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A Tale to Becalm the Healing
Chapter VI, A Fair Reckoning
I studied him. Aragorn was now, without question, hostile. He’d plainly had his fill of my attempts to appeal to his higher principles. For my ‘gentler’ approach to work he needed to be in a cooperative frame of mind, and such a state was no longer possible, if indeed it ever had been.
It was probably foreordained that he needed strength right now more than understanding. At this moment, Aragorn very much longed for what he couldn’t imagine he really wanted, what he could never let me know he desired so intensely, and what he would never want to accept from me.
"Very good. I am pleased that you have accepted my conditions," I said in a commanding tone. "Now, answer my question. Do you really see yourself as Lord of the Dunedain, Isildur’s Heir, Captain of the Grey Company?"
His feathers were now ruffled to the point of standing on end. "I AM those things, sir. I was born to those titles and those responsibilities."
"And do you want that responsibility?"
"What I want does not matter," he grated, holding on to his temper by a thread. "I have been born to this destiny. The responsibility is mine, and there’s an end to it. And, yes!" he added forcefully. "I do want it!"
"Mind your tone, Aragorn. I have not raised my voice to you. You will not raise yours to me." I let him seethe on that for a moment, then I said, "What you want matters a great deal. You cannot lead men if your heart is not in it."
"My heart is in it!"
"And you cannot lead men when you have had no training in how to do so."
"My brothers taught me how to lead."
"In theory, perhaps, and by example. But you came to the Rangers with no practical experience. While your brothers were here, you handled that leadership role well. They were nearby to advise you, and to lend you confidence with their presence. But after they left, and you alone had charge of this mighty, if small, force, you began to doubt your own abilities and your standing. You felt you had to prove yourself, and you began to blunder."
Aragorn seemed too affronted to form words. He could do nothing but simmer and watch me with wide eyes.
"You do not know how to lead, Aragorn. You have a natural feel for it, aye, and you have a fine air of command. Men yearn to follow you. But you are undisciplined and impulsive, and I expect you know this," I went on, my voice calm and matter-of-fact. "So you have tried to counterbalance your disadvantage by showing off your courage. You’re like a little boy who wants to prove to his big brothers that he’s old enough to train with them, but who only ends up hurting himself by hefting a sword too big for him to wield. Well, this time you have hefted a mighty sword, and you have gone too far, and you know it, little boy."
Things actually went much deeper than what I had just said, but we had a week to get to the heart of everything, and, for now, this was sufficient for our first and very necessary session.
Aragorn had gone white with fury, my ‘little boy’ words having sent him over the edge. He jumped up and cried, "That is enough, Lieutenant!"
I watched him with a patience that was sure to outrage him further. "You forget that you do not outrank me here, unless you have changed your mind and would like to leave in the morning."
Of course that was not an option for him. If he refused to go through this with me now, he would have to go through it with any number of disapproving elves back at Rivendell, and that fate was too awful for him to entertain. So I was the lesser of two evils, and, of course, he would try to ease the discomfort of this in any way he could. But he had no weapon to use against me beyond his station, and I had taken that from him. His frustration and defeat, mixed with his guilt, had brought him to the end of his tether, and he had nowhere else to go. Aragorn lowered his head and just stood there with clenched fists, breathing as if he’d just run for miles.
"I shall take your silence as a ‘no.’ Sit down, little boy. We are just getting started, and you have much to answer for."
He remained standing long enough to show some defiance, then he sank to the ground again. I let him sit quietly for a while and think over all I had said. Of course he didn’t like hearing it. And he was surely taken aback to be seen through so clearly. It was disconcerting to be told such intimate details about oneself, knowing that another saw so much.
Suddenly, he looked very young. He was young, but he looked it even more so at this moment, hiding his shame behind his guise of false bravado. Aragorn no doubt felt very much abandoned. I wondered if he had ever felt this lonesome, if he had ever been without his brothers, or Legolas, or someone who loved him and watched out for him. Had he ever been without someone to discipline him, to firmly tell him ‘no’ when he needed reining in, or to help purge his guilt with a sound bottom-warming when he needed absolution?
What must this be like for him, to be suddenly cut off from those who had cared enough to correct him and guide him, to notice and call him on it when he trangressed, and to be cast into a role of leadership, a position of ruling authority, when he himself was often still in need of counseling and supervision? In many ways Aragorn was the little boy I kept calling him, forlorn and unsettled, feeling he had no one to confide in, and feeling that he needed to be the strong "hope" of all his people, a crushing responsibility for anyone, much less a conscientious young idealist like Aragorn, versed in the glories of honor and integrity and duty.
He had so much to bear, and he was bearing it alone, and I could not abide his heartache any longer. He needed a mentor as much as young Devon did, and he was going to have one. This week would be spent shifting Aragorn’s thoughts, helping him to realize that he need never feel alone, that not only did his men hunger to serve him, they yearned to see him succeed, and that, as long as I was by his side, he would not be permitted to close himself off in painful isolation. An ancient adage said that kings were the loneliest creatures on Middle Earth. I would not allow that loneliness to cripple Aragorn.
He would always need someone, if not me, then Legolas, or his brothers, or someone he was yet destined to meet, but someone to share his burdens with, lest he withdraw into dismal solitude when darkness bore down upon him. He would have done just that in this instance had I allowed it. He would have let his guilt consume him until he had distanced himself from those he felt he had wronged and those things for which he felt he could never fully atone. Looking at him now, I saw the weight of that pressure upon him, the weariness. Aragorn had to be weary, and I was about to put him through something that would doubtless drain him of what few reserves he had left. So there was no time to waste.
I stood and said, "Come. The hour is late. Let us go inside."
"I prefer to bring my bedroll out here to sleep," he said in a low voice.
"No." I said, stamping down what remained of the dwindling fire. "Come."
I’m certain he would have loved the chance to demand his own way, but he wisely rose and followed me into the cave. When we were both inside I pulled the large branches of shrubbery over the entranceway and turned to see him removing his duster, then placing more wood on the fire. Again, I watched him for a moment, this astounding youth, the flames lighting the high sheen of his full hair and softening the angular beauty of his face. I watched his quiet, fluid movements, and felt the rich undertone of sadness flowing from him. A shudder of that haunting fear I’d felt earlier ripped through me. He had nearly been lost.
