The Gentle Touch

With the exception of Neilia, I have never thought much about those I love dying. Men die, or they leave, and either way there is always loss for those that remain. My Hobbit friends have passed gracefully (for the most part) due to old age. And Elves…their spirits never die, I’ve heard. They pass on to Mandos’ halls and find their place among their people.

War changes dying. It is brutal and unnatural and it rents one’s spirit into pieces. No healer alone can mend the wounds war brings down upon the land.

I am Neilia’s mother and it is my job to protect her with every fiber of my being. I tell myself that by coming here, to Dol Amroth, I am protecting her by shoring up the war front and making Gondor stronger.

Gondor must hold. Dol Amroth must hold.ScreenShot00474

It is remarkable how a city so known for its disciplined army is so full of undisciplined citizens. The infighting and treachery and treason make it nearly impossible to know who to trust. Oendir always said he did not like the Knight-Captain Aureldir and now he’s played a role in the death of Rivalthor and the other knights recently slain in cowardly assassinations. And while the others had pegged Rivalthor as the villain, he release of his fiancee had made me take a step back.

Unfortunately, it was too late.

Why didn’t I say anything more? A note on a document that I feel half the company does not even bother to read. It was not enough. Did my own dislike for the man allow my tongue to stay silent? Did I truly believe Rivalthor was sending us into a trap? Or was it simply because they do not listen, and I grow weary of the looks that do not hide that they think I’m crazy?

I digress. I often digress recently, though rarely aloud. Oendir is beginning to learn when my mind is going though outwardly I am silent. He remembers to ask when he comes out of his own worries and notices mine. I do not hold it against him that he dwells so often in his own thoughts. He is not used to having another around to consult after Gisla left him, and it will take time for him to remember I am always here.

I try to lessen his burden. He is a good man and he deserves some peace from the constant anxiety that plagues him. He doubts himself too much, but it is the company that should be doubted. Each of them has their own agendas and views on the way things should be. Many of them are willing to do whatever it takes to see them through, all in the cause of the greater good. Funny, isn’t it? We sound so much like the city I despise.

So at the end of the day, I will tell Oendir that he is strong and I will rub his aching foot and I will love him until the end of time.

I will always be at his side, whether I am a Wayfarer or not.

~~~***~~~

I was not sure what to expect on my wedding night. Gaelyn spent more time with me alone than any other man before. I never felt judged or pressured or threatened in his presence. There is an ease about him that I cannot help but be drawn to. He did not pressure me or make demands of my body. I told him things no one else knows. Embarrassing things! He only laughed and smiled and asked me more about myself as though he was actually interested in me and not my family’s money or the scandal or my shame. Is this what is like to be a person again?

Gaelyn is an admirable man. He seems to understand the politics and the thoughts of the city without being drawn into them directly. Perhaps it is his charming smile or the way he grins when he says something he knows is witty. He smiles as though he is so very pleased with himself, but not in that pretentious or off-putting manner. It is more the smile like he knows that you know that it is all a game and it would be easier if everyone just came clean, but he doesn’t mind if they keep playing because he wants to keep playing.

It is a game to him, the ways of Dol Amroth. He does not take things lightly here, nor does he let them become a burden. That balance is refreshing. It cleanses my heart and gives me hope for a future.

A future with Gaelyn Fletcher.

I am now Halvel Fletcher.

No “Lady,” no house. No more shame for blood that I cannot change. No servants or handmaidens. Remlors are fish merchants. What are Fletchers? It remains to be seen.

I want this marriage to work, don’t I? I had tried not to think about it, because Gaelyn was always clear that he would support whatever decisions I made after leaving the city. I did not have to worry about that until we were safely away. But now that I am married and am here with him, I want it to work. I want to wake next to him and see the true wreck that is his hair in the morning. I want to gaze into those green eyes and feel like I am held as an equal. I want to feel his hand in mine and on my skin.

I was afraid of a man’s hands before, but not anymore.

