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The Tenth Walker  by Lindelea

We elect to leave the dell

A strange, refreshing scent tickles my nose, and I dream of frolicking in a field of wildflowers under my mother’s watchful eye, while the old man stands by the fence and laughs in his wheezy way. I feel my mind calmed and cleared, and I open my eyes to find myself lying on my side, my legs stretched out on the ground, my head...

And even as I move, cautiously, the throbbing in my head fades, somewhat, just as the sky above me is fading into dawnlight. I hear a fire crackling nearby, and the trickling of water, not a steady trickle but with give and take to the sound. My old man made sounds like that, of a hot summer’s day, when he’d scoop a handful or three of water from the stone trough to wet his head. It is a sound of bathing, a sound out of place in this wilderland.

And then I am wide awake, and jerking upright, onto my chest, breathing hard, flaring my nostrils, and looking around. But there is no fear in the air around me. I smell only that enticing odour, and the bruised grass under me, and something else, besides the wood-smoke coming from the fire, a tinge of sickness in the air.

I lift my nose, the better to sample the still air. My companions are all gathered in a huddle near the fire, gathered surrounding... Master, yes, it is Master there, on the ground, and his smell is changed from what it was—he is ill, or injured, weak and frightened, though he does not exude terror, not as I dimly remember smelling from one or more of the hobbits before I fell, trying to escape the dell.

‘Athelas, you said,’ the Merry hobbit says, and the Man answers.

‘Yes, that is what it’s called.’

‘I’ve never seen it before,’ Merry says, ‘not even in the Old Forest, and many strange plants grow there, I’ve found.’

‘It’s not known in the North, he said,’ young marsh-hobbit says. There is nothing of mischief to him now—he smells chiefly of worry.

And my Sam is sick with worry; I smell it on him plain as the nose on my face. Something’s happened to Master, those fearsome creatures have done something, I surmise.

I am a little shaky, but I manage to gain my feet.

‘What are we to do?’ Merry is saying. ‘Frodo’s hand is cold, and feels as if there is no life in it. Can you even move it, cousin?’

‘No, nor my arm,’ Master says faintly. ‘What a fool I was!’

‘You’re in good company,’ young marsh-hobbit says with a hand on Master’s unharmed shoulder. ‘But we cannot stay here, I think. There’s no shelter to speak of, and those Black Riders could come back at any time.’

‘But to be caught in the open,’ Merry argues.

‘What are we to do? We’ve got to find him some help,’ my Sam says stubbornly. ‘Someone could take the pony, and...’

‘Help, where?’ young hobbit says, and he’s making the most sense of the lot of them, at least to my thinking. Though fear has departed, I wish to leave this place, to turn my tail and never return. ‘We need to get away. We need to get Frodo away, before they come back.’ He turns to the Ranger. ‘They will be coming back, won’t they, Strider? Somehow I feel certain.’

‘Perhaps they chanced upon us in passing, on their way to—to—somewhere else,’ Merry says, and it’s clear even to me that he’s thinking wishfully instead of clearly.

‘I think now that the enemy has been watching this place for some days,’ the Ranger says, contradicting. ‘If Gandalf ever came here, then he must have been forced to ride away, and he will not return. In any case we are in great peril here after dark, since the attack of last night, and we can hardly meet greater danger wherever we go.’

‘Yes,’ Master says, unexpectedly strong in spirit though his voice quivers with weakness. ‘I wouldn’t spend another night in this place if Gil-galad himself were here. The sooner we reach Rivendell, the better, to my way of thinking!’

‘Well said, Frodo,’ the Ranger says. He takes a cloth from Master’s shoulder—I see the flash of white—and the trickling sound comes again as he dips the cloth into one of the hobbits’ little pans, full of water and some sort of crushed leaves. He is bathing Master’s shoulder with the fragrant water.

I find that I must eat, and so I begin to graze, snatching greedy mouthfuls of grass, moving slowly away from the group, though I keep one eye on them and watch out for trouble with the other.

As soon as the daylight is full, my companions have a hasty meal of their own and pack up the baggage.

I move to the pile, standing ready, but I am in for a surprise.

Instead of loading everything onto my back, they are dividing the load among themselves! It takes some re-arranging on their part, some re-packing, but soon the greater part of the baggage is divided into four parts.

And then I see the Ranger approaching, and he is carrying Master in his arms. I wonder, does he mean to carry him all the way to where ever it is that we are going?

And then I find that no, it is I. I am the one to bear the burden.

My Sam, heavier-laden than ever, stands at my nose with a gentle, stroking hand as I feel the weight slowly eased onto my waiting back, the unaccustomed sensation of legs dangling to either side. ‘Steady, now, lad,’ he says. ‘Don’t you go tossing my Mr. Frodo on the grass, you hear?’

I shake my head with a snort. I wouldn’t think of it!

‘Are we ready, then?’ young marsh-hobbit says, trudging over. There’s no bounce in him at all, now, and I fear his burden is too heavy for his small frame. ‘The sooner we put this place behind us, the better, I say!’

‘You have the right of it, Pip!’ Master says. I swivel my ears behind, the better to take stock. He is striving to speak cheerfully, but I hear the tremor of weakness in his voice.

I have planted my feet apart, the better to give him a steady platform to sit. I take in a deep breath and feel his legs move with my ribs. As I let my breath out in a sigh, he strokes me with his left hand. ‘Steady, old fellow,’ he says.

I turn my head on my neck just so far back as I can, and nuzzle gently at his toes.

I’ll not let him fall, and I try to tell him so, though he only chuckles weakly and says, ‘Those aren’t carrots, old chap!’

‘Come along, Bill,’ my Sam says, pulling at my rope, and I move, one foot after another, as smoothly as I know how, rather like a cat I saw once, stalking a small creature in the field.

I’ll not shake him, nor rattle his teeth.

I’ll not let him fall.


A/N: Some text taken from “A Knife in the Dark” from Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, and woven into the narrative.

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