As the deputation prepared to retire to Master Nerwion’s home where they were expected to take their evening meal, Harolfileg approached Berevrion quietly. “Please make my excuses to our hosts,” he said, “for I am beginning to feel stifled within these settlements of Men. I wish to be alone for a time, and to visit with the trees in this area.”
Berevrion smiled his understanding. “So has your Prince Legolas done repeatedly since the war was won,” he said. “Go, and may your spirit find comfort.”
So it was that the Elf went not back toward the village’s center, but instead south toward the gate. As he went, he found himself following children and ponies headed also out of the village toward the common grazing ground across the Highway. It had been quite a time since he’d been around younglings such as these, and he followed them as they traveled slightly west and then south through the gap in the rail fence that marked the edge of the large field.
There were a fair number of children there, some riding their ponies on what appeared to be a beaten track around the edges of the field, some toward the east end practicing jumps over improvised hurdles, some allowing their animals to graze while they walked with companions in the shade of the trees that grew here and there and talked. A few younger children and a couple of older ones could be seen on the edge of the wooded area on the south side, stooping over small objects on the ground as if studying them, then looking up suddenly at another’s call and darting off to some new interest. He felt a stirring of desire to know children again, and realized that, now that there was a period of peace, it was likely that the Greenwood would again have more than just a scattering of children for the first time in many ennin.
“Are you really an Elf?” asked a voice, and he turned to find himself the subject of scrutiny of a small boy and a taller girl. The girl was one he’d seen earlier in the afternoon, Anriel, the older sister of the dead child Gilmar; the boy he hadn’t seen before. The boy continued, “She says you’re an Elf, but my mama said there wasn’t any such thing.”
“Yes, I am an Elf from the great Greenwood far to the north of here, east of the banks of the upper Anduin.”
“Then my mama was wrong?”
“Say rather that she has most likely never had the chance to meet an Elf, as we have not visited Gondor for many, many lives of Men. And, not having seen one for herself, she was easily persuaded that we must be merely a tale. But then I doubt that more than a very few within Gondor has seen a Dwarf or a Hobbit, either, until now.”
“What’s a Hobbit?” asked Anriel.
“The Ringbearer is a Hobbit, a Perian, a very small people that live now far to the north in Eriador. They are known here as Halflings, I understand. I do not know that any Hobbit has ever visited Gondor at all, not until now.”
“Mama said that Halflings are only in tales,” the boy said.
“And again, since none has visited Gondor ever that I am aware of before the Fellowship came south, I suspect that she was again persuaded that they don’t exist when they most definitely do, for which we may thank the Creator.” He smiled at the child, who smiled back, displaying a gap where one of his eyeteeth was missing.
“Derngil, your mother wants you to come home now,” called another voice, and the three of them turned to see the boy Dírhael approaching.
Derngil was obviously rebellious at this. “Oh, Dírhael, can’t you say you didn’t find me—that I was hiding in the woods by the canal or something? I want to talk with the Elf.”
“He’s here to try to keep that Danárion from getting hung,” said Dírhael, giving Harolfileg a dark glare.
The Elf straightened, going stern. “Have you never been accused of something you didn’t do?” he asked the older boy.
Dírhael appeared taken aback by the question. “Well, yes, I have,” he admitted, his eyes wary.
“Have you ever been punished for what you didn’t do?”
It was a moment before the boy slowly nodded.
Harolfileg explained, “The Lord Elessar wishes to be certain that no one within Gondor will suffer death for a crime for which he is not guilty, so he has sent us here to prove that Danárion deserves indeed to die before he will authorize the execution.”
“But, you don’t think he did it.”
“We have not yet found proof that he had to have killed your brother.”
“But everyone knows he killed our brothers,” Anriel interrupted. “Him, and Carenthor, and Garestil did it.”
“And how do they know it?”
“Because Garestil said so,” she said with the air of having made an unassailable argument.
“And does Garestil always tell the strict truth?”
She blinked at him, surprised by his question.
After a moment he asked again, “Does he always tell the strict truth?”
She finally shrugged. “I don’t know—I don’t know him that well.” Then she added, “He’s ugly.”
Harolfileg found himself wanting to laugh at that statement, but managed to keep his face appearing solemn. “Perhaps.”
