Through Shadows to the Edge of Night
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 17, Part 47
Of Bergil's Past
(December 15, 1451)
Frodo felt quite the adult in the morning, ordering Bergil to eat a nutritious soup for breakfast (but nothing so thick as the mutton stew!) and to drink plenty of water. And the man obeyed, as docile as a child. Of course Bergil looked the worse for wear--pale and moving carefully--but he offered no complaint. Even so, as they left the Cloven Horn, Frodo found himself flinching every time a goat’s bell rang, out of sympathy for the ranger’s pain.
Osgiliath looked eerie in the morning fog, her ruins and her unexpected twists of architecture half-dissolving in the grayness all around, like things remembered vaguely from a dream. Frodo found Bergil much more quiet than his usual self, and as gray in his demeanor as everything around them, but that did not surprise him much.
After a long and difficult silence, though, Bergil rasped, “I...I must apologize for last night.” He straightened his cloak and said, “I did not conduct myself as a Ranger of Ithilian should.”
Frodo shrugged. “You warned me ahead of time that you intended to make a night of it--I just thought it’d be a merry one.”
Bergil swallowed and looked away. “That proved harder than I expected.”
“And you don’t want to talk about it,” Frodo grumbled as they herded their goats out through the eastern gate.
“No, I...all right. Admittedly I did not want to talk yesterday.” Bergil’s voice grew harsh as he said, “Forgive me if I wanted one single, final night where I could forget all about the road ahead and all of the grief that has led to it.” Then he muttered, “At least forgetting had been the plan...” How different the land looked on this side of the Anduin! Drifting rags of river-mist alternately veiled and revealed row upon row of ruinous old scarps and siegeworks, crumbling in a certain ugly order; orcs had long occupied this bank. But Bergil did not raise his eyes beyond the goats who huddled close to their shepherds, bleating softly to each other. He said, “Today...well, it can hardly get any worse, can it?”
“Are you saying that now you want to share?” Frodo asked as he gaped up at the enormous ribcage of a long-dead oliphaunt. “ Very well, then. I’m listening.”
Bergil hesitated before asking, “Have you never wondered why a man my age has not settled down to a family?”
“Your age? I’m sorry--hobbits mature at a different rate from men. Are you not young, then?”
“Not old--but no, not quite young, either.” With an ironic smile Bergil said, “My people would say that I am ‘in my prime’--the age at which we normally have wives and children, and households of our own."
Frodo looked at him more sympathetically. “That is not so unusual. My father married late--after his adventures knocked the shyness out of him, so to speak.”
“Ah, but would you call me a shy man, Frodo?”
Frodo smiled despite himself. “Not really.”
“I had a darling, once.” After a silence Bergil said, quite softly, “I may still. I have no way of knowing for certain, although all reason argues that she has gone beyond my reach for good.”
Understanding dawned on Frodo. “She disappeared in Mordor, didn’t she?” Bergil made no reply, but closed his eyes and bit his lip, nodding. “But why? What business did she have there?”
“My Elenaril? She had skill as an herbwife--always useful in a land where harm lurks over every hill and waits in every ditch.” Frodo flinched at that, standing as he did, for the moment, in a fog-filled ditch, helping a nanny to cross. “Elenaril--Starbright--had another name before I met her, but that is what I called her, for her eyes shone with the brilliance of two stars.” He laughed, halfheartedly, as he helped Frodo climb out again. “So many men have said so of their lovers that the words hardly have any meaning anymore--but I assure you that in her case it was true.”
“Oh, I believe you,” Frodo said quickly. “So--she was a healer?”
“Yes. One of those brave women who follow men into battle to tend their wounds.” Now they zigzagged through a particularly mazelike area, ruinous old walls materializing out of nowhere in the fog, only to fade back again, once passed. “A common woman, folks have said, of no family and no status fit for the House of Beregond.” He scowled as he said, “Never believe, my friend, the lies that they tell of such women, for she was as pure as the light of Earendil above, and I know a score of men who would raise their swords in defense of her honor--yet even that would the gossips twist against her. ‘Camp-follower,’ the people called her, in contempt, without thought of what would befall all of their great and glorious armies if no good women followed the camps!”
“You do have a point, there,” Frodo said uncomfortably, not entirely sure what Bergil meant, but gathering that for some reason polite people would not call anyone “camp-follower” to their face.
Bergil thumped his staff with every step as if he would stab the road. “Oh, never did so generous a spirit clothe herself in mere flesh as she did! She forgave the gossips! She hung her head in their presence as though she believed every word, herself! It was easier than arguing on her own behalf, and enabled her to obtain without argument the herbs and the bandages of her trade.” He shook his head when he said, “She accepted what people gave her out of pity, when they should have given all for tribute!”
“There are worse things in the world than pity,” Frodo said, as they began to climb up higher than the river-mist into the bleary light of day, just in sight of the old Morannon Road. “The noblest have had need of it.”
“I most pity those too ‘noble’ to have enjoyed the pleasure of her company when they could.” Bergil stopped for a moment, surveying the countryside with a stunned look as though he hadn’t noticed it till then. “Here I am--again. On this, of all paths. You never learn, do you, Bergil?” He sighed, and did not look well. “Well, the short version of my Elenaril’s tale is that I proposed marriage, she accepted, and we went to my parents, since she had none alive.” He scowled into the haze, but in an almost didactic voice he said, “ My mother wept, my father shouted--they thought that I had more sense than that. Sense! What do they know of sense?”
