Through Shadows to the Edge of Night
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 26, Part 56
Tactics of the Powerless
(December 30, 1451)
Frodo reminded himself that he’d put in a good day’s work with a cold before, whenever circumstances demanded it; this little touch of fever shouldn’t matter at all. After all, he had nothing much to do but walk and set a good example for the goats, who didn’t seem inclined to wander too far from their protectors. The jangling of their bells wearied him; they deprived him of silence, yet did not offer much in the way of music--but at least they helped him keep track of the animals without having to look up too often. He tuned out the bleariness and the itching the best he could, by making half a stab at studying the tired-looking shrubs rooted between the rocks to either side of their road, though after awhile the same old varieties cropped up around every bend and they ceased to interest him. On the positive side, his fever did make his feet feel somewhat distant--a welcome effect, considering their torn-up state.
At least he no longer felt that sense of pushing against an invisible tide that had plagued him the day before. Above him to the left, Mattie fretted in his sleep on the gray mare’s back, murmuring what almost sounded like traces of Quendi, Orkish, and other tongues all jumbled together--or what might have meant nothing at all.
“He fights for us,” Bergil said.
“But is that wise?” Frodo asked.
“No, of course it is not wise!” After a few more steps Bergil said, “Mattie can handle it, though, I am sure of it. I marvel at how the Periannath can use even the devices of the Enemy against his own.”
“Oh, stop worshiping us!” Frodo snapped. “I swear you’ve nearly worshiped Mattie to death--you and all the other men in these parts.” At Bergil’s stricken face he said, “I am sorry; I just feel dreadful, and I’m scared, and I hate this whole business. So maybe I’m a little cranky.”
“Here,” Bergil said, handing Frodo his wallet. “I found it in Mattie’s pack, along with my own, plus the dwarvish cooking kit, when I went to fix breakfast this morning--right where I expected to find them. I almost forgot to give it to you. No, Frodo, I do not worship Mattie Heathertoes--but now and then I find in him something to respect.”
They trudged on in silence, under a gray sky, past gray stone, where even the scattered bushes had a gray and dusty look about them. Frodo concentrated on putting one swollen foot in front of the other; his focus narrowed to the dirt before his feet, amid the halfhearted bleats of goats. Just to distract himself from the mounting itching in his skin (now burning to a point of pain) Frodo ventured some calculations in his head. But the answer stopped him in his tracks, as his jaw dropped.
The man turned and halted the goats. “Frodo? Are you all right?”
“Bergil, if Mattie was born during The Troubles, he’s only thirty-two years old--not quite of age. Yet you say that you’ve known him for years?”
“Why yes, of course. He is not all that young, is he?” Bergil started walking again, and Frodo hurried to catch up.
“I daresay he looks older than he should, considering the life he’s led, but yes, he is much younger than he ought to be for someone who has held his post too long. Bergil, isn’t there some kind of age limit for riders of the post?”
“Yes. Eighteen years--same as for all civil servants. Mattie made it under the wire, I understand, but he did qualify.”
“Eighteen years?” Frodo exclaimed. “Do you have any idea how young that is for a hobbit? How can I explain this to you?” He sought in memory for the equations that his father had once taught him, and figured out how to work it in reverse for the human point of view. “Listen--to translate hobbit years to their human equivalent, you divide by three and then multiply by two.”
Bergil’s brow furrowed for a long while, as Frodo noted how ominously dark and puffy the skin had become around the scratch on the man’s cheek. “So...for Mattie eighteen was really...um...twenty-seven?”
“No, not twenty-seven! You did it backwards--never mind; I forget who I’m talking to. He was the equivalent of your twelve.”
Bergil uttered an orc-word under his breath. “You jest. You must.”
“I wish I did. How could the King allow such a thing?”
“The King has much to concern him beyond the age limits on civil servants--that is one detail among uncounted stacks of details in Gondor law that have worked well for centuries without concerns...”
“...for human beings, at least, before Gondor began to hire hobbits on a regular basis. I shall have to write to him.”
“Good luck,” Bergil muttered under his breath, but the hobbit caught it.
“I shall.” All the mists of the valley from which they climbed diminished as they walked. Indeed, the sun now seemed to beat down on them with sickening heat, despite her wintry angle to the south. Or was that mere fever?
