In Mordor Where the Shadows Are
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 2, Part 73
A Servant's Hardest Duty
(January 19, 1452)
In a barren field in Mordor, as stony and unyielding as the Dark Lord’s long-stopped heart, a hobbit’s cry rang out. “You did WHAT?” The crowd that had gathered around to meet the Royal Gardener snickered at the shock in his face.
Mayor Aloe tossed her head, and the sandy curls billowed in the wind that streamed unblocked across the plain. “Of course I sent the goats to the butcher--where else should animals go?” She gestured at her ragged entourage. “I’ve got plenty of hungry citizens lookin’ for meat, y'know.”
All the pressures of the long journey, all the pain and heartbreak and fear, and the lingering weakness of recent infirmity, and assaults on his very mind and soul, all endured to reach this one sorry excuse for a town in the most accursed corner of Middle Earth, built up in Frodo until something snapped. “Take me there--now!” This time he did not hesitate to grip Sting.
“What’s the matter, chickie? Grew attached to yer furry friends, did ye?” Aloe said with glance at his feet.
“Now!” He grabbed her by the wrist. “I do not jest, Mayor Aloe,” he said, the words tight in his throat as the crowd murmured. “At a run, if you please.”
“At a run? You?” She smirked as she freed her wrist with a snap. “As ye wish, then!” She gathered up her skirts with a wild laugh and took off, her scrawny legs flying and the tassles flailing every which way like her hair. Frodo followed as fast as he could, stumbling down the slope, panting to keep up, but he fell further and further behind anyway, while the villagers, so eager to cheer him only moments before, now jeered at him like orcs.
But then, before he knew it, Bergil’s sound right arm and Fishenchip’s surviving left one grabbed him on either side and propelled him along so that he seemed to fly with every leap. Fishenchips gasped with the effort, but exhilaration lit his pale face--he had never run so far in a straight line in his entire life. Yet right before they reached the butcher shop Fishenchips tumbled into a faint and Bergil dropped to his side to tend him. “No, keep your head down,” the ranger counseled as he pushed a stone beneath the other man’s feet, neither one noticing that their master kept right on running.
“Guess I don’t have me blood back yet,” Fishenchips rasped.
“I should think not,” Bergil began, then heard gasps behind him from the crowd in the butcher’s bloodstained yard. He turned and sprang to his feet at the sight of Frodo in fighter’s stance between the goats and the butcher, wide-eyed and scowling, Sting held out before him.
“I did not nurture these goats along,” Frodo cried, “through fever and flood, hills and haunted pass, for you to waste everything they promise for Mordor’s future!” Tears quivered in the hobbit’s eyes as he raged at them, “Does it mean nothing to you that the nannies are all pregnant?”
The butcher shrugged. “I’m not a sentimental man,” he said. “Be reasonable, sir--I’ve got a hungry son to feed, and I ain’t had the chance to ply m’trade for months.”
Frodo struggled to think through the tumult in his heart. “Idiot! Pregnant goats mean milk and suckling kids to come! How can you throw all that away?” He gasped for air, not seeing Bergil’s cautious approach to one side.
I knew this would happen, came an exasperated mutter in Frodo’s head. Without a strong hand to guide them, the slaves have no capacity whatsoever to plan for the future.
“And you shut up, too!” Frodo snarled, twisting as though Sauron stood right behind him. “I’ve had enough from you!” Then he blushed at all the eyes staring at him; he turned to Aloe and the butcher once again, his hair flopping into his face, but he didn’t dare let go of the sword to push it away.
“Gar,” Aloe whispered. “Gondor has sent us a madman.”
“I am not a...”
“I know! I know! A mad bobbit, then, or gobbit, or whatever the divil...”
“Hobbit,” Fishenchips said helpfully from where he lay nearby.
“Okay!” Frodo spat. “Have it your way! Maybe I am mad, and small wonder after all I’ve been through on your behalf.” He tried to flip the hair from his eyes, but it only fell back again worse, making him look crazier than ever. “But not one of you are going to harm these goats until I lay dead at your feet.” He tried to shake the mocker’s laughter from his head, but it just grew louder and louder till he wanted to scream, while all the folks around him gaped like fools.
He blinked away tears and suddenly Bergil stood in front of him, chest pressed to the point of his sword. Gently but firmly the man said, “Stand down, Sir. ‘Tis a servant’s hardest duty to confront a master who is not himself--but stand down.”
The sword trembled in Frodo’s hand, and then dropped. He stood there stunned by his own behavior. Bergil gripped his shoulder, mouthing the words, “It’s him, isn’t it?” and then turned to the others, saying out loud. “You must forgive my master. He has fought such dangers as you know nothing of to get here, perilous even by the standards of Mordor, perils of the mind even worse than those of flesh, though he has wiped the blood of foes from his blade more than once.” Fishenchips climbed to his feet and joined the crowd. “Leave the goats be for now,” Bergil urged. “Give them such weeds as you can gather and let them bed cleanly for the night--and lead us to our own place of rest, for we have sore need of it.”
Frodo sheathed the sword with a shaking hand, took a breath, and said, “Forgive me. I...I don’t know what just happened.”
In the most placatory rumble he could muster, the butcher said, “Well, it seems the nannies won’t need stud-service for awhile, at any rate--can we at least carve up the billies?”
“Not Billie!” Frodo shrilled, but Bergil dived for him before he could pull out his sword once more, and pinned the struggling hobbit to his chest with his one good arm, though it pressed the clay cast of the other painfully into his chest. Yet even Bergil had a lump in his throat when he said, “But the pack-goats saved my life. Is there no other way?”
