Streets never scared her before. Fear came from closed doors with chains. Tight places where she could barely move. Long marches to foreign lands. Angry silences before the fall of the lash. Things so rare that she felt as though she deserved them when they came for her because she must have done something wrong, so very wrong. Her life in-between those moments of fear never seemed to raise the hairs on the back of her neck or compel her to glance over her shoulder on the walk home from the market. In day to day life, walking down the street had never scared her before.
In day to day life, walking down the street had never scared her before.
Walking down the street now was different for Najwa. She kept her hood up and her head down and tried not to think about the familiar streets back home. So many leagues, mountains, and forests separated her from them that she doubted she would ever find herself walking their paths again. She hardly thought of them by day, but at night in the fading twilight, they felt comforting and familiar and the cold streets of Bree felt like the foreign land they belonged to. Wary. Strange. Different.
Different somehow from the days when she had a large house full of powerful men or a cabin full of cats to call home instead of a tiny shared room in a house full of girls in various stages of alone. They lived by twos in those tiny rooms: two beds, two trunks, two hooks for gowns. Two girls to each tiny closet, yet for Najwa, she might as well have lived alone; at least she would accept her own presence without suspicion.
She should be thankful, she told herself. So she lost her life from before they marched to the Mrachniiles to face the tall knife-ears with their arrows and spears. She lost the beds of silk pillows on sun-warmed stones. No more lavish banquets at which to pour wine and listen to the secret dealings of the chieftains as she sat at their heels. No wooden bowls to mix dough for the hearth fire. No masters to nourish and no earning their praise.
But she had a bed nonetheless. And she had friends even if her dour roommate was not one of them. She would find a better place, she told herself. And as long as she kept her head down and her eyes low, she could find her way through the streets of Bree. And if they stayed in color, and mud brown was better than black and white any day.
The warmth of the fire kept the hut cozy. Cwendlwyn resisted the sounds of morning filling the camp; she did not want to go out into the cold winter air to pack her saddlebags and leave Rheb and the simplicity of her life in the Lone-lands behind. The flat of his nails trailed down her back as he began to rejoin the waking world and the gentle pressure reassured her.
The flat of his nails trailed down her back as he began to rejoin the waking world and the gentle pressure reassured her.
Tomorrow, she would go home. Her husband would take her in his arms and smile and ask how she was because he cares. Maybe he would have flowers or a gift to show his love. Their children would celebrate the sweets she would bake.
But for now, Rheb’s nail slid across her shoulder and the warmth of her blood slipping down her back made her growl.
(Two of six I need to write.)
She asked once on the third day. The children ran off to play; the birthday festivities were mostly done. With less to distract her mind, she struggled to forget the fire in her arms and legs and belly as her body demanded the drug that would ease its suffering. So she asked.
Callee did not falter in her sewing. The dress of Neilia’s doll had a tiny rip, a perfect rip for Hobbit fingers to mend, and Callee did not miss a stitch as she told Cwendlwyn simply, “No.”
Cwendlywn threw up.
She went outside, of course, and found shade beneath the peonies after and let the shaded earth cool her flushed cheek.
The next time she asked for it, she hadn’t eaten in two days. Nothing would stay down. Again, Callee did not look up from pulling weeds and answered with a simple, “No.”
Though when Cwendlwyn did not immediately walk away, she added, “One more time. Why don’t you go write Oendir? Let him know what is going on.”
Cwendlwyn hesitated still.
“Woman, go write to your husband. He is your husband, no matter the reasons why you are where you are now.”
Obediently, Cwenldywn went inside the tall house–Hobbit in style, Man in size–and found her study full of bits and bobs added by Callee throughout the years that the lass had been Gardeneve’s caretaker. A collection of smooth beach stones sat in a jar on the windowsill and Cwendlwyn could not help but remember Dol Amroth and the smell of the sea and Oendir’s gnarled foot in her lap as the children played in the surf. The boundaries between patient and healer, commander and soldier blurred in those moments between them when even before they looked upon each other as lovers, they saw each other as kindred spirits fighting for some smudge of happiness after all the twists that life threw at them.
It took many attempts for her to start writing. Several blotches of dark blue ink splattered the top of the parchment where her quill hovered as she sat in her muddled thoughts.
I do not know how to start this letter, so I will simply begin in the thing that is hardest for me. I could not stay with you in Rivendell because of my own weakness and I am ashamed that I have failed you so.
In Dol Amroth, some years ago we discovered a plot to overthrow the Prince through a conspiracy with Southron Corsairs. These mysterious folk from the southern lands brought two dangers to our lands: a weapon that could shoot little balls of lead using fire and a medicine that if abused, caused more ill than it cured.
I am a healer, Oendir. That is why I travel with the Wayfarers and why you recruited me. A young Swan-knight by the name of Sir Pengail of House Nomin was injured by one of those terrible fire sticks and the injury was beyond my abilities. A Southron physician tended the young man and prescribed him a pill of what they call opium to ease the searing pain.
This opium came in many forms and it was used to poison many Swan-knights who fell beholden to its powerful effects. It dulls the senses–all senses. It makes pain go away, makes one drowsy, inured to the problems of the world.
In Dol Amroth, as a matter of professionalism, I tested it on myself so I knew what I was administering to that poor knight. I quickly discovered that if I did not take more, I became violently ill.
