20. Cats and Dogs
Elaine led the visitors into the living room, trying not to stare at the young… man. No, not a young man. She had not seen that kind of bone structure, that kind of gracefulness in a very long time, but she – like anyone else who had ever seen one of the Firstborn – would never forget it. Elf, not man. Immortal, not mortal. And delicately pointed ears hidden somewhere under that mess of dreadlocks. An elf with dreadlocks?
"Please, sit down. Can I offer you a drink?" Elaine looked at the woman. Wilhelmina Elbenstern: Tall, dark hair, with a few early streaks of silver. A little haughty, a little brittle. In her thirties, she thought. Very smart, very cool. And – pregnant. It was not yet visible, except in the careful way she sat down, and the way her gaze turned inward for a fleeting moment. Elaine felt her eyebrows shoot up. Was it his child?
"Tea, water, a glass of beer or wine?" She glanced surreptitiously at the… elf. An elf in her house. Here. In this world. In England.
"Just water for me, please."
His slightly worried look, lingering just a second on her womb. Yes, Elaine thought. That woman was carrying his child. A doctor's life has no room for hesitation or breathless gasps. She must take everything in stride. But she felt her surprise, even a bit of a shock, in one short, heavy beat of her heart. An elvish child. Here. In this world. In her house.
"And for you?"
He turned towards her with a polite smile that did not touch those extraordinary silver eyes. Eyes that reminded her of someone…
"I wouldn't say no to a beer, thank you."
"Make yourselves at home, then. I'll be back in a moment. Kittens, sit."
The cats stared at her for a second with a knowing expression in their green eyes, then settled down at a distance, so they could keep an eye on both the terrace door and the visitors.
In the kitchen, she stood very still for a moment, gazing out of the window at the rented car they had parked at the far side of the yard. The wood of the counter was warm with sunshine below her fingers; there was a faint smell of strawberries set aside for her dessert in the air and muted voices drifting back to her from the living room.
Two worlds and their peoples, fates interwoven… She remembered a poem she had read. It had compared love to a Tibetan rug. A good simile, she thought. Not only for love, for lives. A rugged weave of knitted, knotted, tangled threads.
She knew why they were here. There could be only one reason. Only one reason to search, and find, what had to be the last of Queen Berúthiel's cats. Cats that, as the legend tells, always find their way home.
Suddenly, her mouth felt curiously dry. Not her home. She felt the once familiar sensation of tightness clutch her body. A feeling of being barely able to breathe. A feeling of not belonging, of always feeling out of place. Captured. Imprisoned. Too big, too noisy, too smart, too assertive, too ambitious for the time and place she was born in. But not smart enough, not ambitious enough, not strong enough to shape her world around her, to cut her position out the way she wanted it. Not a Finduilas. Only Elaine.
She inhaled deeply and turned to the cupboard. For a moment she hesitated, then she got out two mugs and a water glass. She certainly needed a glass of beer now. Probably rather two. The voices stopped talking. For a moment it was completely quiet in the house. A lovely, sunny afternoon in early summer. She picked up the tray and returned to the living room.
"Here you go."
She settled down in her favourite armchair and took a deep swallow. It was tart, and dark. Her favourite kind of beer. The cats seemed to be waiting for something. Suddenly, she felt sorry for them. They probably felt just as imprisoned and captured here as she had felt in Middle-earth. Not for very much longer, she thought. And how had Tolkien known about…
Elaine stared at her beer, then she lifted her head and looked at her guests. Both of them were uncomfortable. The elf was positively fidgeting, something she had not encountered in his species before. The woman was trying to build up her courage to speak. For a moment she wondered if she should let them come up with a polite and sensible explanation of just why they wanted the cats… and for what. She could feel her mouth begin to curl up in a smile. It would be entertaining, no doubt. But it would also be cruel. And stress was not good for babies. And there was something else, something about this Wilhelmina, something she should know…
"You want the cats," she said suddenly. "You want them to lead you to Middle-earth. But do you have any idea where in Middle-earth their home is? Or when?"
He put down his glass with a solid thud, spilling a little on his hand. He did not say anything, just stared at her. Without thinking, he brought his hand up to his mouth to lick off the beer, but his eyes were suddenly on fire and his gaze did not waver. Again there was that breathless sigh inside her that said "elf, not man, not man at all". She gave him her professional smile, cold and elegant. And turned to Wilhelmina. The woman had gone pale, her hands – the instinctive gesture of all mothers-to-be – curled protectively over her abdomen.
"Elaine Tarnost," the woman said in a low, clipped voice, a voice that sounded as if she was trying to force her brain with each word she spoke to deal with what she had heard. "Elaine of Tarnost."
