…every sinner has a future. -Ludo “Topeka”
Cwendlwyn stood on the banks of the Brandywine and watched the brown water stream by the steep banks. The wagon borrowed from Blanco Banks broke an axle just north of the hedges separating Buckland from the the Great East Road. Unloading their possessions took most of the morning and now they waited for the spare part to arrive from the carpenter. Neilia splashed in the shallows of the river, closely watched by Callee. The Hobbit had willingly agreed to accompany them to Ravenhold to help mother and daughter settle in before returning to Buckland to be caretaker for their home while they were gone. Cwen thought longingly of her gardens but knew that moving to Bree for the time being was best for her little family.
After all, Biramore was not coming back. Cwen had to face that now that the money they had saved was running low. The spacious home and grand kitchen seemed cold without the parties of neighbors and friends visiting from Bree. She couldn’t keep up with the gardens and the cleaning and the cooking anymore though it had never been a problem before. She couldn’t put her finger on what was wrong since he was gone. It wasn’t like it was the first time she was loved and left. Perhaps it was because for once, she truly thought it would last. She had picked a man that put family first and did not involve himself with plots and schemes. She did not have to heal injuries without knowing their cause because it was ‘safer’ if she didn’t know. They were honest with each other. They were true.
She thought about her conversations with Anya as she watched Neilia splash after a toad. She had been surprised when Anric told her that the two had separated and she did not pry when he resisted saying anything more on the matter. She now knew Anya was entertaining thoughts about someone other than Anric, but she never imagined she would act upon them. Perhaps the girl’s honesty revealed too much of the situation and that is why he left her. Cwen hadn’t the heart to ask when she visited Eirikr’s new home in Durrow. The poor girl looked on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
A frown knit her brow as she considered how her words might have played a role in the destruction of Anya and Anric’s relationship. Such talk of burning and faithfulness. What did she know about such things anyway? She had not felt the burn since Anidore and that turned out lovely, didn’t it? As she watched Neilia play, she answered own question without her usual sarcasm: yes, it did. She had Neilia and she always had to remember that. The time she would spend away on her duties was for Neilia’s benefit; vegetables and coney pies would not bring in enough coin to ensure she was taken care of in the future. If anything happened to her, Cwen knew somehow that Oendir Arrowheart would not let Neilia starve on the streets.
Sighing, Cwen turned to check on the repair progress. It was a long day’s journey, and they would have to make camp now that most of the day was lost. Neilia would take the news well; she always had an adventurous spirit and saw the move as a great mystery waiting for her in the land of Men. She was certain to enjoy camping beneath the stars.
She smiled slightly as she climbed the bank of the river. She would have to get used to camp again now that she was employed as a Wayfarer.
* * *
Eirikr poked the campfire with a long, spindly stick. The woods spoke quiet comfort as the dusk settled in around him for a quick hug before sinking beneath the treetops. The rosy skies did little to brighten his mood. Nothing seemed to these days.
A snap of a twig alerted him that he was not alone. The Chetwood was full of bandits and beasts – surely a beast would not have made such a tell-tale sound. His hand flew to the hilt of his sword and he held the stick out in front of him ready to swing at the first thing that moved.
A pair of eyes reflected the firelight as the sun finally sank beneath the horizon, plunging the woods into night. They watched him, unblinking, until Eirikr relaxed and lowered the stick slightly. A black nose and then a muzzle emerged from the shadows followed by the yellow eyes of the wolf.
Eirikr stared back at the animal, fascinated. The remains of his supper rested on a leather scrap he used as a plate. He picked up the roasted rabbit and took a bite before holding it out to the wolf. He expected the animal to run – or charge – but it did neither. It simply padded over to sniff the food before accepting it with a chomp.
He wiped his hands on his tunic and sat back to watch the wolf eat. The meat was gone in seconds and the wolf licked its muzzle of the grizzle. Then, it settled down with its massive paws stretched out before him and stared into the fire.
For a long time, Eirikr watched the wolf for any signs of aggression. His instinct, however, told him there was no threat and the wolf did not see him as something foreign to the trees and night air. Eventually, it laid its head down and closed its eyes.
Eirikr looked up at the stars showing through the gaps in the trees and for the first time since he received Ninim’s letter, their beauty did not sting.
* * *
The Watcher passed by her hiding spot with that overconfident stride all of them seemed to adopt when on duty. She didn’t know why she loathed them so much lately. She knew many of them and had liked them well enough before. Things were getting more difficult, though, and she refused to go home and admit defeat. It would work out, this time, she just knew it.
When she was sure he was gone, Lina swung her legs over the wall and let herself fall to the stones covering the ground. Her arms ached from holding herself balanced for so long and she unhooked the pouch of coin from her belt with a frown. “So much work for so little,” she muttered.
“And it really wasn’t worth any of it, now, was it?” The deep voice precluded the hand that grasped her tightly around the shoulders from behind. She looked down and saw the Watcher’s colors and scowled. With her heels, she kicked at his shins, but he anticipated the move and lifted her up and back causing her to kick forward in an attempt to regain equilibrium. A rope was thrown around her arms and looped expertly around her wrists to draw them behind her. Before she knew it, she was trussed and practically helpless kneeling on the cold cobblestones of the alley.
“Honest, mis’er Watcher, sir, I didn’t do nothin’.”
The man’s cold blue eyes stared into her own as he reached for the pouch she dropped. He smiled as he straightened.
“Oh? Then what is this?” He emptied the contents of the bag into his hand and the gold coins slid from his palm to the street. An empty vial also fell into his palm and Lina’s eyes widened.
“What is this indeed,” he continued and tucked the bag into his belt. He uncorked the vial and sniffed. “Poison? I’d bet my life on it. What would a little girl like you be doing with poison?” His broad shoulders blocked out the sun as he looked down on her.
“Wha-I-I-” Lina stammered for words but had none. Damnit all!
“Empty. What have you been doing, little girl?”
“I ain’t li’l and I ain’t been doin’ nothin’!” she insisted, though she felt it was useless to protest any more. She did not think this particular Watcher was a particularly good man who was interested in the truth and something told her that she was going to regret lifting this particular purse.
“It’s empty. Tell me, did you know a Dwarf was recently poisoned right in the Prancing Pony? They have no idea who did it. The Watch is just puzzled about the whole thing. And here you are. With an empty vial of poison. That is such a coincidence. Isn’t that right?” Another man emerged from the shadows behind him. He grinned with a nod.
“Tha’s right, Dama, right shame.”
“Ye mean ta tell me ye ain’t got one clue about the culprit! What ’bout th’Elf I lifted tha’ from?” She added a bit late, “Mis’er Watcher, sir?”
Dama’s eyes widened briefly and then he smiled even broader. “Well, no, he just arrived in town today and we are stumped. But I think we might remain stumped if say, you could pay an Information Fee. That would ensure that this information would stay just between the three of us.”
“B-bu…I ain’t got no money. Tha’s why I was stealin’ in the first place!”
The man grinned down at her and lifted her head by her shaggy hair. His teeth gleamed as he said, “Then ye best be finding some, little girl. You have three days. And then I will deal with you my way.”