16. The East Stair of Rauros-Falls
Sam sped down the path in the lead again. The wizard had insisted on carrying Frodo in his arms once more.
"You must rest until the stairs," he said. "I cannot carry you there. We shall all need all our strength for that descent." He had explained that a half a mile farther on, the main Orc trail widened and continued eastward in a trampled, beaten swath, toward what he assumed was an outpost of some sort, hidden in the Emyn Muil. But the old path, faintly outlined with stones and hardly used, veered west. He had explored the first few hundred feet when he heard the Orcs and turned back.
Sam soon came to the fork. He looked back; they were a dozen yards behind him. The western trail was faint but easy enough to follow. He hurried onward, checking often to make sure he did not get too far ahead. The trail continued west now, straight into the afternoon sun. The sky had a pearly sheen that diffused the light. The roar of the falls grew louder with every step.
Finally Sam stopped between two fir trees and gazed out in wonder. He had come to the precipice of a cliff. The trail turned abruptly here, angling south. Below him, Nen Hithoel glittered; Tol Brandir rose steep and dark, its shadow stretching out toward him. A hundred feet down, just to his left, was the gleaming edge of the falls: a smooth shining arc flecked with foam that swept in a long curve from somewhere below his feet, around the south side of Tol Brandir and beyond. Billows of fine spray rose up, and flocks of slender-winged grey birds wheeled about the peak.
Gandalf came up and stood beside him. He eased Frodo to the ground.
"The Stair must be near," he said. "The terrain is rougher here than on the west side. The Emyn Muil encroach more closely to the edge of the lake. It is no wonder the portage route swung east first." He gazed down the path. It hugged the cliff edge, twisting down between tumbled rocks.
Frodo noticed how gingerly the wizard held his right hand to his side. "I feel better now. I can walk on my own from here, Gandalf... No!" he said sharply, when the wizard began to protest. "You said it yourself; we'll all need our strength for the stairs, and this trail looks little better than a stair already."
Gandalf frowned down the trail. "I suppose you're right. Sam, were you able to find any athelas?"
"Here, sir," Sam patted his pocket. "Young spring leaves, very fragrant. If it's like other herbs we use at home, the early growth will be the most potent."
"Give a few to Frodo," he directed, instructing the Ring-bearer to carry them in his hand and breathe in the scent now and then. "It will strengthen you, and drive off the vestiges of that voice you heard."
Frodo drew in a lungful of the fresh scent and sighed. The darkness that had been bearing down on him seemed to lift, and the trembling in his legs ceased. "You take some too, Gandalf," he said.
The wizard shook his head. "You should save it for yourselves: for now, and for later..."
"We won't get near Mordor without you," Frodo said crossly. "Take some."
The wizard hesitated briefly; then he nodded. "Very well. It will mask the stench of Orc piss, at any rate..."
They went on, Sam in the lead, Frodo second and Gandalf in the rear. While the narrow track went steadily down, it was for the most part smooth. The ancient paving stones were surprisingly intact. Every so often a few stairs had been cut into the slope. As yet the way did not require the use of their hands, but they found they must pay attention to avoid a misstep.
The falls drew nearer. They began to feel a light mist on their faces, and the trail was damp. The path swung into the trees and away from the edge. Silver drops clung to the trees and showered their heads as they ran. Abruptly, Sam halted. He held his had out and back, signaling the others to stop as he leaned forward and peered down. Frodo joined him and followed his gaze. He gave out a low whistle, lost in the roar of the waters, just as Gandalf arrived.
"This isn't a stair," Sam cried over the din. "It's a route for mountain goats!"
To their right, the pounding waters of Rauros surged and thundered, less than thirty feet away. Below their feet, the trail fell off a cliff. If at any time it had been a stair, its steepness would have been closer to that of a ladder. The pattern of worked stones could still be seen, but every step was broken, loose or heaved to the side. Other rocks had fallen atop the old, and lay helter-skelter across what had once been the path. The stones were wet with spray; water pooled in many places. When newly carved from the rock, the East Portage Stair of Rauros must have been treacherous. To the hobbits, it now appeared impassable.
Gandalf's eyes widened slightly as he gazed down. "This is clearly the place, though much eroded," he muttered. "I wonder whether the course of the falls has shifted eastward. They would not have built it so directly beneath the spray on purpose..." He followed the marks of worked stone with his eyes; they moved off to the right, toward the river. Indeed, the true 'stair' must have once switched back and forth to make a less steep but longer course. But that easier route was now hidden by the waters.
He drew in a deep breath. "Well, there is only one way down this so-called stair. Sam, get out the rope, that you so wisely obtained in Lorien to replace the one you left behind at the Bridge."
Sam swung his pack down and frowned. "Lot of good a rope will do us, begging your pardon, sir. I've got but one, and it's only forty or so ell long. That won't get us one third of the way down this cliff!"
"No, it wouldn't, if we were to tie it here and try to climb down together. So, I will lower the two of you down, and then I will climb down after you and bring the rope with me. And we shall repeat that until we reach the bottom--however long it takes."
Frodo frowned at him. "But Gandalf, your arm! You can't possibly..."
"Do not tell me what I can and cannot do!" the wizard snapped, his eyes flashing. The hobbits froze, and Frodo's face flushed.
