In Mordor Where the Shadows Are
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 13, Part 84
Stumbling and Fumbling
(February 8, 1452)
The child-sized Mordor cloak smelled like its makers had sheared the wool from a noissome goat and none had washed it since, but Frodo found it warm enough, as he practiced with the also-child-sized crutches that Aloe had brought by. He would have found it easy to propel himself about, if not for the icy and uneven cobbles, but that made it a challenge, and the challenge made it a sport, as he skittered and wobbled all over the street before his home. The mayor herself sat on the steps nearby, laughing; a rustle in the branches above sounded suspiciously like laughter, too. He couldn't help but grin, himself. Sometimes, though, when he got everything just right, when he swooshed through the air, for a moment without so much as a toe touching the ground, the crutches made him feel like he could fly!
"See?" the mayor teased, "I have found a way to turn a one-legged poppet into a three-legged poppet."
"That's hobbit." Frodo corrected, as he practiced turning a curve without tangling the crutches on his own ankle. "And I am pleased to say that I still have both my feet--one just needs a bit of a vacation."
"Whatever. So long as my gift makes my little gardener productive again." She stretched out her legs and pushed the skirt back so she could massage the muscle just above her boot-cuff. "Cramp," she drawled when he stared. "Yer stone steps chill my flesh."
Hot-faced, he averted his eyes abruptly and focused on his foot. "I think I've got the hang of these," he says, "Although my arms feel a bit sore."
"No surprise there," she said, "Fer they don't usually take the place of legs." She stood up. "But don't let it trouble ye, pet--I've a glad hand for massaging kinks out of muscles, if ye feel the need."
A crash of shattering clayware indoors, and the sound of Fishenchips cursing, spared him the challenge of thinking up a reply. A thump immediately followed and the curses mounted to a heartsick pitch of grief, raw with tears.
After a moment when all three froze and stared at the door, Aloe said, rather cautiously, "If this is a bad time, we can talk later. Night falls soon, and I have business to attend." And she swept out of there as swiftly as dignity allowed, with a wink towards Frodo. But the hobbit didn't catch it, hurrying after Bergil, his crutches slipping a little on the frosty steps.
They found ceramic shards a-glitter on the floor, the hearthfire extinguished from a flood of soup, and Fishenchips sobbing out the foulest language that a Mordor sailor could conceive, with his hook hopelessly imbedded in the table for all his tugging; apparently he had forgotten himself and struck the wood in his rage. The tirade stung Frodo, reminding him too well of Mattie's latest words to him, but the look on the man's face smote him even more.
Bergil approached Fishenchips slowly, saying, "Easy, friend--you but worsen things by pulling back like that--you embed the hook more deeply. Try pushing it forward."
"I can't freakin' well push the rutty hook forward--it hurts th'stump!" He wailed, "M'flesh ain't all that healed, mate!"
"Here...let me..." Bergil gripped false wrist and true forearm so that by pushing both forward at once, he kept the stump from pressing too hard against the hook, without disengaging, and so freed the man.
Fishenchips rubbed his eyes with his surviving fist and said, "Sorry. I feel a right idiot, I do." Forlornly he gazed all around him at the fragments of tureen, and kicked a chunk aside. 'I...I guess I really made a mess o' things, di'nt I? I had it all balanced proper, as I thought, and...and...and it just slid off the hook and warn't nuthin' I could do about it."
"Think no more of it," Frodo told him, as he struggled to lower himself from the crutches to a chair without knocking anything over. "We can ladle the soup straight from the pot for awhile. And it's not like Seaside lacks potters to make us a new one."
Bergil said, "Here, friend; let me mop this up, and you can relight the fire for us. You have lost no skill with flint and steel--as I know well when you comfort me through nightmares."
Fishenchips laughed queerly at that."I should do well enough--I am the steel." But he knelt to set up a frame that could hold some dry wood up.
"Supper will be a little late," Bergil said with a smile towards Frodo, briskly sweeping up the pieces before he fetched the mop.
"No rush," Frodo said. "It's not like I'm going anywhere." He watched Fishenchips struggle to strike up a spark, though the man shook with shame. "Fish, it's all right. Nobody expects you to be chipper every single day about losing your hand. You'll exhaust yourself trying." Frodo gave his bandaged foot a rueful grin, "Heaven knows I've been a bear lately about just a little cut! You have done far better than I might have with the change in your life."
