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The Tenth Walker  by Lindelea

Chapter 46. More travellers arrive

I think I might become resigned to my fate.

The pasture is a pleasant place, and Merrylegs tells me that the grass is always green, and never fades to brown and tasteless, or is covered with deep snow that has to be pawed away. Shadows here are merely shadows, cast by the lowering sun, and not fearsome things at all.

At the end of the day, the old mare leads the rest of us to the gate, opened by one of the Firstborn, and we walk unattended to the stables, each to his or her own stall, and each seeming to know where to go without being told. And my stall is my own, and no one else's!

It seems to me that some of the stalls that were empty yesterday, are occupied today, the doors already closed as we arrive from the pasture. Perhaps more travellers have arrived? Or more of those sent out, like the shining one, have returned from their questing? It is a matter beyond my knowledge, but perhaps we'll hear more about it if the newcomers are turned out to pasture in the morning.

I walk into my stall -- my stall! -- and all is prepared for me, water in the bucket, grain in the feedbox, hay in the net and fresh-smelling straw spread thickly on the floor. I scarcely notice the half-door close behind me, though I hear some one or two moving down the line of stalls, latching all the doors to keep the horses from wandering in the night.

The food is as good as it was earlier, a veritable feast, and after I am done eating I enjoy a fine and thorough brushing. The horses of the King (if there was such a thing) could not live in such luxury as I do now. If only my Sam were here, all would be perfect and I would end this, my story, with a simple, "And he lived happily, to the end of his days."

Ah, Sam. I wish you well, where ever you have gone, and may you be blessed with a willing pony to carry your heaviest burdens there. One thing I am sure of, is that you are with your Master, where ever he may be, and so you must be content, as I would be if I walked at your side.

I am wakened from a doze by a commotion in the aisle, a bustle and a clatter and the sounds of voices and the hoofs of more than one beast ringing on the stones. There is a smell in the air of dust and sweat, the sweat of sustained effort rather than of fear and speed.

I thrust my head over my door, to look in wonder at a veritable herd of ponies. Several, at any event, and from their trappings dwarf ponies. Merrylegs, too, peers out and calls greetings. It becomes evident that some of the tack, at least, is familiar to him, if not the ponies themselves. How is the old dwarf, these days, whose saddle you bear? It has been years since the last time he patted my nose and offered me sweets!

The pony, young and sturdy, answers politely. My master is well, though wearied. It is a long way from the Lonely Mountain...

How well I remember the journey! Merrylegs puts in, and undaunted, the pony continues.

...and we were not completely sure of the way, after crossing the ford. My master said an old wizard might have been handy, white beard waggling this way and that way, to find the white stones that marked the path, but no wizard was at hand and so his son must walk, dismounted, and search out the way...

I am glad to arrive before dark, another says with a shiver. Ill things infest the shadows these days, and our masters rode armed and set a watch each night, from our first night out and onwards.

Rest easily, my young friend, Merrylegs soothes. Evil things do not come into this valley, and you may refresh yourself on sweet grass and sunshine before you make the long trek homeward again. Or...? He cocks a bright and curious eye. Is there more to your story? Are there, perhaps, thirteen or fourteen of you, to begin?

None of that old tale, the old dwarf's mount answers. Now we know you for a dwarf pony, for true...

I am curious, but it seems there will be no more to satisfy my curiosity, for Merrylegs only whinnies a laugh and answers, At one time but no more; if dwarves went about without beards then my old pet might be one, but beardless and bootless he travels, and that is the short and the long of it...

Dwarvish ponies are fond of riddles, or so I gathered from the ones I met in Bree, but I never was at leisure to learn any, and so could only listen in wonder to their stories of far travel, and could never guess at their riddles, which made them toss their heads with pride.

These, however, are at a loss for words, and they are being led one-by-one into stalls even through the conversation, which rather disrupts the talk, and soon we can hear the murmured talk of Elvish grooms and the jingle of tack, removed and carried away, and the soft sounds of brushing, the whisper of grain poured into feed boxes, the clank of buckets carried together as water is delivered to the travellers.

At last silence descends with the falling of darkness. It is as Merrylegs said: The shadows are merely shadows here, and not hiding places for something darker, and the dark is a friendly place full of rest and promising sleep.

I look over my door one more time, hoping that Sam might have remembered me, and find Merrylegs doing the same. He catches my eye and shakes his head so that his thick mane flies up and settles untidily on his neck. Odd, he says. My old pet usually comes, before darkness falls, for a talk and a treat. I do hope the old fellow hasn't fallen ill.

Perhaps my Sam is ill? And that is why he has not come to see me?

But no, out of four hobbits and one Man, I should think that at least one would come to see that I am comfortably settled. Would they not, after all we have travelled together?

Sleep, young fellow, Merrylegs says. We'll have a grand old gab in the meadow on the morrow, plenty of news to catch up on, and riddles! How I've missed them! ...but sleep! You'll need all your wits about you on the morrow, or I'm a dwarf...! And still muttering in pleased tones, he pulls his head back inside his stall and turns his back on the world, soon to be sleeping.

You're no dwarf, I think in return, and snort softly. But you are a dwarf pony, and if your rider is not a dwarf, he must be a hobbit, I suppose.

I realize with a start of surprise that I have solved my first riddle.

I pull a mouthful of hay from the net and chew it over, along with my thoughts, until sleep claims me.

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