Now Lost, Lost to Those From the East, Is Valimar!
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 33, Part 243
Another to Consider
December 18, 1452
Frodo leafed through the stained and rippled pages in the flower-press.
“December 15, 1452–I have tasted of the pools of the hyacinth-guarded waters, and found them sweet and clean. The plants float on round little bladders and spread out runners that can enmesh the entire surface of a pond. I do not know what the flowers themselves look like; I have only found a few withered petals still clinging to their vines, not enough to judge anything clearly by. Yet I suspect that your dream spoke truly, Papa, that they would resemble hyacinths indeed in spring. Even better news: the pods where flowers once had bloomed have ripened, full of seed, some of which I have taken. I shall know eventually what will flower from them, if I should live to see an end to this adventure.
“Thank you, Papa, for telling me your dream. This should save lives. If I have failed my mission in other regards, this one find alone will have justified my journey to Mordor in itself. If Mordor needs one thing more than any other, for man or beast or crop, it has to be good, pure water.
“I saw a wolf lap at the same pool, across from the other side. I almost hated her for what her kind (or close enough) had done to Bleys. Then I realized that I did the same as the wargs, and felt a bit uncomfortable following that line of thinking. Much water lay between the wolf and us, so I felt about as safe as one ever can in these lands. The beast trotted along on her own shore for awhile, pacing us. It seemed a strange thing to feel so secure with such a dangerous creature flanking us, watching, as mild as a sheep-dog. But that is just the sort of quirk, the unexpected twist, that makes me love this land, despite everything.”
Frodo smiled as he reread the next part:
“In less potable water we washed the bedding graciously given to us by the Iingolug-Hai. Bless them, but it stank! We finally had to light a fire to dry it all completely, so now the blankets smell like peat-smoke, which at least improves upon the original odor. Nevertheless we feel nothing but gratitude to have anything warm to wrap around us. Ice films the waters of the marsh and crackles where we step. But at least it helps to firm the mud up underfoot.”
Now Frodo’s smile grew wistful, hardly there at all.
“Ah, water! As Uncle Pippin loves to sing, 'O water cold we may pour at need, down a thirsty throat and be glad indeed!' It may sound strange, but sometimes when I drink from the waterskin, I imagine it to be a wineskin. Then, when a few deep swallows accomplish nothing save to quench my thirst, I feel a moment’s disappointment. And then, in the very next moment, I feel relief. Will it always be thus, I wonder?"
Lanceolate leaves hid much of the next page, attached to a translucent slice of tuber. Frodo lifted it aside and reviewed his own words.
“December 16, 1452–I am afraid that we have had to throw away much of the orc food as inedible to our kind. Much like the elves from which they spring, orcs enjoy immunity to most of the sicknesses of men and hobbits, or at least a greater tolerance. So it happens that, lacking an elvish aesthetic for all things fresh and uncorrupted, the orcs do not bother much with sanitation, nor turn up their noses at rotten fare, which they can eat with impunity. Indeed, I got the distinct impression that much which would disgust you or me impresses them as gourmet fare, fermented especially to their tastes. (If, as rumor would have it, some of the larger orcs carry a bit of troll in their ancestry, then I can almost see how the treeish-side of them might impart a taste for compost.)
“It little matters, however, now that we have secured good water enough to last us many days, for we have learned so much from the gifts of the wargs (before their reversion) that we can gather nourishment enough everywhere we go. It comforts me for the loss of Bleys, to think that he died to some purpose, in an encounter that might feed thousands, once we bring back our lore. If we ever find our way back.
“Or even if not. After all that I have been through, I know now that my mission means more to the Powers of the West than my less-than-satisfactory self. Whatever end I might meet out here, if I do die in this marsh, I believe that I could, as my final living act, stash this flower-press somewhere safe and dry. And then, by some grace no less remarkable than Bilbo Baggins finding a ring in the dirt of a goblin tunnel, some traveler after me would come across the press and bring it home. I take a lot of comfort in the thought.
