5. The High Pass
Beta: Wonderful Anarithilien.
Chapter 5: The High Pass
Legolas left Alagos and Galadhon already bickering and quickly followed the path back up the way they had come, recognising small details, a boulder in the middle of the path, a sapling, a stream that rushed across the path, washing away the gravel and grit and leaving smooth stone beneath.
He climbed up and up, and up, winding his way between rocks and over mountain meadows full of long grass that waved, over lush green bogs and marshes that would swallow a man whole, and along grey streams that fled downwards over the grey stones as if they feared something high up in the Hithaeglir. He pulled his cloak about him, and even if he did not really feel the cold, he was glad now of its comfort; it smelt of home, and Alagos and Galadhon had insisted he take his and not leave it for a litter for Alagos.
Now and again he paused and stared up at the bleak crags that rose above him; high and jagged they were. He had not yet seen their peaks for they were always hidden by great shrouds of mist and cloud. And as if it had perceived his thought, the cloud suddenly, briefly drew aside and he saw sharp horns reaching higher than he had ever imagined, could even have dreamed. Snow gleamed on the peaks, pristine and pure as the days of Cuivënen. His breath seemed suddenly short and the mist drifted slowly back over the heights, and the mountains were hidden again. He recalled the tales Laersul had told him, that the Towers of Mist upon the borders of Eriador were even taller and more terrible in the first Age, and were reared by Melkor to hinder the riding of Oromë. He found himself believing it.
He paused for a moment and feeling a sudden sense of unease and panic, pulled the scrolled map from where he had thrust it inside his tunic when he took his leave of Galadhon and Alagos. It made him feel better just unrolling it and assuring himself that he was on the narrow path for the way-stones were intermittent.
At least he would not be there when Thranduil heard the news of Alagos' injury, he thought glumly, imagining his father's rage and disappointment, his worry.
Late, when the sun was high but cool enough that walking was not unbearable, he heard a rush of water ahead of him and thought that at least after the Summer the river would not be high. There was no river marked on the map but it was many years ago that anyone had crossed the mountains from the Wood and he supposed it could be from melt-water from the snow.
He came to it quite suddenly and stopped.
A bear stood in the river on its four legs, muzzle dripping with water from where it had lifted its head from the river and its small brown eyes regarded Legolas. Its thick fur was deep and rich brown from a Summer of fish and sunshine and it yawned showing sharp white teeth.
Then it turned, the water pouring from its long fur as it heaved itself up on its strong legs out of the river and ambled away into the brush.
He let go the breath he had not realised he had been holding and relaxed his hands on his bow. He supposed the bear was well fed and did not need to bother to chase him as its prey. He was grateful to Yavanna for that. And if that was the worst thing he met on this journey he would be glad.
After that the trail become even higher, steeper, grew harder and the air was as thin as the soil; he found himself short of breath and moved more slowly. But it was not just the thin air that caused this, he felt a malevolence in the ponderous and clinging air, that drew him back while his heart drew him onwards. The Mountains were hostile, an overwhelming presence. Steep grey cliffs towered on either side and their peaks disappeared into the mist and cloud that seemed permanently to shroud the sky. And the wind blew, whined through the passes and between the great cliffs, tore at him, pulling his long hair and cloak spitefully. But it was worse when the wind dropped, the brooding, resentful silence was oppressive and now and again, a small clatter of rocks from the cliffs above would break the absolute quiet. Each time he felt his heart pound hard in his chest, and he scrambled down scree slopes or hid between boulders and stood absolutely still in the shadows, until he was certain nothing followed him, or tracked him.
He passed a ring of blackened stones, an old campfire, and a pile of bleached bones nearby. They were not animal bones.
After that he did not sleep, not even the half-waking dreams as he walked, and only stopped briefly when it was too dark to walk. Night time was the worst, when he sat without fire or light and listened to the unearthly noises of the mountains, strange sounds in the night, echoing around the rocks and as the utter darkness closed over him he imagined how the great grey cliffs towered above him. He dared not sing, not murmur to himself just to hear a voice. There was only the wind and when that at last dropped, the awful, immense, brooding silence.
