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Chapter 102. We climb a sharp slope, but that is not the worst of it
I think we have been climbing for some hours when I hear Youngest ask the Master, ‘What is the time?’
It is as if he thinks Master knows the answer to all his questions. At least, it seems clear that he is confident in receiving an answer, and that it will always be proffered in the most patient of tones, as if the older cousin has naught else to do but answer younger cousins’ endless streams of questions.
And this time is no exception. ‘About midnight, I should think,’ the Master answers after a short pause, as if for reflection.
There is something of a pause, rather longer than shorter, from the cousins’ questions-and-answers whilst we struggle up a sharp slope, a steeper section of this steep, narrow trail, littered with rocks. If I am candid, I must admit to no little difficulty on this stretch, and so for a short time, I have two hobbits before me, Youngest and the Master, one on either side of my head, walking backwards up the slope, if you can believe it, and pulling on the shoulder straps of my harness. The other two hobbits, my Samwise and the not-Merry hobbit, walk behind me, and they are pulling at the straps that go over my croup and hindquarters to help me on my way.
I concentrate on pricking my ears forward to the best of my ability, that all my hobbits, but especially the two behind me, might know I have no intentions of kicking either of the ones at my rear, even though they are pressing against my hindquarters quite uncomfortably.
At last, we make it to the top of this particular difficulty, and the questions may resume.
‘Do you think we’ve reached the foot of the mountain at last?’ Youngest pants.
Of a wonder, the Master laughs, such a pleasant sound. There is some relief in it, or even a great deal of relief, which I think is due to our having made it to the top of that particular stretch of our road without incident or injury, for it was very steep and difficult, and my hobbits are already tiring if not already tired, I deem. ‘Ah, Pip,’ he says at last. ‘I should say we’ve climbed to the knees of these particular mountains, at the very least!’
Youngest laughs, breathlessly, it is to be admitted, but it is laughter all the same, and he slaps Master’s back. ‘That’s a good one, Frodo! Knees of the mountain! I’ll have to remember that!’
‘Why,’ Youngest laughs his breathless laughter again. ‘So that I may remind you, when you are writing your book all about us, and this!’
‘I never said I was writing a book!’ the Master protests.
‘But you did!’ Youngest insists, wide-eyed. ‘I heard you with my very own ears!’
‘Perish the thought that you might have heard such a thing with someone else’s ears, eh Bill?’ Master says lightly, and I nod my head in agreement. I would prefer to keep my ears, thank you very much.
‘But I did!’ Youngest says.
‘You did what?’ slightly-more-Merry-than-before comes up to say. He has wisely rubbed the palm of his hand along my side while moving forward, letting me know where he is as he makes his way along one side of me, and he pats my neck when he reaches my head. When I switched my ears rearward at the top of the slope, to check on the hobbits behind me, I heard him tell my Sam to do the same, a little while ago. It seems he knows something about not startling a pony. (In any event, my Sam remains behind me. Perhaps he thinks the path too narrow for four hobbits to stand together.)
And I should never forgive myself, should I be startled into kicking either one, or both, for the path is so very narrow here, all four of my hobbits have had to walk pressing close against my sides as they helped me up this most recent difficulty. On my near side rises a sheer wall of cliffs, unclimbable. Above their rocky roughness, I can sense the grim flanks of this unwelcoming mountain (Ice Tooth), towering into the sky, until they pass beyond the limits of my perception.
But worse, on my off side, the land falls away sharply into darkness. The Master has chosen to walk on that side, keeping Youngest safely (if you can call it safe) against the solid wall of rock. At one point, I heard and felt (more than saw) his foot slip; his presence (I cannot explain how I perceive it, but nose and ears and eyes and skin together feel the solidness of a body walking near me) suddenly dropped, lower, below the level where my feet were finding purchase, and for a moment, there was a sharp jerk and then a steady, dragging pull on the harness over my shoulder on that side.
Yet he never made a sound, perhaps so as not to startle his younger cousin, the grimly-Merry hobbit, who was labouring at my hindquarters, just by my tail, at the outer edge. The latter gave an exclamation of surprise as I switched my tail in startlement, and perhaps that distracted him from the Master’s peril. I suspect the Master worried that his younger cousin might lose his hold on my harness and fall... as he himself nearly did.
I leaned into the rock wall on my near side (and, unfortunately, into the hobbits walking on that side, hearing Youngest’s protests – Oof! Bill! You’re squashing me!) to offset Master’s weight, pulling me towards that dreadful gulf.
And felt the pull lessen as Master found purchase with one of his feet on a protruding rock, and then regained the narrow track.
I do believe that he and I breathed the same enormous sigh of relief at the same time.
‘What did you do, Pip?’ slightly-Merrier-than-before repeats, a little louder.
‘I heard him say he’s writing a book!’ Youngest says stoutly.
‘What – now?’ grimly-Merry says, as if dumbfounded.
And the Master and Youngest both laugh at this, as if he has made the most nonsensical and comical jest they have ever heard.
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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