A Bitter Pill: Three Times

She asked once on the third day. The children ran off to play; the birthday festivities were mostly done. With less to distract her mind, she struggled to forget the fire in her arms and legs and belly as her body demanded the drug that would ease its suffering. So she asked.

Callee did not falter in her sewing. The dress of Neilia’s doll had a tiny rip, a perfect rip for Hobbit fingers to mend, and Callee did not miss a stitch as she told Cwendlwyn simply, “No.”

Cwendlywn threw up.

She went outside, of course, and found shade beneath the peonies after and let the shaded earth cool her flushed cheek.

The next time she asked for it, she hadn’t eaten in two days. Nothing would stay down. Again, Callee did not look up from pulling weeds and answered with a simple, “No.”

Though when Cwendlwyn did not immediately walk away, she added, “One more time. Why don’t you go write Oendir? Let him know what is going on.”

Cwendlwyn hesitated still.

“Woman, go write to your husband. He is your husband, no matter the reasons why you are where you are now.”

Obediently, Cwenldywn went inside the tall house–Hobbit in style, Man in size–and found her study full of bits and bobs added by Callee throughout the years that the lass had been Gardeneve’s caretaker. A collection of smooth beach stones sat in a jar on the windowsill and Cwendlwyn could not help but remember Dol Amroth and the smell of the sea and Oendir’s gnarled foot in her lap as the children played in the surf. The boundaries between patient and healer, commander and soldier blurred in those moments between them when even before they looked upon each other as lovers, they saw each other as kindred spirits fighting for some smudge of happiness after all the twists that life threw at them.

It took many attempts for her to start writing. Several blotches of dark blue ink splattered the top of the parchment where her quill hovered as she sat in her muddled thoughts.

Dear Oendir,

I do not know how to start this letter, so I will simply begin in the thing that is hardest for me. I could not stay with you in Rivendell because of my own weakness and I am ashamed that I have failed you so.

In Dol Amroth, some years ago we discovered a plot to overthrow the Prince through a conspiracy with Southron Corsairs. These mysterious folk from the southern lands brought two dangers to our lands: a weapon that could shoot little balls of lead using fire and a medicine that if abused, caused more ill than it cured. 

I am a healer, Oendir. That is why I travel with the Wayfarers and why you recruited me. A young Swan-knight by the name of Sir Pengail of House Nomin was injured by one of those terrible fire sticks and the injury was beyond my abilities. A Southron physician tended the young man and prescribed him a pill of what they call opium to ease the searing pain.

This opium came in many forms and it was used to poison many Swan-knights who fell beholden to its powerful effects. It dulls the senses–all senses. It makes pain go away, makes one drowsy, inured to the problems of the world. 

In Dol Amroth, as a matter of professionalism, I tested it on myself so I knew what I was administering to that poor knight. I quickly discovered that if I did not take more, I became violently ill. 

Back then, even then, you did not understand what was happening to me. Hardly anyone did save Hallem Kemp, who has apparently experimented with potions and mysterious, unknown mixtures before. I weaned myself off of them then and swore to never touch the stuff again, but when circumstances fell on me, already sick with worry about you, and when Hallem said that we should stop trying to help you remember your past, I fell to my weakness again. I am ashamed and I am ill and I am trying to get better so that I can come back to you. You need me strong and patient and loving. Not sweating and groaning and vomiting. 

Oen, our past is nothing if not turbulent. The life of an adventurer is always so. There is one thing that is steady through all of it, through the travel and the pain and the loss and the triumph. It is you and my affection for you. You are my best friend, my confidant. The one who knows me best. Sadly, that might not be very well after all we have been through. We are both rather guarded individuals. We keep our pain closeted away so we do not have to burden others who already bear so much. We need to be more open with one another, Oen. I need to remember that I trust that no matter what, we will always return to one another again.

I will come to you soon, if you will have me back. I am getting better. This will pass. Our children miss you, and I believe they are strong enough to know what is happening to you. I am going to bring them with me and you can decide if you wish for us to stay there with you, or if you wish to come back to Durrow. 

For now, I hope that you are resting and happy. I love you, Oendir. I think that part of you still remembers that you love me.

Always,

Your Cwen

Cwendlwyn looped the tail of her “n” low beneath the line of letters and drew it into graceful bows and loops to empty the nib of her quill. She folded it, sealed it, and then carried it out to Callee.

“Here,” she said. “I wrote him.”

“Good,” Callee answered as she tugged on a stubborn weed with deep roots crowding the hydrangea. “Set it with the others and I’ll take it to post in a bit.”

“Actually, I will take them. I would like the bottle as well, please.”

Callee’s stern eyes rose to study Cwendlywn’s face. She frowned, but nodded and pulled it from her sash.

“Are you certain?” she asked as she handed it to her. Cwendlwyn nodded and turned to go back inside to gather the rest of the mail.

On her way back from the post master’s, she took a detour to a low bank of the Brandywine River. The muddy waters rushed by as they had each time she had stood there in that same spot north of Buckleberry Ferry. Squatting to sit on her heels, Cwendlwyn dipped her hand into water and thought to herself that even though it was still the Brandywine River, it was not the same Brandywine River as before. Fresh waters flowed forever, a mix of old and new as it swirled past. Just like the Adorn back home, she thought, and for the first time in a long time, she thought of the Riddermark as home.

I have many homes, she thought as she uncorked the vial and poured its meager contents into the murky waters. In an instant, the opium washed away and fresh waters cleansed her fingers. For good measure, she tossed the bottle in, too.

For a few more moments, Cwendlwyn sat there in her unladylike squat hugging her knees. Then, slowly, awkwardly, she unfolded herself and stood. With a deep breath, she turned to go back to her family.

 

 

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A Bitter Pill: Selfish

Are you all right?
“What if Oendir remembers and is hurt because you left?”
“Things will work out in time.”
“How will Rheb find you?”
“How can you take the children away from Durrow?”
“What’s wrong with you?”
“I think you’re being selfish.”


Cwendlwyn, daughter of Framham of the Mark–of Dunland, did not ride her horse to Buckland. When she climbed into the saddle, it took far too long for her to fit her toe in the stirrup and she had difficulty situating her legs over the saddle. Then, she kept dropping her reins. Anyatka, daughter of Kolrson of Dale, suggested that they all ride together in the worn wagon so they could keep each other company. So Cwendlwyn found herself in the wagon with Solstan and Neilia and Bean, Jr. walked beside them as the rode.

Truth be told, she thought that she slept a good portion of the ride, but time was hard to grasp nowadays. The wagon rocked gently back and forth; they did not rush. They had no need to speed their way to the Shire. Time moved differently there, Cwendlwyn said. It would be the same tomorrow as it was today.

She had taken Callee’s letters regarding the influx of southern Men as a consequence of the war to the south. Bree surely had its handful and a half of refugees seeking peace. The problems with money and curfews and Men were not things she was unfamiliar with. So she didn’t think much of it.

Cwendlwyn didn’t think much of anything, really. When she did think, the thoughts turned on her and she did not want them anymore. The thought was considered that a potion to quiet the other thoughts forever would be nice, but a potion like that would quiet everything and she wouldn’t be anymore. Luckily, the thought that some people might actually be upset about that jolted her out of that musing. She had already been weighing which ingredients would work best in such a concoction when the sound of Solstan and Neilia arguing about who would eat the most cake pulled her from herself and she remembered who she was.