One morning as daylight crept over the Mountains, eagles cried, wheeling in the grey sky above him, and swooping above Legolas first and then soared ahead. One dropped between two great mountain peaks ahead of him and then re-emerged, wheeled and then soared between the great mountains again...Legolas squinted after the eagle, remembering the tales of Oropher's passing over the Hithaeglir and how he had been aided by the great eagles. Suddenly he felt less alone and followed in its direction.
It seemed he was right to follow for at last he reached the start of the high Northern Pass; a narrow trail threaded its way between the snowy shoulders of two great mountain peaks, their grey cliffs towered above him, immense, their tops shrouded in mist and cloud. It would take him two marches, he thought, to cross the Pass, and with luck he would be on his descent by nightfall the following day. Still too slow, he knew.
Following the narrow trail that almost disappeared in places, he had to scramble over great boulders that blocked the way or cross bare rock and scree that slid beneath his feet treacherously. Whenever even his light feet made a sound or let fall a small clatter of rocks, he felt the Mountains' attention somehow focus and that malevolence intensified, was brought to bear upon him in the resentful silence. Even the air was thin and starved and cold. Behind him in the East the sky was dark grey and tinted yellow; he could smell snow on the wind and the air was blizzard-heavy.
He opened up the map again and searched it, but he knew the trail so carefully marked had long gone, as Galadhon had said, the road disappeared beneath rockslides and melt-water, and eroded by the wind and ice that ground down rock, tore stone. And the presence of the white way-stones, he realised now, merely meant there were goblins. A bitter wind swirled amongst the rocks.
By nightfall he had climbed steeply far into the Pass, and the narrow path had become but a wide ledge and wound beneath a sheer cliff to the left and plunged away into a precipitous ravine to his right. He felt a cold softness on his hair, his face and looked up. Snow.
It began slowly but soon was falling fast, great snowflakes filled the air, swirling and falling in soft silence and he had to stop, to take shelter, such as it was, between two granite boulders. Through the night the snow fell faster and heavier and he huddled in his cloak and listened to the wind which seemed almost a voice itself, howling and whining like a great invisible beast. Even in the morning it did not cease and he could hardly make out the dark shapes of rocks ahead of him, could hardly see the path and knew he could slip all too easily into the ravine below. He pulled his cloak about him more tightly, hoping that if he could not see, no goblin could either.
The path narrowed and he wondered how Bilbo and the Dwarves had managed with ponies for he did not think any pony could have traversed this narrow ledge, skimmed with thin ice in this storm, and with snow banked up against the cliff. A boulder lay on its side across the path, had obviously fallen from the cliffs above and crashed upon the narrow path making it impassable. He looked up nervously for the cliffs were pocked with caves and holes in the cliffs above the path and he thought how easy it would be to pick him off, but for the driving snow.
It was easy for an Elf to scramble over the boulder. As he did so, he turned his head to see that behind the boulder was a low arch in the cliff face, a cave. It was dry and although he had to dip his head, it was out of the wind and snow. He peered around it carefully; it had a dry floor where he could sleep if he were fool enough. There was something not right; a lingering smell, like lightning had struck though it could not have. It reminded him of Gandalf. At the back of the cave was a crack in one of the walls like something hot had shattered it. A flint from a tinderbox lay abandoned on the floor. Slowly he stopped and picked it up. Dwarvish, he thought. It had a rune etched onto its smooth surface, T binding together the shield and oak design. He stared at it and then replaced it carefully on the floor. He stood just within the opening of the cave and did not light a fire, did not take off his cloak and shake it out, did not move to the back of the cave out of the snow. He stood just within the opening and stared out at the snow, the hairs on his neck lifted and listening intently for any sounds that came from within.
The blizzard eased slightly and he cast a look back over his shoulder at the crack in the wall. Surely it had widened since last he looked? He tilted his head to one side and listened...as if it read his intent, the blizzard outside intensified, roared through along cliff face. It seemed there was a fell voice on the air, like the Mountains themselves had given voice to their malice. Nervously, he strung his bow and drew two arrows from his quiver which he held lightly against the string. At that moment, he heard a loud crack and he looked over his shoulder; the stone had indeed cracked open and dark shapes poured and shifted within. Goblins.