Gandalf glared for a moment; then he passed his left hand over his eyes. "Forgive me," he said, so softly that they barely heard him over the voice of the falls. "My nerves are frayed, and yes, my arm pains me." He dropped his hand and looked into Frodo's eyes. "But hear me, Frodo," he said. Frodo felt his gaze burn into him. "There is only one thing that matters from now on: that you and Sam get through safely. Nothing else matters. Nothing. Do you understand?"
"But if you bear all our weight, you'll just aggravate..."
"It doesn't matter, Frodo!" the wizard said, a trace of anger returning to his voice. "We must go on! The day is getting old, and if we delay any longer we will add darkness to the difficulties we are about to encounter."
As Sam handed him the rope, the hobbit studied the wizard's weathered face. That Gandalf was already in pain was evident, but so was his determination. He already proved he's got strength none of us suspected... I hope it holds out a while longer...
"I'll go first, sir," Sam said. "I'll search out the easiest way, if there is such a thing." He reached for the end of coil and played out a few feet, looped it around his waist and tied a snug knot. "Ready."
The wizard wrapped the other end of the rope about his own waist and began to secure it; but his already swollen right hand was clumsy. Frodo watched his efforts for a moment. He reached out.
"Here," he said, as he took over the task. "Let me do that..." In seconds he had the rope knotted. The wizard gave him a nod and the flash of a smile.
They turned to watch as Sam slid off the first 'step.' Gandalf played the rope out as the hobbit moved downward cautiously, gripping it firmly in his left hand and using his right sparingly. Sam used his hands to cling to the stones, and sat on the edges of tilted rocks to reach down with his toes for the next step, He relied on the rope more for confidence than support. When he reached the end of the tether, Gandalf had not had to carry his full weight. Sam undid the knot, gave the rope a shake and called up to them; they could no longer hear him over the noise of the water.
The wizard pulled it up quickly. "Your turn," he said to Frodo.
Frodo would ordinarily have been the more agile of the two, but he still felt a little shaky after Amon Lhaw. He was as cautious as Sam, and once, when his feet slipped on the slick stones, the rope went taut and his full weight dragged downward. Finally he stood beside Sam and undid the knot. The rope slithered up, and they craned their necks to watch as Gandalf coiled it and looped it over one shoulder without untying it from about his waist. The wizard scrambled down more quickly than they had, and soon stood beside them with a smile.
In this fashion, they made their slow way down. Sam had underestimated the height of the cliff by nearly half. It took them five such circuits, with the hobbits climbing down, one by one, and the wizard coming after. The way grew steeper, and more and more they had to rely fully on the rope and let Gandalf lower them, foot by foot. When his turn came to find a way down, he was forced to use both hands, gripping ledges and lowering himself against the face of what had become, in some places, a sheer wall.
"If this is a stairway," he panted, as he dropped down beside them to catch his breath, "Then someone has removed all the steps!"
The afternoon light began to fade as the Sun slid behind the Emyn Muil in the west. The foaming surge of Rauros shone pale gold, then red, finally fading to hazy silver. The shadow over the cliff wall deepened.
After the hobbits had been lowered down for the fifth time, they stood together to watch their guide follow after them. He seemed to have reached a spot from which he could not go on. He had paused, the ball of his right foot on a narrow ledge, the left raised up and balanced on a jutting rock, and both arms stretched out fully. He was looking down, back and forth, over his shoulders, searching for his next move.
Sam pointed up. "He's veered to the left," he said, his voice raised to be heard above the continued roar of the river. "We came down over there. He'll have to go back up, but then it would be easier."
"You're right." Frodo cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted. "Gandalf! Go back up, if you can, and try it from over there!"
The wizard looked down. Frodo pointed to the right, and Gandalf nodded. He stepped up and put his weight onto his left foot, and the next sight was one the hobbits would not soon forget. The stone beneath his boot loosened and bounced away, and he could not regain his purchase upon the ledge. The wizard scrambled desperately for a new foothold until his right arm failed him. He hung for a moment from his left hand alone. Then that too gave way and he fell, tumbling and sliding to the right. Faintly above the water's voice they heard a thud and a muffled cry as he crashed onto a wider ledge fifteen feet above them.
The hobbits climbed up to him quickly. He lay curled on his side, gasping, his right arm clutched to his waist and his face twisted in a grimace. Frodo dropped to his knees beside him, placing his hand on his shoulder while Sam hovered over them.
Frodo had never felt quite so miserable. The feeling was all too familiar to Sam, for he had endured the unique agony of watching helplessly as a beloved friend suffered for many days and nights, all the way from Weathertop until Frodo awoke in Rivendell.
They waited until his panting breaths finally began to slow.
"Is anything broken?" the hobbit asked, when he finally opened his eyes.
"I don't think so," the wizard said hoarsely. "Give me a minute more..."
"Whatever time you need." Frodo's face grew stern. "When we reach the bottom of this wretched portage and find a flat, dry place to stop, we're not going one inch farther until you let me look at your arm. Do you understand?"
A strained smile appeared on Gandalf's face. "Yes... I'm afraid you'll both have to make your way down on your own from here. Go on... I'll catch up..."
"Nothing doing, Gandalf," Sam said.
"Don't be ridiculous, we're not going anywhere," Frodo said. "Strider was right; you are a stubborn old man."
He chuckled softly. "That certainly seems to be the general opinion. Perhaps that means it is true."
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.