The farmer Medril fussed with his surcoat. “But why are they coming here, this deputation of the King’s?” he asked his wife for at least the sixth time. “Why would the King be concerned about the murder of three little boys he never met in an obscure part of Anórien? It’s not as if such a case as this is worthy of the King’s interest. Why doesn’t he pay attention to the defense of the realm or something?”
His wife Anhildë, however, was too excited to worry about her husband’s concerns. “I’ve reminded Lyssë to see to it she changes her clothing after she gathers the eggs, that she make a good impression on those in the deputation. Who knows? Perhaps one of them might be drawn to her and is young enough to consider her as a wife!”
Medril gave her a despairing glance. He doubted she would ever appreciate just what this visit might mean. He’d been able to convince the guardsmen and Destrier’s constables that Leverion had had nothing to do with the deaths of those children who’d been murdered last summer. But if they learned that the boy had been regularly stealing his father’s brandy from the storehouse, and that he was the one who’d done so before the boys went missing, it could be bad for their son. And as much grief as Leverion caused them, still he was their child and they would defend him to the death!
At this he went cold. Had he just suspected Leverion of being involved in the murders after all? But, no! He couldn’t have done so, not their son!
It wasn’t even a quarter of a mark later that they heard horses’ hooves on the track leading into the farm, and he drew Anhildë after him, out of their comfortable house and into the dooryard.
Leverion came out of the barn and watched warily as Constable Amdir led the King’s representatives along the graveled way. Medril stepped forward to offer them a proper greeting. “Welcome, my lords!” he boomed, hoping he sounded properly sure of himself. “It is a great honor to host you! My son and hands will see to your mounts.”
“I will see to my own steed,” commented one as he slid from his horse’s back, and Medril stopped, openmouthed, realizing that this was no Man, but apparently one of the mysterious Elves of which the old tales told. Tall and stately, there was a special grace to this one as he flicked one of the dark braids of his temple locks behind his ear and placed his hand on the horse’s cheek, speaking to it in what must be an Elvish tongue. His horse sported no bridle or saddle, and it was as beautiful and graceful as its master. The Elf turned to Leverion. “If you will show me where he might graze?”
It took a time for Leverion to come to himself enough to realize what had been asked of him. “This—this way, my lord,” he said uncertainly, and turned to lead the way to the paddock set aside for the horses of guests.
The hands, assisted by Amdir and the guards, took the other mounts, and Medril led the way through the house to the covered porch at the back that looked out upon the sloped vineyard and the woodlot. Lyssë was returning from the poultry runs, two baskets in her hands, and she gave a stifled cry of dismay when she realized their guests had already arrived. She hurried to the dairy to see the eggs out of the heat of the day, and he knew she would go around the house before going in to see her dress changed.
“I am called Medril. And how may my family serve you?” Medril asked as Anhildë served out the cooled herbal drink and nut cakes she’d prepared for their refreshment.
“I am Berevrion, Lord of Tirith Fuir in Eriador, and a kinsman of our Lord King Aragorn Elessar,” explained the one who appeared to lead the deputation. “Lord Erchirion, second son to Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth; Master Anorgil, originally of Anwar and now of Minas Tirith and an assistant to the Master of the White City’s Guild of Lawyers; Master Bariol, a battle surgeon whose work is admired by the King; and our companion who sees to his own horse is Harolfileg of Eryn Lasgalen, a healer in the court of Thranduil, King of the great Woodland Realm, who has come at the request of his lord’s sons, Prince Tharen and Prince Legolas. Prince Legolas was a companion to my Lord Kinsman during the journey of the Fellowship of the Ring south from Imladris. With us are Lord Benargil’s son, Wendthor, Mistress Lyrien of Lord Benargil’s household, and her father, Master Bilstred, brother to Master Normandil of the village. Master Bilstred is Lord Benargil’s personal healer and the tutor to his children. And I believe that you are already acquainted with Master Caraftion.”
Medril gave Caraftion a swift glance and pointedly looked away again. “And you have two guards with you?” he asked, feeling the sweat beginning to run down his back and hoping it was hidden by his surcoat.
“Yes, Lord Erchirion is accompanied by a Swan Knight from his father’s retinue, and I by another of the Grey Company that came south from our strongholds in the north to our Lord’s side before the final battles.”
