When the black breath blows
and death’s shadow grows
and all lights pass,
come athelas! come athelas!
Life to the dying
In the king’s hand lying!
RotK, Book V, Ch 8, The Houses of Healing
Pelargir, November 1975 of the Third Age.
The sound of the girl’s voice pulled Hîthwen out of her trance. A shiver ran through her body as she suddenly became aware of the night’s chill. She rubbed her bare arms to warm her blood, but the moans coming from the back room only served to drive the chill deeper – into her heart.
“Mother? It started again.”
The girl’s voice echoed distantly in her ear. Hîthwen closed her eyes tightly. This is a nightmare. Please, let this be a nightmare
, she prayed. Once more, her silent plea remained unanswered. The moans continued; so did the sounds of a body tossing and turning on an old bed that screeched at every move.
She stared at the deep red marks left on her palms by the wooden toy she gripped desperately. Deregoth had carved this little horse from a scrap of wood for their son’s fifth birthday, working nights under a flickering candle until his eyes hurt. But she knew that her husband would do it all over again, just to see the smile on the child’s face. Debelg loved this toy so much…
“Mother? It is getting worse!”
Now the girl sounded almost hysterical. Hîthwen sighed and stood from her stool by the dying fire. I feel tired,
she thought, her knees aching badly. I feel old.
The old toy slipped from her fingers as she dragged her feet on the dusty wooden floor to the back of the house. Despite the chill of the night, droplets of cold sweat crowned her brow as Hîthwen leaned against the door. The girl’s hand clutched her dress desperately as she gazed at the writhing body on the old straw mattress. They had lived this same nightmare more times than she could recall.
she thought, neither dead nor living. What did he ever do to deserve this?
The girl at her side sobbed uncontrollably now and Hîthwen’s vision blurred. For a fleeting moment, she saw herself falling into a bottomless pit, following her son to his torment. Debelg should be healthy and happy and have a family of his own now. She should be expecting her first grandchild, not watching her son drift away like this.
Better end it now,
a voice whispered inside her head. It is so easy; just start a nice fire and you will never feel cold again. The boy will find release and you will save yourself and the girl from starvation.
Hîthwen shook her head to clear her mind, but the little voice persisted. Who will work on the fields when the spring comes? Who will tend to the boy when you break your back scrubbing the floors of taverns and public baths? Anoriel needs new shoes - her little feet bleed every time she goes outside.
Hîthwen rubbed her sore eyes. The painful emptiness in her gut reminded her that she had eaten little other than moldy bread over the course of the past few days. Whatever money she earned washing other people’s clothes was not enough anymore. The image of a dark street where unfortunate women begged strangers for a spare coin or sold their bodies to earn their living flashed in her mind and pierced her heart. No! I will not end like this!
She straightened her shoulders with all the pride she had left.
“Look after your brother,” she said in a low voice, stroking the girl’s head. “Keep him from injuring himself. I will not be gone long.”
The girl wiped her tears with the back of her hand. “Where are you going, mother?”
Hîthwen donned an old, tattered cloak. “I’m going to get help.” Rumors at the market spoke of travelers of great wisdom residing in town on their way south.
Even if they kick me out, things cannot get any worse,
she thought, closing the door behind her. Humiliation no longer scared her; the thought of her daughter begging for scraps did.
The air was heavy with a myriad of smells inside the Nine Black Cats Inn. The smoke of the burning candles mixed with the aroma of roasted meat and the crisp scent of cedar logs burning in the fireplace. A crowd of people of various trades and backgrounds sought refuge from the cold in this cozy hall, dining on soft meat and making small talk over mugs of ale. Two robed figures sat by the fireplace, one puffing his pipe in silence, the other, clad in brown, stroking the fur of a cat who found great joy in playing with his long beard.
Doblung, the innkeeper, handed two more pints of ale to Nedril, the maid, his eyes fixed on the strangers.
“They mean trouble, if you ask me,” he mumbled under his thick moustache.
None of the patrons, however, paid any attention to his mumbling and Doblung sulked behind the counter, suppressing his natural tendencies for gossip. Look at them, just sitting there for a good time now, hardly drinking anything,
he thought. How is a man supposed to make a living on a single mug of ale and a cup of herbal brew? What kind of man drinks herbal brews anyway?
The innkeeper filled two more pints, handed them over to the serving girl, and took the emptied mugs to put them away with the other dirty dishes, his thoughts still on the two strangers. I swear they haven’t spoken a single word since they sat down. And why is that fellow in the brown robe distracting the cat? There're rats in the cellar, you know.
