I Will Not Say the Day is Done
Nor Bid the Stars Farewell
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 19, Part 116
Back Among Friends
(March 3, 1452)
The man put one foot in front of the other. Many times he fell down, so that sand crusted the bristles on his chin and clung to his clothes, but he'd stagger back up to his feet and go on a little further, before collapsing again. He couldn't remember why, except maybe for the sake of some story that he had heard long ago, about the ratfolk doing the same thing, nothing ever could stop the little critters once they set their minds to something, you could put any barrier in front of them and they'd gnaw or scratch their way through somehow. And their tale tangled up with hope in some important fashion, then or now or both; whatever that hope might be, it lay ahead of him.
The man couldn't stop shivering. His clothing had never quite dried out, and the wind blew bitter this early in the year. The sand dragged at his feet and seemed to have infiltrated his muscles, so that he wanted nothing better than to lie down and die till the pain all bled away. Yet he kept on moving, sick and hungry and thirsty, oh Valar witness yes how thirsty, for he had swallowed way too much of the poison water when it happened, and he had drunk nothing since beyond whatever morning dew he could browse off of the weeds like an animal. He had done this, he believed, for days.
Something woke up just a little in him, to marvel that he still could move forward. Men had died for less. "I shall write a treatise on it," he said, and then cackled, and then choked on his own humor; he doubled over, clutching his stomach, willing it to settle. The repeated purging of the poison from his system might well have saved his life at first, but any more could kill him in his present dehydration. "No one would ever read a treatise that came out of Mordor," he mumbled, and sank back into his gloom. But then he straightened himself back up and tottered forward once again.
One foot. At a time. In front of the other. And again. Just keep it up. Don't ask why.
The dunes crawled with vermin, and dragon-spawn writhed just on the edge of his peripheral vision, but then he'd blink and it would all go away. He wrapped his arms around his cramped-up middle as he went; he felt his own shuddering. Sometimes he forgot that it belonged to him; sometimes he observed it as the symptoms in a patient. "This man has swallowed the poisoned waters of the Sea of Nurnen, has not flushed it out of his system since, and is, in fact, dying," he remarked to the baby dragon that he knew lurked somewhere just out of line of sight to his left. "Your mother missed that one somehow; better that he should have made her a fine meal, than expire out here useless in the sand." He tried not to chuckle, fearing the result, but it all seemed supremely funny to him at the time.
Sometimes the beach bent and twisted before him, the sea all tangled up with sky, and then it all stretched into one long string, quivering in the middle of nothingness; he could hear the whine of its vibration, shrill and penetrating. But no--he only saw the distortion of light between nearly closed eyelids in a reeling head.
"Did I do my job?" he rasped as he strove to open up his eyes again. (One foot...) "Did I make it any easier--for anybody?" (...in front of...) He wasn't sure. He couldn't quite remember. (...the other...) "Did I...did I ease the pain?"
He thought he could remember a smile. Tears he could not afford spilled down his face and streaked through the sand upon his cheeks. Yes, he did remember a smile, as broad as a sunset over sea, eyes that communed with his and overflowed a kind of peace to him. He remembered a face full of acceptance and the memory of a life lived well enough. He had watched the smile become fixed when the dragon bit clean through the waist.
He sobbed, gritted his teeth, moved on. Maybe he persevered only because dignity demanded it, and dignity came dear in Mordor; he wouldn't drop it in the sand just yet, no, not to lighten any load. Plod. Plod. Plod. Plod. One. Foot. In. Front. Of. The. Other.
He heard a dog bark somewhere. For a long time he ignored it, just another hallucination, but now he saw houses to his right, rooftops behind a wall that came closer, that crumbled into old, storm-chewed ruins at the beach's edge, which he passed. Now up ahead he saw a couple piers and a huddle of warehouses that looked strange to him, yet it seemed he might have recalled them better from a different angle altogether.
Down he went into the sand again--hard, smack onto his face, his mouth and nostrils full of grit. Or up--was it up? Sand above him, the dirt of his grave? No matter. He couldn't move either way. Yet he found it hard to breathe in that position, therefore he probably still lived. No matter. It wouldn't take him long now. Old friendship never dies. Soon he would sail again with Watersheen on the Greatest Voyage of All, the one that elves know not.
