In "The Return of the King", chapter "The Steward and the King", Aragorn finds the sapling of the White Tree and Gandalf then says:
"Verily this is a sapling of the line of Nimloth the fair; and that was a seedling of Galathilion, and that a fruit of Telperion of many names, Eldest of Trees. Who shall say how it comes here in the appointed hour? But this is an ancient hallow, and ere the kings failed or the Tree withered in the court, a fruit must have been set here. For it is said that, though the fruit of the Tree comes seldom to ripeness, yet the life within may then lie sleeping through many long years, and none can foretell the time in which it will awake. Remember this. For, if ever a fruit ripens, it should be planted, lest the line die out of the world. Here it has lain hidden on the mountain, even as the race of Elendil lay hidden in the wastes of the North. Yet the line of Nimloth is older far than your line, King Elessar."
How did the seed come to that place? Thinking about that, I got the idea and inspiration for this story. Then I did some research about the history of Gondor, of the old kings and the first of the stewards, thinking who could take the credit for what will follow in the story. I had two options on my mind, but finally, crucial was Gandalf's sentence: "But this is an ancient hallow, and ere the kings failed or the Tree withered in the court, a fruit must have been set here." Those words set the choice, that is, the course of this story.
I thank Inzilbeth of the Dunedain for the idea of elvish magic woven into the Tree and Cairistiona for beta-reading. *hugs*
Year 2050, the Third Age
Darkness. A night without stars. Gloom without light.
Mardil Voronwë, the Steward of King Eärnur, stood by the window of his study in Minas Tirith and looked towards the east. But, however hard he tried, his eyes could not pierce through the darkness. Thick, heavy fog fell on the city and Pelennor.
He descended a long staircase and went out into the cold night. After returning a salute to the guards at the palace entrance, he slowly moved on forwards, his way lit by a silvery, dim light of lamps. The Guards next to the White Tree stiffened into an even greater upright position as he approached. He greeted them with a nod and a kind smile and kept on walking. The darkness before him thickened, but he saw clearly enough. He passed this way on countless occasions; he could pass even with his eyes closed. He liked to watch Minas Tirith, the great plain, Osgiliath and Anduin. The sight of his beloved hometown and country would usually bring out his smile and warm his heart. With a quiet sound of footsteps on damp stone, he finally reached the very end of the rock pointed at the east like a spear. He stopped beside a stone wall and looked into the distance.
This evening he did not smile. He shivered and wrapped his cloak closer around himself. But the cold he felt was not coming from the cold night air. Of course, he could not see any better than from his window. What he wanted to see was beyond his reach, hidden by the dark of night, distance, fog, mountains... and by the darkness that seemed not completely natural. His sight was veiled; there was a great burden on his heart, just like this fog lying heavily on Pelennor.
Followed by only a few knights, King Eärnur had ridden out towards Minas Morgul that morning, accepting the challenge of the Witch King of Angmar. Mardil sighed, recalling the last such challenge, seven years ago, right after King Eärnur had been crowned. That time he managed to restrain the King's hot temper, but he could not do it this time. The mocking and provocation of the Witch King lit a fire in Eärnur that the Steward could not extinguish. Many times he regretted that Eärnur was not wise and calm like Eärnil, his father. He would know – no, anyone with a bit of sense would know, Mardil corrected himself, that this enemy is far too powerful for any man, no matter how skilled a warrior that man may be. But Eärnur was too self assured, proud and, most of all, headstrong, rarely taking other people's wise advice.
Standing on the edge of a precipitous cliff, the Steward realized that, in the swirl of emotions he felt, the strongest of them all was fear, clutching him with its ice-cold grasp. It was not a fear of responsibility that would be upon him should King not return, but the actual possibility he might not return at all. He was afraid for the life of his friend and lord, whom he loved like a brother despite his flaws. Before Eärnur was crowned a king, Mardil was his father's Steward and he always felt affection for Eärnil's son. Eärnur would often go to fight his enemies; he also led the great campaign in the north when Gondor assisted Arnor in the great victory over the forces of Angmar. But none of the past battles was as perilous as this one... because none of the past opponents was as powerful as this one. This was not a duel of two best knights deciding the winner of a tournament; the Witch King was not merely an excellent swordsman. He was an undead apparition strengthened by Sauron's power, a wraith spreading icy breath and poison of his Master through his ring. Rare have been those among mortal men who could resist the dark, destructive glance of his invisible eyes for more than a few seconds. Under the heavy burden of this undeniable truth, Mardil felt his spirit sink.
With a heavy sigh, he turned around and slowly started back. He knew he would not sleep well that night, just like the next ones. The fear for his friend burdened his soul; his usually light pace was now slow and tired, his shoulders hung, and wrinkles of worry appeared on his forehead. Passing the White Tree, he stopped for a moment and looked at it. It had stood and grown for over three centuries, and its predecessor, the tree of origin from which it grew, for over one millennium and a half. Both witnessed births and deaths of kings, battles and celebrations, happiness and sorrow. Mardil wandered if the Tree felt that these were important days for the Kingdom. He believed so, however incredible it may have sounded. For he was sure it was not 'just a tree', as some used to call it. Didn't it come from the tree that was long, long ago made for the Elves in Valinor by Yavanna herself? He believed this tree had a special, magical spirit and that it had feelings just the same as other living beings.
As he was leaving, with anguish in his heart, he wondered what would happen to Gondor if the king did not return.
One by one, the days passed, slowly but inevitably. None brought anything new. Many eyes were turned to the Pelennor field, but the sight they wished for did not appear. No rider came from direction of Minas Morgul; the plain was ghostly empty, quiet and desolate.
