For Into Darkness Fell His Star
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 11, Part 152
A Letter from The Took
Or should I say Mayor Gardner? I have, after all, sallied forth on your formal request, as Gondor's Shire Ambassador in Residence, to carry messages both official and personal to the King in Minas Tirith.
Never mind that, dearest Sam. I'll start calling you Mayor when you start calling me The Took. In other words, only in public, which I hope to think this letter is not, one purpose of my presence here being to assure the privacy of the mail henceforth.
I have arrived in Mordor all in one piece, though the hobbitry-in-arms have had a bit of an education in fear from the moment we departed Osgiliath. (Earlier for some, poor lads--the wide world beyond our borders has been a bit much for them, even in these days of the King.) The mere necessity of standing guard in shifts along the way thrilled them like no spooky autumn story ever had, but to actually have to fend off something large and reptilian truly impressed them. The thing, whatever it was, spat venom that burned the leather clean off of Rolf's sword before he could unsheathe it (and here he was so proud of owning a sword!) but we sustained no further damage than that. And of course all of the old bones and ruins of siege machinery gave them shivers, making them more appreciative of those of us who actually saw the war.
Forewarned by your son's letters (the relevant passage of which I repeated to them, as you had to me) we rarely stepped out of the carts on the Old Morannon Road for fear of gashed feet, and whenever we stopped to stretch our legs, I found a line of followers in my footsteps like a row of ducks. But no injuries ensued, praised be the Valar!
And then we came to the haunted pass. Brrr! I had hoped to feel nothing so chilling since that time I looked into the Palantir and saw Sauron eye to eye, but this place surely did bring back memories, and not of the best kind. One could almost see faces in the mist, but not quite. And we all had nightmares at some point or other; I will not mention mine. I can see how it could easily have driven a messenger mad who faced it fortnightly for years upon years.
Speaking of which, The King has sent the Lady Eowyn on the poor poppy-sotted fool's trail. It's the Cliffside Hospital for Mattie Greenbanks, it looks like, and the sooner the better. But the Lady of Ithilien has her work cut out for her, I'm afraid. We found Mattie's mail-bags abandoned alongside the trail (in a well-traveled spot, apparently meant to be discovered) but the ground was too stony for even the best tracker in the world to find so much as a boot-print. The lass knows this area better than anyone living, and draws upon help from the very unclean spirits that make Poros Pass such rough-going for the rest of us. But she will have to surface sooner or later, if only to obtain more poppy-gum and money to buy it with.
Here I am, jumping in the middle. I should have brought paper along with me and written day by day as your son has done. Now I have to make up time. Fortunately, we hadn't much adventure for most of the journey, not before we crossed the Anduin, and I can't say that I minded a bit. One inn was pretty much of a piece with the next, and they have proliferated everywhere in these days of many travelers.
Going back to before the Morannon Road: I enjoyed a nice celebration of Gondor New Year at Treegarth, though none of the others dared to touch a drop of Ent-draught. (I've caught up with Merry again, I'm proud to say.) The rest huddled in fear of the woods, so much like our Old Forest, despite my reassurances; they would have preferred any number of other ways to celebrate the King's holiday. Too bad--I figure that the experience did them good. It did me good.
The troop became grumpier still in Rohan, where I forbade them to smoke, out of consideration for Eomer's people, but they got over it. I let up on them in Gondor, where men can handle pipeweed, though--and half of them had found they'd lost a taste for it, themselves. The other half puffed themselves blue in the face. But they all forgave me in Minas Tirith, as the people of Gondor welcomed such a large party of hobbits from the Shire with spectacular enthusiasm, and none of us had to buy our drinks out of our own pockets the whole time. (They seem to have become rather jaded about hobbits from Bree, I notice--a down-on-their-luck lot, occasionally larcenous.) I could have had a marvelous time with the lads, but you should be gratified to know that I went straight to the King instead, and he entertained me in style on a more personal basis. I had no idea how much I missed the old fellow!
(It still seems strange to avoid calling him "Aragorn" after all these years--and awkward! And after all the effort I spent unlearning the habit of calling him "Strider", too! I have never quite understood the ease with which he will change names like you or I might change our shirts. Have you ever looked into the history of how many he has had? But perhaps you can understand better than I, Master Gardner. Nice name, Sam--it suits you well. Really--I mean it.)
