For Into Darkness Fell His Star
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 41, Part 182
June 19, 1452
Frodo went out in search of food at the dawn’s first light. Not far from the cave he found an abundance of sage, but you couldn’t make a meal out of spice alone. He tried to remember all that Elenaril had taught him about herblore in the desert, but he only managed to scrounge up a couple of small wild onions, neither wider than his finger--what would merely count as seasoning at home. Yet desperation kept him searching on, scanning scrub and under-scrub, but every plant he found seemed coarse and harsh, hardly food for goats let alone hobbits.
“Mattie must have something solid to eat, and soon,” he mumbled to himself, moving to the next ravine to hope for something there. “Even after Pippin’s feedings she hadn’t much reserve, and now the abstinence-sickness has burned up everything.”
He came to the place where the underground spring seeped forth at last from the mountainside, and over it a willow huddled, protecting a little shady spot just above its issuing. A few lavender-pink trumpet-blossoms graced her long, green hair, according to her desert kind. He slipped into her shelter and rested against her trunk as he bathed his feet in the coolness of the water below.
“I hope you keep to kindlier customs than Old Man Willow back home,” he chuckled over the trickle of the water. “But already I sense your hospitality, Young Lady Willow. Bless you! May you prosper forever and your seeds and offshoots with you. May no axe nor flame ever find you here, but only grateful creatures who value your shelter and your company.”
Then Frodo’s thoughts turned to his own troubles, as he bent to fill his waterskin. “If only I could hunt! Meat is what Mattie needs more than anything, after she has bled inside. And this spot here would make the perfect blind, for animals must come to water for miles around in this dry land.”
A breeze stirred the leaves. As if in mockery Frodo saw what he could not make out before–a sand-colored deer drinking the water downstream, the velveted prongs of antlers just beginning their journey towards an autumn crown. Silently Frodo laughed, saying, “Yes, without bow nor arrow, spear nor steed, you are quite safe from me, my brother!”
But hunger growled in his belly and worry prowled within his heart, and his mind would not give up searching for a way. “Think! What advantage might a hobbit have over a deer under these circumstances? Surely not strength nor swiftness, nor far-reaching weapons as I stand equipped right now. What then? Intelligence? Much good it does me–I can only think of reasons to feel sorry for myself, it seems. What advantage could one possibly expect from so small a creature as myself?” For the desert stretched out far around him, without sight of anything hospitable or helpful, except for one slender willow and a trickle of water, soon spent.
And then it hit him–what advantage had hobbits always relied upon? “Endurance? Is that it? But what good can that do against a creature who can leap so easily beyond me?” For short sprints, he remembered. Deer always ran for short sprints. “Me? Outrun a deer? Me? Oh, if Sauron had not injured himself to spite me, how cruelly he would laugh that I would even think of such a thing!” And yet Frodo stood, for his stomach did not laugh, nor his heart, at the only hope available. At his stirring the buck, of course, leaped away...and paused a little space beyond, looking back at him. Frodo started walking towards him.
The deer darted away again, bounding over stone and cacti. Frodo began to jog after him, stopping as soon as the stag stopped, running after as he bounded to his hooves again. And oh, how beautiful he seemed to Frodo, the insolent grace of every leap, the airy trot that followed, the dark glance back--as beautiful as anything needed and unattainable! For every time the deer sped away he widened the distance between himself and Frodo, so that the hobbit’s heart came close to breaking on despair. Yet the bare feet pounded on.
In time the stag became a speck in the distance, phantasmagoric in the waverings of heat. Whenever the creature stopped to rest, so did Frodo, puffing and sweating, leaning downward with his hands upon his knees after taking a swig of water. Then the hobbit would raise his head again. The black eyes always stared at him. Frodo always stared back.
Again the deer bounded away! Again Frodo pursued, at a steady pace. Mordor had toughened his feet to the point where most of the hard edges that he trampled hardly creased the soles, and habit swayed him through the thorns and kaktush like a dreaming dance. He could hardly see the deer now, resting on the horizon. Frodo rested, too, his sides heaving with loud breaths–until the stag leaped up once more, and Frodo followed.
And for all the while that he ran Frodo dwelt upon his crime. Every jagged edge to hurt his foot, every stitch to cramp his side, the very heat that hammered down on him, he accepted as his lot and less than he deserved. “There had to be another way. Somebody told me, sometime, maybe in a dream, that I could have found another way. But how?” And his footfalls beat time to the repeated question: “How? How? How?”
His waterskin, once a great burden to him, soon hung slack in a way that worried him. Yet he knew that the deer had no water at all, and pity went out to him for his intended prey. “Dainty, are we?” he accused himself. “Here you could slay a perfect stranger without a thought, to have your way, yet you feel sorry for an animal that you wish to roast over the coals!” But how? How could he have found another choice to save his love?
Time ceased to matter. Endless breaths heaved in and out of Frodo’s lungs, no sense in counting them. Endless beats of sole on gravel and rock jarred through his bones. Runs and pauses came and went, shadows shifted with the sun, but he did not measure these things, the stag did not measure them, he had all the time in the world to contemplate his sin against Time and the weaving of her tapestry.
“I am not Luthien Tinuviel, to sing tears into the eyes of Mandos, to raise up the dead to life again.” But then it came to him–Mattie had not yet died! Frodo could have still negotiated, without needing a half-maia’s special powers. He could have come up with something, some offering rather than a threat, perhaps, had he allowed himself to think.