And then, something that looked like a flicker of recognition in her eyes. Elaine frowned. She was sure that they had never met before.
"Have we met before? I should think I would have remembered you."
"No, no, we've never met. But…" She sucked her lips in, a nervous gesture. "I – I think I read about you."
"About me? I had no idea I was in those dreadful books!" Elaine was genuinely shocked. A short laugh made her turn towards the elf. The fire faded from his eyes as a wry grin tugged at his mouth. "I did not like them, either. Especially the dialogue."
Elaine felt her eyebrows rise again, a tightness across her forehead. "I never read them. I guess I did not miss out on much."
"Not if you are who I think you are," interrupted the woman. "Because if you are, then you were there – in Gondor, during the War of the Ring. If you are the healer who became one of the ladies-in-waiting of Queen Lothíriel of Rohan. Formerly Lothíriel Elbenstern from Erlangen."
"Elbenstern!" Elaine's temples prickled, her muscles tightened for a moment – a doctor couldn't jump, couldn't start at every surprise or disturbance. Lives depend on that. She slowly released her breath. "That's why. I thought there was something about you I should have recognized. Your name: Wilhelmina Elbenstern."
"Just Mina, please."
"Mina, then. Are you a relative? Do you have any news from the queen?" How easy it was to slip back into those phrases! Why could she not simply ask, 'Do you have any news from Lothy?' But she had never really been 'Lothy' to her, except maybe once or twice, when the children were born.
"Not really a relative. My uncle, my father's brother, married Lothíriel's mother. She was adopted when she was still a small child. And…" Mina hesitated. "I wouldn't really say I have news. But her mother got a package one day, with her diary. It runs from the day Lothíriel left Erlangen right up to bidding farewell to Gandalf in Rohan, when she asked him to convey this diary and letter to her mother. And because I am interested in Tolkien… I study his – " Mina glanced at the elf at her side, the skin across her cheeks tightening and acquiring a touch of colour. "Because I study the Elvish languages, Lothíriel's mother thought I would believe her, that I would be interested in reading the diary. – So you are Elaine of Tarnost, are you?"
So the wily, old wizard had played postman. Who would have thought! "I never knew," Elaine said. "Those weeks were so busy." It had been such a relief to leave Gondor. And she had enjoyed the company of the young women she had been travelling with: Éowyn, Lothíriel, Sorcha… Arwen, of course, had not been young anymore at that time.
She turned back to Mina. "I'm sorry, my thoughts drifted off for a moment." A pause. "Yes. I was Elaine of Tarnost, Prince Imrahil's niece."
A barely audible sigh brought her attention back to the elf. "And who are you? Or should I ask what are you?"
He had himself under control again; his face and posture gave nothing away. Raising his glass to cheer her, she caught a slight sparkle in his eyes. Amusement? Respect?
"Very good, Elaine of Tarnost."
She felt her eyebrows shoot up again. "Just 'Elaine', please."
Now he was grinning. Grandstanding! Maybe there was a touch of man in this one, after all? "Elentar was the name, wasn't it?"
The grin faded, replaced by a solemn expression that was too old for his young face. "Elentar Elrohirion," he replied in a soft voice. "Born in Esgaroth, in the year 325 of the Fourth Age."
"Ahhh…" She could not quite suppress a low whistle. "Then I was right: it's time and place you need to worry about."
"But you would give us the cats?"
She turned around, following his gaze. The cats lay sprawled out between the chairs and the terrace door, ignoring them in the casual, elegant way of the feline species. Why had Tolkien given them to Ms Archer before he died – or disappeared? And there was the other legacy left in this house supposedly to pass on when the time was right.
Elaine leaned back in her chair, using the moment the attention of her visitors was distracted by the cats to study them once more. They were worried and nervous, both of them. Why was he here in this world? And why were they looking for a way back now? Because of the baby? There had been no instructions, nothing like you read about in fantasy books: keep the cats and this scroll safe until an elf with dreadlocks comes knocking on your door… The sale of the house had simply come with the condition to keep the cats and not to let them outside, and to keep the scroll in its box up in the attic. To be exact: to keep the box that contained the scroll up in the attic and not throw it or its contents away. That had been all. And it had almost been enough for her to pass up on the deal.
No instructions, nothing that would help her make this decision. Just the most uncomfortable feeling of threads of life, fate (and love probably, too) tangling up right in her lap. Had he left his home voluntarily, she wondered, or had he been forced to come here. Just because she herself and the queen – Lothíriel – had left their original worlds on their own accord, did not mean that he had. One thing was certain; he was no fool. And that quiet woman with the sharp grey eyes wasn't, either.
"If that is what you wish. Yes."
