For Into Darkness Fell His Star
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 13, Part 154
May 7, 1452
When Frodo woke up he found the King sitting by his cot, Dragon-girl curled up asleep on the tall man's lap. He heard a soft pattering somewhere; in his drowsiness he did not at first realize what he heard.
"Rain?" he asked in wonder, opening his eyes.
"A light rain," Elessar replied. "Not enough, I fear, to break the drought by itself, but a benison nonetheless--a sign, as I see it, of good things to come, and a blessing on our work so newly past."
Frodo lay there in a peace as deep as childhood, listening to the rain, and inhaling the aroma of frying ham wafting up the stairwell. He fingered the glass on his breast, on its horsehair cord and sleepily asked, "Will I get my Elvish eyesight back, Strider? For I lost it in Sauron's dream."
"I know," the King said gravely. "But you will not get it back quite yet, if ever you do. Easy--lay back down. It is all right. You are not being punished. You will still perceive more keenly than most of those around you, but you have seen too much, too fast. That is all. You do not need so much power to tend your fields. Let go of the burden, Frodo, and all of the perils that it draws! Let your soul heal awhile before you take it up again."
A contentment lay upon Frodo, as thick and soft as the blanket warming him, so that he took the news calmly. He felt small and somewhat drained, but not in any bad way; rather like something once swollen returning to its healthful size. He touched with gratitude the clean sheet beneath him, and the pillow cradling his head, with senses clarified in a way like and yet unlike seeing through the light of Valinor--a simpler appreciation, not overwhelming, just soul-satisfying.
Elessar asked him, "Do you remember the vault of elvish toys where my wife let little May have the first thing that she reached for? And likewise your brother Tom?"
"Yes, I remember."
"We have brought each of our own children, in turn, into that chamber, and they each have selected one toy before we carried them out again. One apiece. Do you know why we impose that limit, even on our own?"
"No, but I expect that you shall tell me."
"Because of a part of the tale of Turin Turambar that men have forgotten, yet the elves remember."
"Oh, good! I always liked the old tales."
"This is a sad one, I fear, about the Lord of Doriath and the kindliest mistake of his long-enduring life. Ashamed of how he had treated Beren before, Thingol lavished gifts upon young Turin as though he had been a prince among elves. Toy swords that gave the child skill in battles yet to come. Toy arrows that gave him focus beyond mortal will. Gamepieces that sharpened his mind. Balls that heightened his reflexes. Little toy soldiers to give him mastery of men. Paints to make vivid the keenness of his sight, flutes to make exquisite his power to hear. From the moment that Morwen brought her child into the protection of Doriath, the boy had every toy that he could possibly imagine, and some he had never dreamed of before. Each of them bore the most marvelous of mother-spells--spells not merely woven by elves, but by the great maia Melian herself. In this the foresight of the Lady of Songs failed her, blinded by her husband's doting and remorse."
Strider shook his head. "It was too much. One can only stretch mortal fabric so far before it tears. The elves now attribute the instability of Turin to this plethora of gifts, unbalancing him, destroying his perspective--they opened him to the pride that Morgoth exploited to his ruin, and ultimately they drove Turin mad." Dragon-Girl stirred sleepily in Strider's lap and fell still again, clutching his shirt. "We mortals must respect our limits, and taste but sparingly of powers meant for stronger constitutions. That is why I seldom use the palantir, even with no foe left strong enough to twist it from my control."
The King rose, Dragon-Girl in his arms. "But enough grim talk! Let us attend matters more within our measure, shall we? My little patient, here, and I have already breakfasted." He looked on her fondly, as though she were his own child. "Yes, the dear one finds that she likes Shire-cured rashers much, much better than rat, doesn't she?" He looked back to Frodo, smiling. "But I do believe that Master Peregrin and Mistress Crookyteeth have a second breakfast cooking downstairs, if you are interested.
"Interested?" Frodo sat up, suddenly remembering that he had not eaten anything yesterday at all. "Try and keep me away!"
The King laughed to watch the hobbit pull on clothing with enthusiastic haste. "Good--for you will need a fortifying meal before your day's labors. Or have you forgotten that today you planned to harvest chard?"
