Remembering Loxwyn

Loxwyn slowly squats down into the water.

“Come to me, and bring your ale;
the beauty see, she flushes pale;
the waters they sparkle, the stars shine so bright;
who could have known blood flows that night?”

Loxwyn turns and looks at him, her eyes shining with a light few have seen before and lived.

“Fly, fly away, the night is born;
fall beneath a woman’s scorn…
fly away fly away home…
living life in living tomb…”

She stares at Vallon, her head tilted to the side at an awkward angle, like a doll whose neck was snapped when it was discarded.

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Emergence

Bright morning sunlight reflected off the broken canopy of Chetwood forest. The soft beams that managed to find their way through the branches rarely found the forest floor. A large spider crept past a pile of leaves gathered in a shallow dip in the land; it smelled something. Its mandibles chittered as it circled back to the pile of leaves. Flesh. It could smell flesh.

Before it could explore beneath the brown pile, a coal black lynx sprung out sending the leaves flying in all directions. Growling, it swiped at the spider which reared and hissed with its front legs batting at the sudden shadow. Undaunted, the lynx’s claws slashed at the spiders multifaceted eyes and sent it scurrying. Spitting with contempt, it prowled around the pile seeking further challengers before returning to the disturbance from whence it emerged.

A small, feminine hand appeared among the leaves and the lynx gave the palm a gentle head-butt. It pawed at the debris, digging out a young woman in a dirty, travel-worn hood and cloak and robes that at one time could have been found behind a merchant’s counter.

“Get off me, Oli,” a soft and low voice said. The woman tried to burrow deeper into the warmth of the leaves. “Go on, get off me.” She gave the lynx a shove, but it nudged her side until she growled.

“Oh, all right then, you stubborn cat.” Pushing herself into a sitting position, the woman looked around with bleary gray eyes.

Around them, the woods were active with morning sounds. A jay called from the branches of a nearby tree, and Anya could smell the dew on the leaves. It would be a warmer day, though the relative temperatures still made it a cold winter for travelling.

“You woke me too early,” she said to the lynx who simply sat back on its haunches and stared at her. Anya stared back for a long moment before she looked away covering her eyes. “All right, all right. You win. I’ll get up.” Climbing to her feet, she brushed the bracken from her robes and turned a circle, seeking the waypoint she made for herself before turning in the night before.

Climbing to her feet, she brushed the bracken from her robes and turned a circle, seeking the waypoint she made for herself before turning in the night before.
Climbing to her feet, she brushed the bracken from her robes and turned a circle, seeking the waypoint she made for herself before turning in the night before.

A hundred meters off, the large rock stood a sentinel to her passage. Without looking back, Anya set off at a steady pace toward what she hoped was civilization. The dark shape of the feline loped close behind.

As the sun rose in the sky, she grew hungry. She was tired. Her body longed for a proper bed if only she could find a town where one was located. Their caravan had been on the way to Bree, and Bookie had said they were less than a day or so away. When the bandits struck after nightfall, she had fled north of the road in a panic, though she couldn’t be certain that she had maintained a northern heading in her flight. She could only hope that by travelling south she could find the road again.

When her feet finally found cobblestone, she realized she had not fled as far as it had seemed. She had travelled only a half an hour or so before regaining the road. West, he had said, is the land of mystery and adventure where ancient ruins lay undisturbed just waiting to tell their stories to any who braved the ghosts of the dead. Looking up at the sky, she found her direction and set off to follow the road into the West.

Chapter Four: Danick

DANICK

That afternoon sun blazed high above the trees filling the wood with beams of light. Breathing in the fresh, clean air filled her with a renewed energy. She set off to the north, away from the river, the village, and the chance she would run into the Dunlendings. She moved slower than she liked favoring her arm to protect her shoulder. The joint ached, still stiff and swollen in its socket. Her mending ribs prevented her from travelling much quicker than a gentle walk. She thought of binding them, but could think of nothing that would serve.

After fifteen minutes of walking, she knew her shoulder would need a sling. The effort of holding it still was exhausting her far more than a day of cooking before a festival. She stopped beneath a tall ash tree, leaning against the diamond-shaped ridges of the trunk cradling one arm in her other. Sighing heavily, she shrugged the pack off her back and opened the leather tie.

Below her mother’s dress was a large shirt, probably meant for Tyne. She ripped the fabric as best she could with her limited movement. Tieing the knot tight, she fashioned a loop around her neck. She slid her arm into the sling and sighed in relief as the pressure was taken off her joint. After a minute’s thought, she ripped another piece of fabric and tied it around her torso, wrapping it around her bicep to stabilize the joint further. The bow she tied beneath her breast reminded her of a decorative ribbon on a festival dress and she found herself laughing loudly. Her amusement was baffling, but consuming, her head thrown back and the corners of her eyes wrinkled and tearing.

