From the Ashes a Fire Shall be Woken
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 9, Part 254
A Prisoner of the King
Frodo thought that he had prepared himself for what would come next, what he himself had asked for. But when Gimli had surrendered him to the Guard, and exchanged the wisp of mithril chain for a heavy iron one that penned Frodo’s hands together, and then rode off with Legolas and Mattie and the tinker-cart, clopping off towards some harborage in the First Circle, the hobbit felt his heart sink and the disgrace wash over him.
The armored man linked him to a whole row of scalawags, headed for the Minas Tirith Gaol. The clank of the chains as they marched made a doleful sound, weighing down heart as well as body. Someone in the line-up laughed at his size and got cuffed for it, in an impersonal sort of way, more in defense of order than of Frodo’s dignity. They all shuffled towards an imposing wall of stone block and tiny, barred windows, Frodo trotting to keep up with the longer legs, jerked along by the chain, while citizens marveled and pointed at him. “No, that is no child,” he heard someone say. “See the feet? They must have caught a messenger stealing the mail.”
“At least,” Frodo thought, “my foot-fur has grown back enough to mark me as a hobbit.” Then he regretted it, for the shame that he brought upon his kind.
A tunnel-like opening faced them in the wall. Gears creaked, and sharpened bars lifted up, for all the world like fangs opening to admit them, and then clanked shut again behind them. A jailor assigned them , without looking any of them in the eye, to long, thin cells, two “beds” per wall (really just planks on chains) each cell ending in a dirty wall with one miserly, barred window apiece, so deep-set that they hardly afforded any light at all, though the winter wind got through. Frodo found himself quartered with prior inmates: a tall, skinny youth, a sour-looking old rogue with frown-lines gouged permanently into his face, and a fat drunk who snored upon the floor-straw, having long since fallen off his plank.
With a glint and a grin the youth asked, “What are you in for?”
“Don’t answer!” the old man snapped. “He always asks that. Don’t he know that people don’t want to answer? He should mind his own business, he should.” The old man sat on his own plank hugging himself and rocking.
But Frodo looked up at the youth and said, “You first.”
“Thievery,” he replied with relish, flipping back the dark hair that fell into his gray eyes. “I have a good hand for it, see.” He waggled all his fingers, long and slender. “I could steal the boots off the King, the teeth off a troll, the sunbeams from the Sun herself, if I’d a mind.”
“Oh, of course!” the old man scoffed. “You merely visit the gaol for the hospitality, do you? How did so clever a rapscallion get caught, then?”
Suddenly the lad blushed and looked away. “A girl...” he said.
“I knew it!” The elder slapped his knee and laughed maliciously. “Our hearts do us no good in our line of business.”
Frodo turned to him. “So–are you a thief, yourself, then?”
The man paled. “Should have been,” he muttered. “Should have stopped at thievery. Ask no more of me!” Then his face turned ugly as he added, “But she had it coming. She had it coming. No one should waste their hard-earned swag on such a shrew.” He uttered many other things, dark words that Frodo could not quite make out and felt glad that he couldn’t. Just when the old man had nearly pattered out into silence he suddenly snarled, “She deserved it!” in a loud, strained voice, and then went back to rocking himself, muttering.
Frodo felt decidedly unsafe, and sat as far away as possible. The youth, however, merely laughed. “You needn’t let him bother you–blokes like him get it out of their system one time, and they never bite again. But you haven’t yet told me your own crime.”
“Breaking exile,” Frodo said softly.
Here Frodo turned to him and, just as softly, told him, “Murder.” Then the youth’s eyes widened, and he moved further away, himself. “What’s the matter?” Frodo asked. “Do you doubt that I have gotten it, as you say, out of my system?”
The youth hesitated and said, “Begging your pardon, but...”
“You have a strangeness in your eyes, is all.”
Frodo laughed faintly at that. “I suppose that I do, by now.”
The old man cackled. “Them small ones–you’ve got to watch out for the small ones, you do! They’ll make the whole world pay for what nature cheated from them, if you give them harf a chance.”
Frodo turned coldly to him. “I do not consider myself small.” And the man shut up, not even muttering anymore, just sitting very, very still, eyeing Frodo uneasily.
So Frodo allowed himself to stretch out upon his plank for a bit of a rest after his journey. But when creeping fingers began to tug, so very lightly, at the horsehair cord, he sprang up so fast that the chains jangled and the youth fell back, eyes even wider than before; the thief retreated to the farthest corner with the old man, tripping over the drunk, who grunted and then returned to snoring.
After awhile, Frodo heard the youth ask, barely audibly, “What is that thing, anyway?”
