For Into Darkness Fell His Star
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 32, Part 173
(Peregrin Took's letter continues:)
June 10, 1452--Another blistering day in Mordor. If one may sweat off pounds, I shall be positively dashing by the time I reach home. In no time at all these borrowed trousers may actually fit. You were lucky, Sam, in your own venture into Mordor, that you arrived in a cooler season.
At any rate, I prefer the day, however hot, to the night. I keep having the same nightmare lately, over and over. Once again I stare into the palantir. Once again I see that horrid flaming eye swell up to fill the entire globe. Once again I feel words forced into my head to spew forth later--crowding my mind, bulging inside till I feel the pressure in my ears, my head ringing with the Dark Lord's malice. I wake up gasping, my pulse pounding, my head full of pain. This can happen several times in a single night. Oh for the Shire again, and dreams of the common run!
We have departed the Sea of Nurnen into the Backwards River and proceed, as expected, backwards--upstream. The men groan at their oars, wearing loose and hooded robes despite the heat, to try and fend off the biting insects that come out along the river at this time of year, which they cannot slap away and yet still do their work. Veils, too, they wear, and now I see the sense of this mysterious eastern garb, for I can watch the bites swell on their faces wherever the cloth exposes skin. I feel enough on my own face and neck to remind me uncomfortably of Midgewater Marsh. The sails hang limp; no wind will stir to give us any aid.
Ah well, the Midgewater Marsh led soon enough to Rivendell. Sooner or later things turn out the way they should. Not easily, always, and certainly not for those who give up too soon, but often enough for those who work at it, or at least for their heirs, or their descendants. And what a lot of twaddle to be thinking over the inconvenience of mosquito-bites! What is the matter with me? You know me, Sam--I do not like to dwell on gloomy things.
Mordor is what is the matter with me. You know it as well as I do. The sooner I cross the Anduin, the happier I'll be. And the sooner I can coax your son across, the better for us all. Poor Frodo! If a month's visit can drag me down so, what must most of a year have done to him?
At least I do not suffer as many bites as he has. If Frodo now misses the sensible long sleeves of standard Shire wear, he would rather die than admit it to me, although I have glimpsed him scratching his bumps in a frenzy the minute he thought himself out of sight. Typical tweenager. Heavens--I wish he was a typical tweenager!
Mattie, of course, hardly notices the bites at all. Yet I have seen to it that she become more aware of her surroundings than formerly. I have given in to her request that I ration out her usage of the gum, feeling no temptation to the drug, myself. It surprised me that she would ask this of me, and I confess that it touched me a bit. She is, after all, somebody's daughter. And I believe that this request of hers indicates some level of sincerity in her attempt to break free of the poppy's hold in the long term. Of course she might hold this goal forever in that long term, just slightly and conveniently out of reach. We shall have to see.
So now I know what poppy gum looks like. It is a foul substance, just the sort of thing you'd expect from Sauron, black and sticky, rolled up into little balls that resemble nothing so much as the droppings of rabbits, distressingly still packaged in tins with the Brandybuck logo on it. I can imagine Merry's horror. Per Matilda's instructions, I shall cut slightly smaller pieces every day to give to her, at the times we have agreed upon.
The poor wretch does tug at the heartstrings, though. Something about her reminds me of a fresh-hatched chick--her bony limbs and her swollen eyes, and the way she curls up against the gunwale, weak within her drug. We take it on faith that chicks out of the shell will someday fluff up and look about them brightly on a brand-new life. Is this, I wonder, what Frodo sees in her? But many things resemble others with which they have nothing actual in common. How many times has Frodo placed faith in her before and received only disappointment in return? The last occasion did not last twenty-four hours.
And yet, when she smiles, that missing tooth reminds me of a child so much that it breaks my heart. It hurts all the more to learn that she lost it when a victim of her thieving beat her up. Children grow teeth back; adults do not. How much has she lost, like the tooth, forever?
