The room in Ravenhold was just as she found it the day Oendir opened the door and motioned her inside. That evening seemed so long ago, but not even a year had passed since then. Cwen had not had the chance to see the fields lying thick and green with crops and blossoms and that saddened her as she stared at the empty room. She loved the lay of the grounds of Ravenhold and, somehow, she knew the view from the fountain would be spectacular when the grain fields were swaying like an ocean of gold before harvest.
But, she told herself, the view from her parlour at Gardeneve was spectacular, too.
The wagon was loaded. Neilia was already downstairs saying goodbye to the staff that rose to prepare for dawn. The girl remained chipper as she told everyone she would be back soon and that they should not be sad to see her leave. Most gave her pats and hugs and appropriately sad smiles that they would not give her mother. Cwen did not seek them. She did not want to see the rumours and the truths in their eyes. She only wished to be done with this journey and find the peace she desperately needed in the quiet life of the Shire.
As she turned her back on the room, she ran a finger along the edge of the letter she had spent most of the night writing over and over again. Each failed attempt found the fire; she had watched them curl in the flame as it consumed her words, and for some reason it calmed her. The uncertainty of her decision lifted with each tiny piece that floated on the hot air and faded away. The issue of Biramore could not be dealt with here in Bree. That chapter of her life needed to be finished before she could truly begin the next.
But still, it was hard to find the words to tell Oendir what she felt needed to be said. She struggled to capture each emotion and trap it on the page. Even now, she could still toss the letter on the fire and watch it burn until all that was left was a dark purplish stain of wax left on the logs. But she didn’t. Instead she turned from the room and walked with a stubborn purpose.
She looked up at the staircase that led to the third floor and then on to Oendir’s study. He wouldn’t be there, she thought to herself as she willed herself forward. She would leave it for him to read or discard. It was his choice.
The study felt small despite its size. The smell of woodsmoke and fresh air surrounded her, but she pushed it away from her thoughts as she crossed to his desk and slipped the note among other unopened letters on his desk.
The moment the letter left her hand, the desire to flee Ravenhold overwhelmed her and Cwen rushed down to the yard where Neilia waited with Cook and grumpy Benjamin holding the reins of Bean for her. The small band they were traveling with to Buckland would be leaving from the West Gate soon; swift goodbyes and an unusually stoic Neilia sat before Cwen on the great horse’s back as they rode away from Durrow and the family they had found there.
Home, Cwen thought as the sun rose high enough to warm her back. I’m on the road to home.
A week later, old Benjamin trudged up the steps of Ravenhold to discuss the quality of the remaining feed and oats stored for the winter with the commander. He held a bill of sale and several other envelopes and he was determined that something was amiss with the latest deliveries for the horses; and confound it, he was going to right it if it was last thing he’d do!
Unfortunately, the commander was not in. He was often ‘not in’ lately, though it seemed as though it was not because he was off gallivanting around in who-knows-where or anything of that sort. Being mayor must occupy much of his time and being a father ought to occupy the rest.
Benjamin grumbled despite this. He considered leaving the bill of sale on Oendir’s desk, but he knew the man would not understand without him to explain the discrepancy. Heaving a sigh for the time he would lose trying to explain it to the commander, he turned to trudge back down to the stables when the corner of an unusual envelope caught his eye.
Who in Stockard’s grave would be sending the commander a letter in a lavender envelope? Who went to such an effort to procure a bloody lavender envelope?
Without much consideration for the act, Benjamin snagged the lavender envelope and relieved it of the pile of other envelopes stacked atop it. The dark purple seal was already broken. He carried it against his side and kept it covered with the papers he held until he found sanctuary from prying eyes in the stables.
He opened the letter and read a simple note of affection and thanks:
Dear Comander Oendir Arrowheart,
Thank you for Songhorn. He is my most favorit present I have ever got. Even more than my dresses in Dol Amroth. I will miss you. You are brave and strong! I hope Solsey grows up brave and strong like you so he can fite bad people and safe us, too.
Please come visit me and Mama in Buckland. You are nice and I like it when you make me laff!
Benjamin felt a bit guilty for pilfering the note now that he saw it was from the little girl. The yard was much quieter in these cold days without her shrill shouts of laughter as she played. Often the children from the nursery would come to play as well and together they filled the neighborhood with their energy. Yes, it was quieter with her gone from Ravenhold.
Another slip of parchment was behind the little girl’s note.
I know that it seems as though I am running away. Many see it that way and there is little I can do to explain to them that I am not running. I think you understood when I told you that I did not have a home in Durrow and that I needed home right now. I hope you understood.
Now that I am looking at leaving Ravenhold, leaving you, my hope is that you can find it in your heart to forgi
Benjamin started to read, but quickly stuffed the papers back into the envelope and decided it was better to replace the thing at his earliest convenience. He tried to ignore the rumour mongering of the town gossips; he did not want to know what else Miss Cwendlwyn had to say to the commander. It was none of his business. It was none of anybody’s business.
And even though he had more than a few complaints about the know-it-all from the south, Benjamin felt sorry for Arrowheart as he turned back to the horses gazing out at him evenly. As one, their gazes shifted to the stall where Miss Cwendlwyn’s steed had been kept as if they knew what was on the old stablemaster’s mind.
Grumbling, Benjamin shoved the purple envelope onto a table where several harnesses lay to be tuned, the metal pieces polished. Horses were easy, he thought as he picked up a worn bit of leather strap. Women. Women were the tough ones.
Gardeneve quickly transformed from a cold shell of a house to a warm and welcoming beacon in the cold Buckland night. Cwen and Neilia worked diligently for half a day to get the house in living condition; their work was certainly made easier by Callee’s diligence while they lived in Durrow. After the furniture was uncovered and the dust swept out, they set on the kitchen like two madwomen. Shortbread, sugar, gingerbread. Flour covered every countertop as they baked dozen after dozen and set them out to cool. Jellies, jams, crystallized sugar sprinkles. The Hobbits were coming, and they expected full bellies.
They baked late into the evening and then settled down in the parlour to to enjoy some of the fruits of their labor. Before a cozy fire, Cwen read to Neilia from a book of tales from the first age she had purchased in Dol Amroth. The little girl interrupted frequently to point out character flaws and plot twists and the tragedy of it all.
“Mama, you could be in a book like this!” Neilia declared at the end of the tale of Eärendil’s voyage. “You go off to save people and stop the bad things in the world, too.”
Smiling, Cwen brushed a bit of flour from the girl’s cheek. “I am no great hero, love. I just go where people need help when I am called upon. And even then, it is not that frequently that I am in the field any more.”
Neilia looked up at Cwen with big, wide eyes. “But you have! Since you met Mister Arrow’art.”
Cwen swallowed and kept smiling at her daughter. “I know working with the Wayfarers has taken me away from you more than I should be, Neilia. I am sorry.”
“It’s okay, Mama. I like it in Bree.”
“Do you?” The fire sparked and mother and daughter watched the red glow leap into the air and fade away before it could hit the ground. “Would you like to stay there? Or do you miss home enough and wish to return here permanently?”