Fishenchips stared at the two of them and then declared, “Has ever’ blinkin’ one o’ you fine folks lost yer minds? The ship just arrived! They’s no need to go talkin’of killin’ any goats when we’ve piled the docks with food for all. We don’t even need to be discussin’ this until the grub runs out. An’ by then who knows what fortune’ll drift down the stream?” He looked at Frodo with troubled affection. “And if my master’s mad, so be it--he’s still the best hope our lot’ll ever see. I heard tell his namesake went just as barmy, but he got the job done.”
“Barmy,” Frodo whispered to himself as he staggered back from Bergil’s embrace. “I don’t think Legolas thought of that one.” He turned gratefully to his new servant. “Right now, Fishenchips, you speak more wisely than any of us.” He looked up at Bergil hovering close nearby. “And you--you saved me. You...” He fought back tears and forced himself back towards reason. “Let us please put all dispute aside for now, Mayor Aloe, good people, and for the love of all that’s holy could you please lead me to my quarters? Bergil and I have both been ill, you see, and Fishenchips is weak from loss of blood, and, and, and five days’ rest does not entirely suffice.”
Fishenchips muttered, “Not with all the excitement o’ the cruise, that’s for dang sure.” Louder, he said, “Why, the poor wee furryfoot’s collapsed more nights on ship than he went to bed proper, dealin’ with more’n many a man could handle. No wonder he’s a-pullin’ swords and actin’ all crazy-like!” He raised his stump before the crowd. “If it weren’t for Master Frodo, here, I’d of lost m’whole body!”
Aloe’s hard face softened. “Oh, ya poor dears! What was I thinkin’, startin’ straight to work afore I’d seen ye rested and cared for? Ya come right along, now, and never mind official business, not until ye’ve had a good night’s sleep.” She led them out of there, hips swaying with each step as though she had twice as much to swing. Frodo stared despite himself, but the motion reminded him of just how dizzy he felt after days on a rocking deck. He lurched against Fishenchips and muttered an apology. The two men put down a steadying hand each to either side of him.
Frodo managed a wan smile as he looked up at Fishenchips. “Furryfoot?”
“Beggin’ your pardon, sir.”
“I must say that I prefer the term to ‘rat’! And Bergil--oh Bergil! Thank you for...for what you...” He could not continue.
Huskily Bergil replied, “For many years, but just on certain nights, my father has brooded on the fireplace--whenever the winter winds sound through the pines like an old man’s scream. And on those nights he drinks a little more than is his wont, and then will suddenly ask aloud what cowardice or dullness of wit kept him from rebelling sooner, for his master’s love.” Bergil swallowed. “Denethor might have lived to see his grandchildren.”
Frodo reached up to squeeze the hand upon his shoulder. “Always love me more than obey me, Bergil my friend.”
They said no more until Aloe brought them to a sort of tower, a cylindrical stone hut of three teetering stories. “I heard tell your kind likes their dwellin’s round, or summat like that,” she said, and left them to it while Frodo took in this most unhobbity of homes and turned a little pale. Narrow, barred windows on every floor let in too little light and too much wind, and when they went in, the slate floors felt cold and hard to hobbit feet. Someone had piled their luggage on that floor, waiting for distribution, but no one had kindled up the grate. Bergil rummaged through the gear and asked, “Where are our provisions? We kept them all in a dark green sack.”
“Somebody must’ve knicked it,” Fishenchips suggested. “Happens all the time with edibles--worth more’n gold, around here--‘tain’t like on th’ship, y’know, under the Captain’s eye.”
“The rest seems intact,” Bergil said. “It must have been a quick snatch, with no time for systematic looting. But I must be sure.” And he proceeded to inventory the supplies.
“It could of been th’smell o’ food what done it,” Fishenchips offered. “The thief probably hardly even noticed bags as didn’t smell like sausages and cheese.”
While the others inspected their possessions, Frodo drifted over and stared up the spiral of the stairwell, and it looked dark and steep. “I will take the ground floor,” he said to the others, “if it is all the same to you.”
“The ground floor is the public space, and no place for an emissary of the King to sleep,” said Bergil, looking up from the pile. “I am sorry, Frodo, but the top floor is safest and warmest, and most befitting your station. Fishenchips and I will share the second floor, where we can best guard you.”
“Is it so dangerous, then?” Frodo gazed wearily up at the bars in the windows, so high in the wall that he couldn’t even touch the sill. “I feel like I have been sentenced to jail.” Faintly he asked, “What is my crime?”
The men looked at each other, then Bergil said to Fishenchips, “Get him such food as you can find.” He handed over a pouch of coins to the sailor. Then Bergil knelt down before the hearth and got a fire started, wedging his knife with some difficulty into his cast to strike at it with flint. Glancing up and seeing Frodo just standing there, Bergil folded up some bedding into a sort of cushion on the floor. “Here, Frodo--sit down. We shall unpack for you.” He squatted down by the hobbit, peering into his eyes. “But first, please, tell me what happened out there.”
“I...I don’t...” Frodo leaned his head back against the stones. “I don’t know what’s come over me.” He found himself weeping again, weakly but uncontrollably. “I don’t understand, Bergil--I was doing so well! I had everyone’s respect, I kept saying the right thing in precisely the right way--oh, I felt so proud of myself!--when wham! Everything just fell apart. No...I fell apart.”
Bergil gripped his shoulder. “He’s back--isn’t he?”
Frodo nodded. “With a vengeance. But how did he...” When he nodded he felt something cold and hard bump against his breast. He pulled out his lens, and in horror saw that within its view every pore on his hand seemed to distend into hideousness. “May’s gift!” he exclaimed. “He’s in it, magnifying my feelings--Sauron is trying to use May’s gift against me!”