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A Tale to Becalm the Healing
Aragorn, Boromir and Legolas shared a brotherly chuckle over Pippin’s demanding missive.
"Peregrin Took is not known for his patience," Aragorn said
Legolas scoffed. "Aye, he is known rather for his lack of it."
"Best to not keep the little one waiting," Boromir advised.
I glanced at the only silent party in the room. Gwinthorian’s sulk was flawless. He raised sad eyes to me and muttered, "Aye. Best to not keep the ‘little one’ waiting."
I turned to the servant and said, "Go tell them I am coming, but I must first finish up something here."
"Aye, my lord," the servant said with a nod.
"Wait," Aragorn said, strolling closer, casting me a knowing look. "Take your time returning," he told the servant. "It won’t kill Master Took to wait another fifteen minutes."
The servant looked dubious, but he dipped another bow to Aragorn and said, "Aye, my lord." He headed off at a leisurely pace.
Aragorn gave me a slight nod and closed the door. I turned and stalked across the room towards Gwin, who traded his sulky frown for a wide-eyed blink of realization and a sharp gasp. He pointlessly pressed himself back into the corner of the window seat again, but I was beside him in seconds. I sat, grabbed him by the arm and yanked him over my lap in one swift move.
"nooooo!" he whimpered, sounding as disgraced as I’m sure he felt. "No, please! Not now! Not here, pleeeeease, Hal !"
Hal. I’d given Gwin special permission to call me that, but only when we were alone. For some reason I couldn’t fathom, ‘Hal’ sounded boyish to me, and I did not tolerate it well when spoken casually. Despite my annoyance, I had allowed Gwin to use it, but only during intimate moments. For him to cry it out now was yet another secret confirmation of what I already knew - this was exactly what he wanted.
I tossed up his tunic and ripped his leggings down and immediately started spanking his far-too creamy bottom with sharp, quick swats that were sure to sting. Gwin responded with his usual explosion of cries and bucking, but I had him stretched firmly over my lap, his chest resting on the window seat and his legs kicking atop the cushion, so he could writhe all he chose to and it would gain him nothing, and in truth, Gwin never writhed enough to risk truly freeing himself.
I glanced up once to see that Aragorn had resumed his seat and joined Boromir in a bit of wine. Legolas was perched on the arm of Boromir’s chair, one arm around the man’s shoulder. None of them were paying much attention to Gwin and me, at least they didn’t give the impression that they were. Gwin’s screams would have been hard to ignore, though, or even to be heard over, if they were inclined to have a conversation.
"I have duties," I said. "So we will keep this short and to the point." I watched for him to throw his hand back over his bottom, then I snatched it up and held it at the small of his back, our standard procedure. I could have saved the effort by securing Gwin’s hand before starting, but I’d learned long ago that he preferred it this way, with me pulling his hand away. So I always waited.
"Owww, oww! Please!" he sputtered, crying now. "Please! Stop! I am sorry! Sorry, Hal! Sorry!"
"Sorry for what?"
"You are sorry you’re being spanked, little elfling, not for what you did." His bottom was getting nicely pink now. Something Garrick once said popped into my mind, "The fairer the backside the pinker the hue."
"I AM sorry f-for what I d-did!"
"And that was?"
"I-I--" He broke down into sobs again. Of course he knew what he’d done, but Gwin never liked having to admit to his behavior. Nevertheless, I usually made him do so. Had I time, I would have again, but I let him off the hook to speed things along.
"You behaved in a deliberately obstinate manner. You were discourteous and uncaring. You disregarded the feelings of another simply to be spiteful. Does any of this sound familiar?"
I lifted my right leg slightly, tipping him up a bit, and swatted low at his most tender spot. "Excuse me?"
"YES! YES! YES! AAAHHH! Not there! Please! Please not there!"
Amazing how quickly Gwin could work himself into a frenzy. I hadn’t been at this more than a few minutes and he was already breathless with tears. I lowered my leg again, returning my spanks to his now reddening cheeks, and said, "Such behavior will not be tolerated, Gwinthorian. Aye, you have special gifts, and you can hear much, but so can Legolas, and he did not blurt out what was clearly meant to be a private matter, did he?"
"Was that a willful and thoughtless thing to do?"
"Was your manner grumpy and your conduct rude?"
"And were your insolent remarks meant to jab more than jest?"
"And are you going to apologize to Aragorn and Boromir and Legolas when I let you up from here?"
"Ohhhhh, oh p-please Hal! Sure-surely they heard!" I tipped my leg up again. "YESS!! YES, sir! I-I will ap-apolo-apol--"
I slowed my spanks now and rubbed his hot bottom between each swat. Gwin lay lost in repeated sobs, his face buried in his arms, his cascade of hair spilling across his back like liquid sunlight. Aye, he was crying, but he was crying from more than just pain and humiliation. Few of his tears were wasted on that. These were tears of relief, mixed in with something far larger than Gwin, or I, or anyone could describe. "It is something that bursts within me, somewhere in my stomach, like a warm and filling liquid," he once told me afterwards. "And the warmth spreads. It makes my heart beat more fully. It softens and strengthens my limbs at the same time. I cannot describe its splendor, dearest, Hal. When you have spanked me, in the moments that follow, I am simply overcome."
That feeling of being so overcome accounted for much of Gwin’s crying. I gave him a moment to feel it, then began speaking just to him, using a voice so low it was barely a whisper, something only he would hear, and if Legolas picked it up, I knew he would not deign to listen.
"We will continue this later, for I have not finished with you. This lesson was too fast and too short, and you know it, little Gwin." He froze, his sobs catching in his throat, then he nodded and wept softly again. "I understand that things have not been to your liking these past few days, but that does not give you leave to abuse those around you. We shall be discussing that further tonight." And then, in my softest murmur, I added in his lilting, elvish tongue what he always needed to hear, the words that soothed his fragile feelings most, "You are part of me, Gwinthorian. You are dear to my heart. I shall never leave you, nor will I abandon you to your own harmful whims. Do you understand, my love?"
