That afternoon sun blazed high above the trees filling the wood with beams of light. Breathing in the fresh, clean air filled her with a renewed energy. She set off to the north, away from the river, the village, and the chance she would run into the Dunlendings. She moved slower than she liked favoring her arm to protect her shoulder. The joint ached, still stiff and swollen in its socket. Her mending ribs prevented her from travelling much quicker than a gentle walk. She thought of binding them, but could think of nothing that would serve.
After fifteen minutes of walking, she knew her shoulder would need a sling. The effort of holding it still was exhausting her far more than a day of cooking before a festival. She stopped beneath a tall ash tree, leaning against the diamond-shaped ridges of the trunk cradling one arm in her other. Sighing heavily, she shrugged the pack off her back and opened the leather tie.
Below her mother’s dress was a large shirt, probably meant for Tyne. She ripped the fabric as best she could with her limited movement. Tieing the knot tight, she fashioned a loop around her neck. She slid her arm into the sling and sighed in relief as the pressure was taken off her joint. After a minute’s thought, she ripped another piece of fabric and tied it around her torso, wrapping it around her bicep to stabilize the joint further. The bow she tied beneath her breast reminded her of a decorative ribbon on a festival dress and she found herself laughing loudly. Her amusement was baffling, but consuming, her head thrown back and the corners of her eyes wrinkled and tearing.
“Fit for the Midsummer,” she said aloud to the wood, giggling still. She rifled through her hip pack and found a small rectangular vial. The glass was black from the fire and the cork showed much use. Between the sling and her laughter, the cork proved to be a bit of a challenge. Finally, it popped out and she drank a mouthful of the foul-smelling liquid. Her eyes widened at the taste, then softened and calmed. She took a deep breath and sat for the longest moment simply staring at an ant meandering up the trunk of the ash.
Eventually she pushed herself to her feet and began walking north again. She knew of a watchpost at the foot of the White Mountains. It was established to serve as a waypoint between the Westfold and the villages further east along the line to the Gap of Rohan and Isengard. Frequent invasions from the Dunland tribes required a system of posts to be kept so the Eorlingas could be summoned quickly. If she could reach the northern post, perhaps she could find a night’s rest and a warm meal.
She trudged on, the light growing dimmer as the sun began sinking below the treetops. Always on alert for a shadow, her eyes never stopped finding their way over her shoulder. Once, about two miles from where she thought the post ought to be, she suspected she heard a steady footfall behind her, too heavy to be that of a forest creature. She had paused, ducking down beneath a high bush as she held her breath and listened. The sound was not there, despite waiting a full five minutes for it to recur. Only the occasional bird call or rustling of squirrels in the trees accompanied her shallow breath.
“You’re being foolish, Cwendlwyn Tain,” she muttered to herself. The leaves of the bush tickled her cheek. Peering through a fork in the branches, she saw only forest shadows and plant life. She began to stand cautiously, her eyes searching for what was causing the hairs to rise on the back of her neck. “Foolish…”
“Indeed,” said a voice behind her and a gloved hand descended from above to grasp her around the middle.
Her struggle was hampered by her sling and the iron strength of the arms pinning her against a broad chest. She cried out, kicking her legs wildly as she was pulled backwards into a clearing. The man’s grip tightened. “No!” she cried, terror causing her voice to crack. “Bemá protect me!”
A ray of light broke through the canopy above and blinded the man briefly, his arms slacking in its grip around her. The sun shining through the leaves gave her the slightest moment to break the man’s hold. She bucked against him like a wild hart at bay, the heels of her leather boots slamming into his shins, and he dropped her to the ground with a roar. The impact jarred her bones, but she crawled away quickly, desperately attempting to scramble to her feet. She fell, hindered by her injuries.
“Stop!” the man cried out, and in his voice there was no anger.
Cwen hesitated, glancing back over her shoulder with wide eyes. The man’s yellow hair fell down over his face, masking his expression. He wore leather armour dyed a hunter’s green and brown, the quality beyond that of a Wild Man’s In fact, it far outstretched the carefully crafted armour of the village watch.
