For Into Darkness Fell His Star
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 17, Part 158
The Power of the King
May 9, 1452
The young hobbit stood beside the King, atop the three steps that led from the chambers down into Mayor Aloe's courtyard, waiting. The King's hand on his shoulder reassured him, but he cleared his throat uncomfortably, not quite sure what to expect. By now the sun had climbed almost to noon, and his stomach grumbled; he had gotten used to regular meals again.
Frodo stared in horror at the first woman to approach, and he felt his blood plunge down to his toes. Great, red swellings had erupted all over her body, a huge one blocking her left eye from opening. Pain pinched her face and she could not walk straight, but shuffled on sore feet with her back bent, holding her clothes away from her skin as though their touch tormented her.
"Do you forgive her?" the King asked Frodo.
"Yes, yes, of course!"
"Then lift your curse from her."
"Simply wish her well, and cursed no more." Elessar puffed on his pipe so vigorously that the courtyard filled up with prodigious billows of smoke. Frodo coughed; he couldn't see how so much bittersweet pungency could flow from a single pipe. "What your will created, your will can undo," said the King, as the smoke spread out into a swirling fog. "All you need is to want to forgive."
Frodo stared at the pitiful woman and quietly said, "I do want it." And he felt a kindliness well up from his heart towards her.
But just then he glanced up at a familiar footfall and saw Crookyteeth enter the courtyard. By now her bruises had blackened and swollen to their fullest darkness, and her gaze upon him sent a pang through his heart. All sympathy fled from Frodo as he looked back down at the creature groveling before him.
But then the King's voice reached him, low yet compelling. "See her through the light of Valinor, Frodo. Call on help from Nienna. Do not rely on your own heart only."
Turning a stern eye downward, Frodo said to the supplicant, "Do you see who just entered?"
"A-aye." The woman licked cracking lips.
"Do you regret what you did to her?"
"Aye! Please! Make me well again!" And the horrid thing clasped his ankles, and her sweaty palms felt like disease. He resisted the urge to kick her away--and that resistance restored a measure of calm.
Frodo closed his eyes. He thought again of the glimpses he had gained, in dreams and visions, of the light of Valinor. As in a vision indeed he now saw Crookyteeth and the woman, standing before him in that radiance, and they looked equally beloved, equally pitiable, each of them lost treasures of rare beauty, pulled from a rotting casque deep in the foulness of a dragon's lair--bedraggled treasure, maybe, scratched and soiled by years of abuse and neglect, but crying out for the gentleness of a restoring hand.
He opened his eyes and gazed down now upon the wretch who wept at his feet, and he saw the beauty still; it felt as though the light of that western shore swelled up in him and flowed out of him onto her, melting away his curse and his anger alike. And then the King stepped forward, laying his hand upon the supplicant's head. Frodo watched the swellings subside before his eyes, and the angry redness fade. The woman sighed and smiled with relief; Frodo saw there a loveliness of feature that he had overlooked before, underneath the lines of hardship and resentment.
Crookyteeth rushed across the courtyard then, up the stairs to throw her arms around the King with the innocense of a child, sobbing onto the silver embroidered breast. He stroked her hair, but as a father might stroke a daughter. "I have no art beyond the ordinary for your bruises," he told her, "But they will heal without blemish. You hurt now, within and without, yet you shall recover swiftly--for you possess the kindliest soul that I have yet encountered in this sad land. No wonder you drew the heart of the hobbit!" He kissed her brow, saying, "Go in peace, little one. Cherish the treasure unspoiled within you, unblemished by anything that has ever happened to your flesh. Find the lifelong love ordained for you--he is not far. And bless your faithful friend, Frodo, who will find his own love by and by."
And so the day went, healing woman after woman, their faces and afflicted bodies fading in and out of the haze, sunlight streaking down through the smoke in rays. Each time that Frodo blessed a woman he felt something flash through him--yet far from feeling depleted, he felt more filled and strengthened than before. And every time that he lifted a curse, he felt more of himself restored.
Last of all came Baker, limping forward in cringing fear. Disgust returned to Frodo at the sight of the greasy creature, who surely had no call to revile Crookyteeth for fat. He struggled to remember his love for the portly citizens of the Shire. But Baker did not remind him of stout old Farmer Maggot, who had loved his own table yet never turned away a hungry soul in all his life, however strange; nor did she seem at all like his mother, broadened by the birth of many children and the arts of hospitality; nor jolly Peregrin Took, who feasted on life as much as food, and always wanted to make sure that everyone else had as much fun as he did; and especially not his father, who chewed each mouthful in gratitude, thoughtful of sacrifices past, deserving abundance if anyone ever did.
