In Mordor Where the Shadows Are
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 25, Part 96
(February 21, 1452)
Frodo woke before the dawn, full in the throes of a dance-hangover, that needs no alcohol to pass the lips to do its work. His throat had parched into something akin to what you might find some weeks after a lizard had died in the desert, but the corresponding pounding of his skull couldn't hold a candle to the aching in his legs and other parts. Indeed, he had no idea that he'd used so many different muscles in his dance until they all hurt at once. He had only the dimmest recollection of where he'd gotten half the bruises and scrapes upon his body, and no memory whatsoever of the other half. Little trips and collisions had not mattered long enough for two second's notice at the time.
He sat up, yawned, emptied the jug of water on his night-stand in about two gulps, and painfully swung his legs over the edge of the cot. He did not enjoy standing on those legs, but it was that or crawl to the drafty little side-tower that served as a sort of attached outhouse safe from predators, and he had too many bruises on his knees to do that. He rubbed the kink in his neck where the jar-cord had hung--and suddenly remembered the seeds.
"It's First Planting Day!" he whispered in astonishment, and then he smiled, forgetting all his aches. Immediately after ablutions (icy splashes to brighten him to full wakefulness and put the roses back in his cheeks) he did some quick stretches to loosen up his cramps, and then dressed as swiftly as possible, whistling tunes from yesterday's dance. The exotic melodies felt just right, the way they reminded him that farming always carried its own mystery curled up tight and secret in its seeds--the mystery of life, the unfurling of growth, the swelling blushing ripening of fruit. To celebrate it in a foreign land to foreign music brought home to him the marvel inherent in everything commonplace about the Shire.
Frodo hardly took time for a bite of toast and a swig of tea before he popped out the door at the earliest light like a firecracker-bean. Even as he hurried along in the cold blue fog he rolled up his sleeves above the elbow despite the chill. His seed-jar sloshed once more against his chest, and he carried a pack on his back full of dry grain shushing with his steps. For once Bergil and Fishenchips lagged behind, their longer legs notwithstanding; he found himself skipping and whistling, though his more sensible side kept telling him, "Save your energy, fool! You've a long day ahead of you." But already his limbs caught a second wind, limbering up the more the merrier his steps. Some ways behind them the herbwife tapped her way, but she had little problem finding her direction, by the thump of many feet, for people poured out of every door, flooding towards the same destination, climbing to the fields like a river that had taken a notion to flow uphill.
Frodo's heart beat fast, and he couldn't hold back his grin. For this he had come to Mordor, though he thought the day would never arrive. First Planting! As gladly as hobbits celebrated the occasion in the Shire, as much as it had always thrilled him in seasons past, it couldn't compare to now, here, in this hungriest of lands, given hope for the first time in years. And he, Frodo Gamgee Gardner, had come to them as the messenger and agent of that hope!
They didn't have all that much to sow, considering the population, as much as he could carry in on three backs from Bristlescrub--or rather two and a halfling back, for he could not bear as much as he wanted, he'd had to come to terms with that. And he'd had to set a considerable amount aside for an old trick that Gandalf had taught the hobbits long ago, during the Fell Winter, of letting some seeds sprout outside the soil for a quick emergency vegetable (not to mention supplying malt for brewing in more prosperous times!) But he'd had enough to give them a fair start.
Anyway, he didn't want to plant all of the fields just yet. Some needed reclaimed first, by algae and by certain fungi, from long poisoning. Frodo marveled that such ugly slimes and growths could now come humbly to the rescue of mankind--it seemed that Yavannah had disguised more than the sourfruit trees, to smuggle in the keys to Mordor's recovery right under the Dark Lord's nose. Though he couldn't see it in the fog, Frodo heard the gurgling of bucket after bucket pouring out already, some acres away, to create the dank conditions necessary. Quite an expenditure, in this desert by its salt-thick sea, but one that should pay for itself eventually.
