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The Tenth Walker  by Lindelea

Chapter 1. We take our leave of Bree.

It seems as if the entire population of Bree and Staddle are crowded in the road to see us off, and I even see the wrinkled face of the kind old woman who gave me a carrot, when I was hauling a sledge full of rocks from the tumbled hillside the other side of Archet, to sell to the Bree-folk for their garden walls. My old plague, for I'll not call him master, had stopped at the public house there, to quaff a mug. 'Twas a hot day, and the sweat rolled down his face.

But not a sip of water for the poor sweat-soaked pony pulling the sledge!

The old woman came up to me, a basket on her arm, and I threw up my head, rolling my eyes wildly for fear as she reached towards me to pat my nose. Hands reaching towards me meant only pain and insult, in those days.

'Steady, lad,' she said, and her voice was so very sad it startled me, and dim memory rose of happier days by the side of my dam, my days of training under the gentle hands and kind voice of an old man--though when I was still young he came no more to the field, and shortly after I was sold at the pony market.

I lowered my head and blew softly, and she smiled and fumbled under the cover of her basket, bringing out a carrot, so fresh the dirt still clung and the greens sprang lush from the top. She held out her hand, and I swept the treat, nodding as I crunched... but my pleasure was to be short-lived.

'Hi! Get away from there!' came the voice of my misery, harsh and angry. 'He bites, he does, and it'll be no fault but your own if he grinds your fingers betwixt his teeth!'

'Poor lad, poor poor lad, I'm so very sorry...' she whispered as she stumbled away. I craned after her, but in the next moment the bit was cutting into my tongue as a heavy hand jerked my reins, and then Bill's stick came down hard on my rump.

'Get up, there!' I lay my ears back and plant my feet, but suddenly I am in the present once more as the words are repeated in Sam's gentle tones.

'Get up now, lad. Come along!' And instead of a jerk on my mouth, his hand behind my ears urges me forward.

And my old woman from Archet is there, smiling in the midst of the wondering faces. Not all the faces are as friendly as hers, nor all the words that are shouted, but my old woman's face stands out like a beacon shining in the crowd. She hadn't the money to buy me back from Bill, when she saw what sort of man he was, but she is glad for me now, even if I am to leave the town. Surely I'll be better off, no matter where I'm going!

Mr. Butterbur walks alongside, with Nob and Bob flanking him, and my new hobbits have many words of thanks to say. The Master has the last word, as is fitting: 'I hope we shall meet again some day, when things are merry once more.'

I arch my thin neck and step proudly to show that as far as I am concerned, things are merry indeed.

The Master has a few more words to say, to the effect that he should like to stay in Butterbur's house in peace for a while, but I am just as happy for the journey it seems he must take, for it takes me away from the blight on my life. I walk on, savouring the scent of apples coming from Sam; he has a pocketful of them, and the one the Master gave me earlier came from this store.

Many of the onlookers are walking along beside and behind us, as if to see us off. Heads hang out of windows of the inn and of the houses we pass, and other heads peep out of doors or stare at us over walls and fences, walls made of the good Bree-land stone that I've spent half my life hauling. I have no regrets to leave it all behind.

As we approach the far gate and my erstwhile "home" I lower my head again. No stable-pull urges me faster, nor will it cause me to turn my head in at the rusty, crooked gate when we come to it. No, indeed; I shudder and turn my head away as we walk by the dark, ill-kept house behind the thick hedge: last house in the village, with its broken-down and stinking shed. The sledge leans up against the shed, awaiting me.

A gentle hand strokes my neck, a gentle voice whispers encouragement. I realise my ears are pinned tight against my head, and with an effort I prick them forward. Sam holds an apple under my nose and I nibble at it, momentarily distracted, but I drop the treat when I hear the voice of my former misery.

'Morning, Longshanks!' he says. 'Off early? Found some friends at last?'

Sam picks up the apple from the dust, brushes it off against his coat, and offers it to me again, but I am all a-tremble.

The littlest one, Pippin, comes up on my other side, soothing. 'Steady, old fellow,' he says. 'Don't go tossing all our baggage in the road, now! It'll take us that much longer to take our leave...'

I realise that I have humped my back, but I am only a pony. I cannot help this unreasoning fear that seizes me.

My old misery has turned his attention to the hobbits now. 'Morning, my little friends! I suppose you know who you've taken up with? That's Stick-at-nought Strider...' It is the pot calling the kettle black, I think to myself. '...though I've heard other names not so pretty. Watch out tonight!'

Pippin takes hold of my halter and pulls gently, urging me forward.

'Easy,' Sam warns. 'His mouth is naught but sores.'

'And you, Sammie, don't go ill-treating my poor old pony! Pah!' He spits, an unlovely sight.

Sam turns as quick as a dog that's heard a squirrel scolding. 'And you, Ferny,' he says, 'put your ugly face out of sight, or it will get hurt.' And with a sudden flick, quick as lightning, the apple leaves his hand and hits Bill square on the nose.

My old misery ducks too late, and I hear him cursing from behind the hedge, yet my trembling has left me, and I step forward confidently under Sam's guiding hand and Pippin's soft pull. Somehow I know I have nothing to fear any more. I lift my tail as we pass by the rusty gate and leave a steaming pile in the middle of the entry to the overgrown yard, a last farewell.

'Waste of a good apple,' Sam says, but I shake my head. It was my apple, after all, and I gladly donate it in service to the cause in which it was employed.

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