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
"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
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
As Merry served himself seconds, Frodo said, "Nice
to see you're getting the day off to a good start, at
"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
"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
"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
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.
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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
Though she burst through the stitches, she still wore
them with pride!"
Now his audience laughed out loud, elf and dwarf, hobbit
"Away then she danced through the dewy town
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
Though she cried every plea, though she pulled and she
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
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
"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
"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
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.)