Mordor changed everything. Frodo saw quivering before him years of hoarding and selfishness, stealing more than her fair share of the rations under the guise of her profession, corpulence piled up year by year as her neighbors starved, flaunting by her bulges her petty power over all who begged for bread.
"She egged me on," Crookyteeth whispered. "When she saw how ye favored me, m'Love, she would slip me free cakes an' biscuits, sayin' 'G'wan, Crooky, indulge yerself. Yer lover likes 'em round, he does.'" The whisper caught in the young woman's throat. "I thought she liked me. I shared yer recipes with her, I gave her the best o' the milk an' cheese an' eggs fer the bakin'. But she just wanted t'others to hate me more'n her."
Frodo saw even the King's eyes go cold, frowning down upon the blubbering woman who now cowered at his feet. "How long?" he grated, "How long, o wretch, since you sold your soul for bread?"
Her eyes and mouth went round, and she began to quake, gasping, "How did ye know?"
"I am Tar Elessar Telcontar, and it is given me to know many things. The memory burns in your mind till I can hardly look away, though I wish I could--the memory of when you were young and thin, dancing before the fire with the last starving scrap of your strength, out in the wilderness where no one would see you, calling up the restless spirits of this long-accursed land."
She drew herself together and hissed, "What do you know of hunger, o King? What do you know of true desperation?"
"More than you will ever guess. And for that reason I may yet pardon you. But tell me: when you returned to your village, did you feel any regret, even a moment's twinge, when you discovered that in your absence the old baker and her daughters had died of a sudden plague--not unlike the one that afflicts you now--leaving you your chance to seize their work for your own, and guarantee you lifelong satiation, even gluttony if you abused your position?"
She made no answer, eyes averted, but she did not need to, for the King's gaze searched her deep within.
"Some fragment of shock and shame. It might suffice, if other things prove promising. Think back, woman--was there ever a moment, even one, where you took pity on a hungry soul and shared so little as the thinnest crust, without a gain in sight?"
The woman's brow puckered, trying to remember, and the King held her in his stare. Suddenly a smile as warm as sunlight breaking past a cloud shone on the face of Tar Elessar. "That stale bread, which you scattered for birds in time of drought and scarcity of seed, has saved you! You could have sold it to moonshiners. With even so little I can heal you."
He reached out and lifted her up to her feet. "But not here, not entirely. After Frodo lifts his curse from you, you must return with me to Gondor--far from the strong places of the demon who has possessed you all these years. There I may cast him out and heal you indeed. And then you must go into exile--not to any soft land, for I cannot reward evil, but to the sunbaked deserts of Umbar, where a skillful baker will find work enough. Yet you will live, and in time come to be happy--something you cannot truly say of the life you have endured for all these years." He turned to the hobbit. "Do you forgive her, Frodo?"
Frodo thought back to his own hunger in the early days of his stay in Mordor, and asked himself what it would feel like at the brink of death. And then something happened inside, as though Sauron's presence could link him to a former minion. Hunger overwhelmed him for a moment, so that he nearly fainted where he stood--raving, insatiable hunger immune to food, a hollowness of bone and heart and soul that nothing could assuage. A memory not his own filled up his unseeing eyes: Crookyteeth coming into the bakery to deliver a bucket of rich goat curds, smiling like a fool and prattling on about how loved she felt, how her darling sure could cook and no, thank you anyway, but she couldn't possibly desire another mouthful--after lunch with him she felt absolutely stuffed. At that an unbearable hatred swelled up, a rage that anyone could know satiation, that anyone could possibly be so happy.
Then he snapped back to himself, gasping at the pain of bearing so much hatred, only gradually realizing that it didn't belong to him at all, and then sighing with relief. "I...I do not feel qualified to condemn her." He straightened and said, "I forgive her. I take back my curse."
The King reached out to the woman, and the worst of the swellings subsided, though not all. "There, there, you will be able to walk, and to sleep, with little pain. That will do for now."
Elessar sighed, handing his pipe off to Pippin, who puffed away happily, blowing little ordinary smoke-rings as the greater haze subsided. "Is that the last, then?" the King asked, looking weary and just a touch disoriented, as one barely risen from sleep.
"I guess so," Frodo said. "No one else is coming forward."
"Then I suppose we should repair back to your home for lunch."
Pippin raised the pipe like a toast and cried, "I second the motion!" But Frodo found that he himself had little appetite left.