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Chapter 25. Trolls!
Master must be feeling better, a little better at any rate. He has been riding upright for the most part, even leaning back on steeper stretches, helping me to keep my balance. Every now and again he sags a moment, but then he sits upright again as if it was only a passing matter.
I startle and then plant my feet to make up for shaking Master as youngest hobbit turns suddenly – he is a little ahead of us – and calls, 'There is a path here!'
'Come along, Bill,' my Sam says with a tug at my rope. Master is leaning forward a little, as if to see better, and somewhat-merrier takes his steadying hand away from Master's back, long enough for a gentle slap on my flank.
'A path!' he says under his breath. 'And who made it, I wonder?'
Well he might wonder. A path it is, truly, the beginnings of one, or more properly, the end. Some one or more than one made it, climbing up from the wood below to – to – where? The hilltop high above us? To what purpose?
But then I remember the pit where our fire burned, small but determined cheer, only last night. Someone climbed the hill from the wood below, climbed to the ridge, and delved a pit.
I only hope they did not make a pony climb up and down, bearing a sledge of hewn stone down this slope at the end of a long and weary day.
The track offers much the easiest way down, and so we follow, winding here and there. It doesn't seem to see much use lately. In places it is faint and overgrown. I am glad to browse the faded plants as we pass through these places. In other places the path is choked with stones and fallen trees and the way is more difficult, like the valleys we passed through, now growing dim in my memory.
'Men, do you think?' Master says. I can feel that he is sitting straight, and from the slight shifting of his weight he is looking about us. 'Men from a forgotten kingdom, long gone to dust?'
'Not so long ago as that,' Merry answers. He walks to one side of me now, and youngest hobbit walks to the other, as the path allows. My Sam leads me, his hand gentle on my neck, though for the most part he lets me pick my own way among the rocks.
'Elves?' youngest hobbit says, breathless.
I can feel Master shake his head. 'See how that tree was broken down,' he says. 'Elves would never do such a thing.'
'The wind?' youngest hobbit says, after a pause for thought.
'Heavy feet trampled this path, I'd say,' Master answers, and Merry-grown-uneasy adds, 'and strong arms, to push down trees and heave rocks aside.'
The smell of anxiety wafts strong now from the hobbits, and sweat stains my flanks to betray my own nervousness. The Man walks ahead, walks softly and cautiously, as do we all.
The path grows broader and plainer as we reach the woods, and this ought to be reassuring, but somehow it is not. The woods are dark. Fir-trees rear high above our heads, their undead needles blocking out the light. Our feet fall quiet... our thoughts run unquiet. Any foe's feet would make as little sound, coming on us unaware.
Coming out of the trees at last, we follow the path down a steep slope. I'd welcome the return of the light if I did not feel so exposed to the sky. I toss my head and roll my eyes, the better to see around us. Master's fingers soothe at my withers, but his legs are tight against my sides.
The path turns sharply around the corner of a rocky shoulder of the hill, and I pick my way with care, head high, trembling, neck prickling, nostrils flaring to scent the breeze. I cannot sense danger, but what if something is waiting around the bend?
My companions, too, slow their footsteps and walk with increased caution. When we come to the corner we stop, of one accord, behind the Big Man, who stands with a silent hand raised to halt us.
'A door!' youngest breathes, and the others hush him in whispers.
There is a door hanging crooked, ajar, a black hole in the cliff behind it. Trees hang over, and the path runs along the face of the stony wall. We wait, a long moment, but nothing stirs, not even a breeze. At last the Big Man moves forward once more, and after a breath, we follow.
I would hurry by the opening as the path crosses before the door, for there is an old and evil smell, a whiff of ancient corruption beyond the doorway. The people cannot smell it, perhaps, for my Sam pulls me to a halt behind the Big Man, and youngest hobbit peeks into the opening with obvious curiosity. 'It's a cave, I think,' he says, 'or some sort of rock-chamber, at any rate. I cannot see much of anything in the gloom.'
'Let us let in the light,' the Big Man says, and puts his shoulder to the door. Push as he may, he cannot budge it. Merry moves to join him, and then my Sam, while youngest hobbit calls encouragement. They push with all their strength.
'There,' youngest says. 'It budged.'
'Did it?' Merry gasps. 'Perhaps you might lend a hand...'
'No room,' youngest says, eminently practical. 'However, should you tire, I'll be glad to take up where you left off.'
'In that event, I doubt we'd even budge the door any further,' Merry says.
'Less talk, more pushing,' Master says from my back. He is leaning forward a little, interested.
My ears are pinned firmly back. I do not care to know what lurks in the darkness, if anything. It is little comfort that no fresh smells emanate from the black hole behind the door.
'One... two...' Merry says.
'Three,' the three labourers gasp in one voice, and their muscles bulge with the effort, their faces redden... and the door opens, a little wider.
'Enough,' the Big Man pants. I am surprised to see him winded. The door must be very heavy indeed. I know a passing gladness that they did not think to hitch me to the door and urge me to pull.
'Come, Merry,' he says. 'Let us see what we may.'
'What about me?' youngest protests.
'I don't remember you doing any of the pushing,' Merry says, and following the Ranger, he steps into the darkness. Samwise returns to my head, to take up my rope, and Master sits on my back, waiting.
Silence follows, and stretches, along with our nerves. Youngest stands in the doorway, peering in.
'What do you see?' Master inquires.
'Bones,' youngest says faintly. 'There are many of them, scattered over the floor. It is an evil sight.'
'Bones?' Master says, a frown in his voice.
But youngest does not answer; instead he calls to the others. 'Surely this is a troll hole, if ever there was one!'
'Trolls!' Sam mutters, and his hand clenches in the straggles of my mane.
'Come out, you two, and let us get away,' youngest says, the anxiety in his voice growing. 'Now we know who made the path – and we had better get off it quick!'
I am trembling again, but Samwise has a firm hold of my rope, and his other hand holds my mane in a firm grasp, anchoring me to the earth. 'Steady, old lad,' Master says, and he has the right of it. It takes everything in me to stand, not to dance, not to run.
The Big Man re-emerges, and seeing my fear he moves quickly to take hold of my head collar, telling me to stand steady and adding, 'There is no need, I think.' My nostrils flare as I try to scent on his clothing, what lurks in the cave. I tense as he adds, 'It is certainly a troll hole,' and then he says, 'but it seems to be long forsaken.'
'Steady, Bill,' Merry says, reaching me.
'Forsaken?' youngest echoes.
'I don't think we need to be afraid,' the Ranger says.
'There, do you hear, Bill? Stop your nonsense now,' Sam says, at his sternest. He does not want Master shaken, of course. No more do I wish to shake him. But – trolls!
I miss the next few words, but get the gist. '...warily, and we shall see.'
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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