15. Amon Lhaw
As promised, Gandalf explained his intentions for their route as soon as they made landfall on the east bank. Here, unlike upon the western shore, no pleasant green glade awaited them. They ran the boat ashore on a low spot between jagged rocks, and pulled it up, concealing it between twisted, forlorn-appearing shrubs devoid of any greenery. But Sam saw the hints of spring to come in the undergrowth, for here and there a sprig of something new was pushing toward the light. Mostly, however, their landing place was grey, silty mud.
"Perfect for our needs, my friends," the wizard said, as he lowered himself to the ground and sat. "Come close; you both must learn this." He began by smoothing out a square of earth, a foot on each side, with the flat of his left hand. Frodo noted with curiosity that the wizard was as agile with his left hand as with his right. He watched with growing interest as Gandalf drew with the point of a twig in the mud: sweeping bands flowed in a curve; jagged points gathered together, then marched around a corner; and lines of dashes inched up, only to cross another set of dashed lines.
"It's a map," Frodo said.
"Yes," the wizard replied. "The Enemy's land is fenced in on two sides…" He indicated as he spoke. "…by mountains. The pass through the Ered Lithui, the Mountains of Ash, in the north, is not open to us, for there he has built his greatest and most well-guarded fortifications, other than his own great Tower, Barad-dûr itself. We are here…" He pointed to the upper left of his makeshift parchment, where a curved line indicated the eastern shore of Nen Hithoel. "Rauros is here…and below, Anduin widens considerably in lowlands for leagues. On the west, the many streams of the Entwade fan out; upon the east, the river grows sluggish, and founders in marshlands. This…" and he pointed to the marshes, "…is where we are going to disappear for a while."
Sam grimaced with the memory of the Midgewater Marshes east of Bree. "Is there no other way, Mr. Gandalf? The marshes up north were awful, just swarming with beastly biting insects, and we were all smeared and slimed with wading through…"
"I am afraid I can do nothing about the insects, which may well be fierce. But these marshes are much deeper than the Midgewater. We will not be able to wade. We shall go by boat."
The hobbits looked at one another; the falls' dull thunder had grown into a loud roar. "Can you portage the boat down stairs with your injured arm, Gandalf?" Frodo asked.
Sam frowned. "And I thought Boromir said the stairs were in ruin on this side…"
Gandalf smiled. "There is no need to carry our boat, my friends. Remember from whence came our small craft? The Elves are excellent boat-makers, and they love their handicraft dearly…and I am quite fluent in Silvan."
He went on and explained his plan. Frodo marked the mischievous expression on Gandalf's face, and Sam's doubtful one. It will be something to see, indeed, if he can pull it off… I hope I get the chance to tell Bilbo about it, he'd be so pleased to hear this tale…
But the wizard was ready to continue his lesson. "I think we should plan on several days, perhaps longer, hidden from view in the Wetwang. The way through will be slow in any case, and it is time we were lost from sight for a while…though not lost, in truth! Yet, not even the tracking Orc breeds, who find their prey by scent, could find us there. When we come to the end of the marshes, in the south, we'll find dry land, here …" He pointed to a series of half-circles he had drawn. We will at last bid our boat farewell and climb into the hills of Ithilien, which was once a well-settled province of Gondor, but is now mostly held by the Enemy." Sam looked up from his study of the map worriedly. "The Rangers of the South keep a hidden stronghold here, an outpost from which they harass the Enemy and spy upon his servants. Even I do not know its location, which is a closely guarded secret. We will try to avoid the soldiers of Ithilien, if we can." Frodo frowned quizzically. "They are not enemies, of course…and yet…" Gandalf's voice dropped. "It would be better to not take the chance. Your burden may have an evil effect even on those who should be allies."
"Are these roads?" Sam asked, pointing to the dashed lines.