I rubbed his bottom a few more times, then pulled up his leggings and gathered him to me. He came into my arms with a fierceness, and I let him hold on as tightly as he wished for as long as I could while I ran my hands soothingly over his back.
"You will come with me now while I finish the story I started," I told him. He drew back and studied me, his eyes clear, if glassy, and his expression peaceful. I wiped the tears from his cheeks.
"Which story are you telling?" he asked.
I glanced at Aragorn. "A very old one. You shall see. Come. You have some apologies to make."
He bit his bottom lip, but he rose and I placed my hand at the small of his back, guiding him to where the others sat. I was proud of him, standing there, eyes downcast, telling each warrior he was sorry for his behavior. They were all gracious and did nothing to embarrass him further, but Legolas jumped up and grabbed his elven brother into a hug.
"Aw, Gwin," he murmured. Then he pulled back and gave Gwin a small kiss and said, "Go keep your storyteller company."
"But do not interrupt," Boromir added, "lest you find yourself facing the floor again."
"Nay," Legolas said. "Pippin can out-interrupt even Gwin."
"Valar help you, my friend," Aragorn said with a grin.
We headed out into the corridor, Gwin dashing at his cheeks and eyes once more. "Do I look like I have been crying?" he asked me.
His full lips and the end of his small, Pippin-ish nose were much too pink, while his cheeks were flushed and his large blue eyes looked slightly swollen and red. Ah, the fair-of-color after crying.
"No," I replied.
He breathed a sigh of relief then said, "Good. That youngest impish hobbit, would surely take notice and say something."
"Little wonder Pippin irks you," I said. "You are too much alike."
"He does not ‘irk’ me. He is simply a nuisance."
"As you say."
"So, before we get there, tell me the part of your story I missed."
I threw him a sidelong raised eyebrow.
"How can I deny such a courteous request?" I smiled at him. "I have been telling them of the first time I disciplined Aragorn."
"Oh, is that all?"
"They wanted to hear it. And you haven’t heard it, so you might find it interesting."
"I have been spanked with Aragorn, and not long ago, so why would I find this interesting?"
I informed Gwin that he would behave and listen and not be a distraction, or what he had coming later would reflect my increased displeasure. And I informed him that he was not, under any circumstances, to ever talk about what happened two years ago, or to imply in any way that Aragorn, even now, was sometimes disciplined. Gwinthorian is indeed the ever-callow elfling, but he knows when I am in deadly earnest, and he respects my wishes unerringly when I am.
"Very well then," he finally sighed. "Perhaps it will prove distracting. After all, Hal," he added in Sindarin, "*you* are telling it."
I caught his sweet elvish smile and felt that dreaded warm flush creep up my neck. I cleared my throat and continued: "Aragorn was but twenty-two when he took command of the Grey Company . . . ."
They were not hard to find. Aragorn and Devon had wisely used the one weapon that would keep the wargs at bay – fire. However, they were unwisely backed into a shallow cave with their great bonfire built at the opening. It drew us like a beacon, as I’m sure Aragorn had intended, but it had also gained the attention of what appeared to be close to a hundred wargs, pacing on the other side of the inferno, waiting, some of them simply sitting and biding their time until the flames burned low and the fuel gave out.
"Could they have possibly worked themselves into a worse position?" Garrick muttered beside me.
We lay on our stomachs atop a small rise, watching from a distance. Bergren and Logan, two warriors with nearly elvish vision, even more advanced than a Ranger’s exceptionally astute gifts, lay with us. The breeze in our faces brought the smell of woodsmoke and foul beasts and fear. Outlying point men guarded our flanks, keeping watch for any more approaching wargs, and half a mile behind us the Grey Company built a bonfire of our own, Rangers cutting limbs and fashioning torches as quickly as possible. We had already found Aragorn and Devon’s horses running in our direction as we headed towards the woodlands they were fleeing, so the men now worked, dreading what we might find.
"You are sure you can see them both?" I asked again.
"Aye, sir," Bergren said. "They are both in there."
"But the littler one seems to be limping. I think its Devon," Logan noted.
"Aye, ‘tis Devon," Bergren nodded. "There. See how the afternoon sun catches his fair hair? He is the only Numenorean I have ever known with locks of that rare color."
"Ah. Better yet." Garrick turned a grim look my way. "One of them is injured."
"My lord, should that fire burn any lower, one of those beasts will surely try to jump it," Logan ventured. "I cannot see if Lord Aragorn has any fuel left--"
"Let’s go," I said. We tore down to where our horses stood tethered then sped back to the troop, our point men following.
The Grey Company rode down upon the wargs as one thunderous force, swords in one hand and torches in the other, brandishing both, striking fast and loud and startling some of the beasts into immediate retreat, but not many. Our fight was a vicious one, the wargs leaping and snarling, snapping at our horses’ vulnerable flanks. We swept our torches in wide, low arcs, setting fire to many of the animals and sending them writhing to the ground or howling off into the woods. But there were so many, and it was all our force could do to keep them occupied while Garrick and I raced our mounts to the cave, Rangers guarding our advance. We pulled up as close to the fire as our horses would go and saw the two young men, filthy with soot and nearly spent on the other side. Aragorn’s smoke-raw voice croaked from within:
"Devon’s leg is broken!"
Garrick leapt from his horse and ran, a powerful giant of a warrior charging straight towards the fire. He vaulted high, flying above the flames on one side and vanishing within the dim cave. A shift in the wind blew the thick smoke my way. I coughed, narrowed my eyes, and grabbed the reins to Garrick’s dancing mount, moving closer to the black opening. I could just barely see what was happening inside. Garrick looked my way and waved. I waved back, and then I saw him pick up Aragorn and hurl him out and over the fire with such force that he nearly crashed into the horses. I reached down and grabbed the stunned lad by the scruff of his neck, hauling him upwards while he twisted and tried to help me pull him onto my horse. He spread his legs and I gave a mighty heave and slammed him down in front of me.