“Fit for the Midsummer,” she said aloud to the wood, giggling still. She rifled through her hip pack and found a small rectangular vial. The glass was black from the fire and the cork showed much use. Between the sling and her laughter, the cork proved to be a bit of a challenge. Finally, it popped out and she drank a mouthful of the foul-smelling liquid.  Her eyes widened at the taste, then softened and calmed. She took a deep breath and sat for the longest moment simply staring at an ant meandering up the trunk of the ash.

Eventually she pushed herself to her feet and began walking north again. She knew of a watchpost at the foot of the White Mountains. It was established to serve as a waypoint between the Westfold and the villages further east along the line to the Gap of Rohan and Isengard. Frequent invasions from the Dunland tribes required a system of posts to be kept so the Eorlingas could be summoned quickly. If she could reach the northern post, perhaps she could find a night’s rest and a warm meal.

She trudged on, the light growing dimmer as the sun began sinking below the treetops. Always on alert for a shadow, her eyes never stopped finding their way over her shoulder. Once, about two miles from where she thought the post ought to be, she suspected she heard a steady footfall behind her, too heavy to be that of a forest creature. She had paused, ducking down beneath a high bush as she held her breath and listened. The sound was not there, despite waiting a full five minutes for it to recur. Only the occasional bird call or rustling of squirrels in the trees accompanied her shallow breath.

“You’re being foolish, Cwendlwyn Tain,” she muttered to herself. The leaves of the bush tickled her cheek. Peering through a fork in the branches, she saw only forest shadows and plant life. She began to stand cautiously, her eyes searching for what was causing the hairs to rise on the back of her neck. “Foolish…”

“Indeed,” said a voice behind her and a gloved hand descended from above to grasp her around the middle.

Her struggle was hampered by her sling and the iron strength of the arms pinning her against a broad chest.  She cried out, kicking her legs wildly as she was pulled backwards into a clearing. The man’s grip tightened. “No!” she cried, terror causing her voice to crack. “Bemá protect me!”

A ray of light broke through the canopy above and blinded the man briefly, his arms slacking in its grip around her. The sun shining through the leaves gave her the slightest moment to break the man’s hold. She bucked against him like a wild hart at bay, the heels of her leather boots slamming into his shins, and he dropped her to the ground with a roar. The impact jarred her bones, but she crawled away quickly, desperately attempting to scramble to her feet. She fell, hindered by her injuries.

“Stop!” the man cried out, and in his voice there was no anger.

Cwen hesitated, glancing back over her shoulder with wide eyes. The man’s yellow hair fell down over his face, masking his expression. He wore leather armour dyed a hunter’s green and brown, the quality beyond that of a Wild Man’s In fact, it far outstretched the carefully crafted armour of the village watch.

“My lady,” the man said quickly, “please hold.” He pushed the hair out of his face and took a hesitant step forward.

Cwen stared up at him, her mouth hung open in uncertainty.

“Forgive me,” the man paused his advance, holding his hands up away from the sword hanging at his side. “From your appearance, I thought – “ he bit his lip frowning. A series of emotions passed over his face as he seemed to come to a quick decision.

“Who are you? And what business have you so near the West Watch?” he demanded severely.

“Cwenlwyn of Riverwide. We were attacked without warning. My –“ Her voice caught in her throat. “It’s all gone,” she managed to say, tears threatening to well up inside her chest once more. “All of it is gone. All of it. Gone.” The tears caught in her throat as she could only repeat, “Gone. All gone.”

All of her pain and exhaustion seemed to descend upon her at once. She had no more energy to block the emotions that now overwhelmed her and the tears began to flow in rivulets down her cheeks. She covered her face, sitting with her shoulders hunched and shaking with her sobs.

The man stood uncertainly, the shock at her response pulling his brows down and pursing his lips. He shifted from one foot to the other before moving forward to kneel beside her.

“Miss,” he said cautiously, “you hail from a river village? You were attacked?”

She could only nod. She felt his hard stare. Suddenly, his arms went around her again, this time to lift her. He cradled her gently and began walking north in a quick trot. Cwen sobbed quietly as he carried her through the forest. She lay limp in his arms, completely reliant on the man’s strength to support her. She closed her eyes and rested her head on his broad chest, the tears finally slowing but still flowing steadily from her eyes.

She heard the heavy breath of the horse as she was shifted away from the warmth of the man. “Woah,” he said gently to the steed as he placed her upon its back. He kept a hand on her to steady her, then leaped into the saddle behind her. She cried still, but was comforted by his arms around her holding the reins.

