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The Tenth Walker  by Lindelea

Chapter 82. We make a long and stumbling night-march

We have been walking—stumbling, rather—ever so long, it seems, and this night has seemed longer than most, even without the need to fortify oneself against falling sleet and icy wind. I don’t quite understand it, but walking in the windless darkness, nay, stumbling along, as I have said, for the ground is rough beneath my feet…

Youngest cries out as he barks his toes, yet again, against an inconvenient rock, but the sound is much more muffled that it was some hours ago, when the night was half-spent, and our path grew rockier and rougher. It is as if he is holding one hand over his mouth, and perhaps he is, after enough stumbles to teach him that stumbling is the order for this night’s march. Though the stars are bright enough above, no longer hid by clouds, there is no full, round, laughing moon this night to light our way. My stumbles are softer—a pony does not cry out in surprise or pain, for such small things as stumbles. We might whinny high and loud, in joyous greeting—but as there seems to be no reason for such, I hold my peace. When I stumble, there is a flurry of soft thuds as I scramble to regain my balance, and nothing more.

The Fair One walks as if he can see clearly in the dark, his footfalls silent—though I’m certain I would hear him stumble, if he were to, which he does not, if you take my meaning. Master, too, of all my hobbit folk seems the most sure-footed. He does not stumble at all, as if somehow he can see his way in the dark, in some way that the other three cannot. Determined-not-Merry gives a soft grunt or Whoomph! –not really a cry, on some of his more spectacular stumbles, but he and Youngest have been walking arm-in-arm to support each other since Younger took a rather sprawling fall some time ago, and so there have been no falls from either one of them since.

My Sam rests one hand upon my neck, close to my ears, and so when he stumbles (as he does, though he is trudging heavily as if he bears nearly so great a burden as myself, and perhaps it steadies his steps somehow)—when he stumbles, of course I am there to catch him. I mean, he catches himself, as his grasp on my neck tightens convulsively, and then loosens again to a light touch as he regains his balance.

The Men move with surprising quiet, as if used to long, dark marches and night campaigns. The Wizard, too, is sure-footed as he goes, his footfalls perhaps a little louder than the Hobbits’ but softer than the Men’s. And the Dwarf stalks along as if darkness is no hindrance to him, though he mutters now and then, under his breath.

What was I thinking, just now? It is easy for my thoughts to be stolen away, listening in all directions as we walk, and hearing only my companions, the rustle of their clothing, the soft breathing, another muffled sound from Youngest… Ah, yes, the length of this night’s march. Although I am very nearly sure that this night is no longer (nor shorter) than previous nights, it has seemed ever so much longer. I should think that a night of walking in freezing wind, blowing cold rain and even sleet into our faces, would seem interminable, and so the past nights have seemed, to my perhaps-faulty recollection. (I am only a pony, after all.) Perhaps the cold numbed us, or the effort warmed us so that we did not so much mind the night-long effort. In point of fact, I am certain that though it seems to go on for ever without end, this night is no longer, for I heard one of the elder cousins reminding Youngest how the nights are growing shorter and the days longer, since the celebration of Last Day earlier on our journey,

‘We started out on one of the longest, darkest nights of the year,’ trying-to-be-Merry had observed, as we paused to rest, some time after the path turned from relatively smooth to rocks popping out in unexpected places, and Youngest had pitched forward onto his face in a rather spectacular stumble, and several hands reached out to lift him up, and Our Big Man declared a short rest, while the older cousins bound up Youngest’s scraped palms and fussed over his shins and knees. ‘The nights will be growing ever shorter as the light returns to the land.’

The Other Big Man (the one with the shield) murmured something under his breath at that, and Master said, ‘What is it, Boromir?’

‘Nothing,’ the Other Big Man said, but when Master pressed him, he sighed and said quietly, the words slow and reluctant, ‘I only said, “May it be so”.’

‘May what be so?’ Youngest said, his tone bright and curious, though he spoke through his teeth, as if his cousins’ ministrations were causing him some pain.

‘Indeed,’ said Our Big Man, leaving myself and Youngest no wiser than before.

While turning over these thoughts, I stumble again, and turn strict attention to my feet.


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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