Tree and Stone

by Lothithil

Chapter 23, As the Elf Runs

Legolas ran. The world was an unpainted canvas, white and unrelenting, featureless and yet treacherous. Soft his feet fell and they made no mark upon the heaped snow, as if he were but a dream of the drowsing January morning. Still, the slight sound of his breathing, and the beating of his heart, even the sleepless movement of his thoughts; these things were magnified and multiplied, causing the fragile bridges of ice and wind-sculpted snow to shiver and thrum like the taunt strings of a lyre answering the tenative questioning caress of the musician.

The sky was grey as stone, eager to send down more wind and sleet, but Legolas ran on undaunted. Eastward, beyond the Redhorn Pass and its wintery veil the Sun climbed, and though he could not see Her face strains of immortal music touched the Elf's ears; the singing of Arien's handmaidens filled his heart with warmth.

He passed by where Boromir and Aragorn toiled, startling them with a merry wave. He laughed after their coarse but good-natured remarks. What use is an Elf for shoveling snow? They would reach their goal no sooner if he stopped to assist them, yet with the virtues of his race Legolas could go forward swiftly and bring back to them a truely valuable thing; hope.

~~~

Gimli sat close to the hobbits, feeling the chilly disposition of Caradhras beginning to creep into his own bones. The Men were gone, having burrowed through the snow past a turn of rock, so far away that the sounds of their efforts were lost to his ears. Gimli knew that Aragorn would not abandon them, nor Boromir, for all that he was against the attempting of this route. A rousing chorus of recrimination that Man could have sung, but instead he threw his shoulder into the labour to save them all. Gimli knew no men of Gondor, but if Boromir were an example of the strength and nobility of that race, then even a dwarf might come to regard them with trust.

Under layers of blankets the hobbits lay shivering. Gimli knew himself to be as hearty as the mightiest of dwarves, and as he felt the bite of the cold rather keenly, he knew the suffering of these smaller, softer folk must be great indeed. They did not complain, but merely huddled closer together, and Gimli and Gandalf both stayed close to lend what warmth they could with their breathe and bodies.

Legolas had long disappered, and it rankled Gimli so that he fancied that the glow of his anger might melt the mountainside. Was he too good, that Elf princling, to huddle in the slush and give comfort to a halfling? Why had he walked so far with the Company, even attempted to gull Gimli himself with overtures of feined friendship, only to abandoned them here? But if this was so, why did not Legolas go eastward, toward his home beyond the mountain pass covered in snow that hindered him not?

The wind had died when the morning had come, so when Gandalf spoke his clouded breath hung as thick and white as his frost-covered beard. "When I was traveling with Bilbo he would often complain that Adventures were bothersome, annoying things, and he would frequently list all the comforts of Bag End that he missed the most. At the time I am afraid I laughed a little, for these discomforts he suffered by were not unbearable to an old wanderer like me. But now I find myself wishing heartily for a seat by the old boy's fire, to be sitting in that too-small chair and puffing on a pipefull of Old Toby, and I find that the thought of it is indeed comforting to me."

Pippin raised his head, and Merry also. "Old Toby!" they sighed in the same breath, then they chuckled together even as they shivered. "I'd like some of that, with a s-steaming mug of tea with a brace of b-brandy poured into it!" Merry said, tugging the edge of his cloak more snuggly around his neck.

"A cup of mulled wine and a loaf of bread fresh from my mother's hearth!" Pippin said wistfully. His lips were tinted with white, and Gandalf took of his silvery scarf and wrapped it warmly around the littlest hobbit's head. "Th-thank you, G-gandalf!" Pippin said, before retreating again beneath the blankets.

The lump that was Sam did not surface, but a muffled voice drifted upward, "Daisy's teacakes, Marigold's stewed mutton, and mum's fried fish and taters..." Frodo chuckled fondly at his words, but said nothing himself.

"What do you miss most, cousin F-frodo?" said Merry.

"E-everyth-thing," Frodo answered. He began then to shake violently.

Gandalf settled closer and drew the blankets back over Frodo's head, then draped his heavy grey cloak over them all.

Gimli reflected on what he missed most. Thoughts of warm food, soft beds, and crackling fireplaces gave way to memories of the glowing, groaning forges of Lonely Mountain, the fall of hammers like the tinkling of the first rain of spring, the hiss of cooling metal, the soft susurrus of the polishing cloth, the whine of the plane, the bark of the chisler's awl. He heard all those pleasant memories in his head, channeled from his heart. Those sounds once filled this mountain, the thought came suddenly to him. Once these peaks echoed with the songs and the lives of many dwarves.

It seemed to Gimli, as he entertained these thoughts, that there came a touch of warmth creeping up his legs, as if the stone beneath his boots remembered him, as if the forges that once lived in the heart of Khazad-dum still burned. He strained his ears to hear the hammers ringing, to catch one strain of deep voices singing below the vastness of the Redhorn's stone skin.

A noise did come to him then, but it was not deep dwarvish singing. A light voice, sending a merry ripple of sound sliding across the frozen landscape; the singing of the Elf was carried up to his ears on the still wind and slippery stones. And where once he would have cursed to hear such a sound, now he smiled a little beneath his beard. Something about the sound of it was too joyful to be brooded upon.