“That means stay here forever?” Neilia asked. “What about Ravenhold? That’s home, too.”
Cwen sighed and stroked the dark hair from Neilia’s forehead. “We need a house, Neilia. Not a barracks. And it is not right for me to be away so much, nor is it right for me to take you into harm’s way. When my contract with the company is over… I was thinking we could return here. Perhaps offer the spare rooms to folks on holiday. Give them a bed and a breakfast during their travels.”
Neilia sat up in alarm. “No, Ma! What are you talking about? We live in Durrow now so you can be near the c’mander. How can you two get married if we live so far away?”
Cwen’s heart nearly stopped before it took off like a Mearas .
“Neilia, don’t be hasty. The commander has many more things with which to occupy his time than me.”
Neilia rolled her eyes. “C’mon, Mama. He likes you a lot. And you like him.”
“But that does not mean we shall get married, Neilia. There are a lot of… factors to consider.”
“Like… who will take care of our ghost lilies? Callee forgot to cut them back. We shall have to do that in the morning.”
Not buying it, Neilia frowned and turned to give her mother the same look Cwen gave her many times. “Mama. We can dig up the lilies and plant them in Bree.”
Cwen sighed. “Neilia, honey, it’s time for bed. We can talk more about this later. But don’t get your hopes up, love. You must be practical; the future is always uncertain. But regardless, I will love you and be here for you.”
Huffing in protest over bedtime, Neilia slid off of Cwen’s lap and padded into her room. Cwen sat for a moment rubbing her brow before pushing up from her chair to go tuck her daughter into bed.
The garden was bedded down for the winter; Callee’s visits had seen to it that the post was collected and the weeds kept in check; most of the flower beds had been cut back for the cold, but a group of ghost lily husks stood brown and dead in a far corner of the yard. Though Cwen told Neilia they would take care of it in the morning, sleep eluded her and the full moon illuminated the withered stalks well enough to take the shears to them.
Cutting back the plants was easy enough. She piled the stems by the bed and sat back on her heels. The lilies were hardy and would have done fine without the trim, but by clearing the old out, she knew the new growth would have the space it needed to thrive. Tomorrow, she and Neilia could go to the woodworker’s for wood chips to keep the earth from shedding all its warmth.
As she sat staring up at the Buckland sky, she sighed as her thoughts drifted back to Oendir, and Neilia’s hopes. Gardening applied to life, she knew. Yet it was so much more difficult to do to life. It would not be dead stems that would be tossed aside if she trimmed the ghosts that crowded her heart. But who would it be? Rheb, whose attention and devotion made her feel like a (very satisfied) queen? Or Oendir, whose quiet strength and goodness bolstered her own will and desire to create good in the world?
She needed both.
Didn’t every woman deserve both?
The stars whispered no answer. Inside her breast, her heart waged war on itself and her reasoning was no help, for it knew that one way or the other, now that Rheb said he loved her, they would all suffer for it, not just her and Oendir.
She thought of Oendir’s words the day after that fateful dream. Since then she had begged him to let her go, let her run away to the land of furry feet and elevensies and rich soil. Each time, he brought up her contract, her duty. How a good field medic was so hard to find. No matter how much both of them were hurting, he would separate personal pain from duty and carry on.
The amount of composure with which he delivered his words chilled her now as they did then.
The Wayfarers need you, and I’m not going to fight with my own son. Any other man, Cwen, and yes. I’d probably battle a dragon.
But not Rheb.
Always, Oendir put others first. His selfless protection of those around him had drawn her to him in the first place. The irony of it tasted bitter.
He didn’t want to break Rheb’s heart. Hadn’t she already? Hadn’t she broken all of them now that her relationship with Rheb was out in the open?
Her racing thoughts paused. Her relationship. Yes, it was a relationship, not just an affair spawn from loneliness and despair. She was genuinely fond of the youth and had begun to share more than just her body with him. She did not know when it began, the trust. She did not know how to stop it.
Cwen closed her eyes and pictured Rheb digging shirtless in his yard, the dirt flying out of the knee-deep hole as he flung it with his bare hands. The sweat on his skin glistened like the remnants of the tears he perhaps was attempting to bury. She did not have to go to him; even as he hurt knowing that Oendir knew, he reached out to comfort her. It had taken every ounce of her willpower to not give in, not crawl into the sanctuary of his arms, and not to lose herself in his version of love.
Now, she did not have to be wrapped in his scent to be overcome by him. Now, she only had to think his name and her heart fluttered and longed for the next time her eyes would find him again. Without her permission, she had begun to fall in love with the son just as she had fallen in love with the father.
When would she learn to temper her heart?
Her fingers were so chilled she had trouble with the knob in the circular door that led back into the warmth and comfort of her home. Cwen gathered up the post from the table just in the entryway and hurried back into the parlour to warm herself by the fire.
A few general notices regarding events in Buckland including Harvestmath concerts and the seasonal horse races. A newsletter from the Mathom Society thanking her for her yearly donation and requesting another for the Yule season. She mused on a Hobbit’s value of a bluejay feather from Dol Amroth as she flipped to a dirty envelope sealed with a dark red wax and a plain stamp. Her name and address was written in a jagged, shaking hand that seemed familiar somehow, but a sense of uneasiness descended upon her. She looked around the quiet room for its source, but only found the familiar furnishings of nearly half a decade of living.
Carefully, Cwen broke the seal and opened the letter.
The hand that wrote the letter was either uncertain or unlearned. The text itself revealed little; only the last stroke caused her to pause.
Her breath caught. Then she gasped and this last component tipped her scales completely upside down.
Cupboard doors banged open and shut. The sound of boiling water soon filled the kitchen and with a shaking hand, Cwen added three drops of a dark liquid from the little blue vial to the tea. She had done so well since Dol Amroth; her addiction to Rheb had replaced her need for the sedative and she only thought of the opium in the deepest dark of night when she lay alone in Ravenhold longing for sleep.
Just to calm my nerves, she thought. Just so I can think on this clearly. It isn’t as though it is the opium. Just some herbs and roots to slow my trembling heart.
“Truly, it could not be him,” she whispered over the steaming cup as she brought it to her lips. “It is some ruse. Or someone else entirely.”
But she knew who sent the letter that lay open on the floor of the parlour. She wondered when it arrived, but more importantly, where in the world Biramore was now.
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.
“Now, don’t you worry, Anya. I’m sure your brother and Eruviel will arrive home well and whole. I doubt they will run into anything much worse than the scum that can be found wandering the streets of Bree nowadays.”
Cwen spoke crisply as she cut the skin from the rabbit. She had given Anya the coin and sent her down the street to the Hobbithole down the road. The young Hobbit gladly sold her the rabbit and thanked her kindly for her patronage and gave his regards to Miss Cwen. Since returning, Anya noted the quick, almost jerky movements of Cwen as she treated the rabbit for that evening’s stew. The woman’s brow seemed sterner than usual and her eyes had dark circles beneath them.
“I know it is no good worrying, Cwen. But I still do.”