“I see,” Medril murmured. The credentials of their visitors appeared to be of the very highest in the land, although he could not for the life of him begin to understand why three in this company were healers, and one of those an Elf! He indicated Anhildë. “My wife, Anhildë. Our son Leverion is showing—Lord--Harolfileg where his horse might graze, while our daughter Lyssë is within the house, and will join us as soon as she is properly attired.”
“Yes, I saw her returning from the poultry runs. I rejoice that she puts her duty to your household first, Master Medril.”
He could detect no indication that this Lord Berevrion’s words meant anything more than what he’d said, and he began to relax.
Master Anorgil took up the tale. “When our Lord King received the request from Lord Benargil for a signed warrant to hang Danárion of Destrier at the same time he received a letter from the young man’s mother begging him to investigate the case against her son, he decided it would be best to err on the side of caution. He has shown himself to be a merciful Man, and will not order the death of any if there is question as to the true degree of responsibility the condemned may hold for the crime for which he has been convicted. Already he has shown remarkable wisdom in ordering the fates of several guilty of various crimes against the people of Gondor, and he would have the full facts of the case before he would see so young a Man sent to the gallows or his fellows condemned to hard labor for the remainder of their lives.”
Medril gave a tentative nod of understanding. “Then, this is likely to become commonplace throughout the realm from this time on, that he will send others to confirm that those accused of capital crimes are indeed worthy of the rope?”
“We cannot speak to all cases, but I suspect that you have the right of it,” replied Lord Berevrion. “My Lord Kinsman is known to be a just Man. He prefers to be merciful when it is possible, although he will never allow anyone likely to threaten the peace of the realm or the safety of his people to endanger others. Those who are truly guilty of crimes of violence tend to find him implacable, while he offers those he feels are able to serve well in the future the chance to redeem themselves. And I have rarely seen him make a mistake in his justice or the sentences he imposes.”
“Then what is it you would ask of us?” he asked as Anhildë took the now empty tray back into the kitchen of their house.
“Only that you and the members of your household answer our questions truthfully, show us where they stood when they saw what they describe, and do not seek to embroider upon what they know.”
Again he indicated his understanding, secretly worrying how it was that Anhildë and Lyssë were going to follow that last stricture. He was well accustomed to their tendency to stretch the truth of whatever stories they might tell, but how would this apparently stern lord react to this habit? Not well, he suspected.
Anhildë had been sent to the stillroom in company with Master Bilstred and Mistress Lyrien while her daughter was questioned with the whole of the deputation, Master Caraftion, and Medril himself to stand as witnesses to what she might say. Anorgil was to record what was said, and sat at a nearby table with his pen and ink at hand, clean foolscap before him. The constable Amdir and Berevrion’s guard Faradir were asked to have Leverion show them the way to the gully containing the ditch wherein the children’s bodies had lain hidden, although they were cautioned not to enter it at this time, merely scout about it to make certain it had not been recently disturbed.
“No fear of that,” Medril grunted. “When such evil has been done there, no one will come near the place!”
“I am glad this might be so; but still, there are some of evil imagination or morbid tendencies who will seek out such places as if there were some power they might find there,” Berevrion pointed out. “If this has happened, I would be advised of it.”
“Would you wish me to go with them to learn what trees and earth might tell me?” asked Harolfileg.
The northern lord shook his head. “Not as yet. No, wait and go out with us. I may well allow you to enter the gully first, however, if you will so agree.”
Harolfileg shrugged. “I will be glad to do so.”
So the youth was not in the house, and the hands were busy about their duties upon the farm, and the mother where she could not hear what her daughter might say to those sent to enquire about the case against Danárion.
“Do you often walk about outside of your home after the Sun has set, young Mistress?” Berevrion asked.
She shrugged. “On occasion,” she admitted. “Not often, though.”
“On the night that the children went missing, did you do so?”
“Yes—my mother and I did so, together. It was a fair night and quite warm, and the Moon was full. It was quite bright, and we could easily see our way as we followed the path about the edges of the fields.”
“When you walk out in the evenings, do you often take this path?”
