No Road Too Long

<em>Author's Note: This story is directly connected, and tied-in with, the events of the Arwen Trilogy. To fully understand the situations described below, the Trilogy and &quot;Whatever Happened to Bill the Pony?&quot; are REQUIRED readings. This story parallels Chapter 22 of &quot;Storm Front&quot; and onward.</em><br /> <br /> * * * * * *<br /> <br /> &#8220;The inn. It&#8217;s the inn! Well, when I asked for a roaring fire, that wasn&#8217;t exactly what I had in mind.&#8221;<br /> <br /> Bill could feel the nervous tension all around him as listened to the Dwarf speak. Already, he could detect a trace odor of smoke in the heavy, damp air, and he knew that his mistress was only seconds away from asking him to continue on, to go closer to the danger. He threw his head, whinnying loudly in agitation. Faye was quick to respond with a sharp jerk of the reins, and Bill steadied himself at the momentary bite of pain. <br /> <br /> &#8220;We will be safe, my friend,&#8221; came Atego&#8217;s deep voice. &#8220;The fire is only of threat to whoever is trapped within it.&#8221; <br /> <br /> &#8220;I know,&#8221; Bill replied, shifting his weight. &#8220;But if someone is trapped, is there anything any of us can do for them?&#8221;<br /> <br /> Atego did not respond. A few moments later, Bill felt Faye press her heels into his flanks, and knew he was being told to keep going. Kicking his aching legs into motion, Bill cantered swiftly down the road, breathing loudly from sheer exhaustion. For the first time in a long while, the pony was beginning to feel the weight of his years. <br /> <br /> He was no youngster, and had not been in a long time. For all he had been through in his life, Bill was amazed he was still fairly healthy and fit. He had seen horses several years younger than he in far worse shape. But his age showed in the profuse grey around his muzzle, and in the aches and pains of his overworked muscles and bones. Despite the chilly wind and rain, his flanks were slick with sweat. Atego, too, was sweaty and frothing at the bit, but he was younger and stronger than Bill, and his breaths were deep and even with his powerful strides. <br /> <br /> As the landscape passed in a shadowy blur around them, Bill felt Faye rest a hand against his neck. <br /> <br /> &#8220;Only a little farther, my friend,&#8221; he heard her say. <br /> <br /> Bill was becoming sure of that, for the smell of smoke was growing stronger. Atego&#8217;s strides had lengthened to a full gallop, his momentum spurred by his tense riders. The young stallion soon took the lead along the slick, muddy road.<br /> <br /> The fire came into view very suddenly, and Bill squealed at the sight of the towering flames. Almost the whole of the inn was on fire. People ran about everywhere, desperately trying to carry water from the wells and streams to hamper the blaze. Bill and Atego came to a sharp halt, and their riders dismounted and headed off to lend assistance. Faye limped towards a group of people standing before what appeared to be the front doors, and Maida and Gimli hurried off to help haul water. <br /> <br /> For several minutes, all Bill could bring himself to do was lower his head and take deep gasping breaths. The shouts of the people and the roar of the fire were, for the moment, dulled. Both he and Atego were safely out of the way. Bill doubted anyone rushing by them even noticed their presence. The young stallion turned his great head and snorted.<br /> <br /> &#8220;Breathe easy, my friend,&#8221; he said gently. &#8220;We must be ready if our mistresses need us.&#8221;<br /> <br /> &#8220;How can we be of help?&#8221; Bill asked warily, taking one more deep breath before raising his head again. <br /> <br /> It was at that moment that Maida reappeared, taking hold of Atego&#8217;s reins.<br /> <br /> &#8220;You are needed, my friend,&#8221; she said breathlessly. <br /> <br /> Bill could only watch in bewilderment as Atego followed his mistress to where a very exhausted-looking old mare stood in harness at some sort of pulley system that was drawing water for the fire. <br /> <br /> &#8220;Take that old beast away!&#8221; he heard Maida shout. &#8220;Atego is stronger.