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We have walked all the day, save two brief halts for rest, but I am not sure that you could call what the hobbits are doing now “walking”. True, they are on their feet. Barely.
The two younger cousins lean heavily against each other. Youngest hobbit, still stinking faintly of mud but smelling more now of effort-and-exhaustion, reels and staggers like a drunken fellow, and I think it is only the shoulder of not-merry that keeps him upright. Or perhaps he is keeping not-merry upright? In any event, I hear the soft grunts of effort that come from him, the whimpers he suppresses, and my heart bleeds for him. It is almost worse when I hear him apologise to the older cousin under his breath, near sobbing with weariness and pain.
I'm sorry, Merry, I am... I'm trying...
And the older cousin's answer, gentle, even with the effort it takes him to gasp out, I know, Pip. I know.
My Sam, too, is scarcely on his feet. He threw his arm over my neck some time ago, and I braced up under his weight and now pull him along with me. I could go faster, but gauge my walk as best I can to my poor master's hobbling progress. He gives a little moan every time his left foot comes down; indeed, I feel almost as if I am a crutch or cane instead of a pony.
How I wish that they would simply abandon all the baggage beside the road, mount three of the hobbits on the white one and one of them on my back, and trot along as fast as the Man and Elf lord can manage. Let them grow footsore and weary for a change! Let them lean against each other to help each other along while their muscles scream in agony and their feet bleed inside their boots!
My hobbits wear no boots to protect their feet.
On the other hand, perhaps the shining one would arrive as fresh as ever; he has walked twice the distance of any of the rest of us, moving from front to back to front to back again, conferring with the Man and dropping back to guard the road behind us, and his breath comes easily, as if this is a mere walking party.
Master's effort is as intense as the other hobbits' though in a different manner. He slumps in the saddle, but he still grasps the white one's mane with a tight, shaking fist, as if it is his last hold.
I've bruised the frog of a foot in the past on the rocky slopes near Bree. I know the pain of putting a foot down, not wanting to put a foot down, shifting my weight to the other feet, straining muscles in my efforts to keep going, to ward off the whip.
There is no whip in this case, save the will of the shining one who drives us on.
But wait, the Man is dropping back, leaving the white one to lead us... I snort at the sour, unwashed smell of him as I pass him, and lay back my ears. My poor Sam takes no heed, and I refrain from tossing my head, fearful that by so doing I might toss him onto his nose on the Road.
It is convenient, having my ears laid back, for I hear the Man's soft, urgent tones as he speaks to the shining one.
They are arguing. I cannot think why. We are going as well as the hobbits are able, poor fellows.
When the order comes to stop, it is not as simple as all that. The hobbits are so far gone that they do not comprehend the word. So set are they in their purpose, so determined to do, or die in the attempt, that when the shining one runs lightly to the fore and halts his horse, they keep stumbling along, with barely enough awareness to go around the now-standing white one rather than running into his hindquarters. Even my Sam lets go of my neck as I halt when I am even with the saddle of the white one. I lift my nose to the Master, to take a long sniff of his essence, growing somehow darker in tone and lighter in substance at the same time. Something else has begun to overlie the scent of sickness, something that raises the hairs on my neck like an echo of Those who pursue us, as if somehow their influence, or even something of their essence, is growing in him.
The white one cranes his neck to meet my gaze, his own troubled. I know, he says, an echo of not-merry. He turns back to his Rider, in need of comfort of his own, rubbing the side of his face against the shining one's shoulder, receiving an absent caress in response.
The hobbits stagger on. The shining one stares after them in wonder, but the Man lifts himself into a bone-jarringly weary trot to catch them up. He drops to a walk, one hand on my Sam's shoulder, the other hand on not-merry's (I think that youngest hobbit might be borne to the ground by the weight of a butterfly lighting on his shoulder, at this point).
At last his repeated Stop – stop! wins through their pain-fogged brains, though my Sam strides on a step or two more after the two cousins subside to a wavering halt, standing leaned-together as if each is the only thing holding the other upright.
Indeed, without forward momentum to keep him upright, my Sam is saved from a nasty fall upon halting only by a quick grab on the part of the Big Man, who gives him a little shake and then continues to hold him upright as he speaks, quietly, trying to waken them from their stupor enough to make them understand that we are halting, at least for a short rest if not a longer.
I don't know how the hobbits will manage to move again, if it is only a short rest, sufficient only to stiffen muscles to sheer agony when forced to move again, and not a real rest in any sense of the word, not at this point.
But the Man is speaking. 'Peace,' he says. 'We have covered nearly twenty miles this day... it will have to be enough.'
I do not know if they hear him as he goes on. 'See,' he says, lifting his hand from not-merry's shoulder to gesture, 'the Road bends now and runs down towards the bottom of the valley. No more curves and hills to climb; from here the way will be downhill, and straight to the Bruinen. We should reach the Ford tomorrow, if events do not go against us.'
I wonder if the hobbits will even be able to rise on the morrow, much less walk or trot.
Not-merry shakes his head, not in negation but more in not-understanding. Youngest hobbit moans in the barest whisper, something about my feet and then another piteous I'm sorry, Merry.
I know, the older cousin whispers, and bows his head upon his littler cousin's shoulder, unable to say more.
The Man lets my Sam settle gently to the Road, and then he moves to lift youngest hobbit into his arms, pulling him carefully from not-merry's grasp, leaving that hobbit to stand, listing slightly to the side, as if the merest breeze would push him over.
He carries youngest hobbit to the side of the Road, and a little way around the bend to the right, and lays him down in a grassy place – grass! I can just see them, and it looks like grass, and the scent wafts on the still evening air, teasing my nostrils, but I've not been given leave to go, my rope trails on the ground ...and then he returns to take up not-merry, to lay him at his cousin's side, and then comes back again for my Sam, while the shining one eases the Master from the great horse's back and carries him to the huddle of hobbits and wraps his own cloak around the whole.
Come, the white one says to me, turning his head once more, his eyes large and luminous. He reaches, his great mouth open, teeth gleaming in the fading light; I stand still in astonishment, but he shows no sign of animosity; his ears reflect a thoughtful attitude rather than anger or impatience.
I understand when he seizes my rope between his teeth and tugs. Come along, he says. Have you been so long away from grass that you no longer know the scent?
He drops my rope and it trails in the Road as I follow him; we reach the grassy place where the hobbits lie, and careful to avoid them, we fall to our meal, greedily snatching and pulling, chewing and snatching more, a veritable feast after the famine and effort of the past days.
All is silent, as if the world is asleep around us. It seems as if all the world is in slumber, except for three of us: feasting horse and pony, and watchful shining one, standing as a statue, staring back along the Road, along the way we came, as tense and expectant as never before.
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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