Through Shadows to the Edge of Night
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 29, Part 59
Yule in the Ephel Duath
Yule 1, 1451
Frodo sat, cozy and content, in his favorite old wing-chair by the hearth at Bag End, his toes towards the fire and a cup of sweet Yule eggnog on the table at his side. A full-sized man (an elderly fellow clad all in white, with a beard like an avalanche of snow) lounged in the chair across from him, smoking a pipe with twinkling eyes as he waved a gnarled finger here and there, directing his smoke-rings to dodge about the room in ways that made Frodo laugh. They had chattered the night away, about everything imaginable, though sleepily Frodo couldn’t remember a word of the conversation now. It didn’t matter; he just felt happy to be home again.
“Good, good!” the old man said. “I thought I’d never get a chuckle out of you. You must be doing better.”
“Oh, I feel a world better!” Something seemed subtly different about the old hole--a rearrangement of the furniture, perhaps. “It’s so nice of you to visit me like this.” Or maybe it was the portraits over the mantlepiece, the unfamiliar faces...“You should drop by more often!”
“Perhaps I do more often than you realize.” Eyes glinted under the bushiest brows that Frodo had ever seen. “You didn’t think that we’d send you off into the wild all by yourself, did you?”
Frodo took a warming sip of nog and said, “No, I suppose not.” Everything made perfect sense, even though he had no idea what they were talking about. “But there’s just one thing that puzzles me.”
“Just one thing? From a hobbit? That I’ll never believe!”
“Why me? Why all this battling over me?” For a second the curving walls around them seemed to go hazy. But soon the hobbit-hole came back into focus all around them, safe and warm.
“Are you certain that you want to discuss this? You have a little time left before the dawn. Won’t you rather have a seedcake?”
“I am already quite full, thank you.”
The man snorted out a laugh. “When did that ever matter to a hobbit? Your mother is right, you know.” He waggled his finger at Frodo. “You are not at all typical, my lad--but in a good way. Yes, we are all quite pleased with what we have seen of you so far--for the most part. However, as for your occasional trouble with flirty females of whatever species...”
“But why me?” Frodo persisted. “Why does Sauron have it in for me? My mission is not nearly as important as my namesake’s was--I’m just going to go teach farming, not save the world!”
The wizard put down the tray of cakes and gazed on him keenly. “First, Frodo, there are no unimportant persons on the scale in which we among the Ainur work--as Sauron learned to his destruction. Second, Sauron has shrunken so much that he has nothing left but spite--colossal spite, to the pitch of one who might once have ruled the world. He hated Legolas merely for participating in the Fellowship that thwarted him--how much more must he hate you, the son of one of those who struck the felling blow, and the namesake of the other! Third, and worst of all, your mission galls him to the brink of hysteria. Sauron, you see, hates the very thought of his former slaves prospering without him--in a way, Frodo, you represent something even more painful to Sauron than his downfall. You represent his superfluousness.”
Frodo could think of no reply. He looked around and the walls of Bag End took on a reddish cast, the details of furnishings and knicknacks (not his family’s knicknacks, he suddenly realized, but the ones that Gandalf remembered) fading back into a ruddy fog.
“Oh my,” said the wizard. “It looks like dawn has come sooner than I thought. But there is still time for one seedcake, Frodo.”
“Oh very well--since you insist.” But as Gandalf handed it to him the cake turned into May’s magnifying glass.
Gandalf chuckled. “It took me quite a bit of trouble to plant that particular seed--I hope you enjoy it!” And then he, too, faded, and Frodo Gamgee realized that he stared at the redness of sunlight on closed eyelids. He opened his eyes to a foggy morning in the Ephel Duath--well past dawn, as a matter of facts.
He turned his head at the sound of snoring. Bergil slept deeply nearby. The goats appeared to have awakened quite some time before, and now poked about the greenery with the sort of leisurely appetite of those who nibble more for recreation than hunger. Fortunately, none seemed the least bit tempted to leave this sheltered space.
