((Edited from chat logs. Note: Nearly all italics to Zhevruil’s “thoughts” are editor added to assist in the differentiation of Zhev’s thought processes.))
The smell of steak and rosemary filled The Broken Cask. Cwendlwyn smiled at Triswynd as she checked the hand she had mended, glad she could speak with someone to break the ice. She had tarried on her way to the tavern though she looked forward to a scene away from the Pony and all its shadows. It had been a long time since she had been truly alone and she should have returned to the Shire days ago. When she learned that Anya’s troubles still persisted after her journey to Fornost, she decided to stay in Bree even longer, though her nerves began to fray and the stash of herbal tea she mixed to help her face the streets each day was quickly becoming depleted. She found herself in the constant state of a tightly wound spring without the sedative effects of her fragrant brew and it was far easier to drink it and find some peace, especially at night.
She made small talk with Tris and the man named Ren who stood next to her. She suspected that Ren found her eagerness to get out of Bree a failing, but the passion flower, lemon balm, and valerian root made it easier to respond to the cooling of his interest. As she explained that certain people of Bree caused her the sadness she felt in the town, one of those people from her past walked into the hall.
Rosemead had gone to greet the man who stood hooded just inside the threshold. He held up a hand, trying his best to smile at the woman. “I won’t need anything to drink right now, if that’s all right.” Rosemead nodded and invited him to the food, though he remained where he stood.
Back at the table, Renaron took a sip from his flask, then capped it and tucked it into his belt. As he excused himself to pay, Cwen nodded a good-bye and noticed the man enter. She froze, her mug half-way to her lips. “Zhevruil,” she mouthed and then moved toward him without thinking. Slowly, as if through a fog, memories returned to her that she tried so hard to repress. She stopped several feet away from him and simply stared as if at a ghost.
Not expecting her move, Zhevruil said, ‘Erm……hello.’
Neither noticed as Rosemead turned to watch the confrontation at the door. Cwen continued to stare at him and then looked over her shoulder as he spoke. She watched Ren head out before looking back at Zhev, totally unsure of what to do at his sudden appearance.
Zhevruil stiffened, embarrassed at his lack of grace, in appearance and greeting. What a dolt. “I….just thought….” After a pause, he went on, “…that I’d, maybe….”
Cwen studied him as best she could beneath his hood. She had caught a glimpse of a man in the Pony that reminded her of him, only in passing, only a faint memory. A cryptic letter arrived bearing his name and confirmed her suspicions. A quick exchange of franticly scrawled messages ensued. She stepped up close and grabbed at his wrist almost as if to see if he truly stood before her. She thought of one of the messages that hinted he was being chased. Leaning in close, she whispered, “Should we leave?”
Zhevruil looked her up and down, telling her, “Your dress looks….nice.” It was geniune, but sloppily delivered. “Don’t you have friends here?” he queried, looking over her shoulder at the table ahead.
She turned and looked back. “Acquaintances. Possible future friends, yes. But you. I thought you were dead.”
Zhevruil swallowed his pride. His eyes were still shielded. He hadn’t looked up at her face yet. “Yeah…” he whispered, again glancing at those gathered ahead. What if they…? “I can wait until you’re done.”
She shook her head. “Your letters; I got them. I have been worried.” She followed his gaze back again and continued to shake her head. “Shall I meet you shortly?”
Zhevruil gave her a quick nod before replying, “Sure. I’ll be outside.” He cleared his throat. “I’ll see you there.”
She released his wrist and nodded, turning quickly and pacing back to the table to pay for her drink. She exchanged the necessaries with Rosemead and then tried to refrain from fleeing from the hall. Outside, she took a deep breath and looked for Zhev. Spotting him across the yard, she started after him, her previously languid movements quickened, though only slightly.
Zhevruil was startled by Cwendlwyn’s sudden arrival. He looked over at her, again doing what he could to hide the beaten, broken face. “All finished?” he asked.
Cwen placed a hand on his arm as she nodded. She tried to get a glimpse of him beneath the hood but the sun fell just right to cast deep shadows over his features. “Let us go for a walk,” she suggested, her sweet voice encouraging.
Zhevruil moved a few inches to the right, revealing his eye as it gave her a sidelong glance. He scanned the neighborhood, seeking flaws. Nothing. He can… “Let’s,” he replied quietly.
Cwen met his gaze for a moment and nodded. “Lead the way, old friend,” she said softly.
Zhevruil stepped forth, and walked the stone path. Cwendlwyn followed his lead. They stepped out of the large yard of the tavern and turned left, walking in silence with a respectful distance between them. They entered the little square where the neighborhood store stood across from the little park. Zhevruil spotted a gazebo across the courtyard and said, “There….” He led them over to it and stepped between the tall posts. He leaned against the railing, looking down at the river. It flowed calmly, unlike his apprehensive nerves.
Cwen leaned next to him and waited for him to speak first. She folded her hands together in front of her as her forearms supported her.