She smiled at them. Their driver, a local boy from Bree called Bud Goldenleaf, whistled a cheerful summer tune. She reminded them that there would be enough for both. Callee would bake until their hearts were content.

~~~***~~~

What transpired at the Hay Gate would have bothered Cwendlwyn on another day. She watched the debate between Bud and the Man and knew that wasn’t right. Why did men speak for Hobbits? The Bounders stood aside, present but silent. Eventually, had to climb out of the wagon herself to see what was the hold up.

She strapped on her sword. She gave the men a Look. Her temper was dampened by southern flowers and she handed over the gold with a roll of her eyes and a bit of a stagger just so they could be on their way.

Callee had the candles burning. Bud was given a guest room to sleep after the horses were stabled nearby. He helped carry the children to bed and Cwendwlyn couldn’t place why her chest tightened at the sight of Solstan’s sleepy head resting on the shoulder of the man who was not his father. She had him put him in her bed and she laid Neilia down beside him. Let them comfort one another, she thought somewhere among the fog.

~~~***~~~

As Callee sat down at the kitchen table, Cwendlwyn stirred her tea. She had hardly moved from her chair after Bud was gone and the children were settled. Only her hand with the silver spoon stirred and stirred slow circles in the porcelain cup.

“Now,” Callee said as she stirred her own tea, “what in the world is going on?”

Cwendlwyn stirred.

“Cwendlwyn! Look at me,” Callee demanded. The little Hobbit reached out a hand to gently smack the table between them, twice. “Where is your Oendir? Wouldn’t he wish to be here for Solstan’s birthday as well?”

Slowly, Cwendlwyn looked up. Just as slowly, she began speaking as though she was telling someone else’s story: haltingly, backtracking for forgotten pieces, expressive, but unemotional. “Isn’t that something?” she ended with. “And if I stayed, how could I, Callee? Knowing that I could bring him that sort of pain. I know what it’s like to be violated. To have something like that taken from me. And what happened to him was so much worse, Callee. What happened to him…and I am weak.” Her face twisted into tears. “I cannot be strong for him. What good am I to him except for more pain?”

Callee sat for a long time stirring while Cwendlwyn fell into silent, wrenching tears. They poured down her cheeks, yet the distant look in her eyes said she didn’t really understand them.

“I felt myself splitting there,” she broke the silence. Tears slipped into the corners of her mouth, but she only tasted the sea. “I felt torn asunder sure as any blade could do. And then Hallem and Pheadra said we should stop trying, stop trying to help him remember because it isn’t really helping him. They knew him longer than me. How can I ask Oendir to remember?”

Callee finally spoke. “They knew him longer, but do they know him best, love? And it sounds as though he is still him. What you fell in love with. The good bits, darling, the bits one should keep should one lose one’s memory.”

“Even if…even so…Look what I’ve done. I’ve messed it all up.”

Callee pursed her lips. “What have you done, Cwendlwyn.”

“I took it.”

“What did you take, love?”

“The opium. The sort they use in medicine, the sort I got from the medical stores in Dol Amroth. It makes the pain stop, Callee. I just wanted it to stop for one night, one moment so that I could think clearly and now…” Cwendlwyn’s eyes welled up again. “I cannot stop taking it. I feel like I’m dying. At times, I wish I were. And I am almost out of it, I didn’t bring enough and even if I wrote them for more it would take ages to get here and if I were Imrahil, I wouldn’t let them give me anything anymore anyway, and…”

“Shh, love. Cwen. Cwen, look at me.” Callee reached out to hold her hand across the table. Reluctantly, Cwendlwyn lifted her eyes.

“Cwen,” Callee said soothingly, “you will heal here. I will help you. I promise, love, I am always here. Here was the first place you ever felt safe in the world. That’s what you told me only months after you came to us.” She gave her a kind, motherly smile. “Be safe here. Rest and let go of what is hurting you. We’ll take care of you and get you back on your feet.”

“It is bad, Callee,” Cwendlwyn whimpered. With her  unnatural youth, her tears and weak, tired voice, she reminded the Hobbit of her first days after she came up the river to Buckleberry Ferry. Yet, Callee thought, there was a strength then that Cwendlwyn lost somewhere in the years between. Time had chipped away at her stubborn resolution. Or maybe it was not time, but the little bottle that sat on the table next to their clasped hands.

“We will fix it, my Cwendlwyn,” Callee said firmly. “We will find your roots again and you’ll see. You’ll be right as rain and ready to go back to your life in Bree. For now…this.” She nodded toward the bottle. “I am going to take it and keep it safe. If you ask for it, I will not give it to you, my dear. Not until the third time, because if you ask for it three times, I know you will do what it takes to get more. But think on it. You know the Prince may have stopped your access to their stores. You know it will take ages for it to get here, if you ask. It seems wrong for you to be so beholden, love, to something that cannot give back to you.”

Cwendlwyn thought about it, her dull eyes roaming over the polished wood of the table before her.

“Go to sleep, love. Take the second bedroom. I will make up the second guest room.”

“Callee,” Cwendlwyn said haltingly as she looked up. “It will be bad. The children…”

“You will be strong for them, Cwendlwyn.” Callee’s tone offered no argument. “When you are ill, you be ill. When you can sit, you will join us.”

“They shouldn’t see me…”

“You’re Neilia’s mother. She will know and make up something worse in her head, dear, you know that. And Solstan will worry, too. Now sleep.”

Cwendlwyn rose obediently and padded down the familiar hall to the bedroom. She sat on the edge of the bed and looked at the dark window for a long time before lying down. Callee was right. She needed to sleep now before the medicine was out of her system and sleep would be harder to come by.

~~~***~~~

ScreenShot00013They baked a cake the next day and Solstan decorated it himself with horses and ships in white icing. Cwen wore her apron and helped stir, but let Callee direct the measuring and pouring and keeping of time. She only had to excuse herself once because the room started spinning a bit and a she broke out into a cold sweat. There it is, she thought. The last relief is floating away.

That evening after a day of sending out little presents to all of the Hobbits he knew, Solstan settled down to play with the new toy ship he received for his birthday.

“You’re gathering quite a fleet,” Cwendlwyn said with a smile even as she broke out into a heavy sweat beneath her gown. Solstan grinned up from the rug and then stood to rush to hug her. She hugged him back and then Neilia joined with a laugh. Cwendlwyn held them tightly

“I wish Papa was here,” he murmured against her hair. “I miss him.”

“I know, darling,” Cwendlwyn said and with effort, she kept her voice steady. “We will go see him when he is ready.”

“Really?” He pulled back from her and looked for her comforting gaze.

“Yes, baby. It will be a lovely journey if he cannot come to us sooner.”

“I’ve never been to Rivendell!” Neilia said excitedly. “It must be so pretty!” she gasped dramatically.

“It is, darling, and you will love it,” Cwendlwyn assured her.

“When will we go?” Solstan asked with some nervous trepidation in the quaver of his voice.

“When the time is right, dearie,” Callee interjected. “Come, show me your fleet. What is a fleet?”

Solstan went to Callee with the ship and sat beside her to explain the rigging and the lines. Neilia stayed in Cwendlwyn’s lap and for a moment, the pounding in her chest calmed.