“This?” He lifted out the lens. “It is a magnifying glass, a gift from my baby sister. But she ran off to live with the trees, and the trees won’t let anyone near her, so it is all that I have left of her.” He looked up at the thief. “But since it also happens to carry an enchantment that increases perceptiveness, I wouldn’t blame yourself, if I were you, for failing to steal it.”
Frodo could hear the gulp from across the room. “And all those doodads around it?”
“Well, the cord came from the mane of a faithful steed who died in my service, in a battle where a brigand thought to bring a host of his fellows against me.”
“And yet you...you came out alive?”
“Yes. You noticed. Anyway, the wooden beads here impart a scent that fends off foul insects from the shores of the Nurnen sea...”
“Nurnen? You’ve been to the Sea of Nurnen?”
“Why, yes. As a matter of fact I live in sight of its shore. I have a lovely home in Mordor that I miss rather badly right now.” By now even the drunk had opened up his eyes and stared at Frodo from the floor. “These bone-beads came of another faithful steed who also died on my behalf, more’s the pity. Do you see the designs burnt into them? An orc did that for me, Lulthak by name.” He chuckled despite himself. “Such a wanton, she was! But I think that I taught her some manners before we parted.” Dead silence answered him. “Ah, and these fangs belonged to Seregril, a warg.” His smile faded. “Oh how I miss her! You should have seen her by the dark of the moon, when she regained her true form for a single, glorious night!”
The old man croaked, barely above a whisper, “You mean to say...are you saying that you have had congress with she-wargs and orkesses?”
Before Frodo could answer, a guard came by with three bowls of a grayish porridge.
The youth grinned (in fact relieved to change the subject.) “Beans and barley–my favorite!”
The old rogue snarled, “Lucky you, since it’s all they ever serve us, here,” while the guard clattered with the keys, trying to coax open a slightly misaligned lock.
“Oh, it always varies by whatever scraps they throw in. It’s not bad.” Frodo stared at him, uncomfortably reminded of the thief that he’d almost slain along the way.
The guard finally made it in, and nudged the prisoner on the floor with his foot till the old sot sat up, casting one last, confused look at Frodo. The guard said, “Here now, a bit of food would do you good.”
“What about me?” Frodo asked, watching the others eat with their fingers.
“No time to feed you,” the guard replied. “You are up for judgment.”
The youth exclaimed, “So soon?” while a second guard brought in a basin full of cold water and a rag.
“He’s a bad ‘un, I tell you!” the old man exclaimed between wolfing down his mess. “Mark my words, he won’t be coming back to us. It’ll be maximum security for him, if he’s lucky. And if not...skeeeek!” He mimed a hanging.
The guard just pointed Frodo to the basin and said, “Wash up. Make yourself presentable for the King.”
“You see?” the old man cackled. “The King won’t judge just any case.”
Frodo made himself as clean as he could under the circumstances, though the cold water made him shiver. Then the guard chained him up again and marched him up, up, up stair after stair after stair. Frodo had no idea that Minas Tirith hid so many underground passages, some climbing all the way to the top, lit by the occasional barred slit in the rock, probably hardly noticeable to the sunlit world.
Frodo finally collapsed on a landing and said, “I cannot climb another step, not if a dragon chased me!” The guard sighed and threw him over one shoulder, chain and all, and climbed that way until Frodo found it more uncomfortable than ascending on his own two feet, and begged to be put down again. Then he wished he hadn’t.
“I can think...” he huffed, “...of any number...of better...ways to...meet...the King.”
“Silence,” the guard told him with a jerk of the chain, not meanly, more out of habitual sternness. The windows had become dim and twilight-blue, so the man took a torch from the wall and kindled it. The light looked bloody and fitful; the flames bent and flickered wildly every time they passed a window, and stank when they didn’t.
“I have...you know...met the King...before.”
“Silence.” The chain jerked harder.
Then Frodo realized that the guard didn’t actually listen to a word he said. So, more for himself than anything, he added, “I...am...the Royal...Gardener.”
A blow to the back of his head rocked him, not hard enough to do any real damage, but enough to warn him.
“Silence I said, and silence I mean!”
But Frodo didn’t have any more breath left for idle conversation, anyway. He wondered if the judgment would take place in a quiet courtroom, like that for the brigand who had assailed him the first time that he came this way, or whether his status would require him to stand trial in the great hall, with all the Lords of Gondor ranked in between the pillars and the statues of ancient kings. He wondered if they would recognize him. Surely they would remember him, at least, however changed. He rose higher and higher up the stairs, but his heart just went lower and lower with every step.