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The Tenth Walker  by Lindelea

The Tenth Walker

Prologue

My feet are killing me.

Honestly, I don't see how these Little Folk could stand to go along with this Big Man. Big Men aren't to be trusted. Their tender mercies are, to say the least, as cruel as the sores on my back from the blows of Bill Ferny's stick, and the pain in my mouth from the way he used to jerk at the reins, when I'd pull the sledge for him.

I'm not as old as they think me... if they were to look at my teeth, they'd see. But let that Ranger come anywhere near my teeth! I'll show him something he'll not soon forget. 

The one they call "Sam" seems a trustworthy sort. He washed the sores on my back, as gently as my mother's tongue, and rubbed some sort of balm in, and he apologised under his breath as they loaded me with their luggage. Enough for two ponies, but I'm all they have.

Still, there's a gentle hand on my rope, and a quiet and encouraging voice is making my ears twitch.

The Master comes up to me now. At least, the way Sam defers to him, he must be Sam's master. Sam himself is carrying enough to be a beast of burden, and somehow I feel a kinship spring up between us as we wait for the word to start.

The Master has bright eyes, but he seems weary, as if he spent a sleepless night.

I don't wonder, with those shrieks and shadows that made me plunge in my poor excuse for a stall, in the broken-down shed behind Bill Ferny's house, and stand a-tremble long after they faded into the night.

I'm the only pony left in Bree, they say. All the others ran away. I would've run, too, could I but get free.

But I am free! Free of Ferny, it seems. The innkeeper came around this morning, and I heard silver clink and Ferny's coarse laugh, and then the innkeeper led me out of the ramshackle shed with its mouldy straw bed, stale water and inedible hay. I was too weak to do more than lay my ears back at him, but he offered me no blows nor curses, and ordered his hobbit, Bob, to feed me well.

And then Sam came. Practically a pony himself, that one. He doesn't complain, weighed down by his burden. And neither shall I.

The Master pats me gently and offers me... my nostrils widen and I'd smile if I knew how. I prick my ears forward and lift my head, reaching eagerly. An apple! I can't remember the last time I crunched such juicy sweetness between my teeth!

'There now, poor lad,' the Master says, and his tired face breaks into a smile as I rub my face against his sleeve. 'You might be better off staying, than going with us.'

Never, I think, and I snort and shake my head so that my mane flies up. My mane, no longer a tangled mess, is straggly at best, but it is smooth and well-combed, thanks to the gentle and patient work of Bob and Samwise. I swish my tail, taking pleasure in the silky, unfettered feel. No tangles left there, either.

'It's almost as if he understands you, Mr. Frodo,' Sam says, wonder in his eyes.

But of course I do.

Chapter 1. We take our leave of Bree.

It seems as if the entire population of Bree and Staddle are crowded in the road to see us off, and I even see the wrinkled face of the kind old woman who gave me a carrot, when I was hauling a sledge full of rocks from the tumbled hillside the other side of Archet, to sell to the Bree-folk for their garden walls. My old plague, for I'll not call him master, had stopped at the public house there, to quaff a mug. 'Twas a hot day, and the sweat rolled down his face.

But not a sip of water for the poor sweat-soaked pony pulling the sledge!

The old woman came up to me, a basket on her arm, and I threw up my head, rolling my eyes wildly for fear as she reached towards me to pat my nose. Hands reaching towards me meant only pain and insult, in those days.

'Steady, lad,' she said, and her voice was so very sad it startled me, and dim memory rose of happier days by the side of my dam, my days of training under the gentle hands and kind voice of an old man--though when I was still young he came no more to the field, and shortly after I was sold at the pony market.

I lowered my head and blew softly, and she smiled and fumbled under the cover of her basket, bringing out a carrot, so fresh the dirt still clung and the greens sprang lush from the top. She held out her hand, and I swept the treat, nodding as I crunched... but my pleasure was to be short-lived.

'Hi! Get away from there!' came the voice of my misery, harsh and angry. 'He bites, he does, and it'll be no fault but your own if he grinds your fingers betwixt his teeth!'

'Poor lad, poor poor lad, I'm so very sorry...' she whispered as she stumbled away. I craned after her, but in the next moment the bit was cutting into my tongue as a heavy hand jerked my reins, and then Bill's stick came down hard on my rump.

'Get up, there!' I lay my ears back and plant my feet, but suddenly I am in the present once more as the words are repeated in Sam's gentle tones.

'Get up now, lad. Come along!' And instead of a jerk on my mouth, his hand behind my ears urges me forward.

And my old woman from Archet is there, smiling in the midst of the wondering faces. Not all the faces are as friendly as hers, nor all the words that are shouted, but my old woman's face stands out like a beacon shining in the crowd. She hadn't the money to buy me back from Bill, when she saw what sort of man he was, but she is glad for me now, even if I am to leave the town. Surely I'll be better off, no matter where I'm going!

Mr. Butterbur walks alongside, with Nob and Bob flanking him, and my new hobbits have many words of thanks to say. The Master has the last word, as is fitting: 'I hope we shall meet again some day, when things are merry once more.'

I arch my thin neck and step proudly to show that as far as I am concerned, things are merry indeed.

The Master has a few more words to say, to the effect that he should like to stay in Butterbur's house in peace for a while, but I am just as happy for the journey it seems he must take, for it takes me away from the blight on my life. I walk on, savouring the scent of apples coming from Sam; he has a pocketful of them, and the one the Master gave me earlier came from this store.

Many of the onlookers are walking along beside and behind us, as if to see us off. Heads hang out of windows of the inn and of the houses we pass, and other heads peep out of doors or stare at us over walls and fences, walls made of the good Bree-land stone that I've spent half my life hauling. I have no regrets to leave it all behind.

As we approach the far gate and my erstwhile "home" I lower my head again. No stable-pull urges me faster, nor will it cause me to turn my head in at the rusty, crooked gate when we come to it. No, indeed; I shudder and turn my head away as we walk by the dark, ill-kept house behind the thick hedge: last house in the village, with its broken-down and stinking shed. The sledge leans up against the shed, awaiting me.

A gentle hand strokes my neck, a gentle voice whispers encouragement. I realise my ears are pinned tight against my head, and with an effort I prick them forward. Sam holds an apple under my nose and I nibble at it, momentarily distracted, but I drop the treat when I hear the voice of my former misery.

'Morning, Longshanks!' he says. 'Off early? Found some friends at last?'

Sam picks up the apple from the dust, brushes it off against his coat, and offers it to me again, but I am all a-tremble.

The littlest one, Pippin, comes up on my other side, soothing. 'Steady, old fellow,' he says. 'Don't go tossing all our baggage in the road, now! It'll take us that much longer to take our leave...'

I realise that I have humped my back, but I am only a pony. I cannot help this unreasoning fear that seizes me.

My old misery has turned his attention to the hobbits now. 'Morning, my little friends! I suppose you know who you've taken up with? That's Stick-at-nought Strider...' It is the pot calling the kettle black, I think to myself. '...though I've heard other names not so pretty. Watch out tonight!'

Pippin takes hold of my halter and pulls gently, urging me forward.

'Easy,' Sam warns. 'His mouth is naught but sores.'

'And you, Sammie, don't go ill-treating my poor old pony! Pah!' He spits, an unlovely sight.

Sam turns as quick as a dog that's heard a squirrel scolding. 'And you, Ferny,' he says, 'put your ugly face out of sight, or it will get hurt.' And with a sudden flick, quick as lightning, the apple leaves his hand and hits Bill square on the nose.

My old misery ducks too late, and I hear him cursing from behind the hedge, yet my trembling has left me, and I step forward confidently under Sam's guiding hand and Pippin's soft pull. Somehow I know I have nothing to fear any more. I lift my tail as we pass by the rusty gate and leave a steaming pile in the middle of the entry to the overgrown yard, a last farewell.

'Waste of a good apple,' Sam says, but I shake my head. It was my apple, after all, and I gladly donate it in service to the cause in which it was employed.

Chapter 2. We leave the Road

At last we leave the village behind, leaving our escort of children and stragglers at the South-gate. The Road is familiar to me--many's the time I pulled an empty sledge, scraping along with a sound most painful to the ears, out this gate, with the knowing I'd only have to drag it, full of heavy stone, back again from wherever we were going.

Perhaps it's no wonder my old misery took to drinking strong-smelling stuff, that left him with foul breath and fouler temper. Likely I'd have done the same, but ponies have no such comfort offered them. I' truth, I'd've settled for fresh water instead of stale.

But no sledge hinders me now. I have only the load on my back, and from what I understand of the situation that'll only grow lighter as we journey, for much of the burden consists of foodstuffs to be eaten along the way.

And so I walk along, my head high, my eyes taking in the scenery, my ears swivelling to catch the sounds. It is very different from plodding, in the morning, head-down with exhaustion and hopelessness, or worse--the returning in the evening, muscles a-tremble with the effort of hauling a sledge of heavy stone for the building of garden walls and filling in holes in the street and whatnot, having only mouldy hay to look forward to eating... if you can call it eating.

We are being followed. I wonder if my companions are aware of it. I raise my head higher and my nostrils flare to catch the breeze, which carries a hint of my old misery. We have kept along the Road as if we were mere travellers. I have heard the grumbles of dwarf-ponies as they passed my yard, and heard snatches of places far and away. For me, the Road always ended where we turned towards Archet, to the Chetwood to haul wood, or to go around Staddle to the East side of the Bree-hill where my old misery boasted that the best stone was to be found.

We have followed the same way, and if I didn't walk free and unencumbered by the following sledge, I'd think it just another day. No, I wouldn't, neither. For I breakfasted well this morning... Yes, exactly the same way, for after the Road has run down some way and we've left Bree-hill standing tall and brown behind, the Man says, 'This is where we leave the open and take to cover.'

'Not a "short cut", I hope. Our last short cut through woods nearly ended in disaster,' the smallest of the hobbits says. He is "Pippin", and he has a nice smell about him, of apples and pipe-weed and a little of mischief and curiosity thrown in. He makes me think of my old man, who smelt of pipe-weed and peppermints, and would laugh when the children came round, and gave them sticky treats to eat, and to share with his ponies, my dam and myself.

I know this track. It is narrow, and leads off to the North, towards Archet. I lay my ears back, and Pippin pats my neck as if in apology.

The tall Man laughs and speaks reassurance, even as he takes a look up and down the Road, betraying his watchfulness. The sour tang of my old misery still wafts on the breeze, though I see nothing of him. He is watching us, watching, perhaps to see where we leave the Road.

I swivel my ears, keeping them for the most part watching behind us, listening for following steps. Though I hear no pursuit, we are taking a wandering course with many turns and doublings. If I had any doubts, before, as to our destination, I no longer fear that this is just an ordinary day of wood- or stone-hauling. And the walking is not unpleasant.

The Man confirms my thought, that my old misery watched where we left the Road. But that familiar sour tang has not stayed with us as we've wandered hither and yon. 'He knows the land round here well enough, but he knows he is not a match for me in a wood.' I feel the stirrings of friendly feeling towards this stranger at these words.

He supposes that others are not far away, following us. I flare my nostrils, the better to sample the breeze. I wonder what others he fears, and a shiver shudders my rough coat under my burden of bundles, though the sun is shining bright.

A/N: A number of quotes from "A Knife in the Dark" from Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien have been woven into the narrative.

Chapter 3. We enter the pathless wilderness, no longer on solid ground

How quiet the wood! There is no ringing of woodsman's axe, no sound of singing as I've sometimes heard as I dragged the sledge along, no men or hobbits to be heard or seen, no ponies, no horses. It is as if we are the only creatures abroad, and all else are tight in their homes before the breaking of a storm. O there are a few birds perched on the branches, but fewer are singing than usual, and a few squirrels scolded us roundly from safe perches high in trees, beyond the stone-cast of a hobbit. I shied rather violently a little while ago, I admit, when a fox broke from cover and fled across the track in front of us, but my Samwise quickly calmed me with his voice, so very down-to-earth and matter-of-fact. I'd almost think I was a part of a hobbit walking-party. O yes, I've heard of those, seen them in passing in the woods, singing as they walked, sometimes with a fat, well-fed pack pony to carry the picnic if it was a large one.

But no hobbit walking parties today, unless you count ours.

We set up camp in a grassy glade, and the Ranger allows a small, sheltered fire. One of the hobbits, Merry, I think I heard them say, questions the wisdom of this, and young apples-and-mischief protests, wanting a cooked meal. He is impulsive, that one, like a young colt that shies before really seeing the cause. Mr. Merry explains patiently that he was only thinking about how, if they were escaping in secret, they might draw attention with a fire.

The big man says only that a fire could be of use, and though my Sam bristles with suspicion--I can smell it on him, and lay back my ears--Master lays a quieting hand on Sam's arm. 'I for one would welcome a fire,' he says in his peacemaking way, that he has used several times today when small squabbles broke out between Mr. Merry and Mr. Pippin, 'if you think it won't bring trouble down on our heads.'

The big man raises his head and seems to sniff the air. 'All is quiet,' he says. 'The storm will not break upon us this night at least.'

I swivel my ears and take a sniff of my own. He's right. All is quiet and peaceful.

They hobble me, though I should scarcely run back to my old misery. I alternate between dozing and cropping the grass, and drink from the bubbling spring at the edge of the glade, such cold and fresh water, such a marvel! I feel as if I am becoming new.

Indeed, I frisk a bit when my Sam removes the hobbles; I cannot seem to help myself, but instead of a blow and a curse I get a chuckle and an adjuration to stand "Steady, old lad!" as they load me down once more.

On this day we begin to steer a steady course eastwards, ever away from Bree, ever away, my heart ever lighter, though there is a part of me that tugs to go back there. Not to my old misery, of course, but... I cannot explain it. I am only a pony, and we go so much more by instinct than by thought, even when it is against our own interests so to do. Why, I heard my old man tell a visitor one day how horses and ponies have been known to run back into a burning barn, in search of safety!

We camp again in a grassy glade, having walked rather farther than the youngest hobbit wished. He was yawning long before the big man turned off the path. 'Here we are,' the big man says. 'Plenty of grass for the pony, and to hasten you to your sleep.'

Grass for the pony! Is he truly looking after my needs, even to making the hobbits walk farther than they would, otherwise?

Perhaps this man is more like my old man than my old misery, no matter how evil his look--and how he smells!

Don't judge a book by its cover! my dam told me once. Perhaps she was right. Someone left a book in our field, once, some picnicker, and being young and curious, rather like Mr. Apples-and-Mischief, I sniffed and sampled... and shook my head in disgust. The pages smelled appetising, but the cover was of leather and left a nasty taste.

I am less weary this night, dozing and grazing by turns. I notice that the big man seems wakeful, keeping the fire burning, and I remember that last night the fire never did burn down to coals. He must have kept watch last night as well, and fed the flames until the morning light. Once or twice when I look over at him, his head is on his breast, but when I venture near he lifts his head again, meets my gaze, nods.

All is quiet. Perhaps he knows that I, too, am watchful, my ears taking in our surroundings even as I sleep. We are not far enough from my old misery, and will not be for quite a while, not if we were to travel an hundred leagues. For the first time I wonder where we are bound, but it is beyond a pony's understanding, really. I'll go wherever my Sam leads me.

The third day of our travel dawns, and after a hasty breakfast we begin walking again. We are following a faint trail, one not made by two-footed creatures, as the big man explains. It is a deer track, and it leads us out of the Chetwood completely, and into a wide, flat expanse of country. The big man explains that we are far beyond the borders of the Bree-land, a fact that I find curiously soothing, and yet there is that unthinking part of me that yearns to turn around. Like a moth circling to its destruction in a candle flame, like those ponies running back into their burning stable, so I am drawn. Perhaps the hobbles are not such a bad idea after all.

The land has been steadily falling away as we've travelled eastwards, and is no longer firm, even rocky, beneath our feet, but rather spongy and damp, a feeling I have no liking for, and unlike anything I've ever encountered. I lift my feet higher than usual, and am reluctant to set them down. I do not like the springy turf; I do not like it at all. It is not like the pleasant field where my dam and I spent our days. The breeze brings an unpleasant, damp smell, and I snort and shake my head.

We are drawing near the Midgewater Marshes, the big man says. I do not know what he means, but already I do not like the sound of the place.

We share and share alike

"Midgewater Marshes" they call this place, but I'd venture there are more midges than water. Of course the way the Ranger leads us, we pick our way carefully and for the most part my companions are relatively dry-footed, though I wonder many times if we are making any progress at all. The sun seems to be playing "I hide and you seek me", popping out from behind a cloud at first before us, and then to the side, and sometimes to our rear, and then before us again, as if we walk in circles. Our path wanders here and there, as aimless-seeming as the clouds of midges that surround us, but the man says we are making fair progress.

Hidden birds warble around us from the surrounding clumps of reeds and rushes; I cock my ears to hear their songs. Go back! Go back! they seem to say, and the pull of my broken-down stables behind me is growing stronger. Were it not for my Sam's quiet encouragement, his hand on the poll of my neck, just behind my ears, urging me onwards, I would turn my tail to these marshes and go in search of solid and familiar ground.

But the ground grows ever soggier, like the mouldy straw in my old stall when we've had a long stretch of rain through the leaky roof of my shed, and then soggier, even, than that, and the Ranger picks his way more carefully, and stops for minutes at a time to scrutinise the land. When we are moving it is not so bad, for I must pay heed to where I place my feet lest I stumble on this quaking, treacherous ground. But when we stop, I can feel the flies settling on me, thirsty for my blood, and if I could twitch every inch of my skin at once, I would! I am aching all over, as a matter of fact, for the muscles that bunch the skin to shoo the flies have been at constant work. The midges, too, are maddening, flying in clouds around us. I sneeze and shake my head as they seem intent on flying up my nostrils.

The hobbits walk close together in a bunch, following Sam and me, and Sam stays close on the Ranger's heels. The youngest hobbit steps but an arms-length off the path the man has been making and is up to his neck before the others can grab him; they pull him out, sopping and stinking of marsh-water, and we stop long enough for the others to strip his clothes off him, wring out the water, rub him down and clothe him again. He protests bitterly, for the flies and midges have free rein for those moments, not even having to creep up his sleeves and breeches to find places to feed.

'I am being eaten alive!' he cries, his hands smashing thousands of tiny bodies against his exposed skin while the others hurry to dig out dry clothing for him, a shirt from the Master's pack, smallclothes from Mr. not-so-Merry, breeches from Sam's...

Sam hands him the breeches and, hands free once more, scratches fiercely at his neck. 'What do they live on when they can't get hobbits?' he asks, and then he turns to me to wave the flies from my flanks. I admit I am rather white-eyed and head-tossed from frustration, driven nearly wild by the constant whinging and biting of the insects. Not even the thick tufts of hair growing in my ears offer adequate protection.

After a miserable day we find a camping-place that is cold, damp, and uncomfortable, and the morrow promises to be no better. I cannot sleep, and take little comfort in being relieved from my burdens. At least they protected my back somewhat from the insects.

I stamp my feet in my distress; I shake my head and refuse the handful of grass young marsh-stinking hobbit holds out to me. I think I preferred the scent of apples-and-mischief, frankly. 'Poor lad,' he says, stroking my neck, and I shudder my skin and shake my mane.

More than ever I wish there were another pony to share the load; this night we could stand head-to-tail and brush the flies from each others' faces.

Samwise is doing his best, but the insects light as quickly as he brushes them away, crawling close to my eyes and biting without mercy. I swing my tail with vigour to swish the flies away from the not-so-Merry hobbit who is putting salve on the healing sores on my back. At one point I lash his face, but he only pats me and goes on with his gentle ministrations.

And suddenly the Master is there, his voice low and soft. 'Poor lad,' he echoes. 'Let us see if we can make amends for bringing you to this sad state.'

And from an inside pocket, tucked away safe and secure as if to guard a treasure, he takes a scrap of fabric. I think at first it is a scrap, for it is so small in his hand, but he shakes it out into a large square of lace-edged floating lightness. I shy before I can catch myself, and Sam hurries to catch at my rope, rubs his hand on my neck, speaks urgent words of soothing.

'Sorry,' the Master says in chagrin. 'I'm not all that used to ponies; I forgot how they startle at the slightest provocation.'

I lay back my ears in protest, though I've no intention of showing him my teeth.

'Hold him quite still, will you?' he says, and Sam and the young hobbit take my halter from either side, prisoning my head. I'd rear and plunge, but that they also brush the insects from my neck and face as we stand there. As a result, of course, they suffer all the more for with their hands busy offering me relief the midges settle ever more greedily on their necks and faces to feed.

The Master brushes away a handful of midges and quickly lays the filmy stuff over my face; one corner up between my ears, one trailing down over my nose, and the other corners of the square covering my eyes. I tense, but the cloth is thin enough to see through, and though the midges settle once more, they settle on the cloth and not on the skin around my eyes, or even in my eyes, as they had been doing.

'Frodo,' the not-so-Merry hobbit says softly, 'isn't that--?'

'Our Bill needs it more at the moment, I think,' the Master interrupts. 'Here now, lad, just a moment more... Merry, you had a threaded needle packed amongst the baggage, didn't you? Would you fetch it?' And he takes a pocket-handkerchief from his sleeve, bites it, and tears it into strips, and with a few quick passes of thread and needle he secures the corners of the filmy, lace-edged cloth to the strips, though he has to take away my eye-protection for a few moments so to do, and the strips can be made fast to my halter, as I am soon to find, so that even if I shake my head the filmy cloth remains over my eyes.

'But Frodo!' Merry says again, slapping at his neck almost without thinking, as the Master and Samwise fit my eye-saver once more in place

The Master smiles faintly. 'My mother loved ponies,' he says, and his tone is far away as if he is somewhere else entirely. 'I'm sure she'd be glad that her favourite handkerchief was serving such a noble and charitable purpose.'

We go from uncertain ground... to uncertain ground

I am only a pony, and not good at counting, but I think it is the fifth day since we left my old misery behind, and we have not gone far this day before leaving behind us the most recent misery, the last of the straggling pools and reed-beds of the marshes – and those miserable midges! It is such a relief!

The land is rising steadily under my hoofs, and reassuringly firm it is, and prospects look bright for the future, for ahead of us against the eastern sky there is a line of higher ground, hills. Give me higher ground any day, even if I must climb to meet it!

(I’d rather go uphill than down, actually, for at least there’s a “downhill” on the other side to look forward to, where when one is moving down a hill, one must watch one’s step more closely, and there is also the inevitable “uphill” to follow.)

My load is shifting about on my back, for a strap has come loose. My Sam notices fairly quickly, before it can rub my skin raw, and he sends young marsh-stinking hobbit to pull at the Ranger’s sleeve, for a short stop to adjust things.

A stitch in time saves nine, says my Sam as he pulls some of the bags off, shifts the load, and tightens the offending strap. ‘Ah, here’s the trouble. The leather has stretched a bit from the damp. We’ll have to move it up one notch.’

Meanwhile, young marsh-stinking hobbit is taking full advantage of the halt, to press his questions upon our guide.

‘What is that?’ he says, pointing to the highest of the hills ahead, at the right of the line, and a little set apart from the others. ‘Does it have a name? It looks as if it ought to be a landmark of sorts.’

‘That is Weathertop,’ the man says, and goes on to tell how the Road runs to the south of it, passing not far from its foot. It seems that we might reach it by noon on the morrow, if we go straight towards it.

There is some discussion as to the best course, and for the first time the smell of uncertainty comes from the man to my nostrils. He thinks that our pursuers might make for the spot, and any birds or beasts now upon that hilltop could see us where we are stopped, and even as we continue to travel in this open land. The thought of wolves or other such creatures makes me shudder where I stand, and my Sam soothes my forehead even as his eyes search the pale sky.

‘You do make me feel uncomfortable and lonesome, Strider!’ he says.

I rub my nose against his sleeve. I’m here. He smiles absently, but it is more of a grimace than a smile and the comfort I offer is fleeting, for he turns away from me to listen as the Master speaks.

‘What do you advise us to do?’

As if recalled to our journey, my Samwise picks up the bags he’d removed and begins to resettle my burden in place. I pay no heed, however, for I am listening intently. The smell of uncertainty intensifies, such that I should think the hobbits could smell it, even above the lingering reek of swamp that comes from young apples-and-mischief – at least, I wish he still smelled of apples. It would be something in this land of browning grass.

The man speaks slowly. We are not to go direct for Weathertop after all, but for the line of hills. I am glad to hear that he doesn’t expect me to struggle up hill and down again, but that he plans to strike a path that runs at their feet, bringing us to Weathertop from the north.

I certainly hope that he knows what we are doing!

***

A/N: Some material in this chapter was taken from "A Knife in the Dark" in The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien.

After being up all night with a sick child I have reached that dreamy point where one's imaginings run freely, and with said child finally asleep, I even have a little bit of writing time.

We make our way towards Weathertop

All the day we have been plodding, plodding, and still the line of hills seems no nearer when the cold and early evening comes down. I should be shivering in my broken-down shed after a long day of hauling wood; I look homewards, but only mists and vapours do I see behind us, resting on the marshes. Bree is as if it had never been, dim in the memory. I lift my head, I sample the breeze, I smell nothing of home and familiarity.

...and then a familiar reek is in my nostrils. I need not even turn my head, though I do anyhow. It is young marsh-stinking hobbit, and gentle fingers stroke my neck as he speaks.

‘Well, old fellow, it certainly is a relief to leave those horrid marshes behind...’

You brought a good deal of the marshes along with you, I’d say, had I the gift of words, but all I can do is lip at his empty palm. He chuckles, a delightful sound in this barren place, and much more cheerful than the sounds of the few melancholy birds piping, nay, wailing their woes.

Young marsh-stinking hobbit stares to the West, but I don’t think he can see my old home either, nor his, wherever it might be, for his chuckle turns to a sigh. A moment later, in one of his quicksilver changes of mood, he is bouncing over to the Ranger. ‘Well, Strider? Have you decided yet which way we are to be going, or will we be making our camp here by the stream?’

In the meantime, the Master wanders over to me, to pat me on the neck and tell me what a fine job I’m doing, the work of half a dozen ponies, he’d venture. We watch the darkening sun, bloated now, sinking slowly into the Western shadows, and he murmurs to me, or perhaps to himself, telling me of a pleasant place—Bag End he calls it—and I think of a nose bag full of oats, such as my old man would give me in the middle of a long day of pulling, and the good feeling of the scratchy bag against my questing lips, as I sought out the last of the oats.

‘And that same sunset light is glancing through the cheerful windows of Bag End,’ he says, and his fingers tighten a moment in my straggly mane, and then he begins carefully to work out the tangles once more. ‘At least, they were cheerful upon a time. Quite a dismal place now, I’ve no doubt, now that Lobelia has her way.’

His tone makes me sad for him, and I turn my head to nibble along his sleeve, for I’ve found such doings often make the hobbits laugh. They call me “fellow hobbit” and say I’m a capital fellow, always looking for something to fill up the corners.

He does not laugh, but he smiles. ‘Not an apple left, old fellow.’

His words fall suddenly loud in the empty silence. The birds have stopped singing the Sun to her rest.

‘Come now, while the light lasts,’ the Man says after he has done whatever it is he does to make up his mind. There is a bit of wild pony in him, in his wariness, scanning the horizon, sampling the breeze, bending to pluck a few blades of grass and taste them, stretching himself upon the ground to press his ear to the soil, to listen...

He leads us along the wandering stream. I am only glad that we are not following the stream back to the marshes, but move instead towards its source in the hills ahead. The murmur of the stream is loud in the twilight silence, and young marsh-stinking hobbit quips that we could likely follow it in the dark by its sound alone. He too has been affected by the silent emptiness of the land, and voices his nonsense in low tones.

As it is, it is night when we make camp under some stunted alder-trees by the shores of the stream. The treeless backs of the hills loom ahead, and somehow they are closer now, seeming almost near enough to touch, painted against the dusky sky, fading as the light fails. I don’t mind, so much. I don’t need light to feel the relief of my burdens removed, the gentle tether of hobbles, the luxury of rolling on the scanty turf.

Though my Sam can scarcely see me, and he is busy making up a meal without a fire, he laughs anyhow, and calls softly, ‘Feels good, does it? A goodly back-scratching!’

And young marsh-stinking hobbit comes up behind him, to rub vigorously at my Sam’s back, so that he nearly sticks himself with the knife he’s using to slice up the cheese.

‘O sorry!’ young hobbit says, though he hardly sounds sorry at all. ‘But I wish someone would do the same for me!’

‘Go and roll with the pony,’ the Merry hobbit says, and to the astonishment of all—he does.

***

A/N: Some text taken from “A Knife in the Dark” from Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, and woven into the narrative.

We continue towards Weathertop

Harvestmath! In harvest-time, the cider flows and the apples shine.
You pour the beer, I'll pour the wine, we'll all be merry together!

Harvestmath! In harvest-time, You’ll drink your mug and I’ll drink mine!
Jump in the dance, the music's fine, we'll all be merry together!

Come join the dance, come join the feast, come join the singers, we'll never cease!
Harvestmath! In harvest-time, You’ll kiss your love and I’ll kiss mine!
    --Shire Harvest Song

The sun has not yet risen, and already the Man has roused the hobbits who were sleeping. My Sam has been awake with us, the Big Man and myself that is, these past two hours, for the Man had the hobbits take turns standing watch all through the night. I cropped the browning grass and dozed, but every time I wakened I saw the Man, standing in the shadow of one of the alders by the stream, staring out into the cold grey light of the waxing moon, during the early hours of the night, and later, into the darkness. I do not think he slept at all.

I frisk a bit as Sam loads me down once more. I can’t help it, with the touch of frost that is in the air, and the pale sky above. Even the hobbits seem refreshed, as if they’d slept the whole night through, rather than wakening by turns to watch for whatever it is they were watching for.

Young marsh-stinking hobbit capers in a little dance, ahead of us, and I prick my ears to hear the song he is singing to himself. Harvestmath! In harvest-time, the cider flows and the apples shine...

The Merry hobbit joins in pleasing harmony. He has grown enough used to the marsh-stench that he throws an arm about young marsh-and-mischief as they walk along, and they lean their heads together to sing. Harvestmath! In harvest-time, You’ll drink your mug and I’ll drink mine!

They make slurping noises and laugh. Even the Big Man smiles, just a little, to hear them, and the Master strides along as if his burden has grown suddenly lighter. He carries no burden that I can see, beyond his pack, and my Samwise bears twice as much, I’m sure, but sometimes these things are beyond the understanding of a simple pony. I know that all the others look after him, as if he’s someone of importance, but he bears himself as if he’s just anyone. He’s Master, and yet he doesn’t swagger about as my old misery did. I’d scratch my head, to help myself in my thinking, as my Samwise does, but I must be contented instead to shake my mane and swish my tail.

Harvestmath! In harvest-time, You’ll kiss your love and I’ll kiss mine! The song finishes with a great flurry of smacking noises on the part of the songsters, and then the Merry hobbit pushes the younger away. ‘Go on with you!’ he says. ‘I don’t think you’ll have any kisses from your love, smelling as you do! She’ll have to walk on my arm instead!’ So perhaps he has not grown so used to the reek as I’d thought.

But the Master is laughing, bent nearly double, seizing his knees, in point of fact. When he rises again, he has to wipe tears of mirth away. ‘Ah,’ he sighs. ‘That does a body good.’

‘That and all the fine exercise and fresh air you’ve been having!’ young marsh-and-mischief says, dancing closer to slap the Master’s shoulder. ‘You’re looking twice the hobbit you used to be!’

‘Very odd,’ the Master says, wrinkling his nose at marsh-and-mischief’s proximity, and tightening his belt. ‘...considering that there is actually a good deal less of me.’

The cousins laugh, thinking it a good joke, and thus encouraged, the Master continues. ‘I hope the thinning process will not go on indefinitely, or I shall become a wraith.’

But the Man does not seem to appreciate the joke; he breaks in on the jollity with surprising earnestness. ‘Hush! Do not speak of such things!’

I am sorry to see the Master lose his smile, for it lights his face and makes him altogether fair to see. Young marsh-and-mischief falls silent for only a few moments, and then looking at the Master out of the corner of his eye, he evidently decides it’s time for more cheering.

As I was walking by the Water, I chanced to spy the Miller’s daughter...

***

A/N: Some text taken from “A Knife in the Dark” from Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, and woven into the narrative.

It is entirely possible that the Harvestmath song was inspired by one written by Pipkin Sweetgrass for her wonderful story, The Bee Charmer. I wondered at the time where I'd heard the term "Harvestmath".

Six days out from Bree; we reach the feet of the western slopes and travel on

The hills draw ever nearer, higher than anything I have seen in all my life, higher even than the Bree hill, which I always thought a mountain in itself, at least so far as I could understand the term.

I hope I do not have to climb them, even though there are low clefts, passes perhaps, I hear the Merry hobbit mutter, that lead into the eastern land beyond.

All along the crest of the ridge are what look to me like rocky walls, though they’re covered now with vegetation. I wonder if the leaves are good to eat; not that I wish to climb that high to see! In the clefts are ruins, stone work, looking much finer to my eye than the rough-hewn rocks my old misery dug out of the Bree-hill.

As the light fades we reach the feet of the westward slopes. Six days from Bree, I hear Master mutter, and then under his breath, so that none but the sharp ears of a pony might hear, I wonder how many more days will lie between us and the Shire when all is done?

I rub my nose against his sleeve, in attempt to offer comfort, but he shrugs away, seeming heavy-burdened though his pack lies piled with those of the others, and he stares in silence westward, as if his heart’s desire lies behind us. I wonder what sort of stable he remembers? A stall piled high with fresh, sweet-smelling hay, a bucket of fresh-drawn water, a manger of sweet oats... I remember these, very dimly, from my first home.

But on the other hand, knowing so little of hobbits, I can only wonder if perhaps his dreams take different form than a pony’s.

There is no song this night, and the hobbits roll themselves in blankets and fall asleep. The Man and I remain watchful. At least, the Man meets my gaze every time I awaken from a doze, to nibble at the grassy verge.

And when dawn lights the skies there is a wonder—a track, the first we’ve seen since leaving the Chetwood. When all of us are loaded once more with our burdens, we turn to follow it southwards. I wonder if it leads to a town. I lift my head to scent the air. There is no wood smoke on the breeze. Perhaps it does not lead to a town. Bree always smells of wood smoke, even on the hottest days of summer. “Cooking fires” my mother told me, though I never understood why one would want to cook a fire. It seems most indigestible a thing to my sensibilities.

It is no straightforward path, of the sort a sensible pony would make, trudging back and forth from one place to another, until his hoofs wear a road. Absurd, it is, impractical, diving into dells and hugging steep banks, and slipping between great boulders that I shudder to walk between. Not a proper pony track at all, and I shake my head and say so, as plainly as may be, though to the hobbits it may only be a long-drawn-out snort.

The not-so-Merry hobbit shares my ill opinion: He wonders aloud who made the path, and what for, adding, ‘I am not sure that I like it: it has a—well, rather a barrow-wightish look.’

I do not know what barrow-wightish means, and from his tone I’m not sure I want to know.

He turns to the Big Man, to ask earnestly, ‘Is there any barrow on Weathertop?’

‘No, there is no barrow on Weathertop, nor on any of these hills.’ I am comforted by his answer, though I still do not know what a barrow is, for the Merry-hobbit relaxes somewhat, and the sharp odour of not-quite-fear subsides somewhat.

The Big Man goes on to tell of the Men who made the path, and the great watch-tower that used to stand on the highest hill, this “Weathertop” which is our aim. The names mean nothing to me, nor to the Merry-hobbit, for he asks, ‘Who was Gil-galad?’

The Big Man does not answer, seeming lost in thought; or is he straining to listen? I flick my ears to catch all the surrounding sounds, and hear nothing beyond the morning birdsong, sparse it is in this wilderness, but there are still ground-birds here, and their little twitters are reassuring.

And then my Sam begins to murmur, and the others walk in silence, spellbound.

Gil-galad was an Elven-king.
Of him the harpers sadly sing:
the last whose realm was fair and free
between the Mountains and the Sea.

I wonder what a “Sea” is, and if these hills are the mountains he means. There is more, but I lose interest, and drop my head to take a few mouthfuls of grass, as long as we are walking so slowly.

‘Don’t stop!’ Merry says, and I obediently snatch another mouthful, to oblige him.

‘That’s all I know,’ my Sam says, and I realise that the Merry-hobbit was not talking to me. No harm done. Another mouthful will suit me fine, and another...

Sam tells how he learned the song he was telling, poetry he calls it, and that someone named Bilbo made it up.

But the Ranger begs to differ. He is very polite about it, not like my old misery, who when he wished to debate a topic, often applied his fists to the other man’s head, the better to pound the facts in, or so he’d say with a coarse laugh after the argument ended and the other party was carried away. Bilbo did not write it, but translated it from an ancient tongue. All this talk is beyond my ken, and so I employ my tongue quite a bit more gainfully. The grass here is not half bad, even if I must lower my head quickly to snatch a bite here and there as we walk.

Samwise is not paying best attention, and my lead rope is loose, allowing me to indulge my greed. It’s not done, usually, to allow a pony to graze while walking. He might just take it into his head to bend his neck a little lower and even let himself down for a roll... though I am much too well-bred to do such a thing, while on a lead rein. I will wait until the burdens are removed and the hobbles are put in place, before I’ll have my usual roll in the grass.

‘There was a lot more, all about Mordor,’ he is saying. I prick my ears at the name. It has an unpleasant sound, and for some reason a shiver runs down my spine. ‘I didn’t learn that part, it gave me the shivers.’ (I am in complete agreement, and toss my head with several hearty nods. My Sam absently pulls the lead rope a little tighter, and though I stretch I cannot quite reach to lip at the grass any more.) ‘I never thought I should be going that way myself!’

I do not like the sound of this. I do not like it at all. I hump my back. I lay my ears back. I plant my feet, and the entire party comes to a sudden halt.

‘Going to Mordor! I hope it won’t come to that!’ the young marsh-stinking hobbit cries out, much too loudly for my taste. The scanty morning birdsong falls abruptly silent.

‘Do not speak that name so loudly!’ the Big Man says, and I give the young hobbit a nudge in the middle of the pack on his back that sends him sprawling.

‘Hi!’ young marsh-stinking hobbit protests. ‘I wasn’t the first to bring it up!’

‘Do be the last, will you?’ not-so-Merry hisses, hunching his shoulders and peering about us.

‘Come along,’ the Ranger says now, and my Sam gives my rope a tug. ‘The Sun is climbing in the sky, well about her business, and we must be about ours.’

I wonder, and not for the first time, just what our business is. But it is not a pony’s lot to know, I’m afraid. I must simply follow where I’m led, put one foot before the other, and snatch a mouthful here and there, as I can.

***

A/N: Some text taken from “A Knife in the Dark” from Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, and woven into the narrative.


We explore a grassy hollow

The Sun is at her highest, and we have reached a grey-green bank near the southern end of the path. The bank leads up like a bridge, or so the Merry hobbit says, on to the northward slope of the hill. I do not know what a bridge is, but it is another word I do not like. No, not at all, for I’ve noticed my Sam stiffen at the word, as if it conjures a bad memory, and he shakes his head and mutters under his breath about “boats and bridges and a plague on them both”. If my Sam is not fond of bridges, well, then, neither am I.

‘Let us make for the top at once,’ young marsh-and-mischief says, as if he were not lagging behind and out of breath a few moments ago, ‘while the daylight is broad! What a view the hilltop must command!’

‘We’re not in your Green Hill country, Pip,’ says Master. ‘And this is no walking-party, climbing to seek the best view, and then having a picnic atop, to watch the sun go down.’

And the Merry hobbit sounds a cautious note. ‘Would it not be better to stay quietly hid here at the foot of the hill? There’s no cover.’

‘Nothing’s moving on the hill,’ young hobbit says, shading his eyes to scour the slopes.

‘Do you see anything of Gandalf?’ Master says, but young hobbit, after sweeping the hill with his keen, bright eyes, shakes his head at last. The Big Man, too, has been searching, and if this “Gandalf” were anywhere on the near side of the hill, they’d have seen him, no doubt.

‘We can only hope no enemy or spy is observing us,’ the Big Man says, turning round again to look in every direction, and turning his eye to the sky yet again, looking for birds, perhaps. ‘In any event, concealment is no longer possible, in this open country. We might as well climb to the top, and do a little observing of our own.’

I sigh. Climbing to the top, fully burdened, would not be my first choice. They can hardly leave me here at the bottom, however. I carry the food, after all, that they will picnic upon.

What a curious idea, to climb a hill in order to have a picnic. Food tastes just as good without the climb, I’d think. And who’s to say the grass is greener at the top?

I am very relieved when we discover a sheltered hollow on the western flank, and the Big Man turns aside to look it over, very quickly. We wait, and I swish my tail to pass the time.

He returns quickly, to say that there is a bowl-shaped dell with grassy sides at the bottom, ‘perfect for the pony. The grass is sweet and fresh, and there may well be a spring here, where we can fill our water bottles. It will make a good, sheltered spot to camp this night, or at the least, have a short rest and bite to eat before we go on.’

All of us go down into the hollow, and the hobbits pile their packs, and the luggage I carry, and the Big Man leaves off his burden, but the young hobbit has not forgotten the hilltop. ‘Shall we not go to see the sights?’ he says.

‘I am going,’ the Big Man says, ‘and Frodo, if you wish, you may come, too, while Sam and the others are making up a meal.’

I catch a whiff of suspicion from the Merry hobbit at this, that the Ranger might be trying to take Master off alone for some dire reason, and he speaks up. ‘I’ll come too!’

‘But that leaves Sam alone to do all the work, and that’s not fair!’ says the young hobbit.

Master looks down his nose at marsh-and-mischief. ‘Too true,’ he says, ‘and so, Pip, I think it would be eminently fair for you to help Samwise.’

‘I don’t need help, Mr. Frodo,’ my Sam says, with a blush.

‘Of course you don’t!’ the Merry hobbit says, too heartily, with a slap for my Sam’s shoulder. ‘But Pip’s awfully fond of singing at the top of his lungs, when he reaches the top of a hill, and so we’ll put temptation out of his reach, shall we?’

‘I’m not so daft as all that, Merry,’ Pippin says, hands on his hips.

‘No, but you’re staying to help Samwise,’ Master says, and because he is Master, there’s not much young marsh-and-mischief can say.

Besides, the Big Man has already started walking out of the hollow, and Master and Merry must scamper to catch him.

Young hobbit grumbles a bit under his breath, but begins at once to explore the clearing, while my Sam makes sure of my hobbles and turns me loose to graze. Ah, yes, the grass is indeed sweet, and I crop contentedly, while swivelling my ears to keep track of doings.

‘A spring!’ young marsh-and-mischief yelps. ‘I found a spring, Sam!’

‘That’s fine!’ my Samwise calls back, only much more cautiously. ‘But try to keep your voice down, Master Pippin.’

‘And footprints!’ Pippin calls, more softly, and my Samwise leaves off his midday meal preparations to investigate. Curious, I follow.

‘Animals?’ Sam says, and the young hobbit shakes his head.

‘Feet—boots!’ he says. ‘Look, there—and there!’ And he and Sam move back and forth, going over the soft ground, while I move closer to the tantalising sound of trickling water. I dip my nose, smelling deeply, but the water is icy cold and makes me sneeze and snort in surprise. And then I drink, greedily, moving my nose forward and back in the water, relishing the smell and the feel of it, as well as the taste, for all I’ve had to drink this day was a little water nuzzled from the hand of the Big Man, as he poured water from his water bottle into his palm.

My ears keep listening, moving back and forth to catch the sound of the hobbits as they explore the hollow. ‘There’s been a fire here, and not so very long ago!’ Pippin calls, and my Sam answers that he’s found a stack of firewood!

The young marsh-smelling hobbit bounces to where my Sam crouches, behind some tumbled rocks, his energy quite restored by the excitement of all their discoveries. ‘Who d’ye think left it?’

‘I wonder if old Gandalf has been here,’ my Sam says slowly. ‘Whoever it was put this stuff here meant to come back it seems.’ He scratches his head and adds, ‘Come, lad, let us look at the fire ring. Perhaps we’ll find something else...’

And they mutter between themselves as they walk in circles in the middle of the hollow, but as the better grass is on the slopes I don’t hear more than a word or two. At least they are busy and happy, and as the others haven’t come back yet, it gives me more time for my grazing.

The sun is westering in the sky, and clouds are creeping towards us out of the East, and I expect the Ranger to return at any moment, with the Master, chiding my Samwise that the meal is not yet ready to eat, so that the hobbits must eat as we walk, or even do without. No doubt the moment they return they’ll be packing us all up again with our burdens, that we might put as many miles behind us as can be before darkness overtakes us once more.

***

A/N: Some text taken from “A Knife in the Dark” from Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, and woven into the narrative.

We take a bite and consider

I am restless, as if the half-forgotten midges have returned and descended in a cloud, but all the shaking of my mane and swishing of my tail does nothing to dispel my unease. Young marsh-stinking hobbit too has a whinge of complaint in his voice. ‘They’ve been gone for hours, Sam! What do you think they’re about?’

‘Not hours, Mr. Pippin, though the time does hang heavy, I’m afraid. But now that you say it, they have been gone a while and no mistake! I had better finish putting together a little something, for I doubt we’ll be stopping here... this little dell has a gloomy look about it, for all the green of its grass.’

‘It was sunny enough before,’ young hobbit says, in as irritable a mood as he was excited earlier. ‘But clouds are rolling in from the East, do you see? ...and it’s likely the fine stretch of weather we’ve been enjoying is soon to come to a close.’ He gives a shiver. ‘I don’t fancy walking in cold drizzle, do you?’

‘It’s not as if we have a choice,’ my Sam says under his breath, and I hear him, though I doubt young marsh-and-misery does.

Indeed, for he goes on to say, hugging himself, ‘What I wouldn’t give for a hot bath right now!’

‘I’d settle for a hot meal,’ my Sam mutters, laying out the slices of cheese and hard wafers of journey-bread, the dried fruit and nuts. I wander a little closer, and he lays a few sultanas in his palm for me to lip.

‘Here now!’ young hobbit protests. ‘We’re on short commons as it is, and Bill’s got grass a-plenty!’

‘And he’s carryin’ more than his share, I warrant,’ my Sam defends. He strokes my lowered face. ‘I’d be happy to give you a few extra sweets, if you wish to take some of the extra from his back.’

‘You jest,’ young hobbit says flatly, and I nod my head gently with a soft snort. He has trouble keeping up at times, as it is. I wonder, at such times, why Master allowed him to come with us.

But he’s kind—all the hobbits are, and so is the Big Man in a practical way—and often has a good word or a pat for me, and he does carry his own share of the load—not as heavy as it was, for the Big Man deemed that the marsh-stink would never come out of the clothes he was wearing when he nearly sank in the bog, and so those were discarded, weighted with a rock and set to sinking. The Elves will have the means to provide fresh clothing, the Big Man says, though the young hobbit endures much teasing from his cousins on the matter of “being dressed up like an Elf, and what would your mother say, to see you looking so princely?”

And now my Sam shoos me away, though I’m reluctant to go. ‘Be off with you. No more treats, old lad. Go and find some sweet grass.’

The grass has lost its savour, however, and my unease is growing. I want to stick as close to my Sam as a bur sticks in my tail. There is a solid feeling about him, if you take my meaning, and I feel safe with him near.

‘They’re back!’ young hobbit yelps, albeit softly, and my Sam rises to greet his Master, and to say to the Ranger, ‘All’s ready; Mr. Frodo can have a bite to eat whilst I’m loading the pony, but we can be off in a quarter hour...’

And young marsh-and-mischief is babbling about our finds. ‘...and a stack of firewood, over there, as if someone were expecting us, and footprints by the spring...!’

‘Footprints!’ the Ranger says, turning away from my Sam. ‘I wish I had waited and explored the ground down here myself.’ And he hurries off to the spring to examine the footprints. The Merry hobbit holds the young one back, saying, ‘You had better eat something now, for we’ll be off in a few moments and I doubt you can walk and chew at the same time.’

‘I can too!’ young hobbit counters, and then Master is urging both of them to “settle down and eat” and my Sam has a plate ready for Master, who sits down as if he’s tired from the climb. He smells of worry, too, and something else I cannot quite put my nose on. It is more a feeling than a scent, and stronger now than it has ever been before. It makes me want to shy away, whatever it is, this hidden thing, and yet my Sam draws me as if I were bound to him with stout rope. I hesitate, torn between love, and growing fear.

The Ranger returns, concealing a restless anxiety, though I smell it on him and my ears lay themselves back of their own accord. ‘It is just as I feared,’ he says, absently taking the plate my Sam extends to him. If he were a hobbit, he’d  nibble absently, but being a Man he just stands there, holding the plate.

‘What is it, Strider?’ Master says, looking up from his dwindling food.

‘Sam and Pippin have trampled the soft ground, and the marks are spoilt or confused.’

My Sam grasps his head with a groan. ‘I ought to have known! I’m that sorry, Mr. Frodo...’

But the Ranger is still talking. ‘Rangers have been here lately. It is they who left the firewood behind.’

Young hobbit brightens, and Merry slaps him on the back with a grin at this happy news.

I am more cautious. If Rangers are like this one who stands with us, fine and good. But I’ve only known the one. I know that Men can be kind and they can be cruel. Are Rangers any different?

The Big Man quells any celebration with a serious look. ‘But there are several newer tracks that were not made by Rangers.’

‘Not...’ young hobbit begins, but the Ranger has turned to Master.

‘At least one set was made, only a day or two ago, by heavy boots.’

One set,’ Master says, giving his plate to my Sam and rising.

‘At least one,’ the Ranger affirms. ‘I cannot now be certain, but I think there were many booted feet.’

The hobbits exchange glances, and then they look uneasily about the dell, while the Ranger stands in deep thought, and the anxious smell of him intensifies, making me snort and shake my head.

As if he shares my restlessness, my Sam says, ‘Hadn’t we better clear out quick, Mr. Strider? It is getting late, and I don’t like this hole; it makes my heart sink somehow.’

I am in full agreement, and move to stand near the piled packs and baggage without having to be summoned or led there.

And young hobbit comes at once to the pile of packs and begins to set them in order, ready to be laid on my back, and the others’. Perhaps he is feeling uneasy as well. The Merry hobbit, however, is sticking close by Master’s side.

‘Yes,’ the Ranger says slowly, and his eyes go to the sky, evaluating the import of the clouds that threaten to bring gloom to the afternoon, or worse. ‘We certainly must decide what to do at once.’

But he bides a while, as if considering, before he says at last, ‘Well, Sam, I do not like this place either; but I cannot think of anywhere better that we could reach before nightfall.’ He goes on to mention the fact that we are out of plain sight, here, whereas there would be no hiding place to be found on this side of the Road.

It feels more like a trap than a refuge to me, but the Merry hobbit is asking if the Riders can see. The word “Riders” gives me a shiver, the way he says it, and all through Merry's calm-seeming discussion with the Ranger, Master grows ever more agitated, until at last he bursts out as if he can no longer contain himself.

‘Is there no escape then?’ He looks around wildly. ‘If I move I shall be seen and hunted! If I stay, I shall draw them to me!’

It is enough to make me shy, and I’d bolt if I didn’t wear hobbles; but the young hobbit grabs at my trailing rope with a quick and unthinking, ‘Steady, now, lad, it’s not you they’re after...’

***

A/N: Some text taken from “A Knife in the Dark” from Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, and woven into the narrative.

We are overcome on Weathertop 

The Ranger has kindled fire, and my Sam has prepared more of a meal than the hasty cold food he had ready when Master came down from the hilltop. There was some discussion, as my Sam was chopping and hauling water and stirring the pot, about how long the food would last, and how to find food in the wilderness. I think privately to myself that at least I do not have to carry food for myself as well as everyone else.

At last, a proper meal, I hear young marsh-hobbit murmur, and all seem glad to sip at a steaming beverage after so many fireless camps. They tear into their food as if famished, and I tear a few mouthfuls of grass, just to keep them company.

The fire is cheering as well—or it ought to be. But somehow the dark outside the circle of brightness seems darker than it might, now that the shades of evening have fallen. My companions have kept peering out from the edge of the dell, and I raised my head for a look on occasion, but I saw nothing but a grey land vanishing quickly into shadow. I don’t know if they saw anything more. Sampling the air I could smell no danger, though from the Ranger and the hobbits comes strong, now, the smell of uncertainty, even fear. 

Not only is it dark, but it seems colder than the previous nights, and I am glad for my shaggy coat. The sky is clear above, the stars shining brightly, and the hobbits huddle closely about the fire, having unpacked every stitch of clothing they possess, it seems, and wrapped themselves in every blanket. They are huddled together like puppies, sharing their warmth, but it is no comfortable, sleepy huddle.

The Man sits a little apart, smoking his pipe. I am finding it a pleasant smell on the night breeze, even comforting, though I’d never much enjoyed the smell of burning in my earlier years. He is distracting us all by telling stories. I wander in a little closer, the better to hear, and to take comfort from the nearness of my fellow creatures, and I lower my head. Without looking behind him, he lifts his hand to caress my nose and jaw, continuing to speak, and I stand as a statue might, enjoying the gentle touch, as he says, ‘...it is a long tale of which the end is not known...’

