Through Shadows to the Edge of Night
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 30, Part 60
A New Year in Mordor
Frodo’s letter to his father, Sam, continues...
“Yule 2, 1452--I can’t believe it, Papa--that I would start a new year here in the Mountains of Shadow! As always at this time of year I compare my life to what it was exactly one year ago--but never before have I seen such a gulf! If you would have told me in Yule 2, 1451, that I’d wind up in the Ephel Duath, and have had such adventures along the way, I would have sent for the herbwife--I’d have thought you’d gotten some moonflower sap on your fingers when you ate or something. (Poor Cousin Halfast!--half the Shire wasn’t even born when that happened to him, and they’ve never let him forget it since, how he carried on and all, though he never pruned another moonflower vine in his life and gave up gardening for the roper’s trade.) But so much wonder and beauty, danger and dread, surprise and just plain peculiarity has happened since September that sometimes I feel like I have stepped into some kind of moonflower delirium, myself, for good--and I haven’t even gotten where I’m going, yet!
"I tell you, Papa, I can hardly wait till once again I can bury my hands into the good brown earth and get to the commonplace business of making things grow! And yet even that--I wonder how I could ever have called it commonplace? So much hinges on the food we grow, like I never thought about before, and when you get right down to it, there’s nothing more marvelous in the world, that we put these seeds into the plain old dirt and new life springs up from it.”
Evening: “I feel so guilty I can hardly stand myself. Bergil went on today about how he appreciates me saving his life and all, but all I can think about is how I considered leaving him behind to die. Sauron came up with that nasty little suggestion, I’m almost sure of it, but I did listen. He is so foul! The Blowfly makes sure I can’t really tell where he leaves off and I start up. But I would like to believe that the final thing that matters is what you do, not what you think about doing--that’s what says who you are. I hope. You do know what I’m talking about, Papa, don’t you? After all, you thought about keeping the ring, didn’t you? So you could make Mordor bloom?
“Make Mordor bloom? Oh my sweet heavens! I just realized--I’ve come here to make your fondest dream come true! And it is your fondest dream, isn’t it--to bring life to the land of death, beauty to the very realm of your deepest horror? The ring would not have trifled with any lesser temptation; it had maybe one shot to snare you, it had to hit with the hardest thing to turn down. But you did turn it down in the end. And now--oh marvelous thought!--you get everything you thought you had to give up--through me! Oh, Papa, I feel abashed and honored that I can give you this gift!
“Thank you for being there to talk to, even in a letter. I feel so much better, now.”
“January 1, 1452--Every night now we make corrals for the goats out of the local thorns. I know you remember how wicked those things grow--long and sharp enough to go straight through your hand if you stumble against them (Bergil showed me a scar on both sides of his hand to prove the point) but they keep bad things shy of pouncing on us, so heaven bless the thorns! It’s nasty, dusty, prickly work, though, and we both get scratches aplenty, putting up the fence and then opening it up again in the morning, but we have to do it--there’s things as prowl about at night. I hear them padding around sometimes, or growling, or just panting loudly somewhere in the dark.
"Last night something let out a howl like a furious barrow-wight--it woke me up with my heart pounding fit to bust. Bergil whipped his sword out, and I soon unsheathed Sting, but nothing further happened. That’s why we take shifts guarding, and keep a fire going, on top of sheltering in thorns like rabbits from foxes. Each thing alone might not do the trick all by itself, but Bergil assures me that if we do all three we’ll probably come through all right. Have I ever told you how nervous it makes me whenever he uses the word “probably” like that?
“It’s harder though, on account of how we both have some ways to go to put that fever behind us. Here I thought I had it beat; I felt pretty good about hobbitry and our ability to heal faster than men, but so help me I kept falling asleep on my feet all day long, sometimes dropping right to the ground. We both keep stopping to take naps--at this rate it seems like we’re never going to get to Mordor proper. I thought goat-herding delayed us, but even the nannies seem a bit impatient with us now.
“The odd thing is, Papa, that whenever I wake up again, I know exactly where to go, on the road or off. I have dreams--real quick ones, images jolting through me like flashes of lightning--and I can’t always remember them, but they always seem to help, even (perhaps especially) the ones that slam my face against nightmare pictures so fast that they wake me shrieking before I even know I’ve fallen asleep. Those warn me to change paths fast. Others show me glimpses of beauty or benevolence, and those tell me when I’m on the right track.
