Through Shadows to the Edge of Night
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 36, Part 66
Little Acts of Courage
(January 16, 1452)
By afternoon the fog finally burned off, and sunlight found the two passengers at their usual station to the fore, leaning against the gunwales to either side of the dragon-carved prow, watching the galley cleave the water. Frodo reflected that either they’d finally left the worst of the city’s effluvia behind them, or he’d gotten numb to bad odors, but he could actually enjoy the air now, winter-crisp and fine with just a whiff of river-moistened earth. He watched the cleared land slip past on either bank, beyond a rim of ice--struggling little farms doing their valiant best to make the most of what the river had to give. But even in this climate, too mild to freeze the water over completely, nothing sown by the hand of man grew there in the winter, only bare tangles of twigs and thorn that marked some wild shrub or vine awaiting warmer days, and some leafless trees, and the spikes of frozen weeds.
Frodo thought to himself, “Now I have gone deep into Mordor--into the land itself, the land of my father’s nightmares, the land by which people curse.” But somehow he couldn’t believe it so long as his feet didn’t touch the soil. Mordor passed to his left and to his right. He felt precariously safe on the ship. He knew in his heart that this couldn’t last.
They passed a knot of spindly children playing a game in the fields to their right, scampering across the cracking earth, rags flapping about them. Their laughter carried across the river even as Frodo saw how they frolicked in short spurts, resting often, obviously weakened in their want. “In cruel lands like this,” he thought, “every act takes courage--and mirth is heroism itself!” The crewmen broke into song at their oars behind him, in the wailing fashion of the East, singing up an ache inside Frodo that he somehow welcomed.
Bergil first broke the easy silence that they shared. “So you never did get your chance to speak to the Captain?”
Frodo shook his head. “When I got to his cabin he answered no knocks, and the first mate said that he wanted time alone. Can’t say as I blame him, either.” He looked up hopefully where the Captain beat the rower’s time upon his drum. “And now his duties occupy him--I imagine he’ll be too busy to speak to for the rest of the day.”
Bergil looked softly on him. “You fear to speak to him. You hope that by the time you get your chance, the journey will have ended. And truth to say, we only have a few more days.”
Frodo rested arms and chin miserably on the gunwale. “I am a coward! I do not deserve to be my father’s son!”
“Oh, I believe you have acquitted yourself well so far--there are different kinds of courage, Frodo.”
“I suppose so. But my father has a special knack for facing up to his fears. Take boating, now. At the start of his adventures he had the most dreadful fear of...what are you laughing at?”
“Oh, nothing...well, something Pippin Took told me once, if you must know.”
“About my father?”
“About his so-called fear of boats.”
“Indeed! Tell me about it.”
Bergil grinned as he leaned against the dragon’s neck. “According to The Took, your father had no problem with the prospect of sailing until he saw your namesake turn green about the gills at the very thought of setting foot in a boat.”
“Really? It was Frodo who got scared?”
For a moment Bergil’s smile left him. “Pippin said that Frodo Baggins had lost both of his parents to a boating accident. Having been too young to remember made it all the worse for him in a way; it made the danger of boats that much more mysterious, looming out of all proportion. Yet the poor fellow dared not mention his qualms, nor let on that he would rather have crossed the distance by dragon-back than by water--after all, he had to show himself up to the task of being Ringbearer.”
Bergil’s grin returned as he glanced up at the figurehead he leaned on. “Looks like we’re doing a little bit of both,” he said with enough of a Shire accent to make the hobbit laugh. “Anyway,” Bergil continued, “your father decided to make it easy for him. Pippin said that all the others saw his intent--I hear that at one point even The King averted his face to smile. But your father carried on like he expected to die out there in the river, shivering and clutching at any arm within reach--all the while watching Frodo Baggins from the corner of his eye. Naturally that other Frodo became concerned--so preoccupied with his gardener’s ‘panic’, in fact, that he forgot his own, pouring all of his effort into comforting Samwise and making an exaggerated show of nonchalance, himself. Pippin called it the best performance that he had ever laid eyes on--on both their parts--and the best thing for Frodo Baggins, as well. Baggins had always been the sort, Pippin told me, to best keep his wits when others seemed to need him most.”
Frodo grinned and shook his head. “That’s not what the Red Book says.”
“The Red Book?”
“Our history of that time--written by Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, and my father.”
“Well, naturally. Frodo Baggins would have written what he himself believed. And from everything I have heard about your father, he would leave it uncorrected.”
“Come to think of it, Papa did seem rather easygoing about taking me boating when we’d visit the Brandybucks. But when I asked him about it, he’d just say that he gave up on fearing boats when he and Frodo crossed the Anduin for the eastern shore.”
Bergil laughed. “Say rather that he gave up on pretending! Oh, and by the way--is that the Captain getting up for a drink of water?”
