The Cave Story Trio:

2: It Had to be Stairs

by Siobhan-(T)

"It had to be Stairs" art by Cassia

"It Had to be Stairs" art by Cassia-(T)

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“It had to be stairs” Aragorn complained softly with a sigh as he slowly mounted the winding stairway that led up from the cave they had just visited.  His hair was matted to his face and even the coolness of the cavern was no help.  His steps slowed imperceptibly as he glanced up the nearly vertical passageway.  He considered removing his leather cloak but he would only have to carry it, so he trudged ahead trying hard not to count how many steps it was taking to get to the top.

His boot slipped on the muddy, slick step in front of him and he grasped the rails on either side of the walkway in an attempt to catch his balance.

“I shan’t catch if you if you fall back down the staircase, Estel.”  The taunting voice of Legolas warned him, drifting up from somewhere below and echoing his own statement to the elf earlier as they had descended.  With a snort of laughter he glanced over his shoulder.  He could not even see Legolas and Arwen in the dim lighting the torch allowed.  How the elf had ever seen that misstep he would never know.

They had spent quite some time in the cavern of La Jolla.  Right now the King of Gondor could not remember whose idea it had been to visit the landmark.  In fact right he didn’t even care, he just wanted back out.

The walls closed in claustrophobically and the roof dipped towards the stairs, making the ranger duck and slow his steps as he proceeded upwards to a section where it widened out again.  Water dripped down the walls, making the steps slick and precarious.  The sounds of the lake drifted up the stairwell, seemingly from a great distance.  Ahead of him the tunnel wound upward out of sight, veiled in darkness.

The keeper of the cave had warned them the walk was a steep one and cautioned everyone who entered that it was not for the faint of heart or those in ill health.

It wasn’t his heart that was faint. At the moment it was his legs.  Bending over and resting his hands on his knees, Aragorn breathed in deeply, catching his breath and taking a break.  The torch sputtered slightly as he rested it against the tunnel wall.

The view from the bottom of the cave had been breathtaking, definitely a sight worth seeing.  He had stood on the edge of the cavern’s sandy shoals and watched the boats and the fishermen until the sun had nearly set.

Aragorn had noted the longing in Legolas’ eyes as the elf let the lapping water lull him in its sweet song and had wanted to console the prince, but was at a loss as to how.  Not long afterwards he had suggested that they all return before it got too dark.  Jonath had chosen to wait for them at the top of the stairwell, content that his liege was safe in the company of the two elves.

And that was how it came to happen that he was leading the small company back up the steep steps that had seemed so easy to traverse only a few hours ago.

“I hate stairs.”  Aragorn murmured as he started walking back up.  “Stairs.  Everywhere there are stairs.  Who was the architect who thought up this place and whatever possessed that person to create an entire city built upon the foundation of stairs?  Who in their right mind would do such a thing?”  Forgetting for the moment that his ramblings could be heard by the sharp elven hearing he continued his one-man tirade, quietly talking to himself. “I bet it was one of Saruman’s half-baked ideas of how to torture humans.  In fact he would have loved the architecture in that plaza yesterday, some of it just screamed ‘Isengard’; bet Gimli would love it too.”

A soft laugh echoed up the stairwell.  “Estel?  Are you quite all right?”  Legolas called up to the man who was still dressed in the fashion of the rangers.  “I do believe I heard you cursing Saruman.  It is ill to speak so of the dead.”

Turning so he could glance back into the corridor behind him, Aragorn answered the jibe with equal sarcasm, “I said I hate stairs.”

“I’m sorry I couldn’t hear you,” Legolas taunted, cupping an ear and squinting up at the ranger who had once more stopped walking.

“I said, I_HATE_STAIRS!”  The proclamation brought an echo of laughter from above and below him as Jonath caught the overly exuberant complaint.

With a rueful smile Aragorn turned and proceeded with his ascent, taking up his mutterings where he left off.  “I mean, there were stairs yesterday all over the plaza.  Minas Tirith is a maze of stairs that I have yet to understand, despite Jonath’s attempts to ‘make it easy for me’ as he says.  Do you know there are even twenty-one stairs that I must ascend for the coronation ceremony?  I’ll have to remember to thank Gandalf for pointing that out and instructing me on how terrible it would be if the new King of Gondor stumbled on his way up to receive the crown.”  His boots thudded dully on the rocky stairwell.  It had been covered in places with wood where the water had seeped in and eroded the steps.

The scent of the lake and the cool wind wafted up the passageway, brushing his hair into his eyes as it passed him on its way to the entrance.

“There are even stairs IN the palace.  Not in a few places Legolas, everywhere!

Elven laughter reached his ears, “It’s not that bad, darling,” Arwen called up to the human trying to calm him.