Back then, even then, you did not understand what was happening to me. Hardly anyone did save Hallem Kemp, who has apparently experimented with potions and mysterious, unknown mixtures before. I weaned myself off of them then and swore to never touch the stuff again, but when circumstances fell on me, already sick with worry about you, and when Hallem said that we should stop trying to help you remember your past, I fell to my weakness again. I am ashamed and I am ill and I am trying to get better so that I can come back to you. You need me strong and patient and loving. Not sweating and groaning and vomiting.
Oen, our past is nothing if not turbulent. The life of an adventurer is always so. There is one thing that is steady through all of it, through the travel and the pain and the loss and the triumph. It is you and my affection for you. You are my best friend, my confidant. The one who knows me best. Sadly, that might not be very well after all we have been through. We are both rather guarded individuals. We keep our pain closeted away so we do not have to burden others who already bear so much. We need to be more open with one another, Oen. I need to remember that I trust that no matter what, we will always return to one another again.
I will come to you soon, if you will have me back. I am getting better. This will pass. Our children miss you, and I believe they are strong enough to know what is happening to you. I am going to bring them with me and you can decide if you wish for us to stay there with you, or if you wish to come back to Durrow.
For now, I hope that you are resting and happy. I love you, Oendir. I think that part of you still remembers that you love me.
Cwendlwyn looped the tail of her “n” low beneath the line of letters and drew it into graceful bows and loops to empty the nib of her quill. She folded it, sealed it, and then carried it out to Callee.
“Here,” she said. “I wrote him.”
“Good,” Callee answered as she tugged on a stubborn weed with deep roots crowding the hydrangea. “Set it with the others and I’ll take it to post in a bit.”
“Actually, I will take them. I would like the bottle as well, please.”
Callee’s stern eyes rose to study Cwendlywn’s face. She frowned, but nodded and pulled it from her sash.
“Are you certain?” she asked as she handed it to her. Cwendlwyn nodded and turned to go back inside to gather the rest of the mail.
On her way back from the post master’s, she took a detour to a low bank of the Brandywine River. The muddy waters rushed by as they had each time she had stood there in that same spot north of Buckleberry Ferry. Squatting to sit on her heels, Cwendlwyn dipped her hand into water and thought to herself that even though it was still the Brandywine River, it was not the same Brandywine River as before. Fresh waters flowed forever, a mix of old and new as it swirled past. Just like the Adorn back home, she thought, and for the first time in a long time, she thought of the Riddermark as home.
I have many homes, she thought as she uncorked the vial and poured its meager contents into the murky waters. In an instant, the opium washed away and fresh waters cleansed her fingers. For good measure, she tossed the bottle in, too.
For a few more moments, Cwendlwyn sat there in her unladylike squat hugging her knees. Then, slowly, awkwardly, she unfolded herself and stood. With a deep breath, she turned to go back to her family.
“Are you all right?”
“What if Oendir remembers and is hurt because you left?”
“Things will work out in time.”
“How will Rheb find you?”
“How can you take the children away from Durrow?”
“What’s wrong with you?”
“I think you’re being selfish.”
Cwendlwyn, daughter of Framham of the Mark–of Dunland, did not ride her horse to Buckland. When she climbed into the saddle, it took far too long for her to fit her toe in the stirrup and she had difficulty situating her legs over the saddle. Then, she kept dropping her reins. Anyatka, daughter of Kolrson of Dale, suggested that they all ride together in the worn wagon so they could keep each other company. So Cwendlwyn found herself in the wagon with Solstan and Neilia and Bean, Jr. walked beside them as the rode.
Truth be told, she thought that she slept a good portion of the ride, but time was hard to grasp nowadays. The wagon rocked gently back and forth; they did not rush. They had no need to speed their way to the Shire. Time moved differently there, Cwendlwyn said. It would be the same tomorrow as it was today.
She had taken Callee’s letters regarding the influx of southern Men as a consequence of the war to the south. Bree surely had its handful and a half of refugees seeking peace. The problems with money and curfews and Men were not things she was unfamiliar with. So she didn’t think much of it.
Cwendlwyn didn’t think much of anything, really. When she did think, the thoughts turned on her and she did not want them anymore. The thought was considered that a potion to quiet the other thoughts forever would be nice, but a potion like that would quiet everything and she wouldn’t be anymore. Luckily, the thought that some people might actually be upset about that jolted her out of that musing. She had already been weighing which ingredients would work best in such a concoction when the sound of Solstan and Neilia arguing about who would eat the most cake pulled her from herself and she remembered who she was.
She smiled at them. Their driver, a local boy from Bree called Bud Goldenleaf, whistled a cheerful summer tune. She reminded them that there would be enough for both. Callee would bake until their hearts were content.
What transpired at the Hay Gate would have bothered Cwendlwyn on another day. She watched the debate between Bud and the Man and knew that wasn’t right. Why did men speak for Hobbits? The Bounders stood aside, present but silent. Eventually, had to climb out of the wagon herself to see what was the hold up.
She strapped on her sword. She gave the men a Look. Her temper was dampened by southern flowers and she handed over the gold with a roll of her eyes and a bit of a stagger just so they could be on their way.
Callee had the candles burning. Bud was given a guest room to sleep after the horses were stabled nearby. He helped carry the children to bed and Cwendwlyn couldn’t place why her chest tightened at the sight of Solstan’s sleepy head resting on the shoulder of the man who was not his father. She had him put him in her bed and she laid Neilia down beside him. Let them comfort one another, she thought somewhere among the fog.
As Callee sat down at the kitchen table, Cwendlwyn stirred her tea. She had hardly moved from her chair after Bud was gone and the children were settled. Only her hand with the silver spoon stirred and stirred slow circles in the porcelain cup.
