The Healer and the Black Rose

The butler stood in the entryway to the kitchens of the Colagar estate and knocked sharply on the frame.

“Missus Cwendlwyn,” he said in that brisk manner that was both servile and superior, “there is a girl here to see you. A Miss Merry of Lady Gwenithel’s School for Girls.”

A flour dusted head turned to the butler with startled eyes. “Who?” Cwen used a doughy finger to pull back a loose bit of hair that fell over her eyes. Fruit muffins and loaves of bread, pies of all types, and biscuits that smelled like sweet cheese covered every surface around her. Her face was beet red from the heat of the ovens.

“Miss Merry of Lady Gwenithel’s School for Girls, mum. Shall I see her to the parlour?”

“Um. I guess so. I mean, yes, yes, please see her in…thank you.”

As the butler turned to leave, Cwen looked down at her hands and dress. She wondered vaguely if she should change first as she plunged her hands into a pail of water to wash away the flour and butter.

The Colagar Estate
The Colagar Estate

Approximately half an hour later, Cwendlwyn swooped down into the parlour where the small girl of about twenty stood by the window overlooking the sea. Immediately, Cwen recognized her from the library and she grabbed her bandaged wrist. Before she turned around, Cwen gave the girl a once over and noted the bundle she held in front of her, eyebrow arching.

The girl, Miss Merry, turned before Cwen could say anything and sank into a curtsy.

“My lady. Forgive me for not coming sooner.”

As the girl rose, Cwen frowned at the strain she saw around the girl’s eyes and the set of her mouth. The light fell across her dark gold hair and cast her features into shadow.

“I did not expect to see you again,” Cwen replied impassively. “But it is encouraging that you came.” She indicated the couch. “Please, sit.”

Merry sat and held up the package. “I brought the herbs you requested. I am sorry I could not bring them immediately. Something… I was detained.” She set the package on the cushion beside her and looked up at Cwen hopefully. “I do hope you forgive me for the delay.”

Cwen nodded and waved a hand. “Of course. As I said, I did not expect to see you again. But thank you. I appreciate you bringing them now.” She perched on a chaise opposite the couch and regarded the girl slowly. “May I ask you a question?” she said gently, but firmly.

Merry nodded. “Of course.”

“What detained you?”

Cwen watched the girl pale slightly.

“I…I found Sir Pengail, the knight who assisted you. He…” Merry averted her gaze and Cwen could practically hear the girl’s mind whirring. “He fell ill on his way back to the city. I helped him back to the Keep.”

Cwen sat up a bit straighter and her expression softened. “I am sorry to hear that. Does he need my assistance? I am the company’s healer. Though,” she flushed with embarrassment, “he probably has access to healers much more proficient than I.”

Merry’s eyes widened in surprise at the offer. “I thank you, though. He! Sir Pengail would thank you.” She pursed her lips and moved to stand. “I should return to the Tower. I-I hope your wrist heals quickly, my lady.”

“Miss Merry?” Her eyes narrowing, Cwen stared hard at the reaction of the girl. “What is it Sir Pengail fell ill with?”

The girl paused with one hand on the couch to push herself up.

“He…he has a cold, they said.”

“They? His doctors?”

“He. His commander.” Merry gave her a shallow smile and nodded. “He should be back at his post in the library…soon.”

“And you will be free to visit him again.” Cwen’s brow arched in question of the validity of her statement as the girl simply stared back at her. “Come now, you are not as subtle as you may think, Miss Merry. I’ve seen the looks you gave him before.”

“I beg your pardon, Lady Cwendlwyn. I really do need to get back to my studies.”

Cwen stood swiftly and placed a firm hand on the girl’s arm.

“Miss Merry, it isn’t my business whether or not you are supposed to be visiting that swan-knight. That, I don’t care about. But your face when I asked you what was wrong with him? That I care about. There’s something you’re not saying, and since my daughter and I often roam the streets of Dol Amroth and I care about her very much, I would appreciate your honesty.

“It isn’t just a cold, is it, Miss Merry?”

Merry looked down at Cwen’s grip on her arm and then met the lady’s cool emerald eyes. Without flinching, she said, “They tell me it is a cold, my lady. So it must be a cold.” Her smile was stiff as if carved out of the marble floors. “Good day, my lady.”

