He never would know what he would have done with the stake just then, had he not heard the creaking of that door.
“’Tis her,” he said, almost to himself. And found he could not move a muscle.
He knew that was not Hyldreth’s doing this time.
He expected to hear footsteps, but no sound issued from the hallway.
At last Hyldreth went to the door and softly opened it. Gaergath stayed where he was, ignominiously sprawled on the floor, watching her. Then she came back to him and silently offered him her hand to help him up. He slapped it away, scowling, and got himself up clumsily.
And turned around toward the kitchen door. There was no one there.
“Go, my lad,” Hyldreth said just above a whisper. “She will not do you harm. She has been awaiting you.”
He wondered if she could hear the beating of his heart.
Then Hyldreth stepped into the hallway, holding a lighted candle.
Now was his chance. He seized the cloak and flung it over his shoulders, carefully concealing the stake beneath and holding it in place under his left arm. Then he came up behind Hyldreth, drops of sweat fairly popping out on his face and trickling into his eyebrows and down his cheekbones and neck.
Do it now, he told himself. Do not hesitate, or you will lose your chance.
Yet his arms would not obey.
“Mistress Celirwen,” he heard her say, “he is here.”
Too late now. Or was it?
“Send him in to me,” he heard the other voice say. That voice, ruined, rusty, scarcely any breath behind it.
And Hyldreth turned to face him, smiling.
“Your mother will see you in the parlor. But leave the cloak here,” she added with a knowing smile. “She will do you no harm.”
This time he did not protest that she was not his mother. He laid the cloak with the stake still concealed beneath it on the bench, then on trembling legs he brushed past her and went where she directed him, then she followed after.
He never got a chance to look at the parlor, even as Hyldreth went about it lighting candles in many holders and sconces. For there She was standing in the middle of it, her head bowed.
She was wearing his mother’s dress. He recognized it well, although he had never taken especial notice of it when his mother wore it. Dark blue, he supposed, with a high neck, a high waist, and elbow-length sleeves. Her night-black hair spilled down far past her waist, white bony hands raised halfway to her bosom, to show a gold ring on one of them, the long fingers loosely touching each other at the tips. His mother’s dress!
She raised her head to look at him with eyes rimmed with darkish rings, eyes tinged with red in the dim light, lips unnaturally dark against the greenish pallor of her face. He gasped, feeling his heart would explode in another moment, as that apparition stood looking at him with his mother’s face in his mother’s dress, fixing him to the spot…and then she smiled.
“My son,” she said in that ruined voice. “At last, you have returned to me.”
His mouth felt so dry that he was certain his voice would sound the same, if he were to speak. Then she made a motion to move toward him, and he almost involuntarily took a step back.
“Don’t dare touch me,” he whispered. She paused, working her face into a mask of sorrow.
“My own beautiful boy,” she said, and this time the voice was different—it was his mother’s voice, without the rustiness, clear and pure as hers had been. “I am your mother. Did you think I was gone, gone? I am she. Do you not know me?”
“You sound like her,” he admitted, “but if you are she, why do you not look like her? What have you done with my mother?”
“I am your mother,” she persisted. “She took me back to herself. We are one now. I am trapped inside this body as I once was. She took me by surprise, and drew me back into herself, destroying my outer form. Now I am here before you, but I am your mother, as I ever have been. Be not afraid. For although I be imprisoned once more, I would never let her do you harm.”
“Sure you are,” he said, his teeth chattering once more. “All right. If you are truly my mother, tell me something about myself that only she could know.”
A little smile lifted the corners of her mouth just a bit. “Such as when you broke your wrist jumping off the roof of the garden shed two years ago, to see if you could fly?”
His eyebrows jumped up at that, and she showed her teeth a little.
“It was three weeks after your fourteenth birthday,” she said.
“Well…” he hedged. “Well, but that is well known, and I have felt that presence about the place betimes. You might have learned of it while stalking me about. Tell me something else.”
“You fancy a fair-haired lass from the village, do you not?” she said. His cheeks grew hot once more.
“You may have learned of that the same way,” he said. “Or mayhap she told you, when you visited her. Tell me something only she could know, something that happened inside the house, that is not known in the village or about the place...that she never would have told you, or anyone else.”
