In Mordor Where the Shadows Are
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 19, Part 90
The Lore of Elenaril
(February 14, 1452)
Frodo bumped along in a blanket-nest within the herbwife's gathering-basket, in a dimness spangled by the twinkles of sunlight that made their way through the weave. "This is not doing a thing for my dignity," he said, "being carried on a woman's back like a baby."
"You still need rest, more than I am giving you," said, Beebee, whom Bergil once had named Elenaril. "Had you not been a perian, I would not have allowed you out at all." He heard the tap, tap, tap of her staff as she felt her way, but though her steps halted slightly, she made far better progress than he would have believed.
"But I hate to be a burden..."
"You? You are lighter by half than my regular loads of firewood. I could carry you all day and hardly notice."
Frodo remembered the glimpse he had seen of himself in the mirror and fell silent for awhile. The motion rocked him like a baby indeed, and the blankets felt sleepy-warm about him. But soon he bestirred himself to ask, "What about Fishenchips? How is he doing?"
A pause. "He wants to be alone for awhile."
"Of course. How inconsiderate of me."
"You could not help it, Frodo. Indeed, he insisted."
"It must have tortured him, though, to hear a nonstop recitation of the joys of family life for three days and nights running."
"He can master his envy, given time and space. He cares about you deeply...and will you settle down? Baskets are not indestructable, you know."
"I'm just trying to see if I can stand up here and have a look about me."
"You really ought to rest while you can."
"But you brought me out to teach me herblore--how can I learn about herbs that I can't even see?" After a strained silence, Frodo said, "Oh. Right. Why don't I just tie a gag about my mouth, myself, before I say something even worse? I am so sorry, Beebee!"
After a pause, she said, "It is nothing. You have had but a day and a half to get used to my difference. It took me longer than that." She paused a moment to give him a chance to find his feet in the basket, and then resumed her hike. As Frodo gazed out over the rim, watching the village of Bristlescrub recede, the golden sands now looked like the color of his mother's homemade bread, and the kaktush blossoms reminded him of jams and jellies. Beebee said, "You can, in fact, make a delicious jelly from kaktush fruit. They tell me it is the color of wine."
Frodo started. "Do you have the elvish gift of glimpsing the thoughts of others?"
"Only a little. Blindness has forced me to take note of every other perception I own--perceptions I gave little or no thought to before. For instance..." She straightened, and sniffed the air. "What do you smell, Frodo?"
"Smell? Now that you mention it, I smell the kaktush in bloom."
"Is that all?"
"Isn't that enough?"
"I smell also the sharp underlying scent of that which purified your spirit yesterday, and another herb, more bitter still, which drives off fever. And there are other flowers in bloom besides the Kaktush--tinier, less showy, but fragrant in their way. One makes a tea that calms a distraught spirit. Another cures conditions of the skin. One of the shrubs whose blossoms hardly show at all has a pungent odor as harsh as some of Sauron's evil brews, yet it kills lice and drives termites out of wood. Another nearly identical to it otherwise has a pleasant odor and can break an asthma attack. Oh, and off to your left, if you seek it, you will find wild onions for tonight's supper, if I let you out of the basket." She reached behind her and lifted him free. It felt odd to him, how she placed him precisely down upon the ground without looking at him. Of course. "That way," she said, pointing.
He took a few tentative steps, scanning the ground, finding nothing at first. Then he closed his eyes, inhaled deeply, and caught the whiff of onion. He opened his eyes, followed his nose, and found, underneath a bush, a few long, withered onion leaves, and a new green shoot springing up from their base. He cut into the ground with the trowel that he'd brought along and unearthed several bulbs.
"I have heard," Frodo said, "that the outlying villages have it even harder than Seaside, coming late to the shipments after they have been picked over by hungry people before them. But while I have seen nobody well-filled in Bristlescrub, I have also seen nobody at death's door. Now I know why. Why doesn't all of Nurn practice your herbcraft?"
"Sauron discouraged all lore but his. Sauron taught people to depend utterly on those they never saw, each of whom understood only their own part in keeping the whole nation alive. That way his slaves stayed helpless, consuming only what he provided from they knew not where, obeying him even though they hated him, never knowing that they had any other choice." Suddenly Frodo felt her tuck the blanket around his shoulders. "I heard your teeth chattering," she said.
"Where is my cloak, by the way?" he asked as he adjusted the wool around him.
"I gave Fishenchips some soaproot to wash it with, and his own besides. Keeping busy will do the man good, now that he has rested enough. You two picked up so much dirt along the way that I am surprised there is land left between here and Seaside; the cloaks were stiff with it--and frankly, Frodo, they stank."
