Gaergath scarcely heard her question for looking at the sky.
He could see the road before him, free of rocks and fallen trees. And Russandol running up, his mane and tail flying red-gold and plumy in the sunlight. He saw his mother’s garden, alive with rue and rosemary and yarrow and foxglove and henbane, and she was stooping between the rows, inclining her head so her hair brushed the leaves, looking to catch the rain with her eyes. My son, have you heard the carol of the mandrakes? she asked him as she wove scarlet blossoms into her dark locks. And he cast aside his eyes, and saw a yellow-haired lass leaning over a well, her skirt rising to show her ankles and calves, which were bare, and she drew up a bucket of pearls, and tossed them to a flock of doves scuttling up the path. He saw Thorodon watching her from a tree, while Túruan could be heard in a cave crying that he hadn’t gotten any turkey. Then Gaergath’s mother began to dance wearing nothing but her shift, and the crescent moon fell from the sky into her hands and she hung it around her neck, while fireflies floated and flickered about her head, whistling like birds. And Thorodon jumped from the tree and fell down the well, and the yellow-haired lass laughingly pulled him up, saying You silly, my father and brother are on a trip, will you come sing to me in my garden?
And then he saw a black cloak descending from the trees, falling over his mother, obscuring her from his sight, and the garden went up in flames, which spread out and burnt the entire village….
Then Hyldreth’s face he could see in the light from the door. Save himself? He had supposed he had surrendered his soul back on the road, when he had evoked the name of Thuringwethil.
“What is it to be, my lad?” she persisted. And he looked out on the dark points of the trees piercing the blueness above. Had she made the fog? Or was it Celirwen’s doing? Or Sauron’s?
And he heard the music of the garden once more, softer than before, and oddly sweet and harmless, childish and melodious.
“I must see her first,” he said at last. And sealed his fate this time…or had he? Nay. He did not believe her. At any rate, he could break the spell by destroying Celirwen. Then the fog would lift and he might leave.
But for this one. Hyldreth was not going to make it easy for him.
“Please show me where she is,” he pleaded. “My mother would wish it.”
“You would miss your chance to go back to the light?” Hyldreth asked him, drawing back from him as if a foul odor had suddenly come from him. “If you go to see her now, you will not have that chance again.”
“I only wish to see her before I go,” Gaergath persisted. “I want to ask her where my mother is. What she has done with her. I want to ask her why she did it, and…”
His lip quivered a little. He hated himself for it.
“You may not like the answer,” Hyldreth said.
“I know I won’t,” he said. “But I must know.”
“You cannot awaken her,” she said. “You would have to wait until nightfall. It is not so long to wait. But I do not recommend that you do so. One last chance: go back now. The fog is still lifted. Once it has fallen again, there will be no other chance.”
He looked at the doorway again, then at her.
“Why do you work for her?” he asked. “You know she is evil?”
“Because he wishes it,” she answered, not even seeming surprised by his question.
“Aye. He saved my life, and my son. I owe it to him. As for her being ‘evil’ as you say, the darkness dwells in each of us, crouching as a black shadow just waiting to swallow up the light, which it will do, if it feels safe in doing so. Where all restraint is gone, the Shadow will spring.”
He looked toward the door once more, scarcely noticing that the Voices were hushed now, nearly silent.
“I must see her,” he said, his own voice barely louder.
The rest of the afternoon was mostly spent in the garden, where they finished fertilizing and watering the plants, pulling off dead blooms, gathering the fruit and berries into baskets. She gave him the names of all those unfamiliar to him, explaining their uses and properties, while he barely listened, wondering how he would manage to get past her in order to do what he must. Once he had done that, then what? The fog would lift, he was sure, and he could turn back for home. What then? He could go live with the old farmer and his wife, who had offered him a place and work…but he was not at all sure he wanted to do that. He could go stay with Thorodon and his father; surely they would let him. Or he could run off to sea. That might be fun. He could be a pirate, or a wanderer, out to see the world and have adventures, and discover great treasures…he was free, he realized. His mother was the only thing tying him down. And she was gone. He was free to go wherever he would, and do as he pleased. No chores, no lessons, no more going out in the night to sit up with irritating patients who would say nasty things once his back was turned, no one to answer to…and perhaps now he could exercise his powers, whatever they might be. Perhaps his time had come. He could harness and control them, discover what lay beyond the tight restraining boundaries of the familiar….
