For Into Darkness Fell His Star
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 10, Part 151
Visitors from Afar
May 5, 1452
"Two ships again?" the cry went up at the harbor. "That's twice in a row!" But yes, indeed, two ships rode into Seaside over the sparkling waves--not so huge as the last time, but an unexpected generosity all the same. The wind belled out black sails on one, golden-yellow on the other, and they swayed to the dip and swell of the Nurnen Sea like a pair of dancers, as on shore the children clapped and cheered, while their elders clasped each other's shoulders and spoke in excited voices.
Fishenchips said, "I think ye'd better take a look at this, li'l buddy. Want me to hoist ye up on m'shoulders?"
"That's all right," Frodo said wistfully. "My eyesight is not what it was."
"Then maybe ya can't see what I can make out by meself?" said the far-sighted former sailor, shading his gaze with his hand.
"And what might that be?"
"That one o' they's ships carries passengers yer size."
"Hobbits?" Frodo cried.
Fishenchips grinned, the salt air ruffling his curls. "They's hobbits, or I'm a duck."
Soon Frodo could see it for himself; the crew of both ships were plainly men of Mordor, but one ship swarmed with little folk. The ships tacked back and forth in zigzags to make the best of the wind, crisscrossing each other's paths and showing first one side, then the other, to the people on the shore. Soon they came close enough for Frodo to make out individual features: some hobbits looked a bit green in the face, others wide-eyed and scared, but all of them did their best to straighten their weskits and stand a little taller for the approaching dock. Each one of them wore a yellow feather in their bright green caps, and a matching quiver of arrows fletched in yellow and green, which marked them as volunteers for the hobbitry-at-arms. On the other ship guardsmen stood, quieter veterans of war, in the black and silver livery of Gondor. But both the Big soldiers and the Little showed in every stance and gesture their determination to guard the cargos in their charge.
Fishenchips laughed to see this. "Ol' Lord Lossarnach must've gotten the word through--we'll get the entire ea change!" He wagged a finger at his smaller friend. "But don't go givin' half yer share to Crookyteeth, now. 'Taint doin' her no favor if ye plump her up too much; human women ain't like hobbits, y'know."
Nearby Crookyteeth cast down her eyes, her round cheeks blushing. "I think she's lovely," Frodo sighed. And she grinned to hear him, with a chipmunk smile. "I think she grows more beautiful every day." And he took her hand, and kissed it.
Bergil said, "It appears that we shall receive still more than the generosity of the King--the hobbits appear to guard a hold full of crates and barrels in the measures of the Shirefolk."
Frodo smiled up at Crookyteeth. "It looks like I might be able to cook you a proper lunch for a change--with only the best of ingredients." Then he gazed out over the waters, his face serious once more. "Thank you, Papa, for remembering your son in this hungry land!"
Bergil leaned over and whispered, "Uh, Fishenchips...just how often does Master Frodo visit Crookyteeth, anyway?"
"Just at noon breaks. Once in awhile, after he's had a bad night, he'll allow himself a long morning-break with her fer what his folks'd call a 'second breakfast,' too." Frodo pretended not to hear Fish's louder attempt at a whisper. "But I don't knock it--she's finally gotten the little feller to put some proper meat on those poor bones of his, though he could still use more. He needs a bit o' cushion against what th'Dark Lord does to'im, and that he don't quite have just yet. Before, uh, before your wife..." And Fishenchips faltered, glancing over at the straight-backed blind woman in her undyed finery, some yards away at the Mayor's side, showing no awareness of Fishenchip's presence.
"Before Elenaril banished you, she taught you something of Periannath physiology, I take it."
"Um...yes sir. An' they's best a bit on the stocky side, and he ain't there."
Bergil glanced at Frodo, plainly aware that the hobbit had caught every word, and spoke in a normal voice. "If it affords you any comfort, Frodo has always run a bit slimmer than your average perian. But it looks as though the cure sails right into the open arms of Seaside as we speak." He rubbed his own lean belly. "We might all have our work cut out for us to see that none of that bounty goes to waste."
"I think I'm up to th'challenge," Fishenchips declared with a hungry gleam in his eye. "That's the kind o' work I'd like t'try my hand at fer a change."
Crookyteeth giggled, coloring again, swinging Frodo's hand playfully. "Will that mean ye'll drop by fer 'second breakfast' more often, then?"
"Breakfast, second breakfast, lunch, tea, dinner, and supper, as the days grow longer."