~~~***~~~

That night she slept outside. The breeze cooled her sweats and the song of the trees soothed her restlessness and anxiety. The nausea hit with less force when the stars bathed her forehead.

In the moments of peace, when the nausea was at bay and her skin cooled  enough to dry, she could hear the voice of the world around her growing, changing. Leaves furled to rest in the absence of the sun. Roots sought the nutrients of the water and soil. Life persisted.

And so would she.


Note: All songs are taken from Cwendlwyn’s established playlist!

A Bitter Pill: Burn

Hair releases such a stringent, unmistakable smell when it burns. The nostrils recoil. They know that that smell means something is terribly wrong in the world.

The hairs on the back of your arms curl from heat. Her hair had never curled properly; gravity drew the heavy locks straight within the hour. Hot stones, burning irons. How silly they had been to wish to curl the hair on their heads when they should have been grateful to have hair there at all. How silly, when within the week, they would learn that even such tiny hairs as those on the back of one’s arms can curl under the right circumstances.

Freida stood in the window. The young woman leaned out to reach for Cwen, but Cwen could do nothing but look up and fear that if her friend leaned much further, she’d fall to her death. But then the blonde locks caught. The flames spread through her hair quickly. Detached, somehow knowing the thought was broken, Cwen recalled the oils they had mixed to smooth their hair the day before. Flames soon consumed her friend, but instead of running away from the window as she should have, Freida stayed. She stayed and lowered her arm to point at Cwen as the roar of the flames devouring the house roared around her.

Before Cwen could scream, a sharp, stabbing pain shot through her back straight through her. Her lung refused to expand so that she could gasp. A heavy hand fell on her shoulder as the dirk in her back twisted and as if time slowed, she looked back to see the cold smile of her father before she felt her body flying into the oven of a house…

Her true gasp awoke her and the smell of burning hair caused Cwen to bolt upright in her bedroll and grasp for her hair. Her jagged breathing tore her throat as she looked around wildly to gain a bearing in this world, this waking world where the smell of burning hair was real.

Unable to shake the dream, she flung her arm out to reach for the candlestick on the bedside table, only she was not in her tiny closet room in Riverwide, she was in the Trollshaws a hundred leagues away from her childhood home. The movement made the burns on her arms shoot venomous reminders to her brain and the day before came back to her.

The bridge.

The wood trolls.

Oendir’s necklace and three words carved into a tree.

She reached to her neck to feel for the black cord that kept the coin, Oendir’s good luck charm, safely attached to her. She traced the length down to the metal and it was warm against her skin. Closing her fist around it tightly, she squeezed her eyes shut and slowly counted to ten.

Bemá, give me strength to find him. Watch over him, your servant. Help him find peace, please.

Quietly in the dark, she searched for the pot of salve that would cool the heat of her wounds.

She told herself it was not real, the dream, and it wasn’t. Her father had not stabbed her nor had he thrown her into a burning house. She lost her hair in the stables, not from watching Freida burn. That was years ago and only the stress of the bridge crossing and the fire must have brought them back. It had been some time since she had drifted back.

Slathered with medicine, stinking of witch hazel and burnt hair, Cwen laid down.

It was a long time before exhaustion closed her eyes.

 

A Bitter Pill: Shatter Me

Like a fallen looking glass
out of place and out of time,
I sit and send pieces of me
throughout the world.
In fragments, I release my worries
–all my pain and fear–
in droplets of pale black ink
With undercurrents of berry, black and blue.


Dear Taja,

I hope this reaches you soon. I was distressed to hear of your hasty departure, though I understand the need to run away from the troubles of this community. Had you asked, perhaps I would have gone with you to explore the ice shelves of Forochel again without the threats of war between your peoples. There is always a threat no matter where one is though, isn’t there? Our recent travels have shown that us that much.

Godric may have allowed you to simply leave, but I do wish you would have said farewell to people. Many care about you quite a bit. Myself included. So do take care, Taja. If you need anything, anything at all, do let us know. (I hope you kept your acorn whistle!)

Most sincerely,

Cwendlwyn

~~~***~~~

Dear Orendir,

I hope this letter brings a warm spring for you all the way up north. How is the family? Solstan and Neilia are well; Oendir and I wed last year.

Unfortunately, Oendir has gone missing. As his father, I thought that you should know, though there is little that you could do to help in the search unless for some reason he left the Trollshaws to run naked through the snow. I highly doubt that is where his feet have taken him, but one thing I have learned is that nothing is out of possibility.

Give my regards to Simi and the children, especially Kipina. You are in our thoughts.

Sincerely,

Cwendlwyn

P.S. If you think of it, could you write me about how Taja is doing? Did he return to the settlement? He left us abruptly and I am worried about him. ~C.

~~~***~~~

Dear Attie,

My patch of lemon balm is not doing well this spring. How has your garden been faring? Do you have any tricks for the herb? I know I will be using a bit of it this season.

Please let your father and mother know that I will be in town for a bit if they are interested in tea.

Sincerely,

Cwendlwyn

~~~***~~~

My dear Callee,

Greetings, my friend. I will be bringing the children to Gardeneve on the first of the month to enjoy a bit of a holiday and help with the early spring drying. I was glad to hear that the wedding of Giles and Vera went of without too much of a hitch. It is always interesting when your folk step outside your farthings to fall in love. It is dreadful about the lack of garlic mashed potatoes at the party, though, I agree.

We have much to catch up on. I look forward to seeing you soon.

Cwen

~~~***~~~

My dear Rheb,

How are you? How is the tribe?

I wanted to let you know that we are still searching for Oendir. The company has been travelling a lot on assignments, so there has not been a lot of time to look. I still believe he is alive.

I’ve enclosed some paints in the package and some canvas for stretching. I know that Han does not wish for you to waste time on your art, but you could paint anyway. The camp could use some colour. And if Han gets snappy, tell him that all cultures create art. It is what separates Man from Animal.

Though sometimes I think that the burns Solstan’s salamander leaves in my garden is his form of art…

I miss you. Be safe.

Kwen

No Light in the Coming Dawn

When Eris stepped inside the back door to the kitchens of the Belegorn, she did not expect to find Halvel sitting at the counter on a tall stool better befitting a tavern than the lower estate. The woman looked prim and defiant as always and Eris lifted her hand to greet her, intent on keeping it at that as she walked by.

“I have your ring,” Halvel said and pushed the thick gold band sitting on the smooth counter. “Thamben did not flee. He said to give it back.”

Eris stopped. Turning slowly, she looked hard at the ring. The silence stretched between them until Halvel cleared her throat.

“You do not look pleased.”

Halvel flinched back as Eris strode forward and picked up the ring. Gathering herself again, she smoothed her skirts over her thighs and spoke again.

“Well?”

Eris turned the band over and over, staring down at it with a deeply furrowed brow.

“My lady, do you know what this is?” she finally said as an answer. She held the ring up to the light of the trio of candles burning beside Halvel. The ring was ribbed as if it were a band of rope instead of precious metal, braided strong to withstand the tug of the gales at sea. On its smooth face where the signet of a house would be, the relief of a woman with a fish’s tail instead of legs surrounded a spiraling trumpet shell.

“It is your family’s seal,” Halvel replied. “He did not wish to leave his family behind-” she started to explain, but Eris held up her hand.

