In Mordor Where the Shadows Are
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 7, Part 78
(February 5, 1452)
At first Frodo wanted to rush through his morning ablutions and run headlong to the docks to see if the ship might arrive with the dawn. He did not wait for the kettle's whistle; by candlelight and the fireplace glow he splashed his face furiously with unheated water, spluttering and gasping. Then he reconsidered and lingered over getting his hair just right, and his toes brushed tidily. He took his time, with a pin, working every bit of travel-grime out of the stamped design on his weskit-buttons. At last, since his hurrying did not speed the dawn by one ray of light, he passed the time by polishing the buttons, and then his corselet of mithril, though of course the mail never really needed polishing and shimmered in the hearthlight with a thousand orange sparks before he had begun.
"Now settle down," he told his reflection as he tied the scarf around his neck just so. "Mattie doesn't know you know. If you make too much fuss she'll think you peculiar." Then he checked to see how a different knot might look.
"'Tis about time," Bergil greeted when Frodo finally came down. "It is not like you to sleep in so late, Frodo Gardner--have you had another rough night?"
"I just got tired of looking like a bear and tidied up a bit," he said, as he surreptitiously checked out his reflection in the curving surface of a flagon on the shelf. He straightened his lapels.
Bergil stared at him a moment and then guffawed. "Look at you! You would think that maidens rode the riggings of the coming ship. I am as eager to eat again as you are, Frodo, but I have no desire to court my food."
Frodo adjusted his weskit for the umpteenth time, to make sure that the mithril showed at the neck. "Sometimes hobbits like to dress for meals," he said. "Since we haven't had any for awhile, I thought the occasion special enough to deserve the proper attire."
"You have no other attire. But I must say, you have done your best with what came to hand. Well, Master Fop, the sun has risen at last--shall we see if the ship has docked or not?"
It had not. They lingered at the harbor, now pacing, now sitting on a pier or dangling feet over the water, now pacing again. They had plenty of company. One by one hungry villagers drifted over that way and stayed to loiter. All work stopped, and no one apologized for it. No one brought banners to wave, and nowhere did Frodo feel the same festive atmosphere that greeted him on his arrival, just this grim wait, everyone too weary of barely edible scraps in scant measure to feel much gratitude anymore, too desperate to disregard the coming cargo nonetheless. Soon seated watchers lined every building, their backs resting against whatever wall faced seaward.
Gazing on them, Frodo felt what almost seemed like the shadow of his own sympathy stirring beside him, near the scar upon his arm. Say what you will about my reign, Sauron murmured in Frodo's hearing alone, but none of my slaves ever starved.
"No," Frodo answered under his breath, "you poisoned them." And the shadow recoiled like a page tossed into a fire, curling in on itself and blackening beyond recall.
So smug, my little cockerel! You think that you are in power now, and that I am utterly stripped, and you shall manage so much better than I ever did. Is that it?"
"I aim to try." He checked for the umpteenth time to make sure that he had properly cleaned and trimmed his nails, then he wrapped his cloak tight about himself again. "Anyway, we've got food coming in now. There is nothing you could say or do to rob me of the pleasure of this day." And Frodo returned to gazing across the Sea of Nurnen.
Before long, to his surprise, Aloe sat down hip to hip beside Frodo, her shawl clutched tight against the wind. But she did not carry her usual mocking air. "No matter how many times I do this," she said, "the wait don't get easier to bear."
"No, I don't suppose it does." He saw the goosebumps on the Mayor's wrists and the yearning in her face--her too-young-to-be-so-tired face. Suddenly there sang in his heart a desire to wrap her up all warm and cozy in one of Mama's comforters, to whisk her back to Bag End and feed her up all plump and rosy. "It must weigh on you."
"What?" she asked quietly, turning to him so that he saw every premature line clearly, yet also her own particular charm.
"This mayor-business. I mean, I know my Papa doesn't exactly find it a picnic, either, and he's in a prosperous land."
She gazed down on him sadly and said, "Has yer father ever had to decide who must starve, so that others may do the work they must?"
"Actually, he did, once--right here in Mordor. He decided to go without, himself."
She laughed harshly, briefly. "Would that I had so easy a solution! But too much hinges on the Mayor of Seaside to allow me that luxury." She sprang to her feet again, to pace back and forth before him, as fretful as a worried child, the tassels of the shawl flipping about her. "Had my father lived but awhile longer I'd have prepared better," she confided, not looking at him. "I had plans to study in Gondor. Oh, I had plans..." And Frodo saw a lean sort of beauty in the sharpness of her profile against the dazzle of the sea, her curls all wayward about her face in the reckless wind.
Then she gave him a second glance, and a sudden smile played about her lips, as color flushed her cheeks. "But my, ain't ye the spiffy one today!" She batted her lashes and stroked her collarbone, saying, "Did ye hope to wait beside me, then?" Yet behind the flirting Frodo saw something changed in her, a darkening of the eyes that looked almost shy, even vulnerable.
