Through Shadows to the Edge of Night
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 18, Part 48
On the Ruins of a Road
Excerpts from Frodo’s letter home...
“December 16, 1451--We have gotten ourselves onto the old army road, on which the allies of Sauron used to march up from the south. It has dwindled to little more than a weedy path, these days, within a wide swathe of clearing through the winter-bare forests of Southern Ithilien, stretching on as far as the eye can see. No one has much business or desire to approach the Morannon, I guess. We’re headed the other way, Papa, down south towards a pass that Bergil knows, where the mountains dip down about as low as you will find anywhere along this range.
It’s kind of peaceful here, actually, one long meadow, with the grasses full of birds that I don’t know, birds who don’t fly south for the winter. They make strange, keening cries that sound kind of sad, like they mourn for all the men driven up this road in days gone by, who can’t have been much better than slaves. I mean, the men’s masters must have had something to gain by allying with Sauron, but did they? I know you’ve had thoughts of the same sort, Papa; now, listening to the mourning birds, I find it easier to believe. I wonder if this country flowers much in spring, though? Surely it must!"
Evening note: “Bergil is not a spectacular cook, but not a bad one, either. He can fill a stomach and no complaints, as the saying goes.”
“December 17, 1451– One good thing about staying at a shepherd’s inn is that you can stock up on all kinds of dairy products. You’ll be glad to know, Mama, that as I write this I am eating real cow’s butter on my bread, and the bags bulge with seasoned rounds of ewe’s milk cheese. And this morning I had milk on my porridge. It keeps well in the cold air, even without a spring house, which is some consolation for the chapped lips and runny nose I’ve gotten from that blasting wind.
With so much leveled for the passage of long-gone armies and machines of war, as long as we walk the road we’ve neither hill nor tree nor any fool thing between us and miles and miles of wind. At night, though, we can at least take shelter in the woods to either side, mounding up the piles of old leaves a bit against the brush to make ourselves windbrakes for the night, and that provides some comfort.”
“December 18, 1451--You have to watch your step around here. Underneath the mounds of grass lie all sorts of armor and other gear, discarded by men fleeing after Sauron’s downfall, now rusting and falling apart, with weeds poking up through holes. I should know--I gashed my foot stepping on an axe. Sorry, Mama, but I’ve got two scars, now, or soon shall once I heal. But then missteps happen in the Shire, too--remember Cousin Bobbie stumbling on the scythe? (A little too much harvest cheer, if you ask me, but then the night was dark.)
“This scared Bergil half to death. I never saw him move so fast--he knocked me to the ground and grabbed my foot before I had left off howling to draw another breath, and washed the wound out immediately with some bubbling potion he keeps on hand. It seems that some kind of evil infects men around here through wounds from rusty sharp things--one of Sauron’s experiments that escaped to wreak havoc on friend and foe alike--and it spreads more widely every year. Some say that Sauron meant it as a poison for the tips of arrows, to make a mortal wound of even a glancing scratch. Be that as it may, Bergil says that the victims clench their jaws in horrible grins so hard that they can’t even open their mouths to eat--you’ve got to knock their front teeth out to pour in broth. He says that they convulse, that their bodies arch up, head to heels like you’d think would be impossible, and their limbs seize up as hard as wood. Then they slowly die of paralysis. He’s seen it happen, or I wouldn’t have believed it.
“It definitely sounds like something Sauron would brew up! We don’t know whether hobbits can fall sick of this or not, but we’re not taking any chances. Bergil cleaned out the cut so good that he tore it open even farther, just from pulling--wow, that hurt! But he says I’m probably out of danger, thanks to his efforts, so long as I keep the wound clean till it heals. I don’t like that ‘probably’!
“I bled all over everything, as you can imagine. That worried Bergil, too. He poured our precious cooking oil everywhere that the blood had spilled and burned the grasses there, then stood grimly by to make sure that the fires didn’t spread. He did not, he said, want to attract the sort of creatures who draw to the smell of blood around here. And we’re not even in Mordor proper, yet!
“Don’t worry, though--I’m going to be fine. I didn’t bleed nearly as much as last time. But boy am I glad it’s Bergil’s turn to cook. I don’t feel like doing much of anything right now.”
