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The Tenth Walker  by Lindelea

We share and share alike

"Midgewater Marshes" they call this place, but I'd venture there are more midges than water. Of course the way the Ranger leads us, we pick our way carefully and for the most part my companions are relatively dry-footed, though I wonder many times if we are making any progress at all. The sun seems to be playing "I hide and you seek me", popping out from behind a cloud at first before us, and then to the side, and sometimes to our rear, and then before us again, as if we walk in circles. Our path wanders here and there, as aimless-seeming as the clouds of midges that surround us, but the man says we are making fair progress.

Hidden birds warble around us from the surrounding clumps of reeds and rushes; I cock my ears to hear their songs. Go back! Go back! they seem to say, and the pull of my broken-down stables behind me is growing stronger. Were it not for my Sam's quiet encouragement, his hand on the poll of my neck, just behind my ears, urging me onwards, I would turn my tail to these marshes and go in search of solid and familiar ground.

But the ground grows ever soggier, like the mouldy straw in my old stall when we've had a long stretch of rain through the leaky roof of my shed, and then soggier, even, than that, and the Ranger picks his way more carefully, and stops for minutes at a time to scrutinise the land. When we are moving it is not so bad, for I must pay heed to where I place my feet lest I stumble on this quaking, treacherous ground. But when we stop, I can feel the flies settling on me, thirsty for my blood, and if I could twitch every inch of my skin at once, I would! I am aching all over, as a matter of fact, for the muscles that bunch the skin to shoo the flies have been at constant work. The midges, too, are maddening, flying in clouds around us. I sneeze and shake my head as they seem intent on flying up my nostrils.

The hobbits walk close together in a bunch, following Sam and me, and Sam stays close on the Ranger's heels. The youngest hobbit steps but an arms-length off the path the man has been making and is up to his neck before the others can grab him; they pull him out, sopping and stinking of marsh-water, and we stop long enough for the others to strip his clothes off him, wring out the water, rub him down and clothe him again. He protests bitterly, for the flies and midges have free rein for those moments, not even having to creep up his sleeves and breeches to find places to feed.

'I am being eaten alive!' he cries, his hands smashing thousands of tiny bodies against his exposed skin while the others hurry to dig out dry clothing for him, a shirt from the Master's pack, smallclothes from Mr. not-so-Merry, breeches from Sam's...

Sam hands him the breeches and, hands free once more, scratches fiercely at his neck. 'What do they live on when they can't get hobbits?' he asks, and then he turns to me to wave the flies from my flanks. I admit I am rather white-eyed and head-tossed from frustration, driven nearly wild by the constant whinging and biting of the insects. Not even the thick tufts of hair growing in my ears offer adequate protection.

After a miserable day we find a camping-place that is cold, damp, and uncomfortable, and the morrow promises to be no better. I cannot sleep, and take little comfort in being relieved from my burdens. At least they protected my back somewhat from the insects.

I stamp my feet in my distress; I shake my head and refuse the handful of grass young marsh-stinking hobbit holds out to me. I think I preferred the scent of apples-and-mischief, frankly. 'Poor lad,' he says, stroking my neck, and I shudder my skin and shake my mane.

More than ever I wish there were another pony to share the load; this night we could stand head-to-tail and brush the flies from each others' faces.

Samwise is doing his best, but the insects light as quickly as he brushes them away, crawling close to my eyes and biting without mercy. I swing my tail with vigour to swish the flies away from the not-so-Merry hobbit who is putting salve on the healing sores on my back. At one point I lash his face, but he only pats me and goes on with his gentle ministrations.

And suddenly the Master is there, his voice low and soft. 'Poor lad,' he echoes. 'Let us see if we can make amends for bringing you to this sad state.'

And from an inside pocket, tucked away safe and secure as if to guard a treasure, he takes a scrap of fabric. I think at first it is a scrap, for it is so small in his hand, but he shakes it out into a large square of lace-edged floating lightness. I shy before I can catch myself, and Sam hurries to catch at my rope, rubs his hand on my neck, speaks urgent words of soothing.

'Sorry,' the Master says in chagrin. 'I'm not all that used to ponies; I forgot how they startle at the slightest provocation.'

I lay back my ears in protest, though I've no intention of showing him my teeth.

'Hold him quite still, will you?' he says, and Sam and the young hobbit take my halter from either side, prisoning my head. I'd rear and plunge, but that they also brush the insects from my neck and face as we stand there. As a result, of course, they suffer all the more for with their hands busy offering me relief the midges settle ever more greedily on their necks and faces to feed.

The Master brushes away a handful of midges and quickly lays the filmy stuff over my face; one corner up between my ears, one trailing down over my nose, and the other corners of the square covering my eyes. I tense, but the cloth is thin enough to see through, and though the midges settle once more, they settle on the cloth and not on the skin around my eyes, or even in my eyes, as they had been doing.

'Frodo,' the not-so-Merry hobbit says softly, 'isn't that--?'

'Our Bill needs it more at the moment, I think,' the Master interrupts. 'Here now, lad, just a moment more... Merry, you had a threaded needle packed amongst the baggage, didn't you? Would you fetch it?' And he takes a pocket-handkerchief from his sleeve, bites it, and tears it into strips, and with a few quick passes of thread and needle he secures the corners of the filmy, lace-edged cloth to the strips, though he has to take away my eye-protection for a few moments so to do, and the strips can be made fast to my halter, as I am soon to find, so that even if I shake my head the filmy cloth remains over my eyes.

'But Frodo!' Merry says again, slapping at his neck almost without thinking, as the Master and Samwise fit my eye-saver once more in place

The Master smiles faintly. 'My mother loved ponies,' he says, and his tone is far away as if he is somewhere else entirely. 'I'm sure she'd be glad that her favourite handkerchief was serving such a noble and charitable purpose.'

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