Eirikr rode in silence. He did not want to look at his companions as he kept Kvígr close to Taja’s steed. He had given Pharazanû back to him after the man mounted up and he rested limply against the Lossoth. The gleam of the young man’s pale hair shone even in the fading light as they rode toward Lothlorien. The White Witch’s Wood. O, he tried not to recall the tales of the place as they drew ever nearer.
He had half a mind to stay with Langafel’s men at its border, but that would be cowardly. His place was with his company. His place was to protect his company, even if it was from themselves.
He had to hand it to Oen; the man had an interesting recruitment philosophy. And he knew that aside from Cwen and Eruviel, he hardly knew the other members. They seemed hot-headed and and quick to draw. And while at first everything seemed black and white, he began to feel that things were not quite what they seemed with the enemy. Still, he watched. He waited. He spoke only when he felt it absolutely necessary. And while everyone’s hatred for the sorcerers clouded their judgement, he tried to remain objective and true to his core beliefs.
After all, it wasn’t personal for him. He had met Atanamir a mere handful of times, and they were in passing. He thought the gentleman could make his own decisions, and he did: he chose the sorcerer.
He just hoped he would never have to kill him for it one day.
Still, there was a long road ahead to Lorien and things could possibly change before they returned. If the eaves of Mirkwood had taught him anything, it was you could rarely see what was around the next bend in the road ahead.
The nights when Pharazanû came to him burned feverishly in Zabathôr’s mind. Now as he stared at the letter in one hand and held the stem of the flowers carefully with the other, he pictured him lying beneath the coverlet with dozens of the tiny blue blossoms in his hair.
His chest tightened.
Was he getting too old for this?
Age was hardly an excuse. He had spent a mere half-century walking the paths of the Eye, give or take a handful of years. The journey kept his body healthy and fit while his mind stayed sharp. The only thing that had changed was that he no longer walked it alone.
Something blurred his vision as he tried to reread the letter Pharazanû must have left before they had marched to the Flame.
What was this?
He rubbed his eyes to clear his vision and his fingers came away wet. He had not cried since he was a boy of seven and his own foolish machinations had set his own hair on fire. A surge of anger welled in his chest now, and he grit his teeth as the air crackled with heat around him.
Zabathôr took several deep breaths and willed the flush out of his cheeks. He turned from his bedside table and went to the chaise where he pushed several books to the floor before lifting a leg to fall to the cushions.
He laid himself back against the support and thought about how much Pharazanû had changed in the past months. Ambition and drive to complete the Flame had not left much room for Zabathôr to contemplate matters of emotion. Emotion was messy. It was too complicated to deal with and made one weak. It was best left to the other side. The “free peoples.”
He read the last lines of Pharazanû’s letter and again it sounded like a goodbye. He thought of his last words to the boy, and he realized they had not been enough. As that wretched company took him to Lorien, they took him further and further from his grasp. He closed his eyes to block the fading light that bathed his chamber now that the shadow was gone.
He did not want to think about tomorrow when the Four Lords would be three, or even worse, halved. What would happen to them now that they were drawn and quartered? Would the Eye send them to the far corners of his empire as slaves to remind others what would happen if they failed? The gift of life seemed so new and precious to him suddenly. And was it such a gift if it meant living in torture as nothing but a mocking shadow of his former self.
The day will dawn and one way or the other, he thought it would bring freedom to his young lover in life or death. And with its light, Zabathôr realized he did not know the path before his feet and he could only stare out the window at the setting sun.
The bear was grumbling to himself. Of course, if anyone happened to pass by, his complaints sounded like growls and snarls and slobbery lip blowing. But he was complaining, though he knew no one would understand.
He just did not understand why Anya had asked him to stay up all night watching for the past week and a half. He missed the sun and the Broken Cask and the way the light sparkled on the lake. He wanted to go look for another beehive and eat the guts out of it.
Anya wouldn’t tell him why he was watching or what he was watching for, but so far it had been a stray dog (which Anya did not let him keep despite the big bear eyes) and several squirrels. Oh, and a rabbit. The rabbit didn’t like him very much and moved on from Anya’s small garden rather quickly when it caught scent of him.
Still, he’d watch. He wouldn’t fall asleep and he hadn’t really fallen asleep the past two nights. It was hard to stay awake with the sounds of the night lulling all around you. She had to understand that, right?
Besides, there was nothing to see.
He could be sleeping right now.
But then again, out here, he couldn’t hear his sister crying at night. Sometimes, he thought she’d make it without tears, but inevitably, he’d hear the sniffling and then the sharp gasp and he’d try not to roll his eyes as her feet hit the floor and she shuffled across her room to the opposite corner of her bed. Sometimes Sally Stitches would let out a plaintive meow or one of the dogs would bark, but after a few minutes, the bed in the other room would creak again and the room fell silent.
The bear huffed and turned his big head to gaze up at the stars. The light was growing at the tops of the trees and he slowly lumbered across the lane into the yard of the little cabin. The floorboards of the wagon creaked as he climbed into the back with the intention of changing back into his lanky self. But instead of a shimmer and a shift, there was a slump and a sigh and Abiorn fell asleep there in the wagon with the cover blocking out the first rays of the morning sun.
And he did not see the stray dog, turned away two days back, sitting up on the cliffs of Pinecrest overlooking the cabin.