In Mordor Where the Shadows Are
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 14, Part 85
Farewell to the Messenger
(February 9, 1452)
Dark clouds massed over the Sea of Nurnen in leaden swirls of threat, but everything else looked strangely bright against that backdrop, vivid ochre mud-brick walls or homes of sparkling stone. The drama appealed to Frodo as he escorted Mattie to the ship, whose white sails seemed to glow, dancing as the waves grew choppy underneath. The pre-storm light well-suited the bard he walked beside. Spirited tunes rang in Frodo's memory, songs that he could not get out of his head and didn't want to, that Mattie had sung last night for him, one right after another, all of her own composition. Her talent astonished him, and her voice had mesmerized him, now soft and dreamy, now bold and thundrous, now fluid and beguiling. On crutches Frodo felt as though he glided more than walked beside her, too ebullient for earth, though he knew the sense of flight to be as illusory as Mattie's beauty.
To himself he thought, "I have seen flagpoles with more curves than her. Her habits stain her teeth. She has the eyes of a reptile. Frodo, you are completely out of your mind!" to which his other self replied, "Yes, utterly mad! Isn't that what love should be?" In truth, her thinness, so alien to most hobbits, now reminded him of elves, only more fragile, something delicate that he wished he could cup in his hands and shelter trembling against his breast. And he didn't care two figs as to the state of her teeth so long as she showed them in laughter, which sounded to him like spring in winter's midst. As for the eyes, framed in tumbled gingery curls, he could find warmth there, he felt certain, once he learned to peer in deeply enough.
She laughed right now, watching the ship and some boats, all restless on their cables. "Mordor! The only land in all of Middle-Earth where mariners prefer to sail in wintertime."
"Yes, when monsters sleep," said Frodo, but now he gazed out on the troubled weather with new anxiety. "Are you sure you'll be all right?"
She laughed again. "Oh, I gave up fear a long, long time ago, Frodo. I rather enjoy a good storm!" Indeed, her eyes glittered with anticipation, gazing across the water. Frodo's heart swelled with admiration for her spirit--she seemed grand to him, adventuresome, and the weathered texture of her skin only made her more so. What maiden of the Shire could match her for the daring of her journeys?
He looked about the docks. "Where is Stumblehoof, by the way?"
"Already on board. I paid the livery my last coins to tend to her." Her smile softened her face. "I do love that ol' nag."
"Your last coin? How will you pay for lodgings in Osgiliath?"
Mattie's smile became sly as she glanced sidelong at him. "Oh, I didn't say I'd remain coinless to the end." And Frodo, heaven help him, found himself laughing right along with her. At least until she said, "Unless you would like to help me out with a little something..."
His grin faltered. "The King sends me money for other purposes." And her humor failed, too. He hated himself; the look in her eyes made him feel as though he'd struck her. He reached into his pocket. "But I suppose a tip wouldn't be amiss, since I have mail for you to carry." He brought out for her his big, fat packet to his father, and a note to Tar Elessar, and another to Brandybuck Mercantile, plus enough coin to cover room and board at The Cloven Horn.
She smiled at the letter to Merry's company. "I have many of these," she said. "People all over Seaside are making special orders with what you have spent here already; and some of that money begins to reach other parts of Nurn." She went to a shed of loose boards by the pier, unlocked it, and in its light-streaked darkness showed him two full bags of mail. "Stumblehoof has not been pleased, the lazy beast!"
Frodo laughed with her as if the money had not come up at all. But then she frowned at what he'd written to the King. She weighed it in her hand for a moment, then turned to him eyes so cold that he couldn't imagine anything inside her surviving in the chill. With no trace of a smile she said, "I was very happy for you, Frodo, to learn that your father will soon clear up your 'sister's' difficulties," and with a shiver he could hear the quotes around "sister", "for surely so delicate a matter needs the utmost discretion." Slowly she spoke, with quiet emphasis on every word. "After all, what would people think, if they knew that Buttercup Klaefield bore a child out of wedlock, or that for all these years the Mayor of the Shire had illegally raised a child of the notorious Ted Sandyman?"
