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The Tenth Walker  by Lindelea

Chapter 41. I follow after

The incline continues, a weary slope going up and up, and I fancy perhaps I climb upon the foot of a mountain, and sooner than later will come to the shank. But no, just this long and endless slope, and my feet feel so very heavy, clipping the ground as I lift each one and drag the hoof forward, one after another, clip and clop, clip and clop, a slow, painful, steady pace, following the one who walks before.

My eyes straining through the darkness see no relief, neither hill nor valley nor tree but just this emptiness climbing slowly ahead of us, a wide land, but empty. I see no road that we follow, but my companion strides along at a steady pace, slow for my sake, I think, for I have the feeling that he could fly along, tireless, and still unerring find his way.

...but did I say the slope was unvariable? Now to our left I hear the sound as of a distant waterfall, and when I turn my head that way I can dimly perceive a darker shadow that lies upon the darkened ground. But... no shadow, but a chasm, opening suddenly, and the smell of trees rises to meet my quivering nostrils. Even the bitter needles, a mouthful of bark to chew, would I welcome. But the trees are a deadly fall out of my reach. I realize that I have been scenting trees here and there as we've walked. It seems that many hidden valleys pierce this deceptive landscape.

We walk on. And on.

A whiff of green, and water, and thirsty, I stop and turn my head. My companion is at once aware, and halting and turning, he comes back to me, to lay a restraining hand upon my neck.

Not that way, my friend, he murmurs. Green and inviting, yes, and under the eye of the Sun the bright flowers wave cheerful and beckon, but a pony that walked there, with a pack on its back, or even without, would never come out again.

I shiver. It is a bog, something like the marshes retreating into the mists of memory, where youngest hobbit was nearly lost but for a quick and lucky grab on the Master's part. The skin of my neck shudders of its own volition, perhaps remembering the biting midges. I crowd closer to my guide, thrusting my head over his shoulder, and he chuckles softly and reaches a comforting hand. Steady.

Thirst is a torment, but I shake it off and press my nose against his neck, whuffling at the treacherous scent from the safety of his embrace.

Here, my companion whispers, turning to face me, and something dark and cool is in his hand, and I hear the sound of trickling liquid. He reaches to me and I lick up the delicious drips from his palm and fingers, water poured from a water bottle, refreshing though of course there is not nearly enough for a thirsty pony.

Just as well, for if I could drink my fill, I foolishly would, and rue the consequences. When one of us is perishing of thirst, we think only of drinking, and sometimes might even drink until we founder. Such is the way with ponies, and from what I know of horses, they are not much more sensible in the matter.

Only a few sips and we walk on. It is a long way, and I wonder if we will walk all through the night.

I am stumbling with weariness over roots and stones when my companion stops, and I nearly fall over him and slip down a steep slope before him.

We stand at the edge of a sudden opening, another valley, and the scent of trees teases my nostrils and tantalises my tongue. Even a few bitter needles, if they constituted a mouthful...

But perhaps these trees will not remain out of reach. My companion breathes, Behold; here we are at last. I can hear the sound of hurrying water in the valley below, and there is a light on the valley-side across the water. A light, after all the dark places we've traversed!

I crane to see further ahead, glance to the sides, and swivel my ears behind us, just in case, but at the reassuring words that come next, No evil thing is allowed to come into this valley, I sigh. To rest, to truly find rest...

He reaches out, placing his hand on my neck just behind my ears, and urges me forward. I step out with care. The path is slippery, and I cannot help slithering as we make our way down the steep zig-zag path. Sooner than later we are passing among pine trees, but I no longer feel the need to snatch at sour needles nor grab a bite of tasteless bark. Something better lies ahead; I know it as surely as the rising of my spirits with every downward turn. The air grows warmer as we descend, almost as if we are turning back into summer once more, walking from autumnal chill down into a balmy summer's eve.

The trees change to beech and oak, their leaves still green-smelling and fresh, and the scent of living grass wafts to my eager nostrils. Weariness forgotten, I lift my head, inhaling deeply, and in the darkness I sense rather than see my companion's smile. We come to an open glade, and the stars shine bright above, and the sound of the rocky stream is close at hand.

My companion murmurs, a whisper of song, O! What are you doing? And where are you going? Your ponies need shoeing! The river is flowing... His fingers tighten in my mane, loosen and tighten and loosen again, a gentle caress, and he chuckles under his breath. So we welcomed other weary travellers, upon a time, he says, and I nod my head as if in understanding.

It is true, I am unshod. I wonder what other ponies are here, needing shoes?


A/N: Some text taken from "A Short Rest" from The Hobbit and woven in, here and there.

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