White, nothing but a white blankness as far as she could see. Nell took a tentative step forwards into the howling wind, suddenly doubting whether this was a good idea after all. Turning her head after a few paces, she peered back to where she knew without a shadow of doubt the school stood. She thought she could - just - make out the shadowy outline of the building, but wasn’t entirely sure it wasn’t wishful thinking. Well, standing here wasn’t going to get her to Freudesheim.
Looking ahead again, she walked forward purposefully. Mindful of the fact she couldn’t see where she was treading, Nell moderated her usual long strides, testing the ground as she placed each foot down before putting her whole weight on it. The school’s garden was well tended, and she was unlikely to step into a pothole, but there could easily be ice underfoot; and really, one broken foot and one broken leg were more than enough in a lifetime!
Reaching up with one gloved hand, she brushed away the flakes that were sticking to her ski goggles, grateful for the protection they provided to her eyes. The bare skin exposed by the gap between her cap and her scarf was already stinging from the cold and the scrapes of the icy snowflakes. She was grateful for the scarf, too, that let her breathe with relative ease. Taking another loop of rope off her shoulder, she paid it out, letting it fall to the ground behind her as she kept walking.
How far had she gone? Probably more than halfway to the hedge, she thought, but it was little more than a guess. Deep down, Nell knew she wasn’t really sure she had gone in a straight line; the whirling wind, now buffeting her from one side, now from the other, made it hard work even to stay upright, let alone to judge direction. She tried to look back at the rope that was her lifeline, to judge from that, but found that she could barely see a foot of it lying behind her before it vanished into the swirling whiteness that enveloped everything. Well, there was nothing for it but to keep going.
Left foot forward. Test footing. Put weight on. Right foot forward. Test footing. Put weight on. Pay more rope out. Left foot forward. Test footing. Put weight on. In this surreal environment, it began to feel as if she had been doing this forever, would be doing this forev -
“OW!” The yell was snatched away by the wind as soon as it left her lips. Rising painfully from the frozen ground, Nell glared through the snow, trying to see whatever it was she had collided with. A dark shadow… a narrow one… a cautious step brought her close enough to reach out and touch… a tree trunk. She had walked into a tree. She cursed vividly for a few seconds, then tried to work out from memory, using her unwitting assailant as a landmark, where she could be. There were too many options to narrow it down conclusively, but she was fairly sure she must still be heading for the hedge between the two gardens; she would have had to go very far out of her way if she wasn’t.
Moving carefully around the tree, she kept walking, stoically ignoring the aches and pains that suggested she’d have plenty of bruises from this incident. ‘It could have been worse,’ she attempted to encourage herself. ‘I could have gone full circle and walked straight into the school! At least I’m still going roughly the right way, and I can’t be too far from the hedge.’
Several minutes later, she was forced to admit that apparently she was still quite far from the hedge - or perhaps, maddeningly, it was just beyond the reach of her vision, simply waiting for her to take a step in its direction. It was very tempting to test the theory, to try stepping to one side or to the other; but Nell knew if she began to do that, she’d completely lose what little sense of direction she still had left. Better to just keep moving, and hope she was going the right way.
When the rope suddenly jerked in her hand, letting her know that time was up, she still hadn’t managed to find the hedge. With a sigh, she tugged on the rope herself to let Hilda know she had received the signal, then turned around and began walking back. She must have been so close… but honesty compelled her to acknowledge that she didn’t actually know whether she had been near the hedge, or if she had been wandering around the garden in circles. The bitter cold, too, had begun to make itself felt even through her warm clothing, and Nell knew - though it cost her to admit it - that she couldn’t have kept searching much longer.
The way back was easier to find, much to her relief; all she had to do was follow her rope, picking it up and returning it to the coil as she went along. She went slowly at first, wary of walking into her tree again. But she was on the alert now, and managed to see it in time to avoid a collision. Once she was safely round it, she picked up her pace a little, though she was still careful to test her footing.
Finally, the school came into view, a grey outline against the white background. Closer… now she could see light spilling from the door that Hilda must be holding open. ‘Idiot,’ Nell thought, half touched, half exasperated. ‘She’s freezing herself keeping it open for me!’ A few more steps… and she was through the door, away from the snow and the wind, back with Hilda and warmth and clear light.
Author's Chapter Notes:
Acknowledgments and thanks are due here to Laura Ingalls Wilder's The Long Winter and Arthur Ransome's Winter Holiday, which helped me immensely in visualizing what being in a blizzard would be like.