~~~

Legolas sighted the end of the snow-cover, well above the line of trees that blanketed the mountains like a furry green garment. Already the air was warmer here, even though the great clouds over Caradhras umbrellaed the sun, he could see her gracing light touching the remote world that stretched beyond the foothills, fading into a golden haze before the hint of grey that suggested the Sea; far, far to the west that body lay, and not even the eyes of Legolas could see that far.

He did not look for it. The voices of the trees called to him with greater temptation than some distant, chilly vast water. He would have liked to feel the Sun touch his face, and for a moment thought he might run forth and seek Her, but he remembered those who he left behind and he turned at once to return to them. The sky above the mountain was almost blue, but not with clear skies. The frowning clouds were bruised and burdened. He could see the threat of more snow becoming a promise.

The journey back up the mountain took longer than the trek downward, for though light and swift as the feet of Elves, the stones were slick and the path steep. Rocks loosened by the freezing air tumbled past him, and many seemed to have been rolled in his path deliberately. Legolas dodged them easily, watching always for a sign of the mischief-maker.

A large boulder grumbled as it tumbled down toward him, and in its wake Legolas spotted him; a large figure, slate-grey as the mountain itself, leaned down to see if his last effort would be rewarded. Legolas reached back for his bow and strung it even as he ran. The wild face disappered as the Elf halted suddenly and notched an arrow to his string. He drew until the feathers tickled his ear, waiting.

The creature must have seen him, because it did not reappear. Also, the boulders and stones ceased rolling down past Legolas. It seemed that the beast, whatever it had been, had given up its sport for the moment. Legolas relaxed his bow and returned the arrow to his quiver, unwilling to waste even one shaft. His bow he left strung and he held it in his hand as he resumed his upward flight.

Legolas approached the great drift that he had slid down with such delight on his descent. Here the snow became much deeper, and Legolas grew concerned, thinking that some sign of Boromir and Aragorn should be seen by now. Agile as a squirrel in the thick boughs of an oak, the Elf climbed nimbly up the mound of snow and walked the knife-sharp crest as easily as if it were a broad path.

On the other side of the drift he saw what he had hoped for; Boromir and Aragorn stood there, at the end of their long path of beaten snow. Both were nearly as white as the piles around them, for all the snow clinging to their clothes and hair. They stood breathing heavily, the clouds of their breath rising slowly and melting. They had taken their path right up to the great drift, but had halted there. Piles of snow had rained down on them as they tried to battle through, nearly burying them both. Their voices carried clearly up to Legolas's hearing.

"Another mountain has appeared behind us!" Boromir exclaimed. "I was sure that this is the way we came, but now I wonder if I was turned about by the darkness and wind. Have we gone amiss?"

