In Mordor Where the Shadows Are
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 12, Part 83
A Feminine Voice
(February 7, 1452)
Fishenchips carried the bundled-up hobbit downstairs like a baby, which his master might have found objectionable if he hadn't felt so dreadful; the body does not like surgical procedures, large or small, and will sulk for at least a day, whatever the mind might wish. The man's big boots on the stone steps echoed all the way down the stairwell. "Outdoors, Guv? Are ya sure?"
"I am sure."
"'Tis a cold one, though. Are ya..."
"I said I was sure. If you don't do as I say, I shall hobble down there by myself."
"Mercy no! Ya ain't goin' nowhere on that tore-up foot o' yourn!"
"Then do be so kind as to place me where I intend to spend the day." Frodo rolled his eyes and muttered, "Servants! I wonder if Papa ever gave my namesake so much trouble?"
"Now, that's hard, Guv! I'm just lookin' after ye, 'sall."
Frodo sighed. "I know." A blast of cold air nevertheless made Frodo shudder the minute Fishenchips opened the door.
"Yes, I am very, very sure! I know a sheltered spot; I am certain I will feel much better in it. The stuffy indoor weather has given me a headache."
Fishenchips shook his head. "Whatever Master says." He turned to the tree by the door. "Now where is this sheltered spot o' yourn?"
"There." Frodo pointed to a hobbit-sized cubbyhole down among the roots. He'd have sworn that it grew in sophistication over time, cozier and more adapted to his body with every day. A lace-like network of roots had let the evening's rain pass through and now the niche looked dry and inviting.
"But ye have no cloak!"
"I'll be quite warm enough there; you have practically smothered me in blankets. And see? The sun has come out at last."
Carefully Fishenchips nestled the hobbit into place. The man's hook felt cold and hard even through the blankets, but he couldn't help that. "I'll get ye yer writin' stuff," he said, and went inside. Frodo could hear him banging about, dropping things and cursing. Fishenchips had not entirely gotten accustomed to the use of his prosthetic.
Frodo curled up his knees and rested his cheek against the trunk. He took in a deep breath of the resinous scent and it helped a lot. For all his hurts the hobbit felt at peace, for Sauron's voice had not returned to him. Apparently the erstwhile Dark Lord had spent more of his borrowed energy than he let on, perhaps even to the point where he could not gather up more without time and difficulty. "And perhaps the name of Elbereth contains more grace than Sauron cares to admit," Frodo reflected. "He might have held on as long as he could bear just to give me the impression that he felt no threat at all, and so deter me from calling on her again."
The door clattered open. "Here ye go, sir." Fishenchips handed the hobbit a packet of paper and his pen kit.
"Thank you, Fishenchips. Now I'll need...no, never mind; there seems to be a little hollow over here full of rainwater--that will serve. Wait just one minute, please." Frodo wrote swiftly, then blew on the page to help the ink dry. "There, now--please deliver this to Mayor Aloe for me." As his servant scowled at the letter, puzzling over the script, Frodo said, "It's just a note saying that I will be indisposed for the next several days, although I may receive visitors." He smiled wryly. "I can't do much if my servants won't let me walk, now can I?"
"I 'spose not," the man said with a grin, but then he went back to studying the letter with longing in his eyes.
"You know, Fishenchips, I could teach you to read, maybe starting tonight. I won't have much else to do for awhile."
"Would you?" The mariner's face lit up like Frodo had offered him the Seven Dwarvish Hoards. Yet soon he frowned again. "But then Belzagar promised the same thing, once."
"Belzagar? Who is he?"
Fishenchips' face darkened. "Nobody. Garbage. He's dead now. He's...nobody." Abruptly Fishenchips stuffed the letter into his belt. "I gots errands t'do, sir. Should be back in a couple hours." He hurried away.
Frodo called after him, "If you want to join Bergil at the glass clean-up, you can--it's lovely over that way, with the kaktushes in bloom."
"I ain't leavin' ye alone that long!" Fishenchips called back over his shoulder, and disappeared into the Mayor's courtyard.
Frodo whispered to the bark, "They think I need a keeper," and he smiled, despite the pain throbbing in both head and foot. "What do you think, hmmm?" Lightly he stroked a root. "They might have come to terms with my unwilling dialogues with Sauron, but what would they think of me talking to a tree?" He leaned back against a comfortably slanted surface and gazed up into the intricacies of winter branches framing a sky of pearly clouds and dazzling bursts of blue. Already the pain melted from him like frost in sunlight. With the softest sussuration, the branches swayed rhythmically, hypnotically...
"Now, now, none of your tricks. I do not want to sleep just yet. Though you do have a sweet voice, the way it sort of hushes when you sing." His eyes twinkled as he gazed upward. "Why do you hasten to lull me so? Does it worry you, my dear--that I know what you are?" The branches froze. "How did I guess? Hazels do not grow so tall, unless they live many times longer than any hazel I have ever seen. Besides--that was you beside the pool of healing mud, wasn't it? You have followed me ever since." The branches seemed to wilt as he spoke.
