For Into Darkness Fell His Star
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 16, Part 157
The Story of Date
May 9, 1452
Frodo looked somewhat pale to Pippin when the younger hobbit peered in, his shirt all freshly laundered and his best weskit on. "You haven't packed," Frodo said quietly.
"That must be your remarkable observational ability everyone keeps telling me about," Pippin said with a laugh. "Come all the way in, lad--no need to hang back. After all, you are the head of a household," he said as he put on cufflinks, "and the Royal Gardner besides, and what they call you in the streets is surprisingly complimentary for the local norm," Pippin smiled at his own reflection as he combed his hair, "even if the words 'rat' and 'mad' do come into it now and then."
Frodo chuckled shyly himself, and came in, sitting on Pippin's cot. "It is just that I feel so young next to you, like a whelp all over again."
Pippin sat down beside him. "You are a whelp--the same age as I was when I went off adventuring. But we child prodigies have to look out for one another. Here..." Pippin straightened Frodo's neckerchief. "You ought to look your best if you plan to meet with the Mayor of Seaside, not to mention the King of Gondor, Arnor, and Mordor besides."
Frodo grinned at that. "You mean that selfsame King who wandered all over the house bleary-eyed this morning in his sleep things, in a desperate search for a comb?"
"Oh?" Pippin said innocently. "Do you mean this one?"
"You didn't!" Frodo cried, snatching at it, but Pippin held it out of the lad's reach, always twisting just beyond him till Frodo could hardly breathe for hilarity. "Give that here! No, wait...watch out!" The fat old hobbit fell off the cot, laughing so hard he could hardly take Frodo's hand to rise and sit back up beside him again. Frodo asked, "Why would you do a thing like that, anyway?"
"Didn't you enjoy the sight of our Royal Highness hastening out for the market to buy a new comb in a hurry, looking like a sheepdog on hind legs, with that fuzzy robe flapping about him?"
"Why does he keep that ratty old robe?"
Pippin smiled at old memories. "He likes things well broken-in. Always has. Speaking of which, is that the best shirt you could come up with?"
"I'm afraid so. The way thorns catch everything around here you wind up stitching and restitching everything you own. And Uncle Pippin...thank you."
"For what? Insulting you clothing?"
"Awww, it'll only be for a month, lad." The older hobbit put an arm around Frodo and patted his shoulder awkwardly. "What, did you think I'd come all this way, months on the road, braving haunts and wild beasts, only to pop in for four short days?" Pippin's clasp felt strong and reassuring, and smelled of pipeweed and the hills of home. "And I've hardly had the chance to spend time with you--real time, not caught up in formalities or healing rituals or anything like that. Now, the King may have no choice save to hurry back to his throne and put on the crown again, but me, I've got a likely lad back home, quite pleased to take charge in my absence--although by the time I return I think he'll be more than willing to hand all the responsibility back to his old Dad. Nevertheless, the practice will do him good."
In a small voice Frodo said, "I wish I had somebody to hand the responsibility back to--somebody other than Sauron."
"Now, now, don't give that old monster any more of your thought. You're quite good enough--everyone tells me so, and I don't imagine anyone around here would feel inclined to mince words. Ready to go? Toes all brushed and tidy? Let's head out, then."
Frodo stood, but looked on his father-friend with grave eyes. "Good enough, you say--yet I cannot make it rain."
Pippin also stood, donning the surcoat of his Gondor uniform. "Nobody's asking you to be a maia, Frodo." He turned and shook a finger at the lad. "The problem with you is that you take yourself too seriously. Hmf! Make it rain, indeed!"
They went down the stairs, Frodo saying, "If I don't take everything seriously, people will die."
Pippin stopped him, right there on the stairs. "We all die, Frodo. Listen to you! It isn't enough to take responsibility for the weather--now you must also blame yourself for mortality."
"I didn't mean..."
"Accept what the heavens give, and what the heavens take away, and work with it, and ask no more of yourself than the measure given to you. No wonder Sauron could tie you into knots--you give him all the rope he needs."