“Not so often after dark, but often during the daylight hours. But that night, as bright as was the Moon, we felt no fear of stumbling across anything that might lie upon the path.”
He smiled at her. “I am glad you are not given to foolish imaginings as I am told is not uncommon in the region. It has been said many fear that evil spirits walk abroad at such times.”
She stiffened some, but answered him, “Oh, all know those stories, and I would be rightly concerned about them if I were alone.”
“But not with your mother as your companion?”
She smiled prettily. “No, not with my mother at my side.”
He nodded. “Then tell me where it was you went and what you saw.”
She took a breath and began: “We were there on the eastern border of our fields when we heard voices, voices from across the canal. We looked and saw them, Danárion and my cousin Argilien, walking in the fields where the last farmer used to grow his spelt.”
“He grew spelt, did he?”
She nodded solemnly. “Yes, that was the field where he grew it, the one nearest the canal on that side.”
“How did you know that it was Danárion?”
“Oh, all know him. He always dresses in black, and seeks to make his voice lower than it really is, and pretends ever to be quite solemn. He threatens to take the blood of those who make fun of him, and tells us that he will conjure with it.”
“And what does he say he will conjure?”
“Spirits. It is said that spirits are drawn to bowls of blood even as cats are drawn to bowls of milk, and so they can be caught and controlled.”
Lord Erchirion sat behind Lyssë where she could not see his expression. Medril saw that he was shaking his head and rolling his eyes at the girl’s words—clearly such things were not believed in the southern provinces.
“What made it easy to recognize him that night?” asked the King’s kinsman.
“Oh, he was dressed darkly, as was usual with him, and you could see the white streak in his hair----”
“There is a white streak in his hair?”
“Oh, yes! It is said that he makes it white using cleansing water on but the one place. All of the rest is black.”
“Black, not dark brown?”
She shook her head. “No, it is quite black, and looks blue in the proper light. He wore it long and straight, save it was shorter in the right side of his face than on the left.”
“The right side as you look at him?”
“No, the right side of his face as he looks at you.”
“And he always wears it in this manner?”
“Most of the time since three summers past.”
“Do you know why?”
“His father was seeking to cut it, but was drunken and could not cut it even on both sides. Afterwards he left it that way, more to pretend it had been done a-purpose than for any other reason.”
“And your cousin….”
“Argilien. Her name is Argilien.”
“Argilien, then. How was it you could recognize her?”
She laughed. “Even in the moonlight her hair is coppery, and quite curly. None other anywhere near Destrier has such hair!”
“So, you are certain that it was Argilien and no other?”
“It couldn’t have been anyone but Argilien.”
“How was she dressed?”
“As she dresses when she helps in the milking—Uncle raises milk cows upon his farm.”
“And how is it she dresses when she helps with the milking?”
“Well, she wears her skirt kilted up so that it is not in the way of the bucket as she sits upon the stool. And she wears a light-colored apron—she has three, each of a light color, but none quite the same color as the others.”
“Could you see which one she wore that night?”
“No—the moonlight was not enough to tell.”
“And where was it that they were walking from?”
“Oh, from the gully wherein lies the ditch where those boys were found.”
“And where was it they went?”
“They walked across the field.”
“In which direction?”
“North—they were going north.” Her voice was less certain now. “They were walking away from the gully, across the field, so they could only be going north.”
“Why could they not have been going south?”
“Because the woods are thicker to the south. The fields are north of the gully.”
He smiled. “Ah, I see. Could you hear them speak with one another?”
“No. It was too far.”
“Yet you said that you heard their voices and that was how you realized they were there.”
“We could hear voices, but it was too far to tell the words.”
“Will you show us where it was that you were when you heard them?”
She led them outside and across one field toward the eastern boundaries of the farm. All could see that the trees and brush were high beyond the field they crossed. At last they reached the far side of it, and stood upon a beaten track wide enough for two to walk side by side. She led the way north alongside of it for a ways, and then stopped. Pointing slightly southward, she said, “The gully is that direction. We were here, near that tree.” She pointed toward a tall tree with only two main boughs raised toward the sky. “It’s a father tree,” she confided, “so no one will cut it. It’s said that to try to cut a father tree will bring evil upon whoever endangers it.”
