Chapter 40. Surrounded, and then left behind
We are plodding slowly along a long, gradual incline, the Elf-lord leading myself and the white one, and the Big Man sadly bearing the Master's limp form, when I feel the need to stop, and stop I do, leaning back against the pull of the leading rope. The white one stops as well, to nip lightly at my neck. I jump, but prick my ears to listen, hearing the thudding of a number of hoofs, laid down and taken up in haste—they are ahead of us, as if our pursuers have overtaken us and now doubled back.
And now the white one throws up his head with a loud, glad neigh, and there is an answering neigh from among the horses that so swiftly approach; indeed, they are upon us, they surround us, we are in the midst of a milling mob of tall horses bearing riders as fair and fierce as the shining one, Elf warriors with bright swords in their hands, their voices ringing in greeting and urgent question.
All is confusion, or so it seems to me. The newcomers fall silent at the shining one's rapid explanation, the words pouring forth as swiftly as the waters at their height when the Black Riders tried to cross, and in bare moments they are in motion once more, seeming to be everywhere at once, but quick and purposeful.
Before I can but blink a few times my back is free of its burdens. The white one murmurs an interrupted, I will see you at... and is pulled away, still bearing three of my hobbits, for the shining one has mounted another horse and leads him by his reins. The Ranger, too, is mounted, still bearing the Master in his arms, and he knees his horse around and leans forward into a gallop, away...
I stand bemused, as one frozen, listening once more to the thudding of hoofs, now in fast retreat from this place, racing to bear the Master and his companions and their baggage to that place of refuge I have heard so much about, from the Ranger, and the Elf-lord, and his mount, but never seen. Perhaps never will see.
I whinny after them, long and lonely, but the hoofbeats rapidly fade from hearing, and I am alone.
But not alone.
One stands before me, quiet, as if waiting for me to notice him, and when I do, throwing up my head in alarm, he extends a hand with a soft murmur. He speaks easily in the way a pony understands, and as with long familiarity. Steady, my young friend. All is well.
But all is not. I know that well enough, and say so with a snort and a shake of my head.
He chuckles softly, though there is also sorrow in the sound, and a depth of knowledge. They must needs make haste, he says, and if I am not mistaken, you are already wearied, with long effort, fear, and poor food. His hand remains steady, held before me, close enough that I might reach it easily but far enough that I can avoid his touch if I wish.
I lower my head and sniff at his hand. Something sweet is there, and without meaning to, I lip at his palm, crunching sweetness between my teeth. Of their own accord, my ears prick forward, and I snuffle and then lip again at the palm of his hand, tasting the delicious salt of his skin and a few crumbs of lingering sweetness.
There, he says. We shall be friends, shall we not?
I raise my head, but not so high as before, and study him. He wears a sword at his side, half-covered by his cloak, but it is sheathed. I snuffle; he smells of pleasant things, of hay drying in the sunshine, and the sweat of horses (not of fear, but effort), of apples—I had half-forgotten the smell of apples!—and of leather, steel, and wool.
I turn my head, the better to look at him. I startle when he raises his hands, but he merely lifts them to his hood, to sweep it back from his head, to let it lie upon his broad shoulders. He is tall, like the Big Man and the shining one. His hair is dark as the midnight sky on a night with no stars, his skin pale as the rising moon, his eyes gleaming grey with a light of their own, both young and ancient at once. He is one of the Fair Folk, and I take a step forward, without willing it, for something in him draws me.
He chuckles again. So, little one of the brave heart, he says, I did not think you would run away from me. Come; I'll lead you to my home, and you'll find rest, and food, and healing.
I would tell him that I am well, and not in need of healing, but his eyebrows rise to counter my half-voiced protest, and he raises a hand slowly, to rub gently down along my thin neck to my withers, and goes on to stroke the roughness of my coat over protruding ribs.
Poor fare, and little of it, he says, and repeats, and long effort, and the small amount of pride that swelled me before now deserts me, and I find my head grows heavy and droops halfway to my knees. My legs tremble under me. I did not know how weary...
Another gentle rub, and then he says, Come along, my friend, foot by foot... He unfastens my rope from my head collar and winds it into a loop, which he carries over his arm.
I begin to follow, no need for a rope, but stop as the breeze rises, to listen behind me.
He stops as well. No pursuit, I think, he says, turning round to face me. At least, the Lord Glorfindel heard and felt none, before he rode away. He charged me to bring you safe home, and so I will.
I turn my head to meet his calm gaze. Safe home?
He reaches to stroke my face. Even if there were to be pursuit, he says, it is not you they are after. Even the baggage has gone ahead. There is nothing here, with us, that They can use to harm your companions or to draw them to their destruction or capture.
I do not understand, but the caress is soothing, and I lean into his hand.
He sighs, I know not why, and after a few more strokes, he draws his hand away again. Come, he says.
He turns and walks, and I follow.
"Your friends crossed after the flood had passed and they found you lying on your face at the top of the bank, with a broken sword under you. The horse was standing guard beside you. You were pale and cold, and they feared you were dead, or worse. Elrond's folk met them, carrying you slowly towards Rivendell."
--from "Many Meetings" in Fellowship of the Ring, thanks to Dreamflower for supplying the quote!