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The Tenth Walker  by Lindelea

Chapter 35. On to the Ford, at our best speed (or hobble)

The shining one does not sleep. Perhaps his kind do not need to sleep? He alternately paces and stands as still as the trees in the troll-wood; more still, for he does not stir in the gentle night breezes.

The Man rests once more, at the shining one's insistence. He does not sleep, but sits close by the huddled hobbits, his cold pipe in his mouth, his knees drawn up, his arms encircling them, his head bowed though on occasion I see him open his eyes and raise his head, as if to catch an elusive scent.

We graze, the white one and I, and at last the white one seems to be finished with his meal, for he raises his head and stands, watchful.

When I, too, raise my head, still chewing, he whickers softly and turns to nudge me. Go on, he says. I have not been on quite so short commons as yourself, and you have travelled farther, and with a greater burden. When still I hesitate, he adds, You will need your strength for what lies ahead.

I shudder at this, but he nudges me again with an insistent nose, then nibbles along my neck. I jump when the comforting nibbles end in a sharp nip, but all he says is, Eat!

I drop my head and tug at the grass. I'm eating! I'm eating... I mumble, my mouth full, for he looms over me.

He snorts amusement and moves away, but I continue to crop the grass. Not only am I eager to avoid any more nips from that great mouth, but I'm still hungry. I don't remember ever not feeling hungry, though I'm sure I must have known satisfaction in the days before my old misery.

The shining one is pacing, and his pacing brings him to my side. I raise my head politely, to acknowledge him, and he reaches a gentle hand to stroke my jaw. Ah. This is one who understands a pony, just the right place, the proper pressure. I stretch out my neck, half-closing my eyes, and my lower lip relaxes to hang loose.

He chuckles, though the watchful look never leaves his eye, and runs his hand along my neck to my withers.

And then he speaks to me—not the language the hobbits use, nor the strange tongue he shares with the Big Man, but words that speak directly to my heart—a whisper of sound, a murmur, a catch, a soft soughing as of the wind, and all of it perfectly understood, without any effort at all, as if he were speaking in my own tongue, as a horse or pony would (though we speak as much with our ears and eyes and bodies as with sounds and silences).

I am putting it badly. I have learned the tongue of Men (at least the Men of Bree, which the hobbits also speak) with some time and thought, and I suppose I might learn the tongue shared by the Big Man and the Elf-lord, given a great deal of time and patience. But this new tongue is one needing no learning. How does he know? If I were to close my eyes I might think it was the white one speaking.

Greatheart, he says. I turn my head back to regard him in puzzlement.

His hands are gentle, feeling the bumps and weights of my burden, testing the straps. His fingers touch a tender spot, and without thinking I speak. Mind! It hurts...! Of course I speak no words as such, more a squealing gasp, a laying back of my ears, a swish of my tail.

Here? he says, his fingers pulling back just off the sore place, and I nod my head, wondering.

I am sorry, he says, for it would be better to unload you, and then load you again, but we must not risk your load being left behind for our pursuers to find. I will shift your load, and try to ease you as best I can.

He moves all around me, and when he is finished, my load is better balanced than even my Sam might have made it, for he asks me, as my Sam cannot, and I answer him in kind, and so together we ease my burden until, somehow, it feels less. He also applies a balm to the skin rubbed sore, and I know relief.

I cannot lie down to sleep, burdened as I am, but sleep finds me all the same, though I stand on my feet with my head half-drooping.

It seems no time has passed when I raise my head once more, startled awake.

It is not pursuit, but the Man and the Elf-lord rousing the others.

The hobbits are still weary. I can see it in their faces, smell it on them, read it in the set of their shoulders, the jerky, pained movements as they help each other to rise.

The Master will ride, of course.

I am astonished to see the white one lay back his ears when the Elf-lord brings the Master to him, and lifts him to the saddle. The shining one speaks softly, in that language I know! Carry him to safety, and do not let him fall...and rubs the white one's neck until the ears come forward one more.

My Sam, still limping, takes my rope and leads me forward, and then I am not astonished any more.

For I can smell it on him as we reach the white one and his burden, the change, the difference growing stronger and more strange, more... unsettling. He is Master, and yet he is Not. I do not know what it is that I sense in him, but I fear it; and it is stronger than it was, waxing as Master wanes.

It is only my love for my Sam that keeps me from pulling away. My Sam wishes to stay by his Master's side, as close by as possible, and we are joined together by my rope. I must not drag back, nor bolt ahead, and make my Sam's journey more difficult, or (if it is possible) more dangerous, for that matter.

Youngest hobbit did not even protest when they pulled him to his feet, though his face is pale and miserable, and he shivers in the early morning chill.

It is as if not-merry voices his thought for him, the thought he is too afraid, or too ashamed to speak. 'How far? Are we nearly there?'

'There are still many miles to go between us and the Ford,' the Big Man answers quietly.

Youngest swallows hard, and his grip on not-merry's arm tightens, and then he nods in a decisive way, though his eyes are blinking with weariness.

Not-merry speaks for him, and for us all. 'Then we had better make a start, hadn't we?'

'Let us not be all day about it,' says the Master from his high seat. 'Why, given the time it's taken just to waken you sleepyheads, we might have been there by now!' He makes a wry face as the others look to him in sudden hope, but his brave words put heart into them. They stand a little straighter, and then they begin to hobble forward at the best pace they can manage.

The Road runs downhill, as promised, steadily downhill, and in places there is much grass at either side. There is no time for leisurely grazing, but it is at least a soft and gentle surface for the hobbits to walk upon, when they can, to ease their sore and tired feet.

The Master leans forward as if to urge us all to a faster pace. Perhaps he too fears that Otherness that is overshadowing him, or perhaps he only thinks of those who pursue.

We walk. And we walk. And we walk on, still more. The sun climbs in the sky, and we walk on. She reaches her zenith, and still we walk, now faster, now slower, the hobbits limping along as best they can. There is no halting for meals. The last of the food is gone, anyhow, and hobbits cannot eat grass as ponies do, even if we were able to stop and rest, even if the Big Man and Elf-lord would allow such a thing. She glides down the sky, ever downward, even as the road sinks before us, leading us ever on.

Master grips a fistful of mane so fiercely that I can see the white of his knuckles, and smell the determination on him. What it is he battles, I know not. But battle it is, and all my senses tell me that his strength is fading with every hard-won mile. Where strength is gone, will must suffice, but how far his will can take him, that I do not know.

The Shining One walks beside him, a hand raised to grasp the Master's knee, as if to pour his own light into a growing darkness. I do not hear the Master's low-voiced comment, or question, after many hours of travel without a rest or pause, but I hear the Elf-lord's reply.

Our peril will be greatest just ere we reach the river, for my heart warns me that the pursuit is now swift behind us, and other danger may be waiting by the Ford.

I swivel my ears from back to front, and back again. I hear nothing, but my skin is prickling as if a distant thunder is in the air.

I know this feeling of growing unease. I have felt it before. Once in Bree, trapped in my ramshackle shed that yet was enough to keep me prisoner while the other horses and ponies fled. And once again in a bowl-shaped dell with grassy sides, in the Wilderland, below a ruined Watchtower.

They are coming.


A/N: Some text taken from “A Knife in the Dark” and “Flight to the Ford” from Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, and woven into the narrative.

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