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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.
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