The elf was dressed and waiting for him when he returned, standing silently beside the pond with his face turned toward the north. As Legolas donned his cloak and sat to pull his boots onto his feet, Aragorn scanned their surroundings, his trained eyes taking in all he could as he gazed toward the direction his friend had indicated. To reach the pond, they had traveled a brief distance north of the house, following the stream as it wended its way past the edge of the clearing and into an area of meadow. Beyond this spot a low hill rose, and the ranger had never ventured beyond this point, unwilling to leave Legolas alone during his illness and slow recovery.
"I am ready," the elf said as he rose. "What lies in this direction?"
"I can see nothing amiss from here. We will cross through a meadow, and beyond it lies a small hill."
"I think we will have to climb this hill," Legolas murmured. "Go, Aragorn. I will follow you."
Setting out, Aragorn quickly spotted a small foot-path, little used, that passed through the meadow's high grasses. He guided his friend to it, and soon discovered that Legolas was able to keep pace with him easily. The elf's hearing had grown even more acute, it seemed to Aragorn, since the loss of his eyesight, and Legolas followed him unerringly as he traversed the twisting path through tangles of low-lying shrubs toward the rise, placing his feet precisely where Aragorn's had been so as to avoid anything that might trip him up. The hill soon rose before them, and this they climbed steadily, as the incline was not terribly steep. Aragorn paused when they reached the top, turning to lay a hand on Legolas' arm. "Hold a moment," he said.
Looking down the slope, he swept his eyes over the terrain. More trees gathered on the far side of the hill, spreading out at the base, but the trail could be faintly seen continuing through them and vanishing into another gentle incline that fell beyond the reach of his gaze. The wind came more clearly to him now, and Aragorn tensed as the sickening stench of decay entered his nostrils. His hand unconsciously tightened on the elf's elbow.
"Now you smell it," Legolas said quietly.
"Yes." Aragorn frowned as he looked over the view before him. "Most likely it is a deer," he added, but a quick glance at the elf's expression did nothing to bolster his hope that there was a simple answer for what lay ahead. "Let us go on, then."
Full morning had come, bright and filled with bird-song, and the sun was beginning to warm the air as its rays penetrated the wisps of cloud that floated above their heads. Aragorn's feet crunched softly over the leaf-strewn path as he walked forward, and his companion's footfalls were a mere whisper behind him. The ranger sensed Legolas' tension growing as the elf instinctively began to move with more caution, and the soft noises he made as he walked eventually became completely silent. A short distance further on they emerged into a small apple grove, the few aged, gnarled trees still holding some fruit, though their best days were past. Aragorn felt a quick surge of gratitude well up at this discovery, as this was a source of food he and the elf could make good use of. But his attention was drawn immediately to the trail again. Mingled with the sweet smell of fruit was the overpowering reek of death, and behind him he heard his companion's breath catch.
Around a bend, hidden by a knot of brambles, a low croaking came to Aragorn's ears. He realized that the elf's knife was tightly clenched in his fist, though he did not remember pulling it from his belt. Heart pounding, he strode slowly forward, bile rising into his throat as he drew near the sound. An explosion of black bodies suddenly burst from the tangle of shrubs, and he recoiled, eyes veering upward as a group of carrion crows, startled by his intrusion, fled with a whirring of dark wings and offended shrieks. As Legolas stood beside him, wide-eyed, the ranger crouched and peered into the thicket, and in that instant his blood froze.
Within the concealing bracken lay a black, misshapen bulk, crawling with flies and grubbing insects. So advanced was the state of decay that Aragorn was unable to make out any features on what had become a hideous death-mask, but he knew without a doubt that he looked upon the body of a man. The corpse was clothed in a simple robe of some brown homespun fabric, but it had been partially torn away by animals that had worried it, and a feathery halo of grey hair still sprouted from the parts of the skull that had not yet been stripped of flesh.
With an oath, Aragorn stumbled back, overcome by the stench and the gruesome sight. Catching Legolas by the arm he retreated, moving back into the sunshine. He closed his eyes, gulping in the fresh air and fighting to gain control of his shock and nausea.
"Aragorn?" the elf's soft whisper nudged him.
"Forgive me, Legolas. It is the body of an old man."
"He who lived here?"
Aragorn shook his head. "I cannot say for certain, but I think that it must be." He glanced toward the sobering scene and noticed an overturned basket lying nearby, half-filled with apples that had long since gone bad. This then had been the old man's errand the day he left his home those many weeks ago. Just a simple outing, the sort of thing he must have done every day, only this time it had led to his death. Why? Aragorn's stunned mind groped for answers as he stared at his surroundings.