"Coo, but when'll I get me own work done?" Crookyteeth laughed, even as Fishenchips said, "Now don't get carried away there, li'l buddy," but then he licked his lips and gazed out at the ships again.
"Ah, but it's just like Bergil says--it's our responsibility to make the best use of worthy vittles, out of respect for the labors of my people. And heaven knows everybody in Seaside could use a bit of a holiday--so let holiday be our labor, and let all save the tending of animals wait while the ship remains in our harbor."
Fishenchips nodded. "Aye. 'Tis our duty, plain and simple. 'Tis, uh, 'tis a sort of 'mergency sitiation."
"Bravely into the fray," Bergil declared, striding towards the docking ships with an eager step. Wood bumped against wood and sailors called out to each other, shipping their oars, casting out ropes, and furling sails.
Fish turned his eyes back to the first ship. "Now how d'ye figure that? One o' them hobbits wears the King's livery, same as the men on t'other boat."
"What?" both Frodo and Bergil cried at once.
No sooner had the hobbit-bearing ship docked than the very first passenger on the gangplank confirmed their wildest hopes. Bergil outran Frodo with his longer legs, crying, “Pippin? Oh my heavens PIPPIN! How are you?"
“Is that...that can’t be Bergil! What, all grown up?" And now the littlest knight of Gondor ran as well, down to the dock his arms stretched wide.
Bergil grabbed up the hobbit--mail, helm, and all--and swung him through the air, his black surcoat whipping like a banner through the air.
Pippin laughed and cried, "Down! Down! I am not a kite to be flown in the wind! Have at least a little respect for your elder."
"If you were in fact a kite you would not fly far," Bergil responded with a chuckle as he set the hobbit onto his feet again. "And how many rings have the armorers added to your mail since last we met?”
"Need I remind you that I am now The Took? That office requires a certain portly profile if I am to be taken seriously.” Pippin drew himself up importantly as he stroked his paunch, but his eyes twinkled no less.
“And what excuse would you have used if born to a lesser house? Oh Pippin, it is so good to see you! The years between our meetings have dealt harshly with me, and I have missed your laughter.”
Sorrow now tinged The Took's smile as he clasped the man's hand. "I can tell by the lines on your face that you have had your share of cares, old friend. But tonight we shall talk long and late, and we shall make merry!" Then quickly he turned from Bergil. "But Frodo! How are you, dear lad?" Pippin embraced the near-grown youngster that he'd known since birth, and Frodo suddenly found himself trembling with emotion. "We have heard such frightening reports, Frodo--your parents have been besides themselves with worry for you."
"Oh, I'm all...I'm..." But before he could get out the words, I'm all right, he burst into tears. Uncle Pippin just held him and patted him on the back.
"Well now, well now, it'll all turn for the better soon. Don't you worry."
"Oh Uncle Pippin! I am, am, am so glad to see you!" Frodo managed to stutter, though he wept no less. "D'do you know, your jacket still smells like the Shire, after all your travels. Really, I can smell the, the new-mown hay. You must have cut the first spring grass be-before you set out." Frodo laughed through his tears, and then cried harder onto his "Uncle's" shoulder. Yet of all his complex feelings, refreshment predominated: a hug from home felt like quaffing ice-cold water after a hard crawl through the desert.
Pippin waited till Frodo's sobs subsided, then held him by the shoulders, and in a quiet voice asked, "Do you want to go home? I can take you back with me, if you want. I mean it. I have authorization from the King himself to relieve you of duty, if you but say the word."
For an instant hope lit up in Frodo, and memories surged through him, bright and demanding. The Shire would be at its most beautiful this time of year, with the orchards all in bloom, and the hillsides soft and green, sparkling with rain. Every hole would have its garden out in front, bursting with all colors, and the bird-baths would flutter with wings and song. Folks would throw open their shutters every morning to capture the springtime perfume, and one could stroll without a care at fall of night, taking in the stars. But then he glanced over at Crookyteeth, the sudden sorrow and resignation in her face, and a different memory troubled him, of the days when he could compare her to a ladder in a skirt.
He shook his head. "I can't, Uncle Pippin. Mordor needs me. We've lost some crops already to hard weather, and the Nurnings need to learn how to manage in such times. I've got a few tricks left, I think, so I've got to see them through, if I can."
Pippin gave him a questioning look, then smiled a little too brightly, and clapped him on the arm, "That's your father's son speaking! Now come along with me, I have a gift from your mother to show you."
"Sure. Right this way." In a lower voice he said, "Sam read to her all about your pact with Sauron, you know."
