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Chapter 26. We descend toward certain death
The path goes on from the door of that charnel place, abode of trolls, as do we in following. As Master said earlier – a day or perhaps a week ago, before we climbed that desperate slope – it does us little good to turn back, and perhaps a great deal of harm. I can feel him growing weaker as the hours pass. No, we must bear him to help, whatever help is to be found in this forsaken wild place.
We turn to the right across the level space, and then the path leads downward, plunging down a thick wooded slope.
We all hesitate at the top, and then the two young hobbits, as of one accord, go ahead of us. Not-merry is perhaps a step ahead of the younger, but mud-and-worry takes three steps to his older cousin's two and then they are shoulder-to-shoulder, even arm-in-arm. Their backs are stiff and anxious but I hear a soft jest from the one and a softer answer from the other.
My Sam and the Man walk to either side of Master and myself, and they seem to be of one mind, for each has a firm hand upon my neck as if to guide me along between them. Do they fear that I would turn to one side or the other? Where would I go, with the trees so thick on either side? No, the going here, along the path, is the smoothest, and offers the best footing for a pony who is carefully bearing an ill and wounded rider.
Four or five hobbits might walk here abreast, and yet the younger hobbits forge ahead, as if determined to take on any danger that might offer, and leave Master a chance of escape.
And then I stop still, my feet growing roots in the path, for not-Merry and mud-and-fear are running back to us, terror on their faces. I dance a little as the wind brings the stench of fear to my nostrils. It is a good thing that both the Man and my Samwise bear down on my neck, to keep me anchored to the ground, for the youngster's next words are enough to set me plunging, were I free.
'There are trolls!'
Youngest is panting for breath, but he manages to gasp out still more frightening news, in answer to the Ranger's stern “Where?”.
'Down in a clearing in the woods not far below. We got a sight of them through the tree-trunks. They are very large!'
Despite the anchoring hands, I throw up my head to scent the wind. Curiously, there is nothing on the breeze but the stink of hobbit fear, the goodly smell of soil and trees, a solid whiff of stone. I flare my nostrils wide and roll my eyes to see all around, but... nothing. In my perturbation I paw at the ground, narrowly missing the feet of my Samwise, for he has moved to my head, his hands on either side of my head collar, stroking and soothing, though I can see, smell, and feel that he is clearly afraid. Still, he will not let me lose my head in fear and perhaps shake Master loose from my back, dashing him to the ground as I take flight.
As if I would. Yet... trolls!
My Sam and the Man hold tight, speaking soft and soothing nonsense, for of course there can be no safety with trolls not far below. And yet... the Man is not afraid.
I calm under his hand and voice, against my own inclination, for his lack of fear is catching. Wary, yes, he is still alert to our surroundings; wary, but not worried. Well, yes, worried, he has been worried since Master was wounded, but that is all. I am only a pony, and am putting it badly, I fear, but I mean to say he is no more worried now than he has been. If there are trolls ahead, and undoubtedly large (my dam told me they'd spit and roast a pony without even a grunt of effort, and I should stay well away from such creatures), well, it is very strange, but the Man appears assured that we are in no danger from them.
Perhaps he is more fearsome a foe than I had understood him to be. Perhaps he will fight off the trolls and win us safe passage. My trembling eases at the thought, and my restless forefoot comes to rest beside the other.
I lower my head, and the Ranger takes his hand away at last, leaving me in the hands of my steady Samwise (he smells of fear, indeed, but stands firm at Master's side, whence he retreated from my dashing hoof). Picking up a stick, the Man says, 'We will come and look at them.'
This would not be my first choice, were I the one to choose our path.
I am only a pony, and must go where I am led, even to the slaughter.
Master says nothing, but his legs are tight against my sides.
'Come along, old fellow,' my Sam says, and his voice shakes despite his best efforts to control it. Still his hand never leaves off its reassurances, and he urges me forward. Not-merry and mud-and-fear take up positions on either side of Master, just behind the Ranger and my Sam, and we pace forward slowly in a tight group.
Perhaps our chances would be better if we were rather more scattered. At least some of us might win our way to freedom as the trolls grabbed for the others.
My ears are laid flat; I force them up, I prick them forward, listening with all that is in me, even as my nostrils flare to catch any scent there may be in the air and my eyes are wide and straining to see all around us. I walk as if on the shells of eggs or uncertain ground, my steps light, that the ground might not trap an unwary foot at an inopportune moment. I am ready for whatever awaits us, as ready as a pony might be. I will watch carefully for my chance to bear Master away from this terrible fate, though I know not to what dubious safety.
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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