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We take a bite and consider
‘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.
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