Anya stood watching the older woman work for a moment. As Cwen began hacking the meat into sloppy chunks, she had to ask, “Cwen…is something the matter?”
With a loud thunk, Cwen sunk the cleaver into the thick cutting board covering the table. “Whatever makes you think there is something the matter, Anya?”
“You seem…upset about something. Is it okay that I am here? I do not wish to intrude. I just, well, I had to get away for a while.”
Her host laughed dryly. “Anyatka, dearie, you chose to live in Bree. The urge to flee should come often.” Cwen scooped up the pieces and dropped them into a frying pan to brown. “You are most welcome at any time. But where is your husband? I would have expected him to come with you.”
Trying to hide the blush with a curtain of hair, Anya sputtered, “Oh, he’s not, we’re not…I know it isn’t proper to live together before marriage, but under the circumstances we all thought…”
Smirking, Cwen waved a greasy hand at her. “Never you mind, Anya. Biramore is not my husband, either.”
Anya tried to hide the surprise. “He isn’t?”
“Oh, no, dear. I have been married once, to a foolish, selfish man. Biramore and I chose to love one another without the pretenses of ceremony.” Cwen poured some liquid into the pan and began adding fresh herbs. “It was a grand ceremony, though. Anidore wore a deep, lush burgundy robe and the bridesmaids a vibrant blue. I led a company of folk back then. The groomsmen all wore the uniforms of green and gold.” She paused and smiled slightly. “My dearest Aldoon officiated. One of the rare times he paused in his travels just long enough to do so. And Castius! Castius brought his tamed cat – one that would make your little Oli look like a house pet.” Chuckling, she stirred the mixture as it rose to a low boil.
“You do not appear like one to want a huge ceremony like that, Cwen. That surprises me.” Anya reached over the island between them and took up a paring knife and a large potato.
Cwen shrugged. “That was a long time ago. Neilia’s father. She’s nearly eight now. Though she acts like she’s thirty.” The thought of her daughter brought a smile to her lips.
“How does Biramore do with Neilia? I imagine well.”
The smile vanished as quickly as it came. “He did splendidly. Thought of her as his own, I’m certain.”
The falter in Cwen’s stirring would have been missed by most. Only because Anya was watching her friend so closely did she catch it.
“Biramore traveled a great deal protecting caravans. Merchants. Over six months ago, he left for Needlehole and never came back.”
Cwen’s voice was even. Calm. She moved about preparing the coney stew with practiced grace. She added the potatoes and set to chopping carrots.
Finally, Anya broke the silence. “He’s gone?”
“Well, yes. Dead, probably. Seeking revenge for his sister’s death. Or taken by goblins or orcs or bandits.”
“Are…are you okay?”
Cwen set down the knife and looked over at Anya. “Are you all right? Knowing your brother could be dead or on his way to death? Are any of us all right, Anya?”
Anya blinked and took a step back. “There was another man…” she blurted out under the pressure of Cwen’s cold response. “I remember seeing you with another man in Bree.”
“Zhevruil. His name was Zhevruil. He’s disappeared again, as well. I have a special knack for that Anya. Making men disappear. I have grown used to it.”
“He’s dead, too?”
“Possibly. Though Zhev is like a fox—hard to catch and hard to kill. More likely, he made a bad deal and had to vanish to avoid the consequences.”
Anya watched as Cwen finished dumping things into the pot. Her host wiped her hands on her apron and sighed. “Men are fickle, Anya. They always will be. They chase glory or adventure or gold. Occasionally they remember their woman back home. It helps when they have children with her. But even then—” she shrugged. “Well, look at Neilia’s father.”
“My Anric is faithful and true,” Anya insisted.
Cwen smirked as if she knew something Anya did not. “Thus far, yes. Anric seems like a nice lad from what you’ve told me. Would probably do right by you. But the passion fades, Anya. Love dies down to acceptance of each other’s company.”
“It goes away?”
She shook her head. “No. Not like that. But it doesn’t burn like it does in the beginning. People like that: the burn. The excitement. The rush.” She put her fist on her hip and looked at Anya intently. “Do you know what I mean?”
Blushing, Anya thought not of Anric, but of Morducai Mossfoot. Her cheeks did not flush around him simply because he had a tendency to be flirtatious and crass. The burn consumed her when she thought of him. The excitement declared itself in her voice whenever she greeted him. The rush made her head swim whenever he leaned in close. She forced her thoughts to her lover, to Anric. There was warmth there. Affection. And love. She did love Anric and she knew that he loved her, too. But there was no burn.
“Burns hurt, though,” she whispered. “And eventually, they cool.”
Cwen leaned over the pot and took a deep breath of the rising aroma. “They do. On both accounts. Which is why people settle…or wander. But they always look for that feeling, just to make sure they are still alive.”
Anya turned to look out the window overlooking the front lawn. Cwen’s house was not built Hobbit-style beneath the ground, but it bore the roundness of traditional Hobbit homes. Even in the front lawn, Cwen had planted crops and herbs among her flowering garden. She thought of the little plot of land she and Anric were trying to turn into a vegetable garden. Without her bidding, her thoughts shifted to the Dalish Charm removed because of her negligence.
“Why don’t people just accept that, then? If folk always do it. Always look for something else.”
Behind her, Cwen shrugged. “Tradition. Family. It is easier to raise a family when you know the spouse will be there.”
“Not everyone falls for tradition, though. You, for instance. And there are others I know.”
“Mhmm. Indeed there are. Anidore, for instance, went back to his womanizing ways after we split apparently. I would say I was hurt and surprised, but really, just hurt.” She lets out a self-depreciating laugh. “And not really even hurt. I just felt foolish.”
Anya nodded and asked very cautiously,“Do you ever wonder what it would have been like to just…let him?”
Cwen turned to look at her. “Let him…sleep around? Oh, heavens, no. I don’t think that ever crossed my mind. At least not then.”
“But what about now?”
The older woman ran her fingers along her hairline brushing back any flyaways that escaped from the loose bun on the crown of her head. “I think that now, I wouldn’t mind it so much. It would be difficult to see the one I love with someone else at first, but if I knew that in the end, their heart belonged to me, I think I would be more open to it.”
“If you loved them and they loved you.”
“Maybe. Though I am not sure I could actually do it when it comes down to it. See my love with another.” Cwen smiled kindly and reached over to pat her hand. “I am jealous like that, I suppose.”
Anya nodded. “I think most people are.”
“Jealous and perhaps selfish. In the end, people don’t want the pain that comes with the burn.” She laughed. “After all, only crazy people hurt themselves on purpose, right?”
((Edited from chat logs. Note: Nearly all italics to Zhevruil’s “thoughts” are editor added to assist in the differentiation of Zhev’s thought processes.))
