Through Shadows to the Edge of Night
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 34, Part 64
The Ship Leech
(January 15, 1452)
The voices had murmured just beyond his grasp for some time, words swimming off somewhere to his right, the closest thing to a sense of direction Frodo had when he lay suspended in the swaying middle of nowhere.
“Any blow to...” “...this morning, but I really think...” “...delirious outcries sometimes do follow...” “No, I do not take it personally...” “You say that even before this...” “...fever in the Ephel...” “...tell me...”
Frodo began to perceive the hammock that supported him, cradling his cheek in its rough weave. His blankets felt warm and snug and he did not want to move from them. Memories or descriptions or something from the recent past washed over him, but he tried not to care. Whether he willed it or not, though, he wakened more by the minute and heard a voice he did not recognize--curiously gentle and intelligent, despite the rough Mordor accent.
“Now, let me get this straight, Mister Bergil. You say you both came down with this illness at the same time?”
“Yes, sir.” Bergil’s voice, at least, he knew.
“But he sustained the worse infection of the two of you?”
“Surely he must have--he suffered far more injuries than I did. Every exposed inch of his skin swelled with welts.”
“I see. And yet he managed to get both of you to this healing place you mentioned--how many miles away?”
“I am not sure. Most of a day’s journey, though of course we could not travel quickly.”
“Yet he is half your size.”
“He propped me up between two goats.”
“But he wrestled you--your entire weight--up onto your feet to do it. And then he kept his wits together enough to lead you and find the magic mud--how did he know about it, by the way?”
“It is...difficult to explain.”
“I imagine. His kind have queer powers, so they say. Nevertheless, it sounds like entirely too much work for a sick anything to attempt.” Frodo found himself smiling at the thought of being an anything. “The poor little rat may have burst a vessel in his brain--only time will...”
“I heard that,” Frodo said, and opened his eyes to the cabin’s dim light. A thin and balding man sat on a stool beside his low-slung hammock, with a face as soft and creased as a much-used piece of leather.
“Oh, so you’ve awakened, have you?” the man said while taking Frodo’s pulse. “That is all to the good. Sorry about the bad choice of words,” he murmured with half his attention, “prithee do not order me dismissed.” He wrote down notes in a weather-warped journal. “In any case, you won’t find the Captain in any hurry to dismiss his leech--my sort is rather hard to come by around here; most ships do without. Tell me, Frodo Gardner--do you have any history of fits before this one?”
“Have you suffered any headaches recently?”
“I have a bit of one now, but not usually, no--none that didn’t have a good explanation.”
“I shall be the judge of that. When was your last headache before this one, and what do you offer as your ‘explanation’?”
“Early December,” Frodo muttered, thoroughly embarrassed, barely audible as he added, “Beer.”
The healer chuckled and said, “Naught since that long? I shouldn’t worry about it, then. Let us see...” He pulled Frodo’s blanket aside. “You sleep in your mail?”
“Habit,” Frodo said. “Not that I don’t trust anybody, I just had a rough journey here, and...”
“Oh, but you have the right idea! Never let your guard down in Mordor, lad--uh, Mister Gardner, that is. Except, of course, when your leech says to strip. And he does say.”
“Bergil, help him if he doesn’t feel up to...”
“No, no, that’s quite all right!” Frodo said, hastily sitting up and pulling off the mithril shirt.
“Just the upper garments will do, thanks. I’m not treating piles, here. Now lay back down again, there’s a good r...lad.”
The leech palpated his abdomen. “No enlarged liver, no ascites...and you show no sign of malnutrition, that’s for sure...” Frodo pulled the pillow down over his face; in a muffled voice he mumbled, “My people consider me slim. Very slim.” The man gently lifted the pillow from his grasp and felt the hobbit’s head with expert fingers. “...no unusual lumps that I can find...oh wait. Here...”
“ A recent swelling--the placement fits with you pounding your head against the deck in your fit, earlier, but it does not seem severe. Bergil, light a candle please. Mister Gardner, how is your vision?”
“As good as it was before your fever? Ah, thank you, Bergil.”
“Better. Hey!” He jerked his head away as the leech held the candle close to his eyes.
“Pupils equal and reactive--excellent.” He jotted more notes. “Better, you say? What an interesting perception. Tell me, Mister Gardner--what substances do you indulge in, besides beer, of a mind-affecting nature?”
“What? None! Nothing.”
The man laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. “It is all right, my friend. Leeches may safely hear these things. Would you like Bergil to leave the cabin?”