“I know that all of this sounds strange, even for you--and you know a good deal more about strange than most hobbits do. Bergil broods over me with deep frowns like a hen raising ducklings, despite him being even weaker than me. At one point he went so far as to warn me point blank that fevers sometimes scar the brain; he’s seen it happen. I worry him, I fear. Hey, sometimes I worry myself! But he follows where I lead, and so far I have not led us wrong. He has commented more than once that most folks crossing the pass never have to perform quite so much dodging around as we’re doing now, to avoid invisible spirits engaged in heaven knows what, and I still can’t bring myself to tell him about my rotten little stowaway making the journey that much harder. Earlier today he did his worst grumbling when I took us scrambling up a steep slope instead of taking the easy-winding road--but then that road crumbled into a cliff as we watched, with nothing to explain why. After that Bergil kept his own counsel.
“Of course it doesn’t help, I have to admit, that Sauron sometimes tempts me into arguments, and sometimes I do find my lips moving when I answer him. I strongly suspect that Bergil has noticed and does not like it at all, though he never says anything. I don’t know whether the ol’ blowfly sets me up a-purpose like that, or whether that’s just a happy side-benefit (for him) of whatever other scheming he pursues. But he’s hard not to argue with when he whispers all the time. And yes, I do now hear him sometimes in actual words, and have done so ever since the fever.
“Ah well--tomorrow I should put all of this behind me and rise up to perfect health--I can feel it in me. Then we can test whether we can get along without dreams or visions.”
“January 2, 1452--I thought for sure I’d wake up just fine this morning. No such luck. Bergil disturbed me sometime before the dawn, knocking some creepy little perversion of a bat away from my feet. Unfortunately he hadn’t seen it fly in behind him, his gaze turned outward in search of big things that might attempt to leap over the thorns, and it had made quite a feast from my ankle before Bergil discovered it and drove it off. That’s right, Papa--these bats drink blood. They lick you first with some kind of pain-killing spit so you don’t wake up when they bite you, and it also keeps the blood from clotting properly--we had a dreadful time staunching it. So here I am, anemic once again--but at least not nearly as bad as last time, nowhere even close. Just wretchedly sleepy and still taking frequent naps along the way. Bergil threatened to carry me but I would have none of it; he still hasn’t gotten his full strength back yet and would probably topple if he took me on his back. Blood-loss or no, I still think that I could out-march him, though he does seem to do a wee bit better every day.”
“January 3, 1452--If Treebeard showed up around the corner and offered me a little ent-draught, I’d down the whole mug and ask for a refill, even if I grew as tall as a tower. But it’s just as well, I suppose. Bergil sighs with relief every time I ask for a halt, though he doesn’t notice it, himself. Men do not like to admit that they are weaker than hobbits in some things. So my anemia gives us an excuse to go slow and take all the breaks he needs, and still keep his pride. I will say that he’s finally starting to get some color in his cheeks, and about time, too.”
“January 4, 1452--Finally we crossed the pass today and now make our way down the other side of the mountains. We are now officially in Mordor. In some ways it seemed anticlimactic. Slowly the road flattened towards a broad saddle of land, and then, so gradually I could not quite place the point of transition, our path sloped down the other way, so that I never did pinpoint that moment when I could say, ‘There! I’ve done it! I have crossed into the Land of Shadow!’ Besides, after all this fuss I expected major cataclysms or something, not this stroll across a frostbitten meadow. Even so, I found myself wending a meandering route--Bergil claims I staggered, but he followed me closely nonetheless. And I am so tired--I admit it freely.
Evening: “Forget what I wrote at lunch-time about our passage being anticlimactic. Not long afterwards Mordor came into full, panoramic view below us. What a gray and desolate land! I thought the heaths we crossed before looked sere, but now I gaze down on true desert, vast and pale and gritty-looking with all those bare boulders and cracked plains, and it stuns me with the paucity of life. You see a little green clinging around a river that runs way far ahead, but it’s barely holding on, in miles and miles of drear.”
“January 5, 1452--I just about had a heart attack last night. I stood at guard duty, working hard to stay awake, kind of scared by the fact that I keep falling asleep on my watch, no matter what I do, when suddenly I heard this bloodcurdling scream right behind me!. You’d have been impressed, Papa, how fast I got my sword out. Turned out to be Bergil hollering in his sleep again. Small wonder--we’ve finally entered the land where all his nightmares started.
“I do feel stronger today. I only napped at noon, with lunch, and we got by just fine. Maybe Bergil’s right and we merely wasted our energy zigzagging about.”
