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The Tenth Walker  by Lindelea

Chapter 99. We pause to consider

The sky has a black look, not like the last dawning or two, still fresh in my memory, that were bright, though cold.

As has been our custom, we began to look for a resting place as the Sun threw her promise into the sky. Before us, the peaks that rose black and sharp against the dawning sky are duller, this day, against the sullen sky. There will be no bright Sunrise to usher us to our beds (so to speak), I deem.

After my burdens have been unloaded, and hobbles have been put in place to keep me from foolishly fleeing, should I startle, I crop at the grass, withered and frost-tipped as if it is the last of the season. For some reason, I think of the hay racks in the pleasant valley that must lie far behind us now. Not the valley of the elves that we have just left, but the valley of the other elves, if you take my meaning.

In the shadow of a copse of evergreen trees, with their thick, concealing branches, on one side of the road that has taken us ever upwards, my companions seem unconcerned about the spying birds that have flown over our sheltered resting places in recent days. The Big Men and Fair One have woven no branches to hide under, this morning, and – marvellously – they have not stuck branches under my harness to make me a walking tree or bramble bush. But no, they have removed my harness completely, such comfort! I take my first satisfying roll in some days, grunting in pleasure as I scratch my back. My hobbits laugh at me, and I am happy to provide them some diversion. 

When I stand to my feet once more, Our Big Man is standing ready with my nosebag. I curve my neck towards him and prick my ears forward in my most cheerful welcome, for I know that he has prepared me a feast of grain, such as one or the other of our Big Men has offered me each day of our travels thus far. He waits by my side and strokes my neck with gentle fingers as I munch my meal, and then, as if to pass the time whilst I am eating, he runs his hands over my back to check for sores, and down my legs to check for strains. When I am finished – too soon! – he removes the bag and folds it, and then he lifts each of my feet in turn to check for stones or injury. Satisfied, he stands straight again and slaps gently at my shoulder. ‘All is well,’ he says.

I drop my head to graze, and he lingers, his hand on my withers. When I roll my eye back to glance at him, I see he is staring at the mountains ahead of us, deep in thought.

The Fair One has climbed high into one of the fir trees to keep the first watch. My Samwise is portioning out travel rations whilst my other hobbits lay out their bedding. The Dwarf and the Other Big Man (the one with the shield, though his shield rests at this moment against the tree where he laid out his bedding) are conversing quietly, but it is Tall Hat who interests me – for Tall Hat has lifted his face to snuff at the air, just as a pony might.

I lift my head from my grazing and snuffle at the air as well. I scent no danger, only a half-remembered sharp, crisp smell.

Tall Hat looks back at us, Our Big Man and myself, to tell us that winter is deepening behind us. I nod, considering. Yes, I remember that smell now, from the time that soft white flakes came floating down out of the sky above our little meadow. One landed on my nose, making me snort, and my dam whinnied her laughter. ‘Snow,’ she called it. ‘Much pleasanter than rain or ice.’

And it was, though it fell thickly and covered our meadow, and we had to paw it away to lip at the grass playing ‘I hide and you seek me’ beneath. The snow fell all the day and into the night, and then the Sun came out next day and shone diligently, though it took several days for all the snow to melt away again. I do remember, when it was freshly fallen, how amusing it was to lower my head and stick my muzzle into the fluffy stuff. It would tickle my nose, and make me snort, and I jerked my head up and danced and frolicked whilst my dam laughed and laughed at my antics. I have no fear of snow.

Certainly pleasanter than ice! I remember a time or two when ice fell from the sky, and our old man shut us up in the cosy shed, with straw for a bed, and he returned several times to refill our hay nets and water buckets before the Sun warmed the land and melted the ice again. My dam told me at that time that there are lands that lie under ice and snow for long stretches of days, instead of melting within a day or three. But I have a hard time imagining such a thing.

But Tall Hat is still speaking, and I turn my attention once more to his words, to see what he might have to say besides snow. I lay my ears back at the words seen by watchers. It seems that I shall have to take my fill of rolling on the grass here, for tomorrow they will likely leave my harness on and make me into a walking tree once more, to hide me in plain sight from the searching birds.

I like the words waylaid by some evil even less, and stomp my foot, my ears laid back so far as they can go, pinned to my neck, and Master comes up on my other side and soothes my neck as Tall Hat continues. ‘What do you think of your course now, Aragorn?’

The smell of anxiety wafts from the Master, and his fingers, twined in my mane, tense. He is listening intently. I wonder what he is thinking.

From his words, it is clear in his answer to Tall Hat's observations that Our Big Man takes no joy in our journey, no matter what path we may follow.

Tall Hat seems to disagree; he speaks of a dark and secret way, which I don’t like the sound of, though he seems to think it preferable to going on the way we are going.

I like it even less at hearing and feeling and smelling Our Big Man’s reaction and, unlike his usual calm, measured tones, he speaks out sharply in protest, begging Tall Hat – begging! – not even to speak of that Other Way, whatever it might be. A piercing smell of dread pours from him in a sudden tumult of feeling, and I throw my head higher and roll my eyes, my nostrils widening as far as I can make them as I scent the air for danger.

Master, too, seems perturbed, though his voice is soothing as he rubs at my neck and murmurs low, ‘Steady, Bill.’

‘We must decide before we go further,’ Tall Hat insists, but Our Big Man holds up a staying hand.

He says ‘we’ will weigh the matter. (‘We’ he says, and I wonder, does he speak only of himself and Tall Hat, and perhaps the Master, or are all my companions thinking and considering our way? ...except myself, of course, for such matters are beyond a pony’s ken. I must go wherever my lead rope beckons. At least if my Sam holds the other end, I will go forward without balking or protesting, wherever he might lead me.)

And then the Ranger speaks of resting and sleeping, and he must have fixed a meaningful look on the Master, for the latter gives me a final pat and turns to go to where the other hobbits are settling to eat and sleep. Tall Hat turns away as well.

Our Big Man remains at my side, his hand still on my withers, but he is staring at the mountains that loom ahead, and dread and doubt still roll from him to my sensitive nostrils.

But though I try as I may, I can discern no scent of danger ahead of us, only the fresh smell of the evergreens, and that sharp, crisp smell on the chill breeze.


Author notes:

Some thoughts here are derived from “The Ring Goes South” from The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien.


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