I Will Not Say the Day is Done
Nor Bid the Stars Farewell
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 37, Part 134
Truth in Clay
April 3, 1452
The sky promised a fair day for sailing, without a cloud in a sky so blue you could just feel it going on for miles and miles overhead. Not that that would normally reassure the mariners of Mordor, as the warming weather signaled a surfacing and proliferation of sea-monsters, but as Captain Stormrider's ship still stank of a liberal splashing of fresh dragon blood, all lesser monsters would leave it alone. For that matter, no water-dragons would bother to avenge an adult, attachments of their kind being of the fleeting sort at best, murderously unhealthy when enduring. Ruinrog, wherever he was, would no doubt count himself better off. Which, come to think of it...
I resent what you are thinking, Sauron commented as Frodo left the fields and headed down towards the sunlit sparkle of the Sea of Nurnen beyond.
"Oh, I just bet you do." Frodo no longer bothered even trying to conceal his muttering, since it could hardly damage his reputation further.
I make a much better friend than any dragon. Thousands have found profit in my favor.
"Not for long, and not nearly as much as you have profited from them, I'll wager."
Well, naturally. I am not a fool. But does that make me any less sincere?
Frodo sighed and said, "I suppose that you think you are, for what it's worth." He and his manservants hastened, streaked though they were in the clay of Mordor, to join Leech before his ship would sail. They found him in the little plaza that their tower shared with Mayor Aloe, the walls now lined by young vines, rich in nodding golden blossoms, that strove to climb the walls sunward even as they released a luxurious perfume. By the tower, the sourfruit trees spread dark and glossy leaves to shade and dapple their porch, where Leech skipped down the steps, tying his cravat and humming a chantey. The medic grinned and bent to embrace the hobbit, and accepted in good humor the slaps on the back from Bergil and Fishenchips, and embraced them in their turn too, and then they walked together towards the sea. It gratified Frodo to see that the man had gained weight and color, and walked with a freedom that showed how the last of his aches had departed from him.
"I will never forget you, my little friend," the man assured Frodo, "More healing to me than I have ever been to you."
"A gardener only waters plants that want to grow--I cannot take credit for the life in the pith that seeks an excuse to prosper."
"Any leech might say the same of his own arts. At least the wiser ones." They walked on to the Blue Dragon, now taken over by a capable woman of the town. When Lord Curudag exited, they saw beyond him, through the doorway, a well-swept place with a bar that gleamed for polishing.
"Oh, before I go," Lord Curudag asked Frodo, "could you please direct me to where I may dispose of rubbish in this town? One of my bags of potatoes has gone bad, I'm afraid."
"We keep a midden up near...did you say potatoes?"
"Yes, that bag right over th..." He stared, shocked, when Frodo ran to the bag that leaned up against the inn's wall, flung it open (releasing an unbelievable stench) and got down on his hands and knees, squirming with delight, to rummage through the maggot-crawly tubers.
"Excellent!" the hobbit cried as he separated out a number of withered, sprouting potatoes from those that had more or less liquified. "Viable eyes on all of these, impatient to get into the dirt and finish the business of growing--just exactly what I've been longing for!" He tucked his selection into the bag's shade, then got up and wiped the slime off his hands onto his britches. At the peculiar grimace on Lord Curudag's face he said, "Well, they're dirty already--the pants, I mean--seeing as how I've been out in the fields all day." When the expression did not change, Frodo shrugged and said, "I'd change my clothes, if it'd suit you, but then you'd miss the launch, I fear. Don't worry about the potatoes--I'll finish with them when we get back."
Lord Curudag made no reply, but strode off towards the pier with occasional side-glances at the hobbit. "Wonderful!" Frodo thought. "A lord who wouldn't know his asparagus-plot from a hole in the ground shall report to the king on the sanity of a farmer! He might not even know what I mean by the eyes of a potato, since he has never peeled one." But that reminded him of his own report to the king. "Your pardon, milord, but could I ask a favor of you?"
Almost too gently Lord Curudag said, "If I can help you in any way, Frodo, I shall."
"Thank you!" He wiped his hands twice more on his chemise for good measure, and then reached into his pocket. "Could you please deliver this message to Tar Elessar directly, not going through the post?"
"Indeed--is there a reason that you should doubt the reliability of the post?"
"Well, you see, my letter deals with that precise point. And while you're at it, could you see that this other letter goes directly to the rider on the Gondor/Rohan run and bypasses the local service altogether?"
The man hesitated, then said, "Certainly, Frodo," and bowed as he took the missives, his smile not touching the sorrow in his eyes.
Leech spoke up. "My lord, while it is kind of you to wish to appear to humor Frodo, his concerns have more than a little basis in fact. I can say no more, due to the confidentiality of my office, but I urge you to take the hobbit's request seriously."
