For Into Darkness Fell His Star
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 36, Part 177
Escape from Riverborn
June 14, 1452
Frodo and Mattie tore through Riverborn ahead of Uncle Pippin's shouts while the older hobbit tried to marshal help from Brandybuck Mercantile. Somewhere a horn blew and blew, blaring through the mud walls till it echoed like a thousand horns. People pointed as they sped on past.
They had hardly gone three blocks into the city's close confines before a bolt of lightning crackled overhead. Frodo gasped but kept on galloping, hoping against hope to outride the wrath of heaven, dodging through the crooked streets while overhead the skies burst again with deafening sound. The hooves of their steeds answered with sparks against cobbles and the drumroll of their passing. But then the rain spilled down--the long-sought blessing drenched them with the shock of coolness, half-blinding them in its intensity yet comforting their dry and insect-bitten skin, sluicing through their hair, saturating their tunics, dripping from their stirrups, sweeping down the streets and carrying the trash away.
Against all sense (yet Frodo understood completely) crowds ran out to cheer. Under his breath Frodo murmured, “Someone at least among the Ainur still blesses me.” The horror of his sin only now began to twist inside him, though every time he glanced back at the fragile little hobbit on the donkey behind him, he ceased to doubt his decision. “Whatever the price, I shall pay it and be done.”
"Listen to our fanfare!" Mattie exclaimed, and threw back her arms like she welcomed accolades.
"They're cheering the rain, you deluded sot." But it worked to their advantage, all these people suddenly clogging the street behind them in the downpour as they themselves darted down a side-road full of houses already emptied for the day's labors. "Let's just hope the lightning has better things to strike than a couple of fleeing hobbits."
"Oh what a gran’ ride, what a glorious escape!" Mattie declared, and then toppled forward onto Bleys's neck.
"Mattie! Wake up!" Frodo leaned down precariously from the galloping horse to yank her by the tunic up again. "Wake up--I need you to lead the way."
"Mmm? Wha...oh. Quite right." She reeled back up to a sitting position. And then fell down again. She mumbled against the rain-drenched fur, "Is it wet in here or am I jus' sweaty?"
"Whoa!" Frodo leaped down as his steed slowed, caught the reins of both animals and pulled them to a halt, here in a back alley far from the docks. He dragged Mattie down off the donkey and said, "Come on--on foot! Get us out of Riverborn."
"But I know of an inn where..."
"Doubtless so does Uncle Pippin. He has always had a nose for inns. No, it's the wilds for us."
Mattie grinned weirdly. "Nobody can find me in the Ephel Duath, if I don' want found."
"I'm counting on it. Go ahead, get moving. Take the lead."
She stumbled a few steps forward, then stood, swaying.
"Hurry, before Pippin finds us!"
"That way", she said, tripping as she turned and then finding her feet again.
"Very good. Keep moving." Frodo kept pushing her in front of him, down an even narrower alleyway, rain splashing down on them, sheeting over his face and running through his toes as he steered Mattie towards the stony hill that reared up at the end. "Briskly, now...there's a good lass." It seemed too much to ask to make his legs push against the clinging wet linen of his tunic. Every step felt like his muscles tore, but he shoved aside fears about how long he could keep this up in his condition, or whether someone would track him by the reddened puddles he left behind, from the rain washing a nameless sailor's blood out of his clothes.
"Shall I sing a brave song to set the beat? I know some lovely marches."
"Not while we're fleeing, no! All right, now where?" Boulders piled in front of them--doubtless the only reason nobody had built yet another house to seal off the dead end.
"Over there." Mattie pointed to a corner as impassible-seeming as the rest, but when they reached it Frodo saw a narrow path snake along a crack within the rock. Frodo sighed at the thought of clambering through this gauntlet, but made himself set to it, herding Mattie before him, leading the animals behind. They had gotten halfway through before Mattie curled up against the stone and fell asleep again, though cold water poured down against her neck.
"Back on your feet, Mattie! Come now, we're pursued--hurry!" Not a sound stirred in the alley behind them, but Frodo hoped she wouldn't notice. "No time to linger, lass."
"Don't I have a horse somewh...ah, there you are, Stumblehoof!"
"No, you are not going to ride Stumblehoof, not yet at any rate! The ground is much too treacherous for that. Lead us out of here."