The smell of steak and rosemary filled The Broken Cask. Cwendlwyn smiled at Triswynd as she checked the hand she had mended, glad she could speak with someone to break the ice. She had tarried on her way to the tavern though she looked forward to a scene away from the Pony and all its shadows. It had been a long time since she had been truly alone and she should have returned to the Shire days ago. When she learned that Anya’s troubles still persisted after her journey to Fornost, she decided to stay in Bree even longer, though her nerves began to fray and the stash of herbal tea she mixed to help her face the streets each day was quickly becoming depleted. She found herself in the constant state of a tightly wound spring without the sedative effects of her fragrant brew and it was far easier to drink it and find some peace, especially at night.
She made small talk with Tris and the man named Ren who stood next to her. She suspected that Ren found her eagerness to get out of Bree a failing, but the passion flower, lemon balm, and valerian root made it easier to respond to the cooling of his interest. As she explained that certain people of Bree caused her the sadness she felt in the town, one of those people from her past walked into the hall.
Rosemead had gone to greet the man who stood hooded just inside the threshold. He held up a hand, trying his best to smile at the woman. “I won’t need anything to drink right now, if that’s all right.” Rosemead nodded and invited him to the food, though he remained where he stood.
Back at the table, Renaron took a sip from his flask, then capped it and tucked it into his belt. As he excused himself to pay, Cwen nodded a good-bye and noticed the man enter. She froze, her mug half-way to her lips. “Zhevruil,” she mouthed and then moved toward him without thinking. Slowly, as if through a fog, memories returned to her that she tried so hard to repress. She stopped several feet away from him and simply stared as if at a ghost.
Not expecting her move, Zhevruil said, ‘Erm……hello.’
Neither noticed as Rosemead turned to watch the confrontation at the door. Cwen continued to stare at him and then looked over her shoulder as he spoke. She watched Ren head out before looking back at Zhev, totally unsure of what to do at his sudden appearance.
Zhevruil stiffened, embarrassed at his lack of grace, in appearance and greeting. What a dolt. “I….just thought….” After a pause, he went on, “…that I’d, maybe….”
Cwen studied him as best she could beneath his hood. She had caught a glimpse of a man in the Pony that reminded her of him, only in passing, only a faint memory. A cryptic letter arrived bearing his name and confirmed her suspicions. A quick exchange of franticly scrawled messages ensued. She stepped up close and grabbed at his wrist almost as if to see if he truly stood before her. She thought of one of the messages that hinted he was being chased. Leaning in close, she whispered, “Should we leave?”
Zhevruil looked her up and down, telling her, “Your dress looks….nice.” It was geniune, but sloppily delivered. “Don’t you have friends here?” he queried, looking over her shoulder at the table ahead.
She turned and looked back. “Acquaintances. Possible future friends, yes. But you. I thought you were dead.”
Zhevruil swallowed his pride. His eyes were still shielded. He hadn’t looked up at her face yet. “Yeah…” he whispered, again glancing at those gathered ahead. What if they…? “I can wait until you’re done.”
She shook her head. “Your letters; I got them. I have been worried.” She followed his gaze back again and continued to shake her head. “Shall I meet you shortly?”
Zhevruil gave her a quick nod before replying, “Sure. I’ll be outside.” He cleared his throat. “I’ll see you there.”
She released his wrist and nodded, turning quickly and pacing back to the table to pay for her drink. She exchanged the necessaries with Rosemead and then tried to refrain from fleeing from the hall. Outside, she took a deep breath and looked for Zhev. Spotting him across the yard, she started after him, her previously languid movements quickened, though only slightly.
Zhevruil was startled by Cwendlwyn’s sudden arrival. He looked over at her, again doing what he could to hide the beaten, broken face. “All finished?” he asked.
Cwen placed a hand on his arm as she nodded. She tried to get a glimpse of him beneath the hood but the sun fell just right to cast deep shadows over his features. “Let us go for a walk,” she suggested, her sweet voice encouraging.
Zhevruil moved a few inches to the right, revealing his eye as it gave her a sidelong glance. He scanned the neighborhood, seeking flaws. Nothing. He can… “Let’s,” he replied quietly.
Cwen met his gaze for a moment and nodded. “Lead the way, old friend,” she said softly.
Zhevruil stepped forth, and walked the stone path. Cwendlwyn followed his lead. They stepped out of the large yard of the tavern and turned left, walking in silence with a respectful distance between them. They entered the little square where the neighborhood store stood across from the little park. Zhevruil spotted a gazebo across the courtyard and said, “There….” He led them over to it and stepped between the tall posts. He leaned against the railing, looking down at the river. It flowed calmly, unlike his apprehensive nerves.
Cwen leaned next to him and waited for him to speak first. She folded her hands together in front of her as her forearms supported her.
Zhevruil sighed deeply, counting the leaves on the tree hanging above the water. He would comment on the subtle intricacies they bear, the folds, the nuances, but they were things only someone such as he would care for. Instead, he inquired, “Do you live around here?”
Cwen frowned at the question for she expected something less trivial. She looked out at the little creek flowing by, her breath falling in cadence with the slow waves stirred up by the wind. “Not any more. Biramore and I moved to the borders of Buckland shortly after Arodionn…” Her voice broke and she shook her head. “I am staying at the Pony at present as some things are playing out. But no. I do not live around here.”
Zhevruil noticed the shifts in her words. Perhaps a sign of intoxication? he thinks. If such was the case, she was disguising it well, but not well enough for him to miss. “Biramore,” he said, now turning to her, his right forearm still against the railing. “How is he?”
Cwen frowned. “I hope well. He is off with a caravan right now.” She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, her fingers trailing down over her jawline.
Zhevruil revealed his face fully. The old scars across his face and lips were still there, fading, but there. However, bruises had joined them, and his beard had grown thick and unkempt, his hair likewise. His eyes still had a flickering spark in them, flickering being the key word. They were sunken, dry, weary. “I’m sorry I didn’t send you anything, while I was gone I mean.”
Cwen reached up to touch his face but stopped herself. “My word, Zhevruil. Your face. What happened to you?” She shook her head vehemently. “Where have you been?”
Zhevruil stepped back, shuddering at the thought. His eyes grew stern, painful even. Then, they relaxed, and he looked up at Cwen, answering, “A long way from here. But none of that matters, now. I…Cwen, there was a woman I knew here, one I was…close to.” He thought of the one right in front of him, at first, but realized there were too many barriers, at least for now. He needed to take responsibility for the world he left behind, for the choices he made. “She was a friend of yours. I don’t mean to…” He wouldn’t continue.
Cwen frowned. “You were close to a friend of mine? Who, Zhev?”
Zhevruil replied, “Her name it was….Cwen, I….” So much hesitation. “It was Tealdora.”
Cwendlwyn paled slightly. “Tealdora. You-” her face suddenly flushed. “Zhevruil, you didn’t.”
He stepped aside. He never wanted her to… “I…yes…I’m sorry if that unsettles you.”
Cwen rubbed her eyes. “How? Why-” she stopped herself and shook her head. “I do not want to know. It’s your business, and hers. I have not seen her in a long time, though. She stayed here when we moved and she stopped writing after a few months. Zhevruil, why do you ask for her?”
