In Mordor Where the Shadows Are
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 22, Part 93
Spring Comes Early in Nurn
(February 20, 1452)
Already the ground cracked where the rain had once drenched it, and flakes of dried mud crunched underfoot, here in the fields above Seaside. But when Frodo bent to poke his finger into the cracks, he found the soil yet moist beneath the crust. He squatted down and thrust his whole hand into the soil. "It has thawed enough," he said, "no doubt about it."
Beside him Mayor Aloe hugged her shawl around herself and stared critically at the ground, toeing the dirt. "Then the sooner we plant, the better. I dinna know fer sure, pet, but I've reason to suspect that some mothers have been feedin' their little ones on fell meats to get by. We gotta get real food into 'em before the damage goes too far."
Frodo looked up. "Not sea-monster, surely! How could they butcher such a beast?"
"I heard tell of a cove not too far from here as swarms with slimy things, probably dragonspawn from the sound of it. The shallow waters always heat up first, ahead of the rest of the thaw, and eggs do hatch." Grimly she said, "We'll have to clean it out--and that's a right nasty job, I can tell ye."
Softly Frodo said, "Then that clinches it. We can't wait for the midden to finish curing. We'll have to plant now with the soil we've got." He stood up. "Right. We'll plant wry-grass, flashflood clover, and firecracker bean, with buckwheat-bush for hedges."
"Weeds, in other words."
"Weeds that improve the soil and break it up. The goats will fatten on the grass and clover, and we can eat the beans and buckwheat. Or who knows? I hear that wry-grass serves for two-legged eating as well, once it seeds. Beebee tells me we've got to take care with the firecracker beans, though, bag them on the vine before they ripen, because when they do they'll burst open with such force that they'll shoot beans every which way; we could lose most of the crop if we don't."
"Jolly," Aloe muttered.
"The good news is that they supply a huge amount of beans. Desert animals live off of finding them all year 'round, and they still leave enough to grow more with the next rain."
"What d'ye 'spose those beans taste like?" Aloe asked.
"Does it matter?"
She burst into laughter. "'Tis a hobbit sayin' that?"
Frodo stood up. "We like fine food, it's true, but 'food' comes before 'fine'."
"Frodo, darlin', I dinna know what fine food tasted like till ye cooked fer me." His face went hot. "And my oh my but ye blush more'n any livin' bein' I ever did see." She pinched his cheek.
"Cut that out!"
She just smirked instead of apologized. "Now--where is this herbwife who has taught ye all these desert crops?"
"Down by the seashore, looking for algae-pools."
"I think I would like to talk to her." Aloe took Frodo's hand firmly in her own and headed for the road off of the mesa, the ruffles on her skirt stirring up little clouds of dust as she went, like a ruddy ground-mist. "She ain't so bad to look on, y'know, once ye get used to her."
Frodo nodded, his hand feeling quite warm and snug in her grip. "It's just scar, after all. I've got a couple of scars, myself."
Aloe chuckled richly. "I know, pet. Ya showed me." He glanced up at her smile. "Satiny..."
"Um...right." He looked at the bank they descended for any available distraction. "Those erosion patterns show that your cropland doesn't hold as much water as it could. I think we should put in terraces and swales."
"Swells? What's swells, pet?"
"Swales. See, you watch how the water flows across the land, and then dig crosswise to..."
"D'ye think they'll merry?" she interrupted.
"Begging your pardon?"
"Bergil and Beebee. Do you think they'll merry?"
"Oh. Marry. Yes. I'm certain of it."
They entered the walls of Seaside. "Just the two of 'em, tegither fer the rest of their lives? Won't they get bored?"
"Oh, you can spend your whole life getting to know one person, if you pay attention, you know, deep attention." He thought of Papa with his arms around Mama, and Mama nestling her head upon his shoulder, both of them smiling as warm as honey on the sill, eyes all misty with memories longer than he'd been alive. "And the familiar things, well, they can be good--comfortable, like clothes worn just to fit, that bend just the way you do and don't bind anywhere."
She raised one brow. "Now I thought the whole point, as you explained it, was binding. Making sure the other didn't skedaddle when yer chips were down."
"No, no, you misunderstand. You don't make a person stay, they want to stay. Each takes comfort in the other being there, always, through tough times and good--someone to rely on."
Mayor Aloe thought about that for many steps, while the villagers smiled to see her holding the hobbit's hand, his bare feet trotting to keep up with her strides. "I don't need it," she said at last. "I'm too strong to need anybody."
"Don't you get tired of having to be strong all the time?"
