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Ere The Final March
Chapter VII – part I
A Solid Haven of Safety
"You will stay in the city tonight then?" Garrick asked me.
"Aye." I said, recalling Aragorn’s all too competent manner. "We shall return to Minas Tirith at midday."
My corporal and I stood watching Gwin and Devon strolling and talking quietly together nearby, Gwin and I having returned to camp an hour before with the news of our sudden delay in the march.
"‘Tis well," Garrick said. "You know the company will be fine, but our young captain . . . ." He shook his head and grunted. I grinned. Regardless of Aragorn’s age, he would ever be our ‘young captain’ to Garrick. "‘Tis well that you stay near at hand tonight," he went on. "The mere knowledge that you are close by will likely soothe him."
I glanced at my corporal. Concern lay heavily upon Garrick’s face. His was an astoundingly well-appointed face, still turning every female head as he had in his younger days when he and I would stride side by side through a town or a settlement, Garrick drawing much attention for not only his enormous size, but his looks. However, my corporal had shown no interest in any other, male or female, until a certain golden-haired cub had kindled something deep inside him many years ago. Considering the line of warriors he might have sired, Garrick’s choice may have seemed wasteful. But, of course, such was not the case, and the Fates always knew better in such matters of import.
I turned my unfocused gaze back to Devon and Gwin, who were now nearing the horses. This morning’s sudden news and the subsequent decision Aragorn had been forced to make – on his own, or so he saw it – had proven to be the final provocation. He had borne much thus far and he had held up with near inhuman valor, but he had been doing so for too long now. When Aragorn had been in command for a long time he still, at times, forgot himself and fell back on bad habits. He enclosed himself in a cocoon of safety and distance, taking on the yoke of authority to a degree wherein he saw only to the concerns of others and the duties of his station, no longer allowing himself to recognize his own needs.
His burden of responsibility was massive, and it had been so for some time. Aragorn had been giving endlessly, taking care of others, and seeking no care for himself. And he did know how to seek it. He needed only send the slightest of signals to Legolas. His lifelong companion would have obliged Aragorn at once, and with great vigor, as I would have, had his signal been sent to me alone.
Ever since noting Aragorn’s state in the Hall of Kings I had been recalling my time alone with him so long ago, our week of private instruction in the Ettenmores. I had spent that week educating Aragorn to the fact that he was not alone, that he would never be alone when facing difficult decisions, that even the greatest of rulers had counselors to advise them. More importantly, I had trained him to trust that he would ever have someone with whom to share his burdens, and that those who knew him and loved him would never permit him to withdraw into painful isolation, distance himself from those who longed to help him, or close himself off with unnecessary guilt and fears and regrets.
Aragorn was adept at thriving under pressure. Sadly, he was also adept at hiding the fact that he was struggling and needed help. Legolas and I could sense his inner state to a certain degree, but to gainsay Aragorn and force him to accept some kind of comforting aid when he was, indeed, prospering on his own strengths would have been unwarranted, and it could have served to undermine his solid foundation of confidence. Anxious for him as Legolas and I might be, we needed to trust Aragorn’s honesty and his training.
He had, thus far, been at his finest, handling himself with the true fortitude of his bloodline, leading with a casual poise it seemed he had been training his entire life to possess. Neither Legolas nor I had questioned his honest state of capability. In fact, Legolas had trusted enough in Aragorn’s confidence to stage a small elvish insurrection of his own, comfortable in seeking care from his beloved.
Had Aragorn gone on coping with no sign of distress much longer I would have spoken privately to him, felt him out, just to make certain he was doing as well on the inside as he seemed to be doing on the outside. This morning had been the first quickly glimpsed crack in his competent façade. And, true to his early training, Aragorn had glanced at me as he had Legolas, with just that split second of doubtfulness. It said all.
"You have not waited too long to see to Aragorn, my friend," Garrick said quietly.
I fired him a glance and again found him studying me with a knowing look. It immediately put me in mind of how indignant Gwin and Legolas became when Aragorn and I displayed our Dúnedain insightfulness.
"It is not fair, sir!" Gwin had once bellowed when he and his accomplice prince had been found out yet again for yet more ill-advised mischief and were now facing Aragorn and me as we stood before them, our arms crossed over our chests, and waiting for an explanation. "It is very nearly entrapment! You ask us to tell you what we have done when you already know we have done something and you know how impossible it is for us to . . . to --"
Aragorn had raised his brows. "To what? To lie to us?"
Gwin had merely sputtered, prompting a then very annoyed Legolas to snarl, "If you choose to continue digging yourself a deeper grave, leave me well out of it, Gwinthorian!"
"You have been attentive to the captain," Garrick now went on. "It is only this morning that difficulty has befallen him."
"I know, my friend," I said. "Until now he has not needed aid."
"And the moment he did he alerted you and Legolas to it. Your week with him in the Ettenmoors was time well spent. You trained your wild pup well, sir."
I grinned at him and shifted my stance at his compliment. "As did you, corporal," I said, nodding to where Gwin and Devon were still talking quietly. "Dev looks to be settled with this news."
"Mmm. Perhaps you should add ‘as of yet’ to your statement. It has now been an entire day since Devon last went over my knee."
"An entire day?" I said in mock surprise.
Garrick sniffed a short chuckle. "Aye. Well, ‘twas, in fact, the night before last, when Legolas rode off and left Aragorn without a word and we all knew who to interrogate for answers. My cub was mightily chastised that night and still sore-bottomed yesterday, so he behaved himself, despite the anxious times. But we have this whole day and night yawning before us."
