I Will Not Say the Day is Done
Nor Bid the Stars Farewell
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 9, Part 106
The Honorable Thing
(February 28, 1452)
When Frodo came to the pier to see the dragon-helmed ship off, he couldn't help but notice that the potters of Seaside hauled in their second-rate wares, the irregular pieces that they normally kept back for their own use, lopsided in shape or smeared in the glaze. And Watersheen, dull-eyed, let it pass. The thud and scrape of men loading cargo had a heavy sound, devoid of the undercurrent of excitement that normally filled the air with a ship about to launch. After awhile the Captain tired of supervising his sailors going through the motions of filling up the hold, and went over near Frodo, to where Leech tossed dice with a local crone on the top of a chest-high crate, apparently losing badly to judge by the pile of coins that kept shifting over to her side.
"Leech," the Captain growled gently, "You haven't had a vacation for as long as I've known you."
"No. I haven't." Leech tossed the dice, lost again, and the old hag bared her few teeth, chortling. Leech laid down twice as many coins as before; her eyes glinted, counting up the gold.
"Mattie's taking some time off--smart lad. He always did get the timing right, no matter what else he did. Must be those ghosts always whisperin' to him, givin' him a heads up and all."
Leech handed over the dice to his opponent and asked, "Do you have a point, Captain?"
Watersheen cleared his throat, and then said, "I'm thinkin' that maybe this is a fine time for you to take a vacation, too."
In a harsh voice Leech said, "I like my work." He lost again. Even Frodo could see that the dice wobbled unnaturally.
"Listen--you could learn a lot about desert simples from the Herbwife of Bristlescrub..."
"Nice try, Watersheen, but the men need me." Once more the dice landed on the same old numbers; once more the bony fingers raked in a tower of coins. "Never before have they needed me so badly."
"For what?" the Captain exclaimed.
"For tending their wounds," the healer said simply, as though he really didn't understand what his friend was driving at, but Frodo saw the terrible knowledge staring from his eyes. To the gambler Leech said, "That's it, dear, the last of my money. Here--you might as well have the pouch to go with it."
Watersheen watched the woman fill the pouch and then run away cackling with it jingling in both hands. He turned to Leech again, saying, "And what if I ordered you to stay on the shore?"
Leech crossed his arms. "I would disobey."
"And what if I told you you're fired, curse you!"
Watersheen struck the crate. "And why the devil not?"
"Because you owe me money."
For a moment the Captain glared at him, and then suddenly both men started to chuckle, uncontrollably, and then to roar with laughter, rocked by the violence of their humor so that they could barely stand, and then they'd catch each other's eyes and start laughing all over again. Wiping his eyes, Watersheen gasped at last, "You're never gonna forget that, are you?"
"No," Leech said between chuckles, "Not to my dying day."
Suddenly sobered, the Captain said, "You're the worst fool I ever did lay eyes on, Leech."
"So you've told me before."
"But this time...I'm serious, Leech. I could face things better if I knew...if I thought that you, at least..."
"The men need me. They're scared, they're in pain, they need--and deserve--someone to make them as comfortable as possible. I swore when I signed up with you that I would see to the best possible care of your men if it was the last thing I did."
Watersheen grimaced. "Oaths are cursed, filthy things. I've heard that the elves have sworn off of 'em altogether."
"I meant it, old friend. And I mean it now."
"Well, then, if there's no helping it..." Watersheen threw a bearlike arm around the healer and led him up the gangplank. Halfway there he pulled his own bag of coins out of his pocket and would have walloped Leech in the head with it, but the healer dodged too swiftly, laughing grimly.
"I know you too well for that, Watersheen! That trick works only once."
The Captain growled something incomprehensible and tossed his pouch over his shoulder onto the pier, where almost before it landed urchins dove for it and wrestled for it like dogs fighting over meat, till the fabric burst and each one scrambled for all the tinkling, rolling bits of yellow metal they could grab.
As soon as the two friends sat foot upon the deck, a small knot of men approached Watersheen and Leech, carrying dufflebags. "Captain," said their spokesman, cap in hand, "Some of us been thinkin'. This village here, well, I heard tell they've lost some people lately. There's jobs as need done on shore, and we've sailed the better part of our lives, an...well..."
Watersheen scowled on them. "Go!" he said. "And may Aloe have the joy of ye."
Yet they hesitated on the gangplank, their bags still resting on the deck. "Captain...Captain Watersheen, ye could come, too, sir. The whole crew could come. Prosperity's headed for these parts. We could all make ourselves a life on land."
The Captain's face darkened, and he said, "I got investors waitin' for me back in Riverborn; I've given me word to come back with pottery. And when I give me word I do as I says I would--or die in the attempt."
Some men, already at their oars despite their bandaged limbs, nodded. One bearded fellow called out, "We've always pulled oar for Captain Watersheen--we ain't gonna quit on him now!"
Frodo, looking on from the dock, felt like he had never seen anything so beautifully insane. By his side Fishenchips murmured, "Some of 'em never set foot ashore, even when they gots leave. It scares 'em some ways, scares 'em worse'n dragons."
