Through Shadows to the Edge of Night
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 40, Part 70
(January 19, 1452)
Frodo woke that morning stiff from his chores of the day before, but lighter in heart and full of hope. When he went out to watch the dawn he gasped in amazement: The river had dissolved into a body of water so vast that he could only see one shore, and that far off.
“Yes!” he cried. “Exactly as my dreams have shown me!” The sparkle of so much water under the rising sun dazzled him, and the movement of it mesmerized him, and the salt-smell exhilarated him, and the keen of seabirds overhead lifted up his emotions on their wings as the rocking deck seemed to slowly dance for joy beneath the hobbit’s feet. He felt like overnight he had drifted onto an entire world of living, rippling treasure.
“The Sea of Nurnen--and to think we have arrived on Robin’s birthday!” he exclaimed. “I shall have to write to him about it.”
“And who might Robin be?” Bergil asked, coming up behind him.
“My brother. He is twelve today.”
Bergil paused in thought, tapping out a count on his cast, then said, “So...that would make him the equivalent of a human lad of...eight?”
“Very good! You are getting better!”
“I have been practicing of late. I think I can hold numbers in my head a little longer than before, but they remain...slippery.”
“We all have our strengths and weaknesses, I suppose,” Frodo said as he peered up over the prow, holding onto the dragon’s wooden neck. “For instance, I cannot help but notice that you’re still taller than me.”
Bergil laughed, then he pointed to the shoreline far ahead. “Can you see that blur on the coast over there? A sort of roughness to the line? I can just make it out.”
“Yes. It...it looks like a village.”
Bergil stared at him, astonished. “I had no idea that the periannath had such vision!”
“Most don’t,” Frodo admitted, pulling out the lens. “I’m afraid I have an unfair advantage.”
“Ah yes--your ‘magic talisman’! Well, that would be the community of Seaside, if I am not mistaken. We should reach it in a couple hours.”
Seaside. Frodo tried to go over the information from his briefing, so long ago, it seemed, back in Gondor. A trade center connected to all other villages in the region, Seaside would become his base of operations. Any innovation in farming that he introduced there would quickly spread throughout the countryside. “So close!” he exclaimed. “After such a long and difficult journey--I find it hard to believe.”
“Believe it,” Bergil said, grinning and clapping Frodo on the back. “Your mission is about to begin.”
“Begin!” Frodo sighed. “I feel it has nearly ended me already.”
The cook’s bell summoned them to breakfast. As he ate, Frodo hardly even tasted his porridge as he tried to remember all the facts and statistics force-fed him in Gondor. But he soon got that prickly sense of someone staring at him, and looked up into keen gray eyes within a lumpish face that didn’t quite match their intensity. Across the table sat the sailor with the amputation, the one he had protected from the river-monster--and yes, the knobby features and the coarse, dark hair did remind him of his Uncle Hamson, only big and young.
“Um...how are you feeling?” he asked the man, for lack of anything better.
“Mornin’, Guv’nor. How’m I feelin’? Relieved, I guess.” The man held up his truncated limb, well-bound up in rags. “Leech saved most of m’arm--thanks to yer magic singin’ and all. I just lost the hand and a bit.” He studied his own stump a moment. “I’ll be gettin’ a hook, I expect. Captain pays fer stuff like that out of the general profits, when ya gets hurt in his service. He’s good that way.”
“I am glad to hear that much, at least,” Frodo said, trying not to look at the seeping bandages while he ate. “I imagine you’ll soon get the hang of your hook well enough to row just fine.”
“Yup.” Then he frowned into his own bowl, before looking up again, and saying, with unusual earnestness, “‘Cept I don’t want to. I’m done with sailin’.”
“Come now, man. You’ve had a bad fright, sure, but if you just give yourself time...”
“‘Tain’t the fright, Guv’nor. I seen fright before.” He sat up straight and ordered his jerkin the best he could with one hand. “I want to join yer service.”
“Oh! Well, now, wait just...oh my.” Frodo felt his face burning.
Bergil leaned over and whispered, “You know, you do have authorization from the King to hire your own staff. Gondor can put him on the payroll. No place better to start than with a volunteer.”
“Um...yes. My good man, what is your name, please?”
“Fishenchips.” Then he averted his eyes as Frodo tried to keep from smiling. “I hadn’t eaten a bite in three days when I named meself,” he muttered.