Frodo does try to feed her up; on that much we can agree. I cannot see this little thing of sticks and ravaged skin surviving the sort of ordeal that she has described to me, not as she is. I am not without pity, Sam. I urge seconds and desserts upon the waif. She will need reserves to draw on, and she has none. I do want to see her well again--in the Lady Eowyn's care, as far from our boy as we can arrange.
Oh, that a maiden of hobbit-kind should have ever sunk so low!
June 11, 1452--A strong wind whipped up overnight, and fills the sails again. The sailors have shipped oars, grateful for the assistance, but work nearly as hard adjusting sheets and ropes this way and that to make the best of it for as long as it shall last. Meanwhile I thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle of clouds blowing across the sky, the most beautiful thing that I have seen in months, way up there above it all. Though I have learned not to put confidence in clouds in this harsh land. Still, you never know; rain must fall sometime.
Frodo certainly does find beauty in unexpected places, himself--a disorder of the tastes, I imagine, that this awful land has afflicted upon him. He pointed out, for instance, a twisted, tortured thorn tree by the river, its riven bark like something clawed. He found it lovely, apparently. I thought it looked hungry, and full of pain. "See how the water ripples about the prow!" he urged me--and I happened to look just in time to see a dead creature of some disgusting species float belly-up in the foam. "Feel that bracing wind!" he cried, of the noisome air that bloats our sails. Well, he likes Mordor and I do not; it is as simple as that.
As for the horrible noise that the sailors make by way of song--something that sets my teeth on edge--he could sit rapturously for hours listening to it, sometimes playing along on his clay flute with the most wistful look possessing his poor face. He says that you have to understand it to appreciate it. I would just as soon be spared.
Ah, Sam, lads like him need jigs and springlerings, not caterwauls and wails! They certainly do not need to understand such "music"! But this strangeness, this taste for the unwholesome infuses everything about him now, like his preference for burning food, so that normal, homey fare tastes like nothing to him anymore. He has lived too long in Mordor. How long did you spend in Mordor, Sam--less than a month? Enough to have nightmares for the rest of your life, by your own account. Yet he thinks of it as home, these days, and already feels eager to return!
Not if I have my say.
Or maybe I judge him too harshly. Maybe some grace puts that sparkle in his eyes--grace to bear the burdens of this place with sometimes swelling joy. Maybe virtue, not foulness, leads him to find beauty where I can only find tedium and dismay. If I cannot adjust to the conditions of this land, might I be the crazy one, by comparison?
We spoke a lot today, he and I, about farming under the special circumstances of Mordor, and I have to admit that he did sound rational. Perhaps trees in the middle of fields makes sense after all, when the sun burns hot enough to crisp the tender leaves , though I am not sure I follow him in all of this talk about "deep mineral cycling", "root structure sponges" and "moisture expiration". Our fathers farmed all right for generations without knowing any of that. Sometimes I think he made up half those phrases, and sometimes they almost make sense.
Well, I shall leave it to the King to sort it out, on Frodo's re-examination. The lad might turn out all right after all, or close enough for practical purposes. I do feel rather uncomfortable, now that it comes to it, about challenging Strider's initial assessment. Yet our King has made mistakes before.
Please excuse the spatter of ink. I seem to have fallen asleep right over my letter. It's these dratted nights full of bad dreams that have worn me out. Not that my impromptu nap did me any good. I went straight into yet another nightmare, gripping that accursed palantir, unable to let go. Is this the sort of life that Frodo now mistakes for normal?
June 12, 1452--I have been shaving Mattie's ration a bit close, but I do exactly what she has requested of me. It leaves her edgy and a little weepy, and sneezing all day long. To settle her a bit we have spent the morning swapping tales. In consequence, I have learned more Bree history than I thought such a sleepy land could hold.
I never thought much about it before, but of course many great legends of the ages had to pass through Bree to reach all manner of memorable places and events, it being situated on so central a crossroad. And naturally they left stories of their own behind, swapped beside the Prancing Pony's very own hearthfire, or that of whatever inns preceded it. Besides that, we hobbits might have reached our true and final form in Breeland, before establishing our own domain in the Shire. Breeland history is our own. I shall have to give thought to including more of their accounts in my library.