"True enough. Plenty of time for devilry from attention-hungry, fair-haired bratlings."
"Both elvish and human." We exchanged knowledgeable glances. "I sense that my cub is merely biding his time. He had that look of rebellion to him earlier while we ate."
"Aye. Gwinthorian is simmering as well."
"Would you prefer to leave him here during your afternoon with Aragorn?" Garrick bravely offered. "I can keep him busy, or at least keep him out of trouble."
"Are you certain of that my friend?" We chuckled. "Thank you for your courageous offer. But you will likely have your own trouble to deal with."
Garrick snorted and nodded. "Aye. Dev and Gwinthorian are too much alike."
"Then ‘tis best you have only Devon to see to this day. I intend to ask Legolas to keep Gwinthorian company," I said.
"He will likely snarl about that," Garrick teased.
"Who will snarl? Legolas or Gwin?" We exchanged another grin.
"Not Legolas," Garrick said.
"Aye, you are right." Gwinthorian had already snarled earlier, just after we ate and I informed him of my plans for him.
"Halbarad," Gwin had said in an indignant tone, "I am in no need of a keeper."
I gave him a blank look.
"Truly, I am not."
I drew forth my pipe and examined the bowl.
"And Legolas is hardly a paragon of fair behavior himself. If memory serves, the night before last you hauled my kinsman over your horse and spanked him for riding off without a word to anyone. How can you leave me in the company of such a reckless scoundrel?"
I pulled out my packet of weed.
"And how do you know that Legolas and I will not get into trouble if you loose us upon an unsuspecting public?"
"I do not know it," I said, packing my pipe. "Indeed, Gwin, you have me there. I would hope that the unsuspecting public would be spared the antics of two bored elflings, but should you and Legolas prove unable to contain yourselves for one afternoon, I shall spank you both this evening. As you know, little Gwin, I am quite able to administer more than one tanning in the course of a day."
Gwin blinked. "Oh."
"You may be right, though. Perhaps it would be kinder to Legolas and safer for your backsides that I excuse your reckless scoundrel of a kinsman from this duty and instead leave you here under Garrick’s watchful eye."
Swallowing hard, Gwin murmured, "Halbarad --"
"Of course, as goes without saying, my corporal would be free to discipline you should the need arise."
Gwin blanched. "But Garrick has never . . . you . . . you would let him spank me?"
"‘Let?’" I raised a brow at him. "My corporal does not need seek my permission to spank you, Gwinling. Bearing in mind your degree of discomfort when Garrick has given you but a few swats I vow you wouldst rather not risk a full spanking." I grinned at his solemn gaze. "You do recall the last time he swatted you. You and Devon had --"
"I recall it."
"Mmm." I puffed slowly a few times. "Garrick would of course only take you over his knee if he felt you needed correction, little one."
Gwin winced, then he said, "Legolas and I will find something to occupy our time."
"I am glad to hear it. Garrick will likely have his hands full with Devon."
And, indeed, Garrick would. But we understood the whys and wherefores of those we loved, and we loved them, in part, because of their touching vulnerabilities.
The stresses of the past few days had now built to a climax, pressuring our special loved ones into certain unmistakable behaviors. These were, of course, cries for something steady and sure and comforting, a solid haven of safety in a dangerous, uncertain world suddenly fraught with even more danger and greater uncertainty. Our worthy young souls needed reassurance in order to go forth in courage and do what needed doing. We were comforted in giving them that loving reassurance, just as they were comforted to receive it.
So Garrick now turned to gaze fondly at Devon, as I did at Gwin. Amazingly, both of them might very well invite more disciplining ere the final march tomorrow. And if so, Garrick and I would gladly provide it.
"Tell Legolas to bring Gwinthorian to me should the elfling brat prove too troublesome."
It was just past midday when Gwin and I arrived back in the city. Aragorn was speaking with several of the Minas Tirith commanders, so my elf and I strolled to the Houses of Healing where Legolas had been lunching with the halflings and the sons of Denethor. Pippin had just finished telling a story.
We had barely made our entrance and exchanged greetings before Legolas loosened himself from beneath young Faramir, turned the lad over to his older brother, and made a hasty exit before sparks actually ignited between Gwin and Pippin. Fortunately, they only had time to exchange dangerous glares, but their looks spoke loudly enough for young Merry to cast his kinsman a warning frown and utter an intense, "Peregrin." under his breath.
"What?" Pippin demanded in a sulky tone. "I didn’t say anything."
"Nor did I," Gwinthorian quickly said, catching sight of my frown which matched Merry’s.
Pippin and Gwin then smiled at each other with overblown and somewhat alarming sweetness. I sensed at once that the only thing worse than Pippin and Gwin being at constant odds would be if Pippin and Gwin were the best of companions.
We made our farewells and I took Gwin’s arm, escorting him into the corridor. Releasing him, I then complimented my elf on his restraint and reminded him that he would enjoy his afternoon more without the lingering aftertaste of soap in his mouth.
We headed back to meet Aragorn, Legolas falling into step on my right, Gwin on my left. "Gwin could use some company while I am with Aragorn," I said to Legolas.
"I had planned to spend this day with him!" Legolas exclaimed. He leaned forward and grinned past me to Gwinthorian. "We shall find something interesting to do, Gwin."