"I thought I'd planned a holiday."
"You enjoyed that yesterday. But the King's Gardener, of all people, should know that this time of year seldom allows more than one day off at a time."
Frodo couldn't argue with that--nor did he want to. Something in him itched to get his toes back into the good, soft dirt and his fingers around green stems again. "You're right," he said. "I'm ready to go back to work. But what will you do in your host's absence?"
"I might pay a visit to the Mayor. I might not." Strider winked as he said, "The King has many concerns that he does not bring up with his gardener."
When they came downstairs Frodo put off his own hunger to walk Bergil and Elenaril to the door, but the King summoned them back, leading them to the table, and he pulled back a chair for the herbwife. "Here--sit. Rest your feet. You could use a second breakfast more than anyone."
Bergil looked puzzled. "Far be it from me to argue with a healer and a king, but my wife has been ill today, and one breakfast already did not sit well with her, I fear." Yet Elenaril sat back most willingly, to his surprise.
Elessar took her hand and said, "Let me be the first to congratulate you."
Elenaril's scorched lips trembled on an uncertain smile. "Then you have seen it? So early?" She clasped her husband's hand with her free one and said, "Darling, I did not tell you only because I could not yet be sure."
Bergil marveled, then fell to his knees to embrace his sitting wife, joy bursting forth in his face. "You mean...yes of course you mean! But how wonderful! How...how can so much happiness exist in the Land of Shadow?" And he laid his cheek against her still-small belly.
Elenaril chuckled as she caressed his hair, saying, "Silly man--you cannot feel nor hear anything just yet."
Beaming, the King said, "I wish you all blessings on your son." Crookyteeth clapped and Pippin whistled, and Fishenchips let out a whoop of delight, and all present rejoiced in the couple's good fortune.
Breakfast not only tasted good, but felt good, and not just in the satisfaction of hunger ending. Crookyteeth and Pippin fed Frodo on the food of home. Nothing so delectable as Elvish fare, nor exotic like the eastern cuisines whose vestiges he sampled now and then, nor the stately provender of kings, but good, hearty nourishment from his own country--ham and 'taters and onions; he could almost taste his father's nurturing touch upon the roots, his mother's care in the smoking of the ham. And oh how it suited him! It did not merely fill him, but seemed to fit his body in a tailored way. He had seconds and thirds while Pippin laughed and filled his plate again. He felt more like a hobbit than he had in a long, long time.
And after that the fields. The rain had softened the clods and brought back the good farm smells that had faded into dust, and cool mud squished between his toes. Revived, the chard cut crisp and juicy to his knife, and the baskets soon filled up with fresh, green health for everyone.
"I came to Mordor for this," he thought. "Not to battle dark lords or dragons, not to rescue lost maia or wield magical powers, but to sow, to tend, and eventually to reap. I want no more than that--and nothing less." And then, after awhile, he thought nothing in particular beyond the next handful of chard, and how full the basket grew before his eyes, and how best to move his body so as to lessen strain and maximize his strength. And yet, by day's end he felt profoundly moved, as though by the most sublime of thoughts. He had come back to himself, and all that he had meant.
At lunchtime he drove his donkey-cart out to the fields where Crookyteeth grazed her goats, and brought out his picnic basket from beneath the seat, heavier than usual, and spread out his blanket on the rain-dewed ground, and didn't mind if a little moisture seeped up through the cloth, as he dined with the shepherdess, and talked and laughed, and fed her desserts with his fingers, and kissed her there where, sitting on the ground, she did not seem half so tall, and he could almost imagine her one of his own kind. Then, somewhat later, they lay back on the blanket, nestled together, watching the clouds pass overhead, commenting half in a dream on their shapes, while the goats grazed nearby and the sun came forth in flashes that softened now and then back into shade again.
