For Into Darkness Fell His Star
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 34, Part 175
A Whiff of Sulphur
June 14, 1452
Clouds now built rapidly, great pearly billows, some radiantly white, some dark with promise, in a wind so strong that the ship made amazing speed, each sail bellied out to the fullest, and a humid tension quivered on the air with the weight of the longed-for rain, soon, very soon. Pippin Took laughed at the prospect before him, as he stood with Mattie in the prow. "I never thought that Riverborn could look so beautiful to me!"
"Ah, but sir," she replied, "when you know to watch for it, all homes have their beauty." She waved out at the clustered hovels, bravely clinging to the cliffs around the iron-ruddy discharge from the wound in the hills that became the Backwards River. "For they each represent welcome, families, comfort, and an end to journeying." Then softly she sang:
"When golden gleams the window's round
And once-familiar voices speak within,
When homely seems the way's firm ground,
To wearied feet whose choices led from kin,
When flowers flock like loved ones left behind
Along the path to welcome travelers back,
And every rock or fence that one might find
Outline a swathe to set each step on track
To kindly folk who wonder where you've been,
To well-worn chair that still recalls your form,
To bath-tub soaking off life's mire, and then
To table fair, both food and faces warm,
Then may the pack-straps slide on down,
Then may the feet forget to roam,
Then may the weary back, unbound,
Relax to sweet confines of home!"
"Sung like a true hobbit," Pippin said, then gazed upon her wistful face, and patted her on the back awkwardly. "It has been long, hasn't it, since you knew such things, yourself?"
"I thought I wouldn't miss it. I tried to tell myself I didn't. I tried to smother all such feelings in the thickest smoke I could."
Frodo heard them as he emerged from the hold. Mattie did well--exactly as he told her to. Give ol' Pippin one young waif to hover over, and he might overlook the other for awhile.
"Well, now, lass, all that will change, soon, and for the better, mind you. Already you look improved from what you did, just from tapering down some."
She laughed. "With a runny red nose and weepy eyes?"
"At least I can no longer make my fingers meet when I clasp your upper arm."
"But in the end not much will change. I have no family left, Master Took. I have done without a home for so long that the very concept seems like nothing more than poetry."
Frodo did not heed whatever clumsy words Pippin found to answer that, for he occupied himself with nudging, as unobtrusively as possible, a coil of rope out of the way of the swiftest route from the hold to where the gangplank would shortly fall. Uncle Pippin looked far from "improved", himself, but rather drawn and worn, not the hale hobbit in his prime that first got off the ship at Seaside a month ago. Frodo frowned, studying him, then turned back towards the hold again.
But he didn't reach it. As they passed an islet of rock and wreckage splitting the river's stream, a stench came to him different from the general foulness. Frodo broke out in a cold sweat when he recognized that sulfurous fume wafting off the starboard bow. He shut his eyes tightly.
"Why Frodo!" He heard bare hobbit feet run over to him. He felt the hands upon his arms that rocked him where he stood. "What has hap...Oh my heavens..."
"Don't look into its eyes, Uncle--whatever you do, do NOT look into its eyes!" Half-faint, Frodo sank to the deck. "Too many times..."
Men shouted up and down the ship and Frodo could hear things dropping from careless hands. Somewhere a sailor cried, "This close to port...no good can come o' that!" In the distance they heard a harsh bell clanging, warning the citizens of Riverborn. While sailors ran for their arms Pippin squatted down by Frodo. "Here now, lad--'tis safer to face a dragon on your feet than in a heap. I thought you braver than that." Yet his own voice shook.
Frodo could hardly muster the strength to speak, but he held up two fingers. "Twice now, Uncle...twice I've suffered dragon-sickness." Pippin gasped. "Once by looking into the eyes, once by the blood getting into a wound." Now a third finger joined the others. "I am no coward, Uncle--three encounters, two battles, and the last time I became the bait!" Someone tripped over him, cursing, yet still Frodo kept his eyes shut tight.
Nearby he heard Mattie say quietly, "I can confirm that. I helped in his treatment."
"Oh my poor lad!" A sailor leaped over them both, running with his arms full of rough weapons to distribute.
And then the screams began. "Don't look," Frodo repeated. But he heard his "Uncle" leap to his feet.
"How can I not look?" his elder roared, and the metal sound of his knife-sword leaving its sheath answered the scrape of scales against wood. "If I can do nothing else, I can at least stand over you to fend that foul thing off!"
