For Into Darkness Fell His Star
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 29, Part 170
The Beggar at the Door
June 8, 1452
Another day's harvest, and then the laborers dispersed early for the hottest part of the afternoon, as custom and good sense demanded when the season changed. But the men had harvested, not Frodo; he'd had other work to do. All morning he and Bleys had plowed the rocky soil just beyond the amended earth, where only the elf-dwarf share or the hard harrows of the Dark Lord could ever have broken through the crust, to seed the grudging ground with medicinal herbs--the sort that thrive best on newly disturbed land of the most impoverished kind.
Orders had come in, from the Houses of Healing in Minas Tirith, and the Cliffside Asylum of Ithilien, and the Edoras Veterinary, and numerous other establishments for mending the health of men or beasts throughout the free lands, for more herbs than Elenaril and all her herbwives could gather in a year, as Lord Curudag spread word of her discoveries. And yes--the people of Gondor did begin to see a point in digging the channel that the King had urged on them for years. Especially the ones with ailing kin.
But Bleys had a ways yet to go before he rested, for Bergil had not stood idle all of this time, gathering up the drought-wizened but sweet-flavored crops of the softer land. The homemade soil held onto every trace of moisture that came within reach--indeed, if it had leaped up and grabbed a tendril of ocean fog or drop of dew, it would not have entirely surprised anyone. While the fields did not exactly thrive, they held their own far better than anyone could have hoped for in the kind of weather they'd been having. None would see enough food to export this year, yet everyone had enough for their own needs, and a little extra for dickering here and there with the tradesfolk who increasingly plied the Seaside streets. And that had not happened often in recent memory.
So after the donkey left the plow, he trotted right over to a laden cart, not the least bit put out. The little ass seemed up to his labors. Frodo scratched his brow and slipped him a turnip from the produce in the back as the donkey's proper due. It was no secret that the young hobbit doted on the beast, and Bleys stayed strong and sleek, eager to burn off Frodo's tendency to overfeed whatever creatures came into his care, so that muscle bunched against the yoke, and Bleys, as was his wont at unexpected moments, brayed forth with sheer delight in life, startling a brood of nearby chicks who pecked the dirt with unclipped beaks.
For awhile Frodo and Pippin rode the donkey-cart, as Bergil strode beside them, singing back and forth with Pippin an absurd song that they came up with in the field:
Whatever turns up in the turnip patch
Is anybody's rightful catch.
But should it bite, or should it sting,
Then let the burning sufferer sing:
Hey nolly lolly, list and learn:
'Tis another jolly day in Nurn!"
And more such nonsense, verse after verse by turns, till Frodo didn't know whether to laugh or scream. After awhile Bergil's path diverged, leading Bleys to the marketplace, while Frodo disembarked to trudge on home alone and get a head start on the evening's cooking (if cooking you could call it when he intended to mainly serve salad and cold cuts.) Pippin had a good deal of last minute shopping to do before the voyage home, considering the local custom of passengers provisioning the sailors, but Frodo had no desire to share in such a reminder of their pending parting. He hastened instead down the old, familiar alley that made a shortcut to his home, with occasional glances up at the empty flowerboxes at the windows overhead, their wood already beginning to split in the dry air, or to the side at the skeletons of vines, the papery remains of leaves rattling in every breeze.
"I can do my best with patches of ground here and there, but something has to heal the land itself, I fear--deeper than my plow can reach. If only I knew what Mordor really needs of me!"
Why you? The arrogance of your self-importance appalls even me.
"Because I got sent. Because I agreed to go. The work falls to whoever shows up."
I showed up. But nobody seems to appreciate my labors on the matter.
Frodo grinned, though he knew the Dark Lord had not intended a jest. "Well, they might not appreciate my efforts, either, in the long run. I can but try."
Now that might be worth waiting around to witness--you taken down a peg, as your countrymen would put it.
"Go back to sleep, Sauron." Frodo came out of the alley into the little plaza before his home.
