Through Shadows to the Edge of Night
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 16, Part 46
(December 14, 1451)
The travelers reached Osgiliath by late afternoon of the second day--that fabled city of both East and West, straddling the Anduin, its ancient and its modern stonework dancing in pillar and arch, balcony and spire, to the tune of every culture that had ever sailed a ship into its channels. Although new stones glowed fresh and unstained against the old everywhere that Frodo looked, ruins still remained, here and there, even thirty years after the Great War. Yet even so life bustled down its thoroughfares; laughing children darted through the stumps of columns, vines bedecked the fallen walls, housewives gossiped over laundry where the water gushed from a broken fountain. Over all towered the remains of what had once been the most magnificent of domes, now open to the sky and echoing with the sound of many wings as the doves flew in and out.
Frodo pointed it out to Bergil, asking, “Why haven’t they repaired that building yet? Gimli son of Gloin has sent enough master crafts-dwarves to Gondor, surely.”
“They leave it as a monument to their dead,” said Bergil. “They gather there by candlelight on the anniversaries of great battles and sing their elder’s deeds. The voices spiral up the curving walls like something unearthly, and escape out to the stars.” Bergil shook his head, smiling. “Osgiliath is as proud of her scars as an old warrior. To each his own madness.”
“And what is your madness, my friend?” Frodo asked as he stopped a nanny-goat just in time from nibbling the kerchief from his pocket.
“The company I keep,” Bergil answered with a grin. They turned down a narrow street that Bergil knew, patchwork-shaded by the lines of laundry stretched out overhead, their goats bleating on ahead of them. Frodo could hear the rushing of the Anduin grow closer the deeper they went into the city.
Frodo said, “I was talking about you waking up the goats last night--I had a terrible time settling them all back down again. What happened, Bergil?”
“Oh, was I snoring?”
Frodo hesitated. “You were screaming.”
Bergil frowned for just a fraction of a second, then shrugged. “I remember no screams. Are you sure you did not merely hear me snoring loudly?”
“I’d know. My father has awakened me often enough the same way. He gets nightmares...”
“Nightmares. They mean nothing. The sun rises and you find no wounds...Here--keep the goats away from those onions!” He pushed his crook between an eager nanny and a string of vegetables drying from a porch. “The sooner we get these animals to proper fodder, the better. This way.”
Bergil took another turn, down a somewhat broader avenue leading towards the poorer end of town, as the shadows lengthened closer to twilight with every step. Here the repairs used rubble more than new-cut stone, set into place by untrained human hands and not by dwarves. Oddly enough, though, these scars of war brought a lump to Frodo’s throat, seeing the way that men could find the courage to set things right, even without good materials or knowledge--almost hobbitlike, he thought. He hoped that Sauron had not altogether beaten that spirit out of the people that he soon would meet.
Bergil said, “I know of a shepherd’s inn just over the bridge, with corrals and pens, good hay for the purchase, and a clientele that cares naught for the smell.”
“An inn! Do you know I am so sick of inns that I would gladly go the entire rest of the distance camping under the stars?”
Bergil smiled down on him. “And you call me mad.” Now they wound through several alleyways, one in front, one behind, bottling in the nervous goats, none of whom liked the barking of a nearby dog. “But you will get your wish soon enough--this is our last chance for a long, long time to quaff a decent beer.” One of many fair bridges to span the Anduin now arched before them, and Bergil led them onto it, the lowering sun stretching their shadows out before them as long as ents. “I for one intend to make a merry night of it, while I can!”
Frodo reconsidered--a merry night with Bergil, of all people, might well deserve his time. “Do men abstain in Mordor, then?” Frodo asked as they crossed, the waters surging underneath their feet.
“No, but what they brew is vile. Keep the goats together and away from the slippery footing at the sides. Ah, here we are!” At the bridge’s end he made an immediate right turn straight into the embrace of an inn.
The Cloven Horn, as the inn was named, stood a good three stories high, and looked to have been built entirely of the wreckage of different buildings, contrasting in stone and architecture. Odd bits of carving protruded from the walls in no particular order, like fragments of a giant’s puzzle worked in hapazardly with the bricks and the blocks. Mismatched pillars flanked the entry into the courtyard, within which they found a variety of enclosures for animals. And yes, it did smell rather rank, although stablehands worked to clean the pens, pitching manure into a midden-cart even as the travelers herded their own beasts in and paid their lodging fees. But by now Frodo had grown used to the goats and didn’t mind.