~~~***~~~

I made Abiorn go camping with me. He was incredulous and suspicious, but once I convinced him that I really wanted to go, he started packing right away. He started going on and on about the woods around Durrow and how he was going to show me a lot of neat places, but I did not want to stay near the southern Bree-fields. I wanted to go north, past Bree, past the graveyard. I wanted to go to Starmere Lake.

It had been months and months since I had been there last. Probably closer to over a year. Anric took me there once and we swam all day long in the crystal clear lake. We yelled and laughed when our voices echoed off the surrounding cliffs. He was different there. At ease with himself. And it had been beautiful.

I wrote to Anders to let him know I would be gone for a few days. Though we left a note for Eirikr and Eruviel, I did not think that we would be gone long enough to need it. I just wanted to see that place again.

I thought about writing to Morty, but decided that writing him would not be appropriate. And I didn’t want to write him. I felt like he did not deserve to know, but then all the way up to the lake, I worried about how he would fret if he went and found the house abandoned. I always worry about what he feels.

Starmere LakeIt was beautiful still. A little bowl of solitude and freedom nestled into the Brandy Hills. Abiorn and I set up camp and swam the first day, but the second day, I let him swim out to the islands by himself while I set up my easel and stirred my paints. All around me, I could hear the nature spirits on the wind come to investigate the bear-man and his sister. They stayed near all day, whispering and dancing around me as I worked.

When Abiorn returned, he found me angrily stabbing at the canvas with my paintbrush. Tears flowed down my cheeks, but I did not know it at the time.

Abiorn came to me and put his hand over my own. He urged me to put down the brush and then pulled me into a giant bear hug.

What is it, Anyatka? he had asked in his simple and straightforward manner. How can I help? Do I need to bite someone’s hand off?

It was absurd and I laughed, but still I cried. I did not know what made me ache until the pain turned to anger. I was not an angry person; I did not recognize the emotion even as it made me ruin the bristles of my favorite brush. So Abiorn just hugged me and the light faded as the sun dipped behind the cliffs and I tried to figure out why I was so sad I could hardly even paint.

Eventually, I calmed down enough for Abiorn to release me and cook some fish he caught for dinner. As the smoke rose from the pale slabs of delicate flesh, I realized what it was.

I was angry with Morty.

I was angry with Morty for lying and using me and making me fall so desperately in love with him that still I longed for his smile. I was angry with Morty for liking Anders and approving of the new match like it was easy to get over me because I was just another girl. I was angry with Morty for having a child with Ansithe and never being able to entertain the thought of having a child with me, like I was not good enough to bear his line. And I am angry with Morty that he does not deserve me, he never did deserve me, and he does not want to do anything to try to deserve me.

I know that many of these things were out of my hands over a thousand years ago. It is not my fault that he is what he is and I am what I am and I tell myself I should be honored to have his attention for the short time that I did. That if he did pledge his heart to me for this lifetime, he would suffer the pain of my death and that is not fair of me to ask him to do. But life isn’t fair! If we were given this time to be together again, why should we waste it apart?

The sun had long gone to bed when I was able to look at my painting again. The palate was dark; I did not realize I had chosen to capture such a beautiful day in such somber tones. I raised my hand, anger that even in my art he was present giving my virgin powers strength: a gust of wind rose to knock the easel to its side and it caught the canvas like a sail. It flew into the darkness and just under Abiorn’s shout of surprise, I heard the splash.

Tomorrow, I said to him. Tomorrow, we are going to go foraging. I need new paints. 

Nodding in shock, Abiorn stared at me, but I did not mind. I would come to understand this new feeling, this gift that Morty gave me. I would master it, this Anger. And I will be stronger for it.

The sun will rise tomorrow, and I welcome its heat.

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Letters of Marque: Shed This Skin

The sea speaks to me.

Hear the rush of the waves slapping
shore for being stubborn. Hard.

The cadence
The pulse of the world beating
Against its veiny banks;
Each river, each artery
Feeds the flesh of the earth,
Spills back into its source,
Rises renewed and cycles back again.

The sea feeds us. It speaks to us.

If we would listen, we would hear.

