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Birthday drabbles
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Bitter Withy

For Starlight, who asked for obscure characters. This 'character' is so obscure, you can only infer its existence from one character's matronymic (I think that's the term).


She began underhill, child of a cleft land that cast her forth to bind the twin hillock heads across their rift. Straight and taught as string between them, she flowed her way down to broad old Baranduin.

Ages passed. Beyond East-head hillock, forests sickened and died. The Men who'd crowned him with towers fell to an evil that came to dwell in the darkness beneath him. Then East-head's groans filled the night, and brother West-head trembled, made her banks shiver and fall.

In pain and pity, she conceived then a daughter – a little pool, spirit of her spirit, to tumble one day between the hills, and double up the bond against dark days.

But her daughter loved a Drylander, and she in her mourning, flooded.

'Twas the tears that brought the Drinker – older than age, he had gone wandering in search of lost lordship, 'til he ended, bent and gnarled and twisted as his heart.

He came and sat on her shores, his grubby, greedy old roots lapping at her, and he spit his bitter sap into her depths, dropped his seeds into her. Spiteful and ungiving even in paternity, he grew himself a copse of weeping willows to join their sticky tears with his in her waters. She grew numb with them down in the valley, numb and numbing. Withywindle, Baranduin called her then, and complained of how she puckered where Willow-river reeled in.

Since then she's grown slow with weariness, though she holds her line, still, against all shifts of earth – bears East-head's griefs, and calms the quaking of his brother. Yet the land lies sad and sinister with loss and fear, save there, where she issues, and her daughter and her Dryland love live still.

But they are but three, bounded in the little valley of sorrows, making springtimes where they can, yet never to last. Withywindle she will be, 'til some unlooked for day dawns that will banish night, whether beneath the hill or in the vale. 'Til then she'll slake the Drinker's thirst and endure his bite, and hug the feet of West-head, hold her little land together as best she can 'til Darkness drinks her dry.

Who knows but that that time is coming? Not long ago, she tasted It in her poor pooled waist, where the Drinker swelled her with his stinging sap. Anduin coughed It up once, and in the long mingling of all waters in the sea, she'd got an aftertaste so foul, even her bindweed had withered. It's passed now, but to what end? She doesn't know – It's gone to the Dry Wastes, where her kind dies, choked by ash and sand, and since the Mirror-stones cracked and fell, the hillocks have no word from the Fence-mounts of that place.

O my daughter, she cries, and drenches her and her Drylander, too, swelling to enfold them both and draw them to her bosom, while Goldberry blows bubbles of air into Tom's bearded mouth. They three lie quiet on her cold-shoaled bed, while the sun hovers veiled behind February clouds. Its image bends and wavers on her surface, uncertain as the future. The hillock twain rumble, bending over their sister and for a little while, even the Drinker holds his breath.

But time and rivers always flow onward. Their course is set; it has but to be run, to whatever bitter end may be decreed.


Author's Notes:

The Withywindle runs almost straight southwest, according to people with better map-making skills than I have.

Old Man Willow's description derives from “The House of Tom Bombadil” in FOTR; the timeline for the fall of Cardolan and the entry of the Wights into the Barrow-downs (which is what East-head represents, despite, um, some differences from the text. You know – the difference of there being lots of downs with barrows, not just one ... yeah – ignore that). There is no timeline for figuring out when Old Man Willow put down roots along the Withywindle, but it seems likely that the river was named because of him and because of the numerous willows around him.

Tom Bombadil and Goldberry the River-daughter come to you courtesy of The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, with suitable extrapolation.

The title comes from Maddy Prior's Bitter Withy.


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