"Aragorn," I said, strolling forward. "Come, let us get this over with."
He rose quickly, looking startled. "Get what over with?"
I darted him a glance of mild annoyance and passed by him, heading for the great smooth boulder Garrick liked to sleep upon. "Surely you know."
He wiped his palms on his jerkin in a manner of nervous distraction, watching me as I picked up my cloak and draping it atop the rock like a blanket before seating myself upon it and turning back to him. "No," he said. "I-I--"
"What do you suppose Garrick will be doing to discipline Devon tonight, if he has not already done it?" Aragorn simply gazed at me, his breathing becoming more rapid. His throat was no doubt tightening up. "Devon did something very dangerous," I began explaining carefully. "He admitted to us that you had not ordered him to go with you, but that he had jumped at the chance when you offered it to him. Garrick is going to make certain Devon understands that he should not have done so, and that, should he ever make such a poor choice again, he will answer to Garrick for it. He is going to spank Devon, little boy, as I am going to spank you now."
My Captain’s eyes went wide. "Oh no, you will NOT!" he snarled. "You most certainly will not do that to me! I will not allow it!"
I let him stand there huffing and posturing for a moment, then I sighed and said, "Aragorn, I can force you. Aye, you would no doubt give a good account of yourself, but, in case you had not noticed, I am larger, older, more experienced and stronger than you, and I assure you, my wild pup, you would not win should you challenge me." I paused to watch him appraisingly, then said, "But you will not challenge me."
"OH?" Aragorn clenched and unclenched his hands in absolute rage. "And why will I not?"
"Because this is a fair reckoning. I am not doing it to degrade or humiliate you. This is justice, little boy, and you know it."
Justice. He froze at the word, looking horrified. Then he blinked and opened his mouth, but nothing came out. He had no protest. There was nothing he could say. Aragorn’s conscience silenced him. His moral sense of rightness and fairness was embedded deeply within him, and when faced with such raw truth, even a truth that would lead him into a spanking, he could not deny its reality.
But oh, how obvious was his longing to deny my truth! In his shock, Aragorn wore his every emotion in plain sight. He stood there, trembling, knowing he had already lost, and clearly wanting nothing more than to be the kind of man who could turn his back on justice and fairness and all the wretched, exasperating, loathsome ethics that were making his situation so ghastly.
But he was not that kind of man. Aragorn’s honor was unimpeachable, although I was sure that, at the moment, he despised it. He was indeed suffering from a most inconvenient excess of integrity, and he knew there was naught he could do about that. So, aye, he knew he deserved some kind of retribution, but that wasn’t to say he wouldn’t try to plead his sentence.
"Halbarad," he began, and then he paused, as if desperately searching for any way to escape this that at least sounded like it made sense. "Must you do this? I-I understand the severity of my mistake, but is this not . . . is this not unseemly, sir? I am not a child. Why must you discipline me in this demeaning, childish manner?"
"What manner would you suggest?"
He had no reply. I let him fidget for a moment, then said, "What manner of discipline did your brothers use, and Lord Elrond, and any other number of elvish authorities, including your friend, Legolas?"
Even in the reddish hue of the firelight I could see his face beginning to glow.
"Ah," I said. "Then you are familiar with the method."
He dropped his gaze and muttered, "Aye."
"No doubt quite familiar, and familiar, therefore, with its effectiveness."
"Perhaps you feel that endangering your life, and Devon’s life, and the lives of every Ranger in the Grey Company is not a serious enough misdeed to earn such a consequence."
"Do you realize what could have happened? Aragorn, it is a miracle that you and Devon are still breathing, and it’s a double miracle that no lives were lost rescuing you."
"For justice to be served and for you to feel that you have fully atoned, the consequences for your wrongdoing must be equal to it. And it seems a spanking will serve that purpose nicely, given your reaction to its very mention."
"But, I-I--" He struggled, shifting his weight, breathing out short puffs of frustration, desperately looking for an out. "But I apologized in front of everyone!" was all he finally could come up with.
"Ah," I said softly. "So you did. Perhaps you feel satisfied having apologized. You have made your amends and it was enough. Do you feel redeemed after voicing your regrets and asking for forgiveness? Do you feel better? Was it enough, little pup?" His quick return glance of utter remorse told me it was not. He immediately dropped his gaze again, and I said, "Then come here. Let us get on with this."
I didn’t like watching him flush and squirm and avoid looking at me. I hated watching his shame and I hated having to make him face it. But it had to be this way. I’m sure Aragorn would have loved it had I grabbed him and dragged him over my knee and forced him to take his spanking. It would have been easier on him, and I cannot say I hadn’t considered handling him that way. But this was too critical. It had to be done in this manner, with Aragorn understanding fully what needed to happen and why, and with his grudging consent.
That was what my mind told me. And then, finally, Aragorn raised his eyes to me, his liquid gaze both brave and fragile, burning with a silent plea. He understood me fully. He agreed with everything I had said. I need make no further points or demand an example of his surrender; it was there before me, raw and honest and seeking grace. And my heart told me that, in this moment, compassion needed to win. He couldn’t cross that space between us. He wouldn’t all-out fight me, but he simply could not take those half dozen steps alone. Under similar circumstances, I wasn’t sure I would’ve been able to myself.
I shot up and crossed to him in long strides, watching the flicker of relief in his riveted gaze. I stood a little more than half a head taller than Aragorn. His was a young man’s build, lean and developing, youthfully muscular, but not yet as defined as an adult’s, whereas I had a warrior’s powerful frame with muscles grown hard and solid through years of battle, so it was nothing for me to swiftly haul him up and over my shoulder before he had the chance to draw a breath. Aye, it seemed somewhat overly imposing, given I had only six, long-legged strides to journey, but it felt appropriate to the moment.
To say that Aragorn didn’t like it would be an understatement, and it was an eventful half-dozen paces back to the rock as he did quite a bit of struggling and gasping and heaving about up there. "You are making this harder on yourself," I said, resuming my seat, snatching him down from my shoulder and turning him over my lap. "A little cooperation would have put me in a better mood."