“It takes a deal of faith to cling to even that. We have run out of stony ridges. We spend all day now meandering only a mile or less, searching out ground firm enough to hold up our feet, with so many twists and turns that for the past couple days the sun has surprised us with where it set, for no one could keep track of directions here.
“I wish for full-on winter, everything frozen solid, no more of this stepping onto a seeming-surface only to plunge one’s foot through a skin of ice into frigid water. Yet I do not know, really, how much winter I could take. Sometimes my toes ache so badly with the cold that we have to stop and warm them up again before I can walk. So help me, if I had access to boots, I would wear them. It seems incredible to me now that I just stood there and let that man shave the fur right off my feet! Much of what I had recently accepted now bewilders and appalls me.
“Mattie leads as much as she can, with the guidance of the Four Sisters, yet these minor maiar have suffered much wounding and confusion, themselves, and so they have their limits. They can keep us alive; that is the main thing. They do not seem to comprehend, however, the concept of destination. If they find us in a swamp, they will help us to navigate swamp, yet not think beyond it. Too many long years trapped in the Poros Pass, forgetful of their own original purposes, have robbed them of initiative and stymied their imaginations.
“Being lost, by itself, does not endanger us all that much, for it now seems that we could live indefinitely out here. Except that we do not do so alone. Serpents, for one thing, glide through the water, rippling their bodies across the surface to swim, or slide over what little solid ground one might find, or else loop from the sad limbs of the rare trees here and there that droop over stagnant pools. We have no way to guard ourselves against snakes; no shelter within our capacity to build or find can keep them out. When we wake to discover one slithering across a leg or arm, we lie very still, lest we provoke it to attack. Once one slithered across my face.
“And that is not all. I have seen, in the distance, a sort of flattish monster of the reptilian variety, dragonlike, although my heart says not of the same kind, a squat-limbed brute yet swift to swim, as long as three men laid out head to toe, long-snouted jaws jagged with irregular fangs. The thought of erecting a thorn shelter against such a beast makes me laugh. (As if we could find any thorns growing in these dank lands. We make do guarding each other by shifts, sometimes without so much as a fire to secure us.) I have seen one eat a cow in just three gulps.
“Yes, strangely enough, aquatic cows live out here, greater even than the human-bred kind, wading up to their chins in flood and slime, grazing on water-weeds. Thick, enormous horns grow curling over their brows. I have seen a bull toss a reptile-monster clear into the air and then trample its broken body to death when it landed. We tiptoe around such herds, trying to look as small and nonthreatening as possible, for we have seen them pay no heed to birds and water-rats and such. Surely only Mordor could birth such cattle!
“No, I am wrong; as I have just learned, remarking to my wife on what I write, and hearing her respond in music. Mattie actually has collected some songs about these monstrosities, over her travels. Apparently Sauron had imported these and other terrors from his subject nations, east and south, from which he hoped to breed fearsome beasts of war. Some served his purposes, some didn’t, and some escaped by way of sewers into the Nurnen sea and parts beyond. Whatever the motive behind the commands, men remember heroic old lays about the conquest and transportation of the creatures, and Mattie honors them in song. She says of the animals that their numbers seem to dwindle over time, ill-suited to the clime in which they have found themselves.
“At least the cold makes the more reptilian creatures sluggish (not necessarily a comfort when you’re waiting for a snake to finish crawling over your leg!) Today we found a great dead lizard-monster rimed with ice. I think that Mattie is right; I cannot see how such animals could survive more than a generation or two out here.
“She has also heard that swamp-cattle, at least, make for good eating, if one can hunt them, which few have ever succeeded in doing. In addition, songs say that the tails of the giant lizard beasts taste as delicious as the tails of dragons, minus the side-effects (apparently certain kings in other countries, having already hearts narrowed to greed and self-interest and so with nothing left to lose, have deliberately feasted on dragon-tail, prizing its gift of persuasive powers.) Or maybe that’s all just a fancy of the bards. Still, I might like to try swamp-cow, if I ever get the chance.