"Garrick!" I roared, coughing through the smoke, peering into the cave. A moment later a huge form came sailing over the fire once more, this time with a smaller body draped over his shoulder. He was on his horse a second later and we flew down the embankment, Rangers at our flanks, filling in behind us, gathering to ride before us, clearing a path through the ever-increasing hordes of snapping wargs.
They were many, and they were fast, but we were faster, and we lasted longer, riding for nearly three straight hours before we reached the narrow pass of a rocky area we knew well. By then few wargs were still pursuing, but a half dozen Rangers stopped here to set up a line of defense. Any beasts that were following would be met with a rain of our best archers’ arrows.
The rest of us moved on a few miles beyond the pass to another area we frequented on our travels, a soft woodland with sweet grasses for the mounts, a gentle stream, and a fine defensive position. There we would set up camp and assess our situation.
I dismounted, hauling a groggy Aragorn with me. He was weak and shaky, but nonetheless, to my astonishment, he tried to push me away and rasped, "Don’t." I practically carried him the few steps to a grassy area where I forced him down on his back, despite his frail struggles.
Leaning over him I said, "Look at me." When I had his attention, I went on. "You will submit to whatever examination I choose, and then you will allow Farrell to treat you, my young Captain, or so help me by the Valar, injuries or no, I will turn you over, lower your breeches, and in front of all, do to your backside exactly what you deserve."
Aragorn coughed and stared up at me. "Are you planning to give me trouble?" I asked.
His eyes burned with rebellion, but he grated, "No."
I knelt back and quickly looked him over, running my hands down his limbs. Amazingly, no bones were broken.
"I am fine," he ventured, his voice sounding painful.
"Devon needs tending," he croaked.
"I said hush. Farrell is seeing to him."
"I can help him. I have athelas with me, brought from Rivendell. Only I can use it. You must let me--"
"Aragorn!" I snarled. "One more word and you go over my knee. So please. Speak on. Give me an excuse. Here and now. Every one of your men would cheer."
He watched me, silent and rigid, his young features stained with grime and soot and sweat and residual fear.
"It seems you brought more than athelas from Rivendell, did you not?" His eyes went wider and he coughed again, but he wisely said nothing. "You will be allowed to treat your partner in devilry soon, but for now you will lay still while I finish looking you over. Do you understand?"
It seemed the last shreds of his defiance gave way. To my amazement, his eyes glassed over with tears. He closed them quickly, but two telltale trickles cut a path from the corners of his eyes through the soot on his face and into his hair. He gave a brisk nod and his body relaxed in defeat.
I continued, moving his ripped clothing aside in places where there was blood, lifting his shirt, taking in each cut and bruise. I knew he felt humiliated to be treated so, like a child who had just tumbled down a hill and was being examined for hurts by his nurse. But so be it. At the moment, I had not a single apology for anything I deemed needed doing to him or for him.
In truth, checking that Aragorn was still in one piece, and what condition that one piece was in, helped soothed the panic that had howled within me since morning when I had learned he was gone. I honestly had not expected to find him or the boy alive. I’d expected to find nothing but perhaps the remnants of some shredded clothing and massive spills of blood. The wargs would have consumed every part of them, even their bones, and the horror of what could have happened still ricocheted within me like searing balls of fire.
I just had to touch him. I had to know that he was here, alive, breathing, not viciously ripped to pieces by ferocious carnivores as I had seen in my frantic mind’s eye too many times. I wanted to scoop him up and hold him for hours, hear him breathing, steady and sure. I ran my hands over him again and again, and I actually felt tears glaze my eyes. To my astonishment, I longed to weep. Surplus terror ripped through me, colliding head on with the actual fact that he was here, filthy and battered, but a beautiful sight - still Aragorn, with all his limbs intact. What I needed was some private place where I could go and just roar for a while, bellow the lingering rage and terror from my body so that I could think clearly once more. And I wanted to spank him until he never sat a horse again without thinking of me. I angrily dashed at my tear-filled eyes and turned my head, letting my long hair hide my overwhelmed state.
I turned at Farrell’s voice.
"The men have constructed a pine-bough shelter where we can tend to Lord Aragorn and Devon. Is he well enough to stand?"
"Aye. Nothing is broken. He is just bloodied and bruised. I’ll help him over."
The men had worked with typical Ranger efficiency. Camp was set up, the fires lit, water retrieved, food was being prepared and assessments as to injuries had been made. I realized that I’d been alone with Aragorn longer than I thought. I helped him to the three-sided shelter, set about forty feet from the central fire, far enough away to afford the patients quiet and privacy. The moment Aragorn saw Devon he tried to go to him. I held him back until he was inside, then I let him lean over the lad for a moment and talk to him.
I stepped back and turned to Garrick, who was standing with his massive arms crossed over his chest, studying the two younger men with a somber expression. Devon’s fair locks lay spread out in a tangled mess, but his glazed eyes focused up intensely at his Captain. He listened as if mesmerized by Aragorn’s soft tone.
"He became unconscious when I mounted outside the cave," Garrick said in a low voice. "I was afraid to jostle him and perhaps damage his broken leg further."
"I saw you," I said. "You had him down and you were holding him against you with both arms to keep him still. You rode at that pace for that distance without using the reins." Garrick’s prowess was often beyond my ken. He, of course, had no reply.
"It was a clean break," Farrel said, joining us. "Just below the knee and fairly simple to set. He will even be able to sit a horse, although he will need help mounting."
"I want them to rest some before we move them," I said. "We will hold here for a few days before deciding what to do."