"One should dress for all possibilities, Mayor Aloe," he said as gallantly as he could, rising to his feet. He found her hand outstretched to him; her height prevented him from more than a token nod when he bowed over it to kiss her knuckles, but she did not seem to mind. He felt calluses in her fingers, yet they rested so delicately on his, nonetheless. He had no problem with calluses.
Then suddenly she cackled, and a spell he had not even seen overtaking him shattered in the noise. "Coo, but ye're such a little gent! Did anybody ever tell ye that ye're just as cute as a button?" She pinched his cheek.
"I have never seen anything 'cute' about buttons," he said, stiffening to perfect posture.
"Oh, smile once in awhile, pet--it wouldn't break yer face!" She sashayed off with almost too much sway to be believed, and pointedly flirted with someone else, while throwing him a sour smile over her shoulder. She now looked ungainly big and gaunt to him, so human, so hopelessly, incurably human. He turned back to the sea. The wind felt chill upon his burning face.
Time wore on. Sunlight on the water dazzled him and all who waited there, so that everyone forgot all else, uninterested in the fact that their waiting would not hasten the ship's arrival nor place a single additional morsel of food into their mouths. The wind had its way with Frodo's thrice-combed hair, and hours of fidgeting rumpled his clothes. As they watched, masses of clouds piled on the horizon; the wind picked up, driving the chill straight through their thickest clothing, and seafoam garnished every crest as the water grew choppy. People sat up tense; would a storm come? Would it delay the ship, maybe even sink it?
"I see it," Frodo said first of all. People stared at him in disbelief, but in a little while they, too, saw the speck on the horizon sailing straight for them. The strong wind hastened rather than delayed the ship, it seemed. Now all but the weakest stood, shaky with anticipation, even knowing that they would likely taste no food until tomorrow, when the Mayor had time to distribute it properly, saving back a fair share under guard for the inland villages. They yearned just to see the crates and barrels for themselves, and smell the aromas that wafted from them.
The speck grew into a recognizable ship--not Watersheen's dragon-helmed vessel, but one with a fierce-tusked boar for its figurehead. Frodo salivated at the sight and remembered the taste of bacon. Strangers brought the ship to port, docked it, and set to unloading its cargo with satisfying thumps, talking among themselves, oblivious from habit to the villagers crowding close.
"Mattie!" Frodo cried, waving. "Over here!" She broke into a grin to see him, and waved back, lifting up her cap to do it and releasing her short-cropped curls, then she hopped lightly over the gunwale and ran down the gangplank, as gangly as a half-grown boy. Frodo saw that she still wore his chemise, and he suddenly realized that he wore hers.
"Frodo! Oh my brother hobbit!" Mattie cried, leaping to his open arms and hugging him close at just the right height. Her bones felt pitifully hard through her clothes; yet he breathed in the burnt-flower smell of her hair and did not want to let go--but he made himself do it, he did not want anyone to suspect her true gender, not when men like Ted Sandyman's teachers roamed the alleys and forced women to bear knives.
Mattie dimpled and held him at arm's length. "I know what you want," she said, and Frodo nearly swallowed his tongue.
"You do?" he choked.
"Yes, I do have a letter from your father. I bet you can't wait to read it." She proffered it to him proudly. "Oh, and here's your payroll, too," she said, handing him a substantial bag of coins.
Frodo stuffed the fat bundle into one pocket and the purse into another, and grinned awkwardly while Mattie looked on in confusion when he said, "Oh, it can wait. May I take you out to lunch?" If he could just get her aside privately he could tell her what he knew. "Except, well, I don't have food right now but I suppose if I looked hard enough and offered the last of my coins--or not the last, come to think of it, I just got paid didn't I? He he, um...anyway, with coin I could find somebody who might spare us a couple eggs but I know it's the wrong season for laying eggs of course but you know how it is in these southerly latitudes a few get laid anyway they just don't taste as good as Shire eggs but I daresay they're better than nothing and I'm babbling again, aren't I?"
Mattie giggled and said, "Do you do this every time you first greet a messenger? But I understand, my brother." She picked up the cap that she had dropped, dusted it off, and snapped it back on her head, looking more boyish than ever. "I don't suppose that we hobbits were ever meant to go long without seeing another of our kind."
"Then you'll join me?"
"Join you?" she asked as they walked down the pier.
"Over lunch, or over non-lunch, or, well, we can pretend to eat lunch, at least..."
Mattie gripped his shoulder. "Frodo, don't tell me that you used to have tea-parties with dolls and make-believe food as a lad!"
"No! Of course I...I am sorry." He thought he'd just about shiver out of his skin every time she touched him. "Forgive me. I have not eaten for days, and hunger can make one rather daft at times."
"That's all right, Frodo; I assumed as much." She studied him a moment. "But you needn't blush--it was nothing, really. I meant to make you laugh." Then she slapped her forehead. "Oh! I nearly forgot! You have rather a bulky present from Meriadoc Brandybuck."