“And you stood near here?”
“I stood exactly here.”
“And your mother stood where?”
She pointed a few feet further along the path. “There—she stood there.”
“And you are certain?”
She nodded. “Oh, yes, I am certain.”
Almost an hour later they had finished with the questioning of the mother and had followed her to where she said she’d seen Danárion and Argilien. “We were here!” she said. “We stood side by side, right here.”
“And where were Danárion and Argilien when you heard their voices?
“There, across the canal.”
“Can you point to where it was they were?”
“Of course! They were----” She paused, suddenly her face filled with confusion. Her pointing finger wavered. The canal itself could not be seen, so thick were the trees and brush along its western bank; and nothing could be seen of the land across it from where they stood. Only here and there could they see the upper branches of those trees upon the canal’s further bank, and it was apparent that the area there was heavily wooded.
“Which way is the gully where the bodies were found?”
She pointed to the same area as had Lyssë—some distance north of where they now stood.
Medril’s face was pale and set. They had lied—the both of them!
“Master Bilstred, will you please see Mistress Anhildë back to the house? And until I come again I do not wish her to speak with her daughter.”
“Yes, my Lord Berevrion.”
Berevrion led the way to the area across from where both mother and daughter had indicated the ditch lay. “Faradir!” he called. “Are you and your companions still there?”
“Yes, we are—and we’re fair being eaten alive by mosquitoes and gnats! How much longer do you wish us here?”
“Have young Leverion lead you north into the field where spelt used to grow.”
“Until I call to say it is enough.”
They could hear sounds of conversation muffled by the distance and the brush, and then the sounds of bodies pushing aside shrubs and leaves. Berevrion led the rest back down the path to where Lyssë had indicated she and her mother had been when they’d supposedly seen Danárion and Argilien, signaling for Erchirion to go to the spot on which she had said her mother had stood. He beckoned the rest to find places in between the two of them, and said, “When you see anyone on the far side of the canal, say so; and if you can identify who it is, say his name.”
Thrice Medril saw part of the head of one of three on the further side, but he never saw enough of any of them to say who it was, for all had dark hair. He suspected that he was seeing Lord Berevrion’s guardsman, who was the tallest of the three, but could not say for certain. Only the Elf could name the one he had glimpses of each time.
At last Berevrion called, “It is far enough. Return to the beam that bridges the canal. We will join you in a moment.” He then turned to the Elf and asked most respectfully, “Master Harolfileg, if you could please, tell us how high were, say, those particular bushes a year ago?”
The Elf gave a brief yet most graceful inclination of his head and went forward, touching the bushes in question, bushes that were shorter than the rest. At last he turned toward the Man and said, “They were but a span shorter then than they are now. Mostly they have grown outward rather than upward.”
Medril said, his tone heavy, “Then there is no way in which my wife and daughter could have seen how it was that Argilien was dressed when she walked through that field—if,” he added with some bitterness, “she did so at all on that night.”
Berevrion nodded, his eyes compassionate. “Even so, Master Medril.”
“I beg of you to understand this—I do not believe that my wife lies out of malice, but merely to appreciate her own position in comparison to what is important on a particular day. And my daughter—well, she has never been able to say to my wife, ‘But, Mother, you lie’.”
As they turned to reach the beam themselves, Berevrion asked Medril, “What way is it that those who come to the canal from the village travel to reach this beam? They are not allowed to cross over your fields when the crops are growing, are they?”
He listened to the description Medril gave, and paused to turn and examine the fields and the common footpath those not from Medril’s farm would use. “I see,” he commented. And with no further speech they walked down the steep slope to the beam and crossed over it to the eastern bank of the canal.
