One. Two. Three. Four. Five.
Quite content in the stables, Einar counted the strokes he made with the brush over Ai’s buckskin hide. Cook had been hollering about missing muffins and the man from the Mark would rather face Benjamin the Curmudgeons over Cook the Wrathful any day.
Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten.
Ai let out a gentle and appreciative whinny and tossed his dark mane as he stretched his neck to watch Einar brush him.
Eleven. Twelve. Thirteen. Fourtee-
A noise from above drew the attention of both horseman and horse. The brush paused on Ai’s flank. The horse flicked his tail as though to brush it away.
Dust fell from the thick beams of the rafters. Einar blinked away the tears forming to wash it from his eyes. Then, there was the faint sound of a gasp and an object sailed down from above and a small, child-like hand just missed snagging it back up again.
Einar blinked in surprise and then calmly stepped out of the way. He reached up to catch the thing from the rafters and grunted when the soft muffin crumbled in his large hand.
“Sorry!” a voice called down to him. Einar looked up and gazed (with no surprise on his face) at Willoric Scary’s fuzzy head leaning over the rafter to peer down at him. “It slipped, only. I did not throw it at you, I swear!”
Ai stomped his hoof on the dry stable floor impatiently. He snorted at Einar and stared at him with his teeth showing. It’s just that silly half-man. Go on. Go about your business now, he said.
He is a Hobbit, Einar clarified with a look and a touch of his bare hand to Ai’s back. “Get down,” he said aloud without looking up.
“No, no, I don’t think that is all that good of an idea,” Willoric, who asked to be called Will, said. “Not until later this afternoon at the least. Then perhaps things will have blown over and I will keep my head at dinner time. What do you think Cook will serve tonight? I do hope it is a good roast chicken just dripping with herbs, or a pie like those you get down at the Flour Pot. Or like Miss Rosemead’s duck! That was delicious, was it not? I do hope she hosts another Wayfarer night again soon, don’t you?”
He does not shut up, that little one. The horse snorted with disgruntlement. His peace and quiet was being disturbed. In the next stall, Kvígr lifted his head as well. The horse’s accent made him difficult to understand at times, but Einar thought he said something about eating apples in peace.
If you just ignore him, he will go away eventually. I would wager the lad is used to it, he told them both. The horses snorted, wide nostrils flaring, and then in unison began to chew the sweet hay in the rack between their stalls.
“Einar,” Will continued without going away at all, “Einar, what do you think Cook will serve for supper tonight?”
“Food,” Einar answered and he resumed brushing Ai’s coat.
“Well, that’s helpful,” Will said in a tone that noted just unhelpful the answer was. “Are you going for a ride?” he asked to change the subject. If you wanted to get to make friends, after all, it was best to talk about topics that interested them, not you. At least, that is what his mother said.
“Perhaps.” Fifteen. Sixteen. Seventeen. Eighteen.
“Can I go with you?” From the sound of it, he had a mouth full of muffin.
“No.” Nineteen. Twenty. Twenty-one.
“Do you not like company? I had to like company, or at least get used to it. Otherwise, I would have gone mad. All my brothers and sisters and their friends. People always came to Scary, you know, to see the quarry or to court one of my sisters. Do you have sisters?” Will’s face appeared over the edge of the rafter again and he peered down at Einar curiously. When the man did not respond but kept on brushing his horse, the young Hobbit frowned and pulled back again.
“Why are you brushing your horse so much?”
“Builds the bond.” Einar switched the brush to the other hand and stroked Ai’s strong neck. You could tell him to go away, you know, Ai said with some humour in his tone. Then we can all have peace and quiet.
He is lonely, Einar replied, and correct in his assumption about Cook. She will have his head for getting into her kitchen again. He is useful in the field.
“I do not have a horse,” Will said as though Einar had asked about it. “I came here with a trade caravan by some of the coin my mother gave me. I should like one, though, only not a horse, but a pony.”
He sure does talk a lot! Ai stamped the earth again and Einar smiled. Perhaps I am the only one that has let him talk so much and it is all pouring out now.
“Would you teach me about horses should I get one?” Will’s face appeared again with hopeful, bright eyes. Einar looked up and regarded him for a time and then nodded. Will broke into a grin. “Splendid! That is truly good of you, thank you! You are from Rohan, after all, and who better to learn about horses from than one of the horselords themselves!”
Einar swore he saw Ai roll his eyes and he chuckled quietly. In the next stall, Kvígr looked up with golden hay poking out of the corners of his mouth and looked at them both critically. Having reached a hundred strokes, Einar turned to pick up the saddle blanket and saddle to strap in to place.
“Oh, are you going now?” Will peered down again. Suddenly, the lad sneezed from the dust. “Oh, bless my soul!” Rubbing his nose, he asked, “Will you be back by supper?”
“Maybe,” Einar answered as he took the reins to lead Ai out.
“Well, all right,” Will said with a little bit of disappointment. “I will see you at supper!” he added.
“See you, Will,” Einar said much to the delight of the young lad in the rafters. As he mounted Ai in the bright mid-day sun, the horse laughed. You have a new friend, he said as he started toward the gates of Durrow. Whether you want one or not.
