Through Shadows to the Edge of Night
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 31, Part 61
(January 13, 1452)
An iron-cold day had sunk into sullen blue twilight, and winter frosted the travelers’ breath before them when Frodo and Bergil reached the font of the Backward River: an oozing wound in the mountainside that bled a stinking stream. Buildings devoid of ornament or grace clustered up and down the cliffs to either side like an infestation, tacked together without much plan, to take advantage of whatever trade folks could manage with the outside world, and its people called this city Riverborn, though Sauron once gave it a darker name that none now uttered. Even so, the community looked ready to expire before it had really gotten started, its many empty piers jutting from the shores like bones, out where all the discards floated on the water to rot amid the oil slicks. Once Sauron had experimented with ship-design at this harbor, safe from his accidental monsters in the Sea of Nurnen, and he had also trained sailors at Riverborn to infiltrate the Corsairs of Umbar, so that here and there the corpse of an old war-ship foundered in the shallows, maybe just the masts left tottering above the waves, maybe a jutting prow. Smaller ships and boats now scuttled about the river, patched together from what matter came to hand, some propelled by oars and some by sail, and some, Frodo saw, by loud, obnoxious engines that belched a choking smoke. Frodo’s heart sank at this foretaste of the land where he would live.
“Welcome to Mordor’s favorite scenic waterfront community!” Bergil declared. Frodo gave the man a bleary look.
It did not take long before Bergil led them down a steep road crowded with buildings that soon cut off the river view, such as it was. The walls closed in so tightly that the bleating and the bells and the little goat hooves echoed like they hurried down a tunnel where no air moved. Never had pavement felt so hard to Frodo’s feet. “Here--this street,” said Bergil. “Public House #45 is not far off; unless much has changed, they will quarter livestock.”
“Public House #45? My, but that sounds cheerless. Is that how they name inns around here?”
“If you can call them inns. They do not serve beer--but trust me, Frodo. You would not miss it.”
“Especially since drink seems to make you grouchy,” Frodo said with a wry smile. “Anyway, I feel more in the mood for a hot cup of tea.”
“Then you are in luck, my friend. Anyone with any sense drinks the waters of Mordor boiled, even in the summertime.” Then, with a hurt look he asked, “Was I really all that grouchy in Osgiliath? I thought I was quite well-behaved, all things considered.”
“Gloomy, then. Too well-behaved. No dancing on tables, no blurting great secrets. The least you could have done was belt out a few off-key songs. If I’m going to watch my friend risk a sore head for a night on the town, I’d at least like to get a little entertainment out of it.”
“I promise that next time--should we live to see a next time--I shall play the fool to your heart’s content.”
“I’m going to hold you to that, Bergil. But do please light a lantern when it’s time for bed! No, on second thought, I wouldn’t trust you anywhere near fire under such circumstances--I shall light whatever needs lit.”
“How can I be sure you would manage any better?”
Public House #45 could not have been more dismal. Frodo had seen vestiges of the same architecture in the Shire, from Sharkey’s brief reign--tall, narrow, barren of all charm, with miserly little slits of windows, and no paint. But this building had seen generations of use and had not improved with time. He saw as they went in that the sills and lintels sagged and split, while inside, within a nasty smell, stains blotched the ceiling and the walls. He thought he heard something little scuttling away.
“Watch your step,” said Bergil. “The floor is uneven--you could get splinters.”
“Where d’ye think yer goin’?” a scrawny old man cried. “‘Ere, now, out wi’ yer sandy feet!” He shooed them back out to the porch and doused them thoroughly with chilly buckets of water from a rainbarrel. “No sand in here, no sirree!”
“Hey!” Frodo cried. “What are you...”
“Tha’s all I need--a couple o’ sea-smitten madmen traipsin’ in here straight from the beach. I tell ye, that ocean out there’s a devil of a thing--sings to you, it does, lures men out to drown ‘emselves, mark my word, folks go mad in the presence of that water.” Bergil winked at the mystified hobbit as the man rambled on. “Why, it’s worse than the poppy-gum! And what good is it? Ya canna drink it, ya canna plant with it, all ya can do is drown in it. I don’t even look at it, I tell ya, not if I can help it.”
Bergil dug the towels out of the packs of one startled goat licking at his drenched black fur. He whispered to Frodo, “Our host had a promising career ahead of him, once, in the Umbar fleet, before he lost his mind at the sight of the actual sea.” To the innkeeper Bergil said, “Ahoy, my good man! Where can a couple weary travelers find their land-legs and stable their stock?”
“Oh. Is it lodging ya want? Safety from the storms and the towering waves?” The man stopped scowling for a moment. “I can setcha up--aye, and the poor goats, too--why look at the miserable beasties, all a-lather with fear from travelin’ afloat!”
“I am sure that you will provide them comfort enough to get over their trauma,” Bergil said smoothly, “And us as well.”
