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62
A Tree Grows in the Pass

Written for the August LotR Community Challenge. For Arc-5 for her birthday. Beta by RiverOtter.


~~~

A Tree Grows in the Pass


The Rangers gathered within the cavern behind the falls of Henneth Annun listened as Captain Ingbold finished his tale of the visit here of the Ringbearers. “And so our Lord Captain Faramir had two staves fashioned of lebethron by the father of Captain Damrod cut down to fit the height of our visitors, the tips shod in silver, the hafts pierced to allow leathern thongs fit to go about the wrist. The staves were given them, and many thanks did they give us in return. In the end Damrod led Lord Samwise and I led Lord Frodo back to the road, while Tervain led the creature known as Gollum; there we unbound their eyes and left them to continue their mysterious journey. None of us, I believe, thought to see them again. Only our Lord Faramir knew the intent of their quest, and I saw the grave concern for their safety reflected in his eyes as we watched from hiding as the three of them resumed their path. Only when they were no longer in sight did I see him shiver as if a cold chill overtook him, after which he straightened his shoulders and led us away.”

The two youngest and newest of their number shared looks. “I had not heard of there being staves given them,” commented the younger of the two.

“No, I must suppose you did not,” agreed Captain Ingbold. “They were not among the tokens taken with Lord Frodo that were brought from Barad-dûr by the Mouth of Sauron to the parley with the King and Mithrandir; nor did the Eagles carry more out of the ruins of Orodruin than the Ringbearers and the little they wore about their wizened bodies. And Lord Sam gave us to know that the staff he had borne he broke upon the body of the creature Gollum when the foul thing sought to throttle him, having already betrayed the Ringbearer to the terrible spider Shelob who had long inhabited the tunnels leading through the pass. It is likely the shards of his staff lie still where the staff was broken. As for that given Lord Frodo himself--none has ever mentioned it, whether it was dropped as he climbed the winding and the straight stairs or within the tunnels, or whether Lord Samwise laid it beside his Master’s body when he thought him dead, taking the Ring to complete the quest.”

The older of the two gave his companion a concerned look, for it seemed to Elboron that Eldarion’s expression had taken fire with a thought, a thought somehow focused on the staves of which they’d just learned.

Now, however, the time for tales was over as those who were to take the next watch left to relieve those now on guard, and as those within began unstepping the cots that stood against the walls preparatory for the night’s rest. The watch upon the walls of Mordor had become ever quieter in the years since the victory before the Black Gate, and it was most unlikely that there would be any disturbance of any note to interrupt the sleep of the company. Eldarion had been disappointed to be sent here rather than to the frontier shared with Rhûn; but King, Steward, and Prince of Dol Amroth had agreed that for the first duty to be shared by the heirs of Crown and Steward among the Rangers of Gondor they wished them to be relatively safe while they learned their duties. So it was that the sons of Elphir of Dol Amroth, the Lord King Elessar, and Faramir of Ithilien served together under Captain Ingbold, with Alphros, the yet youthful heir of Dol Amroth, serving as mentor to his kinsman and the Prince of the realm.

It was not the first time the two youths had been here, of course; they had accompanied their fathers here twice as King and Prince of Ithilien joined the maneuvers of their Rangers, both having served as Captains of Rangers in their own time, the King both in Gondor in his younger days and in Eriador in his maturity. So, there was no particular novelty to what was being done now to which Elboron could attribute his companion’s barely suppressed excitement.

They saw to the stowing of their gear and made their evening ablutions, and with their older fellows took to their cots. The one acknowledgment of their rank they’d been granted was that they were placed last, beyond Alphros’s cot, given but that much privacy from the rest. Once they were abed and Alphros had gone to hear with Ingbold’s officers the reports of those coming off guard, Elboron looked to his friend and asked in a whisper, “And what mischief have you in mind?”

Eldarion gave his older companion a look, glaring with the full dignity of the Telcontars. “And who says that I plot mischief?”

“Well, perhaps not mischief. But I know that look--there is something you consider that will not please our parents.”

“And you think to know my adar’s mind that well, Elboron?”

“It is something to do with the staves of lebethron of which Ingbold spoke.”

The affront melted from Eldarion’s face, and his eyes shone as often did those of his father and mother, the Elven light clear to be seen. He gave a quick glance about without moving his head, a skill he had from his mother, to see to it none sought to overhear them. Satisfied no one was paying attention, he murmured, “I mean to fetch them back--the shards of Sam’s staff and the staff of Frodo, if they can be found.”

“What?” squeaked Elboron, at which Eldarion put his hand to his friend’s lips.

“Hush! Do you wish for us to be separated in our duties?”

Annoyed, Elboron shook away the hand. “Of course not! But they will never allow us to climb up into the pass of Cirith Ungol!”