“Now,” Callee said as she stirred her own tea, “what in the world is going on?”
“Cwendlwyn! Look at me,” Callee demanded. The little Hobbit reached out a hand to gently smack the table between them, twice. “Where is your Oendir? Wouldn’t he wish to be here for Solstan’s birthday as well?”
Slowly, Cwendlwyn looked up. Just as slowly, she began speaking as though she was telling someone else’s story: haltingly, backtracking for forgotten pieces, expressive, but unemotional. “Isn’t that something?” she ended with. “And if I stayed, how could I, Callee? Knowing that I could bring him that sort of pain. I know what it’s like to be violated. To have something like that taken from me. And what happened to him was so much worse, Callee. What happened to him…and I am weak.” Her face twisted into tears. “I cannot be strong for him. What good am I to him except for more pain?”
Callee sat for a long time stirring while Cwendlwyn fell into silent, wrenching tears. They poured down her cheeks, yet the distant look in her eyes said she didn’t really understand them.
“I felt myself splitting there,” she broke the silence. Tears slipped into the corners of her mouth, but she only tasted the sea. “I felt torn asunder sure as any blade could do. And then Hallem and Pheadra said we should stop trying, stop trying to help him remember because it isn’t really helping him. They knew him longer than me. How can I ask Oendir to remember?”
Callee finally spoke. “They knew him longer, but do they know him best, love? And it sounds as though he is still him. What you fell in love with. The good bits, darling, the bits one should keep should one lose one’s memory.”
“Even if…even so…Look what I’ve done. I’ve messed it all up.”
Callee pursed her lips. “What have you done, Cwendlwyn.”
“I took it.”
“What did you take, love?”
“The opium. The sort they use in medicine, the sort I got from the medical stores in Dol Amroth. It makes the pain stop, Callee. I just wanted it to stop for one night, one moment so that I could think clearly and now…” Cwendlwyn’s eyes welled up again. “I cannot stop taking it. I feel like I’m dying. At times, I wish I were. And I am almost out of it, I didn’t bring enough and even if I wrote them for more it would take ages to get here and if I were Imrahil, I wouldn’t let them give me anything anymore anyway, and…”
“Shh, love. Cwen. Cwen, look at me.” Callee reached out to hold her hand across the table. Reluctantly, Cwendlwyn lifted her eyes.
“Cwen,” Callee said soothingly, “you will heal here. I will help you. I promise, love, I am always here. Here was the first place you ever felt safe in the world. That’s what you told me only months after you came to us.” She gave her a kind, motherly smile. “Be safe here. Rest and let go of what is hurting you. We’ll take care of you and get you back on your feet.”
“It is bad, Callee,” Cwendlwyn whimpered. With her unnatural youth, her tears and weak, tired voice, she reminded the Hobbit of her first days after she came up the river to Buckleberry Ferry. Yet, Callee thought, there was a strength then that Cwendlwyn lost somewhere in the years between. Time had chipped away at her stubborn resolution. Or maybe it was not time, but the little bottle that sat on the table next to their clasped hands.
“We will fix it, my Cwendlwyn,” Callee said firmly. “We will find your roots again and you’ll see. You’ll be right as rain and ready to go back to your life in Bree. For now…this.” She nodded toward the bottle. “I am going to take it and keep it safe. If you ask for it, I will not give it to you, my dear. Not until the third time, because if you ask for it three times, I know you will do what it takes to get more. But think on it. You know the Prince may have stopped your access to their stores. You know it will take ages for it to get here, if you ask. It seems wrong for you to be so beholden, love, to something that cannot give back to you.”
Cwendlwyn thought about it, her dull eyes roaming over the polished wood of the table before her.
“Go to sleep, love. Take the second bedroom. I will make up the second guest room.”
“Callee,” Cwendlwyn said haltingly as she looked up. “It will be bad. The children…”
“You will be strong for them, Cwendlwyn.” Callee’s tone offered no argument. “When you are ill, you be ill. When you can sit, you will join us.”
“They shouldn’t see me…”
“You’re Neilia’s mother. She will know and make up something worse in her head, dear, you know that. And Solstan will worry, too. Now sleep.”
Cwendlwyn rose obediently and padded down the familiar hall to the bedroom. She sat on the edge of the bed and looked at the dark window for a long time before lying down. Callee was right. She needed to sleep now before the medicine was out of her system and sleep would be harder to come by.
They baked a cake the next day and Solstan decorated it himself with horses and ships in white icing. Cwen wore her apron and helped stir, but let Callee direct the measuring and pouring and keeping of time. She only had to excuse herself once because the room started spinning a bit and a she broke out into a cold sweat. There it is, she thought. The last relief is floating away.
That evening after a day of sending out little presents to all of the Hobbits he knew, Solstan settled down to play with the new toy ship he received for his birthday.
“You’re gathering quite a fleet,” Cwendlwyn said with a smile even as she broke out into a heavy sweat beneath her gown. Solstan grinned up from the rug and then stood to rush to hug her. She hugged him back and then Neilia joined with a laugh. Cwendlwyn held them tightly
“I wish Papa was here,” he murmured against her hair. “I miss him.”
“I know, darling,” Cwendlwyn said and with effort, she kept her voice steady. “We will go see him when he is ready.”
“Really?” He pulled back from her and looked for her comforting gaze.
“Yes, baby. It will be a lovely journey if he cannot come to us sooner.”