Frodo blushed to realize just how far his Shire-bred standards had slipped in the months since he left home. "Sorry," he mumbled.
She reached about now, feeling the leaves and twigs, her delicate fingers barely brushing the tips of kaktush needles and coming back unscathed. "This smallish tree, here, almost not a tree at all, bears pods of beans in season--you will see, in time. The virtue lies in the pods, themselves, not the beans. Not only do they make nourishing meal, ground up, but they regulate the blood of those with sugar-sickness. That season still waits some ways off, but in the meantime we have other resources."
She then bent down to the ground, groping and snuffling. Frodo felt repelled for a moment, watching the nostrils flare in her scar of a face; it had an orkish look, or of some worse creature of the dark. He scolded himself for the thought; evil had marked her through no choice of hers.
Beebee smiled in triumph and grasped the plant she'd sought. "Here! This hairy vine. It is a sort of wild squash, and most generous. We can eat some of the blossoms now, and still have plenty left over to grow tender fruits in summer, and then leave still more fruits to ripen huge in autumn, that will last with little preservation all the winter long. The seeds are good roasted, too, and can remedy a dropsical condition." She licked what she had of lips. "The fried flowers taste especially good stuffed with goat cheese and nuts."
"I know squash already," Frodo said. "My father and I have grown it and my mother makes squash pie."
She stood up, grinning. "But did you know how to find it in the wild?" It wasn't her fault that her grin looked grisly.
"I didn't even know it grew wild at all."
"It became shy over the years of Sauron's reign. But some still whisper that the entwives first gave us squash right here in this land, that it came from Nurn first of all."
"You have entwife-lore?"
"A little has survived, passed down in secret." Her fingers ran along the vine she'd lifted, finding the delicacy of each long yellow blossom amid the coarser foliage, and adding them to her basket. She broke off some newly sprouted tendrils, too. "These make tasty boiled vegetables, if gathered before they toughen."
"That I didn't know."
"I suppose in The Shire you had no need."
"Nope. This time of year we eat cabbage, turnip-greens, and corn sallets." He watched her find another herb and strip away some of the softer new leaves to add to her basket. "You can't have learned about all these local plants in Gondor, surely."
"No. I learned about them here." She fell silent, and stood quite still.
Frodo's face caught fire! He screamed and fell to the ground, covering his face with his hands...and felt normal, healthy tissue. He opened his eyes and could see quite clearly, and the pain vanished as quickly as it came.
"Frodo! I am sorry! Oh, I am so, so sorry!" She reached for him, fell to her knees beside him when she found him, and hugged him to her in dismay, stroking his hair while her sightless face tipped up to sky. "I am so very, very sorry!"
Finding himself pressed to the softness of a female breast hastened the hobbit's recovery no end, but he still felt a little shaken when he asked, in a higher than usual voice, "What just happened, Beebee?"
"It should not have happened at all."
He pushed away a little, just to catch his breath. "I think your mind went back to the day of your scarring, didn't it? And I...I somehow picked up on that."
She released him, sitting back upon her heels. "That memory never quite dims for me. I am truly sorry."
"You said that already. But how..."
"Blindness has sharpened the powers of my mind. I catch faint glimpses of the thoughts of others. And sometimes, for someone unusually sensitive..."
"Your thoughts go back the other way. And my magnifying lens..."
"Your powers are growing, too."
Frodo sat down on the sand before her. "Tell me what happened in words; maybe then the thoughts won't leap out at me." When she hesitated, he said, "I know that Lord Lossarnach's army sustained heavy casualties from venom-spitting snakes, and they lost track of you in the rout."
"I woke in...in the pain that you have felt. The attack happened not far from here, but I have since learned to smell the gatherings of serpents miles before they approach." She shuddered. "I will never forget their scent. But at the time we had encountered so many acid stenches from the ruins of Sauron's works that we did not distinguish this from all the rest. The land was less clean in those days than as you see it now."
"Shepherds must have found you," Frodo surmised. "The same as they found Bergil."
"Foragers. So far as I know, Bristlescrub alone has kept skills of foraging and shepherding, hidden from the Dark Lord by our insignificance. The foragers bore me to their herbwife, an ancient crone at death's door herself, but she lived long enough to nurse me back to health. Then, at my request, she taught me everything she knew of herbs that Gondor never grew. She complied most willingly; long had she sought an apprentice who could absorb all of her lore, and I came already prepared. She knew in her bones that she had but a few years to live, so she poured herself out to me. I drank up all she knew." Beebee shrugged and said, "When she died, I became her."