“Then we shall not tell them our intent.” Eldarion drew closer. “Listen--they will be sending a patrol of three to sweep the road to Minas Morgul, and I intend we and Alphros shall take that patrol. And, yes, I know this for certain! Not for nothing do I spend time in Ada’s councils. Oh, I do listen!”

Seeing the stubborn set to the younger youth’s eyes and jaw, Elboron gave a sigh. The son of Aragorn Elessar had made up his mind, and by this time the Steward’s son knew full well his friend was as firm of will as was his determined father.

*******


It was five days before the promised sweep was ordered, and somehow Elboron was not surprised to find Eldarion and himself assigned to the patrol with Alphros. “We are given seven to nine days to check the way between here and the cursed vale,” Alphros told them. “Go: draw ten days’ supplies.”

Both youths saluted and went to fufill their orders. Eldarion, however, did more, Elboron realized, slipping rags and a bottle of the oil used to prepare torches into his pack alongside ten days’ worth of dried fruits and mushrooms, jerked meats, waybread, nutmeat bars, and other foodstuffs. When Elboron glanced into the pack as Eldarion stowed a change of clothes, he had a quick glimpse of another glass bottle in a leathern bag, one that appeared remarkably familiar. “That looks like----”

Eldarion shot him a quelling look, and Elboron went silent, although he could not help wondering what his friend was doing with a bottle of Shire brandy, one from a gift of twenty-four such bottles sent by Sir Meriadoc of Buckland to the use of Gondor’s King, a small glass of which he’d been allowed to sample at Mettarë. Had Lord Elessar given this to his son to bring with him? It was difficult to say, of course. But then Eldarion was capable of having taken such a bottle on his own authority, Elboron supposed. It was, after all, such a thing as the youths near their ages were given to doing. Not that Eldarion had ever done such a thing before to Elboron’s knowledge.

They soon had their packs and blanket rolls in order; and Elboron noted that the last his friend set into his pack was a red healer’s bag with a complex knot. Soldiering, after all, was not the sum total of the studies of the King’s son. “Do you have your cooking kit?” Eldarion asked in a low voice as he saw the cover to his pack cinched tight. “I had no room for mine. And could you carry my plate and cup?”

Elboron soon had stowed the items Eldarion had left out of his own pack, and after slinging their cloaks over their shoulders and tying the masks favored by the Ithilien Rangers about their necks to be donned at need, they presented themselves to Ingbold to indicate their readiness. Two water skins were issued to each of them, and less than an hour after their orders had been received they were climbing the stair out of the shelter and heading for the road, swords and knives at their belts, bows and quivers over their shoulders, extra bowstrings in oiled packets in inner pockets.

Alphros set Elboron to parallel the South Road on the east while he and Eldarion followed along the tree line west of it. But if he thought he could control the speed of their march he was much mistaken. For all that Alphros was the nominal head of the patrol, still it was Eldarion who set the pace, and it was a quick one. However, Alphros could not fault the speed at which they went, as there was no question that his two charges were keeping sharp eyes for any signs of disturbances. Elboron had a suspicion that his kinsman was glad of the quick pace, as the sooner they reached the opening of the Morgul Vale, the sooner they might return to the relative comfort of the redoubt of Henneth Annun, and it was well known Alphros did not enjoy sleeping upon the ground. And if he knew just what you intend, Eldarion Elessarion, he would be totally appalled! he thought, looking across the road at where his kinsman was struggling to keep up with the King’s son.

They made it all the way to the Crossroads that evening, pausing to give the great statue there the respect due it, and to examine the two smaller statues that had been carved by the King’s sculptor nearby it, statues little better than half the height of Eldarion, two beardless Pheriannath paused now eternally to look up at the restoration done of Alcarin the Glorious, seated upon a somewhat sleeker throne than the one originally carved for him. Elboron noted as he never had before that each indeed carried a staff fit for his height. It was only as they passed the great statue of the King that he noted, for the first time ever, the third figure, small and wizened and ancient looking, its eyes enormous, placed where it would be half hidden in surrounding shadows even in the height of a sunlit day, that he realized was Gollum. It looked back furtively over its shoulder, not toward the great monument to the Kings of Old, but instead at the slender figure of Frodo Baggins, who paused fearlessly to look up into the eyes of Alcarin himself. The statue of Samwise Gamgee, however, was looking beyond, following with his own gaze the way he intended to take bodily, the way they must take now.

Elboron paused alongside Eldarion, whose own gaze was as intent as that of the small statue of Frodo Baggins the Wanderer, who as far as he knew traveled past here to his own death. For the first time since they’d been boys together playing in the Court of Gathering he noted the resemblance between his friend and the Hobbit, most marked in the shared sense of purpose one saw in their eyes. Oh, he thought, you will be as great a King as your father, gwador nín. Somehow he felt heartened as the three of them sought out a place in which to camp for the night.

