Tree and Stone

by Lothithil

Chapter 19, Friendly Fire

Frodo woke at mid-day with Sam's gentle voice in his ear, urging him to eat a little before taking some more rest. He sat up with a sigh, stretching muscles still sore from the long marches, now cramped and made more uncomfortable by sleeping on the cold ground. Sam had water and bread for him, and some of the meat left over from the morning meal.

As Frodo ate, he noted the stillness of the land again; it seemed to throw back the slightest noise that any of the Company made. Frodo tried to chew more quietly.

Sam chattered in a whisper to his master. "You should have seen us, sir! Swingin' swords and standin' in line...Mr Boromir said we looked... what was the word he used... forbid-able?"

Frodo smiled gently. "Are you sure he didn't say 'formidable'?"

"Yeah, that's the word... We must have been very formidable, 'cause Mr Merry near took Mr Pippin's head head clean off... missed by just a bit, an' his hair's a little shorter on that side, now... Mr Boromir was rather vexed, I can tell you..."

Frodo listened to his friend, but his eyes roved over the camp. He noted the silhouette of Legolas sitting beneath one of the holly trees back up on the ridge, nearly invisible against the grey-green bark. Frodo was actually surprised that he had seen him at all.

"What is Legolas doing sitting up there all alone?" Frodo asked, when Sam paused again for a breath.

"I dunno, Mr Frodo. He wandered up there a bit ago. I reckon he misses his home, sir. He's been awfully upset lately... I guess we all kind have been. But between him and Mr Gimli, I figure..." Sam pauses and turned rather red. "Sorry, Mr Frodo. I'm speaking out of my place again."

Frodo looked at Sam with a small smile. "I would like to hear what you think, Sam."

"Well," Sam glanced around first, then lowered his voice so that Frodo could barely hear him. "I just wonder, sir, what it is that those two aren't talkin' about. They act as though the other isn't even here... I thought at first that they were angry at each other, but now they act more like they are very sad. They seemed happier, sir, when they were fightin', like back in Rivendell."

Frodo glanced toward where Gimli lay sleeping against a great stone. "I am sure that they will be all right, Sam. If only we can get them to realize how much they are needed, before they decide to leave us."

"D'you think they'd really leave, Mr Frodo?" Sam asked, his eyes a bit wide.

"Why would they stay, when they are so unhappy? Lord Elrond said that they would come with us as far as the mountain pass, and we are nearly there."

"Well, sir, I'm not jumpin' for joy to be here meself, but I'm not going nowhere that you're not going!"

"I know, Sam... thank you." Frodo smiled at his friend, only a little sad. He could see Gandalf and Aragorn sitting together, carrying on some quiet debate. "I feel bad, that they have come so far on my behalf, when clearly they wish to be elsewhere."

"There ain't a-one of us here who didn't come of his own decision, Mr Frodo. Don't go beatin' yerself up about that again! My Gaffer always says, 'Them that fight with themselves always lose!' Maybe that is what Mr Legolas and Mr Gimli need, sir... someone to fight with besides each other."

Frodo looked darkly toward the sharp red mountain beyond the fogged-distant hills. "I fear, Sam, that this will happen much sooner than I'd like to see."

~~~~~

Aragorn joined Legolas beneath the hollys, his long grey eyes still restlessly scanning the eerily quiet lands. They stood together for a time in silence, but Legolas could feel an increasing tension in his companion, like an over-drawn bow.

"What is it, Dunadan?" the Elf asked. "Do you see or feel some danger that eludes my senses? I find the quiet unsettling as well!"

Aragorn sighed, shifting his feet slightly. "The quiet lands give me unrest, elhiru, but this is not the silence that troubles me most." Legolas looked at him curiously. "It is the frozen air between you and the Dwarf that concerns me, my friend."

Legolas's eyebrows raised in mild surprise. "I have made much effort to avoid conflict with that one, as my Lord Elrond did bid me! I have set aside my argument and my pride!"

"You have done as you promised, Legolas," Aragorn spoke soothingly. "But tolerance alone will not bind this rag-tag band into a fellowship."

Legolas regarded Aragorn evenly. "Say plainly what you mean, Lord. What more of myself must I discard to serve the Company?"

"Nothing, Legolas! You should not think of it so. I ask merely that you speak to Gimli, for this thing that divides you affects us all."

Heat flared inside Legolas's heart, and his words were sharp though still very soft, "I cannot speak with that one without his bladed tongue fencing against me, as ready as his keenest ax! His remarks lead me back to my own anger and a wish to dispell his pride! It is all I can do, to keep my temper in check and do nothing!"

"Then perhaps you should not 'do nothing', Legolas. My friend, you see and hear how the hobbits jest with one another, debating comically their oldest arguments? Even Gandalf, who is wise and venerable, partakes in the barbed quip on occasion! But for you and Gimli, these remarks cannot reach through the walls you have built, fending each other away. We who are also your companions... we cannot scale those walls!"

Aragorn took Legolas's shoulder in a gentle grip. "Can you speak to him as you do to me when I show my mortal follies? Delivered with a smile rather than a sneer, it may do much to heal the weariness of this dark journey."

"I... I wil try, Aragorn," Legolas said, bowing his head. He looked up with a glint in his eye, one corner of his mouth lifted in a grin. "I pray that the axes of Gimli are less sharp than his tongue, if this experiment goes awry!"

"Just relax a little, and do not keep your comments singlely upon the Dwarf," Aragorn smiled. "You may shoot your barbs at me as well. Should I come into my destiny through this darkness and doubt, I swear I shall not grudge you, my friend!"