They set out at a quick trot and soon reached a small encampment constructed from timber. High walls surrounded the two permanent buildings and a row of tents. The guard on the wall shouted to the man with surprise, but he did not respond and rode up to the smaller of the two buildings. Another man emerged from the doorway and after a quick exchange with the rider, reached for Cwen. Instantly she tensed, resisting the new set of hands.

“My lady,” the rider said, “This is Grenwal. Allow him to help you down,” he urged gently. “I shall be right here,” he added just for her to hear.

She resisted a moment longer, then allowed Grenwal to pull her to the ground. His hands were calloused but gentle as they supported her. Quickly, the rider dismounted and took her back into his arms. He carried her into the dark calm of the building  and into a small room off the wide hall.

A man sat writing behind a work table. He looked up at the sound of the their approach. His face was hard and rugged from exposure, but not cruel. His mouth was set firmly below a straight nose and his eyes reflected the candlelight illuminating the room.

“Danick,” he said in a deep, gravelly voice, “what is this?”

“I found her in the woods, sir. She was hysterical; said she came from a village along the river.” Danick held her still and she buried her face in his shoulder unwilling to look at the man behind the desk.

“She does not look as one from the river villages does. She bears the garb of the Dunlendings.”

“She called to Bemá, sir. She said the village of Riverwide was attacked.”

“Put her on her feet, Danick.” She heard the man stand, the legs of the chair scraping across the floor.

“Sir, I—“ Danick protested, but the man cut him off.

“I need to see her face. On her feet,” he demanded.

Danick eased her to her feet in front of him, keeping his hands braced on her hips. She swayed slightly, but his touch steadied her. Her eyes down, she stood there silently feeling the man’s eyes on her, examining her carefully. She will herself to stay still. She steeled her resolve to stay on her feet. She would not faint in this hut in the woods.

“Look at me,” the man commanded.

Slowly, she raised her eyes to look at him. He was closer than she expected, his brilliant blue eyes boring into her own. Unblinking, his eyes held hers until finally he broke the silence.

“You look like one of them,” he said. “Yet, your eyes—“ he stopped speaking, his face so close his hot breath closed in on her. She shrank back without thinking, but Danick blocked her retreat. He stood firm, his hands still gently supporting her.

The images of Tyne towering over her assaulted her eyes again. She cried out, unable to hide herself from the prying eyes of men. Throwing her hands up, she braced herself for attack half-cringing, half-sprung to retaliate.

“Sir!” Danick’s voice called out. his arms went around her, pulling her back. She tensed, ready to fight her way out this time, but he picked her up from her feet and swung her around, protecting her. “Sir, permission to speak!”

The man had stepped back with surprise widening his eyes. “Granted.”

“Sir,” Danick said, an arm still across her keeping her behind him. “I believe she is what she says she is. She is quite—“ he paused, struggling for words, “—quite broken. I do not think she is a danger, sir, but something terribly traumatic has happened to her.”

“You would allow a wild beast into our camp?” The commander’s eyes narrowed.

“Sir, any injured animal may lash out in self-preservation. But if mended…”

The commander held up a hand. “They may be the most loyal of servants. Yes, Danick, I have heard much the same. Yet, her appearance here is quite coincidental regarding the reports that came in today.”

Cwen’s face was down, hidden in the dark shadow cast by Danick’s form. Yet her eyes were alert as she listened to the men discuss her fate. Her own hand rested on Danick’s back. There was comfort from his closeness. She felt safe near him, a feeling she had abandoned with each jolting injury laid upon her by Tyne.

“What news would that be, sir?”

The man stared hard at her protector and she felt him waver under his gaze.

“Forgive me, sir. I overstep my bounds,” he said with a small bow.

“Danick, you are my best man here at this post, I do trust you in many things, but you bring me a Dunlending—“

“I am no Dunlending!”

Her voice erupted from her surprising all in the room. She hid behind Danick clinging to the back of his hauberk.

The commander’s voice was calm. “Your appearance would say otherwise.”

“These are not my clothes! The Dunlendings came with mid-morn and killed everyone who stood in their path. The village no longer stands, our labours and loves now dust and ash.” She came forward from behind Danick, standing tall and defiant in front of the skeptical man. “I am a survivor of that attack. And the later attack on me personally by the betrayers of my people.”

The commander’s narrow eyes were dark slits in the candlelight. “Betrayers? What betrayers do you speak of?”

Cwen’s voice failed to answer.

“You say you are not one of them. Then you must be open with us! Tell us what you know.”