Zhevruil shook his head. Stayed behind? Stopped writing? The ambiguous nature of it all troubled him. “I,” he began, “just wanted to… Cwen, I, I wanted to see her once more, let her know I didn’t forget her. But I wanted her to know…” Thoughts of Biramore flowed through his mind.
She looked over at him, feeling that this change of his thoughts mid-flow was slightly different from the rest. “What is it? We can look for her, Zhev.”
Zhevruil looked back at the leaves, their intricacies, their folds, their nuances, things only he cares for. He turned again to River, deciding now was as good a time as any, “Cwen, I have to tell you, I won’t go into detail, but she and I…we were close, but it wasn’t fair. In that moment, the moment we were…I did care about her, truly, and I wanted the best for her, but a part of me was only doing it because she, well…” Don’t stop here; follow through. “…she reminded me of…” The Rabbit could not bring himself to finish the sentence. He shook his head. “I’m sorry….I’m sorry, this was stupid. I just wanted to say hello, that’s all, just say hello and leave.”‘
Cwen stepped closer to him and took him by the forearms. Here he was after all this time. For once, she felt he was struggling to tell her the truth. “Zhev, please. She reminded you of what?”
Zhevruil turned to her. You haven’t got much else to lose. They took everything you had. All you’ve got are the clothes on your back. The house has been burned to the ground. The Enkindlers are all either dead or missing. Ellbor doesn’t even stay on post anymore. Just try, and if it doesn’t work, leave. He leaned in, attempting to kiss Cwendlwyn Tain’s lips.
Cwendlwyn stood firm, unaware of his intentions.
Zhevruil leaned in further, his hands moving to Cwen’s hips. Thoughts of the Lightriders told him he was making a mistake, but they didn’t control him anymore. That mask was gone, never to be worn again.
Cwen’s eyes widened as he touched her, but her surprise rooted her to the spot. She stared up at him, lips parted in a small O.
He completed the arch, his lips meeting hers. A warmth of simultaneous fear and joy pervaded him as wooden planks creaked underfoot. His arms slowly found their way around her waist.
She gasped and raised her hands as if to push him away. She arched her back to pull away from him, but his arms around her waist draw her closer. She trembled in his embrace as her mind whirled around for something solid and normal for her to grasp onto. Zhevruil. His lips. Zhev. Her heart seemingly stopped and her eyes fluttered to close.
He slid his right arm past the cloak, holding her back steady. It would only last a few more seconds, at best. He wished the case were not so, but she was a married woman, proud, virtuous. It wouldn’t be this way again, but he knew he had to try at least once.
Cwendlwyn wasn’t married. She never married anyone save Anidore. Elodir passed over the sea. Biramore…Bira. Her eyes flew open and she made a tiny sound of protest. At nearly the same moment, she sank into the kiss, relaxing against him. Her loneliness, her sorrow, all held in check with her herbal concoctions, burst forth and overwhelmed her common sense.
Zhevruil parted his lips from hers. He noticed that it was his decision to part. His eyes were open, glowing, alive, for the first time since… “…you.”
She stared at him for a moment, lips slightly swollen and parted. She trembled and closed her eyes. “Zhev-” she said softly and trembled again, opening her eyes just enough to glance up at him through her lashes.
Zhevruil lit up, knowing he’d chosen wisely. He felt her longing. Whether it was for him or for something more animal, he didn’t care. Just this once, he wanted to be the winner, to have what he came for. He buried his face in her neck, tender kisses trailing down to her shoulder.
Cwen sucked in her breath and then sighed deeply. Her body responded though her mind was still in shock. Her heart – her heart just pounded away at her ribcage as the hands on his chest meant to brace him away from her instead slid around him to draw him close. Her head tilted to give him access to her skin. He pulled her toward the railing, pressing her against it. His lips meet her cheek, then her forehead before he asked, “Don’t you want this?” The words, though breathless, were genuine. He wouldn’t hurt her, not the way he probably hurt…
She swallowed visibly, her throat moving the doubt into the pit of her belly. “Zhevruil,” she breathed as she felt his whiskers tickling her forehead. “I-” she shivered with the sudden build up of passion and uncertainty.
Zhevruil pulled back his hood, further showing her his battered form. His eyes were, again, alive like they’ve never been. Both hands were now around her face, one gently thumbing the space between chin and throat. “Please,” he whispered, “don’t lie to me.”
She closed her eyes to break his gaze. “You were gone…so long. I truly thought you were dead. And now…you are here. Zhevruil, I do not know what is truth or lie anymore. I only know when I saw you in the Pony, that moment, my heart surged. Both good and bad arose. Zhev…” she opened her eyes pleading with him to understand. “It’s so complicated.”
Zhevruil stepped back, eyes narrow. They wavered, flicking between her and the planks, and the water, and the leaves, their folds. Fixed there, he replies, “Maybe we shouldn’t…”
She touched her lips where he kissed her. “Please…I need time. You…only just came back. I know nothing. Not where you’ve been or who you are running from. Zhevruil, please. Be honest with me.”
Zhevruil exhaled, telling her, “It won’t be the same next time. I know it. I can feel it. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be a pessimist, but…” He stopped, moving to lean against the pillar before him. “…you know I’m right.” He looked over his shoulder, and added, “I’m running from me, Cwen.” He turned back to the leaves. “Things happened. I made the wrong choices. They won’t find me, so long as I remain elusive, with places to stay, constant change, whatever I need to do.” He looked back again, informing her, “It was when I was working with Anrandir.”
Cwen wrapped her arms around herself in a hug and looked down. It was so long ago. “Zhevruil.” She could not find words for her thoughts, the feelings bashing her from the inside out. She cleared her throat softly. “Wh-where are you staying now?”
He returned his gaze to the water, responding with, “Bree’s rooftops have made for good hiding places.” His tone was solemn, but not grim, more matter-of-fact.
She strode over to him and tried to turn him to face her. “No, no, Zhev. You will not sleep exposed to the elements like that. My home in Buckland. No one would look for you there.”
Zhevruil stepped back, now facing her. He appeared to be worried. “Cwen, if you’re with a man…staying with you isn’t the best idea.”
Cwen closed her eyes for a moment. She thought of another letter. Another message full of shock and pain. “Bira…Bira is missing. His caravan never made it to their destination. I do not know what happened to him. It’s been weeks.” She closed her eyes again slowly. “But he would understand if it meant protecting a friend.”
Zhevruil raised his left hand. The middle and index fingers caressed her face. She’s right. He wouldn’t mind. And he’d be safe there, from them. Starting over, with her, it could happen. “I…I’ll go with you.” His legs trembled. He hadn’t slept well in weeks.
Cwendlwyn nodded and stepped forward to embrace him. “We can leave as soon as I gather my things from the Pony. Tonight you will rest, deore.”
Zhevruil returned the gesture, hugging her tightly. He wished he’d gone through with it, but that’s thinking with the little head. As they parted, he inquired, “Deore?”
She smiled. “The language of the Mark. ‘Dear’.”
Zhevruil grinned, the first time it’s happened in ages. “You….all right, let’s go. To be perfectly honest, Cwen, I’ve needed a good bed for some time.”
