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The Tenth Walker  by Lindelea

Chapter 49. A merry meeting

Sunshine and fresh, green grass, grazing and rolling; grass is good for many things, even, as my head droops and I doze, even good for my dreams, for the living scent rises to my nostrils and I dream of eating my fill, over and again, lulled by the homely sound of Merrylegs champing along beside me. A pleasant dream...

...interrupted by a loud neigh from the old fellow, and the thud of his hoofs fading quickly.

Startled, I jerk my head up and look all around me -- what is it? Has danger, perhaps, intruded despite my guide's assurances?

But Merrylegs is trotting towards the gate, as quickly as his old legs will take him, tossing his head and snorting with joy. There are two small figures standing by the gate. Hobbits, I deem, and one of them must be the pet I've heard so much about.

Curious, I follow, though the rest of the horses and ponies in the field return quickly to grazing or dozing. Hobbits hold no interest for them, it seems.

When I reach the fence, Merrylegs is feasting on pieces of carrots, surrendered one at a time, whilst the holder of the carrots is talking in quite a jolly tone to the younger. He is old for a hobbit, I think. He smells pleasantly of pipeweed and woollen tweed and a whiff of something that reminds me of the Master, though I cannot quite name it.

'Ah, yes, we've been to the Lonely Mountain and back again, haven't we, old lad? Trust a dwarf pony...'

'But give me a Bree pony, any day,' the younger says, and I startle in surprise at hearing his familiar voice. For it is young apples-and-mischief, indeed it is! I had nearly forgotten the smell of him, as he was before the marsh, but here he is, and clean he is, clean and dressed in fine cloth that smells of Elves, and yet I can smell apples on him, too, and the mischief bubbles up in laughter as I crowd close, to rub my face on his sleeve.

'Bill?' he says in astonishment. 'Bill, is it truly you? I hardly know you!'

I could say the same, and I do, but all he does is laugh again, and dig in his pocket. 'Well, old fellow,' he says, 'it seems you've had better feeding the past few days, but as a matter of fact, I do have a little something in my pocket this time, and so your nudges are not in vain!'

He pulls forth an apple, holding out the whole, and I take it from him, crunching it in my teeth while he laughs again.

Half the apple falls to the ground, and Merrylegs, not one to let an opportunity pass, bobs his head down to take it up quickly.

Carrots, he mumbles through the mouthful, Now, carrots are fine, but apples...

I nod in agreement and both hobbits laugh, and then the old pet reaches slowly, as if he is not quite sure of me, and lays his hand upon my neck. Suddenly his face is sober, but there is kindness in his touch, and so I do not pull away in fear.

'Dear Bill,' he whispers, and his lips are quivering with sudden strong emotion, and his eyes blink as if the sun is too bright for them. 'My brave pony, to have brought my lad through all that you did. Pip here's been telling me all about it...'

Merrylegs pushes at his arm, and he reaches to stroke the old pony's face with his other hand. 'Steady, old chap,' he says, and seems to be back to the cheerful old hobbit again. 'I've hands enough for two.'

There you are! comes a call, and another figure is jogging towards us, and the voice is very Merry indeed.

I whicker a greeting, and am greeted in return. Merry knows me at once, and is delighted to see me. His face is wreathed in smiles, and his laugh rings out as he claps young Mischief on the shoulder. 'I thought you'd be sleeping,' he says. 'How surprised I was, to waken and find you gone! You were weary enough that they carried you to bed, last night, after...'

He stops himself, and all three of the hobbits sober, but only for an instant, for the old hobbit says, 'Well, and I nearly carried you to yours, young Meriadoc, or at least I nearly dragged you there, for you were asleep on your feet!'

'Was he?' young Mischief says, his eyes alight. 'Why Merry, I thought you'd given over sleepwalking years ago!' ...and more nonsense of the same sort, both of my erstwhile companions chaffing each other as they had not in the last desperate days of our journey, and each turning to me as if to urge me to throw my support to his side, while the old hobbit laughs heartily, his head thrown back and his eyes streaming with glee... or relief, perhaps, from the smell that rises from his tears. Though you wouldn't think he had a care in the world, to look at him, to hear him, to scent him, I sense that he has recently been heavily burdened with worry, fear, even despair. Now, however, he smells and sounds full of joy.

Merrylegs stares from one of the young hobbits to the other and then nips at my shoulder. 'You travelled with these two?' he says, and shakes his head. 'It's a wonder you still have ears! I'd've expected them to have talked your ears off, at the very least...!'

I snort, and the Merry hobbit takes this for a signal to turn away from the mock argument, patting his pockets. 'I'm sorry, old lad,' he says. 'I didn't know I'd find you out here, when they told me where to find my errant Pip, or I'd've filled my pockets with carrots and sweets.'

'He's a proper hobbit pony, you know,' young Mischief says proudly. 'Always ready to eat!'

I rub my head on his arm, and it doesn't matter that he takes it for a further entreaty, patting my nose and promising to bring me plenty of treats after the feast, whatever that may be.

'And speaking of the feast,' the old hobbit says, cocking an eye at the sun, 'I believe they will be laying tea on the east porch very soon, at any time now, and a pity it would be to come belated, for Master Elrond said there would be seedcake this day, and apple tart...'

'The east porch...?' the Merry hobbit says, tilting his head to one side as if he cannot quite get his bearings, whilst the youngest hobbit rubs at his stomach and gives us to understand that he fears he might starve to death trying to find the place, as he's fed me his travelling rations, his last apple as it were.

The old hobbit laughs again, and with a final pat for Merrylegs he turns away, taking an arm of each of the younger hobbits. 'I'll take you there,' he says. 'I'll even pour out the tea and drink it with you; and then I'm going to look in on my lad and see if he's awake yet... and no, you may not come with me, for if he's still sleeping we don't want your chatter and fuss to waken him, now do we?'

'I'd never--' youngest hobbit protests, but the old hobbit, apparently deaf, simply keeps on talking as he leads them away.

Merrylegs sighs. Well I guess that's all the carrots and apples for the time being, he says with a philosophical shake of his head. Still, I'm glad to see my old pet is out and about. Likely he'll bring me a pocketful of something or other after the feast.

Feast? I say.

He shakes his head again. I don't know what it is, either, he says, for it's something they do inside the great house, or sometimes by torchlight under the trees, or even up in the trees, sometimes, and it has nothing to do with grass or hay or oats, even, which is what I would call a proper feast.

Perhaps... I say, giving some thought to the matter, Perhaps it's something to do with apples? Or carrots? or even, I say, lifting my head as I grow more hopeful, sweets?

Merrylegs swishes his tail with a chuckle. You're a bright one, he says, tossing his head. I hadn't thought of it before, but my old pet always does bring me more treats after one of his 'feasts' as if there's more to eat there than he can manage... Why, sometimes he even brings me a piece of bread or two, along with apples, and carrots, and sweets!

Such thoughts are making me hungry, and I turn back to the pasture, moving to an especially lush patch of grass and lowering my head to snatch a few mouthfuls, with Merrylegs close behind me. A feast sounds like a very fine thing, indeed.

Perhaps they'll bring me a piece of bread, or apples, and carrots, and sweets.

And my Sam, of course. I do hope that he will come, too. But if the Master is awake, as it seems will be from what the visitors to the pasture were saying, then I know that my Sam will be at his side.

Dare I hope for a glimpse of the Master?

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