Aragorn kept making small, desperate sounds, his body convulsing too frantically, so I quickly closed my right leg over his kicking ones to settle him down. His chest lay stretched over the rock beside me and his arms were jerking about, trying to both push his body up and reaching behind him, for what purpose I knew not. I quickly put an end to that, grasping each waving wrist in one hand, forcing them behind him, and holding them against the small of his back.
Leaning over his panting, but now immovable, body, I said close to his ear, in a calm, determined voice, "It would behoove you to accept the inevitable. You are going to be spanked, little boy. You’ve been very naughty and willful, and it is time to face the consequences for your actions. Such behavior will not be tolerated, Aragorn."
Of course my words were meant to tweak his pride and his rebellion, and it worked. Aragorn tried to buck up, tried to wrench around, and he quickly discovered that he could barely move, emphasizing his helplessness. I pushed his jerkin and shirt up and grabbed the back of his breeches, again triggering a useless struggle from Aragorn, the fact that I now easily held both his wrists in just one hand surely adding to his vulnerability.
"NO!" Aragorn cried. "Please, do not do that!"
I paused and blinked down at him in surprise. "Do not do what? Do not pull down your breeches?"
"No! Oh, please!" He implored. "Please, allow me a small measure of dignity!"
"I find that an astounding request from someone who has just been hauled here draped over my shoulder," I said, trying to keep the grin out of my tone. "Did you honestly think I planned to spank you over your breeches?"
"Did your brothers spank you breeches up?"
I watched him gasping over the extra-powerful wallop I’d delivered to the soft leather encasing his bottom. "Well? Did they?"
"Your tone, little pup."
"No-No, s-sir, they-they did not."
"Did not what?"
Aragorn huffed and struggled and snapped as politely as possible, "They did not spank me over my breeches!"
"Ah. And Lord Elrond, and Legolas, and your grandsire Celeborn, and perhaps Lord Glorfindel and others, did any of them spank you breeches up?"
By now Aragorn was surely regretting the request and cursing his own foolishness and wishing I would just get on with it instead of running down the list of those who had spanked him in the past. But he kept answering, as he had little other choice. "N-No, sir."
"Ah. Then why did you think I would allow it?"
"I-I don’t know, but I regret my plea!"
I had to grin a bit then, but only to myself. "I imagine you do. There are ways to do these things, and you will find me a man who enjoys the order of procedure whenever it is possible." I yanked and tugged and within moments Aragorn’s breeches were halfway down his thighs. "When you are over my knee, young Ranger, nothing will remain between my hand and your backside."
Aragorn’s pretty bottom now lay be before me naked and vulnerable, and I had to pause for a few seconds to admire the sight. He flinched violently at my first swat, releasing a small sound of surprise, which he clearly hadn’t meant to do. Stiffening at once, he sucked a strengthening breath, went silent and stayed that way, as I felt certain he would, at least in the beginning. Given Aragorn’s stubborn nature, and the degree of his guilt, this was most likely going to take some time, so I set up a regular, even spanking pattern over his nicely formed bottom.
Regardless of how often Aragorn had been in this position in the past, and apparently that had been many, many times, he would nonetheless have a heightened level of fear during his first trip over my knee. Everyone had their own method of administering a spanking and Aragorn didn’t know what to expect from me. But he would soon find out that my method was direct and to the point. As Thayer had said that morning, Rangers spoke plainly, and I undertook this practice with a similar forthrightness that I was sure grieved my gasping captive.
His composure was impressive, but that did not surprise me. This was Aragorn, and he not only boasted an extraordinary will, he was struggling beneath an extraordinary burden of guilt. He was going to invite as much pain as he could. In light of his blinding self-condemnation, Aragorn would probably allow me to spank him into unconsciousness, and, did he not feel himself worthy of redemption, mere physical discomfort, no matter how memorable, would, no doubt, never be enough. He would most likely simply bear it and refuse to submit or to seek forgiveness, feeling he didn’t deserve it.
But such ferocious self-castigation was an ailment born of isolated sovereignty, and, thankfully, Aragorn was not yet subordinate to that nightmare. For once, his inexperience was in his favor. He was still willing to listen and surrender to an authority figure. In the future, as he matured into a comfortable role of dominance, this could be a problem, as it would take someone stronger and more stubborn than himself to help Aragorn during the, no doubt, rare times when he became lost in that nightmare. Were he and I not still together, someone else would need to fill my role.
But that wasn’t my worry at present. My task was to find a way to help him purge what he must without hurting himself in the process. With a young man as intelligent and sensitive as Aragorn, reason would serve him best. His anguish could only be conquered in his mind, not through his backside.
That would take time, and before he could begin to hear my words, he would need to experience a certain amount of that memorable degree of physical discomfort, just not all at once, and certainly not to the severity he might want. No, I intended to make good use of every day of privacy we had. So, after spanking Aragorn long enough to create a fine rosy glow on his bottom, I informed him of something that, considering his need to suffer, he would surely delight in hearing, and yet dread as well.
"Get used to your position, my wayward pup," I now said, "because all this week, every other day, I shall draw you over my lap and spank you just like this."
He stopped his small, instinctive squirming and lay stiff, clearly shocked, then he groaned and released a soft, "nooooooooo!"
"I would prefer to spank you every day, but I think you will need a day of rest in between each session." He forgot himself and tried to kick, his legs flinching uselessly under mine.
"Tomorrow night you can rest easy," I went on. "But the next night, you will be back over my knee and so on until the week is through."
In a voice showing his strain, he said, "W-WHY?"
"Why?" I continued the rhythm of my swats, delivering a more powerful spank with every sentence that followed.
"Because you could have been torn to shreds and devoured before we got to you, and it is only by the grace of the Valar that you were not!"
I swatted down hard and heard his responding grunt; but I also heard an echo of residual rage and fear in my voice. I struggled to subdue it, block out the rekindling terror and the horrific images that had ravaged me that morning as we raced like madmen towards the forest of the wargs. I couldn’t touch those thoughts now, not now. Not with Aragorn in this vulnerable position. Later, I promised myself as I shoved them away. I would find a time and place later to release them, but not now. My thoughts took but a few seconds, and, as they resolved, I raised my hand for another hard swat.
