As they walked from the village hall toward Master Nerwion’s house, Wendthor was slapping what appeared to be a barkless branch tied about with cords against his hand. “What is that?” Berevrion asked him.
“It’s a Rohirric tally stick. I found it in the ruins of the byre that we saw from the Highway as we rode here the other day. We did as you asked and looked for ways that others might have come to the canal from the east, and then followed the old wagon track from the abandoned farm all the way to the Highway. It followed the northern border of that farm and the pastures of the one that had the byre. The one with the byre was owned by a Man who bred fine horses. He came from Rohan—it seems a fair number of people here in the western portions of the lands my father protects have the blood of Rohan in them, and I must suppose that some in the Eastfold have Gondorian blood as well.”
Berevrion nodded his understanding. “These are border regions, after all.”
“Well, he’d married the daughter of the one who’d held the farm last, and worked on her father’s farm until his father-in-law died. When he and his wife took possession of the place, he then turned from breeding primarily cattle to importing, breeding, and training horses instead. He tore down the old cattle barn and built a fine stable of dressed stone in its place. And he especially bred black horses, intending to sell them to Minas Tirith to mount a cavalry. I remember my grandfather discussing the venture with my father when I was about ten, and how the Man had thought to add to the dignity of his adopted land.
“Well, it appears that his decision to raise black horses in particular was what drew his own destruction upon him. The folk of Mordor have always raided the horse herds of the Eastfold to take horses for the use of their fell masters, and they have always particularly targeted any black horse that might be found. One night in the midst of a winter storm a raiding party fell on the farm, apparently approaching it from the north. They went into the stables and the more sheltered pastures and took all of the black horses and most of the darkest of the rest of his stock. They slew him when he came out with sword and horse bow to seek to protect his animals, and killed his wife and most of their children. I remember the soldiers sent to investigate the raid telling my father that they found one of the boys crouched in the cow byre with his father’s tally stick for the horse herd in his hand, still alive and half mad with the horror of what he’d seen done to his family and those who labored on the farm.”
Berevrion reached out his hand to take the stick and examine it. “The raised cords,” Wendthor explained, “indicate how many horses there were and of what colors. Those in this area indicate the black ones, in this I think those that were browns, those here would have been greys, and so on. See how the wood is grooved to allow the line of the cord to lie in the channel between where it is raised to indicate the individual animals? He could feel this even on the darkest nights and count to make certain that all of the horses were brought safely into the stable or could be accounted for in the pastures.”
“Ingenious,” commented the northern lord, and when he had satisfied his curiosity he returned it to Wendthor. “I saw no signs of the stable you describe, and so had no idea as to it having been land on which horses might have been raised.”
“My father gave permission to Master Nerwion to take the stone from the stables about five years ago, if I remember correctly. I believe most of the stone was used in raising the walls on the north side of the village.”
“A wise precaution,” commented Anorgil, indicating he, too, wished to see the tally stick. “I remember the walls there being particularly low when I was young. It was where many of the older boys would sneak in and out of the village at night, as I was told by friends from here.” He turned the stick in his hand before returning it to the younger Man.
Wendthor continued, “As we approached the old houseplace for the farm and passed the woodlot, we saw a narrow path that led towards the byre. I came down it and explored the byre while Faradir walked to the Highway and came around that way. That was where I found the tally stick, partly hidden by blown leaves toward the corner that is best preserved. There had been a stone floor there, and some of the stones had been prised up or trodden out of place. I’d thought to bring it to my father, or to keep it in memory of all who died at the hands of Mordor’s people even before the war proper began.” He thought for a few moments before he added, “It appears that the byre has sheltered some who have traveled through Anórien along the road. I saw signs that a horse or two have been there overnight within the past few months, and that fires may have been kindled for warmth.”
They went through the gap in the low wall that fenced in the property surrounding the house of the Master of the village and crossed the paved court before the house’s main door. A servant in livery opened the door for them and bowed them in; others came with basins of scented water and freshly laundered cloths to allow them to bathe hands and faces and to take their burdens from them so they might properly freshen themselves ere they were led into the main hall of the place, which had been prepared for the serving of the evening meal. Berevrion, Erchirion, and Wendthor were led to the dais where they would sit with the Master himself, and the rest were led to the next lower table.
