Autumn. The Year of Lamentation.
She waited for what would not come.
A last glimpse of a dark head. A last echo. A grip of arms thrown low about her ribs, high as he could reach.
Dusk sank over the fields. All movement sketched in shades of grey. Not far off, a horse neighed, but its voice was not Arroch’s: too harsh for Dor-lómin’s steeds.
They watched the house. But she refused to watch them, refused to reveal with her glance or a retreat how afraid she was.
She did not stir even when the stone of the garth became the only line of demarcation between her fields and everything else.
A light spread across the threshold and the door post. Its board had been etched with a series of marks, starting a little less than midway up. A twin series of cuts, always uneven, ran up the first few inches, then the second, shorter line stopped, left far behind by its brother. The final mark, put there just this summer, leapt near two inches. She rested her fingers against it. He would be a mighty man, her son. If he lived that long.
“Morwen,” said the voice, this time accompanied by a touch on her elbow. “Come. You will chill standing out here so long.”
“I am not cold.”
“You need to rest.” The hand beneath her elbow tightened, drew her in, away, until she had to take her hand from her children’s marks. Neither one would have marks etched into that door again.
She let Aerin lead her into the kitchen.
“I had not heard you come, sister,” Morwen told her as she eased herself into a chair, balancing her weight. The child in her belly stirred. She rested her fingertips on where its head might be. Little comfort could she offer now.
Her husband’s kinswoman looked at her over the candleflame, something very like reproach in her eyes. “Of course I came. Let me see your hand.”
Húrin’s kinswoman had the slenderness of a woman pared down to what remained absolutely necessary. Morwen could have taken the skin of her forearm between thumb and forefinger and pinched only air. Her hair, gold as her brother’s, was cropped short about her ears, making her eyes wider and her cheek more angular. She had been made for a softer world than this and used herself up in it.
“You are not alone in this,” Aerin told her as she pressed a wet cloth to smarting fingers, dabbed away the little beads of blood. “Nor are you the only one who has lost something or someone.”
Though who or what she had lost, she did not say.
“We are alone, my dear,” Morwen corrected her. But she reached across the table and touched the other woman’s wrist at the confluence of veins.
Her bones ached with exhaustion.
Even her first had not been so difficult.
Everything came to her in snatches. Sweltering dimness. Cold cloth on her brow. The murmur of assurances, chafing of her hands and feet.
After a while, blessed stillness.
She woke some time later to a branch ticking out the bare hour against the window. A sheaf of light from the moon fell across her bed, soft as the breathing next to her.
Aerin was curled up just outside of arm’s reach. Her eyes were open, sleepy, wet and watchful. They lay with the infant between them.
“Do we have a name for this little one, then?” Aerin whispered across the space of the bed, stroking the blonde curls with a finger.
Húrin was gone. Whether dead, captured, or driven, he would not come for them. She would not be Rían though, to run into the wild, abandoning any child she had left for the sake of a dream.
“Now husband and son are gone. She is what I have left. She. Nienor.”
Though called ‘Mourning,’ Nienor was a happy child.
Quick to run to her mother in the garden with a skirtful of frogspawn, always wanting to know the name of things, what they were called and why. Her strong, young legs flashed through the beans, and her laughter floated over the fields as she chased circles around Sador, finally toppling him and his armload of firewood.
Aerin strode through the gate, slamming it cheerfully behind her, a smile illuminating her face and a basket under her arm. “La, here is Yavanna’s maid]! And I bring gifts!”
“Auntie!” squealed Nienor.
Despite herself, Morwen spread the parcel with her fingertips. Apples. Real apples, small and tart. Dense, brown bread followed with cheese, and a paper-wrapped slab of beef. Even a bottle of last year’s wine.
It was a feast fit for an elf-king.
“This is from the Incomer’s own table,” she said. “You dare too much.”
Aerin made a noise of dismissal as she shifted the basket. “What if it is? Brodda knows nothing of it—the household is not his province.”
