“Now, don’t you worry, Anya. I’m sure your brother and Eruviel will arrive home well and whole. I doubt they will run into anything much worse than the scum that can be found wandering the streets of Bree nowadays.”

Cwen spoke crisply as she cut the skin from the rabbit. She had given Anya the coin and sent her down the street to the Hobbithole down the road. The young Hobbit gladly sold her the rabbit and thanked her kindly for her patronage and gave his regards to Miss Cwen. Since returning, Anya noted the quick, almost jerky movements of Cwen as she treated the rabbit for that evening’s stew. The woman’s brow seemed sterner than usual and her eyes had dark circles beneath them.

“I know it is no good worrying, Cwen. But I still do.”

Anya stood watching the older woman work for a moment. As Cwen began hacking the meat into sloppy chunks, she had to ask, “Cwen…is something the matter?”

With a loud thunk, Cwen sunk the cleaver into the thick cutting board covering the table. “Whatever makes you think there is something the matter, Anya?”

“You seem…upset about something. Is it okay that I am here? I do not wish to intrude. I just, well, I had to get away for a while.”

Her host laughed dryly. “Anyatka, dearie, you chose to live in Bree. The urge to flee should come often.” Cwen scooped up the pieces and dropped them into a frying pan to brown. “You are most welcome at any time. But where is your husband? I would have expected him to come with you.”

Trying to hide the blush with a curtain of hair, Anya sputtered, “Oh, he’s not, we’re not…I know it isn’t proper to live together before marriage, but under the circumstances we all thought…”

Smirking, Cwen waved a greasy hand at her. “Never you mind, Anya. Biramore is not my husband, either.”

Anya tried to hide the surprise. “He isn’t?”

“Oh, no, dear. I have been married once, to a foolish, selfish man. Biramore and I chose to love one another without the pretenses of ceremony.” Cwen poured some liquid into the pan and began adding fresh herbs. “It was a grand ceremony, though. Anidore wore a deep, lush burgundy robe and the bridesmaids a vibrant blue. I led a company of folk back then. The weddingThe groomsmen all wore the uniforms of green and gold.” She paused and smiled slightly. “My dearest Aldoon officiated. One of the rare times he paused in his travels just long enough to do so. And Castius! Castius brought his tamed cat – one that would make your little Oli look like a house pet.” Chuckling, she stirred the mixture as it rose to a low boil.

“You do not appear like one to want a huge ceremony like that, Cwen. That surprises me.” Anya reached over the island between them and took up a paring knife and a large potato.

Cwen shrugged. “That was a long time ago. Neilia’s father. She’s nearly eight now. Though she acts like she’s thirty.” The thought of her daughter brought a smile to her lips.

“How does Biramore do with Neilia? I imagine well.”

The smile vanished as quickly as it came. “He did splendidly. Thought of her as his own, I’m certain.”

“Did?”

The falter in Cwen’s stirring would have been missed by most. Only because Anya was watching her friend so closely did she catch it.

“Biramore traveled a great deal protecting caravans. Merchants. Over six months ago, he left for Needlehole and never came back.”

Cwen’s voice was even. Calm. She moved about preparing the coney stew with practiced grace. She added the potatoes and set to chopping carrots.

Finally, Anya broke the silence. “He’s gone?”

“Well, yes. Dead, probably. Seeking revenge for his sister’s death. Or taken by goblins or orcs or bandits.”

“Are…are you okay?”

Cwen set down the knife and looked over at Anya. “Are you all right? Knowing your brother could be dead or on his way to death? Are any of us all right, Anya?”

Anya blinked and took a step back. “There was another man…” she blurted out under the pressure of Cwen’s cold response. “I remember seeing you with another man in Bree.”

“Zhevruil. His name was Zhevruil. He’s disappeared again, as well. I have a special knack for that Anya. Making men disappear. I have grown used to it.”

“He’s dead, too?”

“Possibly. Though Zhev is like a fox—hard to catch and hard to kill. More likely, he made a bad deal and had to vanish to avoid the consequences.”

