Dark of the Moon
"Flesh of my flesh was gone, but bone of my bone was left—
I stole them all . . . they had mov'd in my side. "
Alfred Lord Tennyson, Rizpah
"This is the place," said Glavras, as he drew aside the screen of trailing vines that hid the entrance, little more than a crack in the rock, to the small cave on the eastern edge of Mirkwood. "I found it two years ago last spring while out hunting. The coney I was tracking escaped, but I discovered something else."
"The woods have many such grottoes," Legolas replied. "It is the nature of the bedrock in the northern parts."
"It is not the cave," said Glavras, "but the contents I thought you must see, my lord."
"Please, Glavras, not so formal when we are out on patrol. I get enough of 'my Prince' this and 'my lord' that back in the stronghold. Here, I am merely your captain."
Glavras laughed. "Very well . . . Legolas. I still thought that you, as captain of the border marches, should see my discovery."
"So, of course, you chose the Dead Days and a brewing storm to drag me out here. I commend your planning."
"The weather, I have no control over," Glavras said. "And the time of the year is coincidence. You shall see shortly, and I will explain."
The two of them had edged sideways through the narrow opening and now found themselves in a tiny cave barely high enough for them to stand without bumping their heads. Pale light from the entrance faintly illuminated the center of the chamber.
"Stars above!" Legolas gasped. "Is that . . .?"
"Not one of us," said Legolas, eyeing the skeleton laid out on the floor of the cave. "The skull looks Mannish, the build too stocky. And if, as you say, the remains have been here for two and a half years, they would be little more than dust by now had they belonged to an elf. We are not far into the wood. Is this a burial, or perhaps the remains of an old crime? And why did you wait to bring it to my attention?"
"You see, Legolas - you've put your finger right on it," exclaimed Glavras with the careless enthusiasm that made his name - the Babbler - so apt. "At first, I thought it was a Mannish burial too, and thought nothing of it. But that was before."
"Before more bones started to appear. The left collarbone wasn't here when I first discovered the cave. Neither were some of the small bones of the hands. Nor three of the ribs. Now, that made me curious."
"I dare say it did," said Legolas. "It's an odd sort of funeral custom to bury a body piecemeal. Do you suppose this is some old murder?"
Glavras shrugged. "Somebody - or some thing - is bringing the bones here bit by bit. I mean to find out tonight."
"What makes you think it will be tonight?"
"I kept a close eye, and it always happens every other dark of the moon. This is the time. Only on this occasion, you and I will be here to witness what occurs." Glavras pause and laughed. "And if not, I thought it might make a more exciting way to celebrate the Dead Days than to get drunk and dress up like orcs. Especially since there are no little ones this year to frighten with tales of dragons and balrogs."
Legolas sighed. The lack of children born to the realm was a constant source of worry to both Thranduil and himself. "I would not limit the fright-inducing powers of a dragon to children only. I have seen a dragon up close and never want to repeat the experience. A balrog I hope never to see."
"I agree with you, Legolas," Glavras said. "I doubt we'll see either tonight. We may see nothing at all. In that case, I brought along a skin of wine so the evening won't be a total loss."
"Later, perhaps," Legolas said. "I would like to keep a clear head in case we do see something."
The two of them waited in silence while the glow of daylight from the cave entrance faded into pitch black. Outside, the wind had picked up, lashing the treetops and wailing past the cleft in the rock.
Several hours passed in the total darkness before Glavras touched Legolas's arm to alert him to a rustling at the cave's entrance. The sound of a dragging shuffle approached with horrid slowness and then stopped. For a fleeting moment, a flash of lightning from outside revealed a crabbed, stunted figure trailing tendrils of darkness. Was it a spider, an orc, or something even worse . . .? Legolas silently pulled one of his bone-handled knives.
Out of the pitch black, there came a quavering voice, speaking in the Common Tongue: "There, my babe, my little one, this is the last of the bones. Will you rise now?"
Silence followed, and then the sobbing began.
Glavras struck a spark. When his reed torch flared into life it revealed the form of an old woman, her body bent and twisted with age. Her white hair, drenched from the storm, trailed down her face and clung to her shoulders. Her clothing, once black, was little more than rags that hung from her bony frame. She seemed as surprised as they.
Legolas broke the silence first. "Old Mother, what are you doing here on a night like this?"
"Seeking magic for my Liam. But there is no magic. They lied. They always lie."
Legolas shook his head. The old woman was daft with age. He had seen it before, when his old nursemaid, a mortal woman, wandered in her wits not long before the end. It brought back heartbreaking memories. "Your Liam?"
"My Liam. My son," she said, with a gesture toward the carefully laid out bones. "That's all they left me after they hanged him."
"Where are you from, good lady, and what is your name?" Legolas asked.
"They call me Hallie - Halith - after a woman leader of the First Fathers, or so my ma told me. We're of that blood, although we became simple folk long since. We're poor, but we always bore a good name, unlike some I could mention. Like that Master of Laketown whose great-great-grandfather came a-scuttlin' from the north with nothing but the clothes on his back right around the time the dragon burnt Dale to ashes, and he made his hoard by bullyin' and cheatin' honest folk out of their due."
Legolas frowned. He had heard tales of the doings in Laketown for a hundred years or more. He remembered the coming of Smaug and a mortal man who had thought to trade him for gold, and he had his suspicions about where that man had fled after abandoning him to danger. "But who would hang your son?"