“December 19, 1451-- Bergil insisted on carrying me on his back all day long. He says that I’m not that heavy, but I could feel him sweating in the cold. Getting hauled around on somebody else’s back is not the most pleasant mode of travel, I can tell you. Your own back starts to ache and your legs go numb; I think it’s nearly as exhausting to be carried as to carry! My sympathy goes out to Uncles Merry and Pippin for having endured this for days on end. But I am grateful to Bergil! Who knows what horrors he has saved me from? And I think also of you, Papa, bearing my namesake up the mountain--how much courage that must have cost, spent as you were, already! Don’t worry--I’m sure he was way past feeling his legs go numb by then.”
Evening notation: “I just reread what I wrote the night before. ‘It definitely sounds like something Sauron would brew up.’ The scary thing is, I know his thinking on it, even his feelings. I know! Do you have any idea how much that frightens me? On rereading, I began to feel a chuckle somewhere underneath the breastbone, at the thought of
my HIS! vengeance lingering and spreading after his collapse. I forbade the chuckle from escaping, but my mouth twitched a little towards a smile that I swear was none of mine. Just how deep a hold does the blowfly have in me? I can govern my own actions (except for that nagging quirk of the lips) but he can still talk to me on a level more profound than words. What if, one day, I mistake his thoughts for mine?”
“December 20, 1451-- Today was my last day on Bergil’s back. I’m afraid that I called him the most misshapen pony to ever trot on two feet, but he had the grace to laugh and tease me back as the squirmiest back-pack he had ever shouldered. I threatened to use his ears for reins. He threatened to open me up and see what he could discard of my contents so as to lighten the load. We just kept getting sillier and sillier till we both got to laughing so hard that I nearly fell off and he nearly dropped me. Honestly--it was funny at the time, especially the matter-of-fact way that he’d say the most dreadful things. Oh, we were horrible--both of us! And no, it had nothing in common with Sauron’s humor, however morbid now and then, for it wouldn’t have amused me at all if Bergil hadn’t laughed back, let alone if anything had really hurt him. I don’t sense that Sauron has any capacity for silliness--he might never have fallen to Morgoth if he had, but everything I perceive in him takes himself deadly serious.
“Fortunately, I heal faster than humankind. Bergil wouldn’t believe me till I showed him, but my gash had nearly closed for good by nightfall and will surely finish up by dawn, pretty much as you’d expect--that axe didn’t cut nearly as deep as the orc’s sword in Hollin, after all. No more danger. I look forward to walking again tomorrow. But from now on, I promise you, I shall watch my step!”
“December 21, 1451--This morning, as the sun rose up over the Mountains of Shadow and filled all the world with light, I stared out across the grassy road ahead of me, between the rose-washed trunks and boughs, and I realized that my father’d never come this way. Obvious, you’d say, Papa, but there’s some things you know on different levels, and that much I had only known on the surface till now, the way Bergil can rattle off statistics about the length of every road in the Shire, although he’s never walked those roads, nor smelled the stock that blooms in Widow Gilliflower’s garden, nor seen how the autumn light glows across Farmer Caldwell’s fields of wheat. All of this journey I have thought of myself as following in your footsteps, Papa, but I’m not doing that anymore. You have never seen these weedy mounds, your feet have never touched these stones. And when I enter Mordor, my Mordor will be different from yours, both in space and time. You never saw the Sea of Nurnen that I will see. You faced Shelob and the Watchers of the Morgul Vale, but I might face the wet things from the Deep.
“And you know what? I feel glad. It should fill me with mortal terror, but I find this yearning inside me for unseen lands, and for perils that are mine alone. It makes no sense, and sometimes I wonder if it’s that blowfly whispering to me again, but I don’t think so. I think that I have always felt something of the sort, but I buried it in our gardens and did my best to sweat it out of my blood.”
Evening notation: “Before the fall of night we reached a dismal district without any trees at all for miles all around--the forests of Ithilien just suddenly came to a halt, and in an instant we stepped from one kind of country into something altogether different. It kind of stunned me--I just stood there, at first, staring at the naked earth, for even the grass failed for the most part, and only a few sparse bushes grew, of a thin and twisted sort, more gray than green
None of the maps that you showed me, Papa, prepared me for the sight, although Bergil tells me that it’s been like this for years. It wouldn’t be on any of our maps back home, though. It seems that right before the Siege of Gondor Sauron ordered all this land cleared for a staging area--not just chopping the trees down, but poisoning the roots, and indeed much of the land in general, as chance would have it. Bergil assures me that the goats can do all right on those miserly little shrubs until we get to better food. I sure hope so, but if I were a goat, I wouldn’t like to try.
