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The Tenth Walker  by Lindelea

Chapter 100. A decision is made, and I am first happy, then sad and confused

In the late afternoon, Tall Hat and Our Big Man move aside from the others, who are finishing their breakfasts. Curious, I follow. Stopping a little short of where they come to stand, I drop my head to graze. As I am only a pony, they pay me no mind. 

For some time, there is only the sound of grass tearing, and the pleasant chomping of my teeth. A wind is keening in the trees high above us, and the air is chill. The spying, searching birds have left off their journeys already for the day, perhaps daunted by the cold and windy weather. I am thankful that the wind is less here, on the ground, but I am also thankful for the warmth of my shaggy coat as the afternoon light wanes and we face another night’s march. I wonder where our feet will take us this night?

I raise my head from the frosted grass to consider my companions. The hobbits are chatting quietly. They always sound more cheerful when they have food in front of them. The Other Big Man has strapped up his pack, ready, and he is talking quietly with the Dwarf, asking questions about a different mountain than the one before us. It has a lonely name.

The Fair One spent the entire day high aloft in one of the trees, not only keeping watch, I think. It seems as if the sight of the sheer, treeless slopes of the mountain ahead of us has troubled him, and he must get his fill of trees now, while we are in their midst. I have heard him whispering to the trees as the others slept.

But Tall Hat and Our Big Man are quiet and motionless. Perhaps they are surveying our paths, to find the best way to go. Perhaps they will discover a third way that both of them can agree upon, one that offers neither snow nor secretive darkness. Though I am only a pony, if they were to ask me, that is what I would advise.

They stand silently, and it is almost as if they are communing silently, mind to mind. But that is an odd thought for a pony, an imagination I cannot sustain, and so I shake my head and go back to grazing.

For Tall Hat said that our path must be decided before we go farther. I will graze just so long as I can, until my Sam calls me to put on my harness again, and they load me with almost more burdens than I can bear. Two ponies’ worth, I have heard one or another of them say at various times along our travels. But I am the only pony they have. So it must be.

The two tall figures stand before me, looking at the tall mountain. Caradhras, they call it, though I might give it a different name. Ice Tooth, or some such. Though the tooth that shone silver at the beginning of the day is now hidden in grey cloud, and the sides of the mountain are dark-cloaked. Why, it might be akin to Tall Hat, when he is in a stern mood.

When they begin to speak aloud, their voices are low, so low that I cannot make out their murmurs, but Tall Hat turns abruptly and stalks past me to where the others are eating. Even though the birds left us early today, he says he fears the Redhorn (Ice Tooth is a better name, I deem) Gate will be watched. If not by the birds, then what, I wonder, and I shudder at something only dimly remembered.

But the smell of relief comes from the Master, as if he finds the words Redhorn Gate reassuring, somehow.

I know what a gate is. It keeps a pony safe in a little pasture, that’s what it does. In that wondrous valley where Merrylegs grazes, a gate provided admission to sweet grass, shady trees, and sunny expanses, all securely fenced and with room for many horses. I wonder what might lie beyond this Gate, then? Perhaps it means the end of all our troubles?

Tall Hat doubts the weather that is coming up behind us (and I do not doubt him, with that sharp, crisp smell intensifying in the air and the wind, when it does blow down at our level, carrying a bite to it). He thinks there might be snow.

I am confused by a whiff of joy, quickly suppressed, from Youngest at the mention of snow. He must have pleasant memories of the stuff – as I do. His older cousins do not smell quite as cheerful, and the Dwarf is almost grim, though the Fair One seems to feel little concern about snow, not even the mention of bitter cold.

But I am getting ahead of myself. It is the Other Big Man who mentions bitter cold. Tall Hat has said that we must go as quickly as we might (has he forgotten my hobbits?) and that it will take us more than two marches to reach the Gate.

Only three marches to the pasture! (If I have counted correctly.) I lift my head and prick my ears forward in happy anticipation, despite Tall Hat’s gloomy predictions and go with all speed we can and dark will come early.

Though Youngest groans softly at must leave as soon as you can get ready, I am all eagerness.

...until my Sam – my Sam! – speaks up, in answer to the Other Big Man’s urging each of my companions to carry with him a faggot of wood as large as he can bear. I can feel the dismay rolling from my hobbits, even as not-at-all Merry slaps Youngest on the back and issues a challenge. ‘I wager I can carry a larger piece than you can, Pip!’

And not to be outdone, Youngest answers bravely, with scarcely a quiver in his voice, ‘You’re on, Merry! The loser buys the drinks on our next visit to the Golden Perch!’

And Master tops both younger cousins with a cheery, ‘Then you’ll both be buying me drinks, I deem, Cousins, and thank you very much! I’m quite looking forward to it!’

My Sam! ...tells our companions that I can take a bit more, and then he turns to me, and he smells as if he’s sorry, but he says to me anyhow, as if no matter what I answer, he knows what my answer will be. ‘Couldn’t you, lad?’

It is hardly fair. He must know that I can refuse him nothing.

***   

Author notes:

Some thoughts and turns of phrase here are derived from “The Ring Goes South” from The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Next update: Friday

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