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Chapter 11. Journey in the Dark
Estella was never really sure how Ferdi found his way. The forest was a dark blur around her, damp and chill. Though she couldn’t see the mist, she could feel it, clammy on her skin, and as they proceeded her cloak grew heavy with the damp. She was working too hard to feel the chill, however. In truth, she was overheated from the effort of following at the pace Ferdi set, holding grimly to his cloak, stumbling over the rough ground until her toes protested and all her muscles clenched tight.
Sometimes she could hear the sound of moving water, a stream chuckling to one side. Sometimes it grew louder, then softer again as they made their way. At one point, it grew very loud indeed, and then they were making their way down, and into the icy water, which thankfully was not very deep at this point, and up again on the other side, and then angling away from the gurgling sound.
Just when she thought she could not take another step, Ferdi stopped altogether. She gave a soft Oomph at running into him, but stifled it in his cloak – very handy, to run into him, as her mouth ended up pressed against his back, his heavy cloak of wool muffling the sound quite conveniently. His hand reached around behind him, to grasp at her in urgent, though silent, message.
She stood still, trembling from fatigue and effort, and as they did not move, but stood as still as the trees that surrounded them, soon her trembling also reflected the growing chill that she felt. She wanted to breathe a question, she wanted to pull at Ferdi’s cloak in inquiry, but after her time with Hally and Rosemary, she was wiser than the girl who’d set out from Budge Hall with her brother, a lifetime ago.
At last Ferdi squeezed her arm and released her, pulled forward slowly (as if to make sure she had a firm hold on his cloak), and began to move swiftly, tirelessly once more.
They never moved in a straight line, she thought, but dodged this way and that, brushing past trees to one side or the other. She learned by hard experience to tread lightly, to lift her feet a little higher than she might on level ground, walking across the lawns of Budge Hall, feeling her way as she went. She could tell a little about the lie of the land, she discovered, simply by the feel of Ferdi’s cloak in her hand – whether he was toiling uphill or down, or stepping over some obstacle, or moving to one side or the other.
When he stopped again, though it was once more without warning, she’d grown so used to anticipating his next move that this time she did not run into his back, but stopped just short, the two of them breathing softly, almost as one. Again she listened, and this time she heard the crashing of a heavy body, passing nearby. A deer, she wondered?
A rough curse, uttered in a low voice, told her that Men were near, and she froze, scarcely breathing. And suddenly, Ferdi turned and pushed her down, throwing himself over her. She willed herself to lie very still on the damp ground, but peering from under her hood, she could see a small circle of light on the ground, not far away, that moved and then stopped. A voice growled, ‘What’s that? Is someone there?’
‘What are you about, Ferny?’
‘I heard something, in the brush there…’
‘Rabbit, most likely, or fox. I heard nought. Not large enough to be a deer, I allow, or I’d’ve heard it as well.’
‘What if it’s one of them blasted Tooks?’
A muted shout of laughter. ‘What? Tooks? Here? Don’t be daft! Now, if we’re at the woodcutters’ by the dawning, Annie’ll have breakfast ready and waiting for us…’
From the name “Annie”, Estella gathered that they weren’t talking about Hally and Rosemary, but some other woodcutter. Her stomach chose that moment to growl, at the mention of breakfast, and she shut her eyes tight in dread that those Men might have heard.
Thankfully they didn’t, however, for the crashing sounds came again, heavy tromping of boots, and when she opened her eyes, fearing discovery, she saw the circle of light on the ground moving away, until they were left once more in the darkness.
Ferdi squeezed her shoulder, and she felt him shift his weight, pushing himself upright, rolling off her, and then his hand slid down her arm from her shoulder until he found her hand, and helped her to her feet. Without a word, he moved her hand to his cloak, squeezing her fingers into place, and gave a little shake for emphasis.
She nodded, though she knew he could not see the gesture, and gave his cloak a small tug, and they were off again.
The night was an endless ordeal of stops and starts, quick movement and quiet, cold waiting for whatever had alarmed her guide into stillness, before he decided it was safe to move again. Estella was stumbling along in a fog of weariness, and not just the night mist, when Ferdi stopped once more, though there was a different quality to this change of pace.
He turned and put one arm around her, guiding her forward, and then he pressed down on her shoulder in a silent command; understanding came slowly, but at last she crouched, then went to her hands and knees, as he guided her into some confined place, she wasn’t sure where – not the cold damp of a cave or burrow under the earth, she thought.
Something dry rustled under her hands and knees, and crawling forward, she bumped her head on something hard, yet crumbling, hard enough that she saw stars for a moment in the darkness. And then Ferdi was tugging at her hands, and she divined somehow that she was to lie down in this confined space, scarcely large enough to curl up in. She heard more rustlings behind her – Ferdi was doing something, she wasn’t sure just what – and then he was there, pressed up against her, curling around her, his breath warm on the back of her neck. He pulled his cloak to cover the both of them and circled her with his arms.
Sleep now. It was the barest whisper, less than a breath, but she nodded.
She couldn’t help thinking of her mother’s and grandmother’s horror, to see her here, in this wild place (wherever it might be, she shuddered to think – the den of some wild creature?), snuggled together with a hobbit only a year or two older than herself. Scandalous!
Stifling the sudden but ridiculous impulse to giggle, she took a few deep breaths, still feeling Ferdi’s warm exhalations against the back of her neck, his lips close to her ear, as intimate an embrace as two married hobbits might share.
…which brought Lotho Sackville-Baggins to mind. She shuddered involuntarily, and felt Ferdi’s arms tighten for a few moments, before he pulled his cloak a little further over her and then was still once more, his breathing grown more even, as if he slept.
Somehow, sleep found Estella as well.
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