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Chapter 89. We set the watch
Tall Hat says that we must stop talking aloud, rest ourselves, and set the watch.
It will not be difficult. I am already quite accomplished at such; indeed, after each night’s long march, as soon as I am relieved of my burdens, I make a point of resting and watching. And grazing, when there is grass to graze upon. Thankfully, there is a pleasant quantity of fresh, living grass to be found in this valley if I venture outside the shade of the great bushes of holly that have grown up here. The holly itself holds no temptation for me, neither bark nor leaf nor bright berry.
Well, perhaps it will be difficult for Youngest, at least, to follow Tall Hat’s orders. Of all my companions, he is the most talkative. He invariably seems to have a question to ask, and when he is not posing questions, he is offering observations. Even now, although he is doing his best to keep his voice low, I can hear him over the ripping and crunching sound the grass makes as I tear mouthfuls from their moorings. He is moving on to other questions after asking extensively about the nature of the birds and creatures living here, the ones that Our Big Man (not the one with the shield) mentioned some little time ago.
‘Why do you suppose the birds and other creatures are so silent now?’ he is asking Our Big Man, having planted himself at the Man’s side, the better to ply him with questions, I deem. ‘And how could the ground echo, simply from the sound of our voices? Is it all hollow underneath us?’
My Sam stirs uneasily at such an idea, and I see him rise from putting away the well-scrubbed cook pan, shuffle his feet and peer with suspicion at the ground.
I dig with a hoof at the patch of grass before me, but the earth seems solid enough, to my senses, at least. Neither is there an echo, as I have heard from my footsteps when I have walked over a bridge.
Perhaps it is only voices that echo in this place? I am not about to raise my head and whinny to test my ponderings.
‘Come along to bed now, Pip,’ the Master says, having moved to join the pair and seizing his younger cousin by the arm, raising his face to bestow a nod upon Our Big Man. ‘It is Sam’s turn to take the first watch, but it will be your turn to relieve him at watch, soon enough…’
‘But I’m not sleepy!’ Youngest protests, and the Merry hobbit laughs softly at this, and I do believe I hear a quiet snort from the pile of blankets that marks the Dwarf’s resting place.
Youngest ducks his head when Master tries to tousle his hair as if he were a much younger hobbit, saying, ‘When are you ever? Sleepy, that is!’
‘Never!’ Merry agrees from where he has laid his blankets, but I notice that he is keeping his voice very low indeed, and he slowly moves his head to look all about us, as if Our Big Man’s mention of watchfulness and fear have reminded him of the seriousness of our task. ‘Come now! You’re too big for bedtime stories!’ He pats the place beside himself.
Master gives Youngest a push. ‘Go on with you, now.’
Youngest opens his mouth as if to protest that he hasn’t finished asking his questions yet, but Our Big Man raises a hand to forestall him, saying quietly to my Sam, ‘Go on up to the ridge, where you can see both into the valley and the approach to it, and mind that you stay in the shadows.’
‘Yes, sir,’ my Sam replies smartly. He ties the laces of his pack and tugs at it, as if to make sure that all is secure, and then he gives the backpack (and the cookpot within) a gentle pat with his hand, much as my old man might have slapped my mother’s neck after feeding her a carrot, of a pleasant summer’s day in our field.
Thinking of that, I go back to cropping grass while the somewhat Merry hobbit and Master between them persuade Youngest to roll himself in his blankets and ‘Rest, at least, even if you cannot find it in you to fall asleep.’
Meanwhile, my Sam mounts the slope to the top of the ridge, but of course his feet make no sound in the going.
As I may have mentioned, hobbits can go very quietly indeed when they wish to do so.
My Sam will not be alone in keeping the watch. Our Big Man is walking up the slope, nearly as quietly as one of my hobbits, towards the place where my Sam has stationed himself in the shadow of one of the great trees on the ridge.
And of course, as I work my way along, I swivel my ears, listening to our surroundings. I am keeping the watch as well.
Our Big Man has the right of it. Now that the pleasant talk and banter have quieted and the only noise I hear is the soft snores of the Dwarf and the steady breathing of the already-sleeping Other Big Man (the one with the shield), the very air around us seems silent. Watchful.
Some turns of phrase taken from “The Ring Goes South” from The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien.
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