"I just told ye, didn't I? It was that poltroon's get, the Master that is now, who hanged my boy and kept him in chains as an example. A lesson to all, he said. It were nuthin' but cruelty."
Legolas and Glavras exchanged a look. Not much the Mortals did surprised them anymore, but this was an infamy. "What crime could he have committed to earn such a cruel fate?" Legolas asked.
"They found a gold cup, you see," Halith went on, "among my Liam's things. He worked on the docks, unloading the boats, and they said he took it. 'Twas a black lie! We were hungry sometimes, sure, but if my Liam would of stole anything it would of been a loaf of bread, and he never did so much as that. No, I think it was because the Master's son fancied a girl, a pretty little thing who worked at the inn, and she fancied my Liam instead. They wanted him gone, and what better way than to slip something into his bedroll and give him the blame?"
The old woman began to shiver, and Legolas quickly doffed his cloak and wrapped her in it.
"Thank you, young sir," she said. "You seem a sweet boy, so much like my own . . . The Master, he made a great show of being merciful. He said that if Liam would confess to his crime he'd banish him, but my boy just looked him in the eye and said the Allfather knew the truth and he'd never swear to something he'd never done. That sealed it."
She stopped to wipe her rheumy eye. "I wanted to stay with him. I was there when he come into this world, and I should of been there when he left it. But they dragged him one way and me t'other. 'Mother . . .' he cried just before the door slammed shut between us. I think he was tryin' to say he was sorry for leavin' me all alone, but I'll never know. When I kept fightin' them that had hold of me and callin' 'em names, they tied me to my bed and left me there . . . for a long, long time until I promised to be good and quiet, and then they let me up, but it was long over."
"Sweet Elbereth," Legolas whispered.
"When I found him, the crebain had done their work. Those beautiful blue eyes of his that had stared up at me from his cradle, and should of rested on me as the last sight he saw, were gone. The birds'd had 'em. They'd had the rest of anything else they could take. But it was still my baby a-hangin' there. I'd carried those bones under my heart. I couldn't let him end up that way."
She paused and gave the two of them a look of sharp cunning. "Ye think I'm mad, young man. Don't try to deny it, they think me mad in Laketown too, and the Master gives me a pittance to live on to prove his benevolence. He likes to use big words like that but he don't fool me. I fooled him, though. I heard tell when I was but a little girl, that your woods are magic and that you Fair Folk never die. I thought to bring my Liam to the Wood so that he could rise again."
"Alas, good Halith, we die all too easily," Glavras said. "Just not of age like you Second-born."
She merely shook her head. "It took time and stealth to do it, bit by bit as the bones fell from the gibbet down to where I could reach 'em. There was still some black in my hair when I brought the first one here to make a grave under the forest eaves, I thought, but then I spied this cave and thought, even better! Always by the dark of the moon, one by one, because if they saw me at it I'd be locked up again or worse. Two fortnights to travel here, two fortnights back. You Elves have your long swift legs, and your King has that big fast horse of his, but these old legs move slow through summer heat and winter snow. Soon they won't move at all, but they won't have to. This was the last - I counted them. I counted them all."
Then her face crumpled and her tears flowed once more. "There lies my Liam, whole again, as whole as he'll ever be. The magic was a lie too. He'll not get up again, will he?"
"Please, good woman - Hallie - have a sip of our wine," said Legolas. "You are weary from your journey and chilled to the bone."
"No, young man, you are kind, and you mean well, but I haven't the taste for wine or water or anything else. I just want to close my eyes for a bit." Her head drooped forward onto her chest.
Legolas rushed to her side and put his arm around her to bear her up. "Sweet Elbereth, she's as cold as ice! Glavras, help me with her. We need to get her to my father's halls where she can be seen by a healer." He scooped her into his arms.
"No - let me be!" Halith's voice sounded strong again. "Do ye hear it? His voice on the wind? He's calling, 'Mother, come out to me.' I must go to him." Another flash of lighting lit the cave entrance. Halith looked toward the light and cried, "Liam," with a look of joy upon her face. Then her head fell back against Legolas's shoulder.
Legolas set her down on the stone floor next to the bones and laid his ear to her chest. He straightened back up and shook his head. Without another word he spread his cloak over Halith and what remained of her son.
With the final stroke of lightning, the storm seemed to have played itself out. Only a few stray drops of rain pelted down while Glavras and Legolas piled stones in front of the mouth of the cave, sealing it for good.
"Glavras, did you see anything at the mouth of the cave, during that last flash?"
"I thought for a moment, perhaps . . . not really. But the light was brief, and it is the Dead Days. They say the veil between the worlds is thin during this time. I will be happy to be away from here, even if it takes us until morning to get back to the stronghold."
"Then I did not see anything either. I could use a sip of that wine now."
"When you're done, hand it back. Aren't you cold without your cloak?"
"Yes, but it is serving a better purpose."
"Here," said Glavras, throwing his cloak wide, "we can share mine."
"Thank you, friend," said Legolas, stepping close. "You promised me a different way of celebrating the Dead Days, and that we have done. I do not know what to make of it, other than to say that it seems that there is some magic left in these woods after all."
Together, in the dark of the moon, the two of them headed westward for home.
Author's Note: This is the latest in a series of Halloween-related stories written for the birthday of Ignoble Bard. This time, the inspiration came from Alfred Lord Tennyson's haunting poem, Rizpah.
This is a transformative work based on the world of JRR Tolkien and his Elves. I own none of it and am doing this for my own pleasure.