“January 6, 1452--Something prowled around our shelter all night long, now growling softly in its throat, now leaving us in creeping silence, now cutting loose with a bone-shivering roar! We stoked the fire bright and kept our swords loose in the sheathes. We did not sleep a wink all night. I expect we won’t travel fast today.”
Evening: “Surprise! We met Mattie going the other way--he’s already made his mail-drop in Nurnen and carries a few letters back to Minas Tirith--that shows just how slow we’re going, ourselves. He looks almost normal today, if you didn’t know the telltales to watch for. He did say something about fewer spirits warring on this side of the pass, so I suppose he doesn’t feel as much need for poppy-gum where the land has given up, ironically enough. And I daresay it’s just as well for our sake, too, to leave the realm of madness behind, for I’m stronger now and expect I won’t much fall asleep by day, once I get my rest caught up.
"Anyway, Mattie kept his distance from me, but I could see his eyes wished me well; it pained me to see how he hung his head in shame for having attacked me. I wish I dared to tell him that what he did made more sense than either he or Bergil realize, but Sauron isn’t exactly easy to talk about, especially under the circumstances. He asked repeatedly as to how well we fared after he left us; plainly he has worried for us the entire time--the poor lad felt just as guilty to leave as to stay. Mattie offered to carry this letter I’m writing back with him, but I said no, I’ll exchange it for your next one, Papa, when you write to me again. It’ll be easier, that way, to keep track of what you’ve read so far and what I want to reply to. I hope you don’t mind.”
“January 7, 1452--We continue down the dry side of the mountains, where the clouds leave no rain, but sail right on overhead without dropping their precious cargo to the yearning land. The earth splits open like chapped lips begging for a drink. I know, Papa, that you did not think much of the blighted things that grow in Mordor, the tortured and twisted trunks cracked in spirals of suffering and never growing very high, the haggard weeds that totter each alone in fields of bareness, the prickly shrubs at war with all the world just to stake out their miserly patches of dirt. But oh, my dear father, they have something in them that moves me to tears of admiration--for the Dark Lord commanded Death as the order of this land, and yet these urchins took up the courage to defy him and dared to LIVE!
“Anyway, tell Mama that I have learned to wash my pans and dishes in sand and fire. It makes for gritty eating, but it's sanitary. Even the most commonplace tasks change here to something hardly recognizable.”
Evening: “Softer creatures come out at twilight, safe from the hawk-eyed hunters of the day and the blood-sniffing predators of night--at least a little bit, at least for the hour. You have to keep your eyes sharp to catch the whiskers twitching out of burrows, and then the sudden dash of little fur-balls from shelter to shelter in search of sustenance. I don’t know whether they had such animals in your end of Mordor, or whether my changed sight catches things that others miss, or maybe (probably) you were too tired to care. But I see them, now, and their antics delight me on a journey increasingly weighted with care.
"All right, so they’re rats--this is Mordor, what do you expect? But compared to everything else around here, I actually find them cute. I know! I won’t think so when they get into my corn-crib and my root-cellar later on when I finally get down to the business of farming, and I will probably bless the clawed and fanged things that lope out of the night to eat them when their hour’s up. But for right now, at this stage in my mission, I find their company surprisingly pleasant.”
“January 8, 1452--Last night Bergil woke me urgently and said that we had to leave quickly. I heard thunder in the distance and told him to stop worrying so much--the lightning would come nowhere near here. He jerked me bodily from my blankets and landed me on my feet, shouting that I didn’t know my danger. That got my attention. I scrambled to help him load up the pack-goats (who looked as nervous as he did) so fast I still don’t know if we got everything, and then joined him tearing through our carefully-built thorn shelter. Bergil hustled me and the goats up a hillock jutting from the greater slope as fast as he could make us run. By now I felt the first spray of rain tingling on my face, and the time between rumbles and flashes got alarmingly short. I shouted over the thunder against the madness of seeking a high-point in a storm like this, but he shouted back that he knew a more certain death than getting struck by lightning, no time to explain.
