“I…was looking for my mother,” he explained, thinking he might as well tell the truth. “The other night I came home from hunting with some of my friends and found her gone, and I thought she might have come here. Or been brought here. Her sister lives here, and…”
The woman reached out and touched his shoulder with a large hand, turning him to look at his face in the dim light of the hall sconce. She looked to be in her late forties or early fifties, the long brown braids just touched with grey.
Then he saw wonder and recognition in her face.
“You are Gaergath?” she said. He started. Then nodded.
“I am,” he said. “She…has spoken my name?”
“You are the very image of Annatar,” the woman said without answering the question.
“Annatar?” Gaergath said rather stupidly.
“That is her name for him,” the woman said. “Or, it was once. I have not heard her speak of him in a very long time.”
“Sauron?” he said. The woman’s face seemed to darken a little.
“So his enemies name him. His true name is Mairon...but she called him Annatar, for he used to give her so many gifts. But they have drifted apart, it seems. Aye, you are the very image of him, save for your eyes. You both have green eyes, but his have a golden cast to them, like a lion’s, and can burn most redly…like to a dragon's.”
“Are you her housekeeper?” Gaergath asked, thinking she sounded more than a little admiring of Sauron.
She looked at him with sharp eyes that were brown or dark grey, it was hard to tell in this light, beneath thick dark eyebrows that nearly met over her rather large nose.
“I am the keeper of her house, gardener and guardian,” she replied finally. “Hyldreth is my name. You have come a long way, I am sure. Are you hungry?”
He hesitated. Yes, he was hungry, but…
“I am,” he said, “but I would like to see her first. Is she…”
“She sleeps,” Hyldreth said. “She will not awaken until nightfall. So you may as well sit down and take some sustenance, and we can become acquainted. Your mother was Cúronel?”
“That was her name, aye. Have you seen her? Do you know what has become of her?”
“Come into the kitchen,” she said, once more without answering. “This way.”
She turned began walking down to the end of the hallway, and he had little choice but to follow her.
A fire was burning in the oven in the kitchen; otherwise, it appeared anything but cozy. There was a wooden table with but one bench, and another higher table for preparing food, and a couple of cupboards. A tallow candle sat on the eating-table, since precious little light came in through the small window.
He sat uneasily on the bench, while Hyldreth opened one of the cupboards and took out a loaf of bread and a cheese, and he removed his cloak carefully concealing the stake beneath it while her back was turned, and laid it on the bench close beside him. She cut thick slices of the bread and cheese, and handed them to Gaergath, who ate them greedily while she opened another door and went into what he presumed was a pantry, until he heard her footsteps descending a stairway. Soon she returned with a small ham, closing the door behind her and locking it with a key hanging from a chain on her belt. Then she took the meat to the high table and began slicing it. She laid a thick slice on a piece of bread and gave it to him, then cut a piece for herself and sat on the other end of the bench from him.
“The fare is plain enough here, as you can see,” she said.
“I do not mind plain food,” he said. It occurred to him that his mother would have chided him for his lack of manners, but he could not quite bring himself to thank his hostess for the provisions. Perhaps he should go off by himself and puke it all up--no telling what might be in it--but she would know, more than likely….
“So you have seen Sauron?” he asked after finishing the bread and meat, which was a bit stringy for his liking. “Or…Annatar, or whatever he prefers to be called?”
“Aye, often,” she said with a bit of a smile. “He saved my life, in fact.”
“Did he?” Gaergath lifted his eyebrows.
Hyldreth nodded. “It was long ago. I was living in a small village, and practicing sorcery. Then I was accused of poisoning a stream, and was condemned to burn at the stake. I had been practicing my craft in peace for years, and many came to me, maidens wishing me to make young men fall in love with them, farmers wanting me to make it rain on their crops, women asking me to heal their sick children, and so on. One maiden in particular came to me complaining that a young man continued to ply her with his attentions, which she did not want. He would follow her about, protesting his love, and making improper advances, and she could not make him stop. She lived with her mother, and had no father or brother to protect her, so finally she came to me. I put a spell on him, causing him to be covered over with warts. In two weeks they began to disappear, for I did not wish him to be disfigured for life, only long enough to teach him a lesson. It was very bad judgment on my part, but I was much younger then, and not so wise. Well, of course he knew it was I who had afflicted him thus, and so he poisoned the mill-stream, causing several who drank from it to die most painfully--beasts, people and children alike. And he went about saying he had seen me do it, and so the populace turned on me, and condemned me to be burnt…along with my little son. He was but three years old, but he was condemned to burn along with me.”
