What a fool she had been.
Silver. She could smell it, even out here. It completely obliterated his scent, driving her back. Well. She might have known. How could she have been stupid enough to suppose that he would not be protected, if that creature had been?
It looked as though she would have to go home without her son after all.
But she would find a way. She had found a way to overpower that creature...and she would get her son somehow. Perhaps Sauron could help her....
It was not over yet.
It was just after sunrise when the boys awoke.
A bird sang in a nearby tree, and more could be heard chirping in the distance. Gaergath had never been happier to hear birds, had never really taken notice of them except as potential game. He grinned and patted his belt buckle, thanking it silently.
Yet he took his leave of his friends without eating, wishing to check on his mother, expressing his concern for his horse to the others, who grinned knowingly.
He hummed to himself as he took the path home, taking note of the way the autumn sun shone through the gold and crimson and scarlet and bronze-brown leaves above him, of the scent of the pine-needles on the forest floor, the feel of the chilly morning breeze against his face and hair. He found himself grinning at the sun as it peeped over the hills on the eastern horizon, and he picked up a small stone and flung it at a squirrel without intent to kill it, only to startle it, laughing when the animal scuttled up the tree trunk onto a branch, scolding at him and whirling its tail.
His cheery mood petered out a little, however, as he approached the cottage. Something was amiss, something he could not quite name. As he approached, he saw that the shutters were flung wide open, and he experienced a feeling of relief. The door stood partially open as well, and he broke into a run, feeling hungry.
Yet when he entered the house, his mother was nowhere in sight. The house was cold. No fire burned, either in the front stove nor the kitchen. And all the shutters stood open. Dead leaves littered the floor.
He called for her, inspecting each room, and the back yard. The mirror in her bedroom was broken on the floor, and he picked up the pieces and laid them on a table with intent to throw them away later. Then he noticed a streak of dried blood on one of them. Strange--surely she would have thrown the pieces away. She was scrupulously neat.
Then he stopped and pondered. His mother was a healer. Perhaps a neighbor with a desperately sick or injured child had rushed in begging her to come right away, and in her haste she had knocked the mirror off and cut herself trying to pick up the pieces, and let the fire go out in the stove.
But that did not explain the open shutters.
He ran out to the stable, and found the stable door standing open and both the horses gone.
There were hoofprints going two ways, but neither way led into the village.
Then he saw the small fence around the garden had been partially knocked down, and obvious upheaval among the vegetables. A large pumpkin lay squashed, and on closer inspection, he saw what was clearly a horse’s hoofprint in it.
With growing panic, he followed the larger set of hoofprints, calling for his horse, Russandol.
He breathed a sigh of relief when he saw the chestnut gelding grazing in a wide meadow. But he could not see his mother’s pretty grey mare, Mollie, anywhere.
“Come back to the stable, Russi,” he said taking the chestnut by his mane and attempting to lead him along. “We must go find Mother. Something queer is going on, and I mean to get to the bottom of it. I wish you could talk, so you could tell me what happened.”
The horse whickered, but was not forthcoming with any information. And he did not seem to want to go back to the stable.
“All right then,” the boy said, “stay here. I’ll go fetch the saddle and bring it out. I just wonder where Mollie went. She made a fair mess in the garden. Something must have scared her in a…”
He broke into a run, back to the stable, where he found Russandol’s saddle and bridle, and then suddenly something caught his eye: a dark splotch on the straw at his feet.
Blood, it appeared to be.
It had been years since he had been to the house of his “aunt”, and he was not sure he knew the way, but he set out, after a hasty meal of bread and cheese, hoping he would not get lost. He took his crossbow and a goodly supply of arrows, along with his silver dagger.
It would be a long ride. He hoped there would be someone along the way who could tell him where the house was.
The crossbow had been a gift from Thorodon’s father, who had been a soldier, and had taught his son to use longbow, crossbow, spear, sword, and knife. Gaergath had insinuated himself into Thorodon’s good graces in the hope that his father might teach him the use of these weapons as well, and so he had. Gaergath hoped Thorodon would not suspect him of his motives in angling for his friendship, which Thorodon had, of course, but let him in nevertheless, since he would scarcely have had any friends otherwise. Thorodon was different from other boys, more dark natured and brooding, sometimes surly, sometimes haughty, in marked contrast to the relentless sunny ordinariness of Norui and Herdir. He was darkly handsome also, and braver than most, besides being skilled as hunter and athlete. Gaergath regarded him with a mixture of awe and envy, worship and disapproval. Although he considered Thorodon his best mate, there was something guarded about their relationship, a reluctance to open up completely, and it sometimes led to violent quarrels. Even so, Thorodon’s father, who was widowed, took an interest in the younger lad, taking it upon himself to give him some of the fathering he would have had to do without otherwise.
“But at least you won’t get a thrashing from him, if you misbehave,” Thorodon had said to him in a rare moment of lightness. “He’ll just send you home to your mum. Does she ever thrash you?”
“Nay, never,” Gaergath answered a little too quickly. When he was bad, his mother used to apply a small rattan cane to the open palms of his hands, and as much as it pained him, it seemed to hurt her more. The look on her face was far worse to him than the physical pain.
She had taught him to read and write and figure, so that he was one of the few boys in the vicinity who had these skills. This gave him an edge even over Thorodon at times. Even though the older lad was undoubtedly intelligent and might have learned quickly, Gaergath never invited him to come study with him and his mother. There needed to be something he could do that Thorodon could not.
As he rode down the narrow lane that he was certain led out to the road to Celirwen’s house, he feared more and more that he would never see his mother again, and by the time he was a mile or so away, he knew in his heart he had lost her. And he wondered if she had been taken from him as punishment for something he had done. Had he not been a good son to her? He was far from perfect, he knew. He had often been disobedient, sneaking out when she had forbidden him, or was punishing him for some misdemeanor; he sometimes lied to her, filched bits of food or even money from her, talked back to her, called her hard names behind her back to other boys. Perhaps she had died because he was so bad….
And then there was that thing he often did when he was alone, particularly when thinking of a certain pretty village lass....His mother had caught him at it once, and he had been mortified, and expected a caning. She just gave him that look, however, and said she hoped she wouldn't catch him at it again. He made doubly sure she wouldn't, but that wasn't to say he left off doing it altogether. Of course, his friends all did the same thing, but still....Perhaps he was being punished for his evil thoughts....
Or, what if she wasn’t dead, and had been turned into a Blood Drinker like her sister? That would be even worse…or wouldn’t it?
And if she were dead, what would become of him now?
And where was his father?
Perhaps Sauron was the one who had turned his aunt into a Blood Drinker. And had caused her to kill his mother. Or maybe he had killed her himself.
At any rate he would pay, thought Gaergath, involuntarily touching the crossbow hanging at his side, tears springing into his eyes. They both would pay. He would destroy them both without mercy. And laugh as he watched them die….