Zhevruil sighed deeply, counting the leaves on the tree hanging above the water. He would comment on the subtle intricacies they bear, the folds, the nuances, but they were things only someone such as he would care for. Instead, he inquired, “Do you live around here?”
Cwen frowned at the question for she expected something less trivial. She looked out at the little creek flowing by, her breath falling in cadence with the slow waves stirred up by the wind. “Not any more. Biramore and I moved to the borders of Buckland shortly after Arodionn…” Her voice broke and she shook her head. “I am staying at the Pony at present as some things are playing out. But no. I do not live around here.”
Zhevruil noticed the shifts in her words. Perhaps a sign of intoxication? he thinks. If such was the case, she was disguising it well, but not well enough for him to miss. “Biramore,” he said, now turning to her, his right forearm still against the railing. “How is he?”
Cwen frowned. “I hope well. He is off with a caravan right now.” She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, her fingers trailing down over her jawline.
Zhevruil revealed his face fully. The old scars across his face and lips were still there, fading, but there. However, bruises had joined them, and his beard had grown thick and unkempt, his hair likewise. His eyes still had a flickering spark in them, flickering being the key word. They were sunken, dry, weary. “I’m sorry I didn’t send you anything, while I was gone I mean.”
Cwen reached up to touch his face but stopped herself. “My word, Zhevruil. Your face. What happened to you?” She shook her head vehemently. “Where have you been?”
Zhevruil stepped back, shuddering at the thought. His eyes grew stern, painful even. Then, they relaxed, and he looked up at Cwen, answering, “A long way from here. But none of that matters, now. I…Cwen, there was a woman I knew here, one I was…close to.” He thought of the one right in front of him, at first, but realized there were too many barriers, at least for now. He needed to take responsibility for the world he left behind, for the choices he made. “She was a friend of yours. I don’t mean to…” He wouldn’t continue.
Cwen frowned. “You were close to a friend of mine? Who, Zhev?”
Zhevruil replied, “Her name it was….Cwen, I….” So much hesitation. “It was Tealdora.”
Cwendlwyn paled slightly. “Tealdora. You-” her face suddenly flushed. “Zhevruil, you didn’t.”
He stepped aside. He never wanted her to… “I…yes…I’m sorry if that unsettles you.”
Cwen rubbed her eyes. “How? Why-” she stopped herself and shook her head. “I do not want to know. It’s your business, and hers. I have not seen her in a long time, though. She stayed here when we moved and she stopped writing after a few months. Zhevruil, why do you ask for her?”
Zhevruil shook his head. Stayed behind? Stopped writing? The ambiguous nature of it all troubled him. “I,” he began, “just wanted to… Cwen, I, I wanted to see her once more, let her know I didn’t forget her. But I wanted her to know…” Thoughts of Biramore flowed through his mind.
She looked over at him, feeling that this change of his thoughts mid-flow was slightly different from the rest. “What is it? We can look for her, Zhev.”
Zhevruil looked back at the leaves, their intricacies, their folds, their nuances, things only he cares for. He turned again to River, deciding now was as good a time as any, “Cwen, I have to tell you, I won’t go into detail, but she and I…we were close, but it wasn’t fair. In that moment, the moment we were…I did care about her, truly, and I wanted the best for her, but a part of me was only doing it because she, well…” Don’t stop here; follow through. “…she reminded me of…” The Rabbit could not bring himself to finish the sentence. He shook his head. “I’m sorry….I’m sorry, this was stupid. I just wanted to say hello, that’s all, just say hello and leave.”‘
Cwen stepped closer to him and took him by the forearms. Here he was after all this time. For once, she felt he was struggling to tell her the truth. “Zhev, please. She reminded you of what?”
Zhevruil turned to her. You haven’t got much else to lose. They took everything you had. All you’ve got are the clothes on your back. The house has been burned to the ground. The Enkindlers are all either dead or missing. Ellbor doesn’t even stay on post anymore. Just try, and if it doesn’t work, leave. He leaned in, attempting to kiss Cwendlwyn Tain’s lips.
Cwendlwyn stood firm, unaware of his intentions.
Zhevruil leaned in further, his hands moving to Cwen’s hips. Thoughts of the Lightriders told him he was making a mistake, but they didn’t control him anymore. That mask was gone, never to be worn again.
Cwen’s eyes widened as he touched her, but her surprise rooted her to the spot. She stared up at him, lips parted in a small O.
He completed the arch, his lips meeting hers. A warmth of simultaneous fear and joy pervaded him as wooden planks creaked underfoot. His arms slowly found their way around her waist.
She gasped and raised her hands as if to push him away. She arched her back to pull away from him, but his arms around her waist draw her closer. She trembled in his embrace as her mind whirled around for something solid and normal for her to grasp onto. Zhevruil. His lips. Zhev. Her heart seemingly stopped and her eyes fluttered to close.
He slid his right arm past the cloak, holding her back steady. It would only last a few more seconds, at best. He wished the case were not so, but she was a married woman, proud, virtuous. It wouldn’t be this way again, but he knew he had to try at least once.