*******


The next day they traveled, more slowly and carefully now, eastward toward the ruins of what had first been the Tower of the Rising Moon and then the dread fortress of Minas Morgul. Even though the Sorcerers’ Vale had been cleansed long ago by fire, and blessed for renewal by the combined power of King and Queen, it was still a place avoided by all save the most hardy. One day each month volunteers came to the ruins of the city to continue its dismantling, working as long the light held, tumbling the blocks of stone about this way and that that each might be cleansed by wind and weather, and by the light of Sun, Moon, and stars. Bones had ever been found there, the young Men understood--remains of Men and orcs and trolls, for the most part. Those known to be those of Men were buried now in a tomb burrowed into the south side of the mountain wall that narrowed the approach to the ancient city, while the bones of fell creatures were burned in a great pit. All weapons found were brought out into full sunlight, and often cleansed by fire before being given to the King’s folk for study so as to ascertain they had no evil spells tied to them.

This way was often haunted by orcs and renegade Men even nowadays, and so the three young Men went warily indeed, ever keeping a watch.

A muffled grunt from Eldarion and the whistle of his blade as he drew and wielded it were the only warning there was time to heed when they were attacked by a small party of five orcs that sprang down out of the rocks on the scree slopes at the bottom of the steep cliff walls. Elboron was barely aware of drawing his own sword; soon all five orcs had been dispatched, and Eldarion carefully drew their corpses into a space lit by the Sun, then turned automatically to ascertain neither of his companions was seriously hurt. Alphros had a cut to his arm, while Elboron had lost some skin over his knuckles; other than that the three of them were intact. It did not take long for Eldarion to see his fellows treated and to seek out and find an easily defensible place among the fallen rocks and scree to hide them for the night. Now he pulled out the bottle of brandy, giving each of them a swallow or two, and then returning the remainder to his pack.

“And how is it you have such drink with you?” asked Alphros.

Eldarion shrugged. “I had asked my father for a bottle to perhaps save for future need, and he granted it. I suspect he believes I would serve it at a party attended by those I companion with. Or he might have realized I would bring it with me, and perhaps expected me to use some of it to obtain my own desires during my time of service.”

“And instead you use it to hearten us after the attack?”

Again the younger Man shrugged, merely smiling as he did so.

They took the watch in turns, but saw and heard nothing during the night. Only after the Sun was well risen did they finish their patrol to the new bridge that had been built to replace the ancient one so corruptly used by the Nazgûl and their minions. They saw no further sign anyone had passed that way since the last visit by those who labored in the ruins, and heard no further rumors or echoes of enemies. The three of them found indications that the party that had assaulted them had come down the tumbled stair that led up into the Pass of Cirith Ungol. They paused in the shadow of the two statues raised to replace those of the hideous creatures that had guarded the way during the time of residence by the Witch-king of Angmar. Now there stood upon the left a statue of Mithrandir as the White, and on the right what appeared another bearded Man, dressed in large boots, clothing that seemed much similar to the garb of the Hobbits, and a hat with a feather in it, his eyes as apt to warning as to merriment.

“I say we should climb up and make certain that there are no more bands of enemies still hiding upon the Stair or in the tunnel,” Eldarion said.

Had it not been for the attack the preceding day, Elboron was certain that Alphros would have refused. Instead, he stood staring up at the hidden way uncertainly. “I doubt any others would be hidden there,” he began tentatively.

Elboron opened his mouth to argue, but a slight gesture from Eldarion gave him pause. Eldarion was quietly extracting the bottle of brandy from his pack when Alphros finally continued, “Nay, I do believe, my Prince, that you have the right of it. I deem we would do well to make certain no further enemies have come to haunt the pass or take refuge in the remains of the tower at its top. Yes, let us go up.”

Eldarion gave a swiftly hidden grin of triumph, and more openly displayed the bottle. “Then, perhaps to hearten us for the labor, we should each have another swallow of this.”

Their bellies warmed by the liquor, they began the climb.

*******


“And Lords Iorhael and Perhael made this climb on little in the way of rations, with a dearth of water, and with their shorter legs?” panted Alphros as they reached a landing at last sufficiently large enough to accommodate the three of them.

Eldarion was looking about with a critical eye. “I wonder if this is where they rested, when Gollum slipped away to betray them to the spider?”

It was at least sheltered here from the constant light wind they’d known much of the way so far; and here the two Hobbits might indeed have found it sufficiently comfortable and secure to allow themselves to sleep. Somehow there was a wholesome feeling here, and in searching about Eldarion found a small statue and a worn inscription where the brief sunlight to enter the space might fall upon it. “It is an invocation of Vairë to ward those who must pass this way against chilled bodies or spirits,” he breathed. After a moment he added, “It is interesting, is it not, that here the Weaver was called upon, here below the lair of a daughter to Ungoliant herself?”