Danick’s arm was still on her back and his support strengthened her resolve.

“Sir, two members of the village fought on the side of the invaders. I know not the extent of their involvement, but they found me…they found me after I fled and—“ her voice broke.

“And?”

“They attacked me, sir. Left me for dead. I—“ she swallowed hard. “I came north seeking help.”

The commander’s eyes perused her stance, her bruised and cut face, her arm bound to her side. She wondered if the wound potion had mended the injuries beyond belief. She felt the skepticism in his gaze. But she did not back down.

“Commander,” Danick began, but Cwen cut him off.

“Sir, I will tell you that the men that betrayed us were my father and my fiance. Framham Tain and Tyne Dernhere. They sided with the Dunlendings because they sided with their own people. They betrayed us all.” She did not lower her face or look away. “Yes,” she said to his narrow eyes. “That means that I too have the blood of the enemy in me. But, sir, I am Cwendlwyn Tain of the Mark and I would ask to earn my right to seek vengeance on the ones that destroyed my world.” The men stared at her. “And my lord,” she continued, “Tyne took more than my home and destroyed it.” Her eyes remained straight forward. Her jaw set defiantly.

Danick’s arm stiffened around her back and his body drew away from her unexpectedly. Her shoulders dropped but she raised her chest defiantly, not allowing her shame to cripple her. She knew that admitting what Tyne did to her would make her a pariah. Soiled and unwanted. Unclean. But she needed these men to understand what happened to her. They had to know that she spoke the truth.

She could not see the commander’s face as she stared straight ahead. She waited, the faint red flush on her face slowly creeping down her cheeks and across the bridge of her nose. She heard Danick shuffle from one foot to the other, his leather armour creaking as he moved. She could hear the noise of the night, soldiers moving within the compound, the wind in the trees. Finally, the commander cleared his throat.

“Danick,” he said quietly, a trace of kindness and perhaps sympathy in his voice, “take her to my quarters. See that she has a bath drawn – hot water – and a warm meal. Have her rest.” He returned to his chair. “See that it is done and that she remain protected.”

Danick’s arm withdrew from around her waist and he bowed to the commander. “Yessir,” he said firmly, and then he turned to her and led her from the building.

Cwen kept her eyes down to avoid the stares of the soldiers gathered around flickering campfires for the evening meal. Word of Danick’s catch had spread quickly throughout the camp and many had gathered around the central campfire to see the ‘wild lynx.’ The misconception that she was Dunlending seemed to have travelled with the news of her arrival and there were several taunting calls directed toward her. Danick guided her by the elbow, barely touching her. She swallowed with difficulty, tears welling in her throat again.

They went into the other building. The front room appeared to be a sitting area and two men lounged on wooden chairs around the small table. They straightened up when she came in and the taller one questioned Danick in a high baritone surprising for his size. Danick quickly explained the situation and the tall man stood, going through a doorway which he shut behind him with a thud. Danick grasped her elbow again and directed her toward the door opposite the entryway.

The door led to a small room with a low bed and small wooden dresser. The spartan decorations gave no hint as to who the room belonged to. She stood quietly, unsure and nervous in the small setting. She reached for a strand of hair to twirl around her finger forgetting that nothing hung there. Her hand fell instead on her shoulder, which she massaged with tense fingers. Danick moved around her silently, changing the bedsheets and opening the dresser drawers.

The door opened behind her and she flinched. The tall man brought in a large wooden tub and set it in the middle of the room. He left for a moment and returned with a bucket of boiling water. The sound of the water pouring into the tub filled the silence once, twice, three times. The tub steamed, filling the room with a hazy fog. Two buckets of well water later, the man was bowing to her, eyes down, and then leaving the room.

“Forgive the crude accommodations,” Danick said. He was suddenly standing in front of her filling her field of vision. “We do not have any fine oils or luxuries.”

She gazed up at the man and studied his face carefully. She almost laughed at his apology. Who did he think she was to expect oils? Who did he think he was that it was expected of him?

“I will leave you to wash,” he said quietly. “There are clothes on the bed; men’s garments, but they will fit you better than those that you wear now.” He paused a moment as if he wanted to say more but was unsure of the words. “Captain’s orders,” he said finally and she looked up to see a faint blush on his cheeks.

Cwen suddenly felt embarrassed. This man did not wake up expecting to cater to some wild woman he found in the forest. She wondered what grief he would receive from his fellow soldiers for acting as her serving maid.

“I’m sorry,” she said quickly. She looked up at him, willing him to look at her. “For everything.”

Danick looked down at her, his eyes confused. “What for?” he said gruffly averting his eyes again quickly.

