In Mordor Where the Shadows Are
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 23, Part 94
(February 20, 1452)
The Mayor of Seaside grumbled over the rusty lock as she wiggled the key until it clicked. Frodo asked, "What is this place?"
"Public House Number 3462. Travelers stay in the rooms betimes, fesr a price, if they can't find better. But we don't use the Big Room often, now that Sauron's troops'll gather here no more." She shoved her shoulder against the door till it gave in with a thud and a flutter of cobweb veils. "They used to strategize in here." She picked up buckets of cleaning supplies and led the way.
Frodo could see nothing in the dark at first. He sneezed in all the dust and said, "You never told me you had a pub."
"Pub? Now there's a cute name fer it, pet--I never heard the like." She rubbed her hands together. "Well, we've got some cleanin' up to do, if the Herbwife of Bristlescrub'll have her way. If she wants a gatherin' of everbody we can cram under one roof, then this is the biggest place for it." She groped her way along a wall until she found a fireplace, then bent with flint and steel to kindle what turned out to be a shattered chair. "Been cannibalizin' the furniture fer some time now," she explained. "The ol' place don't see that much use to need it, and wood runs dear."
As the light slowly expanded, and Aloe lit candles and lamps where she found them, Frodo looked around him and exclaimed, "Why, this is a Common Room!"
Aloe frowned, wincing from a spill of wax and shaking her burnt fingers. "'Tain't nothin' common about it that I can see--nobody needs rooms this size, normally."
"No, it is! Look, over there--a bar. And that door looks like it leads back to a kitchen. There's a little bit of stage for musicians over there, or jestors or what have you, and look at all these tables you never got around to burning."
Aloe stared at him like he'd just uttered a burst of dwarvish, then shrugged and answered the only part she could make sense of. "We don't use it oft enough to burn 'em all." She considered Frodo with gathered brows. "Plainly ye know the uses o' this room better than I do." She bit her lip and thought a moment, then said, "Of course--ye're a mayor's son, ye said. Ya must've sat in on milit'ry meetings a time or two."
"Military meetings?" Now it was Frodo's turn to look nonplussed.
"Sure--that's what this is fer, ain't it?"
"Is that what they told you they did in here?" He burst out laughing. "It seems that Sauron's upper ranks had more fun than they let on! Aloe, places like this have been expressly designed to let you kick back with friends, lift a few brews, eat a good meal, warm up by the fire and relax in good company."
Aloe stared at him oddly, and then shook her head. "I doubt it, pet. They'd come out o' here in a right foul temper, I can tell ye."
"They were probably hung over. I don't suppose they'd know too much about moderation." He strolled about the room, grinning and shaking his head. "My, but this place has possibilities. I had no idea!" He took up a broom, sawed down to his height, and said, "Well, let's have at it!"
They could have spent days scraping away at the ancient grime, but time and neglect had done some work for them. Old spills flaked right up with the push of a dry rag, while bugs and rats had long since eaten anything that could have caused a smell beyond the general mustiness. Considering the country, it could have been worse.
"I suppose ye'll be wantin' this lot off to the midden heap, well-pounded," said Aloe as she picked up bones off of the floor.
Frodo shuddered. "Perhaps we should give them a decent burial instead. Heaven knows what--or who--they might have eaten here."
"Even the chickens?" Aloe said with a laugh, holding up a wishbone.
Frodo smiled. "Well, not bones of fowl or fish, certainly. We can compost them."
"Or lamb or goat or kine," she added in a mocking singsong. "Men stayed here fer the most part, Frodo, seldom orcs. And the orcs ate whate'er we gave 'em, so I understand, and we dinna have no prisoners of war to feed 'em on. These're all the bones of beasts and birds."
"I must say that's a relief!"
Playfully she dangled the wishbone in front of him. "Wanna make a wish, pet?"
"Hm? Sure!" He reached, then looked into her twinkling eyes, rethought his wish, and rather wistfully settled on something a little less selfish. Not that it mattered, for she showed him no mercy, cracking the bone well into his side. He got the impression that she never lost at this game--or most others.
They went back to work. Across the room, Aloe called out, "Now here's a pretty piece o' work, speakin' o' bones. Must've been a captain's chair, by the look of it."
Frodo came over to check out the intricate carvings that she dusted, then paled at the depiction of piled skulls and broken swords, crawling with snakes and spiders. "Pretty is not the word I would have chosen," he said.
She smirked at him and said, "Well, don't lose yer lunch over it, pet. 'Tis a clever bit o' craftmanship, but if it makes ya any happier, we can always throw a blanket o'er the thing and use it with the artwork out o' sight."
"I'll like it even better if you cover the armrails, too. Snakes with skulls in their mouths and bone supports don't exactly thrill me, either."
"Not a problem, sweetie. For now..." she tossed her cloak over it, "...that'll have to serve."
Frodo went over behind the bar. "If I guess correctly, there should be...right in here...aha!" He pulled out a number of dented but watertight metal tankards. "They aren't exactly things of beauty, but they'll doubtless look better with a bit of a scrub-up. And here...oh my goodness!" He located a large keg that gurgled with a touch. "Full up, too--they must've gotten in a shipment right before Sauron fell." He let a brief trickle out of the tap, tasted a drop, and made a face. "Vinegar!" he gasped. "And too bitter even for any good at pickling, to boot."
