10. A Parting of Friends
Part 5. Shadowfax. Chapter 10. A Parting of Friends
The Old Man and I rode in silence out of the hollow dell into the rising of the Sun, coming first to a low and rocky ridge that merged like the shoulder of a Two-Foot into the broad neck of the hillock named Weathertop. Once this small hindrance was crossed, the way before us was smooth. I cantered down the slope of fading turf into the morning light, and the Old Grey One's cloak flapped behind us as we left the scene of dreadful carnage and death behind us.
I thought on all that I had witnessed and endured through the Night. During each onslaught of those Demon Steeds, I was aware of the flashing lights in the sky above, and the flames that surged from the top of the hill. So, I thought; for that he came. It was as the Barn Cat had said: he was more, much more than I had known. A Two-Footed Firedrake indeed—but his Fire had a purpose, and that was to drive back the Darkness.
We reached the far side of the line of hills and found that a pair of Man-Roads converged: the Great East-West Road of the Sea-Kings upon which I had raced from the land of the Small Folk, and another, rougher track, veering off to our left. I was surprised when the Old Two-Foot bade me follow the path to the North, but in my weariness I made little protestation.
For weary I was indeed. The night had been long, and damnably difficult. I felt every overly taxed muscle, each bruise, every abrasion upon my once-admirable hide. But after weeks of harsh travel, and a night of battle 'gainst nine Wraith-Steeds, I knew I must look nothing like the King that I was. Even to my own nostrils, I stank. As I plodded along, I sniffed—and realized that I was not the only source of olfactory offence.
"You reek of Two-Foot blood and sour sweat, Old Man," I grumbled. "How many times did those Devil Creatures slice you with their cold blades?"
My companion grunted. "I do not know," he mumbled. "I lost count…" I was aware of him peering this way and that, as he attempted to inspect me from his perch upon my back. He in his turn snorted with equal peevishness. "You appear somewhat the worse for wear yourself, my friend… Your handsome coat is covered in the most awful looking bruises…"
"Well," I snapped, "there were nine of them, after all…"
"Yes," he muttered. "There most certainly were…"
We went on without further conversation. I admit without shame that I was as tired as I had ever been since my journey with the Old Two-Foot began. The brilliance of the Day's light seemed itself a burden, and I squinted at the Sun's shining Face. On my back, my companion yanked the brim of his hat forward to shade his eyes. We made quite a bedraggled pair, he and I. Were we to meet a foe now, I thought, we just might be overcome. But we met no one, and heard no hoof beats behind us. For now, it appeared, the Ensorcelled Black Beasts and their Riders had gone into hiding.
As if the Old Man read my thoughts, he spoke. "They fear the light of Day," said he. "And I suspect they are as weary as we…"
His shoulders sagged and his head was bowed as I plodded onward on the rustic track. The bright morning passed, and the Sun rode above us and drifted on her way Westward. Still we heard nothing and met no others.
The pace of my steps gradually slowed as fatigue overtook me. Finally I halted altogether.
"We should rest, Old Man," I said as I stamped firmly. "Here is as good a place as any…" I had stopped near a copse of fir trees that formed a dark wall. Maybe, I thought, some shelter might be found beneath their thick limbs.
My companion looked up, and I felt him shift in his perch before he slid from my back with a barely suppressed groan.
"Wait here, Shadowfax," he called out as he made his way between the boles of the trees. The shadows there soon hid him from my view. As minutes ticked slowly by and he did not return, I began to feel concern for him…or rather, a sense of irritation that he might well have abandoned me in this remote wilderness! Yes, it suddenly seemed clear. The Old Two-Foot—a proven Fire-Tosser, at that—had left me here, alone and friendless in this trackless wasteland hundreds of miles from my realm, with Nine fierce Steeds and Nine Ghastly Devil-Riders waiting to ambush me… and then a flood of relief flowed through me when I saw a shimmer of grey against dark and he reappeared!
"Just so, my friend," he said with a cheerful but weary voice. "You have an excellent eye for these things, I must say!" He reached for the loose harness that I had allowed about my head and led me slowly under and between the gloomy trees. I disliked such places, and avoided them if I could, but as I had no other option, on I went. My hooves thudded dully upon the needle-strewn earth. But within a short time, the thick darkness opened up and a clearing appeared between the firs. Two huge tree trunks lay askew upon the ground, their bark falling off in shreds and their many sharply pointed branches broken and bare. These ancient Olvar had fallen, taking down all their neighbors beside them, and cleared a space in the Forest. Glad I was for the soft, fragrant pine duff and the tall grasses that had sprung up.
"There's even a spring," my companion said, as he unbuckled and slipped the harness from me and pointed. And indeed, a tiny, shimmering stream flowed from a rock, and a little pool sparkled and bubbled at one edge of the glade, where a wall of rugged stone rose up to block the view even more than the wall of trees.