"Yep--right this way." She reversed directions, tugging him by the elbow, and he went where she led, feeling nearly as entranced as he had when pursuing the water-sprite. "Ol' Stumblehoof didn't appreciate having all that strapped behind her saddle, at first, but she got used to it." Indeed, he did not lie when Frodo confessed that hunger made him light-headed, only right this minute he felt like he reeled from Mattie's smoky floral scent. To think that she had been this close so many times before, and he had not suspected a thing! It floored him to remember that he'd even shared a bath with her, for heaven's sake! Now just her slim little fingers on his arm made it hard for him to believe that his feet even touched the ground. She wove him dizzily in and out of the crowd and the piled crates, but he hardly heard the joyous bustle all around him or the music of the sea, deafened as he was by the beating of his heart. "Here," she said. "See?"
Frodo saw, propped up against some barrels, a bundle of hobbit-sized gardening tools--a rake, a hoe, a pitchfork, and two kinds of shovels. He gasped with delight. "They are exactly what I need! How thoughtful of him!"
"A card comes with it," Mattie pointed out, and Frodo saw it attached with a bit of wire to the ropes that bound the tools together.
Frodo read in Uncle Merry's elegant hand, "Please accept my apologies for having overlooked your birthday on the way. I hope that you find these acceptable. I have not had the chance to inspect them myself, but I ordered them from Aglarond so that they will get to you the sooner. They are the best that money can buy and dwarves can sell. You, of course, have your work cut out for you, so that I do not consider this extravagant under the circumstances. Good luck with Mordor, Frodo-Lad!"
Frodo stared at the tools. "Oh, he shouldn't have."
"But he did," Mattie said brightly. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some business to attend."
"Oh, er, sure. Quite right. I'll, uh, I'll catch you later."
Frodo watched Mattie walk away, wondering how he could possibly have overlooked the lightness of her footfalls until now. For that moment he did not care one bit that he hadn't eaten for days and crates of food surrounded him. Then he started to take out the letter from his father, but just then Mayor Aloe announced in a surprisingly loud voice that the ship had arrived sufficiently early that they should be able to distribute the cargo fairly before nightfall, maybe even before the storm hit. A great roar of cheering resounded through the harbor, and Frodo's appetite returned to him in one great wallop. He hurried to take his place in line as a head of a household to accept his share, forgetting the letter in his hunger as soon as he pocketed it again.
It took hours for Frodo's turn to come around, and more time struggling alongside Bergil and Fishenchips to get their ration home (after they broke one package open on the spot and stuffed themselves with bread.) "You'd think they'd spare at least one wheelbarrow for the Chief Gardener, wouldn't you say?" Frodo said, huffing and puffing behind a stack that he could hardly see over. "Remind me to order one from Brandybuck Mercantile."
"As soon as you have paid your servants, Master Gardner," Bergil responded with a smile. "Which reminds me: while we waited--and while you stared at the crates as though you could open them by your piercing gaze alone--I counted the money and found it short a few coins. We will not run out, though, even dividing it between three instead of two, if we keep our desires modest." He laughed when he said, "The king is generous, and Mattie never takes more than he needs, bless his larcenous little heart."
Frodo's own heart plummeted. All day he had forgotten. "Count again--next time I suppose you'll find us overpaid. You never get the same tally twice, Bergil."
"Perhaps not, but Mattie has never delivered a full payroll yet."
They took their favorite alley shortcut. Frodo dropped a package along the way; a sudden spasm of the wrist shook his grip, no doubt, he thought, from hunger and anticipation. He caught up with his men, got the main load safely ensconced in their tower, and then went back for the package. He hoped against hope that nobody would steal it, but he did seem to recall someone sitting or lounging in that alley. Where? Did he waste his time? What delicacy awaited inside the tied brown paper, anyway, to lure some thief by smell? No, his luck held after all--right there ahead of him lay the package, smack dab in the middle of the path.
And there against the nearest wall sat one of the many anonymous beggars of Seaside, completely oblivious to the good fortune that had fallen so near. Apparently this little fellow had remained unmoving for hours while others had taken the same short-cut before Frodo, for the dust of their passage had so covered the poor devil that Frodo didn't even recognize his own shirt. Frodo saw the pipe loosely held in the hand in the lap, and smelled that burnt-flower odor, and gazed straight into the swollen, out-of-focus, pinprick-pupiled eyes without Mattie even knowing that he stood there. She did not look like any maiden of the Shire at that moment, nor lad for that matter; mostly she just looked half erased, fading into the mud bricks behind her of the same color as the dust. As he watched, the first fat raindrops fell upon them both, darkening the dirt with spots of mud. If she hadn't blinked--once--when a raindrop hit her face, he would have thought her dead.
She is mine, Sauron gloated. Who indeed holds the power here, my little cockerel--you or me?