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The Tenth Walker  by Lindelea

Chapter 47. At long last, I know contentment

The days run together, and it seems as if I have been here half my life. A little more of my rough and ragged coat falls out with every brushing, and my tail feels fuller than it did, though it is likely only my fancy. It feels fine and silky when I swish it, and my mane, too, lies evenly upon my neck. My guide, the Elf with eyes that are at once ancient with wisdom and sorrow and smiling kindness in the same moment, comes this evening -- after I have been here, how many days? I do not know, for as I said, the days run together -- and he spends a long time brushing me. He seems to understand how good it feels! have the itchy, scratchy coat fall away, leaving smoothness beneath, and when he finishes with the comb and brush and cloth, I feel almost as if I could shine like one of the great ones.

The food has been filling and plentiful, and my guide tells me I am beginning to look less starved and gaunt, and soon I will be a handsome fellow indeed. He finishes by cutting an apple in pieces and feeding the pieces to me slowly, while telling me of a pony he once knew when he was very young, a gentle and great-hearted beast. I am honoured at the comparison, that I would remind him of such a one as to be spoken of in glowing terms all these years later. For many, many years ago it was, or so he tells me.

I do not know what "many, many years" means, but I know enough that it was some time before I was born, or perhaps even before my dam came into the world.

The apple reminds me, too, of a day dimming in my memory, of gentle hands, a soft voice, eyes both kind and weary, not long after I left my old misery.

My guide leaves me to share an apple with Merrylegs next, and then he goes down the line of stalls, with a good word for each of the horses or ponies now drowsing. The stable is very nearly full, that was more like half-empty before I arrived, according to Merrylegs. There is no need to maintain a great herd of horses here, he says, but we are always ready to welcome visitors. Not that so many visitors come, mind, but people do come and go, especially friends of the Dúnadan.

I do not know who the Dúnadan is, though Merrylegs seems to think I ought. Perhaps he is one of the visitors, or perhaps he resides here. I have not yet seen him, I think, or Merrylegs would have greeted him.

A great many visitors have come, it seems, and from far places, from what their steeds have told in the meadow over the past few days.

I have not been bothered by visiting beasts trying to find a place in the group, for the older mare watches over me, almost as a mother might, no matter that I am a pony well-grown.

At last the stables are dim and quiet, and I drowse, well contented.

I waken suddenly, and it is morning once again, the same as all the other mornings here. Food, and water, brushing, and...

But no, it is not like every other morning, for my groom finishes brushing me and picking out my feet, and then he exits my stall but closes the door behind himself, saying only, 'We'll let you out on the meadow a little later, Greatheart, but for now you must wait for the farrier, for my lord has ordered your feet trimmed.'

I take it he means my guide, who does not act like anybody's lord, and yet the grooms defer to him in all he says and does, as if he is some important person. I do not know why he bothers himself with the welfare of a simple pony, but I am grateful to him, even if he did not let me graze to my stomach's content (as I seem to remember) upon my arrival.

There is plenty of hay in the haynet, but I whinny after Merrylegs and the rest as they make their way down the corridor and out the door. The sun is shining outside, and it promises to be another beautiful day. I look forward to rolling upon the grass, standing in the sun or shade, as I will, and grazing to my stomach's content. However, it seems that once more my guide is not allowing that.

I sigh, and turn my attention to the haynet. The hay is good, and tastes of sunlight and gentle rains. I eat until I am satisfied, and then I watch the dust motes floating in the sunshine that slants into the stables, and then, having nothing else to do, I drowse.

O my Sam, how could I be forgetting you? And yet, I realise that I have not been looking towards the door this morning, waiting for your arrival, and I only remember my loss when I dream of you. In my dream you are there, suddenly, at my door, working the latch, and now you stand before me, wonder in your eyes, and you reach out to stroke my neck and say, 'Well, old fellow, it appears they've been taking good care of you here. I'd hardly know you, all brushed and clean and well-fed and all...'

I stand stock still, indeed, I am scarcely breathing, for I fear I'll waken, and I do not want the dream to end. I widen my nostrils to snuffle, to take in his scent. A dream he is, surely, for he smells so different -- clean, contented, no fear on him, no desperation as in our last parting, not even worry, as in our first meeting and onward.

He laughs, but it is more like weeping, for he chokes and steps forward to throw his arms around my neck, and yes, he is weeping, for I feel his warm tears soak my coat. He is trying to tell me something, and I listen very hard.

At last I make out the words... 'He's well, Bill. He's well, and he'll be well, and that horrid sliver is gone, gone and melted away, and...' ...and more of the same, but I understand, and I try to tell him so, rubbing my face against him and oh! but he feels so solid, so true, and I begin to think that perhaps I am not dreaming after all.

Joy wells in me, and I whicker softly and stand still in his embrace as he weeps himself out, and yes, I smell despair on the tears, despair and fear pent-up for days and only now, in relief and joy, finding release. I breathe a deep sigh of my own, but keep my feet planted, that my Sam may find me a firm prop and stay, so long as he needs to lean upon me.

At last he wipes his eyes and sinks down to the softly piled, fragrant straw. 'Ah, Bill,' he says, and I nod my head low, to nuzzle at his hair, and he laughs, a low, shaky chuckle. 'Ah, Bill,' he says again, but a great yawn takes him. He leans against my near foreleg, and I stand very still indeed, not willing to risk stepping upon him. He raises a hand to stroke my knee, and then I feel him relax, and the next thing I hear is a soft snore.

Now here's a fine thing, and no mistake. He's asleep, between my forefeet, and I dare not stir foot. I'm thirsty, and my bucket is out of reach, as is the haynet. There is nothing for me to do but stand guard over my Sam, that he might sleep undisturbed, by myself or anything else.

For the first time in days, years even, I feel complete, content, and happy.

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