“You don’t think so, too?” she asked.
“I’ve not seen him as yet,” he answered her. He went on, “Have you ever thought your parents would be very angry if they knew you had done a thing, and told them that someone else had done it instead?”
She started to say no, but thought better of it. Her eyes downcast, she admitted, “Yes.”
“It appears that this might have happened with Garestil, that he said he was there only because he was afraid of those questioning him.” He turned toward Dírhael. “Do you think he was wrong to be afraid?”
Derngil said, “My mama told me that you don’t ever have to be afraid of telling the truth.”
“But your mama and you don’t live with Rindor,” Dírhael said to him.
Harolfileg was caught by the declaration. “You do not call him your father?” he asked.
Dírhael gave him a defiant look. “Rindor is not my father. Oh, he calls me his son, but he’s not my father, and I’ll never call him that. My grandparents are sending for me, and when they do, I’ll go away and never come back here and never see him again!”
“You do not like him?”
“Like him? Why? He is a bully and a thief, and the guardsmen won’t do anything to him for it because they all know him and don’t want to believe anything bad about him. He was mean to his first wife, and he got my mother to be a poppy eater, too, just like him, and he—he was unfaithful, and now she’s dead of poppy, and it’s all his fault!” Dírhael dashed at his eyes, not willing to cry before this stranger.
“What became of your father?”
“He went to Anwar to become a pikeman, and he died fighting orcs.”
“What happened to Rindor’s first wife?”
“She left him and left Destrier, and went south to Lossarnach with her children. She didn’t want to be around a poppy eater.”
“So he bound himself to your mother.”
After a moment the Elf asked, “Do you ever find yourself feeling it needful to lie to Rindor?”
“Yes—all the time. He sees something that’s not the way he thinks it should be, and he demands I tell him why. And if I tell him I don’t know, he keeps asking until I must tell him something! And if he thought that Bredwion had done something he oughtn’t to have done, he would beat him as if he were a big boy, even when he was very small. Sometimes I would say I had done it, even if I knew it was a different child who’d done it, just to keep him from beating Bredwion! He wouldn’t believe anyone but Bredwion could have done it sometimes—Bredwion or me.”
How strange were the ways of Men, that they would think to beat a child, or to assume that a specific child had been guilty of all mischief to be found! Harolfileg shuddered at this glimpse into Dírhael’s life. But, as the boy had admitted that he felt compelled to lie to Rindor to protect himself or others, then perhaps he would now understand. “Did you know Garestil?” he asked.
“Do you know of others blaming him for things they’d done?”
“Well, I know that Leverion did that to him.”
The boy pouted briefly. “Well, there was one time when Leverion was in the market and took some sweets and ran away, and as he passed Garestil he put them into Garestil’s hands. The sweets merchant saw Leverion take the sweets, and called for Vendrion to catch him. But Leverion didn’t have the sweets when Vendrion found him, and told Vendrion that he’d seen Garestil with them. So Vendrion left Leverion alone and went to find Garestil instead. Garestil hadn’t understood why Leverion gave him the sweets, and was eating them when Vendrion got to where he was. So Vendrion took him in hand and had him flogged for a thief.”
Harolfileg shuddered. “And the merchant had told him that he had seen Leverion take the sweets?”
“Yes. But when Vendrion thinks something happened a certain way, he won’t listen to anyone else. And I think he was afraid of Leverion’s mother, so he wouldn’t want to punish her son if someone like Garestil could be made to take the blame.”
“And who arrested Garestil for the murders of the children?”
“Hanalgor and----” Harolfileg could see the understanding dawn in Dírhael’s eyes. “Hanalgor and Vendrion,” the boy said in a quieter tone, his eyes now searching those of the Elf. “So if,” he suggested as the idea formed in his mind, “if he wanted for Garestil to say he was there, he might have refused to listen when he said he didn’t know, like Rindor does with me? And kept doing it until Garestil finally said he had been there after all?”
“That’s nonsense!” said Derngil suddenly. “Everyone knew that Danárion had done it before they even talked to Garestil.”
“But how did they know?” asked Dírhael unexpectedly. “How could they know that Danárion had to have done it?”
“Because everyone knows he wanted to….” Derngil stopped guiltily, looking up from under his lashes at the Elf as if he were uncertain he should say more in front of him.
