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Chapter 33. The Road goes ever on
The shining one and the white one watch as the others sleep. I watch as well, when I am wakeful, and then I drowse again. Still bearing my load, I find it difficult to sleep for any length of time. They have not unpacked my load, perhaps in the interest of a quick start, and the white one too remains under saddle.
We talk quietly, the white one and I, when I am awake. He tells me of a wondrous place, a valley fair and green, a place where waters fall in shining torrents and the sun is warm and kind. The grass grows long and green there, and sweet, and a little stream runs through the meadow with cool, refreshing water for the drinking. In the wintertime the stable is warm and dry, the stalls roomy, and the folk who keep the stables heap the straw high and thick in the stalls, and the hay tastes of sunshine.
I can scarcely believe such a tale, but it passes the time. The only other sound is the soft susurrus of the sleeping hobbits. So exhausted are they, that they lie as still as the heather surrounding them; more still, perhaps, for the heather stirs on occasion under a restless wind.
The sun slowly climbs in the sky, burning off the clouds and mists of the night and early morn, and at last the sky is clear above us.
The sun is halfway to her zenith when the shining one wakens the sleepers. The Man is at once on his feet, but the hobbits groan themselves into a sitting position. Not-merry-at-all raises his hands in a painful stretch while youngest hobbit fists his eyes as if he were a very young hobbit indeed, but my Sam has thoughts only for our Master. Gently he grasps at Master's good arm, softly he calls, 'Mr. Frodo? Mr. Frodo, sir?'
Not-merry's arms drop at once, and he pulls the Master's head and shoulders into his lap. 'Frodo, dear,' he says, his tone anxious, and looks up to the Big Man, who is already bending to them. 'Strider?'
Youngest hobbit is coaxing. 'No time to sleep, Frodo,' he says, smoothing back the oldest cousin's wayward curls from his forehead as Master's eyes blink open. 'The Sun is well on her way, and so ought we to be.' His sentiments end in a yawn that threatens to split his face.
The yawn is contagious, and soon not-Merry is following suit, as well as my Sam and the Master – and then even the Big Man.
Master smiles, and youngest hobbit preens himself as if he'd schemed such a thing, but meanwhile the shining one has pulled a silver-studded leather flask from a hidden place and is pouring out a capful, which he offers first to Master.
'Drink this!' he says, and Master drinks, and then the shining one takes the capping cup back and fills it again for not-merry, and then youngest hobbit, and my Sam, and last of all for the Big Man. And by the time the Big Man is drinking, not-merry is helping the Master to his feet, and my Sam is digging out bread from his pack and breaking off pieces and laying them on the cloths that have served as plates of sort, for bread and cheese and fruit and nuts. There is no cheese left, nor nuts, but only bread and a handful of dried fruit for each. The bread breaks with a stiff, stale sound, and my Sam offers the scanty meal with apologies to each.
Youngest hobbit is as exuberant as he ever was at the beginning of our journey. 'Stale?' he cries with his mouth full. 'You call this stale? Why, after that draught, I find it better than many a good breakfast I've enjoyed in the Shire!'
And the Master has a smile for his young cousin, as the shining one lifts him once more into the saddle. He sits quite straight, his food in his lap, and he eats with more appetite than he's shown for some days.
I would like a sip of that stuff in the flask myself, but I'm only a pony and such is not for the likes of us.
My two-legged companions eat as they walk, not a luxury afforded a pony, but then there is little to eat hereabouts save the bitter heather. I thirst, but there is no water, except for a little that the Big Man poured into the palm of his hand for me, from his own bottle, just before we started.
The shining one sets a brisk pace, and then he drops back, leaving the Man in the lead.
I swivel my ears from front to back, listening to the sides before I cast my attention behind us again. I hear no sounds of pursuit, but the smell of anxious anticipation wafts from the shining one as I pass him. My Sam trots at the white one's off side, but the white one does not seem to mind the breach of protocol. I follow closely, not needing the rope, though my Sam still holds tight. I am glad he will not let me go.
Swivelling my ears back once more, I realise the shining one has taken his place at the rear of our little group, as if he would ward off our pursuers.
So we walk, or trot, depending on the length of the traveller's legs, for some time.
My Sam, winded, drops back to where Not-merry walks arm-in-arm with youngest hobbit, encouraging the puffing youngster to keep up the pace. 'You're doing fine, Master Pippin,' he gasps, extending his hand for the young hobbit to grasp. 'Do you want another hand?'
Youngest hobbit shakes his head, his face set and determined. 'I'm well,' he says, though he can scarcely gasp out the words. To emphasize the fact, he shakes himself free from not-merry's supporting hand. 'I'm well,' he repeats, sounding stronger.
Not-merry has a pat for young hobbit's shoulder, and then he moves forward to speak a word of encouragement to the Master, reaching up to grasp the stirrup on the near side, letting the white one pull him along at a hobbit trot (though it is only a long-legged walk for the great horse).
Youngest hobbit is breathing heavily, but he manages to speak to my Sam. 'Let me look after Bill for a bit,' he says. 'You want to keep a close eye on Frodo, I'm sure. He's... (gasp, gasp) not looking well...'
Sam thrusts my rope at him and trots forward, alarm mingling with his sweat-smell. It is true, Master no longer sits upright, but is bent forward, his head down, as if lost in his thoughts. The only sign that he is awake and aware is his white-knuckled fist, clutching the white one's flowing mane.
Youngest hobbit moves briskly for a few more yards, but then his pace slows. As I come abreast of him he grabs at my mane. 'Help me out, here, will you, Bill?' he wheezes, and I nod my head and pull him along.
However, his feet move slower, and slower still, until we are lagging well behind the others.
A sharp slap on my rump causes me to jump forward, dragging youngest hobbit with me. I glance behind; it is the shining one, who walks to our rear. 'Keep moving!' he orders us, and his face is as anxious as his scent.
I pull youngest hobbit forward, but glancing behind us I see the shining one has stopped and is listening.
My ears go back, but I hear nothing.
The shining one trots past me in the next moment, all the way to where the Big Man leads. The wind carries his words back to me, but I do not understand them. A part of me wishes to know what he says, and a part of me thinks perhaps it is better not to know, for the white one's ears lay themselves back in fear or fury for a moment, before pricking forward once more. He puts his nose down to the Road with a snort, as if reading something there, and then forges on.
And on we go, as the Road unrolls and winds ever on ahead of us, an endless ribbon that I must follow if I can.
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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