The spray cleanses my skin.
The sand burns my feet.
Would I shed my skin and return to the water,
To my mothers, my brothers and sisters of the sea:

I hear their song. Dancing on the waves,
I will sing. I will ride into the vast horizon
With nothing but the wind on my side.

Take me home.
I am done here
in this foreign land.
I have done.
Let me sail into the sea.
Take me home

or all shall fade.

A Bitter Pill: Cwendlwyn Of

Cwendlwyn of Buckland stood on a balcony of the Colagar Estate and held in her hand a parchment. The formality of the request made her ache for the neighborly greetings of her Hobbit neighbors and she missed the sound of bare feet padding through a cozy Hobbit hole. A little dirt beneath the nails never harmed anyone, and in the Shire, it showed one’s hard work and worth.

Cwendlwyn of Bree stood on a balcony of the Colagar Estate and held in her hand a parchment. She felt the old clashing with the new in Dol Amroth and realized the tension was not unfamiliar; Durrow was undergoing a similar change now that Oendir was officially mayor. She had not been around for the election, but wondered how much turmoil it had caused. He was a good man, and a brave man, and a man that she would lay down her life for. But surely some will be watching like a hawk for the first fault they can find. And how will her Oendir manage leadership of a village and the Wayfarers? Just the one seemed to cause him so much stress already. She remembered the pain of his headache when the company found each other in the wrong shoes. He was working hard to rebuild ranks after the loss of Kemendin and firing of Hallem in Forochel.

Cwendlwyn of Rohan stood on a balcony of the Colagar Estate and held in her hand a parchment. She saw the orchards and the sea and the city in all its glory rising behind its secretive walls. She felt so small. At least in Eriador, she never felt so out of place. So alone. But in Rohan, for a time, she did. She remembered the children teasing her about her dark hair. With no protection from the Gap, their lands were always shrouded with that silent threat. The descendants of Wulf were watching. Waiting. And finally one day, they came to take back some of what they lost. She discovered from whence she came.

And she knew what it was like to be truly alone.

Cwendlwyn of the Wayfarers turned away from the deceptive beauty of the city and sea and sought writing instruments and parchment in the drawer of the desk in the small sitting room she shared with Oendir and the children. She stared at the pattern of the dappled feathers of the quill for several minutes before she put the nib to paper.

My dear lord,

It is a honour to receive your note and I would very much like to honour my invitation by joining you before the wedding. I believe there are a few days of informal socializing and last minute preparations, and I am certain no one would notice my absence from the estate.

Perhaps the best way to maintain the necessary obligations both of us have, as you are surely more occupied with obligations than I, is for you to send a messenger with the time. I will know that it is you and where to go; no one else would be sending for me in this city. All I know is here at the estate already.

I look forward to our tea.

Until then,

Cwendlwyn Tain of

She hesitated. Carefully, she traced over the ‘of’ until it became an ‘at’ and then she did the same to her name to make it look more deliberate.

Cwendlwyn Tain at House Colagar

Setting aside The Bluejay’s letter, she drew out another piece and quickly penned a note for the north.

Dear Eirikr,

Are you and young Mister Abiorn well? I hope the spring is not having a hard time emerging this year. I will miss witnessing the first blooms in Durrow.

Like the rest of us when we first came, Anya appears very awed by the wonders of the city. She seems to be enjoying herself even if she was still suffering from the aftereffects of her seasickness and had to miss the welcoming dinner. I am sure she will tell you more.

I am writing you with a small request. Your neighbor, Rheb, has not been seen in some time and I fear it is my fault. I had hoped he would return before we left for Dol Amroth, but luck was not on my side. If you happen upon him in your exploration of the surrounding lands, please tell him Oendir is very worried about his well-being and perhaps encourage him to return to Durrow soon. Do not mention me—I will explain when I return.

Oen said you have chosen to join the Wayfarers as well. I wish to welcome you to the company and ensure you that they are a fine employer.

Most Sincerely,

Cwen

The Nightingale: Memories Lost

The grounds of the Colagar estate seemed busy with the increased guard patrolling them. Arameril walked close to the windows as she traveled the various halls of the manor arm-in-arm with Pengail. At each window she would stare longingly outside as they passed. The clouds. The sky. Since Atanamir’s wards had been applied, she dared not touch even the sills to lean out to feel the open breeze on her face.

