For Into Darkness Fell His Star
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 18, Part 159
The King's Departure
May 9, 1452
After lunch, Strider went upstairs for his small bag of things (including the comb that Pippin had returned to him) and came back out, headed for the harbor. Frodo walked with him awhile, and they talked together, while Baker struggled some steps behind to haul all of her luggage. Pippin started to join them, but nodded at a pleading glance from Frodo and turned back to their lodging.
For awhile they proceeded in silence. Frodo gazed around him, wanting the King to see beauty, to love this adopted land of his, to overlook its reputation. His eyes lingered over the line of smoke-colored mountains, stark and handsome against the brilliant blue of sky. A pair of hawks gyred in the air above, seeking prey for chicks hidden somewhere in a kaktush-sheltered nest. Faint wisps of clouds feathered the horizon. He brought down his eyes and saw that even the stone and mud-brick huts had become fair to him, homes that he had once thought harsh and unshirelike; now he recognized them as hard but heartful shelters for a hard but heartful people, as craggy and weather-textured as the stern but strangely beautiful faces all around him.
When he felt quite out of earshot of anyone else, Frodo glanced back at Baker and whispered, "Could that have been me, Strider? If you hadn't come to me in time?"
"No," the King murmured for Frodo's ears alone. "She invited the demon inside her. You have striven all of this time to keep him out. Sauron has gotten a claw snagged into you now and then, but he has never actually possessed you." Strider smiled down on his small companion. "You persist in belonging to yourself."
Frodo breathed a sigh of relief. But after a few steps his brow rumpled again, and he said, "You told me the other day, when you healed me, that you restored to me 'most' of my own will. What part did Sauron devour for good?"
"The part that could tune out his voice altogether."
Frodo kicked a stone from his path. "That hardly seems fair; I lost that to a fever."
"No," the King said gently, stepping deftly around a brace of children gambling for little Shire jars in the middle of the street. "You did not. You may have never been possessed, but you did make a free will decision to let Sauron surface, shortly before the onset of the fever, and you confused one event with the other."
"Oh, indeed! I think I would have remembered having done such a thing."
"No, Frodo, you repressed the memory so thoroughly that I had hard labor to uncover what had happened. And when at last I found it, it seemed like such a little thing for such great trouble--yet Sauron is wily, and will bolt through a snake-hole if no better gate presents itself."
Frodo waved to Lanethil as they passed his smithy and its sudden hiss of steam, waiting a few steps before he said, "Go on."
"Do you remember sitting by the campfire as Mattie smoked her pipe?"
"Do you remember rising briefly for, as they say, a 'call of nature'?"
"Not really, no. What is the point of keeping anything like that in mind?"
"Because as you did so, you went out of your way to pass Mattie on the left instead of the right--great fates revolve around such small decisions, betimes."
"What of it?"
"The smoke blew that way."
Frodo looked away, remembering that burnt flower smell. "So what if it did? If I inhaled any at all, it had absolutely no effect on me."
"I did not say that it did." Elessar paused in sight of the harbor and his ship, taking a moment to breathe in the salt air while a couple of gossiping women passed them by. "But that is beside the point."
"Then what is the point?" Frodo demanded.
His voice low, hand on Frodo's shoulder, the King replied, "Hold onto your patience and heed carefully what I say. At that moment you let your curiosity about poppy gum overwhelm you. Sauron did not actually need the effects if he could lure you into consenting--by any physical act--to the hope that a brief exposure to the smoke might give you some taste of its intoxication. That fit all too well with your choice at the healing of Legolas, which made it easier for Sauron to use." They fell silent while more people passed them by, the King averting his face and lifting up his hood. When he knew them alone again, he said to Frodo, "You acted upon a desire for his sole remaining realm, and those seconds of wilfully pursued desire gave Sauron a power over you that twenty-four hours drugged without consent could never do. Against your decision to invite temptation I can do nothing."
"I could not be more serious, by my life." Elessar resumed walking, and the hobbit followed. "But Frodo, you suffered but a small defeat in the course of a great war. Push despair far from yourself and consider by what a slender thread Sauron hangs--how precarious his hold on you, how weak his position! Give him no more than that, and you will someday escape him altogether."