Did you know that at one time their citizens all banded together to battle a young dragon that lit right in the middle of Bree's main street, fled from Angmar? I didn't either. Mattie makes a funny tale of it, the wrath of scores of housewives, big and little, together visiting upon the poor reptile their collective arsenal of brooms and boiling cauldrons, pitchforks, skillets, and rolling-pins, kitchen-knives and hearthside pokers, in a fury all at once, till the bewildered creature fled on limping claws and tattered wings. I have no idea whether this is a true tale, or a confection like one of your troll songs, but it made good listening all the same. I never pictured Mattie so merry! Truly a good laugh has curative powers.
So far we have sailed without incident, for which I thank my luck--I've always had more than my share of it, I think. Well, I should see some luck in something! Certainly not in cards, lately. Your son has become quite good at games of chance and skill; I daresay that's what one picks up from the kind of company he keeps. We had a few games last night, when I preferred to sit up late. We have been playing for trinkets and buttons and the like; if we played for anything more serious I swear I'd come home to you a pauper in a barrel, bereft even of these patched and ill-fit trews!
The sailors mutter among themselves, pessimistic lot that they are, not at all cheered that the wind has failed them once again. They do not find it at all canny to have come so far without the least glimpse of a monster, not in summertime when foul things like to float on the warm top currents or sun themselves on the banks. To hear the crew talking over lunch sends chills up my spine. But I keep them happy and well-fed (they do enjoy the Shire custom of six square meals a day, though it astonishes them) and soon the conversation turns to other things. Most people find it harder to believe in the inevitability of misfortune when they enjoy full bellies.
I wrote too soon--we just had an incident. Not a monster, more's the pity, but your son shaking things up with another display of mental instability. I happened to casually mention what a shame it was that the Gaffer died before he was old enough to remember much about him, and he went completely off his rocker!
First he insisted, in increasing hysteria, that the Gaffer had lived nearly to his tweens, and then he demanded to know whose wake he had attended the year that the Shire banished Ted Sandyman. I answered of course that it marked Tolman Cotton's untimely end--an especial blow to your family, Sam, as I recall, not only for Tom being the same age as you and your boon companion since childhood, and you having married Tom's sister, but Tom also having married your sister Marigold--a wound close to the heart for both families. Didn't Frodo remember something so grievous as that? In his own household? Frodo burst into tears when I asked, and cried that yes, yes of course he did, but all scrambled, all wrong. Then he commenced to wailing, louder and louder, about time going out of whack again, and how could he know what was real anymore, and strange words to that effect, tearing his hair and causing so much disruption that it threw the sailors off their rowing rhythm and the Captain demanded that we do something.
O dreadful day! Left to myself I think I could have soothed Frodo in short order, but the Captain just made things worse and worse, yelling at him the more upset he became. Then Mattie begged me to let her blow smoke into Frodo's face to sedate him, but if he wailed before he really shrieked at that suggestion! I could not hold him anymore; he broke the belt that I had gripped and ran clear across the ship away from us, careless of who he collided with. This did not please the crew, who started to mutter and rise up from their oars. I tell you Sam, I did not know what to do--I have seldom seen a hobbit so distraught, nor found myself trapped in such company since my journey to Fangorn Forest.
In the end the Captain took matters into his own hands, and that made the situation worst of all. First he tried to knock Frodo unconscious, but missed, slowed by the unaccustomed meals that I had fed him. Not so we hobbits! I held the man at sword-point and told him that if he ever tried to injure my nephew again, I'd see his blood dye the whole deck red! By now Frodo had leaped to the riggings to escape us, climbing in blind panic. But I am one, and small, and could not fend off all the men at once. Mattie was no help, sobbing by the prow, horrified at what her last attempt at assistance had wrought.
So at this point the Captain, eyeing my blade, ordered his sailors to wrestle Frodo down "without bruising him too much", though bruises he and they shared in plenty, when the whole knot of them fell from the riggings together. Thank heavens he had lost Sting with the belt, or who knows how this might have gone!
