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The Tenth Walker  by Lindelea

Chapter 51. I am bid a disquieting farewell

The sun is bright on the meadow, sparkling from the little stream that flows to join the larger stream running through the valley. The grass is indeed sweet, bursting with flavour as I tear mouthful after greedy mouthful. The slow morning hours pass gently, filled with grazing, dozing, rolling, frisking, and simply standing together, noses inward, exchanging gossip.

If it is all I have to do, to pass the time until our leavetaking, then I am truly content.

The white one has returned, though he has little enough to say, seeming content merely to graze, turning his shoulder to the queries of the other horses. At last they leave him be, scattering across the meadow, each seeking the tastiest grazing. Merrylegs, the old mare, and I remain nearby, though we do not press him with questions. It is a pleasant business, snatching mouthfuls of grass, chewing, moving a step and repeating the process.

When the white one meets my eye, halfway through the morning, he nods his head at me, and says, Gone, at least from the immediate area. And then he immediately returns to his grazing, turning away as if he regrets even this small communication.

I think he means the Shadow Ones, and I nod in return. I wish to ask him what this portends, and if it will affect our homegoing, but his manner is off-putting, his look distant, aloof, as if his Rider has whispered secrets to him, that he must keep for the present time. And so the morning passes.

The noon bell floats to us on the breeze, not that it has any meaning for those of us upon the meadow, save to mark that half the grazing day is gone. A long and lazy afternoon stretches before us, more of the same (though the sun will be, perhaps, warmer, warm enough to make the shade a welcome respite).

And yet...

Something is happening. The white one throws up his head with startling suddenness, and I look to see the shining one standing at the gate as he did before. He holds out his hand to the white one galloping towards him. It looks as if the white one must run into the gate at full speed, with splintering harm to himself, but he pulls himself up just in time. He reaches his head to his rider, tossing his mane and dancing a bit, fresh from the morning's grazing, and the shining one opens the gate, lets the white one through, and closes it again. As he turns his back, the white one follows, nose at his shoulder. They are off again.

And they are not the only ones... Other Elves come to the gate, and horses go quickly to claim their riders; for curious beings that we are, we are all watching the gateway now, watching to see who will come. Perhaps my Sam...?

After several of our number have left the meadow, I see a familiar figure approach the gate, though it is not my Sam. It is the Big Man, the Ranger, who brought us through the shadowed lands from Bree to this place of rest and refuge, and so I trot to the gate. Is it possible he comes for me?

He is not alone. Two tall Elves are with him, though as I approach and catch their scent, I discover that they are not Elves, or not completely, but Elves-and-something-else-again. At least, their scent is different from most of the Elves here. There is a little that they have in common with the Big Man, though I cannot describe exactly what I mean. You would have to use your own nose, I deem, to understand the difference. Perhaps they are kindred of a sort to the Big Man. They are undoubtedly kindred to each other. The two of them are so alike as to look like two of the same person, if you take my meaning, and only a subtle difference in scent allows me to distinguish one of them from the other.

Two of the large, swift Elf-horses crowd beside me, whickering to greet their riders.

Though they seem serious and urgent, one of the Big Man's companions laughs, looking to me. So, Estel, he says, in that Elven-tongue I am learning here, a sturdy mount, indeed, but won't you tire him, with your feet dragging on the ground to either side?

The Big Man strokes my nose. Sturdy, he agrees, and his tone is serious though a smile is on his face. Sturdy, and stout of heart... We'd never have brought Frodo to the Ford in time, without his help, and that in the face of fearsome foes.

I bury my nose in his palm, in gratitude, and he strokes my forehead.

Your own horse is not here, one of the not-quite-but-mostly-Elves says to him. Let me take the liberty... He whistles, a particular call, and very quickly I hear the pounding of hoofs behind me, as another of the great Elf-steeds thunders to the gate. I lay back my ears, but he stops short of us before moving more sedately to the gate, though he stretches his neck and shoulders me to the side as he approaches the gate.

Carrots? he says eagerly, nuzzling at the one who whistled. There is a general chuckle at this, though the smell of the riders remains purposeful, serious, perhaps even grim-tinged.

Before I quite realise it, the three great steeds are through the gateway, and the gate is shut. They follow the two companions towards the stable and tackroom, but the Big Man lingers a moment, to stroke my neck.

'Stay,' he tells me, and now he speaks the tongue of Bree, as if to make sure that I'll understand him well. 'Graze, drink, rest. Build up your strength. Today you are not wanted for the bearing of burdens, but the morrow may be another matter.'

I rub my face against his shirt, to tell him that I understand. He pauses a moment, and with a last pat he turns away. I go back to the meadow. The great horses, and Merrylegs, and the dwarf ponies gather round, pressing for news.

What did he say?

What's going on?

Why are they sending riders out?

What news, little one? What's happening?

I shake my head at them, I turn my back, as the white one did earlier, I drop my head and pull at the grass, I ignore the stomp of an impatient foot.

At last they give up their questions and scatter back to their grazing, though not without a grumble or three.

I wager he doesn't know any more than the rest of us...

Perhaps I don't, but I think on the Big Man's words, and I pull and tug at the grass, filling my mouth and chewing and biting off more just so quickly as I can swallow and clear my mouth for more. I will graze. I will drink. I will rest.

I will be ready for what ever the morrow holds.

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