For Into Darkness Fell His Star
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 20, Part 161
The Justice of Mayor Aloe
May 16, 1452
The streets had grown dusty with so little moisture in the air, so that a pale brown haze wafted perpetually through the alleyways, faint but never quite settling down, sparkling faintly where the sun hit it in golden shafts, dulling lines and edges in the shadows. Eyes itched, breathing seemed to barely do the job, and skin never quite felt clean.
"You are absolutely sure she's cured?" Pippin asked Frodo as he led Dragon-Girl by the hand out the door--without the leash.
"Positive." It dismayed Frodo that the new dress he had given her only months before still carried the ghosts of bloodstains that he could not wash out, though she didn't dine on uncooked rats these days. He would have to find something else for her; it troubled him enough, how people looked at her in the street, without reminders like that of who she once had been.
Frodo thought he heard footsteps in an alley paralleling theirs--lots of footsteps--but sounds traveled oddly sometimes, bouncing off so many stone walls so close together. "Look at her eyes, Uncle Pippin--a pure, clear blue, and her pupils have turned round. She has no dragon left in her."
She gazed up at the hobbits as though to give them full opportunity to examine this change, and said, "I'm a person-girl again."
Her voice sounded so much like May's that it melted Frodo's heart. "Of course you are," he said. The steps sounded closer, now. "Uncle Pippin," he said, feigning casualness belied by the highness of his voice, "I suggest that you loosen your sword in the scabbard."
"I left it behind." When Frodo stared at him he said, "It was heavy."
Frodo squeaked a word that Pippin never suspected the lad would know, and hissed, "Just exactly what sort of town do you think you're in?"
The steps grew louder, tramping now, many feet, almost like an army on the march. Frodo gasped, "Good heavens! How many brigands do they think it takes to rob a couple halflings?"
As Frodo drew his sword, Pippin paled and asked him, "Do you know how to use that thing?"
"A dead orc thinks so." But then the lad bit his lip, and admitted, "Still, it has been months since I practiced with it."
"Ah yes, the dead orc." But Pippin still sounded afraid.
They came around a corner to a wider area, a meeting of several streets, and there they beheld the mob, glaring at them. No, not at them, at her. Dragon-Girl. Cold yet burning eyes they had, like the eyes of dragons, themselves--and so many!
At first the hobbits and the child froze, and the mob froze too, as though something horrific about their meeting could not allow a move from either side. Then a hardbitten woman broke the silence. "My Rock, he was a good man. Helped the orphans he found i' the street, he did, brought 'em home. We found room for 'em somehow, and vittles, best we could. One night he din't come back. I saw his body in the street. I hid the children's eyes. I saw his face chewed off."
A youth spoke up. "M'mother--she was just the same. Couldn't stand the thought o' some littleun wanderin' the streets, with who knew what a prowlin' out there. She brought a little girl home one day--or so we thought. That night m'brother an' me were t'only ones escaped, runnin' right out into the night fer our lives, worse things in th'house than out. Human little girls don't swing a weapon twice their size like that."
A bitter old man stepped forward. "That thing don't need no weapon. I walked in t'see her tearin' up me daughter with 'er bare hands."
Frodo pushed Dragon-Girl behind him, and held Sting loose and ready for movement, sliding one foot forward and flexing his knees. "She is not like that anymore. She was sick--she was not herself. Now she is well." But the mob only took a collective step forward. "I'm warning you--all of you--people will get hurt if you push me. Now go home and wait on the Mayor's justice..."
But just then Frodo saw Aloe in the crowd. "Pippin, grab the girl and RUN!" He swung his sword, but the mob parted around his small reach as they stampeded forward, like he wasn't even there. The momentum of his swing hurled him straight into the arms of Harding, who grabbed his wrist and twisted, forcing the sword from his grip. The man pinned his arms so easily that Frodo wept for shame, as Harding hoisted him up on a shoulder and carried him, racing after the others. Frodo kicked and bit and struggled, but the man would not let go. "Justice needs done, Master Frodo," was all that he would say.
Frodo moaned, "I'm a disgrace to my father's sword!" while he bounced on Harding's shoulder, as helpless as a stolen bag.
Frodo stopped breathing when the mob streaked into the town square, with its stocks and chopping-block stained black with ancient blood. But to his surprise the villagers continued on, at a heartrending run, flooding into the next street on as though the extravagance of their exertions had to burn out all the painful feelings heaving in their breasts. He gasped in a ragged breath again, bewildered but no less frightened, subdued now, clinging to Harding's jacket for dear life, lest he fall and be trampled. They passed Pippin huffing and puffing, his hands upon his knees. "I am sorry, Frodo--I am so very, very sorry!"
"Hero of the Shire!" Frodo jeered over Harding's back. "Where's your great heart? Buried under fat?" But the old hobbit had no breath to say more, left behind in clouds upon clouds of dust.