“Your—Elvish companion, he is not with you?” asked Master Nerwion.
“He asked me to convey his apologies, but indicated he wished to go out into the countryside for a time,” explained Berevrion. “He is not accustomed to the closeness of Men’s villages, and finds himself refreshed by exposure to all that is green and growing.”
Nerwion obviously found this idea novel, and appeared somewhat relieved. He looked up as Normandil was led in, accompanied by Faradir and the other guests from his household. “Ah, you have come in good time, Master Normandil. Here is your place at my side. Now, Lord Berevrion, you remember my wife from last night?”
The meal was somehow stiffer than had been that of the previous evening in Master Normandil’s house, although there were fewer courses and the food not so formally prepared. All seemed somewhat glad when it was over and those in the deputation rose to follow their hosts into a smaller and significantly more comfortable room where a light wine and fruit were offered them, and where the seats were now pleasantly cushioned. “You are satisfied with what you have learned this day?” asked Nerwion with an attempt at casual courtesy.
“We have found rather more than we had expected to,” Erchirion said at Berevrion’s indication he should speak for the party. “To see the particular place where the children’s bodies were found proved most instructive, and we hope that the population of Destrier is relieved by what we have said to the parents both of the children and of the three charged with the murders.”
Nerwion’s smile appeared somewhat strained. “It is hard to say. Those who were in the hall at the last appeared to be divided, some angry at Hanalgor and the rest of the guardsmen, and others threatening violence should you here seek to see Danárion and his fellows freed.”
“So we have seen also,” agreed Berevrion. “You have heeded our instructions regarding the guardsmen and constables housed here for the night?”
“Yes. They are even now being entertained in the servants’ hall—I’ve engaged some of the youths who have studied with the potter of Hevensgil to give them a demonstration of tumbling and juggling such as they’ve learned. It should keep their interests engaged so that they do not dwell too deeply on why they are here rather than in their own homes tonight.”
Berevrion and Erchirion exchanged looks. “It might be well,” suggested Imrahil’s son, “to speak with these young Men when they are finished. They can perhaps add to what we have learned about what Garestil might have been likely to do should he find himself in company with Danárion, Carenthor, and three small boys in that gully we visited earlier in the day.”
“I think you are right,” agreed Berevrion. “Perhaps after we have returned to Master Normandil’s house for the remainder of the evening you will send them there before they return to their homes?”
“As you wish it,” agreed Nerwion.
Not long after, the party offered their thanks and took their leave, and made the short journey back to Normandil’s more comfortable abode, accompanied by Nerwion’s son.
Wendthor was asked again if he wished to spend the evening with Narvil and his friends, but begged off, explaining that his long walk that day after the journey of yesterday and last even’s time in the alehouse had left him fatigued and in desire of a full night of rest. Narvil, having seen his duty met, nodded and departed to seek his own entertainment.
Berevrion particularly was surprised to find that Harolfileg awaited them. “I had thought that you might wish to remain out in the countryside all night,” he admitted to the Elf.
“I had so intended, but then I met some of the children from the village and learned more of what was believed here, and more that indicates things were not presented as they actually happened when the case was laid out before those who served upon the jury.”
They repaired to Normandil’s library, and Harolfileg related to them his meeting with Anriel, Derngil, and Dírhael, and the revelation that most of the children from the area were convinced that Nedron, Gilmar, and Bredwion had died there near the grazing commons rather than on the far side of Master Medril’s farm. He described also the meeting with Argilien, and spoke of her anger at how unpleasant gossip had damaged the reputation of Danárion.
“You told young Anriel that the father tree was to be treated with respect?” asked Erchirion.
“It is not merely a tree, although what was believed to be a father tree on Master Medril’s farm is nothing more than an aged elm shaped by storm and lightning into the semblance of one of the Onodrim. It is long and long again since I last saw an Ent—not since the first ennin after Thranduil became Lord of Eryn Lasgalen in his father’s stead. They came to his halls to ask if any of our people had any word of the Entwives, but we could tell them nothing.