“You have been so kind…I do not mean to be a burden.”

Danick looked down at her again, his eyes narrowed.

“Do not apologize for what you could not control,” he said. She heard anger in his voice, though it was effervescent and not focused toward her. Seeing her shrink back from him, his face softened and his voice became kind again. “You did not ask for the enemy to descend upon you. And besides, I may have a sister.” He reached out and touched her cheek, his fingers barely grazing her skin. He pulled his hand back abruptly and pressed his lips together in a frown. “Excuse me, I will leave you to bathe…” he moved around her to leave.

“Danick,” she turned to face him.

He paused with his hand on the door to push it open. “Yes, m’am?”

“Thank you.”

He turned to look at her. For the first time she noticed how crystalline blue his eyes were.

“You’re welcome,” he replied quietly, a smile on his lips. Then he was gone.

©Lindsey Smith

Chapter Three: Torment

Cwen heard her father tisk, though she could not turn her head to look at him.

“No need to be cruel, Tyne.”  His tone lacked reprimand.

Tyne sneered up at her father, his handsome features twisted with his  hate. “She is your daughter. You are not going to save her?”

“It was her mother ‘twas beautiful and precious. She was merely the expected consequence.”

Pain and anger boiled inside her. Her heart ached at the turning of her father and the cruelty of the man she thought loved her. Tyne’s face hovered above her own, his hand dragging her head back by the roots of her hair. The tears ran back to add to the dirt and sweat plastering her hair to her scalp, and she wished they could burn his hand like fire.  The memory of her mother hot through her: blue-eyed and fair with hair like spun gold, her mother had been killed during a journey to the Isen River for ingredients needed for her father’s potions. Cwen recalled the journey with her parents in a quick flash: her mother’s resistance from the proposal of the trip, the hard days’ travel that often went far into the night, and the ambush that left her mother dead and a young girl of seven in an aloof father’s care.

They had not returned to their village.  After her mother’s death, they pushed on down the Isen to the mouth of the Adorn.  They then followed its northern shore to Riverwide where they made their home. The villagers accepted her father’s skill as a healer, thought they long treated them as outsiders. Frieda’s acceptance and Tyne’s attentions made the years bearable, but now she realized she had had nothing but a farce.

The new emotions pushed aside her fear, knotting into a fiery ball over her heart. She narrowed her eyes, her face hardening into a scowl.

Tyne’s laugh at her father’s comment distracted him enough to relax his hold on her hair.  Cwen took the chance and grabbed his wrist, twisting her body to duck beneath his arm, twisting his arm as she turned. She felt the strands rips from her scalp, but her desire to live mattered more to her than a few hairs. She drove her elbow into his face, throwing him back and giving her enough room to grab the lute at his feet. Staying low, she barreled into her father’s knees. He fell back in surprise, crashing into the far wall. Before Cwen could reach the door, a large hand grabbed the collar of her shirt, dragging back.

“Break my nose, will you?” Tyne’s arm came around her neck, cutting off her windpipe. Her feet left the floor and he threw her across the room. She collapsed against the wall and fell to her hands and knees.

“Deal with her, Tyne.” Her father’s voice sent a chill down her spine. The boot connected with her rib cage with a loud crack. The pain stunned her and she fell on her face. Her father’s footsteps echoed loudly as he left the hut, the door closing ominously behind him.

**         **         **

The passage of time was irrelevant. The shadows faded in and out of her visions: blue and yellow lights dancing and floating as if elhudans of Enedwaith had descended upon her mind. She reached out to grasp for one as it flitted by, but the movement caused daggers to pierce her side, causing her to gasp. The darkness reached for her, scattering the lights until they left her in solitude.

The shadows faded in and out of her visions: blue and yellow lights dancing and floating as if elhudans of Enedwaith had descended upon her mind.
The shadows faded in and out of her visions: blue and yellow lights dancing and floating as if elhudans of Enedwaith had descended upon her mind.

**         **         **

Her breath was ragged and shallow, the darkness tangible. She struggled against it, trying to push it off of her eyes with hands that struggled to respond. Her fingers found her face, reached for her eyelids, but only found a warm, swollen mass. It yielded slightly beneath her fingertips and weighed her left lid down, preventing her from opening her eye. Her right eye was crusted, and she gently rubbed away the grime until she could see the ceiling of the hunter’s cabin above her.

Faint light filled the cabin; the sun’s beams illuminating the dust stirred up in the air. Morning was come, the cabin was empty save her, and only the Valar knew why her heart still beat fiercely in her chest.