“I’ve never been to Rivendell!” Neilia said excitedly. “It must be so pretty!” she gasped dramatically.
“It is, darling, and you will love it,” Cwendlwyn assured her.
“When will we go?” Solstan asked with some nervous trepidation in the quaver of his voice.
“When the time is right, dearie,” Callee interjected. “Come, show me your fleet. What is a fleet?”
Solstan went to Callee with the ship and sat beside her to explain the rigging and the lines. Neilia stayed in Cwendlwyn’s lap and for a moment, the pounding in her chest calmed.
That night she slept outside. The breeze cooled her sweats and the song of the trees soothed her restlessness and anxiety. The nausea hit with less force when the stars bathed her forehead.
In the moments of peace, when the nausea was at bay and her skin cooled enough to dry, she could hear the voice of the world around her growing, changing. Leaves furled to rest in the absence of the sun. Roots sought the nutrients of the water and soil. Life persisted.
Note: All songs are taken from Cwendlwyn’s established playlist!
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.
love loses in life, longingly looking
finding nothing but fortune floundering in fetid
memories mashed to muck
my memories are yours
yet your yearnings for yesterday
are false fortunes of fatality
because if they are something, then
why do you tear them out of your head
heavy with self-hatred you run from home
and leave us in the Void
how long before we vanished?
are your demons finally vanquished?
as you go blithely on with life
now that you’ve forgotten your children and wife
go blithely on with life
I fear that I must return to my home. I am leaving the Wayfarers; they do not need my services no matter what they claim. They always have allies to treat anything their own skill cannot mend. My children need me and they need to be in a place where they are safe again.
If you ever regain your memories, I will be where the flowers bloom brightest in good, rich soil and the spirit is nearly always content with a full belly. You will know where that is if you wish to find us.
Hair releases such a stringent, unmistakable smell when it burns. The nostrils recoil. They know that that smell means something is terribly wrong in the world.
The hairs on the back of your arms curl from heat. Her hair had never curled properly; gravity drew the heavy locks straight within the hour. Hot stones, burning irons. How silly they had been to wish to curl the hair on their heads when they should have been grateful to have hair there at all. How silly, when within the week, they would learn that even such tiny hairs as those on the back of one’s arms can curl under the right circumstances.
Freida stood in the window. The young woman leaned out to reach for Cwen, but Cwen could do nothing but look up and fear that if her friend leaned much further, she’d fall to her death. But then the blonde locks caught. The flames spread through her hair quickly. Detached, somehow knowing the thought was broken, Cwen recalled the oils they had mixed to smooth their hair the day before. Flames soon consumed her friend, but instead of running away from the window as she should have, Freida stayed. She stayed and lowered her arm to point at Cwen as the roar of the flames devouring the house roared around her.
Before Cwen could scream, a sharp, stabbing pain shot through her back straight through her. Her lung refused to expand so that she could gasp. A heavy hand fell on her shoulder as the dirk in her back twisted and as if time slowed, she looked back to see the cold smile of her father before she felt her body flying into the oven of a house…
Her true gasp awoke her and the smell of burning hair caused Cwen to bolt upright in her bedroll and grasp for her hair. Her jagged breathing tore her throat as she looked around wildly to gain a bearing in this world, this waking world where the smell of burning hair was real.
Unable to shake the dream, she flung her arm out to reach for the candlestick on the bedside table, only she was not in her tiny closet room in Riverwide, she was in the Trollshaws a hundred leagues away from her childhood home. The movement made the burns on her arms shoot venomous reminders to her brain and the day before came back to her.
The wood trolls.
Oendir’s necklace and three words carved into a tree.
She reached to her neck to feel for the black cord that kept the coin, Oendir’s good luck charm, safely attached to her. She traced the length down to the metal and it was warm against her skin. Closing her fist around it tightly, she squeezed her eyes shut and slowly counted to ten.
Bemá, give me strength to find him. Watch over him, your servant. Help him find peace, please.
Quietly in the dark, she searched for the pot of salve that would cool the heat of her wounds.
She told herself it was not real, the dream, and it wasn’t. Her father had not stabbed her nor had he thrown her into a burning house. She lost her hair in the stables, not from watching Freida burn. That was years ago and only the stress of the bridge crossing and the fire must have brought them back. It had been some time since she had drifted back.
Slathered with medicine, stinking of witch hazel and burnt hair, Cwen laid down.
It was a long time before exhaustion closed her eyes.
Like a fallen looking glass
out of place and out of time,
I sit and send pieces of me
throughout the world.
In fragments, I release my worries
–all my pain and fear–
in droplets of pale black ink
With undercurrents of berry, black and blue.
I hope this reaches you soon. I was distressed to hear of your hasty departure, though I understand the need to run away from the troubles of this community. Had you asked, perhaps I would have gone with you to explore the ice shelves of Forochel again without the threats of war between your peoples. There is always a threat no matter where one is though, isn’t there? Our recent travels have shown that us that much.
Godric may have allowed you to simply leave, but I do wish you would have said farewell to people. Many care about you quite a bit. Myself included. So do take care, Taja. If you need anything, anything at all, do let us know. (I hope you kept your acorn whistle!)
I hope this letter brings a warm spring for you all the way up north. How is the family? Solstan and Neilia are well; Oendir and I wed last year.
Unfortunately, Oendir has gone missing. As his father, I thought that you should know, though there is little that you could do to help in the search unless for some reason he left the Trollshaws to run naked through the snow. I highly doubt that is where his feet have taken him, but one thing I have learned is that nothing is out of possibility.