“How it is that an Ent remains here in Gondor I could not say, save that perhaps it remains here on watch, waiting for any word of the Entwives to come to it. It drowses very deeply, however, and roused but a little as it became aware of me.”
“It is perhaps as well that it stands guard over the field where the village’s children tend to gather,” Berevrion commented. “The Ents of Fangorn Forest have no love of the Enemy’s creatures, and they and their huorns destroyed Saruman’s army of Uruk-hai most efficiently from what we’ve been told by our Lord Aragorn and his companions.”
“So Legolas has told those of us who came in company with his brother,” Harolfileg agreed.
“And Bredwion’s brother has said that the boy feared to come to the place where the children were killed by either the old bridle trail or the beam that bridges the canal?” noted Master Normandil. “If this is true, then how was it he came there at all?”
“All of them were dead when they were carried there,” Harolfileg insisted. “I cannot say where they died, but it was not there at the side of the ditch in which their bodies were found. As I told the children earlier today, I sensed no memories of violence or fear in the trees surrounding the ditch. They did not even recognize the bodies as having come from sentient beings. Now, the ponies—that is a different matter altogether. They were indeed led to the bank of the canal and killed there, most swiftly and efficiently. They were not comfortable when they came there, but they were given no chance to know terror.”
All considered this information for a time. At last Berevrion shook his head. “If the children were not killed there at the ditch, they still died somewhere. But how are we to learn where?”
“I suspect that they were brought to the ditch itself from wherever it was they did die carried by their ponies,” suggested Faradir.
“Not by way of the common footpath that led through Master Medril’s land, though,” said Bariol. “Both his wife and daughter would have seen, or anyone else upon the farm. It does appear the entire household was wakeful much of the night.”
“I suspect you are right,” Berevrion agreed.
“That leaves either the bridle trail east of the canal or the way to the abandoned farm that we walked today,” suggested Wendthor. “But how the children might have gone so far I cannot say.”
“They obviously went upon their ponies,” Erchirion pointed out. “But why they should go so far as to make it needful for whoever killed them to bring them back by either path appears to be the question.”
Anorgil finished up his notes on what Harolfileg had learned and shared with them. “And Master Rindor had a history of blaming Bredwion for anything he saw that did not appear proper, you say?”
“So says young Dírhael,” the Elf answered. “And he said that the Man is an eater of poppies.”
Normandil sighed. “There are, unfortunately, a number of such folk in Anórien, who use its sap not to ease pain but solely for the pleasure it gives them. But the more they use it, the harder it is when they must go without, and many die from using too much at a time.”
Gilflorin, who’d been listening avidly, commented, “As did Rindor’s wife. Most distressing it was at the time when she died, and there are those who would have had him charged with giving her too large a dose of it of a purpose.”
“You are certain,” Bilstred asked, “that she died of poppy and not of some other cause?”
Normandil eyed Anorgil’s father briefly before answering, “No, we are not. We have two healers within the village at this time. The younger was certain that she indeed died of the poppy; but Master Erdonmar, who has served as healer here for nearly thirty years, disagrees. He says that, yes, there were signs that she had taken some poppy before she died, but that she had been suffering for some time with a weakening of her heart to the point she often had pain in her chest and spreading upward to her arm, and she had been very ill with chills and fevers for several days before her death. He felt that the illness so soon after the death of her son put stress upon her heart, and that this was why she died. He pointed to both the terrible cough she’d been suffering from as of late and the excessive swelling in her feet and hands as evidence of this when he spoke before the village council. Even though he advised against it, she felt that the poppy helped with the pain, but had promised to take it in very small doses. He himself gave her small vials of the resin to use, just enough in each vial to offer some easing but not enough to hurt most people. After her death he counted the vials, and he says that she did not take more than he had recommended.”
Gilflorin snorted. “And what was to stop Rindor from adding to what she took from his own store?”
Bilstred caught Bariol’s eye. “The swelling and cough speak of the heart’s failure and the gathering of fluids in the upper chest,” he noted, to which Bariol nodded his own agreement. “But Master Erdonmar did well to advise against the poppy. Yes, it might indeed ease some of the pain; but it could also impede the body’s ability to breathe properly.”