Her entire body ached. Tyne showed no mercy to her, the love he feigned turned to hatred as he abused her body. Slowly, disrupting her broken ribs as little as possible, she shifted on the tabletop where he had left her to die to ease the pressure on her left shoulder. It felt out of place and she was unable to roll the joint in its socket. She attempted to move her fingers; they wiggled in the air freely with no pain. Only when she attempted to move her shoulder did the shock rack her body.

Gingerly, she prodded the joint with her other hand, getting a feel for the dislocation. Finally, she made a decision and gritting her teeth, she knew she had no choice: she gripped the edge of the table tightly, then threw her weight back and up, kicking her feet of the floor for leverage. Her scream rent the air, silencing the forest sounds around the cabin. She felt the shoulder slide back into place before blacking out again.

When she awoke, sunlight filled the cabin cheerily. She moaned, her body famished and broken. As she turned, she fell from the tabletop, pain shooting through her as she hit the dirt floor. For a long time she lay, her breath jagged. Finally, through pure will, she pushed herself over, wincing at the tender resistance her shoulder gave to any weight placed upon it.

Cwen looked around the room, unable to focus at first. Her eye finally found a small brown object on the floor near the hearth. As she stared, her father’s satchel took shape. Scooting herself across the floor, she reached for the bag, finding instead of rations, a store of vials and small clay pots. Her fingers grasped one glass vial stoppered with beeswax and realized she held a healing draught, strong enough to mend her wounds. Unstoppering the bottle quickly, she drank the contents of the vial without hesitation. Immediately, she felt invigorated and warm, the pain in her joints and muscles easing as it flowed through her veins.

She wondered at the find, realizing that wherever they were now, her father and Tyne had intentions of coming back. She saw the rations piled on the hearth, wrapped in broad leaves. Her lute lay beneath the table, kicked aside during the savage attack. As quickly as she could, she climbed to her feet and began gathering the items. Another bag, larger than hers, sat in the corner by the door. She opened it and sucked in her breath, shocked.

A dress lay on top of nondescript items filling the bag. The rich velvet was dyed a gentle rose, like the sky before the sunrise. She touched the soft fabric in awe, amazed that her father would have saved such a trivial thing.

Cwen’s own clothes were tattered, ripped by Tyne. Beneath her mother’s dress was a set of worn clothes, which she used to replace her own ruined dress. The leggings were tight, and the shirt was torn at the sleeve. They covered her body well enough, and would serve her purpose as she meant to travel hard and fast through the land. Placing the satchel of medicines over her shoulder on her hip, she looked around the room one last time. With her lute on her back and her mother’s dress safely in the pack on her back, she limped out the door into the afternoon sun.

©Lindsey Smith

Chapter Two: Betrayal

BETRAYAL

Tyne’s hulking form filled the doorway, blocking the evening light and casting a shadow across the floor.  It stretched toward her and she inched back, trying to keep it from touching her toes.

“Cwendlwyn,” his voice rumbled deep within his chest.  “You made it here alive.  I am so pleased.”  His face was shadowed as he stepped into the hut.  Her father came to her holding out his hands.  They were familiar hands that had comforted her when they could.  They had carried her from the Eastfold clear across the mark after the death of her mother, leading her from the darkness of her sorrow in and out of shadow until they found the village he chose as their home.  Still when she placed her hands in his, a chill flowed from his fingers instead of loving warmth and Cwen knew she had never really known her father’s deepest secrets.

“I ran as soon as I was able,” she said quietly.  “I tried to save Bean, the stables –” she could not look her father in the eye, but saw his dark features instead on the Dunlending she had killed, the one whose blood still stained her rough cotton shirt.  “I did not know where to go, therefore I came here…” her voice trailed off into silence.

“You are very clever, Cwendlwyn, my child.”  Her father held her hands loosely, keeping her an arm’s length away.  “You were good to run so quickly, before the main host of the attackers came.”

“The main host?” she questioned.  She longed to pull her hands from her father’s grasp.  She knew to do so would be unwise.

“Aye.”  Her father continued. “The first attackers at dawn merely cleared the way for the main host to attack at will. They had no resistance after the Watch was eliminated.” Cwen thought a gleam flashed in her father’s eye as she described the attack. “The village was completely destroyed by the fires. All the women, children…they are hunting those that hid or ran. I doubt anyone was able to escape.” His eyes bore into her face. “Only you.”

“Such a fortunate stroke of luck,” Tyne said from the doorway, “that you, my love, were able to flee.”

“Aye,” she whispered, shrinking away as he moved into the room. The setting sun blinded her over his shoulder, peering into the room and filling it with fire. Tyne strode across the floor and slammed the mace on the table beside her. She was closed in, pinioned in a corner with a wall of man-flesh blocking her way to safety.