The wizard nodded. "Yes, but we won't be able to use them, save furtively and only when we have no other option, such as when we need to bridge a stream we cannot cross by fording. There is much traffic on Gondor's well-made roads these days, I'm afraid; most of it unfriendly. You would not wish to meet those who march on those roads now, Sam. But traveling cross country in Ithilien, even in the final weeks of winter, will be pleasant enough."
Sam bit his lip, remembering his glimpse of column after column of heavily armed Orc soldiers marching in formation on a paved road when he peered into the Mirror. But Frodo was tracing the dashed line to its intersection with another that came from the right.
"And here, at this crossroads…Is this where we turn east, Gandalf?"
The wizard's face grew stern. "Yes. We must still avoid the road itself, but we will travel near it, up into the Ephel Dúath and toward the valley, here…" He pointed toward another collection of jagged lines that seemed to part midway, as if a steep pass was cleft between. "But let us not get too far ahead of ourselves. That part of the journey may well be a fortnight from now. I think we've covered enough, for today." He reached out and swept his hand across the drawing, erasing all trace of it. He stood at once, slung his pack over his shoulder, and strode toward where they had concealed their boat.
But Frodo stared at the spot where the steep pass had been. He knew its name. He had learned that much in the libraries of Rivendell, and he had renewed his studies in Caras Galadhon. Of old it was called Minas Ithil; but is it not now the City of the Ringwraiths? The Witch King's City? Why was Gandalf taking them there? A cold shiver went through him, and his shoulder ached dully. There has to be another way; there has to be!
He looked up. Sam was already helping the wizard drag the craft toward the water's edge. No time now, but tonight, when Sam's sleeping, I must speak to him, alone. I don't want to alarm Sam overmuch, but I have to know why he believes it might be any safer there than at the Black Gate! There must be another way!
Frodo stood and shouldered his own pack. He stepped quickly, for he could see that the wizard was nearly ready to begin. He was tightening the last of the sturdy leather straps that held the oars snugly beneath the gunwales.
Gandalf straightened and kicked off his boots. Then, he nodded to Sam, who released the boat where he had held it, prow-aground and stern floating loose in the water. The wizard waded in to above his knees and held the boat lightly on one side, allowing it to bob and tip with the movement of the lake. The hobbits watched as he bent his head and closed his eyes. He began to whisper.
Frodo shivered again, but this time it was not the memory of the icy breath of the Nazgûl that shook him, but the tingling feeling of cold water flowing over his bare skin. His eyes drifted shut as the images of streaming water filled his mind.
Thing of beauty, hear my voice, feel my hands, feel the cool water, flowing, flowing, float with the river. Born of mellyrn, living silver, carved by Firstborn, lovers of woodlands, singers in the forest, gently they carved thee, singing, smoothing, shapely they made thee. Float now, little swan, silver one. Float upon the proud river, leaping, rushing, powerful river, foam glittering, diving river. Let Rauros caress thee with his loving fingers. Founder not, float above. Meet me again, come east, float again, where waters settle, quietly, gently. Hear my voice, know my voice, know my touch. Meet me there in the quiet waters. Wait for me. Wait for me.
Frodo looked up and blinked. The voice had murmured in Silvan, yet he had understood everything. The words had been as in a dream, a deep whispering voice, like that of a lover murmuring tenderly to his beloved. He saw that the wizard stood alone now, in the lake, his arms raised to the boat as it floated away toward the falls. He glanced at Sam; his mouth gaped open. They watched as Gandalf's arms dropped to his sides and he turned and waded back to the shore.
He smiled as he tugged on his boots. "Well, we'll soon find out if that worked!" he chuckled.
It proved to be more of a struggle to meet up with the boat of Lothlorien than any of them had anticipated. They left the small landing place and began thrusting their way south. But if the East Stair of the Rauros Portage-way of Gondor of old was in ruin, the path that led to it from the banks of Nen Hithoel had long ago been obliterated by choking vegetation.
