In Mordor Where the Shadows Are
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 26, Part 97
From Son to Father
(March 5, 1452)
After a long day's glad, hard work, and a generous but well-earned dinner, the Mayor of the Shire sat down in the drawing-room's love-seat and propped his furry, fresh-scrubbed feet on a tuffet by the fire. While his children played or studied around him, he lit a cluster of several candles on the table beside him, and smoothed out the next page from his son's letter; he never could read these enormous bundles all in one day, but he relished every moment that he could spare for them.
He saw that the lad had used pale and subtle vegetable pigments, no doubt learned from the Herbwife of Bristlescrub, to paint the top of this page like a sunrise over the inked-in crags of Mordor. Sam found his eyes watering despite himself; to think that such colors now filled the skies where all had been pure smoke in his day! What he and Frodo Senior wouldn't have given for a real, true dawn. He smiled even as he wiped his eyes, and read.
February 22, 1452--"I'd love to lie in late this morning--what with planting day following right after that dance, my legs are thinking, 'What is that mad hobbit trying to do to us, murder us?' I wonder if you do think me mad, now that I look over what I wrote last night. But Papa, it was so real! I really did feel joined to everybody in that field, and I mean more than just emotionally, if you take my meaning. I'm not sure I take my own meaning. Whatever happened, I think it has to do with what I wrote about before, picking up thoughts from Beebee and Fishenchips as we crossed the desert. I didn't see much use for it then, but it's starting to make sense now. I don't think it'll ever be as plain as talking, but somehow I can use this to pull people together.
"Well, whatever the case, there's no lying abed for the Royal Gardner. We've flooded the most poisoned fields and now I've got to go out and supervise planting scum, of all things. That's what Beebee's highly touted 'aljee' is, basically--pond scum. But as you've always said, you take what you get and you make the most of it. Well, what we get here in Mordor might not seem like much to write home about, but if you look beneath the surface, there's a whole lot more good than Sauron ever reckoned on."
Sam turned the page, and saw most of the text framed in thick black lines--their private signal for portions not to be read aloud to the rest of the family. Sam sighed and shook his head; these came up more often all the time. But at least his son still leveled with him. Under his breath he muttered, "I have got to get that son of mine married off!"
"Hi, Papa--I'm back for lunch, but I hardly have the stomach for it. While out there up to my shins in mud, spreading out sheets of pea-green slime and trying to feel the same mother-love for it that you'd give to any other crop, I've heard a thing or two among the workers, and caught on that everybody else has run out of food again. So now here I sit, staring at those bags of beans and grain in the hanging shelves that Bergil built. Plainly the mayor favored me in the last distribution--because she 'fancied' me?
"I feel so ashamed--that is not how we do things in the Shire! You see, Elenaril has finally explained to me what some camp-followers do for hire and why Bergil's folks took against her so, even though she didn't have it coming, herself. (For the record, I will state that although she stays with us, she lives in one room all to herself, and she is every bit as virtuous as Bergil said she was.) I shudder to think that maybe the Mayor thinks that she can buy me like that!
"I suppose you know exactly what I'm talking about, but never saw fit to mention it to me, and I can understand why. But please believe me, Papa, I never went so far with Mayor Aloe, I swear! I worry if maybe she thinks she's paid for something on spec, and it'll go hard with me for not delivering. How did I ever get into this mess?"
Below this box, Sam saw his son's handwriting turn abruptly into a scrawl trailing across the bottom.
"Great news, Papa--lunch can wait! Gotta go--fill you in later."
Now Sam noted a couple splatters of cooking oil on the next page, and what might have been a dusting of flour.
"Guess what? The goats have started to give birth! I ran off to the delivery of the first, and no sooner had I got there than I heard that two more went into labor at the same time! And here's another surprise--they've each born twins! But of course--Tar Elessar still has some elves lingering in his court, who could pick out of all the land's flocks those carrying double the load for Nurn's great need. I wouldn't be surprised if every single nanny bears us two apiece. Bergil and Elenaril ran themselves ragged--they know more about goats than any of us, and had a lot of work.
