In Mordor Where the Shadows Are
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 21, Part 92
(February 19, 1452)
With every step through the streets of Seaside, the herbwife hesitated more, as though she had lost her eyes anew, or else had lost all trust in her staff to tap her way for her. Frodo said, "You've come this far, Beebee. You can't turn back now."
"Oh yes I can. You must find me other lodging, Frodo; I cannot go home with you."
Frodo sighed. "As you wish. We will ask Mayor Aloe to either set you up herself or find you other quarters."
At least Beebee's lack of sight spared her the stares of the villagers, though she flinched every time that she heard a gasp, a cussword shouted out in shock, or a nervous laugh. And nothing spared her the sudden stone that hit her hip, thrown by a frightened child, though Fishenchips lunged at the urchin, growling and swiping like a bear. With a cry to melt hard hearts she groped for Frodo, and he held her, refusing to flinch when she hunched down awkwardly to hug him, shivering with shame, her nostrils pulsing to her ragged breath.
"Come along, Beebee," Frodo said as gently as he could. "We have driven the nasty boy away." And she straightened, slowly, regaining her grace. She turned forward the desert landscape that should have been a face, moistened by not so much as a single tear, though her heart should drown. And they walked on. She did not see how all heads now bowed around her, ashamed of themselves. She clung to Frodo as though she had never learned the skills to traverse Mordor blind.
"Do not deceive me," she whispered in a shaky voice. "Do not lead me to him, Frodo. I never want to hear that scream again."
Frodo hesitated, and then decided on honesty. "I will have to lead you close. We share a commons with the Mayor's home."
She dug in her heels. "Please. No." New strangers came across them now, and she heard more gasps, more cusswords, more uneasy laughs.
"You'll just have to risk it, Beebee. Odds are, this late in the day, he's gone inside, where the windows are narrow in a deep, deep wall. In fact, he's probably far from the front windows, in the back with the kitchen stuff, trying to figure out what to cook without a hobbit to help him out. Come along now, my dear; it won't be far."
"Nooo," she moaned.
"It's all right. The commons is just around this corner. Look, I'll go on ahead and take a peek, while you wait right here. I'll see if the coast is clear."
"Frodo, don't leave me..."
"You have nothing to fear. Fishenchips is right beside you; he will protect you. Now stop worrying! You're not the only mutilated person in Seaside, just today's novelty. Tomorrow you'll be old news and someone else will take a turn. I'm going to check the commons, now." She heard his little bare feet paddling off, already so distinct to her, and then come back. "Everything's fine, Beebee. There isn't a soul out and about there. Let's hurry while it stays that way."
She let him take her hand, and on the other side she leaned on Fishenchip's arm, caressing the metal of his hook as something impervious to fear. Fish took her staff in his hand of flesh; she heard it thumping along with his steps as they entered the little village square, a solid sound quite different from her taps. She felt the change of air that signaled moving through a wider space, with more sunlight to warm it. She walked more quickly than she felt comfortable with, anxious to get this part over. Then a scent of freshness wafted her way...
"Wait...what is that?"
"What is what?"
A woman's voice interrupted, "Frodo Gardner? Is that you, poppet?"
"Good afternoon, Mayor Aloe, and well-met. The Herbwife of Bristlescrub, here, has accompanied me back from my travels, and will need...uh, wait, Beebee, you don't want to go that way." But the blind woman had released his hand and headed straight towards his tower-house as though she could see her way at last. "Beebee, no, you...well bless my soul! What happened to the hazel-tree? And what are these?"
For the entwife had departed, and fresh-planted in her stead, flanking his door to either side, stood two young trees, white of trunk but with dark and glossy leaves, already heavy with fruit. Beebee had hastened to the nearest one. She broke off a leaf to confirm her guess, crumpled it and inhaled its bruised perfume with a sigh of appreciation.
Mayor Aloe looked on the trees with displeasure. "We don't know what happened to yer hazel-tree, pet, but some enemy must've stole off with it, surely, and left ye these as a joke. Sourfruits we call 'em. They're about as useful as a paper sword."
"What will the fruit be like when they ripen?"
"They never do. That's the taunt in it. They'll stay green and sour till they rot."
"But that's impossible," Frodo said, just as Beebee exclaimed, "That is not true! The fruit is ripe right now." Frodo caught up with her as she stroked the fair branches, then swept her fingertips along the twigs until she found a misshapen-looking green globe, pinched at either end. With her face turned away he saw nothing but her grace, fully attuned to the tree. "Sour, yes," she said, "but valuable. The juice cures scurvy or prevents it altogether--and they bear their fruit in the winter, when we need it most." She smiled as she said, "This is a gift of Yavanna, disguised as one of Sauron's own distortions, so that he never knew." She ran her nail along the thick green rind, to release a savor in the air, sharp yet refreshing. "And the juice is delicious, once you sweeten and dilute it. It also tastes heavenly squeezed just as it is onto fish, meats, or salad." Knowing his position by subtle clues of sound, she handed a fruit to Frodo. "It has become rare--you are singularly blessed!"