Instantly he leapt out into the snow, cast a quick glance along the ledge. Deciding that at least the snow would give him cover and what choice did he have, he darted swiftly along the narrow path, digging his toes hard into the snow to give him footholds, gripping his bow in one hand and trailing the other hand along the cliff to steady himself against the furious wind. Voices like the crack of whips shouted and yelled and he turned and loosed arrows quickly into the snow and did not stop to see if they found their target.
Only when he skidded suddenly on ice and loose stones which skittered down over the rough path, bouncing over the steep edge that dropped away for hundreds and hundreds of feet, did he pause. Too fast and he would slip again, and even Elves can fall. He peered over his shoulder but all he could see was the swirling snow caught in the tearing wind. It lay thickly on his hair, his cloak and even on his eyelashes. He could not hear anything but the wind and Goblins are heavy on their feet.
Blinking he edged along the path, snow coming at him from every side until he was blind and could not see where his feet should go. He inched forwards for he could not go back, and clung to the icy rock. Before long the snow was drifting against the rock-face and even his light feet sank a little, but it formed long slopes and he began to dig his feet harder into the snow to give him footholds. The wind caught his cloak and hair and pulled at him violently so he had to stop completely at times and swayed tenuously, clinging to the snow toeholds, his fingers clutching at fissures in the rock.
It seemed he had been travelling for hours against the ferocious blizzard and he barely noticed when the narrow ledge abruptly widened and took him into a wide valley between two cols. He still clung to the cliff and only when it gradually smoothed and sloped away did he realise he had come through the High Pass and was on the other side of the Hithaeglir. It had been many miles along the ledge, but on any normal day it would have taken him no time and troubled him not at all, but the wind and snow had battled against him furiously.
As he emerged into the valley, the blizzard stopped quite suddenly and the wind dropped so all was suddenly eerily silent and snow-covered. He stopped in the cover of the rocks and peered out over the snow. The goblins may well have underground tunnels and even now be lying in wait for him; they would know he had to come out here. Caves overlooked the path and he looked up, around, stretching out his senses, listening hard. Moving quickly, silently, he skimmed lightly over the snow, leaving barely an imprint. He knew his cloak would reflect light and make him difficult to see, but he kept his bow strung and arrows in his fist.
Then in the distance behind him, he heard a ring of steel. Legolas froze, letting himself merge almost unconsciously into the landscape. He crouched between some grey granite rocks and listened...the draw of a blade from its sheath perhaps? He tilted his head to one side and listened...stilled his own heartbeat and the thump of his blood in his veins, let the sounds of the world fall away, expecting to hear the cracked, hard voices and the scattering, running feet of the mountain goblins, their dischord in the Song...Instead, a different sound, a steady rhythm of heavy feet, the beat of steadfast hearts that were jealous and proud and loyal...the echo of caverns deep and veins of gold, the rhythm of the hammer on molten steel and iron...There was the deep song of Stone, the mountains resonated just as the Wood resonated with the presence of the Elves.
Slowly he came back to awareness.
Dwarves then. Only Dwarves would make the stone sing so, he guessed, even the Hithaeglir which had no love for Dwarves or Elves, he thought. Far back, behind him on the track...lower than the track he was on, he thought. So he rose to his feet and gazed about him. The Dwarves must still be quite far behind him. He wondered if they were also making their way to Imladris...He did not think of going back to join them.
The descent seemed as slow as the ascent but the snow had stopped falling now and only a light coat lay on everything. The bitter wind seemed content to have seen him off the cold slopes. Ahead of him a cold, clear stream rushed downwards between junipers and whortleberries that grew in the thin hard soil; the slopes above were no longer bare rock and loose scree, but were covered with heather and tough scrubby grass dusted with snow. Lichens grew on the grey granite stones. He stooped to fill his water-skin from the stream and felt the grey pebbles smooth under his fingers and the water cold as melt-water. He sipped at it, tasting it pure on his tongue but bitingly cold and pulled out one of the last cakes of lembas. He was sick of lembas. The warriors of the Wood told tales that in Lothlorien the Lady and her maidens made the lembas for the Marchwardens. In the Wood, they said, it was made by Galion and his henchmen.