Rows of shadowy figures awaited him already, fading off into the mist beside their allotted patches, watching for the little seed that he could give them. Plainly some of them had ventured forth even earlier than he, for smouldering stumps of torches stood thrust into the dirt here and there, and some folk there wore swords. Every citizen of Seaside turned out, in fact, soon or late, from tottering elder to babe in arms, some borne in on litters, some missing limbs, some reeling and befuddled, some hardened and cold, but every single one of them gathered to engulf the fields in a great wave of yearning like a flood of prayer to drench and quicken the soil. Most bore jars; the remainder of those able enough to walk would receive dry grains that needed no dance to awaken them. Frodo joined Fishenchips, Bergil, and Elenaril in distributing seeds to those lined up to plant; he found himself crowded by all the eager faces and reaching hands that materialized out of the haze and faded back into it again, but he didn't mind; he felt welcome, he felt wonderful.
In an undertone, Bergil spoke to Frodo. "You seemed quite popular with the ladies yesterday."
Frodo blushed and grinned, ducking his head a little. "I guess so."
"They have described you as 'cute'."
"Do not look so pleased," the man said, turning grave eyes on the hobbit. "You will have to make your own decisions, of course, but weigh carefully just how much self-respect you are willing to trade for affection. And remember your mission, Frodo--how the people regard you will affect how well they listen to you when it matters most."
Now Frodo blushed for a different cause. "I thought popular was good," he grumbled.
"For the right reasons. Oh, everybody keeps a soft spot in their hearts for the village fool, but they will not labor hard at his behest, nor trust him for their livelihood."
"Look around you, Bergil!" Frodo snapped. "Would folks have turned out like this for a fool?"
"You are not quite discredited just yet, and your money by itself has promised to make them a little less hungry. But if that is all you seem to have to offer, then that is all they will seek from you." He smiled, but wryly. "That, and amusement."
"I am not a plaything!"
"I am glad to hear that you remember that." And Bergil moved down the line in the opposite direction from his master.
Frodo handed out seed in silence for awhile, studying the faces for whatever it might be that they saw in him. As much as it had alarmed him to come to Mordor and find people slightly afraid of hobbits, he missed it now; fear wore off quickly in the Land of Shadow. But what did he read there in its place? The hope of the hungry? Skepticism, perhaps, suspended for the moment's desperation? Here and there, surely. Speculation in some eyes, a cold weighing of how best to use him. Warmth and gratitude in others--but for what? The promise of crops to come, or just the distraction that he provided, a pretty novelty amid their hardships?
"Th' goats look about ready to burst, Master Frodo," Hando the Butcher said enthusiastically, eyes glittering in his ruddy face as he reached for seed.
Frodo laughed, dismissing all concern. "They do indeed, don't they? I daresay you'll have work ahead of you soon, Hand O' Plenty." He filled the man's big hands with grain and moved on. What did he care, today, what people thought of him? It was Planting Day! And abundance promised to fill the winter-emptied cellars once again.
Now he drew close to where the Mayor conferred with Harding, her Captain of the Town Guard. "Where did you find him?" Frodo heard Aloe ask, but he couldn't catch the man's softer-voiced reply. "That makes three in two days," Aloe said, and again the man answered her. "Yes, yes, but not so many so close together. Something's up, Har." When she noticed Frodo listening Aloe smiled back as wickedly carefree as though she had discussed nothing grim the moment before.
She sauntered away to the center of the middlemost field, and there she stood, next to something small that had awaited her on the ground; Frodo couldn't make it out. Frodo continued on down the line of villagers, occasionally glancing her way; sometimes he could see her clearly out there, and sometimes just the faintest outline of insouciance hinted at somewhere in the bluegray fog. She could almost have been a ghost from some defiance long past, that Sauron never could defeat by mere slaying. Nearer at hand Frodo saw a toothless old man without feet sitting on the ground, a big round drum between his knees. The man watched Aloe intently as though if he squinted hard enough he could cut right through the haze.
Suddenly a brightness sparkled and fizzled near where Aloe stooped and stood again; at the sight of it the people cheered. A whistling whoosh shot up to the sky, trailing sparks. With a deafening BANG! a burst of green glowed suddenly high above their heads, softened by twilight and the fog. At that signal the old man commenced to pound upon his drum, bare-handed. Other drums soon joined in, up and down the rows of bystanders, and the planters stepped forward to their rhythm.
