudden crash of leaves she leaped down in front of him. Another hobbit would have recoiled at the sight. Leaner than hobbit-kind, and naked save for a necklace of green and silver beads despite the season’s chill, her thigh-length curls wild with leaves and twigs and spider’s web, her nails long and black and broken, the maiden did not resemble his onetime sister in the least, though she had her own feral beauty, he had seen enough to recognize that much. Yet she warbled out a tune of questioning, stepping closer, warily, crouching, ready to bolt at the least false move.
Frodo held the lens between them, so that she could look through it at him. “See? I am your brother returned indeed.”
“Naaoooooh!” she cried, leaping back, as a branch broke and hit Frodo in the shoulder. Her mouth contorted around sounds, trying to remember speech. “Naoh, oh, no, na bruh, na bruh, na...san? San dee?” She looked down on herself with doubt. “San deeee? O Gam geee?”
“No, you are right. The lens tells nothing but the truth. I am not your brother in blood, yet I have loved you as a brother in my heart. Can you remember the love? Can you not see how real it is? Here...take the lens.” He lifted it off of his neck and extended it out to her. “It is yours, after all. You only lent it to me.”
Tentatively, still crouching, she reached out. Her fingers fluttered over tooth and bone and bead and cord. Her hand passed over the slightly thickened space at the very back and her eyes widened, staring at him. “Youuuurs,” she quavered.
“Yes, that part was mine, for a little while.”
“Yours!” she insisted, now, pushing the whole thing back towards him. “Yours! Yours! No maorrrre me.”
“At least hold it for a moment, let it amplify your memories.”
“No! Noooo!” She fled into the forest, crying, “Naaaohhhhhh!”
The wind howled in the willows, and all of the boughs of all that wood soon swayed and creaked. Wooden litter rained down on Frodo, though a fighter’s reflexes whipped up Sting before he even realized it and deflected the blows that could have crushed his skull, his necklace rattling in his other hand as he spun.
” I am not done here!” he shouted, Sting still aloft. “And I am not an aggressor. Look on me, if you dare!” With that he dropped the hand with Sting, but raised instead the hand that held the lens, pointed down to his own breast. Slowly he turned in a circle, defying every tree to take a look, pausing longest before Old Man Willow himself, as he let his love for May fire up, so that from some angles the lens almost looked as though it focused a beam of sun. Whispers fanned out through the trees, in a radius from the hobbit like no natural breeze. “I am not done here,” he said more quietly. “And I am no foe to May of the Old Forest. I will leave for now, but you can expect me back.”
No branch nor root impeded Frodo’s way, as he left the Old Forest behind him. Yet those who lived beside the High Hay gave report that for a full week afterwards the woods seemed to whisper among itself, in crackles and sussurations, as though trying to make up its mind.
Days came and went. The last leaves fell. The frost grew thicker under the barren boughs. Birds fluffed up their feathers against the cold, and ice began to crystalize the reeds along the Withywindle.
He came to the same log as before, and laid out clothing that his sisters Rose and Daisy had made, together with Bosco, his brother-in-law. Warm, woolen things, in willow-green and silver-gray, sturdy enough to stand up to rugged use. The kirtle came short, barely to the knee, to allow for the climbing of trees, but the footless hose that went with it (striped in green and gray as a gift from Hyacinth Brandybuck) could supply all the warmth that one needed, and could have held up without damage through the toughest acrobatic use. Frodo turned his back and played a cheery Shire song, of coziness in the face of winter storms. When he turned around again, the clothes had vanished.
Winter now reigned across the land. The wind burned Frodo’s cheeks and nose the next time that he ventured into the stripped-bare forest, and everywhere he looked the spirits of the trees had taken on a gaunt appearance, sacrificing their twigs and tips, conserving their sap, digging their roots in deep for better days. He knew well that look, from the men and women of Nurn, in the days of want. He sang his commiseration, translating Mordor’s songs of winter and hope in spring, as he carried his armfuls of shaggy white fleeces from the shepherds among the Klaefield clan. He piled them onto the log, then placed atop them the brush, mirror, and other things that his wife suggested might come in handy. He played a tune, and left. He didn’t even linger to see if anyone claimed them, though he heard a snapping twig behind him. The forest let him be.
