For Into Darkness Fell His Star
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 1, Part 142
The Cargo from Ithilien
April 11, 1452
Waiting for the ship passed more merrily than ever in the company of Bergil and Elenaril, with Fishenchips sitting near his teacher, but the conversation perked up even more when Lanethil ambled over and joined them. The new smith surprised everyone with his wit and easygoing chitchat, though Frodo alone knew the full oddity of Lanethil's unfailing instinct to home in on the sort of jokes and anecdotes most appealing to men on the rough edge of the empire, yet without any trace of crudity. Lanethil laughed heartily as well at the jests of others, in a way not at all remote, yet the music in his laughter caused folks nearby to look over at him, as people will pause and look for the source of a particularly lovely bird-song.
It surprised them all how soon the cry went up, "Ship's in!" so gladly passed the time. Frodo hardly had a chance to take note of the mumak figurehead (and the unusual size of the vessel) before she docked, riding low in the water for all of her cargo.
"Wood!" the people shouted. And wood indeed filled the ship, so much that the crew had to scramble over it to secure the sails--sweet, sawdust-scented logs and beams and blocks and planks from the fair groves of Ithilien.
Then Frodo hopped up and down with excitement, pounding on the nearest flesh and crying, "Not just wood--the source! The source!" For he saw the good green boughs in the back of the ship. There an army of potted saplings stood, rank upon rank, dappling the deck with shade.
But while they remarked upon this (and Bergil rubbed the battered small of his back) a second ship docked, to everyone's surprise and a chorus of excited exclamations. This ship, too, flew the fair green banner of Ithilien, as well as the King's black and silver, though obviously a vessel of Mordor-make, with its figurehead a giant bat hurling back its wings against the prow. This figurehead bore an unlikely crown of white flowers, wilting and slightly askew upon its brow, and silver-edged white ribbons fluttered from the riggings, flashing in the sun.
"But those are wedding-signs," Bergil exclaimed, and then he grinned in astonishment as he realized what it meant. He clasped his bride to his side and cried, "Elenaril, my love, I think we shall have no need to quarrel over budgets for awhile--those casks and chests, all of rich-carved wood, treasures unto themselves, must carry our wedding presents!"
"Carvings? Oh how I love carvings!" she replied, quivering with excitement.
While the first ship unloaded its wood on one side of the dock, the other set out its cargo soon after on the other. The Lord Faramir sent the wood, of course. The Lady Eowyn, too, sent her largess-- much-needed medical supplies of every description for Elenaril's hospital, in great jars with their tengwar script curling in raised designs, chests carved with figures of physicians and their patients miming out the use of all their contents, tools of surgery, instruments of diagnosis that one could read by touch or sound, and special beds and chairs for positioning a patient for treatment, all of them tapping deep into the most ancient Numenorean lore.
Lord Curudag sent rare and precious china that really did come from Umbar, and silverware to go with it, each piece with a handle carved from the tusk of a mumak. The King sent furniture, cunningly carved, for every possible need. Yet the Queen, perhaps most wisely of all, sent an elvish fountain, long preserved in Rivendell. Fashioned by the Noldor in the First Age, in long-lost Gondolin, where the waters sometimes ran poisoned from their nearness to Taur-nu-Fuin, it took the shape of three swans rising up from their basin as though about to take flight, their wingtips touching. It could pump water up from the deepest well (seemingly supplemented by whatever it also drew from fog of sea or valley or woods, by some forgotten art) and purify whatever issued from it. Yet it had been but one of many, once upon a time; it had only the capacity to provide drinking water for the people and beasts of Seaside alone, and that sparingly, and not for any larger use. But Bergil and Elenaril found it boon enough. Frodo, too, sighed with relief--they could spare his crops awhile longer, now.