“Still, you should not risk it.”
Aerin shrugged and nudged open the door to the house with her hip.
Following, Morwen pressed her lips together. “I cannot accept it.”
“Why ever not?”
“It is charity of the worst kind for one robbed to ask alms of the robber.”
“It came from his cellar’s. He who has robbed me, us, of everything.”
“Fine.” Aerin set the parcel down a little harder than intended. “Don’t eat it if it sticks in your throat—though why it should I know not. Only a fool refuses his own food. Or are these not your cattle? Your sheep? Your vegetable garden? If you are too proud, then eat your turnips with all the righteousness you can muster. But the child, at least, should have something more to sustain her.”
Sador smiled his vague smile and chuckled as he leaned his axe against the well. “That’s right, miss. Someone needs to speak sense around here.”
“And that one is you?” Morwen said, glancing at him.
The servant bowed, still smiling, and tucked one of the apples into his pocket.
Morwen gazed at her hands in her lap. She could not explain why the bounty on her table after so long without made her feel so uneasy. It was too good a thing, maybe. She was tensed for the dark thing to come round again. More and more, she felt it, rising like a gust out of the North. Something.
But she could no more explain this to Aerin then she could sprout scales and swim upriver. However, she could make amends.
The word ‘sorry’ did not pass her lips. Nor ‘forgive me.’ What good were they, after all? They did not undo the transgression. She had stepped on Aerin’s good will, and it would take something else to remedy it.
She took up the breadknife and got to work.
They laughed as they had not since the days of peace. Perhaps it was the wine’s doing, or perhaps, even misfortune could bring forth merriment, if only because otherwise, one would weep.
Nienor had gone up to bed, dozing and limp on Sador’s shoulder while her mother and Aerin lingered by the fire. The rest of the household had taken themselves off to bed and still they talked, wasting more wood than they should have, but neither cared. They had slipped their shoes off, tunics and hair loose, the wine slipping in chipped clay mugs.
They talked of old days, fair as summer and as long ago. Old childhood friends. Days by the river. They spoke on every subject as women were wont to do in their own company, and though outside the door, night closed in on the house, there in that circle of light, there was warmth, there was laughter. They could talk as they could not with others.
Aerin tucked her feet up under her, girlish, and leaned her cheek against her palm. She was truly a lovely girl. Too lovely for such a life.
“Why did you never marry?” Morwen asked her. It was a question she had never asked since they had known one another, unsure whether she wanted to know the answer—though she guessed, a little.
They did not speak of her situation, if it could be called that. Marriage, to their minds, was a choice made in gladness and by consent. Aerin’s lacked both.
“Oh, well,” Aerin said with a slow smile and a roll of the shoulder. “With a brother such as mine, no man would have satisfied him. Besides, I always liked my space.”
There was one woman, Morwen remembered, from her childhood. A crofter on the edge of the Ered Wethrin. She lived alone and solitary. No man stayed there long, not even a field-hand. But a few years after Morwen came to Dor-lómin, a traveler came, some war-widow or other, seeking shelter and had never left, keeping house and caring for the crofter until she died.
Morwen at the time had pitied the woman’s lack and counted herself fortunate to have found such a kind and good man as Húrin. Though they spoke little of love. Now, she wondered if she would have been better served to have remained alone after Ladros.
There was little of Húrin’s manner in his sister. The same bright nature, but where Húrin burned keenly and steadily and sometimes too hot, Aerin was an uncertain flame, now sinking low if tempers rose, now high when something touched her near. She was harder to read than her brother.
“Why?” Aerin returned. “Are you so happy with married life? Ah, but I know you were. You love him.”
“I loved him.”
A little silence.
“The Dog will not miss you?”