Aragorn heard my orders and shot a frown up at me. He had a challenging look on his face, but then he glanced at Garrick, then back at me, then back at Garrick again before lowering his eyes to Devon once more, saying nothing.
"Farrell, find someone to bring Lord Aragorn’s saddlebags here."
Hadden, Farrell’s assistant in healing matters, said, "I will fetch them sir." And he was off.
"Injuries?" I asked Garrick.
He shook his dark head. "I know not. I--" He glanced off with what appeared to be a wince. I watched him, suddenly fascinated. "I sat ‘neath the trees and held the boy until the shelter was prepared for him, so I know not the status of the company." He dropped a look of discomfiture to me, then said, "I shall go now and see where we stand."
Stunned, I watched him stride away, then I turned back to the scene in the shelter where Aragorn and Farrell were speaking softly. Hadden came rushing up with Aragorn’s saddlebags. I thanked him and took them to Aragorn, saying, "Find your athelas, then give me the rest of whatever concoctions you brought from Rivendell."
Aragorn glared, but he clearly understood that this was not the time to oppose me in anything, so he did as I ordered and I took his packet of dried weedery and left the makeshift healing shelter to join Garrick in seeing to the company.
Aside from some lacerations on the horses and the men, there were, incredibly, no dire casualties. Aragorn’s singular luck had held. The men were weary and subdued, but they were chiefly concerned for their two youngest members. The rear guard had returned, reporting that the remaining wargs were either limping back or lying dead, riddled with arrows.
Tired though they were, it was clear that the Rangers needed to speak about all that had taken place, so as night fell I sat with the gathered company while we ate and discussed the matter. All were in accordance that Aragorn’s mismanagement had gone on long enough, and that something had to be done. It was miraculous that no one had been badly injured or killed in the engagement, and it was utterly beyond them how Aragorn and Devon were still alive at all. I listened to their hearts as well as their forceful words, and they were all suffering from both lingering fury and haunting fear.
Farrel came to report several times while we talked. Aragorn and Devon were stripped and bathed, their wounds cleaned and tended, and they were resting in fresh clothing. Aragorn had applied his athelas to the skin above the break in Devon’s leg, then wrapped it in linen strips as best he could beneath Farrell’s binding of soft leather ties and branches. He had then steeped the leaves in hot water and they had both inhaled the vapors repeatedly.
"Their voices already sound better," Farrell reported "And they say the raw soreness is nearly gone."
We talked long into the night, the eldest amongst us advising what to do. None of us liked the most obvious solution, but it seemed we had little choice. No vote was taken, though, not yet. Tomorrow we would talk amongst ourselves more and consider the matter fully. A double watch set, the Grey Company drifted off to their own smaller fires, some remaining, as they always did, at our central blaze.
Garrick and I strolled back to the shelter. A small fire at the mouth of the three-sided enclosure lit the two sleeping young Rangers within. Farrell and Hadden sat wrapped in their cloaks on their bedrolls near the fire. A tripod over the fire held a small pot with something wonderfully fragrant.
"Athelas," Farrell said. "We keep it brewing here and switch it with the pot in there when it cools."
Indeed another pot sat perched between Aragorn and Devon, nested in a blanket beyond their heads where they would not jostle into it. The shelter was steeped in the heady scent. Garrick and I dropped our bedrolls.
"We shall help you keep watch over them," I said.
"Aye, sir, but you should rest, too," Farrel replied.
I assured him we would, though I doubted it myself. I did doze, however, in the small hours between midnight and dawn, and when I flinched awake later I saw Garrick, watching the shelter. I sat up quickly.
"He is fine," Garrick murmured at once. "Still sleeping. Neither of them has stirred. That weed is more potent than whatever our young brat put in your ale last night."
I snorted. "That ‘brat’ is Isildur’s Heir, my friend. Show some respect."
Garrick grunted back at my teasing. "I respect his lineage. And I love the lad. But this little one has yet to earn my respect as a leader."
"Aye, he is fast losing ground with all the men it seems."
"They love him still. They long to follow him. But he needs guidance, Halbarad."
"I know it."
Garrick turned to me with a look of grim intensity. "This solution the elders have proposed, do you favor it?" I returned his smoldering gaze. He nodded slightly, then looked at Aragorn and Devon again. "I agree."
"We may not have a choice," I said.
"I know. Majority rules, and the men are fearful." He paused and narrowed his eyes. "The Dunedain," he murmured, "The Grey Company, warriors with a noble history of courage and valor, and of great Numenorean lineage . . . fearful." He turned to me again with a solemn look. "Who would have imagined it?"
Rarely was Garrick so vocal. I studied him, sensing in him the same sadness that I’d felt earlier from the men, although Garrick’s melancholy went a little deeper. His gaze lingered on young Devon. He had been close to Devon’s father, the older man taking a special interest in Garrick when he had been new to the troop and overly enthusiastic. He and I had both come up in the ranks together, and it had taken Garrick many months to adjust to the loss of Devon’s father. So my friend’s attachment to young Devon had been immediate and understandable.
"I have been thinking," I now said, Garrick’s attention fastening back upon me. "Perhaps there is another way."
"No! Don’t stop!"
"Hush, Pip! The man is just refilling his pipe."
"You aren’t stopping, are you Halbarad?" Pippin asked.
I glanced up from my pouch and flashed him a mock scowl.
"You truly are something of a nuisance, little hobbit," Gwin muttered.
Merry bolted up in bed. "What was that?"
"Gentlemen--" Faramir began.
"Oh, I’m a nuisance, am I?" Pippin shot back. "Well I’m not the one who came in here looking so freshly spanked he all but wore a sign on his chest that read, "I’ve been a wee naughty elf!"
"Peregrin!" Faramir growled.
"HE started it!" Merry jerked his chin at Gwinthorian.
"Well, I am not the one forced to lie abed all day because the spanking I received the day before was so intense I could not even walk in here," Gwin shot back.