“Twelve...” Bergil breathed, shaking his head. “Twelve? I knew no more years than that herding goats on the slopes of Ithilien. I thought myself very nearly a man, I will confess--yet it was not so.” As Bergil gazed on Mattie Frodo barely heard him say, “All hobbits look so small to us.” Then Bergil turned to him and spoke aloud. “Frodo, we have no idea how to tell an older child of your people from an adult. You must understand that we would never have knowingly set children to such grueling work!”
“Poor Mattie--no wonder he got in over his head!”
“And what a terrible life he must have led at home, to flee to...this.”
A sleepy voice sang cheerily from the horse’s back, “No more ribbons, no more bows...” and faded back again.
Frodo watched Bergil walking in front of him, and saw his thumb touching each fingertip in turn as though he tried to count something. At last the man asked, in a somewhat strained voice, “Frodo, how long has Mattie ridden for the post?”
Frodo thought a moment, and said. “Fourteen years.”
“That is too long to face the Poros Pass twice a month--is it not?” When Frodo just stared at him Bergil looked back sadly and said, “I was not always bad with numbers.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Frodo muttered, and dropped his gaze to his dusty toes, watching them drag him forward, step by step, left, right, left, right, on and on, like some tiresome lesson repeating itself until the message should seep into his increasingly dense head. He felt that he should know why and when Bergil lost his grasp of numbers; something in his head had all the information he needed, had in fact put the answer together already--it just couldn’t swim to the murky surface of his mind. He shrugged it off and pushed himself onward.
“Cooold be haaand and heaaaart and booone...”
“Don’t sing that one, Mattie,” Frodo said hastily, reaching up to shake the hobbit.
“Hmmm? All right,” Mattie murmured, and turned over, never opening his eyes.
At Bergil’s quizzical look Frodo said, “My family knows that one. It is not a good song to sing--least of all here.” But he didn’t elaborate. Frodo did not feel much like talking anymore. He didn’t feel like much of anything anymore, but the road wouldn’t shorten if he stopped walking. And he found that he couldn’t seem to govern where his thoughts went, either. He had read that song in the Red Book, of course, but never before imagined a tune to it; now the fragment of melody repeated in his head till it halfway drove him mad. The tune seemed to lead his mind from one dismal topic to another, like wandering through a gallery of ugly pictures, lingering a little over each.
He couldn’t help but consider, for instance, the white flower that he had crushed between the pages of his press. He had expected some variety of poppy, considering its befuddling perfume, but on close examination it seemed more kin to simbelmyne, that thrives in graveyards and on battlefields--some terrible perversion of a flower meant to honor the fallen in fairer lands. What fertilizer could it find out here, in a pass so frightening that no one contested Sauron for it before his fall? Yet how many must have attempted in secret to cross this way--perhaps from either side--with none to know their fate and tell their tale? His poor head grew crowded with the faces of imagined dead, despairing eyes of man or orc or elf, bewildered off the trail, lured to ruin each in turn. He thought of that skull he’d kicked up in the pond and shuddered.
And that thought brought him to the disgraceful incident of the night before. The battles over this land began before hobbits fully came to be--therefore that water-sprite could not have known, all by herself and in such precise detail, what a young hobbit lad most desired in a lass, as opposed to, say, the ideals prized by elf or man. “You nasty little gossip,” he thought to Sauron. “I might have known. The last resort of those with more spite than power--you told her everything you picked up from me, didn’t you?”
But Frodo perceived in return a sense of triumph, not of shame, almost on the verge of emerging into words. And he felt the fever building as his bones began to ache. Gossips, however impotent in themselves, can achieve much harm by moving others to do their dirt for them. Frodo couldn’t tell whether he felt light or heavy or both at once, but whatever it was it sure didn’t agree with him. And his skin hurt. It did not just itch, it hurt! Especially his face; he felt like he walked straight into a furnace, but halting made no difference in the mounting fire so he just kept on. Red-dotted flies buzzed in his wake, hovering over every bloody footprint; he felt like they had gotten into his skull somehow, buzzing around and around, dizzying him. Soon he paid no attention whatever to whether the goats went the same way that he did or not, he just kept plodding forward because Papa would have, Papa did, step by stumbling step over rock and scree, through thorn and whistling wind, without water, food, or hope, and without complaint, deep into the heart of Mordor...