My elfling’s sulky shrug inspired Legolas to glance my way with a shrewd look. There truly was no better person for Gwinthorian to spend this day with than his beloved prince. Legolas, for all his occasional lapses of good judgement, had a solid core of impeccable behavior. True, under different circumstances, Legolas and Gwin were, more often than not, potential spankings waiting to happen. But when the young prince was left ‘in charge’ so to speak, I need have no such worries.
To my knowledge, Legolas had never actually spanked Gwinthorian, although he had given Gwin a goodly swat now and then and threatened more, much to Gwin’s loud objections. But a veiled warning existed between them, both of them aware that, should circumstances call for Legolas to spank his kinsman, he would not hesitate to do what he felt was needed. And they also knew that, should such an occurrence include a struggle, Gwinthorian would not emerge the victor.
It amazed me, this ability Legolas possessed to shift roles from one day to the next, one circumstance to the next. The night before last he had indeed behaved with such childish irresponsibility that both Aragorn and I had spanked him, and yet now I was addressing him as an equal, our roles just an evening ago now a thing of the past. It was a paradox that quite baffled Gwin and oft drove him to distraction, especially when Legolas was not of a mood to be mischievous. At such times, Legolas simply refused to be corrupted, frustrating Gwin’s best efforts to stir up trouble, a fact my elfling had bewailed when over my knee several days ago:
"Legolas was being g-good today!"
"Ahhhh. How inconsiderate of Legolas to be so good."
I now relayed Garrick’s offer to Legolas, who grinned at Gwin’s subsequent huff of indignation. My elfling then withdrew into his pout, giving me the chance to have a few words with his prince. Legolas spoke about that morning when he had first glimpsed Aragorn’s apprehension. I then asked him about something that had been of concern to me.
"Nay," Legolas said in answer to my question. "I have not disciplined Aragorn for many weeks now. I have been aware of him, watching for any signs of trouble. He has been withstanding an unending demand upon his strength."
"That sometimes helps him," I said.
"Aye, his own strength grows the more he expends it," Legolas said. "We have both seen him thrive when challenged the most. Aragorn has taken full command, forming the Army of the West and dealing with all matters, both on the field and here in the city."
I felt a swell of pride in him.
"Estel is truly living up to his elvish name," Legolas continued. "All are now placing their faith and their confidence in Aragorn. All are looking to him with hope. All have been well tended to by him, none neglected. Aragorn has seen to everyone who has had need of him." Legolas grinned over at me. "Even those who perhaps would have preferred to forego his attentions. Since the battle, Aragorn has spanked Faramir, Merry and --"
"You!" Gwin exclaimed. He clearly had remained quiet too long.
Legolas took it with grace. "Aye," he said starting to blush.
"And you fully deserved it, Legolas."
"Why, thank you, Gwin."
I narrowed my gaze upon my elfling. "Gwinthorian."
"Running off like that," Gwin continued, ignoring me. "Of all the foolishness!"
"Aye," Legolas good-naturedly agreed. "That it was."
"What were you thinking?" Gwin pressed.
"That is enough of that, Gwinthorian," I said, giving him one more chance than he deserved. He clearly did not want it.
"Legolas was also spanked by you for that, Hal!"
I grabbed my elfling and swatted him hard. "Enough, sir!" I said over Gwin’s responding yelp. "I believe that rather than inflicting your cheeky self upon your poor kinsman this day I shall instead send for Garrick to escort you back to camp. I am certain he could find a goodly number of unpleasant chores to keep you busy and out of trouble."
Gwin rubbed his stinging bottom and turned a glorious pout up at me.
"Do I need to send for Garrick, little bratling elf? I vow he would not be pleased to receive such a summons."
"No, sir. You do not need to send for Garrick."
I frowned down into Gwin’s large blue eyes, sensing that Aragorn would likely not be the only one riding delicately in his saddle come the morn. Turning to Legolas, who was struggling to subdue a smile, I said, "Call upon Garrick if need be."
"Indeed I shall," Legolas replied with a somber nod, and we entered the council room where Gwin and I had left Aragorn earlier.
He was now ready to join me and we left our two elves and headed for Aragorn’s chamber. It was a secluded location, providing the kind of privacy Legolas had needed a few days ago when spanking a very vocal Pippin, and where an equally loud Gwin had received the first part of his spanking from me. Eomer also had made use of the King’s chambers to discipline Merry. As his rooms had become a popular location for spankings, Aragorn had understandably shot me a curious look when I had requested we hold our private discussion there, so I kept his mind otherwise occupied on the way by having him talk about his morning.
"So you and Boromir did not know what Merry and Pippin intended to do when you let them off at the gate?" I asked.
"No. The little ones feared, and rightly so, that I would not have wanted them to disturb Faramir. So they told Boromir and me that they had changed their minds about joining us for our ride. Instead, Merry wanted Pippin to show him some of the sights around Minas Tirith, the places Merry had only heard Pip talk of, such as the Western Garden, where he first met Faramir, and Pippin’s room, where he rarely stayed, and the rock that Pippin scaled to light the beacon fire."
"But they instead headed straight for the Houses of Healing to keep Faramir company."
"Aye, waylaid only by Lady Eowyn for a while."
We exchanged a grin. "Difficult to discipline them for such kindly intentions," I said.
"Oh, they were counting on that. I would have been less forgiving had they arrived sooner and disturbed Legolas while he was spanking Faramir."
"I vow Legolas and Faramir would have been less forgiving as well." We chuckled.
