Arveleg is dead.
Aranwen rides hard to Tyrn Gorthad, in daylight and under the stars, by paths long gone unused, her one thought to find her brother. To bring him the news that Arveleg is dead, and Araphor has taken up his standard. To see him alive and breathing.
(Araphor, a child still, barely able to carry his own sword and mail, and yet holding Fornost against the evil coming out of Angmar, but she will not think of that now. She cannot.)
She rides with the wind at her back and the demons of the night howling behind her.
Amon Sûl was taken. Aranwen knows Cardolan could not have held. She knows her brother, proud and valiant and brave to the last. And yet she hopes against hope to see him at Tyrn Gorthad, old refuge of her people.
Tyrn Gorthad that she must have missed, in her haste and grief, for when she crosses the Road under the cover of the night, she finds herself on the edge of the Forest.
She knows the stories. She has heard the old cautionary tales. But she has no choice.
She takes a deep breath, and urges her horse into darkness.
Aranwen rides without even the light of the waxing moon, for the eaves of the Forest have closed round her and the sky is canopied by sweeping branches and leaves. Many times she veers away from trees that she knows were not there a moment ago, and trips on roots. Her house is spooked and skittish, starting at the slightest sound, until at last she dismounts and leads her on foot.
The Forest watches her, still and silent, but she walks on Eastward as best as she can. The sun will rise soon. Until then, she walks blindly, and hopes.
As the first rays of dawn penetrate the thick foliage, Aranwen begins to hear the gurgle of water.
The tributary of the Baranduin that winds its way through the Forest. She has no better choice than to find the river.
She follows the sounds until she reaches water.
She reaches water, but also a woman.
Bathing naked in a pond formed by a sudden widening and narrowing of the river. Her hair is golden and shimmering in the sunlight, skin as pale as the petals of the lilies that surround her.
She feels her breath catch in her throat.
The woman turns towards her, and Aranwen realizes with a start that her eyes are a bright cornflower blue. “Are you lost, fair mortal, to stumble into me so?”
Aranwen’s throat is dry and parched, and when she speaks her voice sounds broken. “I—yes. I am trying to find Tyrn Gothad.”
“Ah.” The woman’s eyes sharpen. “You come out of the East, then, fleeing the evil king? Fear not, for this land is beyond his reach and the Forest will shelter you.” Then, lighter, “You can call me Goldberry. Come. You look tired. Let me take you to my home.”
Goldberry’s home is perched atop a hill. It is, Aranwen thinks blurrily, beautiful, but her travel-weary eyes cannot take in its beauty.
“You should eat,” Goldberry says softly, “before you sleep.”
And indeed there is food already laid out on the table, a spread of new bread and ripe cheese and golden honey and fresh berries. Aranwen’s stomach rumbles, a reminder that she survived on strips of cured meat and little else her entire journey.
The food melts in her mouth, delicious and flavourful and filling. She can scarcely remember her head hitting a soft pillow before she falls asleep.
When she wakes, it is to singing.
She slips on the simple white shift laid out for her before following the voice, golden and smooth as running water, to the garden.
When Goldberry sees her, she laughs, a beautiful tinkling sound. “You wake at last. There is porridge in the kitchen, should you wish to breakfast.”
A quick look at the sun, and Aranwen realizes she must have slept through a full day, at the very least. “I did not mean to—”
Goldberry smiles at her kindly. “You travelled long and hard. There is no shame in honest weariness.”
After she eats, they work together in the garden until the dark begins to press again at Aranwen. It is still light outside, but Aranwen feels tendrils of cold seizing at her heart. Whether it is the Forest playing tricks on her or the remnants of Angmar’s curse she knows not, but she shivers under the light of the setting sun all the same.
Inside, Goldberry lights a fire. “To banish the darkness,” she says. They sip on mulled wine and eat brown bread garnished with walnuts and honey and figs and cheese.
The warmth creeps back into Aranwen’s body.
“I have something,” Goldberry says, “that belongs to you.”
On her palm lies Aranwen’s butterfly-brooch.
Aranwen cannot help but gasp. She had forgotten to find it, or her old clothes, but— “It was a gift from my brother,” she says, and she can hear how her voice is trembling. “I—thank you.”
Goldberry takes her hand. “May I?”
She can feel the warmth of Goldberry’s skin against her own, and when Goldberry pins the brooch on her, her hand brushes her breast and neck, feather-light and teasing.
Aranwen reaches up and kisses her, and she is, finally, completely warm again.
Goldberry kisses her mouth and strokes her body. Her hands are delicate and skilled, and more than once Aranwen shudders with pleasure, almost to the brink, before she is drawn back and teased over and over again.
Her body is soaked with sweat, and Goldberry’s mouth and hands are everywhere, her head buried between Aranwen’s thighs one moment and her mouth brushing gentle, salty kisses against Aranwen’s mouth or breasts the next. And then suddenly her lips embrace Aranwen’s core, hot and tight and too much—
She tumbles from her climax into a deep sleep, Goldberry’s arms wrapped around her.
Her dreams are filled with visions of war and ruin, of her people slain and taken, the world run red with blood and the darkness out of the East spreading its wide wings over Eriador. All the things she saw as she fled Arthedain, leaving the remnants of Arveleg’s guard to cover her retreat.
When she wakes the next morning, it is to an empty bed. She can hear Goldberry singing outside, but she forces herself into the present.
She has a message to bear, and a duty to carry out. Whatever tranquillity abounds here, Angmar still rides to war.
“I wish I could stay here forever,” Aranwen murmurs, “but I have my duties, and I cannot fail my people now.”
Goldberry smiles at her, a half-smile that speaks of a life lived through many ages. “I know, dear heart. I know.” The kiss she gives Aranwen is fleeting, chaste and yet full of warmth.
“I will be back,” Aranwen says. She will. Once she has fulfilled her promises, she will. “I promise.”
“Go and be at peace,” Goldberry says, and the kiss she presses to Aranwen’s forehead is like a blessing.
Aranwen rides away, and does not look back.