I Will Not Say the Day is Done
Nor Bid the Stars Farewell
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 2, Part 99
Company For Dinner
(February 25, 1452)
Frodo wouldn't really call it fish and chips, having only smoked fish to work with (if you could say "only" about any food prepared by elves.) He explained as much to the man who'd name himself for the mere hope of tasting such a dish. But what he improvised, served up with fat slices of fried dwarvish potatoes and a sprinkling of wild desert chives, plus elf-grown cabbage salad in a creamy egg-and-oil dressing on the side, could not have helped but satisfy the most sophisticated palate. To those born to the coarse rations of Mordor, that meal counted as one of the chief events of their lives.
"The only flaw," Frodo said, gazing wistfully into the whiteness of his mug, "is this."
"What could possibly be wrong with it?" Leech protested. "I cannot remember the last time I tasted milk--and never any so fresh!"
"It's just...well, by Shire standards it has a funny taint to it. Almost medicinal."
Bergil swallowed a forkful of potato and said, "That would be the feed. Goats who graze on wasteland shrubs produce a different flavor from those well-fed on grain and grass."
Fishenchips grinned with a big milk-moustache. "I think it tastes amazin'!"
Elenaril said, "Still, Frodo, you hit near the mark when you say 'medicinal'. They do forage on medicinal material. More plants in these parts have healing properties than anywhere else in the world."
Fishenchips turned to her as though she could look back. "Is that a fact?"
"How not?" she said with a sad smile. "They must find in themselves cures for every malady and poison that the Dark Lord could unleash. You always find the strongest medicine in the hardest places to survive; even in softer lands herbwives know that weeds heal more than flowers."
Bergil stroked his chin. "Now that might well be something that the Nurnings could market--medicinal herbs."
Frodo grinned between bites. "You sound like Uncle Merry."
People let the conversation lapse to eat; they could hardly sustain much of any discourse for long, when such good food beckoned after short commons. Frodo lost himself in thought about the weed, Kingsfoil, and his father's use of it to combat nightmares, and how he, Frodo, really wished it grew around here; he'd dreamed again of the faces fading into brick in the wolf-stalked alleys of his fears. But that didn't stop him from savoring every mouthful of his dinner; the rich, woodsy flavor of the fish melted on the tongue like campfire smoke upon a forest breeze, and he felt the goodly earthiness of the potatoes strengthening and steadying him as though the power of mountains resided in every steaming bite.
"Can you teach me?" Fishenchips blurted of a sudden.
Elenaril didn't see the keenness of his gaze, so Bergil tapped her and said, "He speaks to you, my love."
"Teach you?" she asked. "About what? Herblore?"
"Yes!" Fishenchips leaned towards her. "I wants t'heal." He turned to the ship doctor, quivering. "And Leech--could I learn from ya too, man, y' know, every time ye come out fer shore leave?" His hand and hook went for his breast. "Sumpin' in here wants it, wants it like rings--can ye understand?"
Leech wiped his mouth on a napkin and looked at the sailor oddly. "I understand the feeling, but I must admit I feel a bit surprised to hear it from you. The last time we spoke, your great passion was to serve Frodo Gardner."
"I do wants t'serve him! I do!' The sailor sat back, confused for a moment. "But they's more'n one way t'work fer a bloke, I guess. I can do all kinds of labor by day and study nights. I...I'm learnin' m'letters, Leech. I'm not a big dumb lunk anymore."
"How come you never mentioned this in all the years that we sailed together? I would have relished an apprentice then, and it would have been easier to train you on the job."
Fishenchips grimaced like some agony gripped him, as he sat there twisting his napkin till it tore on his hook. He mumbled something incomprehensible as Mattie got up to refill the teapot.
"Come again?" Leech prompted.
"I said I din't feel worthy!" Fishenchips shouted, then blushed to hear himself. "I...ya know how they all...someone like me...I never thought I could learn nuthin'! I was just a big ugly lunk fit fer naught but pullin' an oar and swabbin' decks." He threw the napkin down on the floor. "But since then I've learned things--and one of 'em is that I'm a whole lot smarter than I ever figgered. That's why I had t'jump ship with Master Frodo here--I had t'learn that I can learn." His eyes pleaded with Leech. "Y'gots t'understand, man. I feel like I've gone too many years already not doin' the work I should be doin'. Every day that goes by now that I don't learn sumpin', that whole day aches. 'Tis like I really lost m'hand way back when the orcs captured me, and now suddenly I find out that I can get it back, on a difficult quest, but I can do it. I can. Healin' is that hand, Leech. If I never learn t'heal, then I swear I'm gonna die a madman."
Fishenchips felt soft fingers touch his wrist. Wondering, he looked into the scar-marred face of Elenaril. She smiled and said, "I will teach you all that I...what do I smell?" her nostrils flared and her smile faded.
"That's smoke!" Frodo cried, leaping from his seat. He ran to the kitchen-end of the chamber, where the corner of a dish towel had fallen into the hearth and ignited a nearby broom. Mattie stood before the fire, beaming at it in a kind of ecstasy, the teapot forgotten in her hand.
