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The Tenth Walker  by Lindelea

Chapter 73. We follow faithless paths in a windswept wilderness

As we walk, I am aware of small, startled creatures in hiding, to either side of the faint path we follow. I hear the nearly imperceptible scurrying sounds ahead of us, as they skitter under cover. Odd, to think of “cover” in this barren country, but then, this is the home of the little things, and they would know how to hide from, say, owls in the sky above them by night, or hawks by day.

We reach a fork, where our way divides into two paths, and stop again, not to rest, but for our Big Man to consider our way, talking softly with Tall Hat while the other Big Man stands close by to listen. My Sam uses the time to run his hands over my sides, checking for rubbing harness, but he and the other Big Man (the one with the shield) were so careful in their loading that my burden is well-balanced and the straps all straight and neither too tight, nor too loose. The rest of my hobbits stand closely together, huddled against the icy wind. I can hear their shivers in their soft voices. After half a night of walking, they are already weary, but none complains.

The dwarf pulls his cloak tighter about himself, waiting stoically, but the fair one simply stands at his ease, as if the cold and effort of walking through the night have no effect on him.

I hear the softest of scratching against a stone, to my off-side. Some small creature has burrowed deeper into hiding, I deem. I try to imagine what it might be like, to be small and afraid, with larger creatures blundering past… and yet, we are easy to hear, and to hide from. So much worse must be the danger from overhead, unheard – or so my dam told me, when I was young, and safe by her side – until the swooping claws have seized the poor little one and borne it off to its doom. So she told me, deep in the night, after we’d seen a soundless swoop, heard a hapless squeak, quickly cut off, and she’d told me of owls, and how I had no need to fear them.

Eagles, perhaps. The Eagles of the North are large enough to bear away even a full-grown pony. But their sort are never seen in the Breeland. She heard of Eagles of the North from a far-travelled dwarf pony in the marketplace one day.

I shiver at the thought. I hope that there are no such Eagles where we are bound.

I am glad I am not one of the small creatures hiding nearby. I have no need to fear an attack from above. Even the Shadow Ones, fading dim in my memory (though I still can remember Them, if I make an effort – though I have no need to do so, as the white one told me before we set off, that they are gone from this country)… even They rode upon horses. How fearsome They would be, if they rode upon winged creatures!

I am glad They are gone. It is bad enough to be out and about in the wilderness, hiding by day and walking by night for fear of… what ever it is that makes my companions quiet and wary. I raise my head to scent the air about us. There is no danger that I can perceive. Yet we will walk through the weary night, rather than taking shelter from the chilling wind, which seems all the colder for the darkness that surrounds us.

Master leaves the younger hobbits to join my Samwise and myself. ‘How is he doing, Sam?’

My Samwise pats my neck. ‘He’s a champion, Mr. Frodo. Not a word of complaint!’

I nod my head, and reach to rub my face against the Master’s chest, and both hobbits chuckle. Master strokes my face, and my Samwise pats my neck, and I am as content as I can be in such a place as this. More content than I would be, left behind, even in that most comfortable of stables, safe from wind and want.

I thirst, but there is no water for the drinking.

The other Big Man speaks, raising a hand to point in the darkness. ‘This path leads more directly to the South, I deem,’ he says.

Our Big Man shakes his head. ‘Paths here are winding,’ he says, ‘and while this one may lead southward from this point, it very likely will not stay such a course…’

‘But the other path leads to the west and north!’ the other Big Man protests. ‘Directly away from where we wish to go!’

‘Homeward bound,’ Youngest whispers to shivering-Merry, very low, such that Master, still rubbing at my nose, should not hear. My ears are sharper than a hobbit’s, however, and I hear the words clearly. ‘That is where I should wish to go, oddly enough, were circumstances different from what they are.’

‘Were circumstances different…’ shivering-Merry echoes. ‘But as they are not…’

Youngest nods and shrugs. ‘Think of the stories we’ll have to tell, when we get back! Why, we should be able to dine out night after night…’

‘We shall have more invitations than we know what to do with,’ shivering-Merry agrees. ‘How ever will we decide which to accept, and which to put off?’

‘We shall have to work out some sort of system or other,’ Youngest says. ‘For it would not do, to miss a single free meal, especially after this!’

‘This?’ shivering-Merry wants to know.

‘We shall have a great deal of eating to make up for, if we continue as we’ve begun,’ Youngest says.

Shivering-Merry begins to answer, but at a quiet word from Tall Hat, he falls silent. It is time to move on once more.

We are following the southward path favoured by the other Big Man, and at first it seems a promising choice. However, the country is rough and bleak, and no path could go straight through, I fear. It is not long before our path begins to wind, and before long, if I were not a pony, I should have lost all sense of direction.

We walk... and walk... and walk...

I raise my head a little to sniff at the ceaseless wind. Home is that way. I have no doubt. If I were to leave the narrow path and head straight across these folded lands – were I a bird, with wings to fly – I should be able at last to alight on my broken-down shed in Bree, and drink from my battered bucket, old, stale water with a scum of green that lends an odd, unpleasant taste.

I am gladder to be here, in this howling wilderness, with my Samwise, than there, with my old misery. Even if there is no water here to ease my thirst.

We stop again, less for the purpose of considering our path (though that is sorely needed), and more for the reason that the traitor path, once so promising in its southward beckoning, has led us to the edge of a sheer fall.

We shall have to retrace our steps, and try the other way. The dividing of the paths is several hours behind us, and that means several hours more before we reach that place – many night hours wasted, and – though my hobbits speak cheerfully enough about “seeing the sights” – still a long way to go, to where ever it is we are going.

A/N: Some words and turns of phrase taken from “The Ring Goes South” from The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien.

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