In Mordor Where the Shadows Are
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 1, Part 72
Welcome to Seaside
(January 19, 1452)
“Welcome home.” Bergil’s words haunted Frodo as sailors docked the galley and (through the bars of upraised oars) he finally saw the village near at hand. It did not improve with proximity. Discards littered the stone-paved streets, shards and rags and thrice-gnawed bones, and insects scuttled among them. Hungry children ran after the insects. Slate shingles covered the roofs, but not perfectly; doubtless many leaked, on those rare occasions when the rains bothered to spatter the port. Frodo discovered himself wrong about the lack of vegetation, though, for weeds did spike up here and there through the broken pavement, wan and brittle, upright yet still dead. He didn’t know whether to blame lack of strength or self-respect, but the town of Seaside did not take care of itself.
Frodo took in a deep breath and let it out again (not a smart thing to do, considering the smell.) “So this is where I shall spend the next year of my life!”
“Or more,” said Bergil beside him. When Frodo turned to him he said, “It is up to you, Master Gardner.”
Frodo climbed onto the ramp that led to Seaside’s dock. “If it is up to me, then it shall be a year. That is all I promised, after all.”
“If you say so,” Bergil said, smiling at his back.
Disembarking surprised Frodo, because the dry land seemed to pitch and wobble under his feet, at least for the first few steps. He felt a surge of vertigo and stumbled against Bergil, who steadied him and told him, “Your feet expect a moving deck, in a predictable rhythm. But this shall soon subside. It is only what mariners call ‘getting your land-legs’.”
For Frodo and Bergil the dizziness passed quickly, but not for Fishenchips, who clung to a lamppost wide-eyed and pallid, while his erstwhile colleagues piled the dock with crates and barrels. Frodo went to him and said, “Having a hard time of it, eh? I guess you’ve spent more time on water than land, haven’t you?”
“No time at all on land, Guv’nor,” the man replied, and Frodo saw that he trembled. “I ain’t never been off the ship since I was but half the height o’ ye.”
“You’re kidding! Not even for shore leave?”
“The old captain wouldn’t let me. Watersheen would, but...well, it frightened me, is all.” He gulped. “It...it still frightens me.”
Only now did Frodo notice that some of the sailors brought goods up from the hold for others to unload, but never left the ship itself. He turned back to Fishenchips and pried one of the man’s arms (the handed one) from the post to wrap around his own shoulders. “Then I am astonished and grateful that you would throw in your lot with me. Come now...steady yourself on me...there you go...Oof--no, not your whole weight--I’m a bit too small for that. Just use me to keep your bearings...that’s it.” Slowly Frodo pulled him away from anything immobile. “One step at a time. See? You can do it.” They hobbled off the pier, weaving between the growing piles of imports and provisions. Behind them Frodo heard the goats bustle up from the hold, bleating joyfully at the sun and air, their little hooves clacking on the wood. He looked up into the troubled face of the man who leaned on him. “It’s the memories, isn’t it?” said Frodo. “Afraid to remember your dry-land days when your parents still lived?”
“I dunno, Guv’nor.”
“There’ll be new good times, Fishenchips--I promise you. Plenty enough new good times that you won’t miss the ones you've lost--at least not quite so much.” Fishenchips gripped Frodo’s shoulder so hard it hurt.
Bergil came up on Fishenchip’s other side. “Here, Frodo--I’ll take over. You have people to meet.”
“People? Oh. Of course.” Frodo straightened out his weskit and strove to put on his best “Town Meeting” manner, as a woman approached him, and what appeared to be the entire village fell in behind her. Sandy curls tumbled in the cold sea gusts, tossing about a face with the same weathered look as Eowyn, though younger. But this woman had less meat on her bones and more sauce in her swagger than the lady of Ithilien, which the swinging tassels of her dust-hued shawl accentuated. All of them, it seemed wore colorless garments, but she at least had taken pains to ornament hers. Crocheted lace of undyed string framed throat and wrists, and edged her dusty hem. She held her head up high, as though bedecked in jewels.
“That would be Mayor Aloe,” Bergil mentioned to Frodo in an undertone. “She has reigned since her father’s death the last time I came through, despite all challengers. I might add that the success of your mission depends entirely on her good will.”
“Aloe? I have never heard that name.”