Mardil gathered the King's counsellors and turned to carry out the work important to the Kingdom. He worked from morning to dark, without a break, occupying himself so as not to think about Eärnur's fate, convincing himself that he only wanted to keep everything in perfect order until the King returned. But the worry and fear would wait for him patiently until the night and creep back into his mind when he would finally go to rest, torturing him, stealing his sleep. With each following day, Mardil felt his hope fading. There had never been much hope for a favourable ending of that duel, he thought gloomily. He wanted to hope. He repeated to himself that Eärnur would return, somehow. However, he was fully aware that his hope was based on love and friendship, and not upon a real possibility. Even if the horrid Witch King were not there, what were the odds for ten people against hundreds of orcs encamped in Minas Morgul? On one hand, he knew the answer; he knew what happened in that ghostly city and sorrow was tearing his heart. But on the other hand, he refused to admit the truth. And he knew he never would accept it, not without irrefutable proof.
On the morning of the tenth day after the King left, he rose earlier than usual; he could not sleep. He went out and walked along the Citadel. The sky was cloudless; only in the far east a narrow curtain of black clouds over Ephel Duath served as a constant reminder and warning of the evil hiding in there. The sky was completely alight now, golden shades announcing the sunrise. The air was fresh; a light breeze was coming down from Mindolluin. Mardil stopped in front of the White Tree, remembering his previous walk along the Citadel. That was ten days ago, on the day Eärnur left. Then too he stopped on this spot and for a moment it seemed to him that he was walking again through the same dream. But before his thoughts had time to tread on the narrow, slippery path between worry and hope, where he was spinning in circles countless times these days, something in the tree crown draw his attention. He came closer and... backed away in wonder. On one of the lower branches, among leaves and blossoms, there was a white, round fruit.
He stared at it in awe, barely breathing. He did not pay attention to the glances and movements of the guards, who then also noticed the fruit, or their whispering. Words were ringing in his head, the ones he read in one of the books from ancient days, when he studied the history of Gondor as a boy: if ever a fruit ripens, it should be planted, lest the line die out of the world.
Astonished, he wondered what this fruit meant. Why had it ripened just now? Was it a sign that the Tree felt the King was all right? But then another thought dawned on him and he tried to reject it, clinging on to the hope in the King's return; but he could not escape it, it kept on coming back: that the Tree felt Eärnur's ill fate and it wished to extend its line as a token of hope for the future. After all, this was 'no ordinary tree', he reminded himself, for the first time in his life feeling bitterness in those words.
He raised his hand to the fruit and just as he touched it, it fell on his palm, as if it were linked to the tree only with a weakest thread and could not wait to be picked – to start on his destined path. Despite the ill premonition he felt, Mardil smiled, feeling pride and awe fill him inside. The White Tree ripened truly rarely; how many people could have said they had the honour to hold its fruit? Those chosen lucky ones could be counted on one hand. He was deeply honoured and grateful the Tree gave this fruit during his lifetime.
Where would he plant it? It could not be any garden, not even in the Citadel; some special place had to be chosen. Then he smiled once more. He knew.
Mardil was short of breath when he finally climbed the high clearing. A long climb reminded him that he was no longer in the prime of his youth, and besides, the last few years he had been spending more time sitting in numerous meetings than moving around, and now all his muscles felt sore. But he did not pay any attention to fatigue, because he loved those pilgrimages and visits to this special place.
A small plateau facing south was bathed in sunlight. Steep slopes of Mindolluin surrounded it from all sides. There was a narrow path leading to it, cut in the mountain, and here was where it ended. Not many trod this pathway: only the kings of Gondor and their heirs, when they were old enough, and later the stewards too. In a few moments, Mardil Voronwë would stand on the edge of the clearing, and with a magnificent sight to his beloved country opening in front of him, he would say Erukyermë, the spring prayer to Eru. For the first time in the history of Gondor, this would be done by a Steward and not the King.
But first, he approached the opposite side of the clearing, where it joined an upright cliff rising above it. Although this was a place high on the mountain and all around was bare, treeless and without any other foliage, this spot was always green, covered with a bed of soft grass and flowers, surrounded by fragrant shrubbery. The little oasis, where he planted the fruit of the White Tree a fortnight ago, radiated life.
He was curious when the sapling would shoot, although he knew that it could take many years before it happened. After he found the fruit, he studied all ancient writings about the White Tree that he could find in the city archives and one important line remained imprinted in his memory: the life within may then lie sleeping through many long years, and none can foretell the time in which it would awake. Maybe I should not worry so much about it, he finally decided with a smile. The fruit will feel the right moment to grow. He no longer doubted it. It was not an 'ordinary tree'... as he always knew.
It has been a month and the hope in Eärnur's return weakened. But the hope for the future of Gondor was not lost: it lived in honourable, courageous men... and in a small fruit, hidden in the mountain.
Although Gandalf says that "ere the kings failed or the Tree withered in the court, a fruit must have been set here", I decided that I didn't have to set this story in even earlier time ("ere the kings failed"), but it seemed to me that the time of Eärnur's death was the appropriate moment for this events. Also, it seemed convenient to insert some of Gandalf's words into the story, in the form of quotes from ancient lore books.
In RotK, a little before the paragraph cited in author's note in the beginning, it is said that it was "high hallow where only the kings had been wont to go". But I think that we can accept that the stewards did that too (just like they were familiar with the secrets of Halifirien).
And finally, why is this place called a hallow, and why would only kings (and stewards) go there, to that remote place very high in the mountain? I liked the idea that the tradition of spring prayer to Eru was continued in Gondor, though in somewhat different way than on Numenor.