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Chapter 95. We tread an ancient road
The murmured conversation continues to flow between my hobbits... Perhaps I should say among the cousins, as the words flow over and past my Sam, for the most part, though his smell changes from time to time as if he is taking it all in. Which, no doubt, he is.
When we stop for a short rest, Youngest remarks on our path, ‘so broad and straight, not a winding game trail at all! Why, I hardly know what to do with myself, it is so difficult to keep on this path, unnaturally unbending and unswerving as it is, when my legs are so accustomed to twists and turns!’ And my Sam’s smell changes from that of recent effort to amusement, and because I am resting my head on his shoulder, the better for him to scratch my jaw during this pause, I feel the quivering of the chuckles he does not voice. Meanwhile, determinedly-Merry and the other Big Man (the one with the shield) go over my straps to make sure my load has not shifted.
The Master, leaning against my shoulder and rubbing at my neck, says, ‘I think it must be the remains of an ancient road.’
‘I think you have the right of it, Frodo,’ Merry says, his tone turning from determinedly cheerful to surprise. ‘Why, when I look at it with that idea, it appears to be well-planned! It would make sense from what Legolas said, do you remember? ...deep they delved us, fair they wrought us, high they builded us; but they are gone.’
‘The stones remembered them,’ my Sam says under his breath, but I hear something of the wonder that is always in his voice, when ever he speaks of the Fair Folk, even so.
‘The trees and grass didn’t remember them, only the stones,’ Youngest says aloud as if echoing my Sam’s thoughts. And then the inevitable question follows. ‘But how can stones remember? Much less trees and grass? I mean, I suppose trees and grass might remember, somehow, being living things and all, but stones...?’
‘Look, Pip,’ the Master says, and he gestures with his free hand (for his other continues to soothe my neck, almost as if he finds it as comforting as I do). ‘See how regular the outlines of these tumbled stones are... I don’t think they look like natural stones at all.’
‘They do look as if they’ve been worked by hand, at that,’ curious-Merry agrees. He finishes adjusting a strap, slaps my side and moves a few steps away, to stop by one of the larger stones by the wayside. He runs his hand over its surface, though what he is looking for is beyond my ken.
‘They have long stood under the wind and weather,’ the other Big Man (the one with the shield) says. ‘I doubt you’ll find any marks of tools remaining on them. Still, I think Frodo has the right of it. In my travels, I’ve seen many ancient roads. Some have been well-kept, and others, the turf has covered so that you know the road is there only by the unnatural smoothness and evenness of its course...’
‘It would make sense if these Elves were shapers of stone,’ the Master says. ‘The road goes from their valley to the mountain... and the mines there...’
My Sam sighs, and the scritching of his fingers pauses for a moment as if the Big Man’s words have caught at his imagination. ‘An ancient road,’ he whispers, and then his fingers resume. ‘Built by Elves, no less! And here I am, plain Sam Gamgee, walking upon it!’
But I lift my head from his shoulder at movement ahead of us. Yes, our Big Man and Tall Hat are picking up their packs once more and settling them on their backs.
‘Time to start again,’ the Merry hobbit grunts in his determinedly-cheerful voice as he lifts his own pack to his shoulders. In the next moment, he is helping Youngest with his burden even as my Sam lifts the Master’s pack so that Master can more easily slip his arms through the straps.
And so we walk on, for some hours, I think, though I have no way of marking the time the way my hobbits do. Sometimes, for instance, I hear Youngest counting his steps under his breath, numbers that sound long and complicated and convey no meaning to my mind, except for the one and two and three that follow at the end of much-longer strings of number words.
The Moon is behind us now, though he has accompanied us throughout this night’s journey. He began by rising over the mountains before us, greeted by Youngest with the remark that the Man in the Moon had certainly drunk his fill this night, “lucky fellow”, causing me to nod my head in agreement. While I was not yet thirsty from this night’s efforts as the Moon was first rising from his bed, I would have welcomed a stream crossing our path at any time. As it was, some time later, I was quite relieved when we did come upon water, though the other Big Man and my Samwise had to lead me a little way from this “road” (if it is indeed a road) to find it.
My hobbits have remarked on the brightness of the stars above, though they don’t hold a candle to light from the Moon, as Youngest might say. The shadows of the stones to either side of this broad path are quite black in its pale light. At least we are not stumbling in the darkness this night, or slipping on mud in cold rain and ice. Though our breath issues as clouds in the cold night air, the going is relatively easy. I wonder if we will reach the mountain more quickly than our Big Man thought?
So deep in my ponderings am I, that when the next halt comes, I keep walking, nodding my head, half in a dream, until I come up nearly to where Tall Hat stands. I raise my head to sniff the air. We are no longer in the depths of night, I deem. The wind has dropped to stillness and the air is cold and chill. Dawn, though it is not on the horizon, is not far off.
The voice of Our Big Man, standing just to the other side of Tall Hat, sounds uncommonly loud in the stillness, though it is the barest mutter. ‘Dawn is perhaps an hour away,’ he is saying. ‘We will need to seek a sheltered spot soon, where we can rest the daylight away and be hidden from the birds.’
Youngest throws his arms around my neck and leans his head against me. ‘Let me borrow a little of your warmth, Bill old fellow,’ he says. Gladly will I stand and let him draw what warmth he may from my shaggy coat.
The Master, beside me, stretches and looks up at the sky. ‘The stars are not yet fading, but I deem they will be, soon enough,’ he agrees, ‘and the Moon will not be long in seeking his bed.’
But I am suddenly a-tremble, and I cannot say why. There was a feeling just now, that swept over me, a feeling only half-remembered, and yet my nerves and muscles remember all too well. Fear! Danger! In that briefest of moments, blessedly brief, I wanted to cower in the grass like the field mouse when the shadow of the hawk passes over.
‘Steady, Bill,’ my Sam is saying, but Youngest’s grip has tightened, choking-tight as if he, too, is taking alarm.
In the same moment, I hear Master whisper to Tall Hat. ‘Did you see anything pass over?’
I did not see it, but I certainly felt it, and I nod, and my Sam rests his hand high on my neck, that he might not dislodge Youngest, leans in so that his mouth is close to my ear, as if he fears to speak too loudly, and murmurs a stream of soothing words.
Tall Hat tries to pass it off as a wisp of cloud, shaking my confidence in him, for certainly, I felt it, and I am only a pony! Though perhaps he is only trying to calm my hobbits, for I feel Youngest relax. He rests his forehead against my neck once more, and his hold no longer threatens to strangle me.
Our Big Man smells of unease, however, and though his words are low, as if spoken to himself, I hear them, and I think perhaps Master does as well, as he mutters his observation that, whatever it was, the shadow of fear that passed over us was moving quickly and not with the wind.
Some phrases borrowed from “The Ring Goes South” from The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien.
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