Tyne stepped closer to her, looming above as he looked down at her, his face hallowed in the light of the setting sun. The backlight prevented scrutiny, and she could not decipher his expression. “What shall we do now,” he growled, “now that we are here, escaped from the danger and free to do as we please?”

played by Torlach
played by Torlach

“We should go back,” she whispered. “Help those we can.”

“Against an entire army of Dunlendings? Are you mad?” her father questioned.

“Some may have escaped the attack. We can save them, Da.” She did not understand what would cause her father to deny help to those who needed it.

“No,” he growled. “None will be saved.”

“Da…” the word barely escaped her mouth when Tyne grabbed her by the throat.  He lifted her off her feet, his face close to her own.

“You want to save those forgoil, you pretty one?” His teeth gleamed as he growled out, “The ones who scorned you for your blood, for bearing a mark of the Wild Men?” A brutal hand stroked her hair. Wrapping a length of it around his fingers, he yanked. The chunk ripped from her scalp, bringing tears to her eyes and a cry of pain from her lips.  He dangled it in front of her as she clawed at his grip on her throat.  Her nails drew blood; still his grip held. Her gasps for air became weak, strangled. Bright spots began to appear in the corners of her vision.

“Tyne—enough!” her father’s voice commanded. Tyne released her and she fell on her face on the ground, gasping, her throat raw. She sensed the boot before she saw it, but could not roll out of the way in time. The kick caught her in the side, knocking what little breath she had drawn in out from her lungs with a harsh whoosh.

“How does it feel,” Tyne sneered, “how does it feel, little Eorling, to have your world taken from you, burned down around you?”

Tears slid down her face. She stared at the dirty shoes in front of her, unable to speak.

Tyne took her face in his hand, squeezing her cheeks painfully as he lifted her face to look into his own.

“How does it feel to have your world destroyed?”

“Tyne,” she managed to whisper, “please…why…”

He squeezed harder. “You know why.  Look at me. Look at your father, and you will see the answer, Cwendlwyn of the Riddermark.”

She could taste blood in her mouth as the pressure of his grip causes the sensitive flesh inside her cheeks to cut against her teeth.  A whimper escaped her lips, and she closed her eyes, to blot out the image of his snarling eyes, so foreign to her in their rage.

“You, too, have the dark blood in you,” Tyne continued. He released her face only to grasp a fist full of her hair. He pulled her head back cruelly. “Your father gave you this black mane covering your pretty little scalp.  Did you never wonder how such darkness found its way into your blood? You are covered by the shadow.” His eyes gazed across her shoulders at the burnt ends lying there unevenly. “Well, you were covered by the shadow,” he sneered. “Now all that is left is ash.”

©Lindsey Smith

Chapter One: The Burning

After an attack
After an attack

Cwendlwyn stood staring at the burning houses that were once the village called Riverwide. Screams reached her ears even where she stood on the hilltop that led to the forest below the mountains, her only possession clutched to her chest.  Her father had finished stringing the lute just that morning, smiling sadly as he placed the instrument in her hands.  Had he sensed what the day would bring? Could he have known that their life would be destroyed – again – by forces out of their control?

Turning from the scene, she raised a shaking hand to her face. Blood streamed from a gash on her cheek.  She had not felt the pain until the threat of the attackers had dissipated with distance. Now that she was relatively safe from harm, the entire left side of her face began to throb. She had none of her father’s herbs or potions that would quickly stop the oozing of the wound. Surely they were all destroyed by the fires. Perhaps her father would have had the sense to pack some before the attackers had reached their home. A scar would remain without the treatment her father’s salves could provide. It would be little compared with the other scars of the day, she thought, and began to walk toward the wood situated at the bottom of the range of rolling hills.

She plunged into the trees without hesitation. Being a bit of a loner, she knew the wood by heart and quickly found familiar landmarks: the squirrel’s nest in the oak, the fallen rowan, the spring with its small brook that joined the Adorn to the south of the village. She stopped at the spring to ease the burn in her throat and clear the taste of smoke from her mouth.  The cool, clear water slaked her thirst, but showed a reflection that caused more pain to her than she realized her own image could induce, considering the circumstances. Her home burned, her few gathered possessions lost, her father missing or dead. None of these struck her as her own bloodied image in the crystal pool.

