In Mordor Where the Shadows Are
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 25, Part 96
(February 21, 1452)
Frodo woke before the dawn, full in the throes of a dance-hangover,
that needs no alcohol to pass the lips to do its work. His throat had
parched into something akin to what you might find some weeks after a
lizard had died in the desert, but the corresponding pounding of his
skull couldn't hold a candle to the aching in his legs and other parts.
Indeed, he had no idea that he'd used so many different muscles in his
dance until they all hurt at once. He had only the dimmest recollection
of where he'd gotten half the bruises and scrapes upon his body, and no
memory whatsoever of the other half. Little trips and collisions had
not mattered long enough for two second's notice at the time.
He sat up, yawned, emptied the jug of water on his night-stand in about
two gulps, and painfully swung his legs over the edge of the cot. He
did not enjoy standing on those legs, but it was that or crawl to the
drafty little side-tower that served as a sort of attached outhouse
safe from predators, and he had too many bruises on his knees to do
that. He rubbed the kink in his neck where the jar-cord had hung--and
suddenly remembered the seeds.
"It's First Planting Day!" he whispered in astonishment, and then he
smiled, forgetting all his aches. Immediately after ablutions (icy
splashes to brighten him to full wakefulness and put the roses back in
his cheeks) he did some quick stretches to loosen up his cramps, and
then dressed as swiftly as possible, whistling tunes from yesterday's
dance. The exotic melodies felt just right, the way they reminded him
that farming always
carried its own mystery curled up tight and secret in its seeds--the
mystery of life, the unfurling of growth, the swelling blushing
ripening of fruit. To celebrate it in a foreign land to foreign music
brought home to him the marvel inherent in everything commonplace about
Frodo hardly took time for a bite of toast and a swig of tea before he
popped out the door at the earliest light like a firecracker-bean. Even
as he hurried along in the cold blue fog he rolled up his sleeves above
the elbow despite the chill. His seed-jar sloshed once more against his
chest, and he carried a pack on his back full of dry grain shushing
with his steps. For once Bergil and Fishenchips lagged behind, their
longer legs notwithstanding; he found himself skipping and whistling,
though his more sensible side kept telling him, "Save your energy,
fool! You've a long day ahead of you." But already his limbs caught a
second wind, limbering up the more the merrier his steps. Some ways
behind them the herbwife tapped her way, but she had little problem
finding her direction, by the thump of many feet, for people poured out
of every door, flooding towards the same destination, climbing to the
fields like a river that had taken a notion to flow uphill.
Frodo's heart beat fast, and he couldn't hold back his grin. For this
he had come to Mordor, though he thought the day would never arrive.
First Planting! As gladly as hobbits celebrated the occasion in the
Shire, as much as it had always thrilled him in seasons past, it
couldn't compare to now, here, in this hungriest of lands, given hope
for the first time in years. And he, Frodo Gamgee Gardner, had come to
them as the messenger and agent of that hope!
They didn't have all that much to sow, considering the population, as
much as he could carry in on three backs from Bristlescrub--or rather
two and a halfling back, for he couldn't bear as much as he'd wanted,
he'd had to come to terms with that. And he'd had to set a considerable
amount aside for an old trick that Gandalf had taught the hobbits long
ago, during the Fell Winter, of letting some seeds sprout outside the
soil for a quick emergency vegetable (not to mention supplying malt for
brewing in more prosperous times!) But he'd had enough to give them a
Anyway, he didn't want to plant all of the fields just yet. Some needed
reclaimed first, by algae and by certain fungi, from long poisoning.
Frodo marveled that such ugly slimes and growths could now come humbly
to the rescue of mankind--it seemed that Yavannah had disguised more
than the sourfruit trees, to smuggle in the keys to Mordor's recovery
right under the Dark Lord's nose. Though he couldn't see it in the fog,
Frodo heard the gurgling of bucket after bucket pouring out already,
some acres away, to create the dank conditions necessary. Quite an
expenditure, in this desert by its salt-thick sea, but one that should
pay for itself eventually.
