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Chapter 106. We stop and find ‘shelter’
As if the snow and wind and shrieks and howling laughter were not enough of a trial, now a deadly rain begins to fall upon the path, not raindrops or hail or ice but stones, falling from the mountain-side with voices of their own, joining to make a dreadful harmony with the wind as they whistle over our heads or crash around us. Worse is the threat of greater stones – rocks – boulders that we can hear, a dull rumble of unseen menace, hidden by the mists above. It seems as if we might at any time be crushed, flattened by a rolling boulder from the heights.
The Other Big Man has halted just ahead of us, and he speaks the thought that all must be thinking, that we must stop and stay here, not press on into the offensive forces of snow and wind and worse. I nod my head vigorously in agreement. We cannot go further tonight. At his observation that there are fell voices on the air, I have no need to shy in fear, for it is no surprise to me: I hear them as clearly as he does.
Our Big Man disagrees and agrees in the same breath, confusingly enough. He says the shrieking and howling is merely the wind, but he also speaks of evil and unfriendly things, and this latter thought seems more likely to me, standing here in the midst of the onslaught.
The older cousins have rubbed life back into Youngest, I deem, for they leave off their efforts. Yet Youngest cannot seem to keep his feet unaided, and so they each take one of his arms and pull them over their shoulders, holding him upright between them. My Sam returns to my head, takes up my trailing rope and brushes the snow from my face, then turns with the rest to follow the Big Folks’ discussion – though shouting to make themselves heard over the unceasing wind scarcely fits the term.
The Dwarf rests his axe upon the ground and leans upon it, as if even his stubborn strength has been tested by our ascent and the Mountain’s assault. He speaks of the Mountain as if it has being and thought in itself. Caradhras the Cruel sticks in my ears like the accumulation of blowing snow and ice that coats the hair that protects them from freezing.
Tall Hat mutters something that I miss, but Youngest’s heartfelt cry of misery rings clearly as the wind drops briefly, as if the storm draws a deep breath before continuing. But what can we do?
I hear Tall Hat’s next words, stop or go back for the way ahead is open and fully vulnerable to the falling rocks. But Our Big Man corrects him, saying we cannot hope to go back while the storm holds, and this cliff-wall is the best shelter we’ve seen on the way up the Mountain-side.
I raise my head and roll my eyes to take in our surroundings, wondering if his eyes, set to the front of his head and not to the sides (as a pony’s), see differently from mine. My Sam speaks the very thought I am thinking. ‘Shelter!’ he says. ‘If this is shelter, then one wall and no roof make a house!’
I nod my head, thinking of my broken-down shed. Why, that would be a mansion in comparison to this, a palace (of which I heard much, upon a sunny day as my hobbits reclined upon a blanket in the grazing fields of that marvellous Valley where Merrylegs may still graze, and Master regaled the younger hobbits with tales both wondrous and amazing).
I find myself counting noses, in a manner of speaking, as the rest of the Company huddles close together in this ‘shelter’ of sorts, pressing as close to the bottom of the cliffs as we can. Well, myself excepted. I stand a little way from the cliffside. My hobbits press directly against the unyielding stone of the Mountain-side, and Our Big Man has manoeuvred me to stand between them and the open space, in hopes that my furry body might block some of the wind from the shivering hobbits. Though I plant my feet firmly where he has placed me, eddying blasts swirl from all sides as if the Mountain is striving to reach around me to freeze my hobbits with its assault, while the snow flows down ever more densely, as if we stand beneath one of the great waterfalls in the hidden Valley (if a waterfall could be made of snow, that is).
While I do not have the numbers to count so high, I am able to discern that we are all here. None has been swept from the uncertain path we have trod. I sigh, a deep sigh of relief, even as I feel the snow mounting to my hocks, and higher. Perhaps the snow will bury me, and my hobbits with me, at this rate. I find myself sinking into a dream, an uneasy dream, in truth, of never-ending wind and snow.
The Other Big Man moves suddenly, startling me, though my body does not respond to my startlement. So chilled am I, it is all I can do to raise my head. He lifts Master from the drift of snow that has grown and surrounded my hobbits, and he shakes Master. It is not clear whether he is shaking the hobbit awake from a doze, or if he is shaking the snow from Master’s head and shoulders. He speaks, addressing his words to Tall Hat. This will be the death of the halflings.
Tall Hat seems to agree. In any event, as if spurred to motion by the words (he has stood as a rock for the past span of uncounted minutes or perhaps hours since we halted), he bends to his pack, unfastens the flap and searches within, emerging with a small flask. He says it is for all of us, a small mouthful each, but of course he cannot mean the pony.
I see Master stand straighter, after taking a swallow, as he passes the flask to more-frozen-than-Merry, and the same with Merry, and Youngest, and my Sam, as if the liquid therein has bestowed fresh hope and vigour upon them. And so the flask passes from hand to hand, and the impact of a mere mouthful is clearly visible in each. Precious cordial, indeed.
It is a pity that I cannot share the feeling.
Yet again, I am mistaken, for when all have taken a swallow and the flask returns to him, instead of stowing it away again immediately in his pack, Tall Hat wets his fingers from the flask and holds out his hand to me. Carefully, I lick the fragrant stuff from his fingers. It warms my tongue, and I feel its effects spreading through my body, easing the cold stiffness that has overtaken my limbs without my even noticing. And then he stows the flask away. I lower my face to him, and he strokes my jaw gently, and some sense of regret flows from him. I would have left you in the pleasant meadow...
I sigh again, blowing warm air around him, and he nods and smiles at me. Greatheart, he murmurs in the language of the Elves in the hidden Valley, and the very tone infuses me with warmth and renewed strength of purpose as if bestowing courage is among his powers (much more heartening than turning people into toads!), and I stand straighter.
Yet still the wind howls and the snow beats against us.
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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