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Chapter 70. We take supper and breakfast and go to our rest
Frodo! The soft call comes from our Big Man, and the Master straightens under the bag Youngest hands him (with a cheerful murmur, Ah! Supper-breakfast, I expect…), to turn towards the call. My nostrils twitch at the good smells of nutmeats and dried fruit, and I toss my head, just a bit, at the pace of unloading. Ah, for the grassy meadow, where I might roll out the stiffness of the nightlong effort. And the racks of hay…
There is naught here for a poor pony’s grazing, not even a few tufts of tasteless grass, dead and faded colourless in the winter cold. The moss hereabout is brown and bitter, the bracken dead from the cold, the trees growing in this sunless cleft are few and scrawny; but their bark seems the only promise of a meal, scanty as it may be, for a hungry pony. I doubt me that they will share much of what I carry… travel rations, I heard them say, and recall a scrap of conversation between Youngest and not-Merry, as they fed me pieces of carrot by the meadow gate.
Well, we are to be travelling, are we not?
Fruit and nuts and dried meat are all very well for an afternoon’s saunter, but to my mind, thick sandwiches and cold chicken…
Ah, well, it’s poor enough fare, but better than nothing!
I suppose we must look at the bright side.
And what would that be? Besides the fact that dried meat and fruit and a few nuts and hard biscuits will be lighter for Bill, and for ourselves, to carry, what little of it we may be able to manage, as it is?
Hah! And that is just the thing!
What…? …is just the thing? You’re making even less sense than you usually do!
Poor fare, it may be, but in such a small quantity that it’ll be hardly any trouble to choke it down!
‘I come!’ Master answers, his voice clear but low, pitched to carry as far as the place where our Big Man crouches over not-Merry, and no farther. Youngest helps the Master ease the heavy bag onto his shoulder and turns back to me, as now heavily laden Master trudges to join the others under the overhang. ‘And I come not empty-handed, but bearing a banquet on my back!’
‘Even s-so,’ not-Merry says, the brightness of his tone belied by the chattering of his teeth.
‘I want you to come sit down here by Merry,’ our Big Man says, and Master lays down his burden by the growing pile, but stands up again with a quizzical look.
‘They can better use my help with unburdening Bill…’ he begins, but the Big Man shakes his head.
‘We, all but Merry, with his injured foot, can stay warmer by working or pacing,’ he answers, ‘but I fear your cousin may take a chill – he is still shivering despite all the blankets we can muster…’
‘But of course!’ Master interrupts. He would not take his rest, for his own sake, not when others are working or standing watch; but to help another, well, that is quite another matter. He sits down next to the younger cousin, nestles closer, and helps the two Men unwrap and then re-wrap the coverings around himself and not-Merry.
My Sam and Youngest are talking softly as they work, mostly Youngest asking questions and my Sam answering them – he has an answer to each and every one, though he often pauses, as if to ponder, before offering a reply. I marvel at his wisdom, and cock my ears to listen for a moment, before swivelling them once more to listen for danger.
Thus I catch a scrap of conversation between the Big Men, who having done something or other to not-Merry’s foot, and then having wrapped it well and propped it up, blankets and all, upon one of the bulky bags, have moved a little apart to consult with Tall Hat.
…many days will we have to rest here? For surely…
‘But one day, I deem,’ our Big Man says in response. ‘It is a strain, no more than that. We’ll see how well he walks upon it… by this evening I imagine he’ll be well able to continue.’
‘This evening!’ I catch a whiff of astonishment from the other Big Man (the one with the shield). ‘I thought one of us should have to carry him, if we were not to stop here.’
‘Were he a Man, yes, I imagine he’d have to stay off it for another two days, or three, but hobbits heal much more quickly of their ills than Men do,’ our Big Man says.
The other Big Man shakes his head, still smelling of astonishment. ‘I can see I have much to learn of Halflings.’
Tall Hat chuckles, somehow a warming sound in this cold, desolate place. ‘I say much the same to myself, nearly every time I find myself in their company!’
They go on to discuss watch-keeping, and the next day’s journey, and I drowse under my ever-lightening burden.