"Smells good, though," said Aloe as she came over and studied the keg. She took a little on a fingertip and sniffed it, but didn't taste it. "I've heard tell of this--an herbal concoction that might've split yer skull in two if ye'd tried more than the drop ye did, my friend--now don't go pale on me again!" She hit him with a swift kiss on the cheek. "There ye go, nice and red once more. I'm beginning to think that blushing is a hobbit's natural color. But don't let the beverage scare ya. Nobody ever lost their minds, even for an hour, from less than a full mug or three, and it takes a whole lot more'n that to kill ye over time. A drop'd make no difference whatsoever. In any case, it probably hits with still less force as vinegar." She turned the tap on full-blast straight onto the floor.
"Hey!" Frodo shouted as he dodged the aromatic gush.
"Hand me over that mop and bucket of water, will ye, pet? Ye can't ask fer better than perfumed vinegar to scrub the floor with--should freshen the air right up just fine in here."
"Oh. Of course. Good idea. Here, I can handle a big folk's mop. Why don't you take care of something I cannot?"
"Bring down some furnishings from upstairs, to fill in the gaps around the tables here. We're going to need an awful lot of seating, I expect."
Grinning, she replied, "Say please--I'm the mayor, and I don't take orders."
"Please, Mayor Aloe." he said, and sighed.
With a smile and a toss of her head she said, "I'll get right to it." Frodo mopped furiously, trying not to think of a certain long evening's date. Then he did try to think of it, wondering what else he might have said besides teaching her the word "please". It bothered him that he could hardly remember any conversation at all, although he knew that they spoke long.
Soon Aloe came downstairs with two more chairs to fill in the gaps around the table while Frodo knelt down to scrub at a stubborn stain beside the fireplace. He asked her, "Why's the Mayor of Seaside hauling furniture by herself, anyway? Have you no staff to do it for you?"
"And where's yer own two men?" she countered.
He put down his scrub-brush and looked at her. Carefully he said, "It seems that you and I had the same thought."
She brushed hair from her eyes and winked at him. "'Tisn't the most romantic spot in the world, and I'm a wee bit grimy, but..."
"That we need to talk."
She sat down astride one of the backwards-turned chairs she'd been carrying, with her arms crossed over the back . "Talk! You hobbits do love the sound of yer own voices, doncha."
"Oh, but we're nothing compared to elves."
"Then spare me all elvish company! Okay, pet--whatcha want to talk about?"
Abruptly he turned back to scrubbing. "Never mind. It was a stupid idea." Aloe shrugged, got up, and put the chair in place. But before she could return upstairs for more, he said, "You don't respect me, do you?"
"Respect?" she asked icily.
"You treat me like a doll. You play with me."
She turned back to him and said, "Frodo, sweetie, ye're cute, I'll give ye that. And ye've got the brains ye need fer the job I called ya in fer--I'd expect no less. But there can be only one Mayor of Seaside--I can't go around treatin' folks like equals just because I fancy them."
"I'm the son of a mayor myself, remember? My Papa respects Mama, and me, and every citizen of the Shire, for that matter. That doesn't lessen his authority. That makes him a real leader. People do more for someone as respects them."
She made a contemptuous sound. "Folks around here don't respect 'emselves. They'd think I was daft if I did." She became engrossed in polishing up a mirror by the staircase with the hem of her skirt.
"But you do respect yourself, don't you?"
She hesitated before sneering and dropping her hem back down. "I'm a sight better than the rest o' this lot, if that's whatcha mean."
"Not quite, but I'm not sure I could explain it to you."
Her face turned hard. "I play with men, sure, Frodo. A leader needs some recreation now and then, or she'd go mad. But more than that is asking too much. Mordor is not a place to let down yer guard--and if ye don't know that by now, ye'll have still more scars to carry home with ye before the end." She started up the stairs again.
"That's it? No room for love?"
Aloe laughed--a raucous sound. "Love? That's for other lands." She disappeared up the stairs.
When she came back down with another chair, and Frodo had gone back to redo the grimiest strip of floor around the bar with the scrub-brush, he said without looking at her, "I think you're wrong, Aloe. I think you do love somebody."
"Yerself, I suppose," she grunted as she dropped this much heavier chair and wiped her brow. "I've heard that one before, honey, but the punchline's gettin' old."
"Not me. Seaside. The people as a whole. You make sacrifices for their happiness all the time."
She laughed too loudly. "Ye're just sayin' that, pet, because I've had my way with practically ever..." then she stopped at the look on Frodo's face. "Ya really do believe in this 'merry' thing, doncha?"
"I do," he said. "And I can see now that I am too late. You are married to the village--in more ways than you realize. I'm not sure if that is a good thing or a bad thing, or both, or maybe just none of my business, but you do know love, Aloe, even if you don't call it that." He scrubbed further along the floor on his hands and knees, not looking at her. "I'm sorry. I should never have courted you. You are spoken for."
She stared a long time at the little hobbit, scouring away with more fury than even so filthy a floor deserved, before she turned and went back up the stairs.