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The Tenth Walker  by Lindelea

Chapter 88. We take warning from our surroundings

Replete for the moment, I doze, though my ears remain cocked to listen to my surroundings. Even a restless pony must find rest, sleep, when it is available. We will not stop here for long, after all. Soon enough I will be loaded down with all of our baggage, except for what the Walkers bear on their own backs, and we will be walking again. And O – the sight of the mountains ahead warns me that the walking will not be so easy as the walking songs of my hobbits would make it out to be.

Thus, I hear – even though I do not see – Our Big Man make his way from our resting place. 

Though he walks very quietly, indeed, there is still the soft sound of his clothing rubbing against his skin – a wary pony alert for the first sign of danger can still hear such a thing. And the breeze brings the smell of him from another quarter. I can place almost all of my companions by their smell, even when my eyes are unseeing, my head drooping.

He is moving up the slope, towards the ridge where we first entered this valley of forgotten Elves. No pebbles are dislodged – he is moving with more than his usual care, and so I raise my head to take stock of our surroundings. 

Nothing is moving, nor making any noise at all, save my companions. There is not even any birdsong, though I have heard the rustling of small creatures, brief and secretive, as if all the living things in this place are in hiding.

It is enough to make me forget all weariness and stand, head high, gazing in all directions and listening. The talk and laughter of my companions seems loud in this quiet place, and my skin prickles in warning. I shudder as if to ward off flies, but there are no flies.

The Dwarf comes stalking down the hillside, to take a portion of food with grunted thanks for my Sam, to sit down by the fire, steadily plying his spoon as if this food, cooked over a fire, is more palatable than the usual fare. He adds a few gruff observations for the benefit of the sword-wielders. 

Tall Hat sits a little straighter. I follow his gaze to the top of the ridge, where Our Big Man stands unmoving, almost invisible in the shadow of a tree. He might be a tree, himself, as he looks out over the valley to the lands beyond. And then he moves down the slope again, to the brink of the dell, where he stands looking down at us.

The Merry hobbit takes note and calls up to him, his cheerful voice sounding unnaturally loud, as if it is echoing from the surrounding hills.

In answer to the hobbit’s question, Our Big Man talks about one of the things that has been bothering me, like an itch I cannot scratch. He has been here in many seasons, he says, and yet has never heard the silence that reigns now. No, worse – the voices of our companions seem to make the ground echo.

I nod vigorously, and shake my mane in agreement.

And even worse – he says that he does not understand it. 

I am immediately even more on my guard. 

Our Big Man has proven himself wise in the way of the Wilds, except, perhaps, when he has led us to the edge of a sheer fall, or down into treacherous swamps. But then, the paths we followed must have been at least partly to blame. I am certain that the reason we have followed paths, even the less trustworthy ones, is in part because he has learnt his lesson after our disastrous short-cut on the way to that wonderful Valley.

At least a path will not lead us up – or down – an impossible climb!


Author notes:

Some turns of phrase taken from “The Ring Goes South” from The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien.

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