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The Tenth Walker  by Lindelea

Chapter 72. We prepare to move on

‘Chief meal,’ Youngest hobbit mutters. ‘Chief meal…’ It is as if he cannot believe the words he speaks. A strong smell of astonishment comes from him, mingled with dismay. But he quickly forces a bright tone as Master returns from carrying food to the fair one, standing watch while the rest pack up the camp. ‘So, Frodo, I have your breakfast-supper right here...!’ And he holds out the cloth to his older cousin with a smile that shines bright in the dimming day, and Master seems glad enough to take it from his hand.

Master thanks him, and he ducks his head, and then the both of them turn towards not-Merry, who is finishing his own meal, still wrapped in blankets. He is definitely not merry – brooding, more like, though he sits straighter and smiles to greet Master.

They sit down on the blankets, flanking not-Merry, chaffing him about something or other, though the words make no sense to me. It is something about Bag End, and leaving the dishes for someone named Lobelia, and he laughs… they all laugh together, albeit softly, and Master adds something about good spice adding relish. But I watched my Samwise parcel out the food, and it was dried meat, and dried fruit, and nutmeats. I smelt no spice, still smell none, not like the smell of the spice bread that Youngest brought to the stables one day, a slice each for myself and Merrylegs.

The other Big Man (the one with the shield, though his shield rests against his pack at the moment) has finished his own meal, has picked up my harness, and is carefully draping it in place, drawing up the buckles, checking for loose skin with my Sam’s assistance and close attention. Our Big Man watches them for but a moment, then satisfied, nods and turns to the rest of my hobbits.

He bends over them, their laughter drawing a smile from him, and he draws the blankets away from not-Merry’s feet. ‘How does it feel?’

Not-Merry’s face takes on a look of concentration. ‘It doesn’t,’ he answers at last. ‘I mean, well, of course it does, but…’

Our Big Man takes not-Merry’s foot in his hands, slowly removing the wrappings. ‘Then let us see…’ he says.

‘Yes, let’s!’ Youngest says brightly, and Master hushes him, but bends forward to look with Youngest, not-Merry, and our Big Man, all with the same intent expression.

Our Big Man sets the wrappings aside, and my Samwise is there – but a moment ago, he was helping the other Big Man load bags upon my back, balancing the load. He moved so quietly none noticed him, and he gathers the wrappings and rolls the cloths neatly and stows them in one of the bags.

Not-Merry watches with interest as our Big Man cups the injured foot in his palms and presses with gentle thumbs.

Our Big Man raises his eyes from the foot. ‘Tell me if this hurts…’

‘They always say that,’ Youngest leans in to say behind his hand, as if he is a conspirator in some scheme or other, as when my old man came out to the field to consult with my dam and myself, over a present for his wife’s birthday. We said little, of course, but listened well and nodded our heads as he spoke, and she came out to our field a few days afterward, her face shining, and she threw her arms about my dam’s neck and kissed her! …and my dam said it was a good business, all round, though it rather mystified me, I might tell you, and, in retrospect, still does.

‘They?’ our Big Man says.

‘Healers,’ Youngest says, as if the answer is obvious. ‘They press where they know there is injury, there is pain, and then they say…’

‘But it doesn’t,’ not-Merry says in wonder, his eyes wide. A hopeful look blooms on his face, and he is not-Merry no longer, but rather almost-Merry.

‘Doesn’t what?’ Youngest says, screwing up his face in puzzlement.

Master is looking hopeful, too. Indeed, though cold and hungry all of us may be, the tone of the camp is more cheerful than it has been through the day.

‘Doesn’t hurt!’ nearly-Merry says staunchly.

‘And here?’ our Big Man says, moving his hands on the hobbit’s foot.

‘Fine!’ nearly-Merry says. ‘Never better!’

Master takes on a stern tone. ‘You’re not just saying…’

‘No!’ nearly-Merry protests, laughing…! And the laughter reassures Master, and his look softens, even as our Big Man nods his satisfaction. A strong smell of relief comes from them all. ‘No – Strider, I don’t know what it was you did, exactly, but it feels… it feels…’

‘How does it feel?’ our Big Man inquires. He adjusts his hold on the foot and gently moves it, up and down and around.

‘As if there was no injury, in the first place!’ Merry says in triumph. In the next moment our Big Man has released his foot, and he is standing to his feet, his cousins belatedly helping and steadying him from either side.

‘Good,’ our Big Man says, but holds up a staying hand. ‘Walk with care this night, that you not re-injure the foot. It will not heal so quickly the next time…’

‘I will!’ Merry says, placing his hand on his heart. ‘But why are we just standing about with our hands in our pockets, leaving Boromir and Sam to the business of packing-up?’

‘Yes, why?’ Youngest says, and hurries to pick up one of the bags and bring it to me.

As dusk is falling, the fair one and the dwarf return to us from where they were standing watch, and we take up our journey once more.

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