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The Tenth Walker  by Lindelea

Chapter 42. We arrive... at my new home?

My companion's eyes turn to the stars, and at this pause I take the liberty of dropping my head to snatch greedily at the grass in the glade. Ah! Sweet and juicy, satisfying thirst along with hunger, filling my mouth as I grab and grab more, scarcely chewing before I swallow and grab again! It is all I could desire. Simply to graze until I cannot manage another mouthful, and then to roll upon the remainder...

But no, my guide's hand is upon my neck, and he is speaking softly, urgently. 'Time enough for that,' he says. 'Truly, you shall graze to your heart's (and stomach's) content.'

I would be happy to do that here, and convenient it would be, too, and I tell him so, but he only chuckles.

'In good time,' he says. 'I have other business to be about, I'm sorry to say, my young friend. If my time were my own I'd stop here for as long as need be...'

At this reminder I drop my head in shame. For surely a lowly pony is of little importance, compared to the business demanded of one of the FirstBorn.

He lifts my chin gently, fingers stroking reassurance under my jaw, and in spite of myself, I sigh.

'Come along, little one of the great heart,' he says. 'At the moment you are indeed my business, and there is nothing of more import to turn me from it.'

If I am his chief business of the moment, and there is nothing of more import, then why may I not graze my fill? But it is not a well-brought-up pony's place to make demands or ask such questions. We must simply do as we are told. At least it is said in a pleasant tone, which is much better than curses and blows.

And so I turn my head wistfully as we leave the glade behind us, making our way along the riverbank.

Well-bred, well-brought-up I might be, and conditioned by my old misery to follow orders without question, as well as by gentler handling of late, and yet I baulk when we come to the bridge.

Do they call this a bridge? It is no wonder that my Sam regards bridges with suspicion. This narrow thing? Over the rushing stream? With no sides to keep a foot from slipping, leading to a bad, perhaps disastrous fall?

For the second time, the first time being our leaving the glade with its succulent grass, I begin to doubt the wisdom of my companion.

'Steady, my friend.'

I am steady, and I intend to stay that way. My feet are planted as firmly as I know how, and my legs are stiff with steadiness.

My companion turns to me and raises his hand. I stiffen, anticipating the blow, but no blow comes. Instead, there is only a soothing hand on my face, a gentle voice.

'Forgive me, Greatheart, for our own horses cross this bridge without a quiver, but of course they know it well. It is long since I've had to coax a newcomer across.'

I would bristle at his words, but I am too busy with remaining steady, if you take my meaning.

May we not return to that lovely glade, and its grass? I have no illusions about the grass being greener on the other side of the stream. It would be difficult to tell, actually, in the darkness. Dawn will be coming soon. Perhaps the bridge will look more inviting under the light of the sun. Perhaps not. The glade, that's the thing.

He takes his hand away, lifts his hands together to his neck, unclasps his cloak.

In the next moment, I am not quite sure how it happened, for it happened so quickly, the garment is wrapped about my head and eyes, shutting out the fearsome sight ahead of us.

I must trust him now. I have no choice. I cannot see my nose before my face. At least the terrible bridge is gone.

His hand is rubbing at my neck now, a soothing sensation, and comes to rest just behind my ears, urging me forward. 'Come along.'

What is before us? I cannot see. I step out, tentative, but the ground remains solid under my feet.

'Come along. Foot by foot. That's a fine fellow.'

Step by step, he encourages me, his hand pressing me subtly forward, and I follow. The soft, yielding turf becomes a stony path, and then we climb a small hill, hard underfoot, and down the other side, and then we stop once more.

A moment later, my head is free of the muffling cloak, and I stare about me in astonishment. How ever did we come to the other side of the stream?

The lovely glade now lies on the far side of the fearful bridge. I inhale deeply. In point of fact, the grass on this side smells completely delicious and delightful to eat. I lower my head to test the idea, and am rewarded by a chuckle from my companion. He stands beside me, stroking my side, for a good moment or two, long enough for several mouthfuls.

Once more he speaks to me. 'You'll graze to your heart's content, I promise, but...'

I would be happy to graze to my stomach's content, but resignedly I sigh and raise my head. We walk on, his hand still on my neck to encourage me not to stop again, although the turf is lovely, springy, and each footstep brings an inviting, fresh smell to my nostrils.

I am remembering my weariness, and my head is drooping, when a new smell comes to tickle my nose. I raise my head and open my eyes wide in wonder.

The smell... yes, the smell is of stables, and horses, bearing no resemblance to my broken-down shed. It is more like the stables at the inn where they took me, after paying my old misery in coin. It is like, and yet it is unlike. There is a smell of warm, sleepy horses, and the sound of soft breathing. A munching comes from somewhere, someone's late-night snack of hay. Yes, I can smell hay hanging in haynets, well-cured hay, not mouldy but smelling of late-summer sunshine, and I can scent many horses in this building, or at least many more than I have known before to be gathered in one place.

After all, the stables in Bree, while larger than my broken-down shed, and the shelter I shared with my mother in the old man's field, were empty. They said all the horses and ponies had run away, and I was the last in the town.

I'm glad.

Though I wonder... Have I changed hands once more? Will I ever see my hobbits again?

It is not a pony's lot, to choose its master, but if I had my choice... I look all around, widening my nostrils as far as they will go, just to catch...

But there is no scent of my Samwise here. Not anywhere about.

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