Chapter 20. We follow a promising valley, but it proves false at the last
I awaken to the low-voiced tones of the Man--so soft-footed is he that I heard nothing of his return.
‘...too far to the north.’ I could have told him that, without him having to go off and look for himself. There is more about having to turn southwards, and that if we keep going on in the same direction we shall come to troll-country. I have no desire to walk into troll-country, not with my eyes open and my head up, not on my own four feet, not in any manner at all! But he is still speaking, and I have missed some of the words. I raise my head, lift my pinned-back ears and prick them forward to listen once more. ‘...somehow or other we must find the Ford of Bruinen.’
‘I’m all for that,’ Master says stoutly. I think his sleep in the reassuring light of day, with no haunting shadows nor menacing sounds, has done him some good.
The Man lifts Master to my back, and Sam hurriedly shrugs into his pack, and takes my rope, and the other hobbits are laden and ready and we set forth once more, scrambling over the rocky ground.
We stop for a noontide rest--well, it is likely some time after noon, what with the late start, and we did not stop for some hours from our starting, for the Man is anxious and presses the pace. It is not much of a rest; Master remains astride, and Sam is the only one to remove his pack, and that only long enough to dig out a few handfuls of food for each of them, tied up in cloths about the size of handkerchiefs, a meal he prepared before we left our resting place earlier in the day.
Though it is bad form to graze with a rider aboard, I take advantage of the loose lead rope to grab at a few bites of what I can manage to chew and swallow.
Soon we are moving on. Youngest hobbit walks with his head down, and Master seems to grow heavier as he droops with weariness of long riding, but the Merry hobbit is scanning our surroundings, always looking to the eastern slopes as if he is seeking...
‘There,’ he says, lifting an arm to point.
‘Yes,’ the Man answers. ‘I see it as well. Between those two hills...’
‘A passage,’ my Samwise affirms, stopping to look, and so I stop, too, and lift my head.
‘Between,’ youngest hobbit breathes, rolling his shoulders as if they are aching under his burden. He clears his throat, the better to speak in a light and cheerful tone. ‘So much better, don’t you think, than over?’
‘Much better!’ Merry says, and even manages a laugh and a clout for youngest’s arm. ‘Though you’ve climbed enough in the Green Hills, in your younger days, that these little round-tops should pose you no trouble at all!’
‘Ah, but I’m not so young as I used to be, and me old bones is growing creaky,’ youngest retorts in a cracked voice. Even the Man smiles, and we all walk on in better spirits than we have known since before the rain.
Indeed the way is promising, for when we have passed between the two hills we are in a valley that runs to the south-east. All to the good and so we hope for better, and we walk on with a will and a murmur of yet another walking song on the hobbits’ part. At times youngest even whistles a bit, softly and through his teeth, a spritely tune, and I prick my ears forward and arch my neck and step along in time to the music.
Master dozes and wakens by turn; I can tell by his weight on my back. When he rides with his head lifted, his legs pressing my sides, his back straight, he is no burden at all; but when he slumps he is a most awkward and heavy load and something of a strain to my back muscles. Still, when he slumps it means he is sleeping, and I take extra care that he be neither jostled nor jarred in the going.
I watch the ground, looking to the placing of my feet and letting my ears do most of my guarding against danger. They are sharper than my eyesight in any event--my eyes can fool me into perceiving danger where there is none, whereas my ears are better to be trusted. My nostrils flare, but I smell nothing to worry me, and nothing to tempt me, either, neither grass to tear nor water to nuzzle. My ears and nose are very fine sentinels. My skin, too, is a reliable guide, for it prickles and shudders almost of itself when the scent of danger is on the air, sometimes before I even notice the scent itself and catalogue it as worrisome.
Thus it is that I nearly run over my Sam, who stops before me without a word. There is a soft exclamation of dismay from one of the young cousins, and I feel Master’s legs tighten on my sides as he raises his head.
The Man gazes before us, his head high, shoulders set and determined, but I heard the sigh he suppressed just now.
The valley has come to an end, it seems. Ahead of us is a high ridge, its dark edge against the sky broken into many bare points like the teeth in the bottom jaw of some great maw opening to devour us, gaping so wide that the teeth in the top part of that terrible mouth cannot be seen, only guessed at. We must go back--but it is late in the day, and darkness would take us before we once again reached the two hills that guard the entrance to this false valley.
‘Or we can climb over,’ Master says bravely from my back, and the others look to him in surprise.
He gives a short, forced laugh. ‘Would you turn back, when we’ve made such progress this day, and waste all your effort?’
‘But Frodo,’ not-so-merry says, plainly doubting. ‘I’m not sure that our young Took, even, can climb that slope, much less...’
‘I’m game,’ youngest says, shrugging his pack a little higher on his back and facing the hill with determination writ all over his face.
‘Good for you, Pip,’ Master says. ‘Well, Strider? What do you say?’
‘To go back would add another day to an already-long journey, and no guarantee that we’d find our way in any event, short of retracing our steps all the way back to the Road.’
‘But that would take days!’ my Sam protests, pulling the lead rope tighter in his consternation.
‘I don’t think we have days,’ Master says, so softly that I think only Samwise and the Ranger and myself, of course, hear him. ‘At least, I don’t think I do.’
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.