"Because Devon is suffering a broken leg for trusting you and following you into a pursuit so dangerous and foolhardy that no sane warrior would even consider it!" Aragorn bucked up and groaned at the second hard swat. I started going through my list more quickly.
"Because you risked every man under your command. Because you did something you knew you should not be doing. Because you abused your station. Because you gave me a sleeping draught!" He received an extra hard wallop for that one, making him cry out. "Because you will need a solid lesson to help you remember to never again do such a deplorable thing. And--" My voice softened. "--and because you are worth it, my wayward little pup." My list finished, for now, I went back to spanking him with regular brisk efficiency.
Aragorn moaned and trembled and buried his face in my cloak. Shaking his head slightly, he made a few strangling sounds in his throat. And then I heard him begin to cry, softly, trying to hold it back, trying to hide it. But it soon intensified and he broke into low, choking sobs, an almost juvenile fluctuation in the tone of his cries surging forth from deep in his chest. The sound of Aragorn weeping brought tears to my eyes.
It was safe to maneuver him now. He wouldn’t fight me. I shifted, let go of his wrists, and closed my arm over the small of his back, tucking him close to my body. Releasing his legs, I reached down and lifted them up, resituating him so that he was now fully stretched out, his bottom settled over my lap, his legs lying on my cloak atop the boulder. Aragorn had drawn his arms up and his face now lay buried in his open palms as if he were too ashamed to even raise his head.
"Aye, you are indeed worth my effort, Aragorn," I said in a gentle tone. "You will believe it ‘ere the week is out. Let me begin proving it to you now."
I started again, spanking with renewed, determined swats all over his reddening backside. He wept in earnest, keeping his face buried at first, but it was quickly clear that he couldn’t get enough air. His head shot up, his great inbound gasp sounding like a whimper, followed by repeated sobs.
Before long he was flinching and twitching uncontrollably, getting close to complete surrender. But now he knew that he could surrender, that another spanking would be coming the day after tomorrow. He need not count on just this spanking to take care of his torment. This was only the first. For one such as Aragorn, who felt his shame to such a consummate degree, that promise was reassuring, if not particularly comforting. It would take much for this young one to give up his disgrace.
Sensing his fatigue, and knowing he had but tatters of restraint left, I decided to speed things along. Tilting my leg up, I began spanking the tender underside of his bottom. Aragorn exploded into frantic cries. He couldn’t keep still. He strained and stiffened his legs, clearly trying not to react more, and then quickly gave in and kicked. He wriggled, but by now he truly was exhausted. His struggles were weak, easy to counter. Finally, he lost all control and reached behind him, earning a few harder swats and my calm command: "Move that hand, little boy." He did, his hand flying back up to grasp a fistful of my cloak and twist as his other hand was doing. And it was then that Aragorn shattered, breaking down into his most raw, bursting wails, and I heard what I’d been waiting for.
"P-Pleeeeease! NO MORRRRRE! Pleaseplease stop! S-Stop pleeease, Hal-Hal--"
"I do not like being called ‘Hal,’ Aragorn," I said matter-of-factly, knowing he really hadn’t meant to do so. But I lowered my leg and moved back to the now glowing cheeks across my lap. I swatted more lightly now, and slower.
"No! I-I mean . . . w-was try-ing to-to s-say--"
"You were trying to say my name properly, and could not, is that it, little one?"
Aragorn sucked a sharp breath, paused, then once more crumpled into fresh weeping. I wondered at that, then I realized that perhaps someone, maybe Elrond or Glorfindel, had called him ‘little one,’ or mayhap it just sounded more childish than ‘little boy’ and Aragorn’s vulnerabilities were now too fragile to sustain even a shred of composure.
He nodded quickly. "Aye . . . aye, s-sir. S-Sor-sorry, sir! Sor-ry for every-everyth-thing. Sorry! I-I’m so sor-sorry!"
"Tell me what you are sorry for, my wild pup. I must know that you understand your misbehavior before I let you up."
"S-Sor-ry I-I p-put . . . I . . . dr-draught . . . sl-sleep-sleeping . . . I-I . . . w-w-args . . . sorry . . . D-Dev . . . ."
He coughed and sputtered again, his broken shudders mixed with frantic little sobs, and I couldn’t bear it. I knew where he was; he couldn’t think clearly or form the words he needed to. And I knew it wasn’t because I’d gone too far or spanked him too much, but because his upset was so overwhelming that he was becoming confused. I could ask no more of him right now.
"Shhh, Aragorn, listen to me: are you trying to say that you’re sorry you gave me a sleeping draught?"
"And that you are sorry you coerced Devon into joining you in something dangerous that you knew you shouldn’t be doing, and for doing a foolish and reprehensible thing that endangered many lives?"
He nodded vigorously. "Aye! A-Aye, m’l-lord!"
"Then you fully understand why you’re over my knee, and why, for the rest of this week, every other day, you will be spanked for your wrongdoings?"
With one last light swat I stopped, resting my hand on his now burning seat. "Very well then, little boy."
Aragorn shuddered and collapsed, turning his head to the side and resting it on my cloak, now wet with tears. His dark locks spilled around his shoulders and over his cheeks, shielding him from my view, and I reached down to smooth the damp strands away from his face. He was still crying, and he quickly let go of his fistful of cloak, covering his face with his palm, trying to hide his shame behind his hand, so endearingly like the little boy I kept calling him.
I smiled to myself and firmly drew his hand away, a move Aragorn would never have tolerated were he not now in complete surrender. He was a sight. He had closed his eyes immediately, but they were swollen and red-rimmed, his thick lashes clumped together with tears. He had managed to bite his lower lip so hard that it was indeed now bleeding, something he must have done back when I was going through my list and he was fighting to keep from breaking into tears. I frowned.
"Ah," I murmured, running my fingertip over his ravaged lip. "This will have to stop." He whimpered through his tears, his crying hitching again.
I ran my gaze down his body to his seat. Aragorn was blessed with a fine bottom that was on its way to becoming strongly muscled, but was still youthfully curvy. It was also a crimson shade that was practically radiating heat. His long, firm legs were relaxed now, his body melted over my lap.
"Shhh, my little pup," I murmured, rubbing my hand in slow circles over his back. "All done for now. No more tonight. Breathe easy for me now."
