Gardeneve quickly transformed from a cold shell of a house to a warm and welcoming beacon in the cold Buckland night. Cwen and Neilia worked diligently for half a day to get the house in living condition; their work was certainly made easier by Callee’s diligence while they lived in Durrow. After the furniture was uncovered and the dust swept out, they set on the kitchen like two madwomen. Shortbread, sugar, gingerbread. Flour covered every countertop as they baked dozen after dozen and set them out to cool. Jellies, jams, crystallized sugar sprinkles. The Hobbits were coming, and they expected full bellies.
They baked late into the evening and then settled down in the parlour to to enjoy some of the fruits of their labor. Before a cozy fire, Cwen read to Neilia from a book of tales from the first age she had purchased in Dol Amroth. The little girl interrupted frequently to point out character flaws and plot twists and the tragedy of it all.
“Mama, you could be in a book like this!” Neilia declared at the end of the tale of Eärendil’s voyage. “You go off to save people and stop the bad things in the world, too.”
Smiling, Cwen brushed a bit of flour from the girl’s cheek. “I am no great hero, love. I just go where people need help when I am called upon. And even then, it is not that frequently that I am in the field any more.”
Neilia looked up at Cwen with big, wide eyes. “But you have! Since you met Mister Arrow’art.”
Cwen swallowed and kept smiling at her daughter. “I know working with the Wayfarers has taken me away from you more than I should be, Neilia. I am sorry.”
“It’s okay, Mama. I like it in Bree.”
“Do you?” The fire sparked and mother and daughter watched the red glow leap into the air and fade away before it could hit the ground. “Would you like to stay there? Or do you miss home enough and wish to return here permanently?”
“That means stay here forever?” Neilia asked. “What about Ravenhold? That’s home, too.”
Cwen sighed and stroked the dark hair from Neilia’s forehead. “We need a house, Neilia. Not a barracks. And it is not right for me to be away so much, nor is it right for me to take you into harm’s way. When my contract with the company is over… I was thinking we could return here. Perhaps offer the spare rooms to folks on holiday. Give them a bed and a breakfast during their travels.”
Neilia sat up in alarm. “No, Ma! What are you talking about? We live in Durrow now so you can be near the c’mander. How can you two get married if we live so far away?”
Cwen’s heart nearly stopped before it took off like a Mearas .
“Neilia, don’t be hasty. The commander has many more things with which to occupy his time than me.”
Neilia rolled her eyes. “C’mon, Mama. He likes you a lot. And you like him.”
“But that does not mean we shall get married, Neilia. There are a lot of… factors to consider.”
“Like… who will take care of our ghost lilies? Callee forgot to cut them back. We shall have to do that in the morning.”
Not buying it, Neilia frowned and turned to give her mother the same look Cwen gave her many times. “Mama. We can dig up the lilies and plant them in Bree.”
Cwen sighed. “Neilia, honey, it’s time for bed. We can talk more about this later. But don’t get your hopes up, love. You must be practical; the future is always uncertain. But regardless, I will love you and be here for you.”
Huffing in protest over bedtime, Neilia slid off of Cwen’s lap and padded into her room. Cwen sat for a moment rubbing her brow before pushing up from her chair to go tuck her daughter into bed.
The garden was bedded down for the winter; Callee’s visits had seen to it that the post was collected and the weeds kept in check; most of the flower beds had been cut back for the cold, but a group of ghost lily husks stood brown and dead in a far corner of the yard. Though Cwen told Neilia they would take care of it in the morning, sleep eluded her and the full moon illuminated the withered stalks well enough to take the shears to them.
Cutting back the plants was easy enough. She piled the stems by the bed and sat back on her heels. The lilies were hardy and would have done fine without the trim, but by clearing the old out, she knew the new growth would have the space it needed to thrive. Tomorrow, she and Neilia could go to the woodworker’s for wood chips to keep the earth from shedding all its warmth.