“My lady,” the man said quickly, “please hold.” He pushed the hair out of his face and took a hesitant step forward.
Cwen stared up at him, her mouth hung open in uncertainty.
“Forgive me,” the man paused his advance, holding his hands up away from the sword hanging at his side. “From your appearance, I thought – “ he bit his lip frowning. A series of emotions passed over his face as he seemed to come to a quick decision.
“Who are you? And what business have you so near the West Watch?” he demanded severely.
“Cwenlwyn of Riverwide. We were attacked without warning. My –“ Her voice caught in her throat. “It’s all gone,” she managed to say, tears threatening to well up inside her chest once more. “All of it is gone. All of it. Gone.” The tears caught in her throat as she could only repeat, “Gone. All gone.”
All of her pain and exhaustion seemed to descend upon her at once. She had no more energy to block the emotions that now overwhelmed her and the tears began to flow in rivulets down her cheeks. She covered her face, sitting with her shoulders hunched and shaking with her sobs.
The man stood uncertainly, the shock at her response pulling his brows down and pursing his lips. He shifted from one foot to the other before moving forward to kneel beside her.
“Miss,” he said cautiously, “you hail from a river village? You were attacked?”
She could only nod. She felt his hard stare. Suddenly, his arms went around her again, this time to lift her. He cradled her gently and began walking north in a quick trot. Cwen sobbed quietly as he carried her through the forest. She lay limp in his arms, completely reliant on the man’s strength to support her. She closed her eyes and rested her head on his broad chest, the tears finally slowing but still flowing steadily from her eyes.
She heard the heavy breath of the horse as she was shifted away from the warmth of the man. “Woah,” he said gently to the steed as he placed her upon its back. He kept a hand on her to steady her, then leaped into the saddle behind her. She cried still, but was comforted by his arms around her holding the reins.
They set out at a quick trot and soon reached a small encampment constructed from timber. High walls surrounded the two permanent buildings and a row of tents. The guard on the wall shouted to the man with surprise, but he did not respond and rode up to the smaller of the two buildings. Another man emerged from the doorway and after a quick exchange with the rider, reached for Cwen. Instantly she tensed, resisting the new set of hands.
“My lady,” the rider said, “This is Grenwal. Allow him to help you down,” he urged gently. “I shall be right here,” he added just for her to hear.
She resisted a moment longer, then allowed Grenwal to pull her to the ground. His hands were calloused but gentle as they supported her. Quickly, the rider dismounted and took her back into his arms. He carried her into the dark calm of the building and into a small room off the wide hall.
A man sat writing behind a work table. He looked up at the sound of the their approach. His face was hard and rugged from exposure, but not cruel. His mouth was set firmly below a straight nose and his eyes reflected the candlelight illuminating the room.
“Danick,” he said in a deep, gravelly voice, “what is this?”
“I found her in the woods, sir. She was hysterical; said she came from a village along the river.” Danick held her still and she buried her face in his shoulder unwilling to look at the man behind the desk.
“She does not look as one from the river villages does. She bears the garb of the Dunlendings.”
“She called to Bemá, sir. She said the village of Riverwide was attacked.”
“Put her on her feet, Danick.” She heard the man stand, the legs of the chair scraping across the floor.
“Sir, I—“ Danick protested, but the man cut him off.
“I need to see her face. On her feet,” he demanded.
Danick eased her to her feet in front of him, keeping his hands braced on her hips. She swayed slightly, but his touch steadied her. Her eyes down, she stood there silently feeling the man’s eyes on her, examining her carefully. She will herself to stay still. She steeled her resolve to stay on her feet. She would not faint in this hut in the woods.
“Look at me,” the man commanded.
Slowly, she raised her eyes to look at him. He was closer than she expected, his brilliant blue eyes boring into her own. Unblinking, his eyes held hers until finally he broke the silence.