Lord Curudag nodded uncomfortably, then glanced around in search of a change of subject. He caught sight of a buxom maiden leaning out to water the abundant flowers spilling from her window-box. "I must say, Frodo, that you have turned Seaside into a...a charming little village. I never thought that I would use that word for any place in Mordor."
Frodo grinned, despite himself, up at the straining bodice that he recalled fit well enough mere months ago. "I've done my best, milord."
But then Curudag scowled suddenly. "Miss," he called up, "Could you please bring that watering-pot down here for me to see?"
"Ow an' ye can have it for a couple pence," she called back down, and disappeared from the window. Moments later she popped out the door, smiling, and held it out to him--a pretty piece of work in painted terracotta, alive with images of desert flowers and birds.
Curudag examined it and frowned the more for what he saw. "Where did you get this?"
"M'brother made it fer me." Now she started to look puzzled, and indeed uneasy.
"I find that rather difficult to believe, my dear. I have seen the like in the marketplaces of Gondor, advertised as the handiwork of Umbar, and priced in a range that I doubt you could afford." He grabbed her wrist--she squealed and tried to pull away, but he said, "Know, woman, that as an officer of the King I have the authority to punish thieves--yet it will go easier on you if you start to tell me the truth."
"But I do tell the truth!" she wailed, and burst into tears. "M'brother's shop is just out back--come and see!"
"I have no time for...leave be, Frodo; this is none of your affair."
But the hobbit wouldn't let go of his arm. "Tar Elessar would rather miss his ship than ignore evidence!"
"What more evidence do I need? Any connoisseur of the ceramic arts knows that this is Umbar work."
Cacophany broke out. "No it is not!" "But m'brother..." "Lord Curudag, I have seen..." "Con o' sewers? Right bunch o' morons, it sounds like t'me!"
Frodo's laughter startled them all to silence. He bent over, shaken by his mirth, leaning against a wall, then sat down in the dirt, laughing too hard to stand. "Oh, the jest is rich--as rich as those, no doubt, who have played it on us all! Can't you see it, all of you? This answers the mystery of where all of Mordor's pottery disappears! Why it takes so many 'trade goods' to gain passage for so-called charity--it all goes straight to Umbar--or at least to the nearest port where ships of Umbar dock--there to pass for work of southern manufacture, at a considerable mark-up." He straightened where he sat and looked at them with suddenly solemn eyes. "No one would care to buy, you see, anything labeled "Made in Mordor." He stood up and dusted himself off. "As I've said before, the worst sort of soil for farming can make the best of all for the potter's trade--but no one ever thinks of that, not here, not about this place. We never had to starve at all, but for a foolishness of the marketplace."
At that point a young man with clay-stained hands ran out, holding out an unfired jar with designs half-painted on in a milky slip. "Please, yer honor, please! Let m'sister go--see, 'tis all me own work, here. Come back by the kiln, take your pick, take whate'er ye want, just leave her be!"
Lord Curudag released her wrist in surprise. The woman ran to her brother's arms and he dropped the unfinished work to split and sag where it hit the road. Clay streaked her hair where her brother caressed her, promising no harm would come to her, and muddy handprints marked her shoulder and her back, and she didn't care, she just sobbed beneath his chin.
The Lord of Lossarnach squatted down, studied the marred work and gasped, "It is the same craftsmanship!"
Frodo planted his soil-caked foot beside the unbaked pot. "See?" he demanded, "Earth of the same color." Eye to eye now with the man he asked, "Shall you go mad now, too? For you cannot count on anything that you consider real to hold true around here."
In a soft voice, Fishenchips said, "They's a kind o' storm we gets sometimes, swoops in from the Sea of Nurnen, and the worst divel of a walloping you ever did live through, if yer lucky enough to weather it. All violence spins out from a center--but in that center ye'll find perfect peace, no troublin' at all. Sometimes it seems we're like that around here. All the Dark Lord's lies spun out from here, and crashed on distant lands, but here in the center--the eye o' the storm as we call it hereabouts--ya find the most gawdawful truths, that shews up the lies for what they be."
Bergil gave Curudag a hand up. "You have marched through here, yet in your own company, with your own supplies, encased in armor, speaking to none save those you brought with you, touching little save with boot and sword. You know nothing of the land except as adversary."
Frodo put in, "My letter touches on this, too, sir. I wanted to ask the King where all the pottery goes, and why we get only scraps and spoils in return, when the Shire sends forth good food, properly preserved."
A clanging bell in the harbor interrupted them. "Come, milord," said Leech. "We have a ship to catch, and I new duties to take up. The King needs to hear all that you have learned, and the sooner the better."
For a long time after the men and hobbit left, sister and brother stood watching them depart, and then they watched the sail in the distance dwindle from their view. Instead of a watering-can she held more coins than she had ever seen in her life. At his feet a moist indentation in the dust, soon dried, marked where he had dropped a pot unfinished, now taken away as well, as evidence.