"What happened to him?" Legolas asked, bringing Aragorn's question into the open.
The ranger sighed. "To answer that, I must get closer again. And that is not something I wish to do just yet."
"We should go back. Find a spade…"
"Aye. A proper burial is the only thing we can do for him now," Aragorn agreed, turning away and leading the elf back along the path. He shivered in spite of the bright sunlight, glancing up at the shadows of branches overhead that had suddenly taken on the appearance of grasping fingers that hung, waiting, ready to seize and rend anyone who dared move beneath them.
* * * *
They returned, carrying a shovel and heavy gloves, and they had tied cloths soaked in lavender over their faces. Even so, the stench was nearly unbearable. A great weariness had settled on Aragorn, and though the elf was silent, his face set, he felt Legolas' distress as strongly as his own. They did not speak, but each bent to his task, anxious to finish their unhappy work as quickly as possible.
They chose a spot directly next to the body for the grave, and Legolas immediately began plying the spade, rapidly digging a deep hole into the soft earth. Aragorn grimaced in revulsion as he began to clear away some of the shrubs so as to enable them to roll the corpse into it. He averted his eyes as he did so and watched the elf, having seen all he wanted of the horror that lay before him. When at first his gloved hand came up against something hard, he disregarded it, thinking it merely a branch or a rock to be shifted. He grasped it and pushed it away, and the soft rattle of a chain attracted his attention. He glanced down at his hands, and his eyes widened.
The elf spun toward him, startled by the urgency in his voice. "What is it, Aragorn?"
Aragorn held the heavy chain in his hands, staring at it in bewilderment. Yanking on it, he saw one end had been secured to a nearby tree. "He was caught in a leg-hold trap," he gasped in dismay.
Legolas stepped toward him and dropped to his knees. Pulling on his gloves, he reached, catching hold of the chain and followed it to the ankle of the dead man. "Poor fellow," he murmured. "It must have been a slow and agonizing death."
Aragorn fiddled with the trap, feeling for the release. He could not find it. Frowning, he attempted to pry the jaws apart, but the strength of the iron grip defeated his own. "This thing is odd," he muttered, redoubling his efforts to remove it and free its victim from its killing grasp. "It will not release."
Legolas wrapped his fingers around the trap, adding his power to Aragorn's, and slowly their combined energy forced it to open. It was difficult work, and the ranger's hands had begun to tremble and cramp by the time they were able to maneuver it away from the body. "Be careful, Legolas," he gasped. "It will snap on our hands."
"Let it go on three," the elf told him. "Pull back quickly. One… two… three!"
Aragorn snatched his hands away, and the metal device slammed shut again with such force that it jumped into the air. He saw Legolas open and close his fists several times. "Are you hurt?"
The elf shook his head. "No. Just working the blood back into my fingers. That trap possesses enough tension to hold an oliphaunt, Aragorn."
"It certainly does," the ranger agreed. "And is very much beyond what any animal here would require." He stared uneasily at the twisted piece of metal, and his eyes followed the short chain to the tree. Beneath it, though it had been somewhat washed away by the rains and the passage of time, a groove was visible, cut deeply into the earth. The chain had once been completely buried and hidden from view. He glanced at the elf.
Still kneeling, Legolas had turned toward the dense woods surrounding the little apple grove, his head tilted as if he was listening to something. He looked uneasy, unwell in fact, and his dark eyes were as liquid pools, cradling pain within their quiet depths. Aragorn knew the elf had been tired even before their terrible discovery. It was time to get him back to the house. "Let us finish this, Legolas."
Shifting the corpse and pushing it into the grave proved to be the most horrible part of their task, and both ranger and elf were sickened and struggling to control their nausea once it was done. They backed away, standing quietly and breathing the clear air for a time before returning once more to lay the soil over the body of the old healer and allow the earth to reclaim him.
Aragorn stood with head bowed as the elf spoke some soft words in Elvish over the grave, a prayer for one who had suffered greatly and now was at rest, but his eyes wandered again to the metal device lying at their feet. "We will take the trap back with us, Legolas. I want to get a better look at it."
Taking up the spade, the ranger went to the tree to which the chain was affixed and examined the lock. It was as heavy as the links. Perhaps not quite heavy enough to hold an oliphaunt, he thought grimly as he struck at it with the spade, but more than adequate to hold a man with no tools to aid him. It took all his strength, but after numerous blows the lock broke and fell away.
* * * *
Legolas leaned back in his chair and raised his cup to his lips, sipping the tea Aragorn had prepared to ease his head pain. "How long do you think the old man has been dead?" he asked in a quiet voice.