"Mattie!" Frodo shouted, running for a bucket while Bergil primed the sink-pump and Fishenchips beat back the flames with a blanket.. "Why didn't you say something?"
"Isn't it beautiful?" Mattie remarked in the dreamiest of voices. "Ohhh," she moaned in disappointment when Frodo dashed water all over the fire. "Just when the flames had begun to wrap up around the broomstick, curling and flickering, all the brilliant colors--such a lovely sight, gone now, forever."
Sighing, Leech took her by the hand and led her back to the table. "Come now, Mattie. Surely even you could finish your plate with such excellent fare before you." He came back to help the clean-up, muttering, "Speaking of healing, and those who could use it..." Or at least Frodo thought he had muttered it; at second glance the doctor's lips hadn't moved.
"You're a guest," Frodo said, taking the mop from Leech's hand. "Leave it to my household."
Leech glanced at Fishenchips clearing out the wet ash to start a new fire, and tugged the hobbit aside. "I would like a word with you," he said in an undertone, "about something Mayor Aloe did not expressly forbid me to tell you, although I doubt that she sees the connection you might have to it."
They retreated to the stairwell, where Frodo could climb up and speak eye to eye with the doctor, when the man sat on a lower step. By instinct Frodo acted casual, as though making idle after-dinner conversation. "Tell me what's on your mind," he said.
"Seaside has seen an increase in the death rate of late."
"I've noticed." He watched Mattie lay her head down on the table and fall fast asleep, leaving the rest of her food untouched.
"Have you noticed anything in common about most of the deceased?"
"Poppy fiends. They have been dying of overdoses."
Frodo winced, watching Mattie smile in her sleep. "Sad news. I suppose that the money I've brought in enabled them to poison themselves more than usual."
"I thought of that, too--and it is indeed the most likely explanation. Yet another possibility disturbs me, and I thought you should know. Who do you think might entice the victims into such folly?"
Frodo frowned for a moment on the question. Then his eyes widened, and then just as swiftly narrowed as he scowled. "Sauron! He's trying to come back! He's tricking them into giving him all of their power, isn't he?" Now he stared at Mattie in something close to panic.
"Who can say? But I thought you should know of the possibility." He gazed long on Frodo before speaking, but he wouldn't have been much of a doctor if he couldn't read the emotions in that face. Carefully he asked, "What do you know about Mattie?"
Frodo looked him in the eye, and very quietly said, "That she is a poppy fiend." The doctor's brows raised, then he nodded. "That her mother killed herself and her father drank hisself to death, and all for a stupid superstition, when all their orchard probably needed was a little bone meal. That she took the name of a man who died to save her mother's life in vain. That she loves haunted places all too well. That she steals and blackmails and kisses like Melian the Maia," and his voice broke to say it. "That she might well be the best musician we hobbits have ever produced, and that she is throwing it all away. That she saved my life when a water-sprite would have drowned me." His voice grew more and more raw with every word; he had trouble keeping the volume low. "That she has a way with the evil things of this world and has saved others beside me, to her own terrible cost. That she reads my mail and threatens my family and won't carry letters to the King unless they suit her, which is to say she won't carry any that might save her life in turn. That she started work too young and will probably die too young as well. How much do you want to know about what I know?"
"You have already told me enough," he said. Leech patted the hobbit on the arm. "Take heart, Frodo. Sauron will not kill someone you love, if he thinks he can use her against you in the future. But that at least gives you the present moment, and time and hope to change the future's course."
Frodo bit back tears as much of anger as of grief, scowling at Mattie, who had begun to snore. "Aren't you going to lecture me on how I should have nothing to do with her?"
Leech smiled grimly. "That only makes it worse, doesn't it? I learned that long ago."
Frodo asked, "Why is she sleeping now? Shouldn't her head be getting clearer instead of fuzzier?"
Leech frowned at her and stood up. "I told her not to have wine. You didn't serve any wine. Do you have some in the kitchen?"
"No, but my family sent me a refill of brandy. And we just brought in a small keg of Lonely Mountain beer. And King Thranduil sent me a blackberry cordial that I was saving for dessert. You don't suppose...come to think of it, she has been running every errand to the kitchen she could volunteer for."
"I had better take a look at her," he groaned. "At least it isn't as dangerous for her as the local grog." But then he hesitated on the bottom step and turned back to Frodo. He bit his lip and looked away, then back to the hobbit again. "There is one other thing, that I suppose I shouldn't tell you, but I will. It might be related, after all, to what we spoke of earlier. The rest of the deaths in Seaside have been murders. Brutal attacks, easily mistaken for the predations of beasts, if not for the clean cuts of bladed weapons involved. But one detail the Mayor did not fully grasp, which I saw when I examined the bodies."
He hesitated so long that Frodo said, "Yes?"
"The wounds came at about the right height for an attack from a hobbit."