“They would do that to a small child?” Gaergath exclaimed.
“Do not underestimate the common folk,” Hyldreth said softly. “There is no evil they will not stoop to, if the circumstances be right. Well, I was tied to the stake, and my little son to a small one next to me, on a high platform, many in the crowd chanting and jeering and throwing stones at us while he cried for me, and several folk came and set fire to the wood heaped all around. Then suddenly a figure all in black descended from the sky and scattered them all about in fright, snatched me and my child away, and caused the fire to spread quickly about, burning the entire village.”
Gaergath could only stare at her for a long speechless moment. A softness flickered about her face in the lamplight. Her features were rather handsome, he could see. Then he wondered…
“Were you lovers?” he asked. The audacity of his question was startling even to himself, but he was certain she would not mind.
“We were,” she said. “He was the father of my child.”
“Where is he now?” Gaergath asked. He had a brother somewhere? “The child, I mean.”
“I do not know,” Hyldreth said in a low voice. “He would be in his thirties now. I took him to stay with my mother, to keep him safe. I have not seen him in many years. After she died, he went on his way--he was grown by then. I have not been able to find him, and have stopped looking.”
“I have never seen Sauron,” Gaergath said after a moment, wondering that his father should have been so solicitous of his older son, but had shown no interest at all in his younger one. “He has never seen fit to reveal himself to me. I have often wondered why he hates me. Perhaps he fears I may overthrow him.”
His throat tightened a little.
Hyldreth looked at him with sympathy. “I misdoubt that he hates you. And I do not think he fears you. But he has devoted himself to Melkor, and his fealty grows ever stronger. I dare say it has obliterated any emotional attachments he has ever had. There is no telling how many children he has sired. You could end up marrying your sister, for all you know. You’ve a sweetheart somewhere?”
“I’ve my eye on a maiden,” he hedged, feeling himself blush. “But I am absolutely certain she is not the daughter of Sauron.”
Hyldreth chuckled. “I must tend the garden now. You have seen it already, have you not?”
He nodded: “You go ahead. I would stay here.”
“Nay, I think not,” she said with a knowing look. “You shall help me carry water, my handsome lad. The plants want much to drink. Take yond buckets in the corner, and fill one at the pump. I will take its brother.”
He saw he had little choice but to do as bidden. He put on his cloak, still taking care to conceal the stake beneath it, sliding it back into his belt with his back to her. Then he helped her fill the buckets, giving her a little innocently mischievous grin. They went back down the hallway until they came to the back door, and she simply lifted the bolt and let herself out. Perhaps he could sneak back in when her back was turned….
“How like you my lovely garden?” she said as they stepped out once again into the leafy malevolence. “Does it not grow well?”
“Well enough,” he said. Once more he could hear that eerie voice. “What is that…sound?” he asked her. “Do you hear it?”
She cocked an ear. “What sound?”
“That,” he said, astonished. “You cannot hear it? It seems to be coming…from the plants themselves.”
“Oh,” she said, “you mean the Music?”
“If such it can be called,” he shrugged uneasily.
“Most certainly,” she said touching a scarlet flower with a fond finger. “It is the Spirits of the Garden, which live within the plants. You have not heard such in your mother’s garden?”
“Nay,” he said. “What sort of spirits? Like…fairies?”
“Mayhap,” she said. “You heard them not, for you listened not. Did your mother never tell you of them?”
He glanced up to the sky, which was yet cloudy, and he could still see the fog outside the wall over the top, and the tips of the dead trees raising black and ghostly arms above it. Involuntarily he moved closer to Hyldreth.
“Not so much,” he said. “I think she did not wish me to have the connection to the plants that she had.”
“Why so?” asked Hyldreth.
“Because she was afraid I would use my powers before I was ready, I think,” he said, without even knowing why he said this.
“I see,” she said. “Had you no curiosity of her workings at all?”