“I am glad that he did not run. He would have regretted it later, and not just because of honour. War makes demons of us all.” Eris clasped the ring in her fist and turned to go to the room she would have shared with the kitchen maid if it had not been for that war.

“Eris.”

“My lady?” Her voice was tired and resigned.

“Why do you stay?”

“They have the Apple. A pirate without her ship is just a rat.”

“Your family-”

“They sail for Gondor. I will be here to greet them, won’t I?”

“You don’t have to stay.”

Eris found Halvel’s eyes in the heavy darkness of the kitchen. The woman’s shadow stretched across the floor and covered the toes of her boots.

“There is someone I wish to stay for. If I leave, I betray this person’s trust. And things are not as dark as they seem, my lady Halvel.” She walked into the shadow and held up a card.rws_tarot_16_tower

“When foundations crumble, new things can be rebuilt. Minas Tirith is sinking in its own despair, but the old must die before the new can be born.” The band of light from the candles beside Halvel fell upon Eris’ lips and she smiled. “Even if we cannot see the light, it is always there waiting for the clouds to part.”

~~~***~~~

Weather passes. The clouds that hung over Durrow? Not a portent or a sign of her failure. Just the snow that would warm the earth and prepare it for spring.

But still, she couldn’t help but blame herself for finding solace in Rheb’s arms when her husband fought for his life in Angmar. For the life of his men, as well. What sort of woman was she that could forget to worry about one for the warmth of another so easily? What sort of wife?

In her heart, she had faith that Oendir would return, but her guilt turned her thoughts astray. Made her think that if she were a better wife, his burden would be less. That if she didn’t dally with youth, there would be more strength for him to pull from.

But it isn’t dallying, she protested in the dark as she lay alone in bed. My feelings are real. I am real. The trust we have for one another is real. 

She missed the rich voice carrying the melody as she harmonized to sing the children to sleep. She missed the debate over the necessity of venison in Solstan’s diet at the dinner table. She missed the laughter filling their home when Neilia stood on his feet to dance. She missed the reassuring smile across the room that they would share to remind one another that everything would be all right.

She was not used to sleeping alone, so she curled around his pillow and breathed in the scent of the woods and waited for him to come home.

~~~***~~~

Exhaustion allowed Anyatka to sleep. In her dreams she saw the body emerge, heard the laughter that wasn’t his laughter echo off the walls of the tomb. She saw Bree burning as the bodies rose even as their neighbors fell around them to join with the gaunt lord’s army of wights. Over and over again she saw her family fall.

ScreenShot00470Sleep. She wanted to sleep forever. She wanted to join Morty’s spirit wherever it was, however she could. It didn’t matter. As one of his great hounds sitting at his heel, as a serving girl bringing him his wine, as a gardener tending to his blossoms. She would stay out of the way, she wouldn’t interfere. She just didn’t want to be there in Bree-land, in the Barrows anymore. She could feel herself stretching between those who wanted her to be something there, those who asked her to stay. Eirikr and Abiorn, Eruviel, Anders… They pulled on her every which way and she felt herself tearing in the wind that wanted to rip her to pieces…

Give up your body, a voice said in the dream. Join him, find him again and find peace. You don’t belong here.

Somewhere in her mind, separate from the dream, she remembered his wish for her happiness. She remembered how he blessed her love for Anders. Suddenly, a sharp pain caused her to wince in her sleep and she whimpered quietly.

Lies, so many lies. To make himself free of guilt for leaving you, for abandoning you and all who loved him…so selfish, selfish those lies.

Anyatka whimpered again but could not wake up from the voice whispering in her dreams.

Go to him. Prove your love and bring him back lest the darkness spread. 

I can show you the way.

 

A Bitter Pill: Request

Dear Rheb,

As I write this, I do hope that the rest of your thrusk went without further encounters (violent or otherwise). I am glad that I was able to see you and I hope that you enjoy the paints. Do you remember Anya? She lives with her brothers and their menagerie on the shore below your cliff. She mixes the pigment with some material that makes it sparkle–I forgot to tell you that. She can probably make more if you’d like.

Speaking of your cliff and your house that sat on it, Oendir is renting it to the man he’s chosen as his acting commander when he is not afield. He is Godric of Rohan and he has established himself as a disciplined and caring man if nothing else.

I tell you this for two reasons:

One, he lives there now, but if you want to come visit, I do not want that to deter you. You are always welcome in Durrow; if you’d like, you could stay in my shop on Garden street with Hunyr if the inns are too crowded for you.

Two, he wishes to meet you and I agreed to write to ask you for permission to bring him to the Lone-lands to do so. We could meet on the trading hill or further south by the Forsaken Inn. If you want, I will send him away after a short visit so that we can be left to our own desires.

That sounds far more naughty than I intended when I wrote it. I do hope Han or one of the women is not reading this to you.

On Han, he mentioned that he wished he could stand to translate for us. That you have much more to say than you are able. He said other things, but perhaps those are best left to my next visit.

I love you, Rheb. We all do, in our own ways. Please do not forget your family here in Durrow. I know one day, Oen will be able to visit. I think that you should visit here. I really, truly believe you should.

With love,

Kwen

 

Choices

Yule is spent with family. Then why am I leaving mine so soon after presents have been unwrapped to go to a land without trees and boughs of holly and roasting chestnuts?

I will bring them some. And deer sausage and leathers and fabrics from the south. Just because they live in harshness does not mean they would not like something pretty to wear.

I will bring him paints mixed by Anya: the kind that sparkles from whatever magic she puts into them. It must be magic that makes her snow peaks glitter like gems and her stars glow. Rheb will like that, I hope. He deserves a little bit of Durrow to remember us by and Oen will see that even in the Lone-lands, beauty exists and Rheb is part of creating it.

But then, if Yule is spent with family, shouldn’t he know about the child? Isn’t it my duty to tell him exactly what he’s missing away from Durrow? He wants children. Most men want children to carry on their bloodline, but I know that he wants children. He wants to be a father, and if I will not be the mother, he should know he has a child waiting for him at ho–