Anya watched as Cwen finished dumping things into the pot. Her host wiped her hands on her apron and sighed. “Men are fickle, Anya. They always will be. They chase glory or adventure or gold. Occasionally they remember their woman back home. It helps when they have children with her. But even then—” she shrugged. “Well, look at Neilia’s father.”

“My Anric is faithful and true,” Anya insisted.

Cwen smirked as if she knew something Anya did not. “Thus far, yes. Anric seems like a nice lad from what you’ve told me. Would probably do right by you. But the passion fades, Anya. Love dies down to acceptance of each other’s company.”

“It goes away?”

She shook her head. “No. Not like that. But it doesn’t burn like it does in the beginning. People like that: the burn. The excitement. The rush.” She put her fist on her hip and looked at Anya intently. “Do you know what I mean?”

Blushing, Anya thought not of Anric, but of Morducai Mossfoot. Her cheeks did not flush around him simply because he had a tendency to be flirtatious and crass. The burn consumed her when she thought of him. The excitement declared itself in her voice whenever she greeted him. The rush made her head swim whenever he leaned in close. She forced her thoughts to her lover, to Anric. There was warmth there. Affection. And love. She did love Anric and she knew that he loved her, too. But there was no burn.

“Burns hurt, though,” she whispered. “And eventually, they cool.”

Cwen leaned over the pot and took a deep breath of the rising aroma. “They do. On both accounts. Which is why people settle…or wander. But they always look for that feeling, just to make sure they are still alive.”

Anya turned to look out the window overlooking the front lawn. Cwen’s house was not built Hobbit-style beneath the ground, but it bore the roundness of traditional Hobbit homes. Even in the front lawn, Cwen had planted crops and herbs among her flowering garden. She thought of the little plot of land she and Anric were trying to turn into a vegetable garden. Without her bidding, her thoughts shifted to the Dalish Charm removed because of her negligence.

“Why don’t people just accept that, then? If folk always do it. Always look for something else.”

Behind her, Cwen shrugged. “Tradition. Family. It is easier to raise a family when you know the spouse will be there.”

“Not everyone falls for tradition, though. You, for instance. And there are others I know.”

“Mhmm. Indeed there are. Anidore, for instance, went back to his womanizing ways after we split apparently. I would say I was hurt and surprised, but really, just hurt.” She lets out a self-depreciating laugh. “And not really even hurt. I just felt foolish.”

Anya nodded and asked very cautiously,“Do you ever wonder what it would have been like to just…let him?”

Cwen turned to look at her. “Let him…sleep around? Oh, heavens, no. I don’t think that ever crossed my mind. At least not then.”

“But what about now?”

The older woman ran her fingers along her hairline brushing back any flyaways that escaped from the loose bun on the crown of her head. “I think that now, I wouldn’t mind it so much. It would be difficult to see the one I love with someone else at first, but if I knew that in the end, their heart belonged to me, I think I would be more open to it.”

“If you loved them and they loved you.”

“Maybe. Though I am not sure I could actually do it when it comes down to it. See my love with another.” Cwen smiled kindly and reached over to pat her hand. “I am jealous like that, I suppose.”

Anya nodded. “I think most people are.”

“Jealous and perhaps selfish. In the end, people don’t want the pain that comes with the burn.” She laughed. “After all, only crazy people hurt themselves on purpose, right?”

“Right.”

 

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Dialogue: Fine

“Mommy, who was that man?”

“What man, daughter mine?”

“He came out of your room early this morning. Before the sun even rose. I think he thought I was asleep.”

“Oh. That is an old friend of Mom’s. He stayed for a while, but is returning to Bree to look for work. Maybe he’ll come visit again.”

“He never visited me.”

“I know, Neilia. He didn’t want to scare you. He has a lot of scars on his face.”

“Does he know Biramore? Are they friends?”

“Y-yes. He knows Bira, darling. Here, eat your crackers.”