“He wanted to what?” Harolfileg asked.
“He wanted to see an Elf,” Anriel answered for him. “He thought that Elves were special,”
“But most people think that Elves are—dangerous,” Dírhael explained, apparently attempting not to give offense.
“And so we are,” the Elf replied. “Even as are Men. And even Hobbits have proved deadly, when there is the need for them to be. But if you speak of the tales that I have heard are favored here, that somehow we were allies with Sauron the Deceiver, those are false. Nay, he has hated my people far longer than ever he hated the Men of Gondor, and we have done naught but seek to protect our lands from him for two ages of the Sun. And know this—even as he sought to cover the land of Gondor in darkness and laid your capitol in siege, so did he throughout all of the Free Lands of Middle Earth, and we, too, were fighting the armies he sent to our borders, intending to destroy all of us in one final conflagration. We, too, won through only because two simple Hobbits made it through the land of Mordor and saw the Enemy’s Ring brought to the Mountain to Its destruction.”
The children appeared surprised at this, and were exchanging looks of wonder.
“So,” Harolfileg said, “Danárion desired to see Elves, did he?”
“And to speak with spirits,” Anriel added.
“To seek commerce with spirits is usually a fruitless enterprise, or so we have found, although some have managed to see that all profit by the attempt. Certainly Minas Tirith would likely to have fallen had not your Lord Elessar managed to pass through the Paths of the Dead and brought the shades of the Oathbreakers to Pelargir in time, allowing them to defeat the Corsairs and take their ships.”
Derngil’s eyes were bright with excitement. “Did they really?” And at the Elf’s nod he smiled broadly. “And you know him? Oh, to know the King!”
“He is one mortal whose own heart is itself pure. And he was raised among the Elves of Imladris, as if Elrond, lord of that land, himself were his father.”
Dírhael sighed. “I think Danárion wished to be like the King, and before we even knew that the King was almost ready to return to us!”
The Elf sighed. “There are worse ambitions, it would seem. It seems odd to me that he must die on that account, due to the fact he would be as your King is.”
“But he killed Dírhael and Anriel’s brothers, and Nedron. Everyone knows it.” Derngil’s assertion was now more plaintive, if still stubborn.
“But how is it that they know it?” asked Dírhael. “That’s what he’s asking.” He was indicating Harolfileg.
“How is it that you know it?” Harolfileg asked the younger boy.
“Because I’ve seen him there before, where they killed Gilmar, Nedron, and Bredwion, only before they went missing. I’ve seen him there with candles lit, singing terrible songs to call the Enemy.”
“But you’re not allowed to go where they died without your older brother to go with you,” Dírhael objected. “Your mother wouldn’t let you go there alone, not anymore than ours would allow Bredwion to do so.”
“But she lets me come here without him,” responded Derngil.
“But they didn’t die here!”
“But it’s not that far away—by where the stream goes into the canal, right?”
“So, it’s right back there,” and Derngil pointed toward the southeast corner of the field. “We found it, the other boys and I. It’s a secret spot, hidden amongst the bushes and trees, and it’s hard to get through from this side. And we used to watch him, us lying under the thorns and him by the water.”
Intrigued, Harolfileg signed to Dírhael to say no more, and the older boy complied, obviously frustrated. “Will you show us the spot?” he asked Derngil.
“All right, but it won’t be easy for you. It’s not even easy for me now, for I’m bigger than I was last year when I used to watch Danárion there.” So saying, he led the way toward the back corner of the field.
“But that’s not where—” Dírhael tried to object again to the Elf, more quietly this time, but again Harolfileg forestalled him.
“How is it that the canal is there, when it runs the other side of Master Medril’s farm?” the Elf asked the older boy.
“Oh, it starts a ways north and runs along the east side of Leverion’s father’s farm, and goes under the bridge where the Highway crosses it. It runs along the east side of Master Amborn’s land, and then at the back of it, it turns west and runs along the south side of first it and the field here and then Beslor’s farm and then two more before it ends.”
Harolfileg nodded his appreciation for the information, and turned his attention to where Derngil led the way ahead of them, Anriel not far behind him. The girl now dropped back to walk alongside the Elven healer. “Is it true,” she asked, “that there’s a place called the Golden Wood? We hear stories of it, after all.”
