Through Shadows to the Edge of Night
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 19, Part 49
(December 29, 1451)
Frodo did not remember the climb to Hollin being anywhere near as demanding as his ascent of the Mountains of Shadow. His legs shouldn’t have ached so much for a seasoned hiker like him, nor should the elevation have tortured his breath so badly, not this far from the pass. He found it hard to take in the beauty of this tumbled landscape under a pale sky scoured with clouds--the ragged vegetation draped across the rock, the frost-cracks in the stone like dwarvish runes, the fevered colors of the clay that crumbled underfoot, the stark and shapely thorns. But take it in he did, something to keep him going when his cold feet hurt so bad. He wanted to draw those thorns for the borders of his letter’s next page, to capture that abrupt grace in flicks of the brush that would taper to just the right pitch of sharpness. Then he lost all such thoughts in the struggle to put one foot in front of the other.
A glance over showed him that Bergil struggled too, the sweat grimy on the man’s travel-stubbled face and his breathing labored. Even the goats looked unsure of themselves, and stumbled in ways that no goat should. The pack-goats’ tongues hung out as they began to fall behind.
“Halt,” Bergil gasped and sat down right there on the ground. The pack-goats caught up and their black-furred leader nuzzled Bergil’s ear.
“Leave be, you fool!” the ranger laughed, but he scratched the goat’s brow anyway. The goat bleated and lay down beside him with a huff, making it easier to unpack water-bags and lunch. As Frodo sat down gratefully beside them, too, Bergil said, “The mountain fights us every step. Can you feel it?”
“Feel it? If I could feel it any more, you’d have to haul me up on a stretcher.”
Bergil stared on ahead of him, his voice dropped low. “No man, nor orc, nor elf, nor dwarf, nor troll have ever fought for this most strategic of passes, and yet it has not gone uncontested from the hour of its forming. Great powers strive unseen for it, good and evil both, whether Sauron abides beyond or not.” He dropped down to a whisper. “And where they crash, like wave against the sand, they froth up madness in between.”
Frodo stared at him over his sandwich. “Nice road you’ve picked for us, Bergil.”
Bergil started, like he’d forgotten he had company. In his normal voice he said, “It is the only road to Nurn, unless you want to try the Morannon or Cirith Ungol, and then cross three times as many miles of desert as your father ever saw. And the former is just as haunted, and the latter your family knows too well.” Then he forced a smile. “Not to mention all the baby volcanoes spitting up lava here and there along the way, offspring of Orodruin’s fall. I think even a halfling’s toughened feet might find the going hot.”
“That actually sounds good right now.” Frodo rubbed first one foot, and then the other. “Never have my toes felt so cold in all my life--not even playing in the snow. Boots almost sound good.”
“I have some spare leather for repairs along the road. I could try to fashion something for you.”
“I said almost, not quite.”
“Suit yourself, my little master--and pass the pickles.”
“Little master, indeed!” Frodo snorted, but he passed the pickles. “Just remember that you’re cooking tonight.” After a few more mouthfuls of his sandwich he asked, “Why would Stri...the King want to carve a channel through this pass, anyway, if it’s haunted like you say?”
“Perhaps to cure the haunting.” Bergil swallowed some of his own lunch and said, “Long ago a natural river ran this way, through a gap in the mountains where the pass now lies. Sauron had no fondness for the breech in his defenses, as you might well imagine. So he sent great blasts of force down deep beneath the ground and caused the land to heave up, writhing in its pain. Volcanoes suppurated lava as the earth shuddered in a fever of the Dark Lord’s curse, and all the skies choked up with ash. May I please have some cheese?”
“Cheese? Oh! Here. Go on, please.”
“Wha’, wif my mouf full?”
“No--I’m sorry. Go ahead and finish.” Frodo sat there staring at Bergil as the man chewed with slow relish. “It’s not very nice of you, though, to start a tale like this right in the middle of lunch.”
“Ah, that suits me much, much better. Good cheese--just tart enough, but still creamy, you know?”
“The story, Bergil!”
“Ah yes. As I was saying, the rising mountains split the river in two, now running in opposed directions, with miles in between. The greater water beyond turned as bitter as tears from having no outlet--hence her name, the Sea of Nurnen. But Ulmo, Vala of the Waters, contested Sauron--springs gushed up from the tortured rock again and again, eroding down the slopes...shall we count the goats and move on, my friend?”
“Yes, yes, let’s by all means...I’ll count the goats--you always think we’re missing one or somehow found an extra.”
“Not always. I usually get them right.”
Frodo rounded up the goats, grumbling, “How you ever managed to provision your men correctly I will never know!”
“I have always hired excellent tacticians. And paymasters. And...”