He glanced up at the grey clouds that seemed to be swelling and lying heavily across the mountains. They did not seem to be getting closer and he hoped the Hithaeglir had been content with the blizzard it had thrown at him in the days before. He wondered where the Dwarves were and looked back along the mountain trail, almost expecting to see them emerge from the narrow pass. He could no longer hear them however and he wondered if they had become lost or waylaid...and for a moment he thought he should go back.
Something yelped somewhere above him on the stony screes slopes and he turned to look. Marmots scattered and rushed to their holes and suddenly the shadows lengthened and silence fell absolutely.
He froze, fingertips prickling. He rubbed his fingers together and the cold grew, and the darkness rolled upwards from the hair of his scalp froze, his blood chilled and he stopped suddenly, eyes wide and staring.
Surely not here?
It was unmistakable to any who had grown up in the Forest or spent time patrolling the South.
He turned and fled.
Throat suddenly dry, heart racing with fear, nerves jangling and feet flying over the stony path, back up the way he had come. Suddenly he veered away from the path and flung himself over boulders and the low growing junipers and heathers, a chamois leapt alongside him for a moment and then veered away. The rocky cliff face loomed suddenly before him and he had nowhere to go but up and he could not be found exposed on the sheer cliff face. He flung himself down on the frozen ground, in the scrubby whortleberries and heather and pressed his face against the snow. He could only hear his own panting thundering heart and the cold grew, tendrils of fear creeping towards him, reaching, sniffing the air as a hound.
The world was suddenly dark and all sound ceased. He squeezed his eyes shut and drowned out all thoughts, pressed down his terror, stilled his wildly pounding heart, willed his blood to stop banging through his veins for they would smell him...smell his fear...and he suffocated his Song...
Shadows seemed to reach for him. Cold air swept up from the valley and with it, a tinge of something else. Like a smell...like the emptiness of a tomb.
Intense cold, like the air had frozen, drifted over him and that familiar, inexplicable fear drove a spike through his heart. Like a blade.
He had a fleeting sense of something...
...a sad ghost wringing its hands over a short, squat body on the ground, a shadow beckoning, dragging the ghost towards it by the green-gold thread which it swiped away so it floated in little drifts upon the Dwarf on the ground...
It was enough to distract him, to let the terror pass him by and the Nazgul was gone.
But he lay there, pressed into the ground, waiting for the terror to leave his limbs...
He did not move, kept his heartbeat slow and quiet, and stilled his Song.
Long he lay there silent and unmoving until he was sure they had gone.
At last, there was rustling near his face and he saw a small mouse run past his nose. He heard the Song surge softly back and the small creatures of the mountain crept back. The marmot yelped up in the rocks somewhere and another yelped back. He let himself relax slightly and shifted. Slowly he raised his head to look about him; nothing. The high valley was empty and the Nazgûl had had been no horse and no following company of goblins or orcs...He slowly rose to his feet and stood still for what felt like ages, feeling, listening, stretching out his senses...
There was a spark of fire high up on the mountainside and far back along the path. He wondered if that was the Dwarves or goblins. He hesitated. No, he was better off on his own for he did not know if they might welcome him and he would have wasted time. So he began to trot back along the path, and he stretched his senses out, cast his sharpened gaze about himself and did not stop until he had descended from the alpine meadow and ahead of him the trail fell below the tree-line and he breathed with relief that he was again amongst the trees. Their green pine fragrance filled his lungs but there was a great unease in the forested slopes and he felt afraid. It had been so short a time since the Nazgûl had passed.
Legolas glanced down over the edge of the trail and down the steep wooded slopes below. He tilted his head to one side and listened...stretched out his senses. There was nothing but the forest's unease persisted. He looked behind him again up at the thin spiral of smoke high up on the mountainside and wondered again if he should join the Dwarves. Then he scrambled down the slopes and vanished into the trees, lightly trailing his hand over the tree trunks as he passed and listened carefully to the whisper of the wind in their high branches.
