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The Tenth Walker  by Lindelea

Chapter 56. I meet an old man who is more than he seems

My Sam comes in the middle of the day, for a second time this day (for he came to see me early, in the stables, when Master was still sleeping, or so he said), and Master is with him, and a tall figure, taller than the Big Man or any of the Elves I have seen thus far, and unknown to me, but if he is with my hobbits then he must be a friend, I deem. More carrots in the offing, I might hope...

I gallop to the fence, plant my feet to come to a quick stop, and nod my head in vigorous greeting, eliciting laughter from my Sam and the Master, and a chuckle from the tall one. And yes, Master has an apple in his hand, ready for me, and I take it with delicate care, as I'd not care to take one of his fingers with it (if you take my meaning), and nod my thanks and pleasure as I crunch juicy sweetness between my teeth.

My Sam is grinning, and we will begin our carrot game when the apple is gone, but as I nod and chew I turn one eye to the tall one.

Ah, he is not so tall as I first thought. He wears upon his grey head a tall, pointed hat. At first I thought his head was tall and pointed, but as I put my nose up to him, I see that it is a hat. Perhaps his head is tall and pointed inside the hat? I reach my nose higher to give the hat a nudge, to see, and the old man laughs, grabbing at his hat with one hand and my nose with the other.

'Bill!' my Sam shouts, and there is distress in his tone, and I drop my head and lay back my ears in consternation. 'None of your tricks, now! This is Gandalf, this is, and he can turn you into a toad just as quick as you could sneeze!'

I shy away from them at such an alarming sentiment, and roll the white of my eye in the tall one's direction as I swallow the last of Master's apple.

'No harm done, Samwise,' the old man says, when he is finished laughing. 'Bold he is, indeed, as you all told me, and stout of heart, I deem.' And he extends his hand to me, palm upward, and there is something there... Against my better judgment I take a step forward I have seen a toad or two in my day, in the meadow where I spent my colthood, safe with my dam, and I wonder now, how many of them might have once been mischievous ponies?

My nostrils flare at a sweet aroma and before I can stop myself I am nuzzling his palm, ah, sweetness! He would not feed me treats and then be so cruel as to turn me into something unnatural, would he? I bring one ear forward, but leave the other back, to show my indecision.

Master raises his hand to me, but I know there is nothing to fear from him. Indeed, a most pleasant stroking sensation commences under my jaw, and I stretch out my neck to him, my ears flopping to the side in pleasure, and I forget my suspicions of the tall one. 'Bold, indeed,' Master echoes the old man, his tone fond and proud. 'I don't know what we would have done without him, Gandalf.'

Gandalf! The name meant little to me, at first mention, but now that Master has said the name in addition to my Sam saying it, I remember where I have heard the name before. I might have heard it muttered in the market in Bree, but I have also heard it mentioned more recently. Merrylegs has told me of this one, who appears to be an old man but is much more. I pull my head in, and Master's hand falls away, and then I push my nose at the old man for a good sniff.

He smells of wool and leather, for starters, and fire which can be a frightening smell, if you take my meaning (stable fires come to mind), or a homely one (campfires in the wild, or the sudden flare before a pipe is lit, and the sweet smell of the smoke that comes after). In the old man's case, the fire-smoke smell is heartening. I cannot tell you why, exactly, but it is. Perhaps it is heartening to those he is in friendly relations with, and frightening to those who are not. For he is my friend he has fed me a treat, has he not? ...and more where that came from, or so I may hope.

I vow to myself to let bygones be bygones, whatever that may mean. In any event, let us have no more talk of toads.

The old man chuckles once more, as if he has caught the thought, and yes! He extends his hand again, and another sweet waits upon the palm, and as I snuffle it he strokes my face with the long fingers of his other hand. 'A stout heart,' he says, 'and a sturdy back for the bearing of burdens.'

'Does that mean you think...?' my Sam says, eagerness in his tone, but the old man stops the caresses (to my regret) and holds up his hand.

'We'll see,' is all he says, and turns away. The Master and my Sam follow him, and they seem to be arguing, and my Sam has forgot all about the carrot game.

I sigh and turn from the fence, and walk back to the racks in the field where the other horses and ponies are gathered, and pull a mouthful of hay from the rack, to chew and consider.

Bearing of burdens? But, of course!

I worry for a moment, that perhaps they might be selling me to the old man, for such are the words I heard in the pony market at Bree, when my old man took me there, and my old misery took me away.

But my Sam would not sell me away.

He wouldn't.

Would he?

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