Give my regards to Simi and the children, especially Kipina. You are in our thoughts.
P.S. If you think of it, could you write me about how Taja is doing? Did he return to the settlement? He left us abruptly and I am worried about him. ~C.
My patch of lemon balm is not doing well this spring. How has your garden been faring? Do you have any tricks for the herb? I know I will be using a bit of it this season.
Please let your father and mother know that I will be in town for a bit if they are interested in tea.
My dear Callee,
Greetings, my friend. I will be bringing the children to Gardeneve on the first of the month to enjoy a bit of a holiday and help with the early spring drying. I was glad to hear that the wedding of Giles and Vera went of without too much of a hitch. It is always interesting when your folk step outside your farthings to fall in love. It is dreadful about the lack of garlic mashed potatoes at the party, though, I agree.
We have much to catch up on. I look forward to seeing you soon.
My dear Rheb,
How are you? How is the tribe?
I wanted to let you know that we are still searching for Oendir. The company has been travelling a lot on assignments, so there has not been a lot of time to look. I still believe he is alive.
I’ve enclosed some paints in the package and some canvas for stretching. I know that Han does not wish for you to waste time on your art, but you could paint anyway. The camp could use some colour. And if Han gets snappy, tell him that all cultures create art. It is what separates Man from Animal.
Though sometimes I think that the burns Solstan’s salamander leaves in my garden is his form of art…
I miss you. Be safe.
When Eris stepped inside the back door to the kitchens of the Belegorn, she did not expect to find Halvel sitting at the counter on a tall stool better befitting a tavern than the lower estate. The woman looked prim and defiant as always and Eris lifted her hand to greet her, intent on keeping it at that as she walked by.
“I have your ring,” Halvel said and pushed the thick gold band sitting on the smooth counter. “Thamben did not flee. He said to give it back.”
Eris stopped. Turning slowly, she looked hard at the ring. The silence stretched between them until Halvel cleared her throat.
“You do not look pleased.”
Halvel flinched back as Eris strode forward and picked up the ring. Gathering herself again, she smoothed her skirts over her thighs and spoke again.
Eris turned the band over and over, staring down at it with a deeply furrowed brow.
“My lady, do you know what this is?” she finally said as an answer. She held the ring up to the light of the trio of candles burning beside Halvel. The ring was ribbed as if it were a band of rope instead of precious metal, braided strong to withstand the tug of the gales at sea. On its smooth face where the signet of a house would be, the relief of a woman with a fish’s tail instead of legs surrounded a spiraling trumpet shell.
“It is your family’s seal,” Halvel replied. “He did not wish to leave his family behind-” she started to explain, but Eris held up her hand.
“I am glad that he did not run. He would have regretted it later, and not just because of honour. War makes demons of us all.” Eris clasped the ring in her fist and turned to go to the room she would have shared with the kitchen maid if it had not been for that war.
“My lady?” Her voice was tired and resigned.
“Why do you stay?”
“They have the Apple. A pirate without her ship is just a rat.”
“They sail for Gondor. I will be here to greet them, won’t I?”
“You don’t have to stay.”
Eris found Halvel’s eyes in the heavy darkness of the kitchen. The woman’s shadow stretched across the floor and covered the toes of her boots.
“There is someone I wish to stay for. If I leave, I betray this person’s trust. And things are not as dark as they seem, my lady Halvel.” She walked into the shadow and held up a card.
“When foundations crumble, new things can be rebuilt. Minas Tirith is sinking in its own despair, but the old must die before the new can be born.” The band of light from the candles beside Halvel fell upon Eris’ lips and she smiled. “Even if we cannot see the light, it is always there waiting for the clouds to part.”
Weather passes. The clouds that hung over Durrow? Not a portent or a sign of her failure. Just the snow that would warm the earth and prepare it for spring.
But still, she couldn’t help but blame herself for finding solace in Rheb’s arms when her husband fought for his life in Angmar. For the life of his men, as well. What sort of woman was she that could forget to worry about one for the warmth of another so easily? What sort of wife?
In her heart, she had faith that Oendir would return, but her guilt turned her thoughts astray. Made her think that if she were a better wife, his burden would be less. That if she didn’t dally with youth, there would be more strength for him to pull from.
But it isn’t dallying, she protested in the dark as she lay alone in bed. My feelings are real. I am real. The trust we have for one another is real.
She missed the rich voice carrying the melody as she harmonized to sing the children to sleep. She missed the debate over the necessity of venison in Solstan’s diet at the dinner table. She missed the laughter filling their home when Neilia stood on his feet to dance. She missed the reassuring smile across the room that they would share to remind one another that everything would be all right.
She was not used to sleeping alone, so she curled around his pillow and breathed in the scent of the woods and waited for him to come home.
Exhaustion allowed Anyatka to sleep. In her dreams she saw the body emerge, heard the laughter that wasn’t his laughter echo off the walls of the tomb. She saw Bree burning as the bodies rose even as their neighbors fell around them to join with the gaunt lord’s army of wights. Over and over again she saw her family fall.
Sleep. She wanted to sleep forever. She wanted to join Morty’s spirit wherever it was, however she could. It didn’t matter. As one of his great hounds sitting at his heel, as a serving girl bringing him his wine, as a gardener tending to his blossoms. She would stay out of the way, she wouldn’t interfere. She just didn’t want to be there in Bree-land, in the Barrows anymore. She could feel herself stretching between those who wanted her to be something there, those who asked her to stay. Eirikr and Abiorn, Eruviel, Anders… They pulled on her every which way and she felt herself tearing in the wind that wanted to rip her to pieces…
Give up your body, a voice said in the dream. Join him, find him again and find peace. You don’t belong here.