"Well, that deserves a celebration, don't you think? I'm writing this while cooking. (I know, Mama would say write or cook, but don't try both. Don't worry, though; I've got two men and a woman bustling about the kitchen-corner with me to make sure I don't burn anything. Elenaril can gauge how cooking's coming along by smell alone.) We are going to throw a feast for the village! Hando's dressed up the three spare kids for us, he's got them turning on the spits outside, and my oh my but the smoke smells good! They're a bit on the skinny side, naturally, but we can't wait around to plump them up--not with these first ones. People have been about as patient as they can stand. Anyway, Hando's splashing onto them the last of my good Shire brandy as they cook, sizzling and steaming; if I lift a glass to the occasion, it'll be in the Black Drink with the rest of Seaside. I'll be glad to see the brandy used up, frankly, all things considered."
Sam paled. "If I'd of had this letter earlier," he murmured, "I'd of packed the supplies I sent him differently."
"And Elenaril says to squeeze some sourfruit juice on them fresh off the spit, not only to make them more nourishing, but for a flavor she says is out of this world. Meanwhile, I'm cooking up enough bread and beans to stretch the meat out, so that everybody can get a taste of goat and a full belly to go with it. If the rest of Seaside has run out of food, then I'd better run out right alongside them--but in the grandest hobbit style that I can manage! Ol' Mad Baggins would've been proud of me --I only wish Hazel was still here to play the Party Tree. The two Sourfruits out front are kind of small, and not near so dear."
Sam frowned. "We don't call Master Bilbo that, not in this family!" But of course Frodo wrote his letter miles out of earshot. "Kids--you never know what they'll pick up from the neighbors." Again Sam noted a black-boxed paragraph, and clucked his tongue.
"So far Mayor Aloe is taking my use of her gift in good grace. I think I've found a diplomatic way out, something better than flinging the beans in her face. I'm serving her people--she can't take that amiss. She grins huger than anybody passing the platters around. But when she thinks nobody sees her, oh but she looks so sad. And I feel guilty to catch a glimpse of that. Can you imagine? I feel guilty for not being bad with her! What a mixed up messed up land this is!"
Sam closed his eyes and rubbed his face. Rosie came back from getting the last of the children to bed, and laid a hand gently on his shoulder. "You'll strain your eyes readin' too much like that by candlelight," she said, then saw the black boxes over his shoulder. "Oh." Sam may have promised not to read those parts out loud for the children, but he never agreed to leave his wife uninformed of what their son was up to. "What's he got hisself into this time?"
"He's handlin' it," Sam said. "This time it's somebody else that ain't behavin' as she should."
"That floozy of a mayor! That's who, I'll just bet! Am I right?"
"Now Rosie, she don't know no better. The whole country's a mess--what d'ye expect? They've all been raised by orcs!"
"And that's what sort of country you send our boy to, afore he's growed up proper? What were you thinking?" She threw a cushion at him.
He grinned despite himself, batting the cushion from his face. "What I was thinking was that he wouldn't have to battle orcs and giant spiders like I did in my day. Of course I never faced that sort of temptation as he's dealin' with now..."
"What? Why honey--what's the matter?"
Rose sat down close to him. "Sam, I know that in Mordor they don't play by the same rules we do here. You tell me something, and you tell me the truth. Did you ever, you know, meet up with a friendly orkess, and..."
He laughed in disbelief. "You have got to be kidding! If I ever saw an orkess, I didn't know it, and that's a fact." He pulled her close against him and said, "Darlin', the only female I ever met for sure in Mordor was Shelob, and believe me, you are by far the prettier critter."
In a small voice she said, "You met elves. I know they're pretty."
"So's starlight, and a comfort in the wilderness they are, both elves and stars, but not much good in a hobbit-hole, either one. I'd have no more courted an elf than a star, beloved--I'm not like Strider. I want somebody warm and solid, closer to the good farm soil, someone just my size that I can put my arms around on a cold winter night." In a teasing voice he said, "And no, I didn't go courtin' no dwarf ladies, neither; I prefer to be able to tell at first glance whether I'm dealing with a lassie or a lad." He kissed her long and lovingly before she could dream up any other possibilities, and then softly in her ear he whispered, "No, my darlin' Rose, you are exactly the right size and shape and temperament and kind for ol' Samwise Gardner--no one can be so beautiful to me, not in the way that suits me best."