“I miss Bira, Mom.”

“I know, sweetheart, I do, too.”

Cracker eating.

“Here’s some milk, Neils.”

“Mom?”

“Yes?”

“What’s the man’s name? The one who hid in your room all night?”

“His name is Zed.”

“That’s a silly sounding name.”

“Well, it is his name for now, my love.”

“I’m sorry, Mom. I didn’t mean to make you sad.”

“It’s fine, love. Now, eat your broccoli.”

Waterfall in Homesteads

 *** *** *** ***

“You’re just going to leave?”

“Yes.”

“Just like that?”

“I have to.”

“I don’t even know what to say. And you’re not going to take me with you.”

“I don’t have time to convince you nor babysit on the way back. I’m working on securing work with a caravan so I can get back as quickly as possible.”

“Will you stay in Esgaroth when you arrive?”

“I don’t know. Possibly. Most likely not.”

“I knew it; you’ll come back to Bree!”

“Part of what you have said is right. We need to get out from under his shadow.”

“His creeps farther than the Lonely Mountain’s, brother. It will be dangerous – you will be pursued.”

“I have been pursued before, Anya.”

“You don’t want me to go with you?”

“This isn’t something you can help with, little whelp. This is something I have to do. Alone.”

“Eruviel wants to go with you. She can help you.”

“I can’t ask your friends to risk their lives for me.”

“Try telling that to her. In fact, I’d like to watch you trying to tell that to her.”

“Don’t be facetious.”

“I have to be. She’ll go with you. And then it’ll just be me and Oli and Sally. I’m turning into the cat lady.”

“Oli is hardly your average cat.”

“Still. What if you don’t come back? I’ll be the weird lady with all the cats, talking to them because no one else will talk to her.”

“Now you’re being overly dramatic.”

“Morty says I’m dramatic a lot.”

“Well, he’s right.”

“You’ll let Eruviel go with you? Please? I know your hand -”

“My hand is fine.”

“You never use it when you eat any more.”

“It’s fine.”

“Can you even hold a bow properly any more?”

“It’s fine.”

Homeward Bound

About two weeks ago…

Lina hadn’t worried about it when Falros and she decided without words to start to drift apart. It happened just as suddenly as their drifting together. She didn’t remember how she ended up in the back stall of the South Gate stables, but she supposed she had a good time.

And that very day, she received a visitor with unexpected news. The farmhand refused to meet her eye as he spoke. Her mother was dying. She needed to go home.

For a very long time, she sat in her aunt’s parlour and stared at the small pouch of coins that came with the message. The money was to pay for post back to the farmsteads. The farmhand begged for haste as she sat there weighing the coin. Her mother had received injuries during a brigand onslaught. They had burned everything they could: only the stone of the main house had protected what family possessions survived. The barn, the pastures were cinder and ash. The youth, who couldn’t have been much older than Lina herself, described the devastation in detail. Only when he started to describe the barn roof ablaze over the screaming horses did she move. Quickly, she ordered him to hire the post horses and meet her at the North Gate.

Without explaining to her aunt, who had stood at the door to eavesdrop anyway, she fled the house and rushed back to Falros’s. She didn’t really have anything to gather. Packing was quick: three or four mismatched outfits, her dagger. She gave Moose, the large, stolen piece of taxidermy art on Fal’s bedroom wall, a loving pat and scanned the sparse room. She tried. She really did. Maybe he’d miss her. Maybe she’d find out one day.

* * *

Ruined

Her mother was not dying. The woman lay in bed with a bruise on her forehead from fainting into the kitchen table. Her father was far worse off, at least appearance-wise; the man had multiple cuts and lacerations from fighting off the attackers with his old garrison blade. His brows were scorched away from fighting the fire that consumed his livelihood.

Though she was relieved that the farmhand had exaggerated (under her mother’s duress, she was certain), Lina grumbled that she had ridden half a day for a bruise.