“I can feel Sauron’s intention, even as I write--to make a permanent change, as a sign of his own permanence. I can feel his resolve as if my own, like a lump of metal in my chest, a metal fist clenched hard and tight. I don’t like the sensation at all, yet I can’t deny a kind of satisfaction in it that makes no hobbit-sense at all and yet seems real, so very real. But I can also pick up something that the blowfly doesn’t want to tell me--that we most crave to make something last when we most doubt our own future. As I write this I can feel May’s gift against my breast, although most of the time I forget that it’s there--it almost felt as though it stirred.”
“December 22, 1451--Today I saw my first human skeleton. Bergil says I probably stumbled across others--literally--but the grass hid them until now, or else the roots of growing things broke them down to soil. He pointed out nicks in bones and said that this was about how far the man could flee before his wounds overcame him. How sad and empty the eye-sockets look! Nothing left, of what must have meant so much--a whole world of feelings and memories and decisions gone, all gone--who can say where? But did you know that human skulls grin? That took me back a bit, I must say. I’ve only seen the skulls of horses, cows, and chickens until now, and they don’t grin like that. But then, feeling my own cheeks, I could see how the teeth would appear to curve up that way, if you took the flesh away. Brrrr--what a thought! Even so, it looks like the dead laugh at what must seem the most terrible of jokes. Whoever these bones belonged to probably served Sauron for fear of exactly that which found him in the end. Any more jokes like that and I really shall burst into tears.”
“December 23, 1451--Bergil woke me up screaming again last night. I suppose that finding those bones yesterday touched him more than he wanted to let on. This time I coaxed him to talk about his dream, after I practically forced him to down a medicinal shot of brandy. He says it’s the same one every time. He’s lying on the rocks of Mordor, too weak to raise a hand let alone stand up, and something hovers over him--something with a melting ruin instead of a proper face, no eyes at all, no features save for naked, noseless nostrils and a gaping mouth. He screams for fear it’s going to talk to him, maybe even call his name. Something dreadful will happen if it calls his name. But he always wakes himself by screaming before that can happen.
“Well, it’s obvious to the likes of you and me, who know a thing or two about dreams, that there’s something he’s not “facing”, that he “has no eyes for”, that he “knows-less”about than he should, and his biggest fear is that it will call him on it--by name. But it’s no use telling him that. He insists that his dream feels much too real for that. Don’t they all?”
“December 24,1451--It rained all day, today. Yes, once again I am writing underneath my cloak, on paper ripply with the moisture in the air. And no hope of Uncle Merry’s silk pavilion this time around, nor inn, nor tree, nor any kind of shelter. Tonight we’ll sleep on rock if we don’t want to lie in the mud like an elf gone mad, curled up cramping-tight beneath our cloaks, in the stink of soggy wool, with all our goats huddled by. I have learned that as bad as goats can smell, rain can make them worse. And still it’s so cold that I don’t mind them crowding up against me, soft and furry and warm. But that’s only for the part of my night when I’ll attempt to sleep. The remainder I must watch, my staff in one hand, the other on Sting’s hilt--for fell things stalk “the wrong side of the river,”as they call it hereabouts. Something to look forward to, like our prospect of a cold supper and no fire just when we could use one the most. Bergil had the nerve to joke about arranging the weather so as to dodge his turn at cooking! At least the goats don’t seem to mind the rain. Much. Sort of.”
“December 25, 1451--The rain really pounds us now, like a punishment. I don’t know what for, but it’s hard to imagine, in all this soggy misery and gloom, that you’re not guilty of something. Sometimes it turns to sleet, and sometimes hail, but it just plain won’t let up, whatever form it takes. And yes, the goats do mind, but what can they do about it? There’s just no way you can get warm or dry in weather like this, when you have no shelter. Bergil has given me a sip of some tonic (tart stuff, but not too bad) that he learned of years ago from his beloved--it’s no cure after the fact, but it can prevent you from catching a cold if you take it soon enough. After a dose of that I can feel a tingling underneath my jaw to either side, and a kind of wholesome warmth, which he says is the tonic helping my system to fight back.