He is silent for a time, as his hand continues to rub right at that spot that calms and pleasures a pony so, and then he takes his hand away to draw on the pipe so that the coals of pipe-weed within glow brightly, and then he begins to chant softly, and all of us listen, fixed in our places by the wonder, though I must admit the words are many, and I do not know as many of them as I might wish. Still, I follow as best I can, and such is the power of the song that images form before my eyes and dance in my imagination.

You smile—imagination! In a pony! But I assure you, ponies have wonderful imagination. Too wonderful, sometimes, transforming a blowing bedsheet into a ravening monster... And is it my imagination, or is there a scent of danger on the air?

I want to rear and plunge, to scream my fear, but I stand absolutely frozen. I cannot even throw up my head and snort to warn my fellow companions. It is all I can do to stand, and tremble, as the dell brightens subtly around us.

‘Look!’ the Merry hobbit says, stretching, after the song ends. ‘The Moon is rising: it must be getting late.’

My Sam rises to his feet, and walks restlessly away from the fire. I want to follow, to lay my chin on his shoulder, to stay as close to him as I might to my own mother, but I am unable to stir foot. It is the Merry hobbit who rises to bear him company. From the corner of my eye I see Master shudder and hitch closer to the fire; but the Big Man is looking intently up the moonlit hillside.

And to my relief—I ought to be relieved, but I am seized in the grip of a fierce dread—my Sam comes running back to the fire from the edge of the dell. ‘I don’t know what it is, but I suddenly felt afraid,’ he says. ‘I durstn’t go outside this dell for any money; I felt something was creeping up the slope.’

I could have told him that! No need for him to leave the circle of firelight, tenuous security that it might offer...

Master asks if my Sam has seen anything, but he can only shake his head. Merry, however, has seen something, or he thinks he has. I think he has, too.

The young hobbit jumps to his feet.

‘Keep close to the fire!’ the Ranger snaps, and he tells them to face outwards, and take up some of the longer flaming sticks, and they sit down again, five of them in a circle around the fire, and I stand nearby as if turned to stone. Time seems to stand as still as I do. There is no sound, and no movement, but my terror is growing. Hobbled or no, I long to burst my hobbles and flee, as the horses and ponies fled the Terror in Bree, when I was trapped in my tumble-down shed.

I wish to throw my head up and shriek, but I cannot seem to move.

Master stirs, and the Ranger hushes him urgently, and young marsh-smelling hobbit who now also stinks of fear gasps in the same breath, raising a shaking hand to point. ‘What’s that?’

Shadows rise over the lip of the dell on the side away from the hill; they are standing on the slope looking down at us, blacker than deepest shadow. Why did I not see them before? I felt their presence, certainly. I still feel it—it is enough to drive a pony mad with fear.

The younger hobbits throw themselves to the ground in terror, and my Sam shrinks closer to Master, and the Ranger picks up a flaming brand in either hand and stands slowly to his feet.

Master is there—and then he is gone, I cannot see him, the fire flares bright where only a moment ago it was half-hid by his dark, blanket-wrapped form. But his scent still wafts on the chill breeze.

And terror is creeping closer—no, it rushes now, like an ill wind coming to overcome us, and I am released from my frozen state as I rear and plunge, hoofs coming down dangerously close to the huddled young hobbits on the ground, but I have been robbed of my senses by fear and scarcely know what I am doing.

Master’s voice cries out, as if from far away, strange words that I do not know, and there is a shrill cry, and the Big Man leaps forward, waving his flaming brands in great sweeps through the air, and I try to run, forgetting my hobbles.

But I cannot run, my feet are trapped, and I fall into darkness and fear.

***

A/N: Some text taken from “A Knife in the Dark” from Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, and woven into the narrative.

We elect to leave the dell

A strange, refreshing scent tickles my nose, and I dream of frolicking in a field of wildflowers under my mother’s watchful eye, while the old man stands by the fence and laughs in his wheezy way. I feel my mind calmed and cleared, and I open my eyes to find myself lying on my side, my legs stretched out on the ground, my head...

And even as I move, cautiously, the throbbing in my head fades, somewhat, just as the sky above me is fading into dawnlight. I hear a fire crackling nearby, and the trickling of water, not a steady trickle but with give and take to the sound. My old man made sounds like that, of a hot summer’s day, when he’d scoop a handful or three of water from the stone trough to wet his head. It is a sound of bathing, a sound out of place in this wilderland.

And then I am wide awake, and jerking upright, onto my chest, breathing hard, flaring my nostrils, and looking around. But there is no fear in the air around me. I smell only that enticing odour, and the bruised grass under me, and something else, besides the wood-smoke coming from the fire, a tinge of sickness in the air.

I lift my nose, the better to sample the still air. My companions are all gathered in a huddle near the fire, gathered surrounding... Master, yes, it is Master there, on the ground, and his smell is changed from what it was—he is ill, or injured, weak and frightened, though he does not exude terror, not as I dimly remember smelling from one or more of the hobbits before I fell, trying to escape the dell.

‘Athelas, you said,’ the Merry hobbit says, and the Man answers.

‘Yes, that is what it’s called.’

‘I’ve never seen it before,’ Merry says, ‘not even in the Old Forest, and many strange plants grow there, I’ve found.’

‘It’s not known in the North, he said,’ young marsh-hobbit says. There is nothing of mischief to him now—he smells chiefly of worry.

And my Sam is sick with worry; I smell it on him plain as the nose on my face. Something’s happened to Master, those fearsome creatures have done something, I surmise.

I am a little shaky, but I manage to gain my feet.

‘What are we to do?’ Merry is saying. ‘Frodo’s hand is cold, and feels as if there is no life in it. Can you even move it, cousin?’

‘No, nor my arm,’ Master says faintly. ‘What a fool I was!’

‘You’re in good company,’ young marsh-hobbit says with a hand on Master’s unharmed shoulder. ‘But we cannot stay here, I think. There’s no shelter to speak of, and those Black Riders could come back at any time.’

‘But to be caught in the open,’ Merry argues.

‘What are we to do? We’ve got to find him some help,’ my Sam says stubbornly. ‘Someone could take the pony, and...’

‘Help, where?’ young hobbit says, and he’s making the most sense of the lot of them, at least to my thinking. Though fear has departed, I wish to leave this place, to turn my tail and never return. ‘We need to get away. We need to get Frodo away, before they come back.’ He turns to the Ranger. ‘They will be coming back, won’t they, Strider? Somehow I feel certain.’

‘Perhaps they chanced upon us in passing, on their way to—to—somewhere else,’ Merry says, and it’s clear even to me that he’s thinking wishfully instead of clearly.

‘I think now that the enemy has been watching this place for some days,’ the Ranger says, contradicting. ‘If Gandalf ever came here, then he must have been forced to ride away, and he will not return. In any case we are in great peril here after dark, since the attack of last night, and we can hardly meet greater danger wherever we go.’

‘Yes,’ Master says, unexpectedly strong in spirit though his voice quivers with weakness. ‘I wouldn’t spend another night in this place if Gil-galad himself were here. The sooner we reach Rivendell, the better, to my way of thinking!’

‘Well said, Frodo,’ the Ranger says. He takes a cloth from Master’s shoulder—I see the flash of white—and the trickling sound comes again as he dips the cloth into one of the hobbits’ little pans, full of water and some sort of crushed leaves. He is bathing Master’s shoulder with the fragrant water.

I find that I must eat, and so I begin to graze, snatching greedy mouthfuls of grass, moving slowly away from the group, though I keep one eye on them and watch out for trouble with the other.

As soon as the daylight is full, my companions have a hasty meal of their own and pack up the baggage.

I move to the pile, standing ready, but I am in for a surprise.

Instead of loading everything onto my back, they are dividing the load among themselves! It takes some re-arranging on their part, some re-packing, but soon the greater part of the baggage is divided into four parts.

And then I see the Ranger approaching, and he is carrying Master in his arms. I wonder, does he mean to carry him all the way to where ever it is that we are going?

And then I find that no, it is I. I am the one to bear the burden.

My Sam, heavier-laden than ever, stands at my nose with a gentle, stroking hand as I feel the weight slowly eased onto my waiting back, the unaccustomed sensation of legs dangling to either side. ‘Steady, now, lad,’ he says. ‘Don’t you go tossing my Mr. Frodo on the grass, you hear?’

I shake my head with a snort. I wouldn’t think of it!

‘Are we ready, then?’ young marsh-hobbit says, trudging over. There’s no bounce in him at all, now, and I fear his burden is too heavy for his small frame. ‘The sooner we put this place behind us, the better, I say!’

‘You have the right of it, Pip!’ Master says. I swivel my ears behind, the better to take stock. He is striving to speak cheerfully, but I hear the tremor of weakness in his voice.

I have planted my feet apart, the better to give him a steady platform to sit. I take in a deep breath and feel his legs move with my ribs. As I let my breath out in a sigh, he strokes me with his left hand. ‘Steady, old fellow,’ he says.

I turn my head on my neck just so far back as I can, and nuzzle gently at his toes.

I’ll not let him fall, and I try to tell him so, though he only chuckles weakly and says, ‘Those aren’t carrots, old chap!’

‘Come along, Bill,’ my Sam says, pulling at my rope, and I move, one foot after another, as smoothly as I know how, rather like a cat I saw once, stalking a small creature in the field.

I’ll not shake him, nor rattle his teeth.

I’ll not let him fall.


***

A/N: Some text taken from “A Knife in the Dark” from Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, and woven into the narrative.

Chapter 13. We cross the Road into a wild and pathless land

We are going in a southerly direction, or so I gather from the youngest hobbit’s whispered questions, and the Ranger’s answers, single low-muttered words, widely scattered. His attention is turned away, outwards. Were he a pony his ears would be a-twitch, moving from side to side, one forward and one turned back in the same moment. So do my ears, and on occasion the Master pats my shoulder as if to offer comfort and courage.

There is no sign of those cloaked terrors, not a whiff to my flaring nostrils, and it is not long before we come to the edge of the Road. We stop, and my Sam twines his fingers in the straggles of my mane as the Ranger peers all about us, before and behind and to either side. He bends to pluck a blade of browned grass, holds it before him, tosses it in the air to watch it flutter in the windless air.

‘What’s he doing that for?’ youngest hobbit whispers to not-so-merry, only to be hushed.

At last the Man nods, steps softly onto the Road as if he half-fears it will turn into a ravening stream to sweep him away into darkness despite the fulness of the daylight. I snort and toss my head high, but my Sam still has his fingers twined in my mane, and at his grunt of pain at the sudden jerk I bring my head down again, rubbing against his chest in silent apology.

‘That’s all right, old fellow,’ he mutters. ‘I can’t say I much like it, either. I feel as if all the world can see us, and the Road is the last place we ought to be turning our feet... but Strider says we need fuel for fire, and we can be a-hiding in the woods, but we can’t get to no woods without crossing the Road...’

It doesn’t much matter what he says, the tone does as he intends, soothing my nerves, such that I step out onto the Road without more than a shudder of the skin over my shoulders, as if to shoo away a teasing fly.

And then I stop, I throw up my head, my eyes roll wildly and I snort in alarm, for far away there are two cries: a cold voice calling and a cold voice answering. I begin to dance and nearly do I plunge in my fear, but for Sam’s frantic soothing, his hands on my halter, pulling me down, and then I feel my burden shift on my back. I must stand fast! I am all a-tremble, but I will not let him fall!

We spring as one across the Road, making for the sheltering thickets ahead, but our mad plunge ends as we reach them, for wild and pathless is this land. There are bushes and stunted trees growing in dense patches, their leaves faded and falling, and we seek their cover, thrusting our way through with some difficulty, which makes for slow and gloomy travel. And then we hurry across the open spaces between, wide and barren, feeling naked and exposed under the open sky.

My companions speak little as we trudge along. It seems their burdens grow heavier as we go, for they walk with heavy heads, and have little to say; even the young marsh-stinking hobbit’s endless questions seem to have found an end. Their backs bow under their burdens, and though the Man is taller and needs fewer strides to cover the distance, he seems weary and downhearted, and he shifts the pack on his back as if its weight is growing upon him, as if his burden grows ever more pressing.

I know mine does. There is a difference between one who sits with straight back and lifted head, with legs that grasp at a pony’s sides, and one who travels as a sack of taters. Straight did the Master ride when first we started out of the dell, but he grows heavier as he slumps, and when I turn my head back I see his head is down. I smell his sorrow and regret, and growing pain, the taint of sickness, though he does not speak.

With the falling of darkness we find a sheltered spot in a dense patch of trees, and fire is kindled. We huddle around the fire, the one spot of brightness in a darkened land. The Ranger, standing and stroking my neck while the young marsh-smelling hobbit works burs out of my tail, tells my Sam to heat water, and when the little pan is steaming he pulls more of those wondrous leaves from the pouch at his belt. I nuzzle at his hand, and he smiles, despite the grim odour of him, and he pushes my mouth away. ‘No good for the eating,’ he says. ‘Sorry, old fellow. There’ll be sweet, long grass where we’re going. Think on that, and keep your spirits up, for we’re counting on you, you know.’

Sam stares at him in frank astonishment, but he is breathing on the leaves, crushing them in his hand, and I nod at the sweet and pungent fragrance. He casts the leaves into the boiling water, and bathes the Master’s shoulder and bids him rest.

And then he tells the others to stand watch, and he takes my rope in his own hand and leads me from the thicket. ‘Eat, old fellow,’ he says. ‘Poor enough forage, I fear, but we’re all on short commons at present, and must make do.’

He is wary and watchful, and so I can drop my head and browse the scanty grass, coarse, grey and tasteless. Yet grass it is, and I tear it eagerly, even to pulling some of it up by the roots and feeling the gritty soil between my teeth, having more taste than the poor, winter-soured plants.

At last he leads me back into the thicket, but not directly back to the fire that beckons at a little distance. He is hunting something in the darkness, and when he drops to one knee and draws his knife I lower my head and smell that sweet, elusive fragrance that intensifies as he cuts. More of the athelas, it seems, and he is taking the time to fill his pouch.

I nibble and shake my head. It is a pungent herb, and the oils are stinging on the tongue, a strong flavour and not to my liking. I shake my head, hearing his almost inaudible chuckle, and seek a few of the fading leaves that cling to the bushes to one side. Everything tastes of athelas, and I cannot suppress a soft snort.

It is time to rest, to sleep, and my companions watch by turns, two awake at a time, staring out into the darkness while the others stir in restless sleep. The fire seems but a small and impotent thing, throwing shadows filled with looming, wavering menace against the surrounding trees.

But there is no sign of the fearsome Shadows, and nothing to be heard but the crackling of the flames.

***

A/N: Some text taken from “Flight to the Ford” from Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, and woven into the narrative.




Chapter 14. We climb a long rise and contemplate the Road once more

My companions continue wary, but there is no sign nor scent of those Shadows that assailed us... how many days ago? I cannot count past the number of feet I possess, near-fore-one, off-fore-two, near-hind-three, off-hind-four, so something more than four days, it would seem. The ground is rising slowly out of the wide shallow valley, and we follow a new course, north-eastwards, or so not-so-merry whispers to young marsh-stinking hobbit. I hope this change might mean something, an inn, a stable to rest in, with heaps of hay and buckets of water and grain, but when I lift my head to sample the air there is not even a tang of wood smoke to hope at, except for our own fire, when we make camp.

As has become their custom, my companions keep watch, two-by-two, though the Ranger himself never seems to sleep, or if he does doze it is but a shallow restless slumber, for he does not lie himself down but sits, slumped, and often raises his head to scan our surroundings. I doze as a pony will, on my feet, one leg at a time cocked to rest it, ears at the alert though my head droops. Yet I hear nothing as we pass another weary, if uneventful, night.

The watchers warm stones by the fire and tuck them into the Master's blankets to warm him, but I am not sure what good this does. The Master lies in his blankets like a stone himself, and my Sam does not leave his side, even to take the watch; no, he sits himself up right there until his watch is over and he may lie down once more. And even when he is supposed to be sleeping, I see movement and hear his murmur--he is chafing the Master’s hand, and muttering, so cold!

We waken and after a scanty breakfast--I think the grass is poor enough, but perhaps it is more than my poor hobbits have to eat--we resume our burdens and trudge on. Mine is hardly a burden--it feels as if the Master grows perceptibly lighter with each day that passes, though I’ve seen the others pressing food upon him, even though they short themselves still more by dividing their own rations and urging him to eat the greater share.

This day we reach the top of a long slow-climbing slope, and stop. I drop my head to crop at the grass, taking advantage of the moment, but my ears swivel to catch any talk that may be passing.

‘Look!’ youngest hobbit says, stretching out an arm. I raise my head to look, but see nothing of interest, and go back to my grazing. ‘Trees!’

‘Hills,’ not-so-Merry says, ‘Wooded hills, and the Road sweeping round at their feet.’

‘What river is that?’ youngest hobbit asks, tugging at the Ranger’s sleeve as the latter stands as if lost in thought.

‘Which one?’ Merry asks, and it seems there is more than one river in sight. Good. I could use a deep draught for a change, plunge my muzzle into fresh-sweet water and drink and drink and drink...

But the Man does not answer, not directly, anyhow. He is thinking of our course, and says, ‘I am afraid we must go back to the Road here for a while.’

The hobbits exchange glances of dismay, and I shudder the skin over my shoulders at the thought of that Road, where we heard the cold cries--and though it was many days ago now, more than I can count, they still have the power to chill my innards. I move my feet uneasily, testing the ground beneath them.

It seems that the pale-shining river to our off-side is the Hoarwell or Mitheithel, and I hear Sam mutter Mitheithel under his breath as if the Elvish word pleases him. I tremble a bit to hear that it flows from the troll-fells. I do not know what trolls are, but I’ve heard of them, somewhere upon a time. They eat ponies, I’m told. I have no wish to meet any.

The other river is called the Loudwater, or the Bruinen of Rivendell, and the hobbits look more hopeful for a moment, to hear the name--Rivendell--only to wilt again at the Ranger’s next words. We shall be fortunate indeed if we do not find the Last Bridge held against us.

I don't like the sound of that. I don't like it at all.

***

A/N: Some text taken from “Flight to the Ford” from Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, and woven into the narrative.



Chapter 15. We cross the Last Bridge

It is very early, but we are up and moving, downhill now, down to the fearsome Road that lies waiting ahead, a mouth yawning to devour us, I’ve little doubt. Yet I must pace along sedately as an old mare, and not move in nervous jumps and prances as I would, were I carrying any other burden than the Master.

My Sam is nervous as well; I smell it on him, and feel it in the fingers that keep stroking lightly at my neck. I hear it in his whispered encouragement. The words are to tell me that all’s well, whilst the tightness in the tone says all’s not well. Which am I to believe?

Even Master sits upright on my back, his legs taut against my sides, and much of the dread I am feeling is coming from him. Ah, yes, we ponies share our rider’s feelings, and it is difficult for me now to disregard the fear passing between us.

The younger hobbits are as cautious as cats, stalking along with their heavy burdens, looking to the right and to the left.

At last we reach the thickets before the Road, and the Man tells marsh-stinking hobbit and not-so-merry to wait with the pony. He gestures to my Sam to go with him, and I’d follow, but youngest hobbit holds my rope with a firm hand, and all three of them soothe me--yes, even the Master’s touch is on my withers, a gentle stroking.

It seems as if we must wait a long time, thus, while my ears are pricked to follow their movements. I hear their feet, softly as hobbit and Ranger can walk, and the murmur of voices--but then, ponies’ ears are pitched to hear keenly; it is our best defence against danger.

At last they return to us. ‘What did you see?’ youngest asks, pressing forward eagerly, while not-so-merry hobbit hisses, ‘Anything?’ I feel Master leaning forward although he does not speak.

‘No sign of travellers or riders,’ the Man says. ‘A rain fell here, perhaps two days ago, and washed away what footprints might have gone before, and none has passed this way since.’

‘Is that good news, or not?’ youngest hobbit wants to know, his nose wrinkled like a foal puzzled by the taste of a new-found weed.

But the tall Man looks troubled, and returns no answer.

The Master speaks, startling us all; he has been so silent, the last few days. ‘Then by all means, let us go, and cross the Bridge while we may!’

‘You have the right of it, Frodo!’ the Man says, adding, ‘Let us make all speed, while the Road remains quiet.’

My trot is too jarring for poor Master, and so I walk at my best pace, stretching my legs. If I could but canter--but then we’d leave the others behind, and Master would not stand for that, I allow. The walking hobbits are moving quickly under their heavy burdens, alternating between walking and trotting slowly, while the Man walks in great long strides, and I can well see why they call him Strider.

We hurry thus a mile or so, pulling up short at the top of a short, steep slope that runs down to the Bridge itself. So this is a bridge! It looks much like a road to my eyes, though I can hear the swirling waters of the river even this little distance away.

‘Take cover,’ the Man orders, and my Sam leads me into a thick tangle of undergrowth, under the shadow of sheltering trees, and the younger hobbits follow. They help the Master slide from my back, that he might not be “sticking out like a sore thumb” or so youngest hobbit puts it, in other words appearing to be seated atop the thicket, which is tall and tangled enough to hide me completely!

I browse a few late-clinging leaves while we wait. It is a long time since last night’s grazing. My stomach is clenched tight in hunger; it seems an eternity since I had a proper feed. I don’t know why I should be so much hungrier than I was in Ferny’s care, but I am.

I have time for only a few snatches before I hear soft but hurried footsteps returning. It is the Man, and he has seen no sign of an enemy. More worrisome still, he knows not what it might portend. The smell of uncertainty wafts from him, among other smells, strongest that of his unwashed state, and I lay back my ears in response. ‘...But I have found something very strange.’

The hobbits crowd about him in curiosity, and I lift my head over Sam’s shoulder that I might see as well. He holds out his palm, showing a pale stone. ‘I found it in the mud in the middle of the Bridge,’ he says, and goes on to tell us that it is a beryl, an elf-stone. The words are heartening, not the less because his tone lightens, almost with gladness at the last. He says that it is a sign that we may cross the Bridge in safety.

I’m quite relieved to hear it. From my Sam’s reaction to the word “bridge” I’ve been very sure that bridges are a dangerous business.

I find, however, that this Bridge, at least, is as solid-seeming as the Road itself. I can hear the swirling of the waters below us, but my feet tell me I am on a reassuringly steady surface, firm and rocky, not at all like the quaking, wet ground we left behind us in the Midgewater marshes.

I’ve heard my mother say, We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, but really, I don’t see why such a great deal should be made of such a matter. But then, perhaps bridges are not all the same... much like people.

And ponies.

***

A/N: Some text taken from “Flight to the Ford” from Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, and woven into the narrative.



Chapter 16. We pick our way through a pathless country

We continue along the Road, though the Man is as tense as a pony in a lonely field, hearing the baying of stray dogs approaching. I strain my ears to the utmost... and hear nothing to match my fears.

It is a relief when, a mile or so from the Bridge we turn off the treacherous Road, into a narrow ravine leading to the North, or so I hear not-so-merry whisper to the others.

‘I am glad to leave the perilous Road behind,’ young marsh-stinking hobbit whispers, and I hear my Samwise mutter, very low, that Master might not hear him grumble (ah, but I have pony ears!), ‘and to leave those cheerless lands behind, yes, glad I am!’

‘I don’t know,’ not-so-merry says, with a shake of his head. ‘Perhaps it’s merely jumping from the frying pan... this new country seems not at all welcoming...’

Threatening and unfriendly, he might have said. The hills are sullen and steep, and dark trees wind about them. I would not want to have to make my way up any of those slopes. I am glad we walk in the valley, narrow and difficult as it is, rough and rocky the going. I place my feet with care, so as not to stumble and shake my rider. Not at all welcoming, apt words, I think.

The hills loom higher as we make our way, and I wonder how it is that we shall come to Rivendell at the last, when the Road runs that way and we are going this, but I suppose the Man knows his business. He brought us through the marshes, at least, and through trackless lands thus far. I just wish that he did not smell so, and chiefly of worry.

Look, another tower! youngest hobbit whispers, pointing, though he keeps his elbow tucked close and his pointing is a mere twitch of the index finger, as if he fears that one of his customary sweeping gestures will draw unfriendly attention. He huddles close to me, a part of the time, or one of the other hobbits, and I can almost hear the pounding of his heart.

Those walls of stone look old, not-so-merry whispers. Ever so old, he adds, and, I don’t like the look of them.

Master speaks so suddenly that we all jump; he has been silent for some hours, since we left the Road. ‘Who lives in this land?’ he asks. ‘And who built these towers? Is this troll-country?’

And at the fearsome word I jump again, and all three of the walking hobbits soothe me, and I feel Master stroking my trembling neck. It is difficult to control myself, but somehow I manage, for the most part, anyhow. Trolls eat ponies. Or so I’ve been told.

But to my relief, the Man answers that trolls did not build the towers and crumbling walls, for indeed, trolls do not build. Men lived here upon a time, but fell under the shadow of evil and were destroyed, so long ago that even the hills have forgotten them, though they still bear scars and ruins. Shadow indeed, it feels as if we walk through a land of shadow, dark and dreary, full of untold tales remembered only in Rivendell, where we are bound.

Mention of Rivendell is like a flash of bright light, a sliver of sunlight shining through clouds, lifting the spirit for a moment before the gloom closes in once more.

For the hills begin to shut us in. We can see neither Road nor River now, as we come into a long valley; narrow, deeply cloven, dark and silent. My footfalls sound very loud to my ears, and I try to pick up my feet and put them down again as quietly as I may.

Look! youngest hobbit hisses, and I look up, seeing only trees with old and twisted roots hanging over us on cliffs, and piled up behind into mounting slopes of pine-wood. There are no birds; it is as if we are the only living creatures afoot. That might be a comforting thought, were it not that my skin prickles with premonitions of danger.

However, there seems no way to go but forward or back. I am no bird, that I might fly up the steep walls to either side!

It is difficult enough to pick my way through the tumbled rocks, and fallen trees are a trouble as well. Were the footing better, I might jump over, could I but have a running start... I jumped for the sheer joy of it, running about our grassy field with my mother, in the dim past of memory. Not a fence, or any solid obstacle, but I could jump the little brook, and the stump of a tree sticking up as if it had lost the forest. But these trees... my Samwise leads me around, if he can, or leads me along the length of the tree, to where it grows slender enough to step over. It makes for slow going.

I do not know where this valley is leading us. The Man is very quiet now, eyeing the slopes to our right as if he would turn in that direction. I doubt he’d find any way up out of these narrow dales!

I am glad when we make camp, for I am very weary, and the hobbits are exhausted. Youngest throws himself down when the Man calls a halt, but he drags himself upright again almost immediately, shedding his pack and trudging off in search of wood--though never out of sight of our camp. Merry and my Sam help Master down from my back; freed of my burden, I shake myself until my hair flies up, and when I stand it settles again. It is the best I can do, for there is no grass here to roll upon.

Wood-gathering done, youngest takes me to drink where a spring trickles from the rocky slope, running down to a little cup in the clay. I drink deeply of the icy, refreshing stuff and shake my head up and down, scattering small drops... but he is too weary to protest, nearly dropping from fatigue. When I am finished drinking, he ties me to a tree and I begin to search so far as I can reach, for all the late leaves I can find, dry and tasteless they may be, even the jagged-edged bramble leaves, guarded by thorns. There are a few berries still clinging, dry and shrivelled, but I eat these as well.

Youngest hobbit has to be wakened to eat, and so does Master. I have already eaten all the leaves I can find, and small twigs--satisfying to chew though not at all filling--and have torn some of the bark from nearest of the young trees, by the time they are at supper, and from the look of it their portions are not much more generous than mine. Still, my Sam, as soon as he finishes, and has made sure that the Master has all he wants (little as it might be), gets up, takes my rope, and moves me to another tethering spot, with more leaves for my browsing. They take turns moving my tether from place to place, until I’ve stripped leaves and bark from all the vicinity. At last I stand uneasily, while they sink into exhausted slumber. Only the Man remains awake, and he too seems very weary.

I raise my head higher, the better to watch for danger, and he stretches his arms out to the sides and up slowly, and down again, sits a little straighter against the tree that props his back, and nods to me. I nod in return; if he wishes a little doze, to recover his strength, I will keep watch.

But he pulls his pipe from its hiding and settles to smoke, as if to fight away the mists of sleep. The smoke from his pipe joins with the smoke from the little campfire, rising into the haze above the overhanging trees, that wait in silent menace above and all around.

***

A/N: Some text taken from “Flight to the Ford” from Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, and woven into the narrative.


Chapter 17. A soaking rain begins

The rain does not seem much of an inconvenience when it begins, so fine that at first it seems but a heavy fog or mist descending from the laden skies brushing the hilltops, but rain it is, and drenching. We have been two days in this wretched country, and the hills loom high and dark ahead and behind and to either side. This valley gives no easier going than the hillside, only it's not steep.

Would that I had wings, to rise, youngest hobbit mutters, and while I’ve watched the birds darting about in the sky above our field, my mother’s and mine, and joined their dance, running in circles and spirals on the grass below them, I’ve never thought about having wings until this moment. What a fancy! But then, youngest hobbit is always saying unlikely things, and sometimes, even now, sunk in his misery... but what was I saying? I am rambling, dreaming on my feet, head nodding low. Dry, dying leaves, twigs and bark are barely enough to sustain, and I move in a fog of my mind’s own making.

Would that I had wings, to fly, and I realise that he is muttering, under his breath, the words of a song I’ve heard the hobbits sing around the fire, before Weathertop, and when my Samwise asked about it the cousins told him it was a Tookish walking song. Flying song, more like, he’d said, and ducked his head and blushed at the resulting merriment, though I also saw him smile to hear Master laugh.

The Master has not laughed, not for a long time now. He sits slumped over on my back--for I can feel it, how he shifts with my steps, and I must be especially careful not to move too quickly to one side or the other, lest he slide off completely, or even land on his head.

And still the rain continues. ‘Where does all this water come from, I’d like to know,’ young hobbit grumbles. ‘If I’d wanted a cold bath, I’d’ve said as much.’

‘Wind’s from the West,’ not-so-Merry says, lifting his head and looking up at the trees atop the dark hills. ‘A steady wind,’ he adds. ‘Perhaps this rain fell over Buckland, not a week ago.’

‘How kind of Freddy to send his weather on to us,’ youngest hobbit says, forcing a bright tone and looking towards me, but there is no response from Master, not even the subtle tightening of his legs that would mean the lifting of his head. ‘D’you think the wind scooped up half the Brandywine, that you might not be homesick?’

‘It is the water of the distant seas,’ the Man says, ‘and has journeyed much further than from Buckland.’

‘Distant seas,’ youngest hobbit breathes, and stars seem to shine in his eyes. ‘There are... seas? ...beyond the Shire? I can scarcely imagine such a sight. To the West, you said.’

And I feel Master lift his head.

‘Of course, you silly Took,’ not-so-Merry says. ‘Had you forgot the Elves, sailing to the West?’

‘Oh,’ says youngest, rather chagrined, I think, but then he thinks of a question to ask, so all is well with him once more. ‘Are all the Elves going to sail to the West?’

‘Not quite,’ says the Man, ‘at least, it is to be hoped not.’

My Samwise murmurs that he’s in complete agreement. I know that it is his fondest wish to see Elves once more.

I don’t know that I’ve even seen them once.

The rain continues, matting my winter coat down against my skin, running into my eyes, and if I lift my head, into my nostrils, making me sneeze. I am glad for the furry lining of my ears, that keeps the rain out, or I’d be wet inside and out. As it is, I’m wet to the skin, and “smell of wet pony” or so one of the hobbits mutters when he stumbles against me.

My companions, too, look wet and bedraggled, as wet as youngest when they pulled him from the marsh’s grasp, and if I might be so free, I should say that they smell of wet hobbit.

We halt at last, and youngest hobbit is careful to hang his pack upon the broken-off stub of a branch, before he goes wood-collecting. I see the others have the same idea; they don’t want to lay their packs down upon the sodden ground.

Master sits a while longer on my back, with Merry at his side, looking up, reaching steadying arms around the older cousin, talking cheerful nonsense as if there were no ill-disguised note of anxiety in his voice. Samwise and the Man are hunting about, and return with armfuls of bracken. They shake the water from these and lay them down, to make a soft and somewhat drier seat for Master to recline upon, and at last the Man lifts Master from my back and carries him to his rest, telling him not to exert himself when he would protest.

No matter how they try, they cannot kindle fire. Even the Man’s efforts are for naught. He scrapes beneath a fallen tree, but the very air consists of dampness, and what was nearly dry when he scoured it away with his knife blade, quickly becomes sodden and useless.

At last they give over and eat cold food, and perhaps their dinner is as tasteless and difficult to swallow as mine. Still, I strip away the wet bark as if I am starving... which I truly feel, might very well be the case.

‘How long can this rain go on?’ youngest asks no one in particular. No one answers.

The hobbits huddle close about Master, seeking to share their warmth with him, but still the rain comes down, and it seems that most of what they share, from what I can see and hear, are shivers.

Despite the rain, they are exhausted enough to sleep at last, all save the Man, who sits on the fallen log, his cold pipe in his mouth, humming to himself, strange melodies and sweet, and though I meant to keep watch I find myself drowsing also.

It is a good thing that ponies can sleep standing on their feet. The thought of lying myself down on the cold, sopping ground has no appeal. My head droops, and despite my best intentions, I sleep.

***

A/N: (oops, almost forgot to add this) Some text taken from “Flight to the Ford” from Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, and woven into the narrative.



Chapter 18. We are forced to turn away northwards out of our course

It is raining when I go to sleep, and each time I awaken it is still raining, and each time I wake the world seems darker, more dismal, and I am as soaked as if I just swam a river. More soaked, perhaps. My wet hair is plastered down against my wet skin, and my mane and tail draggle most drenchingly. My tail is nearly too heavy to switch, not that there are any flies to bother me at the moment.

At last a time comes when I waken and the sky is a little lighter. I shudder, though it does no good, for the rain is still falling and there is no way to shake off the wet. I doze again, and it is still lighter when I raise my head. The Man still sits against his tree--he has drawn his cloak over his head, and looks a little like a bird with its head under its wing--but his eyes gaze out at me when I turn my head in his direction. Perhaps he has dozed as well. Perhaps not.

The hobbits rise, stiff and groaning, complaining of being cold and damp. Master does not complain, but when the Man carries him to me and places him on my back, I can feel him shivering.

Evidently the Man felt those shivers too. He takes off his own cloak and wraps it around Master, leaving himself no protection from the rain. His clothes, damp when first revealed, are soon soaked through. He does not seem to notice the discomfort, however, and the two younger cousins seem shamed into feigned cheerfulness by his example.

My Sam is clearly anxious, I can feel it through the leading rope, but what can he do? He cannot conjure fire from wet wood, nor dry blankets from damp packs. He cannot produce hot food out of nothing. Their drowned food is scarcely appealing, and none of them ate much of anything before we began again. In point of fact, youngest hobbit offers me a palmful of his own ration of journeybread as we set out, which is supposed to be dry, but isn’t, if you take my meaning. ‘Poor lad,’ he mutters. ‘You look as cold and half-drowned as I feel.’

I nod my head and rub my wet face against his wet shoulder, but he only makes a face and stumbles forward, shouldering his wet pack a little higher. There are no songs this day, muttered or otherwise.

The hills rise still higher and steeper before us, and not-so-Merry is tugging at the Man’s sleeve. My ears were laid back, to keep out the rain, but I prick them forward to hear.

‘But... we are out of our course. We’ve turned ever more northwards--no easterliness about it at all, not anymore.’

The Man nods. ‘I know,’ he says, and that is all.

Youngest trudges a little faster in order to join them. ‘We are nearly ten days out of Weathertop,’ he hisses, ‘and Samwise tells me our provisions are beginning to run low. And now, Merry, you say we’re out of our course?’

‘We’ll turn eastwards again, so soon as may be,’ the Man says, but he raises his head and glances about us as an uneasy pony might, scenting for danger.

And still it rains.

Well before evening the Man halts our progress. ‘This is the best shelter I’ve seen in these hills,’ he says. ‘We’ll stop here.’

It is a relief to camp in some sort of shelter, after a long, wet day of walking over and around obstacles, trying to find a course along the floor of this wild valley. It is perhaps a little less shelter than my ramshackle shed had to offer, being only a stony shelf with a shallow cave behind it, little more than a scoop in the rock-wall that rises in a steep cliff to one side of the valley.

The hobbits throw themselves down without even an attempt to make a fire. The Man must rouse them to chew a handful of travel rations, grain, I think it might be, mixed with dried fruit. I would be most happy to be offered such, but no. Provisions are low.

The Man tethers me where I might browse, bark, leaves, and twigs, and then he sits himself down just under the overhang, facing outward, the hobbits huddled for warmth behind him. Being out of the immediate downpour, he manages to light his pipe, and the smoke rises, a small comfort, the smell of rest if not relaxation.

Though three of the hobbits are quickly asleep, their susurrus emerging in white puffs, Master is restless and I think he does not sleep, for he tosses and turns, and rubs at his shoulder. The others are so exhausted that his restlessness does not disturb them, I am glad to say, for with more walking in store they need their rest.

My own head is drooping when I am startled awake; Master has sat up quite suddenly and unexpectedly. But the Man simply sits and smokes, looking out, past me into the darkening wood.

Master stares about in every direction, and at last he lies himself down again, and I think that he sleeps. I hope he does, anyhow. From the look of the hills ahead, he’ll need as much strength as he can manage for tomorrow's journey.

***

A/N: Some text taken from “Flight to the Ford” from Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, and woven into the narrative.


Chapter 19. We eat a cold and comfortless breakfast

As is usual for my kind, I doze and waken several times through the night. Deeper was my sleep, in our little field, when I lay in the thick soft grass and my dam stood over me. Naught could harm me there.

Here, the rain pours down, and every stealthy night-noise jerks my head up, wide-eyed, listening: but all I hear is wind in chinks of rock, water dripping, a crack, the sudden rattling fall of a loosened stone. My heavy head gradually droops, and I doze again, dreaming of the broken-down shed, rain coming in through the holes in the roof, soaking me, soaking my hay into mouldy, unappetising stuff--until my next wakening.

But at some point in this interminable night the rain is less, and before morning it stops altogether, and the wind seems to be coming from another quarter. Raising my head in the grey dawn, I give myself a good shake, but it’ll take more than that, I fear. Wet to the skin, I am, and if it were possible, I’d say I was wet well inward for good measure.

My belly cramps with hunger, and I stretch as far as my tether will let me, to tear some bark from a young tree nearby. I hope I will not be the death of the slender thing, but there is no grass here. I wonder if I remember the taste of grass, the juicy feel between my teeth, the satisfying tearing sound it makes as I cock my head on my neck to pull it free of its moorings.

The Man knocks out his pipe and rises to his feet, and the soft sound and sudden motion rouses the youngest hobbit. ‘Er...’ he says, sitting up and stretching his arms out, and then he yawns widely and climbs to his feet, picking up his blanket and turning to distribute it over the others, still sleeping. He follows the Man to me and gently slaps me on my wet side as my tether is untied. ‘Poor old fellow,’ he says. ‘I wish there’d been room enough for you.’

I nod my head and lip at the palm he holds out to me, empty, of course, but there is a faint taste of salt, and that is a comfort. I rub my head against his arm, and then the Man has thrust my rope into his hand and told him to find me some sort of forage nearby. ...but don’t go out of sight.

As if I would, young hobbit mutters under his breath. He leads me from bramble to bush to sapling and back again, and I even browse some moss though it is not to my taste. At least it is green.

The others have not slept in; when we return, they are eating, and not-so-Merry holds out youngest’s portion with a cheery, ‘Hot breakfast, or cold, this morning?’ The weariness in his face belies the cheer, but I have learned something of hobbits in our travels together: whereas my old misery growled whether angry or pleased, speaking with sour tones and jerking me about with hard, harsh hands, the hobbits seem to speak lightly more often than not. As a matter of fact, the heavier the going, the lighter their speech, until at times it seems to me they might float away altogether!

Youngest answers in kind, ‘O but I could have hot anytime I wanted it, were I home! Let us have cold for a refreshing change!’

‘Cold it is then! Come and eat it up before it gets warm!’

Master is eating silently, but he smiles slightly at their nonsense, and my Sam - though the smell of his worry never grows less - his head comes up and his shoulders straighten a little, as if somehow he is heartened by the chatter.

I can see from the slowness of their chewing, and the faces they inadvertently make, that their food is quite as comfortless as mine, but you’d never know it from the soft-spoken words that pass between them.

Immediately after breakfast is done and the packing up begins, the Man lifts a staying hand. ‘Pack up, and be ready to go,’ he says, ‘but stay here, under the shelter of the cliff, until I come back.’

‘Why, where are you going?’ my Sam asks, arrested in the middle of his putting away, cheese-knife suspended above his pack; and then he blushes, as if he has said something impertinent. But from the looks on the faces of the others, any one of them might have asked the question.

‘I am going to climb up,’ the Ranger says, and I hear youngest whisper to not-so-Merry behind his hand, If he can... ‘I want to get a look at the lie of the land, a better look than can be had down in this valley.’

‘We’ll wait,’ Merry says, as if there were some choice in the matter, and watches for just a moment as the Man walks lightly away. Then he turns back to the business at hand, but instead of packing, he unrolls the bedroll he was just tying up, and lays it out upon the rock shelf once more, covering the bracken that the Man laid there last night to soften the rock for the sleepers. Perhaps he hopes to get some extra rest. But no, for his next words are to Master. ‘Frodo, lie yourself down here,’ he says, and, ‘Pip, cover him with your blanket again, will you? And yours, Samwise.’

‘I’m well,’ Master protests, though we all know he is not.

‘Of course you are,’ youngest says in his most agreeable manner. ‘Now lie yourself down, Frodo, for you’re making it deucedly difficult to cover you up, standing there like a... a rock, or tree stump, or something.’

‘You didn’t sleep well last night,’ Merry says. Perhaps he was not so soundly asleep as appeared to be the case, after all. In any event, it appears he was aware of Master’s restlessness.

‘I’m sure none of us did,’ Master says, but seeing his cousins’ set and determined expressions, he sighs at last and sits, then lies down. They cover him well, and then Merry crouches beside him.

‘There,’ he says, ‘that wasn’t so difficult, was it?’

‘Would you like a bedtime tale?’ youngest says brightly.

Master yawns, but then he points out that the Man has told them to pack and be ready to move on when he returns.

‘Very well, we’ll pack, if you’ll sleep,’ youngest says, and bends to the task, humming softly. Merry joins the quiet song, and Samwise shyly adds a third voice to the harmony, and very soothing it is, too. I drowse, one foot cocked, my head drooping, carried away on a murmur of song.

***

A/N: Some text taken from “Flight to the Ford” from Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, and woven into the narrative.



Chapter 20. We follow a promising valley, but it proves false at the last

I awaken to the low-voiced tones of the Man--so soft-footed is he that I heard nothing of his return.

‘...too far to the north.’ I could have told him that, without him having to go off and look for himself. There is more about having to turn southwards, and that if we keep going on in the same direction we shall come to troll-country. I have no desire to walk into troll-country, not with my eyes open and my head up, not on my own four feet, not in any manner at all! But he is still speaking, and I have missed some of the words. I raise my head, lift my pinned-back ears and prick them forward to listen once more. ‘...somehow or other we must find the Ford of Bruinen.’

‘I’m all for that,’ Master says stoutly. I think his sleep in the reassuring light of day, with no haunting shadows nor menacing sounds, has done him some good.

The Man lifts Master to my back, and Sam hurriedly shrugs into his pack, and takes my rope, and the other hobbits are laden and ready and we set forth once more, scrambling over the rocky ground.

We stop for a noontide rest--well, it is likely some time after noon, what with the late start, and we did not stop for some hours from our starting, for the Man is anxious and presses the pace. It is not much of a rest; Master remains astride, and Sam is the only one to remove his pack, and that only long enough to dig out a few handfuls of food for each of them, tied up in cloths about the size of handkerchiefs, a meal he prepared before we left our resting place earlier in the day.

Though it is bad form to graze with a rider aboard, I take advantage of the loose lead rope to grab at a few bites of what I can manage to chew and swallow.

Soon we are moving on. Youngest hobbit walks with his head down, and Master seems to grow heavier as he droops with weariness of long riding, but the Merry hobbit is scanning our surroundings, always looking to the eastern slopes as if he is seeking...

‘There,’ he says, lifting an arm to point.

‘Yes,’ the Man answers. ‘I see it as well. Between those two hills...’

‘A passage,’ my Samwise affirms, stopping to look, and so I stop, too, and lift my head.

‘Between,’ youngest hobbit breathes, rolling his shoulders as if they are aching under his burden. He clears his throat, the better to speak in a light and cheerful tone. ‘So much better, don’t you think, than over?’

‘Much better!’ Merry says, and even manages a laugh and a clout for youngest’s arm. ‘Though you’ve climbed enough in the Green Hills, in your younger days, that these little round-tops should pose you no trouble at all!’

‘Ah, but I’m not so young as I used to be, and me old bones is growing creaky,’ youngest retorts in a cracked voice. Even the Man smiles, and we all walk on in better spirits than we have known since before the rain.

Indeed the way is promising, for when we have passed between the two hills we are in a valley that runs to the south-east. All to the good and so we hope for better, and we walk on with a will and a murmur of yet another walking song on the hobbits’ part. At times youngest even whistles a bit, softly and through his teeth, a spritely tune, and I prick my ears forward and arch my neck and step along in time to the music.

Master dozes and wakens by turn; I can tell by his weight on my back. When he rides with his head lifted, his legs pressing my sides, his back straight, he is no burden at all; but when he slumps he is a most awkward and heavy load and something of a strain to my back muscles. Still, when he slumps it means he is sleeping, and I take extra care that he be neither jostled nor jarred in the going.

I watch the ground, looking to the placing of my feet and letting my ears do most of my guarding against danger. They are sharper than my eyesight in any event--my eyes can fool me into perceiving danger where there is none, whereas my ears are better to be trusted. My nostrils flare, but I smell nothing to worry me, and nothing to tempt me, either, neither grass to tear nor water to nuzzle. My ears and nose are very fine sentinels. My skin, too, is a reliable guide, for it prickles and shudders almost of itself when the scent of danger is on the air, sometimes before I even notice the scent itself and catalogue it as worrisome.

Thus it is that I nearly run over my Sam, who stops before me without a word. There is a soft exclamation of dismay from one of the young cousins, and I feel Master’s legs tighten on my sides as he raises his head.

The Man gazes before us, his head high, shoulders set and determined, but I heard the sigh he suppressed just now.

The valley has come to an end, it seems. Ahead of us is a high ridge, its dark edge against the sky broken into many bare points like the teeth in the bottom jaw of some great maw opening to devour us, gaping so wide that the teeth in the top part of that terrible mouth cannot be seen, only guessed at. We must go back--but it is late in the day, and darkness would take us before we once again reached the two hills that guard the entrance to this false valley.

‘Or we can climb over,’ Master says bravely from my back, and the others look to him in surprise.

He gives a short, forced laugh. ‘Would you turn back, when we’ve made such progress this day, and waste all your effort?’

‘But Frodo,’ not-so-merry says, plainly doubting. ‘I’m not sure that our young Took, even, can climb that slope, much less...’

‘I’m game,’ youngest says, shrugging his pack a little higher on his back and facing the hill with determination writ all over his face.

‘Good for you, Pip,’ Master says. ‘Well, Strider? What do you say?’

‘To go back would add another day to an already-long journey, and no guarantee that we’d find our way in any event, short of retracing our steps all the way back to the Road.’

‘But that would take days!’ my Sam protests, pulling the lead rope tighter in his consternation.

‘I don’t think we have days,’ Master says, so softly that I think only Samwise and the Ranger and myself, of course, hear him. ‘At least, I don’t think I do.’

***

A/N: Some text taken from “Flight to the Ford” from Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, and woven into the narrative.



Chapter 21. We begin an impossible climb

I cannot move forward. I cannot move back. To one side is a wall of broken stone, implacable, unyielding. To the other, a fearful fall, should I miss my footing. We have not been climbing for long, and we still have too long a climb ahead of us.

We have worked our way steadily upward, and now we are too far above the valley floor, and not anywhere near the top of the ridge.

My Sam stands at my head, urging me on. Young hobbit scrambles ahead, and higher, following the Big Man. He holds the end of my rope in his hands, and when the rope pulls tight between us he stops, turns, braces himself against the dirt and rocks, plants his feet, and pulls. And Sam tugs at my halter. ‘Come along, lad.’

Behind me is the not-merry hobbit’s voice, and his hand comes down a-slap. ‘Get up, there, Bill!’ And what will he do if we start to slide backwards? Try and catch us?

Young hobbit is pulling as if it’s a game of tug, his face screwed in concentration, but it’s my head he’s pulling, and off my neck, it seems! 'Come along, old pony,' he hisses between clenched teeth.

Another slap on my hindquarters, harder this time, and I jump, a little, but the footing is so poor, aye, there’s no footing to be had, really, and I stumble forward a step, little stones rattling down the cliffside from the moving of my feet, and I plant them again, throwing my head up in protest, trembling all over. The gentle stroking hand upon my withers, so encouraging when we started, has gone and Master rests against my back, my neck, his legs unmoving, arm weakly grasping one side of my neck, a lump of baggage, and I must not let him slip to one side or to the other.

And my Samwise, he - he picks up a sturdy stick, lying on the slope, and weeping, he strikes me! ‘Get up, Bill!’ he sobs. I jump, I cannot help myself, but I manage to keep the foothold I’ve found, dubious safety, no way up and no way down.

I feel a shifting of the weight on my back, and I lay my ears back in consternation. I must not let him fall! And yet, how am I to save even myself?

Master speaks, his voice low and strained. ‘Hold, Sam, hold your hand.’ The weight on my back shifts again, and though I do my best to hold him, he slides to one side, and down to the ground, though he’s wound the fingers of his good hand into the scraggles of my mane and so holds himself upright. I let my head droop, I arch my back to stretch the muscles in this unexpected moment of rest, my limbs tremble with fear and weariness.

‘Hold, Sam,’ he breathes again. ‘It is too much for the poor old pony.’

Poor old pony! Stung, I raise my head once more and turn my face to him, bending my neck as far as can be, for youngest hobbit has eased his pull in his amazement at this turn of events. I reach to lip at Master's shoulder, not the injured one, of course. I would carry him to the ends of the earth, I would, could I but find the footing.

Master is pale, deathly pale, but he holds up his head and his face is set. ‘Too much to expect,’ he repeats. ‘Why, this slope is almost as much as a hobbit could climb! But climb we must, and so climb I will, and spare old Bill the extra burden.’

‘But Frodo!’ not-merry says, brushing past me to lend a supporting arm to his cousin.

But Master, indeed, for Master will hear no argument. He says, very soft, ‘It is a waste of strength to argue,’ and then he lets go of my mane, eases past my Sam with a pat on the shoulder, takes hold of my rope, once more taut between young hobbit and myself, and begins to pull himself up along its length, not-merry his shadow, risking his own footing to offer support.

The stick falls from my Sam’s hand, and he stands a moment, wipes his dirty sleeve across his eyes, and then moves to follow.

‘Frodo!’ the Big Man shouts, softly yet it is a shout, gauged to carry no further than our ears.

Master toils ever upward, slow shuffle, painful step upwards, pause as if to gather strength, push with the downhill leg and straighten the uphill leg, to stand a moment before beginning again.

***

A/N: Some text taken from “Flight to the Ford” from Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, and woven into the narrative.



Chapter 22. We reach the top of the ridge

The light is nearly gone, but we have somehow reached the top at last. I say somehow because it is not clear in my head; memory is a blur of misery and effort worse than pulling my old misery's sledge fully loaded with heavy rock all the way to Bree from the quarry.

Young hobbit was pulling on my rope at the end, that part I remember, gritting harsh-rasping words between his teeth, a steady litany of get up, old boy, get up!

My Sam gave me another sharp cut on my hindquarters, his breath sobbing in and out. I laid back my ears; I might have kicked him, had I forgot myself, but instead I gathered for a last effort, I plunged upward, and then a few steps forward, for suddenly I found myself on the level, with young hobbit pulling away before me. He was hauling with such exhausted, mind-benumbed determination that as I surmounted the edge, he staggered backwards, with little running steps, still gasping get up!

...and then the Big Man caught him, just as he went over another edge. Though I doubt he'd have fallen far, hard as he was gripping my rope. I am glad, however, to have been spared the jerk of his weight hitting the rope's end. And it would not have been a good thing for him to be too weary to hold on, if he'd fallen.

Yes, another edge, for the ground falls steeply away again, only a short distance ahead.

We are on a narrow spot of land, a “saddle” one of them called it, with the ground rising to higher points on either side. It is not like any saddle I've ever seen, miserable and rocky. Master lies shivering on the hard ground, and not-merry bends over him, calling his name in a hopeful tone, though there is a terrible look on his face. The chill breeze brings a strong smell of anxiety from him. I move to stand nearby, offering what little comfort I may: lowered head, soft whicker, warm blow of air.

Young hobbit half-crawls to us, as if he doesn't trust his footing. Perhaps he doesn't, after his near-fall. “Come, Merry,” he says. “A blanket's the thing...”

Not-merry nods, and pulls a blanket from the load he bears, tucking it around Master and telling young hobbit to add another, and himself into the bargain. Young hobbit complies, fumbling slowly with shaking hands, for the wind is very cold here, and he is very tired.