“Emma!” her mother cried from her bed. Lina held the woman’s tea as she gestured grandly toward the walls of the room. The entire place smelled of charcoal and smoke. The brigands had driven off her family’s swine; a few came wandering back, but there was little they could do except bring them into the main house. Their earthy scent mingled with the acrid scent of burns and caused Lina to gag. How her mother could handle it, she hadn’t a clue. “How can ye think o’ leavin’ us now wit’ all th’ work tha’ needs ta be done?!”

“Mother, may I remind ye that ye sent me to Bree two years ago.” Lina handed her the tea and held her palm up for the saucer she knew was about to be handed back. She set it on the night stand.

“But things are different now, Emma. Ye must see tha’ we need the helpin’ hand. We are your family!”

Looking out the bedroom window, Lina held her tongue. Her father labored outside with the farmhands, cleaning up the remnants of the barn. The pile of debris grew as the men shifted through the ruins searching for salvageable material. Despite the deception, despite the past, in that moment Lina knew her mother only spoke the truth: they needed her.

“I will not stay indefinitely,” she said as she watched the men work, “but I will stay until the farm is cleaned up.”

“Emma…”

“Until it is cleaned up, Mother. And no more.”

** ** ** ** ** **

Two days ago…

Zhevruil | The two of them ride to Buckland, to home.

Cwen stretched languidly, her body pressed against Zhevruil’s as the rising sun filtered through the dark blue curtains. She propped her head up and perused his beaten brow: the bruises were yellowing and would fade away completely but the scars… She reached out to gently touch his lip. She remembered when they were unmarred, years ago. The stripes across his back, hidden beneath cloth or sheltered from her eyes carefully throughout their night, caused her heart to stop with the pain of of her sympathy. She saw it in his eyes that he didn’t want it. He didn’t want her to feel sorry for him.

“Zhevruil,” she whispers, the name hanging on her lips like honey.

She should feel guilty. Biramore had been missing for weeks, and the time stretched thin like she took each second as a step along a wire stretched across the deep chasms of Moria. Her time spent in Bree added to her depression – the memories, the memories. But she was beholden to her heart and with Laerlin away, she worried a competent healer would not be readily available to the girl upon her return. And then the theft of her ring…

She knew that her return to Bree set into motion something bigger than her plans to retire quietly in Buckland. Biramore’s disappearance, Zhevruil’s reappearance, and the missing ring could hardly have been connected, but she wondered sometimes if the fates worked in threes.

Zhevruil mumbled in his sleep and turned his face away from her. Callee would be awake soon to take Neilia across the river to play with the Stock children as she did every Wednesday. It was market day.

Things seemed so much simpler in the Shire.

** ** ** ** ** **

Yesterday

Eirikr stared at the letter in disbelief. The hand that covered his mouth trembled. His left held the parchment open with some difficulty, the sling hanging loose as he sat leaning his elbow on his knee. As his trembling increased, the paper fell from his grasp. It floated to the floor oh so slowly and landed dangerously close to the embers of the cooking fire.

The house was deathly empty without Anya’s presence. The week between her return from Fornost and their departure for the Red Pass had been spent in her near constant company after Faethril had emerged on the streets of Bree. The angry spirit attacked Eruviel and had to be wrestled to the ground. Anya had been able to control the whispers of the spirit much better at the Elf’s home.

He had taken it upon himself to keep her entertained so her mind would not dwell on what she had to face. They talked of everything from the water-bugs that still dotted the pond beneath Eruviel’s home to the state of Dale when Anya departed. He watched her paint and draw with an embarrassed awe. He never realized his sister’s talent. At night when Eruviel was home, their laughter filled the confines of their solitude and the world was brighter despite the dark. Since his sister left, it seemed as if every stretch of silence could only be broken by a crow’s call.

And now.

Ninim’s penmanship flowed over the page. It spoke lightly of the winter markets and the skulk of foxes that ran through their back yard leaving tracks in the fresh fallen snow. It told how Hulda next door was expecting her fifth child. And it spoke of how Kolrson Tenorbekk sent Sven the Shiv to “protect and watch over” her, his wife, while he was away fetching the wayward daughter.