Now Merry scrambled up to stand on the bed. "That’s enough!"
"Indeed it is," I said, rising. "When the lot of you have finished your squabbling, send a servant for me. I shall be conferring with the adults."
The word fairly bounced off the walls of the chamber. Uttered by four voices simultaneously, it was most impressive.
Faramir recovered first, begging my pardon and apologizing for the outbursts of the others. Gwin simmered silently, and I knew he longed to inform Faramir that he needn’t apologize for him, but my elf loved a good story, so he was allowing his pride to take the blow. Merry and Pippin, however, had immediately settled back down and were now lying still in watchful, quiet obedience. Faramir’s gifts of diplomacy were indeed profound, as I had heard, and he wove a lovely tapestry of words, mixing tactfulness with such dignified beseeching that I took my seat again out of respect for his skill.
"Very well," I said, through puffs as I restarted my pipe. "Where was I?"
"I am certain I feel well enough, my lord," Devon insisted.
I turned to Farrell. "Is he well enough?"
"Aye. He is recovering with remarkable speed thanks to Lord Aragorn’s athelas. He should not try to run any races but he is certainly well enough to attend the meeting."
Devon broke into a beautiful boyish smile. "I promise I shall not try to run any races." Turning a sparkling look upon Aragorn, he said, "Thank you, my lord."
"’Twas you did the healing, Dev," he replied.
After being forced to remain in the shelter the entire day before, both young Rangers were delighted to now be allowed their freedom. Aragorn dressed quickly while Farrell helped Devon, then they emerged from the shelter, Aragorn bracing Devon up. Garrick suddenly appeared.
"Here," he said to Devon, and he held out a crutch, carved and worked to a buttery smooth surface. Devon blinked up at him, clearly astonished, then he carefully took the crutch and gazed down at it for a long moment.
"Try it out," Garrick said. "I think the size is right."
Devon tucked it under his arm and Aragorn released him. "Perfect!" the lad said in a hushed voice. He took several steps, leaning well on the crutch, then turned a soft, charming smile up at a now squirming Garrick. "Perfect, sir! Thank you!"
Garrick returned a non-sound, something like a grunt, and we all made our way to the clearing where our central fire burned low in the cool early-morning mist. Most of the Rangers had already gathered. The day before, while Aragorn and Devon rested, the men had debated off and on amongst themselves, trying to decide how best to answer this serious infraction. That it was committed by their leader made the matter more difficult, but what was right and fair for one was right and fair for all, including the Captain, who should be setting an example of disciplined behavior for the good of all rather than constantly challenging it.
Aragorn began by addressing a general apology to his troop. He obviously struggled with it, not because of excessive pride, but because his guilt was crushing in on him from all sides. He’d already been out this morning, roaming through the camp, noticing the wounds, feeling the general mood of his men, and absorbing far too much at one time.
The Rangers were polite, but distant. They actually did feel badly that their youthful Captain had made such a mess of things, inviting such guilt and censure, but they were understandably unable to simply let their abused sensibilities go. They’d been terrified for these two, and that haunts a man, easing slowly from his muscles and his mind and his heart. None of them wanted to make Aragorn suffer any more than he obviously already was, but neither could they dismiss what he’d done. Reparation for this deed would not be easily won with a mere apology.
Aragorn knew that, and so he struggled before the men, trying to explain himself, not as a means of excusing his deed, but because it was one of the only things he could do. He’d merely meant to scout the numbers of wargs, of course. The one slightly intelligent thing he had done was to make preparations for the worst scenario. Before riding any closer to what he felt was the stronghold of the beasts, he and Devon had found the cave and spent hours gathering materials for the bonfire.
"This cave had a back tunnel out, of course, which we explored, but . . ." He paused and shifted his weight nervously. "The first time we came out of the cave in back there was nothing but a wooded ravine and what looked to be a clear route of escape. But after we had built up the bonfire materials, we checked the back once more, and we found, upon emerging, that there were several packs of wargs serving as scouts on a ridge just above where the cave opened up. We did not see them at first, but they saw us at once, or rather, they saw movement at the entrance. They set up a series of savage howls and came streaming down from their lookout points towards the cave. Devon and I raced back up the tunnel, stopping long enough to jar loose some large rocks and cause a cave-in, sealing the passageway from the approaching wargs.
"That was where Devon broke his leg," Aragorn went on. "A large rock crashed down upon him."
"I implored him to leave me," Devon added from his perch on a log near to Garrick. "He would not."
"I left him long enough to run to the front of the cave and, as I feared, the hue and cry had been raised. I heard the howling of more wargs, coming closer from what seemed like a hundred directions. I loosed our horses and sent them galloping to safety, then lit the fire, hoping that our foolishness would have been discovered by now and a rescue would arrive before the fuel gave out. Then I ran back and got Dev."
Aragorn paused, his head lowered, seemingly fighting back what had to be a deluge of relived terror and oppressive regret. When he began again, his voice was thick with the strain of suppressed emotion.
"I helped him to the front of the cave. The air was growing thick with smoke and it was hard to see, but I began piling on our reserve of branches, building the flames higher, for, by now, outside the cave, was a terrible gathering of wargs. Devon bravely struggled to help me stoke the fire, balancing on one leg and hurling limbs onto the flames. Smoke kept shifting in and engulfing us, making it impossible at times to see, but we kept flinging on branches. And then . . ." He paused again, drew a deep breath, and released a shudder. "And then I saw you ride up, Halbarad, you and Garrick."
"So, you had not been in the cave long when we arrived?" Farrel asked.
"No more than twenty minutes. We spent most of our day gathering materials for the bonfire. I thought the actual scouting mission would be done quickly and we would be on our way back, but if we were discovered, we had best have some kind of escape route planned."
"And your escape route proved to be your undoing," I said.
