Through Shadows to the Edge of Night
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 41, Part 71
(January 19, 1452)
The healer’s quarters stank of sickness, but it had the same clean, polished look as the Captain’s cabin. Jars and bottles in curious shapes and colors filled up cabinets all around, held safe from the ship’s motion by low-placed dowels. Strange and sinister-looking instruments swayed from hooks in some arcane order, spotless and sharp, gleaming whenever the rocking porthole-light hit them. Clean rags hung from a drying-rack by a small grate, ready for the day’s patients, and a kettle bubbled on the coals, should a patient have need of boiling water. They found Leech down on the floor, whacking at nothing with his slipper.
“Vermin,” he explained as he rose and brushed nonexistant dust off his knees. “You have to keep on top of them, you see, or they breed and spread disease--look at how already they swarm in every shadow!” His eyes rolled with fear towards the dimmest corner, a steady tremor thrumming through him. Living creatures would have glowed to Frodo’s spell-enhanced eyes, against the manmade dark, but the hobbit saw nothing there. “But enough of trifles,” Leech said with a shaky laugh. “How good of you to come and visit me!” The healer extended his hand, smiling warmly despite the way his haggard features shone with sweat. Frodo shook the hand, but then jumped as Leech smacked the bulkhead by his shoulder. “Got it!” the doctor cried, and sneezed.
“Uh, is this a bad time to...”
“Not at all! Not at all! I seem to be enjoying an interlude between paroxysms of various kinds. Come here, Mister Bergil, if you please, here in the porthole’s light. Thank you.” Leech hooked the ranger by his broken arm and studied the fingers poking from the cast. “Hm...good color.” He averted his face for a humongous sneeze, then returned to Bergil’s hand to squeeze a fingernail. “Good perfusion, too. Does the cast gall you anywhere?”
“No, sir. But my arm could drive me mad with itching.”
“Well, we cannot help that, I fear. You and I shall have itchy skin in common for awhile. Onto the next patient!” He washed his hands at his basin, then took a fresh kerchief from a stack and tied it over his mouth and nose. “Here, Fishenchips, my friend--come over to the light...there you are, very good. The vermin dislike the light, you see.” His fingers, trembling yet sensitive, unwrapped the stump with utmost care. For a moment, in his concentration, the false cheer dropped from Leech’s face and Frodo saw in full the depth of exhaustion and pain in those sunken eyes. “Excellent. The wound heals well. Have you been bathing it four times daily in that special tea I gave you?”
“Yup--after every meal and before bed. Cook helps out with that.”
“Good. Good. Now will somebody please sniff the wound and report to me whether it seems fair or foul? I...I seem to be a bit congested,” Leech said between his muffled sneezes.
Frodo hesitated, asking, “What should I be looking for?”
“Quite simple. A healthy wound smells like fresh meat. An unhealthy wound smells like it has begun to, uh, begun to...” and then the healer turned green.
Fishenchips sniffed at his own stump, and said, “I’m fresh.”
“Glad to hear it,” Leech said wanly. He swallowed several times, and held his stomach for a moment with his eyes closed, as the others waited. “You...you must pardon me,” he murmured, and then drove himself to pull bandages from the rack. “I...I cannot help...”
“We know,” Fishenchips said, and held out his arm for rebandaging. Now as the doctor worked Frodo saw cramps of pain tighten his every move. By the bunched-up muscles in the cheeks Frodo could tell that Leech gritted his teeth to make his hands wrap and knot the cloth, struggling as though each twitching finger had an independent and recalcitrant will. At last, completely spent, the doctor ripped off his kerchief and fell back onto his hammock. Frodo witnessed little spasms rippling up and down the man’s muscles, like a thousand tiny evils had burrowed under his skin to torment him.
“You had better go, now,” Leech gasped. “I would rather not be seen when the fits overtake me, if you wouldn’t mind.”
Frodo clasped his hand, staring into his eyes as if he could will strength and healing into the man.
“Farewell, then--and may Elbereth comfort you!” Frodo hastened out, hearing behind him the hammock ropes creak and buck against the hooks that held them. The hobbit sank his forehead against the closed door; he couldn’t help but hear the moans of suffering just audible through the wood. “The poor man has probably never even heard of Elbereth,” he murmured to himself. The moans gave way to a tortured gurgle of nausea and Frodo winced, thinking of Leech’s gentleness and dignity despite all that Mordor had thrown at him, his hard-won learning, the degrading orc-given name that he had transformed into a badge of honor--all reduced to this. Frodo couldn’t believe that for one drunken moment he had actually entertained the possibility that Sauron might be a friend.