When he saw the tattered little figure huddled on the steps ahead of him, Frodo at first mistook it for a beggar-child, and felt in his pouch for coins. Everyone had learned his soft spot by now, but so long as he had the wherewithal to help a little now and then, he saw no point in turning hard. But when he recognized the sandy curls escaping from the cap, he cursed under his breath. She looked dreadful, of course--every time worse than the last. Apparently she had not troubled to repair or wash her clothing or her person since the last he'd seen her. But what else could he expect?
When he reached speaking-distance, he said, "The Lady Eowyn has half her medic-warriors combing the countryside for you. Do not expect any refuge from me--poisoner."
At that the waif looked up from hugging her knees, her eyes enormous, dark and bloodshot. Long, vertical scratches, old and new, marred her face. "You have no idea how much I repent what I did to you, Frodo."
"No doubt you do. But that never stops you, does it?" He sighed; on weary days like this he really felt the pitch of the stairs, set for human legs. "Well, I suppose we can find a space for you in Spring's old cage, until messengers can bring the healers here to seize you. Come along now; on your feet." He grasped her by the crook of the elbow, feeling her shivering, feeling her bones.
"But I repent even more what happened to your sister..."
"What?" Frodo recoiled so swiftly that she fell to his feet.
"I didn't do it!" she cried at once, her hands thrown up before her. "I repent that I ever considered it, that I blackmailed you with the threat of it, but I never really wanted it to happen!"
"What happened? Tell me what has happened, Mattie!"
Cringing as though she expected him to strike her, she said, "The news is all over the post, and even in hiding I know how to listen--oh yes, I have been to Osgiliath and back, to pick up on supplies."
Frodo grasped the throat of the rags of his filthy old shirt, that she still wore, jerking her back to her feet. "Tell me what news, Mattie!"
"Everybody knows about your sister, now. Not me! Don't hurt me--I didn't do it!"
"I won't hurt you but it's better than you deserve--it's a vile thing to pretend, Mattie, just to hurt me."
"They, they say that somebody saw something that made him wonder, or maybe it was one of the younger Gardner children, blurting out rash words, and then...oh Valar defend her!"
"She has disappeared. Some say to Bree, some say that the Old Forest swallowed her up, I don't know, a few tales even say that the Barrows took her. Let me go--I do not know the details!" Tears ran down her cheeks, cutting pale streaks in the grime parallel to the scratches, but still Frodo held her up before him.
"That's impossible! Children don't just disappear. Your poppy has deluded you."
"Frodo, it's...it's no good anymore! I cannot feel the bliss. I, I, I smoke my pipe and nothing happens but the horror--that I could have caused such a thing, that, that I almost did! That the poppy made me almost do it all on purpose!" She tried to claw at her own face, but Frodo grabbed her hands and would not let her hurt herself again. "I hate myself! I hate what I have become!"
Then he gazed into her eyes and saw: the dilated pupils that made her pale eyes seem so dark. And he realized what it meant that she trembled in his grip, on so blistering-hot a day. "You believe it all--you're trying to give up poppy-gum! On your own account, nobody's choice but yours." He let go of her. "But take comfort of this--it was only a poppy nightmare. I just got a letter from my Papa, and nothing of the sort has happened. Maybe the nightmare's trying to warn you about what could..."
"No--I know the difference! I'm not stupid." In a last outburst of strength she fired off rapid words: "Several messengers heard it in the Prancing Pony, as they exchanged their bags of letters there. It happened the same day that the Mayor's post reached Buckland." For a second Mattie smirked halfheartedly. "Nobody should wonder if news from the Shire reaches Bree faster than Lazy Bleo."
Then her twitching overtook her and she fell into Frodo's arms. "I'm sick, Frodo. Maybe I did imagine it all." Every word grew weaker as she spoke. "Maybe every horrible thing in the world will turn out to be delirium, and I'll wake up in my own bed at home, and Mama will open the shutters and let in the sweet spring light and the perfume of apple-blossoms..." Then she doubled up and he barely got her head over the side of the porch in time. When she could, she gasped, "Oh but I deserve this sickness and this pain! I embrace it all!"
Frodo sat down with her, drew his kerchief out from under his hat and wiped her mouth, as tenderly as a father for an ailing child, as she lay shivering in his lap, tears squeezing tightly from her eyes. "It will be all right, Mattie. I will send for the Lady Eowyn herself; she is an old friend of the family's. She will help you."