As Frodo and Bergil unburdened the goats, the hostler maundered on, seemingly unconcerned as to whether they listened or not. “Time was when ya could make a pretty penny housin’ sailors around here, before the Conquest ruined business. Now, the two o' ye dry up good before ya dare set foot in my establishment--I don’t need no water dripped all over my floors--they’re warped enough as it is without more help from you. Whatcha been doing anyways--swimming? Lured in, were ya? And where shall I find the money for repairs, with no more armies marchin’ in and out?” As he spoke he took up a crook from behind the door and escorted the goats out back as soon as the last pack slipped from their backs. “The little one’s lost his boots at sea, I see (haha--sea I see, how clever of me!) The tides’ll suck the boots right off yer feet if ya let ‘em--but if ye don’t, the weight’ll drag ya down, down, down to the depths where Sauron walked after the fall of Numenor...”
As his voice finally faded away along with the bells of the goats, Frodo stared at Bergil. “Where have you led me, friend? Is this an inn or a madhouse?”
“Oh, Splashie’s quite harmless--now. In his day nobody worked the public houses if Sauron could use them for war. So yes, you do get a number of lunatics in the trade, along with persons impaired in other ways.”
A voice in Frodo’s ear whispered, Do you see how I have been misjudged? I was capable of mercy. I found every possible use that I could for my people before I would slay them as dead weight. Even those I slew I comforted, reassuring them that orcs would find strength in their meat, they still had purpose. I wasted nothing.
Bergil assumed that the cold made Frodo shudder, and thought nothing of it. “It’s sad, really,” Bergil said. “That the sight of the open sea, so heartening to normal men, can so upset the reason of those too long in Sauron’s service. Splashie has much company.”
I did not so afflict them, said Sauron. My enemy, Ulmo, did this evil, hating all who loved me.
“I bet no one did it--more like mixing lye and vinegar: some things simply cannot come together.”
“What was that?” Bergil asked.
“Nothing,” Frodo said hastily. “Just, well, mulling over my mother’s cleaning tips--the setting brought it to mind.”
Bergil nodded dubiously.
Sauron chucked in his head. So ashamed of me that you would lie? There is hope for you yet, my little halfling friend!
Frodo wanted to shout, “You are NOT my friend!” but he forced himself to seal his lips.
Soon their hostler returned with keys. “I s’pose ye’ll be wantin’ rooms for the night, beyond quarterin’ for the goats--poor seasick goats! Sea-views, I daresay, madmen that ye be. Ah well--just so’s ye pay me before ya run off and drown yerselves.”
“Actually,” said Bergil with an eye to his shivering friend, “Our greatest concern is a decent grate and plenty of firewood to go with it. Something with a good draw and no smoke backing up into the room would be nice.”
The old man eyed them up and down. “Since when do scurvy seafarin’ goatherds find the cash for fancy grates?”
“Since they moonlight as agents of the King,” said Bergil, producing a silver star from a pouch.
The hostler’s eyes widened and he shrank away a bit. “I, I, I meant no harm about anything I said, sirs. ‘Tis kinda nice--peaceful!--not to have whole fleets of sailors stompin’ ‘round the place.”
“We care nothing about your opinions, good man. But we do care about getting warm! Now will you please find us quarters and a nice bit of fire?”
“Right away, sir!” And with that he trotted up a dark staircase so fast that they could hardly keep up with him. Judging from the smell, not all past boarders of the upper floors found the outhouse convenient to their needs, but what concerned Frodo more was how the entire building swayed from the combined impact of two men and a hobbit hastening up the creaking, cracking steps. Frodo found himself quite out of breath before they got to their room at the very top floor, but at least the exercise heated him up a bit. He coughed when they entered the room, though, for a thick blanket of dust lay on everything.
“Officer’s quarters,” the hostler explained. “‘Taint been used for that long, sirs.”
Bergil groaned. “I suppose we shall have to change in your apartment, then, until you can get this cleaned up a bit.” When the hostler’s face turned pink he added, “There’s a generous tip for you if you scrub the room up nice and ship-shape, fit for a Captain of the Corsairs and not to the standards of an orc.” He pulled a large gold coin from his pouch. “Here’s a down payment, with more to come if you please us. And for the love of Varda please drag out those smelly straw mattresses--no doubt crawling with wildlife of every sort--and purchase a couple good canvas cots for us--new ones, if you please. I shall reimburse you double, so the better the quality, the handsomer your share. But do not cheat me, or the King will hear of it!”
The hostler glared at Frodo. “Look at your rat-folk servant, now, just standin’ there as insolent as you please, offerin’ me no help! Shall I have him beaten for you?” His eyes glinted when he said it.
The travelers both broke into chuckles and Bergil said, “Servant--oh, ‘tis rich! I fear you have our roles reversed. Allow me to introduce my Master: Frodo, Son of Samwise Gardner.”
The old man’s jaw dropped. “You!” He stepped back a pace or two, and again sputtered, “You!”
Frodo bowed, smiling, though he wisely said nothing about being at the hostler’s service. Instead he said, “We shall want hot water waiting in our room for us, enough for scrubbing up and fixing tea. Two separate basins, if you please. And yes, we are willing to pay extra. Thank you in advance.”