I talked in a low tone, nonsense talk he wouldn’t have to think much about, soothing talk drenched in a quiet tenderness meant to touch his innermost places. "Shhh . . . that’s it, nice breaths like that . . . huuuuuuush now, my wild pup . . . no more fussing . . . you’re safe now, little one . . . gooooood . . . that’s it, breathe . . . ."
Anyone overhearing me would have likely squirmed at my murmurings, but, in that moment of intimacy, the gentle words came flowing from me with no prior thought or planning, arising from some unknown source. And Aragorn was listening. I talked in a soft voice so that he needed to quiet his sobs in order to hear my words, and soon he was simply shuddering, weeping sporadically and silently.
He was so limp that I easily turned him and gathered him up, wrapping him in my arms and pulling him to my chest, letting his sore bottom slip down between my spread legs. His breath caught in his throat. He seemed bewildered, his arms moving awkwardly, as though he didn’t know what to do with them. Again, I smiled to myself and whispered in his ear, "Put your arms around my shoulders, little one. It’s all right. Hold on to me."
Once more, a small strangled sob came from his throat. He obeyed me, though, embracing me in return, coming fully into my arms and laying his head against my shoulder. His tangled locks tickled the side of my face and I felt his moist breath on my neck as he whispered back, "I-It’s alr-right? Are-are you su-sure, H-Hal’brad? Are y-you s-sure?"
I turned and kissed his forehead. "Very sure." I murmured, cuddling him closer. "You feel good in my arms."
He paused in his shuddering. "I d-do?"
"Yes, little boy, very good," I replied, hearing the smile in my voice. I rested my cheek against the top of his head.
"Feels g-good to me, t-too. S’good"
A memory shot forth of when Aragorn’s elven brothers were here, how affectionate they were with one another. Elrond’s sons clearly adored their human little brother. They would hug him, tousle his hair, playfully swat his behind, poke his ribs if he was acting too pompous and tease him with a dry wit and loving manner. They sat close to Aragorn while he slept, sometimes talking quietly in Sindarin, sometimes one of them stretched out beside him, off in his elvish half-lucid state.
Once when he awoke with a sharp cry, having had a nightmare, one of his brothers gathered him close and held him until he fell asleep again, moving with such smooth familiar grace that I knew it had happened before. I watched long into the night through half-silted eyes, although I sensed that the elves knew I was awake and said nothing.
I now wondered if Aragorn had suffered any nightmares since without me knowing it. I sleep lightly, but it was possible that he’d awoken with bad dreams and I hadn’t heard him. One thing was certain, he was accustomed to the soothing touch of others, and he had been suddenly cut off from that physical closeness as cleanly as he had from everything else he had known. Small wonder this felt so good to him.
He held on to me now in an almost desperate way, as if afraid to let go, afraid I would release him too soon, perhaps even afraid I’d grow tired of this or change my mind. I rocked my torso slightly, rubbing my cheek against his hair, and for some time Aragorn was quiet, but for his sniffling. I did not rush him. He could take all the time he needed. I had Aragorn to myself for an entire week and I would not hurry him through anything, especially not this very necessary closeness. Then, suddenly, he shivered violently, and I realized that his body was reacting to the shock of his hot bottom.
I reached over him, curling my right arm under his knees from the outside and pulling him firmly to my chest with my left. "Put your arms around my neck and hold on, my little pup," I said. "We are moving closer to the fire." And with that I stood, scooping him up against me. Aragorn clung to me and I carried him to where we had laid out our bedrolls earlier. I’d placed my saddle at the head of my blankets, knowing what I planned to do after spanking Aragorn, and now I knelt and sat back on my heels for a moment, resting him on my thighs while I reached down to yank off his boots and his breeches. He arched and hissed as soon as his bottom hit my thighs.
"I know," I said. "Your bottom is on fire. Just settle down and give me a minute," I worked as quickly as I could with one hand while supporting his back with the other. "Hold still and cooperate and this will go faster." Aragorn got suddenly quiet. I cast him a glower. "And do not dare bite that lip!"
He blinked in surprise. His face scrunched up in an effort to keep from squirming, or biting, and I went back to my task, finishing in just a few moments. I reached over and snagged Aragorn’s discarded cloak, then I picked him up again and lay back, leaning my head and upper shoulders against my saddle. Gathering Aragorn to my side, I covered him with his cloak and whipped the extra blanket beside him over all, wrapping my arms around him and sealing him to me, his weight mostly atop my body.
His head now lay on my upper arm, near my shoulder. He gazed at me, seemingly bewildered to find himself suddenly in this position. It was similar to the way I’d seen his brother hold him after Aragorn’s nightmare, but it seemed it took him a moment to adjust to the fact that it was his Lieutenant holding him thus, his Lieutenant who had just lit up his throbbing backside something fierce. Aye, it was an adjustment for him, but I could almost see his mind clicking and his superior gifts of reason shifting his thinking and his sense of propriety.
He’d been here before. Not with me, but with others who loved him enough to insist he accept the comfort that followed a spanking. Clearly he’d had no choice in that, as it should be, and Aragorn now leaned on those teachings, understanding that there would be no arguing over this matter, no negotiating. I watched him work it out in his mind, and then he lowered his head and laid it softly on my shoulder and his body settled and relaxed on mine. His arm slowly snaked up from between us and he wrapped it around my waist. "This is all right, too, Halbarad?" he asked in a small voice. "You . . . you don’t mind?"
Something wrenched within my chest, warm, swelling, bursting and flooding my veins, and I longed to envelop Aragorn in a sweet, fierce crush of devotion. I couldn’t make him wait after such a question, but with a hot shard knotting up my throat I didn’t trust my control. When I spoke, though, I heard my voice murmur forth with astounding composure.
"The only wrong you could do now, little boy, would be to pull away. Your closeness is more than all right. It is required."
"Are you sure?"
He was quiet for a moment, then he rubbed his face against my soft leather jerkin. "It has always been like this," he said. "With all I have known before."
"With those who have spanked you before?"
He gave a few small nods. "I . . . I did not know if . . . if . . . ."
"You did not know what to expect from me, is that it? You wondered if I would want to hold you like this, speak gently to you, comfort you?"
