For Into Darkness Fell His Star
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 30, Part 171
A Change of Plan
June 9, 1452
Somehow, Frodo did not know how, he discovered himself swaying in a saddle. He struggled to open his eyes, and saw that a hobbit rode a little ways ahead of him, leading his steed by the reins through desert country. When he did manage to pry his swollen eyelids open even a little bit, the vividness of his vision overrode an overpowering sense of intoxication, so that every boulder, every thorn-bush, every kaktush around their upward-winding path, stood out and sparkled as though made of jewels. Yet the land looked familiar to him.
"I have come this way before," he mumbled from an unresponsive mouth.
Someone said, "Fix this in your mind, if you remember nothing else. We move parallel to many worlds along this path, one of them being yours." A long time passed, during which Frodo struggled obediently to memorize each rock formation and turn of the path. But soon the vividness softened back down again, the beauty slipping out of reach. He blinked often and nodded more and more in the saddle. Just when he felt certain that he would fall off of his steed, they reached the mouth of a cave. "Here you may find healing, as others have done before, and will again,"the hobbit told him, then led him and his steed into the cool shade and helped him topple from the saddle. "Are you sure you cannot walk?"
"I don't know."
"If you would prefer to lie down..." The other gestured to a depression in the floor of the cave. "There--that is your grave."
Frodo woke up, sweating in the night. He had long since stored his blanket; nobody could bear any covering in this heat. He stared at moonlight stencils of the narrow windows glowing on the walls. "I have dreamed all that before," he said out loud. "When...? Or do I just imagine that I have? I shall have to give the dream more thought, whatever the case." But he fell asleep again, instead, and dreamed something else about his little brother Tom riding to his wedding on a blood-spattered horse.
That dream passed into unintelligibility. Frodo stirred uneasily in his sleep--and then sat up, for he heard the bar on the door downstairs lift and fall again. Only another hobbit could have caught such stealth. Cursing himself silently for not locking the guest-room door as well, Frodo pulled his tunic on and slipped down the stairs, as silent as a shadow. He faced the unlocked door, and then a recklessness came on him, so that he plunged out into the night.
It felt a little cooler out here, even though the early evening winds that once swept over the streets had long since stilled. Now the gibbous moon, low on the horizon, illuminated little boot-prints in the thick dust earlier blown across the cobbles, as clearly as the craters pocking the lunar face. Frodo followed after, adding his bare prints beside them. At one point they crossed the marks of a giant cat. Frodo swallowed and forced himself on; judging by the dust already blown into them, Kitty had long since left with whomever she'd come for. Probably.
Frodo smiled grimly to himself. "How I used to hate the way Bergil used that word, 'probably'! But I think I know Mordor a little better, now."
In the distance he heard a soft knock upon a shutter, the creak of hinges, faint and unintelligible words exchanged, then the shutter slamming shut again. The smile dropped from him and he hastened on.
He knew where the prints would lead him, and what he would find, long before he rounded the final corner. He recognized this part of Seaside, even in the dark. He sighed as he kicked a little round tin out of his path, ringing against another that it hit. "Just as I said--I was a fool to believe you even a little."
She had the grace to turn her face away, though the pipe stayed in her mouth. That much had changed, at least, that she could feel some shame.
Frodo stood before her where she sat there in the dirt. "I see you kept your pipe. If you had meant it, you would have thrown the thing away."
"I did!" And for an instant the dull face animated, glaring up at him. "I had to pay extra for a new one." As he watched tears flooded down her cheeks, though no frown-lines troubled her unnaturally relaxed features. "'Tis no good, Frodo--I don' feel it anymore--the peace. The beauty. All gone. Jus' doin' it to stop the pain." She lowered the pipe and her head fell forward, sobbing. "Should never have come into the city...temptations lurk here..." At her words his own memory of the smithy wounded him. "Should've stayed out...died inna wild..." When she tipped her head back against the wall, the scratches that striped her face looked black in moonlight against her colorless skin.
Pity tortured Frodo where he stood. "Do you really want that?"
The dream rushed back on Frodo like something that smote him from the inside. "What if only part of you has to die?"
Mattie looked up to him with bleary eyes. "Ever watch a man expire from a sunstroke?"
Frodo winced. "I cannot say that I have."
"He lies there, see...weak...too weak to crawl out of the sun...jus' can't...so he basks in it...basks in what's killing him.." She looked away. "Saw the ghost, years too late. Would've helped, otherwise."
A resolution formed in Frodo then, though he himself didn't understand the details. "Do you really, truly and of your own choice, long to renounce the poppy?"
She sat up straighter. "With my entire heart."
"Then I shall take you away from here," he said.
"Away?" She laughed weakly. "I tried. There is no away."
"Yes there is. You just can't find it by yourself." He bent and took her arm. "Come on...there you go...on your feet. Good girl."
"But you can't just up and..."
"Oh yes I can. I'm already packed and ready to go."
"You had this planned?"
He considered lying, but instead said, "No. I haven't got a clue. Uncle Pippin has plans, but I don't think they're mine. Maybe we shall take you to the Houses of Healing, maybe we'll find Eowyn instead and veer off for Ithilien. Maybe something else entirely." His own uncertainty puzzled him--why not Minas Tirith? To her staring eyes he admitted, "I honestly don't know what I'm doing. It just feels right."