"‘Less’ forgiving indeed! Legolas would have likely slid one hot-bottomed warrior from his lap and deposited two naughty hobbits there instead."
"With Faramir’s full support of course."
"Of course! A picture I shared with Merry and Pippin when we got ‘round to discussing
"But at first you and Boromir were too distracted by the pleasant scene to point out the fact that the little ones should not have been there."
"Just so. We were simply glad to see Faramir looking happy and relaxed, if a bit swollen-eyed. We talked about Pippin’s story, made plans for luncheon and determined that Pip would tell his tale again, this time for Boromir, before the subject of two errant hobbits even came up. I suddenly looked at them and said, ‘Excuse me, gentlemen, but I do not recall you saying that you were planning to visit Faramir.’"
"I can just imagine their innocent expressions," I said, smiling.
"And their selfless claims, which were hard to dispute."
"Careful, Strider," I said stopping before the door to Aragorn’s chamber. "Those two will wrap you ‘round their tiny fingers in no time."
"Your warning comes too late, sir." Aragorn chuckled. "They excel at that, I fear."
"Nay," I said. We entered Aragorn’s rooms. "I spoke in jest. You hold them well accountable for their actions, Aragorn. They are mischievous, aye, but the little ones are not overly-indulged."
"The mind reels when considering those two if they were overly-indulged," he replied.
He wandered past me, moving to the window to look out briefly, then turned with a sigh, glancing around the room. "The King’s Quarters," he muttered with a shake of his head. "I was wrong to allow this. Boromir should never have ordered my things brought here and I should not have accepted the honor."
"It meant much to him that you did accept," I said, moving further into the sumptuous large chamber. "None in this city nor on the plain below would begrudge you this gesture. The fact that you have yet to be crowned and therefore are not due this honor might have been correct protocol, but such would have been a costly technicality to fulfill."
"And Pippin would have been denied the fun of destroying the King’s bathing chamber."
Aragorn chuckled. He watched me for a moment, then crossed his arms over his chest and strolled towards the hearth, eyes downcast, thinking, always thinking. He was here with me, but my pup was also distracted, considering his actions, examining his decisions, his easy manner a decoy. A quiet tension lingered in the way he moved, emanating from him like a low hum. I saw at once that the anxiousness he had allowed Legolas and me to glimpse earlier had increased dangerously in the hours since.
"The servants always keep this fire burning," he said, halting to gaze down at the flames. "They are accustomed to people being in here at all hours of the day."
"And that those people are sometimes engaging in disciplinary methods?"
He glanced up at me. "Is that why you and I are here, lieutenant? Is that what you wanted to talk to me about?"
How like my pup to be assertive, to grasp preeminence by addressing me by my station rather than my name. I was not, however, willing to allow him that standing.
"Do you feel in need of disciplining?" I asked him.
His steady gaze faltered the merest fraction of a second. "No," he shot back firmly, struggling to regain his poise. "And I see no need to discuss the matter further."
But then Aragorn paused, and he lowered his gaze, and he thought. My pup was not an arrogant man. He was a humble man, a considerate man who cared deeply about the sensibilities of others. Clearly he regretted his slight show of temper. Grinning sheepishly, Aragorn sighed, my genuine pup again peeking through. "But then," he added softly, "I do not see things with your eyes, sir."
I studied him before responding, wondering to what degree he intended to engage in this uncertainty of intent. Aragorn could be volatile when under intense strain, those old harmful habits taking him over completely. His feelings might have changed since earlier when he sent his quick signal for attention. He might have clamped down hard on his emotions, requiring me to now force him to accept what he would be accepting from me. He might have even relapsed into complete denial of his own needs, now considering such needs shameful, indulgent and unnecessary.
No matter. Regardless of how Aragorn now claimed to feel about his earlier cry for help, I intended to see he received help. Aragorn’s unguarded seconds of silent faltering in the Hall had been genuine, and it was that genuine moment I planned to honor. Should he admit to his need, this could turn out to be only a comfort spanking. But if Aragorn had slipped further into himself during the past few hours and was now no longer able to admit to what he needed, this would have to be an all-out spanking.
One way or the other, Aragorn was going over my knee. His next reactions would determine how much damage to his chamber we wouldst need to do in order to honor that genuine moment he had shared earlier in the Hall of Kings. If my pup refused to cooperate, he and I were likely to engage in a set-to that would rival Legolas and Pippin’s a few days ago. A good physical scuffle might be just what Aragorn needed. At the moment, though, he looked undecided as to which direction he wanted to go. He shifted his shoulders. They looked uncomfortably tight.
"True, you cannot see things as I do," I said. "Or as Legolas does. So we shall indeed discuss this matter."
Ruffling a bit, his eyes still downcast, Aragorn muttered, "I can only say that I can think of nothing that I have done to deserve disciplining."
Knowing that a bit of a shove would help him, I said, "Aragorn, I am not down on the floor. Look at me when I speak to you. Right now, young sir."
Aragorn tensed at my blatant challenge. He pressed his mouth into a tight line, defying my order for a lengthy ten seconds. Then my cub lifted his gaze to me, shaking his hair back from his face. I had not seen such defiant insolence on Aragorn’s face for a long, long while. Ah. He had decided his course then. So be it. All he needed now was one more shove.
"Sometimes a spanking is not exactly deserved, but it is greatly needed. You are in need of a sound spanking, little boy, and I mean to make certain you receive a good long one."
