The Adventures
of
Frodo Gardner

Volume I
Where Many Paths and Errands Meet
By Dolores J. Nurss

Chapter 22, Part 22
'Twas a Dark and Stormy Day...
(October 30, 1451)

Nobody had slept well. All five travelers had crammed into the Oliphaunt Pavilion against a moaning wind that knocked the structure over three times, till Eowyn finally flailed out of the puddled silk in disgust to sleep amid the warmth of the huddled ponies and horses. Come morning, Frodo woke with Legolas's knee in his face and Uncle Merry's elbow poking him in the back. He felt as stiff as a hobbit about a hundred years old or so, but he extricated his wrist (flung above his head) out from under Gimli's leg while the dwarf snored loudly enough to scare orcs, and hastened to sword practice, hoping that the exercise would heat him up a little.
 
It took some nudging to get the Lady of Ithilien to poke a disheveled head out from under several frost-rimed blankets, and three bleary blinks before she remembered where she was. Then she told him rather too sharply to stir up the coals for breakfast and turn his back while doing it. When she finally felt presentable enough for swordplay, Frodo threw himself furiously into the exercises till his wound ached and Eowyn called a halt, alarmed by his pallor.
 
"You have reached a dangerous stage," she said, "where you could fancy yourself more recovered than you are. Sheathe Sting and rest awhile." So they sat by the fire for a space, while Eowyn questioned him about birthday customs in the Shire, but that wasn't what bothered Frodo, not entirely, anyway. The night had put him in mind about Papa's stories of huddling against the stony cold of Mordor in winter. But he shrugged those thoughts away as having nothing to do with him--he'd have blankets in Mordor, himself, not to mention shelter, and fireplaces, and everything his father had lacked. It wouldn't be the same at all, and he rebuked himself for not counting his blessings. So he cheered himself by mixing up a nice pot of porridge, and writing home while it cooked. Yet even so Frodo found himself staring into the bubbling mix, wondering what lava looked like. Then he scolded himself yet again, remembering old maps: the Sea of Nurnen lay miles and miles away from Mt. Doom--which no longer even stood, anyway.
 
Slowly the others rose, stretched like ents trying to remember how to move as something other than trees, and stumbled off each to their morning business. Soon Legolas and Gimli joined Eowyn and Frodo and sat by the fire, gazing expectantly at the hot cereal.
 
"Where's Uncle Merry?" Frodo asked as he ladled out their breakfast.
 
"Brook," Eowyn said, hugging her knees in the cold. "Bathing. He told me in passing."
 
Gimli snorted. "Did he happen to notice the ice lining either bank?" The dwarf reached eagerly for his steaming bowl.
 
Legolas gladly warmed his hands on his own bowl, saying, "And people call me mad!" Steam curled around his weary face, which Frodo thought might have a greenish cast this morning.
 
"Are you feeling all right?" Frodo asked, but the elf just shrugged.
 
"He is no doubt made ill," said Merry, coming up behind them while vigorously toweling his hair, "from the odor of his company--where is your shame?"
 
"Where is your sense?" Gimli asked, moving the chain to make room for the hobbit beside him.
 
Merry retorted, "Has anyone ever told you, Gimli son of Gloin, that unwashed dwarves smell like old mushrooms?" Frodo reached surreptitiously for his still-moist pen-brush to jot that one down.
 
Gimli replied, "Has anyone ever told you that swimming about in icewater is a perfect way to catch disease and die? Here--have some hot food before you shiver yourself to death."
 
"Nice shade of blue, Uncle," Frodo said with a grin, "but it would look better for a shirt than the skin underneath."
 
Merry grumbled, "Utterly, utterly shameless!" and then wolfed down half his breakfast before the others began their own. "Nobody set a watch last night, either," he complained with a full mouth. "Disgracefully sloppy, if you ask me."
 
"Nay," said Gimli. "We have ridden many marches from Khazad-Dum by now--orcs will not travel so far in the open country without the whips of Sauron behind them."
 
As Merry served himself seconds, Frodo said, "Nice to see you're getting the day off to a good start, at least."
 
"The only good thing about it is this porridge," Merry said. "Have you changed the recipe, lad? It tastes richer, somehow."
 
Eowyn laughed with delight. "How wonderful--you have regained your senses of smell and taste already!" She gave the hobbit a hug, at which he wrinkled his nose.
 
"It is hardly an unmixed blessing," he said unchivalrously.
 
"I know," she said, unabashed, as she released him. "I smell like horse." Frodo got the impression from her grin that she relived some tomboy memory by saying it.
 
Merry asked, "But what do you mean, 'regain'?"
 