That man.

Hovering over his wife.

He could do nothing.

He stood quickly and strode to the window, throwing it open to let a cold breeze rush in. He closed his eyes and let the wind assault his heated face. Raising his left hand, he tried to make a fist. The fingers responded slowly. Resisted. Gritting his teeth, he tried again. And again.

When Anya returned – and she would return – he would go back to Dale without her if he had to and get Ninim away from the clutches of that man. He could protect her; he would protect her. Abiorn, too, if he had to. No man was going to touch his wife and get away with it.

Again. Again.

He would keep making a fist until Anya walked through the door, determined to use it to knock anyone who got in his way, out.

River and Rabbit

((Edited from chat logs. Note: Nearly all italics to Zhevruil’s “thoughts” are editor added to assist in the differentiation of Zhev’s thought processes.))

The smell of steak and rosemary filled The Broken Cask. Cwendlwyn smiled at Triswynd as she checked the hand she had mended, glad she could speak with someone to break the ice. She had tarried on her way to the tavern though she looked forward to a scene away from the Pony and all its shadows. It had been a long time since she had been truly alone and she should have returned to the Shire days ago. When she learned that Anya’s troubles still persisted after her journey to Fornost, she decided to stay in Bree even longer, though her nerves began to fray and the stash of herbal tea she mixed to help her face the streets each day was quickly becoming depleted. She found herself in the constant state of a tightly wound spring without the sedative effects of her fragrant brew and it was far easier to drink it and find some peace, especially at night.

She made small talk with Tris and the man named Ren who stood next to her. She suspected that Ren found her eagerness to get out of Bree a failing, but the passion flower, lemon balm, and valerian root made it easier to respond to the cooling of his interest. As she explained that certain people of Bree caused her the sadness she felt in the town, one of those people from her past walked into the hall.

Rosemead had gone to greet the man who stood hooded just inside the threshold. He held up a hand, trying his best to smile at the woman. “I won’t need anything to drink right now, if that’s all right.” Rosemead nodded and invited him to the food, though he remained where he stood.

Back at the table, Renaron took a sip from his flask, then capped it and tucked it into his belt. As he excused himself to pay, Cwen nodded a good-bye and noticed the man enter. She froze, her mug half-way to her lips. “Zhevruil,” she mouthed and then moved toward him without thinking. Slowly, as if through a fog, memories returned to her that she tried so hard to repress. She stopped several feet away from him and simply stared as if at a ghost.

Not expecting her move, Zhevruil said, ‘Erm……hello.’

Neither noticed as Rosemead turned to watch the confrontation at the door. Cwen continued to stare at him and then looked over her shoulder as he spoke. She watched Ren head out before looking back at Zhev, totally unsure of what to do at his sudden appearance.

Zhevruil stiffened, embarrassed at his lack of grace, in appearance and greeting. What a dolt. “I….just thought….” After a pause, he went on, “…that I’d, maybe….”

Cwen studied him as best she could beneath his hood. She had caught a glimpse of a man in the Pony that reminded her of him, only in passing, only a faint memory. A cryptic letter arrived bearing his name and confirmed her suspicions. A quick exchange of franticly scrawled messages ensued. She stepped up close and grabbed at his wrist almost as if to see if he truly stood before her. She thought of one of the messages that hinted he was being chased. Leaning in close, she whispered, “Should we leave?”

Zhevruil looked her up and down, telling her, “Your dress looks….nice.” It was geniune, but sloppily delivered. “Don’t you have friends here?” he queried, looking over her shoulder at the table ahead.

She turned and looked back. “Acquaintances. Possible future friends, yes. But you. I thought you were dead.”

Zhevruil swallowed his pride. His eyes were still shielded. He hadn’t looked up at her face yet. “Yeah…” he whispered, again glancing at those gathered ahead. What if they…? “I can wait until you’re done.”