"Don't go leapin' to conclusions, mate. I ain't said as I'd have ye."
The man chuckled, though it pained him. "But you owe me," he tried to say, though he couldn't actually make a sound.
"Nope--all paid up. You 'n' me'll just have to go our separate ways for a while. Maybe later..."
"Watersheen--don't leave me!" He clawed at the sand, trying to get up.
"Gotta go--'tis just the way 'tis, old friend. The Lord of Mandos calls me..." and the voice grew more and more distant. "Ya know me--I never back down on a deal."
"Watersheen!" He tensed one last time, and then went limp, frustrated with his own exhaustion.
Faint now the voice called out, "Oh, I'll come fetch ye later, Oldest Friend! Not today, but when ye're ready, I'll be there. I'll get me permission..." but his voice blended in with some other crying, "Papa! Papa! Look what's on the beach!"
"Don't ye get too close, there, lad--it might be crawlin' with pestilence. Or it might be some robber, preyin' on the soft-hearted by feignin' to be sick." Slow steps neared, then circled, and then a boot kicked Leech. He groaned, surprised to find that he could. "Nope--it's a shipwrecker, or I'm a goat. Figgers--we've had good booty offen the beach these days." The man in the sand heard the speaker scratch his beard. "All right, then. Seems harmless enou'." Rough hands turned him over. "Still livin' by the looks of it. Let's haul it up, then, take it to the Tower-House. They do say the Hook Man's learned some things from th'erbwife." Leech felt his arm pulled up over a broad if bony shoulder and his feet now dragged behind him--manifestly preferable to walking on them.
"Papa, that herbwife--what was she up to, t'other day, in the Town Square under all them flowers?"
"'Marryin', they called it. She an' her man pledged 'emselves to life fer each other."
Several steps hushed through the sand before the boy asked, "Ya ever marry Mama?"
"I never know'd a name fer it before, son. But I might just do it, at that. Looked real purty, din't it? Yeah, I think she'd like that." Leech heard something magical and strong enter into the man's coarse voice. "And why not? Why not stand up an' let the whole blinkin' world know what that woman means t'me? I mean...yeah! Why th'divel not?"
Now Leech felt his toes drag across cobbles; this did not feel so good, but he seemed powerless to get his boots beneath him. "Watersheen?" he asked weakly. "Who're you gonna marry, anyway?" But no, Watersheen had gone away. Yet who else would care enough to haul his carcass off the beach? Any of the crew, but they had all sailed off with their Captain. No, wait...not all...
"LEECH!" Fishenchips bellowed right in his ear, jolting him into a reflex that the doctor in him found a gratifying sign of life. "Get 'im on in here--there y'go. Spread 'im right out on th'bench, there. Master Frodo! Master Frodo! Oh where's the little rat when y'need him? Stable--o' course! He mucks the stable this time o'day..." Boots beat out the door to the back, with fading shouts of "Frodo!"
Nobody left. Even Fishenchips sailed off with Watersheen; he must have had a change of heart. But then the boots pounded back, and with them pattered smaller feet, bare upon the floor. A higher voice cried out, "Leech! You're alive!"
"Barely," said the man who'd found him, who quickly told the hobbit everything.
Leech felt little hands rock him. "Come on, Leech, talk to me. Tell us how we can help you." The hands got rougher. "Wake up! Come on, now, wake up..."
Leech swallowed in a rawhide throat. "Water..." he suggested in a croak.
"Oh! Of course!" Bare feet scampered away and hurried back with something that gurgled. Leech felt the spout touch his lips; with the last strength in him he grasped the skin and squeezed a gush of water into his mouth. He drank, and drank again, and when he emptied one skin Fishenchips or Frodo handed him another, till he fell back in unbelievable contentment on the cushioned bench, opening his eyes at last to the spokes of the ceiling beams. He seemed to lie within a wheel that rotated very, very slowly. But that was all right. Wherever the wheel took him, he had at least found his way back among friends.
Yet he still felt poison in his veins...