I spoke to the King as you requested, about the mail, and the underage riders of the post, and the "charity" to Mordor being both miserly and high-priced, and I conveyed as well Merry's alarm that someone has exploited his family business for an unsavory trade. But when it came to matters closer to the heart, dear old Strider not only listened to everything I had to say about our concerns for Frodo and his trials with Sauron (having heard no word from him directly--I gather Mattie didn't hold with letters to the King) but forthwith put the Steward in charge, brooking no argument (though leaving hints and rumors that he might go forth a-hunting.) Then he donned his old Ranger guise with his wife's blessings. (He still fits in them, too--I swear he has not gained an ounce around the middle!) After that he just sort of melted into the human labor pool, handling the Mordor-bound goods like an old pro, quicker than Beorn could have changed into a bear--and none the wiser save for Faramir and Arwen and me.
One Lord Curudag of Lossarnach had indeed troubled the King with reports of halfling madness, but the man didn't know about Sauron's involvement, so I daresay Frodo seemed nuttier than he actually was. Still, Tar Elessar had his worries before I even arrived with your letter, and jumped at the chance--or should I say excuse?--to do something about them directly.
More significant to the rest of the Kingdom, Strider has suspended the post. He has called on the lords to rewrite the laws governing age, established a school for all of the suddenly-unemployed underage hobbit post-riders (right next door to the Houses of Healing) and has commenced recruitment for many more mature messengers to fill in the gaps. So I don't know when my letter, not to mention Frodo's, will reach you. But I suspect that the King will send a hand-picked rider to deliver these, along with a missive of his own, since you're so directly involved in the business, and since Tar Elessar will always owe you forever.
And then there's the matter of Brandybuck Mercantile's involvement in the poppy trade. Dreadful business--no wonder Brandy Hall's in such a dither, roiling like a prodded anthill; when I passed through Buckland I even witnessed some Brandybucks packing to move out. To make matters worse, I have seen Merry's signature on a number of incriminating stocking forms, although the gum is always buried somewhere in a long list of exotic herbs and spices coming in, under its foreign name of opia. I wonder if he had the foggiest idea what opia was; I never did till recently. I looked at those lists and I didn't recognize half the plants they marketed.
The king has been gathering these forms for some time, now. He revealed a grim relief that Merry sent word of his alarm without awareness that the King had compiled such evidence. Even so, he put me under that searching stare of his, when you know he's peering right into your mind to see if you're holding any secrets back, but he seemed satisfied at least that I believe in Merry's innocense. This will shortly matter, as Tar Elessar considers banning poppy-gum and all of its derivatives, save in the hands of healers and those to whom they dispense it. Merry might have to come south and straighten out the mess in person--and he so recently returned home, too! Estella is a patient lady.
But I digress. Osgiliath has many an excellent establishment for travelers, and it took several to accommodate all of us, combining the supply-trains from Gondor and the Shire as we did, plus guards of Gondor to make sure that the same goods arrive as set forth. Strider persuaded me to spend the night at an inn called The Cloven Horn with him and the livestock. Didn't you mention that Frodo also passed that way? So you probably have a description. Terrible odor, fabulous views, fascinating mishmash of architecture, good food, and the best beer I've tasted east of the Misty Mountains. They all apparently "knew Strider well," which of course is to say not at all, in regards to his kingship or his history at least, but intimately acquainted with his tastes in food, drink, pipeweed, conversation, and rooms. Just how often does our sovereign head off on these "hunting trips" of his? And what, really, does he hunt?
I found less satisfaction in the accommodations available in Riverborn, such as there were. One miserly inn (the only other having burned down, apparently) no beer, food at your own risk, vermin of every kind from floor to ceiling, all of us crammed into a few unsavory rooms, and through it all a barmy innkeeper raving up and down the halls all night about an "infestation of rats!" I'd have sooner camped out in the streets, if the evening's roving cutthroats would have let me sleep--or let me wake, for that matter.
The passage of the Backwards River looked good after that; it gave everyone a thrill, once they got over the seasickness and the terror. And then, just as they had reconciled to their fate and actually got to enjoy the rolling deck and the wind in their hair, we found ourselves attacked by what the crew insisted was rather a small monster, an underage tentacled thing, speedily dispatched. No casualties, a few oars broken--business as usual on the waters of Mordor. Apparently the rivers teem with baby horrors at this time of year, and most of them don't survive to grow to problem-size. The sailors tell me that you may safely slay the tentacled ones without fear of parental repercussions; the adults hardly know or care whether the eggs they laid have hatched. Dragons, being intelligent fiends, are another matter.
The Sea of Nurnen was a marvel! But you know that. You have seen vast waters before. I did not expect to feel the same reaction as I felt at the Grey Havens, but I did. Sauron could poison the deeps, but never destroy the blessing upon them. Indeed, it made the whole trip worthwhile right there. I had always wanted to feel a real ship under me on a real sea.