Faradir, Amdir, and Leverion awaited them in the shadows of the trees, which were taller on this side. “The ditch where the bodies were found is that direction some twenty to thirty paces,” Faradir said, nodding northward. “There is an old bridle trail, once cleared for horses or ponies to travel, just behind us some six paces, much of it now overgrown due to lack of use. It is many years, I’d deem, since a horse could come that way, for the trees have leaned over it, seeking more sunlight for themselves. Their lower branches are barely above my head in most cases, and they are quite stout. A pony could come that way if it was led rather than ridden, not unless quite a small child or Hobbit was riding it. And, thinking on Hobbits, they would love this place! There is a small spring just a few feet that way,” he pointed at the ground to the south of where he stood, “that begins the route of a thin stream that travels parallel to the old bridle trail and the canal for about ten rods or so before it turns to spill into the canal. And along the banks of the stream I saw many of the varieties of mushrooms that the Hobbits of the Shire and the Breelands favor. I have seen many different berries, most unfamiliar to me, and a number of smaller trees and bushes that produce nuts of several kinds. I saw rosehips still clinging to bushes in a clearing that direction, and it appears that a wild pig has been rooting for truffles.”
His lord nodded approvingly. “Indeed, a paradise for Hobbits this would prove.”
“And before we go to the ditch where the boys were left, I would show you one more thing.” So saying, Faradir led them eastward some twenty feet to where a deer trail turned south. They pushed between two bushes on which delicate pink blossoms bloomed into a hidden clearing, small and secret. Fallen logs had been arranged in a circle around what was plainly a small fire pit that had been recently used. “The last fire was no more than two days past,” he said. “And there is more.” He pulled aside a fallen limb to which rattling brown leaves still clung with stubborn persistence, revealing a depression filled with the remains of clay wine jars. He reached for one whose color was not yet dimmed by exposure to the weather and held it up. “There was brandy in this.”
Leverion appeared sullen, and was eyeing his father rather obliquely, with decided wariness. Medril sighed. “I know that my son has been stealing my brandy for quite some time. He had me convinced it was the brother of one of our hands, who comes to visit at least once each seven-day. But when I went into the village yesterday to confront him I learned he had fallen from a beam on which he stood, painting the frames of his windows, and has been in the healer’s house for most of these last five days, and so could not have been the one who stole brandy two days past. I have had to accept that instead it is Leverion himself who does this.”
Wendthor was grinning. “And I have learned that when the brandy was stolen three days before the children went missing, it was drunk that night by Leverion and his friends!”
Berevrion’s eyebrows rose, and he looked on the youth with approval. “Excellent—then we now know that Carenthor, Danárion, and Garestil had nothing to do with the theft of the brandy then, and thus would not have had to return here to retrieve what they might have hidden away in the woods to conceal it from their parents, and so have a reason to settle by the stream.”
Faradir was shaking his head. “Oh, but Berevrion—I assure you that the ditch is no stream. Nay, if it had water in it, it was from rains some days past. Wait until you see it.”
“In a moment.” The northern lord examined Leverion severely. “Why did you allow Danárion, Carenthor, and Garestil to take the blame for the theft then?”
“Why not? Do you think that I wished my father to know I was taking the brandy? He would have had the lock changed and would keep the key upon him rather than setting me to watch it for him.”
Medril felt his cheeks burn, realizing how it was that his own son had cozened him.
The Elf was standing still in the center of the clearing. “I sense no violence done here—drinking and laughter, yes; but no violence.”
Now they turned to follow Faradir and Amdir to the ditch where the bodies had been found. The walls of the gully were steep, and must be treacherous when wet. “We had a rain some days ago,” Amdir said. “It is the only reason there is any water in the ditch now. So it was a year past—there was a heavy rain that went on for some three days about a seven-day before the boys went missing. The water was higher then than it is now.”
They pushed by a stand of low bushes and stepped over the raised earth over a tree’s root, and stood over the ditch itself.
The water in it was brown with suspended soil, and its surface dusted yellow with pollen from nearby trees. Shards from broken wine jars broke the surface here and there, and they could see the arm of a long-lost doll protruding from the mud on its far bank. No, no merry stream this. Flies and other flying things buzzed over the remains of a fish, perhaps brought here and abandoned recently by a water rat or weasel, and all could see the track of a large turtle where it had clawed its way out of the water and up the steep bank.
Amdir pointed. “The body of the first child was found here, and those of the other two that way some eighteen paces closer to the canal. All were apparently pushed face-down in the mud at the bottom, which I will tell you is quite thick and cloying. We found the first only because I was leaning over the water, my hand against the bole of that tree to balance me, trying to fish out the floating shoe that had been found, and my feet slipped and I slid down into the water, breaking the hold the mud had on the child’s body, allowing it to rise to the top. The water was deeper then, coming to just above my knee. Now I’d say it is no more than ankle deep, and perhaps might reach the calf in the few deeper places.”