Pengail slowed at one of the larger windows on the second floor of the sprawling manor. His long stride halted as Arameril gazed on the distant skyline of the city.

“You know, Pen,” she said without turning to look at him, “sometimes, I do miss the Ivory Tower. I left on an errand and never went back. I knew I could not return to that place knowing the Orchid was being held captive there somewhere.

“I had hidden a set of spare leathers near our picnic spot. I left everything else I had behind.”

Pengail placed a warm hand on her in the crook of his elbow. I’m s-sorry, Merry. Mayb-be you will be able t-to… retrieve it wh-when this is… all over.”

Arameril smiled warmly and covered his hand with her own. “Perhaps. I did not have much, but it means something to me. I… I didn’t realize just how much until I realized I missed it.”

Pengail returned the smile and led her to a bench in a recessed alcove where they could sit and watch the city from afar.

“T-tell me?”

Arameril leaned against his good arm. Her head barely met the middle of his bicep.

“Well, clothes. I only owned the simplest gowns and training gear, but they were mine.” She tugged at the fabric of the new dress she wore. As long as Sir Carmanadh or anyone else had purchased it for her, it would never be truly hers. “Is that silly?”

Shaking his head, he said, “N-no!” His gentle eyes looked down at her with sincerity and urged her to continue.

She nodded, her confidence in returning to the memories of her life in the tower growing.

“And I had a little box. A jewelry box I was given the Yule after I earned my ink. The only jewelry I ever owned was this silver necklace.” She touched the chain around Pengail’s neck. “So the only things in it were a coin I had since I was little, some seashells I collected over the years. A few pieces of sea glass. And a wooden coin with a carving of the Kipper on it. Scuppers gave it to me when I had sailed fifty times. Those trinkets represent… they represent my life…”

Her brow creased as she added, “Now, the only things I own are my black leathers and the gifts from my father. I am… what others have built.”

“Merry.” Pengail’s long fingers tipped back her chin as he gazed down at her. “…you are, are… you. Not w-what… they d-did to you. And now… now you c-can be f-fr-free.”

Arameril smiled as she rested her head against him. Her little fingers intertwined with his.

“Meeting you on the Kipper, Pen. That is what set me free.”

Pengail shook his head. He tried to find the words to match his thoughts and she watched his eyes as he worked through it.

“I only… c-caught you. When you st-stumbled. You took the first, first steps yours-self.”

Arameril reached up to lead his face down to hers. She kissed him tenderly. “I love you,” she whispered against his lips.

“I love you.” He smiled and stood holding his hand out to her to help her to her feet.

As they continued down the hall, he asked, “Why a c-coin?”

Shrugging, Arameril said lightly, “I got it when I was very young. From a fountain in the gardens. I don’t remember much about it except that my arms were too short and a nice man… got it out… for me…” Her steps slowed as she spoke each phrase. “Oh, by Elmeleth. Pengail. I think… but it was so long ago. I’ve always had that coin.”

She turned to face the direction from which they came. Down, down the hall and around a left turn and then a right or two. Hathlafel’s room.

“I could never remember his face. He was so kind and I don’t think I even said a word. He… he gave it to me even though they weren’t for taking… He… he…”

Pengail squeezed her hand reassuringly.

“You, you think it was your father?”

“Why… how could it be?”

Smiling, Pengail took both of her hands in his and stood before her. They paused in front of a wide window overlooking the coastline.

“He w-was watching ov-ver you. H-he loves you, M-merry.”

Arameril held his hands as an anchor as her brow worked through her thoughts.

“He was always there, Pen. Always watching over me. I always remember Sir Hathlafel visiting the Ivory Tower every Tuesday to meet with Lady Gwenithel. We had spoken only a few times before… before that day he asked me about… about you.”

Pengail’s brow arched. “He, he asked a-about me?”