“Well, rain or shine, we practiced with the swords, same as Bergil promised me. All I can say is it’s a good thing that mithril doesn’t rust. In every session he shows me moves against monsters of various heights and breadths and methods of attack that he thinks it best for me to learn, and he follows, once we hit the road again, with a lecture on each one’s weaknesses, which he says he will repeat every day until I have them all memorized. Today I asked him how you fight ‘Kitty’, but he says nobody can slay her, for she moves much too fast--the best you can do is drive her off. Better yet, never look like prey--she will only pounce if you show a moment’s weakness.”
“December 26, 1451-- At last the sun comes out again! And bright against a backdrop of dark clouds I see the white birds of the sea--a whole flock of them circling about in search of food. Papa, do you remember the bird that carried the gemstone all the way from Elvenhome? Of course you do! We must be near the River Poros, then--the sea-birds will follow it upstream for quite a ways. I could gaze all day on those white wings, drifting lazily overhead.
“Alas--they are not the only creatures to take wing! Biting insects swarm wherever rivers run, around here. I remembered too late that bug-repelling soap I went through so much trouble to obtain. When you travel in the company of goats, washing begins to seem rather pointless. But I amended this the first chance I got. However I might stink of goats whenever I rejoin civilization, I will at least have a fresh-scrubbed face! A bug-bitten, wind-chapped, red-nosed face, but clean.”
“December 27, 1451--Our way grows rougher, now, and increasingly uphill, but we no longer have to tiptoe around sharp and rusty bits of hardware, for we have left the army road and travel a goat-path indeed. Whoever enters Mordor usually passes this way, these days, but not often enough to beat too firm a path--Caravans of aid from Gondor, for the most part, and the post.
“And now Bergil tells me that he miscalculated once again. The post takes twenty-nine days to travel from Nurnen to the Shire. I didn’t understand all the reasons he elaborated for why it will go swifter for the post (probably bad math) but his reasons for our own travels going slower than he thought seem plain enough. He forgot that men had not yet dug a certain channel they’ve proposed. How can you forget what has not yet happened? He mumbled something about wishful thinking, but I am not mollified.
“How did this fellow pass his officer’s training, anyway? I hope it’s not another case of his father “pulling strings”! But no, he is a good man, a competent man, an inspiring and trustworthy leader, knowledgeable in battle, attentive to detail yet in action swift and sure, merciful yet wise in policy, inventive in a pinch--someone, in short, worthy of the authority invested in him several times over. He just doesn’t have a head for numbers. I suppose nobody ever passes those officer’s tests one hundred percent, after all. You know, when he started quoting distances for Shire roads I thought they seemed a wee bit off, but I had never measured them, myself, and besides, I imagined that men afoot and horses travel at different strides than hobbits and our ponies. But now I think, yes indeed, they were off. Never trust this man with mathematics.”
“December, 28, 1451--The path goes steeper still. I find myself huffing and puffing with every step, and the sharp stones hurt my feet. On the plus side, though, we have climbed above the devastation of Sauron’s “staging area” to where things grow once more. The goats like it better, and nibble everything in sight. They remind me of Billie-Lass, and the memory makes me smile rather than weep. We wander in our way to bring them to the greenest spots; I find it well worth the delay to see their eagerness.
“And the goats have much greenery to please them, for a stream trickles nearby. I love the music of it--reminds me of the cheerful brooks of home. Bergil says it’s the headwaters of the Poros far below, but I find that hard to believe.
“I can see the pass above us now, though it will take us some days yet to climb so high. It has an ominous look, a saddle between two peaks like horns. To go up there would feel like passing over the brow of a giant bull. Yet it looks more graceful than that, more fair, that long, broad swoop from peak to peak, like a crescent moon. For some reason that makes it all the more terrible to me. Loveliness twisted to evil--that’s what I get from it, Papa. There has to be good reason why nobody even tried to assail the Dark Lord here--and whatever that reason, I carry the source of it with me!
“My chest keeps itching, and when I scratch, I find the magnifying glass there. I think it tries to draw my attention to itself. What would that pass look like if I gazed on it through this glass, I wonder?
“I am afraid to look.”