The healer explained, "One of the injuries that pipeweed inflicts is damage to the senses of smell and taste--it happens so gradually that the smoker often does not notice, until it comes back to him. Poor Merry--you must feel overwhelmed!" She winked then, saying, "Either that or you have completely forgotten the rigors of field conditions and have grown soft with age."
 
"Me? Never!"
 
"I can confirm that," Frodo said with a grin. "Everybody knows he's the orneriest ol' coot in the entire Shire, and a positive menace to rapscallions who cross him." Merry did not quite take this in the complimentary tone intended, but limped off muttering to roll his tent up.
 
"You're sleeping outdoors tonight," Merry growled when Frodo offered to help.
 
"Oh come, Uncle--you know I meant no harm. Here, let me untangle that..."
 
"Get your hands off my tent--to Mordor with you and all your 'help'!" Then sudden silence fell on the camp, while everyone stared at Merry and Frodo frozen tense beside him. "I...I didn't mean that."
 
Frodo said, "And why not, Uncle? That is, after all, where I'm headed."
 
Eowyn laid a hand on Frodo's arm; he flinched when she accidentally squeezed his wound. "You must not blame him, Frodo. It is the pipeweed hunger."
 
"I know," Frodo replied, so that all could hear. "But between the pipeweed business and Legolas's ring business, and new pacts between dwarves and ents, and orcs that nobody can see till they jump you in the dark, everybody seems to have forgotten what we set out for in the first place." And suddenly, saying it out loud, Frodo realized just how much it frightened him to have Mordor waiting ahead of him, land of his father's nightmares, land so terrible that hobbits used its name to cuss, land that the King himself expected him, an underage hobbit, to change and make bloom. "And while you're at it," Frodo found himself snarling, "you also forgot my birthday yesterday!" Then he stomped off to pack his own things, ignoring Merry's stricken face.
 
Eowyn sighed. "Of all the contagions that I have ever encountered, nothing spreads so swiftly as a bad mood."
 
Frodo had at least this much comfort--he could ride beside Merry on his own mare, now, recovered enough to need no close supervision, though Eowyn assured him that had a man lost as much blood for his height, he probably would have died. Frodo felt rather proud of that. Billie-Lass, at least, seemed pleased with this turn of events. Frodo's wound had nearly closed, leaving a wide pink scar. But it still irritated him no end, pulling painfully if he moved wrong, and itching horribly all the time. He did not feel like celebrating just yet.
 
They rode on in a grumpy silence, not helped in the least by clouds rapidly piling up in the stiff wind that rippled over the plain and blew right into their faces. On a different day Frodo might have enjoyed the shimmering of the grasslands in the wind, but his gaze didn't go far past his pony's neck. The travelers soon found themselves shadowed in a thick, gray overcast.
 
The first spatter of rain brought complaints from Merry, to which Gimli drawled, "What troubles you, hobbit? I thought you liked cold water."
 
"Better than cold comfort from an unsympathetic dwarf!" Gimli merely grinned and rode on.
 
Merry had more words to say as the rain increased, and again as the wind pushed back their hoods repeatedly with all the unwanted, wet affection of an icy dog, and still more words for a pelting of hail. Second breakfast in the saddle got soggy no matter how the hobbits and Legolas tried to shelter it (for Eowyn insisted that Legolas eat hobbit-meals with them) and this did not improve the merchant's temper, either. All in all, it seemed like a splendid day for wallowing in misery--indeed, designed for this sport and no other--and Merry let no opportunity go unwallowed. By the time they dismounted for lunch he had reached ripe form in the length and eloquence of his gripes, encouraged in the art by the muddy campground with nary a place to sit, the hopelessness of lighting a fire even by dwarvish art, and a heavier burst of rain that seemed to increase especially for the occasion. At last, as Merry heaped abuse on whatever passing fox had left a pungent surprise in the grass for his bare toes to find, Legolas threw up his hands and cried out to the heavens, "O Irmo, Vala of Dreams, grant us please that this hobbit sit on his own darts!" Even Merry had to laugh at that.
 
When they resumed their travels the rains fell even heavier, pushing down on them with a sheer weight of water till every back bent. So little sunlight made it through that noon seemed to verge on the brink of night, and all seemed a dream of darkness without waking. Even Merry fell silent; they heard nothing but rain and wind and the squishy thump of horse-hoofs slogging through mud. Frodo could barely see past a veil of drips from the rim of his hood. Nevertheless, a strange illusion caught his attention, so that he raised his face a little for a closer look. The wind appeared to comb towards them through the grass from all directions. Not evenly, though, but in separate trails, like arrows in the grass. Fear crept into his heart. He reached into his pocket for his glass...
 
Legolas screamed like none had ever heard from elven throat before, a rising wail of terror so sharp that it seemed one with the lightning that exploded before them.
 
"Orcs!" Frodo cried as the light-burst showed him face after hideous face. "The grass swarms with them!"
 