Cwendlwyn wasn’t married. She never married anyone save Anidore. Elodir passed over the sea. Biramore…Bira. Her eyes flew open and she made a tiny sound of protest. At nearly the same moment, she sank into the kiss, relaxing against him. Her loneliness, her sorrow, all held in check with her herbal concoctions, burst forth and overwhelmed her common sense.
Zhevruil parted his lips from hers. He noticed that it was his decision to part. His eyes were open, glowing, alive, for the first time since… “…you.”
She stared at him for a moment, lips slightly swollen and parted. She trembled and closed her eyes. “Zhev-” she said softly and trembled again, opening her eyes just enough to glance up at him through her lashes.
Zhevruil lit up, knowing he’d chosen wisely. He felt her longing. Whether it was for him or for something more animal, he didn’t care. Just this once, he wanted to be the winner, to have what he came for. He buried his face in her neck, tender kisses trailing down to her shoulder.
Cwen sucked in her breath and then sighed deeply. Her body responded though her mind was still in shock. Her heart – her heart just pounded away at her ribcage as the hands on his chest meant to brace him away from her instead slid around him to draw him close. Her head tilted to give him access to her skin. He pulled her toward the railing, pressing her against it. His lips meet her cheek, then her forehead before he asked, “Don’t you want this?” The words, though breathless, were genuine. He wouldn’t hurt her, not the way he probably hurt…
She swallowed visibly, her throat moving the doubt into the pit of her belly. “Zhevruil,” she breathed as she felt his whiskers tickling her forehead. “I-” she shivered with the sudden build up of passion and uncertainty.
Zhevruil pulled back his hood, further showing her his battered form. His eyes were, again, alive like they’ve never been. Both hands were now around her face, one gently thumbing the space between chin and throat. “Please,” he whispered, “don’t lie to me.”
She closed her eyes to break his gaze. “You were gone…so long. I truly thought you were dead. And now…you are here. Zhevruil, I do not know what is truth or lie anymore. I only know when I saw you in the Pony, that moment, my heart surged. Both good and bad arose. Zhev…” she opened her eyes pleading with him to understand. “It’s so complicated.”
Zhevruil stepped back, eyes narrow. They wavered, flicking between her and the planks, and the water, and the leaves, their folds. Fixed there, he replies, “Maybe we shouldn’t…”
She touched her lips where he kissed her. “Please…I need time. You…only just came back. I know nothing. Not where you’ve been or who you are running from. Zhevruil, please. Be honest with me.”
Zhevruil exhaled, telling her, “It won’t be the same next time. I know it. I can feel it. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be a pessimist, but…” He stopped, moving to lean against the pillar before him. “…you know I’m right.” He looked over his shoulder, and added, “I’m running from me, Cwen.” He turned back to the leaves. “Things happened. I made the wrong choices. They won’t find me, so long as I remain elusive, with places to stay, constant change, whatever I need to do.” He looked back again, informing her, “It was when I was working with Anrandir.”
Cwen wrapped her arms around herself in a hug and looked down. It was so long ago. “Zhevruil.” She could not find words for her thoughts, the feelings bashing her from the inside out. She cleared her throat softly. “Wh-where are you staying now?”
He returned his gaze to the water, responding with, “Bree’s rooftops have made for good hiding places.” His tone was solemn, but not grim, more matter-of-fact.
She strode over to him and tried to turn him to face her. “No, no, Zhev. You will not sleep exposed to the elements like that. My home in Buckland. No one would look for you there.”
Zhevruil stepped back, now facing her. He appeared to be worried. “Cwen, if you’re with a man…staying with you isn’t the best idea.”
Cwen closed her eyes for a moment. She thought of another letter. Another message full of shock and pain. “Bira…Bira is missing. His caravan never made it to their destination. I do not know what happened to him. It’s been weeks.” She closed her eyes again slowly. “But he would understand if it meant protecting a friend.”
Zhevruil raised his left hand. The middle and index fingers caressed her face. She’s right. He wouldn’t mind. And he’d be safe there, from them. Starting over, with her, it could happen. “I…I’ll go with you.” His legs trembled. He hadn’t slept well in weeks.
Cwendlwyn nodded and stepped forward to embrace him. “We can leave as soon as I gather my things from the Pony. Tonight you will rest, deore.”
Zhevruil returned the gesture, hugging her tightly. He wished he’d gone through with it, but that’s thinking with the little head. As they parted, he inquired, “Deore?”
She smiled. “The language of the Mark. ‘Dear’.”
Zhevruil grinned, the first time it’s happened in ages. “You….all right, let’s go. To be perfectly honest, Cwen, I’ve needed a good bed for some time.”
Cwendlwyn nodded up to him and slid her hand down his arm to thread her fingers through his. She gently tugged on him and started back toward the Cask where her horse waited. “Come. You will have my bed tonight, for you will not fit in Neilia’s. She is visiting Michel Delving at present, so we will not disrupt her if I take hers. Let us go.”
Zhevruil nodded, following her lead as she followed his.