~~~~~

"Let me see if I am understanding you correctly, Gandalf," said Gimli incredulously. "You want me to fight with the Elf?"

The Wizard was sitting on a stone, drawing on his pipe. He took it out of his mouth and exhaled a fragrant cloud. "Not to fight, necessarily, my good Dwarf! I think that the two of you should air your differences-- your differences are not so different, after all-- don't keep them bottled up! Your anger would be less, as well as all of our tension, if the two of you would but speak more easily to one another. It isn't required that you agree on everything, but that you don't disagree each other to death."

"... And this will alleviate our frustration, rather than increase it?" Gimli asked doubtfully.

"I guarantee it," Gandalf said with confidence, tucking his pipe back into his mouth.

The Dwarf expelled his breath in a labial utterance. "Very well, Gandalf... I am wearing a mail-shirt, after all... though what good that will prove against Elven arrows, I am sure I will learn swiftly!"

Gandalf merely smiled and puffed on his pipe.


Chapter 20, A Murder of Crows

Later that afternoon, it became clear that the Companions were not the only living things in Eregion.

Sam was on watch as the others slept on. Gimli and Legolas still kept their own council, mulling over the words of their trusted friends, drifting into distraction and somnolence. Gandalf finished his pipe and lay down to sleep.

Aragorn lay wakeful, unable to take his rest in this strange unquiet place. Soon he rose and joined Sam, and together they listened as the quiet deepened, until the wind itself seemed hushed and anxious. Sam harked and looked about, conscious of the sounds made by his own joints. He began to think his mind was finally going funny-- he was seeing spots swirling before his eyes! He stuck his knuckles in them and looked again. The spots were still there, but now there was more of them.

"Strider, what..." Sam began to say, but Aragorn was aware. He hushed Sam and urged him to lie flat on the ground. Sam dove to the earth, his heart pounding. From where he lay, he could see Frodo clearly. His master's eyes were open, and his face was pale and rigid with fear.

Legolas saw the birds, also. He did not at first realize that what he was seeing was real. As it was not his watch, and Aragorn had bade him take some manner of rest, he had climbed one of the holly trees and was dreaming in its branches, revisiting a memory from his youth.

One day, many long years ago, Legolas had found one of the largest, oldest oaktrees in the north of Mirkwood Forest. It was a vast tree, or trees, really. Four huge trunks had grown and joined together, raising many branches high into the sky; a ladder of straight limbs walled by a thick canopy of leaves. He had climbed to the very top, where he had discovered a peaceful, emerauld world ruled by Emperor butterflies, robed in hues of black, purple, and indigo. They had filled the sky above the trees, fanning and vaning in an intricate chaotic dance. It had been mesmerizing to the young Elf.

The black specks on the horizon that danced before his eyes now were not butterflies or moths, as he came to know swiftly. Before he could call out, he saw Aragorn and Sam dive to the ground. Legolas froze, becoming as part of the tree in which he sat.

The flock birds passed overhead in a dark wave, dense with malign intellect. As they wheeled about and passed again, there came the sound of a single harsh croak-- it sounded like a dry, chuckling laugh. Away to the north the wave swept, still dipping and diving this way and that, until it disappeared into the distance.

When Legolas saw Aragorn raise his head, he leaped down from his perch and hurried to the camp. The Man was giving the halfling a hand up out of the dust.

Samwise was trembling from head to toes. "What was that?" he asked. He looked up and all around, half expecting for the sky to come diving down at him again.

Legolas caught Aragorn's eye, murmuring, "Crebain."

"Spies from Dunland and Fangorn." Aragorn looked very grim. He went to wake Gandalf and report this ill news. Legolas watched Sam as he attempted to comfort Frodo, even though the little gardener was shaking like a new leaf himself.

"I'm all right, Sam," Legolas hear Frodo say softly. "Don't wake the others. The danger seems to have passed, and they are exhausted."