"No--I know where she is. Too far, too deep into the wilderness, beset with dangers--the spirits of the Pass have told me. Even now the King's son seeks her, guided by the palantir. She cannot reach me in time. She has troubles of her own."
Frodo stared at her, then, dropping the fouled kerchief, and his hands hardened into fists. "As usual, you have succeeded in dragging others into your mess, haven't you?"
She sobbed in reply, hiding her face in his shirt. Despite everything he found his arms around her before he could convince himself that he ought to find her repugnant, he ought to recoil from her smell and her fragile little bones, still less feel drawn to her person, corrupted beyond misfortunes of the flesh.
"Come," he said more tenderly than he intended. "You're too close to the fits to leave untended. Perhaps a bath will make you feel better--heaven knows you have not suffered much exposure to the Sea of Nurnen, and needn't fear it."
"I tire, Frodo," she said in a faint little voice, leaning on him as he helped her into his home and up the inner stairs. "I have not slept for days."
The stairs took a long time, with many pauses. In a matter-of-fact voice, Frodo said, "I am really playing the fool, am I not? I mean I know it. This will turn out like all the other times. You will get partway free, and then you will return to your one true love."
"Please...no...different this time..."
"No? Why should I believe you?"
"Because you must." She clutched at him with weak fingers. "Because I need you to believe in me...because...oh Valar I feel sick!"
"You call upon the Great Ones so lightly--for an upset stomach. Do you even know what you are saying? Do you even know what aid you could attain?"
Sharply she shoved him away at that, reeling against the wall. "Aid? Aid? From Yavanna and Este who first devised the poppy? From Lorien who blessed it and poured his dreams into it? From Manwe who called it his favorite of all flowers? What aid would they bring--they who have thus cursed me?"
"Easy--you are in no shape to think clearly right now." He took her in his arms again. "You know full well that Sauron twisted everything that he touched." Step by step he helped her walk. "Even truths he twisted into lies."
"Like me. Twisted." She laughed hysterically. "You think I can't think, but my mind roars on and on as fast as a Nazgul's flying steed, veering and whipping around corners so fast I cannot find the words! Nothing gums up the works, you see--my mind goes everywhere!"
Frodo sat her down on a step again until she could calm herself, for her hilarity rocked her wildly and made climbing up a hazard. "But not in balance, Mattie. Overly fast thoughts take no time to correct their course."
"Everywhere!" she howled with laughter, and then sobbed, and rested her torn cheek against him. "I don't know what I'm saying."
"Everywhere--you've picked up some of my thoughts in your visions. That's how you knew that my father sent his letter from Buckland, not Bag End."
"No more visions..." Her voice sank back down to weak and whispery. "Never again the lovely visions..."
"I know," Frodo said, helping her back to her feet. "I remember."
She twisted in his grip to stare at him, haggard, sweat dripping from her face. "You do understand!"
For an instant gazing into her eyes seemed just as good as talking. But he needed to put things into words. "Yes. I understand better than I used to. For many reasons." Then he helped her further up the stairs--the tall, human-sized stairs so unforgiving to hobbit legs. "All right, then--I suppose if I can believe in myself, I can believe in you, too, at least one more time. Come on. Just a few more steps." On the second floor they came upon Spring, learning from her nanny how to sew clothes for her rag doll. "Tamarisk, Spring, fetch Elenaril. We need her help."
Tamarisk sprang to Mattie's side and helped her to a bed. "Go, child," she said to Spring. "You know the way. I have healer's work to do." The girl sped out as Tamarisk began to peel away the soiled clothes before Frodo had time to retreat. But Mattie offered nothing there to see, really, unwashed skin stretched tight on bone, boyish little knots where breasts should have swelled, a concave belly, a scattering of scars. Frodo left before the nurse reached the waist, climbing up to his own room, where he closed the door and threw himself onto his cot, though he felt a thousand miles away from the traditional hot-weather nap.
No. It couldn't be. Chance words, that was all she said, happening upon a lucky stroke to trouble him. "Time stays its course," he gritted between his tight-clamped teeth. "No news travels here except by post, and all on schedule. Mattie cannot know a thing."