A burst of laughter turned his attention to a group of men close by and the dirty jokes one of them told to his chuckling audience. Doblung leaned closer so he too could listen, a lewd grin curling the corners of his mouth. Only then did he notice the newcomer and the grin froze on his face.
He knew this woman. What’s her name - Hîthwen or something?
He had known Deregoth, her late husband. A good man, may Eru rest his soul.
One of his childhood friends and a captain in the King’s army, Deregoth had followed his regiment to the north against the dark forces of an evil foe earlier this year. His son, Debelg, had also joined the army out of love and admiration for his father, whom his young mind perceived equal to the heroes of old. Although barely of age, Debelg rode with his father with the eagerness of youth for valor and glory.
Neither of them found either valor or glory. News from the north said that the king’s forces were victorious. Doblung saw no victory in his friend’s mutilated corpse at the hands of some inhuman enemy. As for his son… no man deserved such a fate. Doblung studied the woman’s frail figure. She had been pretty once, with bright eyes and a warm smile. Now there were wrinkles at the corners of her mouth and her shoulders slumped under her unspoken burdens. Life for the common folk of Pelargir had never been easy, but a widow with an underage daughter and a son with his mind gone had few choices left. Sooner or later, when the money she earned from scrubbing floors and washing dishes at the various establishments could no longer suffice, she would be forced to turn to the streets.
The innkeeper shook his head. It’s a shame,
he thought. They were good people. They never deserved this.
Many a time he had employed the poor woman’s services for laundry or kitchen chores, but he was far from being a wealthy man and had his own family to think of. On that night, however, Hîthwen did not approach him seeking work. Her eyes were fixed on the two strange visitors by the hearth.
Her figure attracted several inquisitive stares, her tattered clothes and drawn face not quite fitting into the crowd. If she ever noticed, Doblung could not tell. She just stood there, her bony hands clutching and twisting the side of her old, stained apron. Her lips formed a tight line as she watched the tall traveler in the grey cloak puffing his pipe. Then she dragged her feet toward the fireplace, leaving wet marks on the floor. Frowning, Doblung noticed that her bare feet bled from walking on the cold, damp streets and shook his head. Such a pity,
mused silently .
Meanwhile, Hîthwen now stood a few paces away from the man in grey. “My Lord,” she mumbled, and Doblung leaned over the counter to listen more closely.
The old man raised his eyes to her face, but remained silent. Rings of smoke came out of his mouth and the black cat watched them with fascination, as if all the mysteries of the Valar unraveled there.
“My lord,” she repeated, her voice steadier now, “I have heard word that you are a man of great wisdom.” Hîthwen stared at him, her eyes huge and hopeful.
Again the man in grey remained silent. He nodded gently, letting the woman continue.
“My lord, I have come to request your advice regarding my son’s ailment,” she said. Doblung could tell that she struggled to keep her face calm, but still her eyes watered. “He was a soldier, my boy, following the king’s commands against a mighty enemy at the north, along with my late husband.” Now tears ran freely down her cheeks. “My husband fell in battle, but my boy…” Her voice broke. A sob escaped her throat and she raised her fingers to her lips. A heartbeat later, she jerked her head upwards, as if struggling to hold her pain down. Drying her cheeks with a skinny hand, she continued. “I have mourned my husband. He is dead, but such is life. My son, however, lies neither dead nor living.”
The man in grey looked up, then turned and stared at his companion who still played with the cat. With no response from him, he turned again to the woman.
“They fought against an evil foe,” Hîthwen said, closing her eyes for a moment. “A creature of darkness and evil, and many of those who marched against him lost their minds. His tainted touch drove good men to madness, falling into some kind of tormented slumber, until the night claims the last remnants of their spirit.” The woman clutched her bare arms, as if a cold draft brushed her skin. “Please, my lord,” she pleaded. “Many healers have seen my boy, but none of them knew of a way to restore his reason.” Her voice faltered. “He was a good boy, my lord. He did not deserve this.”
The man in the grey cloak sat up, his eyes fixed on his pipe. “There is little I can do, good woman,” he said, never looking up.
Hîthwen’s expression hardened as though he had just slapped her. “My lord, I have little money, but I work hard and –“
The man in grey raised his hand to stay her protests. “It is not about money, my good woman,” he said, his voice gentle. “I know this ailment you speak of. I fear that those touched by the Nazgûls’ Black Breath are beyond our help.”