The others nodded, but they felt better as they rested there. Elboron found the second inscription on the opposite wall, not with a statue but with what appeared to have been a bas relief of a blossoming flower, this time apparently invoking the Lord of Lórien, although most of it was far too worn to interpret. They shared waybread and water, and another swallow each of the brandy, before they finally rose to continue the climb.

Perhaps they ought to have spent the night on that landing where Irmo and Vairë had been invoked; but the three, knowing how little time they had before it might be expected another party would be sent out after them, felt compelled to hurry upon their way. It was thus as the sky greyed to announce the coming of a new day that they found themselves at last at the mouth to the tunnel.

All they’d found had been a sign that the party that had attacked them had paused for a time in their own descent beneath an overhanging ledge some way above the landing they’d noted. They’d also found nearby a spring that filled a natural basin before spilling off to trickle down the rocks toward the Morgai. The water within the basin had been purposely sullied by the orcs (“I understand what Legolas and Gimli commented upon during the pursuit of the Uruks toward Isengard, how no other folk seems to delight so in marring,” Elboron noted to the others). They cleared away the filth as they could, and soon it was again filled with sparkling water. They’d refilled their water bottles before continuing, and now paused at the entrance to Shelob’s Lair knowing that they were as well provisioned as it was possible to be. When Eldarion brought out the bottle of oil and the rags Alphros merely shook his head as if this were no great surprise. As the light grew they found the discarded branch used as a torch by the orcs, and Eldarion soon had it wrapped and lit. Holding it up, they started into the darkness.

“It is noisome enough in here,” Elboron noted, “but it is as if the stench were old, as if the rocks themselves had been so penetrated by it that they cannot easily give the smell over.”

The others nodded, and continued on.

There were side openings here and there, but the main way was as straight as Samwise Gamgee had described it to Eldarion and Elboron on their last journey north. “The road, it just went on and on and on, straight as could be,” he’d said. “We were fortunate, I suppose, that was so or we’d of most likely ended up gettin’ hopelessly lost, dark as it was.”

Dust last disturbed by the orcs they’d encountered lay over the surface of the way. There was nothing to indicate any living spider might be still lurking about the place. Still they went warily, looking about as they could and listening intently for any movements other than their own. All, however, was still as death itself.

It seemed forever before a distant greyness indicated the end of the tunnel at long last. Now Eldarion paused. Near one side tunnel that had been closed with a partial door they’d found a stack of ancient torches, and now Elboron and Alphros each carried one, while that formerly carried by the King’s son had been discarded after it had guttered out. He reached out to take that carried by Elboron, who surrendered it gladly enough, and now they began to search the floor of the place. “If there is anything, it should be near here,” Eldarion commented.

Alphros appeared surprised at such a pronouncement, and gave the youngest of the three a suspicious look. “And for what do you search?” he asked.

“Signs of whoever might have come this way before,” he was answered. Elboron did not think Alphros looked either mollified or reassured by the answer.

Having found nothing where they were, they went forward slowly. There was a narrowing of the way as they approached the exit, and as they came to it Elboron tripped over something on the floor, under dust and silt that had been blown in by wind and rain. Whatever it was skittered away as Alphros reached out to steady his kinsman, and at that Eldarion pounced, reaching down to find what it was that had awaited Elboron’s approach. He picked it up and held it up in the full light of the torch, then smiled. “I do believe,” he said softly, “that we have found part of Uncle Sam’s staff.” It was a rod of lebethron about two and a half feet in length, pierced to take a thong on one end, clearly cracked in two at the other.

Elboron looked up from where he’d been rubbing his ankle. “Are you certain? Then the rest ought to be here, also.”

Alphros looked, puzzled, from one to the other before the import of what they’d found struck him, at which his eyes lit with understanding. “The staff of Lord Perhael?” he asked. “The one given him by Faramir?”

“He struck Gollum with it, and it broke upon the creature’s body,” Eldarion said. “So he has told us, and so Uncle Frodo wrote it in his book.”

Soon all three were searching carefully, and it was Alphros who finally managed to find it, lying alongside the bowed long bones of what appeared to have been an orc’s bandied leg. It was but a foot in length, and at the end was a tarnished cap of what proved to be silver engraved with a five-petaled blossom. “The mark of the silver smiths of Ered Lithui,” he murmured.

His companions nodded their recognition. Elboron looked to Eldarion. “Think you that we might still find the one given to Lord Frodo as well?” he asked.

“We will not know until we seek it,” Eldarion said. He stopped and listened carefully. He sighed. “I suppose we should put these out before we leave the caverns,” he said softly, “in case any creatures are about outside the place.”