Work resumed for both of them; Frodo returned to the fields, as Crookyteeth led the goats to foliage yet unnibbled. Now and then soft rains resumed--not the pounding thunderstorms typical of Mordor, but a caress of moisture as gentle as harp-notes, cooling the laborer's backs, dewing the leaves, darkening the ground in speckles, and then subsiding again till the thirsty earth sucked in its drink, and then returning to serve a little more. The men soon stopped running for shelter, but laughed in wonder at the softness of the weather, and came to trust in it for this day of grace.
The drought had left somewhat less chard than he had planned on, so the harvest ended early in the afternoon. He left the largest and healthiest plants unharvested, to go to seed--strong parents for a future generation more adapted to the Land of Shadow. He looked at his baskets and saw enough fresh greens for now, supplemented by the largess of Gondor and the Shire, and other crops would, if all went well, flourish after them, aided by this rain. Nothing certain, of course; he could give no one any guarantees. But he found himself content to rest on hope for a change, and not anguish himself over every possible chance in the weary world.
Frodo did not go straight home, but dropped by Crookyteeth's cottage as she led the goats on home, their bells clattering softly over their gentle bleats. He helped her round them up, experienced from his travels with them all, slipping in the mud when he dived for an errant kid, winning loud peals of laughter from his friend. She drenched him with buckets of Nurnen water till the mud sluiced off of him, then turned her back as, blushing, he laid his clothing to steam by the hearth and wrapped a towel about himself, pinning it in place.
Teatime had arrived by then, so Frodo slipped out to the cart (Bleys eating fodder at the trough with the goats) and came back with armloads of preserves from home that he had also stashed beneath the seat. Deep, jeweltoned jars of apricot and peach, cherry, quince, grape and strawberry, apple and pear, gooseberries and bilberries--every fruit known to the Shire, from every season, in jams and jellies boiled and set by from his mother's and sisters' own hands. Prying off the wax of each released a different perfume, a different memory of a different time of year.
He hardly had time to turn around before Crookyteeth had the cookie-dough all mixed up and rolled out flat, her sleeves tucked up, flour on her tummy and smudged upon her face. The thin-spread dough would quickly toast in skillets more than bake--they lost no time spreading flavors and bright colors upon it, cutting out the rounds, putting more rounds on top and crimping down the sides, and poking lidded panfuls into the fire, brought out again crisp around the edges and soft in the middle, bursting with sticky fruitfulness. By the time the second batch had finished cooking, the first batch had ceased to bubble and could safely meet their lips without burning them. They both sampled as they went, while cutting out the third batch, mouths full of sweetness, eyes shining on each other. Eventually they ran out of dough, and the last batch finished, and they tumbled onto the rug before the fireplace together with the platterful of cookies beside them.
Frodo did not know how long he drowsed in her kindly arms, cushioned on her softness, crumbs upon his face, as lazily they'd nibble just one more cookie, and take another kiss, and her kisses tasted like strawberry jam and the Shire in the spring, and then like dreamy summer plums, and then like pears and early autumn's golden light, and then like apples and berries on the eve of winter's chill.
She rested her cheek upon his crown and said, ruefully, "I keep havin' to tie me apronstrings shorter and shorter, the more I dally with thee, Frodo me dear."
"Don't let it trouble you," he said, caressing her tummy--only a little plump by the standards of happier lands, not even noticeable in the Shire, though generous for Mordor. "I like it." But then wistfulness overtook him. He thought of Elenaril and then caressed his lover once again, yearning to watch a belly swell with a child of his own. "Crookyteeth," he whispered, "We can't go on this way."
"I know," she murmured in his hair. "Human beings can't enter the Shire. And ye can't keep away ferever." She rose, picking up the dish full of crumbs, eating the last cookie thoughtfully. "I'll enjoy what I can--ye have to make the most of annerthing in Nurn. But I 'spect I'll be tyin' my apron tighter soon enough." And while she turned her back he shed the towel and donned his clothing once again, smoky from her hearth, smelling like her home.
"Not yet, my love." he pleaded. "A few more days, let me be selfish, let me revel in your kindness just a little more!"
"All right," she said, wiping jam from his cheek with her apron's hem. "But soon. Darlin', I respect what ye have. Hobbits mate fer life, like the ravens do, and I'll not stand ferever in the way of somethin' so beautiful as that."