Aragorn nodded. He once more offered his most sincere regrets for the trouble he had caused, and he assured the troop that he would never again undertake such a risk or expose the Rangers to such danger. Looking utterly defeated, Aragorn resumed his seat. A silence fell amongst the Grey Company; the only sounds heard were the crackling fire and the rustle of the wind through the pine boughs.
Finally I slid my gaze to Thayer, one of the older Rangers who had proposed the plan that had been the topic of debate amongst the camp for over a day. Thayer, too, loved Aragorn, just as much as we all did, and his proposal reflected that loving concern. He was watching me for a final nod of approval. I gave it to him, and he rose.
"Lord Aragorn, we are your men, your loyal Rangers. We will do whatever you ask of us and gladly. But, considering who you are, and what you represent to your people, we must set forth our concerns for you. We Numenoreans are few, the Dunedain near lost to Middle Earth. But you are our hope, like the elvish name your foster sire gave you. You must continue."
I watched Aragorn politely facing the older warrior, listening, but with an air of distinct misery.
"This situation could have ended your life, my lord, as well you know. We have deliberated long as to how to answer your actions, and indeed, how to answer what seems to be a pattern of reckless behavior. We Rangers speak plainly, sir, and your recklessness is a plain fact.
"Given that this is your pattern, and that there seems to be little any of us can do to affect a change in your behavior, our options seem few. Although we have been honored and privileged to be in your company, we cannot be so selfish as to allow you to continue risking yourself so carelessly. Our first consideration must be for you, and not for our own pleasure.
"So, we are gathered to vote on a resolution to escort you back to Rivendell, and there you would remain, under the further tutelage of your esteemed foster father and his worthy advisors, that they may help you mature into the kind of Captain who can lead the Grey Company in a sound and courageous manner."
Aragorn had paled so rapidly and so violently that I feared he might topple over. He stared at Thayer, barely breathing, utterly without words. Thayer took advantage of his horrified stupor and continued on:
"Young Devon will also be returned to his district to foster further until he is older and more discerning."
Devon released a small cry, but he also then sat in numb silence. Aragorn rose, clearly struggling to find strength in his legs. For a moment I feared he would be sick, but he stood, rigid, trembling, his shattered gaze traveling over the company. Few men met his eyes. He stopped before he got to me and turned back to Thayer.
"I will not permit this," he said in a low, menacing voice. "You cannot do this. You have not the authority."
"I fear you cannot stop us, my lord," Thayer said in a reasonable tone. "You cannot fight us all. You cannot force our obedience. You cannot deny your actions to Lord Elrond when we place this case before him, or any number of other cases – your less crucial, yet nonetheless irresponsible, deeds since your foster brothers left our company. I feel certain your foster sire will be less than pleased, as will all your other tutors and advisors at Rivendell. So, given the circumstances, I think the burden of judgement will not fall upon the Rangers for what we had to do, and that we will be forgiven our insurrection."
It was terrible to watch. I felt awash with sorrow for Aragorn as he stood there in complete and abject humiliation. He slowly sank to his seat once more, almost crumpling. Aragorn was too intelligent to argue any further, his degradation too encompassing to invite more. He knew what Thayer said was true, all of it. It would do him no good to call these men mutinous traitors and vow retribution, for he had left himself no leg to stand on, no credibility before any court of judgement. He knew what Elrond, or Glorfindel, or Gandalf, or any of his noble teachers would say when learning of his infamous behavior. He was surely sickened that such a thing was going to happen, and that he was going to be further disgraced before those he loved and esteemed, having brought such dishonor upon himself. Aye, it was terrible to watch, and I could bear his suffering no longer.
It was at that moment that I stood and said, "I offer another solution. Thayer, if I may have the floor." Thayer looked surprised, but he nodded and resumed his seat.
I cast my gaze over the company. I had the attention of them all, each one of these men wearing a suddenly hopeful expression. They were tormented themselves by Aragorn’s pain and how helpless they felt to do anything but try to somehow preserve his life. They had talked at length, over and over, trying to find a solution that would be less horrific for the young Captain they loved. And when I stood and uttered my words, every lowered head snapped up, every eye trained upon me. They all watched me now, all but Aragorn. His head was still bent, his hair covering his face in shadow, but I saw a tear slip from behind his dark locks and drop to the ground. I hoped he could hear me.
"I wish to take Lord Aragorn on retreat. Alone. We will be gone for a week, and when we return, I request that we allow him his rightful station for a trial period of one month. If, during that time he proves himself the leader we all know he has the potential to be, I then propose that we extend his trial to another three months, then to six, and by then, my brother Rangers of the Grey Company, we will have our assurance. What say you?"
The men looked a bit stunned, but wholly relieved to be given any solution, whether or not it made much sense. They glanced about at each other.
"And what of young Devon?" Thayer asked.
I glanced over at the forlorn-looking youth and the great warrior at his side. "I feel that, if Lord Aragorn is given a second chance, it is only fair that Devon be given the same courtesy. He will need a mentor, though, for his attachment to his Captain, while admirable, has led him into some unfortunate circumstances. I therefore charge Garrick with this duty. Will you accept the charge, sir?"
Garrick’s strong face showed not a single emotion, but his eyes glittered. "With honor, sir," he said.
"As your first duty to him, I trust you will thoroughly discuss his poor choices as regards this matter."
Garrick returned my knowing expression. "Indeed, sir, his discipline will be most thoroughly seen to."
I nodded, adding, "He is a Ranger, though, Garrick, so I trust you will leave him able to sit a horse."
"I shall do my best to practice restraint, sir," Garrick soberly replied, the Rangers shifting and tossing around small grins. Devon, meanwhile, turned a shade of red I had never seen before. Garrick cried, "I call for a vote on Lieutenant Halbarad’s worthy solution."
"But, are the Rangers ready to vote so soon?" Thayer asked.