Cwendlwyn nodded up to him and slid her hand down his arm to thread her fingers through his. She gently tugged on him and started back toward the Cask where her horse waited. “Come. You will have my bed tonight, for you will not fit in Neilia’s. She is visiting Michel Delving at present, so we will not disrupt her if I take hers. Let us go.”
Zhevruil nodded, following her lead as she followed his.
Anyatka glances over at Tor nervously. Silence is unnerving. Speaking is unnerving. Torlach is unnerving.
With so much going on with my characters, I often copy and paste quotes or chat log just to keep things straight. I save important plot points or particularly spectacular moments in my Scrivner project that holds all my blog posts, character sheets, and ideas. This past week, a lot has happened for all three of my girls. Lina has entered a committed relationship, Anya’s possession is gathering interest, and Cwen – well, heck, she’s back in Bree RPing. As a nearly retired character who had been out of the scene for almost an irl year, that’s saying something.
As an English teacher, I cannot help but start to analyze the characters and their interactions. RP is living, breathing. One person alone does not control it (unless they’re RPing with themselves, and that’s a whole ‘nother story). It is not unusual for me to go back and spot missed posts – especially in the Pony – or situations where something someone said could have been taken entirely the wrong way. Art imitates life, and RP is an art. It only serves that misunderstandings might take place, profound and wise words might be uttered, or characters grow in ways unexpected. **Warning: potential spoilers for The Necklace/Bracelet plot which should be renamed to something equal parts lame and sexy, like “Bound by Fate”**
To Hallem: Emmelina scratches her cheek and laughs. “I remind ye o’ a mad-woman? Wait’ll ye get t’know me.” She grins at him as she raises the mug to him and then tips it back to chug it down. Smacking her lips, she nods to Barliman for another. “Wha’ makes ye say I remind ye of her?” Lina is proud of her mask, and mask it is. She doesn’t want anyone getting past it to poke at the pain she drowns in ale and crazy antics. Emmelina raises a brow and shifts her weight from one leg to the other. “Grave-diggin’ eh? But rather be climbin’ the earth rather than diggin’ in it?” She takes a more measured sip from her ale. “Interestin’ combination.” Despite her youth and apparent idiocy, her mind is sharp and oftentimes, Lina will say things that reflect deep wisdom that comes from experience and a certain level of instinct about people. She simply chooses to be carefree because the alternate is life-crushing. She is a young woman of extremes.
To Falros: Emmelina nods. “Long day. Lotta clothes.” She starts to turn to tromp down the steps but only makes it down two before turning back and returning to him. “Where’m I goin’?” Lina is very uncertain about her relationship with Falros at first. The context of sex has her all confuddled. She’s blunt enough to ask in the middle of the Pony whether she’s going to her place or his for the night, but elusive enough to make the true question unclear. Falros might have assumed she meant directions for his house, not her place in his world. Regardless, they have worked things out and Lina has found a place at Falros’s side.
Anyatka tucks her hair back behind her ear and says, “Go lurk in some other corner, Torlach. If you please.” Self explanatory! Though Anya actually standing up to Torlach is something new. Perhaps the influence of Aeron’s cool confidence? Or is Anya finally growing up a little? Regardless, Torlach is vital to her survival now that he has the necklace.
At Torlach: Anyatka didn’t not mean to sound like gollum in any way shape or form. Anyatka ducks away from his hand and swings below his arm to rugby tackle him. Since she’s rather average and scholarly, let’s see how far back she bounces! This was just hilarious. Faethril-Anya taking on Torlach. For realz, bro. Oh, and she bounced far.
To Morty: Anyatka snaps, “Aeron, son of Arithorn. And you?” Morducai touches the bracelet, appears unscathed where others were burnt, and makes contact with Aeron. Aeron isn’t amused. Anya’s dismayed that he’s not burned, or at least doesn’t show it. Further proof for her suspicions, if only she could get Aeron to leave her alone when Morty was around.
To Dunstann and Misree: Cwendlwyn looks over to Dunstann with a smirk. “Cwen,” she corrects him gently. “And aye. Pleasure to see you again,” she says to Dun with a bow of her head. She turns back to Ree shaking her head. “No, I was not referring to your face. Though, I have something for that as well. I refer to the way you’re sitting, favoring your side.” Cwen knows her shizznit. Though I need to brush up on my herbalism. Did you know nettle tea really does taste a lot like grass? The tingle goes away after you get used to it. Not sure how else to explain it. And dandelion root tea is heavy enough to be very satisfying as a sort of snack. Good stuff.
To Torlach and Eruviel: Cwendlwyn continues to gaze down at them for a moment before she plasters on a smile. “Of course! This one,” she holds up the plain band, “is my wedding ring from my union with Anidore Resselin. And this one,” she holds up the one with the family crest, “was given me by Arodionn Vallanor, a man I…” she looks down again, the false cheer cracking. And that doesn’t even include the gold and silver band she wears openly which is not Biramore’s, but the Elf Elodir’s who sailed to the West. Girl’s got a past! Anidore and I agreed their daughter is seven, now, so that will limit her adventuring. Maybe one day Neilia will come sauntering into Bree – will she be more like mum or da? Anyatka repeats, “Well. You?” She starts to sketch: rolling hills, towering, um, towers. Sometimes, words fail. Anyatka nods. “That is what Morty said.” She presses her lips together and adds, “He also said to try not to let him know he’s dead.” Oopsie daisy, Raen sort of told Aeron he was dead and then Faethril went apeshit. Anya ended up unconscious on a pile of cushions muttering in her sleep as Orchil and Raen watched and discussed their involvement with her fate. The fact that Morty found out about the necklace being from the Barrows and is outraged did no good for Anya’s already fragile feelings.
To Morty, while telling Raen the sordid tale: Anyatka looks over at Morty for a moment in silence. “I guessed,” she whispers, blinking as the tears flow slowly. “But it didn’t matter to me.” She looks back at Raen and takes a deep breath to continue. Re-reading this portion, Morty might have mistaken Anya’s “But it didn’t matter to me” as a flippant dismissal of his curse in her pursuit of ancient artifacts and adventure. It was not. It was her admittance that she guessed from his obsessive concern about the Barrows, his longevity against hope, and his glowy-eye that there was more to him than appeared. It was her admittance that despite the fact he could be a monster and his insistence that she does not, she loved him. Her tears were a mixture of shame that she betrayed his trust by taking the adventure with Teiblanc, horror that he now knew, and fear that he’d never speak to her again. And of course, the classic crying because you’re crying when you promised yourself you wouldn’t cry any more.
Anyatka will continue to sleep-talk for several hours. Several times she will throw her arms up as if defending herself while crying out. Each time ‘Morty’ passes her lips, her eyes open and flash as if Aeron were connecting with her feelings for him. Several times, she whimpers and pleads for the necklace, muttering how ‘he’ needs it for protection. Ultimately, Anya’s possession is a love story. Faethril, even in the demonic form that she exists in presently, only seeks Aeron’s safety which she tied to the old family heirloom, his necklace. Aeron, though much more sentient than his lover, also rears a much more feral persona whenever Anya is overwhelmed or hurt by her feelings for Morty. Aeron surges forth to protect her, feeling the connection between her and Faethril and seeking to rid her of the pain.