Together they struggled upslope, Frodo hardly steadier than Mattie, the post-convulsive weakness making every move a torment. Whatever Sauron had done in Frodo's body this time surpassed any seizure of mere earthly scope. Under his breath Frodo hissed, “Is this the sum of your great knowledge, oh fallen Maia? The art of causing suffering? Had you nothing better you could learn?” But then pain cost him the effort to even taunt his tormenter; in silence then he spared his lips for gasping after air.
At last, with the village far below them, and the ground leveling out, he decided he could let them ride. Frodo made them gallop hard, his teeth clenched against his aches.
The day dragged on, each minute gritting against the next, the pangs worsening and worsening with every jolt of pounding hoof, without relief in sight, till Frodo thought he could endure no more–and then it worsened further still. Time became something that hammered Frodo with a galloping beat. The over-wide horse's back stretched out his legs like a living instrument of torture. His fingers cramped upon the reins. His back hurt too much to let him straighten. The scenery dimmed to gray, then he shook his head and willed himself not to faint, but then it dimmed again...his angle began to shift, but he hadn’t the strength left to straighten himself out...
Here. Draw from me.
The pain whirled away into sudden bliss, but so did clarity of thought. "Sauron, no!" But Sauron felt weak and far away, nursing himself after his malice had depleted him.
Not Sauron--me. Mattie.
"Wha...what is happening?"
His mind translated into words what came to him in no words whatsoever. Our souls have grown close. Your glass magnifies the link, and I am not without my own magic. Some things can pass between us, now.
"I can't do this, Mattie!" Frodo cried, clutching at the lens like covering it could block her. "It...oh heavens...it feels too good, too tempting!"
I have too much--I have to share. I must!
Take it! Draw some off or I shall die!
Waves of pain-relief washed over him; he could no more have held it off than stop the Nurnen's surge with his two hands. Horror in his heart thrashed against the flood and then drowned in it. His overwrought muscles relaxed, so that he could right himself again. Nonetheless with difficulty he held his seat upon the horse-blanket, though in fact it felt as though he floated with it, not actually touching it. The horse seemed to rise and fall, rise and fall in slow motion as they sped up towards the pass, through thorn and kaktush that sparkled in an oddly familiar, jewel-like way. Mattie, in turn, straightened and grew more intent in her gaze as she took the lead on her own, winding in unlikely paths that trackers could not follow.
Frodo fought his mouth to make it speak, "Once again you betray me, Mattie."
"I gave you what you needed," she said out loud. "What we both needed. We both carried burdens too great to bear alone."
"Please don' give me any more gifts! I tol' you that before." His mouth felt too dry, too loose to talk with. "Tomor...tomorrow shall be terrible."
"Of course it shall," Mattie answered. "You need to remember just how much I stand to lose, if you mean to help me."
"I got the message the last time!" he tried to shout, but it came out weak; he hardly heard it himself. Energy drained from him, and he smiled...did this answer Vaire's warning? Had he severed his own thread? If so, he accepted the fairness of the price–his life for Mattie’s, then.
But no, the life-force did not feel entirely his own, and it seemed to drain from something swollen in him, something unwell. It dawned on him that in the very act of drawing some of the poison out of Mattie, he exchanged it for some of the life-force that Sauron had robbed from her to smite him with. Well, that wasn't so bad, he supposed. Rather tree-ish, in fact.
"You promised," Mattie said. "You promised that you would not let me die." He felt too sleepy to marvel that she knew that. "I have not betrayed you."
The afternoon passed in dreamlike galloping, then walking the horses, then galloping again. Mattie set the pace from experience ingrained in her so deeply that her hands on the reins hardly needed her mind to tell them what to do. The shadows lengthened around them, and the sunbleached hills took on rich colors that only twilight could imbue. Traveling much faster than the pace of goat-herds, they made the edge of Poros Pass a little after nightfall, stars in the bowl of its hornlike swoop.
"Enough," Mattie sighed, and Frodo felt the pain-relief withdraw from him like a hot-cold stab throughout his body, so that he cried out, in grief as much as suffering. "This way," Mattie mumbled, suddenly nodding over her reins but pulling them with confidence. "I know a, a place safe enough to rest wi’out guard." She steered them down into a fold between small hills, pushing through disguising brush, soon roofed by thorns like a rabbit's hideout, where they tossed themselves down on the old, dead, prickly leaves and fell into exhausted sleep.