He will get bored eventually, though. I am not worried. I’d rather have a thief on my side than against me.
As they passed through Durrow’s gates, Einar waved once to Finch. He waited until he could smell the marshlands before he nudged Ai into a gallop and the solitude of the space in-between where he could ride for hours without worry or memory.
It was warmer here. Or perhaps it was just that it was a different kind of heat than in the Shire. Summers there were mild and warm and snuck up on you like a welcomed afternoon nap. In Dol Amroth, they hit you like the gales rising over the city from the ocean: strong and damp.
One such gale tried to dislodge Cwen’s dark-chocolate hair from the confines of the twists and braids she used to tame it from the sub-tropical humidity. The top layer of her overdress caught in the breeze and flew behind her with the wind in a burst of linen and lace. Her pale blue cloak billowed like a sail and the muscles in her legs hardened as she steadied herself. As she peered down the cold slope of the city wall, she wondered if anyone would pull her back from the edge if she lost her balance. Too bad there was no one around.
The hour was so late that it was early. Even the gulls were quiet and the silence was broken only by the waves crashing against the white walls below. Other districts still echoed with late night life. But not here. The stage was empty; the actors were long gone to the taverns to drink away their earnings. Cwen’s toes hung over the edge of the wall and she wondered if the wings on her cloak would transform and carry her away if only she would let herself fall.
A piece of parchment fluttered in the grip of her left hand. Dark ink stained it with empty words.
My dearest Biramore,
Dol Amroth is beautiful. It is unlike anything I have ever seen in all my travels. Even the cities of the Elves do not possess the same majesty as this mighty city on the edge of the world. It’s different, somehow. Knowing that men built these towering walls and have dwelt here for years and years.
Everything is so white.
She never felt so out of place. The awe and excitement fell away to self-consciousness. The dresses that were so overdone in Bree seemed poor imitations of respectability on the streets that overflowed with opulence. It was good that she had Neilia with her. The child’s enthusiasm kept Cwen smiling as they explored the twists and turns of the paved streets.
Neilia fits in well. She makes friends with everyone she meets. She gets that from you, I am certain.
I am slowly getting to know the Wayfarers. I wish you were here to meet them. You’d like them. They remind me so much of the Hielda.
Feygil is tough and practical. She brings Aiethel to mind. I wonder what the woman would think about being compared to a young and feisty male Elf. But I trust her at my back like I trusted him. They share the same eye for strategy in the heat of a fight.
Do you remember Aldoon? I think you only met him once or twice. I still wonder what he was…he aged quicker than most. And what Man had the ability to be so playful even when bound with a knife to his throat? Remember the incident with the Archet guard and the pie? Such a trouble-maker. There’s a young lad, Hallem Kemp, that reminds me of Doony. But Aldoon saw things that no one else did. He understood like no one else did. I think Hal does the same.
And Echros. My second-in-command. I don’t know Commander Arrowheart’s second-in-command very well, but they appear to share that same light-hearted spirit. I think Echros let things bring him down more than Gaelyn does. I won’t feign to know enough to draw conclusions based on things that aren’t really there, so I can’t really say much more on him right now.
She didn’t know why she started writing about Hielda Yavanna. She preferred to leave the past in the past. She hadn’t thought about her old companions except in passing for years. A white cat scurrying down the alley reminded her of Castius. The right shade of pale blue fabric could be Baralindes turning the corner. Or a flash of green meant Lychee and Loraelyn and Helehuieth in their uniforms. An arrow in a back was Uilys and her betrayal.
All memories she tried to forget.
Just another checkmark to add to the list of failed relationships and broken promises she couldn’t leave behind. No matter how hard she tried to leave Bree, it always pulled her back when she least expected it. And now, leagues away from the knolls and the meadows, lost in a world above the rough tavern benches and drunken brawls of the Pony, Bree was all she could think about.
She had fallen asleep with the letter left unfinished. Mere hours later, a dream had shaken her awake. Neilia rested peacefully and the estate of House Colagar was quiet. Her mind raced with what she had seen: broken pottery and torn fabrics, trees burning around a house with a circle for a door. No matter how much she told herself it was just a dream, her hand continued to shake as she lit a single candle and stared at herself in the large mirror standing near the vanity.
The Shire was supposed to be a safe place. The thought of ruin coming to the land brought a chill and then a fever to Cwen. She couldn’t bear to sit there in the cold stone walls, so she took up her cloak and ran.
She couldn’t remember passing through the guard at the gate. Perhaps she looked distraught enough they didn’t think to question her. And then she found herself on the wall behind the Swan Jewel theater staring into the blackness that blocked out the darkened seas below. She could still hear them, though; the roaring waves sang their cadence against the walls and sandy banks and begged her to join them far below.
“I can’t do this, Bira,” she whispered to the wind as it whipped the loose hair about her face. “I can’t. I’m sorry.
“I love you.”
Deliberately, she began to tear the letter into strips. She then tore the strips into smaller and smaller bits, releasing tiny pieces into the wind. As they blew about her and out into the open air, she sighed. Piece by piece, her past drifted away on the wind and water and as the last piece took flight, she felt a great weight lifted from her mind.