"Aye!" came a universal response.
Thayer stood. "All those is favor of Lieutenant Halbarad’s plan as he hath set it forth, say, ’Aye!’"
Another responding, "AYE!" chorused forth so forcefully no ‘nay’ vote was called for. I dropped my gaze once more to Aragorn. He was staring directly up at me with a look of utter astonishment.
"We are in the western foothills of the Ettenmoors," I said. "Do you know these lands?"
Aragorn and I guided our mounts through a pass between the high, rolling hills, the mountainous terrain closing in behind us the further we rode.
"I have ne’er ventured into this range," he replied
He was still being polite, but the shock of what had gone on just that morning would catch up to him soon, and I felt that Aragorn’s feathers would begin to ruffle when it did. I enjoyed his sedate manner while I could, knowing it would not last long, especially when we stopped for the night and he learned what I had planned for him.
We had left the Ranger camp only half an hour after the end of the meeting that had decided his fate. He’d had enough time to prepare more of his athelas mixture for redressing Devon’s leg and to give Farrell instructions for it’s use while I packed what we would need and talked over my orders with Garrick and Thayer.
All would be well in our absence; of that I had no doubt. The Grey Company was a model of efficiency. They would go where they were needed and do what they could while we were gone, and meet back with us at the appointed time and place. Even Devon, despite his broken leg, would be able to ride and function as part of the unit, although he had voiced a slight opinion that was unpopular with his new mentor.
"He will ride with me until he is fully healed," Garrick had said, watching Aragorn and I mount. Devon stood nearby, leaning on his crutch.
"Oh, that is not necessary, sir," the lad remarked. "Farrell told me that if someone helped me into my saddle, I could sit my own mount."
Garrick slowly turned to him with a look of such dark menace that Devon flinched. "Would you care to repeat that, young one?" he asked in a voice that I myself would not have relished being on the receiving end of.
Devon swallowed hard. "No. I mean, no, sir."
I grinned to myself, wondering what shape young Devon would be in come morning, and whether he would prefer that Farrell spread Aragorn’s athelas on his backside instead of his leg.
"These passes have been known to Rangers for generations," I now said. "Further south there are passes that connect with the northern end of the Misty Mountains, and to the Hoardale."
"The air is cooler here."
"Aye, we have come quite a distance north today. I want to reach a certain spot before nightfall. It is just ahead."
We rode on and within another half-hour we came around a bend and into a heavily wooded dale with a gentle river flowing down the center. I led us up a slight incline and through some heavy foliage and then I stopped and dismounted, saying, "We’re here."
"Where?" Aragorn asked, dismounting as well and looking around.
I moved past some large boulders and across a wide grassy area, then began pulling at what looked to be a wall of shrubbery. Aragorn joined me wordlessly, and within moments we had uncovered the entryway to a cave. He looked at me with a sigh of annoyance.
"A cave? Must we enter into a cave, Halbarad? This is a tactless joke."
His feathers were definitely coming to life.
"No joke," I said, strolling into the cave. It was as I remembered it, clean and dry, the fire stacked and ready to be lit, stores in one corner. "The Grey Company have often used this place when on maneuvers in the area, especially in winter when the cold is brutal. Several times we have waited out blizzards in here. We keep it ready for when we next have need of it."
I turned to him. He was looking around at the large chamber. Several long, smooth rocks protruded from the soft dirt floor, looking almost bed-like in form, and, in fact, Garrick often spread his bedroll out over one of them and slept on it, the rest of us teasing him that only he could tolerate sleeping on such a hard surface.
"It is enormous," Aragorn said.
"Aye, it can accommodate a dozen Rangers, and their mounts in harsh weather, and it has often done so. I thought it would be a good place for us to stay."
Aragorn threw me a quick look, but he said nothing. Soon we had tended to our mounts, retrieved water and unloaded our gear. The many stores already there provided all we needed and before long we had eaten and night had fallen and we at last sat quietly on either side of our fire with nothing else that needed doing.
Aragorn excused himself and wandered out for a private moment, but when he had been gone for some time I strolled to the mouth of the cave to cast a glance about for him, although I did not fear for his safety as these hills were remote and quiet.
He was standing on the fragrant grassy area just outside the cave. The horses grazed contentedly not far off. His arms crossed over his chest, Aragorn was gazing up. It was a clear night and the sky was pocked with stars, the tops of the tall murmuring pines gracefully swaying in the wind as if painting more glitter onto the black canvas above. I stood beside him and we watched silently for some time, but it was growing chilly, as clear nights always are.
"We used to build a fire out here on nights such as this," I said. I crossed to an area the grasses had clearly tried to reclaim, but that still bore the sign of scorched earth. Kicking the stray leaves aside, I cleared off the round enclosure and turned to Aragorn. "Let us build another fire out here and enjoy the night sky."
He actually smiled
a little, and we set about gathering wood, building another fire, and settling
in again. The scents of camp smoke and of fallen dew and the damp, rich earth
drifted around us. I heard the call of a night owl and felt the whisper of a wild
lonely wind from the Ettenmoors. And, suddenly, Aragorn was speaking:
"Halbarad, I know that my actions were inexcusable, and I know that, were it not for your intervention, the troop would be escorting me in disgrace to Rivendell now," he said. "I know not why you have chosen to show me compassion, but I am most grateful for what you have done, and I thank you for bringing me here."
I wasn’t at all sure he would be thanking me shortly, but his words were noble, nonetheless. "I have shown you compassion because you are deserving of it," I said, and I watched for his reaction.
He scoffed and broke the twig he’d been playing with and threw it into the fire. Ah. It was as I thought. His guilt was oppressive. It would take some doing, but Aragorn would understand what he must ‘ere we left our private refuge. I had thought it out carefully during our journey, and I’d fashioned a possible way to do this in a less jarring manner. I would start in that direction, but how far we went was up to the young Ranger before me.
