For Into Darkness Fell His Star
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 37, Part 178
June 15, 1452
Frodo woke to the calls of desert birds, that one part of his mind classed as theoretically beautiful, though the rest of him flinched from the shrills reverberating through his aching skull. The boughs overhead twinkled with their motion, stars of sunlight breaking through the leaves and winking out again--this also looked like something that he ought to consider lovely, though in fact the stabs of light seemed sharp to him, spiky points of pain.
He sat up against the tug of a thousand cramps, plucking leaves out from his skin; the edges of the leaves came to thornlike points in several places each. "I must have been half-dead to have fallen asleep on this," he muttered, then his heart nearly stopped at the thought as he looked to Mattie's sprawling form. But the bard snored loudly and he knew that she'd survived the night.
"No thanks to me," he thought, standing. "I should have watched over her." At the same time Frodo's body protested at just how impossible this would have been; it resisted every time he forced a muscle to move. He could not avoid picturing what a terrible seizure must have gripped him on the ship. But surely the ordeal should not have lasted clear into the next day. Then he remembered borrowing from Mattie's numbness, and understood that it had merely postponed the price he had to pay--with interest.
"Well, that is all behind us, now." He could afford to pay prices better today, far from Riverborn, anyway. With hobbled steps, bare feet on prickly leaves, he went over and gently shook the other hobbit's shoulder. "Time to wake up, Mattie. The sun has risen already, and we really ought to join her."
"Mmmph..." Mattie rolled over, never opening her eyes.
"Come now, I've some bread and cheese for your breakfast, but you must sit up for it." No reply. "So that's the way of it, then?" He suppressed his alarm at just how deeply her intoxication lingered; he just knelt down beside her and pushed her up into a floppy sitting position. "I cannot leave you like this--you have already slept longer than is good for you. Here, now..." He held handfuls of bread and cheese to her mouth, till she chewed reflexively. "Better? Here, have some water to wash it down." He pressed the water-skin's spout to her lips and she suckled like a child, drowsing in his arms, insensible to his quaking at the knowledge of just how close to death she must have come. "There you go. On your feet...that's it."
Her eyes finally opened. "Frodo?"
"One and the same. Now go set yourself to rights while I turn my back--your hair is all tangled and full of leaves." He handed her his comb.
"Like yourself?" she said with a ghost of a smile. He turned away and ran his fingers through his hair, removing as much vegetable matter as he could. He dug out a change of tunic from his pack; some stains remained on the one he slept in, and he could not stand another hour in its smell. In silence he prepared for the day, and then turned again, to find Mattie in her own fresh tunic, curled up in the roots of a scrubby tree.
"Now, now, that won't do." He pulled her up to her feet.
"I'm all righ’," she said thickly, waving his hands away with a feeble gesture. "I survived this long, I am not about to..." but then she fell against him.
"No, you are not all right.”
"Close enough," she said with a dreamy smile. "Whooo! I feel it all the more for yes’rday’s innerl...in-ter-lude of clarity.” She giggled. “Not bad!”
“Bad,” Frodo whispered, “but at least not fatal.” What on earth had happened yesterday, anyway? “Mattie?” he asked, “Are we...married?”
”What?”She laughed out loud. “O splendid fantasy! I shall try that one out in my pipe, myself...well, no more pipe. I forgot.”
He realized the absurdity of his own words. And yet, the bond they had experienced, more intimate than the marriage bed...just what had he set loose when he defied heaven and earth to save Mattie’s life?
However powerful the repercussions of his decision yesterday, Frodo still lacked the strength to hoist Mattie all the way up to Stumblehoof's back, so once more he hauled her onto Bleys. At least this time she could help him a little. Guiltily Frodo realized that he had left the animals in their gear all night, but as they seemed disposed to forgive him, and had not run away, he put it out of his mind.
The horse led him to a hidden hollow of the rock that caught a considerable reservoir of rain, not only from the day before, but from many rains past as well, water stained a deep brown from last season's fallen leaves; Stumblehoof knew this refuge well. Frodo refilled his water-skin there, and found a rock that he could stand on to climb up onto the horse's back. He struggled to find a comfortable way to sit upon so broad a beast, then gave up any hope of it and took up the reins to head on out of their shelter, Bleys trotting close behind without having to be told.
"We have to get moving," Frodo said, though none of his three companions paid him heed. "Uncle Pippin will stir up everybody he can bribe to look for us." But Frodo did not lead them over the pass. Rather, he found himself drawn to the northern horn, and soon found himself winding up its slope, between the rocks and kaktushes, excited by a strange familiarity. How could he have come this way before? Yet he had, he knew he had, he had memorized every twist and thorny bough, each dip and rise, the stone outcroppings and the bursts of windblown herbs...
"Because Bilbo's ghost told me to," he realized out loud. "I dreamed all this before. Twice, perhaps."
"Mm hm," Mattie murmured, as though he had said something sensible.
For a long time she said no more, so that Frodo assumed that she had fallen asleep sitting up. He didn't mind; the silence comforted him in the melancholy that followed yesterday's euphoric ride, punctuated but not disturbed by the monotony of hooves on stony ground. As he recovered, the gray landscape around him finally began to tinge with hints of color here and there, sage and golden beige and a dusty coral rose. Then Mattie surprised him by speaking, though he could barely hear her.
"What's that, lass?"
"I said you radiate so much pain that I can almost feel it, myself." She straightened up some and offered, with careful enunciation, "Would you like to draw a little more from me?"
"Oh generous heart!" Gratefully he turned to her...and then bit his lip--hard--to remind himself of his own choices. "No, my dear. You keep what is your own. Neither of us stands in danger any more. Say goodbye this one last time to your poppy paradise. Make your peace with it."