Aragorn’s features tightened into a frown of pure rebellion. I hoped the King’s bathing chamber fared better this time.
Garrick was going to give me his, ‘Devon, what have you done now?’ look. Garrick had a fondness for his, ‘Devon what have you done now?’ look. It was near as popular a choice with him as his, ‘I know what you did, Devon, but I expect you to tell me of it anyway,’ look.
Well, I hadn’t meant to do what I’d done. I truly had not. And, in looking back, I could fathom no way in which I could have done things differently. Well . . . no, that wasn’t entirely true. In fact, none of that was true.
The honest truth was, I’d absolutely provoked the entire incident. And I knew that Garrick would see that honest truth with his flawlessly accurate perception and come to a flawlessly accurate conclusion – his cub had wandered astray yet again. I was headed for certain doom.
"Gwin, we are headed for certain doom," I had once muttered to my elvish co-conspirator as we stood frozen in place, side by side, watching Gwin’s very stern Halbarad and my equally stern Garrick storm towards us. Clearly they had found out something Gwin and I would rather they hadn’t.
"Nay, Dev. Not doom," Gwin had told me, taking an unsteady step back. "I fear we are about to be rather seriously spanked, though."
"That’s what I said. Certain doom."
I glanced around now, thinking my escort of four warriors a bit of pretentious show. But then, perhaps not, since the closer we got to the Ranger camp the more tempted I felt to flee. The decidedly irritable warriors of Lossarnach were unlikely to allow me such an escape, though. So, as they and their irate commander marched me back from their encampment, I took each dusty step with my heart pounding and my anxiousness growing the closer we got to my certain doom.
Garrick, always the easiest man to spot in a crowd as he towered above even the tall Numenoreans, came striding forth at our approach, his handsome face grave and stern and full of concerned urgency the moment he spotted me. My stomach clenched and I again fought the wild impulse to run. I could almost hear him when the storm had passed and we were alone, and I was facing the floor in a familiar position, certain doom about to painfully descend:
"Devon, your reasoning escapes me."
"What exactly were you thinking?"
"I’m sorry to say that --"
"You did not stop to think."
"Well, not enough, I guess."
"I know, little boy."
Several others accompanied Garrick – Thayer, Hadden, Logan – the older wiser inner circle. And now every Ranger noticing the proceedings fell into step behind them, all our troop ever ready to be of support to their ranking officer, not to mention eager to be entertained by my occasional waywardness. Devon in trouble yet again was always a fine distraction. Not that I bore my brother Rangers any ill-will because of their fascination with my misfortunes. Were I not always the one in trouble I’d be fascinated, too.
Halting before Garrick, the Lossarnach warriors aligned themselves alongside their commander, who also happened to be, as chance would have it, the very man who was now sporting a swelling jaw and a blackening eye, honestly earned, in my opinion. I lurked behind them.
"Be ye the one who speaks for these Rangers of the North?" the man inquired. His surliness was an impressive show of nerve before Garrick, who intimidated most by virtue of his size alone and whose frown and intense glare made him even more menacing at present. The Lossarnachian’s lack of manners bespoke his fury well.
"At present I speak for the Grey Company," Garrick said.
The commander inclined his head in a polite nod. "Rubian of Lossarnach, First Lieutenant to Lord Forlong."
Garrick returned the gesture. "Corporal Garrick. Your lord’s reputation precedes him, sir. You and your men are welcome."
Garrick cast me one of his unmistakable glances. It shot through me like a flaming arrow. I dropped my gaze and left it lowered, unable to tear my eyes from a small patch of trodden and dying grass at my feet. I felt an odd kinship with it.
"Thank you for that kind welcome," Rubian grunted. "Your reputation precedes you as well. All upon this plain know of the Rangers and of the noble Grey Company. We men of Lossarnach are proud to be encamped nearest to you. I wish I could say that I’m happy in this meeting, but I come on a distressing mission."
"Oh?" Garrick said.
"Aye." Rubian cleared his throat. "I am not an official emissary. I am here with a private complaint against one of your troop, not as a spokesperson for my Lord Forlong."
"I understand," Garrick said.
"I am no diplomat. My weapons are sword and axe, not words. But I have heard that the men of the North speak plainly. So do we of Lossarnach. Therefore, I pray you, sir, forgive any lack of fair speech I might trot out."
"You bespeak yourself, well," Garrick replied. "You need not apologize for any absence of subtlety. I oft have little of it myself. But, as you look a bit worse for wear, sir, I sense that any shortage of grace on your part may indeed be warranted."
"And so it is!" Rubian fell suddenly silent. I peeked up at him. He looked to be struggling mightily to rein in his temper. He failed.
With a quick gesture back at me, Rubian bellowed, "Does this ill-mannered . . . BOY belong to you?!"
Not one Ranger snickered, despite Rubian’s indelicate and oddly accurate term of possession.
"Devon is a member of this company, aye," Garrick replied, his voice calm.
"Devon is it? Well, so Devon told us. ‘I am a member of the Grey Company!’ he yelled. But I had trouble believing it." Rubian ground out. "Rangers are known for their fair conduct, sir. This boy has shown none!"
Rubian turned to one of the other warriors. "Roland! Tell your tale."
I inwardly groaned, noting the man chosen to speak. Much younger than the older, gruffer Rubian, Roland had been present the day before when Gwin and I first encountered him.
Roland now straightened and said in a clear tone, "Yesterday a small group of us, myself and James here included, had gone out to walk and retrieve water when this lad and an elf crossed our path. One in our group made a remark he should not have made. The elf and the lad took exception to his remark and rounded upon him.