She shook her head. “Your letters; I got them. I have been worried.” She followed his gaze back again and continued to shake her head. “Shall I meet you shortly?”

Zhevruil gave her a quick nod before replying, “Sure. I’ll be outside.” He cleared his throat. “I’ll see you there.”

She released his wrist and nodded, turning quickly and pacing back to the table to pay for her drink. She exchanged the necessaries with Rosemead and then tried to refrain from fleeing from the hall. Outside, she took a deep breath and looked for Zhev. Spotting him across the yard, she started after him, her previously languid movements quickened, though only slightly.

Zhevruil was startled by Cwendlwyn’s sudden arrival. He looked over at her, again doing what he could to hide the beaten, broken face. “All finished?” he asked.

Cwen placed a hand on his arm as she nodded. She tried to get a glimpse of him beneath the hood but the sun fell just right to cast deep shadows over his features. “Let us go for a walk,” she suggested, her sweet voice encouraging.

Zhevruil moved a few inches to the right, revealing his eye as it gave her a sidelong glance. He scanned the neighborhood, seeking flaws. Nothing. He can… “Let’s,” he replied quietly.

Cwen met his gaze for a moment and nodded. “Lead the way, old friend,” she said softly.

Zhevruil stepped forth, and walked the stone path. Cwendlwyn followed his lead. They stepped out of the large yard of the tavern and turned left, walking in silence with a respectful distance between them. They entered the little square where the neighborhood store stood across from the little park. Zhevruil spotted a gazebo across the courtyard and said, “There….” He led them over to it and stepped between the tall posts. He leaned against the railing, looking down at the river. It flowed calmly, unlike his apprehensive nerves.

Cwen leaned next to him and waited for him to speak first. She folded her hands together in front of her as her forearms supported her.

River and Rabbit
River and Rabbit

Zhevruil sighed deeply, counting the leaves on the tree hanging above the water. He would comment on the subtle intricacies they bear, the folds, the nuances, but they were things only someone such as he would care for. Instead, he inquired, “Do you live around here?”

Cwen frowned at the question for she expected something less trivial. She looked out at the little creek flowing by, her breath falling in cadence with the slow waves stirred up by the wind. “Not any more. Biramore and I moved to the borders of Buckland shortly after Arodionn…” Her voice broke and she shook her head. “I am staying at the Pony at present as some things are playing out. But no. I do not live around here.”

Zhevruil noticed the shifts in her words. Perhaps a sign of intoxication? he thinks. If such was the case, she was disguising it well, but not well enough for him to miss. “Biramore,” he said, now turning to her, his right forearm still against the railing. “How is he?”

Cwen frowned. “I hope well. He is off with a caravan right now.” She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, her fingers trailing down over her jawline.

Zhevruil revealed his face fully. The old scars across his face and lips were still there, fading, but there. However, bruises had joined them, and his beard had grown thick and unkempt, his hair likewise. His eyes still had a flickering spark in them, flickering being the key word. They were sunken, dry, weary. “I’m sorry I didn’t send you anything, while I was gone I mean.”

Cwen reached up to touch his face but stopped herself. “My word, Zhevruil. Your face. What happened to you?” She shook her head vehemently. “Where have you been?”

Zhevruil stepped back, shuddering at the thought. His eyes grew stern, painful even. Then, they relaxed, and he looked up at Cwen, answering, “A long way from here. But none of that matters, now. I…Cwen, there was a woman I knew here, one I was…close to.” He thought of the one right in front of him, at first, but realized there were too many barriers, at least for now. He needed to take responsibility for the world he left behind, for the choices he made. “She was a friend of yours. I don’t mean to…” He wouldn’t continue.

Cwen frowned. “You were close to a friend of mine? Who, Zhev?”

Zhevruil replied, “Her name it was….Cwen, I….” So much hesitation. “It was Tealdora.”

Cwendlwyn paled slightly. “Tealdora. You-” her face suddenly flushed. “Zhevruil, you didn’t.”