So here we are. We have escorted the entire shipment of food safely to Nurn, with no bandits daring to even try our double numbers (if bandits were indeed ever the problem--I suspect corrupt deliverers.) Upon arriving, we have found the Nurnings no longer in the grip of starvation, thanks to Frodo's good offices, but prospering precariously nonetheless, so that the current drought could easily tip them back into the hunger that they knew before. So they applauded our food with touching enthusiasm and greeted us as saviors.
I have, as you asked, looked in on your son, which I would have done anyway, you old fool; you needn't have made a formal request of it. I will be as honest with you as long friendship demands. Frodo is not entirely in the best of shape, but neither is he half as bad off as reports have made him out to be, and indeed he seems to be on the mend. His eyes do have a feverish look, and sometimes his mood becomes hectic, but he acts with all good sense (even if his words sound strange) tackles whatever work presents itself with a robust will, and shows nothing of the inexorable decline of my cousin Frodo. To the contrary, everyone I have talked to has assured me that his condition has improved, and judging from the relief in their faces, rather than evasiveness, I believe them. (Which makes me wonder what the poor lad must have suffered before.) He weeps rather easily, but after all these years of knowing you, I think that just runs in the family. He does say odd things at times. According to his own account, however, that is because he has lived through enough oddities to last a lifetime, and it cannot help but affect his frame of reference.
The lad has gone through an awful lot, Sam, and it shows, but he's made of tough material, as you well know. He has come through one shock after another in better shape than anybody had a right to hope. And the King promises to look after him personally tomorrow night, to see what his "hands of a healer" can do. If I may make so bold, Frodo Gardner seems in some sense to mirror the land itself; it almost appears as though he has joined the land in illness, in order to lead it back to health with his own recovery. If that involves some kind of gardener's magic, you would know better than I.
His main concern right now is May's protection. He obsesses on it. I have reassured him that we have the adoption procedures well in hand, that just as soon as we can track down Buttercup Klaefield, we shall put May beyond the danger of any blackmailer. But that does not console him. He has developed an exaggerated sense on how fast a rumor could travel from here to the Shire, and became downright frantic when he heard that Mattie never reported to her last post.
I do hope that the Lady Eowyn finds the messenger before I do! I know that Mattie is a sick creature, and I should extend to her compassion, but right now I find that hard to do. She hurt your son bad, Sam--body, mind, heart, and soul. No doubt he would prefer to tell you the tale himself, and I will let him, but her most recent stunt horrified me as few things have since Sauron toppled and we scoured the Shire. Yet whenever my anger threatens to overpower me, I remember that nightmarish pass and pity moves me once again.
By way of alternative, Frodo now openly courts a human woman, called "Crookyteeth". She's a pretty thing when she smiles with her mouth closed, rosy-cheeked and bright eyed, somewhat rounder than the local run (which I suspect your son has had something to do with; feeding her dainties appears to be his favorite pastime.) It worries me, of course; he hasn't thought this through. But I fear to say anything for fear of hurting him any further. Right now he needs whatever anodyne he can seize for the broken heart with which Mattie has left him. We can but hope that when he heals a little further he will come to his senses by himself. I have had some private words with Bergil on the matter; he agrees to let things go for now, but to step in if they get any seriouser. At least I can report that she is a sweet-natured lass, intrigued by virtue and unlikely to drag Frodo down, despite her Mordor upbringing. And she does care for Frodo's well-being and looks after him kindly. I hope she will care enough to let go when the time comes.
At any rate, we had a splendid feast at Frodo's home (a dreary tower, but he has done wonders to make it comfortable, nonetheless.) Let's see--we had myself and Frodo, of course. That's two. And Strider made three. Bergil and his bride Elenaril, for five. Elenaril's student and Frodo's former man, Fishenchips, who is in some kind of disgrace at the moment and waited tables--that's six. And Crookyteeth made seven, and they invited over a mysterious blacksmith named Lanethil who (if this makes any sense) seemed somehow familiarly exotic to me. (I could have sworn I heard him and Strider whispering together in what seemed like a strange dialect of Sindarin, the only part of which I could decipher sounding like, "I see I am not the only master of disguises here." But Strider approves the man, and he does make pleasant conversation, so that's good enough for me.) All right, that's eight. And the ninth was a peculiar little girl in Frodo's custody, "for treatment," he says, who seemed overwhelmed by so much company; she stuck to Frodo or Lanethil like a lizard to a rock.
Strider kept his cards close to his chest at first. You know him. Eyes downcast, shoulders slightly slumped, "Yes Ma'am" and "No sir" every step of the way--most convincing. While Frodo, Crookyteeth, and Fishenchips whipped up dinner, though, he just sat by the fireplace, smoking his pipe and brooding on the flames like he could read them, with his hood cast low. Sound familiar?