Gilflorin shrugged. “But there was the fact that when the healers arrived to see to her as she lay dying, Rindor’s latest paramour was by his side to offer him comfort. Who is to say that he did not hurry the matter so as to be free to be with his newest love?”
“But Erdonmar said that he had not told anyone other than the woman herself that she was suffering from a failure of the heart,” Normandil pointed out. He turned to pour himself more wine. “Although it must be said that Rindor has until lately not shown himself to be particularly virtuous.”
“How does this Rindor support himself and his family?” asked Anorgil.
“He was a gold and silversmith—could create particularly delicate jewelry. However, he began shorting his patrons of portions of the metal they had paid for him to use in the crafting of the works they commissioned of him, and so lost his license from the guild to work in that field.”
“Then how was it that he was able to afford his home in that quarter of the village?”
“In truth, it was only through a gift from his wife’s parents that they were able to let a house there. The end of the time for the lease was approaching, however—they would soon have had to move into other quarters, for her pay as a clerk for a wine merchant was not sufficient to continue there.”
“And what of the stranger seen in the inn’s privy?” asked Lyrien. “He was wounded, unknown to any here, was vomiting—he could have been the one, perhaps, to kill the boys. And he came to the inn at a time to have seen them outside the village, perhaps in a place such as Mistress Argilien’s bower, slain them there, bound them, and hung them from their own ponies’ saddlebows. He could then have led the ponies down the bridle trail from the Highway to where they were hidden….”
But most of the rest were shaking their heads. “No,” said Harolfileg. “With an Ent so close, no matter how deeply it might be drowsing, it is unlikely that this Man would have been able to successfully attack children anywhere close to the village. Ents do not usually pay much mind to Men and their doings, but they do not allow others to do violence in their presence. It is one thing when one creature must hunt another in order to live; it is quite another when it is a vicious attack for any reason other than to obtain food or to protect oneself. In such moments they are known to become—hasty, as they tend to put it.”
“And why go so far to hide the bodies with a stream already close at hand?” Caraftion asked. “Nor would he, as a stranger to the area, and relatively young as he’s been described, be likely to know that there was a ditch apt to hiding bodies down the canal so as to have reason to take the children so far from the Highway. He would most likely have merely taken them to the bridge for the Highway and thrown the bodies into the canal there—or left them to lie where he struck them down.
“Nay,” he continued, “this has always been the puzzle that has disturbed me most. The bodies were hidden. It was claimed by Master Fendril and the guardsman Hanalgor that this was in some way a ritual intended to please the Dark Lord, but no one has shown me any sign that there was a ritual performed in any fashion. Yes, the one child was missing the sacs for his seed, but that was all. And if you are correct that that particular loss was perhaps done by an animal after the child was dead, then the fact this part of his manhood was missing was merely happenstance—an accident, if you will, of animals finding the hidden bodies before Vendrion saw the shoe floating on the surface of the water.”
Margolan had been sitting quietly, a goblet of wine in his hand, listening to all that had been discussed. “There is another possibility,” he suggested. “Any carter or traveler from a different region might have seen the children upon or beside the Highway, approached them as if to ask for directions, perhaps have suggested they accept a sample of what wares he might carry in his wagon, and when they were distracted, examining what he’d given them, struck them. It’s happened in the north with traveling merchants approaching children, and particularly those not in sight of a dwelling or village. By the time the parents realize the child is missing, the carter is often leagues down the road, or hidden in an abandoned barn or shed, waiting for the search for the child to die down.”
Faradir was nodding, lowering his goblet. “You will remember some six years or so ago, Berevrion--that Man who was newly come into Eriador over the High Pass with mead from the Beornings? He abducted that girl from Archet.”
“Oh, yes,” Berevrion said darkly. “Yes, I remember. Our Lord Aragorn saw to it he did not return eastward again. And it was merely happenstance he was caught at all. If Gilfileg had not wondered why a wagon was to be found down the track to that abandoned farmstead, no one would ever have realized what became of the maiden.”
He sighed as he drained his own glass and set it aside. “And I find myself wondering about the stepfather to Nedron as well. Mistress Nessa spoke of him as being subject to fits of violence.”