In moments they had the flames of the torches smothered, and set them aside where they could find them again easily. Loosening their swords in their sheaths, they started forward.

“We have seen no signs of the spider,” whispered Alphros. “I hope that indeed Lord Perhael’s sword proved its bane.”

In the corner of the doorway was a fine web, apparently spun by a grey spider common to Ithilien. Alphros took the position to the left of the opening, while Elboron took the right with Eldarion behind him. Elboron peered out, and signaled Eldarion, who took the point, exiting through the last narrowing of the passage and slipping to the right, signaling the others to come after him. As Elboron came out last, the King’s son was examining the walls about them. There were folds in the stone, and in front of one of these folds a pile of rocks had apparently fallen from the overhang of the cliff above. Only a small opening remained at the top. Seeing no signs of any watchers, Eldarion nimbly clambered to the top and reached in with his sword, then stuck his face close to the opening to scent the air. He pulled back with a grimace. “It does smell foul!” he reported. “But whether or not anything alive remains inside--that I could not say.” Carefully he descended, leaving the rocks mostly undisturbed, adding, “There is a cavern or tunnel behind, of that I am certain.”

Alphros shook his head in wonder. “It must be the Elvish in you, my lord Prince,” he commented. “Had I tried that I am certain I should have brought the whole pile rolling downward.

Together they turned, examining the facing over the doorway and the pavement.

“Rain rarely comes here,” Eldarion noted, reaching down to sift the dust that filled the bowl in which they stood through his fingers and examining the little that remained on his palm.

A line of steps had gone through it recently, the prints of five orcs in badly maintained boots entering the tunnel. They had come not from the steps leading up toward the tower overhead but from a cleft off to the right. They examined it, and found traces of a watercourse that appeared to have gone dry. “So,” Alphros commented, “this is where they have been dwelling.”

“Even orcs must have water,” Elboron noted, to which Eldarion nodded.

“And with their water dried up, they must leave to search out a better place to inhabit,” he said thoughtfully. “There is but the faintest whiff of their essence upon the air of the place, but no signs of a living creature within save flies.”

None of them wished to explore that place, so they drew back to the bowl and again looked about. Ahead near the far side of the bowl near the exit toward the tower they saw a strange shadow, and went toward it, then paused, amazed. There, just within the opening in the natural stone they saw something they’d never expected to see.

Lebethron--a lebethron tree! Growing here, of all places!” Alphros said, looking at a leaf upon it with its five lobes, almost as if it mimicked a human hand as it trembled in a soft breeze.

It could not be told how old it might be, but its slender bole was about the thickness of a staff. Sheathing his sword, Eldarion drew near to it and laid his hand upon it, as if listening intently. He lifted his visage, bright with wonder, to look at his companions. “It is happy,” he breathed. “It greets us, and rejoices we have come upon it!”

“But how could a tree of lebethron grow here?” asked Alphros.

Elboron was examining the slenderest of its branches, and his breath caught. “Oh! Here is a wonder!” he said in soft exclamation.

About the branch was what appeared to be a wide band of silver, much tarnished, into which was engraved the five-petaled rose of Ered Lithui. Forgotten was whatever danger might linger about them as the three young Men gathered close about the tree, examining this strange find. Eldarion finally reached out, and with great care worked the band free over the tip of the limb’s fine branches and leaves. There was a hollow as if the end of the cap had been eaten away by time to become a ring. Elboron brought out the end of the staff to compare the band to the cap.

“But, how could a tree grow from a staff?” Alphros asked.

The breeze freshened, bringing with it a sweet scent, and as one the three of them turned, moving into the opening from the bowl. Coming through the breach they found an ancient stair, worn and cracked from too many years of use by the servants of Sauron coming and going, with a partially paved way leading to it. Between themselves and the stair stood what appeared to be an ancient woman clad in vibrant green, standing over a cloth laid upon the ground, on which were placed fruits and vegetables and green stuff of many kinds. She turned to greet them.

“Welcome, children,” she said. “When we learned the three of you were intent on coming here, my beloved and I decided it was past time to see this place returned to the state intended for it. First, however, we found we had to see the current tenants driven away, which was easy enough to do, between my husband and our brother.” She indicated a freshet that trickled down the rocks. “Without water close at hand, those who lived within would be forced to find another dwelling place. So the stream now runs on this side of the rockface.” She gave a soft smile, yet her eyes were filled with compassion. “Now, come and be seated and welcomed.”

“They are no more,” Eldarion said, hanging back. “The five who came down the Stair--they attacked us, and we slew them.”

“Are you to blame for their deaths when they had sought first to slay you?”

“Yet it does not seem right that any living thing be driven from its place merely to allow others to dwell there after.”

She searched his eyes. “Yet who built the tower above?”