Now they came to the gifts from Beregond and his wife. Elenaril popped open a chest, reached forth her hand, and gasped! Soon she reveled up to her elbows in new gowns and robes, rubbing silks and velvets and satins against her cheek, running her fingers through fur or waterfalls of samite. Bergil frowned, then smiled sadly when he realized that no one had dyed so much as a stitch in all this wealth of fabric. "So they know," he murmured. "Mattie must have told them, for I did not." He shook his head, adding, "Ever the prudent ones, my parents--even in extravagance they choose well where to economize." Elenaril grinned, unaware of any of this, her fingers tracing out a line of embroidery in a floss the same color as the sleeve it adorned. "Oh! Roses!" she cried. "Can you smell it? They have sprinkled the clothing with rose-water!"
Yet Bergil soon cheered to open his own trove up. "Leather of the finest work in boot and belt...real glass lanterns...Gardening tools, hah! My new armory, Frodo--do you see? And what is this? Books!" he exclaimed. "All of my favorites that I have missed so long...and new ones! New songs written this past year, new traveler's tales from Rhun and Umbar and Harad, new discoveries in the studies of the stars...oh, I shall get no work done, but loll all day in my bed to read!"
"Between other pastimes, I gather," Aloe drawled as she approached, with a nod to Elenaril, and then a touch on the arm that Elenaril could nod back to. And as Aloe went over to admire the dresses with a slightly sickly smile, Bergil laughed. For now, seeing the Mayor in her usual garb, envy plain upon her face, he realized that since no one in Mordor wore dyed clothing anyway, Elenaril need not hang her head before any woman. "But that must mean," and here his smile faded. "My parents bless our marriage, but they do not expect us to return." Then firm in jaw, he nodded. "Yes! Better here, where Elenaril commands respect, and where no one lacks for scars, so people turn towards beauty of the heart." And then he did something that would have shocked Frodo, had he seen it. Bergil reached to his shoulder and tore off the badge of Ithilien. "Mordor, I am your citizen!"
But Frodo did not see. He had already hurried over to the saplings, green leaves twinkling in the breeze. He found a note from Tar Elessar tied to one of these.
"Dear Bergil, Elenaril, and Frodo:
I have had good report from Umbar on these trees, and so recommended them to Lord Faramir as a wedding-present, in addition to the lumber, since Bergil has a stake in Frodo's work. They have a reputation for improving soil, much like beans, and of changing poisoned earth to good. They bear pods of seeds for eating, and their fallen leaves make a forage as fit as any hay. They keep the earth cool around them, and moister than one would expect in the sun-ravaged lands. My souce could not explain how this might work, considering how much a tree must drink, but she assured me that they do."
"I know," Frodo said to the letter as though Strider could listen through it. "The roots delve deep for water and bring it to the surface, perspiring from the leaves--just exactly the thing I need the most!"
"Talking to yourself's a bad sign, they say--but aren't you that one they call The Mad Gardener of Hobbiton?"
"Mattie?" Frodo looked up, and his jaw dropped--he couldn't help it. If it weren't for the shirt that he used to own, that she still wore (now flecked in old blood) he would not have recognized that swollen pulp of purples and blue-grays, one eye hardly able to open, with half-healed cuts where blunt force must have burst the skin. "Mattie--what happened?"
She grinned, and so revealed a missing front tooth. "Just a little misunderstanding about a wallet that looked like mine. These things happen on the road, now and then."
"Oh, don't look so shocked. It hardly hurt at all, and in the end I escaped before the scoundrel got so much as a penny back--so I won out in the end."
He could say nothing, do nothing, only stare.
At last, annoyed, she broke the silence with, "I suppose you'll be wanting this," and handed him his letter. The minute he opened it the scent of athelas seemed to steady him, so that after he kissed the leaves, and carefully enfolded them back in their kerchief, and blessed the seeds in their little packet, he flipped through the letter almost impatiently, as though he knew what to look for, and he found a few leaves of gold towards the end.
"You left a couple," he said, looking up at her, this time unflinchingly. He lifted up the glittering wisps.
Softly she replied, "You know I never take more than I need."
