(Author's Note: This story was written for Firnsarnien, who's faithful and expressive reviews I cherish. I gave her the choice of a humorous story or angst - of course, she chose angst, which is more work... : ) This is my way of thanking her for the thought and effort she puts into her reviews, and also partially reimburse her for the medical ailments she accuses me of causing. [I've lost count now, Firnsarnien … heart attacks, strokes, nervous twitches, numb extremities, hair loss, ragged fingernails…] Primarily a "hobbit-writer," I promised her a story about her beloved Elf. My thanks to Shirebound for one of the plot lines; she mentioned she would like to see some of the elven ability to talk to trees. This story takes place after "The Ruin of Men and Elves," further on the road to Hollin but before "Some Nameless Place." The title refers to a beautiful and unsettling lithograph by camouflage artist Bev Doolittle, http: bevdoolittle. artifactsgallery.com /art.asp ?!=W&ID=12810. Warning: PG-13 for violence and nastiness in later chapters. My thanks, as always, to Marigold for the beta.)
Disclaimer: The Lord of the Rings and all its characters and settings are the property of the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien and its licensees. These works were produced with admiration and respect, as fan fiction for entertainment purposes only, not for sale or profit.
The Forest Has Eyes
The Elf heard the stealthy approach long before its source became visible. Even his keen hearing could pick up only the faintest rustle of displaced leaves, the almost inaudible creak of a branch being turned aside, and never, never a clue so obvious as the snap of a broken twig. He continued skinning the rabbits his arrows had brought down, slender, deft hands moving quickly to separate fur from flesh. Without making a motion that an observer could interpret as awareness, Legolas shifted his weight slightly and readied himself.
Aragorn sank into a crouch at his side, appearing from among the trees suddenly and without warning. Legolas smiled to himself as the Man's countenance fell at his friend's lack of surprise. If Aragorn had hoped that the failing night and the nearby stream would abet his stealthy approach, he had just learned otherwise. Legolas did allow himself a slight smile. He quartered the first rabbit and ran the roasting sticks through the pieces. "You should have guessed that the swift rushing of the water would not mask your clumsy approach, my friend."
Aragorn settled himself comfortably cross-legged on the ground, refusing to admit that he had hoped to catch the Elf unaware. It was a game long played between them. "Gimli has the watch. Boromir and the hobbits are resting. Gandalf and I have been discussing our route, now that the decision has been made to attempt the Pass of Caradhras. I wish it were not so. I mistrust this silent land."
Legolas handed three of the rabbits to Aragorn and the man drew his hunting knife and set to work. Legolas finished his second rabbit and laid it aside, catching up another. "I have detected nothing," he replied in answer to Aragorn's unspoken question. After many years of friendship and travels together, the two did not always need words between them."No sign of orcs or Men or watchers of any sort, not since we left the ruins five leagues back. Yet…"
Aragorn laid one rabbit on its back and slit the small body from just underneath the throat to the tail, then lifted it and began slicing the small ligaments of pale tissue that connected the skin to the frame. "The din of that battle would be heard for many miles. And that unfortunate man's screams." Aragorn fell silent, seeing in his mind's eye the soldier's horrible death. He waited quietly for a moment, then prompted, "Yet?"
Legolas' clear gaze fastened on him, and it seemed to Aragorn that the Elf was almost embarrassed. "Yet... Yet I am uneasy. The trees do not sleep peacefully here."
"Could it be the evidence of Men that we have found that worries you?"
"The hunting pits do not worry me," replied the Elf with the faintest note of censure in his voice. "But they do concern me. It is a cruel way to hunt … to dig a pit and line the bottom with sharpened stakes, awaiting the fall of unwary prey. A slow death by impalement, dying by inches in utter agony … it is a dishonorable method of hunting."
Aragorn finished the first rabbit and wiped his blade on the sparse grass. "The two pits we found still had evidence of snow-deer carcasses. From the damage to the spikes and the dried blood, I would guess that the deer lived for a day or two on the spikes before the hunters came for them."
Legolas shook his head. "Cruel. And unnecessary – an archer of any skill could have brought down a deer, as did we. That they choose such an evil method suggests that either they did not have bows, or…" The Elf paused, his fair brow knitting. "Or they wished to inflict pain upon innocent creatures."