Rows of shadowy figures awaited him already, fading off into the mist
beside their allotted patches, watching for the little seed that he
could give them. Plainly some of them had ventured forth even earlier
than he, for smouldering stumps of torches stood thrust into the dirt
here and there, and some folk there wore swords. Every citizen of
Seaside turned out, in fact, soon or late, from tottering elder to babe
in arms, some borne in on litters, some missing limbs, some reeling and
befuddled, some hardened and cold, but every single one of them
gathered to engulf the fields in a great wave of yearning like a flood
of prayer to drench and quicken the soil. Most bore jars; the remainder
of those able enough to walk would receive dry grains that needed no
dance to awaken them. Frodo joined Fishenchips, Bergil, and Elenaril in
distributing seeds to those lined up to plant; he found himself crowded
by all the eager faces and reaching hands that materialized out of the
haze and faded back into it again, but he didn't mind; he felt welcome,
he felt wonderful.
In an undertone, Bergil spoke to Frodo. "You seemed quite popular with the ladies yesterday."
Frodo blushed and grinned, ducking his head a little. "I guess so."
"They have described you as 'cute'."
"Do not look so pleased," the man said, turning grave eyes on the
hobbit. "You will have to make your own decisions, of course, but weigh
carefully just how much self-respect you are willing to trade for
affection. And remember your mission, Frodo--how the people regard you
will affect how well they listen to you when it matters most."
Now Frodo blushed for a different cause. "I thought popular was good," he grumbled.
"For the right reasons. Oh, everybody keeps a soft spot in their hearts
for the village fool, but they will not labor hard at his behest, nor
trust him for their livelihood."
"Look around you, Bergil!" Frodo snapped. "Would folks have turned out like this for a fool?"
"You are not quite discredited just yet, and your money by itself has
promised to make them a little less hungry. But if that is all you seem
to have to offer, then that is all they will seek from you." He smiled,
but wryly. "That, and amusement."
"I am not a plaything!"
"I am glad to hear that you remember that." And Bergil moved down the line in the opposite direction from his master.
Frodo handed out seed in silence for awhile, studying the faces for
whatever it might be that they saw in him. As much as it had alarmed
him to come to Mordor and find people slightly afraid of hobbits, he
missed it now; fear wore off quickly in the Land of Shadow. But what
did he read there in its place? The hope of the hungry? Skepticism,
perhaps, suspended for the moment's desperation? Here and there,
surely. Speculation in some eyes, a cold weighing of how best to use
him. Warmth and gratitude in others--but for what? The promise of crops
to come, or just the distraction that he provided, a pretty novelty
amid their hardships?
"Th' goats look about ready to burst, Master Frodo," Hando the Butcher
said enthusiastically, eyes glittering in his ruddy face as he reached
Frodo laughed, dismissing all concern. "They do indeed, don't they? I
daresay you'll have work ahead of you soon, Hand O' Plenty." He filled
the man's big hands with grain and moved on. What did he care, today,
what people thought of him? It was Planting Day! And abundance promised
to fill the winter-emptied cellars once again.
Now he drew close to where the Mayor conferred with Harding, her
Captain of the Town Guard. "Where did you find him?" Frodo heard Aloe
ask, but he couldn't catch the man's softer-voiced reply. "That makes
three in two days," Aloe said, and again the man answered her. "Yes,
yes, but not so many so close together. Something's up, Har." When she
noticed Frodo listening Aloe smiled back as wickedly carefree as though
she had discussed nothing grim the moment before.
She sauntered away to the center of the middlemost field, and there she
stood, next to something small that had awaited her on the ground;
Frodo couldn't make it out. Frodo continued on down the line of
villagers, occasionally glancing her way; sometimes he could see her
clearly out there, and sometimes just the faintest outline of
insouciance hinted at somewhere in the bluegray fog. She could almost
have been a ghost from some defiance long past, that Sauron never could
defeat by mere slaying. Nearer at hand Frodo saw a toothless old man
without feet sitting on the ground, a big round drum between his knees.
The man watched Aloe intently as though if he squinted hard enough he
could cut right through the haze.
Suddenly a brightness sparkled and fizzled near where Aloe stooped and
stood again; at the sight of it the people cheered. A whistling whoosh
shot up to the sky, trailing sparks. With a deafening BANG! a burst of
green glowed suddenly high above their heads, softened by twilight and
the fog. At that signal the old man commenced to pound upon his drum,
bare-handed. Other drums soon joined in, up and down the rows of
bystanders, and the planters stepped forward to their rhythm.