"Of course you did not know. And I am certain it made you anxious. But I promise you this - I will never take you over my knee without comforting you afterwards."
His arm tightened around my waist and he shifted his body even closer against me. But, a moment later, to my surprise, Aragorn suddenly went still, and then he burst into a sob he clearly had tried to hold back. I glanced down and saw him bury his face against me, weeping fresh tears, obviously struggling to stop, but unable to. I thought about it, though, and it made perfect sense.
"It is also alright to miss those you love," I said against his hair. "It is alright to feel lonely for them, and to ache for their touch, even for their discipline." He didn’t try to correct me. He just wriggled himself against me more tightly. I ran my palm over his thick hair, smoothing the wild tangles and letting him quietly cry, talking to him in a low tone. "Aragorn, for the first time in your young life, you are without the ones who have loved you and raised you. How can you not feel a bit lost and alone?"
"I-I should not, though," he sputtered.
"And why not, little boy?"
"You keep calling me that n-name, but . . ." Aragorn paused. Lifting his head a bit, he drew several large breaths as if trying to summon control. I watched him closely, making sure his lip was in no danger. "You keep call-calling me ‘little boy,’ but--" Again a sob burst loose and he dropped his face to my shoulder again. "I-I’m not a . . . a little . . . I am a g-grown-up!"
I had to smile. "A ‘grown-up.’ Aye, on the outside. Almost on the inside." He shook his head as if this was the last thing he wanted to hear. I waited until he had settled down, then I said, "Aragorn, if Devon was feeling lost and alone, would you think less of him for it?"
"No," he muttered into my clothing. "But . . . but it seems he has not felt lost or al-lone, and he is a year younger than m-me."
"Ah, but he has also known these Rangers for most of his life. When Devon was in his youth, his father would bring him to reconnoiter with us, missions of non-peril. And Devon also has something you do not. Along with that solace of familiar company, he has someone to admire and adhere to. He draws comfort from being in your presence, Aragorn, as you used to draw comfort from the presence of your brothers, or Legolas, or any others you admired. With such a strong sense of support surrounding him, little wonder Devon would not feel lost or alone."
Aragorn’s crying slowed. I sensed him listening fiercely, reaching for my every word. "You, on the other hand, are suddenly without the comforting companionship you have known all your life. You feel alone in your standing. There is no one above you to offer advice, no guardianship to help reassure you, no mentor."
No one to watch over his actions and take him over their knee when he misbehaved. No one to administer the discipline he so needed. And that, in essence, was at the heart of this.
Since his brothers had left, Aragorn’s behavior had been geared to a single purpose – pushing until someone said ‘stop.’ He had been seeking someone to fill that role he still desperately needed filled. He needed an authority figure. And his need had intensified, his feats becoming more and more dangerous until now, this latest and most critical transgression. Aragorn was screaming for help and attention. He felt bereft of both, and he had no idea how to go about getting what he longed for – or if he could even hope to get it.
I struggled to keep from blaming myself for not attending to him sooner, fighting thoughts of how close we came to tragedy because of my hesitation. I had taken over now, and that was what mattered.
Hugging him tighter, I said, "Those days are over, my wayward young pup. No longer will you be permitted to behave in any manner you see fit. From this day forth, you are answerable to me, Aragorn. Aye, you are still Captain of the Grey Company, Lord of the Dunedain, and you shall indeed lead your men, but at the end of the day, young Ranger, you will face me and you will be held accountable for your actions."
My words triggered a fresh surge of tears, sudden, heartfelt, and clearly born of relief. Aragorn clung to me again, tighter, his hand opening and closing on fistfuls of my jerkin over and over. He pushed his body against mine as if wanting to wriggle inside me, or atop me.
"Come, little one." I dragged him up to stretch out on top of me. Curse any thoughts of unseemliness. I’d just ripped down his breeches and heated up his bare behind; I wasn’t going to stand on ceremony in comforting him. "Aye, it is all right," I murmured against his hair. "I am sure."
He paused in his weeping to cough a small chuckle, then continued on, his face still pressed against my chest. I sensed his need to hear more, which was good, as I had a lot more to say.
"You know me to be a fair man. I will deal with you fairly. But I will not tolerate the kind of reckless misconduct that we have sadly witnessed of late. It is not your lack of knowledge or intelligence that drives you to make foolhardy choices, my lad. It is your lack of self-control and your need to prove yourself. You know right from wrong, good judgement from dangerous carelessness. You know when you are behaving irresponsibly. And you will also know full well when you have made a poor choice and earned my displeasure, for it will be played out on your backside, just as it was tonight. How comfortably you sit your horse will ever be up to you, little boy."
"If you disobey the rules of the Company, you will be spanked. If you willfully endanger yourself or others when there is no need, you will be spanked. If you are disrespectful to others, you will be spanked. If you behave in a manner unbefitting a Ranger of the North, you will be spanked. Heed me closely, my wild pup - I shall be watching you."
Aragorn was crying less vigorously now, but once more I sensed his concentration on my every word. I gave him plenty to drink in, replenishing his parched emotions with a flood of what he so needed to hear.
"I will not humiliate you in front of the entire company. When I take you over my knee, it will be in private. But your men are highly intelligent, and they will most likely know when you have been disciplined. Of course, if you choose to behave within the limits of reason, and if you are respectful of others, you need never worry about suffering mortification in front of the troop. The choice is ever yours to make, Aragorn. But when you are willfully naughty, I shall respond with the tanning you have invited.
"And keep in mind as well, my hot-headed young Ranger, that I have soaped out many an insubordinate mouth in my day. I’ll not hesitate to do the same to you when it is warranted."
Aragorn sucked a sharp breath and went still for a moment, then quavered, "You would not, H-Hal."
"Indeed I will. And thank you for reminding me of another matter." I slid my hand down to his blazing cheeks and gave him a light swat. Aragorn reared up and hissed. "My name is Halbarad, Aragorn, son of Arathorn. I leave your name intact as a show of respect, and you will grant me the same respect in return. Do you understand?"
He huffed and dropped back down upon me with a quick, "Aye, sir! I understand, Halbarad."
"Good, because failure to do so will earn your insolent mouth a visit with my bar of soap." He nodded, fully accepting of everything now. "Do we understand each other, Aragorn?"
