He had been searching for some months, but had found little more than rumors of loss.
An empty home here—oh, but the young man and wife who’d lived there had left after their child disappeared from its cradle, which had stood not far inside the doorway, to one side, just out of the breeze when the door was open.
A forester grieving the destruction of a nest of a rare songbird that had returned each year to raise its young always in the same tree near his cottage. Something had climbed that tree in the night and had stolen all the nestlings and broken up the delicate structure of the nest, and he feared the parents would not return again. He had loved those birds.
A child searching vainly for her cat. Puss had been such a wonderful mouser!
But the report that touched him the most he found in a stoutly built cottage near the Bight.
He saw the woman gathering windfall wood just inside the forest. She was rather small, and now had grown plump, although he was certain she would have been slight when younger. Her brown hair was thickly laced with white, and her face was definitely wrinkling. One ankle was swollen, and he suspected she had once injured it, most likely many, many years past. But she moved with practiced purpose, always choosing the limbs most likely to burn easily. When he approached her and joined her in her work she was properly wary at first, but was reassured quickly and was soon smiling at him, at last indicating that enough had been gathered for the time. “This way,” she said in Westron with the local inflection. “My home is this way, on the edge of the village and the edge of the wood.”
It was as she’d said. There was a neat cottage, and beside it a small barn with a lean-to to one side and a mud chimney above. Five goats grazed in the meadow beyond the barn, and a marbled cat sat atop the chopping block, methodically grooming its right forepaw, although it paused to examine him briefly. There were two gardens, one a kitchen garden alongside the place, and a narrower one of flowers along the sunny front of the house. All about the house was in order, while all was a jumble near the door to the lean-to by the barn.
“Liam lives there,” the woman said. “A good boy. His mother is many years dead, and his father has moved on to a different village. But Liam was born here and would not leave with his father. He helps to keep the place sound and aids me with the goats. He supports himself by working for others, so he is gone for the day to help the charcoal burners deep inside the forest. There—you can put the wood there.” She indicated a pair of wood piles, one for logs and one for thinner wood for kindling. “I would willingly let you stay here for the night in thanks for your help with the kindling. I shall go in and see to the meal. You can wash up at the well if you like.” She pointed to the well, which was surrounded by a stone coping with a neatly constructed shelf to one side on which lay a heavy basin with a covered stone bowl beside it. “Just come in when you are ready.”
So saying, she opened the door, and immediately a small dog leapt out to greet her effusively. “Come, you,” she said, herding the animal back inside. “We shan’t allow you to disappear as did your sister.” The door closed behind the two of them.
Aragorn examined the pile of kindling. There were many sticks there, few of which, he noted, were of a good length for a kitchen fire. He set himself to remedying the situation, thinking that Liam most likely set his priorities with such common tasks as cutting kindling at the bottom. There were both an axe and a hatchet next to the block. He examined them both, swiftly sharpened the axe using the nearby stone, and set to cutting the limbs and branches to proper lengths and restacking the wood more handily. Once done he approached the well and dropped in the bucket, drawing up water that proved sweet and clear with which he filled the basin. The covered stone bowl proved to hold a soap made with sweet herbs that he recognized helped to deter many sicknesses. He smiled as he washed his hands, arms, and face, and dried them on the sun-dried toweling that hung from one side of the shelf. He approved of the woman’s practicality, he decided as he poured the water over the flowers next to the front door and returned the basin to its shelf.
He wiped his feet on the worn mat woven of rope that lay outside the door and gave a brief, courteous knock before letting himself inside. There were apparently two rooms with a loft above reached by a narrow stair at the far end of the room. One end of this room held the kitchen fire. There was a good bread oven above and to one side of the hearth, and a second oven constructed of metal next to the hearth, as well as a most practical cooking surface above the place where the fire was laid.
