At times, Cwen worried that she would lose her way in the dense forest of the Trollshaws. Occasionally, the gorge would rise in her stomach and she would quickly slide from Bean the Second’s back to vomit violently at the base of a regal beech. Then she would cry for an indeterminate amount of time, sometimes fall into a dreamless sleep, and then jolt awake, ashamed of herself, disoriented, and exhausted. Bean would stomp the earth impatiently and she would climb back into the saddle , take out the bottle of morphia, and then put it away again.
Yesterday she had passed through the Ford of Bruinen. The Loudwater lived up to its name; the fall of the rapids pierced her ears and the light bouncing off its waves blinded her. The mists chilled her to the bone causing her to shiver. Just as quickly the sun, unhindered by the canopy of the forest, heated her blood to a sweat. As miserable as she had been, she preferred the mild discomfort of changing body temperatures and a runny nose to this headache and nausea that refused to ease even in sleep. It was growing stronger. She drank more water.
She took a dose.
The headache eased. The nausea subsided. And the world looked less frightening and bleak for a time.
She had to reach the children, she told herself. She would take them to the Shire and protect them from everything that was drawn to folk like the Wayfarers: the conflict, the questions, the enemy. They could laugh and play at Gardeneve and be free from worry. Callee would care for them all and the children would enjoy their “vacation” pampered, loved, and well-fed. Oendir, if he ever found himself again, would know where to find them and maybe they would decide to stay there and finally find peace.
When the opiate’s effect faded, tears flowed freely. Her feeling of isolation consumed her. The heavy heart returned with the nausea and she hardly knew where her horse was taking her. Looking up at the sky, she wished she would turn to the wind and blow away like dust, return to the earth, start over again. Leaves could fall. Men could fall. Women could fall, too, but no, they had to be strong for their men, they had to be silent, be still. They had to bend to the whims of their men but keep a firm foot in the soil else the entire world around them would go topsy-turvy, upside-down. They could not rattle and moan and shake and let go. Women were the roots, the trunk, the conduit of men’s strength and if the women failed, the family failed, the tree was broken. A tree could only survive being ripped from the earth so many times.
Uprooted again. Another part of her torn away by choices and fate. She had lost sight of what was important and this was her penance, her punishment. She punished herself for loving Rheb, for daring to dream of becoming a princess, for swallowing the poison she gave herself even now. For letting a man get in the way of her child. Her children.
Was Solstan hers now that Oendir was gone? What is better…a child without a father or a child with a father who doesn’t care about him?
She was weak. She didn’t want to think about these things. It wasn’t his fault, it wasn’t his fault, he only left to heal, he didn’t know that he would forget them, he’d forget them, he forgot them…
She wanted to forget, too.
She wanted all the dead leaves, the broken branches, the bits of her broken and torn to drop away like the leaves in the fall. She wanted to shed the colours others saw and grow something new. She wanted Oendir to find her and all the little pieces and pluck away the dead bits of her and graft himself to her and grow together. Grow together.
She wanted to belong.
She made sure to avoid any travelers. Bean turned north toward Thorenhad and let her displeasure known when she was turned away. Cwen promised her an apple, but she did not have any apples, so she promised an apple and some sugar cubes when they got to Durrow, but we cannot stay, they cannot stay.
For days, Cwen rode in silence save her sobs and slept in broken fragments stolen here and there just far enough off the trail to be passed by.
She took another dose.
What if she wasn’t the roots and trunk but the leaves and that is why people shed her so easily? What if she had no heartwood, only her pretty colors, her pretty face and once the leaves started to wilt and fade, people realized it wasn’t to last? The green would fade. The reds would crumble. People shed her so they could be renewed again.
Don’t think. Don’t feel.
She took another dose.
It was the headaches. It was the nausea. She had to get home to her children. She had to find some place safe. Durrow wasn’t safe. Memories weren’t safe. They weren’t enough to hold on to. They hurt too much to hold on to.
Bean’s hooves click click clopped across the Last Bridge. The stones were warm from the day’s heat and the water was not so harsh as the sun dropped in the sky. Camp. Just a soft, stone-free space of land. Sleep without dreams, without–
Memories drifted in and out of her sleep. The visions came stronger than any dream. Fire and burning horse flesh. Hot blood on her virgin thighs. Laughter full of derision as the elhudans danced in her vision. Bright spots of pain. Violation. Her father’s hand reaching for her with death in his eyes.
What happened to Oendir was worse, she told herself. What happened to Oendir was worse.
She wanted someone to comfort her, but there was nothing except the night and the breeze catching her hair. The full moon shone bright above her and the stars gave back their warm glow. Choosing distance over sleep, she saddled Bean and rode on through the lonely lands in the night. She did not fear the orcs or the orc-blooded men. She did not fear the wolves or the wild boar. She did not feel the fear that drove her on through the night because she took another dose so she could keep going. Just enough to take the edge off, she said in her head. Just enough to keep going.