Mistress Nessa fell to her knees. It could be seen she had been struck repeatedly on her face. He is left-handed, the one who struck her, noted Berevrion. The skin about her right eye was red, and the tissue was beginning to swell. Her mouth was puffy and the lip split, and already it was beginning to take on a blue tinge behind the bright red blood from the damaged lip. It appeared the blows had been inflicted with a closed fist. Her garment was torn also, and she was clutching it closed at her left shoulder.
For a brief moment all were struck still by surprise, but then people began crying out and rising rapidly. Master Gilflorin proved to be one of those just within the doorway, and he was removing his surcoat and slipping it about her, raising her to her feet. Berevrion turned toward Faradir, who’d taken a place behind him. “Take the guardsmen Hanalgor and Vendrion in charge, and take them back to Master Nerwion’s house. Advise him of the assault on Mistress Nessa and apparently on her brother as well, and ask him to send word to not allow Master Vangil to leave the village.”
Faradir gave a brief, “It shall be so, Berevrion,” and hurried around the table to Hanalgor’s side, the guardsman obviously put totally out of his reckoning by what was happening about him. “Come,” Faradir commanded, and Hanalgor allowed himself to be led to the room where Vendrion still waited.
Erchirion was giving orders to his Swan Knight as well, and seeing that happening, Berevrion, as he came about the table himself, called out to the teacher, “Please—go to the healers for the village. Ask one to come to Mistress Nessa’s house, and have the other prepare what surgery there may be. We may well need it.”
The teacher, his face pale, nodded, and quit the building as quickly as he was able. Berevrion called to all others to stay still where they were, and the crowd ceased to roil as it had but a moment earlier. “We must not wander about willhe-nillhe. We do not know as yet whether Vangil is armed, but we know he is potentially dangerous. You,” he said to the baker, “choose five to aid you and head for the gate. Advise the guards there not to allow Vangil to leave the village. Those who are parents, if you know where your children are, go to them and see them safe to your homes. The rest of you, let some summon the market guards and some the other constables and those gate guards who are not on duty. Do your best to safeguard those who might be vulnerable to being used as a hostage. If you see Vangil, do not approach him, but see him contained if at all possible. You might pursue him into a house, then surround it to see that he does not escape by another means. Let two or three go together—do nothing on your own. Is this understood?”
At the indication of general agreement, he nodded at them to remove themselves, and hurried to where Anorgil’s father stood supporting the stricken woman. “Did he have a weapon?” he asked her.
“He always has a knife or two,” she said bitterly. “He came with an orc knife he took from the body of one found upon the road after the last assault by such creatures along the Highway, there before word was sent out that Minas Tirith was safe. He had it thrust through his belt. I have no idea why he brought it—perhaps he meant to use it on me. I don’t know! But I didn’t see it at first when he came and pounded upon the door and demanded that I come out and allow him to reason with me. I didn’t think that he would do aught with my brother there, so I came out upon the doorstep to learn what he wanted, and he grabbed my wrist and sought to drag me elsewhere. Hearing me cry, Algorn came forth and sought to pull him away from me, and Vangil pulled the knife and struck Algorn with it in the belly. He then ignored Algorn as if he were of no moment and turned upon me. I was trying to get to my brother as he fell to the ground, but he again grabbed me by my left shoulder, and held me by the fabric of my dress! I cried out against him and beat against his arm, and he began to beat my face with his fist.”
“And you managed to get away?”
“Yes—I tore the dress wresting away from him! No one was home in the houses nearby, so I ran here. Algorn--!”
Bariol and Harolfileg were already headed toward the neighborhood closest to the stable just inside and east of the gate to the village, and with an indication for Wendthor, Gilflorin, Bilstred, and Anorgil to bring her along as quickly as they could, he turned to follow the two healers, Caraftion and Erchirion by his side.
Others had arrived first, and were crowded about the fallen figure of a Man lying just outside the door to a small dwelling. Inside they could hear a child screaming in fear. “He hurted him! He hurted him!” the child kept crying. “He hurted him, and he beat my mommy!”
A woman made her way inside and sought to soothe the little girl. “Sa, sa—your mother is safe enough. Who did this?”
“Papa did—he hurted Nuncle, and beat my mommy! He hit her with his fist—hit her so hard! Mommy told me to stay in, and shut the door, so I went to her room and peeked through the window! He hurted Nuncle!”
Those outside the house moved aside to allow the Elf and the Mannish surgeon to approach the fallen Man.
Bariol’s face was set and he glanced up to meet Berevrion’s eyes. “Gut wound. And it’s an orc’s blade, all right—black with who knows what kind of filth. He’s yet alive, but there’s a good chance we won’t be able to save him. You know what infections come from such wounds.”
Someone removed the door from the house, and brought it. Bariol and Harolfileg carefully lifted Algorn onto it, and accepted a blanket someone brought to them to lay around the wounded Man. A Man was arriving carrying a healer’s bag, his face white as he saw the pale, still visage of Algorn partially obscured by the grey blanket. Bariol said, “I’m a battle surgeon, and Master Harolfileg is also skilled in dealing with wounds caused by orc weapons. We will need to use your surgery, but Mistress Nessa will need your services, I fear.” He nodded to where she could be seen approaching, still supported by Gilflorin and Bilstred, and with Wendthor and Anorgil in attendance. He called out to Wendthor, “Can you run to Master Normandil’s house and fetch our healers’ bags to the surgery?”
Wendthor nodded. He turned to a curious youth who’d joined the crowd. “Will you accompany me and show me the way, please?” he asked.
Apparently glad to have something worthwhile he could do, the young Man smiled and led the way toward the merchant’s house. Assured they had done as much for Algorn as was possible for the moment, Harolfileg and Bariol, with some of the villagers to carry the makeshift bier, set off with guidance for the surgery.