“Have you been there?”
“Twice, the last time alongside our Lord King.”
“And is it really ruled by a golden witch?”
He was surprised to realize he was amused rather than insulted. Still, he kept his voice even as he answered. “It does not do to speak so of the Lady Galadriel. I am not certain what is meant by the term witch, but I sense it is not—flattering.”
The girl flushed. “I am sorry,” she murmured.
“The Lady Galadriel is, I must admit, one of the most powerful of individuals now living within Middle Earth, and she has managed to keep the borders of her land well protected against the attempts of Sauron’s creatures to breach them. But it is not just her power that has done this, but also the vigilance of the people she and her lord husband Celeborn rule. And so it has been throughout the Elven lands that remain in Middle Earth, even as the remnants of Elendil and Isildur’s folk have had to hide their people in the secret places of the north, and have labored long and hard to keep the borders of the settled lands of Eriador proof against evil Men and beasts.”
She nodded tentatively as she considered what he’d said, and after a moment of walking by him she smiled a more meaningful apology, a smile that bloomed further into acceptance and friendship offered. She lifted her hand to take his, and he found himself grasping, for the first time ever, the hand of a mortal child. How different that was from holding the hand of another Elf! He could feel the beat of her life’s Song within her, far swifter and more intense, if less determinate, than that of any of the Firstborn. Here was one who was not likely to long survive a half an ennin, who at perhaps ten or eleven years of age was already at least halfway to the age of mating and childbearing where an Elf of the same years would still be considered little better than a babe in arms. She had to force all of her life experiences into such a small and limited space of time, while an Elf had literally all of the time remaining in the world to do whatever he or she could think or hope to do. And with the impetuousness required of her mortal state, she had just demonstrated her trust in him, her acceptance of him as one who was worthy of her companionship.
For the first time in his perhaps eight thousand years, he began to appreciate how it was that the Lord Finrod Felagund came to be proud of his title as the Friend of Men.
They were finally approaching the wooded corner to the field. He could hear the chuckle of running water in the bed of a stream, still not seen, inside the line of trees and shrubs that rose just past the beaten path that most of the mounted children rode along. The scent of running water rose along with those of the herbs and leaves of a variety of plants that crowded the banks of the stream. He realized that, concealed in the shrubbery and herbage, crouched a variety of smaller creatures, watching them—a vixen, well over that direction a pair of squirrels gone quiet for the moment from their almost constant comments on what they were aware of about them, a number of birds, a vole paused in its foraging…. He saw the form of a lizard lazing on a branch in the slanted light of late afternoon, a lizard the children failed to recognize as its colors blended so well with the light and shadows that lay along the bark to which it clung. A grass snake was almost soundlessly slithering out of their path as they approached the beaten earth of the bridle trail. He had a glimpse of a small spider in the center of its nearly invisible web, its clawed legs keeping awareness of a number of different threads, feeling for the advent of its next meal. And he was aware of what appeared to be a great tree stump from which two limbs were lifted….
Anriel slipped her hand from his and indicated that stump. “That’s a father tree,” she informed him. “Or at least, that’s what we call them.”
He paused to consider it, and then gave it a respectful bow. “You are right to treat it well and with circumspection,” he advised her.
The shrubbery and trees bulged into the field here, and the bridle path reflected that bulge. They crossed it, and paused on the edge of the thick growth. Derngil turned his head to advise the others, “It’s narrow here, and then we must get down on hands and knees and crawl.”
The plants here were slow to respond to Harolfileg’s presence, but their awareness was awakening swiftly enough that one who was sensitive to them had come into their midst. They began to part to allow him passage while the children had to force their own way through; and when he came to the place where Derngil indicated the children must crawl, he was able to continue still upright.
The last barrier was indeed of brambles, and under them the children stopped, side-by-side on their bellies, peering through into a sheltered glade through which the stream could now be seen running. “Ooh,” breathed Anriel. “It’s pretty!”
“A bower,” agreed Harolfileg, approving of what he saw.
The stream broadened somewhat to form a small pool, and a few rings of logs and smaller boulders had been arranged to serve as table and seats. Bracken had been piled to form a couch of sorts in a hollow sheltered by an evergreen tree, and flowering bushes encircled the space with beauty. And hanging from the over-arching branches were cleverly wrought holders for candles formed from beeswax.