I come to full alertness at an exclamation from Youngest-and-hungriest hobbit, his voice raised slightly from the low murmur everyone has affected since we began this journey. My back is empty, my burden gone, and my Sam (for I would have wakened at any other’s touch) has fastened hobbles to keep me from wandering. As if I would. I move carefully to one of the small trees and nuzzle at its surface, trying to win purchase with my teeth on the smooth surface.
‘You call this a meal! I’d call it no more than a mouthful…!’
‘Then take small bites,’ not-Merry says sourly, followed by a yelp, as if Master has elbowed him sharply.
Hah. I should trade him his mouthful, for the thin strip of bitter bark I am contemplating for my Supper-breakfast, and not even shake my mane over it. But I am only a pony, and must be grateful for what I can get, I suppose.
It is the most snappish I have heard my hobbits, but then these are minor discomforts compared to what we have faced before this day. In my experience, the worse the circumstances, the milder their tones.
‘We’ll take our chief meal when we waken,’ Master says, in soothing tones. ‘The sooner you go to sleep, the sooner that will be. So finish your meal, and…’
‘I’m finished already,’ Youngest mutters, but my Sam breaks in to whatever comment or complaint he is forming.
‘Seems unnatural, to sleep through the middle of the day,’ my Sam says, but his tone is more contemplative than complaining. ‘I can just hear my old gaffer scold, to see me lying down in the light of day!’
‘Come, Samwise, join us – there’s room enough, these blankets are of a size to cover a tall Elf, much less two brace of hobbits. Much better than shivering alone…’ I think if it were any other but Master who calls, my Sam would be “on his dignity” as the younger hobbits call it. But he picks up himself and his blanket and moves to join the others.
‘Much better to shiver all together,’ young Mischief affirms, and the other hobbits chuckle, even my Sam, and shake their heads at his nonsense.
The other Big Man (the one with the shield, though he has rested his shield against his pack for the time being) stands up from the pile of bags, carrying something in his hand, and turns in my direction, crossing the distance between us in a few strides.
A bit unnerved, I lay back my ears, but he stops short and reaches out a hand, crooning gentle nonsense. ‘There’s a good lad…’
An enticing fragrance comes from him, and of themselves my ears come forward. At this sign of my goodwill, he takes the last step over the distance that separates us, and holds up a small bag, the source of that alluring aroma. I reach, fumbling eagerly, and he chuckles, lifting it to my muzzle. His hands rise on either side of my face, but I am not unnerved, for it is a feeding bag…! Filled with grain! …and he is fastening it in place. As I contentedly munch, he finishes and then strokes my neck.
‘There you are, my fine, doughty beast. Such a load as you can carry! I doubt me the greatest burden-beasts that Rohan can boast, could scarcely stagger along ‘neath such a load as you have borne through this night. And only fitting that you should have such reward, seeing as you must bear your own food as well as ours, until we leave these barren regions…’
And more such nonsense, worthy of my Samwise himself, and despite the briefness of our acquaintance I find a warm spot growing within my heart, for his kindness and care.
On the edge of the huddled hobbits to one side, I see my Sam, sitting upright and watching, something stern and even worried relaxing in him, and I realise he must have been ordered to his rest by our Big Man, and would rather care for my needs himself. But now his stiff uprightness softens, and he eases himself down. I continue to munch at my rations – more than a mouthful, I am glad to say, though I pity my poor hobbits and would gladly share of my bounty, were it only to their taste, as they have shared of their own with myself. Before I am finished, I can sense my Samwise is sleeping, though I see the blankets tremble still with remainders of his shivering.
Master rouses slightly, to pull his own coverings further over my Samwise, one arm over him, snuggling close, and the shivering subsides, and soon Master, too, is asleep. I come to the end of my grain. The Big Man gives my neck a last pat and removes the feed bag with a murmured blessing, returning the bag to its place amongst the baggage. Taking up his shield, he moves off towards where the Elf stands watch.
I think that all my hobbits are sleeping, when a murmur comes to my ears.
‘Chief meal, that sounds more promising… ’
‘Go to sleep, Pippin!’
…and quiet descends at last. Or what passes for quiet in this dreary land – if you discount the low moan of the unceasing wind, and the quiet murmur of a restless sleeper.
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