“‘Tis a plant you will not find in the Shire--a sharp-tongued, prickly herb, but rich in healing power. It thrives where nothing else can grow.”
The woman halted before them, as did the crowd behind her, their rag banners dropping. Tossing back one corner of her shawl with a flourish, she held up a letter, the seal of the King still clinging to its back, and read from it (with obvious pride in her literacy) “Frodo son of Mayor Samwise of the Shire, Royal Gardener and friend to Tar Elessar!” She folded the letter up and looked down on him. “Is that you, chickie?” A few folks chuckled behind her, till she raised an eyebrow.
Frodo drew himself up. “Yes. I am Frodo Gardner, pledged to your service and the service of your people.”
The woman’s face crinkled with a broad smile. “Coo, but the rat’s got a manner about ‘im, don’t ‘e?” She bent down to him and rapped his nose with the folded letter. “Ye’re right welcome, chickie. We sure could use a little o’ yer ratfolk magic in these parts, I can tell ye!” Then she turned and started to saunter away as the crowds parted for her.
Frodo stood there, stunned. To Bergil, Frodo said, “Why do they keep calling me a rat, if they want my help?”
Bergil shook his head and smiled sadly. “Be patient with them, Frodo--‘tis the only word for your kind that they know.”
Fishenchips stared at the two of them, then suddenly declared full-volume to the crowd, “He’s not a rat, ya know! He’s a hobbit!”
The woman turned to look back at them. “Ain’t that dear. Now are ye comin’ along or ain’t ye, chickie?”
“Uh, right.” Frodo hastened to catch up with her, his servants close behind, Fishenchips pulling himself together with a brave face, though he wouldn’t yet let go of Bergil.
The woman took long strides, her skirts and shawl flapping about her. “'Tis a ways upslope, pet, all the way up onto the plateau. Can yer little legs make it?”
“Can I march from Minas Tirith to Riverborn, over the Poros Pass?” Frodo responded, though he puffed to keep up. “My legs were just as short then as they are now.”
She dimpled at his reply, and her eyes twinkled. “So they must have been, indeed. Ye’re a rat after me own heart, chickie.”
Frodo stopped cold. “As my servant pointed out, I am a hobbit, not a rat. Let’s get that straightened out right now. Do you want my help or not?”
She stood still and looked back at him, measuring him with her eyes. “Ye’ve got the spunk in ye, I can see that.” She drew herself up and threw back her shawl, revealing knives belted to her hips. “But do ye really want to challenge folks who tower over ye, me dear? I see two servants with one arm each, and many crowded ‘round who’ll gladly take my part. I am accustomed to people addressing me with respect, hobbit.”
“So am I,” Frodo said, and stood his ground, thumbs stubbornly hooked in his belt like his father before him. “Feel free to slay me, if you want your fields to stay barren. But Gondor wearies of supporting you, and soon will turn attention to other matters more pressing, as the name of Nurn blows away like the dust of her fields.”
“And what if we decide to raid Gondor for what they will not give?”
“Your army,” and here Frodo gestured around him with a deliberate smirk, though his heart pounded, “would not frighten the King, my lady, even if they did manage to cross the Ephel Duath intact.” He held her eye for a long moment, resisting the temptation to rest his hand on Sting’s hilt, though he did let the wind blow his cape wide open to reveal his own armament and the mithril sparkling at his weskit’s neck. “But it needn’t come to that. You are a sensible woman and will not slay me for accidental insults...at least not till harvest-time.” he added with a wry grin.
She laughed long and hard, and the crowd laughed with her. “I’m just testin’ ye, chickie! Frodo, m’sweet, we are going to get along!” Then she threw an arm around his shoulder and hurried him along beside her. The skinny limb felt like an iron rod.
The streets climbed up through teetery slums, past piled rubbish and stinking filth. Apparently not all the villagers had come to the docks, for they passed some now and again, oblivious for whatever reason, to the docking of the ship. Some darted from shadows into doorways, wide-eyed at glimpsing the authorities. Some lay snoring in the refuse of the streets, or else blinked weakly up at them, faces blistered with disease or thinned to the final extremity. Frodo wanted to stop and help each and every one of them, but the pace would not relent. “I will help them best by growing food,” he reminded himself. “I have nothing to offer right now.”