"Thank you...thank you so much!" she breathed, and he heard no more from her for awhile after. He would sometimes glance back at her smile, and return a bittersweet one of his own, then grimly face the terrain ahead again.
The day stretched out, horse and donkey quietly ambling between boulders and thorn-trees under a gray and turbulent sky that sometimes grumbled with distant thunder, and occasionally pattered them with rain. Even as Frodo watched the water-slicked stones soon steamed and dried. But then a little more rain would fall and soothe the earth. His unmarked path rose ever higher; he had no fear of flashflood clear up here, though once, when the rain decided to pour heavily again (and he missed the hat that he had left aboard the ship) he heard the roar and rumble of water gushing through the canyons down below.
Twice lightning forked overhead, but Frodo regarded it this time with a weary kind of calm. “No, you will not slay me, will you?” he murmured to the storm as it crashed down upon them with a wet and stinging violence. “Nor sue the Lord of Skies to strike me down, nor beg your husband to pass doom on me. Why mar your own weave willingly? I felt the truth, Vaire, there upon the loom. Too many threads now interweave with mine–you cannot easily pluck me out before my time.” Then he bent double over a stitch in his side. “You might make me wish for death, now and then, but you will not slay me, nor impair my purposes overmuch.”
Frodo found himself slipping halfway into a trance, driven by hurt and weariness, different from the poppy gum's deceits. At every turn he knew just enough to look for the next landmark, and the next, as though his memory unrolled like a scroll, a few lines at a time. More and more their way climbed upwards, though dipping slightly now and then as the unseen path before them swerved around bluffs or outcroppings of granite sparkling in the sun, or ducked beneath the boughs of low-grown foliage with leaves so miserly small that they hardly seemed to have any leaves at all, though many a harsh twig and thorn knit together in a painful lace, piled up into impenetrable masses. Lizards scampered from their paths, and snakes coiled defensively away, but not too far, assessing them from eyes that never blinked. Once more, in time, the shadows lengthened and the richer colors of the desert returned around them, in violets and ochers, indigos and rusts.
Frodo said softly, "The cave...I see it ahead."
Mattie raised her nodding head. "What cave?"
"The cave. The one in my dreams." Then suddenly he laughed, for he recognized the uncommonly tall hazel with the bifurcated trunk, growing beside it where no hazel ought to grow. "And not in my dreams only, apparently--it looks like we have company."
Mattie gave him a bewildered look, then apparently decided that she must have hallucinated his nonsensical statement and fell back into her stupor.
Inside they found the cave dry and comfortable, cool with shade and free of scorpions or other hostile life. Frodo wondered if Hazel had swept it clean for them. The roof hung low, but this did not matter for hobbits. Frodo heard a trickling far back, and exploration revealed an underground spring. “Thank you, Bilbo,” he whispered in the dark beside its pool. “This is perfect!” He felt a healing grace there, as though someone powerful in goodness had encamped there once, or otherwise imbued the rocks with ancient memories of mercy. Frodo wondered how many such pockets of goodness had survived all over Mordor and its vicinity, like seeds hidden in the desert sand, waiting for the rain? Outside he heard a grinding sound as of crumbling rock, but he paid it little heed, and Mattie had gone past caring.
“Frodo...can’t...not one more step...” Mattie sagged into his waiting arms and he lowered her to the ground. A soft depression in the soil seemed like just the right fit to cradle her body. She noticed it, opening her eyes in the dimness for a moment.
“Is this my grave?” she asked with a smile. “But it only buries me part way.”
“That is because you need only die a little, so that the rest of you might live.”
“Mmm...”she fell asleep before his eyes.
Frodo went and unburdened the animals, brushing them down extra thoroughly in penitence for yesterday’s lapse. “So few supplies!” he muttered to himself. “Not what I had planned for.” He hauled water for them, looked around for a place to pour it, and found a hollow in the rock next to Hazel that looked new-scraped. Soon refreshed and happy, the horse and donkey poked around and grazed on such rough foliage as sank its roots deep into the hidden water.
Stumbling-weary himself, and hardly able to think, Frodo went back in and stood over Mattie’s sleeping body, curled up in her hollow of the earth. She breathed softly and slowly–without the stentorous snores that had worried him so before. The drug would soon lose its hold on her–and when that hour came, he would need all of the strength that he could muster. On harder ground nearby, he spread Stumblehoof’s blanket to lie on top of, since the heat had abated little in the storm-humid night, and the horse would have no need of it. He sat down on wool and yawned. “Can’t go much further, myself,” he muttered. “Hazel?” he called out, “Could you please guard Mattie and me for the night?’ And then he stretched himself out to surrender to Irmo’s kindly power.
But the Vala of Dreams, Vaire’s brother-in-law, did not deal with him so kindly that night. Some might say that the horsey smell of Stumblehoof’s blanket triggered the nightmares that he had, but once again he relived his wild flight down the steep slopes of the White Mountains, on Billie Lass’s back, through snow and fear. Yet instead of outlaws, he dreamed that wargs pursued them, yammering mercilessly, snapping at their heels. When one sank teeth into the pony’s flesh he heard her screams all over again. Once more he rolled away as she fell, and he hid himself (behind a hazel-tree as the dream would have it) while yet again poor Billie-Lass thrashed and neighed in the bloodied snow. Helplessly he watched the wargs close in and finish her off; he drew Sting without hope of accomplishing anything except to die beside her. But the wargs ran off, dragging limbs and other parts in trails of red on white, back to their lair for evil puppies to feast upon. Fainter and fainter came their yips and yowls, and then silence fell all around him, save for the wind that swept across the snow.
And then he slipped uneasily into other dreams, though none so well-remembered. None of them afforded him much peace.