And now he could hear the spirits of the garden laughing once more. Laughing and weeping all at once.
And he could see the fog.
He had a feeling that somewhere inside of him, leaves were falling.
“How long till nightfall?” he heard himself ask.
What would it be like, never to see the sun again?
“You truly wish to meet her,” Hyldreth said as she stood at last, picking up a basket of berries, looking far down at him where he stooped beside a strange growth of colorful spotted mushrooms…of the sort his mother had warned him of, red and yellow and white, in all sizes and stages of maturity.
“Aye, I do,” he said softly. “I wish to ask her of my mother. I told you already.”
“My lad,” she said, kneeling down beside him, “she IS your mother.”
“Nay, she isn’t!” he exclaimed, rising a little and looking her in the eye. “Cúronel was my mother. Celirwen had naught to do with it.”
“She was named Cúronel at birth,” Hyldreth explained, rising also. “For the crescent moon under which she was born.”
“I know of the crescent moon,” he said impatiently.
“She was born of a mortal woman,” Hyldreth said. “Her father was a Maia, of a lower sort than your father--Habadol. Have you ever heard that name?”
“Nay, I have not. She did not see fit to tell me of her parents.”
“Your father gave her the name Celirwen. And he gave her the black cloak. He had it of Melkor, who gifted it to him in Angband, his fortress. Countless spirits attached themselves to it, and these found their way into the garden, long before she became what she is now, and reproduced themselves, for such they can do. These spirits gave the cloak its power, and they made a Blood Drinker of her…for that is what she is, as you know. She--”
“I know all that,” Gaergath said clenching his fists, feeling sweat break out all over him. “About her being a Blood Drinker, I mean. But she is not my mother. She was never my mother.”
“She it was gave birth to you,” Hyldreth said.
“Yet she was never my mother,” he insisted. “Cúronel was my mother. And I think Celirwen destroyed her. I heard a scream that night. I thought it to be a nightmare of hers…she had them sometimes. But I know now. It was…Her. I think you know more than you are telling. What did she do to her?”
“She does not see fit to tell me these things,” Hyldreth said quietly.
“I think you are lying,” the boy said. “You are protecting her, and not telling me. Three nights ago, it was. How was she, when she returned the morning after?”
“She did not speak to me,” Hyldreth said. “She went straight down without a word to me. There was a terribleness about her, something obsessive. I did not dare to ask. But the night after that, she said she would have you.”
“And so?” Gaergath said, his teeth chattering once more. “What did she do?”
“She went out into the night, as always,” Hyldreth said. “She and I have not much in the way of conversation. Do you think we sit and chat as old friends over cups of tea? I do not ask her of her business. I know little of her doings in the night, nor of her plans. I prefer it that way.”
“She has you imprisoned,” Gaergath said.
“I am safe here,” Hyldreth said.
“But are you happy?” he asked. “How can anyone be happy here? With no one to talk to but evil garden fairies?” He gave a sharp and mirthless laugh. “And you must do her bidding. You cannot escape her. If I were to destroy her…we could both escape her. You could be free, and perhaps find your son.”
He had to wonder why she had not destroyed Celirwen herself. Surely she could easily have done so.
“Is it because of your son you stay here?” he asked. “Did Sauron threaten to kill him if you do not? Would he kill his own son? He saved him once, would he destroy him now?”
“My lad, you’ve no idea what he is capable of doing,” Hyldreth said at last. “And you do not wish to try him.”
She said she would make soup, but he did not trust her, so he said he was not hungry. On the pretext of answering nature’s call, he went and ate a seedcake.