He looked about, and paused, his eyes fixed on a flatter area some few feet further away from the canal on their side of the ditch. “There were found two footprints there, as if someone stood there for quite some time. We poured liquid wax into them that we might compare the prints to the feet of others, although I cannot say what became of the casts. Master Fendril had them last, I believe. That area beside the footprints appeared to have been brushed with a fallen branch, but that was all that had been disturbed.”
“Did you see any blood standing upon the leaves or ground or stems of grass, trees, and bushes?” asked Bariol.
“No—none. There was no blood to be seen save where the bodies were laid upon the banks after they were found, and that was but the weak seeping of fluid from the bodies of the dead.”
“And in what position were they placed in the water?” asked the Elf.
“When Vendrion found them, the bodies of the other two were definitely pressed face-down into the mud. And Avrandahil, when he came here to see, pointed out what appeared to be the mark of a foot on the back of the child hidden here. Now, the clothing was found pressed down into the mud with long sticks just there, at the child’s head.”
“Were the sticks hard enough to use to beat the children?” asked Anorgil.
Amdir shook his head. “They might have been long, but were little better than the stalks of young shoots. Most of the clothing had been bundled inside one child’s cotte, and it appears that three of the shoes fell free and had to be pushed into the mud separately. One had escaped the clutch of the mud and had floated to the top by the time it was seen and I was called along with Hanalgor, Vendrion, and others of the gate and market guards who came in response to the call. It was but chance that the children were found that day.”
“And what time of the day was it that you came?” asked Bariol.
“We were called here in the early afternoon, just after the seventh bell.”
“One by the clock in the afternoon as the Breefolk call it, then,” noted Berevrion. Faradir nodded.
Amdir added, “But I had been here earlier in the day, just after the rising of the sun. The gully and woods were yet darkly shadowed, so I bore a torch with me. Then I noted nothing, not even the footprints, although they might have been there and I just didn’t see them at the time. But then I followed the top of the gully on that side. One could not walk along the ditch on this side—just down the path that we followed to come here. There is a similar path that leads down to where the other two bodies were found, both coming from the same point at the top of the gully.”
He straightened and gazed up through the tree limbs overhead at the blue sky beyond them. “Yes, we all stood here and waited as Vendrion crawled along through the water on his hands and knees toward the canal, sweeping the mud with his hands in search of any clue….”
“And wiping away other signs that might have told you more,” sighed Harolfileg, shaking his head. Amdir flushed at the disapproval he sensed in the Elf’s words.
“Were there any signs of any arcane rites to be found?” asked Anorgil.
“There is a root there, and it appears that a rope has been used to bind someone to it. Hanalgor thought….” But Amdir did not finish the statement. Caraftion, who held his own tongue, shook his head.
Medril glanced at his son, then said, “When we were young and sought turtles, frogs, or fish here, we would secure our basket to the root there by a rope, letting the basket itself down partly into the water that whatever we caught would not dry out in the heat of the day.”
Leverion nodded, “So we have done as well, my friends and I.” He slapped at a mosquito as it landed upon his arm.
Amdir considered the exposed root, his expression puzzled. “Then the children were not bound there to await the knife?” he asked, turning his questioning gaze toward the farmer.
Harolfileg and Bariol exchanged glances before turning their attention to the constable. “You have said that there was no blood to be found upon the ground, surrounding leaves, grass, or stems to the bushes and trees, did you not?” Harolfileg probed. At Amdir’s nod of assent he continued, “Then why do you believe that a knife was involved in the deaths of these children? If, as you say, there was blood to be seen only after the bodies were laid upon the bank, and that the weak seepage from the bodies themselves, then it is most likely that no knife was used upon them, not while they were yet alive.”
“But Hanalgor was certain that the one boy’s manhood was removed while he was yet alive. He says that this was most pleasing to the Nameless One, to see his enemies reduced ere the life fled them!”
Bariol indicated the spoor left by a turtle. “Do not look for the actions of enemies when there are such creatures as turtles in the area,” he advised. “That portion of the body is favored by such things.”