“Kingsfoil might help,” said the man in brown, his voice calm and casual. The cat still played on his knees, fluffing and hissing at unseen foes, much to the innkeeper’s disapproval.
“Kingsfoil?” The woman’s face lit up. “I can find kingsfoil.”
The man in grey turned to his companion. “Aiwendil, athelas is of little use without the king’s healing skills. And the king is at Minas Tirith at the moment. I doubt that the boy will survive the journey.”
The man called Aiwendil stroked the black cat’s head. “The king of Men, yes, he is far from here, at the north.” The small creature gazed at him, as if waiting for something. Then all of the sudden, the cat leaped off his knees and vanished among the crowd, into the night. Only then did Aiwendil turn to look at Hîthwen. “Make a strong brew of kingsfoil, let it cool, and bathe your son,” he said calmly, dusting his robe from the fur the cat had shed in abundance. “And remember this: do not turn away the traveller who might knock upon your door tonight, good woman; any traveller at all.
While Doblung filled the mugs Nedril brought him with fresh ale, out of the corner of his eye, he saw Hîthwen bow her head slightly before leaving. The two strangers exchanged some words in a tongue unknown to the innkeeper and he soon forgot the matter, absorbed in a heated discussion around the latest town gossip.
The two cloaked travelers had long retired to their rooms when the black cat rubbed its agile body against Doblung’s feet, having returned from its nightly adventures with the bloodied body of a fat rat in its fangs. The innkeeper patted the cat’s head, emptied some meat leftovers in a cracked bowl, and served his animal its dinner while he took the rat’s corpse to the cellar to use it in tomorrow’s stew.
Why should he fatten the vendors of the meat market? He could use the extra coin for his own household. Rats’ meat was just fine for his clientele, since most of them were usually too drunk to know what they were eating anyway...
Only shadows and the creatures of the night ventured the orchards south of Pelargir during nights such as this, when the north wind carried the smell of the storm. An owl cried and perched on the bare branches of a lemon-tree. Not one leaf, not one delicate flower held a reminder of the fragrant haven of spring. Under a sky brewing heavy weather, the owl closely watched the lone figure walking among the leafless trees. This creature looked like a man, but the bird’s eyes saw him for what he was; she saw the colors dancing around him.
The bird tilted her head sideways as tendrils of warm brown spiraled around the man, blending with streaks of every shade of green. This biped walked clad in brown; not the brown of his common robe, but the rich color of the fertile soil, the enticing shade of wild honey, and the spicy scent of cedar trunks. The owl saw no threat in this creature and his dancing colors. Woven in the air around him, a blessing followed his steps, a blessing coming from the West of the World. Relaxed, the bird followed his path, flying from one branch to another. When the cloaked form stopped at a clearing, the owl saw with delight that many other night creatures had sensed his presence and came out of the shadows to greet him.
Moles and mice and rats gathered around his feet and moths buzzed all around him as if he shone in the darkness. The owl watched the gathering with renewed interest. Mice, juicy mice,
she thought delightedly, and measured the distance from the branch she perched on to her prey. But before she could fly to the catch, she sensed another presence. Unfortunately, so did the mice and the rats and they all scattered, running back to their holes.
A cat walked inside the clearing; a white tomcat, his fur shining in the darkness, reflecting the starlight every time the heavy clouds parted.
This cat has no business coming here,
thought the owl, hooting her disapproval. “Leave! These are my hunting grounds! Go back to your cellars and sewers, furry mammal!”
Aloof, the cat scratched his head. “I assure you, birdie,” he mewed, “I have no intention to steal your prey. I was told that my advice on certain matters is needed, so I have come as requested.” He eyed the cloaked form with suspicion. “Well? Was there something you wanted?”
Amusement colored the man’s voice. “I thank you, your highness, for coming to my assistance.”
The King of Cats, right,
thought the owl, wondering if this was a good time to hoot her sarcasm out loud. Still, something inside her advised against it and she remained silent, watching the meeting with great interest.
The cat yawned. “Speak your request, bird-lover, but do it quickly. I just finished grooming my fur and I’d rather not soil it so soon.” A smile curled the corners of the man’s mouth as he sat on the damp ground and the cat jumped on his knees, making himself comfortable. “Much better now,” he purred, amber eyes half-closed.
Skillful fingers stroked the cat’s head, who proceeded to knead his claws in the man’s robes. “A young man needs your healing skills, noble king,” the man said. “A boy, touched by the shadow of a starless night.”
“Why should a cat care about the affairs of Men?” replied the cat, still purring. “Go ask a horse or a dog; I owe Men nothing.”