As she sat staring up at the Buckland sky, she sighed as her thoughts drifted back to Oendir, and Neilia’s hopes. Gardening applied to life, she knew. Yet it was so much more difficult to do to life. It would not be dead stems that would be tossed aside if she trimmed the ghosts that crowded her heart. But who would it be? Rheb, whose attention and devotion made her feel like a (very satisfied) queen? Or Oendir, whose quiet strength and goodness bolstered her own will and desire to create good in the world?
She needed both.
Didn’t every woman deserve both?
The stars whispered no answer. Inside her breast, her heart waged war on itself and her reasoning was no help, for it knew that one way or the other, now that Rheb said he loved her, they would all suffer for it, not just her and Oendir.
She thought of Oendir’s words the day after that fateful dream. Since then she had begged him to let her go, let her run away to the land of furry feet and elevensies and rich soil. Each time, he brought up her contract, her duty. How a good field medic was so hard to find. No matter how much both of them were hurting, he would separate personal pain from duty and carry on.
The amount of composure with which he delivered his words chilled her now as they did then.
The Wayfarers need you, and I’m not going to fight with my own son. Any other man, Cwen, and yes. I’d probably battle a dragon.
But not Rheb.
Always, Oendir put others first. His selfless protection of those around him had drawn her to him in the first place. The irony of it tasted bitter.
He didn’t want to break Rheb’s heart. Hadn’t she already? Hadn’t she broken all of them now that her relationship with Rheb was out in the open?
Her racing thoughts paused. Her relationship. Yes, it was a relationship, not just an affair spawn from loneliness and despair. She was genuinely fond of the youth and had begun to share more than just her body with him. She did not know when it began, the trust. She did not know how to stop it.
Cwen closed her eyes and pictured Rheb digging shirtless in his yard, the dirt flying out of the knee-deep hole as he flung it with his bare hands. The sweat on his skin glistened like the remnants of the tears he perhaps was attempting to bury. She did not have to go to him; even as he hurt knowing that Oendir knew, he reached out to comfort her. It had taken every ounce of her willpower to not give in, not crawl into the sanctuary of his arms, and not to lose herself in his version of love.
Now, she did not have to be wrapped in his scent to be overcome by him. Now, she only had to think his name and her heart fluttered and longed for the next time her eyes would find him again. Without her permission, she had begun to fall in love with the son just as she had fallen in love with the father.
When would she learn to temper her heart?
Her fingers were so chilled she had trouble with the knob in the circular door that led back into the warmth and comfort of her home. Cwen gathered up the post from the table just in the entryway and hurried back into the parlour to warm herself by the fire.
A few general notices regarding events in Buckland including Harvestmath concerts and the seasonal horse races. A newsletter from the Mathom Society thanking her for her yearly donation and requesting another for the Yule season. She mused on a Hobbit’s value of a bluejay feather from Dol Amroth as she flipped to a dirty envelope sealed with a dark red wax and a plain stamp. Her name and address was written in a jagged, shaking hand that seemed familiar somehow, but a sense of uneasiness descended upon her. She looked around the quiet room for its source, but only found the familiar furnishings of nearly half a decade of living.
Carefully, Cwen broke the seal and opened the letter.
The hand that wrote the letter was either uncertain or unlearned. The text itself revealed little; only the last stroke caused her to pause.
Her breath caught. Then she gasped and this last component tipped her scales completely upside down.
Cupboard doors banged open and shut. The sound of boiling water soon filled the kitchen and with a shaking hand, Cwen added three drops of a dark liquid from the little blue vial to the tea. She had done so well since Dol Amroth; her addiction to Rheb had replaced her need for the sedative and she only thought of the opium in the deepest dark of night when she lay alone in Ravenhold longing for sleep.
Just to calm my nerves, she thought. Just so I can think on this clearly. It isn’t as though it is the opium. Just some herbs and roots to slow my trembling heart.
“Truly, it could not be him,” she whispered over the steaming cup as she brought it to her lips. “It is some ruse. Or someone else entirely.”
But she knew who sent the letter that lay open on the floor of the parlour. She wondered when it arrived, but more importantly, where in the world Biramore was now.