"My...you mean about the brandy?" he whispered, blushing. "But that was entirely his idea."
"Right. But to quote dear Rose, 'Dark Lords don't do their thinking in the kitchen'." Pippin pried open a crate with his sword (while Bergil winced at this abuse of the weapon) dug through the excelsior stuffing, and pulled out a cookie-jar. "Brandy-flavored cookies! She says that four cookies should contain a cup of brandy between them--Sauron never said you couldn't cook the brandy, now did he?"
Frodo stared a minute, and then burst out laughing for joy. "Mama is a genius! Why didn't I think of that?"
"You have your area of expertise, Mistress Rose has hers. She has packed up more jars for you, canned air-tight--enough to give you four cookies a day until the next shipment."
"Then, since Sauron has worn himself out for awhile, and I don't need them immediately, I can share these. Crookyteeth, my darling, would you like to sample my mother's skill?"
"Coo, but I would!" Eagerly she bit in, and then rolled her eyes, giggling. "Ohhhh, I have not known what flavor was afore I met ye, Frodo dear!" Her enthusiasm for his offerings could always conjure up a smile from the weary hobbit, and for that he blessed her, warming at the sight as she gladly took a second, directly from his upraised hand to her lips, his other arm about her generous hips.
"Um...I see..." Pippin said at his side, and coughed. Frodo suddenly felt his face heat up, as quickly he let go. "I see you've grown your hair out," the older hobbit gracefully changed the subject, flipping at the curls about Frodo's shoulders. "And why not? I did likewise when I traveled among men."
"You might not believe this, but I've already cut it twice since I left the Shire. It has grown faster ever since I visited the ents."
"Now that is a curious thing," Pippin remarked, "For I had not found it so after I left their country." Then Frodo remembered the resin-tea that kept him and his household in health throughout the hungry winter, and his heart ached for his absent friend, wandering lonely and crazed who knew where, but he kept silent on the matter.
But now his gaze moved from the puzzlement in Pippin's eyes, beyond him to the men and hobbits unloading cargo onto the dock. Among them labored a lean old graybeard, taller than the average run, muffled in a travel-stained gray cloak, his face half-hidden in his hood. As though sensing the hobbit's eyes on him, the man turned to give Frodo a keen look, and then he smiled and winked. Frodo glanced over at Pippin, who smirked to one side, then turned to Fishenchips and Bergil.
"That man over there." Frodo pointed. "I know him. I should like him to dine with us tonight. And Bergil, I think your wife might want to join us too, just this once." At precisely that instant Elenaril stiffened, turning her head this way and that, as though homing in on some sense unknown to the others.
Bergil turned and frowned. "Him? He seems rather a rough sort to me. Are you sure you recognize him? From where?"
"Yes, yes, quite sure. He's uh, he's an old friend of the family's."
"A man?" Now Bergil stared at him like catching him in a lie.
"Yes, well, my father met him in Bree, if you must know. Got Papa out of a bit of a jam, he did." By now Pippin grinned openly behind Bergil's back. Meanwhile Elenaril had turned towards the man in question, almost as though she could see indeed, and gasped.
Bergil leaned down and whispered in Frodo's ear, "If he is in any way connected to Mattie's blackmail..."
"No, no, nothing of the sort!"
Bergil shook his head, and more loudly said. "Some of those stains on his cloak look like old blood."
"He hunts. Why must you be so suspicious?"
"Because you are not suspicious enough."
Pippin finally burst out laughing. "I should tell you that that man is, in fact, familiar to all of us more prominent citizens of the Shire. Rough, you say? Indeed, to all enemies of hobbits, he is! In times past he even helped to ward our borders, though he will not now set foot in our country, honoring the King's pledge." Pippin whistled and waved the man over. At the same time Elenaril strode towards them, her cane tapping briskly ahead of her.
The keen gray eyes smouldered from the shadow of the greybeard's hood, but not in any hostile way; rather they shone after the fashion of one who lets nothing escape his gaze. As he drew close Frodo caught the scent of a clean man unafraid to sweat, and a redolence of pipeweed curiously out of place in these days of scarcity. The tall fellow bowed quite meekly to the gathering, and said in a deep voice, "I am honored to find myself in such company, good sirs."
"The honor is ours," Frodo responded with a bow of his own, scarce daring to breathe.
Bergil did not bow, but asked, "And what name do you go by, old one?"
The man crooked a wry smile and said, "Some have called me Strider."