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Chapter 66. We reach the Ford, and pause for refreshment
We are walking down a long, gradual slope in an empty land. I have some memory of this path, though it was not the same. Autumn, it was, and cool but not cold, and my guide led the way. I remember thirst, and weariness, and the numbness that lingers after overwhelming fear…
And perhaps I ought to be fearful, going out into the land once more, where They might lurk. I raise my head to sniff at the air, I cock my ears back, and prick them forward once more, and swivel them to the sides, but there is nothing to hear but the soft footfalls of the Men and Dwarf, and the latter’s near-voiceless muttering as he stalks along. The fair one and my hobbits walk along most silently, and I try to place my feet as carefully as they, to make the least noise that a hard-footed creature as myself can manage.
The wind blows without ceasing, and there are teeth in it. I am glad for the shaggy winter coat that grew in during our time in the Valley, after the last vestiges of my ragged coat were brushed away, and my flanks filled with care and good feeding, and shone sleekly for a short time before the winter coat grew. It sometimes seemed over-warm in the pleasant Valley, but now it just suits.
Darker patches open to either side in the general darkness, and the icy wind carries the smell of pine, sharp and bracing, from other hidden valleys in this land. I seem to remember that there are bogs out there, in the darkness, as well, and I am glad for the rope between my Sam and myself. Should he misstep, walking ahead of me, I shall plant my feet and pull backwards with all my strength. Should I misstep, I am confident that he will do the same for me.
But it seems that we follow some path or other, for there are no missteps, only a steady walking, down and gradually down. I cannot count my steps, nor tell of the passing of time save in light and dark of day and night, and it remains dark, with no light on the horizon, and so we have been walking rather less than one entire night, I deem, when the smell of water comes to me, grows stronger, and I remember the crossing of the river.
I shudder and would stop, but that my Samwise walks ahead, and my stopping tugs at my rope, and without thinking I move forward again to follow. I wonder that he does not stop; do my companions not remember that terrible pursuit, the crashing of the boulders, the shrieks of terror from the drowning horses… the silence that followed, and the despair.
I am only a pony, yet my memories flood my thoughts, strong, and I am in that terrible moment once more. I stop, throw up my head, trembling violently. The rope tugs at me as my Sam continues, but I stand firm, knowing nothing but the terror that overwhelms me.
…and then I become aware that my Sam stands before me, his hands on my face, urgently stroking, and he is speaking quietly but firm words of comfort and calm. ‘Steady, Bill, steady!’
‘He is afraid of the water,’ youngest says, shivering a little in the wind, ‘of crossing the Ford… I have known ponies to baulk at puddles…’
‘Not my Bill,’ my Samwise says under his breath, for it is not his place to correct his betters, or so he has told me on occasion when Youngest has made some outrageous pronouncement or other. Instead, when he raises his voice, he says, ‘Yessir, Master Peregrin, some ponies might well do such a thing, but Bill has had no trouble with such on our travels, or even since we came to Rivendell…’
‘After what he lived through…’ not-Merry says quietly, and lays a calming hand on my neck. My hobbits are all clustered round me now, the Bigger Folk ranged behind them, as if to see what the delay is all about. And as I turn my eye to him, I see in his face that he remembers as well.
Master seems to sense his younger cousin’s troubled thoughts, for he lays a hand on not-Merry’s shoulder for a silent moment, squeezes with his fingers, and removes his hand once more to grope in a pocket, with a look of concentration on his face.
His face clears, and he says, ‘Ah, that’s it…’ and brings out a cloth, wrapped around something, that he treats as precious, holding it carefully as he unwraps the treasure within.
‘Here,’ he says, extending the cloth, carefully cradled in his hand, to Youngest. ‘Take but a handful, to chew upon as we go. It’ll be some time before we stop and have a bite, and this will at least give your stomach a promise of good things to come…’
And Youngest takes from the cloth, and then slightly-more-Merry, and then my Samwise, with a little urging from Master… and I think Master might eat, himself, but I am distracted, for Youngest is sharing his bounty with me, holding out something. Ah! It is a slice of dried apple, and a few sultanas, sweet and toothsome, and I lip at his hand and nod my head as I mouth the treat.
‘We will not be crossing the Ford,’ the Big Man -- our Big Man, not the other with the shield, says. ‘We’ll leave the Road and turn south here.’ It seems that he waited patiently for my hobbits to take this small bit of refreshment. Tall Hat is patient as well, while a slight whiff of impatience comes from the others in the party. They do not seem to have the same need for sustenance as my hobbits, and are merely concerned with continuing on our way.
I am glad that our Big Man and Tall Hat are with us, for it is good to have someone with intelligence in the party.
A/N: Some turns of phrase might have been taken from The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien or one of the movies made from those writings, but as our books and papers have not yet been unpacked since the recent move, I am writing off the top of my head, without the benefit of notes, and cannot give proper attribution. Sorry about that. Suffice it to say that it is all the Professor’s world, and perhaps a little bit of Mr. Jackson’s.
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