"Do you have any questions about what I have told you?" I had not anticipated his hesitation, but Aragorn lay quietly for some time before speaking.
"Halbarad," he said. "You . . . you are a g-good and noble man . . . and I-I-I--"
"Shhhhh, take your time," I said, rubbing his back again. I moved my free hand to his wildly tangled hair and combed my fingers through the snarls, waiting. He was plainly struggling with something profound. I would help him all I could, but, as yet, I did not know what he was trying to say. I waited, and after he had drawn a few slow breaths, Aragorn began again:
"I am trying to thank you, s-sir," he said in a low, fervent voice. "I thank you on behalf of the Rangers of the Grey Company. W-What you do, what you plan to do, t-taking care of my discipline, you do for them, and I thank y--"
He got no further. I snatched him up under his arms and lifted him, raising his chest off me to where I could see his face. He hung his head, letting his hair cover his features.
"Look at me!" I ordered. He obeyed, shaking his hair back and lifting his head. "Is that what you think?" I asked, stunned. He didn’t reply, but his red-rimmed eyes, glassing over now with fresh tears, spoke for him. He was a wreck, yet he obediently watched me, gazing levelly into my eyes with a fragility he was clearly too exhausted to hide.
I sighed and lowered him again, enfolding him in my arms and letting him rest his head on my tear-soaked clothes. "Thank the Valar I have you for a week," I said, crushing him to me. "It may just be long enough for the truth to take hold inside your stubborn, foolish little boy head." I paused to kiss that stubborn head, then went on.
"Aragorn, you could not be more wrong. I do not do this for love of the Company alone. The Rangers are, I admit, my life, and I will do anything to preserve the safety of my brothers. But think deeper, my lad. Were the Rangers my only concern, we would not be here. We would be on our way to Rivendell, where I would gladly deposit your troublesome hide with your unfortunate sire."
Aragorn seemed to hold his breath. He slowly raised his head and stared at me, his gaze reflecting his shock. I smiled at him softly and stroked my fingers through his hair, pulling it back from his face and said, "Aragorn, my loyalty and my love for you, for the man you are, goes far beyond any other consideration. My bond with you is deeper, my devotion endless. I intend to take you in hand out of love for you, my wild pup. And not only because you are Isildur’s Heir, but because of who you are, and because of all that I see within you that is unique and glowing and extraordinary."
He continued to simply stare, his youthful expression of staggering dependence clutching at the of heart of me with ferocious power, and although every warning inside me went off, alerting me to pull back, I found myself racing straight to the terrible fear that had slashed at me earlier.
"When I thought you were lost--"
My vision blurred, my eyes stinging. Horrified, I quickly closed them, a strategic mistake. Two treacherous, vile tears slipped from the corners of my eyes and tickled a path down the sides of my face. I cursed my own lack of control, self-reproach exploding within me. Certainly I had lost my advantage. But, like my wild pup himself, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
I felt Aragorn’s finger trace the wet pathway of each tear. I had to open my eyes again, and I instantly saw within him not pity or disillusionment, but an openly astonished young lad, watching me with pure admiration.
Aragorn lifted his fingertip, now wet with my tears, and stared at it, plainly fascinated, then he turned his eyes to me once more and murmured, "For me?"
"Aye, little boy."
He looked dazed, his face reflecting a flurry of emotions from bewilderment to wonder, and then Aragorn suddenly hitched back a fresh sob, saying, "You . . . you wept in fear? For m-me?"
"My heart wept," I said, watching his eyes fill once more. "What does that tell you, my beloved young Ranger?"
Aragorn collapsed over me again, shuddering. "That y-you care about . . . m-me."
"Aye." I enclosed him in my arms, knowing he had crossed into a new understanding. Amazingly, what I thought to be weakness, and had been afraid to show him, turned out to be the strongest means I possessed. Honesty. Aragorn saw my honest fear and pain. He saw it in all its genuine depth. And within those two treacherous tears of mine he found a truth he knew to be authentic.
I smoothed my arms over his back, but before long Aragorn had fallen asleep, his heart and mind at peace at last. I lay, listening to him breathe, weary myself, but my thoughts replaying so much I could scarce keep track. This was just the beginning. Aragorn would test me repeatedly, of course. But he would do so with an already established truth lodged deeply within him: He was beloved. He was worthy. And he was by no means alone."
Again, I wondered if my audience was breathing. I had told them a tale, but I had certainly not told them all of what lay within my private memories. I did not betray the intimate thoughts and feelings and emotions that passed between Aragorn and myself, nor did I go into the very personal details that belonged to the two of us alone. I shared the outward face of our tale, that which would entertain, but not overly-reveal. And I had apparently done well, as now four pairs of eyes gazed at me, mesmerized.
Not a sound echoed in the chamber. From the corner of my eye I noticed the sun spilling through the window at an angle that suggested late afternoon. I puffed my pipe and waited for my listeners to realize that I’d reached the end. Gwin, now sitting cross-legged on the end of Faramir’s bed, recovered first.
I raised a brow at him. "Gwinthorian, your discretion is non-existent."
The halflings began to twitch, but Faramir cast them a warning glare and said, "Perhaps, my brother elf, you meant to respectfully inquire, with all due courtesy, as to what happened next in the story."
Gwin whirled his head to face him and hotly said, "Do you always speak with such revolting propriety?"
Pippin could bear no more. "What DID happen next, Halbarad?" he asked, practically bouncing.
I puffed my pipe a few times, then gave him a puzzled frown, and said, "Next?"
"Aye!" Merry exclaimed, just one step behind his cousin in their race of excitement. "Next! The next day, and the rest of the week! How did the week go?"
"Did you really spank Aragorn every other day?" Pip breathed.
"What happened when you returned to the Rangers?" Faramir asked, now sucked into the hobbits’ exuberance.
"Save your breath," Gwin said, watching me with calculating narrowed eyes. "He is finished. We will get no more story from him."
Even with only three voices bellowing it the sound was impressive.
I sidled Gwinthorian a glance he understood all too well, then I said, "I have given you what you asked for, Peregrin Took. You requested a story about the first time I disciplined Aragorn. And now, I have told you that tale."
