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The Tenth Walker  by Lindelea

Chapter 54. I am off my feed

Why is it, when a pony is off his feed, that folk feel a need for further torment? They mix up dreadful draughts and force one's head up and pour the nasty stuff down one's throat, and then they think it proper to pat one on the neck and praise one for “being a good pony” when I am not at all feeling as a good pony ought.

In truth, I want to kick someone. Or at the very least, snap my teeth, if not actually bite, which is something reserved mostly for my old misery, who would never have dared to pour draughts down my throat, even had he cared to do such a thing. I am quite put out, and I lay back my ears and say so.

'There, now,' my guide says, for the stable worker had summoned him when he came to turn me out, and found my feedbox and haynet still full. 'You'll soon be feeling right as rain.'

Had he walked through the downpours that I still remember, on our way here, the constant dripping, wet to the skin, I doubt he'd call rain such a thing as “right”. Perhaps it has something to do with feeling "under the weather." We were certainly under the weather when the interminable rain was falling on us.

Before I can answer, he's instructed the stable worker to keep me in today, keep a watch over me, and let him know if I show any signs of colicking. At least, I think that's what he says. Though he acts as if there's all the time in the world, when he's dealing with a horse or pony, there is today some feeling of hurry about him, as if there are pressing needs, and he must be about his master's business.

But a pony knows little enough about that.

The stables are a lonely place, with all the remaining horses and ponies turned out. I stand, watching dust motes float in the light coming in the stable door, for an eternity.

...and then, my Sam is here, opening the door, speaking soft words to me.

I would stretch out my nose to him, but remember in time that I am in disgrace. I have proven untrustworthy. I turn my face away.

'What's this then, lad?' he says, stepping to my side and taking my face between his hands. I whuffle against his shirt, I cannot help myself, but he is looking at my feedbox, and the haynet, and the water bucket, and saying, 'They said you'd taken ill, off your feed, they said; come now, lad, we can't have you falling ill...Why, you cannot be travelling the wilds...'

I know that I cannot be travelling the wilds, and I know the whys of it, but I'm that sorry to have worried him, and I would explain if I could. I rub my face against him, and he rubs gently under my jaw.

The next I know, he's taken up a handful of grain and is holding it to my mouth, but the grain spills over the sides of his hand, and a little between his fingers, for I have no hunger.

His anxious smell deepens to worry. 'Come now, lad,' he says, but truly, the food has no lure. They will leave me here when they go off homeward, or further away, or where ever it may be their journey takes them. I am sure of it. My Sam has said so.

I bury my head in his shirt, and if ponies were able to weep, I would.

Thus I do not know when young mischief comes up, for my Sam has left the door open, and so there is no creak of hinges to warn me, and of course a hobbit can step so softly that I do not hear him approach. I only know he's there when he speaks.

'What's this, then? What's the matter with Bill?'

I push my face harder into my Sam's shirtwaist, for I do not wish to face my accuser. My Sam answers him, 'Off his feed – won't even take anything from my hand.'

'But this is terrible!' youngest hobbit says, and I am in complete agreement, though he wouldn't understand if I said such.

The next touch is his hand – I know this, for I know the touch of each of the hobbits, the difference in their hands and the way they use them – and he is stroking my neck, and speaking kindly. 'Come now, Bill, we cannot have you going on like this... I mean, you cannot go on like this... I mean, we need for you to go on...'

I lay back my ears in irritation, for I can make little enough sense of his words.

He does not step away at this sign of bad temper on my part (he ought, I think, considering the damage I did him the last time we met), but continues stroking and talking at my side, while Sam continues to urge me to eat his handful of grain. I bring one ear forward when I hear young hobbit say, '...and if you're to come with us...'

Come with them?

My Sam seems to have some question as well, as he breaks in. 'Come with us? But you're not to come with us, Master Peregrin, from what...'

'I will,' youngest hobbit says fiercely. 'I came this far, didn't I? And I'd venture (though I do say so myself) that I was more help than hindrance along the way. I won't let Frodo go off alone into...'

'I wouldn't call it alone, I wouldn't,' my Sam interjects, but young hobbit won't be quenched.

'I'll follow after!' he says. 'Don't you agree, Bill? I ought to go with you all! Someone ought to go who has a head on his shoulders, to keep the rest of you out of trouble!'

With you all? With us all? Does that mean I am to go, and not to stay?

I lift my head, carefully this time, that I might not injure my Sam nor young-and-determined. The latter looks worse for the wear, his nose red and swollen, and one of his eyes blackened and swollen shut – I did that! my shame – but there's a spark of spirit in his wide-opened eye, and I for one would not trust him to idle himself and remain behind when the rest – of us! – depart, no, not even tied in a sack.

A part of me wonders about that, tying a hobbit in a sack, that is, and if it is a common custom amongst hobbits of the Shire, for I surely never saw a sackful of hobbit in Bree, not in all my life. Though I did hear someone mention once, something about someone being sacked... So perhaps there is something to it, after all. I shake my head at the thought, and my ears flop loosely, a pleasurable feeling.

The lovely aroma of the grain makes my nostrils twitch, and I absently nibble at the handful that my Sam still holds under my muzzle.

'There now, there's the lad!' my Sam says, and he sounds well pleased. His worry subsides some, and then more as he hand-feeds me another mouthful, and before I quite realise what is happening he's urged me to take a step or two over to the feedbox and bury my nose in the golden treasure there. Ahhh, but it's good.

Youngest hobbit has followed me the step or two, and now he rests his arm over my withers in a companionable manner and leans there as if he means to stay a while.

He is not afraid of me, then, nor angry with me for the injury I have done. My old misery kept grudges – I remember how he grumbled and how roughly he treated me for some days after I accidentally trod on his foot – but it seems that young-and-determinedly-cheerful holds no grudges, at least in this case. It is as if he understands that I did not mean him any harm.

Bless him, and his poor, swollen nose, as well.

We are going on with the Master, after all. I have no doubt about it, none at all. Youngest hobbit says that we need him, and he says it with such assurance that I've little or no doubt in the matter. We shall need him. I have every confidence that he has an important part in our venture.

What it is, I have no idea. But then ponies seldom do. We just do what's asked of us, and leave the thinking to our betters.

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