I have received notice from an Elf named Eruviel that you have lost a lynx. I have been inquiring about Bree for a few days and am relieved to finally find its owner.
Please send post regarding arrangements to meet so we can return the poor thing to you. I wish to warn you that when my Biramore and I found him, he was injured rather badly. He has mended well, but bears scarring on his flank.
I look for your message in eagerness,
Anya blinked as she reread the letter. The woman was due to arrive that afternoon and her heart raced excitedly as she skipped around the house making scones and muffins. Oli! At last! Some good news for a change.
Eruviel hunted that day, so she had no one to share in her nervous energy. Once her baking was done, she had little to occupy her as she waited for their arrival. She paced the front room for thirty minutes pausing only to stare out the window for extended periods of time. Finally, two strangers appeared around the corner. A large black lynx followed them closely behind.
Anya burst from the house and rushed to the end of the footpath that cut through the yard. From a distance, the woman raised her hand in greeting.
“Miss Anya?” she called out in a clear, confident voice.
Anya returned the wave enthusiastically. “Miss Tain?”
The couple drew close and Anya was able to examine them. The woman led slightly; the man trailed behind a bit as he looked around and over his shoulder frequently. She wore well fitting robes of lavender and tan and a wide-brimmed sunhat with a large plume in the band. Anya could see locks of dark hair escaping from beneath the hat. Her eyes were a piercing green that belied the gentle set of her smile. This woman had seen things that would probably set Anya’s head spinning.
The man was handsome and bore himself like a soldier. The shirt he wore fit well and as he turned to look back at the lynx, she could see the well-defined muscle moving beneath the fabric. His face was kind and his eyes clearly protective of the woman as she walked before him.
From behind the man, the lynx suddenly shot forward. It moved so quickly it could have been a fleeting shadow. It leapt at Anya, rebounded off her chest, and bounced around her as she laughed.
“Oli!” She knelt to the feline’s level and he nuzzled up to her cheek. “I missed you, too,” she whispered to him.
The woman paused on the road before the lane and curtsied gracefully. “Miss Anya, it is a pleasure to finally meet you.”
Anya rose and curtsey-bowed to her. She felt so awkward in the presence of the older woman and a faint blush crossed her cheeks. Cwen laughed lightly and crossed to take both of her hands. “Eruviel mentioned you are recovering from an injury. How are you?”
“Oh, I am well,” Anya answered. “Thank you for your concern. I cannot thank you enough for taking the time to find me.” She gestured to the house. “Will you please come in for tea?”
Cwen smiled down at her and waved the man over. “Of course, thank you. This is Biramore.”
Biramore bowed his head in greeting and offered her a kind smile. “Pleasure, Miss Anya.”
Anya curtsied to Biramore even as she led them into the house. Oli wove around her as they climbed the steps to the front door and she led them inside.
* * *
Lina frowned down at the pile of linens from the Pony. She chewed her lip for a moment as the steam from the hot water cauldrons rose around her causing her naturally wild hair to frizz even more crazily about her face. She patted it down to no avail. Sighing, she picked up an armful of bedsheets and dropped it into the vat of grey water at her feet.
Aunt Millie fluttered over to her on tiptoes. Lina tried to suppress her frown. She had managed to get out from under the woman’s roof, but she couldn’t get away from her at work.
“I stopped by the boardin’ ‘ouse,” Aunt Millie said in her high nasally voice. Anya often wondered if she spoke like that on purpose because it sounded so affected. “The proprietress said ye ‘ave not been t’ bed in several days, Emmelina.” Her aunt stood with her hands on her hips and frowned at her.
Taking up the broadest washing-beetle she could see, Lina began to stir the linens. She tried not to picture herself taking the tool to the side of her aunt’s head. “Aye?” she responded simply without looking up from the steaming water.
“Aye. Care t’explain, darlin’?” She could feel the evil eye penetrating the back of her skull.
“Nothin’ t’explain, Auntie.”
“Emmelina Lilybrook, yer parents sent ye ‘ere t’protect ye!” The ignominy in her voice threatened to shove Lina head first into the hot water as if that alone could cleanse her of the shame of being such an immoral child. “Jus’ ‘oo are ye cavortin’ about with? Hm? Some crafty, sweet talkin’ young lad promisin’ ye th’world when he finds buried treasure in th’Downs?”
Nearly growling, Lina bites out, “Aunt Millie, leave off, will ye? Ain’t fallin’ fer some fool adventurer who’ll get speared a’fore he walks out the gates o’Bree.”
“I won’t ‘ave it, Emmelina!” Her aunt’s voice rose to a shrill pitch that could have summoned the bats from the Old Forest to descend upon her wayward niece. “Ye git yerself back to tha’ boardin’ house an’ get yer head on straight!”
Lina looked up at her aunt through slitted eyes. “My head’s just fine,” she said lowly. “An’ I think I’m makin’ ends meet on me own, without ye or Ma or Da. I think I’m doin’ just fine.” She raised the bat to emphasize her words. “Where I spend me nights is my business.”
The older woman stared open mouthed at Lina. Without another word, Lina turned back to the washing tub and continued to stir the dirty sheets of Bree.
* * *
Cwendlwyn stood at the window of the Pony and stared out over the square. Biramore lay stretched on the bed behind her whistling a light tune and sharpening her dagger.
“You’re thinking,” he said between even strokes across the whetstone.
“Hm.” Cwen did not turn from the scene before her: Bree-landers bustling about with baskets from the market, gathering around the latest minstrel playing near the fountain, or standing about in groups chatting about their day. She thought her memories would haunt her; she had steeled herself for the feelings of loss the town should have invoked.
However, though she found the town much unchanged, she did not dread stepping out of her door as she once did. She did not find herself looking over her shoulder for a madman to attack her or poison her mind. It felt much more like a town settled into a rhythm of subtle adaptation.
“What is it, love?” Biramore prodded gently. “Do you wish to go leave for Buckland tonight? It might be dangerous on the road, but certainly nothing more dangerous than we can handle.”
Cwen shook her head. “No. It isn’t that.” She turned to look at him with an uncertain smile. “I cannot quite put my finger on it,” she admitted and went to sit next to him.
“You’re doing well,” he encouraged her only half-teasing. “No breakdowns, no crying.” He returned her smile and tucked a strand of her long dark hair behind her ear. “Better than the last time we spent any amount of time in Bree, huh?”
“But, you have a feeling, though. I see it.” Bira ducked his head to capture her gaze. “Is it that woman? Anya?”
Shrugging, she said, “I’m not sure. She was very kind, was she not? But…yes. Perhaps there is something about her-” She sighed, frustrated she was unable to put a finger on what was tugging at the back of her mind.
Biramore leaned forward, tipping her chin up with a gentle finger. “It’s no worry of ours, love,” he reminded her. “We’ve done our part and will retreat to the quiet of the Shire tomorrow. I promise.” Leaning in, he kissed her.
