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Chapter 78. We stumble over rough paths through the darkness
It is late afternoon when I am wakened from a doze, by stirring all around the camp as my companions make ready to depart. The light is growing rosy in the West, even with the clouds covering the sky, as the Sun prepares to retire to her rest. The wind cuts keenly, and a thin sleeting mist is falling, fitful but quite enough to add to the general misery.
It seems that supper-breakfast has already been cleared away. Merry brings me another nose-bag of oats and stands, rubbing at my neck whilst my Sam fits my harness, and then half the party, it seems, are bringing bundles to me and settling them in place.
We begin to walk before the light is quite gone. The clouds lift briefly, in the waning of the day, and for a few moments we can see the mountains, shrouded in mist. Youngest, who is walking with my Sam and myself to start, shakes his head and mutters under his breath.
‘What was that, Mr. Pippin?’ my Sam asks.
‘We walk our feet off, each day – night, I mean – and seem to be getting nowhere! I should swear we were snails, creeping forward…’
I look quickly to my companions’ feet, but they look sound and sturdy, ready for a night’s walking. My Sam seems to be walking lighter than before. Perhaps it is because the Big Man carried out their intention, to load some of his burden onto my back. I will gladly carry what ever is needed, to the limit of my strength, to spare my hobbits. I cannot carry the world on my back, however…! The Big Men will have to see to themselves.
‘I think the mountains look nearer than they did when we started out from Rivendell,’ my Sam says sturdily, in his best effort to comfort the youth. ‘Don’t you?’
As the younger hobbit lifts his head, in obedience, to scan the horizon, the clouds lower again and a particularly cold and nasty gust of sleet-laden wind blows back his hood. With a cry of dismay, he pulls it up again, and then goes on to answer my Sam. ‘No. Actually, I don’t.’
‘You will,’ my Sam assures him. ‘Next time the sky clears a bit, give it a good look.’ But the darkness comes down completely, and the sky doesn't clear. There is only darkness, and the unceasing wind, and the occasional burst of blowing sleet.
We walk, and we walk, and we walk through the night.
We do not walk steadily, mind. There are pauses to rest, and in any event at times the way is dark enough that we must stumble along, especially if the ground is rough – as it often is. The fair one, the Big Men, and Tall Hat seem to have some ability to see in the darkness. Even the Dwarf, accustomed to working underground in dark spaces (or so the dwarf ponies say), is sure-footed in the dark. I can see a little, as well, though no moon shines upon our path. My hobbits are less easy. At times Youngest mutters about feeling his way along with his toes, especially after he has suppressed a yelp, perhaps after stumbling over a stone or root in the path. The older hobbits are quieter, walking along determinedly, though I hear an occasional grunt from one of them, a soft noise of pain and effort.
At every pause the order of march rearranges itself somewhat, though Our Big Man and Tall Hat invariably walk at the head of the Company, and the Fair One brings up the rear, with my Sam and myself just before him. The others move about, such that some of the time Youngest walks with us, and some of the time it is Master, and sometimes Merry or the Dwarf or the Other Big Man. The latter two walk as if they are guarding the party, their attention moving from one side to the other as we go.
My hobbits are not quite so alert to our surroundings; it seems to take all their attention to stumble along through the darkness, although they occasionally exchange a few low words with each other as they go. I swivel my ears as I walk, listening on all sides of us, that I might do my part in keeping them from danger.
I am glad my hobbits had the pleasure of a hot meal before this long, cold journey. I do believe this blowing sleet is quite the most miserable weather we’ve known since leaving that warm and welcoming place, the stables so different from what I’d known. Still, I am content to follow my Sam.
Perhaps I am walking my feet off as well. I had not thought about it before, but there is a definite pain in one of my quarters. A pain, sometimes sharp, more often dull, assails my near fore as I walk along.
I bob my head with each step on the painful quarter; I cannot help myself.
My Sam takes no notice. He walks along before me, his steps not quite so heavy as I remember him walking before – though hobbits, as a rule, go very lightly indeed on their feet, as I have mentioned.
When I hesitate, he tugs at my rope and says, ‘Get up, Bill! Come along, lad.’ And so I must, foot by foot.
I cannot tell you how long this state of affairs lasts. We cross a stream, and my Sam stops to let me drink. Thankfully, he is more careful – or less burdened – in any event, he does not fall into the icy water when we cross at last. The cold water is cooling, even numbing to my poor sore hoof, for I stand with my forefeet in the water for a good long drink, and so I walk on from the stream somewhat less troubled.