Abruptly she swept him up off the ground and kissed him to within an inch of his life, right there in front of a host of onlookers, all the while holding him up as though he were lighter than a kitten. "Nope," she said, and kissed him again.
"Put me down," he gasped, a little later than he intended to, trying to ignore the outburst of applause all around them.
"Say 'please,'" she said, and when he hesitated she gave him a third kiss, this time lingeringly sweet, tipping him far back and holding him so close against her breast that his head swam.
After an interval long enough to invoke cheers from the gathering crowd, he finally drew back to murmur, "Please," and she sat him down on his none-too-steady feet.
She laughed, a loud and hearty sound. "I've seen radishes paler than yerself right now, my sweet!"
"Please!" he said, glancing at the crowd all around.
She curtseyed. "And how might I please ye, pet?" She fanned out her skirt so far that she bared considerable leg and some men whooped.
Frodo stepped back when she reached towards him. "I'm sorry I ever taught you that word."
"What, 'please'?" She grinned. "It pleases me."
Frodo turned towards the beach, muttering under his breath, "And Papa thought he had troubles with the word 'sneak'!" Aloe caught up with him in two steps. A few rascals followed them, hoping for a bit more of a show, but after awhile they fell back when the mayor did nothing more exciting than hold the hobbit's hand once again. Frodo thought he ought to let go, but he didn't.
They heard the shrieks of laughter before they descended the final bank to the beach, Beebee's shrill giggles overlaying Bergil's deep guffaws, amid much splashing beyond the crash of waves. When they came into sight the couple apparently engaged in some contest to try and drag the other one completely under water. Beebee had a firm grip on Bergil and wasn't about to let go, but he could sweep up entire armfuls of water onto her that left her sputtering and gasping between peals of mirth. Her wet hair slicked silver over her face, revealing nothing but her grin. His own hair wore bits of seaweed in the curls. Frodo gulped; the last thing in the world that he needed right now was the sight of Beebee in a sea-drenched gown. At last, with a happy growl, Bergil swept Beebee up into his arms as she squealed, and carried her to the shore, with her little feet kicking free of her soggy hem and the water sheeting off of her.
"My guardian," Frodo drawled, a bit more acerbically than he intended. Bergil nearly dropped Elenaril, but managed to set her onto her feet more or less properly. "The mayor and I came by to see how you two were progressing in your hunt for poison-eating algae."
Beebee said, "Uh. Yes. We did. Found some. We found some." She tugged at a sleeve that she felt slipping off of her shoulder with the weight of water. "Whole pools of the stuff. Very useful. Yes."
Frodo found that he could not stop his eyes from following all of the curves that sodden loops of fabric swirled around and emphasized--a bit more than he'd expected. He wondered if anyone would notice if he oh-so-casually took a flying leap into the icy surf, himself. Aloe at least noticed where his eyes went, and in an even harsher voice than usual she snarled, "Imagine! Ye're an herbwife and yet frolickin' in the poison wash like that--ya oughta know better, sister. It'll serve ye both right if ye take sick from it, and better than ye deserve that summat nasty didn't nibble off yer toes!" She turned so fast her tassels whipped the air, and stormed off as fiercely as stomping through sand would allow.
Frodo stared after Aloe, startled and a bit dismayed; he had been sort of thinking that maybe he could do with another lesson in kissing when they got back. He turned to the others, now feeling chagrin of his own to see them with their arms wrapped tight around each other, shivering in the wind. "You are a silly pair, you know--poison or no, only a fool would take a dip in February!"
Beebee stuttered a little over chattering teeth, "I ddddo know a sourfruit potion that will pprotect us both well. But yes, I suppose we have behaved a little, um..."
Bergil had not looked so sheepish in Osgiliath. "It sort of happened by accident," he said.
"Yes," Beebee confirmed. "We fell in."
Bergil nodded. "Fell. Yes. We fell in."
Frodo snapped, "And obviously neither of you had the mother wit to fish yourselves out again."
Bergil tried hard not to smile. "I would have, if I, uh, had not encountered opposition..."
"You!" Beebee cried, "I'm the one you shoved in!"
"You mistook me. I meant to...hey! Easy!" For she smacked at him again, giggling and grabbing at his shirt to hold him where she wanted him, till finally he had to bearhug her to make her stop. It just so happened that when he did this her feet flew off the ground and swung all around him as he spun, laughing for sheer joy.
"Come along, children," Frodo grumbled. He led the way back to the town, but found himself grinning before he took three steps. "Let's get you two dried and tonic'd before you both catch your deaths. Recess is over."