Vangil was not to be found, having apparently fled once his wife had managed to free herself from his grasp. “He ran away,” little Mardeth told them when they asked. “After Mommy ran away, Papa ran away, too. He hit her, in the face, and he hurted Nuncle!”
“And which way did he flee?” asked Berevrion.
“Toward the stable,” she answered.
While the healer saw to Mistress Nessa, Master Nerwion arrived. He quickly organized those Men and older boys present into parties, setting each to search a specific portion of the village, with directions to look into outbuildings and lofts or outdoor cellars. Mistress Renata, hand in hand with her daughter Anriel and trailed by Master Rindor, came down the lane from the direction of the market in the midst of this activity, and seeing Berevrion in consultation with Anorgil and Master Gilflorin, she approached them. “What is happening?” she demanded. “I thought you were speaking with the constables and guardsmen!”
“We were,” he assured her, eyeing Rindor warily. “But as we were finishing with our questioning of Hanalgor, Mistress Nessa entered with word that she had been assaulted and her brother wounded by—”
“By Vangil?” interrupted Renata. “I ever feared he might be the death of her. A violent Man, and a terrible husband he’s proved. She’ll be well shut of him when her marriage contract is dissolved by Lord Benargil.”
“Is it serious?”
Berevrion indicated the house behind him with a jerk of his head. “She will be well enough, I suspect. But there is a very good chance that Master Algorn will not survive. It is a gut wound, and was administered by an orc knife. Such wounds are usually mortal, I fear. However, two healers were with him in a matter of minutes. If they can seal any damage to the bowels and flush it well enough, I suppose there is a very small chance he could live, although he is likely to suffer from pain from such a wound indefinitely, should he even survive the rest of the day.”
“But where could he come across an orc----” She stopped. “Oh, yes—those orcs who were slain by soldiers who assaulted them from the direction of Minas Tirith, there a league west of us. We think they were one of the ambushes set against reinforcements from Rohan getting through during the siege of the capital. Many of the menfolk went out after the battle to look on the place. And Vangil would pick up such a knife as a keepsake. He was quite impressed by blades.”
“Is she seriously hurt?” asked Rindor.
Berevrion searched the Man’s eyes. There was no hint of his usual brash nature in them, and no signs he had taken either poppy or drink that day, or even recently. No, they were merely eyes such as he had seen too often in his years as one of Aragorn’s officers among the Rangers of Eriador—eyes of one who had seen too much loss, too much grief, and who now sought to shelter another he’d come to feel fellowship for from even more grief of her own. For the first time he found it in him to believe that Rindor had not played a part in the death of his younger adopted son or his playfellows. Berevrion’s tone softened as he answered, “No, her hurt is not too great. Her eye has been blackened, her cheek bruised, and her lip split. I suspect she will be sore for some days yet, and particularly her jaw—he appears to have hit her there more than once.”
“The vicious sot!” Rindor said, balling his fists.
“Is there anything we can do?” asked Mistress Renata.
“She will probably wish to see to her brother’s fate once her own hurts are tended to and she has had the chance to change her dress and reassure her daughter. You might offer to care for little Mardeth and keep her safe until she can return. And if you and your husband can watch over the two of them, and perhaps notify the rest of her family as to what has happened?”
“Tevern is not here—he’s gone to Amon Dîn with a shipment of barrels, and won’t return before tomorrow at the earliest, perhaps later if he is given another shipment to carry on the return journey. It often happens so.”
“We will watch over them, Dírhael and I, until Tevern can return,” offered Rindor, and the determination to offer what protection he was able could be read easily in his expression.
Perhaps, Berevrion thought, this will help him to earn a level of trust from his stepson. Maybe there is hope that Dírhael will find at least part of the example of a proper father yet in this Man. He nodded his respect to Rindor for the offer made. “Then I rejoice to thank you for doing so.”
The former jewelry maker appeared surprised and then honored by Berevrion’s tone, and straightened. “I promise—no more evil will befall her—not now.”
“I will hold you to that,” Berevrion told him, and watched with satisfaction as he followed Renata into the house to speak with Nessa.
Then word was shouted down the street that Vangil had been seen making a break for the gate. If he should manage to get out, who knew where he might go?
Berevrion, Erchirion, and the Swan Knight who accompanied them were among the first to reach the gate. It had been opened to allow the farmer who raised swine west of the village entrance to bring hams to the alehouse, and Vangil had thrown himself under the tongue of the wagon to evade the gate guards.
“He’s gone into the commons!” they were advised.
The three warriors raced after him. On passing through into the grazing field, they saw that their quarry was hurrying across the field northward, apparently headed for the canal.
“Halt!” commanded Erchirion. “Halt in the name of the Steward—and the King!” he corrected himself.
Vangil paused only long enough to peer back at them. He changed direction, now headed for the woods along the stream on the eastern borders of the field. Children unbidden fled out of his path, and a pony shied, almost but not quite unseating the girl who rode it until she managed to turn it away and allowed it its head.
Erchirion and his Swan Knight companion were gaining on him, although Berevrion wasn’t far behind them. Beside the way Vangil was going, the northern lord saw a great stump of a tree, its lower trunk appearing almost separated as if it had legs, two twiggy limbs lifted upwards toward the sky….
Vangil dove into the shadows under the trees, and they heard a shriek of surprise from a child. Apparently at least one youngster had been playing there. They could hear sharp commands, although they could not make out the words, and vaguely Berevrion registered that the stumped figure over him was twisting with no wind to cause it to stir. The three warriors slowed to a stop a sufficient distance to offer no direct threat to Vangil, hoping to avert any danger to the child.
Then Vangil appeared, holding pressed to his chest the body of a girl, her head adorned by a daisy chain, a smudge of mud across her cheek and the rough apron she wore over her dress. She’d apparently been paddling in the stream, for her feet were bare and the hem of her garment was dripping water. She still clutched in her hand a flowering branch, and her mouth was squeezed shut and her eyes wide and staring with terror. He held the point of a knife to her throat. “Come no closer!” he commanded. “Come no closer, or I’ll slit her throat! I swear it!” he called, the last almost crazed in its tone.
