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The Tenth Walker  by Lindelea

Chapter 109. An eye-opener, and no mistake  

Despite the cold that assails me, threatening to freeze me solid in my tracks, I can still somehow feel a warmth on my neck, just behind my ears, where Tall Hat’s hand rests. He clasped his hand there atop my neck as if to steady himself a few moments – hours – lifetimes ago, when the Fair One directed him to stand beside me, to do his part in blocking the wind from the flame. I have felt his fingers curl and relax in my shaggy mane, a caress of sorts, or a soothing gesture, or perhaps merely warming his fingers as we have waited and watched the Fair One exerting every effort to coax flame from our wood. Or what would have been flame, had he been able to kindle fire at all, that is. As I watched first one of Our Big Men try, then the other, and then the Dwarf, I was standing rather dejectedly, feeling the snow mounting to my hocks and then keep on mounting as if determined to bury me completely, I must admit. And then Tall Hat came to stand by my side, stumbling a little, as if weary. (We are all weary, I deem.) But at feeling his touch upon my bowed head, and then the increasing weight of his hand as he leaned upon me, a living staff of sorts, I forced my cold-stiffened muscles to straighten, to bear him up lest he fall, as with my hobbits, when whichever one of them stumbled while walking beside me. I thought perhaps the wind had carried away his staff, but no, it is still in his other hand. Perhaps he needs to lean upon the both of us, his staff and myself, so great is the weariness that has overtaken him. He is, after all, somewhat older than my Old Man, to my reckoning.

Watching the Fair One fumble and fail, over and over again, I cannot help but begin to shiver once more as a blast of wind beats against the mountainside, and it is possible that I would start to droop again, were I not well on my way to freezing as solid as the stone trolls that linger in a dim corner of my memories. But in this very moment, that palm, resting gentle upon my neck, grows warm with sudden heat, and I feel as if through that touch, the old man is somehow pouring warmth – heart, or courage, perhaps – into me. 

And then I feel the tall Old Man bend closer to me, and his breath tickles my ear, warm in contrast to the bone-chilling wind, and he speaks words that would be plain to any pony or horse but inaudible to any that go on two feet (save, perhaps, a Fair One), I deem. Stand firm, Greatheart, I hear him say. I would not have you startle and take yourself – or any other – over the edge of the cliff and into the abyss.

I snort and shake my head in complete agreement, and of a wonder, the Old Man (not my Old Man, I mean, but Tall Hat, who somehow has felt as warm and comforting as my Old Man, these last interminable moments) chuckles. He rubs at my neck a little more vigorously, tousling my mane, as he says to me, I have always known you as a creature of very good sense, Greatheart. Now, stand firm, no matter what you should see, for you are safe. You have my promise of that.

And he takes his hand away as I nod, and my neck is immediately cold. Yet the warmth he has poured into me lingers deep inside, and I feel no fear, only curiosity as to what his words might portend. I am sure I will find out rather sooner than later. Tall Hat knows how quickly a pony may forget, and he must have had a good reason to tell me to stand firm just now.

I lift each foot in turn and plant it more firmly in readiness for whatever “no matter” might be.

I have not long to wait, for Tall Hat pushes himself upright before removing his hand from my neck, and then he steps forward to where the Fair One is still doggedly striking sparks, bent over the wood, and “doggedly” sticks in my mind because I remember seeing a dog in the Chetwood, bent over even as the Fair One is at the moment, only the dog was growling and yanking at a tree root, a game of Tug, my Old Man called it with a laugh as we stopped to look, and he called to the dog, Go get ‘im!

And the dog lifted his head and wagged at us, and then pounced on the sturdy root once more and gave a mighty yank and growl, and for all I know, he is there still, playing his game of Tug. Or perhaps he won at last and pulled the root, tree and all, from the ground and carried it proudly home in his mouth, head held high and eyes shining. I have seen other dogs proudly carrying sticks, trotting along in the company of hobbits on walking parties exploring the paths winding through the Chetwood, seeking a shady spot for a picnic on a warm summer’s day. My dam told me that the dogs are ever hopeful that their Masters will stop to rest, and while resting their feet, will take the stick and throw it just as hard as may be, so that the dog may chase and catch the stick and bring it back for more.

I never did quite see the point in it, but then, I am only a pony.

In any event, the Fair One reminds me of that determined dog, working away at that tree root, so much so that when Tall Hat moves to his side and picks up a faggot, I half expect the Old Man to cock back his arm and throw the stick, and the Fair One will give chase.

And indeed, the Fair One straightens, eyeing the stick as Tall Hat holds it aloft. I find myself holding my breath. Stranger things have happened.

But Tall Hat does not throw the stick, nor does the Fair One give chase. Instead, something even more astonishing happens. Tall Hat mutters a few words and thrusts his staff into the midst of the wood. At once, a great spout of flame springs out of the wood, oddly coloured, not looking like flame at all, if you take my meaning, but something rather more marvellous and wonder-inducing. Indeed, I am too wonder-struck even to think of startling, and before I can ponder all of these happenings, real flames arise from the wood.

Oddest of all, perhaps, are the words he speaks. For Tall Hat says that he has written Gandalf is here!

And yet, there is no pen in his hand, nor paper. Perhaps because any paper would be quickly whirled away in this wind, he has used his staff and the wood to do his writing. I wonder who he means to read his writing? And is this anything like writing a book, as Youngest so often, these past few days of climbing ever upward, has seemed to think that Master should do, "when we get back to civilisation once more, for we wouldn't want you to grow bored, dear cousin." Followed almost invariably by a cocking of the head, a twinkling of the eye, and adding in the thoughtfullest of tones, "nor as lazy as Fatty Bolger." And when these words are spoken, Master almost always tousles Youngest's unruly mop of hair, and not-Merry grins, if only briefly, but a true smile it is, and lovely to see.

In any event, there is fire now, and it is burning merrily, and the snow is hissing all round and melting into pools of slush under our feet.

And to my great relief, I see life return to my hobbits as they crowd closer and hold their hands out to the fire, even Youngest, who has had me quite worried, I must admit, and their weary faces look almost merry in the firelight as we stoop in a circle (well, I stand, but the others stoop) around the crackling fire.


Author notes:

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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