Arameril nodded. “Yes. Whether or not I had ‘romantic affection’ for you. If you were important to me. I tried to keep it secret, but he already knew. He just wanted to hear it from me, I guess. To protect you? If he was lessening the dosage to keep you alive… we owe him your life. And mine.”

Pengail nodded. “We do. H-he has always watched over u-us. He… he is g-good, Merry. You c-can help him… re-remember. To-together. We can… h-help him.”

Arameril stood on tiptoe and still had to wait for Pengail to stoop to bring his lips to hers.

“We will, Pen.”

The Nightingale: No Matter the Consequence

My dearest Pengail,

I was five when I knew things were not as they seemed in my life. We were in the study and one of the girls, Romdin, bumped into a round mahogany side table. A fine porcelain vase fell to the floor. It never hit. I caught it. I never knew how, but that was what caught the attention of the Order, Deludhae told me. The swiftness of my reaction pleased her and she put me through a series of games that were really tests and I was on my path toward becoming a Rose.

I was five.

It was around the age of ten that I took the ink and the real learning began.

The power it gives is intoxicating. The world appears different when you know the strength of your arm can bend metal and render death in the blink of an eye. But it quickly became something terrible and frightening. The control needed to blend in with the rest of the citizenry was exhausting. The secret of it ate away at the heart and was crippling. And we needed more. We always needed more to survive. Without it, we would fade away to nothing and become mere shadows of who we once were.

The girls that were chosen to be Roses always had nothing else to turn to. When you owe the Lady your life, you give it. We were slaves or lacked family to protect us. If we disappeared, died, or shunned marriage no one would care enough to question it. We were forbidden to engage in relationships outside the Order to prevent such a care from forming.

And only since I found you do I understand why.

The strength and speed of the ink is nothing to the power I feel when I am charged with your love. I have everything to lose because I have you and you are everything. I cannot fix the pain I have caused you by keeping the truth from you. There is no time to regain your trust. Innocent people are hurting and lives are at risk because of me. I should have stood up to her long ago.

Master Kemendin fears I will not return from House Aearanel.

But it must be done.

Just as you said, I have to do good, Pen, no matter the consequence. If I did not do this, there would be no way I was worthy enough to even ask for your trust. Your love. You are my conscience and my guide to redemption.

Thank you. Thank you for giving the freedom of your love. I only wish I could grow old with you by my side and raise little horsemen that could jump so high they could fly and girls that could run as fast as the wind. I wish we were free to watch the stars come out each night and wake to the rosy dawn each morning and measure our lives only with our love.

Pengail, I know in my heart that even if I go there to die, we will find one another again. I will always be with you.

Always.

With all my heart,

~Arameril

P.S. Please take care of Auriel for me. She only just found her way to me.

The Nightingale: Bread Crumbs

Merry's Cliff

A tiny figure in black cowered in the shadows of the corner formed by the outer walls lining Dol Amroth and the sea cliff overlooking the Keep of the Swan-knights. Even though “Faindir” had found her there the day before, she had little where else she could go. She kept back from the edge and pressed against the stone wall; surely no one would look there for her twice. On the other side of the wall, the sound of the garden patrons would set her on edge every once and a while, but most of the time only the call of the seagulls interrupted the steady rush of the ocean and clang of weapons training from the court of the Keep. Here at least she could be near the sea.

Ships coasted past bearing their men to far away places, but for once her heart did not long to feel the wooden decks beneath her feet. Her eyes dwelt on doors of the keep and the bridge connecting it to the mainland.

His letter was folded and tucked inside her shirt for safe keeping. She had read and reread the words a thousand times since she left his arms that morning in the Keep. He had written it before she shattered his trust with the truth, but still she repeated one line of the letter like a mantra: Perhaps soon I will be released from the infirmary and I can come to you. 

I can come to you.

The plan was to meet him four days from now. She would be there in the black leathers that were all she would take with her from her past life and in the wilds she would rebuild the trust that had broken with her honesty. She would come with what she could steal or scrounge. Food. Water skins. Blankets. Though it would be a long time until the suspicion and disappointment would fade from his eyes, she trusted him. She could only hope that one day, he’d be able to trust her again.