"Aragorn, you know that I have long been aware of your actions, through Lord Elrond, and also through Gandalf."
"Your exploits are many, and ever you have been in the company of the elves, your brothers, mostly, but sometimes others from Rivendell or Mirkwood, even Lothlorien."
"My brothers mostly, aye," he said studying me closely. "But Legolas of Mirkwood has often been with us, or others, as you say." He blinked suddenly, then quickly added, "I am able to lead men, though. I have not grown up in the world of men, but I am a man, and I can command them."
I grinned. "I am glad to hear that you know you are a man, for you behave as if you are as immortal as those you know and love best."
He flushed slightly and said, "Do you have a point, sir?"
"Aye, but I will speak it in my own time." His eyes grew wide. "I am treating you with courtesy, Aragorn, and I expect the same in return."
Dropping his gaze thoughtfully, he said, "You are right. My apologies."
I smiled inwardly and went on. "You do admit that there is a problem, do you not?"
He was careful not to meet my eyes. "I am told there is a period of adjustment to be expected in a new command. But the men welcomed me when I arrived. They seemed pleased that I had been sent to assume leadership, as is my rightful place."
I nodded, noting his slight attempt to assert his status. "Aye, they were, indeed, as you say, pleased, and I think you also know their depth of devotion to you."
He still wouldn’t look up, but he seemed freshly pained to be reminded of the love his loyal Rangers bore for him. Facing what he must was going to be hard on him, but I pushed on.
"When Lord Elrond would send missives detailing the many courageous deeds of you and your brothers, I was oft amazed that such a young man was so accomplished. Of course, knowing your lineage, I cannot say I’m surprised."
Aragorn pressed his lips together tightly, sighed, and whipped another twig into the flames.
"Those must have been exciting times."
His eyes, focused on the fire, caught its light and sparkled with memory, "Aye."
"When out with the others during those years, were you in command?"
He scoffed again and glanced up at me in disbelief. "Of my brothers? Me? Commanding Elladan and Elrohir? Or a Prince of Mirkwood, or a Marchwarden of Lothlorien? Hardly! I was most definitely the little brother. I was there to learn and to grow."
"And you did. Lord Elrond wrote that you came to manhood early, so much so that when you returned to Rivendell at the age of twenty he felt he could reveal your heritage to you."
I followed his glance down to the ring of Barahir, the token of our kinship and his noble station. "Aye."
I could only imagine what that revelation must have been like for him. Elrond wrote that Aragorn had been blessed with the close kinship of his foster brothers to help him adjust, and Legolas, an elf he had formed a tight bond with from childhood days, was also present, so I felt somewhat comforted to know that those who loved him were there at such a time, for although it was true that Aragorn bore himself with majestic superiority, he was also, in many ways, still a boy, thrust into a role he was not prepared to assume, despite outward appearances to the contrary.
"And so you spent another two years traveling and adventuring with your elvish kin. I heard reports of you with the royal family in Mirkwood, and in Lothlorien with your grand-sire, Celeborn, and then I heard of you traveling across the length of Eriador, and as far south as the land of the horse lords. And all that time, despite your coming of age, you did not lead the others in word or deed."
He tossed me an incredulous frown. "Halbarad, you do not understand. I may be all those things you say I am, but I never "led" the others. They do not see me in that light."
"And how do you see yourself?"
His expression turned wary. "Excuse me?"
"Do you see yourself now as being all those things I and others say you are, Lord of the Dunedain, Isildur’s Heir, Captain of the Grey Company?"
He hesitated, a flash of confusion on his youthful face, then he quickly said, "Aye. Of course. I took command of the Rangers as I was meant to do."
"But you did not need to ‘take’ command, Aragorn. Your Rangers surrendered it to you with the fullness of their hearts. You did not need to prove yourself to any of us, and yet, as soon as your brothers left, you set about trying to do just that, rushing from one reckless pursuit to another. And you are still doing it with increasing levels of danger. In fact, your behavior is beyond reckless and I’m at a loss to understand it. Or . . ." I paused, narrowing my eyes slightly, "at least I was at a loss. And then I realized that such are the actions of an uncertain leader, one who doubts himself and his position. He asserts his authority in an unseemly manner, risking far too much for far too little. And so I ask: do you really see yourself as being all those things, and do you want to be all those things?"
Aragorn’s back stiffened and he glared at me, saying, "Sir, you forget yourself."
"No, sir," I returned in a calm voice. "In this place, and this time, your rank is suspended."
"By whose authority?"
"Either that, or we shall pack up tomorrow morning and return to the Ranger camp. I told Garrick to remain there for two days time ‘ere moving on. So decide now, my lad. You either accept these conditions, or we will return and I will announce that the retreat has been unsuccessful, and the Grey Company will escort you back to Rivendell."
Aragorn stared at me, fuming. Aside from the daunting nature of my ultimatum, I was certain the term, ‘my lad’ grated on him. I was just getting started, though.
"Well?" I prodded.
He couldn’t have been more reluctant or more furious, but Aragorn was also unfailingly bright, so he gave the only answer he could in a tone that could not have been nastier: "It seems I have little choice. So, I accept."
"Try that again," I said, "with civility."
He looked as if he might jump up and storm to his mount and ride off, and he knew he could not, and in his desperate anger he closed his eyes, caught his bottom lip between his teeth and bit down so hard I feared I would see blood spurt forth any moment.
"Stop that!" I commanded.
His startled eyes popped open. All he could do was glare at me, but he did stop biting his lip. From the dangerous light in his eyes, I felt I’d need to tie him up were I to get any sleep tonight, lest I found myself under attack. One thing was clear – Aragorn was so astonished and so irate and so frustrated that he could barely speak. I gave him a moment to collect himself, and after what looked to be an intense internal struggle he said in a polite tone, "I accept."