Through Shadows to the Edge of Night
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 38, Part 68
Passing Through Midnight
(January 17-18, 1452)
“This is no time to stand on ceremony,” Frodo said to himself, as he
rolled up his sleeves to help clean up the galley right along with the
crew, prepping the room for surgery. Two more crewmen had come forward
with wounds that definitely needed stitching up, and many abrasions
carried all sorts of foreign matter that demanded removal before
infection set in. Sailors brought down every single lantern in the ship
to provide as much light as possible--a veritable constellation of
flickering yellow glows that made the shadows misty and misshapen with
their clashing illumination. Cutting through the redolence of melting
tallow, the smell of that acid solution used in Mordor for disinfection
stung the hobbit’s nose, and it felt harsh on his scrubbing hands, but
he kept at it with the best of them. His stomach growled so loudly that
the men nearest to him laughed out loud.
“I guess 'tis true what they say,” one sailor remarked with a grin.
“The ra...hobbit-folk feel a missed meal more keenly than
annerbody--yet in a pinch they can go without longer'n you’d reckon
possible. Look at ‘im, now, laborin’ away like he don’t feel it at all!”
Frodo turned and bowed, waving his scrubrag to the side like a
courtier’s hat, and they all laughed harder. Then Leech burst into a
series of really violent sneezes and they positively howled. But Frodo
looked uneasily at Leech, who mopped at his watering eyes and scowled,
lampight shimmering on his sweat. Meanwhile, another crewman seemed to
have caught the cold from him already and curled up snuffling and
sneezing in a corner, shivering despite the blanket that he huddled in.
When Frodo got a chance he went over and personally washed the
monster-blood off Bergil, as the man sat against a bulkhead with his
arm in a splint, his face as pale as wax. Though he flinched at a touch
to his arm, somehow Bergil managed to laugh and say, “You have got to
stop taking care of your servant, Master Frodo!”
“You have got to stop getting injured in my service, then, Captain Bergil.”
“I shall be fine, my friend--if the good doctor can refrain from sneezing while he sets my bone!”
Frodo finished up scrubbing the crew’s long table, where the operations
would take place, while most of the crew now boiled rags for bandages
and hung them to dry by the cook’s fire. He went to replenish his
bucket from the barrels in the pantry, groping the best he could
without a lamp; his elflike night-vision did not work well in the
shadows of manmade confines, he discovered, though living things and
whatever they touched stood out as though lit faintly from within. It
took him some time and sniffing to distinguish the water-barrels from
those containing oil or pickles or whatnot, as he steered clear of the
occasional rat or roach that fancied itself better hidden than it was.
Maybe you could blame the dark, or perhaps the fact that he stood below
their line of sight, but Leech and the Captain did not see Frodo back
there when they slipped in for a hissing conversation, though to him
“What do you mean, Leech? Are you trying to tell me you threw over the medical supplies, too?”
“Just the poppy gum. Even as I said.” Leech tried to muffle a truly explosive sneeze in his handkerchief, with little success.
“I never meant that when I gave the order! You had all that under lock
and key--you could’ve kept it from poor Flint. Where the devil was your
freakin’ common sense?”
The doctor pulled himself up straight with all the dignity he could
muster, there in the dark. “I expressed more sense in that one move
than I have in two years, Captain Watersheen. Nothing is as simple as
Sometimes wearing the Lens of May gave Frodo insight when he least
wanted to have it. He watched the handkerchief shiver from the shaking
of the hand that held it. Before he could stop himself, Frodo blurted,
“You do not have a cold.”
The Captain started, but Leech broke into a skullish grin, though his
eyes swam with desperation. “No. I do not--yet it is all right, my
little friend. Your...situation...has given me the impetus to do what
has needed done for too long a time. Yes, I am the second one--the one
the Captain did not know about.”
Frodo breathed, “I am so sorry!” even as the Captain growled, “Leech...?” his eyes wide and white.
Leech tried to shrug, but it came out a stiff-muscled twitch. “A hazard
of my trade, I fear. I devote myself to relieving the pain of others,
and sometimes...well, there’s no making excuses anymore, now, is
there?” Almost inaudibly, then, his gaze focused inwards, he murmured,
“And what a relief, now, to run out of excuses at last!” Shakily he
turned to the Captain, though he tried to look nonchalant. “I managed
it all rather cleverly, you see. I only used the gum at night, when no
one would get a clear look at my eyes. I told myself that I only did it
to sleep, of course, to make sure that the ship had a well-rested
healer come morning. And I told myself that by abstaining by daylight I
proved it had no hold on me. But yes...every night. I used it every
single night. For the past two years, now.”
The Captain clasped his healer’s shoulder in a beefy hand. “Leech,
you...curse it all, Leech!” He shook him hard. “You shoulda told me.
I’d of...I dunno...given you time off or sumpin’, whatever you needed,
and hang the cost! Leech...you...I owe you, man! I’d of helped you
Leech’s smile trembled. “Do you have any idea,” he asked, “how hard it
was, day after day, to hold myself back through all the hours of the
sun?” Tears ran down the doctor’s face, and Frodo never felt such vivid
hatred before in his life as he felt right then for Sauron. “But you
needed your Leech to do his job. You gave me a reason, Watersheen, do
you know that? You kept me partially alive.”
