The fist connected firmly with his jaw; he could feel his bottom teeth loosening from the impact and liquid metal filled his mouth. Anger seethed into the warmth of the hit and flowed through his blood to his clenched fists. Wildly, he swung at his assailant who merely laughed as the blow swung wide of its mark.
Another set of knuckles winded him as it met his stomach, quick and sure. He tottered backward and fell over an extended leg, the stonework of the lane connecting solidly with the back of his skull. Bright lights obscured his field of vision and the boot broke two of his ribs undeterred.
“Thought we’d play a little ratcatcher tonight, Tenorbekk,” Mikah said from somewhere above him. “You fell nicely into our little trap.”
“C’mon, he’s not getting up any time soon,” another voice, familiar but faint through the ringing of his ears. “Watch’ll be ’round soon. We had better scram!”
“Don’t come back to the room,” Mikah warned lowly as Eirikr tried in vain to turn onto his side. The blood in his throat made it difficult to breathe and he coughed and gagged. “Don’t come back the the Academy, Tenorbekk. Your kind is never welcome, but rats are to be stamped out for good. Mark me. Brother.”
Footsteps retreated and he was left in the dark still choking on his own blood. Stabbing pain shot through his torso as he finally managed to roll onto his side and then his stomach. He drooled spittle and iron from his gasping mouth, but he did not care when every breath felt like fire.
For a long time, he lay there still and struggling to breathe. At the far end of the lane, he could hear people passing on the brighter wider street, but the beams of the streetlamps did not reach his broken form. To keep his mind off the pain, he counted his breaths until it passed enough to move. Slowly, he sat up.
He touched his broken lip and clutched at his broken rib cage and wondered what in the world he was going to do. He could not go to his father’s. He was supposed to be at the school where he had spent the last two years learning how to fit in with the “noble classes” of Dale. Yes, he thought, Mikah was certainly noble. Royal, even. A royal pain in the ass, and now his roommate’s mischief had landed Eirikr without a bed for the night.
Nin, he thought as his feet automatically turned to trudge down the lane away from the square, away from the bustle of taverns and inns awaiting at the far end of the lane. Nin would let him in through her window and she would let him pass out on her floor. She might even bring him a pan of water to wash the blood out of his mouth.
The trek was not long, but his battered body made it feel as though he was marching all the way to the other side of the Mirkwood in one go. He used his shirt, torn blue material of the finest quality, to wipe his mouth and chin. He awkwardly climbed the yard fence–landing on his back and nearly crying as he tried to regain his senses–and then stumbled to her window to tap tap tap on the pane of glass.
She let him in quickly, gasping and groping at his arms and hands to see the damage done. She brought him the pan of water and bandages to wrap his breaks in and a bit of her mother’s tonic for pain made from the special Eastern powder of something that had been dried before ground to fine dust.
She did not let him collapse onto the floor, but instead fetched her father’s spare nightshirt (sneaking quietly into her parents’ room while her mother dozed by the fire waiting for her father to come home from the tavern). She helped him out of his torn clothes, bathed him with cheeks bright pink in the moonlight, and then eased the cool cotton garment over his aching body.
As the fabric whispered over the bruising plane of his chest, her knuckles brushed against his tan skin; her breath caught. Her blonde hair fluttered in the cool breeze from the window left open after his abrupt arrival. She looked up at him and their lips were touching before he could formulate a thought more than Maia, the old Elvish word for those spirits that helped shape all beginnings, and then Arien, the one they said guided the sun across the sky.
Her warmth surrounded him; he could feel the life returning to him. She was his guiding light in the dark.
Nine Years Later
Eirikr sat up, sweating and gasping. He looked around quickly to gain his bearings and he rubbed his face with both hands as he realized where he was.
The cabin was cavernous; suitable for a family of Beornings. The children slept in their beds and Garric and Avina were closed behind their bedroom door. In his cradle, Eboric slept soundly.
Eruviel was not in the room; Eirikr figured she was sleeping outside in a tree somewhere and for the moment, he was glad her Elfy ways called for her to sleep beneath the stars. He did not like for her to see her this way. He did not want her to see him panicked, confused, and weak.
Silently, he threw off the blanket and went over to the cradle. He gazed down at the boy and marveled at how much he looked just like her in so many ways. The boy’s hair was lightening as he aged. He didn’t dare to hope.
He ran a hand through his hair and stroked the bristles on his chin. He had struggled with the decision all day and he knew that if he did not follow through, he would regret it. Silently, he slipped out of the house and sought the old oak tree by the light of the moon.
He felt it before he saw it. Something in him chilled, but before he could adjust to the internal shift, a gate burst and a rush of hot, raw emotion flooded him. He willed his feet forward until it was clear in the night: her grave.
He went up to it and knelt beside it. Eruviel had clearly been there earlier, though he could not tell when. The plot was cleared and the headmarker clearly taken care of by a diligent and careful hand. Guilt washed over him. Eruviel. Even in this moment, Eruviel selflessly cared for them all.
The stars moved across their quiet routes as he knelt beside the grave without moving. Head bowed, he allowed himself to miss her for the first time in months, ages. Yet he knew that was a lie. He knew that every day, he mourned for golden hair and the smell of peppermint.
“Nin,” he finally croaked softly. “My Sun. I am sorry.”
He touched the letters of her name as the tears blurred his vision.
“I failed you. I never should have left you.”
Salty pools formed at the corners of his mouth as his tears caught in his beard. He wiped them away roughly.
“I should have returned sooner, I should have told my father no. I was selfish and because I pushed you so hard…”
The words jammed in his throat and he could say no more. His grief stooped him until his forehead pressed against the grass covering the mound that was the blanket for her bones. He wanted to join them. He had always thought they would turn to dust together and share the same bed for eternity.
Maybe they still would some day.
But not today.
He sat up, wiping his eyes, and took several steadying breaths. He looked up at the stars and the moon. He exhaled quickly.
“I hope that taking him to Bree is the right thing to do,” he said to her softly as he pushed himself to his feet. “I do not know what the future holds, Nin, but I will not let you down again. I am here now.”
The trees bowed in the breeze. Insects sang in the bushes. He settled down against the trunk of the old oak tree and began to tell her what had transpired in the past year and a half. He spoke as if she sat beside him, snug beneath his arm and they were spending the night out camping beneath the stars. He paused occasionally, waiting for her response, and then continued on as if he heard her sweet laughter encouraging him to continue.
Eventually, the past caught up with the present and he ran out of things to say. He sat in silence for a quarter of an hour and then as if a bell rang signaling the hour, he stood and brushed off the seat of his pants.
“We’ll be back,” he assured the green mound of earth at his feet. “I’ll make sure he knows who his mother is. Don’t worry about that, Ninim Sun. Don’t worry about that.”
The moon was sinking when Eirikr returned to his bedroll. He rested on his back and stared at the ceiling for some time before he rose and picked up the mass of blankets. He resituated them next to the cradle where his wife’s son slept peacefully and reached over the edge to rest his large hand on the babe’s chest. Eboric sighed in his sleep, turned his round little head toward Eirikr, and settled back to into slumber.
Only then did Eirikr rest his head and drift off into a dreamless sleep.