Somewhere in her mind, separate from the dream, she remembered his wish for her happiness. She remembered how he blessed her love for Anders. Suddenly, a sharp pain caused her to wince in her sleep and she whimpered quietly.
Lies, so many lies. To make himself free of guilt for leaving you, for abandoning you and all who loved him…so selfish, selfish those lies.
Anyatka whimpered again but could not wake up from the voice whispering in her dreams.
Go to him. Prove your love and bring him back lest the darkness spread.
I can show you the way.
As I write this, I do hope that the rest of your thrusk went without further encounters (violent or otherwise). I am glad that I was able to see you and I hope that you enjoy the paints. Do you remember Anya? She lives with her brothers and their menagerie on the shore below your cliff. She mixes the pigment with some material that makes it sparkle–I forgot to tell you that. She can probably make more if you’d like.
Speaking of your cliff and your house that sat on it, Oendir is renting it to the man he’s chosen as his acting commander when he is not afield. He is Godric of Rohan and he has established himself as a disciplined and caring man if nothing else.
I tell you this for two reasons:
One, he lives there now, but if you want to come visit, I do not want that to deter you. You are always welcome in Durrow; if you’d like, you could stay in my shop on Garden street with Hunyr if the inns are too crowded for you.
Two, he wishes to meet you and I agreed to write to ask you for permission to bring him to the Lone-lands to do so. We could meet on the trading hill or further south by the Forsaken Inn. If you want, I will send him away after a short visit so that we can be left to our own desires.
That sounds far more naughty than I intended when I wrote it. I do hope Han or one of the women is not reading this to you.
On Han, he mentioned that he wished he could stand to translate for us. That you have much more to say than you are able. He said other things, but perhaps those are best left to my next visit.
I love you, Rheb. We all do, in our own ways. Please do not forget your family here in Durrow. I know one day, Oen will be able to visit. I think that you should visit here. I really, truly believe you should.
Yule is spent with family. Then why am I leaving mine so soon after presents have been unwrapped to go to a land without trees and boughs of holly and roasting chestnuts?
I will bring them some. And deer sausage and leathers and fabrics from the south. Just because they live in harshness does not mean they would not like something pretty to wear.
I will bring him paints mixed by Anya: the kind that sparkles from whatever magic she puts into them. It must be magic that makes her snow peaks glitter like gems and her stars glow. Rheb will like that, I hope. He deserves a little bit of Durrow to remember us by and Oen will see that even in the Lone-lands, beauty exists and Rheb is part of creating it.
But then, if Yule is spent with family, shouldn’t he know about the child? Isn’t it my duty to tell him exactly what he’s missing away from Durrow? He wants children. Most men want children to carry on their bloodline, but I know that he wants children. He wants to be a father, and if I will not be the mother, he should know he has a child waiting for him at ho–
Durrow isn’t his home anymore. I cannot pretend that it is when I see him there, with his people, in his lands. I will ask about what I do not see. I will look at the camp with open eyes. They do not hide from me; none of them have. They do not have room for games. Secrets. Lies. The land is too stubborn to tolerate the folly of Men or Orc and I will learn what it has to tell me about its beauty.
Her pillow was wet and for the longest time, she simply laid there with her hair crumpled beneath her cheek. He was cruel to show her such things and believe that she had an actual choice. She was not strong enough to stop a storm from coming. She was not strong enough to recognize the ruby she found washed up on the edge of the lake was no regular gem.
It was just a dream, she told herself as she finally pushed herself away from the dampness of her tears. Dreams are nothing and have no sway over me.
Oh, but they do. She rubbed her eyes. You have always believed in your dreams.
Silliness. Silly dilly silly.
You know the only way to stop it is to find it.–Destroy it! –Then we might just stop. He will know what to do. Take it to him.
Louder, louder! He he he!
Dreams have no sway over me.
No, you’re all just dreams. Leave me!
A dream a dream is a wish, a wishy wishy washy wish.
Anya took a deep breath, resituated herself to be sitting cross-legged on her bed, and closed her eyes. She let the voices wash over her until they filled her head with their arguing and nonsense.
Bring it to him. Take it to him. Dreamsy dream a dram of dream! Destroy it, destroy it! Destroy them all. Wishy washy! Dead you’ll be. Him. Take it. We’ll never–Dead as a doorknob!–leave until you–Destroy it!–take it to him.–Grow, grow, root and leaf,–Rest, just rest.–reach for star and sun beneath!–Never–Bring it–Can’t…–Wilt, wilt, stalk and bloom,–Go–away–Go!–turn to dust and bring all doom!
The din of their song rose until it reached its peak and then like a wave broke and faded away to the sounds of her room: the reassuring purring of her feline friends, the crackling of a low fire in the other room, the creaking of the stone and wood around her. Though the air around her tingled, it was still. She quieted them for now.
Slipping from her bed, she walked over to set her small traveling easel upright and then stooped to retrieve a set of robes that had fallen from its hanger. She straightened the lace on the collar of a dress and then turned to look for any other damage that needed righting. Seeing nothing too telling, she took another deep breath, let it out slowly, and then turned to choose her garb for the day.
When she stepped out of her room, only the circles beneath her eyes hinted anything was out of the ordinary. Abiorn had already left for the morning taking the dogs with him and she made a note to scold him for leaving the fire so large. Still, he had left her a few biscuits for breakfast and she forced herself to eat them before resigning herself to another day.
