Tree and Stone

by Lothithil

Chapter 21, Of Rice and Wild Rabbits

Before the Companions set out that evening, Gandalf called a council. He explained that the path through the mountains was most likely already being watched and therefore even more dangerous. He and Aragorn had discussed their other option, to cross Enedwaith to the Gap of Rohan, but they had decided that it was unwise to take the Ring so close to Isenguard.

This news had not set well with Boromir, but he accepted their decision after saying his piece. Legolas listened to the Wizard speak and wondered what it was he was not saying.

The night march was more difficult than usual; the land was more broken and there was no path. Sam walked behind Frodo, one hand on his master's shoulder, the other holding Bill's lead rope. Gimli kept Merry and Pippin in front of him. Legolas followed at the rear of their column.

When dawn came, they found they had made little headway; the mountains seemed no closer. They settled for the day beneath a row of scraggly trees on the edge of a wide bowl. Down at the bottom of this bowl ran a trickle of a stream, surrounded by wild rice, the blades now brown and dry in the season. Aragorn set Merry and Gimli to watch and drew Legolas aside.

"We might find a bit of game here, hiding in the grasses, to suppliment our rations. I shall work my way through the stream-course and try to flush out a rabbit or two. Will you keep your bow handy and bring down what escapes me? Just be sure that it is not I you bring down!"

Legolas laughed. "We have hunted together before, Estel. If I did not shoot you then, it in unlikely that I shall do so now."

Legolas knelt in the grasses and waited, his eyes keen for movement in the grey and brown rushes. He could hear Aragorn, for though the Man was moving stealthfully, he was making deliberate noises to startle into movement whatever animals might be hiding in the tall weeds. The bow in the Elf's hands was strung with an arrow notched and ready. He held them loosely.

Very near to Legolas's location the grasses suddenly rustled, and the Elf drew the bow and turned, ready to release the shaft at what sounded like a very large animal. He gasped and shot the arrow into the soil before his feet, barely moving his hands in time.

Samwise Gamgee stood with his eyes round as saucers, staring at the quivering arrow in the ground at his feet. In one hand he held a rabbit, from the other dangled a snare of woven reeds. His face was white as milk.

"Master Samwise! Forgive me! Hobbits tread lightly indeed, for I nearly thought you were a rabbit yourself!" Legolas pulled the arrow up and knocked the dirt from the tip. "You should have warned me or Aragorn that you had gone hunting today!"

"I'm sorry, Mr Legolas," Sam said, blinking and waving the hand that held the rabbit. "I thought Mr Frodo could do with some fresh meat a'fore we climb that big old mountain."

"That is our purpose, as well. Aragorn is working downstream to bring me game. If that is not the only rabbit that lived in this dell, we all should eat well today. Please wait here behind me, Samwise. Aragorn does not know you are here, and his arrow may fly truer than mine!"

"Yessir," Samwise squatted down behind the Elf, busying himself with repairing his snare. He was wishing he had thought to ask Mr Elrond for some rope before they left Rivendell, when he heard a great rustling in the bushes nearby. 'That must be Mr Strider,' he thought. Legolas had turned toward the sound, bow bent and eyes slitted.

Out of the grasses charged not a Ranger, but a boar! It was bigger than any Sam had ever seen, it's tusks seemed a foot long and terrifying. He fell back in surprise, too shocked even to cry out.

Legolas released his arrow and fitted and fired two more in the time it took Sam's heart to begin to beat again. The boar squealed and fell twitching in the grass.

Strider appeared, leaping over the stream and tossing two more coneys onto the ground beside Sam. He was grinning with satisfaction.

"Our companions will eat well today, my friends, and for many nights hence. Good shooting, Legolas!"

The Elf nodded, smiling. "Sometimes a marksman's skill is not measured by what he shoots at and hits," Legolas looked significantly over at Samwise, "but what he does not hit!"

Samwise blushed. He gathered up the coneys and mumbled, "I'll just get these cleaned up..."

Aragorn and Legolas laughed, carrying between them their boar. Tonight would be an unexpected feast!

Chapter 22, Caradhras the Cruel

It took three night marches to reach the foothills of Caradhras, and with every step winter seemed to take a firmer grip on the land. Aragorn and Gandalf continued their murmured conversation, even until the very knees of the red mountain itself. Gimli wondered if they were discussing the route, or perhaps whatever dangers might be encountered; he could not quite hear what they said to one another.