She smiled the smile of one who knows she has already won. And said with his mother’s voice, in her exact intonation, “Such as when I made you promise not to use your powers until you were ready? ‘It is as if you would try to ride a horse that is too big for you. You would not have proper control over it yet, and it could only do you harm.’ Do you recall those words, my son?”
He stood looking at her, speechless.
“Hyldreth,” she said, “please bring my son his belt and dagger.”
“Are you sure of this, my lady?” Hyldreth said with lifted eyebrows. Gaergath had to wonder, once more, how much she knew, and if she had been in conspiracy with this woman to bring him out here.
“Of course I am sure,” his mother, if such she was, said. Hyldreth then inclined her head, and went out the door. “Do you believe me now, my dear lad?”
“Not entirely,” he said. “Sauron could have told you those things. Or, since the two of you truly were once one, it’s possible that what one of you knows, the other knows also. I am not yet convinced.”
She smiled. “You were ever obdurate, my son. Or as a neighbor put it, hard-headed. But ‘tis true, she came three nights ago, taking your very shape, and so I was foolish enough to let her in. And that is when she took me back into herself. You came to an empty house, did you not, with the shutters flung wide, and the horses out of the stable?”
“What did she do to you?” he asked, his teeth beginning to chatter again.
“She destroyed my outer form,” she said. “And took my fëa into herself. She was determined to have you back. But I shall not let her, you see. Even if I am imprisoned in her body, I am still not yet one with her.”
Hyldreth returned, bringing the belt and dagger.
“Give those to him,” her mistress said. Hyldreth did so. Gaergath took them, numbly. “Put on the belt I gave you, my lad.”
He did so, without taking his eyes from hers.
“Now take the dagger, and unsheathe it,” she said. He complied, looking at it in puzzlement. “Now. If you still disbelieve that I am your mother, do what you must, here and now. Kill me. Drive the dagger right here--” She pointed to the middle of her bosom. “--and end it. Avenge your mother’s death. Hyldreth will neither prevent you, nor take her revenge upon you. She stands to gain from my death, which will free her as well as you. Then you may go back home and take up your life once more. Your horse awaits you in a meadow beyond the forest. Kill me now, and free yourself. But if you do so, you lose your mother once and for all time.”
His hand trembled as he held the dagger. And knew he could not do the deed now, although he was still not convinced. Perhaps his mother really was there, imprisoned within that body once more. Then again, perhaps he had underestimated Celirwen’s power, and she was doing a masterful job of impersonating his mother. And knew he would not kill her if there were even a possibility that his mother was inside of her.
He would have to bide his time, he saw. Stay close, and watch. Perhaps his time had come, and he could begin using his powers, and she might even instruct him somehow. Then if it really were his mother trapped within her, he could find a way to free her and destroy that other being. And if he could not free her any other way...
He tucked the dagger back into his belt.
She smiled gently, with those obscenely dark lips.
“I need to feed,” she said. “I must go out into the night, but I do not ask you to come with me. You may stay here, not in your old room, but in another, up the stairs. It is the one I once used, before I became what you see before you. It is the room where I first freed myself from her. But first…I must take a little blood now in order to give myself strength.”
She looked to Hyldreth, who came near, holding out her wrist and drawing back the sleeve to the elbow. The boy could see a few scars on the pale skin.
“Turn your eyes away, my lad, if it will distress you to watch,” his mother, if such she was, said. “I would not have you to see the things she must do to keep this body animated.”
He turned his back, absurdly shutting his eyes tightly. His stomach lurched a little as he heard sucking and slurping sounds, ludicrously thinking his mother would have reprimanded him severely if he had made such noises, telling him even beasts had better manners. Did Hyldreth give her blood every night? How had she managed to stay alive?
And how long would he have to bide here, in this fog-walled dungeon? For all time? Why had he not taken the chance to leave? If only he had done so. Had it been the garden-spirits that had prevented him, influencing him to stay?
Perhaps if he killed them both, and then destroyed the garden, he could leave...
“And now,” his unmother said to Hyldreth, “please bring me my cloak.”