"Down!" Gimli cried to Legolas, who sat petrified, mouth and eyes stretched open. Then, getting no response, he grabbed the elf and rolled off the saddle with him, while the others circled around. Legolas laid there, immobilized, while Gimli stood over him, axe out and ready.
 
"I can't see them!" Eowyn shouted through the thunder's roar, as Merry vaulted from his pony up onto the horse that Gimli had just abandoned, grimacing as he wrenched his half-healed ankle to do it.
 
Merry called, "You too, Frodo--a pony can't take both of us." Frodo stood in his stirrups, trying to figure out how to copy his elder's feat, when Eowyn swooped by, grabbed him by the armpits, and threw him up onto the saddle, just as Gimli clove a sudden orc in two. Frodo scrabbled to keep from falling off for one terrifying second while the landscape whirled around him, then his "uncle's" arms closed around him.
 
Merry said, "Hold May's glass before my eye, Frodo." The old veteran took the reins in one hand and with the other braced his blowgun on Frodo's shoulder. "With your free hand, Frodo, load a dart into my blowgun every time I say--and for heaven's sake, don't prick yourself!" Then they took off, circling around the others, while the lightning flashed and the thunder shouted and the rain stung in their faces, Frodo clutching the horse's wide back with his legs, trying to stay seated while obeying his elder's shouts of "Load! Load!" every few minutes. Merry shot every orc in reach, maneuvering the horse like a showman through dizzying turns and charges, with but one hand and one eye for the task. The elder's bare feet could just reach the stirrups at an awkward stretch; Frodo hadn't noticed before, but Merry didn't actually stand that much shorter than Eowyn without her high-heeled riding boots.
 
The effort to see orcs before they burst upon her slowed down Eowyn's sword-strokes, but the drugged darts stole that edge from her enemies, and then some. The battle ended so fast that Frodo hardly caught his breath from the first moments of terror before all cause for it had passed. As the thunderstorm marched away across the plain, he saw nine slain creatures sprawled upon the ground, and Eowyn stood cleaning off her blade on the tatters of an old orc cloak, the raveling white hand of Isengard still embroidered on it. Her eyes flashed as Merry brought the horse about to her, with her wet hair snarled all around, and Frodo got a glimpse of how she must have looked in her youth.
 
"Just like the old days, Lord Holdwine!" she said with a fierce grin. "You soften 'em up, and I take 'em down."
 
Merry hopped off the horse, winced at a pang in his reinjured ankle, and then helped Frodo down after. "We always did make a pretty good team," he said.
 
She sized him up with her eyes. "With ents--and ent-draughts--ahead of us, I had best tell my brother to find a horse for you. Already I wonder if a pony fully meets your needs."
 
While they talked about old times, and Gimli knelt to see how Legolas fared, Frodo went over and studied the fallen with a certain horrific curiosity, some slain by sword and some by axe, their tiny eyes glazed over, their snaggle-toothed jaws hung slack in death. The thing that had fought him in Hollin looked shriveled by comparison to these great brutes. "So that is what the Uruk-Hai look like," he said, feeling slightly faint. For of course common goblins could not have waylaid them so far from their lairs.
 
His uncle nodded by his side. "Yes--you're right." Merry shuddered. "Those are features I can never forget. Some must have escaped the Huorns after all."
 
"I think not," said Eowyn. "They may have defected before the Battle of Helm's Deep. What other kind than a rebel would lust for a ring that might--just might--make half-elves out of them?"
 
Shakily Frodo said, "Hybrids have their own surprises, in orcs I guess the same as vegetables. Some do revert to types you thought bred out." He stared helplessly into the death-slack faces, afraid to think of what such atavism must have felt like to the slaves of Saruman.
 
Gimli interrupted them. "Lady, we need help over here." He knelt in the mud beside Legolas, who remained unmoving on the grass, his arms drawn up rigid, his face a mask of horror.
 
In an instant Eowyn shifted from warrior to healer, pulling her bag from the saddle and running to the chained pair. "Wounded? Either of you?" she asked.
 
"Nay, but Legolas is paralyzed or something. I thought I could bring him around, but I failed."
 
Eowyn knelt swiftly by the elf, but could not force his limbs to move. "The ring magnified his fear," she said. Fear of her own knit her brow when she felt his pulse. "He has gone into shock." Swiftly she shoved her pack under his feet and pulled out a blanket to spread on him.
 
"Fear?" Gimli snorted in disbelief. "I have seen him falter only once--briefly--and that was before a Balrog. Legolas even took on the gates of Mordor unflinching." Then he glanced over at Frodo and his face went red. "Morder as it used to be, I mean."
 
