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The Tenth Walker  by Lindelea

Chapter 22. We reach the top of the ridge

The light is nearly gone, but we have somehow reached the top at last. I say somehow because it is not clear in my head; memory is a blur of misery and effort worse than pulling my old misery's sledge fully loaded with heavy rock all the way to Bree from the quarry.

Young hobbit was pulling on my rope at the end, that part I remember, gritting harsh-rasping words between his teeth, a steady litany of get up, old boy, get up!

My Sam gave me another sharp cut on my hindquarters, his breath sobbing in and out. I laid back my ears; I might have kicked him, had I forgot myself, but instead I gathered for a last effort, I plunged upward, and then a few steps forward, for suddenly I found myself on the level, with young hobbit pulling away before me. He was hauling with such exhausted, mind-benumbed determination that as I surmounted the edge, he staggered backwards, with little running steps, still gasping get up!

...and then the Big Man caught him, just as he went over another edge. Though I doubt he'd have fallen far, hard as he was gripping my rope. I am glad, however, to have been spared the jerk of his weight hitting the rope's end. And it would not have been a good thing for him to be too weary to hold on, if he'd fallen.

Yes, another edge, for the ground falls steeply away again, only a short distance ahead.

We are on a narrow spot of land, a “saddle” one of them called it, with the ground rising to higher points on either side. It is not like any saddle I've ever seen, miserable and rocky. Master lies shivering on the hard ground, and not-merry bends over him, calling his name in a hopeful tone, though there is a terrible look on his face. The chill breeze brings a strong smell of anxiety from him. I move to stand nearby, offering what little comfort I may: lowered head, soft whicker, warm blow of air.

Young hobbit half-crawls to us, as if he doesn't trust his footing. Perhaps he doesn't, after his near-fall. “Come, Merry,” he says. “A blanket's the thing...”

Not-merry nods, and pulls a blanket from the load he bears, tucking it around Master and telling young hobbit to add another, and himself into the bargain. Young hobbit complies, fumbling slowly with shaking hands, for the wind is very cold here, and he is very tired.

And then not-merry stands upright, drawing a weary hand over his face, and steps away to grasp the Ranger's sleeve. The Big Man is staring into the gathering gloom, as if trying to see our way ahead. He straightens his shoulders and looks down with a smile, though the smell of his worry mingles with that of the hobbit's anxiety.

I do not know if Master hears, for not-merry speaks low, so low that only by swivelling my ears in his direction and straining to catch the words, do I hear his concern.

We cannot go any further, he mutters to the Ranger. I nod agreement, and miss the next few words, but I hear the Ranger's reply, further tonight. My flanks expand as I draw a deep breath, and my sigh of relief blows warm over youngest hobbit's tousled, dirty curls as he snuggles beside Master, drawing the second blanket around the two of them carefully so as not to leave any entry for fingers of searching wind.

My Sam is here now. He lays a trembling hand on my shoulder, and I turn to him and rub my face against his arm. He gives a shuddering sigh, leans his forehead a moment on my neck, murmurs brokenly, something of forgiveness.

Forgive? What is to forgive? Every cut with the stick surely wounded him every bit as much as it did me; perhaps more, from the sound of his voice. I try to tell him so, lipping him softly, no teeth in it.

I feel the breath of his next sigh ruffling the dirt-crusted hair of my neck, and then he straightens again with a pat. “Steady, old lad. Hobbles, now... wouldn't want you to wander in your sleep...” He punctuates his muttering with fumbling attempts to affix my hobbles. I stand very still. It's the best way I know to aid him. I wouldn't want to wander in my sleep, either, not in this place.

At last done, he straightens and joins the Man and the not-merry hobbit. I can scarce make out their forms now, in the darkness, but the Man hears my Sam's approach behind him, even so softly as a hobbit moves, and puts out a warning hand. “Mind the edge,” he says.

My Sam wastes no words, but asks immediately about Master. “What is the matter with him?” he says, and remarks that Master's wound, small as it was, has already closed, leaving only a cold white mark.

The Ranger's answer makes me shiver. Touched by weapons of the Enemy. I am glad for my hobbles as a spectre of fear arises in the back of my thoughts, a dim memory of terror, enough to make my skin shudder from nose to tail.

“It is a bitter night indeed, old lad,” young hobbit says, misunderstanding. “Were this blanket only large enough, I'd invite you to share it with us. No doubt your warmth, added to ours, would be a help.”

Master is silent; he has not spoken in some time.

“Strider's right,” I hear not-merry say, slapping a hand upon my Sam's shoulder. “Let us not give up hope!”

I can hear my Sam's shivers in his breathing, but not-merry says only, “Light us a fire, as Strider suggested, ere we catch our death in this wind.”

My Sam ducks his head, and I think he wipes at his face in the dark. His voice quivers only slightly as he answers. “I'll have a fire for you in two shakes, Mr. Merry; just see if I don't.”


A/N: Some text taken from “Flight to the Ford” from Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, and woven into the narrative.

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