Chapter 21. We begin an impossible climb
I cannot move forward. I cannot move back. To one side is a wall of broken stone, implacable, unyielding. To the other, a fearful fall, should I miss my footing. We have not been climbing for long, and we still have too long a climb ahead of us.
We have worked our way steadily upward, and now we are too far above the valley floor, and not anywhere near the top of the ridge.
My Sam stands at my head, urging me on. Young hobbit scrambles ahead, and higher, following the Big Man. He holds the end of my rope in his hands, and when the rope pulls tight between us he stops, turns, braces himself against the dirt and rocks, plants his feet, and pulls. And Sam tugs at my halter. ‘Come along, lad.’
Behind me is the not-merry hobbit’s voice, and his hand comes down a-slap. ‘Get up, there, Bill!’ And what will he do if we start to slide backwards? Try and catch us?
Young hobbit is pulling as if it’s a game of tug, his face screwed in concentration, but it’s my head he’s pulling, and off my neck, it seems! 'Come along, old pony,' he hisses between clenched teeth.
Another slap on my hindquarters, harder this time, and I jump, a little, but the footing is so poor, aye, there’s no footing to be had, really, and I stumble forward a step, little stones rattling down the cliffside from the moving of my feet, and I plant them again, throwing my head up in protest, trembling all over. The gentle stroking hand upon my withers, so encouraging when we started, has gone and Master rests against my back, my neck, his legs unmoving, arm weakly grasping one side of my neck, a lump of baggage, and I must not let him slip to one side or to the other.
And my Samwise, he - he picks up a sturdy stick, lying on the slope, and weeping, he strikes me! ‘Get up, Bill!’ he sobs. I jump, I cannot help myself, but I manage to keep the foothold I’ve found, dubious safety, no way up and no way down.
I feel a shifting of the weight on my back, and I lay my ears back in consternation. I must not let him fall! And yet, how am I to save even myself?
Master speaks, his voice low and strained. ‘Hold, Sam, hold your hand.’ The weight on my back shifts again, and though I do my best to hold him, he slides to one side, and down to the ground, though he’s wound the fingers of his good hand into the scraggles of my mane and so holds himself upright. I let my head droop, I arch my back to stretch the muscles in this unexpected moment of rest, my limbs tremble with fear and weariness.
‘Hold, Sam,’ he breathes again. ‘It is too much for the poor old pony.’
Poor old pony! Stung, I raise my head once more and turn my face to him, bending my neck as far as can be, for youngest hobbit has eased his pull in his amazement at this turn of events. I reach to lip at Master's shoulder, not the injured one, of course. I would carry him to the ends of the earth, I would, could I but find the footing.
Master is pale, deathly pale, but he holds up his head and his face is set. ‘Too much to expect,’ he repeats. ‘Why, this slope is almost as much as a hobbit could climb! But climb we must, and so climb I will, and spare old Bill the extra burden.’
‘But Frodo!’ not-merry says, brushing past me to lend a supporting arm to his cousin.
But Master, indeed, for Master will hear no argument. He says, very soft, ‘It is a waste of strength to argue,’ and then he lets go of my mane, eases past my Sam with a pat on the shoulder, takes hold of my rope, once more taut between young hobbit and myself, and begins to pull himself up along its length, not-merry his shadow, risking his own footing to offer support.
The stick falls from my Sam’s hand, and he stands a moment, wipes his dirty sleeve across his eyes, and then moves to follow.
‘Frodo!’ the Big Man shouts, softly yet it is a shout, gauged to carry no further than our ears.
Master toils ever upward, slow shuffle, painful step upwards, pause as if to gather strength, push with the downhill leg and straighten the uphill leg, to stand a moment before beginning again.
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.