A lantern hung in the window of the little cabin on Ruby Lake and laughter could be heard all the way out by the lane. The man paused at the gate with his bow slung over his shoulder. His hair and beard made him appear wild; bits of the far Chetwood clung to him everywhere and he pulled his fingers through his the tangled net on his head. His eyes were weary and wary as he looked upon the small dwelling. There was guilt in the way he drug his feet as he approached the door. He raised a fist to knock and then remembered who the house belonged to. He carved a smile into the weathered bark that was his skin and took a deep breath. The latch lifted easily and he pushed the door open.
Inside, a woman and a teenage boy sat facing the fire burning low on the hearth. Smoking nuts sat in a pile between them and as he watched, the boy took one and tossed it into the fire. It popped loudly and the woman batted at his arm.
“Abbi, stop! I want to eat those!” she exclaimed with a laugh.
The boy laughed and tossed a handful into the flames. “They’ll be extra crunchy for you.”
The woman threw a handful the boy. He ducked, laughing, and leaped up and away from her. As he grinned, he spotted the man in the doorway and his eyes lit up.
The boy called Abbi limped over to the man and hugged him. “Brother, it is good to see you!”
The elder brother looked down at his younger and his creaking smile splintered. The boy glistened with sweat and a rash covered the skin exposed by his loosened tunic. Eirikr placed a hand on his forehead before he could protest.
“Abbi, you have a fever. You should be resting.”
The boy smiled. “No, no. I’m fine, brother. Just happy to see you. You look like hell.”
The woman stood and turned to face the reunion. She scolded Abbi gently, “Watch your words, Abiorn.” Eirikr stared at his sister in disbelief. Every time he saw her, it seemed like there was something new. Tonight, the quiet joy he had felt from her was only slightly dampered by his sudden appearance. He hadn’t been sure what to expect. Tears and anger? Embraces and jubilation? He had years of experience dealing with both from her. He did not know how to take a cool and responsible Anya. He looked at his brother for a lead.
Abiorn waved off the gentle reprimand and shuffled to the hearth. “Let me make some tea, Eirik.” He looped his hand beneath the handle of the tea kettle and set it on the rack to heat.
“Thank you,” the man said from just inside the door.
The cabin never felt so small. Anya simply stood, staring, while Abiorn placed three cups on the table with hands swollen at the knuckles. He fumbled and the noise from the clay cup hitting a saucer split the silence otherwise punctuated only by the popping of the fire.
“Didn’t chip,” Abiorn assured himself as he tried to measure out tea leaves.
“Here, Abbi.” Their sister walked over to take the jar of leaves and the spoon. She placed the leaves in the teapot and then replaced it on the shelf. Each movement seemed deliberate. Measured. Eirikr’s chest tightened the more he watched his sister treat him with such wariness. He couldn’t blame her. He had lost track of the days while he traveled the Chetwood and the northern mountain range surrounding Nen Harn. He ate what he shot or fished from the waters. If his bow or hook found nothing, he chewed pine bark or found what he could in the way of greens and mushrooms. He didn’t mind roughing it and he had done it many times before.
The look his sister gave him now, however, made him pause. It was if she thought he might spring at them at any moment. As if he was a stranger.
“I’m sorry it was such a long time,” he said to break the silence between them. “I…lost my way near Trestlebridge. Orcs nearly surround the place. I had to circle around to avoid…”
Anya nodded without looking at him. He felt his stomach drop and he took an involuntary step backwards. His hand reached for the door.
“We were just eating these nuts Anya got from the market,” Abbi interjected. “They’re from down south. Come on, Eirik. Sit down and try some.” He hurried over to the stack and picked up a fistful and shoved them in his mouth. “They’re good!”
Eirikr nodded and moved to sit where Abbi indicated. He watched his sister’s rigid back as she fetched the kettle and made the tea. Her grey eyes shone as he caught a glimpse when she brought him a cup, but she turned away before he could ascertain why.
When the pile of nuts was depleted and the flames of the fire replaced by the soft glow of smoldering embers, Anya excused herself for bed. She hugged Abiorn tightly and then gave Eirikr a little pat on the shoulder. She passed into the sole bedroom and as the brothers watched her form disappear behind the door, Eirikr let out a heavy sigh.
“You were gone a long time, Eirik. Near three weeks, I’d reckon. Hell, she probably didn’t think you were ever coming back.”
“Abbi, your language. You’re still a gentleman.”
“Like you, brother?” Abiorn leaned back in his chair and propped his feet up on one Anya had abandoned. “Sorry. Didn’t mean it like that. But I’d like to think I left all that rubbish behind in Dale.”
