12. A Meeting on the Stair
Dawn touched the grey sky and turned it red as the sun rose above the eastern horizon. The brightening of the sky was greeted with the sound of many hunting horns and the singing of men and the neighing of war-horses. The light of the new day glinted upon spear and shield as the Riders of Rohan sprang forward to do battle with the Orcs they had surrounded in the night.
Two small hobbits watched from their hiding place under the dark eaves of a vast forest of great, grey trees. The singing of the Men stirred their hearts, and they watched the battle eagerly for a moment, but the sight of an Orc loosing his arrows at a tall warrior who had been unhorsed in the attack caused Pippin to turn away suddenly. It reminded him too much of Boromir and his last battle, and he could not yet bear to think of that, so soon after being parted from his friend and protector. The memory of the dying Boromir, helpless on his knees in the dirt, was still a raw wound in Pippin's heart.
"We must get under cover," said Pippin, his voice gruff with pain. "We don't want to be seen."
"Yes," agreed Merry fervently. "Look! There's Uglúk! It looks like he might escape, even now. He's coming this way! I don't want to meet him again!"
The hobbits quickly turned and without a backwards glance, disappeared into the trees.
The light of dawn was just beginning to brighten the mist which blanketed the eastern shore of Nen Hithoel, when Legolas awakened Boromir from a sound sleep.
"I promised to wake you," he said, as Boromir sat up with a groan. "Dawn approaches, and I go now, down the Stair to meet your people if they are to be found. I have stoked the fire and laid out some food for you, for I do not know how long I shall be away."
Boromir nodded his thanks. He stretched cautiously, and drew in a long experimental breath, noting with pleasure that his breathing seemed to come easier with each passing day.
"Tell me once more what you know of this Stair," suggested Legolas, "that I might know what to expect, and waste no time in my seeking."
"The path to the Stair should be easily found," said Boromir after a moment's thought. "It runs half a mile, perhaps, through the trees and along the bluff until the cliff wall is reached. The Stair begins there, at the edge of the cliff over which Rauros falls. It was made to be a portage-way for those traveling the Anduin, and thus it is well-built and passable. But it is long and winding, with many a sharp twist and turn, for it cannot go so steeply that Men with boats cannot traverse it. It has been some time since any of my people have made use of this pathway, and I do not know its current condition. At the very least it will be wet and treacherous from the spray of the Falls, so have a care!"
The Elf smiled encouragingly.
"Be easy, Boromir; I shall go with care."
"Ah, yes!" grinned Boromir ruefully. "I forget your Elven sure-footedness! Very well, then. You may well be gone some time. That will depend upon how far you must descend before you meet any travelers. I shall wait for you here, as patiently as possible -- since there is little else I can do!"
"I will return as soon as I may," said Legolas, "with your friends, or with news of them. But first, you spoke of a token you wished to give me, to identify myself to your men as coming on your behalf?"
"I did," replied Boromir, reaching carefully into his tunic. He drew forth a small object and held it out to Legolas on the palm of his hand. It was a signet ring, crafted of heavy silver and set with a blood red gemstone; engraved upon the face of the gem were Elvish letters surmounted by three stars. Legolas lifted the ring from Boromir's palm and examined it closely.
"Arundur," he read aloud. "That means 'King's Servant' -- this, then, is the device of the Stewards?"
"Yes," said Boromir. "This is a copy of the signet borne by my father as Steward of Gondor. I bear this as his heir, for I have authority to act in his stead in many matters. I have used it but once on this journey -- when I stood before Elrond upon my arrival in Rivendell. I presented it to him as proof that I had come on a grave errand from Gondor."
Boromir smiled thoughtfully at a sudden memory. "Yet as it turned out, such proof was not truly needed, for Mithrandir was there, and stood ready to vouch for me as one known to him."
Legolas placed the ring carefully in a pouch at his belt, and bowed slightly to Boromir.
"I am honored by your trust in giving me this token," he said solemnly. "I shall see that it is safely returned to you."
"That seal will establish you as having been sent by me, and those whom you meet should trust you," said Boromir, but his voice held a small note of doubt. "That is my hope, at least; that you will be trusted readily, with this sign of having been with me. Alas that the days are so evil! We of Gondor have fallen into mistrust since we began to lose hope. Many are now held in suspicion whom once we might have held to be friends."
Boromir frowned, and his eyes were troubled.