Bergil put a hand on his shoulder, and just stood there for him. Behind them Frodo heard the Captain pick up the beat on the drum while shouting at the men, “Faster, ye slugs--faster! We need to get the ship careened before nightfall--unless any of you want to be caught afloat on the Sea of Nurnen after dark!”
Frodo looked up and asked Bergil, “What does careened mean for ships? It sounds dangerous.”
Bergil laughed at that, and the tension broke. “Just pulled all the way out of the water, left on its side on the shore. It is not too difficult with a small vessel like this. It gives the sailors a chance to clean unwelcome hitchhikers off of the hull--and to protect the ship from dwellers in the deep.”
Frodo gazed out at the water shimmering all around them. “It is hard to believe,” he said, “that so much beauty could hold such awful things beneath the surface.”
“Yup,” said Fishenchips, nodding philosophically. “I’ve known a wench or two like that.”
Bergil said, "They do not careen the ship every time, just when monster-blood has spilled on it." He smiled wryly at Frodo. "Even monsters have mothers, you see, and their sense of smell is strong."
Frodo looked up at Fishenchips and said, “I will ask you this one last time. Are you resolved to work in my employ, come what hazards may?”
Fishenchips gazed back down on him, with those penetrating eyes so much at odds with his face. “I am,” he said. “More than anything in m'life.”
“Then I had better talk to the Captain,” Frodo said, and went over to stand near the drum. Captain Watersheen noted the hobbit and presently handed his drumsticks to the next in command without missing a beat.
When they convened in his cabin Watersheen grinned wryly as he unfolded chairs. “I’d offer you a drink,” he said, “‘cept I don’t suppose you’ve any interest in catchin’ up on your grog ration today.”
Frodo shuddered. “That is quite all right.”
“So--what do you need to tell me this time?”
Frodo bit his lip a moment, then looked him in the eye. “I’ll be taking Fishenchips with me,” he said. “The man wants to work for me.” When Watersheen nodded thoughtfully, Frodo added, “I’ll reimburse you for the expense of his medical care as soon as I can send to Gondor for the money.”
“No, no, that’s all right,” the Captain said, waving the words away. “A man gets hurt in my service, I figure I owe him, whether he stays with me or no.” He nodded again, staring off past Frodo. “I ‘spect it’s all to the good, him leavin’ and all.”
“Um...have you had any reason to...that is, has his service fallen short of...”
“Oh, not at all! Not at all. He’s a good, hard worker, Fishenchips--none better. But, well, folks on this ship can be long on memory and sometimes short on sense. Some here recall Fishenchip’s days as a favorite--through no choice of his own, I might add--and never forgave him for it. It’s about time he got a fresh start.” Then the Captain leaned down towards the hobbit and in a soft voice said, “There’s just one thing I ought to warn you about. Fishenchips don’t always know his own mind. Nine times out of ten you can rely on him to pull for you through any storm. But the tenth...well, just you make sure you’ve always got a back-up plan, is all. Never trust the man completely.”
Frodo frowned over that, and then nodded. “I will try to remember that,” he said, standing. “And Captain Watersheen--I will miss you.” He reached up and shook the man’s hand. “And you will get that generous tip--you’ve earned it more ways than one.”
The Captain grinned down on him. “I’ll miss you, too, Hobbit. ‘Specially your singin’.”
“Didn’t Bergil tell you? You been singin’ in your sleep these past couple nights. Everybody on board has heard you.” With a mysterious smile the Captain left and resumed his place at the drum.
Frodo returned to his spot by the figurehead and saw that the ship rapidly approached the shore, water rising up like wings of foam to either side of the prow, the dragon-head nodding up and down as the galley bellied over wave after wave tumbling towards the beach. Above a rainbow’d haze of spray Frodo could see the village clearly now, a place of grays and browns and not a leaf or branch in sight. He could see the tall, narrow shacks of men, huddled together against a low plateau like frightened stone beasts, their windows barred and unfriendly. But he also saw the people hastening to the quay as they sighted the ship, and the flutter of the rags they raised in the air to wave. Even from here he heard the shouts of hope and joy--and anyone who could still shout for joy in Mordor deserved everything that he could give them.
Bergil said, “Mattie must have given word of your coming--they do not greet all ships this way.” He glanced at the hobbit. “Now the real work begins--are you ready for it?”
In some wonder to hear himself say it, Frodo answered, “I’ve been getting ready my whole life long.”
Bergil grinned down on him. “Then welcome home, Frodo.”
HERE ENDS VOLUME II.