“We set no watch?” Frodo exclaimed and sat up. “We must have been out of our minds with exhaustion!” Yet he still felt as safe as if he sat at his own hearth in Bag End, under a wizard’s protective gaze--and far more refreshed for having slept the entire night away. “What time is it, anyway?” He looked up to gauge the height of the sun. “Oh my--time for second breakfast already, and we haven’t had the first.” Then he remembered that nobody ate second breakfast in these parts. He felt famished, though (and curiously hungry for seedcakes.) He got up quickly and soon set a pot of porridge to bubbling on the coals of last night’s fire, after throwing in the same spices that his mother always used in her Yuletide nog. He splashed in a little brandy for flavoring, while he was at it, in plenty of time for the alcohol to boil off into steam. He grinned when Bergil made an appreciative if incoherent murmur in his sleep as the smell wafted over that way.
“Just what did I dream, exactly?” Frodo asked himself as he stirred the food. “Something about some human gaffer, someone with a beard. Chatting in Bag End? It was Bag End, was it not? Whatever did we talk about, anyway?” He shrugged and took the pot off the heat. “Must not have been important.” Yet remembered or not, the dream had left him with a wonderful feeling, and new hope in his heart. “I suppose it’s always nice to think of home.” He ladled porridge into bowls. “Oh Bergil,” he called. “Time for breakfast--are you still as hungry as Peregrin Took? Better wake up soon, before I feed it to the goats.”
“I am as hungry as Pippin and both Ringbearers combined!” growled a voice from under the piled blankets.
“Indeed?” Frodo tried to conceal his smile.
“Ab-so-lute-ly” Bergil said in a sleepy voice, sitting up and rubbing his eyes. “I waited tables at the Field of Cormallen, I’ll have you know. No one in the kitchens could believe how much those two little rascals could pack away.” Then he woke up enough to realize who he spoke to. “Meaning no offense, Master Gardner--your father had fasted long in the Shadowed Land...”
“No offense taken,” Frodo said, and laughed. “But if you’d prefer porridge to the taste of your own foot, I suggest you bestir yourself. How are you feeling, by the way?”
“Better,” Bergil said, pulling on his boots. “Almost well, in fact.” Then he stopped, and stared at Frodo. “Don’t tell me I left you to watch all night!”
“Actually, you did--and I did the same to you, which meant that nobody in particular watched. But since we survived the night, no harm done. Now go wash up and don’t worry about it.”
When Bergil returned from the fountain they lingered over breakfast, swapping winter tales till the sun hit noon, each story inspiring the other to say, “Why, that sounds remarkably like one that my own folks tell...” As Frodo surprised his friend with lunchtime bread and cheese toasted on the fire (which Bergil accepted gratefully) the hobbit asked, “Do you feel up to marching today?”
The man hesitated, then said, “Not march as a Ranger of Ithilien might, in an armed company, but I can keep up with the goats. Yes--I am strong enough for that. And I feel like I will regain more strength tomorrow.” In the midday light Frodo could still make out a fine, pale line on Bergil’s cheek. He wondered what his own face looked like, and whether the effect would last. Bergil glanced up at the sky. “The morning sped swiftly, did it not?”
“I’m not surprised,” Frodo replied, between mouthfuls of his own sandwich--which he really felt he needed. “Do you realize what day this is?”
“I fear that I have lost track, my friend.”
“Yule the first, in the Shire reckoning, or just plain Yule to men. The shortest day of the year.”
“Yule,” Bergil said, regarding the last of his sandwich with a wry smile. “A feast-day.” He finished the sandwich in two bites and reached for the dried apricots, then gazed off to the north. “The days will lengthen from here on out. They will celebrate in Ithilien today, filling every home with boughs of evergreens, in anticipation of the whole world turning green in Spring to come.”
“Would you like to celebrate tonight? Though I have no eggs nor milk to mix with it, I do have a little brandy in my gear...”