Wendthor said, “They were speaking of her last night, Narvil’s friends at the alehouse. They said she often sported fresh bruises and would say she had run into a door, but that all knew that it was he who was beating her.”
“So many possible others who might have done this violence upon the children!” Caraftion said in exasperation. “So, someone tell me why they looked first to three youths who none of them lived near to the children or had aught to do with their families?”
It was at that moment that the servant Danford entered the room to announce that the tumblers had come, sent by Master Nerwion.
Within moments four youths were led into the room, their faces still sporting the white face paint commonly worn by such performers, their clothing loose and colorful and stained with sweat on their chests and under their arms. They carried with them bags filled with the balls, clubs, and other items used in their performance and appeared both exultant at the apparent success their efforts had met in Master Nerwion’s house and the surprise they felt at being asked to come before the King’s deputation.
At Berevrion’s request, they introduced themselves, and set themselves to answer the questions of those who were present. The oldest youth explained, “Oh, yes, we all went to Hevensgil once each week to study tumbling and juggling, and Garestil was always one of us. No, he never failed to go, even if he perhaps ought to have stayed home, when he had a cold or had hurt himself. He was so eager to do such things and to earn the applause we’d seen given to the tumblers who’d come here some three years past.
“But where we mostly believed that it would be easy to become tumblers ourselves, he alone seemed unsurprised to learn we must work hard and practice if we were to be good at it. Perhaps it was because he had to work so hard to learn almost everything he did.”
“And all of you went each week to practice at this?” asked Erchirion.
“All of us except for Perthion here,” the youth said, indicating the tallest of those present. “He began going only a few weeks before Garestil was called to the village hall and didn’t come back again. You went how many times, do you think?” he asked his companion.
Perthion shrugged, obviously uncomfortable with this. “Three times—I went merely three times before they accused him of this terrible thing. I was surprised, for I had not seen that kind of anger within him, that he might think to hurt anyone without provocation. Oh, he said things to the older youths such as Leverion that were often rude, but most of that was because Leverion and his friends were always rude and disparaging of him. And, I will admit, I am not certain that he always understood what he said to them—often he would merely repeat what we would say quietly of them amongst ourselves of how awful they could be.”
“And how is it,” asked Anorgil, “that you remember that you went merely three times before he was arrested?”
“Oh, the guardsmen and that Master Fendril burned it into my mind that it was merely three times,” he said bitterly. “I thought I’d gone with them the night that the boys went missing, and told them so. I even went with the others here to the court in Anwar to speak to this in the trial. But the potter keeps a record of who comes each time—I understand he must give such records to the Guild of Entertainers should we apply for guild membership. The guardsmen went to question him and found I’d started a week later than I’d thought, and told that to Master Fendril. So, in the court he made me out as one who would deliberately lie to seek to protect my friend—as if, of course, Garestil was truly my friend. Oh,” he added hastily, “it’s not that I don’t like him and that I didn’t consider him my fellow in this, in the tumbling and all. But—well, really, he’s not my friend, not one I would want to spend a good deal of time with or talk with. He doesn’t really understand what we talk about—his mind is not quick, and he cannot truly appreciate most of the jokes we make or what we mean when we talk about books we’ve read or songs we like to hear sung.
“But once they’d proved I’d started a week later than I’d thought, they acted as if the others here were lying, too, and would only tell that he’d gone with them on that night because they sought to protect him.”
“Even so,” agreed the one who’d spoken first, and the other two nodded their heads to indicate they’d felt the same.
The young Men were given a light drink and some other refreshment to compensate them for the time they’d spent with Normandil’s guests, and they gave a short demonstration to show what they were capable of, and took their leave, each of them with a silver crown given them by Lord Berevrion in appreciation for their skill. “Use it to purchase good face paint and more colorful balls and clubs for your juggling,” he suggested. “You all have it in you to be excellent tumblers from what I can see.”
And glowing with pleasure, they wended their ways home.
There was some more consideration of what they’d learned in the past day, and all retired to the quarters given them to take their rest, Anorgil and Berevrion going together to consult on what further information needed to be noted, and to prepare the report to be carried back to Minas Tirith by Margolan.