His hostess stood over a stone sink, where she was cutting vegetables into lengths suitable for eating with one’s fingers. “I heard you chopping out there,” she said. “You didn’t need to do that. Liam or I should have cut the branches to proper lengths eventually. But I do thank you.” She smiled at him and indicated the wall beside the door. “You can hang your goods there,” she said.
There were pounded into the wall a number of sturdy pegs. The shawl she’d been wearing hung from one along with a felted cape and hat for wet weather. He hung his own cloak and pack from two more, and noted the long man’s cloak that hung from the peg furthest from the door, against which leaned a long, unusually slender staff. On the floor beneath stood a pair of stout boots that were scrupulously clean but did not look to have been worn for some time. As he took a seat at the small table he examined the rest of the room. At the far end of the room was a second fireplace, this one intended more for comfort’s sake, he decided. In front of it was a cushioned bench seat with a low table before it, and on either side were chairs, one intended for a much larger person than his hostess and the other of which must be the seat in which she regularly sat, he determined. Beside it stood a table that held a lamp and some ornaments, and he saw three books on a shelf beside the mantel, on which stood more lamps and two candlesticks and still more ornaments, most of which had been carved from wood or stone.
“My husband did the woodcarvings,” she volunteered as she set a bowl filled with the vegetable she’d been cutting before him. “And he chose most of the stone carvings as well. We have some wonderful Dwarf-wrought carvings there. He bought them in Dale. He went with his brother.”
“He is gone, your husband?” he asked.
She nodded. “Some fifteen years. He died young, my Torno did. We lived in the middle of the village, and we had a shop where we sold his woodcarvings and I my mats and rugs. But when he died I returned here, to the cottage where I was born. It suits me better, not being cheek-by-jowl with everyone and his brother. I kept his cloak and staff to remember him by—and his boots. They comfort me.”
The small dog lay upon a thick mat on the other side of the door. Beyond it was a second identical mat, empty save for some long dark hairs from what must have been another dog. “Brion and the cats are my companions now,” she said as she poured out a mug of cider for him.
He turned at a mewling sound, and saw that a cat was sitting up inside a walled wooden box near the kitchen hearth and stretching to look at him, a mother with kittens, he realized. He was surprised, as most mother cats were to be found inside barns rather than in the kitchen. This woman, he realized, loved her animal companions.
“You had no children?” he asked, returning his attention to her as she sliced a ham and set the slices upon wooden plates, then ladled cooked root vegetables onto the plates beside the meat and spooned a rich gravy over them.
“Two—a son and a daughter. The son does not live here. He took to drinking early, I fear, and at last was driven out of our village because when he was drinking he tended to behave very poorly. He lives an hour’s walk west of here. Mostly he stays away from the drink, but at times he will slip back into it for a month or two and there will be some trouble until he stops again. He is actually a good man, my son—just cannot drink. And after how he behaved the last time he stayed with me, I cannot allow him to return here for more than a day at a time.
“As for my daughter—well, Torno and me, we were not pleased with the one she chose to love. They ran off to marry and have had two sons. They returned here a few years back and live on the other side of the village. I rarely see them, though. My daughter’s husband has proved mostly to be a good man, but he is certain that I interfere and speak against him. It is better we have little to do with one another, I find.” She set the plates upon the table. They were beautifully made of turned wood. “Torno made these, and the mugs. He was good with the lathe. I sold it to the new wood turner—I cannot use such tools and our son has his own craft. As does my daughter’s husband.”
She brought a mug of cider for herself and seated herself at the table opposite him. They ate using Dwarf-wrought spoons and forks, and he brought out his own eating knife to use. She smiled at him as they ate.
He examined her face during the meal. She had a pleasant, trusting face, although that trust was tempered with an acquired wariness that she’d set aside for the moment. There were hints of sadness to be seen there, although mostly he saw contentment enough. It hurt her, he thought, to be partially estranged from her children. But there were signs of still another grief.
Now that they were seated the dog—Brion, had she called it?—came to sit at her feet, not begging but still watching each bite she took as if knowing eventually his patience would be rewarded. She smiled down at him, and turned automatically as if to share that smile with still another dog that was not there to receive it, at which her face clouded with pain.