&#8221;<br /> <br /> Atego was swiftly put in the old mare&#8217;s place. With his considerable strength against the pulley, a strong flow of water quickly appeared, and the fight against the raging flames continued. Now alone, Bill paced slightly, scanning the crowd for his mistress. He spotted her standing at the main doorway of the inn, both hands extended as though she was pushing something, but all Bill could see before her was fire. <br /> <br /> Loud, ripping crashes sounded as parts of the inn began to cave in, and Bill snorted loudly, pounding the ground with his front hooves in great agitation. Faye had not moved from her position, though the flames seemed to be mere inches from her. <br /> <br /> &#8220;Move!&#8221; Bill cried, though he knew full well he could not be understood. &#8220;The fire will consume you!&#8221;<br /> <br /> It was then that he noticed the odd way the fire before Faye was behaving. To Bill&#8217;s absolute astonishment, it was bending apart, slowly forming a clear path that seemed to lead straight into the heart of the blaze. As he watched, the path grew more and more wide, until at last a shadowy figure came running through the door and into Faye&#8217;s arms. It was a young boy, and as Faye relaxed her stance and embraced him, the path instantly disappeared. People were gathering around them now, shouting in amazement and disbelief. After a while, Faye freed herself from the crowd, slowly walking in Bill&#8217;s direction. He whinnied softly to her, moving forward to meet her halfway, but she was intercepted by Maida.<br /> <br /> &#8220;That was incredible, Faye,&#8221; Maida beamed. &#8220;Please, lean on me a moment. Gather your strength back again.&#8221;<br /> <br /> The feat seemed to have robbed Faye of most of her stamina, for she leaned very heavily on Maida and gasped deeply. <br /> <br /> &#8220;That is. . .the first time. . .I have tried. . .&#8221; she wheezed. &#8220;I have never. . .pushed aside. . .a fire so large. . .before.&#8221;<br /> <br /> &#8220;But you did it,&#8221; Maida replied. &#8220;And you saved that poor boy.&#8221;<br /> <br /> Bill neared them and gently rubbed his muzzle against Faye&#8217;s shoulder, feeling her pat his cheek in return. <br /> <br /> &#8220;Stay here,&#8221; she said to him, once she had caught her breath again. <br /> <br /> Faye and Maida moved off, hurrying to join Gimli in carrying water to the fire. Obediently, Bill remained where he was, watching as the Dwarf passed by with four full buckets in his arms. A droplet of cold rainwater suddenly tickled his ear, causing him to shake his head vigorously. In all the chaos, he had neglected to notice that it was still raining. <br /> <br /> Suddenly, shouts rang out from one side of the inn. Bill turned just in time to see Maida and Faye hurry towards where another group of people were standing. Gimli was already there, swinging his axe ferociously at a closed door. Bill watched in horror as Faye suddenly broke into a run, charging the door and striking it with the full force of her charge. Even from this distance, Bill could hear the wood snap. <br /> <br /> Faye faded back, seemingly trying to recover from the impact. However, within moments she was running at the door again. The weakened door did not withstand the second blow, and Bill reared and shrieked in fright as Faye disappeared inside the inn, his voice echoed by more crashes and roars as parts of the ceiling vanished into the blaze. <br /> <br /> For several moments, his gaze was locked on the crowd around the broken door, desperate for a sight of his mistress. He was so tensed and nervous that when he felt something touch the back of his neck, Bill nearly jumped out of his skin. He stumbled backwards, fearing an attack, but instead heard a very familiar voice.<br /> <br /> &#8220;Peace, my brother,&#8221; came the voice of the eagle. &#8220;What is going on?&#8221; <br /> <br /> &#8220;Where have you been?&#8221; Bill cried, for he had not seen the eagle in several days. &#8220;Faye just went inside! And the fire. . .&#8221; <br /> <br /> His words were cut off by a sudden, loud explosion that ripped through the inn, causing the crowd around the door to fall backwards and sent others running about in complete panic. Shrieks and screams echoed from the terrified horses in the barn, and even Atego was spooked. Five men were holding him back to keep him from bolting and destroying the pulley in the process. <br /> <br /> But no creature&#8217;s panic was greater than that of Bill, for he knew that Faye was still inside. Every part of the inn was engulfed now, the structure threatening complete collapse. And still Faye did not reappear. <br /> <br /> &#8220;You say Faye is still inside?