As soon as they climbed to their room they wasted no time stripping to the waist and scrubbing off their travels. To his shock Frodo discovered in the dimming light that scars swirled and curved all over Bergil’s chest and upper arms, always in parallel sets of five. He tried not to stare but he must have, anyway, for Bergil stopped washing long enough to grin sourly and say, “Kitty claws.”
“I’d hate to think of the size of the cat,” said Frodo.
“You’d be amazed at what the Dark Land grows,” Bergil muttered as he toweled himself off.
Frodo followed Bergil downstairs into the common room and gasped with delight. Great windows looked out over the river into a panorama that would have taken the breath of the most spoiled traveler. The builder had obviously scavenged the sharply arching panes from the remains of some great palace, rising the full three stories high, the shatters patched together again with strips of lead to create an accidentally beautiful effect, like dark-veined leaves of autumn-colored light, each sliver of glass splintering the sunset hues into a work of luminous art. Fire-colors swirled upon the river and flushed the sky, gilding everything in this humble corner of the city like a fable breaking through, burning away the grime of the mundane. A glow flushed across the faces of the hardworking men and women who lined the battered old tables, every one of them sitting to face the windows as they wearily admired the view over their mugs and plates, while their children ran between the chairs with their sheep-dogs yipping after them. Frodo merited hardly a glance, for which he felt grateful.
One fellow did ask him, “‘Ey, where’s Mattie?”
“Begging your pardon?”
“You know--Mattie Heathertoes. The Gondor-Nurn post is his run.”
“His walk, you mean,” said a nearby fellow, laughing.
Frodo said, “I think I see the confusion. I don’t ride the post. I am a gardener--and lately, it seems, a goatherd.”
“Ah, a brother herdsman! Or...herdhalfling? No matter, no matter! ‘Ere, you--move over! Let the little feller get a bit of bench--can’t you see he’s been on his feet long enough? And make way for his friend, too.” But after a few polite inquiries as to the well-being of their goats (“All of ‘em mommies, huh? Now that’s the luck!”) the man paid them no more heed, concentrating on the mutton stew before him, letting them relish the simple pleasure of giving their tired feet a break.
Bergil ordered them both bowls of the same stew and mugs of beer to go with it. In a quiet voice scarce heard above the dining clatter, Bergil said, “I hope you think none the less of me for the occasional nightmare, Frodo. I assure you that I am quite sane.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Frodo said as their mugs arrived. “I traveled for months with a real lunatic--I know the difference. Say--you’re right. This is excellent beer.”
“I promised no less.” Bergil gulped at his surprisingly fast.
“In fact,” said Frodo, eyeing the Ranger, “I’d say you’d have to be crazy not to fear the land we’re going to...”
“Hi, girl--another beer over here. This one’s dry.”
“Whoa! Slow down!” Frodo protested. “We haven’t even gotten our dinners yet.”
For a second Bergil glared at him, then dropped his gaze and sighed. “You are right, my friend.” Not looking Frodo in the eye, he said, “ Perhaps I am a little bit afraid.”
“More than a little.” Frodo peered closely at the man. “Your fear is personal. Something happened...” Frodo blinked; it felt as though he could stare into Bergil from his heart rather than his eyes. “Something more than the cat. Wounds don’t daunt you by themselves.” He tried to catch the ranger’s eyes, but Bergil turned his face away. “Would you like to talk about it?”
“No,” said Bergil bluntly as he reached for his second beer, then worked at it steadily, gazing into the fading sunset without another word. Frodo watched him, then shrugged. Soon their steaming bowls arrived--good, sturdy, flavorful food, thick with root vegetables and sizeable chunks of meat--and neither one of them had to cook it. Bergil downed two more pints in a kind of grim determination as they ate their meal, but Frodo held his tongue--the man would just have to work things out his own way. He did think to himself, Oh yes, this is really fun. If this is his idea of a merry night, I wonder what he does for wakes?
As though in response to the thought, Bergil suddenly growled, “‘S not all about fear, y’know.”
“No, I don’t know! How can I possibly know anything if you won’t tell me?” But Bergil made no reply.
When the help cleared away their plates and Bergil meandered over to the bar for a refill, Frodo stared after him a moment, and then sighed and went up to their room by himself. Right before the stairs withdrew from the common room’s view, Frodo looked back. A fractured night sky full of stars filled up the windows now, and starlight flickered faint upon the water. Most of the herders gathered together their things to go to bed. As tall and lanky a man as he was, Bergil still looked small down there, hunched over the bar, cradling his tankard close, a wayward curl drooping into his eyes. Frodo shook his head. He’d hate to be the ranger in the morning, when the bells on all the goats would start to clang at once--but that was none of his affair.