“...And anyone else who might handle numbers for you,” Frodo sighed.
“The beginning of wisdom is knowing who to consult,” Bergil said as they resumed their travels, “and admitting your limitations.”
“Are you going to continue the story or aren’t you?”
“Oh, of course. Poros Pass. Sauron would try to block the streams of Ulmo, squeezing the stone till lava bled over one spring after another--but then the waters rose again, screaming this time, in geysers full of steam, in greater force than ever, scalding the very rocks. You can still find hot springs and boiling muds bubbling up here and there. And betimes the earth convulses yet, sickened but by no means dead--not like some parts of Mordor--ever striving to heal itself (and sometimes, so they say, healing others in the process.) The battle goes on, too, in other ways as well, beyond the ken of mortals like ourselves. It seems that the land can find no peace until the rivers join again as one and the Nurnen’s waters pour into the sea.”
Frodo gazed around him and caught the eeriness in every twist of tree or shrub, the unexpected swirls and scoops and writhing of the stone, the shivering of weeds in gusts of wind, the lacy leaves and thorns a-flutter like a hectic heart. All looked fair, but in a terrible kind of way, a haunted and a haggard way.
Bergil turned to Frodo and said, “ But that peace cannot unfold until Tar Elessar can prove to his people that Nurn has something to offer worth all of the labor and danger and expense of a channel--for he is no tyrant, to force obedience where many oppose him at once. The King has more riding on your mission than you know.”
Frodo pondered this. “That must have been a fearsome sight,” he said at last, “all that upheaval and eruption and steam and stuff.”
“Yes,”said Bergil. Someday I might sing you the songs of the survivors who used to dwell in these lands.” Then he glanced about and said, “But not today. Not here.”
“But that battling must have happened long ago. Why all the ongoing upheaval--why do I still feel it all around me, practically shrieking in the silence--though Sauron fell?”
“While he prospered Sauron trapped foul spirits here to guard the pass for him. Most of them dissolved when he failed to hold them anymore, though--they had no will left of their own.”
“I don’t like that ‘most’! ‘Most’ orcs supposedly died, but I’ve an arm that proves a few survived.”
“In any case, they are not our only concern. Ulmo left many maiar here to do his bidding, too.”
“But aren’t they on our side? Why should they concern us?”
“Because the long years of battle have left them...well, a little strange. All right, in some cases a lot strange. And one shell-shocked maia can make the Lady Eowyn’s entire hospital seem like a philosopher’s school.”
“Metal devices left over from the Enemy, small to mid-sized missiles--we call them shells, because like shells they hold a hollowness inside, yet packed with some explosive deviltry. You lob enough of those at soldiers, and even those unwounded in body begin to suffer wounds of the mind. Hence, shell-shock. The term has come to describe any madness sprung from seeing too much war. The Lady Eowyn has treated a number of battle-crazed veterans over the years, because some become quite dangerous when fighting with their shadows.”
“Oh. I see. And maiar in such straits...Oh!”
“Most, of course, like mortals in the same condition, are completely harmless and more in need of kindness than restraint. Whatever the case, people do use this pass on a regular basis, and most come through unscathed.”
Bergil laughed, and the sound seemed to steady Frodo. “You at least shall come to no harm, not with that magic glass of yours. I daresay that whatever evil haunts the pass will like it no more than the ‘wights’ of your homeland, Frodo. And whatever good remains might well remember itself in its presence.”
Frodo reached inside his shirt and clasped the lens. It did make him feel better. He looked about him and found that beauty, after all, prevailed. He particularly noted how greenery veined the landscape, doubtless following underground streams of heated water.
“Look, Bergil! Flowers! Snow-white flowers--in December! Aren’t they lovely?”
“Yes, some do blossom early in this land of instability, where even seasons fail to hold. But I do not love such flowers, Frodo, as bloom here and in the Morgul Vale, for they partake of the land’s delirium. ‘Tis in these very mountains that Sauron first bred those poppies that drive men mad.”
Frodo said no more after that for awhile, for he found the going difficult again, and more so with every step. Soon his heart began to pound in his ears as the road climbed steeper before them. For a moment, in fact, he thought he started to hear extra beats and it troubled him. Then he realized that he heard a horse coming up behind him.
Frodo and Bergil stopped and turned. At first it appeared that a stout gray mare struggled up the road riderless, but then they saw the hobbit lounging on the beast’s broad back, on a blanket without saddle (only saddle-bags) one knee crooked and pointing to the sky, the other leg stretched out, as the hobbit lay back and blew his dreamy smoke-rings to the wind.
“Well, well, well!” Bergil exclaimed. “And by my fortnight’s beard--if it isn’t Mattie Heathertoes!”