As they settled down for a rest before the march that would bring them to the Redhorn Gate itself, Gimli let his thoughts take him deep under the stone of that pass, down below the frozen peak and the cloud-wreathed shoulders. The Dwarf was pleased that they had chosen to take this way, instead of the Gap of Rohan. Moria lay beneath this very mountain, the ancient home of his people, the folk of Durin. It was tantalizing, to be so close to the answers he longed to learn; they were buried like treasure beneath his very feet. Yet he knew it would not be an easy crossing, for though the sun was rising the sky looked black indeed, and the wind was growling. Also, his mind was weighed with the knowledge that the Fellowship would continue on past the Dimrill Dale, and would not wait for him to visit the halls of Khazad-dum; he would have to make his decision then: to leave the Company or go on. His heart was still divided when, at midafternoon after a last warm meal, they prepared to begin their climb.

All the night his thoughts had been busy. He rued that Lord Elrond did not require them to take vows upon setting out. His duty to his people was clear: to learn of Balin's fate. But his heart, his loyalty and passion was with Frodo and the Company of the Ring. If words had then been required, oaths of fealty and honour binding him to the Quest, he could mutter and chaffe as he walked past the East Gate of Moria, but his duty and honour would then be bound. Instead, he would have to choose, and live for all of his days with the result of that choice.

'Well', he thought as he combed his fingers through his beard, 'I have to climb the mountain first, before I can enter it!' But hearty as Gimli was, as steadfast and solid as any of the Dwarven race, the wintery threat in the sky was daunting; he grumbled as he shrugged his fur-lined cloak tighter around his ears. This leg of the journey would not be a comfortable one.

It was fortunate that Gandalf and Aragorn were familiar with the path, for the darkness closed heavily over them as they climbed the rough track. Just after midnight the snow finally began to fall, gentle flakes as big and fluffy as cottonseeds. Frodo paused and blinked as they swirled into his eyes, and Legolas held out a hand, catching a flake on his palm and sniffing it as if it were a flower.

Very soon the snow was coming down as thick as the night, blanketing the shoulders of the companions and piling onto their road, the wind scooping it into drifts across the path. Gandalf and Aragorn could barely be seen ahead; they paused briefly at the summit of a steep slope to allow the rest of the Company to catch them up. Gimli heard their exchange more easily, for now they had to speak loudly over the whistling wind.

"This is what I feared," Gandalf said. "What say you now, Aragorn?"

"That I feared it too, but less than other things. It is rare that snow should fall so heavily so far south, even in this season, except high up in the mountains." Aragorn shook his head, then brushed the snow from Frodo's shoulders as the hobbit stood listening to their talk. He was shivering slightly. The snow was just deep enough to cover his bare feet. Aragorn noticed then that the halflings were wearing woolen hose over their legs, though their feet were still bare, but for the thick, wooly hair that grew naturally upon them. "You must be very cold, Frodo; you and the others."

"Who is not cold, in this frigid air?" Frodo smiled up at him. "It's all right. The snow is not as bad as the wind. It seemes to know how to blow right down my collar and chill my heart!" He flipped up the hood of his cloak, pulling the furry lining close around his face.

Boromir shifted his pack, sending a small shower of snow cascading down his strong arms. "I wonder if this is a contrivance of the the Enemy," he said. "They say in my land that he can govern the storms in the Mountains of Shadow that stand upon the borders of Mordor. He has strange powers and many allies." The Man stamped his feet to warm himself, careful not to tread on hobbit toes.

Gimli set down his pack and the bundle of firewood he bore. All the Fellowship had brought as much wood as they could carry, for Boromir's advice had been sound. Irritatibly, Gimli brushed off the ice that was forming on his beard. "His arm has grown long," the Dwarf growled, "if he can draw snow down from the North to trouble us here three hundred leagues away!"

"His arm has grown long," said Gandalf. Frodo clutched his cloak tighter about him, his face turned from the biting wind.

While they were halted, the wind died down and the storm seemed to back away. But not more than a few miles had gone behind them again when the snow and icy gales returned. The strongest of them soon found the going difficult. Gimli plodded along, muttering curses against the weather as he pushed onward through what felt like a wall of ice. He couldn't image how the hobbits were enduring this; they were bent almost double, toiling against the steepness of the climb and the furious wind.

The Company halted suddenly, as if they had come to an agreement without any words being spoken. Legolas crouched on the ledge near the void, clinging to an icy stone as the wind pulled his fair hair into a halo around his head and plucked at his clothes; he was listening to the eerie noises that were echoing around them, murmuring over the wind. It sounded like wild laughter and shrill cries. A shower of stones rained down from the mountain-side, striking the path beside them. Pippin leaped back against the cliff-slope, his face white. A boulder the size of his head had missed him by merely a few feet.