“No, no, it’s a fine name! No need to hang your head over good taste.” Thinking quickly, he added, “We hobbits are great admirers of quality food. Fish and chips is one of my father’s favorite dishes, in fact. If I smile, it is from fond memories of meals with my family. But as for your qualifications...”
“I’d die for ya, mate!” The man leaned forward like he intended a sacrificial leap at any minute. “I mean it! Ya saved me life, and then ya come and eased the pain fer me, singin’ yer blessed li’l heart out...”
“Whoa! Whoa! Hold on one minute! There’s no call to go talk of dying just yet! I am a gardener, not a...”
Bergil interrupted. “There may yet come a call to talk of dying, though hopefully not today. Frodo, I believe you have something to explain to Mister Fishenchips before he commits himself beyond recall.”
Frodo paled, swallowed, and said, “We’ll talk later, in my cabin, then, when your day’s duties end.”
“I’m off duty right now,” the man said, proudly waving his stump. “Meddycal leave, 'tis called. And to top it off, I gets double meat rations till I gets me blood built back, and double grog fer m’pain!” Fishenchips licked his lips.
“Of course,” Frodo said faintly. “How foolish of me.”
“I’ll meet ye at yer cabin, Guv’nor, soon as ye’re ready--I’m done with breakfast.” He stood with a loud scrape of the bench, then grabbed the table-edge a moment as his eyes went vague.
“Easy!” Frodo cried, grabbing the man’s elbow to steady him. “I know what blood loss can do to you--you have to rise very slowly and let what’s left in your veins catch up with your head.”
“Ain’t that sweet!” Fishenchips beamed down on him dizzily. “Carin’ about his servant like that.” Then he reeled off to the passenger cabin.
“Lie down till I get there!” Frodo called after him.
Bergil regarded the hobbit. “You look nearly as wan as Fishenchips,” he said.
Frodo laughed feebly. “It’s that cursed conversation--again. Will this get any easier, do you think?”
“It had better,” said the ranger with a wink. “For one more encounter with bottled courage surely would kill you.”
Frodo’s sigh held just a whiff of a whimper in it, as he finished his breakfast.
* * *
When Fishenchips emerged later from the passenger-cabin he said no word to anyone, but wrapped himself tightly in his cloak and sat in a sunny spot on the deck, shuddering occasionally at drafts. None thought anything of it--a man who has just lost his favorite hand has a good deal of considering to do, after all, and if he looked somewhat pale, his blood loss would explain it. Frodo also curled up, lost in thought, in the crook of the figurehead’s neck where it joined the port gunwale, one arm hugging the dragon and one bare foot dangling in the spray, seeming mesmerized by the ocean all around him. Bergil stood leaned against the dragon’s other side and spoke no word to him, but Frodo blessed him for staying there.
At lunch the sailor again sat across from Frodo and Bergil, but this time he said nothing, though he looked at them often as though he meant to speak. After lunch he went back to his sunny spot and brooded there till the cook brought over his grog ration. After taking in two harsh swallows he looked up at the passengers and gestured them over with the handless arm.
Fishenchips nodded towards the deck and they sat down on the sunwarmed boards, out of the worst of the wind. After an awkward silence he said, “I’m in.”
“Are you sure?” Frodo asked him.
Fishenchips frowned, seeking for the words. “Ya hafta understand. I was but a wee thing when Sauron’s forces killed me mum and dad. Orcs took me and set me to carryin’ buckets of arrows nigh as big as meself out to the front line, again and again, with th’other arrows comin’ back at me again.”
“How terrible!” Frodo exclaimed. “What a thing to do to a child!”
“Yup. They’d whup me if I went too slow, and pat me on the head if I did good at helpin’ ‘em kill m’own kind.”
Bergil said. “Really? I never pictured orcs showing affection to anyone before--least of all a slave.”
“I hated it!” Fishenchips said fiercely, then suddenly looked away. And then, hardly audible, he growled, “I hated it because I liked it. ‘Twas the only likeable thing in m’life right then, ya hafta understand. But then I’d toss all night hatin’ meself fer likin’ it.” He gulped down the last of his drink all at once and set the tin mug clanking on the deck. “Every day I wished one o’ them arrows rainin’ down all around me would hit me right between the eyes, but it never happened.” He shook his head. “But when ye’re a child, ya know, ya go on any ways ye can.”
