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Chapter 16. "It's all downhill..."
Twig wanted to jump at every sound, near or far, but she steadied herself by main force of will, drawing deep, deliberate breaths and listening for Ferdi’s quiet breathing beside her, though she felt more than she heard from the silent figure, clasped as she was to his side, sharing the warmth of his body and his cloak, feeling his inhalations and exhalations and somehow prompted to breathe in harmony with him, though she couldn’t have said why.
Fleetingly she thought once more of her oh-so-proper Grandmama Bolger, who would either squawk like an outraged hen or draw herself up, cold and haughty (Estella had seen both reactions). In either event, she’d be insisting on drawing up the wedding contract, no doubt. Estella sighed at the thought. As a matter of fact, she was pledged to marry – though she didn’t yet know who the lucky hobbit might be. It was an arrangement made in her early childhood, or even before her birth, and she would be told the details when the time was right. It didn't occur to her to be indignant over the situation, though in her later years, she would be. In the great families, such arrangements were not unknown, especially when fortunes or family influence were involved. Such an intimate embrace as she now found herself, well, it would be unthinkable under any other circumstances.
At her sigh, Ferdi moved slightly, turning his head to bring his lips close to her ear. She shivered a little at his warm breath on her neck as he whispered, ‘Is it troubling you so badly, still?’
Estella deliberately held her ground, grandmother or no grandmother, and shook her head. ‘No,’ she lied, refusing to think about the various things that were troubling her, though there were enough of them. And of course, as if because of her effort to shut them away, they all came flooding: her grandmother’s horror, the ache in her ankle (better than the earlier throbbing), the certain knowledge that she was bringing more peril to the courageous hobbit at her side, than the usual dangers he faced, and it was her fault for not minding her step better…
Ferdi’s arm tightened about her, pulling her a little closer. ‘You’re shivering,’ he whispered. ‘Can’t have you taking cold.’
Tears pricked her eyes, she knew not why, as she nestled under his arm. She could do worse than such a hobbit, she knew. Ferdi might even be the one to whom she was pledged, now wouldn’t that be an irony? She was likely to be joined with a Took descended from the Old Took, and Ferdibrand certainly fit the bill. Freddy was pledged to a Brandybuck, and so she knew a Brandybuck was out of the question for herself, according to her family’s tradition, and in any event Merry Brandybuck had disappeared off the face of the earth last autumn, so her half-formed idea of pleading for her own choice of husband was moot. And yet… The Brandybuck byword, There are always more fish in the River began to make more sense to her. Perhaps marriage to a hobbit other than the one she had yearned after, from her childhood, would not be such a trial after all.
She leaned her head on Ferdi’s shoulder, rested there, must have fallen asleep, for she wakened suddenly at his movement, as he sat up straighter, his hand closing on her shoulder in a gentle squeeze.
‘Awake?’ he breathed, his breath tickling her ear.
She nodded against his chin as she took in their surroundings, ghostly in the moonlight – which, for travelling purposes, was preferable to black as pitch.
And then the warmth of his cloak, surrounding her, and of his body, against her side, was gone as he rose to his feet. She took hold of his reaching hand and allowed him to pull her to her feet – her foot, she amended rapidly, as her injured foot gave a twinge.
‘Right, then,’ he whispered, easing an arm around her waist and pulling her arm around himself in the same way. ‘Take the stick in your other hand, use it and myself for support, and between us, we’ll get you down the rest of this hillside, at least. There are better hiding places in the valley, where we may go to ground for a day or two, and a whole host of ruffians would be hard-pressed to discover us.’
‘That would be a mercy,’ she murmured as they began a slow and careful descent. ‘But… what about food?’
He chuckled and ruffled the curls on her head with the knuckles of his free hand. ‘Trust a growing lad to think of such things,’ he said. ‘We’ve shrooms a-plenty, and a lad such as yourself, from the Back of the End of the Woods, should be able to forage for more…’
She forbore to point out the obvious, gritting her teeth together in concentration as they negotiated a rocky stretch of terrain. It would certainly not do to turn her other ankle, leaving her, so to speak, without a foot to stand on.
‘…and I might not be so woodly wise as yourself or your Back o’ the Wood kin,’ Ferdi was continuing, as if his whispering might strengthen her to the difficult task – and perhaps it did. At least, it distracted her from the inevitable discomfort of moving, though she avoided putting any weight on the injured foot. ‘But I know a little about foraging…’
‘Very little,’ she hissed, as her good foot slipped and her injured foot touched the ground briefly. ‘But I suppose it’ll have to do. Better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, at any rate.’
She shuddered briefly, remembering that earlier time in the little wood near the Manse, when she’d lost herself following Frodo, Freddy, and Merry…
‘Still cold?’ he said in concern, his arm tightening around her.
‘Naw,’ she shook her head. ‘Getting warmer by the moment.’
‘Exercise will do that, I find. Gets the blood moving,’ Ferdi said.
‘Much better than bothering about a fire,’ she answered in the same vein, planting the walking stick and tightening her hold on both the stick and the hobbit beside her, to ease herself over a fallen tree in their path. ‘One can keep much warmer walking, or trotting about, than lying down to sleep…’
‘ ‘Twas the deep-Wood Bolgers who invented the idea of sleep-walking, I should imagine,’ Ferdi said. ‘Just think on it… you can stay warm, and catch your breakfast all ready for the eating when the Sun kicks off her bedcovers, and all in one…’
‘Aye,’ she said. ‘ ‘Tis a wonder more hobbits ha’ no’ discovered the trick.’
‘They are scarcely practical folk,’ Ferdi said. ‘Why, they keep cows and goats in sheds, and chickens in coops…’
‘Scarcely practical of them,’ she agreed. ‘Why, you gather all your birds together in one place, and they’re easy pickings for a fox! Nay, let them scatter to the trees when the Sun seeks her bed, and have a grand hunt for eggs in the mists of the morning – diverting and warming, all in one!’
‘That’s what I like about you, Twig,’ Ferdi said, and she could hear the grin in his voice, though she could not see his face – her eyes were fixed on the task of finding the best ground ahead for her walking stick and her one good foot. ‘You know how to enjoy life!’
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