He looked up, and after a time sighed as he returned his gaze to meet hers. “Our ancestors--those of my companions and myself. For I am of the House of Isildur, and a descendant of Númenor; Isildur and Anárion’s people together set the watch on Mordor.”

She nodded as if in approval of his knowledge of that time. “The orcs were a perversion of creation by Morgoth, and further degraded by Sauron and Saruman after him. Those who attacked you would have done the same had you encountered them here as they did below. Perhaps it is best that they are now freed of the evil that has held them all their lives. Now come, sit with me.”

It was a strange feast, as they were served nutmeats and sweet fruits, greens and crisp roots, mushrooms and tart berries. Water was given them in cups formed of leaves pinned into shape with thorns and spines from plant stems; and it was fresh and sweet upon their tongues. And as they ate she sang softly under her breath, sang wordlessly--or perhaps with words from the days before the tongues of Elves or Men or Dwarves formed echoes of the intent she sang now. And as she sang the breeze blew about the place, and the seeds from the fruits were blown from their hands about the open space, and they were kept busy brushing strands and locks of hair from their eyes.

Elboron thought he heard, as if from afar, the echo of a great hunting horn. Moments later a hunting cat sprang up the rocks past them as if fleeing the pursuit of unseen dogs, and three goats with large curling horns bounded from the gate behind them toward the stair, woolly tails flashing with their hurried leaps. Overhead a hawk soared, and in the distance they heard the caws of crows and sharper rasps of ravens. As she watched, the Lady noted, “And before Sauron raised these mountains from the lower ring of hills they had been, other creatures lived here. And that was long ere your ancestors built the tower above.”

Eldarion had sat and accepted what was offered him alongside his fellows, but now for the first time his shoulders began to relax and his expression to soften some to resemble the youth he was rather than the Man he should all too soon become.

Casting brief glances left and right, Elboron saw that tendrils of vines and blades of grasses had begun infiltrating the formerly arid landscape. It was Alphros, however, who spoke: “It is not as dead as it was when the Nameless One dwelt within.”

She smiled. “Indeed it is not.”

The day was darkening rapidly now. “You must rest now. Do not fear to sleep, for you will not be without guard this night. But when you leave this place in the light of morning, do not look back. There is much labor yet to be done ere this becomes as it is meant to be.”

Alphros asked, as if not certain such a question was allowed, “Lady, the tree within--how could it come to grow there, and from a staff, or so it seems?”

She smiled, and Elboron felt a thrill pass through him at the look of that smile. “New life is being breathed into a land of what had appeared to be dry bones and sticks.”

Eldarion nodded thoughtfully, saying, “And we rejoice that this is so. Thank you, blessed Lady.”

Her smile brightened the deepening twilight. “Well were you named, son of Renewal and of the Eldar. Your daeradar would be most proud of you.”

He ducked his head as Elboron had never seen him do before, for all the world as if he were indeed a flattered boy rather than the son of the King, and flushing with pleasure.

Carefully they removed their packs and set out their bedrolls, and they took their turns washing faces and hands at the freshet before lying down to rest. Soon all were deeply asleep, and through his dreams Elboron seemed to hear sweet voices singing to one another, and laughter shared, and the rhythm of bodies swaying and stamping in dance, great hands beating complex patterns upon the heads of drums, mouths blowing upon reed pipes. Several times his eyes opened briefly to see a great shining of lights about the distant dancers, reflecting silver and white and green against the surrounding rock walls. And then he would burrow his face against the fabric of his pack and pull the blanket higher about his ears.

They awoke to the call of birds, great and hardy to allow them comfort at this height. As he sat up, Elboron saw a small mouse delicately turning what appeared to be a cherry pit in its front paws before taking it into its cheek and disappearing into the rocks.

The cloth was gone, but there lay there three great leaves, on each of which lay a small melon and other fruits fit for the breaking of the nightly fast, with more of the leaf cups from which to drink. Eldarion paused still standing, looking west, for some moments before sitting down to his dawn meal. “I believe that we have known a visitation,” he said simply.

They ate rapidly, carefully buried what was left, the three of them scattering the seeds as well as they might. Then they took up their packs and turned toward the gap, went through it back to the bowl, pausing but briefly to admire the tree now growing within, then entering the tunnel. They found the torches easily, and hurried on their way.

It was late afternoon when they came at last to the head of the stair, and they slept that night on the landing where Samwise Gamgee had once seen his Master glowing in the dusk, resting peacefully for a wonder there on the borders of the Black Lands.

Elboron slipped the next day upon the stairs and twisted his ankle. It took them far longer than they’d planned to reach the road, and Alphros and Eldarion took it in turn to support him, the other going point, as they traveled first west and at last north once more, back towards the refuge of Henneth Annun.