Cwen smiled at him as he sat back. “It’s no worry,” she agrees. “Promise.”
The sound of children playing in the front yard filled the kitchen through the closed window. Pies lined the sill; the scent of freshly baked meats filled the air as Cwen carefully extracted another from the oven.
“Bira! Neilia! It’s just about lunch time, my loves!”
She delicately set the pie with the rest of them to cool and cracked open the window to let the stifling heat out. The cool winter day rushed through with a pleasant whine of the wind. Stepping back with a smile, she surveyed her work for the neighborhood party that evening. She hoped the Hobbits would like the fare—she learned the recipe from one of their own and tweaked it slightly to add a touch of marjoram. Hands on her hips, she sighed. The concerns of Hobbits were far easier to deal with than the concerns of Men.
After a moment, she called out to her family again.
“Biramore! Neilia, darling! Where are you!”
It was very unlike them to neglect their lunch. Since moving to the Shire permanently, Neilia had maintained rather round proportions only accentuated by her growing into a fine young lady. And Cwen couldn’t help but note Bira softening a bit around the midsection as well. She smiled as she thought of it and went into the hall to look for them.
“Bira?” He was not in the parlor nor the bedrooms. A frown crept onto her lips as she strode down the hall toward the rounded front door. She threw it open and the cold blast of winter hit her full force. The yard was empty; the children had gone to their own homes, stomachs just as good as a pocket-watch at keeping time in the Shire.
Her frown darkened as worry set upon her brow. “Neilia! Biramore!” she called. A quick sweep of the yard revealed nothing. She went around the house, small for a Man but cavernous for a Hobbit, and found them in the small backyard hovering a short distance away from a prone figure. Gasping, Cwen rushed forward.
“What is it?” she cried as she came up to them. A hand on each’s shoulder and they parted to let her through.
A lynx the size of a large collie lay in the brittle grass, its breathing labored with pain. Its dark purple coat shined with blood on its flank and it hissed whenever Cwen came within a few feet of it.
“Mama, what is it?” Neilia asked trying to see around Biramore’s protective stance.
“It’s a cat of some kind,” Cwen replied. “And it’s hurt.”
Behind her Biramore frowned. “Clearly. Cwen, where do you think it came from? I have not seen an animal like that in these parts. Ever.”
Nodding, Cwen lifted her skirts so she could crouch. “And why is it here? Seeking Men when it is injured?” She offered a hand to the wounded animal without breaking her gaze on it. Hissing, it swiped at her, though its injury kept it from getting close. A warning.
“Neilia, love, go fetch my supplies,” she ordered without turning around. The soft pad of footsteps faded quickly and Biramore moved to kneel next to her.
“You think it is tame?” he asked her lowly once Neilia was gone. “This could be a foolish thing—healing something that could turn around and attack us.”
Cwen waved her hand dismissively. “Biramore, you know that has never stopped me before.”
Giving a curt nod, Biramore fell silent. They waited patiently until Neilia returned with a small hip satchel that clanked as she ran toward them. She also carried a bucket of water and some cloths. Taking the satchel, Cwen ordered her daughter leave the bucket and go retrieve some raw scraps from kitchen before she turned back to the lynx.
Its golden green eyes watched her warily as she inched closer, fangs bared but no longer hissing. Still offering her hand to it, Cwen inched forward until she was within arms length of its nose. It leaned forward cautiously, sniffing. Cwen held still until it could not move any closer and then slowly brought her open palm within its reach. It sniffed her and then sat back regarding her with guarded eyes.
Cwen bowed her head to it, eyes still on the animal. Behind her, she heard Biramore grunt and shift his weight. Slowly, she turned to the satchel and retrieved a tin of plantain leaf.
“’Tis good you gathered some this morning,” Biramore commented as she crushed the leaves with a small mortar and pestle.
“I always gather some in the morning. It only works for bleeding when it’s fresh, Bira. Now that you are training Neilia, I feel like I should always have it around just in case.”
Biramore laughed lightly. “Of course.” After a beat, he adds, “She is getting very good, you know.”
Cwen nodded distractedly as she scooped some of the paste of the crushed plant and put it into a clean bowl. She quickly retrieved a prepared salve from her satchel and placed it next to the bowl, her long, thin fingers adjusting its placement before turning to Biramore. She gestured toward the bucket. “Hand that to me, would you?”
Biramore bent to grab the handle and loped over to place it next to Cwen and the lynx. It hissed at him, but he ignored it. He dipped the cloth in the water and then moved to clean the lynx’s cut. It started hissing and spitting, attempting to move away. Biramore paused and blinked. “Maybe you should do it.”
Cwen rolled her eyes and took the cloth. Moving slowly, she cleaned the cut, finishing just as Neilia returned with a bowl of meat scraps. Cwen selected a slice deep red with blood and tossed it to the lynx. It ate greedily.
Pausing only to toss the lynx more scraps, Cwen quickly finished tending the animal’s cut. She thought it could use stitches but didn’t want to risk losing an eye over it so she settled with a tight bandage and another scrap. To her side, Neilia kept a running monologue of soothing encouragement to the animal. It eventually let her place her hand on its head which caused the girl to smile broadly.
Biramore had disappeared for a while only to return bearing a large barrel from the pantry. Cwen mused on what sort of vegetable now covered her floor, but smiled. As she finished with the wound, she could hear him drop the barrel on its side and then move to the small bale of hay they kept to keep the dirt down. He used it to make a bed in the barrel and then straightened brushing off his hands. When Cwen was finished, he came over to carry the lynx to the make-shift house, but as soon as he came close, it growled low and menacing.
“Bira, I dunna think it likes you,” Neilia observed.
Biramore looked stunned. He nodded and pointed down at the feline. “Do you think you can manage it, love?”
Cwen answered by carrying the animal to the little house and helping it settle down. She had Neilia fetch a bowl of water and then sat stroking the black ears while it purred softly.
“Whose do you think it is?” Biramore asked with his arms crossed over his chest. A troubled look shadowed his features in the afternoon sun.
Cwen squinted up at him shielding her eyes. “I have no clue. I would not call it tame, but it certainly belongs to someone. Perhaps someone in town knows?”
Biramore shook his head. “I doubt a Hobbit would keep a half-tamed lynx as a pet. Thing could eat one for breakfast.”
“Well, we need to find who it belongs to. We can’t keep it here.” She frowned. “I thought lynxes inhabited places farther east, like the Lone-lands or the Trollshaws.”
Nodding in agreement, Biramore said, “That would be what I would have guessed. Perhaps from down river, but it still seems odd one is this far from its home. Perhaps we need to chance Bree-town and see if there’s been reports of unusual movement.”
Cwen looked down at the lynx with a thoughtful gaze. “You think its master could be there?”
He shrugged. “Better chance there than here in Buckland.”
“I don’t want to go back to Bree, Bira.”
Biramore stood still as a statue as Neilia returned with the water and a blanket from her own bed.