Through Shadows to the Edge of Night
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 37, Part 67
As Darkness Falls
(January 17, 1452)
Frodo sat in the prow with his back to the dragon’s head, facing towards the last remnants of the sunset like fading coals of red. He wrote in his letter, “I find the galley beautiful. The oars ripple in and out of the water, each in turn, as the strong men wield them, and at twilight, in the last strokes before they ship the oars and settle for the night, each wooden blade drips phosphorescent drops like liquid starlight magic! I almost feel ashamed to call anything beautiful, here--disloyal somehow, after Mordor gave you such a hard time. But I see what I see, Papa; it’s no use lying to you.”
He glanced up to savor the moment, which he knew must end at the first ring of the dinner-bell--the way that the sequence of oars shimmered like dragonfly wings. But he just had to continue his line of thought, before he forgot the words. “I suppose the difference lies in whether you’ve come to Mordor to resist the land or embrace it. You’re the one who told me that I had to let Mordor change me in order to grow anything here, and I suppose I already have, even just a few days into the land proper, from all that I have seen and done along the way. I think you are right--nothing transforms except from within.”
Frodo bit his lip a moment, and then wrote on. “I confess that sometimes my thrill at the mountain-rimmed plain through which we sail, where bareness sets each tree and thorn apart like living works of art, strange and stark yet still compelling--in short my admiration of what I should not enjoy--frightens me a little. And yet it comforts me, too. It tells me that although I might be naive, I might be inexperienced, I do not know Mordor nearly as well as I should to do my job, yet I am already a part of her, and I can transform her, because she loves me, and Papa, I think I am falling in love with her.” He paused, closing his eyes to listen to the river-chantey that satisfied him more with every day. Then he picked up his brush and wrote, “Can you possibly understand? Can you forgive me?”
He surveyed what he had already written, and frowned. “And forgive me also for whatever I scrawled last night--if you can read it, that is, for I no longer can. In summary, after the funeral (which I see I described quite legibly enough) I felt that I had to tell the Captain all about Sauron...”
He heard a soft voice say, “‘Tis no good for the eyes to write at this hour, young man. Or young...um, hobbo?”
“Hobbit,” Frodo said, then looked up. “Why, Leech! Come--sit down with me! Taking a break from your duties? You look like you could use one.”
“Not entirely,” the man said, smiling, as he sat down. “I am checking up on a patient, even as we speak.” He whipped out a magnifying glass and made a show of studying the hobbit up and down, till Frodo giggled nervously and leaned away. “Very good--it appears that you did not die last night after all, though as I recall you swore you would.”
“I did not. I merely said that I wished I would. I feel much better now.”
“After sleeping most of the day away--but then you had a rough night.”
Blushing, Frodo said, “It is just as well, I suppose. Some things should not become too comfortable.”
Leech fidgeted a little and looked away. “One thing does trouble me, Mister Gardner. The crew heard you carrying on before I arrived--arguing loudly in your cabin all alone. Fortunately, no one could understand a word you said.”
“Oh dear...I can’t imagine what they must think of me now!”
“They shrugged their shoulders, said to each other, ‘He throws fits’, and went on working. I, of course, had my heart in my throat the entire time.” Leech turned anxious eyes to the hobbit. “Under the circumstances, I must beg you to forego your grog ration for the remainder of this trip. If Sauron had...”
“Oh, believe me,” Frodo said with the utmost earnestness, “I never want to see or smell the Burning Drink again! But something has happened to Sauron--he seems much weaker, like attacking me took too much out of him to repeat it anytime soon.”
Leech sighed with relief, and shuddered. He gazed out over the crew and said, “That has to be the best news I’ve heard on this entire voyage.” Then he chewed on a nail for a moment, thinking. “Interesting...not at all what you’d expect of a spirit who had drained an entire man like that. That puts a whole new light on the issue.” The healer changed position often where he sat and could not seem to sit still; Frodo couldn’t quite tell whether he seemed more agitated or excited. “Yes, indeed...we might have reason to hope, after all.” He turned abruptly to Frodo. “Perhaps the loss of the ring left Sauron with a wound he cannot staunch--do you suppose? While he can replace his losses enough to hold on--barely--he cannot yet build up his strength for any length of time.” Leech smiled, but in an oddly tense way. “And perhaps I have helped a wee bit by starving him--locally, at least.”
