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The Tenth Walker  by Lindelea

Chapter 44. Many meetings

When I waken it is full morning, and I am lying down in my thick, soft bed of straw. I don't know what has wakened me, for it is very quiet here, no sound of horses or ponies or stable workers, just a hint of birdsong and the sound of rushing water at some little distance, drifting in through the open stable doors on a flower-scented breeze.

I scramble to my feet, ah but I am stiff. I plant my feet and shake away the clinging hay from my ragged, overgrown coat, and then sniff at the bucket. Someone has filled it, and yet I did not hear their coming and going. The water is cool, fresh, and delicious.

Raising my dripping muzzle I discover that the unseen server has also left grain in my feedbox, and fresh hay in the net, and I bury my nose in food, practically inhaling the good and hearty meal. I swish my tail, not to fend off midges, but from the sheer pleasure of feeling the well-combed length of it, freed of burrs and tangles from the grooming last night.

Sleep well, little one? It is yet another of the Firstborn, younger-seeming, and merrier than the others I've met. He gives me a good brushing, humming a sprightly tune all the while.

I ask him about my Sam, and the Master, but he doesn't seem to understand, and simply talks to me about the fineness of the day, and the sun shining on the grass, and the gentle whispers of the wind in the treetops.

At the mention of grass my ears prick forward of their own accord, and I remember juicy sweetness between my teeth, and the skin of my freshly-brushed back twitches at the thought of a good rolling, scritching and scratching such as I have not had the pleasure for many days.

He laughs as if he understands completely, and when he is done washing my face with a soft cloth, and wiping carefully around my eyes, and my nostrils, he lays the cloth over his shoulder and moves to the door with a quiet, cheery, "Come along, lad! I know the best thing for you..."

I follow him along, something like a well-trained dog, I suppose, but really I feel no need of head-collar nor rope. I really believe that he knows best, you see. There is something about his tone, his confidence, the very kindness in his eyes and hands.

Another of the Firstborn joins us as we walk along, greeting me politely. They talk as we make our way, and I listen closely, swiveling my ears from one to the other, but I hear nothing of my hobbits, or the shining one, or even the Ranger whose plan it was to lead us to this place. I am too shy to ask again, and so I merely listen without comment, to things that are over my head, and leave me bewildered and wondering.

They turn me out to pasture, but it is something more than that, of course, just as everything else in this wondrous valley is something more than ever I’ve known.

The horses are more, too, great hulking beasts that they are, gleaming coats and gleaming eyes and teeth to match as they gather round.

Here’s a shaggy one!

I bristle, not because it is not the truth, for in truth I am a pony, and my coat is shaggy from nose to tail, but...

Speak a little louder, that he may hear you... look at the tufts in those ears!

“Those ears” lay back of their own accord. They are much bigger than I am, these shining elf-horses, and graceful, and my mother raised me to be polite to strangers, but...

Oho, but this little one has spirit, he does!

...and as I wilt at the mocking laughter, suddenly the white one is there, not so much shoving his way into the crowd of tall bodies surrounding me as dancing in with a bite here, a well-placed tap of the hoof there, a squeal and a rolling of eyes.

Let be!

Come now, we were only...

My defender is fierce, fierce as his defiance in the face of the Shadow Ones when he turned to confront them, as they followed him across the river.

Let be! he says again, with a shake of his head and stomp of his foot. This one has carried a greater burden than any of you will ever know--at least as long as the Light continues to shine in the world--and bore it he did, with courage and grace!

Greater burden! I hear one or two grumble, but the white one tosses his head higher and arches his fine, flowing tail and they subside.

The old pony Merrylegs is standing under a tree not far away, his head held high and watchful, but even as I catch sight of him he nods as if satisfied and drops his head to graze.

So, one of the older mares says, sidling up to me. I stand tense, but she only nibbles along the back of my withers with her teeth, ah, that spot where one can never quite reach the itch, and I stretch my neck to enjoy the pleasure of it all. I take it you’ve never been to Imladris before?

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