There we rested, he and I, for all the hours that remained of that Day. I lowered myself to the earth and lay upon my side, so weary was I. Whether he did the same, I know not—for I could not hold back my desire for sleep. All I know is that when I awoke, he was already standing, gazing between the boles of two enormous trees: Eastward, into deepening Twilight.
I rolled to my feet and stood as he turned and faced me. And then I saw it: the change in his features. For he looked grim and sad, yet at the same time he smiled, albeit a little wanly.
"Stay here and rest, my great-hearted friend," he murmured. "Take another night to mend your weariness, and in the morning, when the Nazgûl are once more in hiding, make your way 'round Weathertop, follow the Great Road back the direction we came until you reach the Greenway… I pointed it out to you as we approached the village of Bree…"
I was stunned. What was he saying? What was he suggesting? "But wait," I said, my voice suddenly hoarse. "Are you suggesting that I take my leave from you, Old One?"
The glinting fire in his eyes flashed more fiercely, even as his smile widened. It was a strange thing, to see what appeared to be a war of emotions playing out upon the Two-Foot's features. "That is precisely what I am suggesting. Where I go from here, Shadowfax, you cannot follow…"
I was furious now. 'Cannot'? Was he questioning my abilities? Did he think to command me? "Now listen to me, Old Man!" I snorted. "I am King! I shall do what I please, where I please, and for as long as it pleases me to do it!" I said with a stamp. "You would have me remain here, resting, while you continue in your search?"
My fury turned to hurt. Why was he doing this to me? Had I not been his loyal friend, had I not allowed him to ride upon me, as no other had? It was wrong, or at the least foolish! "That's ridiculous, Old Man! Why, you'd be lost without me in no time, Gandalf!" My limbs twitched with agitation as I pranced back and forth upon the grassy sward. "You would surely be too slow… far too clumsy… and those Riders would be on you in no time!" My throat unexpectedly tightened, and my logical arguments became a plea. "You can't leave me behind… not now…"
He approached slowly, his hand rising to caress my neck. My agitation slowed, and my nervous prancing ceased at his touch. I could still feel my great heart thundering within my breast, but I knew… I knew. Our friendship had come to an end. We must part, he and I.
"I must leave you, Shadowfax," he said. "I must depart now, as Night falls… For I go not to search… I cannot—nay, will not—endanger Frodo and the others by beginning to search for them now. I would merely focus their eyes upon him… I must lure as many of the Black Riders as will follow me, for as long as I can. If by going on foot I appear a more vulnerable, tempting target to them, so much the better… And I must take them in a direction that will lead them away from Frodo and Aragorn's path… I must go North, into the rough wilds of the Ettenmoors… And there will be no track nor trail fit for any horse, even you, my friend…"
I snorted and bumped my nose against his cheek. "Is this place you go even worse than where you have dragged me so far, Old Man?"
He chuckled ruefully. "Alas, much worse. The rugged highlands to the North and East of here are tangled and thick with thorn and briar, covered with sullen and unfriendly trees, cut with deep ravines and plagued by dismal weather. And as if that did not sound unpleasant enough, the Ettenmoors are infested with Trolls… and come nigh into the raiding territory of the orc-bands of Mount Gundabad…"
I shook myself. "I know not what this thing, 'trull', might be, but Orcs… I know Orcs… Must you really go that way?"
"I can think of no other way, that will not increase Frodo's peril," he said with a sigh. "With any luck, four or five of the Nazgûl will follow me…"
"That doesn't sound lucky at all…"
"Not in ordinary circumstances… But these are hardly ordinary times." He stroked the side of my neck once more, and then he stepped back and bowed so deeply that his beard tickled the ground.
"Farewell, my friend, Lord of the Mearas, King of Horses… Shadowfax!" he said.
I tossed my head and neighed loudly at him in return. "Shall we meet again, Gandalf?" I asked.
"Who can say, my friend? Though I cannot see it, my heart whispers that our paths will cross again… Where, and when, I know not, but I look forward eagerly to it." And at that he grinned. "If ever you hear my whistle again, Shadowfax, I hope you'll come looking for me!"
"That I shall, Old Man, that I shall!"
I watched him hurry now through the clearing and under the fir trees, even as the darkness deepened into Night. In no more time than the passing of four of my heartbeats, he had vanished from my sight. And then I took his sound advice, and drank my fill at the little spring, curled my long legs beneath me, and slept in that sheltered glade for the rest of that night.
When I woke to the silver light of Moon, I knew that he was far away, and a chill and dank odor in the Night air told me that his so-called 'luck' had held—for it was the stench of decay that I smelled. The Devil Riders—at least some of them—had followed him.
But my heart could not remain troubled by these strange events. For when Dawn arrived, I made my way between the great tall trees and turned South—toward my home, and my Kingdom.
Not quite the end... to be continued...
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