“Well, no sooner had he herded us all up onto an inhospitable boulder than I spied a dark trickle of water snaking down the road we’d left, like a great fat worm. But I barely had time to point it out before an enormous wall of water careened down the road with all the force of a brand new river run a-riot, shouldering its way past steep-banked bends with splashes as high as liquid fireworks, roaring with the voice of a thousand rocks tumbling in its belly and smashing into each other. It tore through our thorn enclosure like, well, I can’t think of anything like it! It smashed everything utterly. I saw that water tear up trees and send them spinning down the stream with roots flailed in the air. I saw it wash out the foundations of a boulder alarmingly like ours, and send the whole thing crashing down with great cracking bounces off the mountainside. I have never seen anything so frightful that had no malicious intelligence behind it, just being itself, a force of nature. Indeed, I did wonder if some evil will had concocted this, but Bergil said no.
“He called it a ‘flash flood.’ He says the ground’s too hard to soak the water up proper, so that when it does rain, it all comes racing down at once, destroying anything in its path. He’s seen it wipe out half a troop in a matter of minutes, smashing to bits the ones it didn’t drown.
“So there we spent the rest of the night, soaked to the skin, watching the water rush below us as the rain slowly petered out, with no fire to warm us or protect us either one, no thorn stockade around us, only a very scared herd of goats yammering at us for reassurance. Bergil did say that in all probability (I hate such words!) such predators as might like a taste of us have more interest in saving their own skins than depriving us of ours. Besides, they can expect a feast tomorrow of all the drowned and battered flesh that they can scavenge, with little effort on their part. But that doesn’t mean an opportunistic monster wouldn’t take advantage if he happened to find us defenseless; survival in Mordor, Bergil keeps reminding me, depends on making yourself too much bother for those stronger than you.
“Now, in the gray chill of morning, I eat a cold breakfast of bread not even toasted, and a little cheese. I miss the spicy carrots that I lost--they can warm you even when you can’t heat them up, somehow.
“As for the newborn river? Gone as fast as it came. Last night’s flood has turned the road into a track of mud, but Bergil says it shall become dry enough for walking by the time we get our gear together. Already scarcely more than puddles remain of what once flowed so deep that in its midst I could have stood on Bergil’s shoulders and not found air--if by some miracle we had managed to keep our feet! I feel tired, achy, shivery, and overwrought, and I ought to be miserable to the bone. Yet something in me marvels, breathless, to have seen such sights and lived!”
“January 9, 1452--BLAST ALL MISBEGOTTEN FLASHFLOODS TO THE OUTER DARKNESS UNTIL THE END OF TIME!!!! I’m sorry Papa. I knew I missed something in last night’s scramble. I thought maybe we just misplaced it, shoving everything into any old bag that came to hand, every which way as we did, but now I’ve had time to carefully unpack every single sack and parcel, down to Bergil’s last sock, and I can come to only one conclusion: the flood washed away the Dwarf Kit. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I am so cursedly wretched sorry! You never should have sent it with me. I should have secured that first of all. Bergil says it’s better I should lose a treasure than my life, and he’s right, of course, but the reassurance does not exactly make me jump for joy.”
Evening: “We got through our meal okay, cooking in a tin we’d emptied sometime back. I am indeed glad to have survived, with or without the Dwarf Kit, for every day, every hour brings me new astonishments. I can hardly take my eyes off of the sky, tonight, in the bright, washed air. The stars seem closer nowadays, as though they lean down over this land in sympathy.
"Night does seem the better time in Mordor; days here look all washed out, dry and pallid. But oh, the stars! They’re all the elves could sing, and more. I think of Earendil when I see them, and of the hope he gave you from afar for your own sojourn in this country. You sure did get it right, Papa, when you said that the old tales never die. Soon I will lay down my head, for I am very tired--few but you could imagine how tired. And the last thing my eyes will see before they close will be those stars. I wish that I could watch them even into sleep, the way the elves can do. Whether or no, I expect that I will sleep well tonight, under their bright protection.”
“January 10, 1452--You would not believe it--I can hardly believe it, myself! But already fresh and tender sprouts have erupted all over the desert--a glow of green that makes the heart sing like trumpets and all the bells in the world ring out for joy! Well, the gardener in me just had to dig about and study sprouting seeds under my magnifying glass. Judging by the hardness of the hulls, and how they burst open along recent excoriations, these plants seem to have learned to germinate only after flash-floods--at precisely the right time to take advantage of the brief wealth of water. Very clever of them, I must say! I am sure that Sauron had nothing to do with their developing along these lines (I can feel him sulking over my discoveries, I must admit, grumbling about weeds--which is to say anything that he didn’t personally command to grow.) Every time I feel discouraged about Mordor, I stumble across something like this that plants new hope in my heart.”