Great towers of cloud gathered, swelled and billowed like immense sails. Behind him a low rumble rolled up from the valleys and over the mountains behind him.
Just as night fell, the rain came, and the storm.
Thunderclouds rolled across the sky like enormous waves crashing against each other, and emptied themselves on the western slopes of the Misty Mountains. Lightning flashed down and bolts of molten silver threaded through the sky. At first Legolas turned his head up and let the water soak his face, stream down his hair and he breathed deeply of the scent of the rain and soaked earth. But it did not stop and soon the slopes turned to mud and water puddled in grey sheets across the path, poured from the sloped bank on one side in a brown rivulet, drenched the leaves and trees and grass, soaked through his cloak, his tunic, his boots so he thought he may as well run naked. Until at last he decided to stop beneath the pines whose branches meshed and the rain leaked through rather than ran in torrents. He crouched at the trunk of the tree and ate part of the last lembas wafer with relief for he thought he must be close to Imladris. He had heard the roads of Imladris could deceive unwary travellers or those whose hearts were not true and he wondered how the road knew.
As he ate his waybread and mused, he watched the rain. It did not stop and his clothes gradually dried for they were well made for travelling. Beneath the tree was dry still and he looked up into the wide, thickly woven branches with sudden fatigue. He was far enough away from the path to be unseen and close enough to hear if the Dwarves passed by. So he climbed the tree and found the wide branches forked and interlocked into a convenient nest that could have been made for the purpose and leaned back against the trunk of the tree whose needles whispered in the rain and he heard its slow deep song as it thrust its roots into the deep earth and drank deeply.
He did not mean to sleep, but merely rest...but he awoke suddenly with his fingertips prickling and the hair on his neck and spine stiff with fear. The air was suddenly chilled and he knew it was the Nazguûl.
He caught his breath. Surely it had not returned? Surely it did not hunt him? Why did it not pursue him earlier?
It seemed that frost hung in the air and all other sounds ceased but a rush of wind came up from the valley, howling, bitter as hunger. Legolas flattened himself against the tree and clung to its branches. His hair was torn back and he felt he was being dragged into the wind that howled through the trees, but its icy blast was no part of Nature. It smelled of empty tombs...
And was gone.
Gone. Vanished into the Mountains. He found his hands trembling slightly and he clutched at them. It is only fear, he reminded himself, as he had countless times in the South of the Wood.
When finally he could stand to return to the earth, he had decided that he would simply run as fast as he could to get off this wretched mountain and into the valleys. The Nazgûl had been uncloaked, unhorsed, and then a horrible thought struck him. What if Imladris had been lost, overrun by Shadow? After all it was long since Thranduil had had word from Elrond... He felt a dreadful pressure in his chest. To have journeyed all this way to find that the Shadow had won this side of the Mountains...
He shook himself. Fool. You are letting your fear run away with you, he scolded himself as he had many a novice in his time. Have you forgotten all those times in the South?
So he shouldered his quiver and bow and strode up the steep ferny bank through the grey rain and back onto the narrow path where he stood looking for a moment. It was eerily still and he looked back up the path that led over the High Pass and home... It seemed the air had shifted strangely, almost a clear walled tunnel and he recognised that strange dislocation and sense of disorientation that he had experienced in the South of the Forest.
He wondered how the Dwarves had fared but he had not seen or heard them for days now- had only seen the glimpse of fire and it may not have been Dwarves. He could do nothing either to warn them or help them, so he turned and headed down the mountain road that led to the First Homely House. But his boots squelched and his tunic was so muddy as to be unrecognizable and he wondered what in all of Arda Lord Elrond and Imladris would think... and then he remembered the passing of the Nazgûl and was afraid of what he might find instead.
Quite suddenly it seemed his narrow, overgrown path, such as it was, joined another, a broader, better maintained track and he stood for a moment in the rain, looking along it. Raindrops pattered on the gravel, puddled in well worn places. The track wound in wide, easy loops down the mountains and when he looked up, he saw that the wide loops continued upwards, twisting around a col and then appeared again through a gap in the rocks, and then vanished. White way-stones marked it clearly in both directions. It was an easy track to follow.