About a half dozen sailors did elect to leave, in the end, after a grudging exchange of handclasps and even a couple of embraces, eyes still not meeting eyes. More tenderly departed those common women who visit sailors on their ships at dock, with uncharacteristic caresses of cheek or shoulder, soft gazes from eyes that had hardened over years, tears glistening on their lashes. After backwards glances the women hurried upslope with their faces downcast and their shawls clutched close at the throat, no flirtation spared for anyone they passed.
And so the ship limped out to sea, right on schedule, wallowing a little, difficult to control with so few able-bodied seamen to handle her, but not a single Seasider had stepped forward in search of a new career on board, not the hungriest among them, not though Watersheen had the best reputation on all the waters of Mordor as a captain who saw his men well-fed and fairly treated. Frodo watched the ship struggle through the waves, out to the horizon. He had made all of his goodbyes, but now they felt hopelessly inadequate. All the words had hinged upon keeping up a certain fiction, a certain mercy and dignity in restraint, when he felt almost overpowered by a need to hug and weep and rail against fate. How could so many emotions cram inside one skin and still leave him feeling empty?
He turned around to head back up to the fields and saw Mattie leaning against a wall with arms crossed, appraising him. Her expression seemed to offer consolation, but she looked so masculine with that pipe dangling from her mouth. He walked right past her, but she fell in behind him. The wind blew downslope into his face, except just once when it relented enough to let a whiff of cloying-scented smoke curl around into his face. He coughed and then whirled around at Mattie, fists clenched.
"You've got a lot of nerve, smoking that stuff right in front of me," he snarled, but he melted at the look in her eyes.
She pulled the pipe from her mouth and said, "I can't pretend around you, Frodo." Now they walked side by side. "I lie to everybody else; I thought it didn't matter anymore, lies and truth. I mean, I might as well live in lies--the truth never seemed to do me any good." She scowled at the ground, watching the toes of her own boots. "But you...I don't want to lie to you."
"I..." He swallowed. "I suppose you're right." For a moment it felt like she had the trace of dragon's blood in her, not him. "I'm sorry, Mattie." He almost took her hand, and then remembered that they walked down the streets in public. "It's just that, well, something strange has been going on lately--it's not a good time to leave yourself wide open to, uh...things."
She blinked at him. "I'm the one partaking, but you're the one who's making no sense whatsoever."
He turned suddenly and gripped her arms. "Mattie, murders keep happening--people slashed at hobbit-height."
She paled, but said, "What's that got to do with me? The poppy puts me in a peaceable frame of mind."
"You attacked me once while entranced in its smoke." He released her and they turned down their alley. "Don't you remember?"
"I remember sensing the Dark Lord's ghost in you. I remember attacking him." Her pale eyes glinted as she said, "I see what you're getting to, Frodo--you think that I'm going around butchering people in some smoky haze. But you're the one carrying around your own personal demon. What gives you the right to blame me?"
"Can you account for all of your actions, all the time?"
Frodo thrust his hands in his pockets, stumping along like he could crush something vile with each slap of his soles upon the stones. This got him nowhere. He glanced sidelong at Mattie as they walked. Thin indeed she looked, with a waxy pallor that hinted at transparency. Dreams be hanged! Whatever they threatened, she faded already, right before his eyes.
He knew, oh how well he knew the wrongness of what he weighed. But Frodo thought of Watersheen, headed back on a pointless promise, accomplishing nothing by his sacrifice, and of the men too stupefied with honor not to flee, and suddenly doing the right thing made no sense to Frodo whatsoever. He closed his eyes, his feet finding his way blindly for him. He felt a shiver of cold run through him, and then, quite as coldly, he willed himself to conjure up a paradoxical fire deep inside himself, a hard and hungry flame that suddenly zinged right through his veins!
His eyes snapped open. His voice sounded rich, oddly seductive, when he said to Mattie, "Darling, has no one ever loved you enough to win you away from the poppy-gum?"
"Loved...?" A hand stole to the hollow beneath her throat and she stared wide-eyed at him.
"I suppose it must be hard for you," he said in a kind of cruel imitation of pity, "to be so homely that no one ever cared what happened to you." He saw the dart sting, saw her eyes begin to brim. "But I can look beyond all that, don't you see? I can make you something better, something so precious that all will hate themselves for having ever scorned you." He did take her hand, then, in the privacy of their short-cut alley. "I can transform you, Mattie. But you have to let me."
"W...what must I do?"
"First you must foreswear the poppy-gum. It disfigures you, my dear."
"But I..." She looked at the pipe in her hand with a sudden glassy-eyed distaste.
"It tarnishes you. I want to polish you up so that all the world will value you, my precious, my treasure..my love."
Wordlessly she handed the pipe over to him, her lip trembling, the tears falling down her face. And he embraced her, and he felt like the most powerful being in the world right then.
"Where did you learn," Mattie sighed,"to kiss a girl like that?" But he only smiled in reply and took control of her again, his lips on hers; his farm-hardened arms felt strong around her frailty.There will be time enough, he thought, to consult Elenaril, after her honeymoon.
He glanced up from nuzzling Mattie's neck to see the same strange little girl he had met in the fields, peering from behind a rainbarrel, watching him.