Frodo's smile faded as pity softened his gaze. "Have no fear--I respect your privacy." He patted a root's knob of a knee. "It has been a long time, hasn't it, since anybody spoke to you--and longer since you spoke a word, yourself. How hard it must have been even to bestir yourself to walk!"
He felt an almost subliminal tremor in the wood. "Shhh. Shhh. You know I am your friend. You know what I have come for. I will not betray your secrets, if you do not betray mine--for I know full well how you have listened at my windows." He laid a hand on the trunk and gazed upwards to where knobs and fissures suggested an ancient, haggard face--if anyone ever noticed. "But I will say this once--and then you may do whatever you please with the information. The Ents miss their wives, and would do anything--anything!--to have you back."
Did he see eyes blink, or just shadows shifting across deep hollows in the bark? "Oh, I know, you were all so foolish long ago--on both sides--when the world was young and small things meant the world, but life has taught you many lessons since." The tree groaned like it bore enough weight to break its boughs. Frodo gazed up sadly at the many whorls and knots in the ancient hide. "Maybe too many lessons--maybe you feel you can never go back, now. But Hazel, know this much--ent and dwarf and elf have worked a great healing together, and have made a pact between them. All the old conflicts crumble like ancient scrolls preserved beyond their day. Much that once seemed unforgivable doesn't matter anymore."
Frodo waited, but she did not respond--not that he expected much, really. He muttered, "Maybe I am mad," and picked up his stationary. He stared at it a moment, and then decided to decorate the margins of a couple pages, since he didn't feel like writing any words just yet. Then he suddenly smiled lopsidedly and looked up into the boughs again. "Mad or not, what does it matter? You are an excellent listener, Hazel." He squinted up at a particularly winsome curve of wands, seeking inspiration for his art. "Are those buds and catkins already? Lovely of you, my dear--right on schedule for Hazel-kind. A very clever imitation, although I don't suppose you actually do grow nuts. Never mind; by nut-season I should have raised enough food in this land to persuade my friends to spare the axe--you just go ahead and be your own kind."
With deft strokes Frodo filled the margins up with hazel-wands. "I just wish they'd let me be my own kind. Fishenchips and Bergil hovered over me all through breakfast, Hazel, urging me yet again to wear boots. Boots!" He dipped the brush into the rainwater. "You know, I've heard tell as to how old Master Bilbo got hisself some boots in Rivendell and wore them on his adventure. But he shed them before he came back to the Shire, as was right and proper. I don't hold with boots--especially not in my profession. A hobbit's got to feel the earth between his toes, and that goes double for a gardener. I notice that Master Elrond made no boots for my father or my namesake--makes you wonder why he changed his mind."
He limned in roots at the bottom of the page. "See, I can't help but wonder if the ring would have snared Master Bilbo in the first place if he'd kept both feet upon the ground." Frodo held up the paper, studying his work. "Of course, then he probably would have died at Gollum's hands and history would have gone on differently." He sketched in a couple more twigs to hide a flaw in the design. "But I'm on a different mission. I need that contact with the earth. I'll take the risk. Bergil will have to understand."
Frodo regarded the page, and then hatched in some shading lines, something he'd seen done in the tapestries of Rohan. "Ah Bergil--what a wonderful bother he is! I don't know if you heard that part through all the shouting last night, but he revealed that technically he's supposed to be my guardian for now. Just between you and me, I must say that I'm a wee bit glad--just a bit. Maybe you don't remember what it's like to be so young, but it can scare you, Hazel, to have everybody looking to you to set things right, when you hardly even know yourself yet, let alone all the tricks of the world." He turned the page upside down to hatch at a different angle. "Fact of the matter is, though, Bergil doesn't know the first thing about growing green things--though I couldn't do without his knowledge of goats, I'll give him that." He sighed. "So the whole mission really does land on my shoulders, after all." He shook his head, and filled in some catkins up in a bare-ish looking corner. "No, my dear--I cannot afford to be a child."
As he drew, nestled against the trunk, he considered what else his servants had to say to him over breakfast. When Frodo had begged for a change of subject, Bergil had hesitated, then replied, "Very well, if you insist--it needs brought up, anyway." He looked to the man clearing the table. "Fishenchips, tell Frodo what you know."
The mariner's face went scarlet, and he set down the pitcher he had hooked. "I, uh, I meant to tell ye yesterday, Guv'nor, but I just din't have no chance. I mean, ya left before I knowed ye was gone, and then ye come back all tore up, and...and..." he petered out.
Frodo said, "...and?"
"'Tis, uh, 'tis Mattie, sir." And then dead silence.
About that time Frodo's headache had started. "What about him, Fishenchips?"
Fishenchips blurted, "Well, that's just it, ain't it?"
"About him, er, well, that is to say..." He stared off at a wall and placed his arms behind him like reciting a report. "The night before last, when ye brought in Mattie, all muddy and mis'rable like Mattie was, I knew right off that Mattie warn't in no shape to be left to, uh, Mattie's own devices like that, so we had to get h...get Mattie as sobered up and as cleaned up as we could, because, well, Mattie seemed way too close to dreamin' forever, if ye know what I mean, so I...I...I..."