As the sun set behind the cliffs of the coast, a gleam caught her eye. She unwrapped her arms from around her legs and crawled over to the small rock cluster clinging to the cliff side. A bulky package wrapped in waxed brown paper sat wedged into a rock and had caught the last beam’s light before the sun disappeared.

Frowning, she plucked off the note attached to the package. It was addressed to her and she quickly opened the attached note.

My dearest Arameril,

I know you have no reason to trust a gift from a stranger, but when I learned of your flight from the Ivory Tower, my heart went out to you. I know all this is a poor substitute for my absence from your life, but only now with your breaking from the Mormerili is it safe for me to contact you.

I’m not worried for your safety. I know you’re a clever girl and can take care of yourself. But I also know that without the protective circle of the Ivory Tower around you, you’ll need every windfall you can find. I only wish I could do more.

I pray that you and I will have a chance to meet openly soon, though I know better than to think it likely. Until that day, my dear, know that you have always been precious to me, and always will be. Keep Elmeleth in your heart, and never stop hoping for better.

All my love,
Your Father

She reread the signature. Your Father. Without smiling, she opened the package and found a new bedroll, a waterskin, a fire-starting kit, a well-made butterfly knife with a carved horn handle, and a week’s worth of hard tack rations.

She turned the knife over and ran her fingers across the handle. “How…” Who could have known she had left the Order so quickly? And how could she have a father after nineteen years of not even being able to ask if she had one?

Most of the girls in the Order were orphans. Slaves ‘rescued’ by Lady Gwenithel. She was just another charity case who secretly paid for her meals with blood, secrets, and lies. She had no father.

But it seemed as though that was a lie, too.

Very slowly, she wrapped the travel supplies back in the paper and tied the string into a perfectly even knot. She slipped the package back into the crevasse where she found it and quickly scaled the city wall for the nearest roof. She leaped without looking as she rushed for the unfamiliar trails of the forest. Her fingers and feet found their holds instinctively and soon she found herself standing on the banks of the waterfall near the stables where she and Pengail stole a morning when things were simpler.

Even though Pengail had warned that there were frequent visitors to the glen she doubted any would be out so late in the evening. The black leather came off in a rush. She plunged into the water and let the falls rinse away the scents of the city. As she stood beneath the frigid cascade, she lifted her face up and screamed, the water drowning out the sound. Slowly, she sank to her knees and sat staring at the wet stones that forced the water to plunge and froth around her. She sobbed.

Too many things were shifting and her paradigm could not keep up.

Waterlogged and exhausted, she dragged herself out of the falls. Leaving her clothes on the banks, she crawled into the shelter of a cluster of dense brush. Sheltered from any gaze save the forest animals, she lay in the darkness until the first stars blinked to life. Only then did she pull herself up, slip back into the leathers of the Black Roses, and start the slow journey back to the city.

She couldn’t leave just yet.

((Letter copy by Atanamir))

A Bitter Pill: If I Should Die Before I Wake

Dear Callee,

How are you, my good friend? Is the summer heat waning in Buckland yet, or is it still clinging to the hills with its August ferocity? I miss the way the Brandywine would sparkle like amber when the sun hit it just right. How each little crest of the water flowing ever on was a moment we’d never experience again, like a single heartbeat. Life flowed as a single pulse in the Shire. Even in Bree-land, there was a constant thread to cling to when things became overwhelming. It is not so here in Dol Amroth. There are too many wills at play for power and control beneath the festive thump of the city’s heart.

My company, the Wayfarers, have a deeper vein connecting them to preserving the goodness of this world than I could have imagined. They are no mere coalition of randoms come together to fight for their version of “good” or “justice.” Oen Commander Arrowheart introduced me to a very strong ally and from the wind spirit Fionwe, I have started to dream. They are more like vivid and realistic visions than dreams. The commander said they are messages from the wind spirit, lessons of the members’ ancestors and perhaps links to the origins of the company.

Now, you are a sane, reasonable hobbit, my dear. You perhaps won’t believe in fairies and wind spirits and the inner strength of any Man. But you have not met the commander. His people. They give me hope again, Callee. It is more than I can ask for.

