Through Shadows to the Edge of Night
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 39, Part 69
(January 18, 1452)
“Never mind what I said to you about owing a big tip,” said Captain Watersheen, over a late breakfast of reheated supper. “You paid your debt, Hobbit.”
“No I didn’t,” Frodo croaked, then sipped at his honey-laced mint tea, as he watched a sailor limp to his place at oars. “There isn’t a man on board this ship unscathed because of me.” Or hobbit; he sat at an angle to ease his hip and thigh, which had turned quite purple where he’d hit the deck the day before.
The Captain stretched and yawned. “Now Mister Gardner, I didn’t say you didn’t have a debt, I said you paid it.” He shoved aside his bowl and refilled his own mug with that bitter, black kind of tea they serve in the east, that gives a weary man the illusion of some rest. “But that don’t change the fact that the Backwards River runs with more danger than water, regardless of who or what this ol’ ship carries--don’t take too much on your shoulders; you ain’t that big.”
The table felt hard and rough under Frodo’s arms, and the sunlight seemed much harsher than at the usual breakfast hour, and his throat hurt, and none of this seemed to matter very much. He studied the dark rings under the Captain’s eyes. “Did you get any sleep at all last night?”
“Leech didn’t, so I didn’t.” The man shrugged, and finished off his tea with a noisy slurp. “Well, I’ve got a ship to run--I’ll be seein’ ya.” And off he went, the big, ungainly man, barking at the sailors and going about his duties as though nothing untoward had happened at all.
At Frodo’s elbow Bergil said, “And he shall not sleep tonight, either, I daresay.”
“So you know,” Frodo said dully.
“Everyone on board has fathomed the healer’s secret by now. His maladies worsened after the Captain put you to bed, I fear. None could mistake that he suffers the same affliction as Flint.”
Somehow Frodo felt responsible for that, too. Not that it mattered; blame enough surrounded him, in every bruise and abrasion, bandage and cast, so that he hardly felt his own injuries. “How’s your arm?” he asked Bergil.
“Not bad. This clay holds the bone in place quite well.”
“Mm hm.” Some gardener part of his brain studied the cast’s ruddy color and observed that it meant a rich mineral content in the local soil, though impoverished for organic matter. He also noted that the clay had not shrunk much with drying, and therefore could not hold water well--potter’s clay, rather than farmer’s. Not that he cared right at the moment. “How’s the pain?”
“A background throb--I have survived worse.”
“I suppose you have,” Frodo said, and finished his tea. And then, quite without any plan, he sunk his head onto his arms against the table.
“Frodo?” The man’s hand on his shoulder felt gentle, and he did not want gentleness, so he shrugged it off. He did not deserve it. “Frodo, tell me what is wrong.”
“How can you even ask!” He whipped upright so fast it startled Bergil back till the man nearly slipped from the bench. “He’s going to keep doing this, you know--stirring up monsters and throwing them against me--and worse, against anyone who comes near me.” He sunk his face into his hands and cringed away from the pity in Bergil’s eyes. “I can’t complete my mission, Bergil. I shall have to go far, far away from all decent folk, carrying my danger with me, until eventually he kills me.”
“Well, if you seek indecent folk to live among,” Bergil drawled, “you have come to the right country.” He lifted the hobbit’s chin from his hands like one might coax a weeping child. “But think! If the Teacher of Despair does manage to defeat you--as is his goal--and you give your mission over to some other, what would stop him from jumping from you to that other? You said yourself that he hates your quest as much as he hates you. Once he breaks you, he will have
no further use for you.”
“Then so much for my mission. The Nurnings will starve, and the Trapped Ones will haunt the Poros Pass forever.” Frodo felt like all the color had bled from his world as from an unstaunchable wound, so that even pain took too much effort.
“Again--think! Sauron’s former creatures have twice assailed us so far, am I correct?”
“Three times--don’t forget the goat carried off in the night.”
