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The Tenth Walker  by Lindelea

Chapter 79. Second day of the New Year, same as the first, a little more sleet, weather a little bit worse

It is near dawning, or at least dawn-smell is in the air, though there are few birds to sing at this time of the year, in this wild place where we wend our cautious way. Sometimes in that dark hour before the dawning, before the sky begins to lighten, the wind will drop to stillness, as if every creature in the world, even the air itself, holds its breath in anticipation.

Not this day. Darkness, and sleeting rain, and occasional stronger gusts of wind assail us.

Even without the wind dropping, somehow Tall Hat knows that the dawn is near, and after a few low words from him, Our Big Man has moved ahead, to scout out a sheltered place for us to rest.

It is not long before we move off the faint track we follow (little more than a game trail). Our Big Man is skilled at finding quiet, out-of-the-way resting places. There is a sound of fast-running water nearby, that will conceal any low-voiced conversation (though those of our party on guard will have to move a little away from the direction of the water, in order to hear any encroaching foes). In addition, as the stream runs deep and swift (or so I heard Our Big Man say to Tall Hat, on his return, before we all turned aside from the path), none will be able to assail us from that side.

‘Would you care to stumble into yonder stream, that we might have the need of a fire once more?’ Youngest says to my Sam, as he helps to remove my burdens and pile them neatly upon an oilcloth, lifting another oilcloth already spread over the top, to tuck the bundles under cover and keep them dry as possible in the sleeting rain.

‘I’ve had my turn,’ my Sam says in reply. ‘But thank you all the same for your kind consideration, Mr. Pippin.’

‘Why don’t you have a turn?’ not-quite-Merry says to Youngest, coming back for another bundle.

‘I had my turn already, do you not remember?’ Youngest says, and laughs softly. He has learnt to keep his noise down, for the most part, a most unnatural state of affairs for a young hobbit, to be sure.

‘Had your turn?’ not-quite-Merry says, question in his tone.

‘You’ve forgotten already! Hah! Perhaps you’re growing so senile as our ancient and venerable cousin, here, as Freddy’s sister is so fond of calling Frodo…’

That little pip-squeak!’ Merry says in answer, and in the dull, sullen light of this not-dawning, I see remembered dismay in his face. He affects to look around himself, as if expecting the pip-squeak to emerge from one of his pockets.

Master, having come up to us in time to hear the exchange, laughs and slaps the younger hobbit’s shoulder. ‘Missing something?’

Not missing, ra-ther!’ Youngest chirps in his brightest tones. ‘Dod told me how a certain lass… er… attached herself to our cousin, on his visits to Bridgefields…’

Master throws back his head in peals of near-silent laughter, then wiping his face with his hand (more to wipe away melting sleet, than laughter’s tears), says, ‘Ah, yes, Estella! What a little midge she was! Followed us everywhere…!’

‘You don’t think she’d follow all the way here, into the Wild!’ young mischief says, at his most mischievous.

‘Bite your tongue!’ not-Merry snaps.

‘Besides, I had the impression she was following Freddy, as a pesky little sister does, and he stayed behind, remember.’

‘Then she’s at Crickhollow, and safe,’ young mischief replies, cocking a bright eye at Master. ‘That’s such a nice little house… they ought to have splendid parties there. Why, they may be making merry, even now, seeing as it’s the day after First Day, and one must celebrate the successful conclusion of the first day of the New Year, after all…’

Tall Hat speaks suddenly, appearing as if out of nowhere, and everyone in our little group jumps. ‘Is aught amiss?’ Melting sleet drips from his eyebrows, that protrude from under the brim of his hat, and his beard is tucked under his cloak, in hopes, I should think, of keeping it dry. I twitch my bedraggled tail in sympathy.

‘Naught!’ Master answers, moving forward to take another bundle from my back.

‘I wondered,’ Tall Hat says. ‘The procession seems to have got held up, somehow…’ The hobbits have spoken before about feeling themselves akin to a procession of ants, bringing crumbs from a picnic cloth, when unburdening me of my bundles. ‘The pony won’t unbundle himself…’

‘We’re more than half done,’ Master replies, lifting the bundle to his shoulder and turning towards the oilcloth-covered supply pile. ‘We were just discussing the proprieties of taking turns.’

His cousins’ shoulders shake at this, and their faces are bright with merriment as they accept their own bundles from my Sam.

Somehow Tall Hat’s own expression lightens somewhat, though he shakes his head as he turns away, to give his attention to some other matter in setting up our camp.

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