Frodo barely breathed, "You wouldn't dare!" But he read in her eyes that she could, quite easily.
She held before him the letter to Tar Elessar. "What does this contain?" she asked.
"Why should I tell you? You'll know soon enough anyway."
She smirked, without a thaw, and slipped the letter into her weskit. "Perhaps I shall. You would think that people would understand how easy it is to take a casting off a wax seal, remelt the wax, and seal it over again." She shook her head. "Fools deserve punishment for folly, don't you agree?"
"No," he said. "Some things should not be folly--like trust, and honor."
When she laughed at him her teeth looked ugly indeed. "Luxuries, for softer lands. We can't afford them here."
"Yet the king pays all his servants well, Mathilda Greenbanks, though for some their pay goes up in smoke." At her widening eyes he said, softly, "Yes, Mattie--I know." Still she stared at him, speechless. He shifted uncomfortably on his crutches and said, "I meant to tell you before. I might as well tell you now. Why not? You'll read about it anyway." He stared down at their feet, her boot-hidden ones and his fiddling toes, and the crutches to either side. "For the record, Bergil and Fishenchips know, too." The faint sound of her gasp should have stirred his pity, but something hardened in him instead--he'd save his pity for those willing to do something about their mess! He stared now straight into her eyes and said, "In case you don't remember, Fishenchips found out by bathing you the other night." He didn't mean for his voice to come out so harsh, but he didn't regret it, either.
She went pale, then flushed, then paled again. "What do..." She stopped, swallowed, and asked, "How do you feel about...knowing?"
"How should I feel?" he cried. "You are a blackmailer, and a beggar, and a thief, and, and some sort of drunkard, and you read other people's mail--and I am no more safe from you than anybody! How, exactly, am I supposed to feel, Mattie?"
Tears trembled on her eyelashes as she stepped closer and closer. "I know," she said, in a throaty little voice. "I feel the same way, too." Then she leaned forward, and she kissed him, not like any kiss he had ever had from mother or father or sister or brother, but full on the mouth, her lips all trembly at first, and then insistent, but he didn't respond, he just stood there with his eyes closed, though he felt weak in the knees, he did nothing while she cupped his head gently in her hands and tried again, then pressed little kisses all over his face as he still remained as stiff as if he had no life left in him.
She drew back from him. He heard her whisper, "Goodbye!" in a choked-up voice. Bags of mail scraped across the ground a little before leaving it. He heard her run away, the slammed shed door, the scampering little boots. A long time he stood there, hanging between his crutches like some dead thing that the Dark Lord had left on display, not decently fallen down. He heard the sailors calling to one another, the groaning of the ship as it pulled away , the slap of waves on a moving hull...fading...fading...gone.
He opened his eyes to a dark shed filled with dusty streaks of light. He started to shake all over. He closed the shed behind him, and then sighed when he realized that Mattie had left the key in the lock and would come back to him for it eventually. He pocketed it, turned, and thumped step by step away from the harbor, as the rain began to fall, splashing and plinking on the hard stone town.
He picked up momentum. Soon his crutches clattered on the cobbles or splashed through puddles of mud, as they flung him headlong through the streets and unpaved alleyways, his cloak flapping about him in the rising wind, faster and faster and faster, as though he could outrun himself. Lightning flashed in the darkening sky but he didn't care, he rather wished it would strike him dead. But as it did not, at the last minute he took a different turn than the one that led to his home, within sight, in fact, of his tower. While thunder rumbled overhead he saw the mayor's house before him. The air sang with the scent of ozone and wet rock, and his heart beat hard.
Mayor Aloe heard a thumping on her door so loud that it surprised her to answer and find the noise all came from one little hobbit gardener, dripping rain, face flushed and out of breath. In a rough voice Frodo asked her, "You ever taste real hobbit cooking?"