Aerin polished off her wine glass and fiddled with the edge of a sleeve. “He dare not restrain me with his rule still so new. He cultivates what favor he can with our folk. There are those un-cowed who are loyal to Hador’s house. Overt cruelty might make them rise. And a poor lord would he be if he kept his wife chained within her garth, particularly when a kinswoman is in need.”
Morwen read the thought behind the words. Fleeing the ruin of Ladros after the Bragollach, she knew too well what it was to find a refuge, a safe haven, in the midst of the desert. To stumble into a near-stranger and find a friend, who not only understood your hardships but shared them.
Thoughtful, Morwen reached and out touched the edge of Aerin’s sleeve then, glimpsing something that troubled her. She drew it up a little to reveal a ring of bruises about the wrist, prints of four fingers and a thumb.
Aerin made to take back her sleeve, but Morwen did not let go. Compelled for what reason she did not know, save that it seemed right to do so, a gesture of gratitude even, she took the white wrist between her hands, bent her head and pressed her lips to the little, dark patches, one by one.
The radishes clung so tight to their berth she had to snip through the threads of some of them until they came free in her hands.
The fleshy roots hung from her palm, earthy and raw, the leaves already wilting. She held it just for a moment before chucking it into the basket along with its brethren.
Straightening to ease her back, she felt the sweat of her shirt shift and cling between her shoulder blades and ribs. The air was thick enough to chew, loaded with thunder. The sky arched overhead, a vault of lead.
She propped the basket against her hip and walked back through the cabbage beds and beans, the sprouts lapping her skirts. Once, it would have seemed quaint for the Lady of Dor-lómin to be seen grubbing about in her own fields, scorning the heat of midday: a high-born woman taking her turn playing peasant.
She’d been a fool then.
The edge of the basket dug into the flesh above her hip, and she was glad to set it down beside the well. A moth-smelling coolness wafted up from it as she pulled up the trapdoor in the well’s cover. The rope creaked and strained as she braced against the crank, the weight at the bottom rattling and bumping against the sides as she hauled it up.
In draining light, the water flashed and glittered as she splashed her face and neck, bathed her forearms though it would take a thorough scrub to get the earth out the seams of her knuckles and under her fingernails.
“Lady, best you get inside. The storm’s coming.” Old Ragnir, whose ears proved of more value than his eyes, called from the doorway of the house.
Once, as a young bride, she had wondered how he could tell her step from the other maids. Now, there were too few to make such a guess remarkable, and only she had remained outside so long.
The first drops of rain on her shirtsleeves, she bundled the radishes and what remained of the water into the house though Ragnir insisted on relieving her of the radishes, his stick knocking the wall all the way down the corridor.
The kitchens were in twilight, but even with the light failing early, she would not waste candles or lamp oil.
With more sight in her fingertips than eyes, she scooped up a cup from the board and dipped it in the bucket, taking a long draught until a thread spilled over her chin and down between her breasts. The same taste of silt and iron on her tongue.
She set the cup down with a quiet clink that did not mask the neigh of a horse.
Not Arroch. But not Dog, either.
Outside, the sky had turned black, and cantering into the courtyard on the wings of a storm like portents: the messengers of Thingol.
Strange, to have Elves in the house when for so long they had ridden by in their arrays of panoply, bypassing the grand house of Húrin. Only now, did they come, to see it in its decline.
Morwen played the host as best she could, sealing the doors of the unused upper rooms behind her, serving the last of the meats and fruit, offering as gifts the few treasures she had left. From her husband’s chest, she unearthed the helm of Hador.
All silver steel chased with gold. From atop it, the Dragon stared with cold, serpentine eyes from his lofty perch.
“Take this to my son along with my thanks to Thingol,” she told the messengers. “But I remain here. My daughter is yet young, and I will not dare her life in the wild.”
When their guests had retired, Aerin cupped her hands around her tea, drawing the warmth in through her palms, and looked at her gravely.
Morwen kept her eyes on the cloak she was folding. It was thick wool, elf-crafted. It would keep Nienor warm. At last, no longer able to ignore the pressing silence, she dropped the folded cloak on top of a chair.