Slowly Frodo said, "I notice that you are avoiding all pronouns, Fishenchips."
"What's a pronoun, Guv?"
"Never mind," Frodo sighed. With a sinking sense of dread he said, "Continue your story."
"Um...right. Anyway, as I was sayin', I figgered a cold bath might help--beyond the fact that Mattie were covered in mud from head to toe. But I didn't dare leave the poor blighter to h...to Mattie's own devices, if you understand me, because Mattie might drown all on Mattie's own, so...um..."
"Oh...dear...heavens," Frodo whispered. "You do know." Bergil cut him a keen look.
"I meant no harm!" Fishenchips exclaimed. "How was I to know he's a she?"
Frodo sank his head against the breakfast table.
Fishenchips cried, "I swear to ye I took no advantage! The poor thing din't even know I was bathin' her, she was that far gone."
Frodo moaned at that, and did not raise his head. "You must tell no one," he said from the shelter of his arms. "Absolutely not a soul! Her profession puts her in too much peril if the truth came out."
Bergil pushed the porridge aside to lean close to the hobbit. "I see that our news is no news to you at all, Frodo. Yet how did you discover it? For I have met with Mattie many a year and never guessed."
Almost inaudibly, Frodo said, "Sauron told me."
Bergil sat back in his chair again. "I see. Sauron told you. Now why do you suppose he might have done a thing like that?" When Frodo said no word and still refused to raise his head, Bergil sighed and said, "Much now comes clear to me that I did not understand before. Do you fancy that you love her?"
Frodo sat up fiercely and glared at the man. "I know I love her!"
"Have you any idea how loving a poppy-fiend can destroy a man? Where do you think romance would take you? I tell you, she might wish with all her heart to pledge herself to love, honor, cherish, and obey, but when her master commands her otherwise, she will despise, disgrace, injure, and deceive you! She is a slave, Frodo--she has no authority to make any vow, though her heart should break for desiring it."
"No! You don't understand. It would be different between us!"
Bergil got up and paced. "So they all say. Oh, but Sauron knew well how to bait his trap for you! You told me yourself how he plucked from your mind the image of what you desired most, and so taught the watersprite how best to beguile you. He knows your nature, Frodo. He knew precisely what your heart would do once you learned of the only hobbit-maiden for miles around." He leaned both hands on the table and said slowly, firmly, "Sauron is playing you, Frodo! Forget all about Mattie." He straightened and stared sternly down on the young hobbit. "She is unworthy of you. She can only ruin you."
"So your father once said of Elenaril." Frodo stood up, himself, and then immediately sat back down with a groan when his foot hit the floor.
"Dare not to say one word comparing her to Mattie!" Bergil gripped the back of a chair like he would break it. "Elenaril was no wastrel! She led a clean life despite circumstances that would have stained any lesser soul beyond all purging."
"Mattie is sick!" Frodo wailed.
"And you think that you are the one to heal her? Not even the Lady Eowyn can do that. No, Mattie must reach a point when she herself desires healing--if ever--and you cannot give that to her. Men and women before you have destroyed themselves trying, with lovers of their own."
"Men you say," cried Frodo, "but what do you know of hobbits?"
"You are not so different, my friend. You...Frodo, why do you glare so?" For the hobbit's face had gone white in an instant, and his eyes reddened almost like fire.
Frodo passed a hand over his brow. "Sorry. It's just that, well, he calls me, 'my friend' all the time--sometimes in mockery outright, sometimes feigning like he means it."
Bergil sat back down beside the hobbit and said, "I do mean it. And if there were no such thing as real friendship, Frodo, Sauron would have nothing to mock--and nothing to hope to undermine by that mockery. So I intend naught but love when I counsel you to guard your heart from lovers like Mattie Heathertoes."
"Mathilda Greenbanks," Frodo muttered. "That's her real name."
"Heathertoes or Greenbanks, she imperils you." Leaning close, Bergil reached out and drew May's glass from Frodo's breast. "If you do not believe me, believe this. You say it gives you the gift of perception, and so you have shown me, often through insight beyond your years. It has never shown aught to harm you, has it?"
"No," Frodo said. Jealously he drew the lens back from the man.
"And it revealed to you Mattie's enslavement to the poppy, though the poor hobbit took great pains to conceal his...her vice. Did it not?"
"Yes. It did just that."
"Then why, Frodo, for the love of the sister that gave you this charm, and for love also of the pony that binds you to it, did it never reveal Mattie's gender to you?"
Frodo had said no word to that then, and even now, an hour later, could think of no reply--at least nothing adequate, if he were honest. Frodo cleaned his brush and laid aside his stationary. He snuggled into his hollow, and his heart hurt worse than his foot. "You can go ahead and sing me to sleep now, if you want," he told the tree. "You understand loneliness better than anyone, I suppose." He sighed, and pulled his blankets close about him, as he laid his head against the bark. Already the sussurations echoed his sigh, high above his head. "I feel I need the soothing of a feminine voice."