"I know something of fair folk and their physical prowess. We numbered half a dozen, but I still felt that we were at a disadvantage. One elf, from what I knew, could easily take on all of us and come out the victor, and this elf, though rather small, like the lad here, was terribly angry. They both were, and they had cause to be, in my opinion. And it was for that reason, not for fear of our own skins, that James and I stepped in to prevent further difficulties. I pointed out that we were on the same side and James said that such infighting was unseemly.
"Jessup, the young man who made the remark, agreed that he should not have said what he did and, at my suggestion, he readily apologized. The elf and the lad, however, were unimpressed. The elf was especially unimpressed. Like I said, I felt that the two were justifiably upset, and, again, it wasn’t just for fear of the little elf’s retribution that I made Jessup repeat his amends, which he did, several times. But the two were now most upset and they would not be appeased, and --"
"What was the remark?" Garrick interrupted.
I risked a glance up. Roland had gone very still. He exchanged a glance with James, and both of them instantly flushed bright red, as well they should have. I could feel my face doing the same.
"Tell him at once, Roland!" Rubian ordered.
"Jessup said . . .." Roland paused to clear his throat. "He said, ‘Two such pretty little pieces shouldn’t be trailing about unescorted amongst big randy warriors.’"
Deadly silence followed. Garrick’s expression remained unchanged. He was gifted with astounding restraint. Some of the Rangers shifted and looked grim, though.
Roland swallowed hard. "I did not say it!" he told Garrick.
Garrick nodded slowly. "I understand."
"I thought the remark most discourteous. I made Jessup apologize."
"So you have said," Garrick replied calmly.
"He is quite young and far too outspoken."
"And he has been restless these past days."
"As have we all."
"I . . . I know. I am not trying to excuse his behavior."
Garrick quietly said, "Be at ease, sir."
Roland took a breath. "Well, matters seemed to get worse, despite the continued rephrased apologies. It looked like a fight was brewing. I did not wish for that, nor did any of the others, so we returned to camp. We waited a while before going out again for water, glad that the elf and the lad were now gone."
A brief silence followed. "Roland! Go on," Rubian said.
Roland looked vague. "Sir . . . I mean, that is all --"
"Oh," Rubian said. "Right. ‘Tis my turn." Now he cleared his throat. "Right, then. So, just now, we – that is, these men here and myself – we were on the perimeter of our encampment at a practice range the men had set up several days ago. We are not bowmen, to be sure, but we felt that, as we had the time, we could make good use of it by practicing with some of the enemy’s confiscated weapons. It could not hurt."
"A noble thought," Garrick said.
"Thank you. So there we are, taking turns, when along comes this . . . this little boy, and he says to me, he says . . . ." Rubian suddenly seemed too angry to speak further, so he barked, "Roland!"
Odd ritual these two had worked out. Roland, clearly better spoken and with a slightly tighter grip on his emotions, when he wasn’t being intimidated by Garrick, was apparently a kind of delegated translator for his more volatile commander. I found it fascinating and hoped it would go on.
Roland now spoke up: "The lad here said, ‘My elvish friend can shoot better than you feeble lot e’en without his bow.’"
I closed my eyes. My jest had sounded more clever to me at the time.
"So, I turn," Rubian sputtered, having taken back the floor, "and I ask the lad what he’d said. And the brat repeats it! I asked, did he not wish to amend his words?"
I opened my eyes again and glared at the back of Rubian’s head. This man had a unique version of the truth. He’d actually said, "Care to repeat that sonny?" in a nasty tone. And, indeed, I had. Then he’d said, "Y’want to take that back, lad?" And, indeed, I had not. In fact, I’d added a bit.
Rubian seemed eager to convey my insolence, but he again became too angry to actually spit it out. "So the lad says . . . he says . . . Roland! Tell him what the lad said!"
I winced. To his credit, Roland reported matters accurately, an unfortunate situation in my case.
"The boy said, ‘No, I do not wish to take back my words, thank you. In fact, here are some more: My elvish friend can stand over there in our Ranger camp, half a mile away, and outshoot you common lot any day. AND without his bow.’"
I once more considered running. But Garrick’s legs were longer.
Rubian ‘tsked’ and shook his head, the very soul of maltreatment. "‘Twas a nasty bit of business, sir, this unprovoked taunting."
"Indeed it was."
"‘Twas badly done."
I thought it quite finely done myself, but I held my tongue, as I wished to see another dawn.
"What happened to your face?" Garrick asked suddenly.
"What-What happened --?" Rubian sputtered, then thumbed back over his shoulder at me. "The boy happened to it, that’s what! Roland!"
"One of our party demanded an apology from the lad. He refused, saying he had not meant to insult us, but had only been bespeaking the truth. He said he could not be blamed if we chose to take exception to the truth."
I could bear no more of this. Pointing at one of the men, I cried, "And then that knave called me an ill-mannered stripling in need of . . . of a . . . ." Ew. I had failed to think this out properly.
"That is enough, Devon," Garrick said, ominously calm.
"Roland!" Rubian barked. "Help the boy out!"
"Sir," Roland said, "Kerlan remarked that the boy was an ill-mannered stripling in need of a good tail-warming."
With a perfectly straight face, Garrick said, "Excuse me? I did not hear that. Could you repeat it?"