&#8221; the eagle cried, flapping his wings wildly in an effort to remain balanced on Bill&#8217;s back. &#8220;But. . .&#8221;<br /> <br /> Suddenly, a scream tore through the noise that filled the air. It was a horrible sound, one Bill had never heard before. It was as though the being that made it was being eaten alive. . .or burnt alive. . .<br /> <br /> A strange silence seemed to fill Bill&#8217;s senses as the inn finally fell, with Faye still nowhere to be seen. All around him, people were running and shouting. The eagle had taken flight, uttering a deep and terrible cry of mourning as he disappeared into the night, a sound Bill himself only heard very dimly, and did not respond to. To him, the world seemed to have come to a halt. For he knew, even if he had not seen it.<br /> <br /> The inn was not the only thing that had been lost. Faye, his protector, his mistress, was gone. <br /> <br /> Gone. . .<br /> <br /> Bill acknowledged nothing else for several hours. He simply stood there, head slightly lowered and sides heaving as faceless beings moved around him. With his mistress gone, he had nobody to tell him what to do. <br /> <br /> A soft, warm hand abruptly touching his neck brought Bill&#8217;s attention around again. Completely dispirited, Bill gazed at the boy that stood with him. There were tears in his eyes. <br /> <br /> &#8220;Come on, Bill,&#8221; he said softly. &#8220;You are coming back to Minas Tirith with us.&#8221;<br /> <br /> * * * * * *<br /> <br /> For Bill, the winter passed in a haze of cold winds and nameless faces. One very small part of him acknowledged that with his return to the city, he had been receiving the absolute best of care. He had never tasted feed more hearty and sweet, his stall was spacious and always clean, his bedding soft and fragrant. But the old pony cared little for these pleasures. His time with his mistress had caused him to grow as fond of her as he was of his Samwise Gamgee. <br /> <br /> Long ago, the eagle had promised him that he would see his Sam again. For a short while, the pony had allowed the tiny hope that the promise would soon be fulfilled. But he had not seen the eagle since that terrible night, and he had given up. Bill would die here, miserable in the midst of splendor. <br /> <br /> The sound of grain being poured made Bill look around. A stablehand was standing at the stall door, delivering his breakfast. <br /> <br /> &#8220;Come on, Bill,&#8221; the stablehand said. &#8220;Eat up.&#8221;<br /> <br /> Bill slowly ambled over to the feed bucket, but did not start eating right away. The stablehand had moved off, giving feed to the horses in the neighboring stalls. After a few minutes, he had finished and disappeared around the corner. For the moment, there was nothing in sight save for other horses looking out of their stalls. Bill sighed heavily and moved back into the far corner of his stall. He was starting to wonder why he even bothered eating at all. Nothing tasted as good anymore.<br /> <br /> &#8220;Chin up, my brother.&#8221;<br /> <br /> Bill gave a start. To his absolute surprise, the eagle was perched on the stall door, his feathers glistening golden in the cold morning light. For a moment, he was frozen in his shock. <br /> <br /> &#8220;I know you have been walking in darkness since Faye&#8217;s death,&#8221; the eagle continued. &#8220;Winter has kept me from returning to you before now.&#8221;<br /> <br /> &#8220;Returning?&#8221; Bill asked dully. <br /> <br /> The eagle nodded slightly, then turned his head and preened his right wing, drawing out one of his wing feathers and letting it fall to the floor. Bill watched its progress, then took a few steps forward. <br /> <br /> &#8220;I have come to fulfill my promise, my brother,&#8221; the eagle said firmly. &#8220;It is time to go home.&#8221; The eagle glided across the stall and settled on Bill&#8217;s back. &#8220;It is time to return you to your Samwise Gamgee.&#8221;<br /> <br /> Bill blinked, feeling his heart start to beat a little faster. <br /> <br /> &#8220;But I am old, my friend,&#8221; he said, unable to prevent a hint of excitement from his voice. &#8220;I do not know if I have the strength for another journey.&#8221;<br /> <br /> The eagle nodded, gently brushing Bill&#8217;s neck with his wing. <br /> <br /> &#8220;We will travel only as fast as your stamina allows,&#8221; he said reassuringly. &#8220;The road ahead is long, but calm your fear, my brother. We will succeed in the end.