"Thanks, Guv." Fishenchips got the fire going, then while he waited for the coals to form, he salvaged what he could of the vegetables off the floor; Frodo pretended not to notice as the man carefully picked every chip and sliver of china out of the food as Bergil swabbed around him. Bergil then brought fresh water and together they anxiously washed each particle of food twice and thrice, but as Frodo's stomach growled at him he knew himself quite ready, as the others were, to eat regardless of the risk. Then Fish diced more vegetables into the iron pot, pinning them with the hook's point as he chopped, to replace what had gone past salvaging; Frodo did watch that, with a sinking feeling that tomorrow's soup would be the thinner for it. The sailor said, "We gots to use th'onions up soon--th'damp weather's started some to sproutin' already." Fish shoved the last bit off the hook with the flat of his knife.
"Good," Frodo answered. "Take the sprouting ones and bury them to their necks in pots of soil, then push them up in the window-slots and water them once a week. We'll eat the fresh, green shoots as our other food runs low."
Bergil dissolved resin-drops into a few tablespoons of brandy as Frodo had taught him. "Tis an efficacious tonic you have devised," the ranger said. "The Lady of Ithilien will be glad to learn of it."
"The Lady of Ithilien will have no use for it," Frodo said. "I don't think she will find any hazel like the one at our door--nor do I think the tree will give more drops, once we have all healed."
Bergil looked at him with speculation in his frown, then shrugged. "You are the gardener. You know more of these things than I." Bergil put his kettle on the coals as soon as Fishenchips hung the soup-pot over them. "But scores in the bark draw resin..."
"Not on your life!"
Bergil threw up his hands in a placatory gesture. "As you wish. As you wish. The master of the house may keep his secrets when they do no harm."
"Oh stop pretending!" Frodo said, his mood turning sour as his hunger wore on. "We all know that I am no master here. I am a...a sort of walking book, to be plundered at will for its information. And frankly, I'm feeling a little dogeared."
"Oh no, Frodo!" Fishenchips put down the poker and hurried to the hobbit's side. "Man or boy, ye're the one who saved m'life and eased m'pain!" He almost patted Frodo on the back with the hook, and then remembered and switched sides.
Bergil came over more slowly, with arms crossed. "Not all information, it seems. But you have a right to some privacy--as do others." And their eyes locked for a moment. Then sympathy softened Bergil's gaze as he said, "That sounded like words which Sauron might whisper to a weary heart. Has he returned?"
Frodo broke his eyes away. "No! Not quite. I don't know. Maybe."
Gently Bergil said, "I imagine that would be worse, in some ways. When he weakens, and his voice grows indistinct, you cannot always tell his counsel from your own, can you?"
"Of course I...well, now that you mention it, no. Not always." Frodo ran a nervous hand through his hair. "Even my peace is not quite peace." His eyes roamed, frightened, back and forth between his men, and suddenly the words gushed out. "No, you're right--I cannot always tell the difference, if you must know. Sometimes it seems that what sanity I have left hangs by a thread. And Bergil, Fish, I hang by that thread over a sharp cliff's edge. I, I do not know what lies at the base of that cliff, but I imagine it would break me."
Bergil winced, and squatted down beside the hobbit as Fishenchips returned to tending the soup, cutting Frodo sympathetic glances now and then as he stirred. In a low voice, Bergil said, "You had some intense conversation with the Dark One when I treated your wound. I meant to talk to you about that, Frodo."
"What's to talk about? He and I always argue."
"This sounded different. He offered you a pact, did he not? That much I could gather, I believe." When Frodo turned his face away Bergil gripped his wrist. "Share with me, Frodo! Please. Keeping Sauron's secrets serves no one save for Sauron."
Then Frodo, weary, spilled everything that the Dark Lord had said to him about brandy from the Shire. To Frodo's surprise, Bergil burst into laughter. "Oh, fiendish!" he cried. "Absolutely brilliant! Six hours of peace--that gives you just a bare hope that you might sober up enough to do your job towards the end of the interval. But think--what does it mean to let him drain just a little bit of power from you to heal a sore head? What else is that power but your will? And how will you resist the temptation to resort to this escape again and again, if each time he sucks what will-power he can from you? Oh, I see now too well each link in the chain that he lays upon his slaves! Sauron did not outlast and overpower all other minions of Morgoth by letting setbacks daunt him--I fear that Gandalf overestimated his defeat."
Frodo bristled at that. "My father, and Frodo Baggins even more, did not suffer in vain! Don't you dare even suggest that!"
"I am sorry--I meant no slur on the courage of the periannath, but..."