Roland had said it loudly enough for the Rangers in the back of the crowd to be chuckling, but Garrick, not five yards away, needed it repeated. It was so typically Garrick.
"He said that the boy was an ill-mannered stripling in need of a good tail-warming, sir!" Roland fairly shouted. Gwin and Legolas would have heard it wherever they were in the city.
"Ah," Garrick said.
"The boy snarled and broke for my man at a dead run," Rubian then said. "I tried to intercept him, but he got in several good licks before my men could pull him off me."
"It was not my place to deal with the lad, so we marched him back here to you straightaway, and therein ends my tale," Rubian said.
I thought the man overly self-congratulatory given the fact that Roland had related most of this affair in his commander’s stead, but again I held my tongue.
"I trust that justice will be seen to," Rubian blustered.
"Aye, sir. You need trouble yourself no further. Thank you for bringing the matter before us. We will deal with our own as we see fit."
"Thank you. I only ask that this boy be kept away from our encampment, both he and the elf he was seen with yesterday. Either that, or the two of them be escorted by someone older and wiser such as yourself, who can keep them out of trouble."
Garrick nodded. "A fair request. And, as it seems no apology was rendered today, we shall amend that oversight now. Devon!"
The way Garrick barked my name was so reminiscent of Rubian’s repeatedly barked ‘Roland!’ I nearly burst into laughter. I noted that a few of the Rangers suffered a similar struggle. I vow, it did seem unintentional on Garrick’s part. And, his effort, if it was indeed intentional, was too subtle to even affect the unmindful Rubian. All the commander wanted from me was an apology and he was focused on that alone. But what Garrick had done with that one word was significant to me.
Yes, my Ranger was most unhappy with my actions, and it was about to become a painful afternoon. No escaping certain doom. But Garrick was astute at recognizing pomposity. It was folly to try outwitting a Dúnedain. They sensed too much too accurately. Garrick surely knew he’d heard a few half-truths from the affronted Rubian. But Garrick would not dispute those words, for we were indeed on the same side, and I had brought this down upon myself, causing my troop some embarrassment. For that, the Lossarnachians were allowed a little leeway. But no one outside our family of warriors would be allowed to speak out unfairly against one of our own and come away completely unscathed.
I’d never know if Garrick did it on purpose. No one would ever know that for certain, and he’d never admit to it, of course. But in my quiet, feeling center, I sensed that, with that one word, my giant Ranger had, indeed, supported me. I’d received an unspoken stroke of assurance from him in a very uncomfortable moment, and that heartened me. ‘I am here, little boy,’ his action seemed to say. ‘You are safe. But you have been naughty. Now, do what you must.’
The Lossarnachians had turned to look at me expectantly. I moved past them and took a place beside Garrick. Facing them all, I said in a clear voice, "Please forgive my thoughtless words and my discourteous behavior, gentlemen. You did not deserve such treatment. I am most sincerely sorry."
Rubian’s rugged face twitched. Looking at the damage I’d done him, I suddenly did feel sincerely sorry. He hadn’t deserved that. He hadn’t provoked it. I’d been looking for trouble and he’d been conveniently there, along with James and Roland, whom I’d recognized from the day before.
It was seeing them and remembering that terribly humiliating incident that had rekindled something sudden and raw inside me – the memory of those leering young warriors who had looked Gwin and me up and down as though they had a very good idea why we were in the company of the elite and splendid looking Rangers. It wasn’t because we were worthy warriors ourselves, but because of our appearance and because randy warriors were randy warriors and Rangers surely traveled with their own entertainment.
To his credit, Roland had not looked at us that way. Nor had James. But Gwin and I had fielded that lustful gaze too often over the years to be gracious about it. Our discomfort with such treatment was something we found we had in common, and, unlike Legolas, who was so self-possessed he simply dismissed such human nonsense with a shrug and a dismissive, "So?" Gwin and I could not help becoming indignant any time we encountered such disrespect.
"I find myself not wanting to look around at others, Dev," Gwin had once confessed to me.
"I know," I’d said. "It’s embarrassing."
Yesterday had been a bad time to suffer what neither one of us had the patience nor the poise to endure. Not after Pelennor. Not after the Paths of the Dead. Not after all we had been through. Not when so much still lay before us.
We probably should have accepted Jessup’s apology. Had either of us been walking a less dangerous edge we likely would have. As it was, the satisfaction of being such unforgiving bullies faded instantly, leaving Gwin and me feeling boorish and low and regretful.
And so I’d actually approached the Lossarnachians today in a conciliatory frame of mind. Why my behavior turned so bad so quickly was a mystery to me. But I had a squeamish awareness that Garrick would get to the bottom of that mystery quite effectively.
For now, though, I gazed sympathetically upon the battered face of the old warrior before me. Rubian looked frustrated. He clearly felt he deserved something more for his discomfort than mere words from this young upstart. He was probably not a bad sort. For all I knew he had a family, children, a wife, beloved kin. Perhaps he had suffered the loss of loved ones, or the loss of his home or his village through the enemy’s cruelty. Perhaps he had watched his closest friend die in battle. Perhaps he had watched many of them die that way. Perhaps he was all alone in the world, with none to turn to in his dark and lonely times, the regiment all he had now.
This man had not wronged me. I had indeed wronged him, and I had nothing more to offer him for his pains than those mere words. So I took a step towards him and I placed my hand over my chest, inclined my head once, then looked up directly at him with my most heartfelt gaze of atonement.