The Captain then ordered that they shut him up without hurting him. I assumed that they would bind and gag him, but the scoundrels forced their grog down his throat, to "settle his nerves and weaken his limbs". Oh Sam, it was awful! Frodo fought like a frightened cat, and they had to catch him three times before they got any into him--once he nearly leaped over the side; had I not seen that, I would have perished trying to slaughter them all to put a stop to this! It brought up horrible memories of the Uruk-Hai forcing the same drink down my own throat on the long run to Isengard. Yet I do have to admit that it did me good then, and it did Frodo good this time, too.
Because he did calm down, as suddenly as clapping a lid over a burning pan. When the louts drew back Mattie and I rushed to his side. He showed a weary yet surprised sort of relief in his face, as he slurred out something to me in a quieter voice, about how maybe Sauron couldn't make all that much use of what he never consented to.
Then he let us help him to his bunk. There he clasped my hand, and peering over the hammock's edge with wide and dizzy eyes, he assured me that he would be all right, he realized now that he had simply returned to a slightly different "time-thread" on the last occasion that things had gone wrong (whatever that meant) but surely time had not actually slipped around since then. He also said, out of the blue, that there was much you never told me, Sam, that perhaps you should. And finally he turned his face away and mumbled something incoherent that might have been "I miss water sheen" or something like that. I held his hand until sleep overcame him, and then a little while longer.
After that the Captain and I had words. He wanted damages paid, for time lost chasing and subduing Frodo, and injuries to the crew. I told him I already paid more than the standard fare in the meals that I had served, and besides, he would have lost far less time if he had left Frodo to me, instead of dousing the fire in him with oil--'twas I that should demand recompense, not he. He countered that I had not informed him that I traveled with a madman. I finally did pay him, less than he wanted and more than I should have, but we have a couple more days to put up with each other and both thought it best to compromise. But I shall never sail on this ship again, Sam, not if the Captain knew the secret True West current and offered to take me there.
Now I sit with my back to our cabin door, blocking it and writing, while over by the prow Mattie smokes her ration, looking contemplative, like her pipe held merely pipeweed, and she just wandered lost in thought, not in disordered visions. The smell of spilled grog, splashed all over everything, and fainter whiffs of opia smoke, cloy the air with a perfume of tragedy.
Oh Sam, he seemed so normal yesterday! I questioned his tastes, yes, but I almost convinced myself that I was simply being an old fuddy-duddy, most comfortable with the music and aesthetics of my youth. Yet every time I start to doubt my assessment of his sanity, Frodo does something new and alarming.
He should awaken four or five hours from now, too full of weariness and headache to cause much chaos, though hopefully fit to eat a late supper, if I insist the cook should save him some, as I intend to do. But he seems to have calmed already, apparently explaining his delusions to himself to his own satisfaction. I think he will be manageable. I hope he will. I would hate past any pain the thought of hauling him in chains to Minas Tirith. I imagine that any links I could buy in Riverborn would hang heavy and gall the skin.
Well, he awakened on schedule, ate dinner, and has returned to bed, or at least to the cabin. He spent the entire meal eating with one hand and holding my own hand in the other. He said that he feared pouring himself more grog if I let go. Poor boy! Poor demented boy! He told me to knock him out next time. I replied that I could never do that to him. He looked at me queerly and said I'd be amazed at what I could do in a pinch. I reminded him that I had been in plenty of pinches before he was born, and I still do not take to knocking loved ones unconscious. He said it would have been kinder.
Now I hear him, pacing in the cabin, working himself up again, perhaps. I had better go in and see if I can settle him down some, maybe tell him a funny story, get his mind off of things. It does my old eyes no good to write by lantern-light, in any case. (And why do I feel old? Sixty-two should be the prime of life! It seems that every morning lately I wake up drained.)
I fear I may soon run out of funny stories, though, and circumstances do not lend themselves to writing new ones. Minas Tirith seems a million miles away. But at least we have passed the halfway point and should reach Riverborn soon--an important milestone. Though what Poros Pass might do to Frodo, I fear to think.