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Chapter 98. We wind through the hills, climbing higher
Up, and up, and up – we go!
‘That makes absolutely no sense whatsoever,’ the Dwarf grumbles at my tail. He and the Fair One are walking together as our rear-guard this day. Er, night, that is.
The latter laughs – he is invariably cheerful – and says, ‘I do not think it is meant to!’
‘Up, and up, and up we go!’ Youngest sings again, rather breathlessly, it sounds to me, as if we are walking rather too quickly for his comfort, even though our pace has slowed over the past two nights somewhat as our road has wound up into the hills. The shapes of the mountains, even higher than the hills we are traversing, tower black against the night sky, creeping nearer and nearer.
Breathless or no, he is keeping his voice low, not singing out as I remember hearing Men back in the Bree of my memories, my old misery among them, his rough voice shouting above the others walking with him from their night’s revels, to my dismay as I stood in the darkness of my broken-down shed, contemplating a hay net of mouldy hay and bone-dry water bucket. The more cheerful his voice as he turned in at our broken gate, stumbling homewards in the darkness, the worse for me, next morning as he harnessed me to the sledge and brought his stick down upon my back to start me on our day’s work.
I much prefer my hobbits’ quiet songs, wafting on the night air, sung so low, I wonder that the Dwarf and Fair One can hear them, actually, walking behind us as they are.
Tuneful, hobbit songs are, even when breathlessly sung, and heartening, and I bob my head to keep the rhythm, my own way of joining in the song.
But the song breaks off, as Youngest stops and bends, hands on his knees, breath whistling rapidly as he gasps for air.
I halt in my tracks and bend my head towards him, and my Sam smells of sudden consternation as he stops with me and ducks under my neck to take Youngest’s arm, as if to keep him from crumpling to the ground. Youngest tries to shake him off, but he maintains a firm grip. ‘Mr Pippin!’ he says, and now the smell of growing alarm comes from him. And then he raises his voice – not a shout, he’s much too aware of the need to keep quiet even though we are travelling by dark of night, but loud enough to reach those just ahead of us. ‘Mr Frodo!’
And then the Fair One runs lightly past us, towards those who are walking ahead, whilst the Dwarf stops behind me. From the corner of my eye, I see him turn, axe at the ready, to face the stretch of road we have just travelled, ready for trouble.
And in no time at all, Master and more-worried-than-Merry and my Sam have made a circle around Youngest, rather like a children’s game I remember seeing in passing of a warm summer’s day, on our way to the woods, or coming back again. Make-a-ring around the fish! When he splashes, make a wish!
But this is no laughing matter, no children’s game, though it strikes me that my hobbits resemble children against the taller shadows that are the larger folk, who have jogged back along the road and now gather round. I shake my head to dispel the fancy.
‘Steady, Bill,’ my Sam says, still holding tight to Youngest, now bolstered by Master and not-at-all-Merry.
Youngest straightens and shakes them off – or tries to – three-to-one as it is, he has little hope of winning free. ‘I am well!’ he protests, though the effect is rather spoilt by his gasping breaths.
‘We have been climbing steadily,’ Our Big Man says, moving closer. ‘The air is thinner here.’
‘Is that why it’s harder to catch my breath?’ Master says. His words, too, are punctuated by gasps. ‘I wondered about that. I don’t remember Bilbo talking about the air being thinner as he travelled through the Misty Mountains...’
The smell of perturbation comes from Our Big Man, as he goes to one knee to speak to my hobbits face to face. ‘Are you all out of breath?’ he says. ‘This will never do!’
‘I’m sorry,’ not-at-all-Merry says low.
‘Sorry for being out of breath!’ the Dwarf grumbles behind us. ‘No need to apologise for that!’
But I rather think the apology has to do more with Our Big Man appointing not-Merry as our Master of Conversation, as I overheard before we left the meadow. And in truth, he has kept the other hobbits engaged in a steady stream of talk to this point, since leaving the valley of the stone-delving Fair Ones behind us. Although, come to think on’t, the conversation petered out some time ago, a little after our last pause for my hobbits to rest and take some food and a little water, when our way seemed to grow steeper than it had before.
...until Youngest began his song, as if to cheer himself onwards in the darkness and silence surrounding us.
But Our Big Man rests a hand upon woebegone-Merry’s shoulder as that hobbit stands before him, breathing rather heavily himself, for as Our Big Man observed, all my hobbits are out of breath, though not-at-all-Merry keeps a firm grip on Youngest’s arm.
‘Not at all,’ Our Big Man says quietly. ‘Mine is the fault. I ought to have realised...’
‘I am well!’ Youngest is insisting now, and truly, his breath sounds as if it is coming more easily. And Master releases him and stands a little straighter, and the smell of worry coming from him eases somewhat. And as if he takes it as a signal, my Sam releases his hold as well. But not-at-all-Merry maintains his grip, until Youngest yelps and protests at his holding me too tight! I’m not about to fly away!
‘Would that we could,’ Master says quietly, as if trying to set his younger cousins more at ease. ‘I should think an Eagle or two would come in quite handy right about now, don’t you?’ He looks from one side of the road to the other, scrutinising the trees looming in the darkness to either side. ‘Perhaps we can find a fir tree or three that are suitable for climbing.’
‘Nonsense worthy of a Took,’ not-at-all-Merry mutters bitterly. As I cannot climb a tree, fir tree or any other kind, I find his words reassuring.
‘Hoi!’ Youngest protests, though he has learnt to keep his voice low, even when hard-pressed.
‘Your breathing is better,’ Our Big Man says to him. He looks up, over his shoulder, at Tall Hat. ‘We must slow our pace, even though I know you have counselled against delay.’
‘We must reach the pass before it is blocked by the snows,’ Tall Hat affirms, ‘as I told you when you first proposed this course.’
‘We will not reach the pass any faster, should we force a pace that makes the hobbits drop from exhaustion and lack of breath,’ Our Big Man says. ‘Or perhaps reach it not at all.’
I think my hobbits would protest, but for the fact that they are all obviously still breathing somewhat more rapidly than usual.
‘I am well,’ Youngest says again.
Our Big Man takes his hand from not-at-all-Merry’s shoulder to clap Youngest on the shoulder. ‘Nevertheless, we will make haste a little more slowly,’ he says.
‘Now who’s spouting nonsense worthy of a Took, I’d like to know?’ Youngest says to all and nobody. Our Big Man says nothing in reply, but stands to his feet once more, his gaze taking in all four of my hobbits.
The Dwarf snorts behind me, obviously listening to the quiet talk while keeping watch on the road behind us. A smell of merriment comes from the Fair One. Meanwhile, the Other Big Man murmurs, ‘Sounds like there’s nothing wrong with you.’
Youngest plants his hands on his hips and looks up and around the circle of tall figures. ‘Well if you’d only asked me, I could have told you that!’
Some thoughts here are derived from “The Ring Goes South” from The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien.
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