Betas: Aearwen Thanks to Ignoblebard, Jael, Raksha and Moreth for their comments at the LC.

Part of the Undying Friendship Series.

Written for the A Long Expected Contest's October '08 'Dead and Dying Things' Challenge



The Last Green Leaf

By Nieriel Raina

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Prologue

The Oak

Ithilien

The oak stood for many a year, growing tall, sturdy and full of life. Birds nested among the many branches, singing and flitting among the leaves. Squirrels played on its limbs, chasing one another in a dance around the great trunk and among the roots peeking up through the ground. Lynx crouched on the boughs, hidden from the deer that gathered to eat the many acorns strewn upon the ground.

Spring brought a myriad of new green leaves and catkins, covering the tree in a magnificent dress; and the tree gloried in being alive, lifting itself to the sun. In the heat of summer, animals, and oft times Men, sought refuge in the shade of the grand oak; and before the darkness fled, evil creatures from the Shadowed Mountains also took shelter there. Autumn found the oak long arrayed in dark green before changing its attire to brown; for the oak kept itself clothed for the coming winter, unlike many other trees in the wood. Its dry leaves rustled and sang in the blustery wind and rain. And beneath many a winter moon, the tree lay sleeping under a blanket of white snow, its roots pushing deeper into the earth. Even in rest, life resounded within the tree, a steady hum of song that few could hear.

But immortal life is not granted to all things, and death for some comes sooner than anticipated. For the oak, it began when lightning struck the tree near the base, splitting part of the trunk and killing a good portion of the timber. With the bark burnt away, the tree became vulnerable. Beetles made swift work of the weakened places, boring holes into the smooth timber. Woodpeckers drilled holes into it, the rat-a-tat ringing throughout the forest as they sought out the bugs burrowed inside. A colony of ants moved in, making a nest. They carved criss-crossing tunnels in the fragile and decaying pulp, until, over time, the paths collapsed, leaving a significant hole.

The oak, now a mere shadow of its former splendor, became a new sort of home to many creatures. And though weakened — and while more branches and boughs succumbed to become dry, brittle sticks — the oak rejoiced in the life still reverberating within it.

Birds still nested in the thinning branches. Squirrels still played chase around the trunk. And in the small hollow, a family of dormice made its home, using claws and teeth, to smooth out more of the innards of the tree, and lining the opening with leaves and fur. And the oak was content with the life that yet flittered amid its branches.

Over the next few decades the hollowed oak became a home for other creatures, suffering from the damage of time and decay; its demise brought closer by the animals that made the oak their abode. Each rooted deeper, digging into the living center of the tree. The oak did its best to renew itself, but it could not replace all that had been lost. Its leaves grew sparser, dead limbs littered the ground near the trunk; and when the rains came, the oak groaned and creaked in the wind. But it never begrudged the creatures who lived in it; the lively beasts that sapped its life away. Indeed, it rejoiced with each new creature that brought a new song to the hum of life beating within it.

Seasons passed; and while a few animals sought temporary shelter in the deeply hollowed tree, none stayed over long. With the onset of Winter, the oak lay dormant, snow-covered and alone, longing for some creature to again make its home within the shell of bark and dying wood.

That Spring, only a single limb reached up to the sky with new green buds. The other branches creaked and squeaked, rattling and oft times falling to the ground in a strong wind.

Although Spring had come, an unseasonably late storm arrived one night, bringing with it driving snow that piled against the trunk and laden the oak's branches. While the warmth of the morning sun would banish the white blanket, during the dead of night, the wind howled, the temperature dropped, and the tree shook. Under a new moon, darkness reined with the stars blotted out by heavy clouds. The deep freeze robbed the life from the few leaf buds, leaving them frozen and stiff. No new leaves would spring forth with the new day.

And in the deep black of night, something crawled into the tree, curling up inside the hollow and using the old bedding of many long-dead animals to help keep warm. Though weak and only a skeleton of its former glory, the oak offered what comfort it could, sensing this creature was different from the others that had sought refuge in the hollow. And like the tree itself, the life curled inside the trunk faded with each beat of its heart. Death would come. But the oak took comfort that it would not die alone.

The wind died down, and the snow ceased to fall.

In the grey light of early dawn, the tree sensed another's approach. It came haltingly steadily, as if searching; its spirit speaking to the wood frantically seeking for something. Long had it been since the oak had felt such a touch, and what life left within it rejoiced and cried out. Questions rippled through the treetops among the oak's neighbors, and the tree groaned in response.

Here! Here! He is here!


Author's Note: A tree can stand for decades, despite being hollow or showing signs of rot. It can also suffer up to one-third loss of strength — equivalent to about seventy percent loss in total wood diameter inside the bark — provided there is no other defects than heart-rot.

Thank you for reading. Reviews are strongly encouraged. :) This is something a bit different... the next part gets into Legolas's POV.