“You look like one of them,” he said. “Yet, your eyes—“ he stopped speaking, his face so close his hot breath closed in on her. She shrank back without thinking, but Danick blocked her retreat. He stood firm, his hands still gently supporting her.
The images of Tyne towering over her assaulted her eyes again. She cried out, unable to hide herself from the prying eyes of men. Throwing her hands up, she braced herself for attack half-cringing, half-sprung to retaliate.
“Sir!” Danick’s voice called out. his arms went around her, pulling her back. She tensed, ready to fight her way out this time, but he picked her up from her feet and swung her around, protecting her. “Sir, permission to speak!”
The man had stepped back with surprise widening his eyes. “Granted.”
“Sir,” Danick said, an arm still across her keeping her behind him. “I believe she is what she says she is. She is quite—“ he paused, struggling for words, “—quite broken. I do not think she is a danger, sir, but something terribly traumatic has happened to her.”
“You would allow a wild beast into our camp?” The commander’s eyes narrowed.
“Sir, any injured animal may lash out in self-preservation. But if mended…”
The commander held up a hand. “They may be the most loyal of servants. Yes, Danick, I have heard much the same. Yet, her appearance here is quite coincidental regarding the reports that came in today.”
Cwen’s face was down, hidden in the dark shadow cast by Danick’s form. Yet her eyes were alert as she listened to the men discuss her fate. Her own hand rested on Danick’s back. There was comfort from his closeness. She felt safe near him, a feeling she had abandoned with each jolting injury laid upon her by Tyne.
“What news would that be, sir?”
The man stared hard at her protector and she felt him waver under his gaze.
“Forgive me, sir. I overstep my bounds,” he said with a small bow.
“Danick, you are my best man here at this post, I do trust you in many things, but you bring me a Dunlending—“
“I am no Dunlending!”
Her voice erupted from her surprising all in the room. She hid behind Danick clinging to the back of his hauberk.
The commander’s voice was calm. “Your appearance would say otherwise.”
“These are not my clothes! The Dunlendings came with mid-morn and killed everyone who stood in their path. The village no longer stands, our labours and loves now dust and ash.” She came forward from behind Danick, standing tall and defiant in front of the skeptical man. “I am a survivor of that attack. And the later attack on me personally by the betrayers of my people.”
The commander’s narrow eyes were dark slits in the candlelight. “Betrayers? What betrayers do you speak of?”
Cwen’s voice failed to answer.
“You say you are not one of them. Then you must be open with us! Tell us what you know.”
Danick’s arm was still on her back and his support strengthened her resolve.
“Sir, two members of the village fought on the side of the invaders. I know not the extent of their involvement, but they found me…they found me after I fled and—“ her voice broke.
“They attacked me, sir. Left me for dead. I—“ she swallowed hard. “I came north seeking help.”
The commander’s eyes perused her stance, her bruised and cut face, her arm bound to her side. She wondered if the wound potion had mended the injuries beyond belief. She felt the skepticism in his gaze. But she did not back down.
“Commander,” Danick began, but Cwen cut him off.
“Sir, I will tell you that the men that betrayed us were my father and my fiance. Framham Tain and Tyne Dernhere. They sided with the Dunlendings because they sided with their own people. They betrayed us all.” She did not lower her face or look away. “Yes,” she said to his narrow eyes. “That means that I too have the blood of the enemy in me. But, sir, I am Cwendlwyn Tain of the Mark and I would ask to earn my right to seek vengeance on the ones that destroyed my world.” The men stared at her. “And my lord,” she continued, “Tyne took more than my home and destroyed it.” Her eyes remained straight forward. Her jaw set defiantly.
Danick’s arm stiffened around her back and his body drew away from her unexpectedly. Her shoulders dropped but she raised her chest defiantly, not allowing her shame to cripple her. She knew that admitting what Tyne did to her would make her a pariah. Soiled and unwanted. Unclean. But she needed these men to understand what happened to her. They had to know that she spoke the truth.