Fishenchips took a ragged breath. “I thought meself lucky when the orc that owned me lost me in a throw o’ the dice to an Umbar river-captain, and I became a cabin-boy.” His eyes teared up, suddenly. “Tha’s before I found out what...garn! You do not want to know! But even when I hated meself for that, too, at least it were a human being, at least I didn’t have to help kill other human beings. I thought...” He fought against the tears, but lost the battle. “I thought that was the best life I could hope for!”
His handless limb went towards his face, then he remembered and wiped his eyes with his remaining fist. “When I got old enough to man an oar, he put me to that work instead--he told me I’d gotten big and ugly and deserved no better than big, ugly work.” Fishenchips grinned briefly, more like a spasm than a smile. “Fooled ‘im, though--I liked it better. I could sleep well at night again, fer the first time in years. That didn’t please him much at all--he used to beat me twice as hard fer half th'offense, like to prove some point.” Fishenchips shrugged. “I’m glad the Captain killed him--I cheered with all the rest. But I cried, too--don’t know why, really.” His hand clenched and unclenched, and his stump wavered like the missing hand tried to do so, too. “I don’t always know what I feels or why I feels it--Mordor has left me that tangled up inside! D'ye understand any of this?”
Frodo sat there mystified, and a little embarrassed. He listened to the Nurnen Sea, surging all around them, and the liquid notes of oars dipping in and out in time to the Captain’s drum. At last he said, “I don’t have to understand, Fishenchips. I just know you’ve been hurt bad, haven’t you?”
Fishenchips bit his lip and closed his eyes, fighting for self-control. “Sorry, Guv’nor. Dunno why I blurted all that out. Guess the grog hits twice as hard when ye’ve got half the blood.” Then he stared right at Frodo with those sharp gray eyes of his. “But the point I’m tryin’ t'make, Sir, is that I want to serve ye more’n ever, knowin’ who’s agin you. I will do anything to give Sauron a black eye for what he done to me. I don’t care if I die for it. I gave up fearin’ death a long, long time ago.”
Frodo could not imagine what had been so terrible that the memory could make a man of Mordor weep, but he figured some things were best not imagined, anyway. ""There is just one thing I don't understand, Fishenchips. Why did you grow up in servitude? I thought slavery ended in Mordor with the War of the Ring."
Fishenchips made a brief bark of noise almost like a laugh, shaking his head. "Nobody told the slaves, Guv'nor. And we weren't allowed on shore to hear no rumors." Then he turned again to Frodo. "But I can work harder as a free man than I ever did in chains. Will ye have me, Hobbit Sir?"
Frodo sat in thought a moment, and then looked up with a sudden grin. “You’re on the payroll,” he said. “You won’t get paid for awhile--I can’t send word to Minas Tirith till Mattie comes in, and then we’ll have to wait a fortnight for the reply, but I imagine we can share our food with you if we all tighten our belts a bit.”
Fishenchips shrugged. “I don’t need to eat that much,” he said, “regardless of m’name. I like it, but I don’t need it.” Suddenly he grinned. “I guess that makes me sorta like a hobbit!”
Frodo laughed suddenly and clapped him on the back. “One very big hobbit--welcome to the family!” When Frodo said “family,” Fishenchips gave him the most yearning look. “Let’s shake on it.” Frodo had no awkward moment shaking hands with the man, now that they were both left-handed.
Fishenchips stood up--slowly, this time. “I’d best be goin’, now, Guv’nor--I promised poor ol’ Leech I’d drop in for a wound-check right about now.”
“What--is he still practicing?”
Fishenchips scratched his chin and said, “No one else for it, Sir. He’s a good man, Leech--he’ll pull himself together to do whatever it takes.” Then he straightened up and said gravely to the hobbit, “Ye’ll find most of the folks of Mordor are like that, Sir, no matter what ya might've heard of us--somehow we always manage to pull together and do what it takes.”
Frodo nodded, touched. “I will remember that, Mister Fishenchips.” Then he rose, himself. “Why don’t I go with you?” he asked. “I want to see Leech one last time before I leave.”
“And I as well,” said Bergil.
As they followed some steps behind their new recruit, Bergil leaned down and whispered in Frodo’s ear, “I think you have made a friend for life.”