But I do have something to ask from you. You know I draw trouble like bees to my honeysuckle blooms. Even here, it finds me. 

I don’t know who of our lot will be coming back to Bree. Something sinister is afoot and once again, I’m sucked into the brewing storm and I can only trust my companions to lead me out. I won’t say much about what is going on or isn’t going on, for truth be told, I hardly know myself. But I do know that this could end badly and if it does, Callee, promise me you’ll take care of Neilia. Oendir promised he’d make sure she was all right, but she will need you if anything would come to pass that would prevent my return to the Shire. 

I’m trying not to be upset that this happened. Again. Oendir says that we are in the place where we are needed. It’s a different way to look at the events unfolding, for certain. It’s confusing to the fear and bitterness I have in my heart. To consider finding this trouble a calling because we, the Wayfarers, may be able to help takes some adjustment in my mind. 

I will help those who can. You know I will. And I will try to keep my mouth shut, like I always do. But if it is not enough, promise me you’ll help Neilia. That she has a home with you or that you will ensure Oen finds one for her. 

She’s my world.

Your friend,

Cwen

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.

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.

A Bitter Pill: Getting to Go

“Mama, I think you are being silly.”

“Really, Neils, there is nothing silly about this choice. The trip will be long and exhausting and I can’t imagine how bored you shall be on the road.”

“Solsey is going! He’s my age and he gets to go!”

“Neilia Resselin, you are not Solstan Arrowheart. I am sure there is a fine reason why Commander Arrowheart would bring Solstan along. This is no leisurely holiday, Neilia. It will be dangerous. The South always is.”

“You said I’m part Dunlending.”

“Yes, my father was from the Hillmen’s tribes.”

“It’s heritage, Mama.”

“Do you even know what that means?”

“It’s where I’m from. And we’ll get to go see Rohan.”

“Our people call it the Mark, darling.”

“And we’ll get to go see the Mark.”

“Eat your roast, honey, so that I can serve dessert.”

“Solstan doesn’t eat meat.”

“Is your name Solstan? Besides, you always ate it before.”

“He doesn’t like eating animals.”

“Our people hold in highest esteem Béma, The Huntsman. If you are so interested in them, honor our people by eating the bounty of the hunt.”

“Is that why you always say ‘Béma’s balls,’ Mama?”

“Neilia!”

“What?”

“Don’t…don’t say that, please. It isn’t appropriate, er, polite to use that phrase aloud, all right? Sometimes Mama slips.”

“The people around here say ‘Stockard’s balls.'”

Neilia Ress-“

“Sorry! Sorry, Mama.” Beat. “This is why you should take me with you. So you can correct me when I say things like ‘Stockard’s balls.’ What does that mean anyway?”

“It’s a swear people use when they are angry or upset or so surprised their mind stops working for a moment.”

“Oh. That’s boring.”

“Well, then, you shouldn’t use it.”

“All right.” Several beats pass. “Can I go with you to Dol Amroth? Solsey is going.”

“Neilia, we’ve been over this.”

“But it isn’t fair!”

“As I said, I am sure Commander Arrowheart has a reason for allowing him to attend such an arduous journey. Perhaps to ease the burden on his wife since she has such a young child to attend to in his absence.”

“Have you met Com’ander Arrowheart’s wife?”

“No. Actually, now that you mention it, it is a bit odd, I suppose. You would think I would have run into her by now.”

“Isn’t Com’ander Arrowheart really really really nice, Mama?”

“Hm? Oh yes, dear. I agree he is very nice.”

“He reminds me of Biramore how nice he is.”

“Hm. Sometimes, perhaps. He’s a good man. We can trust him to take care of the company.”

“See, Mama? Com’ander Arrowheart will take care of us and make sure nothin’ happens to us.”

“Neilia, really?”

“Mama, you said so. You said he’d take care of us and Solsey gets to go. I should get to go.”

“Neilia…”

Mama. Please, don’t leave me all alooonneee.” 

“Neilia.”

“I should get to go.”