Caraftion’s eyes lit with interest, while Amdir’s face greyed with revulsion. “No!” the constable objected.
Bariol shook his head. “Oh, but yes. One of the soldiers who served upon Cair Andros when I was stationed there was swimming in the Anduin with a few of his fellows one day when they had been granted a few hours’ leave. A very large turtle was seen by them as they arrived at the river’s bank. It had been sunning itself upon a rock, but slipped into the water as they arrived. They thought little of it.
“The day was hot, and all were sweaty. A few thought to remove their small clothes, and beat them clean upon the rocks and left them to dry while they swam in the deeper water. One of these was treading water when he felt intense pain, and at his cry the others looked and saw the glint of the turtle’s back as it swam away, the prize of his manhood in its beak and blood spreading quickly from the wound it had left. I was called upon to treat him, and found the act had been quite swiftly and expertly done. And those who watch for enemies along the banks of the river tell me that when they see the bodies of animals that had died, swept away by the current when they’d fallen or been chased into the water and then washed up upon the shore, it was not unusual to find turtles feasting upon the privates.”
All of the menfolk shuddered at the mere thought of it.
Harolfileg nodded. “Do not always ascribe to enemies what is done regularly by our fellow creatures,” he advised. “I was told by friends who had spent time in Edhellond that the Men who dwelt near to the old havens we once kept there would employ certain turtles to aid them to find the bodies of those believed to have drowned in the river or in the lakes to be found in the region. They have the ability to scent the decaying bodies through the water and will seek them out in order to feed, and so will lead the searchers to the remains of the dead.”
“But there were many wounds to be seen upon the bodies of the boys,” Amdir said.
“Was there blood crusted upon the wounds?” asked the Elf.
The constable thought. “No, save in the hair and about the nose, eyes, and ears we saw little crusting of the blood. There in the hair it was indeed crusted, and thickly. But, then the bodies had been placed while they were yet living in the ditch, and the water undoubtedly washed most of the blood upon the bodies themselves away.”
Harolfileg indicated the water they saw before them. “Was the water then as it is now, with the silt suspended in it and the pollen atop it?”
The Man considered the ditch for a moment as he scratched at an insect bite on his arm. “Well, yes, although I believe the pollen was even thicker upon it then.”
“This water is not living water—it does not move. It merely lies still within the ditch until it dries away or sinks into the earth itself. Only when there is heavy rain do I deem it flows at all, as it runs down the sides of the gully and fills the ditch and drains into the canal there beyond us. Once the rain is over, however, and the last of the water runs off of the fields into it, then it lies quiescent again as it is now. Stagnant water does not wash away blood or filth from aught that falls into it, not without active scrubbing, or a most prolonged period to allow the blood to soak loose.”
Bariol asked, “You say that the blood was heavily crusted in the hair?”
“Yes,” Amdir said. “I touched it as I tried to find signs of any wounds to the skulls. The hair was thick with crusted blood on all three of the boys.”
The battle surgeon exchanged another look with the Elven healer. “Then the bodies could not have been placed in the ditch immediately after their heads were struck,” he said. “It takes time and exposure to air for the blood to clot so.” He appeared disturbed.
Caraftion spoke for the first time, saying, “Yet, when the trials were held it was said that the boys were beaten and savaged, but were still alive when they were thrown into the stream and abandoned to drown.”
Berevrion considered the muddy water before them with a grimace of distaste. “Faradir was right--this is no stream,” he pronounced.
“Nor were they thrown into the water,” noted Faradir, “not if they were deliberately forced, face down, into the mud at the ditch’s bottom. You said that the healer who examined the bodies noted a footprint upon the back of one of the victims?”
Amdir nodded. “Yes—the one whose body was found here.”
Bariol said consideringly, “Again an indication that the intent was to deliberately hide the bodies rather than to allow the water to take the lives of the boys.” He asked Amdir, “Did this healer who examined the bodies check inside their mouths?”
“Was the mud caked within them?”
“How about their noses?”
Amdir shook his head. “No—one could see blood dried about the nostrils and inside the ears and about the eyes, but not any large amount of mud.”