And then not-merry stands upright, drawing a weary hand over his face, and steps away to grasp the Ranger's sleeve. The Big Man is staring into the gathering gloom, as if trying to see our way ahead. He straightens his shoulders and looks down with a smile, though the smell of his worry mingles with that of the hobbit's anxiety.

I do not know if Master hears, for not-merry speaks low, so low that only by swivelling my ears in his direction and straining to catch the words, do I hear his concern.

We cannot go any further, he mutters to the Ranger. I nod agreement, and miss the next few words, but I hear the Ranger's reply, ...no further tonight. My flanks expand as I draw a deep breath, and my sigh of relief blows warm over youngest hobbit's tousled, dirty curls as he snuggles beside Master, drawing the second blanket around the two of them carefully so as not to leave any entry for fingers of searching wind.

My Sam is here now. He lays a trembling hand on my shoulder, and I turn to him and rub my face against his arm. He gives a shuddering sigh, leans his forehead a moment on my neck, murmurs brokenly, something of forgiveness.

Forgive? What is to forgive? Every cut with the stick surely wounded him every bit as much as it did me; perhaps more, from the sound of his voice. I try to tell him so, lipping him softly, no teeth in it.

I feel the breath of his next sigh ruffling the dirt-crusted hair of my neck, and then he straightens again with a pat. “Steady, old lad. Hobbles, now... wouldn't want you to wander in your sleep...” He punctuates his muttering with fumbling attempts to affix my hobbles. I stand very still. It's the best way I know to aid him. I wouldn't want to wander in my sleep, either, not in this place.

At last done, he straightens and joins the Man and the not-merry hobbit. I can scarce make out their forms now, in the darkness, but the Man hears my Sam's approach behind him, even so softly as a hobbit moves, and puts out a warning hand. “Mind the edge,” he says.

My Sam wastes no words, but asks immediately about Master. “What is the matter with him?” he says, and remarks that Master's wound, small as it was, has already closed, leaving only a cold white mark.

The Ranger's answer makes me shiver. Touched by weapons of the Enemy. I am glad for my hobbles as a spectre of fear arises in the back of my thoughts, a dim memory of terror, enough to make my skin shudder from nose to tail.

“It is a bitter night indeed, old lad,” young hobbit says, misunderstanding. “Were this blanket only large enough, I'd invite you to share it with us. No doubt your warmth, added to ours, would be a help.”

Master is silent; he has not spoken in some time.

“Strider's right,” I hear not-merry say, slapping a hand upon my Sam's shoulder. “Let us not give up hope!”

I can hear my Sam's shivers in his breathing, but not-merry says only, “Light us a fire, as Strider suggested, ere we catch our death in this wind.”

My Sam ducks his head, and I think he wipes at his face in the dark. His voice quivers only slightly as he answers. “I'll have a fire for you in two shakes, Mr. Merry; just see if I don't.”

***

A/N: Some text taken from “Flight to the Ford” from Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, and woven into the narrative.


Chapter 23. We pass a cold and windswept night

The wind blows cold through the pass, and I shudder. There's a sound of moaning, creatures dreadfully wounded, dying; sighs as of someone's last breath, or would be last breaths, except that they go on and on.

My companions sit, huddled together in a shallow pit graven under the gnarled roots of an old pine, as if someone long ago dug for treasure there. A small fire burns, more comfort for the spirit than warmth for the body. I stand as close as I might, for the wind blows chill indeed.

Youngest hobbit starts up at every sound, and not-merry puts a reassuring hand on his shoulder. 'It's just the wind, soughing through the treetops below, Pip, that's all.'

'It sounds like.. like lost souls,' youngest says, his voice quavering with his shivers, and then he looks to Master and falls silent, misery on his face.

Master lies without moving; he has not spoken, no, not a word, not even when the Big Man lifted him from the ground and carried him to lie him beside the fire. From him rises the scent of uneasy sleep, half-dreaming fear.

'Just the wind in the treetops,' not-merry says again, and then he begins to hum low, and then sing, a song of walking in the sunshine, the clouds puffs in the sky above, the grass green and soft below, the wind in the treetops singing a song to the daisies in the meadow. It is a pleasant song, a reminder of brighter days in the dim mists of memory, but it sounds somehow thin and unconvincing in this dreary place.

Still, I am lulled, as was no doubt not-merry's intention, though not on my behalf: Young hobbit's head droops, and soon he rests against not-merry, limp with sleep. I too drowse, slipping into dreams of better things. Wind sighs in the trees by my meadow, and my mother stands above me to shade me from the Sun. I sleep.

...and waken to the dawning light, pale and clear in a rain-washed sky. The morning is bright and fair, but it is cold here on the ridge, and all of us move stiffly as we shake off sleep.

'Come, Merry,' the Big Man says, rising from his crouch. Perhaps I ought to say creaking to his feet for he moves slowly and painfully, indeed, and not with his usual grace. The hobbit rises slowly, too, easing youngest hobbit down next to Master without wakening either, I think. He then swings his arms and gingerly stomps his feet, as if to get the blood flowing once more.

I browse a few pine needles from the gnarled tree; there is nothing more to eat here, on this rocky, bony ridge. The needles are sour.

The Big Man and not-merry hobbit walk off together, climbing and scrambling up the eastern height. My Sam is awake, too; he has emptied one of the water bottles into a pan and is heating the water over the fire. It is not long before he is coaxing Master to drink: “Nice, hot tea, Mr. Frodo, fresh-brewed just as you like it. 'Twouldn't do to let it go to waste, now, would it?”

Master speaks for the first time since the climb, his voice weak, but cheerful. I do not know if he is encouraged by the clear light that surrounds us, after the drear of the past days, or if he merely puts on encouragement for my Sam's sake. 'Yes, thank you, Sam.' He lets Sam help him sit up; he sips from the cup Sam holds before him, lifting his good hand to steady it. 'Ah,' he sighs, 'that's good.'

My Samwise beams as if he's been paid in heavy gold coin, and not just a simple word of praise. 'I'll have breakfast ready as quick as you can say “Overhill, over Dale,” Mr. Frodo!'

'Overhill, over Dale,' youngest hobbit says sleepily, sitting up. 'I say, Samwise, a few eagles would not go amiss... though the eagles over Dale never did fly Bilbo all the way home past Overhill. What a story that would have made'!

'Yes, wouldn't it,' Master says with a fond smile for the youngster, who has walked so very far, and no benefit of eagles to spare his travel-worn feet.

It is good to see him smile.

Youngest hobbit returns the smile, and heartened, adds, 'I'll settle for some of that tea.'

'Right, Mr. Pippin,' my Sam says in his briskest tone. I prick my ears forward, glad, though my belly is empty. I tear a strip of bark from the tree. It is tasteless, but it gives me something to chew.

***

Breakfast is ready and waiting when the others return under the now brightly shining Sun.

'Well, Strider?' youngest hobbit says boldly, and I prick my ears to listen. I do believe that my Sam would prick his ears as well, were he a pony. He turns, expectant, to hear the news, and Master is tense, waiting.

'We are now going more or less the right direction,' the Big Man says.

'Yes,' his companion says. He is merrier than before, as if what he's seen has been reassuring rather than daunting. Perhaps nothing could be quite so bad as the slope we ascended yesterday. 'The mountains shall be on our left as we descend the ridge.'

'On the further side?' youngest hobbit asks, and perhaps-merry reaches out to tousle his curls.

'Of course on the further side,' he retorts. 'You didn't have in mind going down again and around the long way!'

'As if it were a walking party,' Master puts in, and everyone looks at him in astonishment. Truly it is as if the bright sunshine has put some heart back into him.

'And why not a walking party?' youngest says, standing suddenly to his feet and sweeping his hands out to the sides in a grand gesture.

And then he laughs at my Sam's befuddled look, and lets his hands slowly fall to his sides. 'Perhaps not,' he says, as if reconsidering.

'Pip, you are ridiculous,' Master says, and his smile is more real than I've seen in days.

'At your service,' youngest says with a grandiose bow, and even the Big Man is smiling now, though he sobers when Master turns to address him.

'And so, Strider,' he says, pulling himself up to sit as straight as he may, as if to defy the weakness that would pull him down. 'If not a walking party, and "roundabout we go", then... where?'

The Big Man bows to him, straightens, and says, 'Some way ahead is the Loudwater; I caught a glimpse of it from the height.'

'The Loudwater,' Master says, looking thoughtful.

'Though we cannot see it from this vantage, the Road to the Ford lies on this side of the River, and not far from the River's course.'

'The Road,' Master mutters, and Merry looks less merry once more.

I shiver as I think of the Road, and the terrible cry as we crossed over, so long ago now I can scarce remember the taste of the dry grass on the verge. I remember the cry; it is burned into my memory.

My Samwise looks troubled, and young hobbit has lost his tinge of silliness.

Master too has lost his smile, but his look is resigned, and he smells more of pain and weariness than of fear.

'The Road, Strider?' he prompts.

The Big Man nods slowly. 'We must make for the Road again,' he says.

'But what of--' Samwise says, and at the same time youngest hobbit speaks, 'I thought we--'

'We cannot hope to find a path through these hills,' is the Ranger's reply.

'And the Black Riders?' youngest says, finishing my Sam's thought. 'What of them? If they look for us upon the Road...?'

The Big Man wears a set expression. 'Whatever danger may beset it,' he says with a shake of his head, and then he turns his face to gaze steadily to the South-East, 'the Road is our only way to the Ford.'

***

A/N: Some text taken from “Flight to the Ford” from Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, and woven into the narrative.


Chapter 24. Things are looking up; we are moving steadily down

'Steady, Bill. Steady, old lad.'

My rope is twined about my Sam's right hand, his left hand rests on my neck, gently urging. My ears are laid back, not out of any ill will but rather concentration. Though the slope is less steep on this side of the ridge, still, it is a slope and I would not care to stumble.

The Master moves along slowly a little way in front of us, one or the other of his cousins always at his side; both of them would steady him together, I think, were the path wide enough.

I swivel one ear forward to hear the Big Man speak. He is ahead, leading the way, and has turned to look back up the slope. His voice is pitched to reach us, no further.

'See how carefully he places his feet, Sam.'

My Sam's set face twitches in a smile and his steadying hand rises from my crest and descends again in a series of soft pats. 'Good lad, Bill.'

But the Big Man is not finished. 'Frodo,' he calls softly. 'Stop there.'

Master stumbles to a stop, not-merry supporting him. I think if a rock were conveniently placed, poor Master would sink down, to sit, but as it is he lets his weight sag against his cousin, and not-merry stands staunch to take his weight.

Now the Big Man motions to my Sam to move up, but I am watching as well, and step off even before my Sam. He chuckles, a dry rattle and yet it is a chuckle, and scrambles to catch up. 'Steady, Bill,' he says. 'Who's following who?'

The Big Man is moving up the slope to us, and we come together with Master between us. 'The way is easy enough, I think it safe for you to ride, Frodo.'

Easy! Upon consideration I nod. Perhaps I would not use the word “easy” were I given to words, but it is easier, any road, than yesterday's work, what I remember of it.

'See, even Bill agrees,' youngest hobbit says, his face bright with mischief.

'If a pony could talk, that one would,' Master agrees, a smile lighting his face, and for a moment the lines of strain drop away. I prick my ears forward and nod my head lower, to lip at my Sam's sleeve, and all the hobbits find it quite amusing for some reason.

The Big Man reaches us, a smile on his own face. 'Steady, Bill,' he says.

I lift my head high in indignation. My feet are planted as well as might be, barring roots!

He gently takes Master in his arms and moves past my head.

'Steady, Bill,' Samwise says, and I twitch my tail in irritation. With my four feet, and he has but two, I'd warrant I'm steadier than he is!

I feel Master's weight ease onto my back; I stiffen my muscles to bear up under him, though he seems to weigh less than I remember, as if his substance has been slowly leaking away. I feel the fingers of his good hand, feebly stroking at my neck, and soft words of praise. There's no nonsense from him about steady, and that, I suppose is part of why he is Master. 'Good Bill,' he says. 'Good lad. My thanks.'

I nod my head again, thoughtfully, and then put my nose down for a good, long survey of the ground ahead. The Big Man is already moving down the slope, and I study his feet, to see how he places them.

The cousins would walk to either side of us, but there is room for only one, so slightly-merrier tells marsh-and-mischief to run on ahead. 'You can steady Strider's steps,' he says, and youngest laughs merrily at such a thought, though he stifles the laugh behind his hand.

'If need be,' he agrees, and moves lightly down the slope, soon catching the Big Man who is slowly picking his way, not for his own sake—I have the feeling that he could move very quickly and lightly indeed. I suspect he is surveying the way ahead for the easiest way for a laden pony.

I can do my part. I place each foot with care, stiffening my limbs as needed and relaxing others, once again striving to move so smoothly as the stalking cat in my meadow. My tail does not lash as hers did, but it does twitch in my concentration.

The way is smoother to the left, and I move that way, pulling my Sam with me. 'Steady, old lad,' he says, and I huff in exasperation. I feel Master's stroking hand once more, soothing my neck, though he does not speak.

The way is smoother, and I will walk that way, and my Sam had better look to his own feet. He stumbles, but I do not. One foot at a time, smooth as the hunting cat, steady we go, steady.

'The path is easier here,' slightly-merrier says as if to himself, and then to my Sam he says, 'Let him have his head, Sam. He's picking an easier way.'

'I suppose he'd know even better than a Ranger, the easiest path for a four-footed creature to follow,' Master says from my back, and at this my Sam loosens his hold and my head is free.

I shake my head and stretch out my neck, ah, that's better! --and resume my careful progress.

Chapter 25. Trolls!

Master must be feeling better, a little better at any rate. He has been riding upright for the most part, even leaning back on steeper stretches, helping me to keep my balance. Every now and again he sags a moment, but then he sits upright again as if it was only a passing matter.

I startle and then plant my feet to make up for shaking Master as youngest hobbit turns suddenly – he is a little ahead of us – and calls, 'There is a path here!'

'Come along, Bill,' my Sam says with a tug at my rope. Master is leaning forward a little, as if to see better, and somewhat-merrier takes his steadying hand away from Master's back, long enough for a gentle slap on my flank.

'A path!' he says under his breath. 'And who made it, I wonder?'

Well he might wonder. A path it is, truly, the beginnings of one, or more properly, the end. Some one or more than one made it, climbing up from the wood below to – to – where? The hilltop high above us? To what purpose?

But then I remember the pit where our fire burned, small but determined cheer, only last night. Someone climbed the hill from the wood below, climbed to the ridge, and delved a pit.

I only hope they did not make a pony climb up and down, bearing a sledge of hewn stone down this slope at the end of a long and weary day.

The track offers much the easiest way down, and so we follow, winding here and there. It doesn't seem to see much use lately. In places it is faint and overgrown. I am glad to browse the faded plants as we pass through these places. In other places the path is choked with stones and fallen trees and the way is more difficult, like the valleys we passed through, now growing dim in my memory.

'Men, do you think?' Master says. I can feel that he is sitting straight, and from the slight shifting of his weight he is looking about us. 'Men from a forgotten kingdom, long gone to dust?'

'Not so long ago as that,' Merry answers. He walks to one side of me now, and youngest hobbit walks to the other, as the path allows. My Sam leads me, his hand gentle on my neck, though for the most part he lets me pick my own way among the rocks.

'Elves?' youngest hobbit says, breathless.

I can feel Master shake his head. 'See how that tree was broken down,' he says. 'Elves would never do such a thing.'

'The wind?' youngest hobbit says, after a pause for thought.

'Heavy feet trampled this path, I'd say,' Master answers, and Merry-grown-uneasy adds, 'and strong arms, to push down trees and heave rocks aside.'

The smell of anxiety wafts strong now from the hobbits, and sweat stains my flanks to betray my own nervousness. The Man walks ahead, walks softly and cautiously, as do we all.

The path grows broader and plainer as we reach the woods, and this ought to be reassuring, but somehow it is not. The woods are dark. Fir-trees rear high above our heads, their undead needles blocking out the light. Our feet fall quiet... our thoughts run unquiet. Any foe's feet would make as little sound, coming on us unaware.

Coming out of the trees at last, we follow the path down a steep slope. I'd welcome the return of the light if I did not feel so exposed to the sky. I toss my head and roll my eyes, the better to see around us. Master's fingers soothe at my withers, but his legs are tight against my sides.

The path turns sharply around the corner of a rocky shoulder of the hill, and I pick my way with care, head high, trembling, neck prickling, nostrils flaring to scent the breeze. I cannot sense danger, but what if something is waiting around the bend?

My companions, too, slow their footsteps and walk with increased caution. When we come to the corner we stop, of one accord, behind the Big Man, who stands with a silent hand raised to halt us.

'A door!' youngest breathes, and the others hush him in whispers.

There is a door hanging crooked, ajar, a black hole in the cliff behind it. Trees hang over, and the path runs along the face of the stony wall. We wait, a long moment, but nothing stirs, not even a breeze. At last the Big Man moves forward once more, and after a breath, we follow.

I would hurry by the opening as the path crosses before the door, for there is an old and evil smell, a whiff of ancient corruption beyond the doorway. The people cannot smell it, perhaps, for my Sam pulls me to a halt behind the Big Man, and youngest hobbit peeks into the opening with obvious curiosity. 'It's a cave, I think,' he says, 'or some sort of rock-chamber, at any rate. I cannot see much of anything in the gloom.'

'Let us let in the light,' the Big Man says, and puts his shoulder to the door. Push as he may, he cannot budge it. Merry moves to join him, and then my Sam, while youngest hobbit calls encouragement. They push with all their strength.

'There,' youngest says. 'It budged.'

'Did it?' Merry gasps. 'Perhaps you might lend a hand...'

'No room,' youngest says, eminently practical. 'However, should you tire, I'll be glad to take up where you left off.'

'In that event, I doubt we'd even budge the door any further,' Merry says.

'Less talk, more pushing,' Master says from my back. He is leaning forward a little, interested.

My ears are pinned firmly back. I do not care to know what lurks in the darkness, if anything. It is little comfort that no fresh smells emanate from the black hole behind the door.

'One... two...' Merry says.

'Three,' the three labourers gasp in one voice, and their muscles bulge with the effort, their faces redden... and the door opens, a little wider.

'Enough,' the Big Man pants. I am surprised to see him winded. The door must be very heavy indeed. I know a passing gladness that they did not think to hitch me to the door and urge me to pull.

'Come, Merry,' he says. 'Let us see what we may.'

'What about me?' youngest protests.

'I don't remember you doing any of the pushing,' Merry says, and following the Ranger, he steps into the darkness. Samwise returns to my head, to take up my rope, and Master sits on my back, waiting.

Silence follows, and stretches, along with our nerves. Youngest stands in the doorway, peering in.

'What do you see?' Master inquires.

'Bones,' youngest says faintly. 'There are many of them, scattered over the floor. It is an evil sight.'

'Bones?' Master says, a frown in his voice.

But youngest does not answer; instead he calls to the others. 'Surely this is a troll hole, if ever there was one!'

'Trolls!' Sam mutters, and his hand clenches in the straggles of my mane.

'Come out, you two, and let us get away,' youngest says, the anxiety in his voice growing. 'Now we know who made the path – and we had better get off it quick!'

I am trembling again, but Samwise has a firm hold of my rope, and his other hand holds my mane in a firm grasp, anchoring me to the earth. 'Steady, old lad,' Master says, and he has the right of it. It takes everything in me to stand, not to dance, not to run.

The Big Man re-emerges, and seeing my fear he moves quickly to take hold of my head collar, telling me to stand steady and adding, 'There is no need, I think.' My nostrils flare as I try to scent on his clothing, what lurks in the cave. I tense as he adds, 'It is certainly a troll hole,' and then he says, 'but it seems to be long forsaken.'

'Steady, Bill,' Merry says, reaching me.

'Forsaken?' youngest echoes.

'I don't think we need to be afraid,' the Ranger says.

'There, do you hear, Bill? Stop your nonsense now,' Sam says, at his sternest. He does not want Master shaken, of course. No more do I wish to shake him. But – trolls!

I miss the next few words, but get the gist. '...warily, and we shall see.'

Warily. Indeed.

***

A/N: Some text taken from “Flight to the Ford” from Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, and woven into the narrative.


Chapter 26. We descend toward certain death

The path goes on from the door of that charnel place, abode of trolls, as do we in following. As Master said earlier – a day or perhaps a week ago, before we climbed that desperate slope – it does us little good to turn back, and perhaps a great deal of harm. I can feel him growing weaker as the hours pass. No, we must bear him to help, whatever help is to be found in this forsaken wild place.

We turn to the right across the level space, and then the path leads downward, plunging down a thick wooded slope.

We all hesitate at the top, and then the two young hobbits, as of one accord, go ahead of us. Not-merry is perhaps a step ahead of the younger, but mud-and-worry takes three steps to his older cousin's two and then they are shoulder-to-shoulder, even arm-in-arm. Their backs are stiff and anxious but I hear a soft jest from the one and a softer answer from the other.

My Sam and the Man walk to either side of Master and myself, and they seem to be of one mind, for each has a firm hand upon my neck as if to guide me along between them. Do they fear that I would turn to one side or the other? Where would I go, with the trees so thick on either side? No, the going here, along the path, is the smoothest, and offers the best footing for a pony who is carefully bearing an ill and wounded rider.

Four or five hobbits might walk here abreast, and yet the younger hobbits forge ahead, as if determined to take on any danger that might offer, and leave Master a chance of escape.

And then I stop still, my feet growing roots in the path, for not-Merry and mud-and-fear are running back to us, terror on their faces. I dance a little as the wind brings the stench of fear to my nostrils. It is a good thing that both the Man and my Samwise bear down on my neck, to keep me anchored to the ground, for the youngster's next words are enough to set me plunging, were I free.

'There are trolls!'

Youngest is panting for breath, but he manages to gasp out still more frightening news, in answer to the Ranger's stern “Where?”.

'Down in a clearing in the woods not far below. We got a sight of them through the tree-trunks. They are very large!'

Despite the anchoring hands, I throw up my head to scent the wind. Curiously, there is nothing on the breeze but the stink of hobbit fear, the goodly smell of soil and trees, a solid whiff of stone. I flare my nostrils wide and roll my eyes to see all around, but... nothing. In my perturbation I paw at the ground, narrowly missing the feet of my Samwise, for he has moved to my head, his hands on either side of my head collar, stroking and soothing, though I can see, smell, and feel that he is clearly afraid. Still, he will not let me lose my head in fear and perhaps shake Master loose from my back, dashing him to the ground as I take flight.

As if I would. Yet... trolls!

My Sam and the Man hold tight, speaking soft and soothing nonsense, for of course there can be no safety with trolls not far below. And yet... the Man is not afraid.

I calm under his hand and voice, against my own inclination, for his lack of fear is catching. Wary, yes, he is still alert to our surroundings; wary, but not worried. Well, yes, worried, he has been worried since Master was wounded, but that is all. I am only a pony, and am putting it badly, I fear, but I mean to say he is no more worried now than he has been. If there are trolls ahead, and undoubtedly large (my dam told me they'd spit and roast a pony without even a grunt of effort, and I should stay well away from such creatures), well, it is very strange, but the Man appears assured that we are in no danger from them.

Perhaps he is more fearsome a foe than I had understood him to be. Perhaps he will fight off the trolls and win us safe passage. My trembling eases at the thought, and my restless forefoot comes to rest beside the other.

I lower my head, and the Ranger takes his hand away at last, leaving me in the hands of my steady Samwise (he smells of fear, indeed, but stands firm at Master's side, whence he retreated from my dashing hoof). Picking up a stick, the Man says, 'We will come and look at them.'

This would not be my first choice, were I the one to choose our path.

I am only a pony, and must go where I am led, even to the slaughter.

Master says nothing, but his legs are tight against my sides.

'Come along, old fellow,' my Sam says, and his voice shakes despite his best efforts to control it. Still his hand never leaves off its reassurances, and he urges me forward. Not-merry and mud-and-fear take up positions on either side of Master, just behind the Ranger and my Sam, and we pace forward slowly in a tight group.

Perhaps our chances would be better if we were rather more scattered. At least some of us might win our way to freedom as the trolls grabbed for the others.

My ears are laid flat; I force them up, I prick them forward, listening with all that is in me, even as my nostrils flare to catch any scent there may be in the air and my eyes are wide and straining to see all around us. I walk as if on the shells of eggs or uncertain ground, my steps light, that the ground might not trap an unwary foot at an inopportune moment. I am ready for whatever awaits us, as ready as a pony might be. I will watch carefully for my chance to bear Master away from this terrible fate, though I know not to what dubious safety.

***

A/N: Some text taken from “Flight to the Ford” from Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, and woven into the narrative.


Chapter 27. We encounter... trolls at close quarters

The sun shines down from on high, dancing gaily through the half-stripped trees, as if to laugh at us for our fear. It lights the clearing ahead with patches of brightness amidst the shadows of the trees... and it illuminates something else, large forms that loom through the trees.

As of one accord we halt on the edge of the clearing, holding our collective breath as we peer through the tree-trunks.

Large forms indeed, three of them, one stooping and the others staring at him as if awaiting his next words.

We hold our breath, yes, and yet the Ranger for a different reason than the others, or so it seems to me. He is a vessel of pent-up... pent-up... Puzzled I switch my ears back and forth. His smell is not the same as the reek of fear that comes from the hobbits. He is tense, his muscles taut, yes, he is as tense as they. But...

I wrench my eyes from their horrified fascination with the trolls in the clearing, turning a dark eye on the Man to confirm what my nose and senses are telling me.

His face is as stern as usual, but the muscles of the cheek nearest me are a-twitch and his breathing is a little ragged, as if surpressing... I must be mistaken... laughter?

My unbelieving snort breaks the spell that holds him, and he strides forward. Not-merry and mud-and-terror start forward and stop again, gripping each other's arms, and my Sam jerks at my rope though I think he doesn't know what he is doing—his feet are frozen to the ground and his breath shudders out and then in again.

Master sits upright, his legs squeezing my sides, the hand that grasps my mane pulling hard as if he would urge me back from the edge. At any moment the hobbits will turn and flee.

Perhaps that is the Man's intent, to draw the attention of the trolls to himself to afford us a safe escape.

And then he speaks: 'Get up, old stone!'

He breaks his stick upon the stooping troll, and Master, if possible, sits up straighter. Nothing happens.

There is a sharp intake of breath on the hobbits' part, all together as if they are one, and then I hear Master laugh!

If it is a joke he shares with the Big Man, I wish he'd tell me and help me to understand. As if he knows my confusion, even irritation, he continues.

'Well!'

I wait. He chuckles, a lovely sound though rather puzzling under the circumstances, and then he goes on.

'We are forgetting our family history! These must be the very three that were caught by Gandalf, quarrelling over the right way to cook thirteen dwarves and one hobbit!'

Gandalf. They have spoken of Gandalf before. I even have a dim memory of my old misery grumbling the name, though I've no idea why or how he might have met him. Perhaps in the Prancing Pony; he spent a good deal of time there drinking up the proceeds of my labours.

Gandalf is a wizard, that much I gather. And wizards are fearsome, from what I've heard. They could turn one into a toad in the wink of an eye, if put out, and so it is always wise to treat them politely, or so it is said.

As I am thinking this over, I ponder also the smell of astonishment coming from the other three hobbits at Master's words. Their fear is melting away, and my Sam smells more of bewilderment now than terror and resolve.

I nod my head. I see how it was, now. Gandalf came upon the trolls and turned them to stone. Probably an easier thing to deal with than three large and hungry toads.

My Samwise absently strokes my nose, rubs my jaw, and I stretch my neck, letting my lower lip hang as I enjoy the caress. My ears droop a little, but I am still listening intently.

'I had no idea we were anywhere near the place!' says mud-and-suspicion. He does not smell entirely convinced that all harm is past.

'You are forgetting not only your family history, but all you ever knew about trolls,' the Man puts in.

I swivel my ears in his direction. All I ever knew about trolls is that they are forever hungered and would roast a pony as soon as look at it.

'It is broad daylight with a bright sun,' he goes on to say, and if I could shrug I would. What does that have to do with the price of taters, as they say in Bree?

I notice for the first time, when he mentions it, that one of the trolls has a bird's nest behind his ear.

They all laugh, and yet there is no explanation of why trolls are not fearsome in daylight. Perhaps he means that they ought to have seen that the trolls had been turned to stone by the wizard, by the fact that they were standing so still in broad daylight, with bird's nests behind their ears.

Master eases himself on my back and then sits straighter again. Not stiff with fear, but as if he is heartened, reviving a bit in the warmth of sunshine and laughter after so much fear, cold, and shadow.

***

A/N: Some (or perhaps lots) text taken from “Flight to the Ford” from Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, and woven into the narrative.


Chapter 28. We find a temporary resting place

'We'll rest here,' the Big Man says.

'What about a meal?' young-and-hopeful asks.

The Big Man actually laughs, and perhaps-merry tousles his young cousin's dirty mop.

'There's a tween for you,' he says.

Youngest hobbit is indignant. 'I heard your stomach growl!' he protests, with a sharp nod to emphasize his words. 'And even Bill...'

Bad form it may be, to graze with a rider upon one's back, but I cannot resist snatching at the grass underfoot. I raise my head to chew, that Master might not worry about me going down on my knees and then rolling—though I should dearly like to have a good roll on dry, sweet grass after all these days of mud, rain, and rocky ground.

'Poor Bill,' Master says, and I feel his fingers soft on my neck, stroking gently. 'He's badly in need of a bite and a rest.'

He shifts on my back, but before he can get down the Big Man is there to lift him.

'Easily,' I hear the Man breathe, 'let me do the work for you.'

When Master would protest—he is feeling better!—the Man adds, almost under his breath, 'Save your strength. We still have some way to go.'

'Very well,' Master mutters in return, and suffers himself to be carried to the blankets laid out by my Sam, for at the Man's pronouncement of resting he shed his burdens and began to prepare a shady resting place—the sun is quite warm—and then something of a meal from what remains of our supplies.

Nearly Merry hobbles me and rises with a slap for my neck. 'There you are, old lad,' he says. 'Graze to your heart's content, but don't wander far. We'll be wanting you soon enough.'

I shake myself all over and then I nod my head, and the hobbits laugh, even Master. I fall to my meal as they do to theirs, and for the first time in some days I think my plate is less scanty than theirs. I'd share my grass, happily, but for the fact they do not seem to care for the stuff. O I have seen youngest hobbit with a long stalk between his teeth, before we left the Breeland behind, but for him it would be something to chew upon as he walks along, rather than sustenance.

The sun is warm on my back, the grass is warm, the air is warm and fragrant. The trolls are cold with the chill of stone, and I give them a wide berth, though my companions recline in their shade. I tear mouthfuls of grass, chew, tear more, what delight to fill my mouth again and again! At last I think I might just be satisfied, for the moment at least. I let myself down on my knees, bowing to my companions, and then further down, and thump over on my side, rolling to my back for a glorious scratch.

I find myself singing a pony song as I twist and scratch, rolling back and forth, ahhhhhhh.

The hobbits must have found the singing catching, for when I surge to my feet once more I hear song coming from just the other side of the trolls.

I shake myself all over to settle my coat, but instead of going immediately to grazing, I turn toward my companions, skirting the trolls until I can see my Sam standing up, with his hands behind his back and his eyes fixed on a point somewhere above the heads of the reclining hobbits (the knee of one of the trolls, I think it might be), and he is singing. I prick my ears, for the tune is an old one, something I've heard coming through the windows of the Prancing Pony of a soft summer's eve, when the windows of the common room were open to catch the evening breeze.

...and immediately my ears go back, of their own accord, for the song is a nasty one, of trolls and bones and gnawing.

I switch my tail in disapproval, but the hobbits laugh as the song draws to an end, and there is light talk, which peters out as the others notice Master's head nod.

Almost-merry murmurs something soothing, drawing Master's head into his lap and smoothing the pale forehead with his fingers. Youngest hobbit lies himself beside Master, pulling a cloak over them both and snuggling up close as if to offer comfort and strength. My Sam bundles away his supplies once more, and it is not long before he, too, is drowsing beside the others.

The Big Man sits quietly, leaning his back against one of the stone legs, smoking his pipe and regarding our surroundings with calm wariness. He senses no danger. Neither do I, for the moment, at least.

I go back to my grazing.

The sun is pleasant and warms the air. Soon all the hobbits are asleep. I sing them a pony lullaby with the pull and chomp of my teeth, and it is almost as if I'm in my first home once more, in the meadow with my dam beside me, singing through our teeth on a pleasant autumn afternoon.

After a good hour of grazing, I stand, basking in the warmth, my eyes half-closed, the smoke from the Ranger's pipe teasing my nose.

I wonder idly if we will camp here for the night. Perhaps we will move on after the hobbits have rested, when the sun is no longer directly overhead, beating down upon their heads and making them pant with the heat after the chill of the past few days.

I wonder how far we have yet to go, and for that matter, where we are going. Is there grass there, as good as this grass? If there are no more trolls about, I would not mind staying here for a day or two, at least until I've finished my mowing.

Two of the hobbits are snoring, their breathing blending in a comical song, a high sound followed by low and then a hollow whistle, one after another, repeating. It is a soothing sound, and I find my head drooping lower, and lower still, as I stand with one ear cocked in the hobbits' direction and the other ear ready to catch any sound from the wood beyond. There is nothing to hear from that direction, save the piping of a sleepy sounding bird or two.

I doze.

***

A/N: Some (or perhaps lots) text taken from “Flight to the Ford” from Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, and woven into the narrative.



Chapter 29. Well-rested, we return to our journey

It is afternoon, the hobbits waken one by one, and although there is evidently not food for anyone else (no, we're running short, I hear the merry hobbit whisper in answer to youngest's request), somehow my Sam convinces the Master to take a mouthful or two upon awakening, and several good swallows of water. Master is perhaps too groggy to realise that the others had not eaten whilst he was still sleeping. Determinedly-cheerful and staunch-and-stinking exchange satisfied glances, and stinking has an approving blow with a loosely clenched fist for my Sam's arm as they pass each other, making preparation to move on once more.

As we walk along, youngest natters away in his best brainless manner. 'I'll wager this is the same track Gandalf, Bilbo, and the dwarves used, all those years ago. The very track!'

'Verily, indeed,' determinedly-merry says in his driest tone.

Master is sitting upright on my back, well-balanced. It is as if the food and rest—and perhaps the strong light of the sun this day—have done him some good. 'Verily,' I hear him say, with a chuckle under his breath.

The track leads us several miles down the woods, the sun dappling through the half-bare trees, but at last we emerge atop a high bank. The sun is going down the sky and the shadows are lengthening, but after the long noonday rest my companions seem determined to press on so long as the light lasts us.

'There's the Road!' youngest hobbit points with a whispered yelp, and yes, it is the Road below us, clinging close to the foot of the hills hereabout.

'We've left the Hoarwell far behind,' determinedly-merry says, a question in his voice. I understand his uncertainty. Since leaving the Hoarwell, we've not followed the line of the Road, but wandered in circles, in seeming, especially considering how far to the North our path took us, when we could not find a valley going in the direction we wanted.

But all that is behind us now. 'We have,' the Big Man answers.

'I should hope so!' youngest hobbit says, and adds in his usual impulsive manner, 'We've tramped far enough to be nearly to Rivendell already!'

'Pip!' not-quite-so-merry scolds under his breath.

Youngest hobbit looks down and shuffles his feet, and Master speaks from my back, in obvious effort to cheer his cousins.

'Or perhaps even past Rivendell, and coming back by way of the back door!'

Youngest hobbit looks up, incredulous, and then a grin brightens his face, though for a moment I think there are tears in his eyes. I must be mistaken, however, for he blinks and they are gone, if they ever were.

Determinedly-merry plays along, if that's the game Master wishes to play. 'Back door! I only hope Strider knows the way!'

'Well, he hasn't done too badly...' youngest says, affecting a tinge of doubt.

'Nor too well, either,' the Ranger says, 'but there are no more short-cuts to lead us the long way round, so I think we'll come right, following the Road the rest of the way.'

'The Road!' and determinedly-merry's voice loses much of its cheer at the news.

Master leans forward on my back, but I realise almost at once that he is not fainting, but leaning forward to listen intently.

'Is there no other way?' youngest hobbit says, his tone plaintive. One would think from his reaction that he enjoyed our recent endeavours, climbing impossible hillsides and slogging over and around fallen trees, and feels rather anxious at the prospect of clear going.

But the Big Man says we have no other course but to follow the Road, rolling and winding eastward among woods and heather-covered slopes towards the Mountains.

'Onward we go,' Master says with his best cheer. I cannot help but sigh as we begin to move down the bank. Not the best of grazing, or so it sounds. Perhaps this grassy bank shall be the last, until we reach the hidden valley where, as the Man has whispered to me in our night watches, the grass grows long, green and sweet.

'Nowhere to go but onward,' the Man affirms, and then points a little way ahead, further down the bank, and says, 'Look.'

All obedience, I stop and look, and feel Master shifting on my back as he, too looks. The Ranger is pointing to a stone in the grass, perhaps afraid I might stumble over it and tumble Master to the ground, though I am not so dull as that.

'Dwarf-runes!' youngest hobbit breathes in awe, hurrying over to bend down and trace the marks with a curious finger. 'I've seen this one before,' he says of one mark, 'on one of Bilbo's old maps, but what about this one here?'

'It's a secret mark, more than likely,' Master says from my back.

'There!' says determinedly-merry-and-a-little-curious-now. 'That must be the stone that marked the place where the trolls' gold was hidden.'

I switch my ears back and forth and sample the air, though I wouldn't know the smell of gold if my feet were shod with the stuff. My old misery used to grumble and moan about gold, but he never had any that I knew of. I wonder if any gold is still there.

Determinedly-cheerful seems to have the same thought. 'How much is left of Bilbo's share, I wonder, Frodo?'

Master sits in silence on my back, and I feel him slump a little and then straighten to answer. 'None at all,' he says.

My Sam's fingers tighten for a moment on my rope, and I wonder what he is thinking.

I wonder if Master is disappointed. I'm sure of it when he goes on to say that Bilbo gave it all away, and then I'm not so sure as he adds, 'He told me he did not feel it was really his, as it came from robbers.'

It seems that Master does not hold with keeping stolen gold.

***

A/N: Some text taken from “Flight to the Ford” from Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, and woven into the narrative.

Chapter 30. We travel upon the Road once more

The shadows are lengthening as we reach the bottom of the bank, and the Road. I switch my ears back and forth as we reach the verge, stopping behind my Sam as he stops, just short of stepping off the grass. He is tense, and he smells anxious. I raise my head to sniff the air. The other hobbits smell anxious, as well. Master sits upright, his legs stiff against my sides, and the Man is wary. But he steps off onto the Road, turns left, and walks briskly, trusting us to follow.

There is no scent of danger on the breeze. There is no sign of any other travellers to be seen.

'Well,' my Samwise says under his breath, and I swivel my ears to catch the muttered words. 'Naught else for it.' Aloud he adds, 'Come along, old lad,' and steps off the grass, nearly trotting in his hurry to catch up the Ranger.

He walks as if he doesn't care to put his feet down. Something stirs in my memory as my hoof touches the surface of the Road, some forgotten fear, and I dance a little, but my Sam pulls me along at a brisk pace and I quickly steady down to the business of walking as quick as I can without breaking into a trot, which would surely jar the Master.

It is not long before I hear youngest hobbit puffing away at my shoulder. He is determined not to fall behind, I think. For some reason the Road worries the hobbits. Perhaps I ought to know why, but the reason eludes me. It is certainly easier going than up-hill-and-down. There are no fallen trees to skirt, no rocks to stumble over, no steep cliffs to scramble up or down.

The sun is fast westering, and it is not long before we round a hill that cuts off her light. The sky is light above us, but won't be for long. It is early evening, and night will come upon us soon enough. The chill of night seems already to be falling, as a cold wind flows down to meet us from the mountains ahead.

The Man's footsteps, and the hobbits', are scarcely to be heard, but my clip-clopping sounds loud to my ears though I put my feet down as lightly as I may. I lay my ears back; perhaps it would be better to go along the softer verge, but though my Sam leads me at the side of the Road and not down the middle, along the Road we travel. When I pull to the side, he jerks me ahead, and it is too much trouble to fight him.

There is some reason for stealth, though I don't remember. Perhaps it is that this is troll country. Yes, perhaps that is it. There may be more trolls, besides the stone figures we are leaving ever further behind us.

Would trolls travel along the Road?

Well, certainly, it would be a fine place to find travellers.

I shudder, and feel an answering shiver from Master. I don't know whether he is thinking of trolls, or if the cold wind chills him. I shake my head and forge on. The Road winds along, rolling gently, up and down. Passing through a shadowy wood, it seems that night has already fallen, but when we break out of the trees, heather-covered slopes to either side, there is still light to hurry by.

The sweat of the hobbits' effort is in my nostrils; sweeter than the stench of fear, at least.

Youngest hobbit is out of breath, and I hear him stumble though not fall. Not-very-merry still has voice enough to call to the Man ahead. 'Strider!'

The Man stops, turns, hand on the hilt of the sword he bears.

My Sam stops, and as the rope loosens I turn my head, to see youngest hobbit leaning over, gasping, whilst not-merry sustains him with a firm grip on his arm.

But my Sam has eyes only for my rider. 'Is it well with you, Mr. Frodo?' he asks, and his voice is anxious.

'Well enough, Sam,' comes the answer, though it seems to me the cheer is forced. Master sits straighter on my back, and his legs clasp my sides firmly, as if to prove to us that he is well.

'A rest,' not-merry is saying. 'Pip's about done in! We need a breather... Can we stop, just for a moment, or go on with a little less haste?'

He seems surprised at the Man's answer. Perhaps he thought we'd forge on into the night, since it would be difficult to lose our way, now that we follow the Road. The Man stops a moment, as if considering, and then says, 'The light is failing. It is time to look for a place to camp for the night. We'll walk on, a little slower if we must. Look to your right and to your left for a good place to hide ourselves, a little way from the Road.'

Not-merry nods, and young hobbit straightens in his grasp, pushing him away and gasping, 'I'm all right now. Got my breath again.'

I'm not sure that he is all right, as he says, for he does wobble a little as he sets off once more, but soon he has passed us up and is halfway between us and the Ranger ahead, and then not-merry passes us, hurrying to catch him.

I give my Sam a push with my long nose, and he stumbles forward. 'Steady, Bill!' he cries, albeit softly, and Master chuckles from my back.

'I'd say he's steady,' he says. 'But are you, Sam?'

My Sam picks up himself and his dignity and begins to walk, tugging at my rope, but I am already walking on. I don't want the others to go too far ahead, especially with darkness falling around us. I don't know what I fear, but the darkness troubles me. When dark falls, one should be snug in a stable, with a stout, firmly-latched door between oneself and what might be found prowling about outside, sniffing at the cracks in the boards and panting in an unpleasant way.

And then comes a sound that stops all of us in our tracks, and the sweet salty sweat-smell gives way once more to the reek of fear.

I'd never have thought that the sound of another hoofed creature would be fearsome, but it is.

***

A/N: Some text taken from “Flight to the Ford” from Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, and woven into the narrative.

Chapter 31. We meet hope unlooked for, aid unexpected

The Man stands as if rooted, and then he is urging us off the Road to the left, up the hill. We are not in a wood, more's the pity; heather grows to either side.

The hobbits do not hesitate to follow his direction; upward we scramble, into deep heather and bilberry brushwood, hardly enough to hide my lower legs, much less a tall Man. Even were we to lie down in the brush, it would not be enough cover. Ah! But I see now why the Man sent us this way. Further up the slope is a patch of thick-growing hazels, and behind these we take shelter. Perhaps it will be enough of a concealment, with the light failing as it is.

The Master slides from my back, steadied by more-anxious-than-merry, but he resists the others' attempts to sit him down and instead peers out at the Road, faint and grey below us. The Man is the last to climb; he seems to be making sure that the vegetation lies undisturbed by our passing. The sound of hoofs draws ever nearer, going fast, a light-footed gallop, I think from the sound, but at last he is safe under cover.

I hear a dim ringing in my ears, now louder, now fainter, as if a fickle breeze blows the sound away.

Master puts a hand to his ear, his face intent. 'That does not sound like a Black Rider's horse!'

'It does not,' not-merry-but-more-hopeful-than-before agrees, cupping his own ear.

'Not at all!' youngest hobbit says, catching his breath, his eyes shining.

My Sam says nothing, but he stands taut, holding me fast, his fingers tightening in my mane, for I...

I am all a-tremble at the mention of Black Riders. Memory returns, dim but terrifying, of the menacing figures in the dell, the chilling cry on the air... and now the hobbits' fear is clear to me.

The hobbits sound hopeful, but smell of suspicion. Yet the Man... his smell changes completely. He is leaning forward, stooped to the ground, and he too has a hand to his ear, but his grimy face shines with joy-unlooked-for in the last of the fading light.

All is darkness, and the leaves rustle softly. The hoofbeats sound ever louder, as does the ringing, jingling of sweet bells, sweeter than any I've heard passing through the marketplace. Wide-eyed, I watch, my ears pricked forward, my fear forgotten. For certainly, it does not sound to me like a Black Rider, either. More importantly, it doesn't feel like a Black Rider's approach, if you take my meaning.

The horse that bursts suddenly into view is not black at all, but white, ghostly white, gleaming in the shadows as if with a light of its own, running swiftly. Its headstall flickers and flashes as if some of the living stars themselves have been fastened there. The rider, too, shines in the dusk, golden hair streaming behind him in the wind of their passing.

One moment running swiftly; in the next they have halted, and the rider gazes upward towards our thicket. The horse, on the other hand, is clearly alert and looking from one side to the other, watching for danger.

The Big Man jumps up and out of our hiding place, leaping down to the Road through the heather with a glad cry, and the shining one slips from his saddle and runs lightly up to meet him, calling strange words in a clear and ringing voice. I startle at the haste and fear in his tone, and my Sam's hand absently soothes my neck. I say “absently” for his eyes are riveted on the graceful figure, and he scarcely breathes.

As they come together, the clear and musical voice continues, the words still unknowable, but spoken in haste.

The Big Man nods and gestures to us. He is beckoning, and the Master starts forward, his younger cousins to either side, steadying him as they hurry down the hillside. My Sam gives a start, and moves to follow, pulling at my rope. I need no urging. I am drawn to the shining ones as a moth to the light.

I hear the Man say, 'This is Glorfindel...' as we approach, and then the great white horse is extending his nose to me. I hunch a little, and quiver, waiting for him to put me in my place, but his mouth is not open to snap, and his ears are forward and friendly, his eyes dark, wise and kind.

Greetings, little one, he says. We were sent from Rivendell to look for you. My Rider is glad to find you at last. I am very glad to see you well and whole. We feared you were in danger upon the road.

We are not all whole, I say, lifting my head bravely.

He does not lay back his ears at my boldness, but lowers his face until our noses touch, and then his nostrils widen as he inhales, the better to take stock.

Not whole? he says, lifting his head again.

The Master has taken harm, I say. The Black Ones...

At this he lays back his ears and gives an angry stomp, but it is not directed at me.

The Black Riders, he mutters, and shakes his head, causing the sweet-sounding bells braided into his long, silky mane to ring softly. We came upon some of them on the Bridge, and pursued them toward the West, and two others were too cowardly to face us, and turned southward. He snorts. Cowardly wielders of fear!

Were you not terrified? I ask, lifting my nose to him.

He gives a whickering laugh, and there is humour in his eyes, and self-knowing. So long as my Rider is with me, I will fear no evil thing.

We saw them also, I whisper, and shiver. They came... They came into our camp...

And you did not run away?

I bow my head, too full of shame to answer.

And they have pursued you since, and you have not run away, but bore your burden with courage and fortitude, he says. I would shake my head; I steal a glance at him. His ears are cocked to catch the words of our companions, but he looks at me in a friendly way and his eyes are wise and knowing.

I turn my eye on the golden shining one, who is still speaking to my companions. There is an exclamation from my Samwise, who drops my rope as the Master sways and clutches at his arm. The golden one moves swiftly to catch Master as he sinks to the ground, and he lifts him gently.

That is your master? the white one asks.

He is The Master, I say, and then nod at my Sam. That one... that one there is mine.

Ah.

Our ears go back of one accord as the Man draws out the hilt of the knife that wounded the Master, and hands it to the shining one. He speaks briefly of the attack, and I listen intently, learning what occurred after I hit my head when my hobbles caused me to fall.

A smell of unease comes from the golden one, he speaks a few low words and the Man puts the knife hilt away again.

Watch now, the white one says, nudging me. My Rider has power to heal...

I feel hope stir as we watch the shining one probing the Master's shoulder, for the smell of sickness and weakness lessens.

The shining one looks up from the work of his hands, to where we stand, almost at his elbow.

You bore him here? the white one says suddenly. I see the mark of a rider upon your back.

I did, I say, lifting my head proudly. I would bear him to the ends of Middle-earth.

I am sure that you would, the white one says, his tone gentle. And so I must ask your forgiveness, little one of the great heart.

Forgiveness?

***

A/N: Some text taken from “Flight to the Ford” from Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, and woven into the narrative.


Chapter 32. Not yet pursued, we run

I understand now, the white one's apology. I am not to carry the Master over the last stretch; my legs are not long enough to outrun pursuit. I hang my head at hearing the news, and the white one rubs his chin along my neck in silent commiseration.

'Sorry, old fellow,' the not-merry hobbit says, with a rub for my shoulder, but he is apologising for the load that he and my Sam are tying onto my back, as quickly as possible yet with an eye to balancing the load. Both of them have an excellent eye for such, while youngest hobbit hurries to help wherever he can. Master sits atop the white one, watching, though I see it is an effort for him to sit upright, and the smell of illness and exhaustion is strong from him.

At last all is secure, and we are ready to march. I will not let him fall, the white one whispers in my ear, and then he lifts his head, to follow his Rider without need for lead or rein. The feet of the shining one are swift, and the hobbits must trot to keep up – as must I!

For a time we make good speed, with me bearing the bulk of their burdens, and the clean smell of sweat surrounds me, mingling with older and not so pleasant odours. I am “no tray of teacakes” myself, as the hobbits might say. My coat is rough and caked with dried sweat and mud, my hoofs ragged and wanting picking out, but I put my head down and trot for all I am worth, to keep close to the white one. My Sam, too, puts forth every effort to stay by the Master, his breath coming in gasps too short for speech. He has reached up to grasp at the stirrup on the near side, so that if he loses his feet he will not lose the Master, but will be pulled along. Still he runs, determination exuding from every pore.

So we run on together, forging side by side into the deepening darkness. My rope, too hangs slack. I, like the white one, need no lead nor rein to keep me from straying. I have learned much over the space of days. I would follow my Sam where ever he might choose to lead me, just as I know he follows the Master.

It is very dark, but the shining one seems to know the way, leading us on and on, seeming tireless with his steady, swift strides never faltering. The night is deep and clouded, with neither star nor moon to shine on our way. The darkness hides us, perhaps, but perhaps something else is hid as well. I shudder to think of it, but my load is well-balanced and securely tied and does not slip.

We trot on through the night, the shining one leading and the Man behind us, to make sure none falls away. I doze, after a fashion, following the smell of my Sam though my eyes do not see the darkness around us, and I am half in a dream.

I run into the white one's hindquarters as it is, when we come to a sudden stop, but of a mercy he does not kick me. I raise my head to see the grey of dawn lightening the sky. The hobbits reel like drunken revelers leaving the Prancing Pony at the end of a feast day; the Man's shoulders sag with weariness; the Master sits huddled on the great horse's back and says not a word. I can scarcely hear him breathe.

'We will rest now,' the shining one says, unnecessarily, for the hobbits have already staggered a few yards from the road-side and cast themselves down, and from their breathing they were asleep before they quite curled themselves in their cloaks.

The shining one speaks to the Man in that unknown tongue as the latter lifts Master from the white one's back, and at first the Man shakes his head, while he lays the Master in the midst of the other hobbits. Not-merry, though asleep, stirs enough to lay his cloak over the two of them, huddling close to share his warmth. The shining one presses his point home, or so I think, for he takes his own cloak from his shoulders and lays it down beside the sleeping hobbits, and then he puts his hand on the Man's shoulder as if to push him down.

The Man nods at last, sinking to the cloak. He draws his own over his face and I think he is at once asleep, and in a deeper sleep than ever I have seen in him, since our first meeting.

Sleep now, little one, the white one whispers with a silent swish of his tail. We will watch.

I sleepily browse the tips of the heather around me. It is bitter but edible, or so a sheep once told me. At last my head nods, and I dream.

***

A/N: Some text taken from “Flight to the Ford” from Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, and woven into the narrative.


Chapter 33. The Road goes ever on

The shining one and the white one watch as the others sleep. I watch as well, when I am wakeful, and then I drowse again. Still bearing my load, I find it difficult to sleep for any length of time. They have not unpacked my load, perhaps in the interest of a quick start, and the white one too remains under saddle.

We talk quietly, the white one and I, when I am awake. He tells me of a wondrous place, a valley fair and green, a place where waters fall in shining torrents and the sun is warm and kind. The grass grows long and green there, and sweet, and a little stream runs through the meadow with cool, refreshing water for the drinking. In the wintertime the stable is warm and dry, the stalls roomy, and the folk who keep the stables heap the straw high and thick in the stalls, and the hay tastes of sunshine.