The dog wore a collar of woven purple laces, with a loop to which a leash might have been tied. From a peg between the two mats hung two leashes wrought of braided twine and colored leathers.
Aragorn considered this, and at last asked, “Then you have recently lost this one’s companion?”
She nodded. “Not three weeks back,” she said. “It was his sister, from the same litter. Her name was Alia. She was so cunning, Alia was. They were always together, Brion and Alia. He is a dear, but she was cunning—cunning and most affectionate. She charmed everyone who saw here. She had black hair while he is fawn in color, as you can see. Her coat was so shiny—nearly blue on the back and brown down near her tail, with a slim white blaze to one side of her breastbone. I loved them both, but she was my darling, I fear.”
“Was she ill?”
She shook her head. “Oh, no, not at all. She simply disappeared one night. I had put them out of the door to relieve themselves, and I was readying myself for bed. Both of them barked, but she was one who always barked. She barked for joy, for fear, for warning, and to tell upon her brother when he left the yard without permission. That night she thought she heard something, but that is not particularly surprising. They have such keen hearing, these small dogs of mine. They always hear things I have not.
“So, she was barking. Brion had gone over to the barn—he loves to eat the goats’ droppings, I fear, so he checks out each evening to see what they might have left near the barn. I try to stop it, but have found it does no good. I could hear her bark as I returned to the door to let the two of them back inside, and suddenly the barking broke off—just a yelp, not of pain, but surprise. And that was it. That was when Brion came charging from the barn to the side of the house, barking furiously! I caught up a lamp and we went searching, but I found nothing—nothing at all. No sign of her anywhere, as if she’d simply disappeared off the face of Middle Earth!
“We have gone looking again and again. Had I heard wolves howling I would never have let them out, but I saw nothing to indicate that any wolves were about, nor any other beast. Yet a beast must have taken her!” She wiped tears from her face. “My poor, dear Alia! How empty the house feels without her. And Brion cannot bear to be without my presence now. They both slept with me upon my bed, but now he presses against me, as if to make certain I, too, will not disappear from his world. And each time we go out—I dare not let him go out unaccompanied—he searches for her, climbs the woodpile and barks for her to come back.”
There was a bed in the loft which she said was hers when a child and in which her son had slept before she had to ban him from the house. Aragorn slept well there, and was given an ample meal to break his fast in the morning. He greeted Liam, who was headed out to help rethatch a roof across the village, and shouldering his cape and pack Aragorn headed out to resume his search for Gollum, starting from the area where his hostess had indicated she believed Alia had been the last time she heard her bark. There was nothing to indicate anything untoward had happened there—no signs of struggle or blood or anything else. He found three animal tracks that led into the forest from the area. One was marked by a single black hair, over a foot from the ground, hanging from a berry shrub. So he followed it.
Two hours later he found the ruins of a collar of woven leather laces lying upon the ground. Leather and a tangle of black hair, with one hank of white.
The man shuddered.
There was a knocking at the door, and the widow of Torno went to answer it. She was shocked to find an Elf there, standing coolly, as if it were an everyday occurrence for him to visit the homes of Men. He held in his arms a small dog, a pup of perhaps three or four months.
“The Dúnadan—he asked that we bring you this.” And with that he placed the small dog in her arms.
It was a small bitch, she realized. It was black and brown. She would be much the same size as Brion when she was grown.
And about her neck, carefully repaired, was Alia’s collar.
She held the small dog to her bosom, weeping with grief and finding, for some minutes before saying aloud, "But this is not Alia, cannot be Alia, and can never truly take her place. But I trust she will help for the hole in my heart Alia's loss has left to heal more fully."
The unnamed Elf smiled sadly, and quietly disappeared as only Elves can.
In Memory of Larner's Pandora's Hope, September 25, 2011 to January 10, 2016