Durrow isn’t his home anymore. I cannot pretend that it is when I see him there, with his people, in his lands. I will ask about what I do not see. I will look at the camp with open eyes. They do not hide from me; none of them have. They do not have room for games. Secrets. Lies. The land is too stubborn to tolerate the folly of Men or Orc and I will learn what it has to tell me about its beauty.

~~~***~~~

Her pillow was wet and for the longest time, she simply laid there with her hair crumpled beneath her cheek. He was cruel to show her such things and believe that she had an actual choice. She was not strong enough to stop a storm from coming. She was not strong enough to recognize the ruby she found washed up on the edge of the lake was no regular gem.

It was just a dream, she told herself as she finally pushed herself away from the dampness of her tears. Dreams are nothing and have no sway over me. 

Oh, but they do. She rubbed her eyes. You have always believed in your dreams. 

Silliness. Silly dilly silly. 

You know the only way to stop it is to find it.–Destroy it! –Then we might just stop. He will know what to do. Take it to him.

Louder, louder! He he he!

Dreams have no sway over me.

Over us.

No, you’re all just dreams. Leave me!

A dream a dream is a wish, a wishy wishy washy wish.

Anya took a deep breath, resituated herself to be sitting cross-legged on her bed, and closed her eyes. She let the voices wash over her until they filled her head with their arguing and nonsense.

Bring it to him. Take it to him. Dreamsy dream a dram of dream! Destroy it, destroy it! Destroy them all. Wishy washy! Dead you’ll be. Him. Take it. We’ll never–Dead as a doorknob!–leave until you–Destroy it!–take it to him.–Grow, grow, root and leaf,–Rest, just rest.–reach for star and sun beneath!–Never–Bring it–Can’t…–Wilt, wilt, stalk and bloom,–Go–away–Go!–turn to dust and bring all doom!

The din of their song rose until it reached its peak and then like a wave broke and faded away to the sounds of her room: the reassuring purring of her feline friends, the crackling of a low fire in the other room, the creaking of the stone and wood around her. Though the air around her tingled, it was still. She quieted them for now.

Slipping from her bed, she walked over to set her small traveling easel upright and then stooped to retrieve a set of robes that had fallen from its hanger. She straightened the lace on the collar of a dress and then turned to look for any other damage that needed righting. Seeing nothing too telling, she took another deep breath, let it out slowly, and then turned to choose her garb for the day.

When she stepped out of her room, only the circles beneath her eyes hinted anything was out of the ordinary. Abiorn had already left for the morning taking the dogs with him and she made a note to scold him for leaving the fire so large. Still, he had left her a few biscuits for breakfast and she forced herself to eat them before resigning herself to another day.

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.

A Bitter Pill: Dear Master J, No. 3

Dated four days before the wedding of Oendir Arrowheart and Cwendlwyn Tain

Dear Master J,

Thank you for your letter. I will be honest and say that for some time, I did not think you were going to write me back. I am glad that you did, though I fear my response will not bring either of us joy.

When I read your letter, I closed my eyes and imagined what you described. Part of me wants that. So much of me wants to know a man who can express himself so eloquently and make me feel loved even with leagues between us. One who will love Neilia as his own and give her everything that she deserves.

My dear J, I cannot marry you. This weekend, I will be married to Oendir Arrowheart. Our children love each other as brother and sister. He has been in my heart since I first met him. We both bear so much trouble from our pasts, I never dreamed he would propose marriage, but when he did, I knew it was the right thing to do.

I mourn the loss of our future together. I mourn the friendship that we would have had. I am selfish enough to wish for our friendship to continue. That I can still be the honest voice at your side among the gossip and lies that fill the streets and taverns of that city, even from afar. But it is wrong of me to wish such a thing. Is it not?

Please do not hate me or think ill of Oendir. He knows nothing of my accepting your proposal; only that it existed. If you must choose between the two, then only I deserve your wrath, my lord. I will bear it.

The company will be journeying south again in a few week’s time. I believe it is Oendir’s intention to visit his brother, Sir Carmanadh. Please, do not let my actions hurt them. It is more than I should ask, but ask I must.

I am so sorry. The ink of the ‘ry’ is smudged and a circular stain mars the fine parchment.

With deepest regret for the pain I have caused,

Cwendlwyn

What the Letters Say

What the Letters Say

Dear Rheb,

In ten day’s time, I will come with a few traders and goodsmen from Durrow and the nearby lands. I will sell for a few; we shall have summer vegetables, breads and dried meats, and some clothing, and I had Callee, my Hobbit friend, brew my favorite honeymead for you.

I believe it best if only the women come to do the trading. If there are Men-men, and not Orc-men, that should be fine, but I hope to establish create a good relationship before the others discover you have orcs. I want to protect you and your people from those who will not understand.

I hope you are well. We miss you.

With love,

Kwen

~~~***~~~

To the Keeper of the House of Medicine of Dol Amroth:

How are you, Nestor? I do hope life has settled for you and no further mischief has overcome the city. You know my propensity for disliking Dol Amroth, but I do love the people there and hope they have found happiness during the summer months.

I am writing to request the list of herbs accompanying this letter. I have a patient here in Bree who would benefit from their properties. If you have any insight into how to brew them in a way that would most benefit someone having nightmares, I would greatly appreciate your wisdom.

Wishing you and your city good health and happy days,

Cwendlwyn Tain of Bree
Field medic of the Wayfarers

~~~***~~~

Dear Callee,

I have spoken with Oendir and the eleventh it is. If you could arrive on the ninth for final preparations, I believe we will be able to solidify all plans in time.

Neilia looks forward to seeing you. Do you think the larkspur back by the lilies would survive the trip? I wish my garden here was more established. I am hoping Oen will agree to me keeping the property and continuing with my plant nursery. I do not see why he would be opposed to it.

All my love, darling,

Cwen

~~~***~~~

Dear Kupsa,

Damn, I hope you can read common. Have your dad read this to you if you can’t. ORENDIR <— have him read it!

I just wanted to say hi and ask how everyone was up there. Is it really still ice even though it is summer? Bree is all right. There’s lots of flowers and honey to be had and everything tastes fresh. You should come visit with your brother and sister sometime. I think you folks would love it, especially Kipina. How is she, by the way?

Vahan is doing great. I know he’s just the runt, but down here, he’s really something special. My brother Eirikr is training him and he’s pretty good most of the time. He gets along really well with our other dog, Bear, but not so much with my sister’s cats. But no one really gets along with them.

Maybe this year we can come visit you again. I think Vahan misses the snow.

Write back! (if you can)

Your friend,

Abiorn of Dale

~~~***~~~

Dear cats that belong to my sister:

STAY OFF MY BED.

I know you can read this, you blasted lynx.

~~~***~~~

Dear Father,

The relic is still guarded well by a sorcerer of some power. My own is not strong enough to dispel the wards placed over it.

I am biding my time and getting to know the people, as you said. There is one who is incredibly suspicious of me; I recall his face from the Ranger’s keep. It is hard to forget.

I do not feel as though he is a normal grave-digger. The girl disappeared for several days after he did; he returned with a sword of some magnificence, but otherwise appears unchanged. How would you like for me to proceed with him?

I will travel to the ruins as before. North, this time.