I can scarcely believe such a tale, but it passes the time. The only other sound is the soft susurrus of the sleeping hobbits. So exhausted are they, that they lie as still as the heather surrounding them; more still, perhaps, for the heather stirs on occasion under a restless wind.

The sun slowly climbs in the sky, burning off the clouds and mists of the night and early morn, and at last the sky is clear above us.

The sun is halfway to her zenith when the shining one wakens the sleepers. The Man is at once on his feet, but the hobbits groan themselves into a sitting position. Not-merry-at-all raises his hands in a painful stretch while youngest hobbit fists his eyes as if he were a very young hobbit indeed, but my Sam has thoughts only for our Master. Gently he grasps at Master's good arm, softly he calls, 'Mr. Frodo? Mr. Frodo, sir?'

Not-merry's arms drop at once, and he pulls the Master's head and shoulders into his lap. 'Frodo, dear,' he says, his tone anxious, and looks up to the Big Man, who is already bending to them. 'Strider?'

Youngest hobbit is coaxing. 'No time to sleep, Frodo,' he says, smoothing back the oldest cousin's wayward curls from his forehead as Master's eyes blink open. 'The Sun is well on her way, and so ought we to be.' His sentiments end in a yawn that threatens to split his face.

The yawn is contagious, and soon not-Merry is following suit, as well as my Sam and the Master – and then even the Big Man.

Master smiles, and youngest hobbit preens himself as if he'd schemed such a thing, but meanwhile the shining one has pulled a silver-studded leather flask from a hidden place and is pouring out a capful, which he offers first to Master.

'Drink this!' he says, and Master drinks, and then the shining one takes the capping cup back and fills it again for not-merry, and then youngest hobbit, and my Sam, and last of all for the Big Man. And by the time the Big Man is drinking, not-merry is helping the Master to his feet, and my Sam is digging out bread from his pack and breaking off pieces and laying them on the cloths that have served as plates of sort, for bread and cheese and fruit and nuts. There is no cheese left, nor nuts, but only bread and a handful of dried fruit for each. The bread breaks with a stiff, stale sound, and my Sam offers the scanty meal with apologies to each.

Youngest hobbit is as exuberant as he ever was at the beginning of our journey. 'Stale?' he cries with his mouth full. 'You call this stale? Why, after that draught, I find it better than many a good breakfast I've enjoyed in the Shire!'

And the Master has a smile for his young cousin, as the shining one lifts him once more into the saddle. He sits quite straight, his food in his lap, and he eats with more appetite than he's shown for some days.

I would like a sip of that stuff in the flask myself, but I'm only a pony and such is not for the likes of us.

My two-legged companions eat as they walk, not a luxury afforded a pony, but then there is little to eat hereabouts save the bitter heather. I thirst, but there is no water, except for a little that the Big Man poured into the palm of his hand for me, from his own bottle, just before we started.

The shining one sets a brisk pace, and then he drops back, leaving the Man in the lead.

I swivel my ears from front to back, listening to the sides before I cast my attention behind us again. I hear no sounds of pursuit, but the smell of anxious anticipation wafts from the shining one as I pass him. My Sam trots at the white one's off side, but the white one does not seem to mind the breach of protocol. I follow closely, not needing the rope, though my Sam still holds tight. I am glad he will not let me go.

Swivelling my ears back once more, I realise the shining one has taken his place at the rear of our little group, as if he would ward off our pursuers.

So we walk, or trot, depending on the length of the traveller's legs, for some time.

My Sam, winded, drops back to where Not-merry walks arm-in-arm with youngest hobbit, encouraging the puffing youngster to keep up the pace. 'You're doing fine, Master Pippin,' he gasps, extending his hand for the young hobbit to grasp. 'Do you want another hand?'

Youngest hobbit shakes his head, his face set and determined. 'I'm well,' he says, though he can scarcely gasp out the words. To emphasize the fact, he shakes himself free from not-merry's supporting hand. 'I'm well,' he repeats, sounding stronger.

Not-merry has a pat for young hobbit's shoulder, and then he moves forward to speak a word of encouragement to the Master, reaching up to grasp the stirrup on the near side, letting the white one pull him along at a hobbit trot (though it is only a long-legged walk for the great horse).

Youngest hobbit is breathing heavily, but he manages to speak to my Sam. 'Let me look after Bill for a bit,' he says. 'You want to keep a close eye on Frodo, I'm sure. He's... (gasp, gasp) not looking well...'

Sam thrusts my rope at him and trots forward, alarm mingling with his sweat-smell. It is true, Master no longer sits upright, but is bent forward, his head down, as if lost in his thoughts. The only sign that he is awake and aware is his white-knuckled fist, clutching the white one's flowing mane.

Youngest hobbit moves briskly for a few more yards, but then his pace slows. As I come abreast of him he grabs at my mane. 'Help me out, here, will you, Bill?' he wheezes, and I nod my head and pull him along.

However, his feet move slower, and slower still, until we are lagging well behind the others.

A sharp slap on my rump causes me to jump forward, dragging youngest hobbit with me. I glance behind; it is the shining one, who walks to our rear. 'Keep moving!' he orders us, and his face is as anxious as his scent.

I pull youngest hobbit forward, but glancing behind us I see the shining one has stopped and is listening.

My ears go back, but I hear nothing.

The shining one trots past me in the next moment, all the way to where the Big Man leads. The wind carries his words back to me, but I do not understand them. A part of me wishes to know what he says, and a part of me thinks perhaps it is better not to know, for the white one's ears lay themselves back in fear or fury for a moment, before pricking forward once more. He puts his nose down to the Road with a snort, as if reading something there, and then forges on.

And on we go, as the Road unrolls and winds ever on ahead of us, an endless ribbon that I must follow if I can.

***

A/N: Some text taken from “Flight to the Ford” from Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, and woven into the narrative.



Chapter 34. We reach the limits of endurance, still a day from the Ford

We have walked all the day, save two brief halts for rest, but I am not sure that you could call what the hobbits are doing now “walking”. True, they are on their feet. Barely.

The two younger cousins lean heavily against each other. Youngest hobbit, still stinking faintly of mud but smelling more now of effort-and-exhaustion, reels and staggers like a drunken fellow, and I think it is only the shoulder of not-merry that keeps him upright. Or perhaps he is keeping not-merry upright? In any event, I hear the soft grunts of effort that come from him, the whimpers he suppresses, and my heart bleeds for him. It is almost worse when I hear him apologise to the older cousin under his breath, near sobbing with weariness and pain.

I'm sorry, Merry, I am... I'm trying...

And the older cousin's answer, gentle, even with the effort it takes him to gasp out, I know, Pip. I know.

My Sam, too, is scarcely on his feet. He threw his arm over my neck some time ago, and I braced up under his weight and now pull him along with me. I could go faster, but gauge my walk as best I can to my poor master's hobbling progress. He gives a little moan every time his left foot comes down; indeed, I feel almost as if I am a crutch or cane instead of a pony.

How I wish that they would simply abandon all the baggage beside the road, mount three of the hobbits on the white one and one of them on my back, and trot along as fast as the Man and Elf lord can manage. Let them grow footsore and weary for a change! Let them lean against each other to help each other along while their muscles scream in agony and their feet bleed inside their boots!

My hobbits wear no boots to protect their feet.

On the other hand, perhaps the shining one would arrive as fresh as ever; he has walked twice the distance of any of the rest of us, moving from front to back to front to back again, conferring with the Man and dropping back to guard the road behind us, and his breath comes easily, as if this is a mere walking party.

Master's effort is as intense as the other hobbits' though in a different manner. He slumps in the saddle, but he still grasps the white one's mane with a tight, shaking fist, as if it is his last hold.

I've bruised the frog of a foot in the past on the rocky slopes near Bree. I know the pain of putting a foot down, not wanting to put a foot down, shifting my weight to the other feet, straining muscles in my efforts to keep going, to ward off the whip.

There is no whip in this case, save the will of the shining one who drives us on.

But wait, the Man is dropping back, leaving the white one to lead us... I snort at the sour, unwashed smell of him as I pass him, and lay back my ears. My poor Sam takes no heed, and I refrain from tossing my head, fearful that by so doing I might toss him onto his nose on the Road.

It is convenient, having my ears laid back, for I hear the Man's soft, urgent tones as he speaks to the shining one.

They are arguing. I cannot think why. We are going as well as the hobbits are able, poor fellows.

When the order comes to stop, it is not as simple as all that. The hobbits are so far gone that they do not comprehend the word. So set are they in their purpose, so determined to do, or die in the attempt, that when the shining one runs lightly to the fore and halts his horse, they keep stumbling along, with barely enough awareness to go around the now-standing white one rather than running into his hindquarters. Even my Sam lets go of my neck as I halt when I am even with the saddle of the white one. I lift my nose to the Master, to take a long sniff of his essence, growing somehow darker in tone and lighter in substance at the same time. Something else has begun to overlie the scent of sickness, something that raises the hairs on my neck like an echo of Those who pursue us, as if somehow their influence, or even something of their essence, is growing in him.

The white one cranes his neck to meet my gaze, his own troubled. I know, he says, an echo of not-merry. He turns back to his Rider, in need of comfort of his own, rubbing the side of his face against the shining one's shoulder, receiving an absent caress in response.

The hobbits stagger on. The shining one stares after them in wonder, but the Man lifts himself into a bone-jarringly weary trot to catch them up. He drops to a walk, one hand on my Sam's shoulder, the other hand on not-merry's (I think that youngest hobbit might be borne to the ground by the weight of a butterfly lighting on his shoulder, at this point).

At last his repeated Stop – stop! wins through their pain-fogged brains, though my Sam strides on a step or two more after the two cousins subside to a wavering halt, standing leaned-together as if each is the only thing holding the other upright.

Indeed, without forward momentum to keep him upright, my Sam is saved from a nasty fall upon halting only by a quick grab on the part of the Big Man, who gives him a little shake and then continues to hold him upright as he speaks, quietly, trying to waken them from their stupor enough to make them understand that we are halting, at least for a short rest if not a longer.

I don't know how the hobbits will manage to move again, if it is only a short rest, sufficient only to stiffen muscles to sheer agony when forced to move again, and not a real rest in any sense of the word, not at this point.

But the Man is speaking. 'Peace,' he says. 'We have covered nearly twenty miles this day... it will have to be enough.'

I do not know if they hear him as he goes on. 'See,' he says, lifting his hand from not-merry's shoulder to gesture, 'the Road bends now and runs down towards the bottom of the valley. No more curves and hills to climb; from here the way will be downhill, and straight to the Bruinen.  We should reach the Ford tomorrow, if events do not go against us.'

I wonder if the hobbits will even be able to rise on the morrow, much less walk or trot.

Not-merry shakes his head, not in negation but more in not-understanding. Youngest hobbit moans in the barest whisper, something about my feet and then another piteous I'm sorry, Merry.

I know, the older cousin whispers, and bows his head upon his littler cousin's shoulder, unable to say more.

The Man lets my Sam settle gently to the Road, and then he moves to lift youngest hobbit into his arms, pulling him carefully from not-merry's grasp, leaving that hobbit to stand, listing slightly to the side, as if the merest breeze would push him over.

He carries youngest hobbit to the side of the Road, and a little way around the bend to the right, and lays him down in a grassy place – grass! I can just see them, and it looks like grass, and the scent wafts on the still evening air, teasing my nostrils, but I've not been given leave to go, my rope trails on the ground ...and then he returns to take up not-merry, to lay him at his cousin's side, and then comes back again for my Sam, while the shining one eases the Master from the great horse's back and carries him to the huddle of hobbits and wraps his own cloak around the whole.

Come, the white one says to me, turning his head once more, his eyes large and luminous. He reaches, his great mouth open, teeth gleaming in the fading light; I stand still in astonishment, but he shows no sign of animosity; his ears reflect a thoughtful attitude rather than anger or impatience.

I understand when he seizes my rope between his teeth and tugs. Come along, he says. Have you been so long away from grass that you no longer know the scent?

He drops my rope and it trails in the Road as I follow him; we reach the grassy place where the hobbits lie, and careful to avoid them, we fall to our meal, greedily snatching and pulling, chewing and snatching more, a veritable feast after the famine and effort of the past days.

All is silent, as if the world is asleep around us. It seems as if all the world is in slumber, except for three of us: feasting horse and pony, and watchful shining one, standing as a statue, staring back along the Road, along the way we came, as tense and expectant as never before.

***

A/N: Some text taken from “Flight to the Ford” from Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, and woven into the narrative.



Chapter 35. On to the Ford, at our best speed (or hobble)

The shining one does not sleep. Perhaps his kind do not need to sleep? He alternately paces and stands as still as the trees in the troll-wood; more still, for he does not stir in the gentle night breezes.

The Man rests once more, at the shining one's insistence. He does not sleep, but sits close by the huddled hobbits, his cold pipe in his mouth, his knees drawn up, his arms encircling them, his head bowed though on occasion I see him open his eyes and raise his head, as if to catch an elusive scent.

We graze, the white one and I, and at last the white one seems to be finished with his meal, for he raises his head and stands, watchful.

When I, too, raise my head, still chewing, he whickers softly and turns to nudge me. Go on, he says. I have not been on quite so short commons as yourself, and you have travelled farther, and with a greater burden. When still I hesitate, he adds, You will need your strength for what lies ahead.

I shudder at this, but he nudges me again with an insistent nose, then nibbles along my neck. I jump when the comforting nibbles end in a sharp nip, but all he says is, Eat!

I drop my head and tug at the grass. I'm eating! I'm eating... I mumble, my mouth full, for he looms over me.

He snorts amusement and moves away, but I continue to crop the grass. Not only am I eager to avoid any more nips from that great mouth, but I'm still hungry. I don't remember ever not feeling hungry, though I'm sure I must have known satisfaction in the days before my old misery.

The shining one is pacing, and his pacing brings him to my side. I raise my head politely, to acknowledge him, and he reaches a gentle hand to stroke my jaw. Ah. This is one who understands a pony, just the right place, the proper pressure. I stretch out my neck, half-closing my eyes, and my lower lip relaxes to hang loose.

He chuckles, though the watchful look never leaves his eye, and runs his hand along my neck to my withers.

And then he speaks to me—not the language the hobbits use, nor the strange tongue he shares with the Big Man, but words that speak directly to my heart—a whisper of sound, a murmur, a catch, a soft soughing as of the wind, and all of it perfectly understood, without any effort at all, as if he were speaking in my own tongue, as a horse or pony would (though we speak as much with our ears and eyes and bodies as with sounds and silences).

I am putting it badly. I have learned the tongue of Men (at least the Men of Bree, which the hobbits also speak) with some time and thought, and I suppose I might learn the tongue shared by the Big Man and the Elf-lord, given a great deal of time and patience. But this new tongue is one needing no learning. How does he know? If I were to close my eyes I might think it was the white one speaking.

Greatheart, he says. I turn my head back to regard him in puzzlement.

His hands are gentle, feeling the bumps and weights of my burden, testing the straps. His fingers touch a tender spot, and without thinking I speak. Mind! It hurts...! Of course I speak no words as such, more a squealing gasp, a laying back of my ears, a swish of my tail.

Here? he says, his fingers pulling back just off the sore place, and I nod my head, wondering.

I am sorry, he says, for it would be better to unload you, and then load you again, but we must not risk your load being left behind for our pursuers to find. I will shift your load, and try to ease you as best I can.

He moves all around me, and when he is finished, my load is better balanced than even my Sam might have made it, for he asks me, as my Sam cannot, and I answer him in kind, and so together we ease my burden until, somehow, it feels less. He also applies a balm to the skin rubbed sore, and I know relief.

I cannot lie down to sleep, burdened as I am, but sleep finds me all the same, though I stand on my feet with my head half-drooping.

It seems no time has passed when I raise my head once more, startled awake.

It is not pursuit, but the Man and the Elf-lord rousing the others.

The hobbits are still weary. I can see it in their faces, smell it on them, read it in the set of their shoulders, the jerky, pained movements as they help each other to rise.

The Master will ride, of course.

I am astonished to see the white one lay back his ears when the Elf-lord brings the Master to him, and lifts him to the saddle. The shining one speaks softly, in that language I know! Carry him to safety, and do not let him fall...and rubs the white one's neck until the ears come forward one more.

My Sam, still limping, takes my rope and leads me forward, and then I am not astonished any more.

For I can smell it on him as we reach the white one and his burden, the change, the difference growing stronger and more strange, more... unsettling. He is Master, and yet he is Not. I do not know what it is that I sense in him, but I fear it; and it is stronger than it was, waxing as Master wanes.

It is only my love for my Sam that keeps me from pulling away. My Sam wishes to stay by his Master's side, as close by as possible, and we are joined together by my rope. I must not drag back, nor bolt ahead, and make my Sam's journey more difficult, or (if it is possible) more dangerous, for that matter.

Youngest hobbit did not even protest when they pulled him to his feet, though his face is pale and miserable, and he shivers in the early morning chill.

It is as if not-merry voices his thought for him, the thought he is too afraid, or too ashamed to speak. 'How far? Are we nearly there?'

'There are still many miles to go between us and the Ford,' the Big Man answers quietly.

Youngest swallows hard, and his grip on not-merry's arm tightens, and then he nods in a decisive way, though his eyes are blinking with weariness.

Not-merry speaks for him, and for us all. 'Then we had better make a start, hadn't we?'

'Let us not be all day about it,' says the Master from his high seat. 'Why, given the time it's taken just to waken you sleepyheads, we might have been there by now!' He makes a wry face as the others look to him in sudden hope, but his brave words put heart into them. They stand a little straighter, and then they begin to hobble forward at the best pace they can manage.

The Road runs downhill, as promised, steadily downhill, and in places there is much grass at either side. There is no time for leisurely grazing, but it is at least a soft and gentle surface for the hobbits to walk upon, when they can, to ease their sore and tired feet.

The Master leans forward as if to urge us all to a faster pace. Perhaps he too fears that Otherness that is overshadowing him, or perhaps he only thinks of those who pursue.

We walk. And we walk. And we walk on, still more. The sun climbs in the sky, and we walk on. She reaches her zenith, and still we walk, now faster, now slower, the hobbits limping along as best they can. There is no halting for meals. The last of the food is gone, anyhow, and hobbits cannot eat grass as ponies do, even if we were able to stop and rest, even if the Big Man and Elf-lord would allow such a thing. She glides down the sky, ever downward, even as the road sinks before us, leading us ever on.

Master grips a fistful of mane so fiercely that I can see the white of his knuckles, and smell the determination on him. What it is he battles, I know not. But battle it is, and all my senses tell me that his strength is fading with every hard-won mile. Where strength is gone, will must suffice, but how far his will can take him, that I do not know.

The Shining One walks beside him, a hand raised to grasp the Master's knee, as if to pour his own light into a growing darkness. I do not hear the Master's low-voiced comment, or question, after many hours of travel without a rest or pause, but I hear the Elf-lord's reply.

Our peril will be greatest just ere we reach the river, for my heart warns me that the pursuit is now swift behind us, and other danger may be waiting by the Ford.

I swivel my ears from back to front, and back again. I hear nothing, but my skin is prickling as if a distant thunder is in the air.

I know this feeling of growing unease. I have felt it before. Once in Bree, trapped in my ramshackle shed that yet was enough to keep me prisoner while the other horses and ponies fled. And once again in a bowl-shaped dell with grassy sides, in the Wilderland, below a ruined Watchtower.

They are coming.

***

A/N: Some text taken from “A Knife in the Dark” and “Flight to the Ford” from Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, and woven into the narrative.


Sorry for the long delay in updating. Can only blame a stubborn case of bronchitis that didn't start to come around until after the second round of antibiotics. Hoping for better days to come.


Chapter 36. At the Enemy's attack, we make our stand

The hour grows late; all too soon the light of day will fade away and darkness will claim the land... and perhaps the Master. It must not be!

We struggle on. The hobbits are very tired, but they plod along grimly. Surely we will reach the Ford soon. Before dark, the Big Man said,an hour or two ago, when my Sam asked, prompted by his growing fear for our Master. If we can but keep the pace we've set... And yes, the hobbits have kept to the pace, no matter what the cost has been.

The Road ahead goes suddenly under the dark shadow of tall pine-trees. I do not like the look of it. I balk, and my Sam stumbles over his feet at the sudden jerk of the rope. 'Come along, Bill,' he says through his teeth, his voice hoarse and rasping.

A sharp slap on my rump forces me to jump forward, into shadow, between steep moist walls of red stone. The trees make a sort of tunnel overhead. It is so very dark. I tremble and jump at the echoes of our footfalls. Some trick of the cutting makes it sound as if many are following us. I hesitate to put down each foot in turn, but the others are hurrying forward, even the white one, and my Sam pulls me after him with surprising strength.

My laid-back ears prick forward for ahead of us is light, as if a gateway stands before us, a promise of release from this dark and frightening path. Yes, the Road runs under the open sky once more, there ahead, and suddenly I hesitate no longer. I plunge forward, nearly pulling my Samwise off his feet; but he is as eager as I to reach the light, and the river that beckons, shining at the end of a long, flat mile. I could gallop the distance, weary as I am, for something tells me that safety lies on the other side of the Ford, where mountains rise into the fading sky.

I swivel my ears back again, for the echoes continue though we’ve left the cutting. The wind is rising in the pines, rushing through the branches as a gale.

The shining one walking ahead of me stops, letting the white one and Master go on without him. He turns to look behind us, to listen; his eyes widen and then he springs forward to catch the horse. ‘Fly! Fly!’ he shouts. ‘The enemy is upon us!’

The white one leaps forward, but I am glad to see the Master does not fall. We run down the slope, the hobbits and I, while the Big Man and shining one stand still to let us pass, then follow us as rear-guard.

It is as if we have forgotten our weariness and painful muscles. We pelt towards the Ford at the hobbits’ top speed, following the white one’s lead, our eyes fixed upon the Master huddled in the saddle. We are only halfway to the river when there is a sound of horses galloping. Listening behind, I hear the sound of a great steed, and then another, and another, and two more, coming out of the cutting and halting.

I turn my head back to see the dark group, ominous as shadows, and my heart quails within me. I stop, frozen to the spot, frozen by fear that rises to choke me. My eyes dim, and I hear my Sam’s sobbing breaths at my side, and his fear rolls over me as a tide. I wish to break free, to run…! But I cannot seem to move.

The shining one stands between us and the shadowy terrors. He shouts. Ride forward! Ride!

The spell that has ensnared me is broken and I turn toward the river again, only to see that the white one gallops no longer, but walks. Master sits erect in the saddle, his hand firm on the reins... but then he drops the reins, grasps his sword and draws it. The blade flashes red in the westering light of the Sun.

’Ride on! Ride on!’ cries the shining one, and then loud and clear he calls out other words, and he speaks to the white one now, and not to the Master.

The white one hears and answers, springing forward to speed toward the river as if he flies upon the wings of the wind. I hear the hoofbeats rising behind me, and a horrifying cry that is answered from the trees and rocks away on the left. Four more Riders come galloping!

Two ride directly for the white one and the Master, and the others gallop towards the Ford to cut off flight, to cut off hope, and still the white one gallops, bold and strong, sustained by the voice of his Rider. The bells of his harness jangle wild and free on the wind of his passing.

The voice of the shining one is still in my ears, lending strength to my faltering spirit, and I am able to stumble out of the Roadway, pulling my Sam after me. The young cousins fall away to the other side, and a moment later the terrible Riders sweep between us in their pursuit of the Master.

My Sam rises to his knees, staring ahead, his breast heaving with the effort of running, or horror, or both. His hands are clenched tight, my rope fallen and forgotten. I could flee, if I wished, but it is not myself They are after...

Frodo! one of the young cousins gasps out. It seems as if They must have him... It hardly seems possible, but the white one bursts forward as they reach him, incredibly running faster than before, and passing under the very nose of the leader he plunges into the stream.

’Quickly!’ the shining one says, hauling my Sam to his feet while the Big Man pulls youngest and not-merry to theirs. And then we are running again, running for all the hobbits are worth. I keep my nose to my Sam's shoulder, and so I follow my Sam without the help of the rope, nay, in spite of its hindrance, I should say, as it trails on the ground under my feet. We follow the shining one and Ranger, whose long legs carry them further and further ahead, and yet we follow, even when they slip from our sight behind some stunted trees. I have but a glimpse of the Master on the far shore, turned to face his pursuers, sword still in his hand, and the foremost horse rearing at the water’s edge, before his Rider forces him to plunge into the water, to follow the Master.

I see no hope for him.

Will They turn and rend us when They have finished him?

Reaching the trees, we see a small hollow beyond; the Man kneels, blowing, and suddenly smoke rises. He has kindled fire! The shining one brings sticks and thrusts the ends into the snapping flames. ‘Torches!’ he says to the hobbits, and then, ‘Take hold, and draw them out when they are well alight!’

He snatches my rope from the ground, murmuring reassurances--Steady, Greatheart. It will be well with you, if only you stand.

As if his words have enspelled me, I am rooted to the spot. Despite his reassurances, he takes a few precious seconds to knot my rope around the sturdy trunk of one of the small trees, before turning back to the hobbits, the Man, and the fire which is now well alight.

There is a great and frightening noise, a rushing and clashing, smashing and rolling, mingled with terrible screams of horses in deadly peril.

I have no time to take fright, to test my rope, to flee, for in that moment the shining one shouts, ‘Now!’ and runs with the Man towards the Ford. The hobbits follow at once, brandishing their flaming sticks. Grim-not-merry whirls his over his head to feed the flame, and the other hobbits follow suit, howling as they run, shouting in concert with the Big Man... but the Shining One... the Shining One...

Words fail me. I rear and plunge in unreasoning fear, yet drawn to follow if only the rope did not hold me fast. My burdens do not shift, somehow—the Elf lord's knots are tight and sure.

The Shining One stands between the trees that tether me and the Ford where the river runs white and wild; stands tall and terrible, hands raised to the heavens, speaking unbearable words. He does not shout, and yet his voice rings above the roaring and clashing and shouts and screams, shrieks and piercing cries that fill my ears, my own mingling among them.

But hearing his voice, I remember his words. All will be well with me if only I stand. So he has promised, and spoken in tongue of horse and pony, and I must believe him. I must.

I stand.

***

A/N: Some text taken from “Flight to the Ford” and “Many Meetings” from Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, and woven into the narrative.



Chapter 37. The waters recede, and we cross over

The sound of violent waters dies slowly, even as the daylight fades. Twilight is falling, the fire is dying, and yet the coming darkness seems less dark somehow. The terror is gone, as if the raging waters have swept away Fear itself. Hearing only an echo of the piercing shrieks of the Shadow horses, from the relief I now feel—it felt like every hair on my body stood stiff, along with every muscle in my body, and now I am nearly limp—from the relief, I gather that the Fell Riders have been washed away. And Master?

Despite my weariness, I move from the scant protection of the trees, pulling to the end of my rope, to crane in the direction of the Ford. The white one, when last I saw him, was neighing his defiance, even as the Master raised his sword in the face of the foremost Rider.

The white one still stands, that much I can see, but he stands alone at the top of the bank. His saddle is empty.

My breaths echo in my ears. Were I man or hobbit, I would weep.

I hear the Man arguing with the hobbits. They would cross at once; he tells them the water must recede still further. No, Samwise, he says, and he is holding my Sam back from the water's edge, lest you too be swept away... and what good would you do your master then?

My Sam's shoulders slump, but he stands, and the other two with him, at the edge of the swift water.

The Shining One returns to me, with a quick stroke for my out-thrust muzzle, and a soft word of praise for my standing. He pours water upon the fire with a hissing of steam and smoke and ash, and I jump at the sound, but I do not fight to break free of my rope. I am wiser, or perhaps his nearness is enough to bring calm to my tattered nerves. He stirs the mess, rakes through it with his stick, stamps out a last spark, and comes to me.

'Come, lad,' he says, pulling on my rope, and the knot unravels as if it hears him. 'Come now.' His voice is low and grave, and I rub my face on his sleeve as if one so insignificant as a pack pony could offer comfort.

He smiles faintly, and we walk together to the river's edge.

'Pippin's smallest and lightest,' the Man says, in the tones of one continuing an earlier conversation, and he taps youngest hobbit's shoulder, and then when youngest turns, takes him under the arms and lifts him into the air, laying him upon the pile on my back. 'Hold tight,' he says, and youngest nods.

Then the Man crouches before my Sam, and my Sam climbs upon his back much as a half-grown child might, and not-merry is doing the same with the Elf-lord; the tall ones rise to their feet once more, and with one accord we brave the water, lower than it was, but still swift enough that we must pick our way with care, placing each foot firmly before lifting another. The water is high enough to soak the lower bundles on my back, but it hardly seems to matter. And then the water seems lower, ever more shallow, and at last it foams around our knees as we splash our way to the bank.

The tall ones let the hobbits slip down, and youngest hobbit slides from his high seat, landing with a yelp upon his sore and weary feet, but then he is immediately climbing the steep, muddy bank, slipping and falling in his haste, and the other hobbits right with him. The Elf-lord is swift and sure in making his way. His feet do not slip, nor does he stumble, and he passes the hobbits on their way.

The Big Man takes my rope, but lets me pick my own way. The path is treacherous with mud, for the water rose high indeed from the look of it, and perhaps the Master fell and was swept away. Because I am careful of the path, we reach the top at the heels of the hobbits.

I cannot believe it of the white one, that he would let the Master fall, but there he stands, guarding the crumpled figure at his feet. His eye meets mine, and his head droops a little before he gives his mane a little shake and lifts his face again. He is ashamed, that much is clear to me, and yet determined that nothing shall drive him from the Master's side.

The Man speaks a sharp word of warning, Don't move him! but the hobbits have already thrown themselves down beside Master, not-merry turning him over and pulling him into his lap, my Samwise taking his hands, and youngest, mud-smeared hobbit smoothing the hair back from Master's pale face, entreating him to speak.

But Master makes no move, nor sound, and the Elf-lord's face is very grave indeed.

The Man drops my rope and kneels down beside the little group. 'Let me see him,' he says, his voice gentle.

'Frodo,' sobs youngest hobbit. 'Frodo, please...!'

'Let me see him,' the Man repeats, and he reaches a hand to the Master's throat, laying his fingers with great delicacy upon the skin, holding his breath as the smell of dread intensifies on him.

'Let me,' he says again, but does not finish. His hands undo the Master's shirt buttons, slowly, carefully.

'Is he...?' not-merry says, and catches his breath in a sob, his eyes on the Man's face.

The Man lays his head down, nay, his ear down rather; lays his ear to the Master's breast, and I think we all hold our breath as he listens.

'So cold,' my Sam whispers at last, and shudders. Though his legs are soaked from the river waters and night's chill is wrapping around us, I do not think he speaks of himself.

The Man raises his head, his face terrible to behold. 'Glorfindel,' he says.

The Elf-lord bows down to lay his hand flat against the bared breast. Grief slowly suffuses his countenance, dim as it is in the failing light, and he shakes his head.

No-o-o-o-o, from youngest, a keening wail, and he falls upon the Master in a desperate embrace.

And, Frodo, murmurs not-merry, in a voice so broken that it is as if the very spirit in him has been crushed in this moment.

'C-cold,' whispers my Sam. 'So cold.'

***

A/N: Some text taken from “Flight to the Ford” and “Many Meetings” from Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, and woven into the narrative.


Chapter 38. We mourn our loss, but worse is yet to come

Shuddering sobs waft softly from the three remaining hobbits, replacing the terrible quiet that reigned in the first few moments after the realization that the Master has been lost to us. My Sam remained in his frozen state but a few breaths longer, before covering his face with his hands and bursting into tears. Youngest clung moaning to the Master, a heartbreaking sight, until it seemed as if the Elf lord could bear it no longer, but gently prised him free and lifted him away.

Not-at-all-merry raised his head, which had been bowed in sorrow, at this. His arms tightened on the Master, and then released him, and he eased the limp body carefully to the ground, for in his practicality even in the extremity of his grief he could see that while the Master needed no more of comfort, youngest certainly did.

He raised his hands to the Elf lord, and the shining one saw at once his intention, and lowered the youngster to not-merry's embrace. He hugged youngest tightly to himself, as if to keep him safe from harm, as if he'd never let him go again, and then he began to weep. And youngest clung to him, sobs shaking his small frame, utterly bereft.

And so the three hobbits mourn, their weeping mingling in a soft, sad chorus.

The Man stands slowly to his feet, slowly and painfully, as one of great age, pain and sorrow might, and the shining one touches his arm and speaks urgently.

I look to the white one, for though I do not know the words, the tone is alarming.

What is it? Do the Shadow-men return?

I tremble. My heart will fail within me, I think. I am used up, worn to the bone, all courage gone. I have no more nerve, no strength to face them, or to run away.

The white one reaches to lay his chin gently on my neck. No, he whispers. They are troubled.

I can see that, I say, and if I were not so wearied I would stamp a foot to punctuate the thought. Do Those who harried the Master to his death, do They return?

Not... a long pause, as he lifts his head from its resting place and turns his eyes on his Rider. He listens, and shudders.

What?

He blows softly, and then shakes his head, with a subdued jingling of bells. The news is evil, he says.

I shiver, and hunch my feet closer together. And yet in my misery, I think perhaps it would not be so terrible to find an end. What is it, wolves? Trolls? Death's shadow hovering?

I let my head droop, and I sigh, blowing warm air over not-merry, tousling his curls, but his head remains bowed, as he cradles youngest and weeps helpless, hopeless. Tell me, I say very low.

The Man speaks, a few slow words, more statement than question, and the shining one nods, his eyes shining with tears of his own. An Elf lord, weeping. It is a wonder to me.

The Man puts a hand over his eyes and stands very still.

It seems, the white one says in the barest whisper, as if the thoughts are too awful to voice. It seems, he begins again, pauses, and continues. Though your Master is dead, the shard...

I nod. He was wounded, I know that, and since have come to understand that some part of the knife broke off within the wound.

It moves within him still.

I jerk my head to look to the Master with fright-widened eyes. Something moves within him?

When it reaches his heart, he will become as the Shadow-ones.

A chill seizes my own heart, and I shudder violently, barely able to stand up under the horror.

But there is worse.

It is too dark here, the white one says.

Controlling myself with a great effort, I nod. It is dark, indeed. But then the question arises. Too dark?

The white one lowers his head and coughs, as if he would be sick, though we cannot vomit as dogs and people do. He raises his head and I see him swallow hard. We must bear him to the Lord Elrond.

I feel a sudden stab of hope. Can he bring someone back from the dead?

The white one shakes his head, curling his lip as if he tastes something exceedingly unpleasant. No, but he can save him from worse than death.

I blink, not sure that I understand. I am only a pony. Shadow? I say at last, very slowly, and not at all sure of myself.

The white one sighs, and lets his head droop. He paws at the ground before him, shifts his weight, and stands still once more.

How? I ask, though I am not at all sure that I should.

The white one answers, his voice no more than a breath of sound, the slightest of movement. Cut out the shard, he says, and makes a soft sound of distress before adding ...or cut out his heart before the shard can reach it.

I stand rooted, staring at Man and Elf lord.

The Man lowers his hand from his eyes, and tears glisten from his cheeks.

The three remaining hobbits weep softly, hopelessly, grieving the loss of the Master. They know not, not having the advantage of understanding Man and Elf lord when they speak in that strange tongue, or horse explaining to pony, what greater loss awaits. The horror is not yet done. Worse, if I have understood the great horse properly, yes, worse is yet to come.

***

A/N: Some text taken from “Flight to the Ford” and “Many Meetings” from Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, and woven into the narrative. (And yes, influenced by the tableau of grieving Merry and Pippin after the loss of Gandalf in the film version of FOTR.)


Chapter 39. We pick ourselves up, for we dare not tarry

All is darkness around us, the last farewell of the Sun gone from the sky. I can see somewhat in the darkness, as can the white one. I think the Tall Ones do as well, different from the men of Bree who did not see well in darkness. At least, they carried lanterns to walk at night past my old shed on occasion, and my old misery was stumbling blind in night's darkness, and it was not all the fault of drink.

All is stillness, save the weeping of the hobbits, and the soft sigh that comes from the Man as the Elf-lord lifts a hand to his shoulder to comfort, or perhaps to brace him for what lies ahead.

We must... he whispers, and I understand because he uses the speech the hobbits know, and not the strange tongue he shared with the Man earlier in our journey.

...on to Rivendell, he finishes, and I know now that he is speaking for the hobbits' ears as well, for he does not use the word Imladris, the name the white one named for our destination, what the Firstborn call their valley.

Not-merry lifts his head, wipes his sleeve across his face, says in a broken whisper, 'What is the hurry now?'

Youngest draws a shuddering breath and pushes himself upright in his older cousin's grasp. 'It, Merry,' he hisses. 'We have to... to bring... It... bring It to safety. For Frodo's sake,' he adds, when it seems the older cousin would argue. His voice breaks on the name, but he lifts his head bravely nonetheless.

Not-merry is silent for a moment, and then he creaks to his feet, as if he were an old gaffer of a hobbit, hanging onto youngest to keep from falling. In the next moment he's helping youngest to stand, and then the two are on their feet, despite the pain it costs them.

I do not know what he means, but it is clear that the others do. My Sam stands straighter, though his tears still flow. 'We must,' he says with a firm nod. His voice is hoarse with weeping.

I would carry the Master to the ends of Middle-earth, and not let him fall...! But no. They do not take the baggage from my back. I think that the Shining One will take Master upon the back of the great horse, and ride at speed to the Lord Elrond, whoever he might be, but no, again. He says that the hobbits and baggage must not be left behind, vulnerable.

'You think some of Them survived?' not-merry demands, plucking at the Shining One's sleeve as the quiet discussion proceeds. The smell of his worry intensifies. 'What harm could they do us now? We're not the ones They're after!'

The Shining One looks down, resting his hand upon not-merry's shoulder. 'They nearly took you in Bree, my young friend,' he says. 'I won't allow them to take you--' his glance sweeps the upturned faces, their eyes blinking in the darkness, '--any of you.'

'W-what would they want with us?' youngest stammers, leaning a little closer to not-merry.

'They wouldn't know what, exactly, was wanted,' the Shining One says sombrely, 'and as long as they thought you had some value they'd keep you alive, and relatively... intact, but once they discovered...'

'Never mind,' not-merry says, the words tumbling out in haste, as his arm goes around his younger cousin, to hug him close as if to protect him from the darkness around us.

At last the Big Man speaks. 'We must delay no further,' he says.

My brave hobbits would walk, but the Tall Ones forestall them. The Ranger and Elf-lord lift them to the white one's back, and there they sit, clinging together, youngest between the other two. The smell of fear comes strong from my Sam—he does not like to sit so high, especially when it is on the back of a great and powerful horse!

The white one reaches his head back to nuzzle my Sam's knee, but it makes the hobbit jump, nearly upsetting them all. He then looks to me, his eyes shining in the darkness. Tell him I will not let him fall, he says.

I move closer, one of my hoofs striking against a stone, and I stretch out my neck to reach my face to my dear hobbit. Feeling my chin rest upon his leg, my Sam strokes my face with a shaking hand.

He will not let you fall, I try to tell him.

'I'm that sorry, old lad,' he whispers. 'Not a crumb left.'

I sigh, blowing warm air over him. It is not the first time I've wished I could master the speech of Men and hobbits. Perhaps I ought to make a study of the matter.

Chapter 40. Surrounded, and then left behind

We are plodding slowly along a long, gradual incline, the Elf-lord leading myself and the white one, and the Big Man sadly bearing the Master's limp form, when I feel the need to stop, and stop I do, leaning back against the pull of the leading rope. The white one stops as well, to nip lightly at my neck. I jump, but prick my ears to listen, hearing the thudding of a number of hoofs, laid down and taken up in haste—they are ahead of us, as if our pursuers have overtaken us and now doubled back.

And now the white one throws up his head with a loud, glad neigh, and there is an answering neigh from among the horses that so swiftly approach; indeed, they are upon us, they surround us, we are in the midst of a milling mob of tall horses bearing riders as fair and fierce as the shining one, Elf warriors with bright swords in their hands, their voices ringing in greeting and urgent question.

All is confusion, or so it seems to me. The newcomers fall silent at the shining one's rapid explanation, the words pouring forth as swiftly as the waters at their height when the Black Riders tried to cross, and in bare moments they are in motion once more, seeming to be everywhere at once, but quick and purposeful.

Before I can but blink a few times my back is free of its burdens. The white one murmurs an interrupted, I will see you at... and is pulled away, still bearing three of my hobbits, for the shining one has mounted another horse and leads him by his reins. The Ranger, too, is mounted, still bearing the Master in his arms, and he knees his horse around and leans forward into a gallop, away...

I stand bemused, as one frozen, listening once more to the thudding of hoofs, now in fast retreat from this place, racing to bear the Master and his companions and their baggage to that place of refuge I have heard so much about, from the Ranger, and the Elf-lord, and his mount, but never seen. Perhaps never will see.

I whinny after them, long and lonely, but the hoofbeats rapidly fade from hearing, and I am alone.

But not alone.

One stands before me, quiet, as if waiting for me to notice him, and when I do, throwing up my head in alarm, he extends a hand with a soft murmur. He speaks easily in the way a pony understands, and as with long familiarity. Steady, my young friend. All is well.

But all is not. I know that well enough, and say so with a snort and a shake of my head.

He chuckles softly, though there is also sorrow in the sound, and a depth of knowledge. They must needs make haste, he says, and if I am not mistaken, you are already wearied, with long effort, fear, and poor food. His hand remains steady, held before me, close enough that I might reach it easily but far enough that I can avoid his touch if I wish.

I lower my head and sniff at his hand. Something sweet is there, and without meaning to, I lip at his palm, crunching sweetness between my teeth. Of their own accord, my ears prick forward, and I snuffle and then lip again at the palm of his hand, tasting the delicious salt of his skin and a few crumbs of lingering sweetness.

There, he says. We shall be friends, shall we not?

I raise my head, but not so high as before, and study him. He wears a sword at his side, half-covered by his cloak, but it is sheathed. I snuffle; he smells of pleasant things, of hay drying in the sunshine, and the sweat of horses (not of fear, but effort), of apples—I had half-forgotten the smell of apples!—and of leather, steel, and wool.

I turn my head, the better to look at him. I startle when he raises his hands, but he merely lifts them to his hood, to sweep it back from his head, to let it lie upon his broad shoulders. He is tall, like the Big Man and the shining one. His hair is dark as the midnight sky on a night with no stars, his skin pale as the rising moon, his eyes gleaming grey with a light of their own, both young and ancient at once. He is one of the Fair Folk, and I take a step forward, without willing it, for something in him draws me.

He chuckles again. So, little one of the brave heart, he says, I did not think you would run away from me. Come; I'll lead you to my home, and you'll find rest, and food, and healing.

I would tell him that I am well, and not in need of healing, but his eyebrows rise to counter my half-voiced protest, and he raises a hand slowly, to rub gently down along my thin neck to my withers, and goes on to stroke the roughness of my coat over protruding ribs.

Poor fare, and little of it, he says, and repeats, and long effort, and the small amount of pride that swelled me before now deserts me, and I find my head grows heavy and droops halfway to my knees. My legs tremble under me. I did not know how weary...

Another gentle rub, and then he says, Come along, my friend, foot by foot... He unfastens my rope from my head collar and winds it into a loop, which he carries over his arm.

I begin to follow, no need for a rope, but stop as the breeze rises, to listen behind me.

He stops as well. No pursuit, I think, he says, turning round to face me. At least, the Lord Glorfindel heard and felt none, before he rode away. He charged me to bring you safe home, and so I will.

I turn my head to meet his calm gaze. Safe home?

He reaches to stroke my face. Even if there were to be pursuit, he says, it is not you they are after. Even the baggage has gone ahead. There is nothing here, with us, that They can use to harm your companions or to draw them to their destruction or capture.

I do not understand, but the caress is soothing, and I lean into his hand.

He sighs, I know not why, and after a few more strokes, he draws his hand away again. Come, he says.

He turns and walks, and I follow.

***

"Your friends crossed after the flood had passed and they found you lying on your face at the top of the bank, with a broken sword under you. The horse was standing guard beside you.  You were pale and cold, and they feared you were dead, or worse. Elrond's folk met them, carrying you slowly towards Rivendell."

--from "Many Meetings" in Fellowship of the Ring, thanks to Dreamflower for supplying the quote!

Chapter 41. I follow after

The incline continues, a weary slope going up and up, and I fancy perhaps I climb upon the foot of a mountain, and sooner than later will come to the shank. But no, just this long and endless slope, and my feet feel so very heavy, clipping the ground as I lift each one and drag the hoof forward, one after another, clip and clop, clip and clop, a slow, painful, steady pace, following the one who walks before.

My eyes straining through the darkness see no relief, neither hill nor valley nor tree but just this emptiness climbing slowly ahead of us, a wide land, but empty. I see no road that we follow, but my companion strides along at a steady pace, slow for my sake, I think, for I have the feeling that he could fly along, tireless, and still unerring find his way.

...but did I say the slope was unvariable? Now to our left I hear the sound as of a distant waterfall, and when I turn my head that way I can dimly perceive a darker shadow that lies upon the darkened ground. But... no shadow, but a chasm, opening suddenly, and the smell of trees rises to meet my quivering nostrils. Even the bitter needles, a mouthful of bark to chew, would I welcome. But the trees are a deadly fall out of my reach. I realize that I have been scenting trees here and there as we've walked. It seems that many hidden valleys pierce this deceptive landscape.

We walk on. And on.

A whiff of green, and water, and thirsty, I stop and turn my head. My companion is at once aware, and halting and turning, he comes back to me, to lay a restraining hand upon my neck.

Not that way, my friend, he murmurs. Green and inviting, yes, and under the eye of the Sun the bright flowers wave cheerful and beckon, but a pony that walked there, with a pack on its back, or even without, would never come out again.

I shiver. It is a bog, something like the marshes retreating into the mists of memory, where youngest hobbit was nearly lost but for a quick and lucky grab on the Master's part. The skin of my neck shudders of its own volition, perhaps remembering the biting midges. I crowd closer to my guide, thrusting my head over his shoulder, and he chuckles softly and reaches a comforting hand. Steady.

Thirst is a torment, but I shake it off and press my nose against his neck, whuffling at the treacherous scent from the safety of his embrace.

Here, my companion whispers, turning to face me, and something dark and cool is in his hand, and I hear the sound of trickling liquid. He reaches to me and I lick up the delicious drips from his palm and fingers, water poured from a water bottle, refreshing though of course there is not nearly enough for a thirsty pony.

Just as well, for if I could drink my fill, I foolishly would, and rue the consequences. When one of us is perishing of thirst, we think only of drinking, and sometimes might even drink until we founder. Such is the way with ponies, and from what I know of horses, they are not much more sensible in the matter.

Only a few sips and we walk on. It is a long way, and I wonder if we will walk all through the night.

I am stumbling with weariness over roots and stones when my companion stops, and I nearly fall over him and slip down a steep slope before him.

We stand at the edge of a sudden opening, another valley, and the scent of trees teases my nostrils and tantalises my tongue. Even a few bitter needles, if they constituted a mouthful...

But perhaps these trees will not remain out of reach. My companion breathes, Behold; here we are at last. I can hear the sound of hurrying water in the valley below, and there is a light on the valley-side across the water. A light, after all the dark places we've traversed!

I crane to see further ahead, glance to the sides, and swivel my ears behind us, just in case, but at the reassuring words that come next, No evil thing is allowed to come into this valley, I sigh. To rest, to truly find rest...

He reaches out, placing his hand on my neck just behind my ears, and urges me forward. I step out with care. The path is slippery, and I cannot help slithering as we make our way down the steep zig-zag path. Sooner than later we are passing among pine trees, but I no longer feel the need to snatch at sour needles nor grab a bite of tasteless bark. Something better lies ahead; I know it as surely as the rising of my spirits with every downward turn. The air grows warmer as we descend, almost as if we are turning back into summer once more, walking from autumnal chill down into a balmy summer's eve.

The trees change to beech and oak, their leaves still green-smelling and fresh, and the scent of living grass wafts to my eager nostrils. Weariness forgotten, I lift my head, inhaling deeply, and in the darkness I sense rather than see my companion's smile. We come to an open glade, and the stars shine bright above, and the sound of the rocky stream is close at hand.

My companion murmurs, a whisper of song, O! What are you doing? And where are you going? Your ponies need shoeing! The river is flowing... His fingers tighten in my mane, loosen and tighten and loosen again, a gentle caress, and he chuckles under his breath. So we welcomed other weary travellers, upon a time, he says, and I nod my head as if in understanding.

It is true, I am unshod. I wonder what other ponies are here, needing shoes?

***

A/N: Some text taken from "A Short Rest" from The Hobbit and woven in, here and there.


Chapter 42. We arrive... at my new home?

My companion's eyes turn to the stars, and at this pause I take the liberty of dropping my head to snatch greedily at the grass in the glade. Ah! Sweet and juicy, satisfying thirst along with hunger, filling my mouth as I grab and grab more, scarcely chewing before I swallow and grab again! It is all I could desire. Simply to graze until I cannot manage another mouthful, and then to roll upon the remainder...

But no, my guide's hand is upon my neck, and he is speaking softly, urgently. 'Time enough for that,' he says. 'Truly, you shall graze to your heart's (and stomach's) content.'

I would be happy to do that here, and convenient it would be, too, and I tell him so, but he only chuckles.

'In good time,' he says. 'I have other business to be about, I'm sorry to say, my young friend. If my time were my own I'd stop here for as long as need be...'

At this reminder I drop my head in shame. For surely a lowly pony is of little importance, compared to the business demanded of one of the FirstBorn.

He lifts my chin gently, fingers stroking reassurance under my jaw, and in spite of myself, I sigh.

'Come along, little one of the great heart,' he says. 'At the moment you are indeed my business, and there is nothing of more import to turn me from it.'

If I am his chief business of the moment, and there is nothing of more import, then why may I not graze my fill? But it is not a well-brought-up pony's place to make demands or ask such questions. We must simply do as we are told. At least it is said in a pleasant tone, which is much better than curses and blows.

And so I turn my head wistfully as we leave the glade behind us, making our way along the riverbank.

Well-bred, well-brought-up I might be, and conditioned by my old misery to follow orders without question, as well as by gentler handling of late, and yet I baulk when we come to the bridge.

Do they call this a bridge? It is no wonder that my Sam regards bridges with suspicion. This narrow thing? Over the rushing stream? With no sides to keep a foot from slipping, leading to a bad, perhaps disastrous fall?

For the second time, the first time being our leaving the glade with its succulent grass, I begin to doubt the wisdom of my companion.

'Steady, my friend.'

I am steady, and I intend to stay that way. My feet are planted as firmly as I know how, and my legs are stiff with steadiness.

My companion turns to me and raises his hand. I stiffen, anticipating the blow, but no blow comes. Instead, there is only a soothing hand on my face, a gentle voice.

'Forgive me, Greatheart, for our own horses cross this bridge without a quiver, but of course they know it well. It is long since I've had to coax a newcomer across.'

I would bristle at his words, but I am too busy with remaining steady, if you take my meaning.

May we not return to that lovely glade, and its grass? I have no illusions about the grass being greener on the other side of the stream. It would be difficult to tell, actually, in the darkness. Dawn will be coming soon. Perhaps the bridge will look more inviting under the light of the sun. Perhaps not. The glade, that's the thing.

He takes his hand away, lifts his hands together to his neck, unclasps his cloak.

In the next moment, I am not quite sure how it happened, for it happened so quickly, the garment is wrapped about my head and eyes, shutting out the fearsome sight ahead of us.

I must trust him now. I have no choice. I cannot see my nose before my face. At least the terrible bridge is gone.

His hand is rubbing at my neck now, a soothing sensation, and comes to rest just behind my ears, urging me forward. 'Come along.'

What is before us? I cannot see. I step out, tentative, but the ground remains solid under my feet.

'Come along. Foot by foot. That's a fine fellow.'

Step by step, he encourages me, his hand pressing me subtly forward, and I follow. The soft, yielding turf becomes a stony path, and then we climb a small hill, hard underfoot, and down the other side, and then we stop once more.

A moment later, my head is free of the muffling cloak, and I stare about me in astonishment. How ever did we come to the other side of the stream?

The lovely glade now lies on the far side of the fearful bridge. I inhale deeply. In point of fact, the grass on this side smells completely delicious and delightful to eat. I lower my head to test the idea, and am rewarded by a chuckle from my companion. He stands beside me, stroking my side, for a good moment or two, long enough for several mouthfuls.

Once more he speaks to me. 'You'll graze to your heart's content, I promise, but...'

I would be happy to graze to my stomach's content, but resignedly I sigh and raise my head. We walk on, his hand still on my neck to encourage me not to stop again, although the turf is lovely, springy, and each footstep brings an inviting, fresh smell to my nostrils.

I am remembering my weariness, and my head is drooping, when a new smell comes to tickle my nose. I raise my head and open my eyes wide in wonder.

The smell... yes, the smell is of stables, and horses, bearing no resemblance to my broken-down shed. It is more like the stables at the inn where they took me, after paying my old misery in coin. It is like, and yet it is unlike. There is a smell of warm, sleepy horses, and the sound of soft breathing. A munching comes from somewhere, someone's late-night snack of hay. Yes, I can smell hay hanging in haynets, well-cured hay, not mouldy but smelling of late-summer sunshine, and I can scent many horses in this building, or at least many more than I have known before to be gathered in one place.