"My personal tragedy--and even the tragedies of all those Sauron has driven mad or enslaved since his fall--is nothing compared to the evil he wrought before, in the fullness of his strength. Think of the ruin of nations, of entire lands and peoples, the dark age he spread at the height of his power. My father can't account for all generations--not even Gandalf asked so much. We have some wrestling with evil to do all by ourselves." More quietly, though, so that Bergil barely caught the words like an eavesdropper, Frodo said, "I just didn't reckon on it being so much."
Bergil looked away and bit his lip, weighing his thoughts. Then he said, "The hands of a king are the hands of a healer. Perhaps we should take you back to Gondor."
"But then I would miss the planting! Surely the thaw comes early in these southern climes--I can feel a softening in the air; planting feels a little more than a week away." He clutched at Bergil. "Sauron would win, then--don't you see? He wants me out of the way when it matters most. I know something of his mind, Bergil. He hates my mission as much as he hates me. If forced from me he would hasten back ahead of me any way he could to wreak havoc in my absence. And then what would my health matter?"
"It would matter to me," said Bergil, and Fishenchips said, "Me too!" from the hearth.
Frodo laughed harshly at that. "Yes, and that is exactly the sort of weakness that he can best exploit!"
Shocked, Bergil stood up and stared at him. "He has, indeed, been talking to you."
Just then the kettle whistled. "I'll get it, mates," said Fishenchips. He poured the boiled tonic into cups and brought it to them. Bergil partook, too, for he had begun to bruise easily of late, and his gums bled when he bit into hard bread, but the tonic seemed to help.
Frodo shuddered and then, attempting a normal voice, said to Bergil, "That tea really works. My good man's stump may need some healing still, but I think Fishenchips has much of his strength back overall. Do you think he could manage a small journey at my pace, as soon as I can travel, myself?"
"Do not change the subject, Frodo."
"I'm not. You gave me good advice, some while back--the less I sit about moping, the better I feel. A couple days on crutches--or maybe even one more day, with the tonic--and my foot shall be as good as new. Don't you see, Bergil, that idleness is driving us both mad?"
Bergil gazed sadly on the hobbit and said, "As you wish then. Will you not at least consider wearing boots?"
Frodo smiled ruefully. "I admit that I cannot entirely explain my reasons even to myself. But no, Bergil; I'm afraid not."
"Then tell me: what is this journey that you speak of?"
"There is someone I would like to meet in Bristlescrub--an herbwife, canny in all that grows wild in these parts. I could use her information. I think I shall have Fishenchips accompany me while you manage things here. I know I can count on you, Bergil." With a sudden twinkle in his eye he looked up at the ranger and said, "See? I do heed your counsel--I will not go alone. Fish is a stout fellow--well, not stout, exactly, but brave enough, and true. With him watching my back and you here to keep my programs rolling forward, I haven't a thing to worry about."
"I hope not," said Bergil, and then he shook his head. "But do not throw away your crutches; you will have need of them again."
Before Frodo could reply they heard a sad, sweet voice outside their door, singing,
"Oft serenades I've sung, beneath my lover's bower,
Between the crier's last-rung bell and sunlight's dawning hour.
But I love one as deaf as stone, and to sweet glances blind,
So still I haunt the streets alone where others, too, have pined..."
"By Morgoth's aching brow!" Bergil swore, "'Tis after dark!" Fishenchips hurried to unbar the door.
Frodo meant to chide Bergil for picking up the same orc-talk that Fishenchips strove to give up (on most days) but instead he cried "Mattie!" as the post-rider stepped in, giggling and unsteady. "What are you doing out at this hour?"
"Seeking lodging, by your leave, singing for my supper since I seem to have run short of coin. Stumblehoof's stable felt a bit too cold for my bones, and her fodder appealed to me not at all. Have you any lodging for a weary traveler?" and she toppled into a sort of bow, sweeping her cap wide, and barely catching herself on the wall to set herself upright again.
Bergil said, "You choose your hour well--to turn you out now would be to murder you." And he barred the door behind her.
She only giggled in reply. If she remembered her quarrel with Frodo, she gave no sign of it.
Frodo said, "Of course you may stay. Set the table for four, gentlemen." Apologetically he turned to Fishenchips and said, "This won't interfere with reading-lessons tonight--I promise you." All the while his heart hurt to watch Mattie's wavering progress towards the table; he knew it insane to compare her thinness and her swaying to the dance of windblown hazel-wands, but he couldn't help himself. He had reached that point where his eye sought beauty where none existed, and he watched himself like a drowning man, far out to sea and resigned to fate, watches the sky shrink overhead.