The people drove sticks into the ground and dropped seeds into the soil
as they went, shoving dirt over them with the side of a foot, then
moving on. Once Sauron had riven the earth of Nurn with great machines,
thundering and smoking, and a few slaves could plant many acres in a
day. But today the people had no means to feed such machines, nor skill
to keep them running. They were not sore missed; they hurt the ears and
choked the breath and sometimes mangled those who ran afoul of them.
The Seasiders did not lack for willing hands to take up the slack, now
that they owed no conscripts to the Burning Eye. Even so, Frodo figured
that a few plows would not be asking too much, but if the Nurnings ever
knew about plows they had long since lost the lore.
Elenaril took up seed and joined the others. She made one cautious step
for every two beats, but her feet, as bare as any hobbit's, felt out
her way along a furrow that Bergil plowed ahead of her by dragging the
hilts of his sheathed sword--a heavy, two-handed weapon that some men
could not have lifted, let alone wielded in battle. Frodo watched the
bent silhouette preceding the halting, upright little figure that
sowed, and felt in his own back what that must feel like. He also knew
that Bergil could not soon repair the scouring to the hilts' bright
finish, nor the scratches on its gems, and in fact he might never
repair them, but hand the sword on, proud scars and all, to future
generations as an heirloom of war inscribed with a later tale of love,
more treasured than any precious stone.
One voice after another lifted up in a planting song, in the wailing
fashion of the east. Frodo's heart rose with every note, as he took up
seed himself and did his part. Over here they needed to punch no holes;
for they broadcast the flashflood clover that would not have grown
evenly in rows if they'd tried, and needed no help in finding purchase
in the soil. The sun began to burn more and more of the mists away; its
light flashed on the arcs of dripping seed and sand that Frodo cast,
and sparkled on gems of dew that covered everything, so that Frodo felt
like he tread in a land of treasure, its colors damp-enriched to jewel
And then something happened, something that had wanted to happen for
some time, stirring in the back of his head, or perhaps the back of his
heart. Frodo felt himself multiply. He became every person there. He
broadcast seed with a hundred hands, he sang from a hundred voices, and
felt in his foot each step that each one took, synchronized to the
drums as a single heartbeat thrumming through a thousand veins. The
rhythm would not let him stumble with surprise, but his lens felt warm
upon his breast, as though some unseen form of light refracted through
it, kindling in him a wonderful fire that fed back to energize every
living soul among them and, through their conduction, the ground that
held them up.
The last of the low-lying clouds that had once been fog now parted
fully, and every breath gasped with Frodo at the sparkling landscape
before them, and every heart soared in the warming sun. Booted feet
felt soil crumble between hobbit-toes, felt soles moisten with the
fertile earth. Now clear blue skies spread entirely overhead, as the
day warmed up fast, and when Frodo sweat, everybody doffed their cloaks
along with him, right there in the fields in a flutter like the
ruffling of a single wing across the plain; together they felt the
breeze refresh them all anew. The joy of a hundred hearts swelled up in
Frodo's breast, but whenever it threatened to burst him it surged
instead back to the others, redoubled, and then flowed back again, so
that he became a cup ever filling and pouring out again. A cup of
light, a cup of warming, heartening draughts, cementing fellowship!
Musicians now dared to improvise new melodies, unimagined in their
traditions, suddenly sure that these would harmonize no matter what.
Children wove through the crowd dancing mutations of the Springle-Ring,
tossing the bell-drum between them to rattle and pound. Somehow a merry
Shire tune wove into oriental chords, though only Frodo recognized it,
the song his heart sang out to Mordor, Mordor whom he loved, Mordor
coming back again from death. Everyone felt the strangeness of that
day, though nobody named it, each taking it for a secret fancy of their
own. But Frodo knew, though he dared say no more than any other. He
knew that magic happened, and he knew himself the focus. And knowing,
he let go of his knowledge like a handful of seed, surrendered himself
to the village, thinking of nothing except the planting.
Together they sowed hope. And hope fell tiny and secret into the holes
and cracks of the land's armor, out of sight, as though it had never
been, hidden in the earth. But in each tiny speck of hope resided,
furled up tight but ready to spring, a year's worth of life and
nourishment, growth and celebration, waiting to reach up and introduce
itself to the sky.