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The Tenth Walker  by Lindelea

Chapter 52. I lend a listening ear

...I am not bearing burdens, not this morrow, at any event, and not yestre morrow either. Two days have passed since the Big Man left me with his words to prepare, if I have not missed my count. Two days... I nod my head, I scuff at the ground with my forefoot. One. I nod. Two. Yes. The count is a right one. Two days.

Stop counting what ever it is you may be counting and go to sleep! Merrylegs whickers from his stall across the way.

It was but a little counting, I return, moving to the doorway to thrust out my head. The stables are dark and quiet, those of us remaining are resting, or asleep. I hear the grumble of a dwarf pony a little way down the row. They are waiting, it seems, for scouts to return with word that it is safe for them to bear their masters back to the Lonely Mountain, to prepare for what ever it is they must prepare for. I shudder. I do not wish to imagine what that might be, not after seeing the Wide World and the Wilderland as I have.

Much or little, lots or none at all, it is enough to keep me wakeful, the old pony complains. And you, young whipsnap that you are, you need your sleep as well, if I am any judge...

I have not told the old pony anything, but for certain he has eyes in his head, and knows how to use them. He has seen me resting, and grazing, and rolling, and not just as any pony lazing about might do, but with purpose as much as pleasure. Yet he does me the honour of not pressing me for an explanation.

Bless his old heart, may he rest here in this pleasant Valley for yet many a moon filling and emptying himself again. I know in my heart that I may not share such a fate. There is a journey ahead for me. The Big Man has said as much.

A part of me yearns for my old home. Will my journey lead me there? Was the purpose of all this simply to bring the Master here, and back again?

Steady on, I reply in my softest tone.

Are you at least finished with your counting?

I chuckle, a whisper of a snort, and shake my head. I am finished.

A silence. I think he has gone to sleep, when he says, The reckoning was two, in case you...

Yes, I say. I...

Will you stop your counting and conversing and let an honest pony find some rest and sleep! One of the dwarf ponies kicks the side of his stall in his impatience.

Two! Merrylegs insists, more softly.

Two, I agree in little more than a whisper, though he cannot of course know what was being counted. He is a stickler for exactitude, especially when it comes to things like carrots and measures of feed.

Very well then, he mutters, and I must stifle the desire to laugh. I settle for tossing my head in amusement, before becoming thoughtful again.

It is not long before I hear the heavy breathing that tells me the old pony sleeps at last.

I am drowsing myself when a soft footstep rouses me. Hobbits step very softly indeed, but a pony's ears are tuned to danger, especially a pony who has walked in the Wilderland as I have done.

No danger, not in this Valley, as the Shining One has told me, but I raise my drooping head to greet the one who pauses at the door to my stall, works the latch, slips inside.

Youngest hobbit throws his arms about my neck, and I lay my head upon his shoulder, blowing a whispered greeting.

He is whispering, and smells not of the marsh, for his body smells fresh and clean, and the cloth of his jacket, rubbing under my chin, is some soft and luxurious fabric, I think, not a coarse weave or rough, not the sturdy cloth of travelling but he smells agitated.

I widen my nostrils to gather as much of him as I may. Not fear; well, yes, there is some fear underlying, but it is not a specific fear, if you take my meaning, not fear of something about to attack, but a more general fear, perhaps of some future not quite imagined, and yet looming somehow, just beyond sight and scent. Agitation, anger, frustration, perhaps a hint of hurt. Desperation, assuredly, and a determination that grows as he whispers against my neck, his hands rubbing at the hair on my shoulders in a disjointed manner.

I cock my ears to listen. Much of what he whispers does not make sense. I hear a repetition of Not fair! something I have heard him say in jest, when his cousins have imposed upon him, insisting on something-or-other by virtue of their advantage of years over his. But this does not sound as if he is jesting.

Cannot go without me... I hear amongst the mutters, and I stiffen. What is this? They are going, and he fears that he will be left behind?

His fingers stop their stroking, and he presses his hands hard against my hide, holds me tightly, breathes a few shuddering breaths, and I think that he might be weeping, until he lifts his head and I see his cheeks dry, his eyes bright with purpose, not tears, as we stand eye-to-eye.

Have to tie me in a sack, they will, he says, lifting his head higher and meeting my gaze as if we are swearing an oath together.

He makes a loose fist and strikes me gently on the neck, but I stand firm, not allowing myself to startle. Firm, I am. Stoutheart, they call me.

He smiles, nods in seeming approval. Tie me in a sack, he repeats in a whisper, and even so, I'll pick at the threads, chew my way out if I have to; I'll win free and follow behind like a dog!

I nod at this, and he reaches to take my face between his hands. We stand thus, unmoving, for a long moment, sharing an intense look.

They can't leave me behind! he whispers. If they think they can, they'll have to think again!

I nod to seal our agreement. It will be our secret. I do not know what I may do to help him, for I suspect I will not be one left behind, to follow like a dog. (Though I would, if it were the case.)

But I will do what I can. Even if it means that all I can do, at present, is stand firm, and listen well.

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