Bergil finally muttered something rather too audibly about how "the old beggar" ought to earn his keep in the kitchen and let the master of the house rest. Whereupon Strider stood up straight as straight--all seven feet of him, bless him!--and cast off his cloak. The rascal bore the Star of the Dunedain upon his brow the entire time! And whipping away his hood parted his hair enough to show the treasure brightly in the candlelight. But did he declare his name? Not our fellow! No, humbly as you please, he said, "Of cooking I know little, save for the huntsman's craft to make do in the wild. Yet of healing I have greater lore. Which service would you prefer of me?" and then he broke out in a most unkingly grin while Bergil fell to his knees and gaped at him. After which Strider helped Bergil up to his feet and said, "But I would have thought you might have remembered the origin of my household name, Telcontar. Or were you too young, then?" If he could make out whatever Bergil stammered, I could not. Crookyteeth saved the day by calling us all to the supper-table, where the King took the head of the table and hid his light no longer.
An odd, awkward moment occurred shortly afterwards, when Lanethil brought out a bottle of homemade wine. The room went silent and all eyes went to your son, who turned as brilliant a red as the wine itself. Then, strangely enough, Lanethil said, "I am sorry. I forgot," and put the bottle aside. This did not escape the King's notice, of course, but he merely smiled and said that the kind of healing he intended could best be managed by a preparatory abstention anyway. So we made our toasts in goat's milk. Yet between the King's wit and that of Lanethil, we had no need of wine. (I decided not to mention at the table, then, that my wedding gift to Bergil and Elenaril was a barrel of that same Golden Perch beer that I once promised to share with him when he became old enough to appreciate it.) A peculiar business, Sam--I thought you should know.
But oh, what a magnificent meal your son put together! He can do more with month-old preserves than most hobbits can manage with garden-fresh ingredients. Not that he didn't have some of that, too, to work with, fruit of his own labors, plus interesting local herbs and produce. For instance, he made this dessert out of some manner of desert tree-bean flour, with buckwheat and a rosy syrup made from the fruit of a thorny plant called the kaktush. And oh, it was heaven in the mouth!
(All the same, I feel no pressing desire to cultivate kaktush in my own garden! The needle-like thorns have a tiny hook on the ends that make them hurt twice as bad pulled out as they did going in. And they fit neatly through the tiniest chinks between rings of mail. All I can say is, if you take a step backwards anywhere in Mordor, make sure you glance behind yourself, first! But you probably already know that.)
I sat next to Bergil and we had a lot of catching up to do. My what an active life he has led since coming into manhood! Even his boyhood after our parting had its adventures, goat-herding in Ithilien, on the very foothills of the Shadowed Land, where more than wolves might come to menace the herds. Even the highest born of Ithilien put their children to such work, for at least a year of their lives, figuring that it toughens them and teaches them resourcefulness. As a parent, myself, I am not sure that I approve. Not all of the children come back. Long years of war have made of them a hardened people, but hopefully a few generations under the black and silver banner of Telcontar will heal them over time.
Well, it's tight accommodations again, since none dare venture forth by night in Nurn, and dinner-parties become slumber-parties afterwards. I share my room with Fishenchips, who at least makes for quiet company. I can hear Strider and Lanethil talking softly in the room next door, but can't make out a word they say. Frodo offered the King his own bedroom on the top floor, of course, four times the size of ours, but Strider would have none of it, insisting that he and the blacksmith had much to discuss between them. Then Frodo offered it to me, but you will shortly understand why I declined in favor of this room on the middle-floor of three. All dutiful offers made and turned aside, he finally gave his lodgings to Crookyteeth, while he sleeps downstairs on a padded stone bench jutting from the wall. I promise you, as one father to another, to intervene if ever I hear footsteps coming up or down the stairs in the middle of the night--I do not trust these human ears to catch the sound of a hobbit trying to be quiet. I remember youth, Sam.
We had all better get a good night's sleep. The King will conduct Frodo's healing tomorrow evening, after a day of preparatory fasting, and even he feels awe at the prospect--I know him well enough to tell. However dreadful the malice of the Nazgul, they were but men. Here Elessar must contend with a maia--stripped of power, maybe, but full of an ancient cunning since before the shaping of the world. Yet our friend has ever felt a healthy twinge of fear before any great enterprise, and harnesses it to inform bold action with the wisdom of alertness. That is his way.
Oh well--at least I shall not have to fast! Tar Elessar is no dwarf, to require the combined energy of a large community behind him. Only the King and your son, and a couple of healers in our company, shall go hungry on the day. For my part, I look forward to learning what Frodo has taught this maiden of his about the culinary arts--especially since I discovered in conversation that she understands the distinctions between first and second breakfast and can cook for each! I never met an innkeeper among men who did, at least not since we left Bree.
I will write more later.