Chapter 16. We pick our way through a pathless country
We continue along the Road, though the Man is as tense as a pony in a lonely field, hearing the baying of stray dogs approaching. I strain my ears to the utmost... and hear nothing to match my fears.
It is a relief when, a mile or so from the Bridge we turn off the treacherous Road, into a narrow ravine leading to the North, or so I hear not-so-merry whisper to the others.
‘I am glad to leave the perilous Road behind,’ young marsh-stinking hobbit whispers, and I hear my Samwise mutter, very low, that Master might not hear him grumble (ah, but I have pony ears!), ‘and to leave those cheerless lands behind, yes, glad I am!’
‘I don’t know,’ not-so-merry says, with a shake of his head. ‘Perhaps it’s merely jumping from the frying pan... this new country seems not at all welcoming...’
Threatening and unfriendly, he might have said. The hills are sullen and steep, and dark trees wind about them. I would not want to have to make my way up any of those slopes. I am glad we walk in the valley, narrow and difficult as it is, rough and rocky the going. I place my feet with care, so as not to stumble and shake my rider. Not at all welcoming, apt words, I think.
The hills loom higher as we make our way, and I wonder how it is that we shall come to Rivendell at the last, when the Road runs that way and we are going this, but I suppose the Man knows his business. He brought us through the marshes, at least, and through trackless lands thus far. I just wish that he did not smell so, and chiefly of worry.
Look, another tower! youngest hobbit whispers, pointing, though he keeps his elbow tucked close and his pointing is a mere twitch of the index finger, as if he fears that one of his customary sweeping gestures will draw unfriendly attention. He huddles close to me, a part of the time, or one of the other hobbits, and I can almost hear the pounding of his heart.
Those walls of stone look old, not-so-merry whispers. Ever so old, he adds, and, I don’t like the look of them.
Master speaks so suddenly that we all jump; he has been silent for some hours, since we left the Road. ‘Who lives in this land?’ he asks. ‘And who built these towers? Is this troll-country?’
And at the fearsome word I jump again, and all three of the walking hobbits soothe me, and I feel Master stroking my trembling neck. It is difficult to control myself, but somehow I manage, for the most part, anyhow. Trolls eat ponies. Or so I’ve been told.
But to my relief, the Man answers that trolls did not build the towers and crumbling walls, for indeed, trolls do not build. Men lived here upon a time, but fell under the shadow of evil and were destroyed, so long ago that even the hills have forgotten them, though they still bear scars and ruins. Shadow indeed, it feels as if we walk through a land of shadow, dark and dreary, full of untold tales remembered only in Rivendell, where we are bound.
Mention of Rivendell is like a flash of bright light, a sliver of sunlight shining through clouds, lifting the spirit for a moment before the gloom closes in once more.
For the hills begin to shut us in. We can see neither Road nor River now, as we come into a long valley; narrow, deeply cloven, dark and silent. My footfalls sound very loud to my ears, and I try to pick up my feet and put them down again as quietly as I may.
Look! youngest hobbit hisses, and I look up, seeing only trees with old and twisted roots hanging over us on cliffs, and piled up behind into mounting slopes of pine-wood. There are no birds; it is as if we are the only living creatures afoot. That might be a comforting thought, were it not that my skin prickles with premonitions of danger.
However, there seems no way to go but forward or back. I am no bird, that I might fly up the steep walls to either side!
It is difficult enough to pick my way through the tumbled rocks, and fallen trees are a trouble as well. Were the footing better, I might jump over, could I but have a running start... I jumped for the sheer joy of it, running about our grassy field with my mother, in the dim past of memory. Not a fence, or any solid obstacle, but I could jump the little brook, and the stump of a tree sticking up as if it had lost the forest. But these trees... my Samwise leads me around, if he can, or leads me along the length of the tree, to where it grows slender enough to step over. It makes for slow going.
I do not know where this valley is leading us. The Man is very quiet now, eyeing the slopes to our right as if he would turn in that direction. I doubt he’d find any way up out of these narrow dales!
I am glad when we make camp, for I am very weary, and the hobbits are exhausted. Youngest throws himself down when the Man calls a halt, but he drags himself upright again almost immediately, shedding his pack and trudging off in search of wood--though never out of sight of our camp. Merry and my Sam help Master down from my back; freed of my burden, I shake myself until my hair flies up, and when I stand it settles again. It is the best I can do, for there is no grass here to roll upon.
Wood-gathering done, youngest takes me to drink where a spring trickles from the rocky slope, running down to a little cup in the clay. I drink deeply of the icy, refreshing stuff and shake my head up and down, scattering small drops... but he is too weary to protest, nearly dropping from fatigue. When I am finished drinking, he ties me to a tree and I begin to search so far as I can reach, for all the late leaves I can find, dry and tasteless they may be, even the jagged-edged bramble leaves, guarded by thorns. There are a few berries still clinging, dry and shrivelled, but I eat these as well.
Youngest hobbit has to be wakened to eat, and so does Master. I have already eaten all the leaves I can find, and small twigs--satisfying to chew though not at all filling--and have torn some of the bark from nearest of the young trees, by the time they are at supper, and from the look of it their portions are not much more generous than mine. Still, my Sam, as soon as he finishes, and has made sure that the Master has all he wants (little as it might be), gets up, takes my rope, and moves me to another tethering spot, with more leaves for my browsing. They take turns moving my tether from place to place, until I’ve stripped leaves and bark from all the vicinity. At last I stand uneasily, while they sink into exhausted slumber. Only the Man remains awake, and he too seems very weary.
I raise my head higher, the better to watch for danger, and he stretches his arms out to the sides and up slowly, and down again, sits a little straighter against the tree that props his back, and nods to me. I nod in return; if he wishes a little doze, to recover his strength, I will keep watch.
But he pulls his pipe from its hiding and settles to smoke, as if to fight away the mists of sleep. The smoke from his pipe joins with the smoke from the little campfire, rising into the haze above the overhanging trees, that wait in silent menace above and all around.
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.