"But," and here Frodo choked a little, "If we keep on the way we've been, we'll cross a line...I know. I know. I am only flesh."
"I know too," she sighed in his arms, kneeling down to him. "But ye can't make a hobbit out o' me."
He barely trusted his voice to whisper into her ear. "Hope, my love. Someday you will find a faithful, lifelong lover, a tall man and a good one, who also mates for life like the ravens do. You deserve no less--remember that!' And he kissed her one last time.
Yet the melancholy of their embrace goodbye carried a certain sweetness with it, an autumnal pleasure of brilliant autumn leaves bidding the trees adieu, on the last days of plenty before the winter closes in. Frodo walked out of there surprised to see the spring sunlight and hear the twittering of birds.
Strider arrived home at about the same time as Frodo driving Bleys, the sun lowering sleepily, the shadows long, the colors deepening. The man looked dusty with travel and weary (though not unhappy) without any mention of where he'd gone. His breath did reveal that he had stopped briefly by the hospital-in-progress to share a friendly pint of The Golden Perch's finest with Bergil and the Took, but the dust did not resemble that of the stones and plasters used in remodeling the ancient structure.
Now the rain came down heavier, steady and drumming on the walls and roofs, now blowing into this slit of window, now into that, but so welcome that nobody minded whatever might get soaked. Not a drop ever fell too near the hearth; that was the main thing. And then the lightning and the thunder began. Dragon-Girl jumped at every flash and crash, but those who knew her smiled to see it, for before she had shown an unnatural disregard for every fiery peril. And then, wonder of wonders, she would laugh at herself, until the next bolt, and then laugh at herself again.
That evening, with none else but Frodo, Pippin, Fishenchips and Dragon-Girl, Strider did his part in the kitchen, peeling potatoes with a deft hand, or cleaning dishes as fast as the cooks could dirty them, but he left the actual cooking to those who knew the art. He said little, except at one point when, out of the blue he remarked to Fishenchips, "The mark of a man, you know, is not whether he errs--for all do that--but whether and how quickly he faces up to his errors and makes amends. You could have, you realize, departed in search of a teacher with lesser standards, ending in seeming your disgrace. Because you chose otherwise, today you wait on tables, yet someday you shall sit at feasts in your honor." For an instant they stared into each other's eyes, then Fishenchips took the basket of peeled potatoes from him and rinsed them off, but he smiled as he did it.
Only after they had eaten their fill of the abundance from both Gondor and the Shire, and then just a little more (for surely one could not let such excellent food go to waste) till even Peregrin Took leaned back with loosened belt and declared that he could not venture another mouthful, only then did Strider rise with a happy groan and go for his bag, coming back with a large packet.
"You might find this of interest," he said as he presented it to Frodo.
"A letter from Papa! But borne by the King? Were there no messengers to fill in Mattie's place?"
"The post will need some time to sort itself out. But when Mattie did not make his--her, rather--her pick-up in Gondor, I saw no harm in extracting this from the bag and carrying it with me." The King laughed then, to look up and see that Fishenchips, grinning, had already spread cushions and blanket on the floor beside the hearth, where Frodo liked to recline and read his mail.
Frodo did not wait, but took the nearest knife from the table and pried off the seal right there. As he lay aside the leaves of gold, Elessar asked him, "And what is that?"
"Bribes," Frodo said shortly. "Never mind. I shall send them back to the Shire straightaway, where they're no doubt needed. And I'll tell Papa that he never has to do that again."
The King's face turned grim. "Affairs in the East should not have become so bad." To Pippin he said, "I shall reward you handsomely for traveling so far to bring these troubles to my attention."
"Indeed?" Pippin looked indignant. "And since when do you treat me like a hireling, to pay me for doing what friendship demands? You and Sam have both spent too much time in politics!"
Strider looked mortified. "Forgive me, old friend--I did not mean that kind of reward..." But Frodo heard nothing more of the discussion, curled up as he was by the warm fireside, cozy among pillows, reading news from home as the rain made music all around his home, and not too far away, he knew, filled up the ponds that he'd dug so hopefully.