“No. He’s fine. Okay--I’ll have a beer now and then, sometimes wine, once in a long while brandy. But nothing unnatural, surely--I don’t even smoke pipeweed.”
“Mm hmm...nature is all in what you make of it, I suppose. But yes, you do have the clear eyes and complexion of a temperate man--or whatever. Still, I need to rule out involuntary toxins, although I think your servant got it right--that fever probably lies at the root of your troubles. Just to make sure, though, I shall require a urine sample.”
“Now wait just one minute!”
“Here,” Bergil intervened. “I have his chamberpot from last night.”
“Ah, very good!” The leech sloshed the contents around in a circle and peered within intently while Frodo pulled his blankets back nearly to his eyes. “Hmmm...light straw color, no visible particulate, no abnormal smells. But of course I shall have to test whether...”
“Look--I know what’s wrong with me,” Frodo interrupted.
“You do?” The leech handed the pot back. “But you claim to have never before thrown a f...”
“It’s Sauron,” Frodo groaned.
The leech scribbled in his book. “I see, Mister Gardner. And how long have you thought that Sauron was alive and out to get you?”
“No--I mean it! Hear me out. Uh...can you keep a secret?”
The healer’s face turned grim as he stared at the hobbit for a moment before he laid down his pen and said, “I am a professional, Mister Gardner. I have endured the whip for keeping secrets.” He held up his notebook so that Frodo could see. “Code--I invented the script myself. You could ruin many lives if you could read this book and reveal one tenth of what it says.”
Frodo would have hung his head if he hadn’t already been lying down. “Forgive me for having ever doubted you,” he said. “But when you have a secret like mine...” He trailed off, uncertain of how to proceed; it didn’t help that Bergil stared at him with such large, sad eyes. “Try to believe me, but it really is Sauron--much reduced, but definitely him...” And Frodo told them an abbreviated tale of the madness of Legolas, and the healing rites of dwarves, and Sauron’s leap from the troubled elf to himself. Bergil’s jaw dropped; he backed into the bulkhead and sank suddenly to the deck where he sat in stunned silence while the healer jotted down more notes.
At last Frodo finished and the healer laid down his pen with a sigh. “Alas, poor Jo! But it was only a matter of time, I fear, and he would have soon died whether you had joined us or not. Off this ship Jo spent none of his pay on food or shelter.” The leech thumbed back to another part of the book, where he paused a moment over what he alone could read. “I think our Captain kept hiring him to try and keep him alive as long as possible.”
Gently Frodo asked, “Was he the Captain’s brother, or perhaps his son?”
The leech shook his head, smiling sadly. “We are all the Captain’s sons and brothers, as far as he is concerned. He is a good man. I had my choice of ships, you know; I have my reasons for working on this one.” The healer folded up his book and put it in his bag. “Well, Mister Gardner, I guess you’ll be wanting your lunch, since you missed your breakfast, and I have others to attend. You should do all right for now.”
“I think I’ll die of embarrassment if I try to eat with the others,” Frodo muttered from under his blanket.
“Nonsense! The crew won’t pay you any mind; what with all the poisons that abound here in Mordor, more folks throw fits here than anywhere else in the world, I think.”
As the healer rose, Frodo asked him, “Just one more thing, if you don’t mind, sir--what is your name?”
The man gave him a crinkly smile. “Leech. Most people changed their orc-given names, but I made mine come true.” He turned to leave, but paused before the door. “I would beg one thing of you, Mister Gardner, if you can manage it: please try not to anger your ‘guest’ again for the rest of the voyage. We have two other sailors who are, shall we say, vulnerable--and one of them the Captain does not know about.”
Leech left, and there sat Bergil on the deck, his arms loosely draped across his knees, staring at the opposite bulkhead, refusing to meet eyes with Frodo.
“I, I’m sorry, Bergil,” Frodo stammered. “I should have told you all of this before.”
“Truly you speak--for I would have thought twice ere I entered Mordor with one who plays host to its very maker!” He struck the deck beside him, then tipped his head back against the bulkhead with his eyes closed, sighing.
Frodo’s heart sank. “Will you leave me, then, Bergil? You have that right. The King can assign...”
“No I will not leave you!” The man turned and glared at him. “I have gone too far for that--on this road and in caring about your mission--and about you, may the Valar help me! But you should have warned me--I had a right to know. And I ask you, Frodo--whose work is it that tempted you to deceive me?” When the hobbit gave no answer Bergil said, “You are not as invulnerable to the Enemy’s wiles as you think.” He shoved himself up from the floor and slammed out of the cabin.