Your daughter

~~~***~~~

Your excellency,

It is with great pleasure that I congratulate you on the engagement of your son Dunstan to the daughter of Magan. He is a fine man. My only regret, of course, is that it is not my daughter! The foolish girl does not deserve so fine a young man.

Regarding the shipment, it is on schedule to arrive in two weeks. Your influence with the Captain of the Guard will be most beneficial to its safety. Again, I cannot thank you for your assistance in this matter in any other way than my support for your illustrious position. May your court remain true to justice and continue to measure the men of Dale with its wisdom and mercy.

Kolrson, son of Sote

Useless

Two days ago

She did not know that version of Hallem Kemp. Angry. Hateful. Demeaning.

Hallem had always been brutally honest with her, but she could not remember when he was down right mean to her. As she hurried through the darkening streets of Bree clutching the book she borrowed from the Archives to her chest, she swallowed back her tears and ducked her head. Several people called out greetings or warnings of the approaching night, but she did not respond to any of them.

She was not afraid of the night.

What she was afraid of was was being nothing. Forgotten and alone because she was of no use to anybody. She was afraid of being left behind while those around her went off to do brave and noble things to save the world from the Shadow. She was afraid that she was unlovable and that he had only used her as a means to his end and that none of it was real.

That was why she went to Atanamir and begged him to help her change into something worthwhile and valuable. Something strong and powerful. Something coveted beyond time and space so much so that nothing could stop her from protecting her loved ones and finally being able to do something to prove she was worthy. When he said that there was a possibility he could combine her with Faethril and give her control…but in the end she was relieved he had come up with an alternative, even though it would take time. More time than she had, she knew. But it was possible.

Anything was possible.

She did not look at the man who took the book back with a pleasant, unobtrusive smile and a thank you. She nodded and murmured something of a thanks of her own and fled from the building with the intent of fleeing Bree. The walls were suddenly too confining, too stuffy. She needed space and the soothing lap of water against the banks of the Little Staddlemere.

When she reached her willow tree, she plunged through the draping branches and leaned heavily against its trunk. Slowly, she slid down to the smooth dirt below and let the tears flow.

She cried until she was out of tears and her face lay buried in her knees as her breathing slowed. She sat there for a long time just listening to her own breathing. In and out. Slowly in and out. Each breath filled her body like a river filled a waterskin. She felt heavy and weightless at the same time; it was if she were pulling away from her body and floating among the singing branches.

Anya sighed and suddenly she felt the presence around her and like the whispers of a thousand oathbreakers, she heard something not with her ears, but with her heart.

She opened her eyes slowly, but there was nothing there except the wind. She reached out to touch the air and welcome it to her and thank it for the breath of life when he had none and suddenly she understood. In her exhaustion, she found it.

Excited, she sat up quickly and just as fast, her revelation slipped away from her grasp. She did not feel it anymore, but she knew that she could. She knew that it wanted to be known. It wanted to be heard.

She sat cross-legged and straight up. It was easier to breathe when she was not slumped over. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She listened. She breathed. She waited.

It was all that she could do.

Yesterday

The hours she spent lying beneath the graveyard roses before Hallem appeared had left Anya both sore and numb. The rain had stopped eventually, but it would take some scrubbing to get her robes clean. Some part of her scolded the choice to remain lying in the mud, but the ground beneath the beautiful white roses was not as damp as the paths between the bushes and all she could really feel was loss.

The loss of his smile. His cool touch. His gentle, encouraging words.

That is what she missed most. He gave her strength to believe in her drawing by his easy, embracing words. She opened up and bloomed from a tightly wound, fearful bud into the artist and young woman she was today. He did not fear being himself and by following his lead, she no longer did, too.

But just who was he?

She looked up at the sky. The clear sunlight seemed purest after the brief spring rain. She did not agree with Raen; she clung to the idea that the man never fully died and that somehow two became one in his flesh and bones. She felt that duality in him when his eye flashed at her. She knew what it was like to share bodies with consciousnesses that were not your own.

But she did agree with one thing the Elf had said: whether it was the last Prince of Cardolan or Morty Mossfoot that she loved, she loved him. Them. The warmth and the mystery. The gentle and the intense. The life and the death.

That was the only useful bit that she could contribute, really. Her love fed by his love which shone through in her rose bush. Her Dalish Charm planted in the middle of all the others, heavy with blossoms and growing still. Reaching. Reaching for the sun and the moon.

For the light in the darkness.

~~~***~~~

“The commander intends to come here? Just for this boy?”

“He’s not a boy, Eirikr. He has seen two decades pass.”

“Twenty? He is twenty?”

“Perhaps a bit older. Oendir looks at him as a son, though he is…you know, I do not know quite how old his is.”

“And what people say…”

“People say a lot of things, Eirikr. What was that I heard just the other day at the Cask? You and…?”

“Cwen. You know I am not speaking of only the rumour. That village sprouts rumours all the time. Yours has truth behind it, though. You do not keep it a secret when you walk through town holding his hand.”

“We just wanted him to come home, Eirikr. He is not going to return with us; I do not blame him at all, truth be told. The world of Men has not been kind to Rheb. But he misses Oen and my letter said as much to the commander. Oen will come.”

“But to what end? You have done your duty by ensuring the fellow is safe and happy. I don’t see why we have to be here when the commander gets here. Anya’s-”

“Eirikr, please. Do go home. This place is…wretched. I appreciate your accompanying me here, but truthfully, I do not need your protection. No orc will cross me here as long as I wear Rheb’s bracelet.”

“You seem so confident in that thing. What if Rheb turns against you and the orc-men use it to track you down. You wouldn’t even know it until you had the sword in your back, Cwen.”

“Rheb is savage like the orcs to a certain extent, yes. He killed two wargs in Durrow single-handedly. He has skills he hides from all of us because we would fear him more than we do now. He knows he is a monster in Durrow. Here he can be free to be who he truly is. I envy him that. And should he choose to turn against me…I am in his land now.”

“…You really  understand him, don’t you?”

“As much as I can. And I want to understand more. I do love him, Eirikr.”

“And the commander?”

“I love him as well. I will always love them both and I am blessed that they love me.”

“You do not believe that a Man should be with one Woman and vice versa?”

“I believe love is never simple and also it is the simplest thing. Sometimes it works that way: one-to-one. Sometimes it does not. But it should never be looked upon with scorn. It is too precious in these times to waste. It is too precious in any time to waste.”

“You sound like a philosopher at university. An old man caught up in books and artifacts too much and does not remember what it is like outside the walls of his office.”

“You think I am like that?”

“No. You live outside your head. But your ramblings remind me of them.”

“Maybe now when they are old, they choose to live inside their walls because it makes them feel more at home. Safer from the dangers of hatred and malice. Durrow was a safe place to you and to me. But not for Rheb. He had no place there. Here he has men that love him and obey. Here he is someone and not something. He has use for man and orc.  Anlaf said fur traders told him about their camp. Perhaps they would be interested in trading with Bree. I could be Durrow’s envoy.”

“That would allow you to see Rheb and Oen separately. Both in their own worlds.”

“Yes, that is ideal isn’t it?”

“That look. Cwen, what is it?”

“I am waiting for knife in the back. It is too perfect, isn’t it?”

“I’m not going to stab you. Stare at you incredulously, but not stab you.”

“This does put a different twist on things, doesn’t it? My relationship with both of them would no longer be a burden. It would have its purpose.”

“I doubt the villagers would take kindly to the knowledge that we are now trading with the same orcs that destroyed the gate.”

“Would they chase me out, do you think? If they knew he had come for me?”

“I would chase you out. But I like you too much. And Abiorn needs you.”

“Is that the closest to affection you give to folks, Eirikr?”

“Sometimes I will pat your shoulder in an approving manner.”

“Oh, shove off, Tenorbekk.”

“Good talk, Cwen.”

Blinded

Eirikr rode in silence. He did not want to look at his companions as he kept Kvígr close to Taja’s steed. He had given Pharazanû back to him after the man mounted up and he rested limply against the Lossoth. The gleam of the young man’s pale hair shone even in the fading light as they rode toward Lothlorien. The White Witch’s Wood. O, he tried not to recall the tales of the place as they drew ever nearer.

He had half a mind to stay with Langafel’s men at its border, but that would be cowardly. His place was with his company. His place was to protect his company, even if it was from themselves.

He had to hand it to Oen; the man had an interesting recruitment philosophy. And he knew that aside from Cwen and Eruviel, he hardly knew the other members. They seemed hot-headed and and quick to draw. And while at first everything seemed black and white, he began to feel that things were not quite what they seemed with the enemy. Still, he watched. He waited. He spoke only when he felt it absolutely necessary. And while everyone’s hatred for the sorcerers clouded their judgement, he tried to remain objective and true to his core beliefs.