Frodo gulped and nodded. He felt a big human hand nudge him forward. In all too few steps he found himself at the Captain’s elbow just as the man put the drinking-gourd down. “Excuse me, sir, but I need to talk to you about...uh, about...” he stuttered to a stop.
“Mm? Complaints about my service is it? This ain’t some elven-cruise, ye know, if that’s what ya...”
“No, no! Your service has gone beyond my hopes. It’s, well, it’s about something that I should have told you about before, I suppose.”
The Captain frowned on him, then said, “In my cabin. I’ll join you in a minute.”
Frodo found the cabin the tidiest place that he had seen in Mordor so far. “Shipshape” summed it up nicely. Instruments of navigation in brightly-polished brass and glass hung from hooks in the dark and well-sealed wood. The hammock sported tightly rolled up blankets cleaner than his own, and pillows in their place. A basin and a pitcher gleamed on top of a chest underneath the towels draped tidily across a bar. Everything else no doubt occupied its own niche in the chest and several lockers, all shining in a thick varnish meant to keep the dampness out.
Frodo heard the Captain giving orders for someone else to beat the drum, then the man came in and pulled a panel down from the bulkhead to form a table suspended by a hinge and two chains. With surprising speed he unfolded two chairs from a locker, heaped pillows on one chair for Frodo, and (at the sight of the hobbit’s white face) whisked out a black bottle and two glasses from somewhere else. He filled Frodo’s glass and tossed a token splash into his own as he sat down.
“Go on,” he said, when Frodo just stared at the man-sized shot glass. “Ye haven’t taken yer grog rations with the others--ye’re entitled.”
Frodo took a nervous gulp and choked so violently, spluttering and wheezing, that he fell from all the pillows and had to let the Captain help him up again. Heat scorched his throat clear down to his belly and then spread like wildfire from there, reeling through his veins from tingly toes straight up through the top of his skull. “That,” he gasped with watering eyes, “has got to be the Burning Drink that Uncles Merry and Pippin warned me about!”
“It has its uses,” the Captain said with a smirk. “Now tell me what’s so all-powerful awful that ye didn’t dare speak up until somebody died.”
Frodo did not miss the edge in the voice at that last, despite his swimming head. “Sauron still exists,” he blurted. “He has little of his own power left, but he can still get hold of people some way and hitch a ride, bedeviling them and trying to coax them into letting him drain them for his own use.” Frodo stared at the man, waiting for him to challenge his veracity.
“Go on,” said the Captain. “I’m listening.”
“Sauron found a wound in the soul of a heartsick elf, and burrowed in, and drove that poor elf mad. Then dwarvish healers harried him out of that host and he tried to latch onto me--and has been trying ever since.” The Captain’s eyes widened, and Frodo shuddered. “I haven’t given him an opening--believe me!--but he keeps trying. He keeps...he...oh heavens...may I have a little more, please?”
“Sure. Sure. Keep talking.”
“Thank you. *cough*...tastes better the second time, you know? As I was saying...um...Sauron. He may have lost his strength, but he makes up for it with tricks that no one foresaw. He has established some connection with the poppies that he bred.”
“You don’t say!” The Captain leaned forward.
“I do say. It’s bad, Captain. Maybe he poured most of hisself into the ring that is gone, but I think he put some of what he had left into the shaping of those flowers of his--so that now he can drain power off of poppy-fiends, enough to keep going, anyway. I only found out how much when...” Frodo couldn’t make himself continue.
“When Jo died.” The Captain stared at him intently. “The same moment as you threw your fit.”
“I am so sorry,” Frodo whispered. “I had no idea.” The Captain waited, but Frodo fell silent, staring out the porthole, feeling the motion of the ship roll beneath him and wishing it could carry him away from all cares. He wanted the fog back, to dissolve his fears, his guilt, his duty, dissolve Mordor itself if it could.
“Never mind sorry,” the Captain said, refilling Frodo’s glass. “What’s done is done.” He nudged the drink forward, but Frodo took no note, seeing nothing but his private horror--here he had traveled with Sauron for months and miles, but he had never before dared to fully face the enormity of his burden. “Go on, lad.” The man nudged the glass a little closer still, till Frodo picked it up, blindly. “Tell me what happened, Hobbit.”
“Somebody died,” Frodo husked, his voice raw from the drink.
Gently the Captain said, “I know that, lad. Can ye tell me why?”
“I made him mad--Sauron, I mean. I...maybe I even shamed him. Some kinds of anger, you know, you can almost smell the shame behind it all. Sauron lashed out at me with all he had--except he din’t have nothin’ to lash out with, so to speak. So he...I din’t know he could do that!” Frodo found his vision blurred with tears.