He dragged the girl sideways, back toward the road. “You will let me go,” he insisted. “You will allow the two of us to leave, and you will not follow us. You will make no move toward us, or I swear that I will kill her, and the blame will be yours! You will have made me do it!” He pressed the blade closer, and Berevrion could see a drop of blood where the point pierced the skin of her neck.
But Vangil could not see what was now leaning down from behind him, how what had appeared twiggy branches were now reaching for him, what all had thought to be a tree saying in sonorous Sindarin, “You think to hurt a child, do you? I rather think not!” One branched hand caught his left wrist and twisted it, and all could hear the crack! as his arm broke and the knife fell harmlessly to the ground, while the other wrapped about Vangil’s chest and lifted him up. In his shock, Vangil let loose of the girl, and she slumped sideways to the ground and curled into a weeping ball in reaction.
The Ent straightened to its full height and held the Man before him, examining him with eyes that appeared to be golden-green wells of contemplation. “Baroom-a-hoom!” it rumbled. ”Not good, to threaten a child. Never good to threaten a child!” it continued, still speaking in slow Sindarin. It gave the Man a shake to emphasize its point, and there was a strangled cry before Vangil went limp. The Ent prodded the Man’s chest, then looked down at the three Men standing before him, Erchirion and the Swan Knight standing open-mouthed in shock.
Berevrion made a point of sheathing his weapon, then bowed low to the Ent. “I pray you forgive us, Master. Few have ever realized that one of Fangorn’s people stood watch here,” he explained in Sindarin.
The Ent stretched out the arm holding its captive. “Is this one of yours. I grieve to say that he appears—hoom, hoom—somewhat broken. I will give him to you if you wish.”
“We will have need of him,” Berevrion explained. “We thank you for saving the girl-child.”
The Ent examined him more closely. “How is it you recognize me as one of Fangorn’s people?” he asked.
“We have heard of you from Mithrandir and from our Lord King Aragorn, who met with Fangorn himself at Isengard.”
“Isengard? And what was Fangorn doing at Isengard? He said when last we met that he would not leave the forest again unless he heard word of the Entwives.”
“The White Wizard turned traitor to all of the Free Peoples, and began slaughtering the tree-herds over which your people watch. And why are you here, so far from the forests of your own folk?”
The Ent gave a ponderous shrug. “I wait here in hopes that we might hear word of the Entwives. Marchflowers was my mate, and I am not eager to close off all hope of seeing her once more.
“Here,” he added, leaning down to hold Vangil’s body out for Berevrion to take. “I am sorry I appear to have hurt him. But I swear that he acted the very orc! I hate orcs, the vile….” And it launched into a long rumbling series of sounds that appeared to be a description in Entish as to just how vile orcs were capable of being.
“And we thank you,” Berevrion assured him, taking Vangil’s body carefully from the Ent’s grasp.
A Man had run across the field as they’d spoken and now was kneeling to lift the girl into his arms, crooning her name and assuring her, over and over, that she was now safe. Slowly she uncurled, reassured by the Man’s embrace and voice. At last she looked up, and as she met the Ent’s gaze she went still, her eyes now wide with awe. “The Father Tree—see, Ada? The Father Tree—it saved me!”
Berevrion smiled at her. “Yes, it did.”
The Ent appeared pleased at the child’s tone. “The child—it is well with the child? Good! Good! I do like children. It’s why I chose to wait here—at times it’s almost like being surrounded by Entings. But not long ago I could swear I sensed an Elf. Was there truly an Elf here?”
“Really an Elf? Haven’t seen an Elf for—well, not since shortly after the Elves and Dúnedain marched on Mordor and brought down Morgoth’s foul get. Not that I sense that one, the self-described Dark Lord, now, though,” the Ent commented, and appeared to stretch. “I’ve not been properly—awake for quite some time,” he added. “Not for quite some time. Perhaps I’ll merely go back to sleep. The child is safe now, true? Good. Hoom, hom. Good. Like children,” it murmured and returned to its usual stance, its queerly ancient eyes closing.
“What is it?” whispered the Man who cradled the girl in his arms.
“An Ent from Fangorn Forest has chosen to guard this field where the children play,” Berevrion explained. “He could not allow any threat to any child he sensed playing nearby. He likes children, or so he has told me.”
The girl who’d nearly been thrown by her pony had approached, leading her steed. “It talked! I’ve seen it move a few times, but didn’t know it could talk!”
“Yes, it can talk, although it doesn’t do so often. He says that he’s kept watch here for quite a long time, and that he enjoys hearing you children playing near his feet.”
The gathering children exchanged delighted and awe-filled glances. “I think, however,” Berevrion said in a more serious tone, “that it best you all return to your homes now. A great evil has been averted, and your parents will wish to know that you are all safe. Check to make certain none play in your secret places along the stream or the canal, and return home that your parents can be assured none of you came to harm due to this one,” and he indicated the Man he held in his arms.
It took some time to get Vangil back into the village. They took him through to the healers’ houses. He was still alive, but the signs were he wouldn’t likely remain that way for long. “His spine is broken high up, almost to the neck,” advised Master Erdonmar, the senior healer. “He can no longer feel what is beyond the break, and how long his heart will be able to continue to beat I cannot say. He is now awake and aware, but cannot control his breathing sufficient to speak.”
“It will be enough if he is able to indicate yes or no,” Berevrion noted.
“I think he will be able to do that,” the healer indicated.
Vangil stared up at the ceiling when the northern lord and Master Nerwion entered the room. He flicked his eyes toward them briefly, then back toward the ceiling. His breathing was very labored.
“Your thought to take a child hostage, and so close to a Father Tree, proved to be a bad one,” Berevrion told him. “The Father Tree in that field is actually a creature known as an Ent, and one who particularly likes children. He would not stand for you threatening to hurt a child, and he admits he was perhaps harsher on you than he intended to be. However, he rejoices that the child is safe.”
