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The Tenth Walker  by Lindelea

Chapter 24. Things are looking up; we are moving steadily down

'Steady, Bill. Steady, old lad.'

My rope is twined about my Sam's right hand, his left hand rests on my neck, gently urging. My ears are laid back, not out of any ill will but rather concentration. Though the slope is less steep on this side of the ridge, still, it is a slope and I would not care to stumble.

The Master moves along slowly a little way in front of us, one or the other of his cousins always at his side; both of them would steady him together, I think, were the path wide enough.

I swivel one ear forward to hear the Big Man speak. He is ahead, leading the way, and has turned to look back up the slope. His voice is pitched to reach us, no further.

'See how carefully he places his feet, Sam.'

My Sam's set face twitches in a smile and his steadying hand rises from my crest and descends again in a series of soft pats. 'Good lad, Bill.'

But the Big Man is not finished. 'Frodo,' he calls softly. 'Stop there.'

Master stumbles to a stop, not-merry supporting him. I think if a rock were conveniently placed, poor Master would sink down, to sit, but as it is he lets his weight sag against his cousin, and not-merry stands staunch to take his weight.

Now the Big Man motions to my Sam to move up, but I am watching as well, and step off even before my Sam. He chuckles, a dry rattle and yet it is a chuckle, and scrambles to catch up. 'Steady, Bill,' he says. 'Who's following who?'

The Big Man is moving up the slope to us, and we come together with Master between us. 'The way is easy enough, I think it safe for you to ride, Frodo.'

Easy! Upon consideration I nod. Perhaps I would not use the word “easy” were I given to words, but it is easier, any road, than yesterday's work, what I remember of it.

'See, even Bill agrees,' youngest hobbit says, his face bright with mischief.

'If a pony could talk, that one would,' Master agrees, a smile lighting his face, and for a moment the lines of strain drop away. I prick my ears forward and nod my head lower, to lip at my Sam's sleeve, and all the hobbits find it quite amusing for some reason.

The Big Man reaches us, a smile on his own face. 'Steady, Bill,' he says.

I lift my head high in indignation. My feet are planted as well as might be, barring roots!

He gently takes Master in his arms and moves past my head.

'Steady, Bill,' Samwise says, and I twitch my tail in irritation. With my four feet, and he has but two, I'd warrant I'm steadier than he is!

I feel Master's weight ease onto my back; I stiffen my muscles to bear up under him, though he seems to weigh less than I remember, as if his substance has been slowly leaking away. I feel the fingers of his good hand, feebly stroking at my neck, and soft words of praise. There's no nonsense from him about steady, and that, I suppose is part of why he is Master. 'Good Bill,' he says. 'Good lad. My thanks.'

I nod my head again, thoughtfully, and then put my nose down for a good, long survey of the ground ahead. The Big Man is already moving down the slope, and I study his feet, to see how he places them.

The cousins would walk to either side of us, but there is room for only one, so slightly-merrier tells marsh-and-mischief to run on ahead. 'You can steady Strider's steps,' he says, and youngest laughs merrily at such a thought, though he stifles the laugh behind his hand.

'If need be,' he agrees, and moves lightly down the slope, soon catching the Big Man who is slowly picking his way, not for his own sake—I have the feeling that he could move very quickly and lightly indeed. I suspect he is surveying the way ahead for the easiest way for a laden pony.

I can do my part. I place each foot with care, stiffening my limbs as needed and relaxing others, once again striving to move so smoothly as the stalking cat in my meadow. My tail does not lash as hers did, but it does twitch in my concentration.

The way is smoother to the left, and I move that way, pulling my Sam with me. 'Steady, old lad,' he says, and I huff in exasperation. I feel Master's stroking hand once more, soothing my neck, though he does not speak.

The way is smoother, and I will walk that way, and my Sam had better look to his own feet. He stumbles, but I do not. One foot at a time, smooth as the hunting cat, steady we go, steady.

'The path is easier here,' slightly-merrier says as if to himself, and then to my Sam he says, 'Let him have his head, Sam. He's picking an easier way.'

'I suppose he'd know even better than a Ranger, the easiest path for a four-footed creature to follow,' Master says from my back, and at this my Sam loosens his hold and my head is free.

I shake my head and stretch out my neck, ah, that's better! --and resume my careful progress.

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