&#8221;<br /> <br /> And with that, the eagle glided back to the stall door. As soon as his talons touched the wood&#8212;and to Bill&#8217;s further surprise&#8212;the door swung open easily. Slowly, Bill walked out, looking around to make sure there were no stablehands nearby. <br /> <br /> &#8220;If we hurry, we will not be seen,&#8221; the eagle said as the stall door slowly swung shut again. &#8220;This way.&#8221;<br /> <br /> Bill followed the eagle, ignoring the snorts of surprise coming from the other horses. Already he could feel some form of strength returning to his age-weary body. As it had been when he journeyed with the eagle before, Bill was feeling his youth return. <br /> <br /> There were only a few tense moments during the escape, and sooner than Bill would have ever believed, he felt grass underneath his hooves, and he saw the white city walls behind him. He paused for a moment, glancing back.<br /> <br /> &#8220;What is it, my brother?&#8221; the eagle asked.<br /> <br /> &#8220;Nothing,&#8221; Bill replied. &#8220;It is just. . .well, they are my friends, too. I will miss them.&#8221;<br /> <br /> &#8220;Do you wish to go back?&#8221;<br /> <br /> &#8220;No.&#8221; Bill shook his head. &#8220;I want to go home.&#8221; He looked hopefully at the eagle. &#8220;You will come back and check on them someday, right?&#8221;<br /> <br /> &#8220;They are in my masters&#8217; hands now,&#8221; the eagle replied. &#8220;And your friends can have no better guardians.&#8221;<br /> <br /> Bill nodded, then turned away from the city. With the eagle flying parallel, the old pony set off, making his way towards the bright, distant horizon.<br /> <br /> * * * * * *<br /> <br /> Bag End had changed very little since it had passed from the ownership of Frodo Baggins. It had the same old furniture in the same places, the same old round door, and the same old Hobbit tending its gardens. But Samwise Gamgee himself was not the same. He was older, wiser, and also a father. Even as he turned the soil around the roots of a budding rose bush, he kept one eye on the romping, playing children. <br /> <br /> After a while, Sam sat up and wiped a few droplets of sweat from his forehead. Hearing a chuckle, he turned to see his wife, Rose, sitting on a chair nearby and cradling their newborn son. <br /> <br /> &#8220;I do not think those flowers can take any more tending,&#8221; Rose said, smiling. &#8220;You already have the best gardens in the Shire.&#8221;<br /> <br /> &#8220;And it is good, steady work that keeps them that way,&#8221; Sam replied, also smiling. <br /> <br /> Rose seemed about to reply, but she was interrupted by cries of surprise from the children. Both of them turned to see the kids standing in a tight group, gazing in wonder at the bird that had just settled on a fencepost. It was a large brown eagle, with shining eyes and golden wingtips. It gazed at them serenely, seemingly not the least bit worried. Elanor, the oldest, was already taking a few tentative steps toward it. <br /> <br /> &#8220;Stand back, Elanor,&#8221; Sam said, coming forward and setting a firm hand on his daughter&#8217;s shoulder. &#8220;It could be dangerous.&#8221;<br /> <br /> The eagle ruffled its feathers. Sam studied it, unable to shake the impression that the eagle was smiling at him, as if amused by his comment.<br /> <br /> &#8220;Shoo,&#8221; he said finally, waving his hand toward it. &#8220;Go on, bird.&#8221;<br /> <br /> The eagle clicked its beak softly, then turned its head to look down the road. Despite himself, Sam followed its gaze. A travel-dusty old pony was trotting towards them, wearing neither saddle nor bridle. The children were quick to spot it.<br /> <br /> &#8220;Look, a pony!&#8221; Elanor cried in delight. &#8220;Oh, Sam-dad, can we keep it?&#8221;<br /> <br /> &#8220;It doesn&#8217;t belong to us, Elanor,&#8221; Sam chided gently. &#8220;It escaped from somewhere, and I&#8217;ll bet its owners are looking for it.&#8221; <br /> <br /> The eagle chirruped and stretched its wings, the tips brushing Sam&#8217;s shoulder. Sam, however, did not notice, for his attention had been fully distracted by the approach of the pony. Now that it was closer, Sam could see the large white blaze on its face, and traces of a flaxen color to its mane and tail. And though dulled by dust, the pony clearly had a ginger-chestnut coat. It was coming straight for Bag End, and increasing its pace with each step. <br /> <br /> &#8220;It cannot be,&#8221; Sam whispered, his mind racing. That pony was starting to look very familiar.