For two hours they pushed, shoved and slid on hidden rocks, twisted roots and fallen branches. Thickets of sharp-needled evergreens seemed woven into impassable walls. Brakes of half-dead spruce, covered with broken-off branches like spikes, threatened to put out their eyes. Their faces were soon lined with scratches, and their hands and arms were scored and bruised. Worst, they encountered gullies filled with thorny vines that clung to every article of clothing and grasped at their hair. Gandalf grunted more than once when a strand of his beard snagged and was yanked off. They could see the glitter of the lake to their right, and hear the falls before them, but not even Gandalf could find anything resembling a stairway. Finally, he called for a halt.
He had hooked his right thumb over the top of his wide leather belt, and held his arm close to his body. The wizard's face was flushed, and he was sweating heavily.
"Well, friends, I am at a loss," he panted with a scowl. "The stair should be here. The Enemy's servants cannot have destroyed it completely. Yet, I do not think it would be fruitful for us to continue to search in this manner. We must go back and start at the beginning."
Frodo frowned with worry. He looks feverish again, he thought. We really ought to stop and let him rest…but where? There's no safe place, nor even a patch of level ground on which to sit.
"Beggin' your pardon, sir," Sam said. "But couldn't we climb to some higher ground, where we might try to see things better? I wondered, you see, if the problem might not be our landing place. If we didn't find the right spot—if it were overgrown, or had washed away or something--why then we'd be off entirely and not know it."
Gandalf's mood brightened. "Of course! Higher ground—there is indeed a high spot quite near. Amon Lhaw: the Hill of Hearing. In fact, we are upon its shoulders right now. And I think you are correct in your assessment. We may well have landed in the wrong place. The old east landing has not been used by anyone, perhaps for centuries; for the servants of Sauron do not cross water unless at great need, and the men of Gondor no longer venture this far north, east of Anduin. Sam, would you be willing to lead us in finding a route up? I do not think I can scramble as quickly as you. Don't get too far ahead, and be alert; we are closer to Mordor than you might think."
Sam nodded and at once began to take a winding, upward path between the evergreen shrubs. It soon proved easier than forcing a way down and forward, and they made much better progress in the next half hour. Frodo kept one eye on Sam, who was moving quickly and gaining height fast, and the other on Gandalf, who was trudging methodically, favoring his right arm. The hobbit saw a few grimaces come and go on his face. He probably jabbed his arm with one of those broken-off branches…that must have hurt something awful… Whether or not they found an open spot from which to see far off, Frodo planned to insist that the wizard halt and let him see his wound. That's all we need right now, is for him to fall ill from a festering wound.
Frodo kept Sam in sight and paused, waiting for Gandalf to catch up. Slowly, they rose above the thickets, and Frodo could see a greater expanse of the lake; but he could not discern any cut or opening in the overgrown landscape that might suggest a path or a stair. He followed Sam's zig-zag trail and gained another hundred feet of height. Sam turned a corner and disappeared from sight, and Frodo started to hurry after him. But Gandalf lagged behind, leaning heavily on his staff. He had tucked his right arm into the front of his robe, supporting it as in a sling.
Who is more vulnerable in the wilds, so near to the Enemy's land? Frodo thought, a wounded wizard or a hobbit-gardener who can barely wield the small sword he carries? He took one last look down the slope to mark the spot where Gandalf now stood, and turned and sped up the hill.
Frodo was breathless as he rounded the corner where he had last seen Sam. He stopped. The stunted trees were thinning out now, and the crest of the hill rose like a cone. He was near the top, but their path had looped around and come out on the east side. He could no longer see the lake and the sound of the falls was distant. He raised his hand to his mouth to call to Sam; but he dropped it, suddenly cautious. He took a deep breath and ran up and forward again.
The top of the hill flattened, and its crest was bare of all but low shrubs clinging to the stones. Suddenly, Sam appeared, his face full of terror.
"Run, Mr. Frodo! Orcs, and close! I heard them right here, lots of them!" Sam's voice was hoarse as he approached at a sprint. He grabbed Frodo's arm and began to drag him back down the slope.
But Frodo could hear nothing but the hiss of wind through the trees and the voice of the falls, louder now at the top of the hill; and they could see clearly all around them. No Orcs.