The ranger furrowed his brow. "I am no great judge of such things. If I had to guess, I would say a number of weeks. Perhaps two months."
"About the time we arrived here," the elf whispered, and an expression of sorrow crossed his face.
"Yes." Aragorn's unhappiness matched his friend's, and he knew what thoughts had crossed the elf's mind. Perhaps the man had yet been alive when they had entered his home. Perhaps he had still been enduring his isolation and agony even as they had taken refuge under his roof. It was a scenario the ranger could not bear to dwell on. "We could not have known, Legolas," he murmured.
"No, but it hurts nevertheless."
"Aye, it does," Aragorn agreed.
Washed in the stream and cleaned of the lingering remnants of decayed flesh, the trap lay on the table. The elf turned it over in his hands, his brow creased as he investigated the device with his sensitive fingers. "We do not use such things in Mirkwood, Aragorn. I have little knowledge of these traps."
"The elves of Imladris also do not capture game with these. They prefer the open hunt with bow and arrow," Aragorn said, reaching to take up the trap and examine it. "I have seen them used by men, and I know how they work. But never have I seen one such as this."
"Do you speak of the strength of it?"
"Not only that. Many traps have teeth, if you want to call them that. But they are dull, and usually widely spaced. Their purpose is to hold the leg firmly, and to prevent the animal from sliding it laterally along the length of the trap and injuring or freeing itself as it struggles. But these…" he paused, pondering the evil barbs meshed tightly together. "These are sharp, and the edges are jagged. They were intended to tear the flesh and cause great pain. And the crushing grip would add to the torment."
"Why would someone wish to set such a trap?" the elf asked, eyes wide with bewilderment. Aragorn smiled softly as he gazed at Legolas' stricken face. Though he had lived many long years, deliberate cruelty was a thing still quite foreign to the Prince of Mirkwood. He knew of it, yes, and at times he had seen it as well, but never would he understand it. And that inherent kindness was one of the things the ranger loved most about his friend.
"Why indeed? Neither of us can answer your question, Legolas, and I thank the Valar for that. But there is more that is odd here," Aragorn told him. Puzzled, he held the trap higher, looking at it more closely. "Every trap has a way to be released, to free the captured animal and reset for another. But this one has no such mechanism, but for a key-hole here at the base."
"A keyhole?" Legolas looked confused. "That seems rather over-elaborate. Why would this trap have such a release?"
"So that the animal being held could not open it and escape," Aragorn responded in a low voice as a terrible thought came to him. He felt his skin prickle. Suddenly filled with loathing, he set the trap down on the table with a clatter. "But animals generally are not able to release the simpler traps. There is no need for this sort of locking system."
The elf frowned, taking up the cold metal once more. "This is heavy, and certainly not intended for the small animals that some people trap for their fur. So it was set for wolves, or perhaps a mountain cat…"
"They cannot undo the common traps any more than the little creatures. And why would it be set even for those larger and more dangerous animals? The city is six miles off. Wolves would not approach a populated area. They would be no threat to those people, and if they were, the trap would not have been set out here in the wild."
"The folk who live in the hills nearby… perhaps their sheep were being killed by a predator. Or the old man set it…"
"Would you walk into your own trap, Legolas?"
"No. I would not."
"And the folk would have set traps in the areas where they grazed their herds. Not here. Where was this one placed?"
"In an apple grove," Legolas said, his voice lowering. His fingers whitened on the chain in his hands.
"Where deer would come," the ranger pressed, seeing that Legolas was following him. "This trap is not for them. Who else would come for the apples?"
The elf's unseeing eyes widened. "People."
"The grove, though made up of only a handful of trees, was still full of fruit. It looked to me that others did not come there to pick the apples. I think just one man went there regularly. The spot was his. This trap was placed directly on the foot-path, and covered. And rather than being attached to a stake in the ground, which he could have pulled up, the chain was locked around a stout tree."
The heavy irons slammed against the table with a jarring sound as Legolas abruptly set the cruel device down. "So we have a excessively strong trap that was wrought to hold with deliberate torture, and release only by the hands of those who set it. It was hidden in a spot where the old man would most likely tread at some point as he moved about gathering his apples. And once caught, there was no way he could have regained his freedom, as keys were required to open both the trap and the lock on the chain."
"And at the time of year, as the weather began to turn colder, the shepherds and woodsmen would have returned to their villages nearer the borders of the city and abandoned the high ground."
"His cries would have gone unheard."
"And they did. Legolas, this trap was clearly never set for an animal."
The elf inhaled sharply. "You speak of murder then," he whispered, turning his pale features toward his friend.
"Aye," the ranger said, his voice hardening with anger. "I speak of murder."First > Previous > Next