Eirikr didn’t answer right away. His thoughts drifted north to the woods and the banks of the lake. When Eruviel found him there, he was more wounded beast than man. His pain made him deaf to her concern and imploring. He had hurt her. And he had hurt Abiorn and Anyatka. He did not look at his brother, but he knew the young lad’s eyes were on him. They always were on him, even when he wasn’t here to be seen.
In the quiet that fell between them, he thought he heard a distant howl. “We left a lot of things, Abbi. But we shouldn’t forget who we are.” He rubbed the thick beard covering his chin. “I need a trim.”
His brother grinned and nodded. “Aye. You do, or you’ll scare the neighbors. They’re pretty decent folk, far as I can tell.”
“Think they’d appreciate if we got that tile out of the yard?”
“Yeah, I think so. Eruviel came by the other day and offered to help. We didn’t know when you’d be coming home.”
Eruviel. He owed her so much. He owed all of them for disappearing for so long. He looked over to his brother and together their heads turned to the closed bedroom door.
“She’ll come ‘round, Eirik. She’s been lots better recently and seein’ you back’s probably just a shock, you know?”
He nodded and offered him a meek smile. The muscles around his mouth protested and his cheeks felt unusually hot. Abiorn grinned in return and punched him in the shoulder.
“Just don’t go runnin’ off for so long again, okay? Then she won’t act like she’s seen a ghost or something next time you come back.”
Abiorn awoke sitting up with the screams of his sister-in-law ringing in his ears. The corners of the floor tiles that arrived by Dwarven wagon poked into his back as he stared up at the late July sun.
It sat high as it neared its zenith; he touched the bridge of his nose and felt the heat. He would peel again if he didn’t put something on it. He would probably peel anyway. The journey from Dale to Bree exposed him to more elements than he had faced in the fifteen years he spent in Dale. He shed layers of his face and neck twice. Eruviel found plants along the banks of the Anduin that eased the itch and once they settled down in Bree, a healer named Cwendlwyn visited and gave him an entire shelf of pots and bottles. The round one to ease the ache, the green muck helps with the itching. The vial of blue to ease the pain. Anya painted labels on them to make sure he kept them straight.
He rubbed his eyes and pushed himself away from the stack of tile. His fishing pole lay beneath his legs and he picked it up to find the line snapped. There goes dinner, he thought dryly. Perhaps he would venture into the small market today and buy some food for a decent meal. Anya was home sporadically and she was the cook of the family. Even Eirikr could cook the meat he brought home, but Abiorn’s involvement in meals back home involved consuming them, not preparing them.
Gazing into the tranquil water of Ruby Lake, he thought of his brother. Eirikr had never been gone for more than two or three days. He would bring game and Anya would work in the garden the healer, Cwen, planted when she stayed with them for a few days. Cwen made Abiorn laugh when her wry comments made Anya blush or flee to make tea. She even made Eirikr smile when he came home, but it never reached his eyes and he never stayed. He missed the sound of their voices, especially in the evening. Now, with the sun and the lapping waves, it wasn’t too bad. But in the evening, Eirikr’s absence stretched between the remaining siblings like a chasm neither wished to leap across. It separated them; he knew Anya wanted to know more about their journey from Dale than he was willing to tell her. It wasn’t his pain to share, though, and what he told her only scratched the surface: Ninim died in childbirth beneath the dark canopy of the Mirkwood. A woodsman found them and his family volunteered to take in the baby. And with each passing mile, he knew he was leaving his brother behind in the dark forest with his dead wife.
Abiorn rubbed his chin and rounded the corner of the house. His sister was coming down the lane, smiling and humming to herself.
“Anyatka! Where were you?” Abiorn rushed forward to greet her.
She ducked the wayward point of his fishing pole and hugged him carefully. “I was visiting a friend. Did you have a good morning?” She tweaked the end of his nose and he winced. “It looks like you need a thick layer of cream, bróðir. Did you not feel yourself starting to burn?”
His hand shot up to rub his nose. “No. I fell asleep by the lake. What about you, sis? You’re all…soft looking.” He winkles his nose. “And you smell like roses.”
Blushing, Anya laughed and brushed past him to go into the house. He followed her inside and leaned the pole against the wall. Several fishing flies lay on the table with some loose feathers and line. Anya dropped her bag with a thunk and fingered a bright blue feather. “Has he been home?”
Abiorn dipped his head to hide his disappointment. “No. Those are mine. Eirik gave them to me. I tried to copy this one, see?” He pointed at a mess of brown speckled feathers and line. “Though, I can’t tie it. The feathers keep falling and I can’t hold onto it. It’s too small.”
