Dear Miss Anya,
I have received notice from an Elf named Eruviel that you have lost a lynx. I have been inquiring about Bree for a few days and am relieved to finally find its owner.
Please send post regarding arrangements to meet so we can return the poor thing to you. I wish to warn you that when my Biramore and I found him, he was injured rather badly. He has mended well, but bears scarring on his flank.
I look for your message in eagerness,
Anya blinked as she reread the letter. The woman was due to arrive that afternoon and her heart raced excitedly as she skipped around the house making scones and muffins. Oli! At last! Some good news for a change.
Eruviel hunted that day, so she had no one to share in her nervous energy. Once her baking was done, she had little to occupy her as she waited for their arrival. She paced the front room for thirty minutes pausing only to stare out the window for extended periods of time. Finally, two strangers appeared around the corner. A large black lynx followed them closely behind.
Anya burst from the house and rushed to the end of the footpath that cut through the yard. From a distance, the woman raised her hand in greeting.
“Miss Anya?” she called out in a clear, confident voice.
Anya returned the wave enthusiastically. “Miss Tain?”
The couple drew close and Anya was able to examine them. The woman led slightly; the man trailed behind a bit as he looked around and over his shoulder frequently. She wore well fitting robes of lavender and tan and a wide-brimmed sunhat with a large plume in the band. Anya could see locks of dark hair escaping from beneath the hat. Her eyes were a piercing green that belied the gentle set of her smile. This woman had seen things that would probably set Anya’s head spinning.
The man was handsome and bore himself like a soldier. The shirt he wore fit well and as he turned to look back at the lynx, she could see the well-defined muscle moving beneath the fabric. His face was kind and his eyes clearly protective of the woman as she walked before him.
From behind the man, the lynx suddenly shot forward. It moved so quickly it could have been a fleeting shadow. It leapt at Anya, rebounded off her chest, and bounced around her as she laughed.
“Oli!” She knelt to the feline’s level and he nuzzled up to her cheek. “I missed you, too,” she whispered to him.
The woman paused on the road before the lane and curtsied gracefully. “Miss Anya, it is a pleasure to finally meet you.”
Anya rose and curtsey-bowed to her. She felt so awkward in the presence of the older woman and a faint blush crossed her cheeks. Cwen laughed lightly and crossed to take both of her hands. “Eruviel mentioned you are recovering from an injury. How are you?”
“Oh, I am well,” Anya answered. “Thank you for your concern. I cannot thank you enough for taking the time to find me.” She gestured to the house. “Will you please come in for tea?”
Cwen smiled down at her and waved the man over. “Of course, thank you. This is Biramore.”
Biramore bowed his head in greeting and offered her a kind smile. “Pleasure, Miss Anya.”
Anya curtsied to Biramore even as she led them into the house. Oli wove around her as they climbed the steps to the front door and she led them inside.
* * *
Lina frowned down at the pile of linens from the Pony. She chewed her lip for a moment as the steam from the hot water cauldrons rose around her causing her naturally wild hair to frizz even more crazily about her face. She patted it down to no avail. Sighing, she picked up an armful of bedsheets and dropped it into the vat of grey water at her feet.
Aunt Millie fluttered over to her on tiptoes. Lina tried to suppress her frown. She had managed to get out from under the woman’s roof, but she couldn’t get away from her at work.
“I stopped by the boardin’ ‘ouse,” Aunt Millie said in her high nasally voice. Anya often wondered if she spoke like that on purpose because it sounded so affected. “The proprietress said ye ‘ave not been t’ bed in several days, Emmelina.” Her aunt stood with her hands on her hips and frowned at her.
Taking up the broadest washing-beetle she could see, Lina began to stir the linens. She tried not to picture herself taking the tool to the side of her aunt’s head. “Aye?” she responded simply without looking up from the steaming water.
“Aye. Care t’explain, darlin’?” She could feel the evil eye penetrating the back of her skull.
“Nothin’ t’explain, Auntie.”
“Emmelina Lilybrook, yer parents sent ye ‘ere t’protect ye!” The ignominy in her voice threatened to shove Lina head first into the hot water as if that alone could cleanse her of the shame of being such an immoral child. “Jus’ ‘oo are ye cavortin’ about with? Hm? Some crafty, sweet talkin’ young lad promisin’ ye th’world when he finds buried treasure in th’Downs?”
Nearly growling, Lina bites out, “Aunt Millie, leave off, will ye? Ain’t fallin’ fer some fool adventurer who’ll get speared a’fore he walks out the gates o’Bree.”
“I won’t ‘ave it, Emmelina!” Her aunt’s voice rose to a shrill pitch that could have summoned the bats from the Old Forest to descend upon her wayward niece. “Ye git yerself back to tha’ boardin’ house an’ get yer head on straight!”
Lina looked up at her aunt through slitted eyes. “My head’s just fine,” she said lowly. “An’ I think I’m makin’ ends meet on me own, without ye or Ma or Da. I think I’m doin’ just fine.” She raised the bat to emphasize her words. “Where I spend me nights is my business.”
The older woman stared open mouthed at Lina. Without another word, Lina turned back to the washing tub and continued to stir the dirty sheets of Bree.
* * *
Cwendlwyn stood at the window of the Pony and stared out over the square. Biramore lay stretched on the bed behind her whistling a light tune and sharpening her dagger.
“You’re thinking,” he said between even strokes across the whetstone.
“Hm.” Cwen did not turn from the scene before her: Bree-landers bustling about with baskets from the market, gathering around the latest minstrel playing near the fountain, or standing about in groups chatting about their day. She thought her memories would haunt her; she had steeled herself for the feelings of loss the town should have invoked.
However, though she found the town much unchanged, she did not dread stepping out of her door as she once did. She did not find herself looking over her shoulder for a madman to attack her or poison her mind. It felt much more like a town settled into a rhythm of subtle adaptation.
“What is it, love?” Biramore prodded gently. “Do you wish to go leave for Buckland tonight? It might be dangerous on the road, but certainly nothing more dangerous than we can handle.”
Cwen shook her head. “No. It isn’t that.” She turned to look at him with an uncertain smile. “I cannot quite put my finger on it,” she admitted and went to sit next to him.
“You’re doing well,” he encouraged her only half-teasing. “No breakdowns, no crying.” He returned her smile and tucked a strand of her long dark hair behind her ear. “Better than the last time we spent any amount of time in Bree, huh?”
“But, you have a feeling, though. I see it.” Bira ducked his head to capture her gaze. “Is it that woman? Anya?”
Shrugging, she said, “I’m not sure. She was very kind, was she not? But…yes. Perhaps there is something about her-” She sighed, frustrated she was unable to put a finger on what was tugging at the back of her mind.
Biramore leaned forward, tipping her chin up with a gentle finger. “It’s no worry of ours, love,” he reminded her. “We’ve done our part and will retreat to the quiet of the Shire tomorrow. I promise.” Leaning in, he kissed her.
Cwen smiled at him as he sat back. “It’s no worry,” she agrees. “Promise.”