After all, it wasn’t personal for him. He had met Atanamir a mere handful of times, and they were in passing. He thought the gentleman could make his own decisions, and he did: he chose the sorcerer.

He just hoped he would never have to kill him for it one day.

Still, there was a long road ahead to Lorien and things could possibly change before they returned. If the eaves of Mirkwood had taught him anything, it was you could rarely see what was around the next bend in the road ahead.

~~~***~~~

Zab's flowersHe did not see.

The nights when Pharazanû came to him burned feverishly in Zabathôr’s mind. Now as he stared at the letter in one hand and held the stem of the flowers carefully with the other, he pictured him lying beneath the coverlet with dozens of the tiny blue blossoms in his hair.

His chest tightened.

Was he getting too old for this?

Age was hardly an excuse. He had spent a mere half-century walking the paths of the Eye, give or take a handful of years. The journey kept his body healthy and fit while his mind stayed sharp. The only thing that had changed was that he no longer walked it alone.

Something blurred his vision as he tried to reread the letter Pharazanû must have left before they had marched to the Flame.

What was this?

He rubbed his eyes to clear his vision and his fingers came away wet. He had not cried since he was a boy of seven and his own foolish machinations had set his own hair on fire. A surge of anger welled in his chest now, and he grit his teeth as the air crackled with heat around him.

Zabathôr took several deep breaths and willed the flush out of his cheeks. He turned from his bedside table and went to the chaise where he pushed several books to the floor before lifting a leg to fall to the cushions.

He laid himself back against the support and thought about how much Pharazanû had changed in the past months. Ambition and drive to complete the Flame had not left much room for Zabathôr to contemplate matters of emotion. Emotion was messy. It was too complicated to deal with and made one weak. It was best left to the other side. The “free peoples.”

He read the last lines of Pharazanû’s letter and again it sounded like a goodbye. He thought of his last words to the boy, and he realized they had not been enough. As that wretched company took him to Lorien, they took him further and further from his grasp. He closed his eyes to block the fading light that bathed his chamber now that the shadow was gone.

He did not want to think about tomorrow when the Four Lords would be three, or even worse, halved. What would happen to them now that they were drawn and quartered? Would the Eye send them to the far corners of his empire as slaves to remind others what would happen if they failed? The gift of life seemed so new and precious to him suddenly. And was it such a gift if it meant living in torture as nothing but a mocking shadow of his former self.

The day will dawn and one way or the other, he thought it would bring freedom to his young lover in life or death. And with its light, Zabathôr realized he did not know the path before his feet and he could only stare out the window at the setting sun.

~~~***~~~

The bear was grumbling to himself. Of course, if anyone happened to pass by, his complaints sounded like growls and snarls and slobbery lip blowing. But he was complaining, though he knew no one would understand.

He just did not understand why Anya had asked him to stay up all night watching for the past week and a half. He missed the sun and the Broken Cask and the way the light sparkled on the lake. He wanted to go look for another beehive and eat the guts out of it.

Anya wouldn’t tell him why he was watching or what he was watching for, but so far it had been a stray dog (which Anya did not let him keep despite the big bear eyes) and several squirrels. Oh, and a rabbit. The rabbit didn’t like him very much and moved on from Anya’s small garden rather quickly when it caught scent of him.

Still, he’d watch. He wouldn’t fall asleep and he hadn’t really fallen asleep the past two nights. It was hard to stay awake with the sounds of the night lulling all around you. She had to understand that, right?

Besides, there was nothing to see.

He could be sleeping right now.

But then again, out here, he couldn’t hear his sister crying at night. Sometimes, he thought she’d make it without tears, but inevitably, he’d hear the sniffling and then the sharp gasp and he’d try not to roll his eyes as her feet hit the floor and she shuffled across her room to the opposite corner of her bed. Sometimes Sally Stitches would let out a plaintive meow or one of the dogs would bark, but after a few minutes, the bed in the other room would creak again and the room fell silent.

The bear huffed and turned his big head to gaze up at the stars. The light was growing at the tops of the trees and he slowly lumbered across the lane into the yard of the little cabin. The floorboards of the wagon creaked as he climbed into the back with the intention of changing back into his lanky self. But instead of a shimmer and a shift, there was a slump and a sigh and Abiorn fell asleep there in the wagon with the cover blocking out the first rays of the morning sun.

And he did not see the stray dog, turned away two days back, sitting up on the cliffs of Pinecrest overlooking the cabin.

A Bitter Pill: Dear Master J, No. 2

My dear Master J,

I fear that my last letter was sent in haste and without allowing my distress to cool before I spilled my thoughts into the paper. I may have written too much, but at the same time I feel as though I hardly wrote enough. So much is flooding my mind now that I have begun sharing what has been trapped inside of me for decades.

I am in the land of my forefathers. Fore-mothers at least. We are in the far eastern part of the Mark; my mother was born not far from here, and I as well. Only her death took me west past the Gap and onto the banks of another river. 

I had never intended to return to these lands, but since I met Oendir, the commander of this company, I have visited here twice. Once to face one of his personal shadows and now to face a more dangerous one: four dark sorcerers who have blackened the skies and intend to bring destruction to the land. Their triumph will eliminate all life here and the death will spread like a disease. 

So we must stop it. Here and now.

Have you marched yet to Minas Tirith? Has your final summons to lead your men into the shadow come?

I am no leader here. We have no leader here. Oendir remained in the village where he was elected mayor to serve and protect the simple villagers there. He appointed a stand-in by seniority and battle skill; someone who is a good solider who I trust at my side, but who does not have the patience or diplomacy that we are used to with Oen.

Cwendlwyn frowned and put the tip of her quill to the period and used the dot to start a “d.”

…Oen.dir. And while I miss his leadership, what I miss most is his warmth. The comfort I have just being near him. Being separated by distance and not just our silences makes my chest ache. The touch of his eyes restores me more than anything I can think of stowed away in my chest of medicines and herbs.

Is this what love is, my lord? This deep and coring loss when he is not here in the darkest hour? I have walked this earth for nearly three and a half decades and I am unsure what love is. I have been abandoned so many times in my attempts to love that I fear it. I drive it away, as perhaps I am doing now by being far too open with you, a potential lover. Yet I feel safe telling you these things. Is it because your are so far from me and the pain of being vulnerable? Or is that love? That trust that you will not abandon me for no matter what, there is something there that connects us?

I don’t know. I only know that as I am heading to face the shadow, I wanted to write to you because I know that you will hear me. 

Your frank and lonely

Cwendlwyn

Devils and Strumpets

Doing the same thing over and over again gets dull. Even something that feels as good as this.

This bloke ain’t bad. He has a nice smile and his teeth are straight. But it gets repetitive night after night. The same motions. The same sighs and sounds to ensure each man gets not just his pleasure, but his confidence bolstered as well.

That’s why they come here, after all. They’ve been rejected by a woman and thus must pay to feel like a man again. We buy pretty dresses and powders for our faces to make us feel more like women. Men buy us to make themselves feel more like men.

Everyone has something to sell. Everyone pays the price.

