Within a few short moments, Estella reappeared from the cabin with a small sack slung over her shoulder. Together they walked to the edge of the meadow and disappeared into the cover of the surrounding forest.
Estella was a walker. She moved through her world of trees with her bare feet touching the ground. Bran enjoyed her movements. She was sure-footed. Her body could glide over rocks and fallen trees as though her muscles moved like water. She reminded him of the sword dancers on stages in his village. They had been traveling through most the day, and still, she looked fresh and strong like she could walk for another day without a rest. None the less, he asked her why she didn't own a horse.
"Why do you ask?" She asked as she looked up while walking next to him.
He looked down at her. "Well, because if you saddled a horse, you wouldn't get tired from the days walk."
"Why would I allow a horse to take the pleasure of my feet away." She smiled. "What you don't see with your eyes is what my feet feel when they touch the grass we walk on."
"I like that you love to walk, but if you had a horse, we could move faster through this forest."
"That is the difference between you and me, then." She directed her eyes up into the canopy. "Moving through the forest is where I would rather be. This is my home. These trees are my friends. They tell me stories about their lives as I pass them. When my hands touch their bark in passing, I can hear their thoughts. The grass my feet move over is the flowing hairs of my mother, the earth. The rocks are her bones. The streams and rivers are her blood replenishing her body with moisture and also her way of filling her creatures with light and a measure of her will. When my body moves, I sense that like the streams of water, the movement of her breathing air through the canopy, my body is a part of all this. If I had to sit still on the back of a horse, I would feel as though I would be missing something fascinating in each step."
She stepped and then leaped over a fallen tree as she spoke, and not a word was missed. She moved with grace. He had seen that kind of movement in the forest once before. It was when he tracked a large cat running through the limbs of trees. His thoughts made the connection. She has the balance of a cat. Part cat, part woman. Where had that thought come from?
The words, "a measure of her will," floated through his thoughts. Bran felt foreign to how she spoke about the earth as a daughter will talk about her mother. His own mom had that same perception. He envied her intimate view of this forest.
He shook his head to release the spell it seemed Estella cast over him. And it was like a spell. Through her eyes, her words, her awareness, he could see the forest like a child sees a mother. He shook his head again.
"But we could move faster on horseback." He came back into the conversation.
She shook her head. "That too is an illusion, Bran." She pointed to an edge of the oak forest, a mile farther on, and said, "See those boulders under that far tree? I'll meet you there."
Her feet sprung and ran to the nearest oak, and in a single jump, she climbed into the lowest bow. She ran across the limb, jumped into the next tree, doing zigzags over Bran's head as he urged his horse into a canter and continued to move forward. He stared in amazement. She ran and jumped like a tree squirrel through the canopy. He spurred his horse into a gallop heading for the farthest tree at the edge of the oak forest. He looked up. But he could not see her.
As he approached the boulders, she dropped from the branches onto the highest rock and then sprinted down to the forest floor and landed like a cat. His horse was spooked by her suddenly appearing, her crouching feline form and reared onto her hind hooves. Bran fell.
Estella stood up, alarmed, ran over to his body, and slowly bent over, breathing even and said, "Normally I run through the canopy when traveling. Fewer obstructions. But because of your injury, I have had to slow down."
She smiled and held out her hand to help him to his feet.
"May I suggest we camp here tonight." She looked at the wall of boulders she just sprinted down. "We are not far from your home. We should enter your town in morning light rather than evening dusk. Your people have superstitions about creatures that come out of the forest at night. I don't want to spook them."
And she was correct. The villagers did not like the woods. They had never seen a forest where they came from. Only fields of crops.
While he watered his horse, Estella stepped into a small cave, a large crevice really, between the boulders. It was enough for all three of them. His horse could rest in the back.
She ran up the side of the rocks and jumped into the trees she had just exited. She unsheathed her long knife from her scabbard tied to her wide leather belt and cut some branches, letting them fall to the ground. She jumped down and dragged them over the rock opening. Trimming and then weaving the branches together, she created a door for her cave.
Once entered, she pulled the door closed and smiled at her handy work. The woven branches covered the light from outside entirely. It was totally dark inside. Which meant that anyone passing would not see the evening fire. In the center of the room, she placed a large flat stone. On it, she put some dry grass and twigs, small and large for a fire. Then she took a cutting of her hair and from the sacred shining stones created sparks that combusted the hair into flames which she blew into twigs. Soon a fire was burning. Warmth.
With his horse refreshed in the creek, and water bags refilled, it was dark as Bran approached the caves. He was surprised that he could not see the light of the fire. He walked up to the door and whispered, "Hey Cat Girl, permission to enter." The branches rustled and then glided past him as she lifted the door to the side. She smiled and stepped aside as he walked past her with his horse to enter into the back of the cave. As she placed the door back into position covering the opening of the cave, he unstrapped the saddle and put it next to the small fire. Then he took the saddle blanket and laid it out next to the saddle. When he sat on the blanket, he looked across the firelight into her blue eyes and said, "Your quite a forest woman."
She smiled, "Don't worry Bran, you'll be safe with me." She winked.
He laughed and shook his head.