“Could they forbid you to marry?” Frodo asked as they herded goats between two old, vine-smothered carcasses of catapults. “At your age?”
“Worse than that. They told Elenaril that she would ruin my life to marry me--shorten my career, they said, hold me from promotion, even cause me to one day hate her for luring me into this ill-thought vow. And they warned that she would age faster than me, that such a marriage would bind me, while yet young, to one who would shortly resemble my grandmother--as though I would care about such things! In short, they bade her, for love of me, to leave and not return.”
“How horrible! I can’t imagine the Beregond I’d heard so much about doing such a thing.”
“Most horrible of all is that he did it all for love--he honestly, truly, wholeheartedly believed that this was the best way to protect his eldest son.” Bergil sighed. “Mayhaps, had I a son, I might have done the same. And even had I proven my darling’s innocence beyond all doubt, we Numenoreans still put great store in bloodlines--perhaps too much.”
“What kind of an excuse is that? It was a beastly thing to do!”
Bergil looked at him, smiling wanly. “And you have no idea what I am talking about, do you? Are the halfling folk so different, then?”
“Yes...well, no.” Frodo remembered the resentment of some of the Brandybucks that his namesake would leave Bag End to the gardener. “Not so different, I suppose, when you come right down to it.” He found a fury building in him, then, at the thought of all that his father did to deserve that inheritance, and how anybody could possibly question his right. “But they ought to be!”
“My father is a good man,” Bergil said. “He did the best by me he knew, according to his understanding.” His voice broke just a little when he said, “It is hard, Frodo, hardest of all when a good man does ill, mistaking ill for what is best--but even the Maiar have stumbled now and then. It must be enough for us when the good outweighs the bad in a man’s life.”
“So you have forgiven him?”
Bergil crooked a wry, sad smile. “How could I not--once he repented, once he got word of Elenaril’s fate? Never before have I seen my father weep, and never since.”
Faintly Frodo asked, “Her fate--can you even bear to tell me?”
Thickly Bergil said, “Lord Lossarnach’s mission into Mordor. She volunteered--the only herbwife who dared to go.”
“And she did not come back.”
“Most did not come back. So many disappeared, in so many ways, that the scribes could hardly count them all. I found her on the lists of the missing: Beebee--herbwife; next of kin--none known; cause of disappearance--unknown.”
“Was that her name, then? Beebee?”
“That was what the others called her. But she was always my Elenaril. And every day and every night I pray that she still is my Elenaril, my Starbright out there somewhere, struggling to make her way back home. Unless I find her grave, or her bones unburied, or any sign to confirm her death, I will court no other.”
“I suppose you had no way to go to Mordor to try and find her.”
“Ah, but I did. I resigned my position, invested my severance-pay in supplies for the wild, and spent seven years in search of my darling. It ended when Nurning shepherds found me delirious and near death--I know not where. I cannot remember much of that part, nor more than snatches of the journey home.” Then he paused, brow crinkling as he tried to pull the memories back. “No, not home--I do recall days and nights in the Houses of Healing. My father must have pulled strings, for the King himself attended to my care...yes, I do remember that much.” With a humorless smile he said, “Kitty had dirty claws, it seems--my healing took awhile. It did not help that starvation had already weakened me when the cat attacked.”
“How on earth did you survive, Bergil?”
“I have no idea.” The man shook his head. “Much is now a blur to me. My last days in Mordor might as well not have happened--I only know about the shepherds because my father told me, when he sent gifts to their village in his gratitude. In my own mind, Frodo, I died in Mordor and found myself reborn in Minas Tirith, and all the labor in between escapes me.”
Again Bergil furrowed his brow. “I can at least remember something of a journey afterwards, in a cart from Minas Tirith to Ithilien, when my father repeated to me funny stories that Pippin had told him in his own convalescence. His words stumbled like mirth gone lame, but he did manage to wring a smile or two from me, and eventually a laugh.” Bergil grinned for a moment despite himself. “Ah, the Mayor of Michel Delving, floured like a fat little dumpling in the plaster-dust!”
Yet the grin faded swiftly. Bergil looked at Frodo and said, “That laugh, that halfling humor, broke through a gloom so deep that I hope you never imagine the like. That alone is reason enough to love your people.” Looking away, he added, “and perhaps my quest has some small chance if I go back into Mordor with a perian at my side. They have a way of changing the possible.” Then he shuddered.
“Thank you,” Frodo said, at a loss for any other words.
Bergil went on. “Father brought me home. Mother brought the Lady Eowyn to my bedside, but she judged me sane, merely grieving and exhausted--and still a bit too malnourished to reason clearly, even with my fever gone.” With a brief, harsh laugh Bergil shook his head. “I am amazed--now--at some of the things I said. But rest, good food and water, and the beauty of Ithilien soon brought me to my feet again. I followed the Lady’s advice and got on with my life. I had done enough--no one, she said, could have survived seven years in that waste unaided. So I rejoined the Rangers and resumed my duties. I worked hard, I earned promotions, my life fulfilled the promises my parents wished for me. Except that dreams of grandchildren have turned to ash within their breasts.” Bergil smiled bitterly. “It seems that my much-vaunted bloodline dies with me.”
All the countryside around them looked cold, worn, and forlorn, as though it had lost all hope of winter ever ending.