“Why do you look at me so?”
“Why will you not leave with them?”
Aerin gripped the tea a little harder as if steeling herself against something. “Why stay here as things are when you might live as a queen, with your son? What keeps you here?”
“Do you think I will give you a different answer than I gave them? Nienor is yet young. The wild is no friend to young things. Or old, for that matter. And I will not be a beggar at the gates, even those of a king.”
“Túrin was younger than Nienor when you sent him from your side.”
That pricked. As all mentions of her son did. And it made her tone sharp “What would you have me say? What are you looking for?”
“Nothing. I’m not looking for anything.”
“No, you asked for a reason.”
Aerin was silent, not quite looking at Morwen but at some distant point over her shoulder. “You are too proud. If what the elven folk say is true, your boy is considered the fosterling of the king. Which makes you far more than a mere ‘beggar at the gates.’”
“I have said I will stay. And that is the end of it.” She lifted the teapot into her hands and made for the door. “Now, let us have no more of this nonsense.”
There was no laughter tonight when they took their usual places before the fire. The conversation unraveled before it had really begun, holes appearing between the words, sentences pinched off at the edges. Something strange hummed in the room, lurked in the shadows and corners.
“You are very quiet,” Aerin observed. “What is it?”
Morwen shook her head.
Aerin leaned her cheek against Morwen’s shoulder, breath soft and tickling against her ear. “This is the place where you do not have to be strong.”
“I do not think I can be anything else,” she whispered. “The things that I have lost… the ones I…. I have not let it break me. But I feel…cold. As if I’m forgetting things of light and warmth and kindness. It frightens me.”
If she turned her head a little, those clear eyes would not look at her, but the light from the fire would fill them with starts and shadows. She did not turn but felt Aerin ease a little closer.
“You do not feel cold to me,” Aerin said against her collarbone.
There was something beautiful and comforting in such simplicity, of whispers in the gathering dark, of a head on a shoulder. So when Aerin first turned and laid her lips against Morwen’s temple, she thought little of it. Even when lips on her temple became lips on her neck, on her mouth.
They lay down and kissed one another the way they never kissed their husbands.
When the tunic slipped off her shoulders, Morwen rose up outside of herself, stared down at her half-bared body: the marks of bearing children were a little unsightly to her. Her hands and knees were chafed from work. She had not washed her hair in some time.
But Aerin only smiled as if she’d found the greatest of treasures and whispered into the channel of her breasts words Morwen did not hear.
When it was done, sometimes hours later, Aerin would lie close and talk of fleeing Dor-lómin, of going off into the wild and finding some place safe… someplace away from here… Knowing full well she would do nothing of the sort and then drop off to sleep as easily as a sated babe full of mother’s milk. Morwen lay on her back and felt, if anything, more bereft.
Aerin wanted someone to touch her and not hurt her. She wanted gentleness. She hungered for safety, for calm. For strength, though she had strength of her own that she didn’t know about. So she sought the one woman in that land of men, little more than ‘wolves’—or worse things, who could offer her that.
Morwen did not delude herself so much as that.
She recognized this for what it was: a distraction, a way to stave off the inevitable just that much longer. Disaster lay all about them, so they took what shelter they could.
The fire sank to embers, and darkness crept into all parts of the room, and into her. It eased down into her throat when she breathed and crept up between her legs and through her eyes and ears. Deep in her heart, she knew she’d taken yet another step out of the world.
It was the middle of the night when the horsemen clattered into the courtyard.
Six of them Easterlings.
All tall, broad. Armed.
Sador looked up at her as she passed through the dark kitchen. An axe lay across his lap. “Say the word, Lady. It is long since I have skinned a wolf.”
She smiled grimly. “You cause yourself enough trouble with an axe, Sador. Leave it be.”
But her own heart thumped hard in her throat as she stepped out onto the threshold and turned up the lamp above the steps.