To herself she mumbled, "Wonder where he gets his visions?" Then she gestured to her pipe, pleading in her eyes, and said, "Until then...please?" and clutched it back again, against her nonexistent breast. "It's just...the illness...the horrible, horrible illness..."
"Listen--you can even smoke on the ship, if you try to thin the dosage, a little every day."
She burst into sobs. "Why do I beg for such things? Even now--and to you! Ohhhhh, I want to die!"
"It's all right, Mattie." He grabbed the hand that would have clawed herself, the other still clutching the pipe like a dead thing that can't let go. "Shhhh...it's all right." He pulled her close. "I promise to take you where you can get all the help you need. But until then I don't see the sense in adding seasickness to..." He stopped. Only a hobbit's ears could have caught that faint pattering. "Over here!" Frodo shoved Mattie ahead of him into a space between buildings so narrow that only two underweight hobbits could have fit in it. He choked on the stench of the crevice's common usage, like tales of Shelob's lair, but he pushed Mattie in as deeply as he could, and then made sure that his left hand--holding Sting--faced the alley they had vacated.
Mattie looked up at the windows overhead, high in the streaky walls, and surprised him with a giggle. "I only hope that nobody dumps their chamberpots till daybreak."
"Mattie, that is the least of my worries!"
She laughed again, drunkenly. "Don't you wish you wore boots now?"
He heard a growling, now, low and rhythmical. He remembered that gigantic purr. Fur slid past the slit of moonlight before him, seemingly striped gray and black in the dimness, but he remembered the beast's vivid colors from the days when he still had elvish sight. Sting weighed heavy in his hand, his elbow close to his side, his legs flexed for lunge or retreat. He dared not stand comfortably, but maintained the fighting position that Merry had taught him, presenting the narrowest possible target, hip forward not belly, his neck aching from bending to the side. Terrifying memories flooded him, of how readily cats could pour themselves through seemingly impossible openings.
But the stripes passed on, and only moonlight shone before him once again, save for the last twitch of a tail; the stench of the informal sewer had masked their scent. Frodo's legs shook and his blade wavered before him. He wondered if he dared to straighten up...
Here, Kitty, Kitty, Kitty...
A blow from behind walloped Frodo so that he nearly fell on his own sword, his feet skittering on the slippery ground. Mattie shouted, "Come and take me, Kitty!" and struggled to shove past him.
More blows peppered his back. "I want to diiiiiiiie!"
"Hold on, there, Mattie!" Frodo now faced front-forward, trying to make himself as wide as possible and block the frantic arms and legs that reached out from behind him.
"Mrrrow?" A great body blocked the moonlight once again, but now two moonlike eyes shown in the darkness, peering down the crevice at them.
"Ohhhh terrific! Now you've done it, Mattie! Stop struggling!" A bony knee hit him in the kidney and he nearly bowled over, but managed to hold his ground.
"Let me die! Let me die! Oh please, Frodo--I've failed for the last time. Let the earth be quit of me--I'm as sick of me as you are!"
"That's not true!" A paw ventured in, and Frodo tried to get in the right position again to fend it off, but he found his limbs all tangled up with holding Mattie back from squeezing past him, and he dropped Sting in the muck. "I'm not sick of you! Well, yes I am, you sorry fool, but not so much that I'd let you die. I love you, you mulehead! Haven't you figured that out by now? By heaven and earth, I've tried not to, but may the Valar help me, I can't get you out of my heart!"
For a moment Mattie stopped struggling, but stared at Frodo in shock. But soon she fought him all the more. "That's worse--that is so much worse, Frodo! That makes me your poppy-gum--your addiction, your destruction, oh, the most loving thing I can do for you is destroy myself!"
Frodo grabbed her by both scrawny shoulders. "Stop this nonsense!" He shoved her against the wall and kissed her hard, held her in place by the power of that kiss, felt her arms draw around him and hold him close against her, and he didn't smell the alley anymore, he didn't even notice as the giant cat tried and failed to reach him in that narrow space, growling and pawing, the huge shoulders straining against mud brick that began to crumble at the strain, until at last Kitty gave up, grumbling deep in her throat, to go stalk easier meat. The foul place disappeared behind closed eyes; he might have held her in an elvish garden, under trellises heavy with blossom and perfume; he might have stood in grasses and soft herbs; night-singing birds might have trilled around and around their kisses instead of the squeak of bats, as his chest pressed against hers and the lens warmed in between them.
"I can see your dream," she whispered against him. "Your mind shouts it into mine, like a full-throated song. I like your dream better than my own."
He could think of a thousand things to say in reply, but did not say a one of them. He only kissed her again. But he could see her will as clearly as she could perceive his thought, and he knew, with heart vertiginously soaring, that finally he could safely love her.
Cold moonlight's blue gave way to morning's blush when they opened their eyes again. Danger had come and passed, and they remained. Gingerly Frodo picked up Sting. It would take some cleaning, but he felt up to it. He felt up to anything.
"Come on home, Mattie. No, wait--first the beach. Surely one day's bathing in Nurnen water will not hurt--and then after that we shall go home, make arrangements...and by midday the ship..." The ship. Ah yes--the ship!