Again a flick of the eyes toward him, then deliberately away.
“You have not long, or so I am told. We would wish to ask you some questions.”
The glance this time was mutinous. There was obviously nothing he could do to forestall their questions, after all.
“Blink once for yes and twice for no. Do you understand?”
“Did you resent the presence of your stepson within your house?”
“Did you wish him gone?”
“Did you beat the child?” Vangil merely glared at him. At last Berevrion asked again, “Did you ever beat him when he did not deserve it?”
When he refused to answer, Nerwion said dryly, “I suspect that there was rarely a time when this one did not believe that the boy deserved a good beating.”
Vangil tried to speak, but could not. He began to appear distressed, his face gone white, his breathing increasingly ragged.
Harolfileg entered the room. “So, this one indeed managed to waken the Ent? It was not an act of wisdom to threaten a child in its presence.”
“Are you skilled in osanwë?” Berevrion asked him.
“Not particularly. It is a skill that was favored by some among the Noldor, but has never been much practiced among the Lindar such as I am. I can sense a good deal of anger in him, anger and resentment, and sensed it in him yesterday as well. Now he is angry particularly because he realizes that he can do nothing more for himself, but he is also frightened because he knows he is dying. But as for knowing his specific thoughts or memories of actions toward his wife, her brother, or her son, that I cannot perceive.”
Berevrion placed a hand against the dying Man’s temple, and one last time Vangil opened his eyes and looked at him, defiance still to be read there. “Did you kill Nedron?” he asked gently.
Vangil’s mouth worked briefly, his eyes glared—and there was a final spasm, and he died.
“There was a final surge of sheer resentment, but I cannot say if it was directed toward the child, toward you for asking the question, or toward the world in general for offering him such an ignominious ending,” Harolfileg said quietly.
“How is Anglor?” asked Master Nerwion.
The Elf shrugged as he watched Berevrion close the dead Man’s eyes. “He yet lives, which is itself perhaps a hopeful sign. Master Erdonmar had prepared for our coming by setting a fair quantity of water and salt boiling, and had kingsfoil that we could seep in it as it cooled, and with it we were able to flush the wound fairly effectively. And he also had waiting for us a quantity of bread ripe with mold to press against it. As to whether what Bariol and I did was sufficient to allow him to heal—only time can show us that. And even if he does heal, there is still the probability that scarring and adhesions might occur and cause complications in the future. He has become conscious twice, and appeared to recognize where he was and Master Erdonmar, so his mind at least appears clear. But, it was an orc weapon. Whether we could flush out all of the filth from it is questionable.”
“I have known a few who have managed to survive such wounds, although I will admit is it but very few indeed—I think three.” Berevrion finally turned his eyes from the dead Man’s face to meet the Elf’s gaze. “We can hope. Perhaps if Aragorn had been here the kingsfoil might have been even more effective, and his gift of healing might have been sufficient to help fully counter the poison of the blade. But we will not count Anglor lost until he breathes his last.”
They shared a sad smile, and turned back to the dead Man.
“Perhaps this will be enough to assure those within the village who would still blame someone specific for the deaths of the children that somehow justice has been served,” Nerwion said.
“That you were willing to allow Danárion to serve in that capacity does not speak particularly highly for you,” Berevrion responded.
Briefly defiance flared in the village Master’s eyes. “You were not here to see the fear and fury that filled the village then! You could not see the intensity of need to see someone—anyone—pay for the deaths of those children!”
“So you allowed Borongil, Hanalgor, and Vendrion to feed them with tales of worship of Sauron, and to pursue Danárion solely because he was a disturbing influence within the village? You read what was laughingly called a confession that was wrested from Garestil. He did not know Danárion sufficiently well to indicate the invitation to attend the murders would come from him, so he made Carenthor the one who planned all and who did the greater part in the disfigurement of the victims. You had to know the general attitude of respect within the village toward Carenthor. Why did you allow such lies to stand against him?”
“What was I to do—to denounce my own guardsmen as fools and to cause the people of Destrier to lose confidence in them? And had Carenthor been allowed to remain in the village, would he not have been likely to become an agitator as strong as Danárion himself, seeking ever to convince all that his friend had been wrongly convicted of the murders? I did what I could for them—I convinced Danárion’s aunt and uncle and cousin to speak out for him, and to explain that he had been in their house that evening at the time when the children went missing. How was anyone to anticipate that Danárion himself would lie about when he went there?”
“What is this about Danárion lying about when he went somewhere on the day the children went missing?” asked the younger of the village’s healers from the door to the room. He looked at the figure on the bed. “So, that one is gone, is he? Poor soul. But, I suppose that we are all better off without him.” He looked back to meet Master Nerwion’s eyes. “So, what is this about Danárion?”
“When he spoke in his own defense at the trial, he said that he believed he went to the home of Targon’s sister and her husband in the afternoon. And although all others said that they went there after the evening meal, which would have made it impossible for him to have been involved in the murders, those who were on the jury saw only the lie by Danárion, who was known to have been at Master Amborn’s farm when he said he went to the aunt’s house. So they chose to disbelieve all of them, and voted him guilty. And, having named him guilty, they could do no other than to name those tried with him as guilty as well. And I cannot for the life of me understand why he would have so lied about when he was at Targon’s sister’s home.”
And in Nerwion’s eyes Berevrion could see that the Man was indeed frustrated, and that he had never intended for the three youths to actually be found guilty of the crime. “I see—you allowed them to be arrested to distract those within Destrier who must see some action going forward to seeing the crime solved. This would have allowed the serious ones such as Amdir to actually continue in the true search for the real murderer of the children!”
