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Chapter 90. Some thoughts on the hazards of quiet meadows
It is so quiet in this valley, though it is not peaceful quiet, as in my dim memories of spring or summer days in our little field, my dam and I, grazing or capering or sleeping. When I was very young, my dam would stand over me as I slept, to guard me from any harm.
Harm? you might say in surprise. Harm, in the midst of the cheerful, sleepy Breeland, where nothing of note ever happens?
O, my dam would tell me stories of the white wolves, passed down to her from her great-great – I am frankly not sure how many times great – granddam, of a winter with such a fierce grip that the water froze in the buckets, even inside a safe, securely fastened, cosy stable warmed by the soft breathing of ponies and horses, and there was a rumour that came even to the ears of ponies that the great River betwixt the Breeland and the Shire lands (from whence my hobbits hail) froze completely, and the white wolves were able to cross over and harry the Shirefolk and their animals.
I am so glad that my great-great-however many greats-granddam and sire were safely secured within a cosy stable and not eaten by wolves!
I have never seen a wolf – and have no desire to make their acquaintance.
There are no wolves here, I am glad to report.
No, but in the time of my foalhood, it was not wolves that offered harm, there in our little field with the well-kept fences and the sweet grass. There was even an icy spring that bubbled in one rocky corner and ran off in a tiny laughing rill, always fresh and cold and never freezing over except in the most bitter weather, when our old man would shut us up in a snug shelter at night-time and bring us our water in buckets.
Even if the white wolves had ventured to come in one of those winter nights, they would not have been able to get at us in our small but sturdy shelter.
It was not wolves that my dam guarded against, and even a tiny foal would be more than a mouthful for a fox. No, but she was wary of something much smaller than a pony. You might laugh to hear that she was wary of something so small as… a bird.
Crows and ravens can be unconscionably cruel to small, helpless creatures. I have heard dreadful rumours about them pecking at the eyes of newly born lambs when the mam is too weak from her efforts in birthing to defend them.
I shake my mane to dispel such unquiet thoughts. I paw at the ground with a front hoof – but the sound is overloud, and I quickly plant my feet and listen. I can plainly hear the breathing of the sleepers in their hollow.
It is so quiet in this valley. When I swish my tail, it sounds in my ears like the rushing of a mighty wind.
I lift my head as high as it may go, I turn to look in all directions, my ears swivel to catch the slightest sound. Perhaps it is my imagination, but I think I can hear my Sam’s joints creaking as he shifts his position on the ridge above me, where he stands beside Our Big Man, keeping watch.
I move up the slope, placing my feet as quietly as a pony might manage, choosing to walk on soft grass and avoiding stones. I want to be closer to them, close enough that my Sam might lay a quieting hand on my neck, that spot behind my ears, his fingers soothing my mane. I do not like this loud silence.
I see my Sam lift his hand to point to the sky. The silence is so intense that his whisper comes clearly to me. ‘What’s that, Strider? It don’t look like a cloud.’
Our Big Man is staring intently upward. I stop and turn my head. What is it that they see?
I startle at the sudden motion as Our Big Man takes hold of my Sam and pulls him into the shade of a holly bush, hissing, ‘Lie flat and still!’
I cannot throw myself down as they do, but I do the next best thing; I freeze in place, much as I saw a field mouse do, upon a time in our field, my dam’s and mine, when a cat was stalking it. It froze in plain sight, and I feared the worst for the mouse. But the cat passed right by as if the little creature was not even there.
Had the field mouse twitched even a whisker, my dam told me later, the cat would likely have seen the movement and pounced. But somehow it had the presence of mind to stand, absolutely still, until the cat had passed, and then it scurried to hide itself in the long grass nearby.
A shadow passes over me, dark and foreboding, but I do not even allow myself a quiver. Still as a field mouse before a stalking cat… I do not jump, not even at the sound of a harsh croak directly overhead.
It seems an eternity, but I stand like one of the stony trolls, now dim in my memory. I think even my old misery could break a stick against my back, and I would not jump.
So we remain, stock-still, myself standing, Our Big Man and my Sam lying flat in the shadow of a holly bush, for ever so long.
If a field mouse freezes before the menace of a stalking cat, what is it that has Our Big Man in silent hiding?
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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