It’s hard work building up a man’s ego. Smithies toil all day in the heat of their forges. Their muscles grow and tire with their work. Their names become celebrated for their skill and their wares allow men to conquer their fears and slay their enemies.

How different am I? Is it because they cannot own me?

I sweat and I toil for the bravery of men. My skill will give a man the strength to pick up that hunk of metal and risk its bite in battle. My talent will serve as the final reward when he comes home to a cold bed next to his wife.

An emasculated man is hardly a man at all.

But after I deliver my wares, I will never be looked upon with respect and reverence like the Dwarven smiths. My skill and agility will never become the stuff of legends like the Elves. And my strength to take these men again and again, to withstand their most brutal acts of control…no bard will immortalize that strength in a tale sung at the Prancing Pony.

How many women live their lives in such obscurity? How many are hated for just being what they are?

Men want angels in the daylight, but demons in their beds. You cannot conquer an angel.

~~~***~~~

You would think that she would learn. Time and time again she could not sort through to find reason, and impulse bade her do things that perhaps she should not have.

For instance her letter to Prince Imrahil accepted his courtship, but she had hardly stopped to ask herself why.

Why would she be able to develop a relationship across leagues when she could hardly keep one when the man lived down the street? Why would she wish to add another Complication to the swirl of emotions that drowned her each night even as she lay alone? Why would she consider herself even partially worthy of royalty?

To stop it, of course. To halt the twisted windstorm bred when Oendir met Rheb in her heart and mind. To give her an out: an escape.

She just wanted to quiet her mind and in his arms back in Dol Amroth, she had a focus. She had a purpose again and understood clearly what it was: to support the Prince in his darkest hour and give him the honest love and sanity he longed for. What greater purpose was there for a human being than to inspire and lift their loved ones up to higher ground? To influence and bolster him as he led his army to face the hordes of Mordor was a great honor and he chose to offer her the role.

What role did she play in Bree?

As Oendir’s–what was she even to Oendir? A lover? They had never made love. A future wife? He said himself he did not think he’d find interest in marriage again. An adviser? He hardly spoke to her about things of importance.

She was there for a kiss. A swim in the lake. A balm for him when he had the time.

She knew how much he needed her deep down inside himself. She had felt it in him when their spirits were exchanged in Forochel. He wanted love. He was as starved for it as she was and time and time again his sources of that love failed him. She did not want to fail him, too, but how could she not? Each time she chose, she hurt another. And every moment was a choice.

Every moment she hurt herself, for she longed to be with Rheb.

If she listened to her heart, she knew she wanted the youthful freedom his love provided. Pure, unattached love created when two people were simply built for one another. Their bodies melded as one and their souls rejoiced in each other’s presence. It was greater than any emotion she could distill into her potions. He was in ever fiber of her being, now, and without him, she felt lost.

Stuck between worlds, never fitting in, denying one to never find acceptance in another–both of them knew what it was like to feel the emptiness of their missing worlds and the completion they found in each other’s arms.

But she messed things up again. And that is why she wrote the Bluejay accepting his courtship.

If she had to go out as a shallow and fickle strumpet in Bree, she might as well go to Dol Amroth as royalty.

At least, that is what she told herself while she laid in bed alone.

A Bitter Pill: Dear Master J

Cwendlwyn Tain, field medic of the Wayfarers Guild and accomplished cook and gardener, returned to the house she was occupying with her daughter Neilia the day after the half-orc made his demands and she was sodden from head to toe. One could only guess the woman had fallen into the river and several residents of Durrow expressed either concern or cheerful warnings as they inquired about her state and informed her that the orcs had seemed to have moved off.

Cwen paled during these discussions and found relief when the darkness closed around her upon entering the house on Garden Street. Wendy Whitethorn, on her way to Ravenhold to seek the mayor’s opinion on the state of affairs, had been particularly worried that her new neighbor might be falling ill and while Cwen appreciated the concern the matriarch of the Whitethorn farm displayed, she did not want the wives of Durrow lining up to bring her chicken soup or herbal remedies any time soon. She only wanted to be alone.

The front room of the spacious house was in a disarray from their renovations and only mirrored the mess of thoughts cluttering Cwen’s mind. She felt trapped. Her lungs constricted but would not expand. She couldn’t breathe.

The writing desk shoved against the far wall behind the sales counter caught her attention as the morning sun rose high enough to shine its beam through her back window and reflect off the inkwell sitting on its surface. The flash blinded her. Blue feathers filled her mind. Delicate pastries and enchanting music and the strong arms of the Bluejay leading her through the dance steps soothed her.

She inked her quill and smoothed the parchment. The words appeared without struggle and flowed with ease.

My dear Master J,

I hope this letter finds you well. I do apologize for the delay. There was an unfortunate incidence with the main gate that trapped everyone in the village for several weeks. The Wayfarers fared as they would in such circumstances: they assisted Oendir in managing the town’s stores, setting day and night patrols, and tending the Fallowmath flame. 

I had not participated in a Fallowmath lighting since I was sixteen. The ritual was held even in my small village on the far side of the gap. I found a peace in the lighting of the massive tent of trees like I was casting aside the life I led the year before and asking my ancestors to lead me forward into the next season with their wisdom. In that act, I was a part of them and not such an outsider. 

Did they see the little girl kneeling before to fire and know that she wished more than anything to see her mother again?

I wondered this year, after so many years of neglect, which of my kin would visit me. I have so few that I know of in truth. Some would be welcome. My mother, of course. But some…some would not be so welcome. The Flame was only supposed to draw benevolent spirits, but I always wondered how it could know the difference. 

I do have some blood in my past that would not return out of benevolence.

This hardly seems like a letter to write to ro[the rest of the word is scratched out completely] one with so many more important things to concern himself with. But I feel as though you want to know. That you are listening, even as I cannot speak in a way that you will hear my voice.

My dear Master J, I would be glad to look for your letter in response to mine. I would welcome the correspondence as the first steps of a potential courtship. But I need you to know the full me. I will not hide anything from you. I am so tired of hiding.

The woman you wish to court is a tired mother left by her Rhunic husband because of the simple fact he was a scoundrel. He is a scoundrel to this very day, wherever he may be, and I am certain he does not waste a single blink in wondering about his daughter. This woman is lost between worlds and every time she tries to settle down in one, she gets beaten up and tossed aside by her own heart. She cannot make a good choice when it comes to anything having to do with trusting in herself. I simply cannot.

Perhaps this is because she lost her mother when she was seven and then found out a mere decade later that her father was from Dunland and wanted to destroy everything she thought he had held dear, including her.

I never could blend in to the stock of the Men of the Mark and I had grown up hating the Hillmen on principle. I was stuck between who I wanted  to be and what I wanted to do. So many times in my world do I have to make that distinction. I hardly ever feel whole.

So, my Prince, if you wish still to write me, your words will find their way even if I may not be here when they arrive. I have faith that if we are truly meant to find each other, no miles will be able to keep us apart.

Most sincerely,

Cwendlwyn 

Within hours of the gate being clear enough, Cwendlwyn donned her traveling robes and set off for Bree. She would post the letter and make some inquiries.

She would not stand by helpless, though, and simply wait for the next tide to bring in something new. After she sent the letter, she would investigate next week’s caravans to the Lone-lands, and as soon as she could, she would seek Oendir’s permission to travel, even if she had to go alone.