A narrow path led into the bower from the other side of it, and the branches parted, partly the Elf sensed by their own volition, to allow the arrival of a young maiden whose face reflected delicacy and personality and was framed by thick curls of coppery hair. She carried with her a gittern. She came forward to lean a hip on one of the higher stones, facing the pool. She cradled the instrument in her arms and began plucking the strings and turning pegs to tune it, the tip of her tongue to be seen between her teeth as she concentrated on getting the tones right. When at last she had it adjusted to her liking, she went still for a moment. At last she raised the instrument and began to play—and sing.
“A new wind will rise and sweep through the land;
New ruler order all with word of command.
Armies surge and retreat, and surge yet again!
The end-time has come for too many Men!”
“She’s calling for the Dark One to come!” whispered Derngil.
Dírhael snorted. “Nonsense,” he said, quietly but discernible to even the girl on the far side of the pool. “That’s one of Suleirion’s songs!”
As Derngil hissed, “Shh!” the girl stopped playing, rising some and looking about in an attempt to spot where anyone might be hidden.
“Who is there, and what are you doing on my father’s land?” she demanded, her face flushing easily in keeping with her coloring.
Shaking his head at his companions’ lack of discretion, Harolfileg went forward to reveal himself. “I beg pardon, young Mistress,” he said. “The children wished to show me a spot they had found and admired. We did not expect to see any other here. You are Mistress Argilien?”
She’d straightened in surprise, then fell back rather heavily against the stone, her face gone pale. “You—you—you’re an Elf?” she breathed.
He smiled reassuringly. “Yea, and so it is. A star shines down upon our meeting,” he added in Sindarin, giving a low bow. “I am Harolfileg from the renewed land of Eryn Lasgalen, come most recently to Anórien from Minas Tirith at the behest of the Lord King Aragorn Elessar Telcontar and my own Lord Thranduil’s sons, who are now present in the King’s house. I came to your land with Prince Tharen, come to honor Elrond’s fosterling on his coronation as King of Gondor and victor in the battles of the Pelennor and before the Black Gate. He and my own Lord King’s sons bade me come here with the deputation that examines the verdicts handed down upon the youths Danárion, Carenthor, and Garestil.”
He was aware as he spoke of the children wriggling free into the space beside him and rising to their feet.
“Then it’s true—Mistress Vanessë’s letter was indeed read and is being answered as we speak? The Powers be praised!” She laid the gittern upon the stone and crossed over the stream at a point before it broadened into the pool, coming to stand near them.
He felt Derngil, who had pressed himself against his side, shiver in response to that last phrase. He gave the boy a curious glance, but returned his attention to Argilien. “Yes, your King has chosen to honor her request.”
“But why are these here?” she asked, indicating Anriel and the two boys.
“Because this is where their brothers died,” Derngil said, his daring having apparently returned.
Dírhael sighed in disgust. “No, they didn’t—not here. It was over there, over the beam on the other side of Master Medril’s farm where we go berrying. That’s where they died. Constable Amdir took us, Rindor and my mother and me, to show us where their bodies were found.”
“And that is not where they died, either,” Harolfileg assured him. “It was merely where the bodies were hidden, some time after they were already dead.” At the boy’s surprised look, he added, “The trees there noted no violence, and bear no memory of the deaths of children of Men, although those close to the beam that bridges the canal saw the ponies killed. They cannot tell me aught of what kind of being saw to the deaths of the children or the animals, but none sensed the fear the children must have felt before they were slain.”
“Then, you really can talk with trees?” asked Argilien.
He smiled. “I have lived as a wood Elf for the past age and a half of the Sun. I am not as sensitive, perhaps, as is Lord Legolas to the voices of the trees, but, yes, they can speak some with me, and will allow me passage as I need it.”
She gave a slow nod, and began to smile. “Well, I welcome you here. This is my place, now. My aunt never came here much, I understand, although my grand-dame tells me that she spent a good deal of time here when she was a girl.”
“But I saw Danárion here, calling up the Enemy,” insisted Derngil.
