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Chapter 93. We bid Hollin goodbye
Dusk is beginning to descend around us after a seemingly interminable day. It seems to me that having one’s nerves continually on edge, in a place so beautiful and serene-looking as this valley, is somehow worse than travelling through desolate country with the prospect of danger on every side.
Although I must admit the grazing has been better here.
Still, it is almost a relief to have my bags and baggage loaded upon my back again and strapped securely in place. My Sam hefts his too-heavy pack on his shoulders and takes my lead rope in his hand. I prick my ears forward to hear him say, ‘Well Bill, you’ve had a good rest, I hope. Lots of good grass...!’
‘Inside and out!’ Youngest pipes up, his cheerful voice belying the way he braces himself against the weight he is carrying.
‘You’re making absolutely no sense, as usual,’ not-so-Merry scolds, though his tone is also determinedly cheerful.
‘I’m making perfect sense!’ Youngest protests, and then he laughs under his breath (for he has been remarkably cautious in keeping his voice down ever since the Big Folk noted how every whisper sounds like a shout in this peculiar place). ‘Why, Sam and I had to brush quantities of grass from his back before we packed him up again!’
‘Our Bill’s been rolling on the turf to get the kinks out of his muscles along with filling himself with lovely spring grass,’ Master agrees. ‘I’m so glad he’s had a good respite.’ His long sleep this afternoon has erased some of the weariness from his face, I am glad to see. He also seems less weighed down than the other hobbits, and I entertain a suspicion that the others divided some of the contents of his pack among the three of them while he was sleeping.
I lower my face to accept the gentle stroking of his fingers, and then I rub my face against him, though I am careful not to push him off balance. I could take more of your burden from you. I can carry much more.
But he does not seem to understand, and so I sigh, and he laughs as my warm breath washes around him. ‘Good Bill,’ he says. So perhaps he did understand after all.
Still rubbing at my jaw, Master stands and turns his head slowly, as if he is taking a survey of this valley. ‘I should like to see this valley in peaceful times,’ he says. ‘If not for the flocks of birds, it seems a pleasant enough place... As Gandalf said, it feels to me as if there is a wholesome air about Hollin, even now.’
‘Much evil must befall a country before it wholly forgets the Elves, if once they dwelt there,’ not-so-Merry adds. ‘So he said.’ I see him smile as he rests a hand on Master’s shoulder. ‘Let us return in happier days, cousin, that we may enjoy Hollin’s wholesomeness in true peace.’
‘Yes, let us,’ Master agrees, though it seems to me that his eyes are sad.
Not-so-Merry turns to check the buckles on my straps, to make sure that my load will not shift and throw me off balance or rub my skin raw.
I do not think he hears Master’s next words, though I do. Master’s tone is wistful as he adds under his breath, Shall I ever look down into this valley again, I wonder?
But all he says as not-so-Merry turns back to him is, ‘Well, it has been a lovely rest, and it looks like a good, clear night for walking.’
‘Clear means cold,’ Youngest mutters, and he shivers.
‘Clear means good, solid footing,’ not-so-Merry counters. ‘No slipping and sliding in the mud.’
‘No, I deem we’ll have all the slipping-and-sliding we might wish for when we reach the Redhorn and its snows,’ Youngest whispers in my ear. I shake my head.
Our Big Man turns from his consultation with Tall Hat and gestures. ‘This way,’ he says, and he begins to walk.
‘I can see why they call it “Redhorn”,’ not-so-Merry says as my hobbits move to follow, trudging two-by-two – not-so-Merry takes Master’s arm as if they are on a highday stroll as they walk ahead of us, and Youngest moves to my other side, so that my head is between him and my Sam. All the better for me to hear any conversation between them, I should say, though I keep my own thoughts to myself. A snort or whicker would sound too loudly in the quiet air.
Though he is keeping his voice low, I can still hear him clearly as determinedly-Merry raises his free hand to point ahead, saying to Master, ‘Look how the Sun is painting the snows, even as her light is gone from the lowlands!’
‘Very pretty,’ my Sam mutters under his breath. ‘But I would be happy with a little less snow, myself, even if it does make a fine red glow.’
‘ ‘Tis more lovely from afar, I deem,’ Youngest agrees in his wisest tones. As I am nodding my head in agreement, he stumbles a little in the walking and catches himself with a wild grab at my neck. His fingers tangle in my mane, pulling at me uncomfortably, but there is no malice in it, so I do not even lay back my ears. I simply move as smoothly as I might, bracing my head and neck to provide him a firm support over this uneven stretch. It would not do for him to turn an ankle when we are just starting out again.
It is rather like not-too-Merry’s subtle support, walking arm-in-arm with Master, I realise, and a kindred feeling springs up in me. As if he can perceive the strength of my warm thoughts, I see Merry’s shoulders straighten; he says something to Master in a voice too low for me to catch, but the breeze brings the ghost of a chuckle on Master’s part in reply.
Our Big Man leads, followed by Tall Hat. The Dwarf stalks along behind them, just in front of Master and not-so-Merry, as we take our leave of the valley. I swivel an ear rearward, but I cannot hear the Fair One or the Other Big Man (the one with a shield) even though I know they are at the end of the line of walkers.
Youngest takes up the thread of the earlier conversation. ‘More lovely from afar,’ he repeats. ‘And so we shall be able to admire it for some time yet.’
‘What’s that, Mr. Pippin?’ my Sam murmurs.
Youngest chuckles, but there’s no humour in it. ‘I listened to them talking,’ he says. ‘It may not look so afar-off, but that’s because it’s big – the Mountain, I mean. It’ll take us days of walking before we have to worry about slipping on ice or trudging through snow.’
‘Days!’ my Sam says in startlement, a little louder than he meant to, I think, because he repeats the word much lower. ‘Days, Mr. Pippin!’
Youngest nods his head, and his fingers tighten in my mane. He smells of grim determination. ‘Days,’ he affirms. ‘Three days, just to reach the foot of the Mountain, or so Strider said he thought it would take us “at the best pace the hobbits can manage”.’
My Sam shakes his head in astonishment. ‘Why, I’d swear I could almost reach out and touch it right now,’ he says, and reaches a hand in front of himself as if to test his words.
I raise my head (carefully, so as not to dislodge Youngest’s grip on my neck) to sniff the rapidly cooling air. There is no smell of snow here, I deem, which means to my mind that Youngest has the right of things. We are still some distance from the snowy mountain, it seems.
Some text taken from “A Conspiracy Unmasked” and “The Ring Goes South” from The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien.
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