Anya picked up the unfinished fly. The feather fell away and left the naked hook and nettle-hemp line in her grasp. Abiorn flushed and reached out to take it from her.
“Eirik can help me when he gets back,” he said as he started tucking away the bits and pieces. “I’ll clean this up.”
“He will come back, you know.” Anya stopped him with a gentle hand on his arm. When he looked at her, he saw something changed about her eyes. The pain from her separation from Anricwulf seemed to have dissolved leaving behind a calm, confident woman. Abiorn secretly missed the neurotic and anxious mess she usually was. It provided a nice distraction from the dreams.
“Why do you think he’s been gone so long this time? Doesn’t he get lonely out there?”
Shrugging, Anya began gathering items to make some lunch. “I think he needs it right now, Abbi. He will be all right. He just needs time. Besides, Eruviel went looking for him, and I think he has a certain fondness for her. He will listen and he will return. When he’s ready.”
“The tiles for the floor came. He’s supposed to teach me how to lay them.”
Anya’s brow arched over her grey eye. For only a moment, Abiorn swore they turned blue.
“Since when does Eirikr know how to lay tile floors?”
He shrugged. “He built his house in Esgaroth.”
“I guess so.”
Abiorn watched her begin to cut thin slices of cheese. “Can I help?”
She looked at him without raising her head. “All right.”
She stepped back and he took her place at the cutting board. With a look of intense concentration, he cut a jagged slice. His second slice was not much better, but Anya smiled and patted his shoulder. “Try pushing down, not carving. It’s not a chicken, you know.”
“It’s just going to be all chewed up anyway, right?” he grunted as he cut a third piece. “How much of this do you want?”
“As much as you are willing to slice, my brother. You never know, he might come home and be starving.”
The sun had begun to sink behind the distant trees before Anyatka Tenorbekk even realized she sat on the edge of the Little Staddlemere beneath her favorite willow tree. She searched her memory for the trek from the graveyard to Staddle, but she only found things she was not certain she was ready to face: Callumn’s distress as Morty’s strong hands crushed his windpipe, the rage on the grave-digger’s face, Hallem Kemp shoving Morty among the dead generations of Bree. The cradle in the front room. The stillness in Morty’s chest when his cool hand took her own and held it there. She did not want to remember.
She looked around quickly as she sought to find a distraction from the flood of thoughts tumbling through her brain. Her eyes fell on Hal sitting a short distance away at the end of the fishing dock. He watched her with a sort of interest like the kind that arose because there was something strange and terrible coming. He often looked at her that way, and she wondered if his interest would wane since now he knew the source of her “weird” behavior.
Her slip,the shouted “I love you!” out of desperation to know the truth Morty kept avoiding, was pebbles compared to what she learned when he finally gave in. His groan still stung, but her feelings did not change when he told her and Hal about the deaths that left him in charge of his younger brother Callumn, how he tried to raise his dead grandparents only to succeed, and his own death at the hands of the gaunt-lord his grandfather had become while Callumn, only thirteen, fled in horror.
The anger that drove Morty to attack Callumn terrified her. She had never imagined such rage could exist inside the charming man. And next to Callumn’s cheery friendliness, it had been a winter storm in June. She knew that she should have stayed with the injured man, though she knew also she could not have done much to help him. The woman, Jocelynn, had not been very reassuring when Anya had gone back to retrieve her bag that she dropped when Morty lunged at his brother. She could not say if Callumn was all right or not. She hoped for his sake he was well enough to find the next ship down to the sea. Morty repeated many times that he would kill Callumn if he saw him again. She understood this much at least: to Morty, it would be an eye for an eye.
She blinked several times and realized she was still staring at Hal who kept watching her with lazy anticipation. He probably was expecting her to start crying or raving. She probably should be crying or raving. But she couldn’t. She was not certain what she felt. It was as if all her emotions were running around inside of her at once. She just wanted them to stop so she could focus. She looked down and saw a thin green caterpillar trekking across a fallen branch. It passed the brown leaves on either side as it sought the end of the narrow bridge.
She closed her eyes.
A soft breeze ruffled her hair. It cooled her cheeks as she turned her face into it. She felt his presence beside her long before she opened her eyes.
At the sound of his voice, she opened her eyes and there he sat broad-shouldered and blue-eyed.
“I did not call you.” Her voice sounded much calmer than she felt as she drank in his face. “But I am glad that you are here. How?”