“So he drew off of Jo, till Jo had nothin’ left. Is that what you’re tryin’ to tell me? Is that why Jo died?”
Frodo nodded. “I din’t know...” he repeated, then looked up at the Captain. “Will you put me off of the ship?”
The Captain growled and tossed off his own drink. “I already spent your cursed money on new ship-parts before we sailed. I do what I get paid for, Mister Gardner--I’ll put ye off at the Sea of Nurnen and not a mile sooner. But if ya hobbits have any speck of decency in ye, ye’ll give us all a hearty tip for having deceived us!”
“Of course,” Frodo said weakly.
The Captain set down his glass with a loud clink and stared at Frodo. “But thanks for comin’ straight with me now,” he said. “That took some guts--especially after what happened. Ya could’ve left me in the dark for the entire ride.”
“No I couldn’t.” Frodo shook his head, staring up at him owlishly.
Then, to Frodo’s surprise, the man started to chuckle. “I’ve gotta admit that it does my heart good to think of a little rat having the cheek to nip the Dark Lord where it hurts. Jo may’ve died a slave, but he died seeing his master in pain--and ashamed?--and that’s more than he’d hoped for, poor man.” He got up and took their glasses to the basin where he washed them out. “I wasn’t a day past fourteen years of age when I killed my master, Frodo--and good men died in the mutiny I sparked, but no one faulted me for that. So maybe I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for little fellas standing up to big ones--and that’s the way of the ratfolk, ain’t it?”
“You betcha,” Frodo said, too relieved to comment on the ethnic slur. He found it very comfortable to pillow his chin on his arms against the table, as the slow waves rocked the deck; he decided that he liked the swooping way that waves would rise and fall, rise and fall...
“Tell me one thing,” the Captain said as he dried the glasses. “This mad elf--he wouldn’t happen to be the same one that ordered some contraband ores awhile back, now would he?”
“Yes. I am afraid so. That was him.”
The man nodded. “I thought as much--there’s only one elf I’ve heard tell of that the dwarves would go through any trouble for.” He hesitated, holding each glass up to the porthole light and studying it for marks. “I’m an honest man, myself, but...well, I had a brother fall ill--badly ill--smuggling for Legolas of the Fellowship. People trusted in that name, y'know, though he never stepped forward and dealt face to face like a man.”
“He can’t,” Frodo murmured to the table. “He is not a man. He is fading.”
The Captain raised a quizzical brow, but Frodo explained no more, so he put the glasses neatly in their locker. “Tell me how they punished the elf.”
Frodo sat up, but he stopped himself from protesting when he saw the hurt in the Captain’s eyes. Instead he said, “He has been imprisoned inside a tree so tightly that he cannot move, after the manner of his people. He shall stay like that for a year or more.” At least it would sound like punishment to a self-freed slave.
The Captain opened his porthole and tossed the basin’s contents out. “Then he’s payin' his debt--that is good to hear. With a past like his, he deserves a chance to clear his name.” The man helped Frodo down from his pillow-perch and put the chairs away. “My brother’s doin’ better all the time, by mercy of the King’s own healing hands--trained, so they say, by elves. So yeah, I guess I am glad they didn’t kill this Legolas fellow, after all.” He seemed surprised by this, himself. The Captain opened the door and held it for Frodo. “And now I’ve got my own debts to pay, keeping this ship afloat--whoa, Mister Gardner! You seem a bit wobbly on your feet, there.”
“I’m fine,” Frodo insisted as he walked smack into the lintel. The Captain steered him properly out the door--straight into a blast of sunlight that made the hobbit’s poor head whirl.
“P’raps it wasn’t the brightest idea in the world to give ye three day’s rations all at once,” the Captain said when he caught Frodo just as furry feet tangled in a coil of rope. Crewman chuckled at the oars. ‘Hi, Bergil! Over here! I think yer master could use a hand.”
Before Frodo could protest Bergil gripped him firmly by the shoulders and whisked him away to their cabin so fast that everything blurred. Grinning, the ranger murmured under his breath, “Never tease me again about Osgiliath!” With remarkable efficiency Bergil tucked Frodo into his hammock, hung a waterskin handy, and placed a bucket nearby. “But I must say I am proud of you for what you faced--even if it took courage from a bottle to do it.” He pressed a knob of zhinjir-root into Frodo’s hand. “You might have need of that, my friend; you do not look well.”
“Mjus’ fine!” Frodo repeated with eyes closed, snuggling in.
“Oh yes, I can see that,” Bergil said, and left, closing the door behind him.
I am sure you ARE fine--what do they understand of such subtle delights?
“You again,” Frodo growled into his pillow. “Thought I’d gotten rid of you for awhile.”
I just felt like you could use some company. Hobbits drink to socialize, do they not?
“You felt like you could take advantage of me, you mean.”