Almost in a whisper Frodo said, "You decided never to go home."
"How could I return, Frodo?" The fingers of one hand, as delicately as when she had touched the kaktush, traced herself from brow to cheek to chin, over lumps and ridges like wax melted and reformed. "In Mordor people have grown inured to ugliness; I could make a life for myself, here. People needed me and respected me; I never knew so much respect west of the Anduin even in the days of my beauty. When I think of what would have awaited me in Gondor after what I have become..." She shuddered.
"Bergil always respected you."
"Before he became unable to bear the sight of me."
"You know," Frodo said as though changing the subject, "Today is my sister Rosie's birthday."
"Is it indeed? And what might she like for a present?"
"Oh, the brightest, fanciest yarns you could find--she is mad for weaving. If she ever got dragon-sickness, she would want all her gold spun into thread."
Beebee smiled at that. She stood, sniffed, took a few steps and felt at a shrub. "Then perhaps I can gather together some presents for her. We have wonderful dyes out here, if anybody ever dared to wear color. We kept the lore, even though we never use it." She found what she sought on the leathery underside of a leaf. "See these little bumps under here? They are actually insects from which you can derive, they say, a purply-red dye--rather, I am told, the color of kaktush jelly. That would be with one mordant; a different one brings you more of a pure violet. And not far from here you can find trees whose wood will give you the brightest yellow anyone ever dreamed. A different tree has leaves that make a rich blue dye like woad." She sighed. "Unfortunately, people have long since gotten it into their heads that it is dangerous to draw too much attention to themselves; and now no one wants to be the first to wear color in their community. Nevertheless, these long-forgotten dyes might at least amuse your sister."
"Ah, but we hobbits give others presents on our birthdays--at least that is the custom in the Shire."
"Is that a fact? What a charming practice."
"Especially in a big family like mine." Then, hesitantly, he added, "Rosie will have no trouble finding a husband with a skill like hers--even though the poor lass is as homely as a shovelful of dirt." Hurrying on past Beebee's frown he said, "It's not her fault that she takes after Papa, who looks good enough for the he-hobbit that he is, it just isn't exactly the sort of face that you'd wish upon a girl. Yet it never held her back."
Tightly, Beebee said, "There is a vast difference, Frodo, between homely and hopelessly scarred."
"Maybe so, but Bergil crossed vast distances to look for you--do you think he can't cross this one?"
She threw down the basket, spilling the blossoms she had gathered. "What do you know of it?"
"I know that he has never married, that he never stops thinking about you, that even in his lightest moments there is this pit of sorrow in his heart that aches for you to fill it up. Elenaril, he..."
"Do not call me that!"
"He cannot find peace without you. Ever."
"How could he find peace with me? How could he wake up every morning and go to sleep each night...to this?" and her hands drew back the white veil of her hair; if she could have glared at him she would have.
"It's not so bad, once you get used to it."
"He shouldn't have to get used to it!"
"At least give him the chance!" The hobbit leaped to his feet. "If nothing else you could give him closure. If he finds you, he can stop looking for you. If he rejects you, he can free himself to marry. As it is you've left him wobbling between land and sea for all these years and it's destroying him!"
"Doesn't he have the right to make up his own mind, Beebee? A reaction that he couldn't control in the throes of delirium doesn't count as a decision. He needs to look at you in his right mind, knowing it is you. But he has no happiness. He has no idea what happened to you. He assumes that you died, since he thinks you would have done anything to come home to him had you survived--poor fool!--yet still he seeks your grave, he must at least pay you his last respects. It has never entered his imagination that you might avoid him deliberately. All these years he has missed you, and it never ends."
She stood before him, saying nothing, the scar-tissue gone waxy-pale with bloodlessness.
"Teach me your herblore, Beebee. I particularly want to know what I can plant in a brick-hard field that will break up the soil for softer crops, and give us something quick to eat while it's at it." Then he remembered what Treebeard had said about the exchanges between redlife and greenlife in the healing of Legolas. "Also, if you know of any plants that eat poison and cleanse the land, we could use that, too. I have only one day after this to cram my head with what you have to teach and to gather what seeds you think best, before I must hasten back to Seaside for First Planting. It would be better if you came back with me, but suit yourself. You have today and tomorrow to decide whether or not to join me on the journey home."
Shakily she pulled herself together, and in a faint voice said, "A fast-growing legume, then...over here, with a scent like clover touched by licorice..."