Through Shadows to the Edge of Night
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 32, Part 62
(January 14, 1452)
Frodo herded the goats by himself up the streets of Riverborn, following the alleys Bergil had described, while the Ranger went on ahead to book their passage. The buildings did not look quite so bad today, so long as he equated them with cliffs and other natural formations, but he surely wouldn’t want to live here! He found himself blessing every cheeky little weed to crack the concrete or take root in a raingutter, and the patches of moss and mold here and there ceased to look scrofulous but started to provide welcome spots of color. He hoped with all his heart that his eventual destination, being rural, might not smother him so closely as these endless, faceless walls.
People came and went around him at a terrible hurry, sometimes cursing the goats for getting in the way, but they lacked the vitality of the people in Edoras or Minas Tirith, though they moved at twice the speed. Their faces looked hard, as hard as armor, but too many of the eyes betrayed a vacantness behind that conjured up in Frodo a terrifying pity. Some stirred from dullness enough to glare with hatred at the star-badge pinned to his cloak, but none of them dared accost an agent of the King, however small--especially one who wore mithril openly underneath. With one hand on his staff, Frodo kept the other clearly on Sting’s hilt and tried his best to look like someone you wouldn’t want to mess with.
Never did Valinor appear so far away.
Yet even with that thought the memory of that light came back, and Frodo began to see what could have been, perhaps even what was. The stones still held their ancient patterns locked inside, though squared off into blocks. The weeds raised green blades in defiance of all things hard; they danced and bobbed to the slightest breeze, awaiting the first excuse to bloom. The narrow strip of sky above him tumbled with clouds far beyond the reach of Riverborn’s reek.
And the people! Oh, what poetry hid within those wan cheeks and hardbitten lips! Somewhere in each curled unborn the knowledge that the empty eyes could still be--indeed yearned to be--filled. Surely, in fact, much love and sorrow and moments of triumphant joy must fill each and every one of them, in unguarded moments, far from these hard-beaten streets, miles away by the closing of a door, at least. And now that it came to it, now that Frodo looked closer, as though through a clarifying lens, he saw much in those around him of courage and endurance and the will to live as feeling human beings no matter what they suffered. The blows of life don’t always crush--sometimes they carve something beautiful, chipping away all the superficials, leaving nothing but the heart.
The smell got worse as he neared the docks, but he made himself take deep breaths to numb his nose the faster; he’d learned that trick from the Gaffer the first time the old hobbit set him to shoveling manure. Not far from the water he came across the local offices and warehouses for Brandybuck Mercantile, and he broke into a grin. Uncle Merry certainly had his work cut out for him in these parts, but apparently he’d bought several of the ugly buildings and joined them together into something rather more generous (painted purple) with new brickwork and widened windows (still rectangular, but at least letting in the light and air.) Every window had its window-box, and in his travels the Master of Brandybuck had found a variety of flowers amenable to blooming in the winter (none of them white) trailing from the boxes like an invasion of color from a happier realm. Each of the warehouses sported a different hue, as well, and gave off scents of spices, and tea, and oranges, and fresh-cut wood, and wine-barrels, and coffee-beans heaped up in sacks, and other smells that the hobbit couldn’t name, but all of them enticing contradictions to the river-reek.
Frodo paused a moment to admire the establishment, and note how faces brightened here, how customers lightened their steps and looked eager to reach the (round!) green doors (all three of them) and how they chattered to each other as though noticing companionship simply by proximity to such a place. Somewhere amid the warehouses Frodo heard a worker whistling, and that slender sound seemed stronger and more joyous than all the city walls at once. Frodo found himself smiling as he opened the centermost door.
A young Nurning woman rose from a desk and came to him, returning his smile so radiantly that it took him a second to notice the dark and jagged scars all over her face and body. Before Frodo could open his mouth she said, “Ah--you must be Master Gamgee--we have had word of you.” Nothing empty about the sparkle in those eyes! “The packers started assembling your gear as soon as we learned of your arrival.” She turned to a ruddy young man and said, “Jasper, see to Master Gamgee’s goats.” She ushered Frodo into a warm parlor, fragrant with that spicy tea that Uncle Merry favored, where fresh-sawn wood paneled over the ugly Mordor bricks and clean, well-padded chairs offered him their comforts next to a fireplace crackling with cheer. “Would you like a cup of tea while we load up the carts?”
“Thank you, Mistress, uh...”
“Turquoise. Turquoise Greeter is my name since I came to work here.” She dimpled. “The Master of Buckland says we can all rename ourselves, if we so desire.”
“How lovely. And how did you know of my arrival, Mistress Turquoise?”
“Oh, we figured you would quarter at Splashie’s place when you arrived. We paid him to send to us whenever any ra...hobbits took lodging at his house.” Her cheeks colored at what she almost said, as she dabbed at her lips after a hasty sip of tea. “I do apologize that we had received no word in advance about the goats until last night. Nevertheless, we are assembling bales of fodder as rapidly as possible. Oh, and you do know that you will have to provision the entire crew of your vessel, do you not? We have many carts to load.”
Frodo choked on his tea. “The entire...?”
“Think no more of it! Master Brandybuck himself has extended your expedition a line of credit, and will send all bills directly to the King. He has written me a precise and lengthy list as to everything that you will need--all quite practical, mind you, unlikely to alarm the Royal Exchequer, allowing for a few small extravagances like blocks of eastern ink.”
Frodo practically melted into the upholstery in relief. Good ol’ Merry thought of everything! “Oh well, in that case, I believe I will have another cup of tea.”
