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Chapter 101. We begin our climb, and pause for a rest
And so we set out again, even before the Sun seeks her bed, just so soon as my hobbits have finished their meal (though I think I saw Youngest cram the last of his food into a pocket, to eat along the way, so as not to keep the entire Company waiting for him). We do not actually see the Sun pulling up her bedcovers; the sullen sky hides Her, and so we know she is gone by the growing darkness that surrounds us as we walk along. ‘Deadly dark,’ Youngest whispers, but the Master hushes him, saying it is only the clouds that block the light of Moon and stars.
At first I think that Our Big Man’s choice was wise, for the way is no more difficult than it was on our previous march, and my hobbits are able to follow Tall Hat’s urging of going with all the speed we can.
But it is not long before our road begins to twist and climb. My breaths come faster, and I lower my head, as I remember from days with my old misery, returning to Bree, trying to pull a sledge that was too heavy-loaded, up a hill that was too steep. Though my breath steams from my nostrils in the icy chill and bitter wind that swirls around us, my flanks are wet with the sweat of my effort.
Our path is made longer by the many fallen stones that block our road – when we can see the road at all!
Youngest jokes under his breath about the road playing “I hide and you seek me”, for it almost disappears in places. The older cousins do not seem amused, but when he stumbles, each takes one of his arms to help him struggle up the rough, steep incline.
I help my Sam as much as I can, but my burden is too heavy – added bundled sticks and all. It is all I can do to plant a foot and push myself higher, over and over again without ceasing.
Two – no, three days of this misery? I wonder if it is even possible. Perhaps Tall Hat’s was the better way, after all.
And still we climb.
We stop for a rest, ‘half-way to middle night’, the Master says, letting his pack slip from his shoulders and sinking down to sit upon a large boulder. ‘Just think, Pip, if we were back at Whittacres Farm, we’d all be abed already.’
My Sam loosens my lead rope, and I drop my head to graze, but the ground is bare and rocky here, and there is nothing for my searching lips to find.
‘And at Brandy Hall, they’d be sitting down to late supper,’ not-Merry says.
‘Speaking of late supper!’ Youngest says brightly. He digs in his pocket and holds out his hand. ‘Here you are!’
‘What in the world...?’ not-Merry says.
‘Dried apple tarts! The finest to be had! Why, you might be finishing late supper even now, and here come the platters piled high with sweetmeats and afters!’
‘Dried apple tarts!’ the Master cries in soft amazement.
Youngest coughs, rather diffidently, I should think. ‘Well, all but,’ he says. ‘What I mean to say is, it’s the most important part, the dried apples, that is.’
A pocketful of dried apples, saved from his breakfast-supper, I deem. But he tells the older cousins to hold out their hands, and he solemnly, almost ceremoniously places a dried-apple slice in each hand, and then he turns to my Sam and tells him to hold out his hand.
My Sam stammers and demurs, but Youngest is insistent. ‘No, Sam, we cannot have a feast and leave you out of it! Why, that would be monstrous cruel!’
And so my Sam, smelling bemused, holds out his hand to receive a slice of dried apple.
And there is one slice left, it seems, in Youngest’s hand. ‘Best dried apple tarts you ever tasted, I’ll wager,’ he says softly, and he holds it in his hand and seems to stare down at it, as if he is willing it to somehow, by magic, become an entire tart in truth.
‘Eat up now!’ he orders, looking up suddenly to gaze sternly around the circle of hobbits, ‘before they go cold!’ And as if he has enspelled them, the others lift their hands to their mouths. They chew slowly, drawing out the process, as if they might transform those small apple slices into tarts if they only held them on the tongue so long as they could manage without swallowing. And as suddenly as his earlier frown, he smiles at them. ‘Such a feast of apple tarts!’ he says with a decided nod. ‘Platters heaped half-way to the ceiling!’
But instead of popping the morsel of food into his mouth and joining the other hobbits in chewing, Youngest looks down again at the piece of dried apple that he still holds in his hand.
I have had a dried apple tart, more than one, actually, in that wondrous Valley of the singing waters and sweet grass. My hobbits brought such treats to me, and to Merrylegs, on more than one occasion, instead of or sometimes in addition to sweet and juicy fresh apples and toothsome carrots.
I find myself wishing that Youngest might truly have a touch of that magic. If Tall Hat can turn a hobbit (or pony) into a toad, would it not be easier to turn a slice of apple into an entire tart?
And if he could do such a thing, perhaps he might even share a bite of it with a poor pony?
I am somehow sure that he would, if he but could.
I sigh at the thought, and my warm breath, washing over Youngest, seems to waken him from his contemplation of that single small slice of dried apple.
And Youngest holds his hand out to me, impulsively, without thinking, or so it seems to me.
And so I do not stretch out my head to take it.
But he moves a step closer, hand still outstretched. ‘Come now, Bill!’ he says, in his most cheerful tones. ‘Surely you will not refuse the finest dried-apple tart to be had in all the land!’
‘But Pip,’ the Master says softly.
Youngest turns his head. ‘I know exactly what I am doing,’ he says.
Bemused-Merry pulls at Master’s sleeve. ‘Leave him be,’ he mutters.
And Youngest turns back to me. ‘Come now, Bill,’ he says. ‘It’s all right.’
And cautiously, I reach, and Youngest flattens his palm and lifts it to my muzzle, and I lip it from his hand.
‘There now,’ he says, sounding satisfied. ‘Now wouldn’t you say, Bill-old-fellow, that you’ve never tasted a dried-apple tart the like of that one?’
I move a step towards him and nod my head, and then I rest my face against his breast for a long moment as I savour the sweet, fleeting taste.
And he speaks the complete truth, for I never have.
But Tall Hat is calling to us, and we must resume the difficult climb.
Some turns of phrase come from “The Ring Goes South” from The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien.
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