She could not help but grin. The boards beneath her feet were sturdy and polished. No sign of the scuffle remained. No drop of the scurvy traitor’s blood marred the smooth pine of the deck. The crew that defended him were imprisoned with him in a damp Gondorian cell and replaced (only with some difficulty). For now, the cargo hold was filled will crates of jarred fish the merchant needed shipping and she would serve.
But ultimately, nothing mattered more than the feel of the briny wind on her cheeks and the snap of the sail. The wheel felt comfortable in her hand and she was home again sailing along the coast beneath the golden sun.
“Well, it was not very thoughtful. You didn’t think, did you?”
“He insisted on accompanying me. He has lived in Bree all his life; I would have thought he knew what it was like.”
“Little whelp, most people do not go out cavorting with corpses and talking to spirits. The Bree-landers I’ve encountered are bloody terrified of the place.”
“Well, he does not want me to go anymore.”
“…Really, now? I don’t blame him. Surely he just wishes for you to remain in a much safer place than those ghastly tombs.”
“Well, that is what he said. He just cannot imagine what he would do if something happened to me.”
“That is an appropriate response to the place, I think. You are going to listen to him, aren’t you? Stay out of the Barrows? Anya?”
“I, well, I told him I would go visit him less.”
“Hmph. Well, that is a start. You need to keep looking forward, Anya. There is a lot of life to live. I think the grave-digger would want you to always remember that.”
Four weeks ago
She told him that she would stay at the house, but she couldn’t stay while he packed the things that he would take to his parents’ manor. She had fled out the window; she probably should have just taken the stairs, but she did not want to feel the dark emptiness of the streets at this time of night. She did not want to feel the emptiness inside of her festering as if each man that came to her took something of her with him when he left her lying there alone.
She wasn’t sure she’d go back to the house even when Pengail had left. He had bought it with his family’s money for their future together. Now what was left there but a cold hearth and a shrinking puddle from the rain.
Rooftops were never really empty. The heat of the living rose to warm the tiles and stone. Her footing was certain and light as she made her way to her cliff overlooking the docks. There she would go to think and dream and fall in love with Dol Amroth all over again.
She loved her city despite everything it asked of her, but how could she reconcile this? It turned on her, twisted her, and now he only saw her as a whore.
Mormerili. Black Rose. Courtesan assassin. Influential and devastatingly effective.
She broke her vow to the order when she married him because of what he gave her: love. A place to belong and a family.
She broke her vow to him because of what the order gave her: power. Power to stand up against the corruption and the darkness that spread through the city with every dawn.
And in the end, she was left alone in the shadowy night in a place where Hathlafel or Hallem would find her if she never moved again. But her husband probably never would.
If he ever looked for her again.
My dearest Rheb,
The Wayfarers and I have returned to Durrow mostly unscathed. Some changes have occurred within our ranks, as it seems to happen frequently as of late, but none were lost through death. In fact, Kemendin returned to us, though he chose to stay in Dol Amroth. Oendir promised that we would check on his house on occasion. He misses you, as does Solstan and Neilia.
I would like to see you soon. I am uncertain who will be coming with me; I will bring wares from some of the Durrow vendors, but I will respect your request to limit guards to those you noted. It may just be me and an escort.
Do write quickly. Let me know when I can come to you. You will be there this time, won’t you? I was so sad that you were not last time. Perhaps you could show me your camp if I come alone. It has been years since I have seen a full moon over Weathertop.
I hope all is well. I miss you.
With the exception of Neilia, I have never thought much about those I love dying. Men die, or they leave, and either way there is always loss for those that remain. My Hobbit friends have passed gracefully (for the most part) due to old age. And Elves…their spirits never die, I’ve heard. They pass on to Mandos’ halls and find their place among their people.
War changes dying. It is brutal and unnatural and it rents one’s spirit into pieces. No healer alone can mend the wounds war brings down upon the land.
I am Neilia’s mother and it is my job to protect her with every fiber of my being. I tell myself that by coming here, to Dol Amroth, I am protecting her by shoring up the war front and making Gondor stronger.
It is remarkable how a city so known for its disciplined army is so full of undisciplined citizens. The infighting and treachery and treason make it nearly impossible to know who to trust. Oendir always said he did not like the Knight-Captain Aureldir and now he’s played a role in the death of Rivalthor and the other knights recently slain in cowardly assassinations. And while the others had pegged Rivalthor as the villain, he release of his fiancee had made me take a step back.
Unfortunately, it was too late.
Why didn’t I say anything more? A note on a document that I feel half the company does not even bother to read. It was not enough. Did my own dislike for the man allow my tongue to stay silent? Did I truly believe Rivalthor was sending us into a trap? Or was it simply because they do not listen, and I grow weary of the looks that do not hide that they think I’m crazy?
I digress. I often digress recently, though rarely aloud. Oendir is beginning to learn when my mind is going though outwardly I am silent. He remembers to ask when he comes out of his own worries and notices mine. I do not hold it against him that he dwells so often in his own thoughts. He is not used to having another around to consult after Gisla left him, and it will take time for him to remember I am always here.
I try to lessen his burden. He is a good man and he deserves some peace from the constant anxiety that plagues him. He doubts himself too much, but it is the company that should be doubted. Each of them has their own agendas and views on the way things should be. Many of them are willing to do whatever it takes to see them through, all in the cause of the greater good. Funny, isn’t it? We sound so much like the city I despise.