The man contemplated on his answer, always stroking the cat. “Perhaps you indeed owe them nothing,” he finally said, “but the race of Men is weak and they can learn so much from your wisdom.”
The owl struggled to keep a chuckle from escaping her throat. She could not recall having so much fun since that accursed fox from the nearby hill had fallen in the river while chasing a duck.
The cat, however, had not been convinced. He sat up and stared at the man in brown. “My forefathers once lived close by, north of this town,” he mewed. “Men, like the one you ask me to help, condemned them to death because of their little minds and petty superstitions.” He licked his whiskers. “I still see no reason to help one of them.”
The man in brown sighed. “Have you not seen the females of your kind mourn their little ones?”
“You mean the ones Men drown in the river? Yes, I have, bird-lover.”
The man lowered his eyes. “But if you help this boy, noble king,” he continued, “perhaps his family would be willing to assist one of your kind in return.”
On a branch above their heads, the owl awaited the cat’s response. Despite her dislike of cats in general and this animal in particular, she found no flaw in his reasoning. She too had witnessed the evil Men were capable of.
The cat remained silent for a while. “Can you ensure this?” he finally replied. “Winter draws near and many of my kin are in dire need of shelter.”
The man nodded. “The mother of the boy promised me that she will not turn away any visitor who visits her home tonight; anyone at all.
The cat sat up, stretched, and jumped off the man’s lap. “Very well. I will see what I can do.” Before the man could thank him, he vanished into the night. The man in the brown robe followed him shortly afterwards.
And good riddance,
hooted the owl. It was fun, but they’ve cost me valuable hunting time. Bird-lover, the cat called him. Right. This bird craves mice and he sent them away.
The girl rested her head on the bed’s side, her little face still puffy and wet. From time to time, she started from her sleep with a wild look in her eyes, only to fall asleep moments later. Hîthwen sat by the bed, occasionally cooling her son’s face with a cloth dipped in a strong brew of kingsfoil. The words of the stranger still rang strangely in her ears: do not turn away the traveller who might knock upon your door tonight, good woman; any traveller at all.
But the hour was late and no one had come to her door. Had the man played some cruel joke on her? His suggestion of using kingsfoil, however, did seem to have some beneficial effect. Although the boy remained unconscious, the soothing scent of the herb had cooled his burning lids, lifting a part of the shadow from their home. Hîthwen felt her head become heavy and she had almost fallen asleep when she heard the scratching at the door - not a knock, just a scratching.
With all senses in sudden alarm, she walked to the threshold. Her hand trembled slightly as she reached the door and opened it.
No one was there.
Then a soft sound turned her attention to her feet and the white cat standing there. Before Hîthwen could utter a word, the cat passed between her feet and ran to the back room where her son lay. Frozen by both surprise and exhaustion, the woman remained motionless, gazing blankly at the back of the house. Then the chill of the night pulled her out of her trance and, after shutting the door, she followed the cat.
Anoriel sat fully awake and watched the cat with wide eyes and full of wonder. “Look mother, a kitty,” the girl cried, with a ring of childish carelessness in her voice that Hîthwen had not heard for a long time.
The cat jumped on the bed and made himself comfortable upon her son. Purring loudly, he started kneading the boy’s bare chest. Hîthwen feared that the weight of such a huge cat might compromise the boy’s already weak breathing and those huge claws might cut Debelg’s skin. Then she noticed how gently the cat moved, as if following a pattern. The cat softly kneaded the young man’s upper chest, purring loudly with eyes half-closed, his nose slightly touching the skin from time to time.
A tremor ran through the boy’s body and for a moment Hîthwen thought that another fit would ensue. Debelg cried out but the cat lowered his head upon the boy’s chest, as if trying to calm him down. Much to Hîthwen’s amazement, no convulsions followed her son’s cry of pain, no heart-wrenching shrieks and curses in strange tongues; just a long sigh, as if a shadow departed from his heart. The cat continued to purr loudly and knead the boy’s body, who still sobbed from time to time. Lulled by the comforting purr, Hîthwen soon dozed off at her son’s side.
She woke up as the birds chirped outside, welcoming the new dayand glanced around. The cat was gone. Her gaze turned to her son; Debelg still lay unconscious, but his breath seemed calmer and his face less pale. Supporting her weight on the bed’s headboard, Hîthwen pulled herself up, grimacing as a jolt of pain traveled from her feet upwards, a result of her broken skin. Slowly, she managed to walk to the other room in order to start a fire. There should be a couple of eggs left, and some milk to cook Anoriel a breakfast.