The Ranger was silent, blue-grey eyes worriedly scanning the hushed forest that spread before them like a green smudge on the boots of the world. Great conifers grew here, silent sentinels of the ages. Their limbs were hoary with lichen and their great, needle-studded branches drooped to the ground in places. It was under one of these that the halflings had taken refuge, visible only as small lumps in the rising light. Legolas followed Aragorn's gaze to the little ones, turning over in his mind his friend's words. Without seeking more, Legolas knew that Merry had taken the outside position on one side, with Sam on the other. It has always been so, Aragorn had told him, since Weathertop.
Aragorn's gaze followed his then those sharp eyes turned back to him. "My thanks for your help in uprooting the spikes. No more deer shall die in those pits, but there may be more, also hidden over with branches and leaves. Once the pit is dug and staked, the hunters can return at their leisure to collect their prey." Aragorn returned the other two quartered rabbits and stood, sheathing his great knife. "The hunters should not be far, yet we have seen no sign of their camp. I would prefer that we pass through this land without being seen."
Legolas nodded pensively. "I have tried talking to the trees but they are not awake enough to respond. None of the great Tree-herders have passed this way for millennia, and the trees are losing the voices that my people awoke in them. They doze, but their roots tremble and their leaves rustle when there is no wind."
Aragorn gathered up their breakfast, leaving Legolas to bury the offal. "And?"
The Elf looked up from his work. "And what?"
"What is it, my friend?"
Legolas sighed and a shadow of grief darkened his fine-boned face. "I named these Men cruel not only in their treatment of innocent beasts. The spikes themselves were greenwood, torn from living trees. There are many fallen branches about – did they have to torture living trees to take what they needed? Couldn't they have fashioned their murderous stakes from wood already dead?"
Aragorn sank into a crouch and laid a hand on the Elf's shoulder. "I should have realized that such would be painful to a Wood-elf. All the more reason to tear down their work, though that will not help the deer the pits have already claimed, nor the trees so tortured and maimed. I am sorry, Legolas."
"As am I. It would please me greatly to meet these Men, these hunters. Neither deer nor trees may defend themselves. I would welcome the opportunity to repay some of the pain they have caused."
Aragorn nodded in agreement as he rose again. "As would I. But we have no time for retribution, however just." The Ranger glanced towards the rising sun, sheltering his eyes with the flat of his hand. "You will watch?"
Legolas nodded. "I will."
None of the Company had truly adjusted to the schedule of sleeping during the day and traveling the night, and the halflings woke after but a few hours of rest. The wind continued to blow, cold and bitter, seeking out every gap in their clothing and chilling them. Frodo sat up, pulling his blankets about himself, shivering. Legolas kept amusement from his face as he watched them drag themselves from their blankets and wash and comb their hair (head and foot) and try to make themselves presentable, according to their fashion. The two elder cousins were not having much luck with the youngest one, who was developing a limpet-like ability to cling to his blankets. Legolas had to look away and pretend to study the horizon as Frodo and Merry finally pried Pippin from the bedding and forced him to wash his face in the icy stream.
Sam had taken the rabbits and several now roasted on a spit while more were chopped for stew. Delectable smells were drifting from the cook fire. The Elf sniffed appreciatively and reminded himself to praise the little halfling. Sam's reactions to gentle words from him amused the Elf - the hobbit would positively beam with joy. Legolas had journeyed many times with little more than elven waybread as his staple, and was both surprised and gratified to discover that the hobbits had declared (adamantly and voraciously) that they could not march on such fare and Aragorn had backed them up. Gandalf had thrown up his hands and retorted that this was not a "hobbit walking party." After a few further growls, the wizard had conceded the delay. To Legolas, it did not seem that the wizard had protested overmuch.
After the Company ate and Boromir took the watch from Gimli, Legolas expected the hobbits to return to sleep. Instead, they expressed a wish to explore. Legolas' keen gaze traveled over the distant trees that seemed to interest the halflings and looked at the Ring-bearer questioningly. "These lands are so unlike the Shire," Frodo explained earnestly. "We would like to see a little more of them before we leave them behind."
"We have the Old Forest outside Buckland," Merry contributed, "but nothing like this."