“Really?”  Turning back towards his companions he fixed his future wife with a questioning stare. “Did you know the bath is surrounded by stairs – eight to be exact!”  Growling in mock frustration he thrust the torch back in front of him and began climbing.  “Look at me, now I am even counting how many stairs!”

“There are 144 stairs in this passageway,” Legolas added helpfully, snickering quietly when the man in front of him glared back at him.

“I did NOT need to know that, thank you.”  Aragorn sighed as he kept up the incessantly slowing pace.  “You know, I’m not as young as I used to be.  Back a few years we would have been able to take these steps two at a time at a dead run.  But now...”

“What do you mean we?” Legolas laughed lightly, shoving the ranger aside and bounding tirelessly ahead.

“Go ahead and laugh!” Aragorn called up to the retreating form. “I hope the bats get you.”

“Not funny, Estel.”  Legolas’ form reappeared as though materializing out of the gloom.

“It was funny enough when you stepped in that guano at the bottom of the stairs.”  The ranger smiled wickedly as he paused on the same step as the elf.  “I didn’t think elves ever made mistakes like that.”  He pushed past and continued the monotonous climb.  “In fact I didn’t think elves ever got their boots dirty, and where did you learn that dwarvish?  There were words in that sentence that I have never heard you speak, my friend, and I am afraid to ask their meaning!”

At the bottom of the steep staircase bats had made their home in the upper reaches of the cavern’s roof.  It was impossible to see them, but the trio could hear them readily enough and proof of their presence was everywhere on the ground and the railings below the formations they occupied.

Legolas eyed the King darkly, “Laugh all you want. These are new boots I’ll have you know.  My father commissioned them especially for your coronation.  He is coming and I’d rather not have to explain why I look like I followed you on one of your harebrained escapades.”

Ignoring the jibe the new king simply shook his head as he thought forward to what awaited him, “Everyone is coming, all of the kingdom will be there.  I suppose its necessary even though I have already been named king.  Still...” Aragorn muttered, sighing deeply before turning another teasing smile on the elf, “And they will all see your boots and know that you stepped in bat...”

“Enough!”  Arwen called up to them both.  “Less talking.  I do wish to return before nightfall.”  She brushed past both friends and took point once more, her slight form disappearing into the darkness ahead of them.

Leaning in close Legolas whispered in Aragorn’s ear, keeping pace with the ranger, “At least I wasn’t the one who set my hand down in it.”  He smirked quietly at the dark look the human threw at him.  Not long after Legolas had stepped in what had simply appeared to be wet rock, the new King of Gondor had grabbed hold of the railing to keep from slipping and had placed his hand squarely on a pile of bat droppings. In disgust he had wiped his hands clean on his trousers thinking his actions had gone unnoticed.

“No one will ever know that because I’m wearing my ranger clothes and I shall have my leggings cleaned before it gets out.  Comes in handy sometimes to wear clothing that is the color of ones surroundings.”

“And of course no one will ever smell it either I suppose, hhmmm?”  Snatching the torch from Aragorn, Legolas darted forward several steps out of reach of the man.

With a start the future king of Gondor realized he might just be found out after all.  Quickly raising his hand to his face he smelled his palm and the sleeve of his long, leather coat.  His nose wrinkled with the pungent scent and he swiftly reached out to the cave wall, swiping at a small rivulet that pooled on the step beneath his feet.  Gathering a bit of the water in his hands he rubbed them together and dried them off on his thigh.  Repeating the process he soaked the sleeves of his coat in the tiny waterfall.

Legolas’ laughter bounced off the walls about them ricocheting down the passage.  “Oh Estel, you will never grow out of being a ranger I fear.”  He grasped Aragorn’s left sleeve and held it near his nose, his eyebrows quirking in question as he shook his head.  Playfully he grabbed the King’s shoulder and pulled the man up the stairwell, pushing him ahead of him much to Aragorn’s amusement.

“I can’t smell it.”  Aragorn retorted comically as he sniffed the leather once more with a shrug, “Well no one will ever know if you don’t tell.”  He glanced behind him, his eyes sparkling merrily in the light of the flame the elf held.  “And I won’t tell Trelan or Raniean about your boots.”  He motioned to the prince’s stained shoes.  “There is a leather workman in the palace, who can do amazing things given the right amount of time.  I’ll have Jonath fetch him and we’ll see what he can do with your shoes.”

Legolas’ smile was brilliant and infectious.  He nodded slowly in agreement.  It would forever become one of many secrets held between them.

Glancing up to the retreating blue form of Arwen, the prince bounded past the king once more handing the man back the torch and calling out as he headed up, “Race you to the top, Estel!”

Aragorn watched as the lithe figure leapt quickly out of sight, taking the stairs two at a time.  He stepped up the carven flight before him, his knee creaking under the stress of the vertical climb.  At the top of the staircase the two elves and Jonath heard quite clearly as the King called up to them...


The End

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