Bariol sighed and rubbed at his chin where a bite had begun to rise. “More signs that they suffered primarily from the blows administered to their heads.”
Caraftion slapped at his thigh in frustration. “Why did Master Fendril object so to my request we bring the jury here so as to allow them to see where it was the children were said to have died?”
Berevrion took a deep breath, and settled himself carefully on the sloped surface of the gully to remove his boots and stockings. Medril was puzzled. “What do you look to do, my lord?” the farmer asked.
“I would see for myself just how thick the mud is here,” he was told, and Medril watched in surprise as the King’s kinsman himself tested the sucking nature of the mud at the bottom of the ditch.
Before they crossed back over the canal, Berevrion walked out into the field where the former resident had once planted spelt, looking toward the houseplace and the remains of barns and byres. “How was it that those who dwelt here came and went?” he asked. “It does not appear that they could have used the bridle path under the trees for quite some years.”
“There is a wagon track that leads eastward there,” Medril explained, pointing. “It comes out on the boundaries of what is now another abandoned farmstead about two miles east upon the Highway from the village.”
“The one where the only remaining structure of any size is the byre?” asked Berevrion. “We saw it as we rode from Anwar.” He stood thinking. At last he turned to his guardsman. “Faradir, I would have you and Wendthor, if you will, walk that track. Check for any sign that one might have approached the canal and the ditch from that direction. You two should be able to return to the village within three hours, I would think.”
“First we sit to be feasted upon by insects, and now we are to walk several miles in the heat of the day?” asked Faradir. “You ask much, kinsman. But we will do it. But only if we are allowed to eat at whatever inn there might be within the village before we return to Master Normandil’s house. A good meal and a mug or two of ale would do much to reward us for our labors, I’d think.”
“Gladly,” Berevrion said, opening his scrip and bringing out a small purse from which he removed several coins. “Let me pay for your refreshment, then.”
Youth and northern Ranger set out across the fields while the others returned to the beam that crossed the canal. As Amdir at Berevrion’s side approached the wood, he stopped, pointing. “The bodies of the two ponies were found here, where they’d been dropped into the canal, one each side of the beam.”
The wood was wide enough for a grown man to walk across it, but was indeed too narrow for a pony. Berevrion paused, one foot upon the wood, to look behind him at the steep bank that had to be descended in order to reach the beam when coming from the old bridle trail. He asked Amdir, “Were there signs of the ponies coming down this slope?”
The constable nodded. “Yes—one could see where the hooves slipped.”
“Were they dead, do you think, when they were pushed into the canal?”
Amdir again nodded, more slowly. “They were killed by a blow to the side of the head of each with a knife, with the blade penetrating into the brain.”
Bariol said, “It sounds like a butcher’s blow.”
Berevrion commented, “Most horsemen would kill their mounts with a slash across the throat instead; but this would be a most—efficient—means of disposing of the creatures.” Again he asked the constable, “And were there signs as to where the animals had been pushed into the canal?”
But this time the constable was shaking his head. “No, we don’t believe they were pushed. They were found a small distance away from the bank, one on each side of the beam, and it was as if they had been dropped down into the water. I was one of those who dove down to see if anything could be found and saw them as they lay.”
“Dropped?” Bariol’s voice sounded shocked at the idea. “How could such beasts as ponies be dropped into the water?”
“Dropped or thrown,” Amdir insisted. “They were not pushed—the dirt and grass were not torn as they ought to have been had the ponies been pushed, and there was no scarring to the bank of the canal from the bodies scraping against it as they fell.”
Berevrion asked, “Were there footprints to be seen?”
“One—and again a wax cast was made. But it was not as clear as had been those by the ditch.”
“And did the boys’ parents recognize their son’s ponies?”
“And there were but two ponies?” asked Anorgil.
“One child did not have a pony, for his parents could not afford to keep one. He rode behind Rindor’s son when the children were last seen, riding away from the homes of the two who lived on the same lane, headed for the gate.”
Anorgil sighed. “I will have much to record once we are back in the village,” he noted.
“Indeed,” Berevrion agreed. “Well, it is now time to speak with Mistresses Anhildë and Lyssë.”
Medril felt his heart grow cold, wondering what punishment his wife and daughter might have brought upon themselves.