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The Tenth Walker  by Lindelea

Chapter 43. Restless, I find some sort of rest at last

We enter through a great doorway that yawns wide and tall to swallow me... but such is an image of recent days, not suited to this place and the feelings it brings. That is not the image at all, for what I truly feel now is a welcoming feeling. There is something that stirs like a dim memory far back in my thoughts, of taking fright, when my legs were very new and still wobbly, and hastening the few steps to the warm bulwark of my mother, to hide in her shadow, see her curve her neck above me and feel her gentle nuzzling on my back.

I duck my head as I enter from darkness studded with stars into dimness. I pick my feet up and lay them down tentatively, as gently as may be, for the quiet is somehow unnerving. What might I disturb?This place is so very... large, feeling larger, to my pricking nerves, than the open sky we've left behind.

I jump as a head thrusts itself over a low gate, followed by ill-tempered muttering.

Well! What is it now? Don't you have anything better to do than to disturb my sleep yet again?

It is a shaggy pony, muzzle white with age, one bright eye fixed upon us, the other covered with an errant forelock. He looks not at all sleepy. I would say that he seems more curious than anything else, and yet he tosses his head as if put out.

I venture an answer, as softly as I might. I... I beg your pardon...

He turns his eye on me for but a moment. I'm not talking to you but to your clumsy-footed companion...

I raise my head high in astonishment, weariness forgotten.

My... clumsy-footed? merely chuckles and reaches to stroke the other pony's nose. 'Master Merrylegs,' he says, very softly indeed, perhaps so as not to disturb the sleepers whose even breathing I can hear in the nearby stalls. 'There is nothing to see. Go back to sleep...'

Sleep! Sleep, he says! ...this last to me, in surprised indignation, and yet I think I might see a twinkle in his eye, if I am not imagining such a thing. You ride out, the lot of you, with a clatter and a shout! ...and yet you tell my old pet that he may not come with you, but that you'll bring him all the news when you return... and then you are the last of all to return, and has he got his rest? I want to know! Has he got his rest, or is he sitting on tenterhooks...' (I have no idea what tenterhooks are, but they sound exceeding uncomfortable) '...even now?'

'I am sure your master is well-cared-for,' my guide assures, while the pony accepts the stroking as his due. 'The others brought him someone he has long looked for, and I hope that his anxiety is now over...'

You hope!

'I hope,' my guide says firmly. 'As I am just in from our errand, I have no fresh news for you, Master Curiosity, beyond what the others might have told when they arrived here; and besides that fact I have here a weary visitor who is overdue for supper and bed.'

Arrived here with clatter and shouts, let me tell you, the old pony grumbles, and I take it he is talking about those others. Clatter and shouts going, enough to put me off my eventides, and clatter and shouts coming back, just as I'd managed to fall asleep for the first time this night...

'And not the last, I trust,' my guide says, leaving off his caresses to make a graceful bow. 'And so I bid you peace and sleep, my friend, and I...'

But the old pony does not wait to hear the rest. He pulls his head back inside his stall and turns his back to us, cocking one rear leg and giving all indications that he has lost interest in all but continuing his interrupted sleep.

My guide places a gentle hand on my neck. 'Come along, Greatheart,' he says. 'I ordered a place prepared for you, before we...'

There is more, but my head is whirling. A place? Prepared for the likes of me? In this grand stables, filled with the breathing of many mighty steeds? (And, I must admit, at least one plucky old pony?)

I would be happy to go out again, to graze upon the sweet grass, to roll, to stand beneath the stars, to doze as I have these many nights. Though there is no Ranger here to share the watch, I have the feeling that here in this hidden valley there is nothing to offer harm.

But indeed, he opens a low door to an empty stall across the way, heaped high with straw. The straw smells of golden days of summer sun. I can smell it from the corridor, where I stand, hesitating, despite my guide's urging to enter. At last he takes hold of me under my jaw and gives a gentle, inviting tug. 'Come along, my friend.'

A hesitant step. Another. Before I quite realize it, I am in the stall, and the straw is all around me. I lower my head for a good sniff, and the smell is so very pleasant. I keep sniffing for a long time, lost in my thoughts, and am startled by the arrival of another of the Firstborn, quick and yet unhurried. I throw up my head and jump, just a little, but my guide instantly reassures me, stroking my neck.

The newcomer bears something steaming in a basin, and smelling of delight. 'A warm bran mash,' he says, 'as you ordered. As soon as you arrived...'

'Yes,' my guide says, still soothing my neck, and the newcomer moves to my head, to offer me the treat. It is as good as I remember what they gave me in Bree, the day I met my Samwise.

I raise my head from my greed at the recollection. Master...? For surely, where the Master is to be found, my Sam will not be far. They would not have borne him away at a gallop if he were truly dead, would they? I remember the Shining One's words, and shudder. Less confident, I venture again, Master?

But my guide is gone, and the newcomer has only soothing words for me as he pats my neck and leaves me.

There is a little water in the bucket, not much, but it is cool and fresh and I slurp it down and wish for more. There is hay in the haynet, fresh-smelling, and... O but it is delicious!

The newcomer returns with a bucket full of grooming implements, and before I quite realize it perhaps the long song he sings to me as he works has something to do with it my hoofs have been picked out and I have been thoroughly brushed.

'And now, little one,' he says with a final rub for my nose. 'Sleep.'

Before I can blink he is gone.

I raise my head, I move to the low door, I thrust my head over, scenting the air. Samwise?

A grumble from across the way answers me. Didn't you hear the Elf? Go to sleep!

I look for a long time towards the stable doors, but my Samwise does not come.


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