After all, the stables in Bree, while larger than my broken-down shed, and the shelter I shared with my mother in the old man's field, were empty. They said all the horses and ponies had run away, and I was the last in the town.

I'm glad.

Though I wonder... Have I changed hands once more? Will I ever see my hobbits again?

It is not a pony's lot, to choose its master, but if I had my choice... I look all around, widening my nostrils as far as they will go, just to catch...

But there is no scent of my Samwise here. Not anywhere about.

Chapter 43. Restless, I find some sort of rest at last

We enter through a great doorway that yawns wide and tall to swallow me... but such is an image of recent days, not suited to this place and the feelings it brings. That is not the image at all, for what I truly feel now is a welcoming feeling. There is something that stirs like a dim memory far back in my thoughts, of taking fright, when my legs were very new and still wobbly, and hastening the few steps to the warm bulwark of my mother, to hide in her shadow, see her curve her neck above me and feel her gentle nuzzling on my back.

I duck my head as I enter from darkness studded with stars into dimness. I pick my feet up and lay them down tentatively, as gently as may be, for the quiet is somehow unnerving. What might I disturb?This place is so very... large, feeling larger, to my pricking nerves, than the open sky we've left behind.

I jump as a head thrusts itself over a low gate, followed by ill-tempered muttering.

Well! What is it now? Don't you have anything better to do than to disturb my sleep yet again?

It is a shaggy pony, muzzle white with age, one bright eye fixed upon us, the other covered with an errant forelock. He looks not at all sleepy. I would say that he seems more curious than anything else, and yet he tosses his head as if put out.

I venture an answer, as softly as I might. I... I beg your pardon...

He turns his eye on me for but a moment. I'm not talking to you but to your clumsy-footed companion...

I raise my head high in astonishment, weariness forgotten.

My... clumsy-footed? ...guide merely chuckles and reaches to stroke the other pony's nose. 'Master Merrylegs,' he says, very softly indeed, perhaps so as not to disturb the sleepers whose even breathing I can hear in the nearby stalls. 'There is nothing to see. Go back to sleep...'

Sleep! Sleep, he says! ...this last to me, in surprised indignation, and yet I think I might see a twinkle in his eye, if I am not imagining such a thing. You ride out, the lot of you, with a clatter and a shout! ...and yet you tell my old pet that he may not come with you, but that you'll bring him all the news when you return... and then you are the last of all to return, and has he got his rest? I want to know! Has he got his rest, or is he sitting on tenterhooks...' (I have no idea what tenterhooks are, but they sound exceeding uncomfortable) '...even now?'

'I am sure your master is well-cared-for,' my guide assures, while the pony accepts the stroking as his due. 'The others brought him someone he has long looked for, and I hope that his anxiety is now over...'

You hope!

'I hope,' my guide says firmly. 'As I am just in from our errand, I have no fresh news for you, Master Curiosity, beyond what the others might have told when they arrived here; and besides that fact I have here a weary visitor who is overdue for supper and bed.'

Arrived here with clatter and shouts, let me tell you, the old pony grumbles, and I take it he is talking about those others. Clatter and shouts going, enough to put me off my eventides, and clatter and shouts coming back, just as I'd managed to fall asleep for the first time this night...

'And not the last, I trust,' my guide says, leaving off his caresses to make a graceful bow. 'And so I bid you peace and sleep, my friend, and I...'

But the old pony does not wait to hear the rest. He pulls his head back inside his stall and turns his back to us, cocking one rear leg and giving all indications that he has lost interest in all but continuing his interrupted sleep.

My guide places a gentle hand on my neck. 'Come along, Greatheart,' he says. 'I ordered a place prepared for you, before we...'

There is more, but my head is whirling. A place? Prepared for the likes of me? In this grand stables, filled with the breathing of many mighty steeds? (And, I must admit, at least one plucky old pony?)

I would be happy to go out again, to graze upon the sweet grass, to roll, to stand beneath the stars, to doze as I have these many nights. Though there is no Ranger here to share the watch, I have the feeling that here in this hidden valley there is nothing to offer harm.

But indeed, he opens a low door to an empty stall across the way, heaped high with straw. The straw smells of golden days of summer sun. I can smell it from the corridor, where I stand, hesitating, despite my guide's urging to enter. At last he takes hold of me under my jaw and gives a gentle, inviting tug. 'Come along, my friend.'

A hesitant step. Another. Before I quite realize it, I am in the stall, and the straw is all around me. I lower my head for a good sniff, and the smell is so very pleasant. I keep sniffing for a long time, lost in my thoughts, and am startled by the arrival of another of the Firstborn, quick and yet unhurried. I throw up my head and jump, just a little, but my guide instantly reassures me, stroking my neck.

The newcomer bears something steaming in a basin, and smelling of delight. 'A warm bran mash,' he says, 'as you ordered. As soon as you arrived...'

'Yes,' my guide says, still soothing my neck, and the newcomer moves to my head, to offer me the treat. It is as good as I remember what they gave me in Bree, the day I met my Samwise.

I raise my head from my greed at the recollection. Master...? For surely, where the Master is to be found, my Sam will not be far. They would not have borne him away at a gallop if he were truly dead, would they? I remember the Shining One's words, and shudder. Less confident, I venture again, Master?

But my guide is gone, and the newcomer has only soothing words for me as he pats my neck and leaves me.

There is a little water in the bucket, not much, but it is cool and fresh and I slurp it down and wish for more. There is hay in the haynet, fresh-smelling, and... O but it is delicious!

The newcomer returns with a bucket full of grooming implements, and before I quite realize it – perhaps the long song he sings to me as he works has something to do with it – my hoofs have been picked out and I have been thoroughly brushed.

'And now, little one,' he says with a final rub for my nose. 'Sleep.'

Before I can blink he is gone.

I raise my head, I move to the low door, I thrust my head over, scenting the air. Samwise?

A grumble from across the way answers me. Didn't you hear the Elf? Go to sleep!

I look for a long time towards the stable doors, but my Samwise does not come.

Master?

Chapter 44. Many meetings

When I waken it is full morning, and I am lying down in my thick, soft bed of straw. I don't know what has wakened me, for it is very quiet here, no sound of horses or ponies or stable workers, just a hint of birdsong and the sound of rushing water at some little distance, drifting in through the open stable doors on a flower-scented breeze.

I scramble to my feet, ah but I am stiff. I plant my feet and shake away the clinging hay from my ragged, overgrown coat, and then sniff at the bucket. Someone has filled it, and yet I did not hear their coming and going. The water is cool, fresh, and delicious.

Raising my dripping muzzle I discover that the unseen server has also left grain in my feedbox, and fresh hay in the net, and I bury my nose in food, practically inhaling the good and hearty meal. I swish my tail, not to fend off midges, but from the sheer pleasure of feeling the well-combed length of it, freed of burrs and tangles from the grooming last night.

Sleep well, little one? It is yet another of the Firstborn, younger-seeming, and merrier than the others I've met. He gives me a good brushing, humming a sprightly tune all the while.

I ask him about my Sam, and the Master, but he doesn't seem to understand, and simply talks to me about the fineness of the day, and the sun shining on the grass, and the gentle whispers of the wind in the treetops.

At the mention of grass my ears prick forward of their own accord, and I remember juicy sweetness between my teeth, and the skin of my freshly-brushed back twitches at the thought of a good rolling, scritching and scratching such as I have not had the pleasure for many days.

He laughs as if he understands completely, and when he is done washing my face with a soft cloth, and wiping carefully around my eyes, and my nostrils, he lays the cloth over his shoulder and moves to the door with a quiet, cheery, "Come along, lad! I know the best thing for you..."

I follow him along, something like a well-trained dog, I suppose, but really I feel no need of head-collar nor rope. I really believe that he knows best, you see. There is something about his tone, his confidence, the very kindness in his eyes and hands.

Another of the Firstborn joins us as we walk along, greeting me politely. They talk as we make our way, and I listen closely, swiveling my ears from one to the other, but I hear nothing of my hobbits, or the shining one, or even the Ranger whose plan it was to lead us to this place. I am too shy to ask again, and so I merely listen without comment, to things that are over my head, and leave me bewildered and wondering.

They turn me out to pasture, but it is something more than that, of course, just as everything else in this wondrous valley is something more than ever I’ve known.

The horses are more, too, great hulking beasts that they are, gleaming coats and gleaming eyes and teeth to match as they gather round.

Here’s a shaggy one!

I bristle, not because it is not the truth, for in truth I am a pony, and my coat is shaggy from nose to tail, but...

Speak a little louder, that he may hear you... look at the tufts in those ears!

“Those ears” lay back of their own accord. They are much bigger than I am, these shining elf-horses, and graceful, and my mother raised me to be polite to strangers, but...

Oho, but this little one has spirit, he does!

...and as I wilt at the mocking laughter, suddenly the white one is there, not so much shoving his way into the crowd of tall bodies surrounding me as dancing in with a bite here, a well-placed tap of the hoof there, a squeal and a rolling of eyes.

Let be!

Come now, we were only...

My defender is fierce, fierce as his defiance in the face of the Shadow Ones when he turned to confront them, as they followed him across the river.

Let be! he says again, with a shake of his head and stomp of his foot. This one has carried a greater burden than any of you will ever know--at least as long as the Light continues to shine in the world--and bore it he did, with courage and grace!

Greater burden! I hear one or two grumble, but the white one tosses his head higher and arches his fine, flowing tail and they subside.

The old pony Merrylegs is standing under a tree not far away, his head held high and watchful, but even as I catch sight of him he nods as if satisfied and drops his head to graze.

So, one of the older mares says, sidling up to me. I stand tense, but she only nibbles along the back of my withers with her teeth, ah, that spot where one can never quite reach the itch, and I stretch my neck to enjoy the pleasure of it all. I take it you’ve never been to Imladris before?


Chapter 45. I muse about leave-taking

We are just settling down to the pleasant but serious business of grazing when the white one throws up his head with a snort. I startle, but the old mare simply raises her head to gaze calmly towards the stables.

But I am called away, the white one says.

I look to see the sunlight glinting golden from the hair of the one who stands, waiting, by the gate.

So I see. Take good care of him... and with a strangely wistful snort the old mare tosses her head.

The white one turns his head back to say, Don't I always? and then he is galloping to meet his rider.

So soon... one of the younger mares grumbles, and another answers with a whickering laugh, No rest for the weary!

Don't mind them, the old mare says to me, nudging me away from the others. Not wishing to risk a nip, I obey, and when she stops and urges me to eat, I am all obedience, though I roll my eye to keep the white one and his Rider in sight so long as I may. Which is not long, as they are quickly out of sight.

I lift my head to gaze after them, and the old mare says, almost as if making polite conversation, His Rider is one of the few who can ride openly against... well, let us simply say... those who are better left unnamed.

I shudder and bend my neck to crop a mouthful of grass, but soon my curiosity gets the better of me and I lift my head again to reply with a questioning look, You speak as one who knows...?

She whickers a sad chuckle. He was mine, upon a time... And with a sigh, she turns away, to bury her silvering muzzle in the lush grass.

Merrylegs comes trotting from his shady retreat. Well now, lad, he says in his hearty way. The grass is greener over by the stream, or so I've found. Come along, now. And a little sharper, Come along, I can't abide dilly-dallying! He nips at my shoulder, and I follow him toward the stream.

As we leave her, the old mare raises her head to gaze into the distance. As I graze--and yes, the grass near the stream is very good--I look over in her direction now and then. She watches, head high, her eyes fixed on a distant place, for a long time, and I wonder at her thoughts. Does she remember old days of adventure and errantry? Does she wish to be riding out into danger, against... against... No, neither will I name them, here in this peaceful valley. I can only wonder at her wistfulness. And yet, if it were my Sam, would I not feel the same?

Merrylegs has a great many questions for me, many of which I cannot answer, though he seems rather knowledgeable for all that. For one thing, he knows my Sam! ...and the Master, and the younger hobbits, though he's never met them. Ah, yes, my old pet has often talked about young apples-and-mischief! is one of his comments. A good heart, but leaps before he looks, so to speak...

Evidently his old pet is well acquainted with my hobbits, and spoke much about them to the old pony over the years they spent together, both in their wandering and after their retirement here at Imladris, which Merrylegs calls, in a hobbity way, "Rivendell".

I keep an eye on the gate, but my Sam does not appear, nor any of the others, not even Merrylegs' old pet, about whom, it must be admitted, I am decidedly curious. We pass a long and otherwise pleasant day of grazing, gossip, and dozing, and the grass is as lovely to roll upon as I had thought. The old pony tells me much about life here, and a pleasant life it sounds, indeed. I might wish to stay here for ever, or at least to the end of my days, if only...

But it is not for ponies to choose their lot.

I would stay here, with my Sam, but if he chose to go, well, I suppose I'd have to follow him. At least, I would follow, if he has not sold me to the Elves hereabouts, having planned to leave me behind all along. Still, I cannot believe he'd leave me without even a fare-thee-well, and yet...

I wish I could better understand the ways of hobbits and men. I wish...

But it is not for ponies...

Chapter 46. More travellers arrive

I think I might become resigned to my fate.

The pasture is a pleasant place, and Merrylegs tells me that the grass is always green, and never fades to brown and tasteless, or is covered with deep snow that has to be pawed away. Shadows here are merely shadows, cast by the lowering sun, and not fearsome things at all.

At the end of the day, the old mare leads the rest of us to the gate, opened by one of the Firstborn, and we walk unattended to the stables, each to his or her own stall, and each seeming to know where to go without being told. And my stall is my own, and no one else's!

It seems to me that some of the stalls that were empty yesterday, are occupied today, the doors already closed as we arrive from the pasture. Perhaps more travellers have arrived? Or more of those sent out, like the shining one, have returned from their questing? It is a matter beyond my knowledge, but perhaps we'll hear more about it if the newcomers are turned out to pasture in the morning.

I walk into my stall -- my stall! -- and all is prepared for me, water in the bucket, grain in the feedbox, hay in the net and fresh-smelling straw spread thickly on the floor. I scarcely notice the half-door close behind me, though I hear some one or two moving down the line of stalls, latching all the doors to keep the horses from wandering in the night.

The food is as good as it was earlier, a veritable feast, and after I am done eating I enjoy a fine and thorough brushing. The horses of the King (if there was such a thing) could not live in such luxury as I do now. If only my Sam were here, all would be perfect and I would end this, my story, with a simple, "And he lived happily, to the end of his days."

Ah, Sam. I wish you well, where ever you have gone, and may you be blessed with a willing pony to carry your heaviest burdens there. One thing I am sure of, is that you are with your Master, where ever he may be, and so you must be content, as I would be if I walked at your side.

I am wakened from a doze by a commotion in the aisle, a bustle and a clatter and the sounds of voices and the hoofs of more than one beast ringing on the stones. There is a smell in the air of dust and sweat, the sweat of sustained effort rather than of fear and speed.

I thrust my head over my door, to look in wonder at a veritable herd of ponies. Several, at any event, and from their trappings dwarf ponies. Merrylegs, too, peers out and calls greetings. It becomes evident that some of the tack, at least, is familiar to him, if not the ponies themselves. How is the old dwarf, these days, whose saddle you bear? It has been years since the last time he patted my nose and offered me sweets!

The pony, young and sturdy, answers politely. My master is well, though wearied. It is a long way from the Lonely Mountain...

How well I remember the journey! Merrylegs puts in, and undaunted, the pony continues.

...and we were not completely sure of the way, after crossing the ford. My master said an old wizard might have been handy, white beard waggling this way and that way, to find the white stones that marked the path, but no wizard was at hand and so his son must walk, dismounted, and search out the way...

I am glad to arrive before dark, another says with a shiver. Ill things infest the shadows these days, and our masters rode armed and set a watch each night, from our first night out and onwards.

Rest easily, my young friend, Merrylegs soothes. Evil things do not come into this valley, and you may refresh yourself on sweet grass and sunshine before you make the long trek homeward again. Or...? He cocks a bright and curious eye. Is there more to your story? Are there, perhaps, thirteen or fourteen of you, to begin?

None of that old tale, the old dwarf's mount answers. Now we know you for a dwarf pony, for true...

I am curious, but it seems there will be no more to satisfy my curiosity, for Merrylegs only whinnies a laugh and answers, At one time but no more; if dwarves went about without beards then my old pet might be one, but beardless and bootless he travels, and that is the short and the long of it...

Dwarvish ponies are fond of riddles, or so I gathered from the ones I met in Bree, but I never was at leisure to learn any, and so could only listen in wonder to their stories of far travel, and could never guess at their riddles, which made them toss their heads with pride.

These, however, are at a loss for words, and they are being led one-by-one into stalls even through the conversation, which rather disrupts the talk, and soon we can hear the murmured talk of Elvish grooms and the jingle of tack, removed and carried away, and the soft sounds of brushing, the whisper of grain poured into feed boxes, the clank of buckets carried together as water is delivered to the travellers.

At last silence descends with the falling of darkness. It is as Merrylegs said: The shadows are merely shadows here, and not hiding places for something darker, and the dark is a friendly place full of rest and promising sleep.

I look over my door one more time, hoping that Sam might have remembered me, and find Merrylegs doing the same. He catches my eye and shakes his head so that his thick mane flies up and settles untidily on his neck. Odd, he says. My old pet usually comes, before darkness falls, for a talk and a treat. I do hope the old fellow hasn't fallen ill.

Perhaps my Sam is ill? And that is why he has not come to see me?

But no, out of four hobbits and one Man, I should think that at least one would come to see that I am comfortably settled. Would they not, after all we have travelled together?

Sleep, young fellow, Merrylegs says. We'll have a grand old gab in the meadow on the morrow, plenty of news to catch up on, and riddles! How I've missed them! ...but sleep! You'll need all your wits about you on the morrow, or I'm a dwarf...! And still muttering in pleased tones, he pulls his head back inside his stall and turns his back on the world, soon to be sleeping.

You're no dwarf, I think in return, and snort softly. But you are a dwarf pony, and if your rider is not a dwarf, he must be a hobbit, I suppose.

I realize with a start of surprise that I have solved my first riddle.

I pull a mouthful of hay from the net and chew it over, along with my thoughts, until sleep claims me.

Chapter 47. At long last, I know contentment

The days run together, and it seems as if I have been here half my life. A little more of my rough and ragged coat falls out with every brushing, and my tail feels fuller than it did, though it is likely only my fancy. It feels fine and silky when I swish it, and my mane, too, lies evenly upon my neck. My guide, the Elf with eyes that are at once ancient with wisdom and sorrow and smiling kindness in the same moment, comes this evening -- after I have been here, how many days? I do not know, for as I said, the days run together -- and he spends a long time brushing me. He seems to understand how good it feels! ...to have the itchy, scratchy coat fall away, leaving smoothness beneath, and when he finishes with the comb and brush and cloth, I feel almost as if I could shine like one of the great ones.

The food has been filling and plentiful, and my guide tells me I am beginning to look less starved and gaunt, and soon I will be a handsome fellow indeed. He finishes by cutting an apple in pieces and feeding the pieces to me slowly, while telling me of a pony he once knew when he was very young, a gentle and great-hearted beast. I am honoured at the comparison, that I would remind him of such a one as to be spoken of in glowing terms all these years later. For many, many years ago it was, or so he tells me.

I do not know what "many, many years" means, but I know enough that it was some time before I was born, or perhaps even before my dam came into the world.

The apple reminds me, too, of a day dimming in my memory, of gentle hands, a soft voice, eyes both kind and weary, not long after I left my old misery.

My guide leaves me to share an apple with Merrylegs next, and then he goes down the line of stalls, with a good word for each of the horses or ponies now drowsing. The stable is very nearly full, that was more like half-empty before I arrived, according to Merrylegs. There is no need to maintain a great herd of horses here, he says, but we are always ready to welcome visitors. Not that so many visitors come, mind, but people do come and go, especially friends of the Dúnadan.

I do not know who the Dúnadan is, though Merrylegs seems to think I ought. Perhaps he is one of the visitors, or perhaps he resides here. I have not yet seen him, I think, or Merrylegs would have greeted him.

A great many visitors have come, it seems, and from far places, from what their steeds have told in the meadow over the past few days.

I have not been bothered by visiting beasts trying to find a place in the group, for the older mare watches over me, almost as a mother might, no matter that I am a pony well-grown.

At last the stables are dim and quiet, and I drowse, well contented.

I waken suddenly, and it is morning once again, the same as all the other mornings here. Food, and water, brushing, and...

But no, it is not like every other morning, for my groom finishes brushing me and picking out my feet, and then he exits my stall but closes the door behind himself, saying only, 'We'll let you out on the meadow a little later, Greatheart, but for now you must wait for the farrier, for my lord has ordered your feet trimmed.'

I take it he means my guide, who does not act like anybody's lord, and yet the grooms defer to him in all he says and does, as if he is some important person. I do not know why he bothers himself with the welfare of a simple pony, but I am grateful to him, even if he did not let me graze to my stomach's content (as I seem to remember) upon my arrival.

There is plenty of hay in the haynet, but I whinny after Merrylegs and the rest as they make their way down the corridor and out the door. The sun is shining outside, and it promises to be another beautiful day. I look forward to rolling upon the grass, standing in the sun or shade, as I will, and grazing to my stomach's content. However, it seems that once more my guide is not allowing that.

I sigh, and turn my attention to the haynet. The hay is good, and tastes of sunlight and gentle rains. I eat until I am satisfied, and then I watch the dust motes floating in the sunshine that slants into the stables, and then, having nothing else to do, I drowse.

O my Sam, how could I be forgetting you? And yet, I realise that I have not been looking towards the door this morning, waiting for your arrival, and I only remember my loss when I dream of you. In my dream you are there, suddenly, at my door, working the latch, and now you stand before me, wonder in your eyes, and you reach out to stroke my neck and say, 'Well, old fellow, it appears they've been taking good care of you here. I'd hardly know you, all brushed and clean and well-fed and all...'

I stand stock still, indeed, I am scarcely breathing, for I fear I'll waken, and I do not want the dream to end. I widen my nostrils to snuffle, to take in his scent. A dream he is, surely, for he smells so different -- clean, contented, no fear on him, no desperation as in our last parting, not even worry, as in our first meeting and onward.

He laughs, but it is more like weeping, for he chokes and steps forward to throw his arms around my neck, and yes, he is weeping, for I feel his warm tears soak my coat. He is trying to tell me something, and I listen very hard.

At last I make out the words... 'He's well, Bill. He's well, and he'll be well, and that horrid sliver is gone, gone and melted away, and...' ...and more of the same, but I understand, and I try to tell him so, rubbing my face against him and oh! but he feels so solid, so true, and I begin to think that perhaps I am not dreaming after all.

Joy wells in me, and I whicker softly and stand still in his embrace as he weeps himself out, and yes, I smell despair on the tears, despair and fear pent-up for days and only now, in relief and joy, finding release. I breathe a deep sigh of my own, but keep my feet planted, that my Sam may find me a firm prop and stay, so long as he needs to lean upon me.

At last he wipes his eyes and sinks down to the softly piled, fragrant straw. 'Ah, Bill,' he says, and I nod my head low, to nuzzle at his hair, and he laughs, a low, shaky chuckle. 'Ah, Bill,' he says again, but a great yawn takes him. He leans against my near foreleg, and I stand very still indeed, not willing to risk stepping upon him. He raises a hand to stroke my knee, and then I feel him relax, and the next thing I hear is a soft snore.

Now here's a fine thing, and no mistake. He's asleep, between my forefeet, and I dare not stir foot. I'm thirsty, and my bucket is out of reach, as is the haynet. There is nothing for me to do but stand guard over my Sam, that he might sleep undisturbed, by myself or anything else.

For the first time in days, years even, I feel complete, content, and happy.

Chapter 48. I hear some news of the Master, but want more

I let my head droop until my muzzle is resting lightly in my Sam's curls. Ah, how sweet the warm, living smell of my hobbit. My nostrils open their widest to take in the scent. Thus I stand, whuffling, as the sunbeams slowly trace their way down the wall. Half the morning goes in this dreamy way, and yet I don't regret the time lost from the green, green pasture. Why, I could graze or roll any day, but this day, my Sam has come back to me, and I am lost in remembering all of our journey, and marvelling, and the simple enjoyment of being if you take my meaning.

I am startled from a half-dream by a bemused, 'Well, what have we here?'

I lift my head, ever so carefully. I would not care to startle and waken my Sam, for his exhaustion is plain to all my senses. Had I the means, I would shush the interloper... er, farrier, for that is what I deem the new arrival to be. A box of tools is in one hand, and the other rests upon the unlatched door of my stall, open to the corridor. I might have taken myself off at any time, found my own way to the green meadow, but of course I did not wish it.

As it is, I nod my head at him, speaking as softly as I might--a ghost of a breath, a steady look, the barest shake of the head, my ears flopping loosely to the sides rather than pricked forward or laid back. Let be.

He nods, with a thoughtful look in his eye.

Stand steady, my friend, he answers, and I would snort, except that it would make too much noise. What is the matter with Men and Hobbits and now Elves, that they are so fixed upon the idea of steadiness?

He chuckles under his breath, sets down his tools, and turns away.

Ah. The fellow obviously understands the speech of horses and ponies. My Sam will sleep undisturbed, and I will guard his rest. I let my head droop again, my sigh ruffling his curls.

I do not hear the footsteps, but suddenly the farrier is back, for I hear his voice, albeit softly, 'As you see...' and I raise my head to see my guide beside him.

My guide nods, speaking to the farrier. 'They said he scarcely left his master's side, day or night, except to run messages...'

'A loyal companion,' the farrier says. 'But surely he cannot sleep that way...'

'I beg to differ,' says my guide, a smile twitching at the corners of his mouth. 'For surely he is sleeping that way... but he'll have a stiff neck when he wakens, at the least, should we leave him so.'

I realise belatedly that they are not speaking in that strange tongue of theirs that I am only beginning to learn, but in the common speech, undoubtedly for my benefit, or perhaps my Sam's, if he is only dozing and not deeply asleep. But my Sam is snoring lightly, and does not seem to hear the quiet words.

My guide steps through the open doorway, his feet making only the slightest rustle in the thickly laid straw. By your leave, Greatheart...

I nod my head at him, though I keep a watchful eye.

He belongs in a proper bed...

I shake my head at him. The straw is clean and deep after all, good enough to lie on. They know a thing or two about bedding down ponies in this place.

A proper bed for a hobbit, soft as a cloud to lie on, and warm coverings over him, he insists.

I raise my head a little higher and prick my ears forward, to think on this. I suppose I've never seen such a bed. My hobbits have slept upon the ground, rolled up in blankets, for as long as I've known them. I wonder what it would feel like, to lie upon a bed soft as a cloud (softer than straw? than grass?) and warmly covered? Decidedly odd, but perhaps it is what hobbits prefer. Or else it is some peculiarity of the Elves.

While I am thinking things over, he bends to my Sam, eases his hands into place, and lifts my hobbit in his arms with no more effort than if my Sam were a sleeping child.

Startled, I jerk my head higher and out of his way, but he steps back, neatly avoiding my nose, cradling my Sam with as much care as I used when I carried the Master, injured and ill, up hill and down, through winding, rocky ways. Indeed, Sam's snores scarcely waver, and he turns to nestle his face against my guide's shoulder with a sigh.

He'll rest, and comfortably, my guide says, and your feet will have their trim, and then you may run upon the meadow, and roll, and graze to your heart's content, and no doubt your hobbit will come and see you when he's rested, and when he's seen to his master's comfort.

I lower my head and blow softly, and fix a questioning eye on my guide. But wait... the Master?

But the Elf has already turned away, and is bearing my Sam out of the stables. I whicker after them, but softly, that I might not disturb my hobbit's rest.

The farrier picks up his tools and enters my stall, and is soon about his business. He talks cheerily enough, but has no answers for me about the Master or anything else I might want to know, for that matter.

It is a strange business to have my feet picked up, one at a time, and have tools applied: the great blades, trimming away the ragged edges, and a rasp that is unpleasant to hear, as well as the unnerving vibration that results from its being drawn across my hoof. I lay my ears back at the sound and feel of it, but manage to stand quietly enough though it takes some effort of will and the faded memory of old lessons, well learned when I was still young enough to spend the days by my mother's side, gentle hands, a patient voice...

Dim memories of my old man tease at the edges of memory. I don't remember my old misery ever taking such care--he'd not care to come so close to my feet, in all actuality, come to think of it.

The Elf alternately talks and sings to me, and he is so quick at his work that before I quite realise, he has finished. With a last word and soft pat, he takes his leave.

He closes and latches my door, but it is not long before one of the grooms comes to take me to pasture.

I had not realised what a difference it makes, to walk upon well-groomed feet. I think I might walk for leagues, perhaps.

If my Sam must travel on, I am ready to follow.

***

A/N: A few words or thoughts may have come from "Many Meetings" in The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Chapter 49. A merry meeting

Sunshine and fresh, green grass, grazing and rolling; grass is good for many things, even, as my head droops and I doze, even good for my dreams, for the living scent rises to my nostrils and I dream of eating my fill, over and again, lulled by the homely sound of Merrylegs champing along beside me. A pleasant dream...

...interrupted by a loud neigh from the old fellow, and the thud of his hoofs fading quickly.

Startled, I jerk my head up and look all around me -- what is it? Has danger, perhaps, intruded despite my guide's assurances?

But Merrylegs is trotting towards the gate, as quickly as his old legs will take him, tossing his head and snorting with joy. There are two small figures standing by the gate. Hobbits, I deem, and one of them must be the pet I've heard so much about.

Curious, I follow, though the rest of the horses and ponies in the field return quickly to grazing or dozing. Hobbits hold no interest for them, it seems.

When I reach the fence, Merrylegs is feasting on pieces of carrots, surrendered one at a time, whilst the holder of the carrots is talking in quite a jolly tone to the younger. He is old for a hobbit, I think. He smells pleasantly of pipeweed and woollen tweed and a whiff of something that reminds me of the Master, though I cannot quite name it.

'Ah, yes, we've been to the Lonely Mountain and back again, haven't we, old lad? Trust a dwarf pony...'

'But give me a Bree pony, any day,' the younger says, and I startle in surprise at hearing his familiar voice. For it is young apples-and-mischief, indeed it is! I had nearly forgotten the smell of him, as he was before the marsh, but here he is, and clean he is, clean and dressed in fine cloth that smells of Elves, and yet I can smell apples on him, too, and the mischief bubbles up in laughter as I crowd close, to rub my face on his sleeve.

'Bill?' he says in astonishment. 'Bill, is it truly you? I hardly know you!'

I could say the same, and I do, but all he does is laugh again, and dig in his pocket. 'Well, old fellow,' he says, 'it seems you've had better feeding the past few days, but as a matter of fact, I do have a little something in my pocket this time, and so your nudges are not in vain!'

He pulls forth an apple, holding out the whole, and I take it from him, crunching it in my teeth while he laughs again.

Half the apple falls to the ground, and Merrylegs, not one to let an opportunity pass, bobs his head down to take it up quickly.

Carrots, he mumbles through the mouthful, Now, carrots are fine, but apples...

I nod in agreement and both hobbits laugh, and then the old pet reaches slowly, as if he is not quite sure of me, and lays his hand upon my neck. Suddenly his face is sober, but there is kindness in his touch, and so I do not pull away in fear.

'Dear Bill,' he whispers, and his lips are quivering with sudden strong emotion, and his eyes blink as if the sun is too bright for them. 'My brave pony, to have brought my lad through all that you did. Pip here's been telling me all about it...'

Merrylegs pushes at his arm, and he reaches to stroke the old pony's face with his other hand. 'Steady, old chap,' he says, and seems to be back to the cheerful old hobbit again. 'I've hands enough for two.'

There you are! comes a call, and another figure is jogging towards us, and the voice is very Merry indeed.

I whicker a greeting, and am greeted in return. Merry knows me at once, and is delighted to see me. His face is wreathed in smiles, and his laugh rings out as he claps young Mischief on the shoulder. 'I thought you'd be sleeping,' he says. 'How surprised I was, to waken and find you gone! You were weary enough that they carried you to bed, last night, after...'

He stops himself, and all three of the hobbits sober, but only for an instant, for the old hobbit says, 'Well, and I nearly carried you to yours, young Meriadoc, or at least I nearly dragged you there, for you were asleep on your feet!'

'Was he?' young Mischief says, his eyes alight. 'Why Merry, I thought you'd given over sleepwalking years ago!' ...and more nonsense of the same sort, both of my erstwhile companions chaffing each other as they had not in the last desperate days of our journey, and each turning to me as if to urge me to throw my support to his side, while the old hobbit laughs heartily, his head thrown back and his eyes streaming with glee... or relief, perhaps, from the smell that rises from his tears. Though you wouldn't think he had a care in the world, to look at him, to hear him, to scent him, I sense that he has recently been heavily burdened with worry, fear, even despair. Now, however, he smells and sounds full of joy.

Merrylegs stares from one of the young hobbits to the other and then nips at my shoulder. 'You travelled with these two?' he says, and shakes his head. 'It's a wonder you still have ears! I'd've expected them to have talked your ears off, at the very least...!'

I snort, and the Merry hobbit takes this for a signal to turn away from the mock argument, patting his pockets. 'I'm sorry, old lad,' he says. 'I didn't know I'd find you out here, when they told me where to find my errant Pip, or I'd've filled my pockets with carrots and sweets.'

'He's a proper hobbit pony, you know,' young Mischief says proudly. 'Always ready to eat!'

I rub my head on his arm, and it doesn't matter that he takes it for a further entreaty, patting my nose and promising to bring me plenty of treats after the feast, whatever that may be.

'And speaking of the feast,' the old hobbit says, cocking an eye at the sun, 'I believe they will be laying tea on the east porch very soon, at any time now, and a pity it would be to come belated, for Master Elrond said there would be seedcake this day, and apple tart...'

'The east porch...?' the Merry hobbit says, tilting his head to one side as if he cannot quite get his bearings, whilst the youngest hobbit rubs at his stomach and gives us to understand that he fears he might starve to death trying to find the place, as he's fed me his travelling rations, his last apple as it were.

The old hobbit laughs again, and with a final pat for Merrylegs he turns away, taking an arm of each of the younger hobbits. 'I'll take you there,' he says. 'I'll even pour out the tea and drink it with you; and then I'm going to look in on my lad and see if he's awake yet... and no, you may not come with me, for if he's still sleeping we don't want your chatter and fuss to waken him, now do we?'

'I'd never--' youngest hobbit protests, but the old hobbit, apparently deaf, simply keeps on talking as he leads them away.

Merrylegs sighs. Well I guess that's all the carrots and apples for the time being, he says with a philosophical shake of his head. Still, I'm glad to see my old pet is out and about. Likely he'll bring me a pocketful of something or other after the feast.

Feast? I say.

He shakes his head again. I don't know what it is, either, he says, for it's something they do inside the great house, or sometimes by torchlight under the trees, or even up in the trees, sometimes, and it has nothing to do with grass or hay or oats, even, which is what I would call a proper feast.

Perhaps... I say, giving some thought to the matter, Perhaps it's something to do with apples? Or carrots? or even, I say, lifting my head as I grow more hopeful, sweets?

Merrylegs swishes his tail with a chuckle. You're a bright one, he says, tossing his head. I hadn't thought of it before, but my old pet always does bring me more treats after one of his 'feasts' as if there's more to eat there than he can manage... Why, sometimes he even brings me a piece of bread or two, along with apples, and carrots, and sweets!

Such thoughts are making me hungry, and I turn back to the pasture, moving to an especially lush patch of grass and lowering my head to snatch a few mouthfuls, with Merrylegs close behind me. A feast sounds like a very fine thing, indeed.

Perhaps they'll bring me a piece of bread, or apples, and carrots, and sweets.

And my Sam, of course. I do hope that he will come, too. But if the Master is awake, as it seems will be from what the visitors to the pasture were saying, then I know that my Sam will be at his side.

Dare I hope for a glimpse of the Master?

Chapter 50. We think thoughts of home

I am wakened from a doze by a snort and stomp of Merrylegs' foot, and I raise my head and thrust it over the door to my stall. Perhaps the feast has come?

...but no, it is not any of the hobbits. Rather my guide stands before Merrylegs, offering an apple, while the old pony tosses his head in evident perturbation, before deigning to take the treat between his teeth, grumbling all the while.

My guide turns next to me. My ears, pricked forward when I awoke, droop with my disappointment.

Sam?

My guide bows slightly and pulls another apple from his pocket. Your Sam is occupied, he says, though the corners of his lips quirk with amusement. He has followed his Master into the Hall of Fire, and from thence he will most likely fall into dreaming, and so I come, that you not be disappointed... I know this one, and he gestures to Merrylegs behind him, and Merrylegs responds with a swish of his tail, which he turned towards us after he had his apple firmly in his possession, this one most likely filled your head with all manner of hopes and nonsense of what to expect after a feast...

Not nonsense! Merrylegs whickers, though his mouth is rather full of apple. My old pet...

...is also asleep in the Hall of Fire, or was when last I saw him, my guide says, extending his hand with the apple. I most gratefully accept the treat, and he rubs my face as I chew. The music will go on for half the night, and as I've found that hobbits seem to have some difficulty in staying awake through the music and song, no doubt it will either be very late when they come, or more likely, they will not come at all but will be borne to their beds some time between middle night and dawning.

Hmph! is all Merrylegs has to contribute, but all I can do is sigh. Such is a pony's lot. Still, the apple is a comfort.

***

I doze, and dream of feasting. Apples, carrots, warm mashes, sun-mown hay, sweet oats, green grass, sultanas lipped from a salty palm...

***

I waken in the grey dawn of the early morning. A cock is crowing; a homely sound, and for a moment I am in Bree, or perhaps Archet, for there are no sour smells here, no mouldering reek.

I know as much of feasting as I knew before, and as little. Perhaps it is only something to be dreamed. Handy, that, especially if one is travelling a far distance on short commons.

The Sun is an hour or two from rising, and the stables are unusually still. No sound of munching, no soft thud of hoof against the boards. Perhaps I am the only one awake.

It is so very silent that I hear the footsteps, soft as they are, hobbit footsteps I deem, and I turn and thrust my head over the door to my stall. Immediately I am filled with joy. I toss my head, I whicker soft greetings, my Sam is here, and he has not forgotten me.

'Bill,' he says, as soft, for perhaps the silence of the stables affects him as well, and he hesitates to waken the sleepers. I rub my forehead against his shirt, and he leans into my caress so as not to be sent sprawling.

The hobbit with him chuckles, nay, laughs out loud, his voice rising in merriment, and I stop in astonishment and turn to him, for surely the voice is familiar, though the garments, finely cut and of the green beloved of the Elves here, do not smell familiar.

But the hand he holds out to me... I drop my nose, I whuffle his palm, and yes, I know his smell as from afar off. In recent days, overlaid with exhaustion and worry, deadly hurt and sickness as it was, I could barely distinguish it as we neared the end of our endeavours. But now it pours forth into my nostrils, strong and well, rested and refreshed. I raise my nose, the better to take in the smell of all of him, if you take my meaning, and nuzzle at the cloth that covers his breast, where his heart beats.

No scent of corruption, no blood, but only the fresh clean smell of bathed hobbit and laundered clothing. It seems they did not have to cut his heart out of him after all.

I push against him, and he laughs again, bringing up protesting hands to seize the sides of my face, and then he is rubbing my forehead, still chuckling.

He is solid. I breathe a gusty sigh, ruffling against the fabric of his shirt, and he says, 'I'm that glad to see you, too, old fellow.'

He turns to my Sam, though his caresses continue. 'He's looking splendid, Sam,' he says, 'absolutely splendid. I dare say they've taken excellent care of him, since we arrived. Why, look, his ribs are filling out and he's losing that starved look he had.'

'He is at that, Mr. Frodo,' my Sam says, lifting his hand to stroke my neck, and I am perfectly happy. Who needs carrots, or sugarplums, or slices of bread, I ask you? Give me the affectionate attentions of two hobbits, any day, and I will be content.

'He'll be well up to the journey home,' the Master says with a smile.

My Sam catches his breath; his eyes are shining with hope. 'Home,' he says. 'It's a fine word, and no mistake.'

The Master laughs, and I twitch my ears to catch all I can of the delightful sound. How free of care he sounds, and the lines of weariness are gone from his face, and his eyes sparkle.

'A fine word, even if it is only Crickhollow, and not Bag End,' he says. 'Of course, you're welcome to go back to Hobbiton, to your old gaffer, if you must.'

My Sam begins to demur, but the Master is not finished.

He shakes his head and chuckles again. 'What a fine joke on me,' he says. 'Here I sold up and moved my possessions to Buckland, to pretend I was going there to live, and now I actually am going to live out my days there.'

'Mr. Frodo?'

With a sigh, the Master continues, in a rueful tone. 'Serves me right, to have been so hasty,' he says. 'I ought to have closed up Bag End, said I was going on an extended holiday. Bilbo did it, after all. Everyone would have believed it of me. My father was fond of spending days, weeks even, at the Hall. Why not go to the Hall? Why didn't I think of it?'

'Perhaps you were a bit preoccupied with other things, Master,' my Sam says.

'Ah, well,' the Master says, with a last sigh, before straightening his shoulders. This hobbit is nothing if not courageous. 'Home is where you make it. I'm feeling remarkably well, all things considered. Today, or perhaps tomorrow, I'll be able to surrender my burden to wiser heads than ours, and then we can make our plans to be off home again.'

'Off home,' my Sam echoes.

I stand very still, thinking of Bree, and home as I know it.

The Master seems to understand. Keen eyes, regarding me, soften, and he gives my forehead a final rub. 'There's a place for a pony at Crickhollow, Bill.'

I put my nose up to him, in inquiry, and he rubs under my jaw.

'Home,' my Sam says softly, as if trying it on for size. I roll my eye to meet his gaze, and somehow I know he is thinking the same thing that I am thinking. This place, this Crickhollow, is not home. Not yet. But it can be. And if it is Master's will that it be so, then it will be.

The Master straightens further and says briskly, 'But I was forgetting... Bilbo said the sunrise is particularly splendid, seen from the terraces of the Last Homely House. Seeing as it's my first sunrise here, at least the first where I'm awake, I feel honour-bound to attend.'

'By all means, Mr. Frodo,' Sam says, with a last caress for my neck.

I crane after them, but somehow I feel more hopeful than wistful. Today I'll most likely be out on the pasture, eating my fill of green, green grass, but on the morrow, or not long after, I'll be on my way once more, and to a better home than I can remember.

***
A/N: In "The Council of Elrond" JRRT tells us that Frodo wakened early, and that he walked the terraces with Sam and watched the sun rise. I have taken the liberty of inserting a short visit to the stables in between wakening and walking.

Chapter 51. I am bid a disquieting farewell

The sun is bright on the meadow, sparkling from the little stream that flows to join the larger stream running through the valley. The grass is indeed sweet, bursting with flavour as I tear mouthful after greedy mouthful. The slow morning hours pass gently, filled with grazing, dozing, rolling, frisking, and simply standing together, noses inward, exchanging gossip.

If it is all I have to do, to pass the time until our leavetaking, then I am truly content.

The white one has returned, though he has little enough to say, seeming content merely to graze, turning his shoulder to the queries of the other horses. At last they leave him be, scattering across the meadow, each seeking the tastiest grazing. Merrylegs, the old mare, and I remain nearby, though we do not press him with questions. It is a pleasant business, snatching mouthfuls of grass, chewing, moving a step and repeating the process.

When the white one meets my eye, halfway through the morning, he nods his head at me, and says, Gone, at least from the immediate area. And then he immediately returns to his grazing, turning away as if he regrets even this small communication.

I think he means the Shadow Ones, and I nod in return. I wish to ask him what this portends, and if it will affect our homegoing, but his manner is off-putting, his look distant, aloof, as if his Rider has whispered secrets to him, that he must keep for the present time. And so the morning passes.

The noon bell floats to us on the breeze, not that it has any meaning for those of us upon the meadow, save to mark that half the grazing day is gone. A long and lazy afternoon stretches before us, more of the same (though the sun will be, perhaps, warmer, warm enough to make the shade a welcome respite).

And yet...

Something is happening. The white one throws up his head with startling suddenness, and I look to see the shining one standing at the gate as he did before. He holds out his hand to the white one galloping towards him. It looks as if the white one must run into the gate at full speed, with splintering harm to himself, but he pulls himself up just in time. He reaches his head to his rider, tossing his mane and dancing a bit, fresh from the morning's grazing, and the shining one opens the gate, lets the white one through, and closes it again. As he turns his back, the white one follows, nose at his shoulder. They are off again.

And they are not the only ones... Other Elves come to the gate, and horses go quickly to claim their riders; for curious beings that we are, we are all watching the gateway now, watching to see who will come. Perhaps my Sam...?

After several of our number have left the meadow, I see a familiar figure approach the gate, though it is not my Sam. It is the Big Man, the Ranger, who brought us through the shadowed lands from Bree to this place of rest and refuge, and so I trot to the gate. Is it possible he comes for me?

He is not alone. Two tall Elves are with him, though as I approach and catch their scent, I discover that they are not Elves, or not completely, but Elves-and-something-else-again. At least, their scent is different from most of the Elves here. There is a little that they have in common with the Big Man, though I cannot describe exactly what I mean. You would have to use your own nose, I deem, to understand the difference. Perhaps they are kindred of a sort to the Big Man. They are undoubtedly kindred to each other. The two of them are so alike as to look like two of the same person, if you take my meaning, and only a subtle difference in scent allows me to distinguish one of them from the other.

Two of the large, swift Elf-horses crowd beside me, whickering to greet their riders.

Though they seem serious and urgent, one of the Big Man's companions laughs, looking to me. So, Estel, he says, in that Elven-tongue I am learning here, a sturdy mount, indeed, but won't you tire him, with your feet dragging on the ground to either side?

The Big Man strokes my nose. Sturdy, he agrees, and his tone is serious though a smile is on his face. Sturdy, and stout of heart... We'd never have brought Frodo to the Ford in time, without his help, and that in the face of fearsome foes.

I bury my nose in his palm, in gratitude, and he strokes my forehead.

Your own horse is not here, one of the not-quite-but-mostly-Elves says to him. Let me take the liberty... He whistles, a particular call, and very quickly I hear the pounding of hoofs behind me, as another of the great Elf-steeds thunders to the gate. I lay back my ears, but he stops short of us before moving more sedately to the gate, though he stretches his neck and shoulders me to the side as he approaches the gate.

Carrots? he says eagerly, nuzzling at the one who whistled. There is a general chuckle at this, though the smell of the riders remains purposeful, serious, perhaps even grim-tinged.

Before I quite realise it, the three great steeds are through the gateway, and the gate is shut. They follow the two companions towards the stable and tackroom, but the Big Man lingers a moment, to stroke my neck.

'Stay,' he tells me, and now he speaks the tongue of Bree, as if to make sure that I'll understand him well. 'Graze, drink, rest. Build up your strength. Today you are not wanted for the bearing of burdens, but the morrow may be another matter.'

I rub my face against his shirt, to tell him that I understand. He pauses a moment, and with a last pat he turns away. I go back to the meadow. The great horses, and Merrylegs, and the dwarf ponies gather round, pressing for news.

What did he say?

What's going on?

Why are they sending riders out?

What news, little one? What's happening?

I shake my head at them, I turn my back, as the white one did earlier, I drop my head and pull at the grass, I ignore the stomp of an impatient foot.

At last they give up their questions and scatter back to their grazing, though not without a grumble or three.

I wager he doesn't know any more than the rest of us...

Perhaps I don't, but I think on the Big Man's words, and I pull and tug at the grass, filling my mouth and chewing and biting off more just so quickly as I can swallow and clear my mouth for more. I will graze. I will drink. I will rest.

I will be ready for what ever the morrow holds.


Chapter 52. I lend a listening ear

...I am not bearing burdens, not this morrow, at any event, and not yestre morrow either. Two days have passed since the Big Man left me with his words to prepare, if I have not missed my count. Two days... I nod my head, I scuff at the ground with my forefoot. One. I nod. Two. Yes. The count is a right one. Two days.

Stop counting what ever it is you may be counting and go to sleep! Merrylegs whickers from his stall across the way.

It was but a little counting, I return, moving to the doorway to thrust out my head. The stables are dark and quiet, those of us remaining are resting, or asleep. I hear the grumble of a dwarf pony a little way down the row. They are waiting, it seems, for scouts to return with word that it is safe for them to bear their masters back to the Lonely Mountain, to prepare for what ever it is they must prepare for. I shudder. I do not wish to imagine what that might be, not after seeing the Wide World and the Wilderland as I have.

Much or little, lots or none at all, it is enough to keep me wakeful, the old pony complains. And you, young whipsnap that you are, you need your sleep as well, if I am any judge...

I have not told the old pony anything, but for certain he has eyes in his head, and knows how to use them. He has seen me resting, and grazing, and rolling, and not just as any pony lazing about might do, but with purpose as much as pleasure. Yet he does me the honour of not pressing me for an explanation.

Bless his old heart, may he rest here in this pleasant Valley for yet many a moon filling and emptying himself again. I know in my heart that I may not share such a fate. There is a journey ahead for me. The Big Man has said as much.

A part of me yearns for my old home. Will my journey lead me there? Was the purpose of all this simply to bring the Master here, and back again?

Steady on, I reply in my softest tone.

Are you at least finished with your counting?

I chuckle, a whisper of a snort, and shake my head. I am finished.

A silence. I think he has gone to sleep, when he says, The reckoning was two, in case you...

Yes, I say. I...

Will you stop your counting and conversing and let an honest pony find some rest and sleep! One of the dwarf ponies kicks the side of his stall in his impatience.

Two! Merrylegs insists, more softly.

Two, I agree in little more than a whisper, though he cannot of course know what was being counted. He is a stickler for exactitude, especially when it comes to things like carrots and measures of feed.

Very well then, he mutters, and I must stifle the desire to laugh. I settle for tossing my head in amusement, before becoming thoughtful again.

It is not long before I hear the heavy breathing that tells me the old pony sleeps at last.

I am drowsing myself when a soft footstep rouses me. Hobbits step very softly indeed, but a pony's ears are tuned to danger, especially a pony who has walked in the Wilderland as I have done.

No danger, not in this Valley, as the Shining One has told me, but I raise my drooping head to greet the one who pauses at the door to my stall, works the latch, slips inside.

Youngest hobbit throws his arms about my neck, and I lay my head upon his shoulder, blowing a whispered greeting.

He is whispering, and smells – not of the marsh, for his body smells fresh and clean, and the cloth of his jacket, rubbing under my chin, is some soft and luxurious fabric, I think, not a coarse weave or rough, not the sturdy cloth of travelling – but he smells agitated.

I widen my nostrils to gather as much of him as I may. Not fear; well, yes, there is some fear underlying, but it is not a specific fear, if you take my meaning, not fear of something about to attack, but a more general fear, perhaps of some future not quite imagined, and yet looming somehow, just beyond sight and scent. Agitation, anger, frustration, perhaps a hint of hurt. Desperation, assuredly, and a determination that grows as he whispers against my neck, his hands rubbing at the hair on my shoulders in a disjointed manner.

I cock my ears to listen. Much of what he whispers does not make sense. I hear a repetition of Not fair! – something I have heard him say in jest, when his cousins have imposed upon him, insisting on something-or-other by virtue of their advantage of years over his. But this does not sound as if he is jesting.

Cannot go without me... I hear amongst the mutters, and I stiffen. What is this? They are going, and he fears that he will be left behind?

His fingers stop their stroking, and he presses his hands hard against my hide, holds me tightly, breathes a few shuddering breaths, and I think that he might be weeping, until he lifts his head and I see his cheeks dry, his eyes bright with purpose, not tears, as we stand eye-to-eye.

Have to tie me in a sack, they will, he says, lifting his head higher and meeting my gaze as if we are swearing an oath together.

He makes a loose fist and strikes me gently on the neck, but I stand firm, not allowing myself to startle. Firm, I am. Stoutheart, they call me.

He smiles, nods in seeming approval. Tie me in a sack, he repeats in a whisper, and even so, I'll pick at the threads, chew my way out if I have to; I'll win free and follow behind like a dog!

I nod at this, and he reaches to take my face between his hands. We stand thus, unmoving, for a long moment, sharing an intense look.

They can't leave me behind! he whispers. If they think they can, they'll have to think again!

I nod to seal our agreement. It will be our secret. I do not know what I may do to help him, for I suspect I will not be one left behind, to follow like a dog. (Though I would, if it were the case.)

But I will do what I can. Even if it means that all I can do, at present, is stand firm, and listen well.

Chapter 53. I blot my copybook

I do not know what a copybook is, but I have heard Youngest mention blotting his, whatever it may be, at times along the journey, usually when he has made a mis-step of one sort or another, and usually he receives a scolding from one or the other, sometimes both of the older cousins, on such occasions.

I wish I would receive but a scolding, to be followed later by a cuff upon the shoulder, perhaps, and a muttered admonition to do better next time, eh, Pip?

So deep are we in our conspiring, Youngest hobbit and I, that the both of us are startled at the sound of my Sam's voice. 'Mr. Pippin? Is that you, there?'

As a matter of fact I startle, jerking my head up, and as I had my forehead against Youngest hobbit's breast, and he was leaning his chin between my ears, well, I fear that I do him some harm. He cries out, stumbling back, hands to his face, and my Sam moves to catch him in almost the same breath, and I cannot help myself but shy away violently, to stand shaking, dim memory arising, and my ears lay themselves back of their own accord.

