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The Tenth Walker  by Lindelea

Chapter 67. We walk through a long, cold night

The open plain that lies behind us is but a fading memory, though it feels as if this night must go on forever. The country we have entered is rough, and from the smell of it, barren – little enough to tempt me to turn my face aside to snatch a mouthful of greenery as we go. Ha. Greenery? From the smell of it, any vegetation we pass, sparse as it is, consists of dry sticks. Though we go by a narrow path, nothing in the way of foliage brushes against us as we make our way. From the sound of it, from the feel of the air around us, we are walking in a dingle, deep and narrow, moving shadows in a darker cleft in the land.

The stony walls to either side do little to block the wind, rather, they seem to act as guides, directing icy blasts of shivering cold into our faces, for the most part, though at times the wind seems to stop – it is only a ruse, however, a chance for the wind to take us from behind, a nasty trick that makes Youngest yelp, before returning to scour our faces once more.

Tall Hat and our Big Man pause at the sound, and then our Big Man continues, and Tall Hat murmurs something that might have been Hush! before catching him up once more, the two of them leading our little file of Walkers, as if they have eyes that can pierce the darkness surrounding us. The Dwarf’s grumble grows momentarily louder and then settles back to its original low mutter. The other Big Man – the one with the shield – snorts softly and shakes his head, and the fair one walks on quietly, as if Youngest’s cry is beneath his notice.

‘I’m sorry, so sorry,’ Youngest mutters to not-Merry, who has an arm about his shoulders, perhaps to shake him for the noise he made, or perhaps to support him as they stumble along the broken path. ‘It startled me so, going down the back of my neck…’

‘I know,’ comes the answer, in so low a voice it is little more than a breath, ‘but you hadn’t ought to cry out, even so! We’re travelling in secret, as you might have noticed, and you undo all the good that might be done, under cover of darkness, by giving us away…’

The older cousin is definitely not merry. I heard him grunt, a little while ago, a soft sound of pain quickly suppressed, and he seems to expect no less from Youngest.

On the other hand, as he speaks, even as they make their way a little ahead of my Sam and myself, I see him lift his arm from Youngest’s shoulders, fall back a little, walking behind with a hissed, Keep on! and fussing at him – silently, mind you, fussing in the way a mother mare fusses at a foal that’s been chased by a mischievous dog. So my own mother fussed at me, after she came galloping to my rescue, ran at the dog that had nipped at my heels, with a fury I’d never seen in her before in my then-short life. The little dog barely escaped her trampling hoofs and snapping teeth, running away under the fence of our pasture, and continuing to run, yelping as he went, and so far as I know he’s still running to this day… So my own mother fussed at me, nudging me with her nose all over, to see that I was safe and whole.

So much like a solicitous mare the older cousin seems, his hands nudging and adjusting around the neck and shoulders of Youngest, until his hands drop and he moves, limping a little, I think, to Youngest’s side once more, to murmur, There, that ought to keep at least a little of the wind out… And I see in the darkness that Youngest’s head is thicker, somehow, and raising my head and extending my neck for a sniff, I smell wool, and realise that not-Merry has wound his own muffler around, to try and keep the searching fingers of wind from finding Youngest’s throat.

Master and my Samwise trudge along steadily after nearly a full night’s walking; Youngest, too, forges his way with determination. Not-Merry… instead of swiveling my ears about to listen in every direction at once, I cock both ears forward. Yes, his steps, barely discernible even to my sharp ears, are uneven, a long step and a short one, yes, as if he might be limping. Yet he makes no sound of protest, simply murmurs encouragement to Youngest when that hobbit stumbles, as is happening oftener, I think.

I am weary, myself – the burden on my back is heavy, heavier than any I have borne before, even while working under my old misery, though perhaps not so heavy as the sledge full of rocks he’d have me drag at the end of a long and wearisome day. However, I would not trade a single step with any other pony, no; for I have the privilege of walking along with my nose at my Sam’s shoulder, huffing warm breath over him as I go.

It’s the least that I can do.


A/N: Some material taken from “The Ring Goes South” in Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien

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