Mina sagged with relief, anxious tension visibly flowing out of her body. Elentar Elrohirion – she remembered his father or his uncle: dark, dark hair, flashing silver eyes – curled his hands around his glass. He was not relieved. Instead, his reaction seemed to be quite the opposite of his mortal wife, at least as far as Elaine could tell.
She nodded, remembered that there was still beer in her glass and sipped. "Would you like to tell me why? Why are you here, and why are you looking for a way back?"
Her visitors exchanged a quick glance, then Elentar inclined his head. A graceful, accommodating gesture at odds with his hairstyle and faded jeans.
"It will take a while."
It took long enough for them to eat a generous supper and for the sun to go down. Only when she put her flowered mugs on the table, strong, black coffee for Elentar, decaffeinated for Mina, cappuccino for herself, the story was done. The only sound in the room was the tinkling of spoons in fine porcelain.
Mina stopped stirring, opened her mouth as if to ask a question, started stirring again. Obviously she wanted to ask something about Elaine's story, but was not quite sure if her question was too curious or perhaps not quite polite. Elaine waited.
"So you simply found the wizard, and asked him to move to this world?"
"It was not really simple, but essentially that's what I did."
"And he simply –" Elentar stopped midsentence, shaking his head. "He granted your request?"
No, he had not simply granted her request. But in the end, he had helped her come to this world. "I am here."
"Quite a story."
Elaine grinned. "If you say so."
Elaine put her spoon down with a little sigh. Telling all those stories had somehow created a bond between them. Not much of a bond, of course, after having met only today; but she did not feel as if she had been sucked into the tangled mess of the lives of strangers anymore. Instead she wondered where the thread of their lives would run. How their story would turn out.
"If you meet that wizard, send me a postcard or something."
Elentar chuckled. But the smile did not reach his eyes, not even his cheeks, when he replied, "Of course."
For a while no one said anything, it was the silence of coffee being drunk too quickly, with too many thoughts stirred in and up. A dense silence. Only the cat coming to look for food was not bothered at all.
"When do you want to leave? You will need to prepare your disappearance."
"A day or two should be enough. We only need to return the car to the dealer, get some equipment and check out of the hotel," Elentar said.
"You have put all your affairs in Germany in order already? Quite confident." Some would have called it 'foolish', Elaine mused. But she could understand them only too well. Once the decision to leave was made, it was hard to wait… and to wait…
"Not really, but we wanted to be prepared for the off-chance that we'd find the cats. And be allowed to follow them."
"We thought we'd masquerade as backpackers," Mina put in. "There's no use in trying to take too much with us. It would be too conspicuous, and we hope that we'll be able to find a village or a farm within a few days." But she was pale, and her eyes were dark. It was obvious that Mina knew it was a gamble. And she was risking not only her life, but that of her unborn child.
"There's a bus coming here from Stratford. I'd rather not pick you up, in case of investigations. When the authorities come knocking on my door, I want to be able to say that you came to me because of a twisted ankle. And to me and not Dr Curlew, because you already knew me… I do want to keep my job. After all, that's why I am here." The emphasis was on here, this world, not: here, in Stow.
"Yes, of course." Mina looked over to Elentar. "I think it's time for us to leave now. Will it be okay if we come back in two days? Sometime in the morning?"
"Make it around noon – I am entitled to a lunch break. You don't want to run into too many people on your way here. And my practice is quite busy."
Mina nodded. "That makes sense."
Elentar helped her up, and together they walked around the table to say goodbye to Elaine. "Thank you," Mina said. Her hand was cold. It had been a long day.
"Take it easy tomorrow," Elaine advised. "You'll need your strength."
Mina nodded, just a little too pale. Elentar put his arm around her.
"Goodbye, and thank you."
Moments later the sound of their car faded into the darkness of a gentle summer's night.
For disappearing into another world, it really should be a dark and windy night, Elaine thought and closed the door to the practice behind her. Time for lunch. They would be back today, any minute now. And she would let them have the cats, and hope that they would lead Elentar and Mina safely across the Void. She shivered at the thought. What a clichéd reaction! Especially on a day like this: it was another bright sunshiny day full with flowers and butterflies, the promise of a glorious summer, and a practice full with sniffling kids, and adults with various illnesses. Nothing serious though, this morning. Yesterday, however, she had to send an older man off to a special practice for oncology in Oxford, and she had a bad feeling about the case. She sighed, put down her gown.
Was it right to let them have the cats? Was it for them that Tolkien had given the cats to that Archer woman? What if she was not meant to give the cats to them? Damn it all to hell – when it came down to it, she was probably not even meant to be here at all!
