The Adventures
of
Frodo Gardner

Volume VII
Now Lost, Lost to Those From the East, Is Valimar!
By Dolores J. Nurss

Chapter 7, Part 217
Harding's Party
July 19, 1452

Frodo stepped into the inn’s hospitable dimness, where musicians on flute and drum and the curious stringed instruments of the east made the air sparkle with the sort of melancholy mirth that Frodo had come to love so well, punctuated now and then by laughter and clapping, and interspersed with the congenial conversations of men. The beverages of solace perfumed the air in a friendly way, in the inn’s close confines. Frodo found it hard to remember, sometimes, that he himself had caused this cheery place to come into business in the first place.
 
Harding hailed Frodo with a great wave of his arm. “Welcome and well met, Master Gardner! Here, have a seat. Barkeep, a round of...a mug of tea for our good hobbit. Chilled–I told you to have some set by to cool for him. There we are!”
 
Frodo felt like he ought to feel grateful for the special consideration, but it only underlined his sense of not fitting in with a crowd already in a merry mood and getting merrier by the minute. It also felt conspicuous when Bergil and Fishenchips, feigning casualness, got up from different places in the tavern and sat down to either side of him, in effect creating a kind of lanky fence around him with their bodies; it irked and comforted him.
 
My my; I can just feel the tension thrumming through you! Are you sure you would not like a little something to relax?
 
“Shut up, Sauron,” Frodo muttered and took a deep gulp of bittersweet tea. Belatedly he realized that he had tried to pretend it was beer, and felt even more crushed that his imagination had failed to relax him.
 
Ah, but my poor hobbit–no one would blame you, just this once. Even your jailors beside you would understand, after what you went through with Mattie yesterday, especially if you tell them, also, that just the day before you have suffered exile from your beloved home, by that selfsame king which you mistook for a friend.
 
“You understand nothing about it.”
 
Oh, I understand more than you realize. I feel your homesickness, your tension, and your thirst. I felt you lying awake last night, long after the cookies had spent their power to drive me from your side. Do you not remember our conversation, then?
 
“All too well.”
 
My concern for you wells up in me like tears, Frodo. Do you not feel–excruciatingly–the need to make merry, just this once, in a land that laughs too rarely, to bond with your fellows...to forget for awhile the cares of the world?
 
“Corrupter of everything! Leave me be!”
 
You do not mean that. You hang on every word.
 
“No I do not!”
 
Merely a trial, then. One flagon, maybe two, to prove that you can taste a bit and stop.
 
“I have already made that trial, with Lanethil.”
 
One trial only? Now how could that suffice to tell you anything for certain?
 
Aloud Frodo asked, “Where is Lanethil, by the way?”
 
Silence fell around him. Harding at last replied, “He could not come. He’s taken ill, Pearl says.” An elf? Frodo thought. But of course Harding wouldn’t know that. “Still,” the man continued, “he did send me this fancy cup by way of a wedding-present.” And the man held up what he’d been drinking from: an exquisite piece of work, a tankard chased in silver.
 
“May I see that?”
 
“Sure you can.” Harding started to pass it over, stopped, drained it dry, and then handed it on. Frodo bristled; did the fool think he would steal a drink right in front of everyone? Nevertheless the beauty of the flagon soon drove darker thoughts from his mind. It depicted Harding himself, in nearly-beardless youth yet muscled already by his labors, fending off several attacking orcs with one arm, while cleaving through the chain of a fellow-slave in the shelter of his shield with the other.
 
“Impressive!” Frodo said, handing it back. “Did this really happen?”
 
“Yup–gloried up a bit, but ya know how artists are. When Mt. Doom busted wide open (and oh man, was that ever a sight, though I thought the blast would drive me deaf!) we made our bid for freedom. Most of the orcs ran about like beheaded geese, but enough pulled tegether to give us misery. Still, I put a stop to that, and drove the last orc out o’ Seaside, with good men behind me. Ye can’t put a slave to makin’ yer weapons for ye, and expect him to stay unarmed.” He chuckled at the memory. “While the orcs slept by day, see, leavin’ me chained to me anvil, I had no trouble diggin’ a hole under the wall’s south corner to hide me a sword in.”
 
And so the conversation turned back to those marvelous days when the older folk among them saw the Dark Lord fall. Sauron soon had to give up on trying to contradict everything said, his voice growing feebler and feebler as Frodo admired the courage of these rough men, their love of freedom, and truth be told their love for each other in the face of hardship, which had enabled them to pull together, where the orcs fell to chaos without their master’s will to force them to a common cause.
 
“How about yerself, Master Gardner?” someone called out. “I bet yer Daddy told ye a tale or two about his part in all this.”
 
“Aye!” Another shouted, and another after him. “Aye, tell us about Mt. Doom’s fall, up close and personal!” “Hear, hear! From the horse’s mouth!”
 
Before he could protest, they put him up atop the bar, and Frodo suddenly realized that he had never told the story before without a beer or two to help the words flow. And no sooner did he think it than a scrawny arm reached up with a brimming cup. “Here ye go, laddie–story-tellin’s thirsty work.”
 