She drew back a bit to stare at him. "Is it Gardner that you're calling yourself, now?"
"And why not?" The slip of the tongue had caught him by surprise, too, but he put a good face on it. "The Gaffer couldn't spell his own name, so I don't s'pose he'd care if I don't feel too attached to it. I looked the family up once in the courthouse records, you know, shortly after Master Bilbo taught me my letters, and I found there Gammidges and Gamwiches and all sorts of variations, when you go back a few generations; Gamgee's only a recent version. And we intermarried with the Greenhand family, that's died out except for us--that's just about the same as Gardner when you think about it. If they're calling me Gardner already in Gondor and parts south, why not sign myself that way?" He grinned. "That'd put a few noses out of joint, come to think of it--all the folks who say I've forgotten what I am."
"So now you're Samwise Gardner--what does that make me?"
"The Rose in my garden," he said with all the warmth in his heart, and set the letter aside. He didn't pick it up until the next day, coming in after scraping out the chicken coops and scrubbing up. He saw the pages lying on the side-table where he'd left them, beside the shrunken candles, and carried them into the kitchen with him.
Under February 23, 1452, he read, "I had nightmares again last night. The only one I can remember is the same as I've had before--eyes in the walls, dull eyes staring at me, like they'd plead if they weren't too stupefied, and then they'd fade into the pale clay brick, and every time that happened the street got darker and darker, and then I'd hear the panting and sniffing of a wolf or warg, searching for me. I wish you were here to talk to me about it, Papa!"
Sam frowned and sat down. "I wish I were, too, lad," he muttered. "Sauron used to turn into a warg, himself, when he had a mindľ a regular werewolf. Oh, this is bad!"
The letter went on. "Faces really are disappearing, in the waking world. I noticed yesterday, at the feast. Missing people that you know would have shown up for food if nothing else. This is a small town, Papa--you can't lose somebody and not notice. I asked Mayor Aloe about it and she said she was on it, I should stick to gardening. She turned all prickly on me. Bergil stepped in and praised her skills in law enforcement, till she blushed and smiled once again. And she is good, I'll give her that. I've seen her pull apart brawlers twice her size and whup them into shape by sheer force of will. No one wants to cross her.
"More goats have given birth already--twins again. I am positive now that Tar Elessar set this up a-purpose, knowing that the people couldn't resist butchering kids as soon as they had the chance. I think, though, that we can hold out and let these kids fatten up a bit. The nannies give more than enough milk to spare, and they've got all the weeds that neither man nor hobbit can eat. So we may have run out of shipped-in supplies, but we've got meat and milk, and cheese real soon, plus everything Elenaril can show us how to forage from the desert for ourselves. Bergil and Elenaril are taking some youngsters out today to show them where to find the best grazing for nursing nannies--it's our good fortune that they're kidding so soon after the rains, while there's forage enough for them between now and when our own fodder-crops grow."
Sam saw a couple spots of blurred ink, where tears had hit the page. "Papa, I think we've turned the corner."
But lower on the page he read, "That sea monster's showed up again--people saw her out there and ran back into their houses to bar the doors, all but a couple children too young to understand the fear; folks had to dart out and pull those young ones in. This is bad. I'm not scared that the brute will heave herself up this far out of the water, but she's showed up way too close to our next food delivery. That blue devil could stop the ship from coming into port altogether. We might have gotten ourselves a little better off, but not so much that we could lose an entire shipment like that, not this early in the game."
Sam looked up to see Rosie put a steaming plate of chops and 'taters before him. "You're late," she said. "Everybody else ate lunch a half an hour ago."
Sam took a swig of milk and said, "Hettie Smallburrow had a complaint against her neighbor that I had to tend to before I even got to the chicken coop."
"That hedge dispute again?"
"If they'd both kept their hedges trimmed proper as they should've, they'd never of lost track of the boundary between Smallburrow and Penniwistle land."
"I can rule on boundaries, but I can't make people keep 'em tidy," Sam said, and went back to his letter, reading between mouthfuls.
February 24, 1452--"Today we went to the blacksmith to get Fishenchips' permanent hook. It turns out that Harding does all the smithing around here--the same man who leads the guard. I like him. As big and tough as he is, with a fat ol' scar snaking across his broken nose, he's still soft-spoken and polite. Bergil says you've got to watch the soft-spoken ones more than the loudmouths, they're more dangerous. But I think Bergil likes him, too.