I startled so, upon a time, when my old misery was fastening the collar about my neck, to haul the sledge, and... well, perhaps I gave him a bit of a buffet, but he gave me much more of a return, if you take my meaning, beating me about the head and shoulders until I saw stars, and fell to my knees, and nearly went down under his cruel blows.

I am all a-tremble, and hear naught but angry shouting, the curses...

...and yet, the voice is not cursing; it is louder than I've heard my Sam, but it is his voice, and he is calling in alarm, 'Is it well with you, Mr. Pippin? Are you badly hurt?'

As the light returns to my eyes, I see Youngest hobbit before me, hands over his face, and my Sam holding him upright. 'I'b well,' Youngest hobbit insists, though the words are odd and muffled.

'Let me see,' my Sam says, reaching to pull the hands away.

Youngest resists, but my Sam is not one for giving in easily, and it is not long before he coaxes one of the hands away, at least, and I see the blood streaming, and throw up my head once more at the metallic reek.

I would go to my Sam for comfort, but the smell of blood puts me quite off, and I avoid the hand he reaches to me.

'Just a bleeding dose,' Youngest says, still holding fast with one hand and tilting his head back. 'What do you mean, sneaking up on us that way? You quite frightened poor Bill – see how he trembles!'

'I...' says my Sam, quite at a loss, but then he seems to shake himself and stands a little straighter.

'Now Mr. Peregrin,' he says, in something of the tone he uses with the Master when he thinks the Master ought to be eating, or drinking or sleeping, but is not. 'Put your head back, this way,' he says. 'Do you have a clean pocket handkerchief?' And at Youngest's hesitation, he pulls a white cloth from his own pocket and moves to staunch the bleeding, while insisting that Youngest keep his head back, his chin tilted up as far as it'll go.

'I have a pocket-hand...' Youngest says, indignant, pulling at his pocket, but my Sam bats his hand away, pulls the cloth out of Youngest's pocket and shakes it out.

'There,' he says, 'clean enough, I suppose; now if you can just stand unaided for a moment, Mr. Pip?'

Youngest returns a strangled sound, and my Sam lets him go, ducking quickly to dip the cloth he holds in a nearby bucket of water, then folding the dripping thing and placing it behind Youngest's crooked neck. Youngest makes another sound of protest, but my Sam has the situation now well in hand.

'There, now,' he says, 'and let us get you back to Mr. Frodo, who's been quite wondering where you've got to. He had Mr. Merry searching the kitchens and cellars, and myself...'

He turns Youngest towards the stable doors and, talking softly, begins to lead him away.

I move to the door of my stall, thrust my head over, whickering after them.

He turns his head back, though they continue to move away, at the slow pace Youngest can manage, with his head tilted back as it is.

'G'night, Bill,' he says.

I stomp, I dig with my forefoot, I whicker again, but he turns his face forward again, away from my gaze, and in another few steps they are gone.

Perhaps I have proven myself untrustworthy after all.

What if my Sam will not have me? What if he will not take me with him?

The night seems to stretch on forever, fully as long as any in the Wilderness. I am robbed of sleep. I stand unmoving, and occasionally shivers overtake me, and it is not all old memory, old fear, old misery, old pain.

I start at every sound, and watch the doorway, but my Sam does not come.

Chapter 54. I am off my feed

Why is it, when a pony is off his feed, that folk feel a need for further torment? They mix up dreadful draughts and force one's head up and pour the nasty stuff down one's throat, and then they think it proper to pat one on the neck and praise one for “being a good pony” when I am not at all feeling as a good pony ought.

In truth, I want to kick someone. Or at the very least, snap my teeth, if not actually bite, which is something reserved mostly for my old misery, who would never have dared to pour draughts down my throat, even had he cared to do such a thing. I am quite put out, and I lay back my ears and say so.

'There, now,' my guide says, for the stable worker had summoned him when he came to turn me out, and found my feedbox and haynet still full. 'You'll soon be feeling right as rain.'

Had he walked through the downpours that I still remember, on our way here, the constant dripping, wet to the skin, I doubt he'd call rain such a thing as “right”. Perhaps it has something to do with feeling "under the weather." We were certainly under the weather when the interminable rain was falling on us.

Before I can answer, he's instructed the stable worker to keep me in today, keep a watch over me, and let him know if I show any signs of colicking. At least, I think that's what he says. Though he acts as if there's all the time in the world, when he's dealing with a horse or pony, there is today some feeling of hurry about him, as if there are pressing needs, and he must be about his master's business.

But a pony knows little enough about that.

The stables are a lonely place, with all the remaining horses and ponies turned out. I stand, watching dust motes float in the light coming in the stable door, for an eternity.

...and then, my Sam is here, opening the door, speaking soft words to me.

I would stretch out my nose to him, but remember in time that I am in disgrace. I have proven untrustworthy. I turn my face away.

'What's this then, lad?' he says, stepping to my side and taking my face between his hands. I whuffle against his shirt, I cannot help myself, but he is looking at my feedbox, and the haynet, and the water bucket, and saying, 'They said you'd taken ill, off your feed, they said; come now, lad, we can't have you falling ill...Why, you cannot be travelling the wilds...'

I know that I cannot be travelling the wilds, and I know the whys of it, but I'm that sorry to have worried him, and I would explain if I could. I rub my face against him, and he rubs gently under my jaw.

The next I know, he's taken up a handful of grain and is holding it to my mouth, but the grain spills over the sides of his hand, and a little between his fingers, for I have no hunger.

His anxious smell deepens to worry. 'Come now, lad,' he says, but truly, the food has no lure. They will leave me here when they go off homeward, or further away, or where ever it may be their journey takes them. I am sure of it. My Sam has said so.

I bury my head in his shirt, and if ponies were able to weep, I would.

Thus I do not know when young mischief comes up, for my Sam has left the door open, and so there is no creak of hinges to warn me, and of course a hobbit can step so softly that I do not hear him approach. I only know he's there when he speaks.

'What's this, then? What's the matter with Bill?'

I push my face harder into my Sam's shirtwaist, for I do not wish to face my accuser. My Sam answers him, 'Off his feed – won't even take anything from my hand.'

'But this is terrible!' youngest hobbit says, and I am in complete agreement, though he wouldn't understand if I said such.

The next touch is his hand – I know this, for I know the touch of each of the hobbits, the difference in their hands and the way they use them – and he is stroking my neck, and speaking kindly. 'Come now, Bill, we cannot have you going on like this... I mean, you cannot go on like this... I mean, we need for you to go on...'

I lay back my ears in irritation, for I can make little enough sense of his words.

He does not step away at this sign of bad temper on my part (he ought, I think, considering the damage I did him the last time we met), but continues stroking and talking at my side, while Sam continues to urge me to eat his handful of grain. I bring one ear forward when I hear young hobbit say, '...and if you're to come with us...'

Come with them?

My Sam seems to have some question as well, as he breaks in. 'Come with us? But you're not to come with us, Master Peregrin, from what...'

'I will,' youngest hobbit says fiercely. 'I came this far, didn't I? And I'd venture (though I do say so myself) that I was more help than hindrance along the way. I won't let Frodo go off alone into...'

'I wouldn't call it alone, I wouldn't,' my Sam interjects, but young hobbit won't be quenched.

'I'll follow after!' he says. 'Don't you agree, Bill? I ought to go with you all! Someone ought to go who has a head on his shoulders, to keep the rest of you out of trouble!'

With you all? With us all? Does that mean I am to go, and not to stay?

I lift my head, carefully this time, that I might not injure my Sam nor young-and-determined. The latter looks worse for the wear, his nose red and swollen, and one of his eyes blackened and swollen shut – I did that! ...to my shame – but there's a spark of spirit in his wide-opened eye, and I for one would not trust him to idle himself and remain behind when the rest – of us! – depart, no, not even tied in a sack.

A part of me wonders about that, tying a hobbit in a sack, that is, and if it is a common custom amongst hobbits of the Shire, for I surely never saw a sackful of hobbit in Bree, not in all my life. Though I did hear someone mention once, something about someone being sacked... So perhaps there is something to it, after all. I shake my head at the thought, and my ears flop loosely, a pleasurable feeling.

The lovely aroma of the grain makes my nostrils twitch, and I absently nibble at the handful that my Sam still holds under my muzzle.

'There now, there's the lad!' my Sam says, and he sounds well pleased. His worry subsides some, and then more as he hand-feeds me another mouthful, and before I quite realise what is happening he's urged me to take a step or two over to the feedbox and bury my nose in the golden treasure there. Ahhh, but it's good.

Youngest hobbit has followed me the step or two, and now he rests his arm over my withers in a companionable manner and leans there as if he means to stay a while.

He is not afraid of me, then, nor angry with me for the injury I have done. My old misery kept grudges – I remember how he grumbled and how roughly he treated me for some days after I accidentally trod on his foot – but it seems that young-and-determinedly-cheerful holds no grudges, at least in this case. It is as if he understands that I did not mean him any harm.

Bless him, and his poor, swollen nose, as well.

We are going on with the Master, after all. I have no doubt about it, none at all. Youngest hobbit says that we need him, and he says it with such assurance that I've little or no doubt in the matter. We shall need him. I have every confidence that he has an important part in our venture.

What it is, I have no idea. But then ponies seldom do. We just do what's asked of us, and leave the thinking to our betters.


Chapter 55. The days grow shorter

The days blend one into another, difficult to count in their sameness, and yet a difference is growing, or should I perhaps say not growing? For though the grass was green and sweet when we arrived here, despite the browning of autumn outside this place, this Valley, as we journeyed here, it seems that autumn has crept in, almost without our noticing.

The sameness… each day is the same as the one before for those few of us who remain in the stables, mostly ponies, Merrylegs and myself, and the dwarf ponies, waiting patiently for their homeward trek. The stables are warm, the bedding is heaped high, the pasture is a pleasant place, even with the grass faded to silver-tipped brown – for plenty of summer-sweet hay is forked into the racks each day that we might eat to our stomachs’ content when we are turned out. There is a chill in the air, but we don’t mind it, as our shaggy winter coats are growing nicely with the shortening of the days. The nights are quiet with the soft breathing of the ponies, and the few horses left here, like the old mare who spends much time gazing over the fence, watching for someone’s return, though I don’t quite remember…

I am content. One hobbit or another comes each day to share a word and a treat, and often they come in twos, though seldom more or all together at one time, and the Big Man comes not at all. Perhaps he is still on a journey, somewhere, with those two Elves who are not quite Elves, or not just Elves (if one can say such a thing as "just Elves") but something else. My Sam comes oftenest, very often early, or late – I gather that he slips out when the Master is sleeping, though today he is here in the middle of the day (as, come to think of it, he often is). I jog to the fence to greet him.

We have a game that we play, my Sam and I. There is a carrot in one of his pockets, and I must discover where it is hid. Every time he comes, the carrot has a different resting place. I snuffle and nudge, and am rewarded twice – with his chuckles, first of all, and then with the carrot when at last I find the proper pocket.

‘There’s the lad,’ he says to me, as he does each day, and combs my long forelock with his fingers. ‘There’s the lad.’ He shakes his head, and adds, ‘Maps, maps, and more maps. My head was that a-spin, I tell you…’ And he speaks of how he needed ‘just a breath’ of the fresh air to clear his head, and how he’s glad Mr. Frodo seems to understand the business, as it’s more than he’s able.

I do not know what a ‘map’ might be, but it sounds as if it must be a fearsome and difficult creature, which requires much patience and wisdom to tame to one’s will. I push at his chest to tell him that ponies are easier – a carrot or apple will go a long way with one of us – and he is better served to spend his time here, with sensible creatures.

He laughs again, with a rueful, ‘That’s the end of the carrots, at least for the moment, old lad – you’ve had all that were in my pockets. I’ll have to ask the cooks for more.’

I do not know who the cooks are, but they are very dear to me, as they seem to have an inexhaustible supply of such things as carrots, apples, and even the occasional sweet or piece of bread. I should like to meet them some time. I wonder if they are Men, or Elves, or perhaps Hobbits?

Sometimes the Master comes with my Sam. He seems well again, and usually well rested, and though he feels serious, if you take my meaning, and seems to bear a burden I cannot see, I can make him chuckle by nodding or shaking my head at appropriate times as he talks to me, or to Sam. ‘It is almost as if he understands what we are talking about, Sam,’ he often says. I nod my head, and he invariably laughs. It is a most delightful sound, and it makes me feel like frisking, which makes him laugh yet again, and then my Sam laughs in delight to hear him. I wish he could come every day, but for some reason, he does not.

Merrylegs always joins the party when the old pet comes to the fence with the younger hobbits, but as they always bring pockets full of treats, it is simply a matter of "the more, the merrier."

The outwardly merry hobbit, and young mischief come to see me as well, together and separately. When together, they are cheerful and jesting, but when one or the other comes alone to see me, we have a more serious and sober time together. Each has decided that he can tell me his secrets and concerns, things he cannot say to the others, and they both believe I am trustworthy to keep their words and thoughts safely to myself.

They have the right of it.

Chapter 56. I meet an old man who is more than he seems

My Sam comes in the middle of the day, for a second time this day (for he came to see me early, in the stables, when Master was still sleeping, or so he said), and Master is with him, and a tall figure, taller than the Big Man or any of the Elves I have seen thus far, and unknown to me, but if he is with my hobbits then he must be a friend, I deem. More carrots in the offing, I might hope...

I gallop to the fence, plant my feet to come to a quick stop, and nod my head in vigorous greeting, eliciting laughter from my Sam and the Master, and a chuckle from the tall one. And yes, Master has an apple in his hand, ready for me, and I take it with delicate care, as I'd not care to take one of his fingers with it (if you take my meaning), and nod my thanks and pleasure as I crunch juicy sweetness between my teeth.

My Sam is grinning, and we will begin our carrot game when the apple is gone, but as I nod and chew I turn one eye to the tall one.

Ah, he is not so tall as I first thought. He wears upon his grey head a tall, pointed hat. At first I thought his head was tall and pointed, but as I put my nose up to him, I see that it is a hat. Perhaps his head is tall and pointed inside the hat? I reach my nose higher to give the hat a nudge, to see, and the old man laughs, grabbing at his hat with one hand and my nose with the other.

'Bill!' my Sam shouts, and there is distress in his tone, and I drop my head and lay back my ears in consternation. 'None of your tricks, now! This is Gandalf, this is, and he can turn you into a toad just as quick as you could sneeze!'

I shy away from them at such an alarming sentiment, and roll the white of my eye in the tall one's direction as I swallow the last of Master's apple.

'No harm done, Samwise,' the old man says, when he is finished laughing. 'Bold he is, indeed, as you all told me, and stout of heart, I deem.' And he extends his hand to me, palm upward, and there is something there... Against my better judgment I take a step forward – I have seen a toad or two in my day, in the meadow where I spent my colthood, safe with my dam, and I wonder now, how many of them might have once been mischievous ponies?

My nostrils flare at a sweet aroma and before I can stop myself I am nuzzling his palm, ah, sweetness! He would not feed me treats and then be so cruel as to turn me into something unnatural, would he? I bring one ear forward, but leave the other back, to show my indecision.

Master raises his hand to me, but I know there is nothing to fear from him. Indeed, a most pleasant stroking sensation commences under my jaw, and I stretch out my neck to him, my ears flopping to the side in pleasure, and I forget my suspicions of the tall one. 'Bold, indeed,' Master echoes the old man, his tone fond and proud. 'I don't know what we would have done without him, Gandalf.'

Gandalf! The name meant little to me, at first mention, but now that Master has said the name in addition to my Sam saying it, I remember where I have heard the name before. I might have heard it muttered in the market in Bree, but I have also heard it mentioned more recently. Merrylegs has told me of this one, who appears to be an old man but is much more. I pull my head in, and Master's hand falls away, and then I push my nose at the old man for a good sniff.

He smells of wool and leather, for starters, and fire – which can be a frightening smell, if you take my meaning (stable fires come to mind), or a homely one (campfires in the wild, or the sudden flare before a pipe is lit, and the sweet smell of the smoke that comes after). In the old man's case, the fire-smoke smell is heartening. I cannot tell you why, exactly, but it is. Perhaps it is heartening to those he is in friendly relations with, and frightening to those who are not. For he is my friend – he has fed me a treat, has he not? ...and more where that came from, or so I may hope.

I vow to myself to let bygones be bygones, whatever that may mean. In any event, let us have no more talk of toads.

The old man chuckles once more, as if he has caught the thought, and yes! He extends his hand again, and another sweet waits upon the palm, and as I snuffle it he strokes my face with the long fingers of his other hand. 'A stout heart,' he says, 'and a sturdy back for the bearing of burdens.'

'Does that mean you think...?' my Sam says, eagerness in his tone, but the old man stops the caresses (to my regret) and holds up his hand.

'We'll see,' is all he says, and turns away. The Master and my Sam follow him, and they seem to be arguing, and my Sam has forgot all about the carrot game.

I sigh and turn from the fence, and walk back to the racks in the field where the other horses and ponies are gathered, and pull a mouthful of hay from the rack, to chew and consider.

Bearing of burdens? But, of course!

I worry for a moment, that perhaps they might be selling me to the old man, for such are the words I heard in the pony market at Bree, when my old man took me there, and my old misery took me away.

But my Sam would not sell me away.

He wouldn't.

Would he?

Chapter 57.  I take part in a curious conversation

I am dozing under the pale winter sky when I become aware of the approach of two figures to the pasture fence. One of them is Tall Hat himself, introduced to me only yesterday, though his name evades my memory, a strange, impractical, mannish name. However, the sweets he is able to produce for an inquisitive pony are tasty, and so I trot to the fence to meet him. We parted on friendly terms, and I trust we’ll have no trouble with toads or toadishness so long as I can resist the urge to test his hat.

The other I have not seen much of before, not close, anyhow, not within nose-distance. He resembles my guide, who visits me daily, and the two Elves-and-something-else-again who rode off with the Big Man some time ago. Though they are dim in my memory, this one’s fair face brings them once more to mind, though there is also in his face a kindness born of years, many years I deem, and of sorrow, and while he walks lightly in his approach, I sense a great burden about him, and a kindred spirit stirs within me, for I am a bearer of burdens, myself.

I stand at the fence, waiting for them, nodding my head in greeting. Tall Hat chuckles and holds out his hand to me, ah, sweetness! Truly we are good friends. Are we not? (Will he be my new master? I would prefer that we remain just friends, if it were my place to choose. Which, my being only a pony, it sadly is not.)

I put my nose up to him, and the fair one laughs. ‘He’s quite taken with you, Gandalf.’

Gandalf. That was the name. But Tall Hat suits him rather better, to my way of thinking.

‘We are great friends,’ the old man replies, and I nod my agreement. So I said myself, just a moment ago.

The fair one eyes me, puts out his hand. May I see your teeth? he asks, quite clearly, in the four-footed language, and obediently I open my mouth for him, for truly, I could not resist any request he might make, though I have no idea why.

He looks carefully, then takes hold with gentle fingers to look more closely. At last he releases me, and I turn to Tall Hat for comfort, for it is not pleasant to have someone holding your jaw and exploring your mouth with his fingers and eyes.

Tall Hat obliges me with another sweet. We are indeed great friends.

Fair One strokes me gently on the neck in seeming apology, very kindness in his fingers. I begin to warm towards him, and he smiles as if he knows my thoughts. ‘Not so old as he seemed when he first came,’ he says. ‘Indeed, it appears as if years have fallen away, with good food and care. His coat, so ragged on his arrival, is glossy. You can count his ribs no longer, for he has filled out, and he looked sound and strong as he trotted to the fence just now.’

Curious, I lift my head, curve my neck, prick my ears forward, and peer at the two of them. These are market words, and yet neither my Sam nor the Master is here.

Not to worry, Greatheart, the Fair One says, having heard me plainly. We are not here to buy, but to consider.

What is it that they would consider, I wonder?

Their eyes gaze beyond me, to the horses and ponies in the pasture, though the Fair One continues to stroke my neck. Tall Hat takes out a pipe, fills it, tamps it down, and lights it, and it seems to my fancy as if his thoughts form puffs of smoke as he considers what ever it is he has come to think over.

‘A horse would be able to carry more, in the way of spare food and clothes and blankets and other needs,’ the Fair One says, as if continuing an earlier conversation, and Tall Hat pulls at his lip as if to consider these words at the least.

‘Yes,’ he says, ‘but I would rather take no beast at all, as I have told you, Elrond.’

‘I am not sure that your party can carry enough on your own backs to sustain you through such a journey,’ the Fair One counters. ‘Even if you take only enough to reach Lorien, and resupply there, and continue onward by boat, still…’

‘With a Ranger and a Wood Elf, we can supplement the food we carry, by foraging.’

‘In the dead of Winter?’ the Fair One challenges. ‘Game will be scarce, and it is neither the time for berries nor for green leaves…’ He snorts. ‘How far do you think the hobbits will be able to travel, on the amount of food you’ll be able to carry on your backs? There will be no inns where you are going.’

Hobbits! Is he talking about my hobbits? I have seen no others here, save the old pet.

The Fair One continues. ‘Perhaps a horse would not be the best solution after all.’ The Tall One nods, as if satisfied, but frowns as his companion continues. ‘A horse would stand out, in such barren country as you must pass through. A small, shaggy pony can bear a larger burden, in proportion to his body size, than a horse, perhaps because his legs are shorter and sturdier. And yet a smaller beast would also be easier to conceal in long grass, or among stunted bushes. You might better take more than one, but I deem you must take one at the very least.’

‘A pony,’ Tall Hat says, and sighs. He is silent for a long moment before continuing. ‘I fear that you have the right of it. I fear that we could not carry enough, ourselves, to ensure the journey, and yet… Samwise is fond of this beast; I should not like to take him with us. In truth, I would rather travel lighter, and take no beast with us, much less one that Sam is so fond of. I fear the paths we may yet be forced to tread… ‘

I turn towards him and rub my face against his breast, trying to understand. They are talking about a journey, I think. Hobbits are involved. My hobbits? And a pony is needed.

Yet he would not take me, because my Sam is fond of me. Does that mean he would not wish to take me away from my Sam, and my Sam remaining behind?

No. From the conversations I have heard amongst my hobbits, they are anticipating a journey of some sort. Homeward? Somewhere else? I am not sure.

If my Sam is going on a journey, then of course I am going with him.

I am ready, I say, nibbling at the wool of his cloak to demand his attention.

This journey they are discussing, this must be why the Big Man told me to prepare. I have eaten. I have rested. I have trotted and galloped and walked all the way around the great field where they turn us out each day, many times, working my muscles and growing stronger.

Tall Hat pushes my mouth away, and I turn to the Fair One. I am ready, I insist.

He meets my look with one of his own that pierces to my heart, measures me in a glance, reads what is within. I know, he answers in the same tongue.

But he gives me a final pat and turns from the fence, and Tall Hat follows, and I hear the Fair One saying as they walk away, ‘We shall examine all the beasts available to us, to find the one best suited to this venture…'

I whinny, I paw the ground with my front hoof, I call after them. But they pay no heed.

***

A/N: A few turns of phrase taken from "The Ring Goes South" in The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Chapter 58. We hear news of the outside world

The scouts have been returning over the past few days. Each day more horses join us at the hayracks, thinner than they were when last I saw them, and worn with long travel and much effort.  I do not remember how long it has been that they have been gone, but it was a long stretch of days. I seem to remember that they left when the grass was still green on the meadow, and now winter is full upon us. At least, the days are cold, the pale and tasteless grass tipped with silver frost in the mornings when they first turn us out, and the summer-sweet hay is more to my taste.

Strange are the tales they have to tell. One spoke with Eagles!

I have never seen an Eagle, but my mother told me of these great birds, large enough to bear away a naughty young foal that strays too far from its dam.

There is sad news, of horses found broken and drowned, and I feel doubly sorry for these, as they were evidently the black horses ridden by the Fearful riders, those who pursued the Master at the Ford, and plunged into the river in madness as the terrifying flood came down.

I should hope that such madness would never fall upon me, that I should run to my destruction! I fear I have not the wisdom, however. I am only a pony, after all.

I cannot imagine how they were able to bear their Riders, and yet perhaps they had no choice, much as my lot was cast to labour for my old misery until by some marvel, my Sam took me on.

I think if I were faced with such a choice as those unfortunates, I would fall down dead before they could approach closely enough to force my service. I hope I might, at least.

Some of the news is disquieting. Two shivering horses spoke in whispers of being pursued by wild wolves, that are hunting again far up the Great River. I do hope our path (for I fully intend to go with Sam, where ever it is he may be going) lies no where near this Great River. Although we crossed more than one river. I do not know which would be the Great one. I have no desire to try to outrun wolves, if these powerful, long-legged Elf horses escaped with their lives, and their riders’ lives, only by galloping so that their hearts nearly burst with the effort.

The white one returned some time in this night just past and I am glad to greet him. He is, as always, gracious, calling me Greatheart as the Elves do, and nodding to the old mare and to me, and shouldering aside one or two of the large, hungry scouts who are eager to feast on the hay in the racks, that Merrylegs and I might also be able to have a mouthful or three.

He has little enough to say to all who crowd around him, demanding news of his journeys. But at one point in the afternoon, when I am standing at the gate, wondering if any of my hobbits will come to see me this day, he wanders over, quite casually, as if by accident. He makes it look as if he is circling the field, pacing the line of the fence, as we sometimes do when we are wanting exercise.

(As if he needed exercise! He, too, is visibly thinner, but tougher somehow, as if he has been journeying long on short commons. He is not skin and bone, as I was, but there is not an ounce of spare flesh on his body. He is all bone and muscle, and seems none the worse for his travels.)

He stops to rub his jaw on the gate and says to me, very soft, for my ears alone, No sign of Them, not a trace to be seen, and nowhere Their presence to be felt. It seems They have vanished from the North, and while my Rider seemed somewhat disquieted, and possessed of many questions (for he drove me far and wide in his searching, and scarce seemed satisfied with finding nothing), I must say that I am glad!

And I must agree with him. If I never lay eyes on one of Them again, or their horses, or feel their shivers run up my spine, it will be too soon.

Greatheart they may name me, but my heart turns to jelly within me at the thought of Them. I can think of nothing worse that we might ever encounter, no matter how far we may journey.

***
A/N: A few turns of phrase taken from "The Ring Goes South" in The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Chapter 59. I make my wishes known

Two more scouts have arrived in the night, or at least they join us when we are led out to pasture in the morning. The old mare says that these are the last of those who were sent out to gather news of… of Them, and of the surrounding lands.

They are as close-mouthed as the white one, moreso even, for at least the white one told me a little of what he and his Rider had sought, and failed to find. No, but they use their mouths only to pull hay from the racks, eating greedily as if they hadn’t eaten a full meal in days. …which they probably have not, for I can see their ribs plainly, and their necks are thin. They have travelled far, and been pushed to return quickly from where ever it is they journeyed, or so I deem from a stray comment that passed from one to the other, as we gathered around the hay racks.

But I am interrupted before I can gather any more stray wisps of gossip, for my Sam is walking towards the gate!

I turn away from the hay racks, I gallop to him, planting my feet to stop just short of the gate. I nicker and toss my head.

He laughs, delightful sound it is, and I would stop to savour it if I weren’t in such a taking. I must make him understand me!

‘You’re glad to see me, are you, Bill?’ he said, reaching out a hand.

In spite of myself, I stand still to feel the touch of his fingers, I lean into his caress, he is my Sam and I am his, and none shall ever part us, at least if I have my way, my heart’s desire, to stay with him to the end of my days. Even to a dark end? something deep inside me seems to whisper. Even to your doom?  I shudder, but crowd closer to the gate, to my Sam. Even so.

‘Steady now, steady, Bill!’ he says with a laugh. ‘I haven’t forgot your carrots! I have them right here, in my pockets, as you very well know… all you have to do is find them!’

Take me with you! I say, nuzzling at his chest.

He thinks that I am seeking the carrots, for he says, ‘Not that pocket! Try another, Bill…’

I push against him, a little nudge. Take me with you! I insist. Don’t even think of going off without me! You need me!

‘That’s right!’ my Sam says, well pleased. ‘You’ve got the right pocket!’ He fumbles with his fingers to retrieve the pieces of carrot residing there, fending me off with his other hand.

Unlike our customary game, I could not care less what my Sam has got in his pocketses! Not for the first time, I wish that an Elf, or Tall Hat, might accompany my Sam out to the field, that I might tell one of them, and have them tell him what I wish him to know.

Somehow I must make him understand!

He is holding out the carrot to me in his palm now. Tempting, the smell wafts to my nostrils. I widen my nostrils for a good sniff. My mouth opens of itself and I lower my head…

But recalled to my urgent need, instead of taking the treat, I push past his outreached hand. I lay the length of my face against his chest. I rest it there, leaning lightly against him, speaking with all the wit and will I can muster.

Take me with you! Take me with you when you go, where ever it might be that you are going!

For a moment I think I have been successful, for he croons to me, soft, and his hand (the one without the carrot) strokes my jaw. ‘Aw, now, Bill.’

But then he adds, ‘What is it, old fellow? What’s the matter?’

In my exasperation, not quite meaning to, I give a sudden shove against his chest, and he sprawls backward, falling to the ground. I am relieved to see him promptly prop himself up on his elbows, staring at me in accusation, but I’m not at all sorry about it.

‘What’s got into you, Bill?’

I meet his eye, my determination stronger than ever. Somehow I must make him understand. If you don’t let me go with you, Sam, I’ll follow on my own!

We lock gazes for a long moment, and then he rolls over to get back on his feet.

‘Well, old lad, there’s an eye-opener, and no mistake,’ he says under his breath, reaching his hand out to take me under the jaw, to stare into my eye. I return his look, willing him to understand, with all that is within me.

He nods, he caresses the spot between my eyes with his free hand, nods again, turns, and walks away.

I watch after him for as long as I can see him, until he is lost from my sight.

He has dropped the pieces of carrot. I stick my neck through the bars of the gate to lip it up, and then I lift my head and stand at the gate, staring after my Sam, to see if he will return.

I will wait. For ever, if need be.

Or if he does not come to the field to see me to morrow or the morrow after, as he is daily in the habit of doing, I will win my way free and find him. If he has gone and left me behind, I will follow.

Even to my doom.

***

A/N Some material quoted from "The Ring Goes South" and "A Journey in the Dark" from J.R.R. Tolkien's Fellowship of the Ring, or perhaps from New Line Cinema's film of the same name.

Chapter 60. We make preparations

Something is happening!

This morning, before they turn me out, my guide comes with one of the stable workers, and they fit me with harness of fine leather straps, and rings and buckles made of metal that is strangely dull in texture and appearance, as dark and dull as the leather itself. Though the leather is fine and soft against my skin, it is also very strong, of the finest quality, or so my guide says. ‘For we do not want the load to rub. You will carry more than a pony ought, at first,’ he says. ‘It was that, or send two ponies, but Mithrandir wanted none at all as it was. Still, as they eat their supplies, the load will grow lighter.’

After the harness has been fitted, as if were made to my measurements (and my guide tells me that it was!), he returns with a grooming box and gives me a thorough grooming. Next he trims my feet himself, something he has left to another before this day. As he works, he speaks under his breath that it is important to get it right, just right. When I ask him what he means, he pats me on the neck. ‘Good feet make for fair travel,’ he says.

Travel? I ask. Where are we going?

That, I’m not at liberty to say,’ he replies. ‘You might ask of the Lord Elrond, or of Mithrandir, or Estel, and they might tell you, though it’s more likely that they wouldn’t. It’s best not mentioned.’

But they know where we are going? I ask. And who is going?

‘That much I can tell you,’ my guide says, moving to trim my off hind hoof, and he makes a point of speaking in words that a pony can understand. ‘Your Sam, and his Master, and the Man who brought them here…’ I miss his next few words, as my heart leaps with joy at the mention of my Sam. ‘…and Mithrandir.’

I do not know this name, Mithrandir, but when my guide describes him to me, I realise he is talking about Tall Hat, and I am glad. Should we encounter any foes, even those fearsome Ones, it is likely he could turn them all into toads. Toads are hardly fearsome.

It matters not to me who makes up the rest of the party, though I wish for young apples-and-mischief – he always knows how to lighten the Master’s burden with light talk – and for the Merry hobbit, with his attention to detail. He would notice, should my burdens begin to rub. He has a way of working together with my Sam to ensure as much comfort as might be, for the Master’s sake, even though we wander through a wilderness.

O’ course, the more there are in the party, the more food and supplies for me to carry on my back, and so I might hope that the party is a small one.

I wonder once again, where we might be going? Will it be back the way we came, homeward once more, to this Crickhollow the Master speaks of as his home-not-home? Or will we go onward, into lands we have not yet seen?

Will there be sweet grass there, to graze upon, to roll on? Will there be water to drink?

I can go a long way on short commons. (Though I’d rather not, if you take my meaning.)

Just in case, I will eat my fill each day before we depart, of the sun-sweet hay in the racks, and drink deeply at every chance. I will roll on the frost-silvered grass, and store up the sunshine in my mind and imagination, weak and watery though it may be. I will run, and kick up my heels, and revel in the freedom while I have it, for once we depart, it will be burdens by travelling, and hobbles by times of resting, I deem.

But no matter. It is a pony’s lot in life, and my lot is better than I might have hoped. For I am to travel with my Sam, where ever it might be that he is bound, and I can ask no better lot than that.

Chapter 61. I am offered one last chance

It does not appear that we are to set out this day, at least, and it is a comfort. It is a cold, grey day, and as we are led to pasture after our morning feeding and grooming, the East Wind streams through the bare branches of the trees, and we can hear the sound of it, a distant roar, seething through the dark pines on the hills above. It is a most unwelcoming day, and a part of me would rather stay snug in my stall, rather than walking sedately with the other horses and ponies under the scudding clouds, dark and low, as if threatening rain, or worse.

None of us is much in the mood for frolic this day – we crowd around the hayracks, taking pleasure in sharing the warmth of shaggy bodies on either side – for my winter coat has been growing in, these past weeks, and the others, too, bear heavier coats than they did on my arrival. Autumn is well behind us, and winter is here.

The days are very short, and the last few days have seemed the shortest of all. Merrylegs calls it “the turning of the year” and says the Elves have some special celebration to welcome the coming of the Light, but the days seem awfully dark to me, and the nights terribly long and cold. I suppose the green boughs and garlands that are hanging about are supposed to make things more festive. They do add a sharp, green scent to the air – but evergreens are not very satisfying to eat, and so I am glad to have my hay and grain. More welcome were the apples presented to all the stable dwellers, a few days ago, all at once! It was some sight to see, in the middle night, after we’d been put to bed  – a parade of Elves, bearing lanterns, a moving river of light, and bringing treats, for, as my guide said, it was a night for feasting for all – four-footed creatures as well as those with only two feet.

I can almost still taste that apple, crunchy, juicy sweetness between my teeth.

They bring us in from the pasture well before the dimming of the day, and I welcome the warmth of the stables, the full feed box, the grooming brush, the rubbing cloth, and picking out of my feet. Life is very comfortable here, and I almost envy Merrylegs. I would not mind if Sam should choose to stay here to the end of our days.

I doze, thinking these thoughts, my belly well filled, the straw in my stall heaped high and comfortable, and the sounds that fill the stable speak of safety and well-cared-for beasts.

And then my guide is at my nose, and my Sam with him, and Tall Hat as well. My Sam offers me a carrot, which I accept gratefully.

Tall Hat speaks. ‘Are you quite certain, Sam? There is still time to choose differently – the harness was made to be adjustable, because the pony we bring with us will all too likely grow thin on the poor grazing available this time of year, but it also means that it could be fitted to another just as well…’

I am not certain just what he means, and put my nose up to Sam for comfort and reassurance.

Stroking my neck with gentle fingers, he says stoutly, ‘Aw, Gandalf, he’ll grow just as thin if he stays! You know he’ll pine, if he does not come!’

‘He seems very happy here,’ Tall Hat says, gesturing to the high-heaped, fragrant straw, the well-filled haynet and water bucket, even my well-groomed coat, mane, and tail.

I rub my face against my Sam’s shirt. Tell him! I say, and he leans into me, that I might not push him off his feet.

‘Mr. Gandalf, listen to him!’ my Sam says.

‘Listen?’ Tall Hat says, with a quizzical smile.

‘Listen! Why, that animal can nearly talk, and would talk, if he stayed here much longer.’

My guide laughs, and pats my neck, as if he agrees.

‘And what do you think he’s saying?’ Tall Hat responds.

I take my face from Sam’s chest and snort at him, blowing a stream of warm air that ruffles the edges of his cloak.

My Sam laughs, though his eyes are serious. ‘You ought to have seen him, the other day! He gave me a look as plain as Mr. Pippin could speak it: if you don’t let me go with you, Sam, I’ll follow on my own. And he will, too!’

‘I have every confidence in him,’ Master’s voice sounds behind the others, and he comes up to us, to ask how the loading is proceeding, ‘for we are to start at dusk, you know, and not the middle night, or even tomorrow’s dawning!’

And thus I discover that this is the day of our departure. No straw-heaped bed for me, not this night, but a harness and a load and a rope to lead me. So long as the hand of my Samwise holds that rope, I am content.

***

A/N: Some material taken from “The Ring Goes South” in Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien

Chapter 62. Comfort, and a blessing to go on

So we are to walk in the darkness, and sleep in the daylight, quite as if we were those tiny flying creatures that squeak in the night hours – I remember, dimly, seeing them darting above our pasture on warm, summer nights, as my dam and I dozed under the stars, and hearing their thin voices. I do not remember how she named them, or even if she knew a name for them; only, she said that they were not birds, but something else.

I do not know how long we will walk the nights away, only that it will be until we are far from Rivendell, or so my guide tells me as he fastens the harness in place and begins to load me with the walking party’s needs. He also tells me something of the country we will be passing through, rough and barren, but you are a sure-footed beast, and have already proven yourself in difficult country, or so Estel has told me.

I wonder who this Estel might be, and how he or she might know aught of me and my efforts. Perhaps one of my hobbits told a tale or two while we rested here in this pleasant place.

Though we are to walk in darkness, somehow the night does not hold as much terror for me as it once did. There is One here, one of the Fair Folk, who comes often to the stables in the nights, to bring a treat to the old mare or Merrylegs or one or another of us, and often stops by my stall if I am wakeful, to stroke my nose. She is fairest of all I have seen here, as young and merry as a maid, but with age and wisdom in her gaze. She smells of flowers in the grass under a star-filled sky, and her voice is soft, her fingers gentle in their stroking but strength flows from her touch.

She has come often, of late, every night for more nights than I can count, to whisper with the old mare, and always she stops at my stall to stroke my neck, to pause and consider. She comes now, as they are loading me with burdens, and stops before me, gazing deep into my eyes. Greatheart, she says.

I nod my head and snort softly, and she smiles.

My beloved has told me much, of how you eased his burden on the journey here, she says. And now you are to journey on… I am glad that you elected to go with them, even knowing the fear you faced in the past, and not knowing what lies ahead.

I do not quite understand, but then, any journey in the Wild is fraught with danger, and I am only a pony. I have only my heels, if you please, whether I may use them to kick, or to run away. But I was not alone, coming here – the others had swords, at least – and I will not be alone, going onward. I will have my Sam with me.

I am not sure who her beloved might be. Perhaps it is my Sam, for he is certainly one to be beloved. Or the Master?

All I can do is my best, and I tell her so, and she nods, and reaches out those soft, strong fingers, and braids my forelock, tucking it up so that it no longer covers my eyes. We would not have you tripping over your own feet, because you cannot see your way!

I snort again. I can see in the dark! …at least, better than most two-footed, save, perhaps, the Fair Folk!

Yes, she says, but I would do my part, little as it is, in aid of your venture. And she kisses my forehead, where the hair forms a whorl, and whispers a blessing in a tongue I do not know, and then she says, slowly and clearly, that even a pony might understand, May a Star shine upon the hour of your departure, and as you journey, and watch over you and bring you safe home again in the end… whether or not we ever should meet again, I will be thinking of you, and blessing your courage.

I shake my head at this, for I know I have but little courage. I am only a pony, and courage is for the strong and mighty.

She laughs, but does not tell me why, saying only, Ah… but Greatheart…

She takes her leave, and my guide bows low to her, and the gathering shadows are somehow the less dark for the memory of her look, and her laughter. When the stars shine above us on our journeys, I shall think of her, and somehow, I think, the darkness will be the less, if you take my meaning.

Chapter 63. We stand before the door and think of things forgotten

My guide has finished balancing my load, and is checking the straps of my harness one more time, to make sure that all fits snugly without rubbing. A stable worker, called Carrots by Merrylegs and a few others, because she always has some in one pocket or other, is sitting on an upturned bucket outside my stall, weaving something from lengths of straw. Suddenly a horn rings out, urgent on the evening air, loud and clear. I startle, rear a little despite my heavy burden, and drop to all four feet once more, to stand trembling. In the same moment the stable worker springs to her feet and runs to the entrance, while my guide is hastily patting and soothing me to quiet, before stopping to check the harness again.

‘Well balanced,’ he says. ‘Not a bag shifted, nor a strap.’ To the stable worker, he calls, ‘What is it?’

‘It is not like any horn I’ve ever heard,’ Carrots calls back. ‘Not one of ours…’ She stares out for a long time, then shakes her head and returns to us. ‘It doesn’t seem to be an alarm call or summons. Everyone’s gone back to their business.’

‘Including ourselves,’ my guide says, and with a slap for my neck he adds, ’I have done everything in my power to make you ready, Greatheart.’

I know, I tell him, rubbing my face on his arm. From the moment he led me to this Valley, he has been my helper and my friend. I am sad to leave him, but I must follow my Sam. I will always remember.

He nods, and places a hand on either side of my jaw, his forehead to mine. ‘May a bright star shine for you in all the dark places,’ he says, ‘and lead you safely homeward once more.’ We stand, face-to-face, as I wonder what homeward means, for a long moment, and then he lifts his head away. ‘They’ll be waiting before the door,’ he says to Carrots, and the stable worker nods and takes my rope to lead me away.

I turn my head back when I reach the stable door, and he is there, his hand on my stall door, watching. He raises his other hand in farewell, and I nod to him.

The other horses and ponies meet us coming in from the meadow, and there are many soft nickers of greeting, blessings and hopes and well-wishes as they pass along to supper and bed. But I am glad to see my Sam standing before the door of the house as if he waits for me, and Master and the two younger hobbits with him, also the old pet, all warmly clad in thick warm clothes, and from the smell of them their jackets and cloaks are lined with fur.

Samwise steps forward to take my rope, smelling chiefly of new clothes and determination, and Carrots bows to him with Elven grace as she surrenders it. His eyes widen at this, and I think he blushes, for his smell changes to wonder and embarrassment, though he is well muffled in his cloak such that I cannot see much of his face save his honest brown eyes. ‘Here now, Bill,’ he says, to cover his confusion, I think. ‘Steady, lad.’ For I have shown no sign of unsteadiness, at least not here, and not now.

The Big Man sits upon the step, his head bowed to his knees. I wonder if he is ill, and prick my ears at him and widen my nostrils to catch his scent on the icy air, but no smell of illness comes from him. I smell mainly leather and steel, and I do not know what he might be thinking.

Is the old pet to come with us, then? He holds tight to Master’s arm as they wait on the doorstep, as if they would walk together on this journey.

My Sam pats me, absently I think, and I hear the noise he makes when he sucks his teeth – it usually means he is thinking deeply. I snort and rub my face against his arm, and he starts as if only now marking that I am with him. He sighs and shakes his head, taking a tighter hold on my rope, and says, ‘Bill, my lad, you oughtn’t to have took up with us.’

I snort and shake my head at him, though constrained by his grip on the rope. He eases his hold, seeing my discomfort, and strokes my neck gently. ‘You could have stayed here and et the best hay till the new grass comes,’ he adds.

I swish my tail; I have nothing more to say. I have already said it, many times, until I was heard, and this is the result: The harness is fitted and buckled, the burden is loaded high and heavy, I shall bear what I must.

My Sam eases the pack on his shoulders and the smell of worry comes from him. I wonder that he should worry now, here in this sheltered valley, where no evil thing may come. Surely the journey ahead holds worries enough?

Master and the old pet are talking quietly; the young hobbits stand close together, and young mischief asks questions in a low voice, and trying-to-be-merry answers equally low. Others are here as well; one smells like an Elf, but a different sort than the ones I have come to know here. One is a dwarf; I know their smell chiefly from my acquaintance with the dwarf ponies here, and from those I met passing through the Breeland. I know little enough about Dwarves, except for what their ponies have told me… and Merrylegs, of course, though he knows more than he tells, if you take my meaning.

There is another Big Man, too, and he bears a shield on his arm, and a long sword. There is another curious smell about him; I extend my neck for a good look and sniff. Something hangs at his belt, that makes me think of the horns of the cows in the next field, but why he should carry such a thing is beyond my understanding.

‘Rope!’ my Sam mutters suddenly, and I turn my face to him to listen. ‘No rope! And only last night you said to yourself: “Sam, what about a bit of rope? You’ll want it, if you haven’t got it.”’

I try to tell him that he may have all my rope, used to tie down my burdens – they need only eat the food I carry, use it up – and it seems as if that would not be so difficult a matter, considering how we ran short on the journey here – though I don’t know what they’d do with the spare clothes and blankets on my back… Wear them, perhaps…

‘Well, I’ll want it,’ he says.

You’ll have it! I try to tell him with a push of my nose.

He shakes his head. ‘I can’t get it now.’

I turn my nose away and let my head drop, just a little, for he has the truth of it. He can’t get it now, and I wouldn’t want him to, in any event, for if they unloaded all my bundles in order to use the rope, they’d have no reason to take me with them.

***

A/N: Some material taken from “The Ring Goes South” in Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien. I have always wondered why Sam didn’t just speak up then and there, and have a coil of rope added to Bill’s burden, or someone’s pack. I could see him remembering some time after departing, when they reach the Ford, perhaps, and worrying. But there on the doorstep? (Can’t tell you how many times one of us has jumped out of the car and hurried into the house when the car is running in front of the house and we’re ready to go…)

Chapter 64. We depart and begin a long climb

A horse or pony can sleep with eyes open, standing upright – perhaps the head will droop, just a bit, or so I’ve seen in others. Standing before the door, waiting for what ever it is we might be waiting for, I doze, at the end of the rope Sam holds. I can be awake and alert in an instant; should danger present itself, for one thing, though I have repeatedly heard that no evil thing may enter this Valley. Or should my Sam let go my rope, or pass it to another, that would waken me. But safe, secure at the end of the rope, the other end safe in my Sam’s hands, I doze.

There is some talk around me, I think, and one ear twitches though I do not hear the words. The voices are low, in any event: the Lord of this place, grave yet somehow infusing courage into the heart; the rumble of a Dwarf; the higher pitch of the old pet, followed by a chorus of soft voices, chiming the word Farewell!

And with that, I feel the rope between us twitch in Sam’s hands, and I raise my head. Shadows move around me – the others are already walking away from the door and those who are gathered there to see us off. The old pet stands hovering before the doorstep, smelling of anxious eagerness, the Lord of the house behind him, a hand on his shoulder. But he moves forward, shivering a little, calling to my Sam, and my Sam – about to follow after the rest – turns back.

‘Yes, Mister B—‘ he begins, but the old hobbit interrupts, stuttering with the cold, taking my Sam’s arm between his two hands.

‘Take… take care of him for me, Sam,’ he says, and there is a catch in his voice, as of tears that only now are able to force their way to the surface, tears that he has kept well hidden to this point. I think he would say more, for he makes a noise deep in his throat, of distress, and grief; and despairing hope forced over all as a tarpaulin might be used to cover an untidy pile of firewood.

‘I will, Mr. Bilbo. I will,’ my Sam says, soft and low, taking one of his hands from my rope to cover the old pet’s hand. I know the warmth of my Sam’s hand, the comfort that it brings. The old pet raises his chin slightly, blinking away tears, setting his face in a smile that is calmer than his smell would suggest.

And then youngest hobbit is there, having darted back to us from near the fore. ‘Are you coming, Sam?’ he says. ‘We’re started!’ He has a gift for stating the obvious, youngest hobbit does, but before he can continue with a string of questions, my Sam answers.

‘So we have,’ he says. ‘You’d best catch up to Mr. Merry, Master Pip, before he misses you and starts to worry, and the whole party comes to a halt.’

‘That would hardly be a good beginning!’ youngest hobbit says with a laugh, and could I not smell the jangling of his nerves I’d think we were setting out upon a picnic, a holiday walking party, and nothing more. He turns away and though he breaks into a trot to catch the leaders I hear almost no sound of his feet. I wonder if and how I might walk so silently? It is something to ponder.

Before either hobbit can speak again, the Lord of this house is there, laying his hand once more on the old pet’s shoulder. ‘Come in now,’ he says quietly. ‘The fire is bright on the hearth, and I have ordered a warming drink. We cannot have you taking cold; Frodo would never forgive us…’

And the old pet allows himself to be urged away, though I see him cast a last longing look back at us as my Sam turns to follow the rest, already fading into the dusk. Then the rope pulls at my nose, and I follow my Sam.

The sound of the stream, somehow quieter than it was on the day we arrived in this place, grows louder as we walk, and the smell of the water grows stronger. And then there it is: the fearsome bridge rises before me. If you can call it a bridge.

Were it any other but my Sam… but it is his hand on the rope, and he walks steadily forward after the others, and they have crossed safely. Even youngest hobbit – there has been no startled yell, no splash, as there was in the Marshes when we nearly lost him. Even youngest hobbit has skipped over the span, as if the heavy burden he carries on his back is naught, not trudging as my Sam does. Though perhaps my Sam’s burden is heavier.

In any event, I do not wish to pull my Sam off balance by baulking, and perhaps cause him to lose his footing and fall into the stream. I follow meekly, with only a quiver of uneasiness to disturb my skin, up the small slope and over and downward again to solid ground. I keep to the exact middle, following my Sam’s example. A very practical and cautious hobbit is my Sam.

The way out of the Valley is steep and long and winding; our pace is slow, burdened as we are, and for the most part we are silent. Youngest leaves off his light-footed pace fairly quickly and walks alongside not-very-Merry, leaning forward, head down not in defeat but showing the effort of the long climb.

My head is lowered, as well, for the path is steep and my burden is heavy, enough for two ponies I think, and I might be pulling the sledge up and down the hills in the Breeland – except that here there is no “down”, only up, and up, and up. It is easier to plod along, up and up, if you lower your head, stretch your neck forward, let your nose pull you along, I find.

My companions are for the most part silent, except for a small Oompf! when youngest hobbit stumbles, and a murmur of encouragement as not-very-Merry grabs his arm to keep him from falling. This would hardly be a good beginning! echoes in my mind, but the older cousin manages to keep the younger from going sprawling, and from the awkwardness it appears that youngest hobbit’s pack is far heavier than he let on at the beginning.

We all bear heavy loads, it seems, from the heaviness of the footfalls of those who walk ahead of me. They are not loud in their going; hardly to be noted, but to a pony, ears pricked and listening for anything out of the usual (what ever “usual” may be on this journey, which I have yet to learn), the heaviness of the treads is discernible.

Even Master, whose pack looks to the eye to be the smallest of the whole party, walks as if he bears the heaviest burden of all.

***

A/N: Some material taken from “The Ring Goes South” in Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien. I have taken the liberty of adding a few parting words between Bilbo and Sam, which Frodo (as author of the account in the Red Book) might not have been aware of, but seemed plausible to me.)

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.

***

A/N: Some material taken from “The Ring Goes South” and "Three is Company" in Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien

Chapter 66. We reach the Ford, and pause for refreshment

We are walking down a long, gradual slope in an empty land. I have some memory of this path, though it was not the same. Autumn, it was, and cool but not cold, and my guide led the way. I remember thirst, and weariness, and the numbness that lingers after overwhelming fear…

And perhaps I ought to be fearful, going out into the land once more, where They might lurk. I raise my head to sniff at the air, I cock my ears back, and prick them forward once more, and swivel them to the sides, but there is nothing to hear but the soft footfalls of the Men and Dwarf, and the latter’s near-voiceless muttering as he stalks along. The fair one and my hobbits walk along most silently, and I try to place my feet as carefully as they, to make the least noise that a hard-footed creature as myself can manage.

The wind blows without ceasing, and there are teeth in it. I am glad for the shaggy winter coat that grew in during our time in the Valley, after the last vestiges of my ragged coat were brushed away, and my flanks filled with care and good feeding, and shone sleekly for a short time before the winter coat grew. It sometimes seemed over-warm in the pleasant Valley, but now it just suits.

Darker patches open to either side in the general darkness, and the icy wind carries the smell of pine, sharp and bracing, from other hidden valleys in this land. I seem to remember that there are bogs out there, in the darkness, as well, and I am glad for the rope between my Sam and myself. Should he misstep, walking ahead of me, I shall plant my feet and pull backwards with all my strength. Should I misstep, I am confident that he will do the same for me.

But it seems that we follow some path or other, for there are no missteps, only a steady walking, down and gradually down. I cannot count my steps, nor tell of the passing of time save in light and dark of day and night, and it remains dark, with no light on the horizon, and so we have been walking rather less than one entire night, I deem, when the smell of water comes to me, grows stronger, and I remember the crossing of the river.

