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.
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.