Alone in the privy, which consisted of a small closet with a single hole that opened over a dark place he could not see into and had a cold and very foul breath, and a tiny window that let in almost no light, he wondered what he would do. And what his meeting with Celirwen would be like. He could not even remember the last time she had come to visit. He wondered what he would say to her. Where is my mother? What have you done with her? Why did you do it? Then what?
He nearly choked on the seedcake. Was he, like Hyldreth, trapped here now?
Nay. It would not be so. He would destroy her, and then he would be free. He did not even care what happened after that, he thought. He would be free, that was all that mattered.
The rest of the cake tasted sweet. It was the last thing his mother had made, that he would ever eat.
He would go home and set up a little memorial for her, and plant her favorite flowers all around it. And then he would go…he knew not where.
Tears seeped out of his eyes as he contemplated his fate.
At last he returned to the kitchen, where he sat down morosely, scarcely noticing that it was starting to darken outside the window. Hyldreth was stirring a pot on the stove.
“Do you feel better now?” she asked him.
“Not by much,” he muttered, truthfully enough.
“Would your mother want revenge?” Hyldreth asked him. He turned to look at her in astonishment. Want revenge?
“Why would she not?” he asked sharply, at the same time asking himself the same question, and remembering a time when she had gone to see a woman who had been going about saying nasty things of her: Where did she come from? Does no one ever wonder about this creature who just shows up out of nowhere, saying as she’s the mother of that young lad, settles in big as you please and no one ever stops to wonder what she’s up to? Gaergath had heard her with his own ears, in the marketplace one day, and then when this woman got some nasty and painful sores on her leg, his mother went to her and apply a sweet balm that eased the sores and made them disappear in good time. Why did you do that? he asked her. You know the things she said. It served her right to have sores. Why did you heal them?
“’Tisn’t a question of why,” Hyldreth said. “’Tis a question of would she.”
“Well, I want it,” Gaergath said rather testily.
“Enough to stay here for all time?”
“What choice have I now? You said I could not leave.” At the same time, he did not believe it. She had merely been trying to get him to go, frighten him into it. “So…it looks like you are stuck with me. Whether you like it or no.”
“She will be pleased to see you,” Hyldreth said.
Not for long, he thought. “I’m sure she will. Not that she ever was before.”
“It is nigh time,” she said after a moment. “Give me your dagger and your belt.”
“I prefer to keep them with me,” he said after a startled moment.
“I shall have to take them by force, if you do not,” she said.
He gave her a long from narrowed eyes. “I am stronger than I look,” he said. “I bested a grown man in a fight once.”
This was almost a lie, the “man” having been all of seventeen. Gaergath had been fifteen. It had been nearly a year ago.
“Did you now?” she said in some amusement.
“Aye, I did,” he said arrogantly. “I’m sorry you’ve taken such a fancy to my buckle, my lady, but as I’m rather fond of it myself, I would keep it on. And since my dagger goes so nicely with it, and provides me a feeling of security, I would keep that with me as well. I shall keep it sheathed, if it’s any comfort to you, and use it only as is needful.”
She laughed a little, then sobered. “You may not see her if you do not give them up. You shall have them back when she goes out once more.”
“You cannot prevent her,” he shot back. “I am her ‘son’, to her way of thinking, this is her home, and she will see me whether you wish it or not. And I will reckon with her.”
“You leave me no choice then,” Hyldreth said calmly, and she walked up to him as he stood with his arms folded in defiance of her. She reached down for his belt buckle, and he caught her wrists. She might well best him, but he would not give up without a struggle.
Thorodon’s father had taught him better than that.
She did not move then, but she looked straight into his eyes, fixing him. He told himself to look away, she was a powerful witch and would mesmerize him easily enough, and silver had no effect upon her. But if he did she would trick and disarm him just as easily. Which would be worse?
First thing he knew he was sitting on his backside on the floor, minus his belt and dagger. She laid them in the pantry, then locked the door with the key at her belt.
Well, but his cloak yet lay on the bench, with the stake beneath it….
And now he could hear a door opening on creaky hinges….