Gandalf looked at the trees appraisingly. "The land starts to rise here, here at the foot of Caradhras. The great forests before us thrive on the snow-melt from the mountain. The forests in their turn give way to rock and shale as the mountain grows." His gaze traveled back to the hobbits. "There is no need to explore the forest now; you will see plenty of trees as we pass through them."
Frodo and Merry glanced at each other, some unspoken communication passing between them. "Yes, well…" Frodo said slowly. "They look so interesting. We could do some scouting and perhaps find an easier path. Legolas has been showing us how to track, and we could use the practice." Frodo turned around and directed a hopeful smile towards the Elf. Gandalf, smoking his pipe, lowered his brows and frowned at them. The hobbits gazed innocently back.
Pippin had been helping Sam with the washing-up, and arrived just in time to hear that remark. "If we could find a fallen tree, it might be stuffed with mushrooms!"
Legolas laughed then, for the expression on the other two's faces more clearly than words explained their desire to investigate the forest. It would only take a little time, he supposed, and would allow Aragorn and Gandalf to consult without the interference of hobbity curiosity. Ever fair-handed, the Elf admitted to himself that it was not that the halflings were intrusive, but they were intensely curious about anything and everything in their path. No doubt their leaders would appreciate being able to converse without small, pointed ears prinked in their direction.
"Mushrooms?" asked Samwise hopefully, wiping his hands dry on his breeches as he joined them. "Who's got mushrooms?" He looked at the others eagerly. "I've a nice piece of butter that's going 'ta go bad if not used. There's wild garlic about. Mushrooms, sliced thin and sautéed in butter…"
The little folk were almost salivating. Legolas looked up from their expectant faces to see Aragorn watching them, mirth sparkling in his deep-set eyes. "Don't be gone long," he cautioned them. "And stay alert. Just because we have seen no spies since the crebain does not mean that our path goes unwatched."
As Legolas trailed after the chattering hobbits, he wondered why the little ones had focused on him for their little expedition. They did not seem much concerned with reading the trail sign they passed. Perhaps they, like he, missed the sweet grass of Elrond's lands under their feet, and the good will of the Elf-lord's domain. Not that the little folk were aware of the feelings of the trees, as was he. As he walked, he would now and then trail a long hand appreciatively along a lichen-covered trunk or gently straighten a bent limb. Involved in their discussion, the hobbits did not notice the green fronds that would descend to lightly embrace his shoulder. The Wood-Elf would smile and stroke them gently before passing on.
As he walked, Legolas kept a wary eye on the surroundings, forgetting never that he was responsible for the hobbits' safety. For the Ring-bearer's safety. That brought to his mind a recent conversation with Aragorn, taking place not long after he had pledged his bow to the Ring-bearer at Elrond's Council. With an Elf's perfect memory, he replayed that exchange in his mind. He and Aragorn had been escorting the halflings about Rivendell, surreptitiously ensuring that the younger ones did not overtax the recovering invalid. Sam and Pippin and Merry were so delighted that Frodo was up at last that Elrond feared they would overtire him. Aragorn had requested Legolas' company to accustom the hobbits to the Elf's presence. They were more comfortable with Men and even with the dwarf, Gimli, than Legolas. Legolas was not offended. Bilbo had taught his heir friendship with the dwarves of old, and the other three had met Gimli's folk now and then. With the exception of the Ring-bearer, Elves were a thing out of legend for them. Legolas wondered briefly if their shyness was due to his royal birth, then dismissed the notion. It was more likely they were simply in awe of him because he was of Elven-kind.
"Legolas," the Ranger had murmured to him on that not-so-distant day as they followed the halflings at a discreet distance. "I should warn you about the hobbits."
The Elf had lifted an elegant eyebrow, affixing an amused eye on his friend. "Really, Aragorn," Legolas replied, holding aside a tree branch so that their passage did not scrape it, "you have said something similar before, and I cannot see it. They are an ingenious, amusing little folk, with no harm in them."
Aragorn kept a cautious eye on the hobbits as he spoke, obviously concerned for the Ring-bearer. Frodo was much stronger but he tired easily, and Legolas noted that Sam kept a hand at his master's back, and Merry and Pippin were never more than an arm's length away. He and Aragorn were in theory guiding them, but in fact they hung back, allowing the younger hobbits to show Frodo their discoveries. After the attempt upon the hobbit's life in his rooms, Elrond had thought to assign guards to the Ring-bearer's security, but Aragorn had volunteered to escort the hobbits. Legolas volunteered with him, glad to renew their friendship while the little folk explored.