<br /> <br /> &#8220;What is it?&#8221; Rose asked. She had joined him in looking at the pony. &#8220;Do you know who it belongs to?&#8221;<br /> <br /> &#8220;I. . .&#8221; Sam shook his head, his eyes now wide. &#8220;I can&#8217;t. . .&#8221; He placed his hands on the fence, not realizing or caring that the eagle was now barely a foot from him. <br /> <br /> &#8220;Sam. . .&#8221; Rose began, her tone more firm. <br /> <br /> &#8220;Bill?&#8221; Sam called to the pony, ignoring Rose for the moment. &#8220;Bill, is that you?&#8221;<br /> <br /> The pony whinnied loudly, tossing its head and breaking into a canter. Sam could see it clearly now, and could recognize every part of it. <br /> <br /> &#8220;Bill!!&#8221; he shouted in absolute delight. &#8220;Bill, it is you!!&#8221;<br /> <br /> Sam leapt the fence and ran towards the pony, throwing his arms around his old beloved friend. Bill was snorting and stomping his feet, clearly as overjoyed as he himself felt. <br /> <br /> &#8220;Bill,&#8221; he whispered, gently gripping the pony&#8217;s soft muzzle and kissing it. &#8220;Calm down now, boy. You&#8217;re home.&#8221;<br /> <br /> Sam was feeling joy beyond belief at seeing his old friend again, but Bill&#8217;s happiness was twice as much. He breathed in his Sam&#8217;s smell, and licked and nuzzled every bit of skin he could reach. Sam&#8217;s family was approaching now, and one of the children held a rope in his hand. He was breathing fast, showing that he had just returned from retrieving it. <br /> <br /> &#8220;Does this mean we can keep him, Sam-dad?&#8221; one of the daughters asked excitedly. <br /> <br /> &#8220;Keep him?&#8221; Sam gasped. &#8220;Of course we&#8217;re keeping him! He is mine! This, my dears, is Bill. This is the pony I have always spoken of.&#8221; He turned back, and Bill saw the tears in his eyes. &#8220;I thought you lost.&#8221;<br /> <br /> Bill snorted softly, lowering his head to allow the rope to be tied around it. The children were all around him now, stroking and petting him. <br /> <br /> &#8220;He is so dirty!&#8221; one of them said. <br /> <br /> &#8220;We can take care of that easily,&#8221; Sam replied. &#8220;Who wants to help me give him a bath?&#8221;<br /> <br /> Every single child excitedly volunteered. Bill sighed, turning his attention to the eagle. Only Sam&#8217;s wife stood with him now, and the baby in her arms was happily snatching at his tail feathers. <br /> <br /> &#8220;I think you are in most excellent hands now, my brother,&#8221; the eagle said, shaking his tail obligingly to further delight the baby. &#8220;I wish you many more happy years.&#8221;<br /> <br /> &#8220;Thank you,&#8221; Bill replied. &#8220;For everything.&#8221;<br /> <br /> &#8220;It was my honor to travel with you,&#8221; the eagle said. &#8220;At last, the too-long roads are behind us forever.&#8221;<br /> <br /> Bill glanced around at the children, and Sam. After a moment, he shook his head.<br /> <br /> &#8220;No,&#8221; he said. &#8220;There was no road too long. Not when they led me here.&#8221;<br /> <br /> The eagle seemed amused.<br /> <br /> &#8220;We have journeyed for over a year, my brother. Was that not a long time?&#8221;<br /> <br /> &#8220;Not now. No journey seems as long once it is complete. You taught me that.&#8221;<br /> <br /> For a long while, the eagle was silent. Finally, he crooned in agreement.<br /> <br /> &#8220;Peace be to you, my brother.&#8221;<br /> <br /> And with that, the eagle spread his wings and took flight, gliding above them for a few moments before turning to the west. After a few minutes, he had soared into the distance, and was gone.<br /> <br /> &#8220;A friend of yours, Bill?&#8221; Sam asked.<br /> <br /> Bill snorted, leaning into his Sam&#8217;s gentle pats. Sam smiled, taking the rope in hand and giving it a gentle tug.<br /> <br /> &#8220;Come on, boy,&#8221; he said. <br /> <br /> Bill whickered, and with the children jumping and laughing around him, followed his Sam home.<br /> <br /> And it was there that Bill the pony stayed, and lived happily, until the end of his years.<br /> <br /> The End.<br />
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