“Which brings us back to food We do not live by vegetables alone. Through the orcs we have learned that serpent-meat has no poison in it, however venomous the fangs might be; the flavor reminds me of chicken. Giant spiders (not Shelob-sized out here, just pig-sized) taste like crab when you crack open their legs to get at the meat inside, and crab I will have you know counts as a delicacy in Gondor, worthy of the King’s platter. And when you find yourself in the foulest, most stinking mud, you need only watch for tiny holes in the surface, to reach down through the gunk and find clams of indescribable deliciousness, almost like fishy mushrooms in taste, yet not exactly. (Yet only in certain kinds of mud or by certain pools–the rest can pick up poison.) On top of that, we’ve discovered that the fish in the pools of clean water seem safe to eat so far.
“What a wonder! Feasts and abundance as the gifts of Orc and Warg! Speaking of which, I sighted that wolf again, in the distance. What business would a wolf have out in such a dank terrain?
“I gain weight steadily despite losing most of our stores. I feel stronger and stronger as we travel. My joints now hardly show at all, and my ribs do not stick out so much. Mattie has gained weight, too, much to her dismay. I think she worries too much. I am certainly hobbit enough to appreciate a wife who fills up my embrace.
“The only thing that I really regret losing is all of the clothing that my dear sister Rose made for me with so much love and trouble. We feel cold all the time, perpetually wet, scarcely ever finding a bit of peat dry enough to kindle, and our soggy clothing rapidly degenerates to rags.”
Frodo picked out one page, it's oversized blotter-spread incompletely filled:
“December 17, 1452–It might surprise you how accustomed I have grown to bug-bites. It startles me to glance down at my feet and see them absolutely freckled with sore upon sore and me hardly aware of it at all. Or no, you would not feel surprise, I suppose, having traveled the Dead Marshes, yourself. They bite less and less, though, as the weather grows colder. I hope they all die off soon; I’m astonished, in fact, that so many have lasted this long. Ah, but what else can you expect of a district of Mordor?
“One interesting thing that these sores prove, however, is that contagions differ from place to place within the various parts of Sauron’s old domain. Whatever infests these unwholesome swamps does not compare in virulence to those escaped experiments unleashed closer to the Dark Lord’s ancient haunts. We do pick up infections, and sometimes feel a little feverish, but nothing serious. It usually fades by afternoon–and then, believe me, we miss the heat!
“And we have devised some defense against the bugs that survive; not perfect, but significantly reducing the problem. Do you remember that aromatic tree which gave us water and shelter? Well, when I studied what uses the Gaurians had for various plants, I learned that they all carve beads of the ruddy wood and wear them about their persons to ward off biting insects. Even in wolf-form you could see the collars peeping out from beneath the fur. And so Mattie and I have found fallen boughs and whittled beads and buttons from them, which she then has sewn all about our clothes to see if they will ward us, too (blessing Bataronk for gifting us with a bone needle and thread of some tough swamp fiber.) I have placed several on each side of my Bleys’ bones around May’s magnifying glass–it is turning into quite a strange necklace! Today we also strung anklets to protect our feet. Even the shavings we have saved in a bag after carving, to strew, little by little, about our campsites before we sleep. So far it has improved matters for us enough to feel much more comfortable. Or maybe that’s just the season changing after all.”
A later notation read: “I saw something frightful today. The water-filtering plants covered an entire pond so thoroughly that if you didn’t know any better, you would think it some strange, inviting mead upon dry land. Except that I saw one corner heave and heave again, with convulsive desperation, gradually growing weaker and weaker. Then, as it finally subsided, I saw the curling horn of a water-cow roll up, weed-meshed, as the dead animal beneath all of the foliage slowly turned to float side-up. The greenery had lured the cow in, who then sank beneath the dense green mat, too weak to hold so weighty a beast, yet thick enough to keep it from rising up for air when it had naught to push against beneath.