The crowd began to slow, panting with open mouths and dust-caked lips, some of them clutching their sides, many of them weeping fiercely, tears streaking down the thin and grimy cheeks. Then the helter-skelter scramble wore down to a halt.
Somewhere water chuckled, in clean and musical notes that seemed not to know what a dirty place they fell upon. Moisture softened the air, here, but Frodo also smelled smoke. Old warehouses swung past Frodo's sight as Harding turned this way and that; it took the hobbit a dizzy moment before he recognized the open area before the new hospital. Harding pushed through the crowd until they reached a kind of margin around the fountain, and there Harding put Frodo back on his feet, still pinning his shoulders in an adamantine grip.
There stood Mayor Aloe, on the pediment of the fountain, with Dragon-Girl standing on its rim, the woman's hard, long-nailed hands clutching the child tight. The little girl vibrated with fear, her blue eyes huge. Next to the fountain a fire crackled, its smoke and ashes harsh upon the already filthy air.
"People of Seaside," The Mayor called in a carrying voice that the basin beside her seemed to magnify. The mob fell quiet all around the fountain. "Murder has been done. And murder always demands justice."
"Justice! Justice!" the crowd roared back, in many voices from the booming bravo to the shrilling wench, from the rasp of the elders to the piping cries of children. "Justice! We have come for justice!"
"But she is just a little girl!" Frodo tried to shout above the crowd, but they drowned him out, though he screamed himself hoarse. "Just a sick little girl who got well again!"
"We all know who murdered--and cannibalized!--our citizens."
"Yes! Yes! We know!"
"The former child now called Dragon-Girl!"
"Dragon-Girl! Dragon-Girl! Dragon-Girl must die!"
"And where is she? Is she here?" With that Aloe ripped the little girl's bloodstained dress away from her. The rags floated on the air for a moment before the fire sucked them in, twisting and blackening in the heat. And the child shivered all the more, eyes fixed sideways on the mayor who could pin both her wrists with one big hand.
"Harding," Frodo growled, "You cannot execute her without releasing me first--and then you'll regret..."
"But I din't come here to execute annerbody," Harding said, and shoved a surprised Frodo Gardner into Lanethil's arms, who held him as tightly as the constable had before--after the elf handed Harding a sharpened blade.
"Harding," the mayor called, "I want you to shave every last lock off of this little person's head." And this Harding did, with swift and expert strokes, while the girl, dead-white now, held herself perfectly still, striving not to tremble. Handfuls of hair went wafting into the fire, sending up a stink before fizzling into nothing. Eyebrows followed. When she stood there, as bald and naked as an egg, the Mayor pronounced, "Here I find no Dragon-Girl--Dragon-Girl has died!" And with that she pushed the child into the fountain's water.
Frodo lunged, but Lanethil held him tight. The Mayor fished the girl out again. "That was for Rock," she said, and dunked her again. "For Dawn. For Happycups. For Frost. For Ironback. For Sassie." Each time she intoned a murder-victim's name she dunked the girl swiftly, and brought her up gasping again. Now, holding the child's head above water, she called over her shoulder, "People of Seaside! Ye know this fountain, made by elvish hands. Ye know how we pour the foul Nurnen water into it, and fresh spring water bubbles forth. What goes in dirty comes out clean--not the same thing at all anymore."
"We know," the crowd moaned, as though it hurt to admit it, but they had to, oh they had to. "We know the magic of the fountain from the Foundered Lands."
Now Frodo saw Fishenchips stride up to Aloe's side. He reached in, hooked the little girl's ankles, pressed tight together within in the metal crescent, and swung her up high where all could see her, dripping wet and upside down.
"Dragon-Girl has died!" The Mayor barked. "We have a new babe born among us, and her name is Spring!" And with that Fishenchips smacked the girl on the buttocks so resoundingly that Spring wailed out loud, all the fear and shock gushing forth in tears, screwing up her face and turning it red, so that she looked like a baby indeed. And Fishenchips brought her down, cradled her gently in his arms, and carried her over to where Elenaril and Bergil waited with a receiving blanket for her, though Frodo hadn't noticed them till then. "Congratulations," he boomed. "It's a girl."
And the crowd cheered. "Dragon-Girl is dead! Long live Spring!"
Just then Pippin finally made it up to the front, carrying Sting and wheezing like he had become one great pulsing lung. "Sorry..." he gasped. "Bad joke...to keep...it secret...should've...told..."
"You knew?" Frodo shrilled.
"Sorry...wit...will be...the death...of me...yet!" Pippin held onto Frodo like he could collapse at any minute, but he couldn't seem to hold off grinning anyway. "But lad...you scared me...halfway...to the...grave!"
"Nicked me, too," Harding said, coming back to show a shallow cut still bleeding on his arm. "Ye're a right menace with that weapon o' yourn, Master Frodo!"
"Oh my...I am so sorry, so very s..." but the roar of laughter all around him drowned him out, and soon he laughed along, and Spring laughed most of all, cuddled in the loving arms of her new family.