"Wait! Where did you hear them, Sam?"
"Right here! Just over there, loud as can be…"
Sam pointed to a slight depression at what seemed to be the top of the hill. A worn slab of stone like a bench stood there. "I climbed up there to see what I could, and that's where I heard…" He frowned and looked around. "That's funny. It's quiet now, and it can't be more than thirty feet… I heard them, Mr. Frodo, I did!" His face was red and full of confusion as he searched the surrounding bushes and trees.
But a slight smile dawned on Frodo's face. "The Hill of Hearing! Sam, that spot, right at the top, must be a special place where you can hear things, maybe things far off. There are undoubtedly Orcs somewhere in this vicinity, and that is what you heard. The other peak, on the west side, is called Amon Hen, the Hill of Seeing. Those names are Sindarin; the Kings of Gondor built these, I'm guessing." He walked slowly forward, fascinated. "I wonder if everyone hears the same thing…"
Sam watched him worriedly. Maybe the Orcs he had heard weren't attacking them at this moment, but they must be close by. We shouldn't be lingering here! He thought. He turned to look behind. Where's Gandalf got to?
He started at a loud thump. He spun, and saw to his horror that Frodo had fallen to the ground and was lying face down before the bench-like stone. He ran to him as fast as he could.
Sam dropped to his knees and rolled Frodo onto his back. His Master's face was pale and his skin was clammy and cold. Just like after the knife attack… He had swooned, or so it seemed. "Mr. Frodo!" he whispered. "Master, what happened?" As Sam leaned forward to place his arm around Frodo to pull him up, his shoulder brushed against the stone.
Suddenly, he was surrounded by the snarling shouts of Orcs again, as loud as before! Wildly, he looked about, but a strange mist had gathered in the shallow bowl in which the stone sat. He could not see far through the mist, but he saw no Orcs, none that could be making such a nearby racket. He tried to tug Frodo up to a sitting position. His Master slumped against him as dead weight. But in moving forward, his shoulder stopped pressing on the rock; the voices of the Orcs ceased instantly.
"Hi!" he said in a hushed voice. "What sort of evil place is this? I've got to get him away from here!"
Sam was about to try to drag Frodo out of the shallow depression when from the mist, the wizard appeared. Sam jumped to his feet.
"What in Arda!" Gandalf muttered, as he dropped to one knee. "What happened?"
"He fainted, I think. He wanted to see if he would hear the same things I did, on this bench-like thing… I heard a thud, like, and he was on the ground…" Panic rose in his voice. "He looked just like that, Gandalf, all those nights, after Weathertop…"
"The Black Breath…" Gandalf whispered. "I was a fool not to warn you. To sit on the Seat of Amon Lhaw in these dark days is undoubtedly to hear fearsome things, for foes surround this place and hem Gondor in on all sides. Did you sit there, Sam?" The hobbit nodded. "What did you hear?"
The wizard stared at him. "We must leave, now. I will carry him. Sam, take one last look, toward the west and south. No sense in wasting the opportunity; we still have to find our path out of here."
Sam nodded and sped westward. Gandalf leaned down to scoop the hobbit into his arms, and he, too, brushed against the stone.
His ears filled with a roaring howl that bent him double with the force of it. His sight dimmed to blackness. Within the blast of noise, he heard voices. The first and nearest: cunning, cold, laughing cruelly…the next closest: proud, disdainful, calling him a fool…the third: a scream of rage and hate, swearing revenge and destruction…and far off, nearly beyond his hearing, a faint whisper: I will try, I will do what I can, and then I will come…
He pulled away from the stone and gasped. His sight and senses returned. Frodo lay limp against his chest. He gathered the hobbit into his arms, taking care to shift the greater part of his weight onto his left arm, and stood.
Frodo stirred and awoke. He looked up into the wizard's worried face.
"What happened?" he said hoarsely.
"You fainted." Gandalf peered at him. "What did you hear, Frodo?"