*******


Both the King and the Steward were there in the cavern when they arrived at last. “You have taken eleven days to make your patrol,” the King Elessar said to the three young Men lined up before him. “You were given seven days to make the journey and back, and granted two more should any difficulties be met.”

“Yes, my lord,” Eldarion said as if he were the one answerable rather than Alphros as leader of the patrol.

“A second patrol was sent to the same destination from Osgilliath,” Elessar continued. “They did not find you upon the road, but they did find signs of fighting and five dead orcs.”

“Yes, my lord.” Again Eldarion spoke.

“What is your report?”

“The five came down the Stairs of Cirith Ungol, down the straight and winding stairs. This we learned when we began to track their passage back to find out from whence they had come. They were hiding in the rocks some ways west of the bottom of the stairs, and sought to take us by surprise. We were well prepared, and there was no true difficulty in overcoming them.”

“And where went you then?”

“We sought to find out where these five had been hiding from the Sun, and whether there were more. We realized that since they came down the stairs that they must have dens somewhere up those.”

“So you climbed the Stair of Cirith Ungol.”

“Yes, my lord.”

“And you know the significance of that name?”

“You know that I do, for has not Uncle Sam told us the tale of it, and have we not read of it in Uncle Frodo’s book, Ada?”

“And although you did not know whether or not Shelob yet lives or dwells within the tunnel, yet you went?”

“We were well prepared, my lord. We had torches, and my blade was wrought by Elves....”

“And you were three to Sam’s one?”

Elboron felt himself flinch at the King’s tone. Nor did his father’s face show any indication of sympathy.

“I know that those who have gone up the stairs before have seen and heard nothing of her, my lord,” Eldarion said formally through tightened jaws.

“Did you find where it was that the Orcs had been holed up?”

“Yes, sir--in a cavern that opens into the space where Lord Samwise fought the Spider. There had been a small waterway there that had dried up. Finding no water to sustain them longer, the orcs were forced to leave their refuge to seek a new place elsewhere. They found one spring upon the stair itself--we found signs they had drunk there and then sought to befoul it for any other who might follow them. We cleaned the bowl into which the water flowed, and when the water ran clear again we refilled our own water bottles before finishing our journey upwards. We found our way into the bowl where Frodo was injured by late in the day after passing through the tunnel. As I said, we took materials with which to make torches----”

“You mean to say, you took such materials,” interrupted Elboron’s father.

Eldarion’s face flushed slightly. He remained at attention as he admitted, “Yes, even so, my Lord Prince.”

“And what else did you find besides orcs and their holes?” the King asked, his voice still implacable.

This time the King’s son gave a small smile, his eyes less cautious and more watchful for reactions. “We found a few things we had thought perhaps might yet remain to be found there, relics of those who had passed that way before. And we found some things to wonder at.”

He took a deep breath. “There grows a sapling now within the bowl where Uncle Sam fought the spider--a sapling of a lebethron with its five-fingered leaves. And upon one of the branches we found this----” He fumbled in the pocket sewn into his leggings and brought out the band of silver and held it out to his father.

The stern aspect of the King had fallen away as he reached forward to accept what his son held out to him. “Silver--and well tarnished,” he said, turning it to examine it. “And engraved!” he added in surprise.

“The tree grows close under one of the rock walls, Ada. It appears to flourish there in spite of the bare aspect of the land. And beyond the bowl we found that plants have begun to grow there once more, with vines and grasses and even some hints of flowers and berries. We saw animals, also--a lynx, goats, a mouse, soaring birds.... And the waterway that once gave sustenance to the orcs now trickles down another way, outside the bowl now, toward the foot of the stair up to the tower.”

“Did you go up to the tower itself?”

“No, Ada. We stopped there, just outside the bowl. And we were warned to sleep that night and return directly the next morning, and not to look back again.”

“You were warned? By whom? Of what?”

Eldarion could not contain a smile of wonder. “Perhaps you could tell us, for we are not certain. A Lady we found there, one who appeared ancient--ancient until that night, when she danced with her Lord Husband. When first I glimpsed him he, too, appeared ancient of days; but as they danced together----! Oh, Ada! Then both appeared young and more fey than any Elf--and far greater!”

Elboron found his voice at last. “The land begins to bloom again, my lords. She said that with the help of their brother she and her beloved had diverted the water so that the orcs would leave, and they would see the land as it had been meant to be. And when they danced, I swear that the earth itself felt younger and more filled with purpose than it knew when we lay down upon it at their command to sleep.”

“And this is what you found?” asked his own father.

Alphros looked from Elboron to Eldarion. “There was one thing more,” he said. “Or, two things, rather, for the one thing had once been broken.” He had been holding the tip of the staff between his hands. He held it now out to his father’s cousin to take.