“Indeed, that was my hope. But I never counted upon either Borongil or Hanalgor to have so effectively undermined the authority of Amdir within the village. I was wrong not to listen to the complaints of Veredorn and Amdir regarding them. And I was wrong to allow Master Fendril to prevail upon me to take Borongil as the Captain of the guards and constables. I should have known that this was but another of Fendril’s fellow believers in the secret conspiracy of Sauron’s worshipers within Anórien!
“I was chosen by Master Lossothion and Lord Benargil’s father to succeed Lossothion as Master here primarily because they saw me as one not given to superstition, as one who as a realist could hopefully help counter the growing belief in the foolishness that this region is so prone to. Master Fendril, for instance, has successfully fought every attempt in the region under Anwar’s sway to build sewers and to bring water from a central, clean source to all within each city, town, or village. His reason? He is convinced that for a man to relieve himself into running water will somehow unman him! You should have read the complaints sent regarding him some ten years past when he visited the Citadel within Minas Tirith—he insisted upon using a chamber pot each time and then emptied it out of the window of his suite rather than using the water closet! Lord Denethor was most displeased by this defilement of his gardens.
“But this is the general attitude of so many hereabouts. The Keep in Anwar itself still boasts a midden, and the shallow wells of Hevensgil are notorious for becoming filled with pestilence during the summers. Go there, and you will see the women and girls each day from the first of May until the middle of September going out of the village to the river to fetch water at least for drinking, cooking, and the cleansing of dishes.”
“I see,” Berevrion said, and sighed, leaning back against the wall and rubbing at his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose. “And now, with the cost of the war to defray, you cannot see to it that all of the improvements Master Lossothion and you had hoped to see done by this time made.”
“Indeed. I had hoped that Amdir would be able to teach Hanalgor how to properly conduct the trial by water, and even encouraged him to allow Hanalgor to do so under supervision. But I did not appreciate until now how Hanalgor was convinced that it was a sovereign method of divining truth. Nor did I reckon properly with the ambition of Hanalgor or the greed of Borongil.
“As you have yourself divined, I allowed Danárion to be targeted by Borongil and Hanalgor to pacify the villagers and to keep those two out of the way, I thought, of Amdir, whom I believed capable of following what leads there were. It was my hope that before the youths came to trial that Amdir and Caledorn would have found out who truly slew the children. But Borongil managed to limit what Amdir was able to do, and it appears they and Vendrion managed to convince Caledorn that they had the right of it in accusing Danárion. So, I encouraged Targon’s sister to stand up for her nephew, and she did. But then, for Danárion to lie about the time! Why did he do this?”
“Perhaps because he was truly confused?” suggested the healer.
“I cannot imagine even Garestil was so easily confused that he could not tell the difference between morning and night,” Nerwion said. “How could Danárion have been so mistaken as to whether he went to his aunt’s house in the late afternoon or after the evening meal?”
“Because of the draught I gave him,” the younger Man said. He closed his eyes, appearing almost pained, then opened them determinedly. “He’d only been free of the splints upon his arm for three days, what with the break his father caused, throwing the boy against the wall when Danárion interrupted what it was he did with the boy’s sister. He would not listen when I warned him he must allow time for his arm to regain its strength before he would be able to do all he was accustomed to having done before the break. He’d gone to Amborn’s farm to help in the cleansing of the byres, and did his best to keep up with the hands. But he could not do all he wanted, and came to me after in great pain, the muscles themselves cramping. So, I gave him a draught with both some poppy and some hemp in it. I’d hoped he would return to his home and go early to his bed, and by morning the pain should have been gone. But he apparently did not. With the effects of both the poppy and the hemp, even as mild a draught as I gave him, his ability to tell the time would likely have been quite confused. He would also possibly have behaved even more inappropriately than was usual with him with anyone who questioned aught that he did.”
Berevrion found himself smiling. “So, that was the way of it, eh? Even more has come clear now!”
He considered, looking down at the body lying on the cot. “I now understand why you are now willing to allow Vangil to possibly bear the brunt of the suspicion of the village. However, with him dead, it is unlikely anyone will ever be able to fully prove whether or not he committed the murders, or if there is yet another who actually killed the children. We will continue to look for what we can find, but it may indeed help those in the area to accept that Danárion, Carenthor, and Garestil are innocent if they can think this one possibly doubly deserved his fate. Certainly he has proved himself capable of having killed his stepson and his friends.
“Come—let us away. And in the morning, ere we leave the village, we will have one final examination before the people of the Destrier….”
As the people of Destrier awoke the next morning, the patterer and the village herald were already abroad, calling out the news that the King’s deputation would be leaving that day to return to Anwar, that Hanalgor, Vendrion, Amdir, Veredorn, and a few others would be going with them, and that there would be one last hearing in the village hall at the second bell, to which all who could come were summoned.
Most of the deputation was seated as the people found places within and without the hall. At last the families of the dead children and the three accused were led within and seated together to one side, while Vendrion and Hanalgor were made to stand opposite them, Amdir, Caledorn, and Veredorn and the village healers and a few others surrounding them. Berevrion and Erchirion entered with Master Nerwion, and together they took the final seats at the main table.
When all were still, Nerwion rose. “People of Destrier,” he said, “it is now time to close the investigation into the deaths of Nedron, Gilmar, and Bredwion of this village. All were distressed when they were found dead, and certain that evil itself walked amongst us. So it was that the one youth in the village thought to personify such evil was named the most likely one to have killed the children, and the guardsmen and constables together set out not to properly find who had truly committed this foul deed but instead to prove that Danárion had somehow authored this atrocity.
“And I freely admit that I allowed this to happen, hoping that with indications that those in authority were diligently seeking justice for the murdered boys, that the village would calm down, and that cooler heads would in the meantime find the true murderer. Yea, I admit that I was never truly convinced that Danárion had aught to do with the deaths of the three little boys.”
“But Garestil confessed to having taken part in the murders!” insisted a Man. “I went to Anwar for the trials and heard what was told there of what he’d confessed to!”