“I didn’t try every possible way out of the situation. I just panicked.” And with that thought remorse crushed down on him. Yet he pushed on through it, pounding his feet upon the desert grit, dodging the thorns, watching the buck with the unrelenting eyes of a wolf. But it was a hobbit’s body that cramped up on the miles, a hobbit’s feet that throbbed.
“Remorse is no excuse to stop,” he told himself within his mind (having no breath left for arguing with himself aloud) though the journey soon seemed unbearable, insane to think that he could manage such a stunt. “I stole life for Mattie; it rests on me to protect it. She will have meat!” The deer now seemed so far away that he could scarce see him at all.
Their way circled, and circled again. Frodo found himself swerving from the same thorn branches, scrambling over the same ridge of stone, dropping down the same gully and climbing up the other side. The stag had his territory. And for this fateful time, Frodo shared it.
Rest. Run. Rest. Run. Out loud he gasped, “One hufffoot huff in huff front huff of huff the huff other.” Story of his life. Story of anybody’s life. Mattie had to understand that. Too bad if Frodo wanted to give up this hunt, to end the pain and go back empty handed, just surrender to hunger and rest forever. Not acceptable. Mattie needed meat. Somebody always needed something. No time to rest, and no time to wait until one attained perfection, either. The small and petty shouldered the responsibilities of the great and noble, fools stood in for the absent wise, and the soiled took on the good works that the pure forgot. You just carried on the way you were, hoping to grow as you went because life didn’t wait to start up some time after you reached your fullest measure, if you ever even did. So Frodo kept his eye on that leaping speck so far ahead.
Then something shifted. At every rest, now, the deer seemed nearer than before, not farther. The sprints between the pauses shortened, so that Frodo pressed his advantage with a rush of boldness that meant so much more to him than just his second wind; he skipped every other rest, now, and his feet found new speed.
He came to know each detail of the stag, like the irregular strip on the left flank that revealed an old scar, some battle past survived, or the budding prongs that strove towards full-fledged antlers, with the left one branching just a little bit lower than the right. Yet most of all he knew the eyes. The great dark eyes that looked back at him, again and again, not with blame, not really with much fear, yet intensely full of something.
“The prey knows and understands the predator,” Frodo reflected in silence as he ran. “The harsh mercy of the killing blow. Old age affords no kindness in the wild, only pain and slow starvation as one loses the ability to fend for oneself. The predator strikes at the earliest stumble, sparing the prey a lingering death alone.”
Frodo could see it the closer that he drew. The deer knew. And in some mystical way, it seemed to Frodo that the deer consented, that he preferred it this way, that he did not give himself to any but the worthiest he tested, but that he did, indeed, give himself.
Hobbit feet beat out the rhythm of an ancient music–steady, unrelenting, not pausing any more, the music of the hunt, of taking one life to bestow it on another, with confidence that one’s own life would someday feed the earth and spring up again in good, green grazing for the prey.
The ending came as expected, yet the moment filled Frodo with awe. The deer lay there before him at last, pulsing with his breath, not rising, legs tucked under, the head turned to face his pursuer with weary expectation. His tongue hung out from thirst as he panted his exhaustion.
Stumbling in weariness himself, Frodo knew what he had to do–what respect demanded. He shrugged off his waterskin and squeezed its last stream into the thirsty creature’s mouth, so that the stag’s last sensation on earth would be this longed-for freshness, as with the other hand he drew forth Sting and sliced the graceful throat.
Blood gushed forth to enrich the hungry soil. Frodo whipped out a rope coiled in his belt, tied one end to the back hooves, threw the other over a nearby branch, and pulled with all his strength remaining; in the end he leaned on the rope and let his weight do the work more than anything, so that the deer would bleed out properly. He didn’t know quite why hunters always did this, only that they called it necessary, and he felt it somehow fitting. The gardener in him said that they owed the blood to the land; that would suffice for him.
Frodo’s scalp seemed to hear the growl behind him before his ears did, prickling as he slowly turned, raising Sting’s bloody blade before him, his arm wavering a little with fatigue, but his wide-planted feet holding him up with a determination learned upon the run, too tired to care about fear. “Hello, Kitty,” he said to the magnificent beast on the hill just above him. “I expect you smelled the blood and came running, didn’t you?”
Then his eyes focused through the haze of his exhaustion and he saw something wondrous. Kitty sat down the kitten that she had been carrying in her mouth, and stared at him again. She had yellow eyes, not the deer’s dark gaze, but Frodo felt that he could read them just as clearly. With one swift stroke he chopped the deer’s head off the rest of the way, half-surprised at his own burst of strength. He took one velveted antler by the hand and flung the head up towards his fellow predator as far as he could throw it.
“I understand,” he panted. “You have loved ones to feed, like me. And two hobbits cannot eat all of a deer between them before the meat goes bad.” His exertions made his legs shake. “And I–I do not think I could carry an entire deer back even if we could.”
While Kitty pounced on the rolling head and carried it to her litter, Frodo unknotted the rope and the deer fell to the ground. With several blows he clove the flesh through the hip-joint, then shouldered one long back leg. “You can have the rest, Kitty,” he called up, staggering a little under the weight before he got the balance of it right. “I daresay you won’t remember this moment later, should we meet again, and on that day I shall likely smell like prey to you once more, and not a fellow hunter. I shall take that as it comes. Maybe I will feed your young myself that day, and maybe I won’t. But for today you are my sister, and you may share my kill–good appetite to you and yours.”
With that he turned and walked away. He heard the rending and the slavering behind him, but he did not look back. He had his eye upon the cave mouth in the distance. He had his feet upon his path. Nothing else in the world mattered to him right then.