He stepped aside. He never wanted her to… “I…yes…I’m sorry if that unsettles you.”

Cwen rubbed her eyes. “How? Why-” she stopped herself and shook her head. “I do not want to know. It’s your business, and hers. I have not seen her in a long time, though. She stayed here when we moved and she stopped writing after a few months. Zhevruil, why do you ask for her?”

Zhevruil shook his head. Stayed behind? Stopped writing? The ambiguous nature of it all troubled him. “I,” he began, “just wanted to… Cwen, I, I wanted to see her once more, let her know I didn’t forget her. But I wanted her to know…” Thoughts of Biramore flowed through his mind.

She looked over at him, feeling that this change of his thoughts mid-flow was slightly different from the rest. “What is it? We can look for her, Zhev.”

Zhevruil looked back at the leaves, their intricacies, their folds, their nuances, things only he cares for. He turned again to River, deciding now was as good a time as any, “Cwen, I have to tell you, I won’t go into detail, but she and I…we were close, but it wasn’t fair. In that moment, the moment we were…I did care about her, truly, and I wanted the best for her, but a part of me was only doing it because she, well…” Don’t stop here; follow through. “…she reminded me of…” The Rabbit could not bring himself to finish the sentence. He shook his head. “I’m sorry….I’m sorry, this was stupid. I just wanted to say hello, that’s all, just say hello and leave.”‘

Cwen stepped closer to him and took him by the forearms. Here he was after all this time. For once, she felt he was struggling to tell her the truth. “Zhev, please. She reminded you of what?”

Zhevruil turned to her. You haven’t got much else to lose. They took everything you had. All you’ve got are the clothes on your back. The house has been burned to the ground. The Enkindlers are all either dead or missing. Ellbor doesn’t even stay on post anymore. Just try, and if it doesn’t work, leave. He leaned in, attempting to kiss Cwendlwyn Tain’s lips.

Cwendlwyn stood firm, unaware of his intentions.

Zhevruil leaned in further, his hands moving to Cwen’s hips. Thoughts of the Lightriders told him he was making a mistake, but they didn’t control him anymore. That mask was gone, never to be worn again.

Cwen’s eyes widened as he touched her, but her surprise rooted her to the spot. She stared up at him, lips parted in a small O.

He completed the arch, his lips meeting hers. A warmth of simultaneous fear and joy pervaded him as wooden planks creaked underfoot. His arms slowly found their way around her waist.

She gasped and raised her hands as if to push him away. She arched her back to pull away from him, but his arms around her waist draw her closer. She trembled in his embrace as her mind whirled around for something solid and normal for her to grasp onto. Zhevruil. His lips. Zhev. Her heart seemingly stopped and her eyes fluttered to close.

He slid his right arm past the cloak, holding her back steady. It would only last a few more seconds, at best. He wished the case were not so, but she was a married woman, proud, virtuous. It wouldn’t be this way again, but he knew he had to try at least once.

Cwendlwyn wasn’t married. She never married anyone save Anidore. Elodir passed over the sea. Biramore…Bira. Her eyes flew open and she made a tiny sound of protest. At nearly the same moment, she sank into the kiss, relaxing against him. Her loneliness, her sorrow, all held in check with her herbal concoctions, burst forth and overwhelmed her common sense.

Zhevruil parted his lips from hers. He noticed that it was his decision to part. His eyes were open, glowing, alive, for the first time since… “…you.”

She stared at him for a moment, lips slightly swollen and parted. She trembled and closed her eyes. “Zhev-” she said softly and trembled again, opening her eyes just enough to glance up at him through her lashes.

Zhevruil lit up, knowing he’d chosen wisely. He felt her longing. Whether it was for him or for something more animal, he didn’t care. Just this once, he wanted to be the winner, to have what he came for. He buried his face in her neck, tender kisses trailing down to her shoulder.

