About two weeks ago…
Lina hadn’t worried about it when Falros and she decided without words to start to drift apart. It happened just as suddenly as their drifting together. She didn’t remember how she ended up in the back stall of the South Gate stables, but she supposed she had a good time.
And that very day, she received a visitor with unexpected news. The farmhand refused to meet her eye as he spoke. Her mother was dying. She needed to go home.
For a very long time, she sat in her aunt’s parlour and stared at the small pouch of coins that came with the message. The money was to pay for post back to the farmsteads. The farmhand begged for haste as she sat there weighing the coin. Her mother had received injuries during a brigand onslaught. They had burned everything they could: only the stone of the main house had protected what family possessions survived. The barn, the pastures were cinder and ash. The youth, who couldn’t have been much older than Lina herself, described the devastation in detail. Only when he started to describe the barn roof ablaze over the screaming horses did she move. Quickly, she ordered him to hire the post horses and meet her at the North Gate.
Without explaining to her aunt, who had stood at the door to eavesdrop anyway, she fled the house and rushed back to Falros’s. She didn’t really have anything to gather. Packing was quick: three or four mismatched outfits, her dagger. She gave Moose, the large, stolen piece of taxidermy art on Fal’s bedroom wall, a loving pat and scanned the sparse room. She tried. She really did. Maybe he’d miss her. Maybe she’d find out one day.
* * *
Her mother was not dying. The woman lay in bed with a bruise on her forehead from fainting into the kitchen table. Her father was far worse off, at least appearance-wise; the man had multiple cuts and lacerations from fighting off the attackers with his old garrison blade. His brows were scorched away from fighting the fire that consumed his livelihood.
Though she was relieved that the farmhand had exaggerated (under her mother’s duress, she was certain), Lina grumbled that she had ridden half a day for a bruise.
“Emma!” her mother cried from her bed. Lina held the woman’s tea as she gestured grandly toward the walls of the room. The entire place smelled of charcoal and smoke. The brigands had driven off her family’s swine; a few came wandering back, but there was little they could do except bring them into the main house. Their earthy scent mingled with the acrid scent of burns and caused Lina to gag. How her mother could handle it, she hadn’t a clue. “How can ye think o’ leavin’ us now wit’ all th’ work tha’ needs ta be done?!”
“Mother, may I remind ye that ye sent me to Bree two years ago.” Lina handed her the tea and held her palm up for the saucer she knew was about to be handed back. She set it on the night stand.
“But things are different now, Emma. Ye must see tha’ we need the helpin’ hand. We are your family!”
Looking out the bedroom window, Lina held her tongue. Her father labored outside with the farmhands, cleaning up the remnants of the barn. The pile of debris grew as the men shifted through the ruins searching for salvageable material. Despite the deception, despite the past, in that moment Lina knew her mother only spoke the truth: they needed her.
“I will not stay indefinitely,” she said as she watched the men work, “but I will stay until the farm is cleaned up.”
“Until it is cleaned up, Mother. And no more.”
** ** ** ** ** **
Two days ago…
Zhevruil | The two of them ride to Buckland, to home.
Cwen stretched languidly, her body pressed against Zhevruil’s as the rising sun filtered through the dark blue curtains. She propped her head up and perused his beaten brow: the bruises were yellowing and would fade away completely but the scars… She reached out to gently touch his lip. She remembered when they were unmarred, years ago. The stripes across his back, hidden beneath cloth or sheltered from her eyes carefully throughout their night, caused her heart to stop with the pain of of her sympathy. She saw it in his eyes that he didn’t want it. He didn’t want her to feel sorry for him.
“Zhevruil,” she whispers, the name hanging on her lips like honey.
She should feel guilty. Biramore had been missing for weeks, and the time stretched thin like she took each second as a step along a wire stretched across the deep chasms of Moria. Her time spent in Bree added to her depression – the memories, the memories. But she was beholden to her heart and with Laerlin away, she worried a competent healer would not be readily available to the girl upon her return. And then the theft of her ring…
She knew that her return to Bree set into motion something bigger than her plans to retire quietly in Buckland. Biramore’s disappearance, Zhevruil’s reappearance, and the missing ring could hardly have been connected, but she wondered sometimes if the fates worked in threes.
Zhevruil mumbled in his sleep and turned his face away from her. Callee would be awake soon to take Neilia across the river to play with the Stock children as she did every Wednesday. It was market day.
Things seemed so much simpler in the Shire.
** ** ** ** ** **
Eirikr stared at the letter in disbelief. The hand that covered his mouth trembled. His left held the parchment open with some difficulty, the sling hanging loose as he sat leaning his elbow on his knee. As his trembling increased, the paper fell from his grasp. It floated to the floor oh so slowly and landed dangerously close to the embers of the cooking fire.
The house was deathly empty without Anya’s presence. The week between her return from Fornost and their departure for the Red Pass had been spent in her near constant company after Faethril had emerged on the streets of Bree. The angry spirit attacked Eruviel and had to be wrestled to the ground. Anya had been able to control the whispers of the spirit much better at the Elf’s home.
He had taken it upon himself to keep her entertained so her mind would not dwell on what she had to face. They talked of everything from the water-bugs that still dotted the pond beneath Eruviel’s home to the state of Dale when Anya departed. He watched her paint and draw with an embarrassed awe. He never realized his sister’s talent. At night when Eruviel was home, their laughter filled the confines of their solitude and the world was brighter despite the dark. Since his sister left, it seemed as if every stretch of silence could only be broken by a crow’s call.
Ninim’s penmanship flowed over the page. It spoke lightly of the winter markets and the skulk of foxes that ran through their back yard leaving tracks in the fresh fallen snow. It told how Hulda next door was expecting her fifth child. And it spoke of how Kolrson Tenorbekk sent Sven the Shiv to “protect and watch over” her, his wife, while he was away fetching the wayward daughter.
Hovering over his wife.
He could do nothing.
He stood quickly and strode to the window, throwing it open to let a cold breeze rush in. He closed his eyes and let the wind assault his heated face. Raising his left hand, he tried to make a fist. The fingers responded slowly. Resisted. Gritting his teeth, he tried again. And again.
When Anya returned – and she would return – he would go back to Dale without her if he had to and get Ninim away from the clutches of that man. He could protect her; he would protect her. Abiorn, too, if he had to. No man was going to touch his wife and get away with it.
He would keep making a fist until Anya walked through the door, determined to use it to knock anyone who got in his way, out.