Aeron shrugged. He wore a simple robe of navy blue and his bare feet were tucked beneath him as he sat cross-legged. His dark hair was pulled back from his chiseled features and he had a look of contentment about him that Anya longed to share.
“Your heart called to me even if your voice did not.” He looked over at her and sadness tinged his serene expression. “Why, systir? Why do you grieve so?”
Anya turned to look toward the pier. Hal was no where to be seen. In fact, aside from the breeze rustling the branches of the willow, it was eerily quiet. No sounds from Hobbit settlement floated down on the wind. Not a single barking dog or buzzing midge.
“Where are we?” she asked. “Are we still in Staddle?”
Aeron followed her gaze. “I believe so. But not a Staddle you could return to on your own. A Staddle somewhere between mine and yours.”
Anya looked over at him. “I do not want to go back to my Staddle,” she said softly.
A crease appeared on his forehead. “I do not like that sort of talk. Anya, I am no longer in your mind. You must tell me what it is that is troubling you.”
Taking a very deep breath, she stared at him. And then she told him. Everything. He sat listening in silence, a deep frown marring his features. When her voice broke, his deep voice rumbled with concern.
“I had rather hoped you would have let go of your feelings for the grave-digger, Anyatka. Clearly, the man is not moral nor is he trustworthy.” Aeron’s lips formed a thin, critical line. “The presence of the cradle should tell you that he will not have you, my systir. And that you should not want him.”
Anya opened her mouth to protest, but Aeron continued talking.
“Anya, remember what I told you that night before we left for Fornost?” he said. “That it should be mutual. Equal. Your relationship with this man is not equal. And unless it is equal, it is not worthy of you. To begin with, he is not natural. He shouldn’t be there at all, Anya.”
“But he is,” she insisted as if that was all that mattered.
Patiently, he went on, “And even though he is, his choices remain a burden to your happiness. You don’t want to live with a love that does not love you back. Who cannot remain faithful. Do you?” Her hesitation brought another frown to his lips. “Anyatka, if you please, do not make such a foolhardy mistake. You do not want that. I have seen that much in your heart and mind.” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “The other man you spoke of. Anricwulf.”
“How did you meet him if your heart has been for the grave-digger?”
The wind died down and a stillness came over the water. It reflected the pale blue of the clear sky. Anya wanted to sink beneath its surface and dissolve like a sugar cube in hot tea. She wanted the feelings to evaporate and just leave her in peace. Instead, she told him how Anricwulf attached himself to their party in Bree before they left for Ost Guruth. How he knew the lands and not only helped them free the Circle of Blood of the evil for a time, but also destroyed Faethril when the shadow consumed her. Aeron sat quietly when she finished. His hands that rested on his knees tightened into fists and his eyes closed. After a moment, he relaxed and sighed.
“Then she fell completely. That is why she did not come? I have been waiting.”
Anya lowered her gaze as her heart ached for him. They had tried to reason with Faethril, but she had been in the dark for far too long. Anya had wished for her to still find Aeron and that love would be stronger than the fear that drove the woman to such dark deeds. But it seemed it was not so.
Aeron shook his head. “So it will be until the end of time. Still, I will wait.”
They sat in silence for some time, though no sun recorded its passage. Anya found an anchor in Aeron’s silent grief. She clung to her friend’s pain with relief that it was not her own. As always, his presence calmed her much like her brother’s. Another person’s pain to cling on to. Another who lost his love. She felt the shame rise – her brøðurnir had experienced true loss. What right did she have to be mourning for a dead man who was not dead? Who did not love her back with a mere fraction of the sincerity that she loved him? When she had Anricwulf who loved her truly and sincerely?
“…but you should not ever have to try.”
She was trying too hard. She did not want to try any more.
Aeron spoke. “Anricwulf does not know what you have told me?”
Shaking her head, she whispered, “I have only learned these things just now. I do not know if I can tell him.”
The wind picked back up again as Aeron have her a hard look. “You need to tell him, Anya, and you know that. He deserves to know. Secrets separate. They are the only thing that can truly destroy the bonds of love. Fae learned that the hard way.” Seeing her distress, he reached over to take her hand. Unlike Morty’s, it warmed her cold fingers as he squeezed them gently. “You will do the right thing. Do not succumb to the shadow in your heart. It will pass.” He fell silent again as he gazed out over the lake, his blue eyes sparkling like the peaks of the tiny waves cutting across the water.
Anya dropped her gaze to their hands. She stared at her nails criss-crossed in paint. Her cuticles were stained various shades of green and blue. Earthen tones clung to her knuckles and she compared their smooth creases to Aeron’s. The strength in his hands belied their gentleness. He was a warrior and soldier, but still just a man.
