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The Tenth Walker  by Lindelea

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.

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