Master has been walking beside my Sam, and when I stop to drink he continues, catching up to Youngest (who is walking with Merry), and when we walk on, my Sam and myself, we find Merry waiting a little way along the path for us. He falls in beside my Sam, clapping him on the shoulder with a murmured, ‘Nearly halfway there, old chap. Do you want me to take the pony for a bit?’
‘I’ve got him,’ my Sam answers. I can sense the other hobbit’s nod in the darkness, and then the two of them walk together in silence. The only sound is my soft footfalls, the occasional clink as my hoof strikes a stone. I walk as softly as a pony might, but I am no match for soft-footed hobbits, or a silent Elf, or Man or Dwarf who is trying to go quietly.
Alas, the numbness does not last, and soon I am bobbing my head once more with every painful step.
And just ahead of me, Merry catches at my Sam’s arm, and pulls him to a stop. ‘Half a mo—‘ he says.
‘What is it, Mr. Merry?’ my Sam whispers. ‘We mustn’t fall behind.’
‘Something’s off with Bill,’ Merry says, turning to me. ‘He doesn’t sound right.’ He hoots softly, as an owl might, and there is a stir in front of us, and shortly Youngest comes back to us, from where he has been walking in the line of travellers. ‘It's the pony... Go, run ahead and catch the leaders,’ Merry says to him in an urgent undertone.
‘I’ll hurry,’ Youngest says, ‘though it would be worth my neck to run on this uneven ground…’ His protest grows fainter as he hurries away.
‘Is there a problem?’ the fair one says behind me. I startle, only a little, for I did not hear him come up behind us. But then, I never do.
‘Bill doesn’t sound right,’ Merry insists, his hand finding my neck in the darkness and stroking softly.
‘He’s been following along as he usually does,’ my Sam says. ‘Not balking…’
The fair one moves to my head, taking my jaw in his hands, and then he takes one hand away and strokes the whorl of hair on my forehead as he speaks to me as a horse or pony would best understand. He is an Elf, after all, and from what Merrylegs has told me, the Elves have made a study of how to talk to other creatures.
What seems to be the trouble, my young friend?
My foot, I answer, and his hand, resting still under my jaw, is pressed downward as I bob my head towards the offending leg.
‘Ah,’ he says aloud, soft as a breath, and he runs his hand down my leg to my foot, and crouches before me. He knows just where to squeeze, to prompt me to lift my foot into his lap, and then his fingers are exploring the sensitive frog.
‘What is it?’ my Sam says, crowding close, worry in his tone, and more – as if he blames himself for my discomfort.
But the fair one is prying at my foot with his fingers, and suddenly I have relief, and there is a soft plonk as something falls free. I sense rather than see him turn his face up, towards the waiting hobbits. ‘A stone,’ he says. ‘A sharp stone was lodged in his hoof.’
My Sam gives a soft cry, and slaps himself on the forehead with his hand. ‘Ninnyhammer!’ he mutters to himself, and there are tears in his voice. ‘How could I not have noticed? Ah, Bill–!’
The fair one pays him no heed. His fingers are still probing, gentle but firm, and he looks down again as if the darkness is no barrier. He nods to himself, then sets my foot down and rises, laying a gentle arm across my neck. ‘No harm done,’ he says at last. ‘Some bruising, perhaps – the foot may be tender, but if you let him soak it in the streams we pass, as you stop to water him, that will bring him some comfort.’
‘You’re certain?’ Master says. So involved have we all been in the fair one’s exploration of my hoof, none of us has heard him come up, with Youngest, and we all startle, just a bit – excepting the fair one, of course. ‘He’s taken no ill?’
‘Walk him,’ the fair one answers, with a final pat, then running his hand along my side, he moves to take up his rearward position once more. ‘Let us see how he goes.’
I step off, surrounded by my hobbits, and to my relief I am able to walk four-square, steady on all my feet, without a catch or bob of my head.
My Sam is weeping as he goes – I can hear the catches in his breath, and on occasion he reaches over to pat at my neck, and whisper breathless apologies.
‘He’s going well, now,’ Merry says – he has been listening to my footfalls. ‘Come, Pip, let us hurry ahead to let the leaders know…’
…leaving myself, and my Sam, for the fair one has dropped back again. And Master walks with us still, and now he drapes his arm across my Sam’s shoulders as we walk along.
‘You wouldn’t have known, Sam,’ he says softly. ‘For that matter, I wouldn’t have… Merry’s more used to ponies than I am, and that’s how he’d have known, just from the sound of Bill’s going, in the darkness.’
My Sam sniffles, and runs his sleeve across his nose, but does not answer.
A/N: Some turns of phrase taken from “The Ring Goes South” in The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien.
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