Pippin almost turned away again, but Frodo's dark gaze stopped him, when the youth asked him, "You do realize, don't you, why we're meeting the Mayor? What happened when, for one naked moment, I didn't mind my tongue and heart?"
Pippin took Frodo's arm and led him down the stairs. In a gentle growl he said, "I know, lad--I know. But Frodo, a light heart is easier to mind than a heavy one. That is all I'm saying. Show yourself a little kindness, and you'll be surprised how much easier the burdens upon you become."
They went down and out the door, and found Tar Elessar already waiting by the Mayor's gate, the star on his brow and the silver tree glittering on his black tunic even as his silver hair glistened in the wind. His sea-gray eyes searched Frodo carefully, and then he smiled. "Shall we go in, then?"
Pippin nodded, taking Frodo by the elbow. "Upon your lead, my Liege."
A smirking maidservant opened the gate for them, and then showed the king into the inner chamber, leaving the others outdoors. It seemed to Frodo that he long sat idle within Aloe's courtyard, dangling his feet from a hard bench, tangling his fingers anxiously together, while the Mayor and the King conferred. Pippin gave up on trying to speak to him, but watched him from the corner of his eye.
Soon, however, they heard deep-voiced shouts of outrage, and an outburst of tears in response. After a moment the shouts wound down to grumbles, with a tone of grudging pardon. Then Aloe had her own turn at angry shouts, and something shattered with a tinkling sound. When at last they came out, Aloe looked red-faced with swollen eyes.
"How dare ye curse me citizens!" she lashed out at Frodo, and he bore it and the blast of words that followed as his due, chin up, with tears trembling on his closed lashes, though the King winced to hear such language from a woman's tongue.
But at last she wound down, growling, "Awr, ye're no worse than the rest of us, I s'pose. And this here Conqueror Majesty person says he kin also heal yer victims, iffen ye stand with him and take yer nasty curses back." Slowly her glare softened. "So--ya think ye're up to it, Chickie?"
"Yes. Absolutely. I am ashamed."
"Join the club," she muttered under her breath.
She turned away, but the King caught her by the arm. In a gentle voice he called her, "Aloe. Bitter medicine--you named yourself after bitter medicine. Your heart knows who you are."
Then she looked up into his face, surprised to see compassion there. But the hope in her face withered almost immediately into a snarl as she jerked her arm away. "I'm naught but a connivin' whore--you as much as said so, though ye're too fancy-pants'd to use the word." She lifted her chin, though her lip trembled. "I know what I had t'do to hold onto power--and it had to be me--none o' these other fools know how t'keep a village runnin' right. I am what I've had to be."
"But your heart knows better," the King insisted. "You know who you really are. To name yourself is an act of power: the power over the self, which is the highest kind--indeed the only kind that matters." He took both her hands.
She started to cry, but fiercely she hissed at him, "Don't ya dare touch me unless ya mean it!"
"I mean something altogether different from what you have grown used to. The accursed women are not the only ones in need of healing."
"Ow, indeed!" She pulled back her hands, red-faced again. "I am the, the strongest, the most pulled-tegether person in this whole Morgoth-ridden village!"
"You are the least sick among the dying, and so you lead," the King said, as he drew out his pipe and filled it with the last of his pipeweed. "But if you permit me to heal you, all the rest shall follow you into health." Pippin went into the Mayor's house without so much as a by-your-leave, and came back out with a burning twig from the hearth. Aloe did not rebuke the hobbit, but stared at the King, who calmly lit his pipe and smoked a few puffs. "Does it not appeal to you, Aloe, to follow your naming and to heal your people? I cannot manage for so many, and in any case, to people who have suffered for generations under Sauron's thumb, my medicine would taste too cloying. It has to come through you."
She gazed up into his eyes, and then barely nodded. He nodded in return. Then he blew a prodigious smoke ring, that just grew and grew, until it rose over Aloe's head, wider than her shoulders. Much to the surprise of the witnesses, as the King narrowed his eyes, the smoke then slowly descended, ringing the Mayor all around, sinking, sinking, down to the earth, where it dissipated.