"Then try to avoid its eyes!" Sandals pounded around him, and among them Frodo heard the patter of bare feet, as he himself clung to the gunwale, sick on memories. Amidst the din and shouting Frodo husked, "Once she won the day, though not the war." He heard Uncle Pippin's sword clang hard against something and reverberate from the blow. "One time I won--the last. And once..." Eyes still closed, Frodo laughed weakly, "Well, we can call the battle of the dragon-spawn a draw." Hot blood drenched over him as another man screamed, the sound ascending into the air overhead. The ship rocked like the wildest storm beat at them, though the sun blazed down. Pippin skidded into him and pushed himself upright again off of Frodo's head. Frodo laughed again, as metal rang against an adamantine hide.
"Get him below decks!" Mattie shouted, and Frodo felt Pippin tug his arm, but he didn't move. "Now! I'll take care of this." He heard her voice recede.
"Where did Mattie go off to, Uncle? I dare not look."
"Where...why, how did she get up there so fast?"
"Up on the yardarm. Now she draws from her back...her harp? She needs a sword, not a harp! Has everyone gone mad in this crazed land? Her harp in one hand and in the other--Hi! She's picked my pocket while I had my eyes on you! That worthless tramp has found a fine time to smoke her vile...wait. What is she doing?"
The music began--those pure, cold chords plucked from the dark elf's instrument.
"No! Frodo cried, leaping to his feet. "She's not used to that much anymore!"
They shivered at the thrill of her tenor voice singing out the sibilant dialect of Black Speech, so that at once the ear cringed and yet hungered to hear more. Frodo almost knew the meaning of the words, felt them in the veins where dragon-blood had coursed.
"What is she doing?" Pippin repeated.
Frodo felt river-wind cool the drying blood on him. "She sates the dragon with song," he told his elder, pressing his lens against his breast, still not daring to see. "She sings of contentment, of drowsing upon the waves, utterly self-absorbed, disdainful of any other creature that might pass this way." Like waves indeed the music rolled over him, halfway drowning him.
"May the Valar preserve us!"
"Now she sings of the beauty of the Sea of Nurnen, of waters vast enough for dragon-fins, of soaring and dipping and swirling in all directions in that liquid flight that swimming becomes for the sea-serpent at play. Contentment falls away to yearning. Mattie means to lure the dragon away from us."
"Can she do that?"
"Oh yes she can--but only when Sauron's flower reveals to her Sauron's secrets."
Pippin whispered, "Merciful heavens!" A great splash punctuated the song on precisely the right note, and the whole ship rocked. "Look--the dragon has dived away! We're sailing past...almost past...naught but the tail now...oh bless us all! The dragon swims away, downstream, leaving the port behind. How did she...how...oh mercy!" In awed tones the older hobbit said, "I did not realize before just how much Mattie must give up."
Wild laughter rang down on high. Frodo heard that dulcet tenor sing out, "I've much to leave, yet more I've lost, when visions overpowered me--would that ere I paid the cost, the dragon had devouuuuuured me!"
Here, pretty pretty ssssserpent...
Frodo's eyes flew open. "Mattie!"
"Oh heavens, oh Tulkas protect us, the dragon has turned!"
A long reptilian neck--a growing silhouette behind the sail--swung back and smashed through the mast with a loud crunch of splintering wood. Frodo ran under its shadow, dodging through the legs of frightened men, just as the frail little bard toppled from the yardarm like a falling petal, head over heels over head, her pipe and harp spinning away through the air and her tunic floating around her--straight into Frodo's waiting arms. Her impact knocked him to the deck as the sail came billowing down over them all, but she hadn't the mass to do him any harm. More wood crashed, and the deck bucked like a frightened beast, but Frodo paid it little heed, though the animals below neighed and brayed with fear.
"Mattie, wake up, wake up, oh curse you, you little fool!"
Mattie smiled up beautifully at him in the dimness under the canvas. "Frodo? 'Sall gone now." Her lashes fluttered a couple times, and then stayed closed. "All gone. Thas' the last...free now..." and she went utterly, hopelessly limp in his arms.
"Mattie! Wake up! Oh please oh please oh please..." But no breath escaped those lips.
Did you think that I let go of my slaves so lightly?
Somebody screamed where fangs sheared through the thick sailcloth.
I tell you, Frodo, if I cannot have my Mattie then NEITHER SHALL YOU!" The blow within wrenched Frodo's entire body with the force stolen from Mattie's life--far harder than any blow of Sauron's had ever stricken before. Explosions of pain triggered off more explosions and more and more till he felt reft of place in space and time, blinded and deafened, each nerve cringing upon itself like a hair thrown in the fire. When he could sense anything past suffering again, he still perceived nothing at all save for his soul flailing in the dark as one falling, with nothing to grab onto--nothing! Nothing! Nothing!