He pulled the map from inside his tunic and held it open, shielding it from the rain and then turned it round and looked up at the peaks above him and turned it again. Ah. Mentally he kicked himself- surely this track ahead of him was the right path and he had been travelling on some goat track? When did he go wrong? At least there were was no one to witness his stupidity. Youngest and stupidest, Galadhon's word echoed and he winced. It was not true and Galadhon had said it in jest but he thought neither Laersul nor Thalos would have made such an error. Shaking his head at himself, he turned and, pulling his cloak around him, walked through the driving rain down the gravel track.
There were many small rivers and streams cascading down the mountains and through thickly forested slopes of pine. He breathed in and luxuriated in the scents and smells of the forest after the bare mountain, the green pines, the thick, slowly- rotting carpet of needles. Even the relentless rain did not dim its beauty and the road was clearer, winding down the sloping forest, with its rocks and moss-covered boulders, alongside mountain streams of cold pure water. Raindrops pattered on the surface of pools, on the gravel track, on his cloak, splattered in the growing puddles on the road.
It would be beautiful, he thought, if he were not so drenched, so bedraggled and soaked, and covered in mud and anxious that goblins or orcs or Nazgûl lurked behind every rocky outcrop or perched on every high ridge above him. His boots squelched.
A river rushed ahead of him. Its white water was cloudy with mud and clay and there were great logs jammed against the banks, swept down by winter floods.
And then he felt something...like he had walked into something different, the air changed subtly, like it did when he entered his father's own realm and he knew he had passed into Imladris. He stepped off the track then and went a little way into the trees, paused beneath the great pine trees whose meshed branches gave some shelter from the rain and with great weariness, he let his bow fall and unslung his quiver, fell onto the lush grass and leaned against a tree trunk.
Just for a moment, he told himself for suddenly he was very weary.
He did not really rest even now for the remembrance of the Nazgûl flickered and trembled on the edge of his thoughts and he wondered if Imladris was safe. So after an hour's rest where he reluctantly ate the last biscuit of lembas, cursing Galion as he did, he made his way carefully down the ever widening path until it dropped quickly between the pine trees and he could see below him a valley. It lay between the high mountains on one side and on the other, softer, greener mountains that were foothills in comparison with the high soaring peaks of the Hithaeglir. It was green and lush and full of trees and waterfalls. The road was silver in the rain and wound quickly down into a wide valley.
It was then he caught his first glimpse of The First Homely House, as it was called by some but Thranduil always had a slight wry smile when he said this, ironic and amused. It was anything but. Towers and balconies and courtyards, all delicately perched against the cliff face like froth or lace, he thought. And unfairly, he thought, sunlight gleamed on the stone, so it looked warm like late Summer.
Legolas looked down at his filthy tunic, muddy boots and breeches. He was drenched. Still. And he was sure his face was muddy. He sighed and squelched onwards, and as he descended the rain eased to a light misting rain that was just enough to keep everything green and lush and pleasant. It kept him still nicely muddy and sodden.
Elrond sighed. The heaviness of Vilya on his finger weighed sometimes and he felt the winds and currents of the air, the coolness of the wind, and sometimes its fury which he reined in as it rushed over Imladris. It was now, filled with water and rain and he pushed it away easily with a thought, towards the mountains, where it rained and rained and drenched the earth, soaked through the leaves of the forest and sluiced the streams...washed away the cold smell and emptiness of the Nazgûl.
Then he turned back to the Wizard, who sat with a thoughtful, faraway expression on his face as if he were listening to the sound of approaching feet but still too far to quite hear, and Gandalf smiled.
Next; Imladris. Legolas meets the inhabitants of Imladris and some of them are not sure what to make of a Woodelf, and some of them have got some very definite ideas! Warning for the next chapter: slash.
Elrond, Elrohir, Glorfindel, Erestor, Gandalf, various Hobbits and OCs. I have looked forward to writing the next chapters!