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.