But Frodo did not feel blessed, at least not for the moment. He looked around for slender wands with catkins dangling like soft ornaments. At last he sighed and murmured under his breath, "She will come back when she's ready. She left me gifts to show that she hasn't abandoned me." To Beebee he said, "Do you realize that you have come right to my home? Bergil awaits you just inside."
Beebee gasped. She groped for his shoulder, found his head, and drew him close, her own head turning this way and that as if she could hear an escape route.
"Beebee," Frodo said gently, "Things happen for a reason. Doesn't it seem strange to you to find yourself drawn to this of all doors?" She didn't answer him. "There's a lot fewer steps forward than back, you know." He felt her tremble. "Beebee, can you come this close and not know for sure? If you turn back now, you will regret it for the rest of your life."
She exhaled a long and shaky sigh, like she released a chestful of fears. Then she firmed her jaw, stood straighter and said, "You are right, little wanderer. Lead me."
He reached up and took her by the arm. He stamped on each step so that she could place it by sound (especially necessary in Mordor, where no one ever builds stairs evenly) and he led her up.
Mayor Aloe called after, "I'll have to go, Pet--nightfall is close. But I'll expect a full report in the morning."
"You'll have it," he called back, and opened the door.
When they entered they found Bergil with his back to them, reorganizing the kitchen end of the great room, hoisting up sacks of flour and beans onto ladder-like shelves, hung on ropes straight from the rafters so that they didn't touch the walls. Frodo found suddenly that he had no idea what to say.
"Hi," Fishenchips called out for him. "We're home."
"Wonderful! One moment..." Bergil said, hefting a particularly heavy bag and not turning. "You see? Vermin will have a harder time getting at the food this way." He turned, smiling--then saw in the flesh the "face" that he knew only from nightmares, and he turned a bloodless white. It seemed like time itself couldn't breathe or move, until at last a horrible sound burst out from Bergil--the deep-throated, rising scream of a warrior who has at last seen a terror great enough to shatter his nerve and indeed unhinge his mind.
Beebee herself wailed at the sound. They each turned to flee in opposite directions. Frodo did the only thing that a hobbit could under the circumstances--he tackled her knees, bringing them both down. Meanwhile Fishenchips dropped the staff with a clatter and ran after Bergil leaping up the stairs three at a time. He caught the ranger at the first landing and dragged him bodily back to the room below.
"Now you listen!" Fishenchips growled into the man's ear while holding him in a necklock and bumping him down the steps. "She's a healer! She nursed ya years ago--that's where ye 'member her from, but she didn't cause the pain that haunts yer memory." At the stair's bottom he shoved Bergil into the room. "Now be a man and face whatcha fear! It's just a poor, mangled gal what once did right by ye!"
But before Bergil could respond, before he could even force himself to look at her, he heard her cry out, wrenchingly, "Bergil! Oh Bergil--I should never have come back to horrify you!"
Something gave. The single most feared thing in his imagination had happened--that the apparition of his nightmares would call to him by his name. And he had survived it. A calm washed over him so profound that his muscles loosened and he barely made it to a chair, all the strength fled from this ranger of Ithilien. He just slumped there, dumbly gazing where the woman knelt upon the floor, while she gripped her head and just started rocking, violently rocking, oblivious to how she looked, nothing left but naked emotion with no memory of appearances to keep up. He stared now without fear upon the absent face between handfuls of white hair, nothing but the nostrils and a mouth grimacing in grief, monstrous to look upon, yet whimpering like some scared and tiny thing--a sound so pitiful that it found its way clean through his shock and into his heart, so that he at last could bear no more.
Bergil stood, wavering on his legs like a drunken man. Clues at last clicked together; he recognized the voice. "Elenaril?" he asked in a high, small voice not like himself at all.
She could not answer him in words, she just kept choking out the little sounds. So he came to her, he knelt, he wrapped his arms around her. When he nestled the frightful head against his breast, he felt the rocking stop and her slender fingers clutch his shirt. He stroked her moonlight hair and made soothing sounds to overlay the whimpering that passed with her for tears. He bowed his head to kiss the face of his nightmare till the warmth between them melted all the fear away. "My heart knew," he whispered. "It couldn't reach my head, but my heart always knew. Elenaril! How could I marry anyone else, knowing that you yet lived?"
"Elenaril?" and unweepable tears saturated her voice. "But I no longer have eyes as bright as stars, my love."
"Yes--always Elenaril! It was never just your eyes that shone, my dearest, long-lost love!" He hugged her tight. "Can you bring your brilliance back into my life? Can you forgive me my years of delirium, my not knowing you?"
"If...if you can forgive me for letting fear outshout the wisdom of my heart, when I gave up on you."
"Absolutely!" And his soft lips sought out her seared ones, and found them not so terrible at all.
Frodo and Fishenchips tiptoed away to unpack for themselves.
Years and years into the future, when all tales changed, men would speak of a knight summoned in the name of Ithilienís green livery, and they will tell how that knight found himself perforce married to a hideous hag, wise in the magic of herbs. Their legend will relate how his love and respect turned her into a beautiful maiden. What the legend will not say is that she had always been beautiful.