“Three times, then, if you insist--even so. Considering that this country swarms with monsters, we have not done badly. Sauron can connive and suggest all he might, but he can no longer command. And few of those he once enslaved have any cause to love him. Look what he has thrown up against us--one water-spirit too crazed to know friend from foe, and two dumb beasts out to fill their bellies, nothing more. If, as you believe, that goat-snatcher awoke to our presence from Sauron’s urging--and not simply from our scent upon the wind--then it speaks volumes that it preferred a goat to ourselves. Indeed, I would not be surprised to learn that monsters have gone hungry rather than eat prey pleasing to the master they escaped! The spite he fostered must cut both ways, Frodo.”
“You may be right,” said the hobbit, and he sat up straighter. But then the sound of thrashing and a wail of agony or terror broke the drummer’s beat, as the Captain ordered another to man the drum and took off for the healer’s cabin; Frodo wilted to hear it. “Yet suffering does still follow me around.”
Bergil said, “Was that Leech, I wonder, or Flint?”
“Does it matter?” Frodo said, sinking back into gloom. “Pain is pain.” He sat there silently for a moment before asking, gazing at nothing, “Bergil, what would you do in my place?”
“Do? I would tell people the truth, wherever I went, for one thing. Let them decide, Frodo, whether what you teach is worth the risk.” He winked, saying, “The ones willing to take the risk are the only ones worth teaching, anyway. But come, my friend; too long have you sat idle on this cruise--that fosters brooding as surely as the dampness fosters rot. On your feet, Master Gardner!”
“What else is there to do?” Frodo asked, but he rose anyway.
“You could help me care for the goats, for one thing, now that I have but one arm fit and the labor calls for both.”
“The goats!” Frodo said, following him down into the hold. “I had completely forgotten!”
“I have not wanted to trouble you,” Bergil said, then he grinned. “Between your first day’s seasickness, your seizure, and the Captain’s near-fatal hospitality, you have not been in the best of shape for mucking out a pen. But this is not the wild, where goats may simply leave their droppings where they will and let the earth grow fertile in their wake.”
“But you needed to rest! I had hoped you’d spend these days convalescing from your fever.”
“And so I have. It is but a small pen to clean, and not as tiresome as marching all day long.”
When they arrived at the pens, the goats crowded up to the partition and bleated greetings to their long-lost friend. To Frodo’s enhanced eyes they glimmered faintly in the manmade shadows.
“Phew!” Bergil exclaimed, fanning air away from his face. “It smells like we’ve arrived none too soon. Frodo, do you know how to...”
“I used to muck out Billie-Lass’s stable twice a day.” He picked up a pitchfork halfway up the handle and found that he could wield the oversized thing pretty much the way he used to use his father’s tools as a child.
“Of course,” the Ranger said. He settled down onto a strawbale to direct Frodo’s efforts, chewing on a straw, pointing out whenever Frodo missed a spot.
“I have never met a servant like you,” Frodo said, mopping his brow as the work warmed him up nicely against the winter chill. “And I am glad to have you, I have to say--I must be the luckiest ‘master’ in the world.”
“I aim to please,” Bergil drawled around his straw, leaning back on his sound elbow and making himself comfortable, “but the luckiest would have been your namesake.”
“Then I have inherited my father’s reward for his service.” The work cleared Frodo’s head and his heart with familiar movements and good, useful exertion. Soon he found himself whistling old Shire tunes and putting just a bit of dance to the movements, in time to the melody. Bergil smiled to himself where he lounged upon the bale. The clean-up went faster than Frodo expected, even with tools of an awkward size and despite the ship’s rolling. In no time at all he scattered fresh straw and then filled the mangers for the grateful goats that crowded around him for their share, warm and furry and full of life. He laughed as a nanny licked his ear.
“The most important thing to remember on any mission,” said the ranger, “is to stay in touch with whatever you came to do in the first place. Everything else is just a detail.”
“Much as he hates it, yes. Now don’t forget the water-trough...”