“Now, don’t you worry, Anya. I’m sure your brother and Eruviel will arrive home well and whole. I doubt they will run into anything much worse than the scum that can be found wandering the streets of Bree nowadays.”

Cwen spoke crisply as she cut the skin from the rabbit. She had given Anya the coin and sent her down the street to the Hobbithole down the road. The young Hobbit gladly sold her the rabbit and thanked her kindly for her patronage and gave his regards to Miss Cwen. Since returning, Anya noted the quick, almost jerky movements of Cwen as she treated the rabbit for that evening’s stew. The woman’s brow seemed sterner than usual and her eyes had dark circles beneath them.

“I know it is no good worrying, Cwen. But I still do.”

Anya stood watching the older woman work for a moment. As Cwen began hacking the meat into sloppy chunks, she had to ask, “Cwen…is something the matter?”

With a loud thunk, Cwen sunk the cleaver into the thick cutting board covering the table. “Whatever makes you think there is something the matter, Anya?”

“You seem…upset about something. Is it okay that I am here? I do not wish to intrude. I just, well, I had to get away for a while.”

Her host laughed dryly. “Anyatka, dearie, you chose to live in Bree. The urge to flee should come often.” Cwen scooped up the pieces and dropped them into a frying pan to brown. “You are most welcome at any time. But where is your husband? I would have expected him to come with you.”

Trying to hide the blush with a curtain of hair, Anya sputtered, “Oh, he’s not, we’re not…I know it isn’t proper to live together before marriage, but under the circumstances we all thought…”

Smirking, Cwen waved a greasy hand at her. “Never you mind, Anya. Biramore is not my husband, either.”

Anya tried to hide the surprise. “He isn’t?”

“Oh, no, dear. I have been married once, to a foolish, selfish man. Biramore and I chose to love one another without the pretenses of ceremony.” Cwen poured some liquid into the pan and began adding fresh herbs. “It was a grand ceremony, though. Anidore wore a deep, lush burgundy robe and the bridesmaids a vibrant blue. I led a company of folk back then. The weddingThe groomsmen all wore the uniforms of green and gold.” She paused and smiled slightly. “My dearest Aldoon officiated. One of the rare times he paused in his travels just long enough to do so. And Castius! Castius brought his tamed cat – one that would make your little Oli look like a house pet.” Chuckling, she stirred the mixture as it rose to a low boil.

“You do not appear like one to want a huge ceremony like that, Cwen. That surprises me.” Anya reached over the island between them and took up a paring knife and a large potato.

Cwen shrugged. “That was a long time ago. Neilia’s father. She’s nearly eight now. Though she acts like she’s thirty.” The thought of her daughter brought a smile to her lips.

“How does Biramore do with Neilia? I imagine well.”

The smile vanished as quickly as it came. “He did splendidly. Thought of her as his own, I’m certain.”

“Did?”

The falter in Cwen’s stirring would have been missed by most. Only because Anya was watching her friend so closely did she catch it.

“Biramore traveled a great deal protecting caravans. Merchants. Over six months ago, he left for Needlehole and never came back.”

Cwen’s voice was even. Calm. She moved about preparing the coney stew with practiced grace. She added the potatoes and set to chopping carrots.

Finally, Anya broke the silence. “He’s gone?”

“Well, yes. Dead, probably. Seeking revenge for his sister’s death. Or taken by goblins or orcs or bandits.”

“Are…are you okay?”

Cwen set down the knife and looked over at Anya. “Are you all right? Knowing your brother could be dead or on his way to death? Are any of us all right, Anya?”

Anya blinked and took a step back. “There was another man…” she blurted out under the pressure of Cwen’s cold response. “I remember seeing you with another man in Bree.”

“Zhevruil. His name was Zhevruil. He’s disappeared again, as well. I have a special knack for that Anya. Making men disappear. I have grown used to it.”

“He’s dead, too?”

“Possibly. Though Zhev is like a fox—hard to catch and hard to kill. More likely, he made a bad deal and had to vanish to avoid the consequences.”

Anya watched as Cwen finished dumping things into the pot. Her host wiped her hands on her apron and sighed. “Men are fickle, Anya. They always will be. They chase glory or adventure or gold. Occasionally they remember their woman back home. It helps when they have children with her. But even then—” she shrugged. “Well, look at Neilia’s father.”

“My Anric is faithful and true,” Anya insisted.

Cwen smirked as if she knew something Anya did not. “Thus far, yes. Anric seems like a nice lad from what you’ve told me. Would probably do right by you. But the passion fades, Anya. Love dies down to acceptance of each other’s company.”

“It goes away?”

She shook her head. “No. Not like that. But it doesn’t burn like it does in the beginning. People like that: the burn. The excitement. The rush.” She put her fist on her hip and looked at Anya intently. “Do you know what I mean?”

Blushing, Anya thought not of Anric, but of Morducai Mossfoot. Her cheeks did not flush around him simply because he had a tendency to be flirtatious and crass. The burn consumed her when she thought of him. The excitement declared itself in her voice whenever she greeted him. The rush made her head swim whenever he leaned in close. She forced her thoughts to her lover, to Anric. There was warmth there. Affection. And love. She did love Anric and she knew that he loved her, too. But there was no burn.

“Burns hurt, though,” she whispered. “And eventually, they cool.”

Cwen leaned over the pot and took a deep breath of the rising aroma. “They do. On both accounts. Which is why people settle…or wander. But they always look for that feeling, just to make sure they are still alive.”

Anya turned to look out the window overlooking the front lawn. Cwen’s house was not built Hobbit-style beneath the ground, but it bore the roundness of traditional Hobbit homes. Even in the front lawn, Cwen had planted crops and herbs among her flowering garden. She thought of the little plot of land she and Anric were trying to turn into a vegetable garden. Without her bidding, her thoughts shifted to the Dalish Charm removed because of her negligence.

“Why don’t people just accept that, then? If folk always do it. Always look for something else.”

Behind her, Cwen shrugged. “Tradition. Family. It is easier to raise a family when you know the spouse will be there.”

“Not everyone falls for tradition, though. You, for instance. And there are others I know.”

“Mhmm. Indeed there are. Anidore, for instance, went back to his womanizing ways after we split apparently. I would say I was hurt and surprised, but really, just hurt.” She lets out a self-depreciating laugh. “And not really even hurt. I just felt foolish.”

Anya nodded and asked very cautiously,“Do you ever wonder what it would have been like to just…let him?”

Cwen turned to look at her. “Let him…sleep around? Oh, heavens, no. I don’t think that ever crossed my mind. At least not then.”

“But what about now?”

The older woman ran her fingers along her hairline brushing back any flyaways that escaped from the loose bun on the crown of her head. “I think that now, I wouldn’t mind it so much. It would be difficult to see the one I love with someone else at first, but if I knew that in the end, their heart belonged to me, I think I would be more open to it.”

“If you loved them and they loved you.”

“Maybe. Though I am not sure I could actually do it when it comes down to it. See my love with another.” Cwen smiled kindly and reached over to pat her hand. “I am jealous like that, I suppose.”

Anya nodded. “I think most people are.”

“Jealous and perhaps selfish. In the end, people don’t want the pain that comes with the burn.” She laughed. “After all, only crazy people hurt themselves on purpose, right?”

“Right.”

 

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