"So it wasn't..." and he fell suddenly silent, glancing around to see if anyone could hear them.
"Wasn't your adventure with the watersprite?" Strider asked with a laugh, and Frodo blushed, wondering if he had left himself any secrets at all when he had opened himself wholly to the King. "Well, you did believe yourself to be dreaming, though it did not help that you spent a great deal of thought aforetime on the sort of daydreams that Sauron could use to ensnare you--you made his second move far too easy, Frodo! Yet the first lapse gave him access to those daydreams in the first place."
"My goodness! He must have been the devil to beat at chess, or cards! But I shall play his games no more."
"Especially when he plays with a deck as crooked as the one in your bureau."
"You searched my room?"
The King shrugged. "I wanted every bit of information I could find to abet your healing." Now his boots creaked on the boards of the dock, though the light footfalls of the hobbit made no sound. "Specifically, I sought any indication that you might have willingly stashed away poppy-gum on your own account; I cannot tell you my relief to find no such thing. But I must admit that I found the cards a trifle disappointing."
"They're a joke. I do not use them seriously."
"See that you do not." But the king chuckled as he said it, stopping before the gangplank. He bent down and embraced the hobbit. "Too little have I shared company with your kind for these past years. May you grow in health and in the abundance of your fields!"
Then, as he straightened once more, Tar Elessar saw, with an astonished smile, a great crowd coming down from the village, raising kerchiefs as banners, hailing their king--for the first time feeling that he was their king. He flung back his hood, revealing the star still bound to his brow, then went up to the deck and turned to them all, crying, "We have seen your suffering, O people of Nurn! Evil have been your days, and your burden great. Yet henceforth you shall receive wholesome goods from Gondor--not as charity, but as just payment for your excellent pottery. Prosper and grow strong!"
"Tar Elessar!" they cried, and soon chanted, "Tar Elessar! Tar Elessar!"
"This has not been my first visit, O beloved people. Nor shall it be my last. I have had much work, over the years, undoing the harm that Sauron wrought and more to do, work to pass on to my sons and my grandsons yet to be, before we can set all aright. Yet I have never forgotten you. Never!" With that the ship set off, unfurling for the first time a sail kept hidden for that hour--black with a silver tree coruscating in the sun.
Long did the late light glint upon that sail, and on the star that graced the brow of Tar Elessar, as the ship dwindled towards the horizon. And then only the water glinted, and that with a sunset blush, and so the people turned their feet towards home.
Frodo rejoined his friends, standing nearby, and asked Pippin, "Why do you think he wore the star, when he tried to get to the ship unnoticed?"
"Some hunch, probably. That would be just like him."
Bergil said, "The king has powers beyond ordinary men, and so do the symbols of his Kinghood. Who knows what influences emanated from the star to bless our streets as he passed?"
Pippin insisted, "But what's just like him is to want to pass unnoticed, yet know deep in his heart that his people need him to be a king anyway--to make every preparation for anonymity, and then sabotage it himself at the last moment. I don't even think he knows that he plans it that way."
Bergil bowed. "You certainly know him better than I do, Master Took. What a marvel it must have been for you, to travel through the wilds in his company!"
"Actually, my initial thought was that it was hungry and uncomfortable, and full of bugbites. And I thought my guide a ruffian far more suited to that life than I." He laughed. "Ah, the conceits of my youth!"
Mayor Aloe walked beside Crookyteeth saying, "I guess we'll be needin' a new baker. I hear ye're qualified, sweetie."
"I've had a good teacher," Crookyteeth answered shyly, but she smiled under her bruises. "I promise I'll be fair about divvyin' up the flour."
Aloe put an arm around her, saying, "I trust ye, gal. I think ye'll do."
Pippin turned to Frodo and remarked, "That reminds me--I am absolutely famished! What's for dinner?"
Frodo laughed. "As if you ever need reminding. Dinner is whatever you want, if my pantry has it."