Cwen’s eyes widened as the girl pulled from her grasp and curtsied before taking her leave. She stood there for a moment before shaking her head and crossing to pick up the bundle of herbs. A frown creased her brow; it was heavier than it should be for just a bunch of herbs. Sitting down, she placed the package in her lap and carefully opened it.

Inside, nestled among the wolf’s bane and tumeric, was a heavy key with a blue ribbon tied to it. Attached to the blue ribbon was an address and a time. She turned over the little card and a single word was printed on the back: Please.

She looked up, but the girl was long gone. She frowned and tucked the key into her pocket as she rose to look out the window. Merry’s form could just be seen disappearing through the gate.

Looking down, she sighed and turned from the window. She wouldn’t go alone. But she would go. She just needed to decide who to ask to accompany her to the docks at midnight and who would keep such a secret safe.

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A Bitter Pill: Take Flight

Corsair on the Horizen

 

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.

A Bitter Pill: Little Schemers

As Cwen lay in the “only” bed left in town, she tried to think nice things about her conniving, scheming little runt of a daughter. She swore she heard the child giggle in the darkness as she snuggled with Solstan, Oendir’s son. Her temper flared and she thought to herself that Neilia should be grateful that Cwen wasn’t big on laying hands on children. If she had been…what a whipping would be waiting for her.

The night creeped on and even though the bed was soft and the sheets clean, the body heat of her commander radiating so close to her served as a constant reminder that she was not alone in said bed. How many months had it been since she had shared a bed with a man? Over six or seven…over half a year of sprawling across the mattress and reaching for shadows in the dark. Now she found herself awkwardly clinging to the edge of the mattress because she feared if she moved any closer to the center of the bed she would find herself quite tempted to roll toward the warmth his slumbering form offered her.

It wasn’t that she was attracted to the man who currently paid her way in life. She wasn’t, she told herself. And even if she was, he was her commander. Her boss. And he was married.

Really, what were Neilia and Solstan thinking and how had they charmed the tavernkeep into saying there was only one room left for the two families to share. Into saying they were husband and wife.

She sighed.

She should be grateful that Neilia wasn’t screaming in terror after what happened in the Paths of the Dead. Cwen was not afraid of much after thirty-six years of hard life. She knew the stories of the Oathbreakers that dwelled in the mountains. And she had felt pain and fear and blood and deceit and loss everything in between. She tried her best to keep Neilia from experiencing such terrible things. She was only eight years old. The Paths of the Dead

But Oendir was her commander and he was the boss and she tried to disguise her shaking nerves as they led the horses through the caves for Neilia’s sake. When the swarm of spirits flew at them like a wall of death, she ran under his order. He commanded them into the river where finally the mass broke apart like an icy fog dispersing beneath the first rays of the morning sun. They all followed his orders with a loyalty she had never seen since the days of the Hielda. His words repeated themselves in her mind: You’re not alone. You have us. You have the Wayfarers.

He shifted on the mattress and her body sank toward his as it dipped beneath his weight.

 

Béma ‘s balls, he was a good man.

Men and Cwen usually meant painful separations. Her father. Anidore. Arodionn, Gathon, Elodir, Zhevruil, Biramore, Zhevruil…Zhev. She had been a fool to think he meant it when he said he wanted to settle down in Bree and become a real family. The man was unable to stay out of trouble for more than a single sun’s passage behind the clouds. When he disappeared – again – she swore to herself that she would only think of Neilia from now on and unless he was the Huntsman himself come to protect her from all the evils in the world, no man would be able to occupy her thoughts more than her daughter.

Though, it appeared as though her daughter was thinking a lot about her prospects with a man.

She sighed.

Neilia and Solstan’s giggles had long ago faded into the deep even breaths of sleep. Beside her, Oendir shifted again but seemed alseep as well. She knew their journey was not over and the rest that eluded her was not a luxury but a necessity. She slid from the bed and padded softly over to her bag where she withdrew the little blue vial.

No tea. No rich stout to wash it down. Just one tiny drop of the mixture of sedating herbs on her tongue and she padded back and slid in beside Oendir. As her lids grew heavy, she smiled despite their terribly awkward situation. At least he took it well and he remained true to his word.

He was a gentleman.

She wasn’t sure how to act around a man with such power who wielded it with such grace and humility. But she did know one thing.

This time, she wasn’t going to fall in love.