He snarled a little as he grabbed her hand. But he took a deep breath and then laid the gold gently in her outstretched palm, lest the frail leaves break and lose their value. "It's a gift from my father--don't you dare refuse it."
"But it's more than I can use."
"Then maybe it will keep you from stealing for awhile longer," he said, and gently pushed her to one side so that he could pretend to examine the trees.
She stared at him a moment, her expression unreadable in all of the bruises (though he tried, from little glances, hoping not to let her know he looked) then she slipped the golden leaves carefully into her wallet, where Frodo caught a glimpse of more yellow gleaming. "Send your father my thanks," she said, with what might have been a swagger or a wobble, he couldn't tell which, her chin tipped up as though she had something to be proud of. "Oh, and by the way--you can expect still more food, soon, than what you've gotten here today, if rumor speaks the truth. Good hobbit fare, I hear."
"That's nice," he said, with less enthusiasm than he would have shown mere months before. "But we keep our larder fairly full these days."
"Well, maybe you should keep it a little less full. You have grown as thin as...well, as thin as me, I suppose," she said with a self-deprecating little giggle, then looked sidelong to see if he would laugh, too. But coyness did not become that grotesque face; he did not smile.
Frodo skimmed through his letter, rejoicing at the hopeful turn in May's affairs, chuckling over his parents' discoveries concerning hot pickled carrots, pleased with Rosie-Lass's progress at the loom...but it all seemed like old news, somehow. He looked up at Mattie, and his face softened with pity, but she stiffened to see it. In a gentler voice he said, "It does not surprise me that you can shrug off such a beating. The Lady Eowyn has told me that she uses poppy gum to keep a patient free of pain when she amputates a limb. I suppose you would not mind it if you risked a limb or two to obtain more gum, so long as you had one hand left to hold your pipe."
"Oh, I wouldn't go so far. I like my hands. I like to play my harp." Yet Frodo saw that her fingers, too, bore scrapes and bruises, and the smallest on the left stuck out at an odd angle; he ventured that she had not played her harp in awhile.
He laid down his letter and sat on the dock between the trees. Puzzled, she followed suit, facing him, there where the foliage and the wide-hipped pots hid them from the crowds, all of those folks who marveled over the presents from camp-followers and the King, from lords and ladies, rangers and soldiers, and their mysterious, allegedly elven queen. Frodo struggled for the right words, saying, "Mattie, I think I understand you better now--better than I thought I ever could."
"You do?" Her eyes opened as wide as the bruised flesh would allow..."Have you..."
"I...how can I put this? I feel so ashamed..."
Her hand reached out to his. "No, Frodo. You have nothing to be ashamed of."
"Oh, but I do! I do! For an entire week I lost myself into your world! I knew that desire for the surcease of pain, for a softening of life's hard edges, to, to not care how one lived..."
"You have tasted of the poppy!" she cried, and she leaned avidly towards him, her joy too fierce to even smile.
"Uh no, brandy, actually. I drank brandy to excess every night for a week, and once all day as well, so that I don't even remember that day. I...I told you it was shameful."
"Brandy?" she cried, and laughed, though no joy lit her eyes anymore, and she released his hand suddenly like his touch disgusted her. "You indulge in a single week's binge with brandy and you think you can understand me?" She rose to her feet, looking down on him. "And you protest how shameful, oh so shameful! So what does that make me?" She spat to the side. "Why do I even bother with you? You don't want to understand me, only judge!" And with that she stormed away.
Frodo sat there unmoving, listening to her retreating boots, cradling his letter in his hands, wishing that a breath of athelas could sooth the torments of the heart as well as suffering of the soul--and then he recoiled from that thought, glad that it could do no such thing, glad that he retained the power to mourn what needed mourning. All around him people cried out in excited voices over this gift or that (for the loved ones of Bergil and Elenaril had prudently supplied a feast and other useful goods for the entire village, that they might share in celebration) yet Frodo heard nothing but the speechlessness of his own bruised heart. At last he rose, slipped his letter inside his weskit, turned and walked back home.