“Frodo?” How on earth had so much gravel gotten into his bed? “Frodo!” For that matter, when did his mattress get so hard? Burning fingers felt for his pulse, and then lifted him up off the ground where he had sprawled. “Frodo, you cannot march like this. Surely Stumblehoof is a big enough horse to handle two halflings on her back at once.” Frodo opened his eyes on Bergil’s face, glossy with sweat and pale about the lips.
“You don’t look so good, yourself,” he said.
“You need not worry about me, little Master.” But fever blazed in the ranger’s eyes. To himself Bergil muttered, “We’ll find no help in these mountains--we must get beyond.”
Frodo felt worse by the minute and didn’t argue, though he got little rest with Mattie twitching and mumbling beside him. “Falling petals...sweet with spring’s perfume...she looked so beautiful up there...I didn’t know...I thought that she could fly!” Frodo sat up and huddled in his cloak, watching the other hobbit. “And sometimes we can fly together...up...away...beyond all cares, beyond all grief...oh let me dream those dreams again and fly from all the memories!...stop the memories...no more...”
Frodo turned to Bergil. “Found his own sort of happiness, did he?” But the man leaned heavily on his staff as he trudged and did not answer.
Then Mattie’s face turned ugly in his sleep, his eyes still closed. “You again! What do you want?” The bone-thin hands contorted slowly into fists. “Oh, you promise, you promise...famous liar!...d’int work the las’ time, did it?” His head rolled from side to side as though trying to shake something off. “I know, you see...figured it out...No, you cannot!...Leave me alone...for I know, now...never have those dreams again...will I?” At that he went limp, but his face looked so disconsolate that Frodo reached out to pat him on the shoulder.
“You!” Mattie sprang up and locked hands on Frodo’s throat, eyes wide and bulging, lips in a snarl. “Oh, you ancient liar!”
“Mattie!” Bergil came to himself and dragged the hobbit off of Frodo. “The poppy gum deceives you!” he shouted at the rider still fighting in his arms, frothing in a fury. “Whoever you rage against, it cannot be Frodo, younger than us both.”
“Oh, it’s him all right--I can tell! I can...what am I doing?” Grief wrung his face and he drooped in Bergil’s grip, struggling no more. “He hates you! He wants to make me...no!” Mattie writhed suddenly, catching Bergil off guard; he fought free of the man’s arms and leaped back onto his surprised horse’s back, kicking off from Bergil’s chest. “Forgive me, brother,” he said as he pushed Frodo off to a bruising fall, “but he owns me just a little, and he would make me...no! He will not!” He grabbed up the horse’s reins and smacked her rump. The last thing they heard from Mattie as he galloped off was, “I am at least master of myself in this!”
Frodo sat up and wiped the stinging grit from his face and hands, then dabbed at the blood with his handkerchief. So--Sauron still owned people, at least in part? Stealing power from others--or persuading them to give it away--yes, he still had a few tricks left, it seemed. How many? How much? Then Frodo’s heart sank at an awful thought--did Sauron draw strength from every single poppy fiend out there, his evil spreading without his help and bringing power back to him? Was that what made the poppy-fiends so listless? He drained them dry, trying to rebuild himself!
Bergil bent to help Frodo up from the dirt, but somehow he wound up sinking to his knees instead and swaying there, slack-jawed and bewildered, his face gone waxy-pale except for the blotches swelling on his cheek.
“Put your head down, quickly!” Frodo ordered. “You’re fainting.” In horror he remembered something Merry had told him one night in the oliphaunt tent...
Bergil complied, collapsing to the ground, but then said, “I must get up. You need help...” Then his eyes shut and he just lay there, shivering.
“No, you need help, and I’ve got to get up--I’ve rested long enough.” But he couldn’t rise quite yet.
...tales of how Merry recovered from the Black Breath much, much faster than Faramir son of Denethor, Numenorean though the man was. “Bergil,” he whispered in his wonder and his fear, “you’re sicker than I am.” But already the man could not hear him--his few infections poisoned him three times as fast as Frodo’s many.
“Well, come on Frodo!” he harangued himself. “No great big man is going to rescue you out here--did that ever stop your father?” Frodo took his fear in hand, and by the power of old tales reforged it into something that could force him back onto his feet. Remembering his dream, and having no other recourse that he could think of, he pulled out the magnifying glass, turned to the pass, and raised the lens up to his eye...