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Author's Chapter Notes:

Ariel/ChubbyMonkey.


It was overcrowded, and very little light came through the overhanging umbrella of canopy. Steadily pushing her way through, she managed to hold back brambles just long enough to duck under them, and to see just enough through the gloom to know that it continued for some way to come. Her heart pounded inside her, the only noise that she could hear, and it was with more than some trepidation that she took each step further away from the group.

Still, she was here to save Hilda, to return her safely back to the bosom first of all of the Maynard family and then that of her own. They hadn't been told yet, she knew, Charles always holding out to wait just a little bit longer before he rang them. He was close to them all, didn't approve much of her husband in private – whom he saw as something of a liability to her career, though he would never have dared say so – but was fond of them as good friends of his.

Of course, there were always those ready to make snide comments about how handy it was that he should be in such close cahoots with someone effectively his boss, and not a little teasing from his other siblings, liberal Con in particular (who secretly horrified in his career and tried to hide any connection from him as best she could), came his way because of the relationship. The Thatchers had been good to them, though, especially when Poppy had been young and had contracted a serious illness. The vigils spent by her bedside had always been brightened with a card, visit or small token from not just Hilda but everyone else in the office in awe enough of her to obey her word and send them something.

With a shiver, Millie stopped, glancing around to try and get her bearings. Even though she, at least, still remembered the horrific days, nobody in the family would ever speak of the time when they weren't sure if they would be blessed with their youngest for much longer. Besides which, the thought of imminent death did nothing to lighten the definitely spooky surroundings she was a part of. It had, however, reminded her of just how much Hilda – the children had always been taught to call her Hilda – had done for them all, and steeled her nerves against anything untoward she might be feeling.

Chiding herself for such cowardice, and wondering just what her mother would have to say on the subject, she took another step forwards and even managed not to jump at the branch she broke. There were no signs of recent passage, obvious ones anyway, but this didn't mean much. The kidnappers had been able to conceal their path remarkably well thus far, there was no reason to think that they might have become careless so far in.

Wondering how the others were getting on, she wended her solitary way forwards, almost certainly out of shouting distance by now but almost heedless of this. To just walk, on one's own, with one's thoughts for company, was calming, and she was far from thrilled by imagining suddenly stumbling across Hilda, kidnappers and all, but at least, she reasoned, it would give Hilda hope, and people knew where she was.

Suddenly, her roving eyes picked up a tiny detail, and she bent down to ground level to examine it more closely. It was only a casually discarded cigarette end, but it was find that sent shivers down her spine. Nobody else, she was sure, would have fought their way through such an unfriendly path, and it was something insignificant enough that the kidnappers could easily have overlooked it even when trying to cover their tracks. Disappointingly, it wasn't fresh, but it did give her fresh heart that they weren't nearby, at least.

An owl hooted blearily above her, and she screamed, her nerves so on edge and so startled out of her reverie was she. The new find had completely captivated her, and she had almost forgotten where she was; the reminder brought floating in back with it a whole host of disconcerting realisations. First, it was almost pitch black around her, much thicker than when she had started out. Second, the path petered out not too far from where she was, into a nothingness that gave no hope of finding anything useful from it. Third, part of the darkness could probably be easily explained away by the fact that evening was setting in.

And, fourth, that was a hand that she had just felt grip her shoulder.




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