Frodo shivered. "The Witch King..." He closed his eyes. "I feel so weak!"
"Lie still, I have you."
Sam appeared, running from the edge. "I can see the trail, Mr. Gandalf. We were off the track! I don't see where the path starts, but it curves away from the lake, toward the east. It must wrap around the back of the hill. I could follow the line of it where it comes out and turns south, until it disappeared into the mists about the falls."
"Lead us, Sam!" the wizard said.
Sam led him in a curving line around the hill, diagonally down the slope toward the east. The hobbit moved quickly at first, but slowed his pace when he got too far ahead. The trees were thinner on the east slope, and the voice of Rauros was faint. Sam switched back and forth, continuing down, checking frequently to see that the wizard was keeping up, and worrying about Frodo with every step. But we can't stop here, not where we are, so exposed, not with Orcs on the loose… He kept moving.
At last they intersected a narrow track, nothing more than the path a pair of feet might wear in the vegetation if a single walker had taken the same route again and again—or if a dozen moved in single file. Gradually it widened. The track showed signs of more recent use, where the soil had been beaten flat, and the vegetation on either side had been snapped off, and crushed in places, as though someone had rushed through without regard for the destruction they wrought. The trail twisted back and forth now, ever downward, avoiding the gullies and the thorns. The sound of the falls was gone; they had reached the eastern base of Amon Lhaw. Just when it seemed they had veered too far east and must once again press through the thick brush, the path dropped off a small ledge and abruptly turned west. Sam waited at the turn in front of a short rocky wall for Gandalf and Frodo to catch up.
"This looks more likely, Sam," the wizard said as he joined him. "That smaller track had all the look of an Orc trail." He stooped forward to examine the trail. Faint traces of paving stones--many broken or missing, but enough to see that someone had taken the care to build a permanent path--lined the way.
"How is he?" Sam asked, as he reached up to place a hand on Frodo's cheek. He felt cold and damp beneath Sam's palm. Sudden tears stung in his eyes.
Gandalf slowly knelt and lowered Frodo to the ground. His face was stern as he ran his fingers over the hobbit's brow. Frodo stirred again. He opened his eyes. They saw a haunted look there. He tried to sit up; he held his hand to his head and moaned softly.
"Not yet." Gandalf pushed on his shoulders, and Frodo lay back again. "Rest for now." The wizard caught Sam's eye. "Sam, do you remember the herb that Aragorn gathered beneath Weathertop? Athelas, it is called…" Sam nodded. "Do you think you would recognize it?"
The hobbit frowned, then nodded again. "I…I pick up on plants and such right easy, sir...like you are, with foreign tongues. I saw it many times. Yes, I think I could."
"Good. It undoubtedly grows here, on these grounds, for wherever the Kings of Gondor settled, or built structures of any sort, they would plant it nearby. We must find some, and quickly. I have not Aragorn's healing skills, nor the touch that comes from his bloodline; but the herb itself will help." He touched Frodo lightly on his cheek; the hobbit opened his eyes. "Frodo, can you stay here for a few moments by yourself, while Sam and I do a bit of investigating?"
Frodo nodded. "Help me sit up, at least," he said. "I don't want to be caught lying flat." He struggled to sit. The wizard crouched down to help him prop himself against the stones, and he tucked his cloak about him. "Pull your hood forward," he said, as he stood again. "There! Your cloak blends in well. I can hardly tell where you begin and the stone ends. We will return soon!"
Sam was already searching through the undergrowth, looking at the bases of trees and in clefts where two stones came together. He remembered what Strider had told him, that the plant thrived in moist, sheltered places. It had a tiny spike of pale white flowers...but it wouldn't, now, not at the tail end of winter... It should be easy enough to see green among all this brown from last year's growth... Long smooth leaves, silvery below... But now, it will be just the newest shoots, narrow and bright... His bowed head roved back and forth as he moved quickly.
