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Chapter 68. We pause, and Master expresses consternation
Another pause for rest, or perhaps not, for Tall Hat and our Big Man speak together in low voices, and the Master, the Dwarf, and the other Big Man move forward to listen, whilst my Sam stands at my head and strokes my jaw, and not-Merry just ahead of us leans upon Youngest with a sigh, without Youngest appearing to take notice, and the fair one behind us stands alert and silent.
‘…and this path will soon emerge into more open country, and little enough shelter to hide us, but some thorn-bush tangles – I’m glad to say they grow in thickets in many places in this land, and will afford us some small screen from spies…’
‘Shelter!’ my Sam mutters, to me, or perhaps only to himself, but I am listening to him with all the attention of one of my ears, whilst the other swivels to catch any other sound around us. ‘If this is shelter, then a single fence post and no rails makes a wind-break!’
I rub my face against his chest, and he must lean forward or risk being overset. I see no rails here in truth, nor fence posts for that matter, and so I do not take his meaning, but then I am only a pony. Nor do these walls on either side of us constitute a wind-break of any kind, for the wind scours along them without deterrence.
‘There is a small hollow, not quite a cleft in the wall ahead, if I am remembering rightly,’ our Big Man says. ‘While it is still an hour before the dawning, I should advise that we stop here, and not walk the night through.’
‘Not walk the night through, he says,’ hisses Youngest, meant only for not-Merry’s ears, I deem, for the older cousin does not seem to feel the need to hush him. ‘Just about, I’d say…’
Not-merry merely nods his agreement, then shifts his weight, only to gasp, a quick, sharp indrawn breath, as quickly suppressed. Youngest throws his near arm around not-Merry, hissing a bit louder, ‘I say, Merry, are you--?’ And this time the older cousin does hush the younger, insisting in the face of Youngest’s now-quieter protests that it’s nothing, nothing at all! Nothing that a good rest won’t put right…
Both of them straighten as Master turns and makes his way back to us. ‘We’re stopping for the night,’ he says softly, and then shakes his head and chuckles as if at himself, as if this is a mere hobbit walking party, which I know very well from the smell of him, of weariness and worry, that he knows it isn’t. I have found that my hobbits tend to talk lighter, the heavier the going, and I think to myself that Master might fly away altogether if he’s not careful… But he is speaking again.
‘For the morning, that is,’ he says. ‘To eat – what shall we call the meal? Breakfast doesn’t sound quite right, coming as it does after a long effort rather than a long sleep, and supper in the dawning is as ill-suited, to my thinking…?’
‘Supper-breakfast, then,’ Youngest says brightly. ‘There, that wasn’t so difficult! Aren’t you glad now that you brought me along to solve such weighty problems?’
‘Supper-breakfast!’ Master says, with a laugh that sounds more genuine than the earlier chuckle. ‘Very well! And then sleep, and then another bite; perhaps we shall call it…’
‘Breakfast-supper!’ they say together, oldest cousin and Youngest, and even my Sam smiles and shakes his head at this.
‘Come along!’ Tall Hat is calling softly, and he adds in an encouraging tone, as if speaking to a young and uncertain pony, ‘Only a little farther…’
And the Big Men, the Dwarf, and Tall Hat are moving forward once more, from the soft sound of their footfalls, but Master stands as if waiting for not-Merry and Youngest, and of course the rest of us (myself and my Samwise and the silent fair one behind us) cannot move with them blocking the narrow trail.
‘Go on, Frodo,’ not-Merry says. ‘I’ll be along in a moment, before you know it… and as we’re stopping just up ahead, I’ll find you easily enough… just have to see about something or other…’ which usually means personal and private business, but I can hear the strain in his voice, though he does his best to speak cheerfully – and so can Master, it seems.
‘What is it, Merry?’ he says, dropping his voice as if to keep the others from hearing. My Sam, alerted to some need or other by Master’s tone, moves forward to join the group, and I follow, and the fair one follows behind me, whose ears, from my experience with my guide and others of the Valley, are as sharp as mine, or better, though he says nothing as of yet.
‘Nothing!’ Merry says, his tone perhaps sharper than he meant it to be, for he softens with the words that follow. ‘It’s nothing that a little rest won’t put right, Frodo… I just… I didn’t want to worry you…’
‘He’s been limping,’ Youngest puts in, and as not-Merry hushes him, he protests a little louder, wide-eyed, ‘Well, you have!’
‘Well you are worrying me, Merry Brandybuck, so there!’ Master says in the same moment. ‘What mischief have you done yourself?’
‘I just turned my ankle on a stone, nothing more,’ not-Merry says through his teeth. ‘It’s naught, I tell you…’
‘And you’ve been walking on it since?’ Master demands. ‘You of all people ought to know…’
Before I even notice his presence, the fair one has slipped past me and is there with my hobbits, touching Master’s shoulder and then reaching past him to take not-Merry’s arm. ‘Not another step,’ he says. ‘You may be doing more damage than you realise…’
‘O he realises very well,’ Master mutters. ‘Or he ought to! After the time…’
‘Be that as it may,’ the fair one says, and in the next moment he is lifting not-Merry in his arms much as the Shining One lifted Master, in the dim mists of my memory, as if the hobbit is no more burden than a babe. ‘I will carry you the rest of the way to our camp…’
Not-Merry splutters a protest, and Youngest reaches up to tug at his good leg. ‘We are travelling in secret!’ he hisses. ‘Now, do be reasonable and hush!’
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