"No, not harm," Aragorn returned, both agreeing and disagreeing, "not deliberate harm. But -"
"I understand you have experienced a few unfortunate … uh, incidents with the little folk, which surely cannot be blamed upon them -"
"That's just it," interrupted the man seriously. "It's never their fault. Somehow they end up covered in roses and I end up covered in manure. I don't know how they do it."
Legolas was glad to see that the hobbits had chanced upon a bench and were carefully easing a visibly weary Frodo onto it. The late morning sun was cold and the Elf wondered that the little ones' unshod feet were not chilled. The Elf's keen eyes could detect a visible trembling of the Ring-bearer's limbs and Frodo's face was set and very pale. Following Legolas' gaze, Aragorn looked worried and started forward.
He halted when Pippin hopped up onto the bench opposite Frodo, supporting his cousin's back. Sam took off his cloak and tucked it around the trembling shoulders, while Merry looped Frodo's good arm over his shoulders and supported his side, tugging the cloak over Frodo and Pippin both. The Elf's clear eyes sparkled to see such care, then he returned his attention to the conversation.
"I am sure it isn't deliberate," Legolas responded, sincerely trying not to smile.
Aragorn groaned. "I will ask you if you hold that opinion a month into our quest."
Legolas laughed lightly. "Really, my friend, you speak as if they are insidious, conniving, evil little monsters –"
"No, no," the Ranger had replied hurriedly. "I did not mean to give you that impression. During these past few weeks, I have learned to respect those small folk. As well as grow fond of them. It is just that … that they seem to have a tendency to fall into trouble, and somehow I am held responsible. Not Frodo, of course – he has been too ill to be involved in the … incidents. Most of the incidents. But now that he is on his feet, I have this gnawing fear –" Aragorn broke off and looked embarrassed.
Legolas would never be so discourteous as to laugh at his friend, but his lips did thin in a suppressed smile. The Elf's starry eyes sparkled at the memory. It was now less than a month into their quest, and he had indeed revised his opinion of the four small beings that chattered and laughed quietly ahead of him. He, too, was growing fond of them. And he no longer disregarded Aragorn's warning.
Legolas' question of why the hobbits had chosen him for this little excursion was soon answered. Some way into the forest, the hobbits gathered in a huddle in a small clearing beneath the blackened limb of a long-dead tree, intent eyes staring upward. The tree leaned drunkenly against a neighbor, half-rotted, decaying and decrepit. High above the hobbits, along a broken branch, protruded a thick shelf of golden-brown fungi.
"Ohhh," moaned Pippin. "Butter-nuts. Big, fat ones. Enough for all of us."
Merry licked his lips. "Sliced thin, as Sam said. Fried in butter and garlic..."
"Ohhhhhhh," moaned the hobbits in unison.
Four sets of eyes judged the distance from the earth then up to their desire. Ground, mushrooms. Mushrooms, ground. Legolas watched in amusement as four curly heads raised, swiveled, then lowered in unison. It must seem a terribly long way to them, the Elf realized.
"Right," Frodo said decisively, hands going to the fastening of his cloak. "I'm for it. I'll toss them down and you lot can catch them."
"Oh no, you won't," Merry returned just as quickly. "You're not to strain that shoulder. I'll do it."
"You'll fall out in a trice," retorted Pippin. "You had to hold onto the railing when we went up the stairs at The Prancing Pony in Bree. I'll do it -"
"No!" yelped Frodo and Merry both. "I'll do it," Frodo added firmly. Sam glanced at him worriedly and resumed staring at the leaf-strewn ground, too wise to involve himself in the cousins' debate.
"No, I will!" Merry reached up to catch a branch, then gasped as a slash of pain tore through his healing hand. Unable to stifle a yip, he curled the fingers tight against his chest, cradling his injured hand with the other.
Frodo seized Merry's hand and examined it closely, rubbing the back of Merry's fingers soothingly before gently folding them shut and returning the hand to its owner. "You will stay on the ground, Meriadoc," Frodo ordered. "I am climbing that tree."
"Frodo's right, Merry," Pippin advised. "Except that I will climb the tree. My creaky cousins should be glad I am here," he added cheerfully.