I shudder and would stop, but that my Samwise walks ahead, and my stopping tugs at my rope, and without thinking I move forward again to follow. I wonder that he does not stop; do my companions not remember that terrible pursuit, the crashing of the boulders, the shrieks of terror from the drowning horses… the silence that followed, and the despair.

I am only a pony, yet my memories flood my thoughts, strong, and I am in that terrible moment once more. I stop, throw up my head, trembling violently. The rope tugs at me as my Sam continues, but I stand firm, knowing nothing but the terror that overwhelms me.

…and then I become aware that my Sam stands before me, his hands on my face, urgently stroking, and he is speaking quietly but firm words of comfort and calm. ‘Steady, Bill, steady!’

‘He is afraid of the water,’ youngest says, shivering a little in the wind, ‘of crossing the Ford… I have known ponies to baulk at puddles…’

‘Not my Bill,’ my Samwise says under his breath, for it is not his place to correct his betters, or so he has told me on occasion when Youngest has made some outrageous pronouncement or other. Instead, when he raises his voice, he says, ‘Yessir, Master Peregrin, some ponies might well do such a thing, but Bill has had no trouble with such on our travels, or even since we came to Rivendell…’

‘After what he lived through…’ not-Merry says quietly, and lays a calming hand on my neck. My hobbits are all clustered round me now, the Bigger Folk ranged behind them, as if to see what the delay is all about. And as I turn my eye to him, I see in his face that he remembers as well.

Master seems to sense his younger cousin’s troubled thoughts, for he lays a hand on not-Merry’s shoulder for a silent moment, squeezes with his fingers, and removes his hand once more to grope in a pocket, with a look of concentration on his face.

His face clears, and he says, ‘Ah, that’s it…’ and brings out a cloth, wrapped around something, that he treats as precious, holding it carefully as he unwraps the treasure within.

‘Here,’ he says, extending the cloth, carefully cradled in his hand, to Youngest. ‘Take but a handful, to chew upon as we go. It’ll be some time before we stop and have a bite, and this will at least give your stomach a promise of good things to come…’

And Youngest takes from the cloth, and then slightly-more-Merry, and then my Samwise, with a little urging from Master… and I think Master might eat, himself, but I am distracted, for Youngest is sharing his bounty with me, holding out something. Ah! It is a slice of dried apple, and a few sultanas, sweet and toothsome, and I lip at his hand and nod my head as I mouth the treat.

‘We will not be crossing the Ford,’ the Big Man -- our Big Man, not the other with the shield, says. ‘We’ll leave the Road and turn south here.’ It seems that he waited patiently for my hobbits to take this small bit of refreshment. Tall Hat is patient as well, while a slight whiff of impatience comes from the others in the party. They do not seem to have the same need for sustenance as my hobbits, and are merely concerned with continuing on our way.

I am glad that our Big Man and Tall Hat are with us, for it is good to have someone with intelligence in the party.

***

A/N: Some turns of phrase might have been taken from The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien or one of the movies made from those writings, but as our books and papers have not yet been unpacked since the recent move, I am writing off the top of my head, without the benefit of notes, and cannot give proper attribution. Sorry about that. Suffice it to say that it is all the Professor’s world, and perhaps a little bit of Mr. Jackson’s.

Chapter 67. We walk through a long, cold night

The open plain that lies behind us is but a fading memory, though it feels as if this night must go on forever. The country we have entered is rough, and from the smell of it, barren – little enough to tempt me to turn my face aside to snatch a mouthful of greenery as we go. Ha. Greenery? From the smell of it, any vegetation we pass, sparse as it is, consists of dry sticks. Though we go by a narrow path, nothing in the way of foliage brushes against us as we make our way. From the sound of it, from the feel of the air around us, we are walking in a dingle, deep and narrow, moving shadows in a darker cleft in the land.

The stony walls to either side do little to block the wind, rather, they seem to act as guides, directing icy blasts of shivering cold into our faces, for the most part, though at times the wind seems to stop – it is only a ruse, however, a chance for the wind to take us from behind, a nasty trick that makes Youngest yelp, before returning to scour our faces once more.

Tall Hat and our Big Man pause at the sound, and then our Big Man continues, and Tall Hat murmurs something that might have been Hush! before catching him up once more, the two of them leading our little file of Walkers, as if they have eyes that can pierce the darkness surrounding us. The Dwarf’s grumble grows momentarily louder and then settles back to its original low mutter. The other Big Man – the one with the shield – snorts softly and shakes his head, and the fair one walks on quietly, as if Youngest’s cry is beneath his notice.

‘I’m sorry, so sorry,’ Youngest mutters to not-Merry, who has an arm about his shoulders, perhaps to shake him for the noise he made, or perhaps to support him as they stumble along the broken path. ‘It startled me so, going down the back of my neck…’

‘I know,’ comes the answer, in so low a voice it is little more than a breath, ‘but you hadn’t ought to cry out, even so! We’re travelling in secret, as you might have noticed, and you undo all the good that might be done, under cover of darkness, by giving us away…’

The older cousin is definitely not merry. I heard him grunt, a little while ago, a soft sound of pain quickly suppressed, and he seems to expect no less from Youngest.

On the other hand, as he speaks, even as they make their way a little ahead of my Sam and myself, I see him lift his arm from Youngest’s shoulders, fall back a little, walking behind with a hissed, Keep on! and fussing at him – silently, mind you, fussing in the way a mother mare fusses at a foal that’s been chased by a mischievous dog. So my own mother fussed at me, after she came galloping to my rescue, ran at the dog that had nipped at my heels, with a fury I’d never seen in her before in my then-short life. The little dog barely escaped her trampling hoofs and snapping teeth, running away under the fence of our pasture, and continuing to run, yelping as he went, and so far as I know he’s still running to this day… So my own mother fussed at me, nudging me with her nose all over, to see that I was safe and whole.

So much like a solicitous mare the older cousin seems, his hands nudging and adjusting around the neck and shoulders of Youngest, until his hands drop and he moves, limping a little, I think, to Youngest’s side once more, to murmur, There, that ought to keep at least a little of the wind out… And I see in the darkness that Youngest’s head is thicker, somehow, and raising my head and extending my neck for a sniff, I smell wool, and realise that not-Merry has wound his own muffler around, to try and keep the searching fingers of wind from finding Youngest’s throat.

Master and my Samwise trudge along steadily after nearly a full night’s walking; Youngest, too, forges his way with determination. Not-Merry… instead of swiveling my ears about to listen in every direction at once, I cock both ears forward. Yes, his steps, barely discernible even to my sharp ears, are uneven, a long step and a short one, yes, as if he might be limping. Yet he makes no sound of protest, simply murmurs encouragement to Youngest when that hobbit stumbles, as is happening oftener, I think.

I am weary, myself – the burden on my back is heavy, heavier than any I have borne before, even while working under my old misery, though perhaps not so heavy as the sledge full of rocks he’d have me drag at the end of a long and wearisome day. However, I would not trade a single step with any other pony, no; for I have the privilege of walking along with my nose at my Sam’s shoulder, huffing warm breath over him as I go.

It’s the least that I can do.

***

A/N: Some material taken from “The Ring Goes South” in Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien

Chapter 68. We pause, and Master expresses consternation 

Another pause for rest, or perhaps not, for Tall Hat and our Big Man speak together in low voices, and the Master, the Dwarf, and the other Big Man move forward to listen, whilst my Sam stands at my head and strokes my jaw, and not-Merry just ahead of us leans upon Youngest with a sigh, without Youngest appearing to take notice, and the fair one behind us stands alert and silent.

‘…and this path will soon emerge into more open country, and little enough shelter to hide us, but some thorn-bush tangles – I’m glad to say they grow in thickets in many places in this land, and will afford us some small screen from spies…’

‘Shelter!’ my Sam mutters, to me, or perhaps only to himself, but I am listening to him with all the attention of one of my ears, whilst the other swivels to catch any other sound around us. ‘If this is shelter, then a single fence post and no rails makes a wind-break!’

I rub my face against his chest, and he must lean forward or risk being overset. I see no rails here in truth, nor fence posts for that matter, and so I do not take his meaning, but then I am only a pony. Nor do these walls on either side of us constitute a wind-break of any kind, for the wind scours along them without deterrence.

‘There is a small hollow, not quite a cleft in the wall ahead, if I am remembering rightly,’ our Big Man says. ‘While it is still an hour before the dawning, I should advise that we stop here, and not walk the night through.’

Not walk the night through, he says,’ hisses Youngest, meant only for not-Merry’s ears, I deem, for the older cousin does not seem to feel the need to hush him. ‘Just about, I’d say…’

Not-merry merely nods his agreement, then shifts his weight, only to gasp, a quick, sharp indrawn breath, as quickly suppressed. Youngest throws his near arm around not-Merry, hissing a bit louder, ‘I say, Merry, are you--?’ And this time the older cousin does hush the younger, insisting in the face of Youngest’s now-quieter protests that it’s nothing, nothing at all! Nothing that a good rest won’t put right…

Both of them straighten as Master turns and makes his way back to us. ‘We’re stopping for the night,’ he says softly, and then shakes his head and chuckles as if at himself, as if this is a mere hobbit walking party, which I know very well from the smell of him, of weariness and worry, that he knows it isn’t. I have found that my hobbits tend to talk lighter, the heavier the going, and I think to myself that Master might fly away altogether if he’s not careful… But he is speaking again.

‘For the morning, that is,’ he says. ‘To eat – what shall we call the meal? Breakfast doesn’t sound quite right, coming as it does after a long effort rather than a long sleep, and supper in the dawning is as ill-suited, to my thinking…?’

‘Supper-breakfast, then,’ Youngest says brightly. ‘There, that wasn’t so difficult! Aren’t you glad now that you brought me along to solve such weighty problems?’

‘Supper-breakfast!’ Master says, with a laugh that sounds more genuine than the earlier chuckle. ‘Very well! And then sleep, and then another bite; perhaps we shall call it…’

‘Breakfast-supper!’ they say together, oldest cousin and Youngest, and even my Sam smiles and shakes his head at this.

‘Come along!’ Tall Hat is calling softly, and he adds in an encouraging tone, as if speaking to a young and uncertain pony, ‘Only a little farther…’

And the Big Men, the Dwarf, and Tall Hat are moving forward once more, from the soft sound of their footfalls, but Master stands as if waiting for not-Merry and Youngest, and of course the rest of us (myself and my Samwise and the silent fair one behind us) cannot move with them blocking the narrow trail.

‘Go on, Frodo,’ not-Merry says. ‘I’ll be along in a moment, before you know it… and as we’re stopping just up ahead, I’ll find you easily enough… just have to see about something or other…’ which usually means personal and private business, but I can hear the strain in his voice, though he does his best to speak cheerfully – and so can Master, it seems.

‘What is it, Merry?’ he says, dropping his voice as if to keep the others from hearing. My Sam, alerted to some need or other by Master’s tone, moves forward to join the group, and I follow, and the fair one follows behind me, whose ears, from my experience with my guide and others of the Valley, are as sharp as mine, or better, though he says nothing as of yet.

‘Nothing!’ Merry says, his tone perhaps sharper than he meant it to be, for he softens with the words that follow. ‘It’s nothing that a little rest won’t put right, Frodo… I just… I didn’t want to worry you…’

‘He’s been limping,’ Youngest puts in, and as not-Merry hushes him, he protests a little louder, wide-eyed, ‘Well, you have!’

‘Well you are worrying me, Merry Brandybuck, so there!’ Master says in the same moment. ‘What mischief have you done yourself?’

‘I just turned my ankle on a stone, nothing more,’ not-Merry says through his teeth. ‘It’s naught, I tell you…’

‘And you’ve been walking on it since?’ Master demands. ‘You of all people ought to know…’

Before I even notice his presence, the fair one has slipped past me and is there with my hobbits, touching Master’s shoulder and then reaching past him to take not-Merry’s arm. ‘Not another step,’ he says. ‘You may be doing more damage than you realise…’

‘O he realises very well,’ Master mutters. ‘Or he ought to! After the time…’

‘Be that as it may,’ the fair one says, and in the next moment he is lifting not-Merry in his arms much as the Shining One lifted Master, in the dim mists of my memory, as if the hobbit is no more burden than a babe. ‘I will carry you the rest of the way to our camp…’

Not-Merry splutters a protest, and Youngest reaches up to tug at his good leg. ‘We are travelling in secret!’ he hisses. ‘Now, do be reasonable and hush!’

***
A/N: Some material taken from “The Ring Goes South” in Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien


Chapter 69. We find a resting place for our first night... er... day

Not-Merry is quiet as the fair one carries him along, though I can smell his perturbation. He is in pain, yes, physical pain, I can smell that as my Sam and I follow after, but there is more to the pain than that. Embarrassment, I heard it called, or chagrin, as my dam told me on one occasion, when our old man surprised some young boys who were throwing clods of dirt and handfuls of stones at us, to make us gallop about our little field whilst they chortled with nasty glee.

It was the only time I smelled fury on our old man. There was the smell of fear from the two cruel boys after our old man, moving faster than I’d ever seen him, charged round the corner of our shelter and seized their collars, shaking them (or so my dam said in satisfaction) as a dog would shake a rat. The chagrin and embarrassment (or so my dam called it) came from the smaller boy who had stood by them, pulling at their arms and shouting at them to stop…

Our old man scolded all three of them equally, though only two had tormented us. Those two, we never saw again, but the third came often to our field after that, to offer a sweet, or a crumbling biscuit from his pocket, or sometimes a fresh-pulled carrot, likely (or so said my dam) stolen from a neighbour’s garden. But they were delicious all the same.

I break off from my remembering as we come up to where the others have stopped. As our Big Man (not the one with the shield) said, there is a hollow in the rock face to our right, and the cliff above hangs over, giving some sense of shelter.

Youngest darts ahead. ‘Here we are!’ he announces, assuming an air of importance. He throws his pack down against the wall, where the dwarf, having laid his axe down so that it is resting against the rocky wall, ready to snatch up in an instant, is already rummaging in his own pack. ‘Here,’ he says to the fair one, ‘ease him down here,’ and, ‘Frodo? I think if we pool our blankets, we can make him comfortable enough…’

‘I’m not so far gone as all that,’ not-Merry says between his teeth, even as our Big Man (not the one with the shield) has turned to see us and meets us with long strides, asking what the matter might be. I take it the injured hobbit is unsatisfied somehow with the arrangements. ‘It’s naught!’ he insists in answer to our Big Man, while the one with the shield (who was closer, as he was watching for our approach, while our Big Man was in conversation with Tall Hat, gesturing to the overhang) is already feeling of not-Merry’s foot and ankle.

‘Swollen,’ he says. ‘The little fellow has done himself some mischief.’

Perhaps his ears are not sharp enough to hear not-Merry grind his teeth at “little fellow”, but mine are.

‘I. am. well,’ he says through gritted teeth, his eyes flashing, and if he were a pony, I’d expect his ears to be laid back so far as they might go.

‘Oho,’ is all the Big Man (the one with the shield) says, and there is humour in his tone, though he throws up his hands and steps back, as if in deference.

But our Big Man (not the one with the shield) is already preparing a place where Youngest indicated, spreading a cloth – it is waterproof somehow, they call it “oilskin” though it is the skin of no creature I know (What is an oil? I ask you?) – upon the ground, and blankets over it, and motions to the fair one with a simple, ‘Here.’ The fair one lays not-Merry down on this nest our Big Man has prepared.

It is not so comfortable, I deem, as thick-spread straw in a stall with four walls, a roof, and a sturdy door, but, ‘we’ll want to keep you warm…’ as Master says, pacing a few steps back and forth himself, swinging his arms and clapping his palms together, a way two-legged creatures have of warming themselves when the air is cold enough that one’s breath emerges as an icy cloud, or so I have observed.

‘And what about yourself, Frodo?’ not-Merry challenges, but Master only laughs, a lovely sound.

‘At least I can walk about to keep warm,’ he says, and suddenly the laughter is gone and there is reproach in his tone. ‘Not like some people I might mention, foolish enough to keep walking upon a turned ankle, even though they most certainly ought to know better…!’

‘Don’t sing that song again,’ not-Merry grumbles, and I snort at this. Though I am only a pony, I know singing from speaking, and Master was not singing, not to my way of thinking. I have heard my hobbits sing, so I ought to know the difference.

As if anyone could be warm in such a place in the dead of winter, Youngest mutters, to himself most likely, as I’m certain only my ears and his own might be sharp enough to catch the low words. As he is busy arranging all the hobbits’ packs in a row against the rocky wall, and his head is bent over his work, I think none of the others hears. But I hear him, and worry. He is smaller than all the rest. What if – as Master has, several times, muttered to not-Merry when Youngest had trotted to the front of our column to pepper Tall Hat and our Big Man (and the other, with the shield) with questions and unlikely to hear his cousins’ quiet talk – what if he takes cold and falls ill? I cannot carry all their baggage, and a hobbit into the bargain!

But then, if not-Merry has done some serious harm to his foot… My head droops. I certainly cannot carry two hobbits and all the baggage, much less one of them. Perhaps they ought to have brought a sturdy horse, instead. Then I swish my tail and lift my head in determination. I will follow my Sam to the ends of the earth, carrying whatever burden I must carry, if only I may be allowed to follow him.

‘Then don’t say well when you’re not,’ Master returns, stopping his pacing to stoop over not-Merry with a stern tone and sterner look.

At this, not-Merry sighs and subsides, his shoulders drooping as our Big Man and the other (the one with the shield) crouch to bend over him, while the fair one turns away and moves a little way down the trail the way we have come, perhaps to watch for someone or something following.

I think my Sam would prefer to hover over the injured hobbit, or Master, but he turns instead to me and loosens the ties holding my burdens to my back. Old Tall Hat gestures sharply to Youngest to help my Sam, and then he mutters with the dwarf, only briefly. The dwarf stands up from his rummaging, picks up his axe, and stalks further down the path we are travelling, a little way, perhaps to watch for someone or something approaching.

‘Here now,’ Youngest says to me. ‘Stand steady, Bill my lad, and we’ll have you unburdened presently.’

I am and I was standing steady, I would have him know, but all I can do is lay my ears back (only half the way) and turn my head back towards him.

‘Gently, Mr. Pippin,’ my Sam says. ‘Don’t pinch his skin with the straps. We don’t want to give him sores.’

‘Here now,’ Youngest says again. ‘Nothing’s too good for our Bill… I’ll treat him as gently as if he were made of the finest elven glass…’ And more of the same nonsense, such that Master, who is now pacing between us and the place where not-Merry half-reclines, smiles absently and shakes his head at Youngest’s foolishness.

All this, of course, is in low voices, that scarce carry past the hollow where we will sleep this day. And day in truth, for there is a lightening of the scrap of sky to be seen above the walls of this depression where our path leads us.

Dawn approaches.


Chapter 70. We take supper and breakfast and go to our rest

Frodo! The soft call comes from our Big Man, and the Master straightens under the bag Youngest hands him (with a cheerful murmur, Ah! Supper-breakfast, I expect…), to turn towards the call. My nostrils twitch at the good smells of nutmeats and dried fruit, and I toss my head, just a bit, at the pace of unloading. Ah, for the grassy meadow, where I might roll out the stiffness of the nightlong effort. And the racks of hay…

There is naught here for a poor pony’s grazing, not even a few tufts of tasteless grass, dead and faded colourless in the winter cold. The moss hereabout is brown and bitter, the bracken dead from the cold, the trees growing in this sunless cleft are few and scrawny; but their bark seems the only promise of a meal, scanty as it may be, for a hungry pony. I doubt me that they will share much of what I carry… travel rations, I heard them say, and recall a scrap of conversation between Youngest and not-Merry, as they fed me pieces of carrot by the meadow gate.

Travel rations?

Well, we are to be travelling, are we not?

Fruit and nuts and dried meat are all very well for an afternoon’s saunter, but to my mind, thick sandwiches and cold chicken…

Ah, well, it’s poor enough fare, but better than nothing!

I suppose we must look at the bright side.

And what would that be? Besides the fact that dried meat and fruit and a few nuts and hard biscuits will be lighter for Bill, and for ourselves, to carry, what little of it we may be able to manage, as it is?

Hah! And that is just the thing!

What…? …is just the thing? You’re making even less sense than you usually do!

Poor fare, it may be, but in such a small quantity that it’ll be hardly any trouble to choke it down!

‘I come!’ Master answers, his voice clear but low, pitched to carry as far as the place where our Big Man crouches over not-Merry, and no farther. Youngest helps the Master ease the heavy bag onto his shoulder and turns back to me, as now heavily laden Master trudges to join the others under the overhang. ‘And I come not empty-handed, but bearing a banquet on my back!’

‘Even s-so,’ not-Merry says, the brightness of his tone belied by the chattering of his teeth.

‘I want you to come sit down here by Merry,’ our Big Man says, and Master lays down his burden by the growing pile, but stands up again with a quizzical look.

‘They can better use my help with unburdening Bill…’ he begins, but the Big Man shakes his head.

‘We, all but Merry, with his injured foot, can stay warmer by working or pacing,’ he answers, ‘but I fear your cousin may take a chill – he is still shivering despite all the blankets we can muster…’

‘But of course!’ Master interrupts. He would not take his rest, for his own sake, not when others are working or standing watch; but to help another, well, that is quite another matter. He sits down next to the younger cousin, nestles closer, and helps the two Men unwrap and then re-wrap the coverings around himself and not-Merry.

My Sam and Youngest are talking softly as they work, mostly Youngest asking questions and my Sam answering them – he has an answer to each and every one, though he often pauses, as if to ponder, before offering a reply. I marvel at his wisdom, and cock my ears to listen for a moment, before swivelling them once more to listen for danger.

Thus I catch a scrap of conversation between the Big Men, who having done something or other to not-Merry’s foot, and then having wrapped it well and propped it up, blankets and all, upon one of the bulky bags, have moved a little apart to consult with Tall Hat.

…many days will we have to rest here? For surely…

‘But one day, I deem,’ our Big Man says in response. ‘It is a strain, no more than that. We’ll see how well he walks upon it… by this evening I imagine he’ll be well able to continue.’

‘This evening!’ I catch a whiff of astonishment from the other Big Man (the one with the shield). ‘I thought one of us should have to carry him, if we were not to stop here.’

‘Were he a Man, yes, I imagine he’d have to stay off it for another two days, or three, but hobbits heal much more quickly of their ills than Men do,’ our Big Man says.

The other Big Man shakes his head, still smelling of astonishment. ‘I can see I have much to learn of Halflings.’

Tall Hat chuckles, somehow a warming sound in this cold, desolate place. ‘I say much the same to myself, nearly every time I find myself in their company!’

They go on to discuss watch-keeping, and the next day’s journey, and I drowse under my ever-lightening burden.

I come to full alertness at an exclamation from Youngest-and-hungriest hobbit, his voice raised slightly from the low murmur everyone has affected since we began this journey. My back is empty, my burden gone, and my Sam (for I would have wakened at any other’s touch) has fastened hobbles to keep me from wandering. As if I would. I move carefully to one of the small trees and nuzzle at its surface, trying to win purchase with my teeth on the smooth surface.

‘You call this a meal! I’d call it no more than a mouthful…!’

‘Then take small bites,’ not-Merry says sourly, followed by a yelp, as if Master has elbowed him sharply.

Hah. I should trade him his mouthful, for the thin strip of bitter bark I am contemplating for my Supper-breakfast, and not even shake my mane over it. But I am only a pony, and must be grateful for what I can get, I suppose.

It is the most snappish I have heard my hobbits, but then these are minor discomforts compared to what we have faced before this day. In my experience, the worse the circumstances, the milder their tones.

‘We’ll take our chief meal when we waken,’ Master says, in soothing tones. ‘The sooner you go to sleep, the sooner that will be. So finish your meal, and…’

‘I’m finished already,’ Youngest mutters, but my Sam breaks in to whatever comment or complaint he is forming.

‘Seems unnatural, to sleep through the middle of the day,’ my Sam says, but his tone is more contemplative than complaining. ‘I can just hear my old gaffer scold, to see me lying down in the light of day!’

‘Come, Samwise, join us – there’s room enough, these blankets are of a size to cover a tall Elf, much less two brace of hobbits. Much better than shivering alone…’ I think if it were any other but Master who calls, my Sam would be “on his dignity” as the younger hobbits call it. But he picks up himself and his blanket and moves to join the others.

‘Much better to shiver all together,’ young Mischief affirms, and the other hobbits chuckle, even my Sam, and shake their heads at his nonsense.

The other Big Man (the one with the shield, though he has rested his shield against his pack for the time being) stands up from the pile of bags, carrying something in his hand, and turns in my direction, crossing the distance between us in a few strides.

A bit unnerved, I lay back my ears, but he stops short and reaches out a hand, crooning gentle nonsense. ‘There’s a good lad…’

An enticing fragrance comes from him, and of themselves my ears come forward. At this sign of my goodwill, he takes the last step over the distance that separates us, and holds up a small bag, the source of that alluring aroma. I reach, fumbling eagerly, and he chuckles, lifting it to my muzzle. His hands rise on either side of my face, but I am not unnerved, for it is a feeding bag…! Filled with grain! …and he is fastening it in place. As I contentedly munch, he finishes and then strokes my neck.

‘There you are, my fine, doughty beast. Such a load as you can carry! I doubt me the greatest burden-beasts that Rohan can boast, could scarcely stagger along ‘neath such a load as you have borne through this night. And only fitting that you should have such reward, seeing as you must bear your own food as well as ours, until we leave these barren regions…’

And more such nonsense, worthy of my Samwise himself, and despite the briefness of our acquaintance I find a warm spot growing within my heart, for his kindness and care.

On the edge of the huddled hobbits to one side, I see my Sam, sitting upright and watching, something stern and even worried relaxing in him, and I realise he must have been ordered to his rest by our Big Man, and would rather care for my needs himself. But now his stiff uprightness softens, and he eases himself down. I continue to munch at my rations – more than a mouthful, I am glad to say, though I pity my poor hobbits and would gladly share of my bounty, were it only to their taste, as they have shared of their own with myself. Before I am finished, I can sense my Samwise is sleeping, though I see the blankets tremble still with remainders of his shivering.

Master rouses slightly, to pull his own coverings further over my Samwise, one arm over him, snuggling close, and the shivering subsides, and soon Master, too, is asleep. I come to the end of my grain. The Big Man gives my neck a last pat and removes the feed bag with a murmured blessing, returning the bag to its place amongst the baggage. Taking up his shield, he moves off towards where the Elf stands watch.

I think that all my hobbits are sleeping, when a murmur comes to my ears.

Chief meal, that sounds more promising… ’

‘Go to sleep, Pippin!’

…and quiet descends at last. Or what passes for quiet in this dreary land – if you discount the low moan of the unceasing wind, and the quiet murmur of a restless sleeper.

Chapter 71. We ponder the abilities of hobbits

I awaken from an uneasy doze, to the sound of voices raised – softly, for all that – in argument.

‘…ought to have been woken to stand watch, just as the rest of…’

Master and our Big Man stand close to me. Master’s hair is tousled, as if he has just arisen from his rest. My Samwise is spreading cloths on the ground, to be filled with food for breakfast. Or supper. The day is waning and though the sky is still light, above us, the cleft is in shadow. A soft snore comes from the small pile of blankets where the hobbits rested this day. Another blanketed lump lies beside the other Big Man’s shield – its owner, I deem. The fair one and the dwarf are not in the camp. I can only think they are watching the trail before and behind us.

The Master is unhappy with the state of affairs. I cannot say that I blame him. The wind still moans, ceaseless, as if it can find no rest. We are in the middle of a barren land, in the cold of midwinter, huddled against an icy wall of stone, a hollow in the side of the cleft where we walk, a cleft that funnels the wind directly into our faces, no matter which way we stand.

I am in the habit of standing with my back to the wind, when the weather is cold at the least, but it seems to make no difference in this place.

In my ponderings I have missed part of our Big Man’s answer. ‘…deemed it better that you and Pippin keep your cousin warm through the day. He was definitely chilled.’

‘Samwise stood watch,’ Tall Hat puts in. I throw up my head in startlement; I did not see him until he spoke. He is seated on a rock as grey as himself, a long pipe in his mouth, though it is as cold and empty as the land around us. No pleasant smell of pipe-weed smoke is in the air, not even the faintest memory of such. Perhaps the “no fires” I heard them discussing includes also such things as pipes.

My hobbit gives a guilty start, where he is bent over the bags, and at Master’s quiet Samwise? he turns about, hands wringing the cloth he was about to lay out with the others spread before him, ready to be filled with dry foodstuffs for each of the two-footed Travellers. His tone is earnest, his face serious; he does not want our Master to be displeased. ‘It was my turn to take the watch, Mr. Frodo, but Mr. Gandalf, he said not to waken you…’

(And yet I have no doubt that Master, displeased as he might be, would never think of taking a whip to him, beat him about the head, jerk at his ear and such, as my old misery was in the habit of doing, when out of humour. Master has shown his quality, over the long journey to the abode of the Elves, and I have no fear of him, not even on my Sam’s behalf.)

‘Halflings standing watch?’ the other Big Man (the one with the shield) says, standing up from his blankets in a sudden motion, his sword in his hand, as if he has gone from sleep to full wakefulness in the blink of an eye. ‘Is that wise?’

The smell of perturbation coming from Master intensifies, and my Sam smells indignant as well as uncertain now, but before either can speak, our Big Man answers.

‘Why, of course!’ he says. ‘They can call out an alarm as well as any, and they have rare skill to conceal themselves, so that none approaching might see them.’

‘We are not children, to be cared for and cossetted,’ Master adds in his sternest tones, standing just so tall as he might, his head craned back on his neck to meet the other Big Man’s eyes squarely.

‘Their eyes are sharp as their wits,’ Tall Hat says. ‘I have no difficulty sleeping, with a hobbit standing watch.’

The other Big Man’s face is bright with merriment, and I think he might speak again, but he says no more, only puts his sword away and bends to his blankets, to roll them tightly and stow them away for the night’s journey.

I have every confidence in him. He is able to see my worth, and compare me in a good light with much larger pack-beasts. He will come to know my hobbits, and their value, in good time.

Chapter 72. We prepare to move on

‘Chief meal,’ Youngest hobbit mutters. ‘Chief meal…’ It is as if he cannot believe the words he speaks. A strong smell of astonishment comes from him, mingled with dismay. But he quickly forces a bright tone as Master returns from carrying food to the fair one, standing watch while the rest pack up the camp. ‘So, Frodo, I have your breakfast-supper right here...!’ And he holds out the cloth to his older cousin with a smile that shines bright in the dimming day, and Master seems glad enough to take it from his hand.

Master thanks him, and he ducks his head, and then the both of them turn towards not-Merry, who is finishing his own meal, still wrapped in blankets. He is definitely not merry – brooding, more like, though he sits straighter and smiles to greet Master.

They sit down on the blankets, flanking not-Merry, chaffing him about something or other, though the words make no sense to me. It is something about Bag End, and leaving the dishes for someone named Lobelia, and he laughs… they all laugh together, albeit softly, and Master adds something about good spice adding relish. But I watched my Samwise parcel out the food, and it was dried meat, and dried fruit, and nutmeats. I smelt no spice, still smell none, not like the smell of the spice bread that Youngest brought to the stables one day, a slice each for myself and Merrylegs.

The other Big Man (the one with the shield, though his shield rests against his pack at the moment) has finished his own meal, has picked up my harness, and is carefully draping it in place, drawing up the buckles, checking for loose skin with my Sam’s assistance and close attention. Our Big Man watches them for but a moment, then satisfied, nods and turns to the rest of my hobbits.

He bends over them, their laughter drawing a smile from him, and he draws the blankets away from not-Merry’s feet. ‘How does it feel?’

Not-Merry’s face takes on a look of concentration. ‘It doesn’t,’ he answers at last. ‘I mean, well, of course it does, but…’

Our Big Man takes not-Merry’s foot in his hands, slowly removing the wrappings. ‘Then let us see…’ he says.

‘Yes, let’s!’ Youngest says brightly, and Master hushes him, but bends forward to look with Youngest, not-Merry, and our Big Man, all with the same intent expression.

Our Big Man sets the wrappings aside, and my Samwise is there – but a moment ago, he was helping the other Big Man load bags upon my back, balancing the load. He moved so quietly none noticed him, and he gathers the wrappings and rolls the cloths neatly and stows them in one of the bags.

Not-Merry watches with interest as our Big Man cups the injured foot in his palms and presses with gentle thumbs.

Our Big Man raises his eyes from the foot. ‘Tell me if this hurts…’

‘They always say that,’ Youngest leans in to say behind his hand, as if he is a conspirator in some scheme or other, as when my old man came out to the field to consult with my dam and myself, over a present for his wife’s birthday. We said little, of course, but listened well and nodded our heads as he spoke, and she came out to our field a few days afterward, her face shining, and she threw her arms about my dam’s neck and kissed her! …and my dam said it was a good business, all round, though it rather mystified me, I might tell you, and, in retrospect, still does.

‘They?’ our Big Man says.

‘Healers,’ Youngest says, as if the answer is obvious. ‘They press where they know there is injury, there is pain, and then they say…’

‘But it doesn’t,’ not-Merry says in wonder, his eyes wide. A hopeful look blooms on his face, and he is not-Merry no longer, but rather almost-Merry.

‘Doesn’t what?’ Youngest says, screwing up his face in puzzlement.

Master is looking hopeful, too. Indeed, though cold and hungry all of us may be, the tone of the camp is more cheerful than it has been through the day.

‘Doesn’t hurt!’ nearly-Merry says staunchly.

‘And here?’ our Big Man says, moving his hands on the hobbit’s foot.

‘Fine!’ nearly-Merry says. ‘Never better!’

Master takes on a stern tone. ‘You’re not just saying…’

‘No!’ nearly-Merry protests, laughing…! And the laughter reassures Master, and his look softens, even as our Big Man nods his satisfaction. A strong smell of relief comes from them all. ‘No – Strider, I don’t know what it was you did, exactly, but it feels… it feels…’

‘How does it feel?’ our Big Man inquires. He adjusts his hold on the foot and gently moves it, up and down and around.

‘As if there was no injury, in the first place!’ Merry says in triumph. In the next moment our Big Man has released his foot, and he is standing to his feet, his cousins belatedly helping and steadying him from either side.

‘Good,’ our Big Man says, but holds up a staying hand. ‘Walk with care this night, that you not re-injure the foot. It will not heal so quickly the next time…’

‘I will!’ Merry says, placing his hand on his heart. ‘But why are we just standing about with our hands in our pockets, leaving Boromir and Sam to the business of packing-up?’

‘Yes, why?’ Youngest says, and hurries to pick up one of the bags and bring it to me.

As dusk is falling, the fair one and the dwarf return to us from where they were standing watch, and we take up our journey once more.

Chapter 73. We follow faithless paths in a windswept wilderness

As we walk, I am aware of small, startled creatures in hiding, to either side of the faint path we follow. I hear the nearly imperceptible scurrying sounds ahead of us, as they skitter under cover. Odd, to think of “cover” in this barren country, but then, this is the home of the little things, and they would know how to hide from, say, owls in the sky above them by night, or hawks by day.

We reach a fork, where our way divides into two paths, and stop again, not to rest, but for our Big Man to consider our way, talking softly with Tall Hat while the other Big Man stands close by to listen. My Sam uses the time to run his hands over my sides, checking for rubbing harness, but he and the other Big Man (the one with the shield) were so careful in their loading that my burden is well-balanced and the straps all straight and neither too tight, nor too loose. The rest of my hobbits stand closely together, huddled against the icy wind. I can hear their shivers in their soft voices. After half a night of walking, they are already weary, but none complains.

The dwarf pulls his cloak tighter about himself, waiting stoically, but the fair one simply stands at his ease, as if the cold and effort of walking through the night have no effect on him.

I hear the softest of scratching against a stone, to my off-side. Some small creature has burrowed deeper into hiding, I deem. I try to imagine what it might be like, to be small and afraid, with larger creatures blundering past… and yet, we are easy to hear, and to hide from. So much worse must be the danger from overhead, unheard – or so my dam told me, when I was young, and safe by her side – until the swooping claws have seized the poor little one and borne it off to its doom. So she told me, deep in the night, after we’d seen a soundless swoop, heard a hapless squeak, quickly cut off, and she’d told me of owls, and how I had no need to fear them.

Eagles, perhaps. The Eagles of the North are large enough to bear away even a full-grown pony. But their sort are never seen in the Breeland. She heard of Eagles of the North from a far-travelled dwarf pony in the marketplace one day.

I shiver at the thought. I hope that there are no such Eagles where we are bound.

I am glad I am not one of the small creatures hiding nearby. I have no need to fear an attack from above. Even the Shadow Ones, fading dim in my memory (though I still can remember Them, if I make an effort – though I have no need to do so, as the white one told me before we set off, that they are gone from this country)… even They rode upon horses. How fearsome They would be, if they rode upon winged creatures!

I am glad They are gone. It is bad enough to be out and about in the wilderness, hiding by day and walking by night for fear of… what ever it is that makes my companions quiet and wary. I raise my head to scent the air about us. There is no danger that I can perceive. Yet we will walk through the weary night, rather than taking shelter from the chilling wind, which seems all the colder for the darkness that surrounds us.

Master leaves the younger hobbits to join my Samwise and myself. ‘How is he doing, Sam?’

My Samwise pats my neck. ‘He’s a champion, Mr. Frodo. Not a word of complaint!’

I nod my head, and reach to rub my face against the Master’s chest, and both hobbits chuckle. Master strokes my face, and my Samwise pats my neck, and I am as content as I can be in such a place as this. More content than I would be, left behind, even in that most comfortable of stables, safe from wind and want.

I thirst, but there is no water for the drinking.

The other Big Man speaks, raising a hand to point in the darkness. ‘This path leads more directly to the South, I deem,’ he says.

Our Big Man shakes his head. ‘Paths here are winding,’ he says, ‘and while this one may lead southward from this point, it very likely will not stay such a course…’

‘But the other path leads to the west and north!’ the other Big Man protests. ‘Directly away from where we wish to go!’

‘Homeward bound,’ Youngest whispers to shivering-Merry, very low, such that Master, still rubbing at my nose, should not hear. My ears are sharper than a hobbit’s, however, and I hear the words clearly. ‘That is where I should wish to go, oddly enough, were circumstances different from what they are.’

‘Were circumstances different…’ shivering-Merry echoes. ‘But as they are not…’

Youngest nods and shrugs. ‘Think of the stories we’ll have to tell, when we get back! Why, we should be able to dine out night after night…’

‘We shall have more invitations than we know what to do with,’ shivering-Merry agrees. ‘How ever will we decide which to accept, and which to put off?’

‘We shall have to work out some sort of system or other,’ Youngest says. ‘For it would not do, to miss a single free meal, especially after this!’

‘This?’ shivering-Merry wants to know.

‘We shall have a great deal of eating to make up for, if we continue as we’ve begun,’ Youngest says.

Shivering-Merry begins to answer, but at a quiet word from Tall Hat, he falls silent. It is time to move on once more.

We are following the southward path favoured by the other Big Man, and at first it seems a promising choice. However, the country is rough and bleak, and no path could go straight through, I fear. It is not long before our path begins to wind, and before long, if I were not a pony, I should have lost all sense of direction.

We walk... and walk... and walk...

I raise my head a little to sniff at the ceaseless wind. Home is that way. I have no doubt. If I were to leave the narrow path and head straight across these folded lands – were I a bird, with wings to fly – I should be able at last to alight on my broken-down shed in Bree, and drink from my battered bucket, old, stale water with a scum of green that lends an odd, unpleasant taste.

I am gladder to be here, in this howling wilderness, with my Samwise, than there, with my old misery. Even if there is no water here to ease my thirst.

We stop again, less for the purpose of considering our path (though that is sorely needed), and more for the reason that the traitor path, once so promising in its southward beckoning, has led us to the edge of a sheer fall.

We shall have to retrace our steps, and try the other way. The dividing of the paths is several hours behind us, and that means several hours more before we reach that place – many night hours wasted, and – though my hobbits speak cheerfully enough about “seeing the sights” – still a long way to go, to where ever it is we are going.

A/N: Some words and turns of phrase taken from “The Ring Goes South” from The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Chapter 74. We follow winding paths to sheer falls, and swamps

I have lost track of the days of weary walking in the bitter dampness, with this eternal wind. By day we huddle in what ever shelter we may find, but still the wind finds us, and bites deep. It is a wonder that none of my hobbits has fallen ill. Indeed, often I hear the Master or shivering-Merry fussing over Youngest. They are worried, it seems, that he will catch his death.

Why should one go chasing after death, in any event? Still, the one or the other keeps him anchored to an older cousin’s side, as if to keep him from racing off and perhaps laying hold of doom, some way or another that is beyond my ability to fathom.

On second thought… I lift my head and sample the ceaseless wind, blowing from behind us for the better part of the hours after middle night. There is an elusive scent ahead of us, something that stirs in my memory, an unpleasant memory that makes my skin shudder of itself, and my ears lay themselves back without my willing them to do so.

I am not shivering – though despite my heavy coat, the chill wind penetrates, and I am everlastingly cold – no, I am not shivering from barely remembered fear. So the smell – what is it? It is an itch I cannot scratch. So the smell is not of danger, at least, not immediate danger, or overwhelming danger, or the sort of danger to make a pony pull hard against the leading rope, preparatory to whirling about and fleeing in unreasoning panic.

I have had those moments, though thus far, firm hands upon my rope have kept me from such humiliation. Though I know, in hindsight, that staying with my hobbits has worked out better than fleeing (which would leave me on my own, in this wild land, a fearsome thought indeed), well… Ponies are not well-equipped for looking behind. Our eyes are set to either side of our faces, giving us wide vision to either side, and ahead, that we might see dangers encroaching. Our ears are set to swivel in every direction, that we might hear danger’s approach from any direction, even from tailward. Our nostrils, we can flare wide to catch the scent of good, fresh grass, or sweet water… or danger on the breeze.

But we ponies do not have much (if any) capacity for looking behind us, and it is just as well. If one is galloping headlong away from danger, one needs to pay heed to one’s footing, after all. Looking behind causes one’s speed to falter, and if running from danger, well, I don’t want danger to catch me, now, do I?

In any event, I have finished my pondering of the idea of “hindsight” – a word I hear muttered from my Sam, at times, especially when he is mourning over the rope he did not bring with him.

Though Tall Hat has expressed his confidence in our Big Man more than once, and his knowledge of this land, I have to wonder. We have been wandering for days, as memory serves me, and yet the mountains ahead creep forward only slowly. We follow twisting, winding paths, only to come to a sheer bluff as often as not, or a rockfall that has blocked the path, or taken it away altogether, as happened this day, shortly after our nooning, er, middle-night pause to rest.

If he knew the land so well, wouldn’t we be further along? Would we encounter so many checks?

But who am I to question our Big Man? I am only a pony, and my thoughts on the best way to go matter not at all. And far back in the back of my brain is the stable-longing, yes, even for my broken down shed. It is always there, and I must not hearken to it. I would rather wander to the end of my days, so long as I am with my hobbits, than find shelter from the wind in my miserable old shed with its leaky roof.

The night is waning, and for once we have been making good progress.

Then the wind drops, for but a moment, as if to portend the sunless dawn, and the smell comes to me clearly for the first time, though my companions take no notice. My skin shudders all over, even under my burden, and I drop my head and plant my feet. I baulk.

My rope pulls tight as my Sam, walking half in a dream, walks on without me. And then I feel him stop and stumble, as he comes to the end of the slack. ‘Come along, Bill!’ he scolds under his breath.

His aim, I think, is to keep as close behind Master as he might; Master, who at present is walking with shivering-Merry, Youngest firmly between them. Either they are blocking him from what wind they might, or huddling for warmth, or perhaps holding him back from running ahead to catch his death. Their caution is made perfectly sensible to me as the noisome odor wafts clearly to me. I am astonished that my companions seem to take no notice, actually, but of course they know what lies ahead, or why would Master and Merry keep such a tight hold on Youngest?

After all, they nearly lost him in a marsh once before.

At least there are no midges here. I do not know if it is the cold, or the wind, or both, but there are no midges. We must take our blessings as we find them, or so my hobbits are fond of saying, even in the bleakest of circumstances.

‘It’s a bog!’ Youngest cries in misery, as we round a bend in the dim light of the dawning, to contemplate the path leading into, and disappearing into, the treacherous ground ahead. As if he did not know…

But perhaps he did not, and that is why his cousins walked to either side of him, and kept a good hold on him.

There will be no falling into a bog or marsh or swamp, this time at least.

I am glad when the Big Man, after long consultation with Tall Hat, decrees that we must turn away from the swamp and retrace our steps.

Though why he would have led us this way in the first place, is a mystery to me. It is not my place to reason why.

I am only a pony, after all.

***

A/N: Some words and turns of phrase taken from “The Ring Goes South” from The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Chapter 75. Disaster nearly strikes

In our journeying, we have crossed a number of streams, or perhaps it is always the same stream, in many guises. Sometimes it is little more than a trickle, crossing the path – or lying in a bed much too large for the small amount of water, bare jumble of rocks, making for difficult footing. Sometimes the water fills the bed comfortably – or not so comfortably, for then the rocks are hidden and difficult to see, and one must feel one’s way across. Sometimes the water runs swift and deep, barring our path, and we must retrace our steps and find another way.

On second thought, I doubt these are all one and the same stream.

My Sam pauses each time we come to such running water. I think, at first, it is reluctance on his part to set foot in the water. But no, I am sure I have misjudged my hobbit… for at each pause, he encourages me to drink, and more often than not, I do. The two-footed travellers carry water with them, and refill their supplies along the way. It would be difficult for any of us, myself included, to carry enough water for a pony to drink!

We have been walking for hours, this night, when I smell water again, drawing nearer. I whicker softly and toss my head, for this water smells clean and fresh – it has not been running for long, in the air, under the sky, but smells icy cold, colder, even, than the air through which we are walking. It must be fed by springs, bubbling up from the ground, cold enough to make me shiver as I drink. Ah, but delicious! I nudge forward, against my Sam's shoulder, eager with anticipation of the treat.

‘Steady on, old lad,’ my Sam says to me, the words coming out in little puffs of white cloud, and there’s a shiver in his voice, as if all our walking is scarcely warming to him. My skin shudders under a stronger gust of the cold wind that never seems to cease, and I am glad for my shaggy coat.

Ahead, I hear the quiet splashing of our companions. Yes, the stream that crosses our path ahead is near. We continue, though I stretch my neck, prick my ears forward, and reach with my nose, eager for the first taste of that fresh-smelling water. Not far now, not far, and each step brings us closer.

My Samwise, however, does not seem to be so aware, and stumbles into the stream with a splash and startled exclamation. My head collar jerks cruelly at my nose, then the strap that goes behind my ears cuts painfully, and then suddenly all pull is gone and I am free…! But my Sam!

My Sam is lying, face-down, in the stream! Sam! Sam!

He struggles, but the weight of his pack is holding him down. His legs splash, in the shallows of the stream, but he has fallen forward and his head and shoulders are in rather deeper water. He tries to push himself up with his hands, but they slip on the rocks, propelling him face-first into the water once more, and his struggles grow feebler as my fear increases. Sam!

I push at him, I whicker, in my desperation I neigh at the top of my voice. Sam!

And the Fair One, following on silent feet behind us, is there, pulling at my Sam, lifting him and his heavy pack with deceptive ease, as if the two of them combined weigh no more than a mouthful of grass. He carries my Sam to the other side of the stream and lays him down on the bank, well above the level of the water.

I follow, my rope trailing in the stream, all thoughts of thirst forgotten.

The Fair One is kneeling now, before my Sam, chafing his hands and speaking quiet but urgent words of encouragement. I stop beside them, to nudge at my hobbit with my nose. O Sam… my Sam… I nibble along his sleeve, cold and wet. His breath comes in shudders, he coughs and splutters, his teeth are chattering too hard for him to form words.

And suddenly the others are there, gathering round us, the Master kneeling down to take my Sam in his arms, exclaiming. ‘Sam! You’re wet to the skin!’

And not-Merry holds Youngest firmly, the two of them standing aghast. ‘Let’s keep out of the way,’ he whispers to the younger cousin. ‘You know what they say about too many cooks…’

The Fair One is looking up at our Big Man, standing with Tall Hat at his side. ‘We must stop here, and risk the lighting of a fire,’ he says. ‘We have to get him dry, and warm…’

The other Big Man (the one with the shield) is already pulling at the straps of my Sam’s pack. ‘With luck, the clothes in his pack escaped soaking…’

‘Such luck nearly drowned him,’ the Fair One says. ‘His pack is too heavy – it held him down in the stream, after he lost his footing…’

‘The pony’s load is enough lighter, what with us eating away at our supplies for nearly a week now,’ Tall Hat says. ‘He can take on some of Samwise’s load.’

I nod vigorously, though no one seems to notice except Tall Hat, whose black eyes flash an approving look at me before he turns aside. ‘There,’ he says. ‘A little off the path – there is a sheltered place where we may camp, and we might even hazard a fire.’

Must hazard a fire, I deem,’ the other Big Man (the one with a shield) says. ‘It would be the death of this Halfling, wet and chilled to the bone as he is, not to kindle fire. At least there is wood hereabouts. Let us hope it is dry enough to burn.’

‘We will scrape kindling from the lower side of branches lying on the ground,’ our Big Man says. ‘I know something of making fire in the Wild, and if fire evades me, surely Legolas will be able to get a fire going.’

‘Or myself,’ the Dwarf rumbles. ‘Fire and I, we’ve been friends for a long time…’

Tall Hat’s eyes gleam at this, but he says only, ‘Then be quick about it and kindle a small fire, before our small friend congeals into a block of ice!’

‘We will camp for the rest of the night, and tomorrow,’ our Big Man says, as the Fair One lifts my Sam, and the Other Big Man (the one with the shield) lifts my Sam’s pack, and the two of them start toward the sheltered place Tall Hat indicated.

‘And a fire!’ Youngest whispers to worried-Merry, as the two of them turn to follow. ‘We’ll have a hot meal tonight!’

And Master takes my rope, and despite the seriousness of the situation, the sides of his mouth twitch as he slaps me on the neck. ‘Come along, Bill,’ he says. ‘Trust Pip to find the treasure in the troll cave.’

I have heard the old hobbit, the one we left behind in the Valley, say this kind of thing, but I still have no idea what it might mean.

Still, it is good to see Master smile, and to hear that fond tone of his, towards his younger cousins, once more. He has been entirely too quiet, the past day or two. I think that the cheer of a fire, and the prospect of hot food, will do him some good as well.

***

Thanks to AJ for coming up with a proper idiom when my brain was stuck!

Chapter 76. We remember past celebrations

Master and I reach the sheltered spot to find much is already being accomplished. Our Big Man is on his knees and elbows, face rather lower to the ground than his seat, reminding me of a playful pup. His position looks decidedly uncomfortable (for Man at least), but he is blowing gently, and suddenly I smell smoke! And there is a growing spark, which blooms as he tends it, with fierce-yet-tender attention, into a small flame.

Tall Hat lays down his own bedroll with its oilcloth base, and shakes another blanket out of its rolls, holding it up before him. ‘Here,’ he says to the Fair One. ‘Get him out of those wet things, and into something dry, whilst I block the wind from his skin. And then we’ll pile the blankets high!’

There is a sound of protest from my Sam – from the tone, it sounds as if he does not care to be undressed and dressed again as if he were a mere babe – but he is shaking so with the chill of the icy water that his protest goes mostly unheeded. Master loops my rope around a tree branch and hurries to help, mouthing reassurances.

It is at Master’s order to “…stand still! You’re making this much harder than it ought…” that my Sam stops trying to push the helping hands away. Things go much quicker after that. I shudder to see the stripping away of his clothes, laying bare the unprotected flesh beneath. “Goose flesh,” I have heard my hobbits call it, when the skin is all over little bumps, to my confusion, for I never see any feathers sprouting from them. Still, it makes me shudder, to see him standing there, held between Master and the Fair One, shivering, his teeth chattering so violently that he can form no coherent word. To have my warm hide stripped away, so, no shaggy coat to protect me from this never ending wind…! To my vast relief (and likely his), they begin to wreathe him in warm, dry clothing, dug out of his pack by young mischief, just so quickly as they stripped off the sopping layers.

With my Sam otherwise occupied, it falls to not-quite-Merry and the Other Big Man (the one with the shield) to divest me of my burdens, and they do so, quickly and economically. In the meantime, young mischief continues ferreting through the packs, muttering to himself under his breath, though he sounds uncommonly cheerful.

The Dwarf stands a little apart, outside the small, sheltered place, his back to us, in watchful attitude, as if to see if anything or anyone traces our trail from the path we were following.

When I am nearly free of my load, with only the harness to remove, Master calls, ‘Merry! Come here! We’ll need to bundle together with Sam, one on either side, and lend him our heat until he can manage his own once more…’ And though my Sam would protest this, he has little choice, still shivering so badly as to be helpless, and teeth chattering still enough to make him unable to speak, and soon Tall Hat is wrapping blankets around the three of them together, and Merry is jesting about ‘returning the favour’ from when he was injured and chilled.

Meanwhile, the Fair One goes off in another direction, I assume to stand guard just as the Dwarf is still doing. I can not-quite see the latter’s short, stalwart figure, but the wind brings a whiff of his earthy scent to me.