Frodo tried to remember everything that the Lady Eowyn had said about
withdrawal from poppy-gum. He reached out to the twitching hand. “Are
you frightened?” he asked.
“Terribly,” said Leech, still grinning like a curse would not let his
face relax. “But we have more pressing problems at the moment. There
are bones to set, and surgeries to perform--but my patients have no
comfort for their pain. And I...” He tried to laugh, but his voice
cracked when he said, “I fear my hands have begun to shake a bit sooner
than I expected.”
Then it seemed to Frodo as though someone else stepped forward, and he
watched from some other place, astonished, as words fell from his lips.
“I know an Elvish song that might help a little.”
Leech’s smile dropped at last. He stared at Frodo for one burning
moment, then grabbed his arm--hard. “Come with me, then” the healer
said, “before the shaking worsens.” Leech dragged the hobbit back to
the makeshift infirmary, while fear rose greater in Frodo than any he’d
felt in battle. He couldn’t remember more than three notes of that
confounded song which Legolas had sung over him, months ago--and he had
no elvish voice! What on earth possessed him to blurt out anything so rash? Not even Legolas could make the song work steadily!
“The amputation must come first,” Leech said, feverishly sterilizing
his instruments in a candleflame. “Somebody please give the patient as
much grog as he can hold, for I fear we have...run out of anything
stronger.” He tied his handkerchief around his lower face to stop the
sneezing from interfering as much as possible. “You may start singing
anytime, Mister Gardner. The sooner we can relax the patient, the
The man who had bourne Frodo throughout the fight gulped at the Burning
Drink with wincing swallows, which appeared to do nothing for him but
make him look more haggard and forlorn by the minute. He stared at
Frodo over the rim of his cup with an intensity bordering on obsession.
At first Frodo stared back; till now he had hardly noticed anything of
the man beyond his ripped-up arm and the back of his head. But
underneath that shock of dark hair the sailor had a blunt, knobby sort
of face that reminded Frodo of some of his uncles, only bigger and
coarser, and gray eyes hinting of a Numenorean ancestor, now wide and
wild and increasingly bloodshot.
Soon Frodo couldn’t bear it anymore; he averted his gaze. He opened his
mouth and closed it again, unable to squeeze the merest squeak from his
throat. “Focus!” he told himself. “You should at least recall a single
melodic phrase--perhaps you can repeat that. It might do some little
good.” Then it hit him. “Focus--that’s it!” With more hope than faith,
he drew out May’s magnifying glass from within his shirt and clasped it
tightly between his hands. “It is my wish,” he whispered, “to magnify
my memory of the sleep-song, down to the tiniest detail.” He closed his
eyes, waiting with all the desperation in him for the first little
strand of melody to unfurl within his mind. And then he sang.
Note by note and word by word the tune welled up from him, though he
understood less than half of the Sindarin. As in a dream, his memory
supplied him with each part of the song, down to the subtlest trill or
warble, right before he needed it, in perfect accuracy. And yes, Frodo
was no elf, though he had a pleasant enough voice for a hobbit--yet
some in the room actually did fall asleep, worn out by their injuries
and the aftermath of fear, and all there present felt a breath of
peace, a softness settling on them, quieting the horror and comforting
the pain. Captain Watersheen kept blinking and shaking his head, there
where he held his axe head-down in a boiling pot. But the doctor showed
the most striking difference of all. His sneezing subsided and his hand
steadied and he stood up straighter.
“I think we can safely manage a skin-flap procedure here, rather than a
straight cut,” he said confidently, picking up his knife. “The patient
should heal faster that way.” But the sailor screamed when he began to
slice the skin.
His voice shaking slightly, Leech asked, “Please continue singing,
Mister Gardner.” The hobbit gaped in horror, but then he gulped and
resumed. “There--much better.” The healer sounded strong again. Frodo
closed his eyes, not wanting to see the blood, not wanting to even
think of what the inside of an arm must look like. He forced himself to
sing full-voice, as close as he could manage to what an elf might do.
The patient moaned and whimpered fit to break the hobbit’s heart, but
softly, and he did not scream again. Frodo hoped to heaven that this
meant that the song at least eased some of the pain.
Frodo lost himself in the music and time ceased to mean anything; he
seemed to have fallen asleep on his feet, himself, and he sang in that
sleep with a somnolist’s abandon. The rolling of the deck soon merged
with the waves of a great ocean of music, carrying him along,
sustaining him effortlessly. Then Leech said, “That will be sufficient
skin, I believe. You may cleave the limb, now, Captain--three quarters
up the forearm, if you will,” and the sound of the THUNK!
made Frodo jump awake, though he hardly missed a beat, not though the
patient howled like sound alone could burst the ship apart. “Hand me
the sutures, please...
And Frodo kept on singing. He did his best to drown himself again in
the flood of music, to hear nothing else, not to falter even when the
healer said, “Let me see your arm, Mister Bergil.” He sang through the
care and treatment of every single patient on board that ship, right
down to the final stitch in the final wound. Then, when Captain
Watersheen shook him gently by the arm and said, “It’s over, Hobbit.
You can stop, now,” he fell into a deep swoon, and didn’t wake till
much later, with a blazingly raw throat, in his own hammock, grateful
that someone had hung the waterskin nearby.
“I have got to start putting myself to bed,” he sighed.