"Pippin-lad, you listen to me -"
"Frodo, I wobbled on the stairs because of the ale, not the height. I am perfectly capable -"
"Merry, you're lucky you didn't fall down the stairs after drinking that Man-sized pint. I, on the other hand, barely had a drink at all -"
"Only because of that ridiculous stunt you pulled with the Ring –"
At the receiving end of that tone from both his elder cousins, Pippin blanched. Then his jaw firmed and the light of battle returned to his eye. "It is true and you know it, Frodo. Merry's right – Lord Elrond said you weren't to pull that shoulder. I know it's still hurting you. Both of you are too old to be climbing trees anyway."
"Peregrin Took," began Merry loudly, "I'll have you know –"
"Gentlemen!" And that was how Legolas found himself ascending the decaying tree, suspecting that he had been quite expertly manipulated but unsure as to how it had come about.
"Be careful, Legolas!" Frodo called up from the security of his place on the ground. All four of them were staring up at him worriedly and calling out the most distracting warnings and instructions as to the best handholds and footholds. Legolas nearly bit his tongue in vexation - a Wood-elf did not need such advice. He tested his hold on the crumbling bark and pulled himself up another length. He had been climbing trees before their grandparents had been a twinkle in their great-grandparents' eyes. Nevertheless, he forbore to reprimand them, as that would be beneath his dignity. Let them think they were helping, if they wished. Normally the tree itself would instruct him as the best way to climb it, but all he felt from this disintegrating shell was the mindless eating of the parasites and worms that consumed the dead. And the slow life of the devouring fungi that grew on the wooden corpse.
At last he reached the mushrooms and steadied himself with a careful hand. Long ago, lightening had blasted this tree and the trunk was almost hollow. Pieces of bark came away in his hands as he eased himself into position. Reaching out a long arm, he carefully broke off the first growth and looked down.
The hobbits were looking up at him eagerly. Sam and Frodo had taken off their cloaks and spread them on the ground. Sam stepped back from pulling them wide and called up, "Right there, if'n you would, sir."
Legolas cast down the mushroom and Pippin darted forward eagerly to catch it up. "No, you don't!" ordered his eldest cousin, snatching it away with speed that Legolas thought would do credit to an Elf. "We'll share and share alike. These go back to camp for supper." Crestfallen but obedient, Pippin retreated back to the edge of the cloaks.
The Elf harvested all of the growths he could reach, sending them unerringly onto the improvised ground cloths. Just beyond the length of his arms was another mass of the fungi, larger than the first. He inched towards it and a great piece of bark, larger than a hobbit's head, tore loose from under his foot and plummeted to earth. With commendable quickness, the halflings scattered as it shattered at the base of the tree.
"Legolas, please come down," Frodo called up as the others bent to collect the shards and toss them off the cloaks. "We have enough. I don't like the look of that branch."
Legolas tightened his hold then eyed the pile of mushrooms below him, and the remaining ones above him. He had seen these little folk tuck away an astonishing amount of their favorite delicacies in Imladris, and what lay upon the cloaks would scarcely satisfy them. He did not trust them to refrain from trying to return to collect the remaining mushrooms on their own. They were too quick and silent-footed. He would quickly notice their absence, of course, but the others… Best to remove the temptation. If he leaned forward and reached as far as he could...
So intent was he on his quarry that the first faint creaking did not truly register on his consciousness. From the corner of his eye, he saw the halflings pause and straighten, passing among themselves looks of confusion. Then the tree shivered.
Above Legolas, a loud crack! reverberated about the clearing. Sam cried out, his round face whitening as a large branch snapped free and fell downward like a rock, tearing off smaller bits of the dead tree with it. Pippin cast himself to the ground, sensibly curling up into a ball. Merry followed a heartbeat later, throwing himself over his smaller cousin and covering his own head with both hands. Sam and Frodo flung themselves out of the path of the descending debris. Then Legolas had no more time for observation as the loose bark beneath his feet slipped and gave way.
The Elf made no sound as he fell. His hands snatched at the crumbling tree but could find no hold. Even if Legolas had cried out, Frodo's loud shout of horror would have swallowed it. His last thought, before he hit something solid and unbearable agony overwhelmed him, was that he hoped no one told the dwarf that he had fallen out of the tree.
"The Ruin of Men and Elves" by Budgielover
"Intruder" by Budgielover