"All brave warriors know fear," Eowyn said, as she uncorked a vial that stank of ammonia. "Only his ring makes his terror overpower him." She waved the vial under the elf's nose, to no avail. Then she recapped it and stood in the unrelenting rain, looking utterly at a loss. "Any other patient I would sedate, but we have already seen the magic overcome my medicine."
 
Gimli tried to pull the stiff elf up into a rough embrace, but he might as well have hugged a gaping corpse. "The enemy's dead, Legolas--you're safe now." Then he grabbed Legolas by his muddy shoulders and shook him. "Come on, it's all right...Listen to me!" He let go and pounded his own knees with his fists, till he raised his head and howled into the storm, "I hate all rings! I shall never wear a ring as long as I live! Not for power, not for adornment, not for anything!"
 
Suddenly the word "adornment" triggered a memory of Papa comforting Frodo's fears as a child, on a night of lightning-storms and a spooky, howling wind. Feeling ludicrous, but before he could allow second thoughts to stop him, Frodo belted out one of Papa's songs in his earnest tenor:
 
"A troll there dwelt in an old stone hut,
With an old bear pelt wrapped around her gut.
She possessed no jewel but a bone in her nose,
And she looked like a fool when she'd primp and pose
 
In front of the mirror that she stole from an elf,
Till she'd froth in a furor at her ungainly self!
'Oh why oh why,' said the troll to her face,
'Must one lovely as I dress with so little grace?'"

 
Frodo could not remember a more lunatic moment in his life. His friends all stared at him, utterly shocked--even Legolas! Encouraged, Frodo kept it up.
 
"So one night she crept to the heart of the Shire,
While the hobbits all slept, for to change her attire.
'Twas Miss Poppy's Shop in the center of town
That led her to stop for a pink velvet gown.
 
A window she broke, and then let herself in,
For an over-short cloak in a bright leafy green.
Sure, she split the gown's seams, but then why should she care?
For ribbons in reams now entangled her hair."

 
Their dropped jaws began to twitch towards smiles as Legolas sat up and his blanket slid off, his stiffness seeming to melt even as the rain lessened.
 
"For a sleek purple belt and a broad scarlet hat
She stripped off her pelt, left to stink on the mat.
Some bright yellow britches squeezed the warts off her hide.
Though she burst through the stitches, she still wore them with pride!"

 
Now his audience laughed out loud, elf and dwarf, hobbit and human.
 
"Away then she danced through the dewy town square,
With nary a glance at the lightening air.
Too late now she froze at the sky's brightening blush
As the dawn's sunlight rose in a dazzling rush!
 
Oh the troll tried to flee, but her clothes made her trip,
Though she cried every plea, though she pulled and she ripped,
The sun rose above her and turned her to stone,
In her mismatched gloves and her old nose-bone."

 
As if in response to the song, the sun broke through the clouds and bathed them in light and warmth.
 
"Now the townsfolk had long wished a sculpture so fair
For the price of a song might complete their town square.
But that day they came 'round and they cried with a hiss,
'Who the devil has found one as ugly as this?'"

 
Legolas laughed till tears streamed from his eyes; Frodo didn't think the song was all that funny, but fear can make anything hilarious out of sheer relief. Eowyn looked back and forth between Legolas and Frodo and finally said, "How did you do that?"
 
"It's an old trick I learned from Papa," Frodo said. "He often quieted our fears when we were young by giving us something to laugh at--especially our crazier fears that reason wouldn't help with, like monsters under the bed or skeletons scratching at the windows. Papa made up that song, in fact--he's got scores of funny troll songs. We keep urging him to write them all down, but he's only actually jotted down a couple."
 
"That one I never heard," said Merry. "I'll have to coax it from Sam the next time I corner him at the Green Dragon." He smiled wryly at Frodo. "Your song's not bad against pipeweed cravings, either."
 
"You are a sorcerer!" Legolas gasped between bouts of laughter. "Look--see? You even made the sun come out." He had to fight down persistent snickers before he could add, "The next time I see a balrog, I promise I shall picture him crammed into a pink gown over yellow britches, with a green cloak hanging off one shoulder!" Gimli chortled, too, till he gave himself hiccups.
 
Eowyn took Legolas's pulse, as the elf looked on, still chuckling slightly, and relief flooded her face. "You might well have saved Legolas from a heart attack," she said. "I shall have to remember the therapeutic use of humor in the future--I have learned so much of herbs and medicines that I sometimes forget the obvious and most efficacious cures that come from ourselves." Frodo promised himself that he, too, would remember the power of humor, whatever terrors awaited him in Mordor.
 
(That night, making camp, Frodo accidentally left the pouch with its one remaining dart lying about in the tent, where Merry almost sat down, but Legolas grabbed it just in time, apologizing profusely to Irmo for vain words spoken in a moment's ire.)

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