“Starving Sauron? You mean...?”
“The Captain and I spoke after you fell asleep. We have scoured the entire ship for poppy-gum, and all went overboard--may Jo’s ghost have the joy of it, if he lingers here awhile.”
“But the two men you said...”
“They should have several productive days left in them before the full impact hits--enough to see you to your destination. The poppy-magic does not vanish all at once, you see--but I suspect that Sauron can make little use of it without some replenishment.”
“Never mind my destination,” Frodo protested. “I don’t want anyone to suffer on my account. And the Lady Eowyn told me that the degree of suffering astonished even her, the first time that she saw it.”
“But don’t you see, Mister Gardner--this is the best thing that has ever befallen them!” He put a hand on Frodo’s shoulder and the hobbit felt it trembling. “Do you know that I have prayed for this day? When some matter so serious should arise that the men in question would have no choice, that the spell would break, they would have to submit to healing, they would get a second chance, that I...I could use the skills invested in me at last to bring them fully back to life!”
“I can see that this means a lot to you. But I imagine the patients themselves aren’t exactly thrilled.”
“You might be surprised,” Leech said, and stood as a series of peals rang down below. “That would be the supper-bell,” he said. “I urge you to eat something, if you can.”
“Oh, I’ve got my appetite back, have no fears on that account!” He, too, climbed to his feet--and fell right back down skidding across the deck when something slammed into the hull below. The bell changed to a rapid clangor as the Captain cried, “All hands on deck! Arm yourselves!” Frodo had to scuttle on his hands and knees just to keep from getting stepped on by the sailors who ran by with axes to hack at tentacles writhing over the portside gunwale. Heart in his mouth, Frodo fumbled to clear Sting of its sheath as the ship tilted alarmingly and he found himself sliding on his rump straight down towards the water and an opening maw!
“Whoa no!” he cried, grabbing onto a rope just in time with his free hand. For a second he found himself swinging through the air just above the gnashing fangs, within the sickening reek of the monster’s breath--then men hacked off tentacles, releasing the ship for the moment, and he walloped back down to the deck with a cry of pain. He scrambled to his feet, Sting at the ready, feeling ridiculously small and absurd in such a fight, but the ship jolted and he soon fell again. “Whatever awe men feel for hobbits hereabout,” he thought, “They’ll surely lose it all tonight!”
“I’m here, Frodo!” Bergil called out to him. “Try to make it over here--I’ll guard your back!” But the ranger had his hands full cutting through the limbs that squirmed around his legs.
“Never mind me!” Frodo cried. “I’m coming to help you!” But again the ship lurched and this time everyone tumbled starboard. Frodo found himself in a pile of bodies with his legs around some hapless sailor’s neck, precariously near to going over the side. But the man rose with Frodo still on his shoulders, dragging his arms back from the water.
“Defend me, Master Rat!” the man cried out in fear. “I’m no good with th'left hand!” Then Frodo saw tooth-marks raking down the man’s right arm, blood flowing freely into the water that rushed across the deck.
“Pick up your axe!” Frodo shouted, remembering that men who gave up hope died of “shock”. “I’ve fought with the wrong hand before.”
“I’m gonna lose it--I’m gonna lose the arm! I know I am! It’s a shred!”
Frodo saw Leech caring for the wounded across the deck, but tentacles coiled between them. “Pick up the cursed axe! NOW!” Frodo grabbed a fistful of coarse, dark hair and wrenched the man's head to face the weapon skidding across the deck. “Or so help me...” He pressed the flat of Sting to the sailor’s neck. The sailor took up his axe, and Frodo wriggled to his feet on the man’s broad shoulders, crouched and still holding hair, as ready for battle as he could manage in a scenario that nobody could possibly have trained him for. “Now go! There’s the monster in front of you--show me what a man can do.” The sailor charged wildly at the nearest tentacle, hacking with no finesse and needing none, while Frodo twisted on his shoulders to prick away another tentacle coming up behind. “Good. Good. You can do it.” Frodo let go for a teettering swipe and fell back down on the sailor’s head just in time. “You can make it just fine.”