"I understand," replied Legolas soothingly. "It is the same in the Green Wood in these dark days. But be at ease; I do not fear your people. Their concern will be for you, and once it is known I can bring you together, I have no doubt they will accept me as a friend."
Boromir responded with a nod. Reaching up, he grasped Legolas' hand briefly.
"Go safely then, and bring to me my people."
With a wave of his hand, Legolas departed. He passed swiftly along the shore until he came to a path which opened onto the shingle, just opposite the lonely isle of Tol Brandir. The mouth of the path was marked by a worn statue, now almost featureless with age and the effects of weather. He turned onto the path and followed it through the trees.
The path was relatively clear of undergrowth and wide enough to pass single-file with ease, even carrying a boat or any other gear requiring portage to the foot of the Falls. The pounding thunder of Rauros filled his ears as Legolas drew ever nearer to the sheer cliff over which Anduin fell.
He came soon to the head of the Stairs, and saw immediately that he would indeed have to go carefully, even with his sure-footed tread. The Stair was steep and forbidding, cut into the stone of the rock face. The steps were broad enough to allow the passage of Men carrying boats, and deep enough to provide stability when descending, if one went carefully. Nevertheless, the way was treacherous; the Stair was slick with water and visibility was poor, for cold mist and spray from the Falls hung in the air like a fine rain which never ceased.
Legolas did not hesitate. Plunging forward, he began his descent.
Grithnir and his party set out from Gethron's camp as soon as dawn's light had touched the sky in the East. It was two leagues to the Stair, following a path that hugged the banks of the Anduin. By the time they reached the foaming pool at the bottom of the Falls, the morning was bright and clear. The spray from Rauros obscured the path at times, but there was breeze enough here on the plain that the mists were blown up and away, so they could see the way ahead. Yet they could not avoid the spray that rained down upon them, and they were thoroughly drenched before ever they arrived at the foot of the North Stair.
They passed the shelving shore upon Anduin where the portage-way ended, far enough downriver from Rauros that boats could again enter the River, avoiding the worst of the foaming rapids. The path turned sharply away from the River at this point and approached the cliff face. The area below the first steps was wide and paved with flagstones. A shelter of shaped stone stood at the far side of the terrace; here they left their horses in the care of Dirhavel, and mounted the stairs.
Each step was broad and evenly spaced and roughened to afford more traction, but while the cliff face provided protection and a handhold on one side as they ascended, the outside was open -- no railing protected them from a fall, nor was there any way to shield themselves from the soaking rain of Rauros. They hugged the inside of the stairs and stepped carefully, to avoid slipping on the stone, which was slick and treacherous despite the traction of the roughened steps.
The Stair twisted and turned, and wherever it bent sharply in a switchback to ascend to a greater height, there was a landing, wide enough to set down a small boat for a rest. They had stopped at one such landing to catch their breath, when Henderch appeared out of the mist before them, and held up a cautionary hand. He had gone ahead to be certain the way was clear, for he had the best sight and hearing of the party and would quickly be alerted if anyone else descended to meet them upon the Stair.
"Have you anything to report?" asked Grithnir, drawing close to Henderch and speaking in his ear so that he might be heard over the thunder of the Falls.
"Yes," replied Henderch. "It was a glimpse only, but I believe I saw someone descending from far above. I can tell you little more, for the twisting of the path makes it difficult to see ahead, and nothing is clearly visible in the mist clouding the stairs above. I think we should proceed cautiously; if someone does approach, he could be upon us with little warning. We might not even hear his approach. What sound I hear over the roaring of the water carries strangely, and is deadened by the mist."
"How many?" queried Grithnir, peering upwards through the mist in an attempt to see what lay ahead. "And were they Orcs?"
"No, not an Orc, and I believe he was alone. I can say no more with certainty."
"Very well," Grithnir replied.
He gazed at the upwards path before him as he pondered his decision.
"We will proceed with all due caution," he said at last. "There is no point in waiting here. We may as well meet our enemy on our own terms, if indeed it be an enemy. At any rate, there is little to fear from one, be he Man or Orc, but combat here on this open landing is to be avoided. I shall go first. Follow behind me as you will, and have your weapons ready to hand."
Grithnir led the way forward, his hand resting lightly on the hilt of his sword as he climbed; Henderch was at his elbow. Arthad came up close behind and unslung his bow, though he did not yet nock an arrow to the string. Linhir loosened the knife in his belt and grasped more firmly the stout staff he carried to aid his climb.