"As are you, Mr Frodo," Sam muttered. "Try to sleep some more, sir. I am watching, and Strider is here."

'I am here, too,' Legolas thought but did not say aloud. He reflected again upon the things that Aragorn had told him. Was he really here? His mind was often far away. Legolas knew he should have seen those crows long before they had found them.

Legolas knelt beside Frodo and Sam. "I have rested enough this day. Samwise, you take some rest with your master, and I shall stand nearby."

Aragorn and Gandalf had come up as he said this and heard the Elf's words. Gandalf agreed, "Legolas speaks wisely. Rest now, Samwise, and Frodo, you should try to rest some more, too. We must press on again as soon as it is dark, I fear. If Hollin is being watched, then it shall also be so of the Redhorn Gate, and how we will cross it unseen, I have no idea." Gandalf looked very serious and tired as he said this.

When the sleeping companions wakened late that afternoon, the news was given that they had another night-march to face. Pippin was very disappointed, and Merry was silent. Gimli cast his eyes up to the sky, then followed the horizon to the peak that was their goal, red Caradhras gleaming in the westering sun.

Gimli had said nothing since he woke. He was concerned about these winged spies that Aragorn spoke of, and he was still pondering the words of Gandalf in his mind. The hobbits were worried, and Gandalf and Aragorn had moved aside to whisper in their ongoing debate. To the Dwarf, there seemed nothing to discuss. He wished that they could move onward now, but Gandalf insisted on waiting for nightfall.

At the bottom of a gulley Gimli found a dry, wide dell, overgrown with juniper, that was large enough for all the hobbits to hide inside. He sat there with them, listening as they whispered to each other of the things they missed from home, comforts now a hundred leagues or more behind them. Gandalf and Aragorn were watching the sky intently, and Legolas was perched nearby, watching over the hobbits but blending into the greenery so as to be nearly invisible.

Gimli was aware of him where he stood, as silent and still as a young sapling. Gimli wondered how he would be able to keep his promise to Gandalf to try to speak to the Elf. He could think of nothing he wanted to say to him that did not sound as though he was trying to incite an argument.

The sun was perhaps an hour above the horizon when Pippin suddenly said, "I am so weary of crouching and hiding! I wish I had a hide like an Elf! Legolas, I can barely see you standing there!"

Legolas dropped to a knee and favoured the young hobbit with a gentle smile. "You are yourself nearly impossible to perceive, master perian..." Legolas hesitated, then decided to try out some of Aragorn's advice, "... when you manage to remain quiet for a time!"

The hobbits stared at him for a moment, then looked at each other, amazed. Then, as one, they burst into laughter, covering their mouths with hands or cloak to stiffle the sound before it carried.

Frodo dashed tears from his eyes, chortling softly. "He got you on that one, Pip!"

Pippin was grinning, though his cheeks were flushed slightly. He bowed his head toward Legolas, who nodded in return, smiling to see that his remark had not insulted the hobbit.

Gimli was listening, and at first he had felt angry at Legolas's remark. The laughter of the hobbits had stopped his outraged comment. Why was he so angry? If Aragorn or Gandalf had said as much (and they each had made similar comments before, as the littlest hobbit did have the tendancy to chatter somewhat) he would have laughed also. In fact, a similar comment had crossed Gimli's mind, but the Elf had spoken up more quickly!

Before he could persuade himself not to, the Dwarf spoke in turn, "Aye, master Peregrin! Your camouflage is even better than that of Legolas, for if the crows were to return, they might think our Master Elf is a tree himself, and attempt to nest in his arms!"

The hobbits laughed again, half at Gimli's words and half at the stunned look on Legolas's face. Was that an insult or a compliment, what the Dwarf had said? Sam was biting the heel of his hand, trying to subdue his fit of giggles. Tired as he was, he had not expected to overhear a word-duel between an Elf and a Dwarf.

"You are right, Master Dwarf," Legolas said. "Would that I could blend into the stones and soil, with the skill of Dwarves or Halflings, for then I would only need fear badgers making a burrow in my lap!"

Merry was now hiccuping, covering his eyes with his hands. The word 'badgers' seemed to set him off, and he gasped a little and laughed behind his closed lips. His face was very red.

Gimli looked upon the hobbits and grinned, his beard wagging. "We should let them be, Legolas. If they laugh anymore, I fear that they will split their sides. We ought to let them sleep."

"Yes," agreed Legolas. "Sleep now, jolly ones. I shall stand and look a little less like a tree, and Gimli will endeavor to look somewhat less like a rock, lest we fall asleep ourselves and be left behind come dusk."

The hobbits did settle down, with only an occasional snorting giggle, and were soon asleep. Their faces were smiling and they were comfortable, as it was now warmer in the dell; a reprieve from the cold.