Before this day, Cwendlwyn’s hair had hung like night past her shoulders to her waist. She knew as she sought to save her beloved horse from the town stable that her flyaway tresses were in danger from the building flames. She had woken from a nap to the sounds of screaming and harsh guttural cries. She had had no time to braid and confine the wild mane before she fled from the small hut she lived in with her father. She recalled now the acrid scent of burning hair and realized it was not just the manes of the beautiful horses trapped in the stable being burnt away. A good length of her hair was gone, the ends broken and brittle. She ran a shaky hand across her scalp and a great clump of it pulled away. She stared in horror at the delicate strands clinging to her fingers, shocked that she had not noticed, angered that the only thing she felt was beautiful about herself was gone.

A small black water beetle stroked its way across the still pool, shattering her image as it flitted past. Her gaze broken, she clasped her hand to her throat. It was tightening uncharacteristically, threatening to overcome her and choke her with tears. If only she could prevent them from spilling, if only she could tear it all away – the broken remnants of her hair, the images of the familiar huts burning in the morning air, the visages of the Dunlendings running down the familiar paths with axes and maces raised, hacking and slashing the familiar faces that after eight years had become almost family to her.

The golden blonde mane of Frieda, newly married and the first true friend Cwendlwyn had ever made, captured the early morning light, blazing crimson against the blue sky above her. She had cried out to Cwen, reaching through the rare second story window of the home her husband, son of the village elder, had built for them. The hungry flames crept up the thatch to overwhelm her. Her screams as her hair caught fire echoed in Cwen’s brain, magnified by the screams of a hundred women and children.

Cwen had wanted to help her friend, just as she had wanted to save Bean, her beautiful chestnut. She had stared, horrified as her world burned down around her, powerless to stop it.  Only the rush of a Wild Man bearing a blackened sword rushing toward her broke her from the shock of seeing Frieda burned alive. In one swift movement, Cwen drew the dagger from the sheath around her calf, stooping below her attacker’s swing and turning to bury the blade in his side as he tumbled past. With a feral scream that seemed to stun the wounded man to stillness, Cwen ripped the dagger from his flesh and thrust it into his neck.  Without hesitation, she turned and ran, knowing the man was dead, dodging bodies without noting friend or foe for everywhere she looked was fire.

None noted her, as the invaders seemed set on the total destruction of the village. Men of Riverwide took up arms where they could and fought back, but most were caught unawares during the morning attack, and died unarmed, fleeing or defending their homes with fist and heart. She was almost to the meadow that led into the mountains when a Dunlending appeared from the smoke, brandishing a mace. With a ferocious cry, Cwen charged the man, dagger raised, chanting a song of the brave. The man turned and fled, dropping a brown satchel as he ran. Cwen recognized the leaves stitched into the seams as her father’s mark, the sign of his trade. She ran forward to retrieve the pack and later found her risk was worth it: the sack contained some simple trail rations and the lute her father made.

But where was her father now?

The question roused her from her shock and she realized the moisture on her cheeks were tears. Once more she touched her hair, the gash marring her left cheek. A support beam had collapsed in the stables, causing the roof to cave and throwing debris in the air. Only when a board smashed into her face did she give up trying to reach Bean, and she knew that she was lost beneath the rubble. She allowed the tears to flow until the count of ten, then she wiped her eyes on the hem of her tattered sleeve and climbed to her feet.

She followed the brook until a small hunter’s path branched away form its banks. Stepping carefully and quietly as Tyne had taught her, she made her way through the wood to the tiny hut that had been their hideaway many times before. She approached cautiously, listening for occupants, human or otherwise. She peered in through a low window and saw the cold hearth and dust on the table.

Convinced that the hut was unoccupied, she went inside and set to kindling a fire. She had searched the bag on the hilltop and had saved the rations then.  She now munched one without tasting its dryness or feeling any hunger. Cwen knew that Tyne would find her and her father and they would escape into the woods yet again, together. Once the fire crackled warmly on the stones, Cwen sat in the lone wooden chair and waited.

She did not have to wait long. Soon, the sound of a quiet footfall reached her ears and she rushed to the door to greet him. She stopped short at the sound of two voices talking lowly.  Father! she thought, but her excitement was quickly replaced with shock and disbelief.  She did not understand the language spoken, though it was familiar. It had the same rhythm and cadence as the invaders’ cries to each other as they pillaged Riverwide. Ice froze her blood, threatening to turn her to stone. She forced herself to back away from the door, hearing the voice that was plainly her father’s say, in Rohirric, “If it be her, and not forgoil flown from the village, treat her in turn.”

Fear crept up Cwen’s spine and her feet stepped backward under their own volition. As her rear hit the low table across the room, the door opened and her father stepped across the threshold, followed by Tyne Dernhere, her beloved, her fiancé.

Never before had she seen Tyne as she saw him now: dirty, blackened with soot, and carrying a bloodied mace, much like the one borne by the Dunlending who attacked her.

©Lindsey Smith