“Merciful heavens, no!” the man exclaimed, and then laughed at himself. “But I am thinking only of you, Frodo,” he added quickly, his face turning red. “Surely you cannot be entirely at your best just yet--you would only make yourself ill trying to drink strong spirits--and then I would have to spend the whole night tending a sick halfling.”
Frodo grinned at this, being currently the stronger of the two. “Of course if you did stay up with me, Bergil, it would only serve you right. You did not afford me much rest in Osgiliath.” They got up and started to clean the campsite.
“I did not get sick,” Bergil said with wounded dignity. “I would remember that.”
“No, but you made a fearful clamor falling into the room!” Frodo gathered up their dirty dishes. “And then all the racket after...”
“How could I avoid it?” Bergil collected their waterskins and walked with Frodo to the fountain. “If you try to prepare yourself for bed in the dark, you will sometimes stumble, perhaps drop things, perhaps knock things over...”
“Perhaps all three, and more than once...”
“I tell you, Frodo, it could happen to anyone. We had practically no moon that night.”
“Why didn’t you light up a lantern, then?”
“I feared that the glow might wake you.”
“You...what?” Frodo just stared at Bergil till they both cracked up. “That one’s going in the letter--I swear!”
“No--you wouldn’t dare! I’ll tear it up! I will!”
Between laughs Frodo gasped, “Do you realize that you’re picking up a Shire accent? There’s hope for you yet, my friend!” They reached the ruins and set about their tasks.
“I am? I would have thought that the finer nuances of Gondor would have affected you.”
“Don’t worry about it--you’re in good company.” Frodo found that the mud served particularly well for scrubbing out the pot. “Papa tells me that Gandalf hisself once confided that he had to concentrate to shed the Shire accent when speaking among The Wise. It’s kind of catchy.”
“Ah yes--I remember something of that. It would slip out now and then, in his lighter moods. How he must have loved your people!”
Frodo smiled. “Good ol’ Gandalf. You know, it’s a funny thing. I have never met him, of course--he sailed years before I was born. Yet Papa has described him so vividly and so often that sometimes I feel he is right around the corner, or maybe peering over my shoulder, friendly-like, watching over me, just to see how I turned out. It’s a silly notion--I admit it. But a comforting one, nonetheless.”
“I can imagine.”
Frodo laid the pot down for a moment. “Bergil, let’s not march today. It’s a holiday. We need rest. We wouldn’t get far anyway, starting out this late, and we wouldn’t wind up anywhere near as good for camping.”
Bergil sighed with relief. “Never have I heard wiser words spoken!” He gazed about the dell. “Surely the goats will not graze bare so green a place in one day’s time. Say--where are you headed with that mud?”
“Just over to the tree.” He carried the pot as Bergil continued to fill waterskins. “This mud seems too special to just dump upon the ground, but I don’t feel right pouring it back into the pool with bits of food in it.” Amazing, how long the pool stretched--how did he ever swim it when half dead with fever? “I’m going to pack it around those roots where the tree can get some good of it,” he said, remembering the clean-up after the feast in Treegarth.
Bergil called after him, “That tree is dead, Frodo.”
“Are you the gardener, or am I?” Frodo called back. “I think it merely shed its leaves for the winter--I can feel the life in it, if you follow me.”
“I do not--but what can you expect from a goatherd like me?”
Frodo laughed at the Captain’s words as he reached the tree. But then he gasped at the sight of a yard-long scorpion--very dead--its body crushed under one of the roots, its stinger imbedded uselessly in the wood. With some measure of fear, Frodo pulled the stinger loose, but it appeared that the tree had suffered no harm, anyway.
Frodo whispered, “It’s fresh--the monster died last night.” Then, in a shaking voice, he shouted to his friend, “The tree is definitely alive, Bergil!” He rested his hand on the trunk, and then his forehead, and he said a heartfelt, “Thank you! Thank you, my friend, for keeping watch!”