Boromir stepped beside him and covered him with his shield. "We cannot go further tonight," he said, having to shout to be heard over the gale. He gathered Merry close to his other side. "Let those call it the wind who will; there are fell voices on the air; and these stones are aimed at us!"

Aragorn led Bill under the shallow shelter of the cliff that leaned out slightly above their heads. He positioned the hobbits between the wall and the pony so that they were protected somewhat. They all gathered as close together as they could, the snow piling up all the while. The cliff-shelter gave almost no protection against the wind, and the air seemed much colder now that they had ceased to move.

Frodo was the first to collapse. He slid down the wall onto a drift of snow, and Sam could not rouse him. Boromir was nearest; he picked the hobbit up and shook him gently, chaffing his hands and brow. Frodo's eyes fluttered open, but he did not see.

"This will be the death of the halflings, Gandalf. We must do something to save ourselves!"

"Give them this." Gandalf brought out from his pack a small leathern flask. "Just a mouthful each-- for all of us. It is very precious. It is miruvor, the cordial of Imladris. Elrond gave it to me at our parting."

Frodo seemed to wake as the liquor trickled down his throat, and he found within himself new strength and heart. Boromir set him down when the colour returned to his face.

Gimli accepted his share of the elvish draught with a touch of reluctance, but that melted away as the fragrant vapours rose and thawed his nose. It lay in the mouth like a drink of fresh water, but flowed down to the belly with a fiery pulse, reaching out to the tips of the fingers and toes in a few beats of the heart. Gimli passed the flask to Legolas, who had been watching the Dwarf with a knowing smile.

"Honey from the valley of the rock," the Elf murmured, drinking from the flask with reverence. "I would wager you have not tasted such as this before, my good Dwarf, for I have myself only heard legend of such draught. The Lord of the Edain is renowned for his wisdom and skill at healing, but for his art of brewing, he is infamous in Mirkwood!"

And to that Gimli could fashion no argument. It was better than any Dwarven ungueunt he had ever partook. Yet the warmth the liquor instilled did not last long, and soon they discussed the necessity of fire; secrecy was one of their few weapons, yet as Boromir had said, it would not do any good for them to be so secret that they all froze to death.

Though they had wood and kindling, starting a fire proved a challenge to even the most skillful. The wind whipped the sparks from Gimli's flint, and Legolas's deft use of the fire-bow failed to bring the fuel to burning. Gandalf was prevailed upon to use his craft; rare indeed it was for him to use his powers so obviously, and he was very reluctant. He conceeded the necessity, however, and spoke in a commanding voice words that burned in Legolas's ears, and with his staff he caused flame to come forth, engulfing the wood in green and blue fire. The wood kindled instantly.

All night the Company huddled around the fire, warming their hands and enjoying the light that played across their faces. The storm continued to fall around them, outside the circle of their fire. They ignored the creeping slush beneath their feet and the howls that rang from the mountain high above.

At last, the storm relented; the snow grew less and the wind died to a whisper. The hobbits were all sunk down on the ground, wrapped in cloaks and blankets, exhausted by their ordeal. Gimli's feet felt heavy as if they were made of lead, but he uttered no complaint. They now discussed retreat; there was no thought of going on. But that retreat would now be very difficult. The snow was piled across their road higher even than Gimli's head.

It was by brute strength and brawn that the road was forged for their escape. Boromir and Aragorn went ahead, thrusting a path through the snow with no more tools than their hands and their will. Gimli watched them labouring, feeling both useless and angry that there was nothing he could do to help. He would be drowned in snow if he took a few steps from their cliff-face.

Legolas wished there was something more he could offer, as well. He had been less hampered by the cold than his companions, but the deadly wind had nearly brushed him from the mountain-side more than once. He had not the strength of the Men, that he could push aside mounds of snow and ice. Yet there was one thing he could bring to the dispairing hearts of the Fellowship; he maintained a cheerful disposition, aware that hope was fragile among his companions. As the Men began to force the way through the snow, which was deep enough that it rose breast-high even to the tall Aragorn, Legolas watched them for a while, smiling.

"The strongest must seek a way, say you? But I say: let a ploughman plough, but choose an otter for swimming, and for running light over grass of leaf, or over snow-- an Elf!" Legolas sprang forth, running across the drifted snow. He did not sink in the drifts but raced over them, as if he weighed no more than a shaft of light. "Farewell! I go to find the Sun!" He waved to Boromir and Aragorn as he passed them, sliding down the scintillating dunes of ice crystals as if sporting. They could hear his laughter lifting like the misty haze of morning.

"Well," grumbled Gimli, watching the Elf until he disappeared around the rocky turn, "that's the last we'll be seeing of him!"