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Chapter 76. We remember past celebrations
Master and I reach the sheltered spot to find much is already being accomplished. Our Big Man is on his knees and elbows, face rather lower to the ground than his seat, reminding me of a playful pup. His position looks decidedly uncomfortable (for Man at least), but he is blowing gently, and suddenly I smell smoke! And there is a growing spark, which blooms as he tends it, with fierce-yet-tender attention, into a small flame.
Tall Hat lays down his own bedroll with its oilcloth base, and shakes another blanket out of its rolls, holding it up before him. ‘Here,’ he says to the Fair One. ‘Get him out of those wet things, and into something dry, whilst I block the wind from his skin. And then we’ll pile the blankets high!’
There is a sound of protest from my Sam – from the tone, it sounds as if he does not care to be undressed and dressed again as if he were a mere babe – but he is shaking so with the chill of the icy water that his protest goes mostly unheeded. Master loops my rope around a tree branch and hurries to help, mouthing reassurances.
It is at Master’s order to “…stand still! You’re making this much harder than it ought…” that my Sam stops trying to push the helping hands away. Things go much quicker after that. I shudder to see the stripping away of his clothes, laying bare the unprotected flesh beneath. “Goose flesh,” I have heard my hobbits call it, when the skin is all over little bumps, to my confusion, for I never see any feathers sprouting from them. Still, it makes me shudder, to see him standing there, held between Master and the Fair One, shivering, his teeth chattering so violently that he can form no coherent word. To have my warm hide stripped away, so, no shaggy coat to protect me from this never ending wind…! To my vast relief (and likely his), they begin to wreathe him in warm, dry clothing, dug out of his pack by young mischief, just so quickly as they stripped off the sopping layers.
With my Sam otherwise occupied, it falls to not-quite-Merry and the Other Big Man (the one with the shield) to divest me of my burdens, and they do so, quickly and economically. In the meantime, young mischief continues ferreting through the packs, muttering to himself under his breath, though he sounds uncommonly cheerful.
The Dwarf stands a little apart, outside the small, sheltered place, his back to us, in watchful attitude, as if to see if anything or anyone traces our trail from the path we were following.
When I am nearly free of my load, with only the harness to remove, Master calls, ‘Merry! Come here! We’ll need to bundle together with Sam, one on either side, and lend him our heat until he can manage his own once more…’ And though my Sam would protest this, he has little choice, still shivering so badly as to be helpless, and teeth chattering still enough to make him unable to speak, and soon Tall Hat is wrapping blankets around the three of them together, and Merry is jesting about ‘returning the favour’ from when he was injured and chilled.
Meanwhile, the Fair One goes off in another direction, I assume to stand guard just as the Dwarf is still doing. I can not-quite see the latter’s short, stalwart figure, but the wind brings a whiff of his earthy scent to me.
Quite a creditable little fire is burning, and young mischief is stirring something together in a pot, though it is not yet on the fire. The Other Big Man (the one with the shield) removes my harness and hangs it neatly from the stub of a branch, that it might not tangle, and then he takes my rope to lead me to the stream. ‘A drink before you rest, I think,’ he says. ‘I don’t think you had a chance to quench your thirst back there.’ He has the right of it.
Young mischief is there, at his side. ‘I’ll walk with you, if I may,’ he says. ‘They don’t like me going off on my own, for some reason.’ They might be any number of our companions, or even someone else, but in any event he is always paired with an older companion when it is time for him to stand watch, or to fetch water, or even to go into the bushes for some private reason of his own.
We pass the silent Dwarf, who stands as a statue in the shadows, still as one of the stone trolls from fading memory, except he is breathing softly, taut with listening. I wonder if he is more on his guard than usual, because of our cheery fire? You cannot see the fire from the path, but I can catch a tang of smoke on the air.
Young mischief carries several water skins, and I take it he has been put in charge of refreshing the water supply in that marvellous stream.
…which he does, upstream from where I satisfy my thirst. We return, past the Dwarf once more and into the tiny clearing. He upends two of the water skins into the pot he’d prepared, and sets the pot over the fire. ‘Dried meat,’ he says, ‘and dried vegetables… rather tasteless, when taken alone and chewed, but stew them together in just the right amount of water, with some seasonings, and you have a feast fit for the celebrating!’
‘Celebrating?’ the Other Big Man says, tying me to a tree. I feel rather like celebrating, myself, for he bends to open a sack I have come to know well. Soon I will have a nose-bag well filled with grain! Now that is a celebration, especially coming after such a short effort. I should think it is not yet even middle night.
‘Celebrating!’ Youngest says, with a firm nod, and loud enough that both Master and Merry shush him. He shrugs his shoulders and stirs the pot, saying in a lowered tone. ‘Back home they’d have been celebrating these three days past… and here it is, Last Day, and First Day is breathing down our necks. The First Footers would be going about at any time…!’
‘First Footers?’ the Other Big Man says, fastening my nose-bag to my head collar. Ah, how lovely the smell of the grain, the wondrous crunch between my teeth…
Our Big Man speaks at my side – I had not heard his approach, and I startle, and he gentles me with a hand on my neck and swift apology. ‘As I was saying,’ he continues, ‘First Footing is not a custom found in Gondor… but it is well established in the North, in the Shire and the Breeland primarily… the Men of Dale tend to follow the Dwarves’ calendar, these days, and celebrate the New Year in the autumn, before the snows come down to make travel difficult.’
‘And what, exactly, are First Footers?’ the Other Big Man says, combing my mane with his fingers as I munch my grain.
Our Big Man moves to the fire, bends to take a sniff at the pot Young Mischief is stirring, nods approval, and carefully adds a few more sticks to the fire. The fire does not blaze up, as it did in that place where They came at us – I shudder and stamp a foot and toss my head, and the Other Big Man strokes my neck, murmuring soothing nonsense.
Tossing my head shakes the grain in my nose-bag, bringing me back to the business at hand, and I search out the last of the toothsome treat with my lips. The Other Big Man stays at my head until I am finished, and takes the bag away, to put it away once more. Crossing back to me, passing the fire, he looks down and says in a cheery voice, ‘Mmmm, that smells good!’ and Young Mischief looks up at him, from where he is crouched to stir the steaming pot, and beams.
He is not quite so cheerful as he sounds; I smell wariness on him, and his eyes scan the darkness outside our clearing, before he stoops to hobble my feet, and then removes my rope. ‘Don’t wander far,’ he tells me, and I nod.
Master, and Merry, and Young Mischief have been talking away all this time, in low but pleasant voices, about First Footing. It stirs a memory in me, of cold winter nights, being wakened by cheerful voices in the street outside our crooked gate, shouts of greeting in the middle night instead of the usual quiet, with no explanation.
But then, no body thinks to explain things to a pony, most times, anyhow, except perhaps for my Sam.
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