“On the house,” she said, and smiled.
Leading a parade of carts and herding the goats before him, Frodo soon reached the docks themselves, to the sound of water slapping against the piers and the cries of water-birds squabbling over some dead fish. Somehow the sight of the water heartened him anyway, gray-brown and rancid though it was, for it flowed in the patterns universal to water anywhere, a grace to the eyes, in its movements music, a solace from time immemorial.
“Over here, Frodo!” He saw Bergil waving a few piers down. The star badge glinted on the man’s cloak, as well; not even Bergil would pass through these streets without at least the threat of back-up. But he looked cheerful enough as he said, “Trust me--the smell gets better towards the center of the river. I booked us passage on a galley--a motor-tug would move us faster, but the goats would not put up with it.” Frodo breathed a sigh of relief--he had no desire to spend days in a machine’s foul noise and smoke--although he found the dragon figurehead downright alarming. He and Bergil counted the goats together and herded them down into a pen prepared for them in the hold, fenced off from the provisions that strong men from Brandybuck Mercantile loaded in for them.
To Frodo’s horror, on emerging from below, he found the sides of the vessel filling up with whip-scarred men at oars, scowling at him like he bore responsibility for every mark on them. But only rings of shiny skin encircled the wrists and ankles where manacles once galled. A big man strode up to him and said, rather belligerantly, “Ya Frodo Gardner--the bloke commissioning this ship?”
“Yes sir. On His Magesty Tar Elessar’s command.”
“Well, just so’s ya know the rules, we’re all free men here, and have been since the Conquest, if the rumors be true. True or no, I slew the last master we had, and I’d do it again--in a flash--if anybody ever tries to lord it over us again. Bleat to the law all ye want, but the King won’t stop me--calls it self-defense, he does. When ya sign on me crew, ya hire em-ploy-yees, ya do not rent slaves--do I make myself clear?”
“Uh...no problem there. I don’t want to own anybody--not even to rent.”
“I know our rights. Ya have to pay us twenty pence for every day we sweat for ya--that’s the downstream rate. Upstream’s forty. Ya have to allow the men a break and a chance to switch sides every two hours, plus all the fresh water they want. Ya cannot whip us. Ya cannot inflict corporal punishment in any way. If there’s any punishing to be done, I’ll do it--and only if I see fit--hear?”
“I hear you, Captain, and I approve.”
“Ya cannot take a crewman’s possessions away from him, unless he gives or sells ‘em to ye of his own volition--and I’ll be watching to make sure of that ‘volition’ part. Every man gets his ration of grog, in the mid-afternoon. And they’ll get three meals a day, every day, no exceptions--out of yer own purse. The rule on this ship is we all eat the same grub, at the same table, passengers and crew alike. Not one gettin’ all the dainties to himself and the rest sittin’by drooling in vain. Ya got that?”
“Indeed, I prepared for it,” said Frodo, thinking fast as he groped through his personal packs removed from the goats and now lying at his feet. “I brought rounds of cheese and dried fruit, and seasonings to liven up our shared meals. Here...” he pulled out a string of apple-slices, from the cache he’d hoped to enjoy at Nurnen, “...in honor of our coming voyage together, each man and hobbit gets a slice, right from the start. One for you...and here’s one for me, and for Bergil, and now for the men...there you go, pass it down, one each...there--that should put some heart into your rowing. I hate the very thought of whips.” The change in the faces amazed Frodo. The eyes lit up with delight and the cheeks creased from grinning as the men reached for the leathery bits of fruit and a pleased murmur went all around. “And there’s more where that came from, lads--give us a good, smooth ride, and you’ll not regret it.”
“Ye’ll not regret it either, guv’ner!” the men declared. “Aye, we’ll row our arms off the sockets for ya!” “Fruit--I ain’t tasted fruit since me last birthday!” “It’s a good li’l rat, it is.” “Hoboy, will ya taste that? Think I’m gonna die of sweetness!” “Think ‘e’s a soft ‘un? Think we can get away with...” “Don’t say it! Tha’s the same mistake the Dark Lord made about ratfolk, an’ look where it got him!”
“Excuse me!” Frodo said loudly, now looking as stern as he could manage. “No one who wants to work for me shall ever call me ‘Rat’ or ‘Ratfolk’. Anyone who doesn’t want to collect my pay can climb out right now and I can hire someone else.” He drew himself up. “The proper term for me is ‘Hobbit’. I am a hobbit of the Shire, and my name is Frodo Gardner.”
In the stunned silence Bergil added, “Son of a certain Samwise whom you may have heard about. Do not underestimate him! He has killed in battle before.” Then Bergil turned to the big man and said, “Take us out, Captain. We have accepted your terms.”
The Captain leaned down to Frodo and growled, “If there’s any killing to be done, I’m the one to do it--keep that sword in your sheathe, or we don’t go nowhere.”
“You have my word, Captain.” Then Frodo whispered to Bergil, “Why’d you have to say that? They’ll think I’m some kind of monster!”
“Monsters they know and understand. Except for Mattie--whom they all see as outside the normal boundaries anyway--hobbits are but a rumor to them, which they have put into the only category that they can grasp for a creature that can overpower the Dark Lord himself. Trust me, Frodo--between your gift and my threat, we are off to the best possible start.” Frodo blinked at that; it had never occurred to him how frightening his father’s and namesake’s victory might appear to some.
“Helmsman to your post!” the Captain shouted. “Men to your oars! Anchor up, cast off, and bring ‘er about--We’re Nurnen bound, m’boys!”