They say he got his face messed up as a youngster, from giving lip to an orc, and that sometimes after that he'd sabotage the swords that they made him forge, if they were scimitars sized to an orc's hand. He'd work a flaw into the blade and then mend it again on the surface where it wouldn't show, but that blade would soon snap when the orc needed it the most. They had to move so many swords out from so many smiths so fast in the last days of the war that the records couldn't keep up with them, so no one could trace back to where a bad sword came from. He says he never did that to swords for men, but he figured orcs had it coming.
"While I was there I drew him pictures of plows such as we use in the Shire, and explained to Harding the principle of it. He thinks he can manage something of the sort. Good--because there'll be a lot more planting when I get the seeds I sent for, after the midden finishes curing and we can get some proper soil. The pack-goats can pull a couple plows to begin with, and then even Hando will be glad we spared them.
"Fishenchips put on a nonchalant face throughout the fitting, even joked around a bit, but when Harding couldn't hear for pounding on the iron (because Fish wanted the sides of the hook flattened to make it easier to carry some things) he whispered to himself that 'Permanent is a hard word--and a long one!' I shouldn't have been able to hear him, but I did.
"Sometimes we tell stories after dinner, the four of us together. Tonight I think I will start them on the story of Beren One-Hand; maybe that will help ol' Fishenchips get through. It will at least go with a better supper than I had expected, having little of bread and beans left to me, as you can imagine, but we've received a sample of the very first cheese already! It's bland curd, soft, not the least bit cured; what else can you expect in two days? But oh, I know it's going to be delicious! I worked so hard precisely for this moment, herding those dear, stinky goats so far and then fighting to keep them alive this long. And tomorrow's dinner should be even better--we expect the ship to come in, if the sea monster will let it."
Sam noted yet another black box and chuckled weakly. "That lad, oh that poor lad! What now?"
"The only sour note was the gap-toothed young woman who brought the cheese on by. She followed me down into the cold-cellar, grinning and playing with the hem of her skirt in a way that showed altogether too much leg. When I asked, rather pointedly, 'May I help you?' the big gangly creature said that it was plain to everybody that Mayor Aloe had done with me and declared me up for grabs! I was so shocked I didn't know what to say at first, and then we sat down on the cellar steps together and talked. I explained to her that we hobbits are like ravens--we mate for life. And since I intend to return to my own land one day, I need a 'mate' who can fit into a hobbit home and make herself comfortable there for the rest of her days. She nodded, all wide-eyed--she seemed much more favorably disposed to the idea--foreign though it seemed to her-- than Mayor Aloe ever was!
Sam snorted. "I wonder if that's all he did down in the cellar, was talk."
"So we didn't, you know, do much at all. I think she's a very sweet lady, really, underneath the ignorance and all. And she didn't look half so bad in the dark."
"Frodooooo..." Only a father can growl a son's name a certain way. Sam thumped the table in frustration that Frodo couldn't hear him.
"But even in the dark I could see her face go sad and thoughtful as I told her about Shire families. 'Oooh,' she cooed, 'that would be so lucky for the young ones!' I have never before thought about how lucky I was to be raised by a mother and a father who loved each other deeply, who were just always there, reliable and stronger for it. I always took it for granted. I shouldn't, even in the Shire. After all, my namesake didn't have a mother to raise him, and got a father late."
Sam's brows drew down tight as he stared at the letter. Another of those mysterious smudges marred the sentence that came next--in common ink, not like that fancy imported brushing-ink that his son favored. Some pages had, in fact, shown more of that sort of ink than page--how stupid did somebody think he was?
But this time...he could almost make out...no, not in this light, he couldn't tell anything in here. While Rosie looked on wonderingly, Sam carried the letter outside, into the sunshine, and squinted at it from the side, where he could just barely make out differences of tone within the blot. With some difficulty he read, "And then there's Mattie's case, even worse. How lucky I am not to have had her family-life!"
"Mattie," Sam snarled. "So she's the one who's been foolin' with these letters! I thought as much." And then he did a double take, tipping the letter to read that line again. "She?"
HERE ENDS VOLUME III.