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The Tenth Walker  by Lindelea

Chapter 80. Another day, another dollop of this and that

The sleet continues through the day, as we rest under a dark and sullen sky. My hobbits huddle together under oilcloth coverings, pooling their cloaks and blankets, but I gather they are having trouble keeping warm. The Other Big Man (the one with the shield) speaks quietly with Our Big Man, quietly enough that I doubt my hobbits hear them, but with a twitch of my ears I am able to make out his low-voiced thoughts.

I will take a double shift, if no one else does,’ he says, ‘if only to leave the halflings to rest and share what warmth they may be able.’

‘They resent being treated like children,’ Our Big Man begins, looking over to the half-drowsing group.

The Other Big Man makes a sharp, slicing gesture with his hand, saying, ‘...not children – it’s not a matter of considering them weak, or childlike.’ Our Big Man begins to answer, but he’s not done. ‘I walked by them, just now, and two of them – the Ring-bearer, and the little one, his young cousin – were still shivering, with all the other two could do to warm them. I would take neither of the chilled ones from their warm nest and stand them out in this wind and sleet – for certain! – and neither would I take one of the others away, who are sharing their warmth.’

When Our Big Man tries to speak again, the Other Big Man adds, ‘I’d do nothing less if it were one of my own men who’d taken a chill while patrolling, and needed warming.’

Our Big Man puts a restraining hand on the Other Big Man’s shoulder. ‘Peace, Boromir,’ he says. ‘Nor would I.’ They stare into each other’s eyes for a brief instant, as if they are startled to have found a spot of common ground for complete agreement, and then they part, the Other Big Man to go out to the perimeter of our camp, to take his second watch of the day, and Our Big Man to go to the huddle of hobbits, crouching to address one or more.

I hear not-Merry’s voice slightly raised in protest. ‘But it’s my turn…!’

Our Big Man murmurs something, but his back is turned to me and the wind snatches away his words. Youngest sounds as if he would argue. ‘I’m not c-c-c-cold!’ but a sneeze interrupts his brave effort.

‘You see?’ Master says, his words clear though softly spoken. ‘No, but you stay there, Merry, you and Sam, and see if you can’t help Pip get warm. I’ll–’

I do not hear what Our Big Man says in reply, but Master settles back, and he and my Sam and not-Merry busy themselves in tucking up Youngest more securely.

Our Big Man rises from his crouch, in the meantime, goes to where our baggages are piled under oiled tarpaulins, and rummages for a few moments, returning with his own blanket, and – from the smell of them, as he passes me on his way to the huddled hobbits, the blankets of the Other Big Man and the Dwarf, both standing watch at this time. He lifts the hobbits’ oilcloth covering long enough to push the blankets under cover. ‘Here,’ he says. ‘Wrap these around all of you, to catch your warmth, that young Pip might yet grow warm as well.’

‘Here now, Mr Frodo,’ my Sam says, taking hold of one of the blankets and drawing it round Master’s shoulders, under the oilcloths, and Youngest’s protest is cut off nearly as suddenly as it forms.

It is as if – yes, it certainly seems so. The wind blows a suddenly conspiratorial smell from that quarter, to my nostrils. It is as if he has realised that Master, too, is shivering cold.

‘Y-y-y-yes-s-s-s,’ Youngest chatters, sounding much colder than he did a moment ago, despite the additional blankets. ‘Th-th-thank you! I hadn’t realised how very c-c-cold…’ He subsides with another sneeze.

‘There now,’ Our Big Man says, taking a moment to arrange the covering oilcloths to keep the hobbit huddle just so dry as possible. ‘It’s as important, if not more, to stay and keep your young cousin from taking his death of the cold.’

‘I wish we could have a fire,’ my Sam says softly, and then blushes and ducks his head so that he’s barely to be seen beneath the covering. ‘I-I beg your pardon, Mr Strider, I didn’t mean…’

‘I have the same wish,’ Our Big Man says, his tone gentle. ‘But I doubt even our wizard, here, could kindle a blaze in these conditions…’

‘Just think warming thoughts, Sam,’ Master says kindly, but my Sam ducks still lower, and the ear that is all I can see of him is crimson bright.

The wizard in question makes no reply, simply sits, still and grey as a stone in his own wrappings, his cold pipe in his mouth and his eyes black and thoughtful.

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