Hesitantly, Aloe held out her hands. Elessar took them (as Pippin took his pipe) and then the two human beings closed their eyes. The King murmured, "Aloe...Aloe..." more and more softly until not even Frodo could hear him. The mayor swayed where she stood. Her lips started to move, and then faint words drifted from her, as though she spoke in her sleep.
"That first time...Roach, they called 'im...friend o' Mama's...Papa never comes round no more...Roach...I didn't...but he...I knew nothing...hands...stronger than mine...get used to it...woman's lot...cried and cried and cried...Mama?...don't be silly...laughed...helped me mend me dress...I was nine years old..."
Pippin's knuckles went white on the hilt of his sword, but he had no one there to strike.
"Happy, happy Roach...Mama got a loaf o' bread...good girl...chicken-master's handsome, girl...Mama needs some eggs...want shoes?...Cobbler likes you, girl...pretty, pretty little girl...just as sweet as dates...Date shall be your name..."
The mayor lifted her proud chin, eyes still closed, and her voice, still faint, sounded nevertheless imperious. "I learned...watched...practiced...I'm in charge, now!...I set the terms...turned the tables on 'em all, I did!...idiots...played 'em like the fools they are...for food at first...then gold...then power!" An ugly smile spread across her face. "I...wove...them...'round...me...little...finger!"
For a moment the king's murmurs rose back into audible range. "Aloe? Aloe...Come back, Aloe..."
The Mayor's smile trembled and fell, and a sudden gush of tears washed down her cheeks as she sobbed. "Queen o' the Cockroaches...what good is that?" Then her face hardened, still unseeing. "An' why not? Even cockroaches need a leader. Poor shiftless bugs...But not as Date...helpless li'l sweetheart...I call the shots, now...I say when...I say who...Mama's gone...Papa, too...Roach got lost in a bottle...don't remember squat...on me own, now...name meself, I will... I am Aloe! Mayor Aloe!"
Elessar barely breathed the words, "Why Mayor? Why Aloe?"
"They...they need...I...I...they...I....love...I need...they...bitter people...bitter medicine...not a helpless little girl no more!...but they need...dates kin rot the teeth...gimme bitter love...no more little girls...not for a loaf o' bread...I will not abide that...it...it hurt...at first it hurt...for the longest time...till I stopped carin'...relaxed...no big deal...except t'the fools...round me little finger...but those others...the new ones...young...pretty...wide eyes...bloody legs...no more!...no more...someday no more Dates..." Her voice faded and faded, till she fell silent, swaying on her feet, almost ready to collapse...
And all the while Elessar whispered Quenya words, in melody like the hush of a brook over stones. Frodo couldn't make them out, but he felt them flowing through him, like cool spring water, cleansing and refreshing.
Then suddenly the King barked, "ALOE!" and her eyes flew open with a start. Her cheeks flushed as Elessar opened his own eyes and let go of her hands.
With trembling fingers she touched her throat, saying softly, haltingly, "All o' me life I've scrabbled after livin', as though 'twere crumbs overlooked in someone else's home, and I some bug, as though life were somepin' I had to steal. And I drew pride from stealin' life, and feedin' other bugs, but that didn't make me feel no bigger. But now ye say...no. How kin I believe such things?"
"Ah, but you do believe it," the King replied. "You are far more precious to the Great Ones of the West than you could ever realize. They have always watched over you, and groaned with your struggles, and celebrated your triumphs." More quietly he said, "Nienna has wept for you, Aloe. Let her tears wash you clean."
"Clean?" the Mayor cried, but joy glowed from her face. "Clean? Why, I feel like raindrops fallen fresh from the sky, and the first light o' dawn, and the sparkle o' the stars!" She pirouetted, her tassels flying out from her and her hair a whirl upon the air. "I dunno what ye did, Mister Royal Highness sir, but it surely feels too good an' true t'just shrug off!" And then she laughed and hugged them each in turn, and Frodo couldn't remember her embrace ever feeling so wholesome. "Now send out messengers," she called to her maids, "to tell those afflicted women that they kin find healin' an' fergiveness here!"