Cwen sucked in her breath and then sighed deeply. Her body responded though her mind was still in shock. Her heart – her heart just pounded away at her ribcage as the hands on his chest meant to brace him away from her instead slid around him to draw him close. Her head tilted to give him access to her skin. He pulled her toward the railing, pressing her against it. His lips meet her cheek, then her forehead before he asked, “Don’t you want this?” The words, though breathless, were genuine. He wouldn’t hurt her, not the way he probably hurt…

She swallowed visibly, her throat moving the doubt into the pit of her belly. “Zhevruil,” she breathed as she felt his whiskers tickling her forehead. “I-” she shivered with the sudden build up of passion and uncertainty.

Zhevruil pulled back his hood, further showing her his battered form. His eyes were, again, alive like they’ve never been. Both hands were now around her face, one gently thumbing the space between chin and throat. “Please,” he whispered, “don’t lie to me.”

She closed her eyes to break his gaze. “You were gone…so long. I truly thought you were dead. And now…you are here. Zhevruil, I do not know what is truth or lie anymore. I only know when I saw you in the Pony, that moment, my heart surged. Both good and bad arose. Zhev…” she opened her eyes pleading with him to understand. “It’s so complicated.”

Zhevruil stepped back, eyes narrow. They wavered, flicking between her and the planks, and the water, and the leaves, their folds. Fixed there, he replies, “Maybe we shouldn’t…”

She touched her lips where he kissed her. “Please…I need time. You…only just came back. I know nothing. Not where you’ve been or who you are running from. Zhevruil, please. Be honest with me.”

Zhevruil exhaled, telling her, “It won’t be the same next time. I know it. I can feel it. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be a pessimist, but…” He stopped, moving to lean against the pillar before him. “…you know I’m right.” He looked over his shoulder, and added, “I’m running from me, Cwen.” He turned back to the leaves. “Things happened. I made the wrong choices. They won’t find me, so long as I remain elusive, with places to stay, constant change, whatever I need to do.” He looked back again, informing her, “It was when I was working with Anrandir.”

Cwen wrapped her arms around herself in a hug and looked down. It was so long ago. “Zhevruil.” She could not find words for her thoughts, the feelings bashing her from the inside out. She cleared her throat softly. “Wh-where are you staying now?”

He returned his gaze to the water, responding with, “Bree’s rooftops have made for good hiding places.” His tone was solemn, but not grim, more matter-of-fact.

She strode over to him and tried to turn him to face her. “No, no, Zhev. You will not sleep exposed to the elements like that. My home in Buckland. No one would look for you there.”

Zhevruil stepped back, now facing her. He appeared to be worried. “Cwen, if you’re with a man…staying with you isn’t the best idea.”

Cwen closed her eyes for a moment. She thought of another letter. Another message full of shock and pain. “Bira…Bira is missing. His caravan never made it to their destination. I do not know what happened to him. It’s been weeks.” She closed her eyes again slowly. “But he would understand if it meant protecting a friend.”

Zhevruil raised his left hand. The middle and index fingers caressed her face. She’s right. He wouldn’t mind. And he’d be safe there, from them. Starting over, with her, it could happen. “I…I’ll go with you.” His legs trembled. He hadn’t slept well in weeks.

Cwendlwyn nodded and stepped forward to embrace him. “We can leave as soon as I gather my things from the Pony. Tonight you will rest, deore.”

Zhevruil returned the gesture, hugging her tightly. He wished he’d gone through with it, but that’s thinking with the little head. As they parted, he inquired, “Deore?”

She smiled. “The language of the Mark. ‘Dear’.”

Zhevruil grinned, the first time it’s happened in ages. “You….all right, let’s go. To be perfectly honest, Cwen, I’ve needed a good bed for some time.”

Cwendlwyn nodded up to him and slid her hand down his arm to thread her fingers through his. She gently tugged on him and started back toward the Cask where her horse waited. “Come. You will have my bed tonight, for you will not fit in Neilia’s. She is visiting Michel Delving at present, so we will not disrupt her if I take hers. Let us go.”

Zhevruil nodded, following her lead as she followed his.