She could not see the commander’s face as she stared straight ahead. She waited, the faint red flush on her face slowly creeping down her cheeks and across the bridge of her nose. She heard Danick shuffle from one foot to the other, his leather armour creaking as he moved. She could hear the noise of the night, soldiers moving within the compound, the wind in the trees. Finally, the commander cleared his throat.
“Danick,” he said quietly, a trace of kindness and perhaps sympathy in his voice, “take her to my quarters. See that she has a bath drawn – hot water – and a warm meal. Have her rest.” He returned to his chair. “See that it is done and that she remain protected.”
Danick’s arm withdrew from around her waist and he bowed to the commander. “Yessir,” he said firmly, and then he turned to her and led her from the building.
Cwen kept her eyes down to avoid the stares of the soldiers gathered around flickering campfires for the evening meal. Word of Danick’s catch had spread quickly throughout the camp and many had gathered around the central campfire to see the ‘wild lynx.’ The misconception that she was Dunlending seemed to have travelled with the news of her arrival and there were several taunting calls directed toward her. Danick guided her by the elbow, barely touching her. She swallowed with difficulty, tears welling in her throat again.
They went into the other building. The front room appeared to be a sitting area and two men lounged on wooden chairs around the small table. They straightened up when she came in and the taller one questioned Danick in a high baritone surprising for his size. Danick quickly explained the situation and the tall man stood, going through a doorway which he shut behind him with a thud. Danick grasped her elbow again and directed her toward the door opposite the entryway.
The door led to a small room with a low bed and small wooden dresser. The spartan decorations gave no hint as to who the room belonged to. She stood quietly, unsure and nervous in the small setting. She reached for a strand of hair to twirl around her finger forgetting that nothing hung there. Her hand fell instead on her shoulder, which she massaged with tense fingers. Danick moved around her silently, changing the bedsheets and opening the dresser drawers.
The door opened behind her and she flinched. The tall man brought in a large wooden tub and set it in the middle of the room. He left for a moment and returned with a bucket of boiling water. The sound of the water pouring into the tub filled the silence once, twice, three times. The tub steamed, filling the room with a hazy fog. Two buckets of well water later, the man was bowing to her, eyes down, and then leaving the room.
“Forgive the crude accommodations,” Danick said. He was suddenly standing in front of her filling her field of vision. “We do not have any fine oils or luxuries.”
She gazed up at the man and studied his face carefully. She almost laughed at his apology. Who did he think she was to expect oils? Who did he think he was that it was expected of him?
“I will leave you to wash,” he said quietly. “There are clothes on the bed; men’s garments, but they will fit you better than those that you wear now.” He paused a moment as if he wanted to say more but was unsure of the words. “Captain’s orders,” he said finally and she looked up to see a faint blush on his cheeks.
Cwen suddenly felt embarrassed. This man did not wake up expecting to cater to some wild woman he found in the forest. She wondered what grief he would receive from his fellow soldiers for acting as her serving maid.
“I’m sorry,” she said quickly. She looked up at him, willing him to look at her. “For everything.”
Danick looked down at her, his eyes confused. “What for?” he said gruffly averting his eyes again quickly.
“You have been so kind…I do not mean to be a burden.”
Danick looked down at her again, his eyes narrowed.
“Do not apologize for what you could not control,” he said. She heard anger in his voice, though it was effervescent and not focused toward her. Seeing her shrink back from him, his face softened and his voice became kind again. “You did not ask for the enemy to descend upon you. And besides, I may have a sister.” He reached out and touched her cheek, his fingers barely grazing her skin. He pulled his hand back abruptly and pressed his lips together in a frown. “Excuse me, I will leave you to bathe…” he moved around her to leave.
“Danick,” she turned to face him.
He paused with his hand on the door to push it open. “Yes, m’am?”
He turned to look at her. For the first time she noticed how crystalline blue his eyes were.
“You’re welcome,” he replied quietly, a smile on his lips. Then he was gone.