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Chapter 65. We leave the Valley behind
Tall Hat walks at the front of the file, with the Big Man beside him. Ah, but now there are two of them. Big Men, I mean, so how to distinguish my Big Man from the other? Shield Man, that name will do as well as any. My Big Man carries no shield. Does that make him less ready for battle? Or perhaps he is mightier, and needs no shield. The Shield Man walks with confidence, and smells of determination – as do all my companions, and yet there is something of dissatisfaction about him, that I cannot quite fathom. He is determined, and yet somehow reluctant.
And yet – I can say that my mood is similar. Though reluctant to leave the Valley, with its comforts and protection (no evil thing... as was said) I am determined to follow my Sam where ever it is that he feels need to go. Or perhaps I should say, “where ever it is the Master feels need to go” – for my Sam follows the Master, and the Master, walking steadily before us, is a little behind determinedly-Merry and Youngest, as if to keep watch over them, just as my Sam keeps watch over himself… Ah, yes, for Youngest stumbles, and Master lunges forward to catch at his backpack, to keep the weight from bearing the smallest hobbit down, even as unMerry catches Youngest by the arm to steady him. Working together without need for word or look (could they see each other in the dark so well as I can? Sometimes I wonder), they keep Youngest on his feet, releasing him just so soon as he catches his balance, and my Sam and I need not pause in our steady progress.
I twitch an ear behind me. I know there is an Elf there, assigned by my Big Man to walk there as our rearguard, though I cannot hear his footfalls or any sound from him at all, not even the sound of breathing, though the hobbits are breathing hard, just ahead of me, from the effort of the climb. I also hear the heavy tread of the Dwarf as he stalks along just behind me, muttering under his breath, and I wonder if he knows anything about stealth, as might be needed in coming days.
At last we reach the end of the long climb out of the Valley, and as if by one accord we pause to catch our breath. It is dark here, even though we are out of the shelter of the Valley and the trees lie below us, and we stand on the open moor. There are no stars above us, no moon shines down – the sky is sullen and dark with scudding clouds.
‘How are we to find our way?’ I hear Youngest whisper. ‘I cannot see my hand before my face!’
‘Strider knows this land, even in the dark,’ unMerry whispers in response. ‘I heard him talking to Frodo… if you had been paying attention, while we were studying the maps…’
‘Hush,’ says the Shield Man, just beyond them. ‘Listen…’
The wind hisses through the heather on the high moor. It is an icy wind, that seems to come straight down from the Mountains looming behind us, and I shiver at its cutting chill. My Sam shudders, and pulls his clothing closer about his neck with his free hand, though he never lets go my rope.
Even if he did, I would follow, but he doesn’t, and I am content to walk when he walks, and stand when he stands, even in this biting wind. I move a little to stand between him and the wind, to offer what shelter I might with my own body.
Master comes to my head. ‘How is he doing, Sam?’ he says, keeping his voice low as if afraid to be overheard. He is out of breath, though we have paused several times in our ascent, and I wonder if he has the strength for the journey, long or short as it may be. Yet, as ever, his concern is not for himself. ‘It was a long climb, and he bears such a heavy load…’
I rub my face on his arm in gratitude as my Sam murmurs an answer and moves back, towards my hindquarters, to check my straps. Master gently strokes my face, and I am content to stand quietly, warming him with my breath. Somehow, I think his load is as heavy as mine, though I could not say how it is I know this. There is a heaviness to his bearing; his shoulders droop for a moment as he draws deep breaths, and then as his breathing steadies, he pulls himself upright once more, with more strength of will than of body, or so I deem.
The low-spoken words are so quiet, I think that Master and I are the only ones to hear them, as he lifts his head to see the lights twinkling in the Valley below.
‘The Last Homely House,’ he murmurs. ‘The last, in truth, I fear, along the path that lies ahead… Shall I ever look down into that Valley again, I wonder?’
I have no answer for him.
With a final pat for my neck, he turns and strides away, walking quickly past the younger hobbits, who, as if startled, leap after him. They are swallowed by the darkness after only a few steps. My Sam mutters something, a stifled exclamation at my shoulder as he hurries forward, and follows, and I follow after.
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