You misunderstand me. Ah well, I should be used to that by now. It is my curse to suffer a tender heart still vulnerable to hurt from such constant misunderstandings.
“Only thing tender ‘bout you, Sauron, is your pride.”
Now, now, my good hobbit! Remember what the healer said about not angering me.
That woke Frodo up a bit. “What do you want, Sauron?”
Even as I said--to keep you company. I offer only friendship, Frodo, if you’ll but take it. Your father and his master won--many years ago, at that. Old enemies may become friends after their wars cease, may they not?
“Sometimes yes and sometimes no. I don’ want any company right now. I just want to lie here very still until the ship stops spinning.”
Ah, basking in intoxication. I understand. You know, Frodo, I could bring you far greater entertainments than this.
“I don’ want to hear about it.”
Oh, but I know you too well for that, my friend. I can feel your bliss. And I can sense your curiosity about what might surpass it--that desire for more. All thinking creatures desire more.
“Can you also sense my anger? My desire to punch your nonexistent nose?”
Temper, temper, dearest Frodo! Fortunately, you have caught me in an affable mood--I will not kill anyone today. I only want to make you happier than you can currently imagine. If you enjoy the delights of strong drink, consider that I have even greater pleasures to share with those I favor, robbed and reduced though I may be. You questioned before whether I could bring forth beauty? Let me show you, Frodo! Mattie knows. Mattie has given up everything for the treasures which I alone can offer. Have you never wondered what can possibly be so precious, so worthy of the price?
“Mattie also called you a liar--but don’t take it out on me, please. I din’t say it.”
Liar? Yet everything that I reveal has its own truth in me. I but show my vision for this world, the beauty I intended all along, had my judges given me the merest chance to prove myself. Not immediately--you know better than to fancy you can harvest on the same day that you sow, my lover of farms. But I could reveal to you the most wonderful of future harvests, dreams that you could yet make true, if only you would let me show you, and let me guide you. Is it so terrible that I reveal my heart to those who love me, who lend a little bit of power to an old friend badly in need of a hand up?
Frodo struggled, feeling very much adrift, like he had a hard time holding onto his own body, let alone his wits. What if everything he had ever learned about Sauron was wrong? After all, he’d learned of Sauron from Papa, and what was Papa except some ignorant little lackey from an ignorant little people who...
“Those are not my thoughts!” he said firmly. He found himself gripping the sides of his hammock tightly. “And you are not my friend!” Strength filled him as he said it, like he had opened a door to fresh air in some crypt, too dulled by suffocation to realize his peril until he could breathe his fill.
He pulled himself together by focusing on his love and admiration for his father, and for his people, and his pity for Mattie--the hobbit who could not go home. “Yes,” he cried, “It is terrible, what you show--because you cannot deliver anything for real, and people die running after what you cannot give them.” Frodo felt like someone else helped him to think, helped him find the right words through the fog--yet they remained his thoughts; he just had to find them. “It’s not like telling stories,” he went on, “ where the gift is in the tale itself, uh, the...the way the story changes you, if you let it. And its not like dreams that teach you things. They deliver, because they make you strong enough to make your dreams come true--they exercise something inside you. But you deliver up fantasies without effort--and therefore without substance.”
Frodo felt his head clear moment by moment, the more he let the words flow out. “Getting drunk means feeling good for no particular reason--and we really need our reasons.” He thought of his father’s satisfaction at gazing out on a well-tilled farm or a thriving garden. And his mother--oh how proudly his mother would carry out her trays of food that she’d sweated and fussed over to perfection. He thought of May showing him her very first doll-dress sewn all by herself--the big, clumsy stitches more precious to her than the work of the finest tailor. And he drew on his own memory, savoring the sweetness of fruit grown by his own callus-roughened hands. “It grieves me, Sauron, that you believe your own fantasies, yourself, that you still think you can create your paradise--because even if you could, it would be the wrong paradise.”
When he woke to his own words in shock, he braced himself for attack--yet no attack came. He realized then that Sauron lacked even the strength to drain someone deeply enough to strike with, that the fallen Dark Lord could only talk to him at all because his defenses had dropped.
Poor little hobbit! Do you realize that you have a meddler hovering about you, trying to block you from thinking through my offer? What a dreary taskmaster he is! I do hope to set you free, someday--to dizzying heights of ecstasy so great that you never would look back. But I see I can do nothing with you, now--for the moment. Enjoy your paltry shadow of delight--I may yet offer you better, despite your rebuffs. And with that Sauron left him clinging to the sides of his hammock, suddenly aware of the nausea overtaking him, and the first twinge of a headache, and the wretched ship that would not stop tilting and reeling with every wave that hit it! Frodo groped for the zhinjir-root somewhere in his bedding and wished that he had never left his home.