On his way out he heard a deep voice sing:
The Gardner who has lost the most shall have the most to gain,
Let he the forest once assailed take weregild for his pain.
What brother may not vow a friend might promise to a friend;
A Gardner she may be again, for love all rifts may mend!
Frodo paused, nodded, and went out the gate.
When the land trembled on the verge of Spring, Frodo had great reason to stay home in Hobbiton, unable to tear himself from a brand-new son who had entered the world with an almost-triumphant yowl, as though to call out fate and assert his right to exist. So it happened that Tom Gardner rode into the Old Forest in his stead, for the first time since coming back to life, to deliver the lighter gown of spring-green lawn and all that appertained to it. And Tom turned his back, and whistled a stable-boy tune, wishing that he had his big brother’s talent for music. Tom heard the sussurations behind him. At last he could not resist any longer; he turned to see if the mysterious forest-being had accepted the family gift.
And there he saw a wild and beautiful maiden, attired in what he had just brought, yet wearing it as though it were elven garb. And she wore as well a crown of willow-catkins upon her long, dark hair. It seemed that the wands had grown into a circle and fallen off the tree that very morning, just for her. Tom Gardner stared at her, and she stared back, and they both felt as though they’d known each other their whole lives, and yet at the same time never knew each other at all, frightened and enthralled by the mystery before them.
After that Tom delivered all packages to the Old Forest. It took about a dozen years, give or take, and some speculated more than a few visits to a certain home by the Withywindle, to stay a few nights and seek the advice of someone “older than the hills” as they say in the Shire, though few knew just how literally that old chestnut held true here.
But finally, on his thirty-third birthday, Tom came out of the Old Forest with a wild-eyed bride riding bareback before him. And he consented to what he called a second wedding, much like his brother had before, in the Town Square of Hobbiton and in the presence of witnesses, although he admitted that he’d had another wedding some years before, witnessed by those whose very existence some doubted, though his father had reason to believe him.
Thus, with little memory of her childhood to impede her, and no memory whatsoever of Tom from the days when they had mistaken themselves for twins, May became a Gardner for good.
May appeared, on the surface, to adjust almost immediately to life as a hobbit once more. She greatly enjoyed a good fireplace in winter, and shaved ice in the summer full of sweet fruit syrup. Clothing amused her tremendously, and she did much business at the Poppy, Rose, and Daisy Dress Shop, right next door to the newly established Bunce’s House of Fine Masculine Attire. She could giggle and gossip with the best of them, and kept a tidy house, and she learned her way around the kitchen well enough, though her husband could outdo her in the making of pies. Still, she did more than her share, surpassing all other lasses in the discovery of wild berries and mushrooms and tasty herbs. And if she surprised some people by hitching up her skirts and climbing to reach the highest fruits, nobody remarked on it too much.
The pony did not exist that she couldn’t gentle; that made her a fine match for her husband, everyone agreed. And she had a dextrous hand for fixing anything that broke, better than her Tom, so that he gifted her with a workshop all her own, just off of the stables. She seemed settled in for good.
Yet a lingering strangeness hovered about her, and Tom seemed to like that just fine. Sometimes people saw her, early in the morning, talking in their own languages to birds that ate out of her hands, or glimpsed her in the moonlight dancing between trees (some swore they’d seen her dancing up on the boughs of the trees themselves.) And over her hole grew two young willows, arching protectively over her. And if you paid really close attention, you could still see something of the wild in her step.
No hobbit ever heard or saw any menace from the Old Forest again. But then, no one ever went in there to cut wood, either.