"Truly, sir, you have been much abused, and without cause. Please forgive me my churlish mistreatment of you and your men." I paused and tilted my head to one side slightly, feeling genuine sorrow for this man who had battled through and survived Pelennor as I had, a man who could very well be enjoying his last few days of life. Tears clouded my gaze, and I heard myself say, "Should you be able to find forgiveness in your heart, you are the better man for it, to be certain. And, if it proves of any comfort to you, rest assured, I shall not be sitting my saddle comfortably tomorrow."
It was an extraordinary confession, a humbling confession that clearly none present had expected me to make. I squirmed and flushed in making it and, to my surprise, the men – the Rangers and the Lossarnachians – shifted about in obvious discomfort on my behalf. I felt a wave of compassion surge my way from all points, including from the man before me whom I had attacked.
Rubian glanced up at Garrick. He suddenly seemed to realize what was going to happen to me and a glimmer of real fear entered his gaze. He looked back and forth between Garrick and me several times, then he coughed, then blustered and rumbled a bit, then finally – and quite courageously – he began to speak:
"Uhh, well, ‘tis not for me to say what happens to the boy, sir, but, well, let me just tell you that I feel satisfied. I’m sure he’s learned his lesson, haven’t ye, lad? No need making a further point on his backside, sir. He does have a long ride tomorrow, and, well, I’m certain ‘twas just youthful high spirits and too much time on his hands. We can let bygones be bygones. After all, we’re in this together, like Roland said. What was that you said? Roland?!"
"We’re all on the same side, sir."
"Aye! That’s it! We’re all on the same side here. We warriors can take a few comments and a tap or two without coming to outright hostilities, eh? I’m sure the laddie didn’t mean it."
To my shame I felt a few tears spill down my cheeks. I quickly dashed them away, quite humiliated. They’d escaped my eyes because of Rubian’s extraordinary compassion for a cocky lad who had clearly wronged him. But, unfortunately, it probably looked as though I was beginning to weep in fear of my fate, triggering not only Rubian’s suddenly protective instincts, but also, incredibly, his ire. He fumed a bit, then looked up at Garrick.
"Well, now . . . now see here, sir," he said to Garrick in a tone he no doubt used liberally with men much younger and smaller than my Ranger, "I insist that the laddie be forgiven his temper. No real harm done. He’s welcome to come back with us now and spend time with us at our camp. Maybe his little elvish friend could come give us some pointers with the bow, eh?"
I was incredibly touched. He seemed to be trying to remove me from Garrick’s clutches lest the savage Ranger beat me silly. I became quite fond of Rubian.
I thought to ease his worry, to tell him that I greatly appreciated his concern, but that it wasn’t necessary. Yes, Garrick was indeed going to make ‘a further point on my backside,’ and it wasn’t going to be pleasant, but I would be entirely safe. Garrick’s lap was a solid haven of safety, especially so when I was stretched out over it taking a spanking. But I wasn’t quite sure how to put that without melting into a puddle of mortification.
Garrick cleared his throat. "Sir, I am afraid Devon’s company will be needed here for the rest of the day, and Gwinthorian, his elvish friend, is also otherwise occupied. However, your invitation is most welcome, given the circumstances. Perhaps later tonight you and these others will return and join us in an ale. Devon is quite the storyteller. We shall persuade him to share some of our adventures with you."
"Well, that’s a right fine offer, sir. Thank you." Rubian still cast me a wary glance. "But, uh --"
"As to your concern for Devon," Garrick went on, "I am certain you agree that we must deal with our own as we see fit. Devon understands this. He also knows exactly what to expect when he behaves in a certain manner."
Ohhhhhh. I did long to melt into that puddle of mortification! My noble intentions were all fine and good, but embarrassing realities were still embarrassing realities. I longed to cover my face with my hands. I actually clenched them into fists at my sides to keep from doing so. And still Garrick went on.
"Have no fear for the lad. He is prone to mischief, and wrestles with his temper, so he is therefore used to certain consequences. Devon will suffer nothing worse than what he has endured quite well in the past. Aye, he will have trouble sitting his saddle tomorrow. But Devon must remember to respect the dignity of others at all times and to conduct himself in a manner befitting a Ranger of the Grey Company.
"And, should you return tonight, you will find Devon alive and well. He may, however, prefer to stand while storytelling."
Ohhhhhhhhhh! The low rumble of quiet male chuckling thrummed around me. I pressed my lips together tightly and shot Garrick a look of absolute loathing. He usually finds that highly amusing and he grinned down at me in response.
But Rubian and company seemed placated. The old warrior looked at me with a kindly grin, his eyes crinkling at the corners, reminding me a bit of my father’s crinkly-eyed smile. Heartened by the thought, I grinned shyly back.
"That’s it now," he said. "You just be brave there, laddie. You must be a grand warrior to have survived this battle. You’ll be fine."
I nodded. It occurred to me suddenly, I don’t know why, that I was probably at least thirty years Rubian’s senior, and yet he talked to me as though I were no more than ten. There was something incredibly odd about that, but not odd enough to dwell upon. At the moment I had enough to dwell upon, and as Rubian and company made their final farewells and departed I had a gut-stirring desire to call after them and take Rubian up on his offer to spend the afternoon in the safety of the Lossarnach encampment.
Instead, I glanced up at Garrick and found him watching me with that look of exasperated fondness. He leaned down and said to me, "Halbarad’s tent. Now, little boy." And I headed off to await my certain doom.
To be continued . . . .