Quite a creditable little fire is burning, and young mischief is stirring something together in a pot, though it is not yet on the fire. The Other Big Man (the one with the shield) removes my harness and hangs it neatly from the stub of a branch, that it might not tangle, and then he takes my rope to lead me to the stream. ‘A drink before you rest, I think,’ he says. ‘I don’t think you had a chance to quench your thirst back there.’ He has the right of it.

Young mischief is there, at his side. ‘I’ll walk with you, if I may,’ he says. ‘They don’t like me going off on my own, for some reason.’ They might be any number of our companions, or even someone else, but in any event he is always paired with an older companion when it is time for him to stand watch, or to fetch water, or even to go into the bushes for some private reason of his own.

We pass the silent Dwarf, who stands as a statue in the shadows, still as one of the stone trolls from fading memory, except he is breathing softly, taut with listening. I wonder if he is more on his guard than usual, because of our cheery fire? You cannot see the fire from the path, but I can catch a tang of smoke on the air.

Young mischief carries several water skins, and I take it he has been put in charge of refreshing the water supply in that marvellous stream.

…which he does, upstream from where I satisfy my thirst. We return, past the Dwarf once more and into the tiny clearing. He upends two of the water skins into the pot he’d prepared, and sets the pot over the fire. ‘Dried meat,’ he says, ‘and dried vegetables… rather tasteless, when taken alone and chewed, but stew them together in just the right amount of water, with some seasonings, and you have a feast fit for the celebrating!’

‘Celebrating?’ the Other Big Man says, tying me to a tree. I feel rather like celebrating, myself, for he bends to open a sack I have come to know well. Soon I will have a nose-bag well filled with grain! Now that is a celebration, especially coming after such a short effort. I should think it is not yet even middle night.

‘Celebrating!’ Youngest says, with a firm nod, and loud enough that both Master and Merry shush him. He shrugs his shoulders and stirs the pot, saying in a lowered tone. ‘Back home they’d have been celebrating these three days past… and here it is, Last Day, and First Day is breathing down our necks. The First Footers would be going about at any time…!’

‘First Footers?’ the Other Big Man says, fastening my nose-bag to my head collar. Ah, how lovely the smell of the grain, the wondrous crunch between my teeth…

Our Big Man speaks at my side – I had not heard his approach, and I startle, and he gentles me with a hand on my neck and swift apology. ‘As I was saying,’ he continues, ‘First Footing is not a custom found in Gondor… but it is well established in the North, in the Shire and the Breeland primarily… the Men of Dale tend to follow the Dwarves’ calendar, these days, and celebrate the New Year in the autumn, before the snows come down to make travel difficult.’

‘And what, exactly, are First Footers?’ the Other Big Man says, combing my mane with his fingers as I munch my grain.

Our Big Man moves to the fire, bends to take a sniff at the pot Young Mischief is stirring, nods approval, and carefully adds a few more sticks to the fire. The fire does not blaze up, as it did in that place where They came at us – I shudder and stamp a foot and toss my head, and the Other Big Man strokes my neck, murmuring soothing nonsense.

Tossing my head shakes the grain in my nose-bag, bringing me back to the business at hand, and I search out the last of the toothsome treat with my lips. The Other Big Man stays at my head until I am finished, and takes the bag away, to put it away once more. Crossing back to me, passing the fire, he looks down and says in a cheery voice, ‘Mmmm, that smells good!’ and Young Mischief looks up at him, from where he is crouched to stir the steaming pot, and beams.

He is not quite so cheerful as he sounds; I smell wariness on him, and his eyes scan the darkness outside our clearing, before he stoops to hobble my feet, and then removes my rope. ‘Don’t wander far,’ he tells me, and I nod.

Master, and Merry, and Young Mischief have been talking away all this time, in low but pleasant voices, about First Footing. It stirs a memory in me, of cold winter nights, being wakened by cheerful voices in the street outside our crooked gate, shouts of greeting in the middle night instead of the usual quiet, with no explanation.

But then, no body thinks to explain things to a pony, most times, anyhow, except perhaps for my Sam.

***

A/N:

"First Footing" is a real custom in the British Isles. I took the liberty of incorporating it into hobbit culture in Where the Love-light Gleams and Shire: Beginnings.

Chapter 77. We have a celebration of our own

Hobbled, I wander about the edges of our little clearing, nibbling at the bark of the young trees. Bitter, it is, and yet it gives me something to chew and swallow, along with tufts of ice-frosted, dead grasses.

When I reach the spot where three of my hobbits huddle in blankets, my Sam appears to be much recovered. He is sitting up between Master and somewhat-Merry, and the three of them are eating from steaming cups, chatting cheerily.

The Other Big Man sits himself down nearby, and Young Mischief brings him a cup of his own. He thanks the hobbit with grave courtesy, but with the first spoonful his eyebrows go up and he smiles, and I can smell delight and surprise wafting from him. ‘But this is delicious!’ he says, and Young Mischief is all delight, himself, and Merry is truly merry, his – and Master’s – pride  in the younger cousin evident on their faces. ‘As good as any feast I remember from my father’s table!’

‘High praise, indeed,’ our Big Man says, accepting his own portion from the young hobbit. ‘For his father is most exacting, and requires excellence of all who serve him – and such loyalty does he inspire, that he receives it.’

‘I should like to meet such a Man,’ Youngest says, cocking an eye upward.

Tall Hat snorts at this, for some reason of his own, but the Other Big Man leans forward, to say with an eager voice, ‘I shall take pleasure in introducing you to him myself, when we come to my City.’

‘Tell us about your City!’ Youngest says, with a matching eagerness, and Merry and Master stop eating long enough to add their own, ‘Yes, do!’ My Sam continues to eat, but I can see he is listening intently, as eager to hear as the others. Though I continue to listen to our surroundings with one wary ear, I cock the other in the Other Big Man’s direction, that I might hear as well. After all, if that is our destination, it would be good to know something of what to expect. ‘Is it even so large as Bree, perhaps?’ Youngest asks, giving the pot a last stir. He takes a portion of his own and sits down by the older hobbits.

Our Big Man muffles a sound, and I glance in his direction to see his eyes dancing with unvoiced laughter, a rare moment of levity, and Tall Hat bows over his food as if to hide his expression in his cascading beard. Then both bend to what remains of their meal, with renewed concentration, as the Other Big Man speaks, in between bites of “this excellent stew!”

I gain the impression that the Other Big Man’s home is rather larger than Bree, rather more sprawling in terms of land. There are several levels – “seven” is but a word to me, being higher than I can count, but it appears from the sound of it to be built upon a hillside, which strikes me as impractical if one is a horse or pony. I shake my head at the thought. Hauling sledges up and down hill in the Breeland, ah, but that was a hard life! I am well quit of it. …but I am not so sure I like the sound of this new place. Made of stone, it is, and what is a pony to eat, I ask you? Where am I to find grazing?

When all are finished eating (save the ones on watch, who will eat later), Youngest scours the cups and fills them with steaming tea that he prepared as the Other Big Man talked. I am glad to see my Sam hold the hot beverage between his hands, without any help at all, and sip without evidence of chattering teeth. I move behind my hobbits, the better to breathe warm breath over them, though they seem warm enough in their blanket wrappings, and Youngest seems to keep warm by never sitting in one place for very long, but hopping up to stir the stewpot, or refill someone’s cup, or trot over to me to stroke my nose and tell me I’m a “good Bill.”

The talk turns once more to New Year celebrations, Last Night and First Night. My hobbits are keenly interested in the difference between the custom of Gondor and Breeland and their homes in the Shire. Breeland and the Shire sound very similar, actually.

The Dwarf stalks into the clearing then, and Our Big Man rises, tossing his cup down by the fire, to take his turn at watch. ‘All quiet,’ the Dwarf mutters, and he nods in passing, and is quickly lost to us in the darkness beyond the cheerful light of our small fire.

‘But here is our First Footer!’ my Sam says. His voice is a little hoarse, but he rises from his blankets, shaking off the others, protesting that he is well and warm now, and that the proprieties must be observed, ‘for we can use all the luck we can get, or I’m an Elf!’

‘You’re no Elf, Sam,’ Master says, laughing in surprise at this unexpected turn of events.

My Sam is digging in his pack… He expresses his gratitude that the pack stayed mostly dry…

‘…though you nearly drowned to keep it so,’ Youngest observes, and Merry cuffs him gently on the head, with a mock scolding to “be courteous to your elders!”

…and he brings out a small bundle, and walks over to the bemused Dwarf.

‘I was not First Footing,’ the Dwarf says – he is invariably honest, I find, even bluntly so – ‘we don’t keep that custom under the Mountain!’

‘But we do,’ my Sam says.

‘Hush, now, don’t spoil the luck,’ Merry adds, with a wink. It is the merriest I have seen him, since setting out, nearly so merry as when he and Youngest came to the stables in the hidden Valley, smelling of spirits, but cheerful for all that, to bring me an apple and slice of cake from the feast after Master was recovered from his wound. (Very different from when my old misery came around, smelling of spirits, and more likely to knock me about than anything else.)

The bundle is a knitted muffler, wrapped around a bottle, jingling a bit – a few small coins drop out as he undoes the string that holds all together.

Youngest scoops up the coins and presents them with a flourish. ‘Tuppence!’ he says, and bows. ‘Good fortune in the coming months!’

‘And drink, that ye may never run dry,’ my Sam says, handing over the bottle, and suddenly Merry is there, taking the muffler and winding it quickly round the Dwarf’s neck. ‘And a gift, hand-made, to hold the luck!’

Tall Hat clears his throat, and I smell sudden, strong emotion on him, as of old memories come to the fore, and he fingers the silver scarf he wears. I wonder what he is thinking, but he only echoes, under his breath, ‘…to hold the luck…’

The Dwarf opens the bottle somehow, I don’t see how, and takes a swig. ‘Good!’ he rumbles. ‘Not Elvish beer…’ I have heard him and the Wood Elf arguing about spirits, along the way, and this is just a continuation of that, though the Fair One is not here to defend his sort.

My Sam blushes and ducks his head. ‘Nob put it in my pack before we left Bree,’ he said. ‘He said it was to bring luck to our journey, and I would know the right time to break it out… if I managed not to break it, that is…’

‘No wonder you fell on your face!’ the Dwarf says, toasting my Sam and taking another swig. And then he hands the bottle to Youngest, and says to make sure it gets round to everyone, even “that dratted Elf”, that he might have opportunity to taste the difference.

Youngest takes a swig of his own, and hands the bottle to Merry. He is then quick to serve stew to the Dwarf, who grumbles his appreciation before sitting down. The Other Big Man hurries to finish his portion, that he might take the Fair One’s place on watch, but the hobbits urge him to drink a little from the bottle before he goes, that the luck might continue.

'Why, it is practically snowing food and drink!' Youngest says.

'No,' practical Merry answers. 'I think it's just snowing.'

And then the Fair One is here, and the Other Big Man gone, and he eats his portion with a merry face, and drinks from the bottle, and commences to argue with the Dwarf over the merits of Elvish beer until the dawning, when the watch changes again, and it is time for those not on watch to sleep.

***

A/N: Gandalf is thinking back to his own introduction to First Footing, in Shire: Beginnings.

Chapter 78. We stumble over rough paths through the darkness

It is late afternoon when I am wakened from a doze, by stirring all around the camp as my companions make ready to depart. The light is growing rosy in the West, even with the clouds covering the sky, as the Sun prepares to retire to her rest. The wind cuts keenly, and a thin sleeting mist is falling, fitful but quite enough to add to the general misery.

It seems that supper-breakfast has already been cleared away. Merry brings me another nose-bag of oats and stands, rubbing at my neck whilst my Sam fits my harness, and then half the party, it seems, are bringing bundles to me and settling them in place.

We begin to walk before the light is quite gone. The clouds lift briefly, in the waning of the day, and for a few moments we can see the mountains, shrouded in mist. Youngest, who is walking with my Sam and myself to start, shakes his head and mutters under his breath.

‘What was that, Mr. Pippin?’ my Sam asks.

‘We walk our feet off, each day – night, I mean – and seem to be getting nowhere! I should swear we were snails, creeping forward…’

I look quickly to my companions’ feet, but they look sound and sturdy, ready for a night’s walking. My Sam seems to be walking lighter than before. Perhaps it is because the Big Man carried out their intention, to load some of his burden onto my back. I will gladly carry what ever is needed, to the limit of my strength, to spare my hobbits. I cannot carry the world on my back, however…! The Big Men will have to see to themselves.

‘I think the mountains look nearer than they did when we started out from Rivendell,’ my Sam says sturdily, in his best effort to comfort the youth. ‘Don’t you?’

As the younger hobbit lifts his head, in obedience, to scan the horizon, the clouds lower again and a particularly cold and nasty gust of sleet-laden wind blows back his hood. With a cry of dismay, he pulls it up again, and then goes on to answer my Sam. ‘No. Actually, I don’t.’

‘You will,’ my Sam assures him. ‘Next time the sky clears a bit, give it a good look.’ But the darkness comes down completely, and the sky doesn't clear. There is only darkness, and the unceasing wind, and the occasional burst of blowing sleet.

We walk, and we walk, and we walk through the night.

We do not walk steadily, mind. There are pauses to rest, and in any event at times the way is dark enough that we must stumble along, especially if the ground is rough – as it often is. The fair one, the Big Men, and Tall Hat seem to have some ability to see in the darkness. Even the Dwarf, accustomed to working underground in dark spaces (or so the dwarf ponies say), is sure-footed in the dark. I can see a little, as well, though no moon shines upon our path. My hobbits are less easy. At times Youngest mutters about feeling his way along with his toes, especially after he has suppressed a yelp, perhaps after stumbling over a stone or root in the path. The older hobbits are quieter, walking along determinedly, though I hear an occasional grunt from one of them, a soft noise of pain and effort.

At every pause the order of march rearranges itself somewhat, though Our Big Man and Tall Hat invariably walk at the head of the Company, and the Fair One brings up the rear, with my Sam and myself just before him. The others move about, such that some of the time Youngest walks with us, and some of the time it is Master, and sometimes Merry or the Dwarf or the Other Big Man. The latter two walk as if they are guarding the party, their attention moving from one side to the other as we go.

My hobbits are not quite so alert to our surroundings; it seems to take all their attention to stumble along through the darkness, although they occasionally exchange a few low words with each other as they go. I swivel my ears as I walk, listening on all sides of us, that I might do my part in keeping them from danger.

I am glad my hobbits had the pleasure of a hot meal before this long, cold journey. I do believe this blowing sleet is quite the most miserable weather we’ve known since leaving that warm and welcoming place, the stables so different from what I’d known. Still, I am content to follow my Sam.

Perhaps I am walking my feet off as well. I had not thought about it before, but there is a definite pain in one of my quarters. A pain, sometimes sharp, more often dull, assails my near fore as I walk along.

I bob my head with each step on the painful quarter; I cannot help myself.

My Sam takes no notice. He walks along before me, his steps not quite so heavy as I remember him walking before – though hobbits, as a rule, go very lightly indeed on their feet, as I have mentioned.

When I hesitate, he tugs at my rope and says, ‘Get up, Bill! Come along, lad.’ And so I must, foot by foot.

I cannot tell you how long this state of affairs lasts. We cross a stream, and my Sam stops to let me drink. Thankfully, he is more careful – or less burdened – in any event, he does not fall into the icy water when we cross at last. The cold water is cooling, even numbing to my poor sore hoof, for I stand with my forefeet in the water for a good long drink, and so I walk on from the stream somewhat less troubled.

Master has been walking beside my Sam, and when I stop to drink he continues, catching up to Youngest (who is walking with Merry), and when we walk on, my Sam and myself, we find Merry waiting a little way along the path for us. He falls in beside my Sam, clapping him on the shoulder with a murmured, ‘Nearly halfway there, old chap. Do you want me to take the pony for a bit?’

‘I’ve got him,’ my Sam answers. I can sense the other hobbit’s nod in the darkness, and then the two of them walk together in silence. The only sound is my soft footfalls, the occasional clink as my hoof strikes a stone. I walk as softly as a pony might, but I am no match for soft-footed hobbits, or a silent Elf, or Man or Dwarf who is trying to go quietly.

Alas, the numbness does not last, and soon I am bobbing my head once more with every painful step.

And just ahead of me, Merry catches at my Sam’s arm, and pulls him to a stop. ‘Half a mo—‘ he says.

‘What is it, Mr. Merry?’ my Sam whispers. ‘We mustn’t fall behind.’

‘Something’s off with Bill,’ Merry says, turning to me. ‘He doesn’t sound right.’ He hoots softly, as an owl might, and there is a stir in front of us, and shortly Youngest comes back to us, from where he has been walking in the line of travellers. ‘It's the pony... Go, run ahead and catch the leaders,’ Merry says to him in an urgent undertone.

‘I’ll hurry,’ Youngest says, ‘though it would be worth my neck to run on this uneven ground…’ His protest grows fainter as he hurries away.

‘Is there a problem?’ the fair one says behind me. I startle, only a little, for I did not hear him come up behind us. But then, I never do.

‘Bill doesn’t sound right,’ Merry insists, his hand finding my neck in the darkness and stroking softly.

‘He’s been following along as he usually does,’ my Sam says. ‘Not balking…’

The fair one moves to my head, taking my jaw in his hands, and then he takes one hand away and strokes the whorl of hair on my forehead as he speaks to me as a horse or pony would best understand. He is an Elf, after all, and from what Merrylegs has told me, the Elves have made a study of how to talk to other creatures.

What seems to be the trouble, my young friend?

My foot, I answer, and his hand, resting still under my jaw, is pressed downward as I bob my head towards the offending leg.

‘Ah,’ he says aloud, soft as a breath, and he runs his hand down my leg to my foot, and crouches before me. He knows just where to squeeze, to prompt me to lift my foot into his lap, and then his fingers are exploring the sensitive frog.

‘What is it?’ my Sam says, crowding close, worry in his tone, and more – as if he blames himself for my discomfort.

But the fair one is prying at my foot with his fingers, and suddenly I have relief, and there is a soft plonk as something falls free. I sense rather than see him turn his face up, towards the waiting hobbits. ‘A stone,’ he says. ‘A sharp stone was lodged in his hoof.’

My Sam gives a soft cry, and slaps himself on the forehead with his hand. ‘Ninnyhammer!’ he mutters to himself, and there are tears in his voice. ‘How could I not have noticed? Ah, Bill–!’

The fair one pays him no heed. His fingers are still probing, gentle but firm, and he looks down again as if the darkness is no barrier. He nods to himself, then sets my foot down and rises, laying a gentle arm across my neck. ‘No harm done,’ he says at last. ‘Some bruising, perhaps – the foot may be tender, but if you let him soak it in the streams we pass, as you stop to water him, that will bring him some comfort.’

‘You’re certain?’ Master says. So involved have we all been in the fair one’s exploration of my hoof, none of us has heard him come up, with Youngest, and we all startle, just a bit – excepting the fair one, of course. ‘He’s taken no ill?’

‘Walk him,’ the fair one answers, with a final pat, then running his hand along my side, he moves to take up his rearward position once more. ‘Let us see how he goes.’

I step off, surrounded by my hobbits, and to my relief I am able to walk four-square, steady on all my feet, without a catch or bob of my head.

My Sam is weeping as he goes – I can hear the catches in his breath, and on occasion he reaches over to pat at my neck, and whisper breathless apologies.

‘He’s going well, now,’ Merry says – he has been listening to my footfalls. ‘Come, Pip, let us hurry ahead to let the leaders know…’

…leaving myself, and my Sam, for the fair one has dropped back again. And Master walks with us still, and now he drapes his arm across my Sam’s shoulders as we walk along.

‘You wouldn’t have known, Sam,’ he says softly. ‘For that matter, I wouldn’t have… Merry’s more used to ponies than I am, and that’s how he’d have known, just from the sound of Bill’s going, in the darkness.’

My Sam sniffles, and runs his sleeve across his nose, but does not answer.

***

A/N: Some turns of phrase taken from “The Ring Goes South” in The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Chapter 79. Second day of the New Year, same as the first, a little more sleet, weather a little bit worse

It is near dawning, or at least dawn-smell is in the air, though there are few birds to sing at this time of the year, in this wild place where we wend our cautious way. Sometimes in that dark hour before the dawning, before the sky begins to lighten, the wind will drop to stillness, as if every creature in the world, even the air itself, holds its breath in anticipation.

Not this day. Darkness, and sleeting rain, and occasional stronger gusts of wind assail us.

Even without the wind dropping, somehow Tall Hat knows that the dawn is near, and after a few low words from him, Our Big Man has moved ahead, to scout out a sheltered place for us to rest.

It is not long before we move off the faint track we follow (little more than a game trail). Our Big Man is skilled at finding quiet, out-of-the-way resting places. There is a sound of fast-running water nearby, that will conceal any low-voiced conversation (though those of our party on guard will have to move a little away from the direction of the water, in order to hear any encroaching foes). In addition, as the stream runs deep and swift (or so I heard Our Big Man say to Tall Hat, on his return, before we all turned aside from the path), none will be able to assail us from that side.

‘Would you care to stumble into yonder stream, that we might have the need of a fire once more?’ Youngest says to my Sam, as he helps to remove my burdens and pile them neatly upon an oilcloth, lifting another oilcloth already spread over the top, to tuck the bundles under cover and keep them dry as possible in the sleeting rain.

‘I’ve had my turn,’ my Sam says in reply. ‘But thank you all the same for your kind consideration, Mr. Pippin.’

‘Why don’t you have a turn?’ not-quite-Merry says to Youngest, coming back for another bundle.

‘I had my turn already, do you not remember?’ Youngest says, and laughs softly. He has learnt to keep his noise down, for the most part, a most unnatural state of affairs for a young hobbit, to be sure.

‘Had your turn?’ not-quite-Merry says, question in his tone.

‘You’ve forgotten already! Hah! Perhaps you’re growing so senile as our ancient and venerable cousin, here, as Freddy’s sister is so fond of calling Frodo…’

That little pip-squeak!’ Merry says in answer, and in the dull, sullen light of this not-dawning, I see remembered dismay in his face. He affects to look around himself, as if expecting the pip-squeak to emerge from one of his pockets.

Master, having come up to us in time to hear the exchange, laughs and slaps the younger hobbit’s shoulder. ‘Missing something?’

Not missing, ra-ther!’ Youngest chirps in his brightest tones. ‘Dod told me how a certain lass… er… attached herself to our cousin, on his visits to Bridgefields…’

Master throws back his head in peals of near-silent laughter, then wiping his face with his hand (more to wipe away melting sleet, than laughter’s tears), says, ‘Ah, yes, Estella! What a little midge she was! Followed us everywhere…!’

‘You don’t think she’d follow all the way here, into the Wild!’ young mischief says, at his most mischievous.

‘Bite your tongue!’ not-Merry snaps.

‘Besides, I had the impression she was following Freddy, as a pesky little sister does, and he stayed behind, remember.’

‘Then she’s at Crickhollow, and safe,’ young mischief replies, cocking a bright eye at Master. ‘That’s such a nice little house… they ought to have splendid parties there. Why, they may be making merry, even now, seeing as it’s the day after First Day, and one must celebrate the successful conclusion of the first day of the New Year, after all…’

Tall Hat speaks suddenly, appearing as if out of nowhere, and everyone in our little group jumps. ‘Is aught amiss?’ Melting sleet drips from his eyebrows, that protrude from under the brim of his hat, and his beard is tucked under his cloak, in hopes, I should think, of keeping it dry. I twitch my bedraggled tail in sympathy.

‘Naught!’ Master answers, moving forward to take another bundle from my back.

‘I wondered,’ Tall Hat says. ‘The procession seems to have got held up, somehow…’ The hobbits have spoken before about feeling themselves akin to a procession of ants, bringing crumbs from a picnic cloth, when unburdening me of my bundles. ‘The pony won’t unbundle himself…’

‘We’re more than half done,’ Master replies, lifting the bundle to his shoulder and turning towards the oilcloth-covered supply pile. ‘We were just discussing the proprieties of taking turns.’

His cousins’ shoulders shake at this, and their faces are bright with merriment as they accept their own bundles from my Sam.

Somehow Tall Hat’s own expression lightens somewhat, though he shakes his head as he turns away, to give his attention to some other matter in setting up our camp.

Chapter 80. Another day, another dollop of this and that

The sleet continues through the day, as we rest under a dark and sullen sky. My hobbits huddle together under oilcloth coverings, pooling their cloaks and blankets, but I gather they are having trouble keeping warm. The Other Big Man (the one with the shield) speaks quietly with Our Big Man, quietly enough that I doubt my hobbits hear them, but with a twitch of my ears I am able to make out his low-voiced thoughts.

I will take a double shift, if no one else does,’ he says, ‘if only to leave the halflings to rest and share what warmth they may be able.’

‘They resent being treated like children,’ Our Big Man begins, looking over to the half-drowsing group.

The Other Big Man makes a sharp, slicing gesture with his hand, saying, ‘...not children – it’s not a matter of considering them weak, or childlike.’ Our Big Man begins to answer, but he’s not done. ‘I walked by them, just now, and two of them – the Ring-bearer, and the little one, his young cousin – were still shivering, with all the other two could do to warm them. I would take neither of the chilled ones from their warm nest and stand them out in this wind and sleet – for certain! – and neither would I take one of the others away, who are sharing their warmth.’

When Our Big Man tries to speak again, the Other Big Man adds, ‘I’d do nothing less if it were one of my own men who’d taken a chill while patrolling, and needed warming.’

Our Big Man puts a restraining hand on the Other Big Man’s shoulder. ‘Peace, Boromir,’ he says. ‘Nor would I.’ They stare into each other’s eyes for a brief instant, as if they are startled to have found a spot of common ground for complete agreement, and then they part, the Other Big Man to go out to the perimeter of our camp, to take his second watch of the day, and Our Big Man to go to the huddle of hobbits, crouching to address one or more.

I hear not-Merry’s voice slightly raised in protest. ‘But it’s my turn…!’

Our Big Man murmurs something, but his back is turned to me and the wind snatches away his words. Youngest sounds as if he would argue. ‘I’m not c-c-c-cold!’ but a sneeze interrupts his brave effort.

‘You see?’ Master says, his words clear though softly spoken. ‘No, but you stay there, Merry, you and Sam, and see if you can’t help Pip get warm. I’ll–’

I do not hear what Our Big Man says in reply, but Master settles back, and he and my Sam and not-Merry busy themselves in tucking up Youngest more securely.

Our Big Man rises from his crouch, in the meantime, goes to where our baggages are piled under oiled tarpaulins, and rummages for a few moments, returning with his own blanket, and – from the smell of them, as he passes me on his way to the huddled hobbits, the blankets of the Other Big Man and the Dwarf, both standing watch at this time. He lifts the hobbits’ oilcloth covering long enough to push the blankets under cover. ‘Here,’ he says. ‘Wrap these around all of you, to catch your warmth, that young Pip might yet grow warm as well.’

‘Here now, Mr Frodo,’ my Sam says, taking hold of one of the blankets and drawing it round Master’s shoulders, under the oilcloths, and Youngest’s protest is cut off nearly as suddenly as it forms.

It is as if – yes, it certainly seems so. The wind blows a suddenly conspiratorial smell from that quarter, to my nostrils. It is as if he has realised that Master, too, is shivering cold.

‘Y-y-y-yes-s-s-s,’ Youngest chatters, sounding much colder than he did a moment ago, despite the additional blankets. ‘Th-th-thank you! I hadn’t realised how very c-c-cold…’ He subsides with another sneeze.

‘There now,’ Our Big Man says, taking a moment to arrange the covering oilcloths to keep the hobbit huddle just so dry as possible. ‘It’s as important, if not more, to stay and keep your young cousin from taking his death of the cold.’

‘I wish we could have a fire,’ my Sam says softly, and then blushes and ducks his head so that he’s barely to be seen beneath the covering. ‘I-I beg your pardon, Mr Strider, I didn’t mean…’

‘I have the same wish,’ Our Big Man says, his tone gentle. ‘But I doubt even our wizard, here, could kindle a blaze in these conditions…’

‘Just think warming thoughts, Sam,’ Master says kindly, but my Sam ducks still lower, and the ear that is all I can see of him is crimson bright.

The wizard in question makes no reply, simply sits, still and grey as a stone in his own wrappings, his cold pipe in his mouth and his eyes black and thoughtful.

Chapter 81. We find rest along the way

I jerk my head up, suddenly aware that I was dozing, but a moment ago, and now I am fully awake. More—I am alert, quivering with alertness, every muscle tight, ready to jump—even in my hobbles—to kick out my hindquarters at any threat that might approach me from behind.

The camp is quiet. It is almost too quiet for me to bear the lack of sound. I lift my head higher, swivelling my ears in all directions, trying to see and hear all of my surroundings at once.

I saw a cat, once, in the stables of that place in Bree, where they brought me from my miserable, stinking, leaky shack of a stable, before we set out together on this journey.

She was creeping, ever so quietly, with not a rustle of the straw beneath her feet. The tip of her tail twitched, rather out of place against the picture the rest of her made, slowly, soundlessly, stealthily… until she pounced, and there was a shrill cry, and then a limp body hanging from her jaws.

I lift my head as high as might be and roll my eyes back, to listen, to see—is there something behind me? Something... creeping… ready to pounce?

There is a gentle whuffling sound behind me. Trembling, I listen, fearing to turn my head.

No! Is it? It is.

A soft whuffle, as of an exhausted hobbit. Not quite a snore.

Slowly, warily, keeping my feet firmly planted, I turn my head, just enough to see… my hobbits, huddled together, a familiar sight, sharing their warmth, their coverings. Surely they would not sleep so peacefully if there were danger. Surely the Watchers…

I turn my head again, to survey the camp. The Other Big Man (the one with the shield) is but a lump under his blanket, identifiable mainly by the shield lying close at hand, ready to grab up even as he should jump to his feet with his sword in the other hand. There is also the smell of him, wafting in my direction, though there is no wind to speak of.

…I lift my nose to the sky, and then nod my head down to my knees, and up again, and down and up, several times, ending with a vigorous shake that makes my mane fly about on my neck, to release the tension from my muscles.

No wind to speak of! That is the silence! The steady, freezing wind must have fallen while I slept, and the cold rain that was falling… isn’t.

I lift my head again, rolling an eye to the sky, to see rents in the swift-flowing clouds, tears and tatters that grow as I watch, and beams of sun shining through and disappearing again, only to peek out again, as of a child hiding behind its hands and pulling them away to shout in laughing delight. (I saw such, upon a time, in the marketplace, though I never could make any sense of it all.)

I jerk in sudden response—I cannot help myself—as a snore sounds to one side. I flare my nostrils, the better to smell my surroundings, and turning to look, I realise it is the Dwarf. I cannot see any part of him, not even his axe, which he always keeps close to himself, under his coverings with him when he sleeps, perhaps to keep it safe and dry.

Sampling the air about me, I can just catch a faint whiff of Our Big Man. Yes—he is there, and Tall Hat is over there, to the other side of the camp, though out of plain sight, the both of them, their scent telling of alertness, but not alarm. And… yes, perhaps the Fair One is over there, though his scent is somehow less strong than a Man’s, or even a Hobbit’s—he smells to me more of earth, and growing things, and less of sweat and effort, if you take my meaning.

I draw a deep breath of relief, and snort a little at my own foolishness.

We are safe—of course we are!—and there is nothing to be feared, here in this quiet place, under the coming-and-going face of a pale sun.

I pull a few mouthfuls of grass that are within easy reach, dry and winter-brown though the browsing might be, but my ears never leave off their listening.

The soft susurrus of my sleeping hobbits behind me are soothing, and soon my head droops lower as, once more, I allow myself to drowse.

*** 

A/N: Some turns of phrase taken from "The Ring Goes South" in The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien

Chapter 82. We make a long and stumbling night-march

We have been walking—stumbling, rather—ever so long, it seems, and this night has seemed longer than most, even without the need to fortify oneself against falling sleet and icy wind. I don’t quite understand it, but walking in the windless darkness, nay, stumbling along, as I have said, for the ground is rough beneath my feet…

Youngest cries out as he barks his toes, yet again, against an inconvenient rock, but the sound is much more muffled that it was some hours ago, when the night was half-spent, and our path grew rockier and rougher. It is as if he is holding one hand over his mouth, and perhaps he is, after enough stumbles to teach him that stumbling is the order for this night’s march. Though the stars are bright enough above, no longer hid by clouds, there is no full, round, laughing moon this night to light our way. My stumbles are softer—a pony does not cry out in surprise or pain, for such small things as stumbles. We might whinny high and loud, in joyous greeting—but as there seems to be no reason for such, I hold my peace. When I stumble, there is a flurry of soft thuds as I scramble to regain my balance, and nothing more.

The Fair One walks as if he can see clearly in the dark, his footfalls silent—though I’m certain I would hear him stumble, if he were to, which he does not, if you take my meaning. Master, too, of all my hobbit folk seems the most sure-footed. He does not stumble at all, as if somehow he can see his way in the dark, in some way that the other three cannot. Determined-not-Merry gives a soft grunt or Whoomph! –not really a cry, on some of his more spectacular stumbles, but he and Youngest have been walking arm-in-arm to support each other since Younger took a rather sprawling fall some time ago, and so there have been no falls from either one of them since.

My Sam rests one hand upon my neck, close to my ears, and so when he stumbles (as he does, though he is trudging heavily as if he bears nearly so great a burden as myself, and perhaps it steadies his steps somehow)—when he stumbles, of course I am there to catch him. I mean, he catches himself, as his grasp on my neck tightens convulsively, and then loosens again to a light touch as he regains his balance.

The Men move with surprising quiet, as if used to long, dark marches and night campaigns. The Wizard, too, is sure-footed as he goes, his footfalls perhaps a little louder than the Hobbits’ but softer than the Men’s. And the Dwarf stalks along as if darkness is no hindrance to him, though he mutters now and then, under his breath.

What was I thinking, just now? It is easy for my thoughts to be stolen away, listening in all directions as we walk, and hearing only my companions, the rustle of their clothing, the soft breathing, another muffled sound from Youngest… Ah, yes, the length of this night’s march. Although I am very nearly sure that this night is no longer (nor shorter) than previous nights, it has seemed ever so much longer. I should think that a night of walking in freezing wind, blowing cold rain and even sleet into our faces, would seem interminable, and so the past nights have seemed, to my perhaps-faulty recollection. (I am only a pony, after all.) Perhaps the cold numbed us, or the effort warmed us so that we did not so much mind the night-long effort. In point of fact, I am certain that though it seems to go on for ever without end, this night is no longer, for I heard one of the elder cousins reminding Youngest how the nights are growing shorter and the days longer, since the celebration of Last Day earlier on our journey,

‘We started out on one of the longest, darkest nights of the year,’ trying-to-be-Merry had observed, as we paused to rest, some time after the path turned from relatively smooth to rocks popping out in unexpected places, and Youngest had pitched forward onto his face in a rather spectacular stumble, and several hands reached out to lift him up, and Our Big Man declared a short rest, while the older cousins bound up Youngest’s scraped palms and fussed over his shins and knees. ‘The nights will be growing ever shorter as the light returns to the land.’

The Other Big Man (the one with the shield) murmured something under his breath at that, and Master said, ‘What is it, Boromir?’

‘Nothing,’ the Other Big Man said, but when Master pressed him, he sighed and said quietly, the words slow and reluctant, ‘I only said, “May it be so”.’

‘May what be so?’ Youngest said, his tone bright and curious, though he spoke through his teeth, as if his cousins’ ministrations were causing him some pain.

‘Indeed,’ said Our Big Man, leaving myself and Youngest no wiser than before.

While turning over these thoughts, I stumble again, and turn strict attention to my feet.

*** 

A/N: Some turns of phrase taken from "The Ring Goes South" in The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien

Chapter 83. We reach the top of a low ridge in the dawning

I smelled the dawn before the Sun painted the sky with her early morning colours. (‘Throwing off her bedcovers and kicking her rosy toes in the air,’ as one of my Hobbits puts it.) The sky has since faded to clear paleness, perhaps a reflection of the coldness of the air, though the Sun has not yet peeked above the low ridge we are climbing, back and forth across the face of the slope, for to move directly upwards would be too difficult. We have almost reached the top, it seems. I dimly remember our efforts during Our Big Man’s disastrous short-cut, before we came to that lovely Valley. I am glad to climb the gentle slope of the path we follow, with my own feet, and no one before me pulling on my rope, and no one behind me pushing me up an impossible climb…

I dare say my Hobbits would be in full agreement, were I able to voice my thought.

After the long night of stumbling progress, it seems we are in a different world altogether. Cold, clear light floods the landscape. Youngest has exclaimed more than once over the freshness of the air we are breathing, laughing that it pinches his nostrils when he inhales too sharply, while the breath of our efforts makes clouds in the clear air.

Youngest is singing, soft enough, but as he is walking at my Sam’s side, I can clearly hear him.

… went over the mountain, to see what he could see.
And what d’you think he saw?

My Sam echoes, as if it is a song well-known to him.

And what d’you think he saw?

Youngest goes on, to answer the question. He saw another mountain,
He saw another mountain,
He saw another mountain…

And it is not just song, but truth!

Tall, misty peaks loom beyond the top (Nearly there! Youngest pants, and I have hopes the song is over, until he takes up the thread of the tune in his next breath) of the ridge we are climbing. And still we toil upwards. Perhaps we shall climb to the realms of the Sun and the Moon. We have not yet stopped to take our rest, though the world is brightening around us. Perhaps there is a resting place at the end of the climb, or perhaps we shall simply keep climbing for ever.

The song is not only worrisome, but annoyingly repetitious.

...went over the mountain, and what do you think he saw?
What do you think he saw?

(My Sam echoes, obligingly enough, and almost seems to be enjoying the singing.) What do you think he saw?

He saw another mountain,
He saw another mountain,
He saw another mountain, and what d’you think he did?

… until I think I shall go mad. I find myself nodding my head with the music, and matching my footsteps to its beat – we ponies and even our larger cousins, the horses, cannot seem to help ourselves when there is catchy music in the air – even as I switch my tail in my irritation.

And what do they hope to catch with ‘catchy’ music, I ask you? Since we first left the Valley, I have heard one or another of my companions mention ‘a catchy tune’ when my hobbits were singing, yet I have failed to see any of them catch anything by mere singing. They have tickled trout in the streams along the way, but that did not involve singing, but rather moving as quietly as possible, or so I seem to recall.

I dread the thought that we might climb up over those lofty peaks, dim in the distance, only to find more and higher mountains tucked behind them.

At last we come to the top of the ridge, and blessed silence falls – Youngest is staring, his mouth half-open, at the vista before us and the great trees that surround us. He has quite forgotten what comes next in the song. (And what d’you think he did?) I could prompt him, but that I do not care to do so.

Ancient trees crown the ridge – we saw them as we were climbing, though they were dark against the brightening sky, and I could not make out what manner of trees they might be – and now the sharp smell of holly fills my nostrils, that evergreen scent that warns of sharp, prickly leaves better left uneaten. The dark leaves shine in the light of the rising Sun, and their red, inviting berries glow (inviting to birds, perhaps – my dam warned me off holly in my early days, when I was still learning which plants were good to browse and which were not, for the stuff had given her a dreadful bellyache in her earlier days).

‘It looks like the Great Hall, all done up for Last Night festivities,’ he whispers, and I think he gulps back tears.

My Sam clouts him on the shoulder, but gently, as if in sympathy for his sudden homesickness. ‘Or Number 3, when we’ve finished hanging up all the greenery ‘round the windows, and the smell of spice cakes is in the air,’ he agrees. Three of what, I do not know, unless it is three of greenery. Pine, holly, and yew?

Though the Sun shines her brightest, for all her efforts, I am not certain that She will be able to warm this cold air. I am glad for my shaggy coat. Youngest, too, shivers and hugs himself, as a fresh breeze catches us on the top of this ridge. It smells of snow, though the air is not freezing here. Perhaps it comes from those peaks, dim and distant before us, blowing over the snow I can see crowning the tallest and nearest.

‘Red sky at morning, sailors take warning,’ awed-Merry breathes, for he stopped short when he reached the ridge, and we came even with him ere we halted, ourselves.

‘Not a red sky,’ Youngest contradicts. ‘Just a reddish glow from the sun on the snow.’ He wipes quickly at his eyes and, heavily burdened though he might be, and at the end of a long, slow climb, he makes to caper, just a bit. ‘I made a rhyme!’

‘You do it all the time,’ his older cousin quips in return, and the two of them laugh together, but he, too, takes a deep breath of the air, and a remembering look is in his eye.

*** 

Author notes:

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

While some horse owners have reported their beasts happily munching their way through holly bushes, vets seem to agree that holly is toxic to equines. See, for one example, http://www.horseandhound.co.uk/forums/showthread.php?684638-Horses-and-holly-hedges

Chapter 84. We contemplate mountains, valleys, and lost and present Elves

Tall Hat lifts his hand to shade his eyes, looking out over the vista before us. Perhaps he, too, is thinking of Youngest’s song. We see another mountain, we see another mountain, we see another mountain… And what d’you think we’ll do?

Perhaps not, for instead of exclaiming over the mountains and how much climbing appears to be in our future, he reflects instead on how far we’ve come.

My Sam listens silently, standing at my head, looking out at the mountains ahead of us, his eyes wide and his mouth slightly open, as if he has forgot how to form words. Though when the Grey One mentions ‘Elves’ he gives a little sigh.

I lay my ears back at the words ‘…perhaps all the more dangerous.’ I do not like the sound of that. Perhaps that is why I startle – just a little – as Master throws back his hood. I was not paying best attention, and it is natural for a pony to startle at the unexpected. And all the more dangerous sounds … dangerous.

My Sam does not rebuke me, simply strokes the side of my neck. But his mouth closed with a snap of his jaw when he heard the words all the more dangerous, so it is not just myself. There is a determined, even somewhat grim smell coming from him now, in place of the wonder of a few moments ago.

Youngest is not content merely to listen. No, for when ever there is a question to be asked, it seems he cannot restrain himself from asking it. Even when he puts it in the form of a statement of fact, rather than a question. ‘But the mountains are ahead of us. We must have turned eastwards in the night.’

I wait for him to break into the mountain song again, but he does not, perhaps because the Grey One deigns to answer him at once, and not leave silence for him to fill with yet more questions. Or statements that are meant to be questions, except that he has been chided for asking too many questions and so is asking them without asking them. If you take my meaning.

Tall Hat mentions something called maps. I believe I have tasted a map upon a time, left by picnickers in our paddock, a rough-drawn sketch of the walking trails around the Chetwood, or so my dam told me when she nosed the paper in curiosity, and then left off to snatch a mouthful of clover nearby.

Paper has an interesting texture upon the tongue. Taking in the map did not improve my understanding of the walking trails around the Chetwood, however. Apparently Youngest has had the same luck as myself.

The Dwarf, however, declares himself not in need of maps. He speaks as if with first-hand knowledge of the land before us, raising a brawny arm to point. Perhaps he has walked these lands before. Perhaps he ought to be our guide?

A curious thought. Our Big Man has fumbled on occasion, rather. I think of all the paths that led us to the edge of a sheer fall, or down into treacherous swamps. Would we have done better with the Dwarf leading?

I shiver a little when he speaks of ‘cruel Caradhras’ though I know not of what he speaks. Just the word ‘cruel’ is off-putting to a pony who has belonged to someone like my old misery.

But Tall Hat speaks to him of joy – and yes, there is some scent of satisfaction, and longing, coming from the Dwarf. Perhaps the Grey One can smell it as well.

Though he hastens to add that we cannot linger in that valley, the Dwarf’s old home (no more would I care to linger in my broken-down shed … ah, but that stable in the Valley we have recently quitted, or even the comfortable stable in Bree, where I had my first good meal after leaving my stinking shed … Yes, I could see myself lingering in either of those).

‘… and where then?’ cautious-Merry asks. He, too, is shading his eyes to sweep the vista, and a sober, considering smell wafts from him.

I nod when Tall Hat answers, most sensibly, ‘To the end.’ Of course.

I half expect Youngest to seize this opportunity to interject yet another of his questions, but as Tall Hat threatened to turn him into a toad, some time earlier, if he asked another question before the dawning, perhaps not. Even though it is now after the dawning, and so the danger is over. That particular danger, at least.

We are all glad, I think, to hear Tall Hat say that we will rest here, not only today, but the night as well. A full rest! And not even because a rest has been deemed necessary to succour an injured Walker. A rest for the sake of resting!

My Sam sighs again, as the Elf says quietly that there are no Elves here any more.

Save himself, that is. But when he says, ‘They sought the Havens long ago,’ my Sam sighs yet another time, and Master with him in the same breath, and for no reason I can discern, the skin on my withers shudders almost of itself.

As he is one of the Fair Ones, and he is now standing in this country where the other Fair Ones sought the Havens (whatever they may be), does that mean that he will share their fate?

Perhaps Tall Hat is thinking similar thoughts, for he shakes himself and speaks briskly. ‘Come now, let us find a sheltered place to rest. I dare say we may even be able to light a fire, if it is sheltered enough…’

*** 

Author notes:

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

Chapter 85. We move down into the valley of the forgotten Elves

Tall Hat walks ahead, stepping down from the low ridge, and the two Big Men and the Fair One walk to either side of him, spreading out ever-wider, seeking…

In the mean time, my hobbits stand in a little bunch, myself in their midst, staring out over the valley and the mountains that rise beyond.

‘The first stage…’ Master says, and passes a hand over his eyes.

‘Is safely over,’ Youngest says with a kind of determination. He gives himself a shake. ‘Gandalf said so, and I suppose he ought to know.’

For some reason, Master and Merry both find this risible; I hear a chuckle escape Master’s lips, and merry-Merry’s shoulders shake briefly before he straightens and says, somewhat briskly, ‘Yes, Pip, and I’m sure he’d be gratified to hear your good opinion of him.’

‘I suppose he ought to know,’ Master echoes, laughter still in his voice. He slaps Youngest on the shoulder. ‘Ah, Pip…’

There are words left unsaid, but Youngest stands straighter under his heavy burden, and then he attempts to execute a few fancy steps. He reminds me of the hobbits who picnicked on our meadow a time or three. They were very polite, and always shared an apple or slice of bread with an inquisitive pony if my mother or I should stick our heads over the fence to greet them. After eating, and after resting sprawled on their picnic cloths, one would strike up a sprightly tune on a fiddle or flute, and the rest would jump up, join hands, and dance. My mother and I would nod our heads to the music, and a good time would be had by all.

Unlike the light-footed, unburdened picnickers, Youngest stumbles on the uneven ground, and only a lightning grab on Merry’s part saves him from sprawling. ‘None of that, now,’ the older cousin scolds, though laughter is still in his voice. ‘Even though you’d have all day and tonight as well to recover from a twisted ankle, I do not think a twisted ankle would add at all to the sensation of rest and ease. Let us not be so bold as to turn our ankles.’

‘Let us not, and say we did,’ adds Master, his words light and his tone cheery, as he takes Youngest’s other arm as if to escort him down the slope, into the valley.

Indeed, it is difficult not to feel light-hearted in this place. The sun seems to shine all the brighter, and the air is fresher, somehow.

‘Which of our scouts shall we follow, do you think?’ Master says, shading his eyes with his free hand.

‘Straight down the middle, I should venture,’ Youngest answers, undaunted by his near mishap. ‘That way we’ll have less distance to travel, should the farthest one be the finder of our resting place.’

Master turns his head towards Youngest, and ruffles his curls. ‘You’re making more sense than you usually do,’ he says affectionately. ‘I don’t know why, but I feel as if it ought to worry me.’

‘That’s because worrying you has been his business since the beginning,’ Merry puts in. ‘Have you forgotten the time he wandered, as a faunt, and we searched half the day…’

My Sam snorts softly at this, as if he remembers the event very well and does not consider it proper material for jesting. Then he shakes his head, as if to chide himself for ‘thinking ill of his betters’ as I’ve heard him mutter to himself on occasion, when the other three hobbits have been making rather less sense, to my understanding, than my own practical, solid Sam.

They can be quite nonsensical, those three gentlehobbits, when the whimsy is running high.

Not that it has run all that high, since leaving that protected Valley, of course.

My Sam and I sigh in the same breath, and I think that perhaps our thoughts are the same in this moment. I shake my head to settle my mane, and the two of us step off at the same time, moving down the slope (not directly down, mind, but at the same angle that our scouts took before they separated and began to pick their way down diverging paths), eventually following the footsteps of the wizard.

I swivel my ears back, to listen behind me, and at last I hear the other three moving on the path behind us.

The Dwarf remains atop the low ridge whence we have just come, either keeping watch behind us, or watching over our party, or perhaps yearning towards the land where his people's fathers worked of old, and the mountains – now rising before us in truth – that stand tall in his dreams.

*** 

Author notes:

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

 

Chapter 86. We find a resting place amidst the holly

My Sam talks quietly to me as we make our way down from the low ridge, most of the others spreading out (all the tall ones in our party, at least) ahead of us, the other hobbits in our party behind, and the Dwarf still standing at the top of the ridge, watching behind us and over the valley before us as well. The ridge seems an excellent place to stand watch.

Of course, I swivel one ear in every direction, but the other I keep fixed upon my Sam, to catch every muttered word. ‘Proper ninnyhammer,’ he is saying now, and I shake my head to settle my mane. My Sam may be many things, but “ninnyhammer”, said in such a tone, what ever it may be (for it sounds most uncomplimentary when he says it), is not one of them. Not in my opinion, at the least. He is the wisest, bravest, and kindest of hobbits, and I would follow him to the ends of Middle-earth. Where ever that may be. From his muttering, he is not so sure himself.

‘…to think we had about reached that Fiery Mountain,’ he says. ‘But then, we’ve been walking for leagues already, old fellow.’ I nod my head against his shoulder, and he reaches up to scratch at my jaw. ‘That Redhorn, or what ever it may be called, certainly looked red and fiery enough to my taste! Even if it’s not to my taste, if you take my meaning…’

I nod again, and he turns to me, a sudden scent of worry wafting from him. ‘You’re not mis-stepping,’ he says, stopping in consternation. ‘Are you, Bill? Is there a stone in your foot?’

I nuzzle the hand he holds out to me and try to tell him all is well. 

But he ducks down, until I fear he will topple under the weight he is carrying, and runs his hands down my forelegs, one at a time.

‘What is it, Sam?’ the somewhat-merrier hobbit says, coming even with us. He has left Master and Youngest a few steps behind, evidently, for I hear their soft voices talking behind us, Youngest asking questions and Master patiently answering.

‘He’s nodding,’ my Sam says. ‘I thought, perhaps, Mr Merry…’

‘Ah,’ Mr Merry says in response. He slings off his own pack and lays it to one side, then crouches before me to run his hands down my legs. ‘I don’t feel any swelling or warmth…’ 

I bend my neck that I might watch closely, to see what he will discover.

‘A stone?’ my Sam says, straightening with difficulty under his burden and stroking my neck.

‘Perhaps,’ Mr Merry hazards, and then he looks up, and pushing my face out of the way to address my Sam, he says, ‘I will check for stones once we’ve unburdened him — don’t want to make him stand on three legs when he’s carrying so much. Walk him for me, will you? Let us see what we can see.’ He rises to his feet, and my Sam helps him to resume his burden once more. He walks out ahead of us, stops, and turns towards us.

My Sam takes my rope and clucks to me, and of course I follow, and the perhaps-merry hobbit ahead scrutinises our every move, it seems, from the expression on his face.

‘What is it, Merry?’ comes the voice of Youngest behind me, and though he calls softly, it seems unnaturally loud in this place. ‘Is something wrong with our Bill?’

‘He seems to be going well,’ the merry hobbit calls back, his voice lower than usual. I have seen Master and Mr Merry take this approach to encourage Youngest to speak in a softer tone along the way, without directly scolding him when it is obvious he is making an effort.

As we come up to him, he shrugs one shoulder to ease his pack and turns to walk on with us, when we are all arrested by the high-pitched whistling of a dunnock, the first birdcall I have heard in these parts, come to think on it.

We all look around for the source of the sound, and see the Other Big Man (the one with the shield) a little to one side, waving an arm.

Soon all are converging on him, all except the Dwarf, that is, who stands upon the ridge in the shadow of one of the great and ancient-seeming holly trees that crown that high place. We come up to hear the Other Big Man (the one with the shield) talking to Tall Hat. ‘…good cover in this hollow – see how the holly bushes shroud it from view on all sides…’

‘And not too far from the ridge,’ Our Big Man says, coming up to us. ‘One can easily watch in all directions from there, while the others rest.’

As it turns out, we have not had so far to go to find our resting place, for the extended rest that Tall Hat has promised. I for one am glad.

I am also happy to report that, once I have been relieved of all my burdens, first the merry hobbit, and then Our Big Man, and then the Other Big Man (the one with the shield) examine my legs and the frogs of all of my feet, and pronounce me sound and well.

It is a good thing to know, especially when we still have some way to go (and who, if any, knows exactly how far it may be?) to reach the ends of Middle-earth.

*** 

Author notes:

According to this website, dunnocks may be commonly found in places where holly grows. It seems likely that Boromir would use an appropriate birdcall to signal the others.

https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/bird-and-wildlife-guides/a-z-of-a-wildlife-garden/atoz/h/holly.aspx

Quite a few videos of dunnock songs are available on Youtube, for the curious.

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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