A man who had been dead far longer than Morducai Mossfoot. Who loved truly and deeply and had experienced the loss of his life and the ideals he fought for. Fornost had been overrun. His people fell to the shadow, his wife among them. He died trying to save what he thought was good.
Even as the realizations began to sink in, she had to point out: “Aeron. You are dead, too.”
A rough laugh full of irony escaped him. He gave her hand a squeeze. “I am, yes. But I am not in your world, Anya. And I would not stay there if I was.”
The truth. The difference. Aeron would leave when this was all over. She would be left alone, and the despair would return, but his love would still be there. And life would go on.
Her eyes closed and another silence fell between them. She felt so tired; she leaned against his shoulder and felt his head incline to rest upon hers. It was so good to be able to feel his warmth. She felt the calm flowing through her and for the time, she was able to relax.
“You left your brother’s bell with the grave-digger,” Aeron said quietly as if loathe to break the peaceful silence. “And my necklace – I assume the necklace was destroyed?”
Anya nodded. “I moved to Ered Luin for a time. I threw it in the fires of the Dwarven forges to make sure you would remain at rest.”
She felt his head turn as he looked down at her.
“I did not feel the Bree-land forges would be hot enough.”
“Oh, Anya,” he said gently, “you always do have a flair for the dramatic.”
“It seemed fitting.”
Aeron chuckled but then became more sombre. “The bell. The necklace. You have nothing left to remind you of your brothers.”
She shrugged against him. “I do not regret leaving the bell with Morty.”
“Even though he won’t know its significance to you?”
“He doesn’t have to.”
“You should have something back for your gift.”
“I don’t ask for anything back.”
“But I will give you something nonetheless. Unfortunately, I am not in a position to retrieve it.”
Aeron raised his free hand. Sitting on his palm was a silver dragon with beryls in place of its eyes.
“Not at Fornost. Not even at Ost Guruth. My father died near Annúminas on the southern shores of Nenuial. Have you ever been to Evendim, Anyatka?”
“The old capital city of the Kingdom of Arnor?”
Aeron nodded. “My father was born and raised in the North Downs. The king himself gave this to my father for services against the Witch-king. My father carried it with him though it added weight to his pack. He was sentimental like that. When he met my mother in Rhudar, this sat on their mantle until I fifteen. Then, my father was called for one last duty and he packed it away and left for old capital in an attempt to recover the Palantír rumored to be left there. He never returned. His unit was overcome by wolf-men along the far banks of the lake. They had approached from west in hopes to avoid the tombs that lined the eastern approach.” He took an audible breath. “It is why I chose to serve the king at Fornost and why Faethril understood. I honored my father and the blood of the Arthedain.” After a pause, he added, “I always meant to go to Evendim to search the city and the west banks for the treasure and see what we once were. I’ve heard it is beautiful there.”
Anya waited as he released her hand and turned the dragon over, studying it.
“If you want it, it’s yours.” He took her hand and wrapped her fingers around it. “Take Anric and a company of adventurers and find yourself again.” A smile curled his lips. “I would love to see the work you produced sitting on the banks near Tinnundir.”
She clutched the dragon to her chest and nodded. “Do you believe I can handle a journey into the wilds of Evendim?”
Aeron smiled and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “I believe in you, Anya. Many people do, and those that do not should take the time to see it in you. Journeys make one strong. And home will always be waiting for you.”
She nodded and looked up at him. “You are going back now, aren’t you?”
He looked upon her with understanding. “I am. I am always with you, Anyatka. Do not forget the ones that love you.”
She closed her eyes and the breeze blew her hair all about her face. As it died down, she knew he was gone and she was back in her Staddle and Hal Kemp would be staring at her like she was crazy. Perhaps she was.
She looked over at him. He had not moved and she wondered how much time had passed here in Bree-land while she was with Aeron. Looking down, she saw the same caterpillar making its way across the dead branch.
With a sigh, she stood. She would tell Anric about Morty and hope that he would not take matters into his own hands. His abhorrence for the undead worried her; her feelings for Morty did, too. But she had to deal with both fears. She had to find the strength to stand on her own.
It would take time. Looking south toward where the Great East Road wound its way through the lands, she knew she would go to Evendim and retrieve the last remnants of Aeron left in the world. She would take Anric if he’d have her and perhaps find some new friends along the way. But she made the decision to wait until Esthyr’s wedding; she would not run away. She had more than one purpose in life if she’d accept them.