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Chapter 23. We pass a cold and windswept night
The wind blows cold through the pass, and I shudder. There's a sound of moaning, creatures dreadfully wounded, dying; sighs as of someone's last breath, or would be last breaths, except that they go on and on.
My companions sit, huddled together in a shallow pit graven under the gnarled roots of an old pine, as if someone long ago dug for treasure there. A small fire burns, more comfort for the spirit than warmth for the body. I stand as close as I might, for the wind blows chill indeed.
Youngest hobbit starts up at every sound, and not-merry puts a reassuring hand on his shoulder. 'It's just the wind, soughing through the treetops below, Pip, that's all.'
'It sounds like.. like lost souls,' youngest says, his voice quavering with his shivers, and then he looks to Master and falls silent, misery on his face.
Master lies without moving; he has not spoken, no, not a word, not even when the Big Man lifted him from the ground and carried him to lie him beside the fire. From him rises the scent of uneasy sleep, half-dreaming fear.
'Just the wind in the treetops,' not-merry says again, and then he begins to hum low, and then sing, a song of walking in the sunshine, the clouds puffs in the sky above, the grass green and soft below, the wind in the treetops singing a song to the daisies in the meadow. It is a pleasant song, a reminder of brighter days in the dim mists of memory, but it sounds somehow thin and unconvincing in this dreary place.
Still, I am lulled, as was no doubt not-merry's intention, though not on my behalf: Young hobbit's head droops, and soon he rests against not-merry, limp with sleep. I too drowse, slipping into dreams of better things. Wind sighs in the trees by my meadow, and my mother stands above me to shade me from the Sun. I sleep.
...and waken to the dawning light, pale and clear in a rain-washed sky. The morning is bright and fair, but it is cold here on the ridge, and all of us move stiffly as we shake off sleep.
'Come, Merry,' the Big Man says, rising from his crouch. Perhaps I ought to say creaking to his feet for he moves slowly and painfully, indeed, and not with his usual grace. The hobbit rises slowly, too, easing youngest hobbit down next to Master without wakening either, I think. He then swings his arms and gingerly stomps his feet, as if to get the blood flowing once more.
I browse a few pine needles from the gnarled tree; there is nothing more to eat here, on this rocky, bony ridge. The needles are sour.
The Big Man and not-merry hobbit walk off together, climbing and scrambling up the eastern height. My Sam is awake, too; he has emptied one of the water bottles into a pan and is heating the water over the fire. It is not long before he is coaxing Master to drink: “Nice, hot tea, Mr. Frodo, fresh-brewed just as you like it. 'Twouldn't do to let it go to waste, now, would it?”
Master speaks for the first time since the climb, his voice weak, but cheerful. I do not know if he is encouraged by the clear light that surrounds us, after the drear of the past days, or if he merely puts on encouragement for my Sam's sake. 'Yes, thank you, Sam.' He lets Sam help him sit up; he sips from the cup Sam holds before him, lifting his good hand to steady it. 'Ah,' he sighs, 'that's good.'
My Samwise beams as if he's been paid in heavy gold coin, and not just a simple word of praise. 'I'll have breakfast ready as quick as you can say “Overhill, over Dale,” Mr. Frodo!'
'Overhill, over Dale,' youngest hobbit says sleepily, sitting up. 'I say, Samwise, a few eagles would not go amiss... though the eagles over Dale never did fly Bilbo all the way home past Overhill. What a story that would have made'!
'Yes, wouldn't it,' Master says with a fond smile for the youngster, who has walked so very far, and no benefit of eagles to spare his travel-worn feet.
It is good to see him smile.
Youngest hobbit returns the smile, and heartened, adds, 'I'll settle for some of that tea.'
'Right, Mr. Pippin,' my Sam says in his briskest tone. I prick my ears forward, glad, though my belly is empty. I tear a strip of bark from the tree. It is tasteless, but it gives me something to chew.
Breakfast is ready and waiting when the others return under the now brightly shining Sun.
'Well, Strider?' youngest hobbit says boldly, and I prick my ears to listen. I do believe that my Sam would prick his ears as well, were he a pony. He turns, expectant, to hear the news, and Master is tense, waiting.
'We are now going more or less the right direction,' the Big Man says.
'Yes,' his companion says. He is merrier than before, as if what he's seen has been reassuring rather than daunting. Perhaps nothing could be quite so bad as the slope we ascended yesterday. 'The mountains shall be on our left as we descend the ridge.'
'On the further side?' youngest hobbit asks, and perhaps-merry reaches out to tousle his curls.
'Of course on the further side,' he retorts. 'You didn't have in mind going down again and around the long way!'
'As if it were a walking party,' Master puts in, and everyone looks at him in astonishment. Truly it is as if the bright sunshine has put some heart back into him.
'And why not a walking party?' youngest says, standing suddenly to his feet and sweeping his hands out to the sides in a grand gesture.
And then he laughs at my Sam's befuddled look, and lets his hands slowly fall to his sides. 'Perhaps not,' he says, as if reconsidering.
'Pip, you are ridiculous,' Master says, and his smile is more real than I've seen in days.
'At your service,' youngest says with a grandiose bow, and even the Big Man is smiling now, though he sobers when Master turns to address him.
'And so, Strider,' he says, pulling himself up to sit as straight as he may, as if to defy the weakness that would pull him down. 'If not a walking party, and "roundabout we go", then... where?'
The Big Man bows to him, straightens, and says, 'Some way ahead is the Loudwater; I caught a glimpse of it from the height.'
'The Loudwater,' Master says, looking thoughtful.
'Though we cannot see it from this vantage, the Road to the Ford lies on this side of the River, and not far from the River's course.'
'The Road,' Master mutters, and Merry looks less merry once more.
I shiver as I think of the Road, and the terrible cry as we crossed over, so long ago now I can scarce remember the taste of the dry grass on the verge. I remember the cry; it is burned into my memory.
My Samwise looks troubled, and young hobbit has lost his tinge of silliness.
Master too has lost his smile, but his look is resigned, and he smells more of pain and weariness than of fear.
'The Road, Strider?' he prompts.
The Big Man nods slowly. 'We must make for the Road again,' he says.
'But what of--' Samwise says, and at the same time youngest hobbit speaks, 'I thought we--'
'We cannot hope to find a path through these hills,' is the Ranger's reply.
'And the Black Riders?' youngest says, finishing my Sam's thought. 'What of them? If they look for us upon the Road...?'
The Big Man wears a set expression. 'Whatever danger may beset it,' he says with a shake of his head, and then he turns his face to gaze steadily to the South-East, 'the Road is our only way to the Ford.'
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.
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