"Nay," said Aragorn, shaking his cloak to dislodge the clinging snow, "this way is how we came. But this does seem to be a solid wall through which we have no gate to pass. We might go round, and find a longer but shallower way, or we might try to burrow through. I fear that the weight of this will bury us whole, and I fear also wandering too far from the path and finding an abyss beneath our feet."

Legolas crouched on the lip of the drift and called down to them, saying, "Stray not from your path, Lords of Snow and Ice! Your memory is true, and the barrier before you no match for the strength of two such warriors, for all it is tall enough to make you both feel like halfings."

Aragorn looked up at him, squinting his eyes against the blade of cold air that cut down the mountain. "Look, Boromir! Legolas has returned. Have you brought the Sun to melt our way, or will you this time assist us in digging the path. Extra hands at this time would be welcome!"

"I cannot bring the hope of the Sun to you, Estel. She is far away and quite untroubled by our plight But this much I give: this mountain of snow before you is but the width of a rampart, and with a little more vigor and persistance you will win through. Just beyond this drifting wall the snow much lessened and the path easier."

"Good news, Legolas! That is indeed a welcome message," Boromir said, "but I wonder why you carry your bow strung. Have you seen enemies other than snow and cold stone?"

"It may be that what I saw was no more than stone and ice," Legolas said, and his eyes roved the rising cliffs above them, "and it may be that arrows would do little against them. Still, they have hid their faces and cease their throwing of stones, for now. Mayhap it was but the tenacious light of day that drove them away."

"I would welcome the sight of it, should day come this far up this wretched mountain," grumbled Boromir, flexing his great arms. "Well, get you to another perch, snow-bird. I will bring down this mountain and find the hope you have brought." Together with Aragorn, he fought a way through the towering snow, which tumbled down upon them and caused Legolas to leap clear to the safety of a sturdier mound. The men surfaced quickly, laughing though they were chilled to the bone, and they trod down the snow until it formed a bridge through the drift, a gate through which they could see the promise of Legolas fulfilled. They promptly turned and battled their way back up the mountain, Legolas running swiftly ahead, his feet lightened by the good news he could bear.

~~~

Gimli was dozing lightly, frost coating his beard and helm. He roused suddenly as he heard again the sound of music, light and merry, drifting up the mountain to his ears. He looked up and, before he could stop himself, he gave a bellow of delight, causing the heads of the four hobbits to pop up from beneath their blankets and cloaks to see Legolas running toward them. His feet were sure on the icy drifts as if it were but scooped and piled sand, his cloak billowed out behind him and his face was smiling.

As he appeared clearly on the horizon, a ghost of the wind touched Gimli's face and shook a few flakes of snow loose from the heavy sky. From around the bend along the trail of disturbed snow, Boromir and Aragorn reappeared, labouring back up the path.

Gandalf looked at Gimli over the heads of the halflings, smiling despite the burn of the wind on his face. "A glad sight that is indeed, master Dwarf. Did you truely doubt that he would return?"

Gimli grumbled a little, then returned the wizard's sharp glance. "It is very fine for one of the Wise, who know instantly the hearts of his companions! Those of us lesser souls must be given proofs before being free in the bestowing of trust."

"Would that I did indeed know instantly who is true of heart and who not," said Gandalf. "There are those among the Wise who can do this, but they are greater in skill than I." Gandalf greeted the Elf as he approached. Legolas's face glowed with good news yet unspoken. In a quick aside to the Dwarf, Gandalf said, so that no one else could hear, "Trust earned is not trust freely given, my dear Gimli. Unlock your heart and you will find that it is you who will be rewarded, in the end."


Chapter 24: The Defeat at RedHorn

The hobbits, Gandalf, and Gimli were relieved to hear the news that an escape had been found, forced by mere hands through the snow-choked path. Welcome, too, was the word that the Sun was shining somewhere in the world at that moment, for it was so cold and dark still on the mountain that one could easily forget that warmth and light existed at all. The strong Men returned and, without stopping for longer than a deep breath, Boromir took up Pippin and set him on his wide shoulders.

Battling through the ice and snow had not daunted the Gondorian prince's will. Though obviously tired, he seemed as pleased and mirthful as Pippin had ever seen him, even in Rivendell. "Hold on to me, Master Peregrin," Boromir exclaimed. "I will need my arms still." He turned at once and swam through the drifts, shoving aside the snow, widening the track further for those who would follow.

Aragorn took Merry, who was far too cold to protest being picked up and clung gratefully to the ranger's back, his fists knotted in Aragorn's travel-coat. As they moved down the slope, Merry looked back toward were Gandalf had remained with his cousin and Sam. "You should t--take F--frodo first, Strider. He's m--much more important than I."

Aragorn covered Merry's hands with one of his own, a smile breaking on his tired face. "I think that your friends would say that you are not unimportant, Meriadoc. Frodo is safe for now with Gandalf. Besides, I do not think that Sam would wish to wait behind whilst I took his master ahead, and I can carry but one hobbit at a time."

Legolas paced alongside the men as they struggled back down the path, watching alertly the snow-burdened cliffs overhead. Elves are the Firstborn children of Middle-earth and through their long lives, winding ever down through myth to history, gain and hone skills that to Men and other races seem almost magical. Legolas sensed that they were being watched; though he did not see the grey faced stone-thrower again, he could feel his presence, or the presence of others. However, no more boulders were hurled as they began their slow retreat.

Legolas worried a little about leaving Frodo on the mountain, even for a brief time. Only his complete faith in Mithrandir and the loyalty of Samwise convinced him to remain with Merry and Pippin when they arrived through the snow-gate. The Elf could not carry a hobbit and weild a bow should it become necessary, and leaving the two young halflings alone was out of the question. Still he fretted for the others, and stood staring back at the mountain toward the shrinking forms of Aragorn and Boromir as they trudged once again back up the treacherous path.

Then a greater realization occured to the Elf; Legolas remembered the hearty Dwarf was still with Frodo. As unlikeable and stubborn as that one could be, the Elf knew that Gimli would do the task that he could not return to perform; the mountian Dwarf would see and hear as sharply as any Elf, when sitting on the stone of his ancestrial home, and his axe would labour to protect the Companions should battle become necessary. Somewhat amazed at his own relief in the realization, Legolas turned and joined Merry and Pippin where they sat huddled together, and with mirth and confidence lent them his warmth.