Elboron turned to the side where he’d placed his pack, and reached in to pull out the upper end of the staff. He held it out, also, and once it was in his hands Faramir was turning the two pieces to see how once they had fit together. “But this would have been too short for any of our Men,” he began, then stopped, and a smile suddenly began to spread. He checked the tip to the staff, and began to laugh with delight. “Ingbold! Come here! Tell me if indeed this is what I think it once was!”

The Captain came forward and took the pieces within his own hands, at first perplexed and then with a growing appreciation for what it was he held. “And did you not tell them that lebethron bears the virtue of returning, my Lord Prince?” he asked, sharing a delighted look with the former Captain of the Rangers of Ithilien.

“Told whom?” demanded Aragorn Elessar, perplexed.

“The Hobbits!” Ingbold told him. “Lords Frodo and Samwise, when he gave them staves of lebethron to serve as walking sticks for their journey onward!”

“Staves? Walking sticks?” The King continued perplexed, then paused as the memories of the tale as Sam had told it came back to him. He reached out his own hands for the broken pieces. “The staff you gave Sam? The one he struck Gollum with, driving him away when the beast tried to throttle him?”

“The very same!” Eldarion said, no longer stiffly at attention, his own face shining with delight.

“But you did not find the one I gave to Frodo?” Faramir persisted.

Alphros gave a slight cough. “We suspect that we might have done so, but we would not risk the displeasure of the Lady in trying to bring it away,” he said. “I think that Lord Eldarion did all that was allowed us by carefully working the band there off the branch on which we found it, taking care to roll the leaves past which he worked it so that they take as little harm as possible as he removed it.”

“She said that this would no longer be a land of dried bones and dead sticks,” Elboron told them.

“She fed us on fruits and nuts, vegetables and mushrooms and roots, all fresh as if newly harvested,” Alphros added.

The King’s face had gone pale, and he looked down at the two pieces of the staff he held, and at last returned the longer piece to Elboron and the shorter one to Alphros. “Relics indeed,” he said softly, “and let them remain heirlooms of your houses.”

But when he started to return the band that had once been the end cap to the staff given to Frodo to his son, Eldarion shook his head. “I know we exceeded our orders, Adar, but after Captain Ingbold told us of the giving of the staves to the two Ringbearers, I felt we had to look. I know how dear to your heart the two of them are. Please--let you keep it as a memento to the journey they made.”

Aragorn Elessar Envinyatar Telcontar solemnly examined the silver band once more. “A relic indeed, and of your audacity as much as the journey those two once took. Not to say of the apparent blessing granted by the Powers.” He turned to examine his son’s face. “Yet you had good reason for going up the stair, and have been able to show that one danger at least is no longer there at the head of the pass.”

He sighed and relaxed back onto the folding chair given him. “But if I ever learn of you seeking to go out upon a limb again in such a manner....”

Elboron felt relief as the King melted into the father. Fathers, he knew, could be convinced to forgive those who surpassed their orders, while Kings and Princes tended to be more inflexible.

*******


And the King and Prince Faramir, accompanied by some others and Lord Gimli and Prince Legolas, who had come to visit at Emyn Arnen with the Prince of Ithilien and the King of the Reunited Realm and their families, made the climb up the Stairs of Cirith Ungol to see for themselves that what had been reported by the three young Men was true, not that any believed that the King or the Steward’s sons would lie about such things.

Indeed they found all as had been reported, and the tale of the tree found where once the body of Frodo Baggins, paralyzed by the poison of Shelob, had lain as if in death, was told abroad throughout the land.

There and beyond that narrow space they found that plants again had begun to grow.

Some swore, however, that one of the doubled seeds of the lebethron tree must have clung to the hair of the Ringbearer, and fallen free when Sam cut away the webbing from his body, and there one grew in the dust that floored the place....

Elboron, however, only shakes his head when he hears such claims.



~0~


Author’s notes: The word lebethron has an element to indicate it has leaves of a shape to resemble a hand, suggesting the leaf has five nodes or “fingers.” The second element of its name indicates either an oak tree or that it is faithful or dependable. Here one is reminded of Faramir’s statement to Frodo and Sam that a staff made from its wood has a reputation for helping its bearer to find his way there and back again.

The indication is, therefore, that the lebethron is most likely a variety of an oak or a maple tree, with it most likely being a black oak if it is indeed of that species.

However, as one whose father came from Vermont where the sugar maple is the preeminent of all trees, and who lives on the west coast among vine maples with their great five-fingered leaves, it pleases me to think of it as a maple tree, which, as is true of the oak, is considered a highly desirable hardwood for most purposes. And so it is the double-headed and vaned seed of the maple I suggest might have gotten caught in Frodo’s hair.


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