“You are not welcome here, incomer.”
The dark, savage face turned to her, his upper lip gleaming with sweat in the light of the lamp. His black eyes consumed her from crown to hem. “Thus do you welcome your lord?”
“My lord is dead.”
“That may well be, and happier so. I am welcome anywhere on my lands, Witchwife. And these are my lands.”
“So claims the thief over the goods he stole.”
“You do have a tongue in you,” he remarked with a smile that had nothing of mirth in it. He slid from his horse and ran a broad thumb over the swordhilt beneath his cloak. “I could put it to a better use than taunting me.”
She remained silent but took his eye and held it. Though she made no move towards him, he recoiled as if she had menaced him with Sador’s axe.
“But that is not my errand. I was told I would find my wife here.” Catching sight of Aerin in the shadows, Brodda reached out an imperious hand. “Come to your husband, wife. You have lingered overlong. Brodda will not have talk bandied about of his wife living as a crofter in the wild.” To Morwen, he added. “I hear you have a pretty daughter. I have promised my son to find him as fetching a wife as I have found.” A hard leer stretched his lips.
Fingers brushed her back, restraining her words, as Aerin went down the steps to her husband’s side. She mounted behind him, but her eyes remained on Morwen’s, dark and fearful, as Brodda spurred his horse out of the courtyard, the rest of his following close behind.
Morwen watched until the night swallowed them up. The house behind her spread dark and cold as an abyss.
The Black Sword.
The Orcs flee.
I bid you: do not wait.
Cloaked and hooded up, she stole through hall of the Dog of Dor-lómin. The Easterling woman, who met her in the hall, sucked in one, sharp breath then turned her eyes deliberately away, clawing industriously at the corners of the flags with her broom to drown the shadow of Morwen’s footsteps as she climbed the stone stairs to the upper chamber.
Brodda favored the thrall-boys more than his wife, it was said. And so it seemed, for she found Aerin alone.
Their last words. Whispered and urgent. In a place safe for neither of them.
“I go. Tonight. We will take the dark way through Amon Darthir. To Doriath.”
“I would have you come with me and Nienor. Bring only what you need.”
“You cannot stay here.”
“There are so many of our folk who need our aid.”
“Aid that will get you killed—by your own husband, no less should he learn of it.”
“Nonetheless. I will not flee. But it is good that you go, too long now have I urged you to do so. In Doriath, your son awaits you. Your family. And, perhaps, a better chance.” Something lingered in her eyes, an expectation, a wanting Morwen could not read.
“You will not come with me?”
“There is nothing for me there.”
“What is there for you here?” Morwen did not pause for the answer. Instead, she said, “If you would come with us, we start out once the moon has risen enough to see by.”
She turned and left and did not look back.
The appointed hour ticked past, then long past.
With every moment that the silvery road remained empty and quiet, the fluttering in her chest rose until it became a gale of ill-quiet, so forceful she wondered she didn’t collapse under its buffet.
“It is time to go,” she told her daughter then with a last glance for the still-empty road, the retreating moon leaving it to darkness.
They stole through the house, ransacked for the last bits of useful that they could carry and passed through the garden, smelling thick of flowers.
Out of the gate, over a low stone wall into the fields, from the fields through the copse that bordered the last of Húrin’s property.
At the top of the first hill that led towards Amon Darthir, Nienor stopped and looked back.
A red light fluttered and lashed in the valley below them.
“Mother. They are burning our house.”
Morwen looked back at the burning. Bright and glorious in all that dark land. She knew who had set the fire. So the wolves would not have that last piece of her though they had taken everything else.
She remained there on the hill, despite Nienor’s fretting, until the embers flickered out and died. The dark returned.
But this time, she would not cower in her corner until it wrenched her out by force. No, not for her, the daughter of Baragund, the wife of Húrin, mother of Túrin and Nienor.
She would charge to meet it.
She was tired of waiting.