So at the end of the day, I will tell Oendir that he is strong and I will rub his aching foot and I will love him until the end of time.
I will always be at his side, whether I am a Wayfarer or not.
I was not sure what to expect on my wedding night. Gaelyn spent more time with me alone than any other man before. I never felt judged or pressured or threatened in his presence. There is an ease about him that I cannot help but be drawn to. He did not pressure me or make demands of my body. I told him things no one else knows. Embarrassing things! He only laughed and smiled and asked me more about myself as though he was actually interested in me and not my family’s money or the scandal or my shame. Is this what is like to be a person again?
Gaelyn is an admirable man. He seems to understand the politics and the thoughts of the city without being drawn into them directly. Perhaps it is his charming smile or the way he grins when he says something he knows is witty. He smiles as though he is so very pleased with himself, but not in that pretentious or off-putting manner. It is more the smile like he knows that you know that it is all a game and it would be easier if everyone just came clean, but he doesn’t mind if they keep playing because he wants to keep playing.
It is a game to him, the ways of Dol Amroth. He does not take things lightly here, nor does he let them become a burden. That balance is refreshing. It cleanses my heart and gives me hope for a future.
A future with Gaelyn Fletcher.
I am now Halvel Fletcher.
No “Lady,” no house. No more shame for blood that I cannot change. No servants or handmaidens. Remlors are fish merchants. What are Fletchers? It remains to be seen.
I want this marriage to work, don’t I? I had tried not to think about it, because Gaelyn was always clear that he would support whatever decisions I made after leaving the city. I did not have to worry about that until we were safely away. But now that I am married and am here with him, I want it to work. I want to wake next to him and see the true wreck that is his hair in the morning. I want to gaze into those green eyes and feel like I am held as an equal. I want to feel his hand in mine and on my skin.
I was afraid of a man’s hands before, but not anymore.
I made Abiorn go camping with me. He was incredulous and suspicious, but once I convinced him that I really wanted to go, he started packing right away. He started going on and on about the woods around Durrow and how he was going to show me a lot of neat places, but I did not want to stay near the southern Bree-fields. I wanted to go north, past Bree, past the graveyard. I wanted to go to Starmere Lake.
It had been months and months since I had been there last. Probably closer to over a year. Anric took me there once and we swam all day long in the crystal clear lake. We yelled and laughed when our voices echoed off the surrounding cliffs. He was different there. At ease with himself. And it had been beautiful.
I wrote to Anders to let him know I would be gone for a few days. Though we left a note for Eirikr and Eruviel, I did not think that we would be gone long enough to need it. I just wanted to see that place again.
I thought about writing to Morty, but decided that writing him would not be appropriate. And I didn’t want to write him. I felt like he did not deserve to know, but then all the way up to the lake, I worried about how he would fret if he went and found the house abandoned. I always worry about what he feels.
It was beautiful still. A little bowl of solitude and freedom nestled into the Brandy Hills. Abiorn and I set up camp and swam the first day, but the second day, I let him swim out to the islands by himself while I set up my easel and stirred my paints. All around me, I could hear the nature spirits on the wind come to investigate the bear-man and his sister. They stayed near all day, whispering and dancing around me as I worked.
When Abiorn returned, he found me angrily stabbing at the canvas with my paintbrush. Tears flowed down my cheeks, but I did not know it at the time.
Abiorn came to me and put his hand over my own. He urged me to put down the brush and then pulled me into a giant bear hug.
What is it, Anyatka? he had asked in his simple and straightforward manner. How can I help? Do I need to bite someone’s hand off?
It was absurd and I laughed, but still I cried. I did not know what made me ache until the pain turned to anger. I was not an angry person; I did not recognize the emotion even as it made me ruin the bristles of my favorite brush. So Abiorn just hugged me and the light faded as the sun dipped behind the cliffs and I tried to figure out why I was so sad I could hardly even paint.
Eventually, I calmed down enough for Abiorn to release me and cook some fish he caught for dinner. As the smoke rose from the pale slabs of delicate flesh, I realized what it was.
I was angry with Morty.
I was angry with Morty for lying and using me and making me fall so desperately in love with him that still I longed for his smile. I was angry with Morty for liking Anders and approving of the new match like it was easy to get over me because I was just another girl. I was angry with Morty for having a child with Ansithe and never being able to entertain the thought of having a child with me, like I was not good enough to bear his line. And I am angry with Morty that he does not deserve me, he never did deserve me, and he does not want to do anything to try to deserve me.
I know that many of these things were out of my hands over a thousand years ago. It is not my fault that he is what he is and I am what I am and I tell myself I should be honored to have his attention for the short time that I did. That if he did pledge his heart to me for this lifetime, he would suffer the pain of my death and that is not fair of me to ask him to do. But life isn’t fair! If we were given this time to be together again, why should we waste it apart?
The sun had long gone to bed when I was able to look at my painting again. The palate was dark; I did not realize I had chosen to capture such a beautiful day in such somber tones. I raised my hand, anger that even in my art he was present giving my virgin powers strength: a gust of wind rose to knock the easel to its side and it caught the canvas like a sail. It flew into the darkness and just under Abiorn’s shout of surprise, I heard the splash.
Tomorrow, I said to him. Tomorrow, we are going to go foraging. I need new paints.
Nodding in shock, Abiorn stared at me, but I did not mind. I would come to understand this new feeling, this gift that Morty gave me. I would master it, this Anger. And I will be stronger for it.
The sun will rise tomorrow, and I welcome its heat.