~~~

Of the companions still waiting to descend from the mountain-side, only one seemed reluctant to make the descent. Burdened with extra packs and a muttering Dwarf, Bill the pony shied as Gandalf tried to lead him down the beaten track. Only when Boromir went ahead with Sam clinging to his back would the beast budge. The gentle-hearted hobbit clucked to the pony and called, until it grudgingly obeyed Gandalf. Aragorn followed with Frodo. They all moved slowly, for the two men were very tired.

Gimli was muttering because he was not happy. How was he to weild his axe if danger crept upon them as they went, perched among the baggage like a sack of flour? He kept his eyes on the ridge of stone above, conscious of malignant eyes upon them.

"Yes, my good Dwarf, I feel them, too," Gandalf said quietly, as Gimli twisted yet again to cast his glance upward. The wizard was walking just ahead of Bill, holding the pony's lead rope. "I think as long as we are leaving their territory, that they will not cause us more harm."

Gimli nodded and let his muttering subside. He hoped that Gandalf was correct, for there would be little any of them could do-- axe, sword, or bow-- against beasts of stone and ice.

Frodo tightened his arms around Aragorn's neck, turning his face out of the buffet of the wind. "W--what is it, Aragorn, that has Gimli so ill at ease?" Now that they were moving, Frodo felt less cold, and he became more aware of his surroundings. "Is there danger that the ice on the cliff will fall on us?"

"I think that is unlikely to happen, Frodo," Aragorn said. "Yet if it does, it would be very bad news for us indeed. Still, the snow will fall whether we would have it do so, or no. It seems better for us to be away from it now. Hold on tightly; we are almost there."