“That is the other side of Mordor, the side more known and feared by most, which I must never forget. Even as hidden good pervades the land in sinister disguise, so also no creature here exists, however innocent in seeming, without some darker taint. I can only imagine how beguiling the hyacinth-swamp must look in spring, in blossom, and how dangerous for the unwary.”
Frodo dipped his brush into water, then rubbed it against the cake of ink, and wrote:
“December 18, 1452–Today we woke to a strange surprise. (And yes, I confess that I nodded off on watch. We both do. We cannot seem to help it.) A plump marsh-bird, some cousin to the stork, I believe, lay dead atop the Dwarf-Kit. Fang-wounds marked the throat. The only creature that I can think of out here, that would leave a bite of just that size, would be the wolf that I keep seeing, nosing about the tussocks, leaping over pools, always just far enough away not to frighten us.
“I think I know the name of this wolf.”
He stared at the page a moment, rereading his notation, then cleaned up his brush, spilled out the water, and closed up the ink-set. Standing and flapping the page to dry it the faster, he strolled about the little camp which he and Mattie had set up on a tussocky island of dryness. Then he saw his wife hold onto her belly with an odd expression on her face.
“Are you all right?” he asked as he put the page back into the press. “Does waterfowl disagree with you?”
“I...I think I felt something.”
“Oh dear. Do you suppose Seregril poisoned the meat? Yet I feel fine, myself.”
“It felt like a kick.”
“Cramping, darling?” He went over to where she sat, and laid a hand upon her shoulder.
“No, not like that at all.” She looked distracted, her eyes gazing as though she focused entirely inward. In a faint voice she said, “Not like a kick from outside...from inside, rather.”
Puzzled, Frodo sat down beside her and held her hand. “What do you mean?”
For a long moment she said nothing, then her thumb touched fingertips in turn as though counting. And then her face went white. “Frodo...”
“What is it, darling?”
She turned wide eyes to him. “I...I lost track. The poppy-smoke kept me so thin for so long that my monthlies almost halted altogether. I did not notice their absence, from habit, even when I recovered.”
Frodo, stared at her and said, “All right. I did not understand any of that.”
“Among women, we...how shall I put it...what I mean to say...Frodo, I begin to wonder whether I have fattened after all. I...I think that I have ripened.”
A volatile mix of joy and terror smote him like a brick to the head. “You mean that you’re with child?"
She nodded, voiceless.
He embraced her, laughing, shouting, “Why, that is wonderful!” Then all at once he stared at her in horror, gripping her shoulders. “Out here–in a trackless waste full of poisons and miasma and monsters and heaven knows what...ohhhh my!”
Again she nodded, her face paler than ever.
“Well, we shall just have to turn back then. That is all there is to it. We have surveyed quite enough, I should think.”
“Turn back where?”
Frodo sat back on the ground with a sudden thump. For a long moment he stared at nothing, and Mattie could get no word from him. Then, so abruptly that he startled her, he sprang to his feet. “Well, we can’t lay about here mooning all day, can we? We are far more likely to get home by moving than by staying put, whatever direction we might take.” He turned and scanned the horizon in the general area from which they’d most recently come. Then he pointed. “That tree in the distance–I am fairly certain that we slept in that one the night before. Let us make for it, at least. After that we can scan for the next thing, whatever it might be. And if we see nothing that looks remotely familiar, we shall just have to guess.” He smiled tentatively at his wife. “My family tends towards luck in guessing.”
“I am glad to hear it,” Mattie said while packing up their gear. “We are going to need all of the luck that we can find.” She spoke as matter-of-factly as she could, but Frodo could read her by now, and saw her fingers shake upon the blanket that she folded.