Not long after, Hîthwen sat watching the dancing flames in the hearth. We need wood, and milk, and the roof needs repairs before heavy rains come,
she thought, passing her bony fingers through her unkempt her. What will we do? How are we going to survive the winter?
She felt a salty wetness on her lips, and only then did she become aware of the tears running down her face.
As if in a dream, she heard a voice calling her. I’m hearing voices,
she thought. Hunger and exhaustion have finally made me lose my mind.
But the voice persisted.
Still in disbelief, she dragged herself to the back room; when she entered, her heart skipped a beat: her son had awoken, and stared at her with bewildered eyes.
In a blink of an eye she threw herself by his side and took him in his arms, sobbing and clutching his thin body to her chest. The boy returned the embrace, but after a while he began to struggle.
“Please, mother,” he said, his voice weary. “You are choking me.”
Hîthwen chuckled, cried some more, and then laughed again as Anoriel, too, jumped on the bed, her face glowing with excitement. When Hîthwen finally found the courage to leave her son alone to warm up some milk, the sound at the door informed her of someone waiting there.
The white cat was back. His huge, amber eyes searched her face, as if waiting for something. A low mew escaped his throat.
“You can come in, little fellow,” she said, her voice gentle. “I do not have much to spare, but you can share our breakfast. It is the least I can do.” She held the door open, but the cat just stood on the threshold, looking undecided.
Just as Hîthwen started to feel ridiculous holding the door open for a cat, the animal mewed again. Another cat answered his call, and Hîthwen saw a calico coming out of her bushes. The small feline looked at Hîthwen, as if measuring her up, and after a moment turned her eyes back to the bushes and mewed. Two kittens answered her call and came forth - one calico like her and the other one completely white. At least, so Hîthwen thought, for its fur was soiled with dried mud. With her watchful gaze never leaving the woman, the female cat led her young ones inside the house, to the side of the burning fire, under the approving stare of the white cat.
Hîthwen sighed. “So I guess that’s your price, right?”
The white cat closed his eyes slowly, as if nodding.
“Fine - they may stay. However, everyone works under my roof, so I expect to see some dead mice, cat,” she replied, secretly hoping that none of her neighbors saw her conversing with an animal.
The white cat yawned, stretched, glanced through the open door one last time and jumped on the fence. Only then did Hîthwen realize that she had never thanked him. I wonder if I ever see that extraordinary cat again,
she thought. Closing the door behind her, she walked in the room and saw the kittens that played and hissed and fluffed, heard the laughter of her children – both of them – at the back, in her home, filled with the lingering scent of kingsfoil. Warmth spread through her blood, a precious sense of forgotten peace.
She felt safe. Somehow, they would survive the coming winter. She knew they would.
The two travelers, the one clad in grey and the one in earthen brown never passed through Pelargir again. Hîthwen and her family did survive that winter, as well as the winters that followed, until she passed away in advanced age, having seen her children and grandchildren grow and have families of their own.
Hîthwen never saw the white cat again. Still, her home and the homes of her children were never without a cat napping by the hearth, and no household was ever bereft of a white cat. During her later years, Hîthwen spent her time sunning her aching bones in the company of other old townswomen. Among the usual gossip and knitting, she heard tales of a queen of old - of a feline gathering during the full of the moon at the orchards north of Pelargir, where cats talked in their own tongue, reciting tales and exchanging insults with the owls. Old wives’ tales,
men deemed such sayings, but Hîthwen thought otherwise. After all, she among them knew all too well that where healers and midwives had failed, the touch of a white cat had succeeded.
In a treasured memory, along with her husband’s blush on their wedding day and the first giggle of her children, Hîthwen never forgot the touch of a cat - the touch of a King.
Aiwendil: 'Bird-lover', the name in Valinor of the Wizard who became known as Radagast in Middle-earth. His companion was Gandalf, in case anyone didn’t guess.
And one in earthen brown
: Radagast’s physical description in the UT.
Tales of a queen of old
: Reference to Queen Berúthiel. According to UT, the house Tarannon built for her was north of Pelargir.
Nine Black Cats Inn: Again, reference to Berúthiel’s cats. This idea comes from another author, used here with permission.
I first came across the concept of the King of Cats in Lovecraft’s writings. Needless to say, I was bewitched. In Middle Earth, if the Mearas (and horses in general) had Shadowfax and the eagles had Thorondor, why shouldn’t there be a royal line among cats in Arda?
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.