Bergil clamped down on the man’s wrist, causing the drink to splash all over Frodo’s clothes. Everyone fell quiet as Frodo stood there, dripping and suddenly chilled, in the midst of delectable fumes.
 
“Whatcher problem?” the man cried. Frodo saw the sunken cheeks and eyes lit with an outraged gleam, the scraggly beard and hair that had not seen a comb since who knew when. “What’s wrong with ‘im, anyway?” Sores pocked the man’s skin everywhere.
 
“Easy, friend,” Bergil said, smiling genially while his grip forced the man to sit back down.
 
But as soon as Bergil let go the man leaped up again. “He’s one o’ them, in’t he? Won’t lift a cup with ‘is fellows ‘cause he aren’t no fellow! He’s come to make us all slaves agin!” And with that he lunged for Frodo, who leaped backwards and tumbled behind the bar.
 
Frodo felt at his bruises as the barkeep ran out to try and stop as much damage as possible. There, in the dark behind the bar, the hobbit listened to the chaos of smashing furniture, shouts, and over all the man screaming all manner of things in rapid-fire words: “Their kind never held with likker fer the slaves–why d’ya think he gives us orders right an’ left? Did we ever toil so hard ‘cept under Sauron’s whip? He’ll have us all in chainnnnnns!” Bergil seemed to struggle harder than usual to subdue the man, by the sound of it.
 
Right in front of you, Frodo.
 
Frodo had just gotten up on his hands and knees, and now found himself staring at the bottle, stashed on the bottom shelf behind the bar. He sat down on the floor, unable to take his eyes off of the image on the label: a stag’s head with a snifter between the antlers. The tavern must have imported it recently, for it showed little dust or fingerprints.
 
You already smell of spirits, so no one will suspect. And you have just had one shock after another, poor thing.
 
“Shut up, Sauron,” And he tried, oh how hard he tried to mean it. But he shook all over to think of what so huge a creature as a man could have done to him with his bare hands–might still do, if the brigand eluded Bergil long enough. Memory filled him, of Eowyn in delirium, whirling him by his ankle into a rib-busting collision. A chair hurled over the bar into the rows of bottles behind him, raining down on him shards of glass and sharp-sweet scented liquors.
 
Poor Frodo. Who could blame you? Not that they would know.
 
He watched his hand as though witnessing the acts of a stranger, felt it close on the bottle, the slick glass surface cool to the touch, watched a hook lower around his wrist and gently tug it away.
 
“Fishenchips. Thank heavens.” And he sank his head back on the kneeling man’s chest. The hook did not move, but the thick fingers of the left hand plucked the glass out from Frodo’s hair with the delicacy of a surgeon.
 
Eventually Bergil and the rest subdued the man and bundled him off to the House of Healing, then came back and resumed the party. The barkeep returned to sweep up the broken glass; Fishenchips and Frodo rose and joined the others; Frodo winced to see glass-cuts on Fishenchip’s knees. Everyone forgot about wishing to hear Sam’s adventures, although by now Sam’s son had finally figured out what to say. Instead they watched a dull-eyed woman pull off her clothes in a weary semblance of a dance.
 
This time it did not impress Frodo in the least, the gyrations of a body that did not belong to Mattie, to music which could not compare to anything his wife could play. Frodo wondered how Mattie fared, after all that she'd been through, and then he realized just how betrayed she would feel if he came home smelling of alcohol–especially after she herself had foregone the pipe yesterday despite her worse distress.
 
So, after the dance, as the woman put her clothes back on unnoticed in a corner, and while the men raised toasts to Harding’s pending nuptials, too tipsy by now to notice a hobbit’s comings and goings, Frodo bought a few hour’s time in a room upstairs, and had a basin sent up with soap and water, and washed his clothes while Fishenchips sat by and cleaned his own cuts.
 
“It would not be like this Fish, I hope you understand, if I could only get away from Sauron,” Frodo murmured for the umpteenth time. “This has nothing to do with the real me, nothing at all.”
 
Fishenchips hardly acknowledged the words, continuing to chatter on about the wonders of human physiology that he studied in the House of Healing. By the time he finished marveling over all of the articulations in the human foot and ankle, and how they interacted to create all manner of motions and postures, the linen had already dried in the desert air, so they left in good time with the others at the dimming of the day, reaching the Tower House at the same time that Nibs drove home with the tub.
 
Frodo unlocked the door and let the men in to haul it upstairs, trying hard not to stumble with weariness lest his Uncle get the wrong idea, feeling abnormally self-conscious about every step he took, and appallingly tired for someone who had not labored with his limbs since the morning. Before Nibs could say a word of greeting, Frodo told him, “Your flask. In the pocket underneath your backpack’s flap. Find some other place for it. Do not tell me.”
 
He trudged up the stairs without waiting for reply, hearing the clank ahead of him of the tub settling to the floor. He paid the men, and let Nibs show them out. He went to sprawl upon his bed, but found instead a note there waiting for him. Mattie would not come home that night, it said. She had some business to attend to, and could not likely resolve it by nightfall. It said. Not one word of where or with whom or why. He crumpled the note up against his breast, curled up on their bed, and wept.
 

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