“Oh, yes.” Argilien’s face had gone closed with anger. “Oh, yes, he heard all the gossip that Leverion and that horrible Hanalgor started against him, that he worshiped the Nameless One and that he sought to show honor to the Prince of Evil! He heard all of the terrible things that were what everybody knows. And you all believe it?” she demanded.
Dírhael glanced briefly at the other boy, then back to her again. “Well, I don’t—not if he was doing what you’re doing and singing songs written by Suleirion.”
“That’s what he ever did when he came here. My mother would never approve if I let him come into the house and play Suleirion’s music there. She doesn’t like his songs, and says that the music jangles and is not pleasant. But she doesn’t listen to the words to see that he sang of the Return of the King to Gondor, and the end of the reign of the Dark Lord.”
“See?” Dírhael challenged the younger boy. “You need to pay attention to the words, not just to what the grownups say.”
Derngil was flushing, but accepted the rebuke. “But then why didn’t he play at home?” he asked. “Why come here?”
“Because his father sold his gittern, and I was the only one who’d let him use one.” She examined the children more closely, and suddenly exclaimed, “Ah, but you are scratched!” She approached Anriel and drew her to the edge of the pool. Kneeling down, she dipped the corner of her apron (a soft blue, and most becoming, Harolfileg thought) into the water. “I shall cleanse it for you,” Argilien said, gently washing the thin line of blood from the younger girl’s arm. “Silly child, crawling along amidst the brambles. Here. Is that better?” At Anriel’s nod, she rose. “I am grateful you are here,” she said to Harolfileg, “and hope you will help to expose the truth.” She sighed. “My aunt has said that she saw Danárion and me walking together there beyond the canal the night the children went missing, but we never did. Danárion almost never walked abroad beyond the gates at night, for Hanalgor would not usually allow him to pass out of the village once the gates were closed at sunset. Only on the night of Midsummer did he come out, and we walked about the field together here. But Hanalgor did not serve on the gate that night—he was celebrating the holiday with Vendrion and a few others, I understand.”
“We have proved that neither she nor her daughter could have seen what they said they saw,” the Elf assured her. “And they admit that they really saw the two of you walking here, about your father’s fields as you’ve said, as they went to the village to join the celebrations there.”
She smiled in relief, her eyes bright with hope. “Good!” she cried. “One of the lies unraveled, at least. May the rest follow rapidly!”
She offered to lead them across her father’s lands to spare them the return through the brambles, and they thanked her for her courtesy. As they neared the road she told Anriel, “You may visit the bower when you wish, and I hope that it brings you peace. I am so sorry your brother was taken from you so. Danárion could not understand how anyone could do such a terrible thing!”
The younger girl’s eyes were soft with tears. “He was just a little boy—he never did aught to harm anyone. It has torn Nana so, having lost him. And Ada—he seems to have lost part of himself with Gilmar gone.”
As they headed for the gate into Destrier, Dírhael eyed Derngil with a superior smile. “See?” he said. “It doesn’t always pay to believe everything just because everyone knows it.”
Derngil shot him an impudent look, stuck his tongue out at the older boy, and hurried forward, half skipping, half running, for his mother was likely to be very angry if he didn’t answer her call soon, and he knew it.
Harolfileg watched after him thoughtfully. “You said that your mother would not allow Bredwion to go to the woods beyond the canal where he was found without you?”
Dírhael shrugged. “None of the smaller children were supposed to go there alone. And Bredwion just wouldn’t. He was afraid to go down the wide path from the Highway unless he was holding my hand, as he was certain there were spirits there that might do him a mischief. It could feel strange, there under the trees, you see.”
“But he could have gone on the footpath about Master Medril’s fields,” the Elf suggested.
But the boy was shaking his head. “No, he wouldn’t go that way at all. He couldn’t swim, and was certain that the beam was too narrow and he would fall in and drown. He used to have evil dreams of drowning, you see.” The grief became obvious again. “It made it worse, knowing that he was found in the water, and that his nightmares had come true.”
It was a sobering thought, and the Elf laid his hand on the boy’s shoulder in comfort, marveling at how strong these mortal children were in spite of their apparent fragility.
Harolfileg bade farewell to Dírhael and Anriel just inside the gate, and made his way to Master Normandil’s home where he expected to report to Lord Berevrion and Master Anorgil all that he had learned that afternoon.