They passed a knot of wraithlike men, garbed in tatters, huddled around a boiling pot from which some loops of metal tubing dripped a dark and pungent fluid. A toothless young hag laughed wildly among them as she lurched in a semblance of a dance to a pounded beat, tearing off rags for the clapping, stomping men, her bared skin goosepimpling in the cold. “This is Mordor,” Frodo reminded himself. “I cannot expect propriety.”
Around the next corner they heard a screaming fight and crashing sounds, and a pot sailed through the air to shatter in the street. Indeed, Frodo often had to watch his step around bottle shards and such, though his delays frustrated the Mayor till she finally let go of his shoulder and let him trail behind. With some asperity she called behind her, “‘Ere, ye’re the King’s bosom buddy but ‘e won’t buy ya shoes, chickie?”
“Hobbits don’t wear shoes, Milady.”
“Hmpf! Silly custom.” She stepped over a gutter that obviously took the place of an outhouse, and led them to another street, and another after that, always climbing upward. Frodo felt something sharp prick his toe as he hurried after, but it turned out merely to be chicken-bones. As he bent to pull the sharp thing out, he found himself staring straight into into the pinhole-pupiled eyes of some ancient waif sprawled beside the road. Vertigo swirled into the hobbit as the derelict slowly closed her eyes and released a rattling sigh. Frodo reeled a little when he straightened up once more, and then pattered after the mayor, hurrying to close the gap between them. “I still must not have my land-legs yet,” he thought.
Disgusting! spoke a voice in Frodo’s head as his bare foot hit something squelchy. In my day heads would have rolled if the serfs did not maintain proper sanitation. If you doubt me, just walk along the beach--every so often the skulls wash ashore.
Frodo felt Sauron like a high-pitched whine thrumming up and down his nerves, slowly gathering intensity. Trying not to vocalize, Frodo replied, “Curse you, you haunt! I take it you’ve found slaves in town to feed on. But by my father’s tales, Mordor was not so clean in your day, either.” Then he blushed when he noticed a villager watching his lips move.
I have slaves everywhere, Sauron replied. But even if I did not, I can be many places at once--that is one of the advantages of becoming a “haunt”, as you put it. I have been rebuilding my strength the entire time.
“Oh, that’s just great.” Frodo bit his lips to keep them still. When he looked up from the foulness of the streets to the people, revulsion now swelled in him, that they could live this way for any reason, that they wouldn’t rather die; it shuddered in him like sickness and colored all he saw. Somewhere a child howled and howled and howled, and nobody would do anything to comfort her. The howls seemed to reverberate through his bones, shaking him to outrage.
Yes, my friend--the doctor could have spared himself and others much suffering if he had stayed within my solace. It has all been for naught.
“Not for naught,” Frodo began, but before he could remember any arguments for why he once believed this, the Mayor had halted.
“Here we are, pet,” Aloe said at last. “Our farmland.” They stood on a vast flat plain, stretching on into the distance, dry and cracking in the thin winter sun. What few weeds shivered in the wind would challenge his goats to find themselves a meal. Low rock boundaries partitioned it into properties, but it all looked pretty much the same. Distance should have put the whining child far behind, but her high pitch carried and mingled with the moaning of the gale across the emptiness. “So, Master Expert Royal Gardener--what d’ye think?”
Frodo dug at the earth with his toes, but could only stir up a little dust. “This isn’t soil,” he groaned, “this is brick! Miles and miles of a single sun-baked brick!” He squatted down and felt a pinch of grit. “Dead--completely. No matter of plant or animal in it whatsoever.” He tasted a bit of dust. “Brakish--that is not good.” He shook his head and made himself say, “But I suppose I should expect that, with the sea so close and all.” For a moment he stayed down there, one hand on the ground, fighting a dismay so deep that it threatened to unseat his common sense. He rose and dusted himself off, and affected the same bluff manner that he’d seen his father don when heartening the community to face some setback. “Well, well, if we can’t have soil, we shall have to make it ourselves.”
“Make it?” Aloe asked. “You mean make the grow-stuff that the orcs used to send us?”
“No, no, something else entirely.” He grinned, though it came out a little wry. “We’ll put your abundant rubbish to use, for one thing. A little ground-up bone will do the land some good--more good in the fields than on the streets, surely.” More emotion, to the point of nausea, welled up inside, but he shoved it down again. “And the goats will help...where are they, by the way?”
“Them? Oh, probably at the butcher’s by now. Why?”