They went forward cautiously, but had climbed only as far as the next landing when they heard floating down from above the sound of a clear voice, calling out to them.
"Men of Gondor!" cried the voice.
They halted as one and waited, for the cry seemed to have come from close by. When no one appeared, Grithnir stepped forward and went up a few steps towards the next level.
"Who are you?" he demanded in a loud voice. "Show yourself! Are you friend or foe?"
A figure materialized suddenly from out of the mist -- a tall Elf, very fair of face, clad in green and brown. He carried a bow and a quiver of arrows, and long knives in his belt, but his hands were held out palm upwards in a gesture of peace, and the expression on his face was genial.
"I am Legolas, son of Thranduil of Mirkwood," answered the Elf calmly. "I come in peace, and as a friend to Gondor."
Grithnir made a slight gesture with his head, and the men behind him removed their hands from their weapons, though they remained alert and ready to act, should Grithnir give the word.
"You are far from home, Legolas son of Thranduil," replied Grithnir cautiously. "What is the purpose of your journey here? Do you seek passage into our land?"
"Nay, that is not my purpose as yet," answered Legolas. "Rather, I am come to find you, Men of Gondor -- though you have not acknowledged it, I deem by your speech and by the device of the White Tree which adorns your clothing, that you are indeed come from that land. For you, I bring tidings which you will be glad to hear."
Grithnir felt a sudden lightening of his spirit, as he realized what that news might be, but he schooled his face carefully to show no emotion until he was more certain of this stranger.
"Tidings that we will be glad to hear? There is only one such item of news, and if you can bring us any word of that matter, than we shall indeed be glad. Tell us your news!"
Legolas dipped his fingers into his belt and held forth Boromir's token.
"I bring you word of Boromir of Gondor. He has been my companion these past months, on a great quest that began in Rivendell. He bids you come to him, for he has need of you. I stand ready to guide you to him."
Grithnir extended a trembling hand and took the signet ring from Legolas.
"So he lives!" he breathed softly, but Legolas heard him and answered with a nod.
"Yes, he lives, but he is sorely wounded, by arrow and by sword. There was battle upon Amon Hen and he bore the brunt of it. Did you know of this?"
"We were sent by the lord Denethor, who had word that our Captain might be found here, having possibly met with danger," answered Grithnir. "We came as quickly as we could, but I hardly expected to find him alive!"
"How grievous are his wounds?" questioned Linhir, stepping forward. "Has he received any treatment?"
"His wounds are severe, but I believe him to be out of danger," Legolas said confidently, his smile conveying a quiet joy that was apparent to all. "One was with us who knows much of healing. He did what he could for Boromir, but he could not tarry here. Some others of our companions were taken captive by the enemy who fought with Boromir, and that one follows after, to rescue them. I remained behind to give what care I could to Boromir, until someone else came to our aid. I saw your approach from the height of Amon Hen; hoping you were come to seek him in the wilderness, I told Boromir I would meet you and guide you to his side."
Grithnir made to hand back the ring to Legolas, but the Elf held up his hand to stop him.
"Return it to him yourself," he suggested, and there was a look of compassion in his eyes. "I believe it would mean much for him to receive it back from your hand."
"Thank you," replied Grithnir simply, as he tucked the ring safely away. He held out his hand and Legolas grasped it in token of friendship.
"I am Grithnir," he said by way of introduction. "I am lieutenant and aide to the lord Boromir and in command of his chosen men while he is away."
Linhir, too, held out his large hand in a friendly fashion.
"I am Linhir, master healer to the soldiers of Gondor."
"Linhir?" said Legolas with a smile. "Yes, Boromir spoke of you and your skill. 'A healer whose hands are gentle, but his manner is otherwise, especially with me,' he said."
Linhir gave a loud guffaw and grinned, while the other men smiled and nodded knowingly to one another.
"Captain Boromir needs a stern hand when he is hurt," laughed Linhir. "A more difficult patient I have yet to encounter! You have left him alone to come in search of us? Then let us go to him quickly; no doubt he is doing something foolish, beyond his strength, while we leave him unattended!"
"Yes," replied Legolas with the flash of a smile. "That is indeed possible."
"Then come, friend Elf," said Linhir. "Show us to our lord. We are eager to see him again."