The people drove sticks into the ground and dropped seeds into the soil as they went, shoving dirt over them with the side of a foot, then moving on. Once Sauron had riven the earth of Nurn with great machines, thundering and smoking, and a few slaves could plant many acres in a day. But today the people had no means to feed such machines, nor skill to keep them running. They were not sore missed; they hurt the ears and choked the breath and sometimes mangled those who ran afoul of them. The Seasiders did not lack for willing hands to take up the slack, now that they owed no conscripts to the Burning Eye. Even so, Frodo figured that a few plows would not be asking too much, but if the Nurnings ever knew about plows they had long since lost the lore.
Elenaril took up seed and joined the others. She made one cautious step for every two beats, but her feet, as bare as any hobbit's, felt out her way along a furrow that Bergil plowed ahead of her by dragging the hilts of his sheathed sword--a heavy, two-handed weapon that some men could not have lifted, let alone wielded in battle. Frodo watched the bent silhouette preceding the halting, upright little figure that sowed, and felt in his own back what that must feel like. He also knew that Bergil could not soon repair the scouring to the hilts' bright finish, nor the scratches on its gems, and in fact he might never repair them, but hand the sword on, proud scars and all, to future generations as an heirloom of war inscribed with a later tale of love, more treasured than any precious stone.
One voice after another lifted up in a planting song, in the wailing fashion of the east. Frodo's heart rose with every note, as he took up seed himself and did his part. Over here they needed to punch no holes; for they broadcast the flashflood clover that would not have grown evenly in rows if they'd tried, and needed no help in finding purchase in the soil. The sun began to burn more and more of the mists away; its light flashed on the arcs of dripping seed and sand that Frodo cast, and sparkled on gems of dew that covered everything, so that Frodo felt like he tread in a land of treasure, its colors damp-enriched to jewel tones.
And then something happened, something that had wanted to happen for some time, stirring in the back of his head, or perhaps the back of his heart. Frodo felt himself multiply. He became every person there. He broadcast seed with a hundred hands, he sang from a hundred voices, and felt in his foot each step that each one took, synchronized to the drums as a single heartbeat thrumming through a thousand veins. The rhythm would not let him stumble with surprise, but his lens felt warm upon his breast, as though some unseen form of light refracted through it, kindling in him a wonderful fire that fed back to energize every living soul among them and, through their conduction, the ground that held them up.
The last of the low-lying clouds that had once been fog now parted fully, and every breath gasped with Frodo at the sparkling landscape before them, and every heart soared in the warming sun. Booted feet felt soil crumble between hobbit-toes, felt soles moisten with the fertile earth. Now clear blue skies spread entirely overhead, as the day warmed up fast, and when Frodo sweat, everybody doffed their cloaks along with him, right there in the fields in a flutter like the ruffling of a single wing across the plain; together they felt the breeze refresh them all anew. The joy of a hundred hearts swelled up in Frodo's breast, but whenever it threatened to burst him it surged instead back to the others, redoubled, and then flowed back again, so that he became a cup ever filling and pouring out again. A cup of light, a cup of warming, heartening draughts, cementing fellowship!
Musicians now dared to improvise new melodies, unimagined in their traditions, suddenly sure that these would harmonize no matter what. Children wove through the crowd dancing mutations of the Springle-Ring, tossing the bell-drum between them to rattle and pound. Somehow a merry Shire tune wove into oriental chords, though only Frodo recognized it, the song his heart sang out to Mordor, Mordor whom he loved, Mordor coming back again from death. Everyone felt the strangeness of that day, though nobody named it, each taking it for a secret fancy of their own. But Frodo knew, though he dared say no more than any other. He knew that magic happened, and he knew himself the focus. And knowing, he let go of his knowledge like a handful of seed, surrendered himself to the village, thinking of nothing except the planting.
Together they sowed hope. And hope fell tiny and secret into the holes and cracks of the land's armor, out of sight, as though it had never been, hidden in the earth. But in each tiny speck of hope resided, furled up tight but ready to spring, a year's worth of life and nourishment, growth and celebration, waiting to reach up and introduce itself to the sky.