“Did you know that in the beginning he confessed only to having seen the murders happen?” asked Nerwion. “He never said he himself took part—not then!”
“That was not what was reported in Anwar,” said the woman at the Man’s side, the same one who had twice before indicated she refused to believe that the three youths could be innocent.
“And that was because Master Fendril, having realized many of the gross errors in the original confession, insisted that there be yet another questioning of Garestil, not allowing Master Caraftion or Master Pardronë to know of it. Instead, he and Borongil between them met secretly with Garestil over the space of some days to prepare him to make this confession, one that they hoped would prove so compelling that none would question it. And he gave it to them. But then before he could be brought to sign it, he learned that this would not free him, and he admitted that this, too, was a lie. They tried to bring pressure upon Master Veredorn here to amend the original confession to include many of the changes they had convinced Garestil to make, but he would not, for to do so would be to break the laws of Gondor regarding statements and confessions. Instead, they convinced two different official scribes from elsewhere to make false copies of the original.”
“And Danárion indeed did not kill the boys?” asked someone. “I never could think how Carenthor could have been involved, and with what we learned the other day I was glad to realize he was indeed innocent. But do we have proof that Danárion had nothing to do with it?”
So it was that Targon’s sister, her husband, their daughter, and their neighbors were called forward, and together they repeated what they’d said in court—that Danárion had come with his mother and sister to their house after dinner to talk with them about the husband offering the youth employment. The husband explained, “But I didn’t really wish to employ him to load my wagons, so I convinced my wife to go to the cockfights in Hevensgil instead, telling her she was mistaken regarding the evening when we were to meet with Vanessë and her children. How was anyone to know that the three children would die that evening, or that Danárion would be blamed?”
The woman sought to challenge the neighbors, asking them, “How is it you remember so well seeing Danárion with his mother? She might have left him home, after all!”
“Left him home? With the trouble he was having getting out of their house, and the arguments he was giving his mother and sister? We thought he was drunk, or perhaps worse!” The neighbor to Targon’s sister was most definite in his statement.
“Well, if he was drunk, so much the more likely he was to have been killing those little boys!” the woman insisted.
“And how was he to get himself out of the village, much less back in later?” demanded the neighbor’s wife. She turned to the gate guards. “Hanalgor wasn’t on duty that night. Did any of you see Danárion leave around dusk, or come back afterwards? For it was just nearing sunset when he left their house,” pointing at Targon’s sister, “raising such a row with his mother and sister.”
The guards all indicated that, no, Danárion had not gone out that evening at or after sunset, nor come back afterwards. Nor had Carenthor been seen at the village’s gate. “Garestil indeed came back in well after sunset, but in company with the youths who went to Hevensgil, and they were all telling us that he’d managed to successfully juggle with three balls that evening.”
There was considerable talk amongst the villagers over this information. “Why didn’t you say this before?” demanded someone in the crowd.
“Captain Borongil had made it clear we were not to discuss the case at all,” explained one of the guards. “And Hanalgor threatened us if we should say anything about Garestil coming through the gate that evening with those who usually went to Hevensgil. And if you wish to know who it was who left and later returned to the village after the search was given over for the night, then you must apply to Masters Rindor and Vangil!”
Rindor, flushing deeply, rose to his feet. “I had nothing to do with whatever Vangil might have been doing that night!” he insisted. “And I was only seeing to it that certain—things were delivered as promised to certain purchasers.” Berevrion noted that Hanalgor tried to indicate to Rindor to be quiet, but that Rindor was pointedly ignoring him.
“What kind of purchasers?” asked Erchirion.
“It was mostly foodstuffs, I was told for some from Dunland who were having a hard time of it—bad harvests, they told me.”
“And who told you this?” pursued Imrahil’s son.
“Captain Borongil and Guardsman Hanalgor. And yes,” Rindor continued with a glare at Hanalgor, “I’m telling them! How do I know that it was such a harmless arrangement as you convinced me then?”
Faradir, who’d been standing behind the guardsmen, drew his sword and stepped closer to Hanalgor, who dropped his hand from his own sword’s pommel and glanced warily over his shoulder at the northern warrior. “I would suggest,” Faradir said quietly, “that you do not move from where you are. Constable Amdir, will you please take his weapons? Be certain to take his belt knife and the knife in his left boot as well, please.”
“Tell us,” Berevrion directed Rindor.
As Rindor explained it, it was supposed to have been some harmless smuggling. An emissary had arrived from the entourage of Théoden King’s chief counselor, Gríma son of Gálmód, saying that he wished to purchase foodstuffs from Anórien for relatives in Dunland. They were to arrange shipments once a month of whatever types of food supplies they could lay their hands upon, but not in sufficient quantities as to draw attention. There was a shipment that was to be picked up at midnight on that night, two days before Midsummer, and Rindor had been recruited to see to it that the wagon holding the goods was ready to be taken by whoever came. “They were big brutes, those who came—large and very muscular. Always came cloaked in dark grey or black, with their hoods up and their faces mostly hidden. Only badge or sign I could see that might indicate who they might have come from was that they’d begun to have a brooch of a white hand holding their cloaks closed.”
“Saruman,” growled Erchirion, his teeth clenched.
“Yes,” agreed Berevrion. “The rebel wizard did need supplies for his guards and the army he was building, after all.” He asked Rindor, “What kinds of supplies did you have ready for him that time?”
“Oh, there were crates of strawberries, several of flat breads that keep a fair amount of time, a number of flats of vegetables from Farmer Beslor, and such things.”
“The wagon was full?”
“And they arrived at midnight?”
“Yes, my lord.”
“What kind of payment did they provide?”
“They paid in a higher grade of poppy than they have here in Anórien, and in a sack of gold.”
“And your share was the poppy?”
“I shared the poppy with Captain Borongil, and I received two gold pieces for each shipment I saw into their hands.”
“And how much longer did this arrangement continue?”
