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The Tenth Walker  by Lindelea

Chapter 69. We find a resting place for our first night... er... day

Not-Merry is quiet as the fair one carries him along, though I can smell his perturbation. He is in pain, yes, physical pain, I can smell that as my Sam and I follow after, but there is more to the pain than that. Embarrassment, I heard it called, or chagrin, as my dam told me on one occasion, when our old man surprised some young boys who were throwing clods of dirt and handfuls of stones at us, to make us gallop about our little field whilst they chortled with nasty glee.

It was the only time I smelled fury on our old man. There was the smell of fear from the two cruel boys after our old man, moving faster than I’d ever seen him, charged round the corner of our shelter and seized their collars, shaking them (or so my dam said in satisfaction) as a dog would shake a rat. The chagrin and embarrassment (or so my dam called it) came from the smaller boy who had stood by them, pulling at their arms and shouting at them to stop…

Our old man scolded all three of them equally, though only two had tormented us. Those two, we never saw again, but the third came often to our field after that, to offer a sweet, or a crumbling biscuit from his pocket, or sometimes a fresh-pulled carrot, likely (or so said my dam) stolen from a neighbour’s garden. But they were delicious all the same.

I break off from my remembering as we come up to where the others have stopped. As our Big Man (not the one with the shield) said, there is a hollow in the rock face to our right, and the cliff above hangs over, giving some sense of shelter.

Youngest darts ahead. ‘Here we are!’ he announces, assuming an air of importance. He throws his pack down against the wall, where the dwarf, having laid his axe down so that it is resting against the rocky wall, ready to snatch up in an instant, is already rummaging in his own pack. ‘Here,’ he says to the fair one, ‘ease him down here,’ and, ‘Frodo? I think if we pool our blankets, we can make him comfortable enough…’

‘I’m not so far gone as all that,’ not-Merry says between his teeth, even as our Big Man (not the one with the shield) has turned to see us and meets us with long strides, asking what the matter might be. I take it the injured hobbit is unsatisfied somehow with the arrangements. ‘It’s naught!’ he insists in answer to our Big Man, while the one with the shield (who was closer, as he was watching for our approach, while our Big Man was in conversation with Tall Hat, gesturing to the overhang) is already feeling of not-Merry’s foot and ankle.

‘Swollen,’ he says. ‘The little fellow has done himself some mischief.’

Perhaps his ears are not sharp enough to hear not-Merry grind his teeth at “little fellow”, but mine are.

‘I. am. well,’ he says through gritted teeth, his eyes flashing, and if he were a pony, I’d expect his ears to be laid back so far as they might go.

‘Oho,’ is all the Big Man (the one with the shield) says, and there is humour in his tone, though he throws up his hands and steps back, as if in deference.

But our Big Man (not the one with the shield) is already preparing a place where Youngest indicated, spreading a cloth – it is waterproof somehow, they call it “oilskin” though it is the skin of no creature I know (What is an oil? I ask you?) – upon the ground, and blankets over it, and motions to the fair one with a simple, ‘Here.’ The fair one lays not-Merry down on this nest our Big Man has prepared.

It is not so comfortable, I deem, as thick-spread straw in a stall with four walls, a roof, and a sturdy door, but, ‘we’ll want to keep you warm…’ as Master says, pacing a few steps back and forth himself, swinging his arms and clapping his palms together, a way two-legged creatures have of warming themselves when the air is cold enough that one’s breath emerges as an icy cloud, or so I have observed.

‘And what about yourself, Frodo?’ not-Merry challenges, but Master only laughs, a lovely sound.

‘At least I can walk about to keep warm,’ he says, and suddenly the laughter is gone and there is reproach in his tone. ‘Not like some people I might mention, foolish enough to keep walking upon a turned ankle, even though they most certainly ought to know better…!’

‘Don’t sing that song again,’ not-Merry grumbles, and I snort at this. Though I am only a pony, I know singing from speaking, and Master was not singing, not to my way of thinking. I have heard my hobbits sing, so I ought to know the difference.

As if anyone could be warm in such a place in the dead of winter, Youngest mutters, to himself most likely, as I’m certain only my ears and his own might be sharp enough to catch the low words. As he is busy arranging all the hobbits’ packs in a row against the rocky wall, and his head is bent over his work, I think none of the others hears. But I hear him, and worry. He is smaller than all the rest. What if – as Master has, several times, muttered to not-Merry when Youngest had trotted to the front of our column to pepper Tall Hat and our Big Man (and the other, with the shield) with questions and unlikely to hear his cousins’ quiet talk – what if he takes cold and falls ill? I cannot carry all their baggage, and a hobbit into the bargain!

But then, if not-Merry has done some serious harm to his foot… My head droops. I certainly cannot carry two hobbits and all the baggage, much less one of them. Perhaps they ought to have brought a sturdy horse, instead. Then I swish my tail and lift my head in determination. I will follow my Sam to the ends of the earth, carrying whatever burden I must carry, if only I may be allowed to follow him.

‘Then don’t say well when you’re not,’ Master returns, stopping his pacing to stoop over not-Merry with a stern tone and sterner look.

At this, not-Merry sighs and subsides, his shoulders drooping as our Big Man and the other (the one with the shield) crouch to bend over him, while the fair one turns away and moves a little way down the trail the way we have come, perhaps to watch for someone or something following.

I think my Sam would prefer to hover over the injured hobbit, or Master, but he turns instead to me and loosens the ties holding my burdens to my back. Old Tall Hat gestures sharply to Youngest to help my Sam, and then he mutters with the dwarf, only briefly. The dwarf stands up from his rummaging, picks up his axe, and stalks further down the path we are travelling, a little way, perhaps to watch for someone or something approaching.

‘Here now,’ Youngest says to me. ‘Stand steady, Bill my lad, and we’ll have you unburdened presently.’

I am and I was standing steady, I would have him know, but all I can do is lay my ears back (only half the way) and turn my head back towards him.

‘Gently, Mr. Pippin,’ my Sam says. ‘Don’t pinch his skin with the straps. We don’t want to give him sores.’

‘Here now,’ Youngest says again. ‘Nothing’s too good for our Bill… I’ll treat him as gently as if he were made of the finest elven glass…’ And more of the same nonsense, such that Master, who is now pacing between us and the place where not-Merry half-reclines, smiles absently and shakes his head at Youngest’s foolishness.

All this, of course, is in low voices, that scarce carry past the hollow where we will sleep this day. And day in truth, for there is a lightening of the scrap of sky to be seen above the walls of this depression where our path leads us.

Dawn approaches.

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