As they passed through the wall of snow through which Boromor and Aragorn had beaten their gate, Frodo saw his two young cousins waiting with Legolas. They were sitting off of the track where the snowdrift blocked most of the wind now howling down the mountain after them. Boromir had just lowered Sam to his feet and Gandalf had halted Bill so that Gimli could dismount, when a rock came bouncing down the mountain-path, narrowly missing Aragorn and Frodo. The soft sighing sweep of snow grew suddenly into a roar of avalanche, and the whole of the cliff-face seemed to detach and fall on the way they had just came. The snowdrift collapsed upon them all like a wave cresting at hightide, and all the companions were buried in the fall. A few stones rained down after the roar had subsided to an echo, chasing down the valley like a grumble of thunder.

~~~

The fall of the cliff seemed to occur in slow motion, and Legolas reacted swiftly. He shouted a warning and covered the small bodies of Merry and Pippin with his own, trying to shield them from the weight of the falling ice. The cold crystal sand filled their eyes and mouths and blacked out the sky. The air was pressed from their lungs as if they were being squeezed.

Legolas fought upward through the freezing drift, each hand full of a hobbit's tunic. He burst though the snow, shaking his head to clear the ice from his face. Merry and Pippin he dragged to the surface, where they coughed and gasped for breath. Looking around, there was only a smooth waste of snow where all their companions had just been standing. Beyond the path only a few feet the void yawned, still gulping the icy wind and falling snow.

Feeling the spurs of panic, Legolas scrambled toward where he had last seen Aragorn and Frodo. Without heed of dignity or practicality, he began to dig, clawing at the snow with his bare hands. Merry and Pippin struggled toward him to help, but before they had moved more than a few feet, Boromir popped out of the drift right in front of them, shocking them into shouts. He had Samwise by the collar and hauled him out of the snow, setting him on top of the flow.

"Stay here!" he commanded, and he burrowed toward where the path had been, toward the now-moving mound that was possibly Gandalf, Gimli, and Bill the pony.

Legolas's desperate hands found the corner of a frozen green cloak, and he redoubled his efforts until he freed Frodo from the snow. The hobbit gasped for air as the Elf uncovered his face, and then the hobbit was suddenly thrust upward, for Aragorn was beneath him, lifting him toward the suface. Legolas took Frodo's hands and helped him free, then reached down and took Aragorn's arm in a firm grip. The man wriggled his way out of the burrow, Frodo tugging on the straps of Aragorn's pack, to help what little he could.

Gimli found air again by holding on to Bill's tail. The little pony did not like being buried in the snow, and he fought his way to the top of the drift with fury and energy that none of the companions (save Sam) would have given his credit for. Gandalf appeared, looking more white than grey with a coating of snow on his garments and beard. He caught Bills rope before the pony could injure himself, struggling in the deep snow.

"Enough!" Gimli shouted back at the mountain, and the grey faces of cool granite leered down at the companions. There was more ice and snow to fling, but for now, the spirit of Caradhras seemed satisfied that they would not tresspass again. "Enough! We are departing as quickly as we may!"

Slowly but eagerly, the companions struggled through the snow; Legolas lifted Pippin and Gandalf took Merry, Gimli still clinging to Bill's thick tail. Only a short way did they have to trek yet, for Legolas had reported truly; not far down the path the snow became quite shallow and passable. But the way up the mountain was now choked with ice, snow, and probably stones as well. There would be no going back that way, even if Spring arrived that day and melted the disposition of Redhorn and its evil-tempered weather.

The hobbits were set upon their feet and they continued on somewhat swifter. Though now they were all weary and sore for their trials, they were eager to get off of the mountain and find a safe place to rest. The place where they had been at the beginning of the previous evening was visible through the now-clear air, and the sun was breaking up the clouds overhead, though little of Her warmth could reach them yet. Down below, in the air between them and the distant glades, circling black dots moved about; the birds were waiting.

They had no choice but to continue down the mountain. Each companion now bore a heavy burden, in addition to their leaden limbs and frozen faces: they had been defeated.