“I stopped working with them when my wife died. I stopped using the poppy then. Realized just how far she and I’d fallen, watching them take away her body. First little Bredwion, and then her. Didn’t realize how much I truly loved them until they were both gone!” Tears were streaking unnoticed down his face.
“We’ve been told you had another to comfort you by your side that day.”
“Oh, I admit that I was unfaithful to her, just as I’d been before to my first wife. But I said goodbye to Elien that day, when I realized just how I’d managed to see my second marriage destroyed even worse than had been my first. How could I manage to sink any lower?”
“And does he speak the truth?” asked Nerwion of Hanalgor.
Faradir stepped closer, and finally the erstwhile guardsman agreed, “Yes—it’s all true!”
“And Vangil did not share in this enterprise?”
“I have no idea as to Vangil’s business outside the village. We only know he would slip us coin to allow him out of the village in the middle of the night every few weeks. No one knows where he went or what he did.”
“That doesn’t mean that Garestil wasn’t involved, though,” said the woman. “Perthion still lied about going with him to Hevensgil!”
One of the youths who took part in the lessons in tumbling and who’d been listening from the side wall pushed his way to the front. “Perthion didn’t deliberately lie,” he insisted, his hands on his hips as he stared the woman down. “He was mistaken as to when he joined us, and actually started the following week. But he went with Garestil and the rest of us three times before Garestil was arrested. And the rest of us weren’t lying when we said that Garestil went with us that week, just as the guardsman noted. He’d just managed to juggle three balls that night and was so pleased about it! We were all praising him for it! Garestil went every week, no matter the weather, no matter whether he was well or ill. He always went—never found reason to stay home. Sometimes we only went because we knew he’d go whether we did or not. It was only that when Master Fendril found that Perthion hadn’t been with us that week he made it appear that we were only lying to protect Garestil. He certainly didn’t tell you that while the potter’s records showed that Perthion didn’t go that week, they still showed that Garestil and the other three of us did.”
“And while Carenthor was supposed to be killing three little boys, what he was really doing was caring for his brothers and catching that dratted dog of theirs and removing it from my garden!” added the neighbor to Carenthor’s family.
“And after Danárion’s family returned from his aunt’s house, he spoke with me and my friend all evening,” added a girl. “We live across the lane from one another, and the window to my room looks into the loft of his house. We often speak across to one another. And that was the only night that week that my friend could come visit me.”
And the other girl’s mother admitted that she was right, although she added that if she’d known that her daughter would spend the evening talking to that Danárion she would have forbidden the visit entirely.
“How about the stranger who was seen in the alehouse?” demanded someone. “Could he have killed the children?”
“It is possible, we must assume, although we still cannot rule out Nedron’s stepfather Vangil,” admitted Master Nerwion. “Guardsman Duirnar?”
One of the gate guardsmen that they’d not had dealings with before stepped forward. “I was barman at the alehouse at the time, and I saw the stranger. He was fairly young, no more than perhaps three and twenty, I’d deem; and not a Man of Gondor, although he was dressed in Gondorian garb of a style favored in Minas Tirith several years since. He had the look of one who drinks too much to him, and did not look to have eaten properly for some time. His arm was badly injured, as if he’d run into something that he’d managed to gouge into it. His eyes were large with terror and misery when I saw him, and he’d just been thoroughly ill upon the floor in front of the bench in the privy. He left this behind him. I tried to give it to Hanalgor and Vendrion when they came to speak with me the following day, but they said it didn’t matter and told me to dispose of it.”
He laid an eating knife before Nerwion, Erchirion, and Berevrion. The latter took it up and turned it in his hands. “Dunland manufacture,” he ruled it. “It’s had many years’ use.” He looked at the guardsman. “Did he have hair of a rather muddy brown, and broad hands with blunt fingers? These are fairly common to those from Dunland.”
“Yes, that fits him well enough,” agreed the former barman.
“When was he first seen in the privy?” asked Bariol.
“Just about at sunset,” Duirnar said. “I came back to speak with Hanalgor about him just as Master Rindor arrived to beg for help in finding his son. It wasn’t until the following day, after they returned from seeing the bodies found and delivered to Master Avrandahil’s keeping, that I was able to speak at any length with anyone about it, and Hanalgor told me it was of no interest to him, not with three children dead, and just to dispose of the knife.”
“And no one saw him leave the village?”
“People were coming and going all that night, it seemed,” said the guardsman who’d spoken of Garestil’s return from Hevensgil and the midnight adventures of Master Rindor. “But I never saw such a one go out once the gates were officially closed.”
Duirnar cleared his throat, and ventured, “I suspect that he went over the wall. The next morning I found evidence that someone had climbed upon that big rubbish bin that the saddler keeps by his shop and went over the place there where it is lower than the rest of the wall. Whoever went out that way tore his clothing as he went out, for I found a ragged bit of a tunic the color of the one I saw on the stranger caught against the stone there.”
“Considering, however, that the children were quite dead before their bodies went into the water in the ditch where they were found,” Berevrion said slowly, “I cannot think how this one could have killed the children, gotten their bodies to the woods and ditch, and then returned to the road and come into the village before the gates closed at sundown. All who have spoken of the bodies as they were found indicated that the hair was quite clotted with blood, and that takes time to dry so well that it doesn’t soften up when exposed to water.”
“But if he didn’t kill the children himself, that doesn’t mean that he didn’t see it done,” added Erchirion. “But in such a case I doubt he was part of the assault—just one who accidentally stumbled upon the attacks and fled in terror.”
“And if he indeed was originally from Dunland, he would not wish to stay here—not if he knew a murder had been committed nearby,” commented Anorgil. “Considering how swiftly the generally despised Danárion was accused of the crime, think how likely it was that someone from Dunland would come under suspicion—plus, all say that he was a stranger.”
There was a general rumble of agreement from the watchers.
“So, that leaves Master Vangil,” said the baker.