Grumbling, the hostler left them in his own parlor, then shouted up the help to clean their quarters for them. The first thing Bergil said was, “Do not sit on the bed, Frodo. No, not on the rug, either. Try the chair--the wooden one, not the one with cushions. Nothing infests that, I daresay.” As Frodo sat gingerly on the hard old chair (tall though it was for him) it started to wobble alarmingly and he sprang back to his feet again. “Relax,”said Bergil. “I do not think it will break.”
Frodo sat back down most cautiously. “You do not think!--oh that does reassure me.”
Bergil merely smirked,
Frodo giggled despite himself as he stripped off his wet clothes. “Bergil,” he chuckled, “This is so bad it’s funny! I have never seen such an inn.”
“Nor smelled such?” Bergil said with a grin. “Ah, but you have some choice experiences ahead of you, then!” He went to hang his dripping jacket off of what appeared in the corner of his eye to be a hook, only to have the giant insect skitter away in some distress.
At the sight of Bergil’s face Frodo burst into laughs outright, which broke the chair right under him. Now Bergil took his turn doubled over with hilarity at the hobbit’s wide eyes and gaping mouth, and Frodo soon saw the humor of it, too. Meanwhile Bergil had his own difficulties trying to pull off boots and socks while balanced on one foot or the other through convulsions of chortling. Then something scuttled over Bergil’s bared toes; the ranger jumped back with a yelp, knocking down an overfull trash can, and Frodo positively howled.
“Can it get much worse?” Frodo gasped, half-choked with laughter.
“We might wind up with Shelob quartered in the room upstairs,” said Bergil, pulling a robe from his bag.
“My, my! I hope she doesn’t sing in the bath.” Frodo put his own robe on carefully, trying not to step on any chair-splinters.
“Every night. At three in the morning.” Bergil found a broom and swept the trash back into its container, wrinkling his nose at various discoveries along the way.
“And then, I suppose, she takes off her boots before going to bed and drops them one by one on the floor--all eight of them.” Frodo puzzled over the chair pieces, trying to fit them back together again.
“I would not worry about that, Frodo. Worry when she puts them all back on and comes down for a little midnight snack.” Bergil offered what he thought might be a missing peg, but it turned out to be an old bit of chicken-bone.
“I thought you said that she bathes at three--that’s past midnight, Bergil, unless men reckon time differently from hobbits.” Frodo now had something approximating a chair, which he leaned against the wall verrrrry carefully...
“Well it hardly matters, as there is no room above ours, anyway.” Bergil came over and gave the chair a guarded poke while Frodo held his breath. It wobbled, but hardly worse than before.
“Oh, you mean she’ll camp out on our roof all night?” Frodo backed slowly away from the chair.
“Yes, and lean down to peek in the window at you now and then, to see how well you sleep.”
“Awww--how solicitous of her.” Frodo stepped on the wrong loose board, jarring the chair and crashing it to the floor again.
“Once a mother, always a mother.” Bergil leaned over the chair-shards and studied them with a certain morbid curiosity as Frodo bent to the work once more.
A knock on the door startled them and the whole contraption fell to pieces with a loud clatter as a gruff voice called, “Yer room’s ready.” When the old man came in he stared at the wreckage a long, tense moment before he burst into snickers. “That ol’ chair!” he wheezed, apparently quite pleased. “Gets ‘em every time!”
What a difference in their quarters! The place now had the spruced-up appearance of a mountain misanthrope who unexpectedly decided to come down into town for a little serious courtin’--somewhat worn and raddled here and there, but fresh-scrubbed and clean-smelling, the boards still a wee bit damp. Two steam-dewed ewers sat by mismatched bowls, chipped but serviceable, on a rickety but fresh-wiped table, and a kettle whistled on the coals. Soon the travelers washed their clothing along with themselves, and spread them by the fire to dry--a hot and healthy little fire, quite up to their needs, with only a touch of smoke escaping into the room, certainly no worse than sharing a tent with Uncle Merry in his pipeweed days. Bergil looked about the scoured room, and over at the brand-new cots on which they’d spread their sleeping bags (high up where the floor bugs would have a harder time getting to them) and sighed in utter contentment as he sank onto his own cot. “I would say that our host has earned his tip, would you not, Master Frodo?”
“Ohhh yes--a generous one. Except the tea has an unpleasant aftertaste--haven’t you noticed?”
“That would be the water. Unavoidable.”
“Well then--I can hardly blame him for that.”
“Mmmmm--so what’s for dinner?”
Frodo sat up so fast his own cot tipped over. “Dinner? I thought the inn would provide...”
“Do you really want to trust our hostler’s cooking?”
“Good point,” Frodo said, righting his furniture. “But don’t call me ‘Master Frodo’ if you expect me to slave over a hot hearth for you.”
“Your turn, remember? You get odd days.”
Frodo actually didn’t mind, as he knelt to the grate as though it were a campfire. Soon the little room filled with the homey smell of hobbit cookery, and he felt nice and toasty, snuggled in a warm, dry robe, with the prospect of a full night’s sleep on something softer than the ground. And as the city quieted outside, he could hear the river and pretend he listened to the sea. On the whole, one could find far worse ways to enter Mordor.