She walked down the hall, making sure that the cats were safely locked away in the livingroom and opened the door. They should be here any minute now. It was… Two rather conservative, not to say old-fashioned, backpacks and a guitar rested against her doorstep. Here already! Not old-fashioned enough, those backpacks, Elaine thought, smiling with the memory of Lothíriel's backpack, and her amazement at the colour and the fabric of it. Well, I don't think those two will blend in no matter where they go. One of the backpacks was huge, the other medium sized. Good. Mina should not carry too heavy a load. But they really should leave that guitar. They were probably in the garden. Elaine walked around the corner. Yes. They were sitting on the terrace. Both a little pale, both a little too calm. The cats were sitting just behind the glass doors, their eyes glinting between the reflections of the flowering garden in the glass. As if they knew…
"Hello! I'm sorry that you had to wait. Are you all ready to set out?" That cheerful tone sounded not quite real. A little too professional. She did not even try to smile.
They rose to their feet, greeting her formally again, handshakes of cold, nervous skin, but firm, determined. Determined to be on their way – wherever that would lead.
Elentar carried their packs into the living room. There they stood, awkward, nervous, the cats twining around their legs, their tales lashing, sensing the excitement in the humans.
"Well," Elaine released her breath. "Well. I have something for you, Mina." She picked up a small package from the low living room table. It was camouflage coloured fabric, but lined with plastic inside. "It contains vitamins you should take, along with some medications I hope you won't need."
Mina had to swallow before she could reply. "Thank you." She sounded a little breathless. "You are doing so much for us."
Elaine smiled slightly. "I'm a physician, a doctor. That's what we do."
"Nevertheless," Elentar said. "Thank you very much. – They will let you keep the house, will they? Even with the cats gone?"
Elaine shrugged. "I'll cross that bridge when I get there. And if not – there are other pretty cottages around here."
He did not like her honest answer, but there was little he could do about it.
"There's something else." she said. "It was not only the cats that came with the house. There was also this."
She bent down to the table once more, bringing up a cylindrical object, roughly the length of her underarm that was carefully wrapped in a plastic bag. Mina frowned at the bag.
"Not the plastic bag, of course," Elaine snorted a little. "It's a scroll. It was in a box in the attic. The condition was that I don't throw it away. I'm not. I'm giving it to you."
"Why?" Elentar's hand nervously played with a pendant around his neck that looked like a small oyster.
Elaine shrugged. "I don't think it was meant for me. Maybe you'll find a use for it someday. Put it in your pack."
"Keep it secret, keep it safe," he muttered under his breath, as if he was quoting something. Probably those damn books.
"Do you really need that guitar?"
He looked up at her, from his crouching position, an awkward angle, and for a moment she caught a glimpse of a pointy ear.
"Yes," he said. "I'm a singer." He said it the way she would say 'I'm a healer' – or here: 'I'm a doctor'.
When Elentar straightened, there was no excuse left to delay their departure any longer.
"Put on your packs. Then I'll open the terrace doors. If those are really the cats that proverb speaks of, they will take you straight to their home. So, don't lose sight of them, if you can." Elaine picked up Mina's pack, just to make sure it was not too heavy. Satisfied that it should not overburden the pregnant woman, she helped Mina into the straps. Elentar looked too slender to carry the huge backpack along with the guitar, but he did not seem to notice its weight at all. Elaine's eyes lingered on the dreadlocks that still carefully concealed his ears. Elf, not man. She wondered if the child would have pointy ears.
"I wish you a good journey." Then, feeling quite fanciful, she bent down on her knees and stroked the cats, one after the other. "Have a safe trip home, little ones. And if you can, watch out for those two."
Elaine got up and walked briskly to the terrace doors. She opened them wide. Sunshine and a soft breeze flooded the room. The cats seemed to hesitate for a moment. She could almost believe that they looked their farewell at her with those shimmering green eyes. Then they trotted out onto the terrace and set off into the garden.
Elentar and Mina stared after the cats for a second, as if they could not really believe what they were seeing. Three grey cats bounding into a summery garden…
"Go," Elaine gave Elentar a little shove. "Follow them! Now! Quickly!"
Taking Mina by the hand, the elf hurried down the garden path where the cats were about to disappear between the high grass. Quickly they reached the little porch at the end of the garden, turned around the corner behind the hedge and were gone.
Elaine remained standing at the terrace door for a while longer. What an astonishing visit from the past… and the future, she mused. What would come of it? Maybe she would get a postcard one day. She grinned at the thought. If the old wizard was still around… if they managed to find him…
However, just like the fox who met two hobbits alone in the wilderness one night, many, many years ago, and in another world, who never found out the why and whereto of their business, Elaine Tarnost never found out what happened to her two visitors. But with the cats gone, she was finally able to get the dog she'd been wanting for a very long time.
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This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.