“Who died last night,” Master Erdonmar advised them.
“We cannot prove this beyond a reasonable doubt,” Berevrion said.
“He’s the only one we know who went out of the village more than once and who went out again long after everyone else was returned to the village,” someone pointed out.
“What about that monster in the grazing commons?” demanded the woman who’d been insisting that the verdicts were just. “Are we just going to allow it to stay there?”
Master Nerwion raised his hand. “First of all, it has never bothered any of us at all, and it was instrumental in saving Master Ormandor’s daughter Ioreth. We have been assured both by the—Ent—itself and by Lord Berevrion that such creatures are particularly fond of children and will do all they can to protect them. And certainly that was what it did last evening. If it had not, we would never have realized that we have indeed such an—unusual—guest living near us! To disturb it further could provoke a most unpleasant confrontation, and could leave our children without protection should any other see the children playing there as possible victims for any evil he might entertain in his heart.”
“I am grateful to it!” declared the girl’s father, standing up in the back of the hall. “I would ask it to summon more of its kind, should they choose to dwell among us.”
Master Erdonmar suggested, “Seeing that it prefers to—sleep—where our children play, I would think that to allow it to continue to do so as long as it wishes would serve to the benefit of all.”
There was a rumble of discussion, with what appeared to be a general decision that perhaps it might be best just to allow sleeping Father Trees to—stand where they pleased, and be grateful for their benevolent guardianship.
At last Berevrion rose to his feet, and all focused their attention on him. “From what we can tell so far, there was never any reason to consider Danárion of this village suspect in the killing of Gilmar, Bredwion, and Nedron except for the general perception that he was an unpleasantly outspoken individual with unusual expressions of curiosity for this region. Hanalgor here has reluctantly admitted that the only reason why Garestil was questioned as he was was because he and Borongil believed that Garestil alone, of all the young people in the area, could be convinced to tell a story in which it appeared that there had been a witness to Danárion and Danárion’s friend Carenthor killing the children. Neither of them had been able to find sufficient reason to consider anyone else a suspect in the murders, and believed that due to Danárion’s unpopularity no one would try too hard to see his honor cleared of this charge.
“We have now several witnesses who have shown that Danárion went to his aunt’s house in company with his mother and sister.”
“But he lied about what time he was there!” insisted the woman. “Only guilty people lie!”
“Have you ever considered that what you see as a lie does not give him an excuse for him to have been elsewhere at the time the children disappeared?” asked Berevrion. “Think! His mother, his sister, his aunt and her husband and their daughter and their neighbors all say, Danarion was here in the village, at their house, when the children went missing. Only he says a different time, and what he says makes it more likely that he had occasion to be where he was said to be. But he has reason to have been mistaken of the time.”
He nodded to the younger of the village healers, who nervously cleared his throat and explained about the draught he’d given the young Man for the cramping of the muscles in his arm. “And I brought our record book for the time, with his signature indicating he’d accepted the draught,” he added, laying said tome upon the desk. He pointed the entry out to Master Nerwion. “See? Right there—that’s where I noted what was done and for whom, and where he signed it. And that draught could very well have made him uncertain—and uncaring—of a number of things for at least two to three marks after he accepted it. If it was still light out when he and his mother and sister returned home, he could very likely not have been able to tell you when anything that evening happened. Both poppy and hemp can have distinct effects upon the working of the mind.”
Master Erdonmar produced a second volume. “This is the inventory of our healing herbs, tinctures, and balms, and here, too, the record is noted that he withdrew so much poppy and hemp from our stores to make a draught for Danárion son of Targon for pain and cramps to the muscles.” He laid the second book in front of Master Nerwion and opened it to a place already marked.
Nerwion examined both books, checking pages preceding and following the entries in question, and announced to all present, “It is even as they say.”
After a few moments to digest this, someone asked, “What will you do now?”
“We will return now to Anwar by way of Hevensgil. We wish to speak with Master Avrandahil regarding his findings on examining the bodies of the children, and we wish to confirm with the potter that Garestil indeed attended the tumbling practice that evening. Hanalgor and Vendrion will be going with us, for they have much explaining they must do before Lord Benargil and charges of criminal negligence for seeking to implicate three innocent youths in the murders, and for actively convincing one to lie so as to give them reason to arrest the one they wished to place the blame upon and his friend.
“As for the convictions against Danárion, Garestil, and Carenthor—it will be up to the Lord King himself to examine the case, assisted by the Lord Steward Faramir and their counselors, to decide for himself whether the three young Men are guilty or innocent, and whether or not he will reverse the convictions.”
“Did Vangil kill my son, and the sons of the others?” asked Mistress Renata.
“We cannot say with any certainty, for the investigation at the time was flawed and incomplete. We can say, however, that of those we have seen who might have killed the children, the strongest case to date that could be assembled would be that against him. However, we cannot rule out the young stranger seen in the privy for the alehouse, or anyone who might have been passing by upon the Highway who saw the boys and their ponies in the field or upon the road. We doubt, however, that the murders took place in the grazing commons—not with an Ent residing there; and we know it did not happen in the gully in the woods where the ditch lies—there should have been extensive indication of struggle and blood where the children did die, and that was not seen by any who saw the gully that day.”
Erchirion added, “We still cannot say who killed the children, where they did so, why they did so, or even precisely when they did so. We cannot even say how they did so, although it appears that it was most likely due to the repeated blows administered to the back of the heads of all three victims. We hope to know more after we speak with Master Avrandahil.”
She nodded, but it was plain she was not satisfied with what she’d learned. “Then I, at least, will be following you to Anwar once Tevern returns from Amon Dîn.”
“We hope to allow you to know with more certainty what happened when we arrive there, Mistress Renata—you, your husband, Master Rindor, and Mistress Nessa and your families.”
An hour later they were on their way, Vendrion and Hanalgor seated in a wagon with their arms and feet bound, headed back eastward toward Hevensgil and Anwar.