“January 11, 1452--This morning we woke to the smell of raw meat. We rose to find a great rent in the weakest part of the thorn wall, and a trail of blood leading out. We didn’t have to count the goats to figure we’d turn out missing one, but we went through the motions anyway. And then we followed the blood trail--and soon entrails--to vultures pecking at the skin and bones and other remains. It looked so pitiful to see the tiny bones of an unborn baby kid dragged off nearby.
"The herd all held reproach for us in their strange, slit-pupil eyes--and we both deserved it. Bergil cursed himself for having fallen asleep on his watch, but I couldn’t help but notice that whatever killed the goat had crashed through the part of the fence that I built. I told him I’d been falling asleep some, too, but that did not make either of us feel much better. That could have been a hobbit or a man dragged out and devoured beneath the crescent moon. Fact is, we aren’t in the best shape for this journey, neither one of us, though we’ve both regained some strength. It appalls me that the noise--both of the attacker and the frightened goats--didn’t even wake us up.
“Fortunately, Bergil says we should reach a city in a couple days and sleep indoors behind strong walls. ‘Riverborn’, they call it, built around the point where the Backwards River bursts full-grown from the mountainside. (That’s the river’s polite name, Bergil told me--he wouldn’t say the other, but I can guess.) As a matter of fact, he could point out the city below us in the distance--a dark ring around the grotto from which the river springs. And after that we can look forward to five day’s rest, sailing to the Sea of Nurnen. I have to say that I sure could use it!”
“January 12, 1452--Oh, my dear father, I woke up to such a marvel today--would that you had seen such a thing, yourself! The desert is in bloom--all of it at once! Here, in Mordor, now, in winter. The brave vegetation loses no time to exploit the tiniest blessing to fall upon it. Here in the saddest of all lands, in the darkest time of year, I see stretch before me a carpet of all colors, I smell air so full of scent that I seem to breathe poetry. How can I help but laugh for joy?
"Only a handful of days ago you could gaze out in all directions and see nothing but sand--coarse, gravelly sand, unpromising for farming--and boulders, and a few shriveled bushes and trees and prickly things with great stretches of emptiness between. But the seeds lay hidden, deep in the sand, just waiting for their chance, waiting for just a drop of grace to fall their way.
"It fills my heart with greater hope than all the luckiest gardens in the world, rich in soil and plentiful in water--for if flowers can bloom here, what hidden seeds lie buried everywhere we’ve given up on? And in everyone--what seeds in Mattie await their day of rain? I even wonder what seeds lie buried dormant deep inside of me. Truly, it took a flood of history as violent as that storm-raised river to tumble and bruise us hobbits out of our complacency and bring us to new growth, but here we are, and the world will never be the same.
“I fear that we will fall asleep again, as all this beauty will soon wither back to sand. But let the flowers make the most of joy while they can! And I do see more permanent results of past floods all around me, now that I know what to look for. All the tired old thorns and shrubs and squatty trees have taken on fresh life and bloomed as well, clothing themselves with new green leaves (or, in the case of the thorns, new green bark) to match their petal jewelry. They must have done this many times before, and they will remember through the dry times, and they will do it again.
“You know, Papa, I cannot help but think of May. She was the seed of good buried in Ted Sandyman’s evil, brought forth in violence and fear, but blooming nonetheless. All we had to do was nurture her and watch her grow.”
Evening: “Papa, you will not believe this! There comes an hour just before the sunset when all the washed-out colors take on a richness and a depth, in shades of violet and rose and subtle peach, not seen at other times. You probably missed it on account of Sauron’s pall, but without a roof of smoke the dusk does marvelous things around here. Well, in the last of such light I saw something glinting ahead of us, like metal. I thought it might be some remnant of a fallen soldier’s armor, and I felt drawn that way to pay my respects--enemy or friend, nobody deserves to go unmourned. It did turn out to be metal, just the bare edge of a handle poking from the sand, caught on a flood-flattened bit of bush that bloomed like fire. Imagine my surprise when I saw, beneath the scouring that it took, the remains of dwarf designs! Well, I dug it out as fast as I could move, and soon reached damp sand--it was the Dwarf Kit! Badly scratched and even somewhat dented (and you can get some idea of a flash-flood’s force to picture anything that could dent this!) but just as good for use as ever. It had filled up with silt, of course, and took a lot of washing before I could cook with it, but I got it clean and ate from it. So help me, I felt like I had regained an old friend that I'd thought slain.
“What a wonderful day this has been! And tomorrow we reach Riverborn--how perfect can it get?”