Out of the corner of his eye Frodo saw Bergil’s blade whack away something wriggling through the air at them--good! He’d freed himself. But the blade moved jerkily and slow. Just as Frodo realized that Bergil raised in a single hand a heavy sword designed for two, snakelike flesh coiled around the hobbit’s neck. It yanked him from the sailor’s shoulders, but the man dropped his axe to grab him and Frodo cut himself free. Gasping for air, the hobbit said, “Put me down--you’ll do better without my weight on you.” But the sailor didn’t listen; he put Frodo right back onto his shoulders and then just stood there, dazed, in the middle of the reeling ship, bleeding way too much, while the battle slid back and forth across the deck, shouting sailors, writhing limbs, screams and curses and crashes and the stench of monster-blood all over everything. Frodo hacked away tentacles whenever any came within reach, when he wasn’t groping around with his free right hand, trying to tourniquet the torn arm with the man’s own sleeve (without really knowing how) but fortunately the monster seemed more preoccupied with its more vigorous opponents. He felt the crewman begin to sway beneath him and wondered how much time he had left.
Finally Frodo saw a gap in the fighting and a path towards Leech’s quarter; he steered the man’s head to face it. “Now go join the wounded--there’s a good fellow. You’ve earned a rest.”
The man nodded, gray faced, turned, and toppled. Frodo jumped clear of him and stood over him, Sting raised in defense as the gap closed again, but then Leech saw them and crawled to them under flailing tentacles with the strap of a medical bag in his teeth. By the time the healer stopped the bleeding and bound the arm the monster had lost heart (along with many limbs) and sank bubbling into the river, darkening the current in the torchlight with its blood. Frodo felt a bad case of shivers come over him. He sat right down in the mess and hugged his knees, watching Leech splint Bergil’s arm for him, trying not to weep from sheer delayed reaction.
The Captain came over in person to help Leech carry the wounded sailor over to the infirmary corner, while Frodo walked alongside, holding the mangled arm high above his head per the healer’s orders. Some blood spattered down on his face, but at least it no longer spurted. Bergil could walk on his own beside them, though he looked pale even in the ruddy torchlight. As Frodo gazed around at the shattered, gore-splashed ship, Mordor did not look the least bit beautiful to him. But then he watched shaky men force themselves back to mundane acts of courage, swabbing the deck and making repairs, and some of that feeling returned.
“What’s our casualty status?” asked the Captain.
“Too many superficial wounds and bruises to count," Leech answered. "I think everyone sustained some injury, but most not seriously. One man took a wound to the hip from another sailor’s backswing in the heat of battle. We’ve got one concussion--and we're lucky to have no more. We have three men down with broken bones--ribs on one, ankle on another and an arm on the third; the arm’s a passenger’s and won’t affect the rowing. Two men lost teeth. One man hit a railing with his stomach when the ship tilted; I shall have to watch him for internal injuries, but he might just be winded. A blunt trauma wound to a shin has cut to the bone, but not beyond repair. And then there’s this man’s wounds. No deaths so far.”
Frodo sobbed, “Oh thank heavens!” surprising himself as well as the others.
“The concussion looks mild; I will simply keep that one under observation, too. But we shall have to move fast,”said Leech, “in setting the bones and in amputating this arm. Watersheen, will you help?” Then the healer sneezed.
“Aye,” said the Captain, “As I have done before.” Suddenly he glared at the hobbit and said, “I was young when I named meself. If you so much as...”
“Watersheen’s a fine name!” Frodo squeaked. Meanwhile Leech’s sneezing grew in intensity; the healer tried to turn his face into his shoulder, to keep from sneezing on his patient, having no hand free for his handkerchief. “Now that’s just great,” Frodo thought to himself. “A fine time indeed for our medic to come down with a cold!”
“Watersheen,” said Leech, in a higher voice than usual, “I fear...that is...I might need more help than usual.” And he sneezed again.
They carried the wounded man down below, as others helped the rest of the wounded behind them, into the “infirmary”, which was really the galley where the cook hastily cleared away their uneaten supper to make room for the medical procedures about to take place there.
As soon as the Captain laid the sailor onto the table, he pulled Frodo aside and bent down to speak privately. “That monster should have lain dormant deep in the Sea of Nurnen this time of year. Do you think your stowaway...?”
“Yes. I think he woke the monster up. He can no longer command the creatures he left behind, but he can stir them up against me on their own account, with little expenditure on his part, just a whisper here and there. He has done this before.”
“He must really want you dead.”
“No,” said Frodo, as he cringed with guilt at the moans of pain all around him. “He wants me destroyed.”