“I had some,” he said, at the same time remembering he had not much interest in healing, and precious little sympathy for his mother's patients, and he had often wondered how she put up with them. She would often make him come with her when she visited them, ostensibly to help her carry things and administer her remedies. He hated it all, feeling only fear and loathing when witnessing their pain, impatience with their moaning and groaning and recitals of all their aches and symptoms. And thinking some of the men only got her over there so they could look at a woman far more beautiful than their wives, and the women were jealous and made nasty remarks and insinuations about her to each other. And many took advantage, not paying her for her services save perhaps with a basket of eggs or a bucket of milk or a bag of vegetables far inferior to what she grew in her garden. When he spoke of it to her, she said they were poor. If she would not care for them, who would?
Yet he noted they were not too poor to visit the ale-house on a regular basis.
He now found himself wishing he had been a better son to her, recalling all the times he had whined and grumbled about having to go out into the cold night to sit up with someone who likely had naught more than a headache or a bad cold. What did she get out of doing so, and why could he not feel it too?
But it was too late now. And he still had no desire to be a paragon. His mother had been a paragon, and look where it had gotten her.
He felt that the spirits of the plants were laughing at him now. Twitting him with having been a bad son, jeering at his pitiful desires to put things right and wreak revenge, singing his ineffectuality and his base imaginings for all to hear. Telling him it was too late now, all was vanity, all was futility, all was void. He was trapped, damned, snared….
“So tell me,” Hyldreth said as she sprinkled water on the blue mandrakes, “what is Celirwen to your mother?”
“You don’t know?” he said with a patch of impatience. “Well…I always supposed Celirwen to be my mother, but I saw little of her when I was a child. One day a woman who looked exactly like Celirwen came to the cottage. She claimed she was the good part of Celirwen and she had ‘escaped’ her, and she was my true mother. She dismissed my nurse, after seeing to it that she had employment elsewhere, and had been living with me ever since. It was very queer, I know, but it is what she told me, and I believed her. She said Celirwen was of the Blood Drinkers, and I must take care. But lately I have had the feeling that she has been watching me. I have felt a strange and evil presence about the place betimes. I think she has done away with my mother somehow, and wants me to come back to her.”
He paused, appalled at himself. He had not meant to disclose so much to this woman he had just met, and was likely loyal to Celirwen. But it had just come spilling out….
And now she was looking at him long and hard, and he suspected she knew already what he had told her. And maybe she knew what had happened to his mother, and had known it all along. Perhaps had something to do with it.
“Where is she now?” he asked, his teeth beginning to chatter a bit. “Do you know what she has done with my mother?”
His hand went to his dagger without his bidding. And he wondered just how far he would go to make this woman tell him what he wished to know.
“Where is she?” he repeated, clenching his jaw, and looking Hyldreth straight in the eye.
“Come indoors with me,” Hyldreth said, “and I will show you. You first.”
He had to wonder if she knew what the spirit voices were urging him to do.
“Come,” she repeated, gesturing toward the door. He climbed the steps and went in, looking back at her over his shoulder. She followed, without closing the door behind her. “It is down those stairs,” she said, indicating the dark staircase from whence he had first entered the house. “I will go and fetch a candle so we can see our way down. But first give me your dagger, and the belt. Take it off, and give it me.”
He looked down at the silver buckle, then at her. She was looking at him unsmiling, and he wondered if she knew of the stake also.
He could still hear the garden voices whispering their evil magic, and his hand began to itch for the silver handle of the dagger. She looked straight at him for a long moment without speaking. He tried to return the stare, but found himself looking away. The stake now felt as an icicle freezing into his side.
Then suddenly her face softened, her dark eyes glistening a little, and they were rather beautiful.
“My lad,” she said, “I shall speak as a mother now, and tell you this: turn away and leave this place at once. The fog has lifted enough for you to see your way back to the road from whence you came. Go now, and do not look back. Forget you saw me, and this house and this garden. This will be your only chance. If you do not go now, the fog will descend once more, and you will be trapped here. So. Go now, and leave while you still can. Take your dagger and your belt, your bag of seedcakes, your cloak and your green eyes, and go find your horse. Return to your cottage and the sun and the sweet leaves and your yellow-haired lass. Save yourself. As a mother, I give you this chance, even at my own risk. But I can give it but once. So, my lad. Do you save yourself and your soul, or do you remain in the Secret Shadow, to be forever lost?”
She opened the door once more inclining her head toward the garden. Yes, the fog had cleared. He could see the blasted landscape, the dead trees…and the sky. The blue midday sky. Was this the last time he was ever to see it?
“What is it to be?” she asked him, barely above a whisper.