Gandalf sped down the now obvious path. How far to the stair? He needed some assurance that their search was not in vain. It was already a few hours past noon. They had wasted too much of this day through his floundering efforts to find the way. If he didn't see a glimpse of the true Portage-way, and soon, he would take the hobbits back to the thickets and hide with them in the deepest, thorniest gully they could find. Amon Lhaw does not lie. If Sam heard Orcs, they must not be far. And what I heard; that was the truth, as well... He sped onward.
Sam turned and looked back up the slope. The wall where Frodo waited looked small now; he could not pick out his Master's form. He had come much farther than he'd planned, and found nothing. He clenched his fists. I've got to find it! Think, Sam, think! Athelas would have been planted where the Kings built things... That was it. Nearer to the trail, that's where he should look. He ran back up the slope, toward the trail. A hundred feet...fifty....thirty...He stopped. That scent! He looked down. Beneath his left foot, the tip of a green shoot protruded. He had crushed it, and released the scent!
He dropped to his knees. Yes, that's it... Carefully, he gathered handfuls of small narrow leaves, smooth and green; the cool, fresh odor floated toward his nostrils.
Suddenly he stiffened. Harsh voices, echoing shouts from below, the stamp of heavy feet: Orcs! He jammed the leaves into his shirt pocket and ran to where Frodo waited, now on his feet. His Master's face still looked wan and pale, and he swayed a bit, but he had drawn his sword. The blade glowed dull blue.
"Where's Gandalf?" he whispered as he huddled beside him.
"I don't know," Frodo muttered. "He went off down the trail, but that was at least ten minutes ago. The Orcs... Can you tell which direction they're coming from?"
"I think from down there," Sam pointed toward the descending trail--where the wizard had gone. The harsh voices were drawing nearer, but they could not see them yet.
They looked at one another. "Do you think we should hide?" Sam whispered.
"Yes, but where?"
"Here!" said a deep voice. They turned to find Gandalf running toward them across the slope from the trees. His cloak flapped open as he spread his arms and took the final steps to where they waited. "Come close to me. Hide within my cloak!"
The hobbits stood against him as he wrapped his cloak over them. He tossed his hood forward and let his staff drop into the vegetation at his feet. He crouched down, pressing them to his sides, until he was on his knees beneath a tent made up of the Elven cloak. Reaching forward, he swept his beard beneath the collar of the cloak. He bowed his head until the lip of the hood lay flat against the front of the cloak. "Silence," he breathed. "Don't move!"
"Hey, you maggots, keep a move on!" a rough voice called. "Up that slope! Spies reported on the Hearing Hill. Keep a sharp eye out. Come on, scum, faster!"
Light filtered faintly through the fabric as they heard the stomp of heavy booted feet come closer and closer, mixed with huffing grunts and curses. Clumsy shadows lumbered by, a few feet away. They could smell them as they marched up the trail. Sam's heart was racing as he tried to count how many.... six... twelve... twenty... He was pinned beneath Gandalf's left arm. His heart's racing, too...
Frodo felt the fire burning in the wizard's right forearm, clamped across him and holding him tightly. He thought he heard--or perhaps he only imagined--faint whispering. Stone we are, rock we be, stone is all there is to see... Was Gandalf muttering a spell to help conceal them?
The last shadow paused right in front of them. They heard a grunt, and the shuffle of leather, a squeak of metal as something shifted on the Orc's belt. The hobbits had the same thought: jump back and out of the way when Gandalf leaps up... But then they heard the sound of a narrow stream of water--or liquid, at any rate--striking the ground. Hiss. Thirty seconds; a minute. A sharp stench rose, and droplets splashed upward. Frodo could feel warm liquid seep through the cloth. The stream slowed to a trickle. Another grunt and shuffle, then footsteps, stomping up the trail. The Orc was gone.
"Wait," the wizard whispered. "Another minute. Don't move..."
The silence deepened. The footfalls and shouts faded. Rauros and the wind was all they heard. Gandalf's steel grip released and he raised his head
"Well! That was lucky indeed. The worst is that we'll have some laundry to do this evening, my friends," he chuckled.