"You see?" Gwin muttered, casting a smug look about.
Merry and Pippin simply gaped at me, eyes wide, disbelieving expressions at full strength. Pippin almost looked ready to break into tears. "Oh, please, Halbarad," he pleaded. "Please, can you not tell us just a bit more?"
I glanced at Faramir, seeing the same eagerness the hobbits were openly displaying, and I said, "I will tell you that after our week together, Aragorn and I rejoined the Grey Company to the great happiness of all the men. They saw at once that the Aragorn who returned to them was indeed a different young man, calmer and more self-assured. Devon also was less the over-eager puppy, still youthfully impulsive at times, as was Aragorn, but nothing slipped past Garrick’s watch, as nothing slipped past mine. When Devon needed Garrick’s special guidance, he received it with a straightforwardness that bespoke his giant mentor’s dedication to his young charge, much to Devon’s distress.
"Never again was it necessary to mention Aragorn’s probation time, as he was so clearly changed upon our return. His superior leadership and considerable skills grew, as did his renown, and the Rangers embraced their young Captain with a love and devotion that remains to this day. Aragorn became known far and wide, and by many different names, but to his loyal Rangers of the North he was ever Lord of the Dunedain."
Pippin sniffed. I glanced at him and saw two tears trickling down his cheeks. I smiled, and stood, moving my chair back beside the wall, and, at that moment there was a knock, and the door opened. Aragorn, Boromir, and Legolas entered.
"How goes the storytelling?" Boromir said, beaming. He crossed to his brother in quick strides and Faramir nearly flew from the bed into his brother’s arms, settling only when Boromir had gathered him close for a fierce hug, then forced him back down. "None of that," he gently admonished, kissing his little brother’s brow. "Right back down with you." He sat, leaning against the headboard, and held Faramir close.
"Pippin?" Aragorn frowned, striding forth himself to the bedside of the teary hobbit.
Pip was obviously still overcome by the ending of my tale. He scrambled up and launched himself at Aragorn, his arms clasping around the man’s neck and his legs wrapping around his waist. Aragorn gasped, his arms hanging useless for a moment before he enclosed them about the waist of the small body fastened to him. He looked comically astonished. Turning to me amidst the surprised chuckles of the others, he said with open amazement, "What have you been telling these little ones?"
I merely grinned in response and glanced at Gwin, who was wearing his finest mischievous look. I sent him a warning scowl, which he promptly ignored, but, as he opened his mouth to speak, two low voices came drifting in from the corridor:
"You are sure we’re going the right way?"
"I know I saw Lord Aragorn come in this direction with Legolas and Boromir, and there is only one room down this hallway. So perhaps the Lieutenant is with--"
"Aye," came a deep voice as a huge form blocked the light streaming in from the open doorway. "They are here."
Recognizing the voices, I moved into the view of the visitors and asked, "Are you looking for me?"
"Merciful Middle Earth! It’s him!" Merry cried. Everyone began firing glances back and forth between Merry and the two new arrivals entering the chamber, clearly perplexed.
"Pip, look! It has to be Garrick!"
It was indeed Garrick, a rather stunned Garrick, although few would know it from his blank expression. His startled gaze traveled quickly over the occupants of the room and ended with me. I struggled to hold back my laughter at his utterly nonplussed stare.
"And the other must be Devon!" Pippin cried.
Garrick, who stood a full head taller than his golden-haired companion, looked down at him and said, "You wanted to see a halfling up close, young one." He nodded to Merry and Pippin. "There."
"Ah, yes, Dev, I’d forgotten," Aragorn said. "You’ve only seen hobbits from afar, while the Rangers guarded the Shire. This one in my arms is Master Peregrin Took, and there is his cousin, Master Meriadoc Brandybuck."
Devon looked strangely speechless, his face turning a glorious shade of red. He cleared his throat and said to Aragorn in a hushed voice, "My lord, I am loathe to point out such a thing, but, well . . . Aragorn, the halfling’s wee shirt is hiked up in back, and it seems clear he has recently been disciplined."
Pippin squealed and waved his hands behind him, but Merry was faster, lunging forward to yank his cousin’s shirt down in the back and protect what little dignity Pippin had left. The rest of us made valiant efforts to keep our snickers subdued, even Gwin.
Pippin huffed and sailed a perfect pout around the room, saying, "Someone could have said something, ya’ know. Fine first impression this is."
If Pippin was trying to scold everyone, he failed miserably. We were far too lost in mirth. But a little consolation for the embarrassed halfling came by way of an unusual source:
"We cannot see that part of you from over here," Gwin chuckled from his perch on Faramir’s bed. "So do not blame these two brothers and me. Unfortunately, Aragorn’s body blocked your backside from our view."
"UNfortunately?" Pippin pressed his lips together and fumed, then huffed to Gwin, "I am ever so cheered, Gwinthorian. Thank you." Pip unwound his legs from Aragorn’s waist, darting a sour glance at the three of us left who had been in a position to see the problem, Legolas, Merry and myself. Aragorn stood him on the bed and Pip yanked down his nightshirt, quickly dropping beside his cousin.
Merry leaned in to him and urgently muttered "Pip, I’m sorry! I guess I’m just so used to the sight, I-I just didn’t think anything of it."
Pippin turned to him in shock. "Used to seeing my-my--!"
"As am I," Legolas added with an impenitent grin and shrug. "My apologies, but the sight of your little paddled behind has become quite commonplace, Peregrin."
Pippin’s face went scarlet, his eyes huge. He looked too incensed to speak. All he could do was fix an open-mouthed stare of outrage at Legolas before turning the same look on me. I wasn’t about to admit that I myself had found the sight endearing, so I instead practiced some protocol by formally introducing Corporal Garrick and Devon to the hobbits and Faramir, all of whom had never met. I then turned to Garrick and again asked, "Were you seeking me, Corporal?"
"Aye, my lord," Garrick replied. "The men have been curious as to our plans."
I glanced at Aragorn. "My lord?"
"The Rangers are still encamped at the foot of the mountain?" he asked. At Garrick’s affirmation, he returned my glance and said, "Halbarad and I shall ride out and meet with our troop tonight. Today, in council, a plan was agreed upon. I will present it to the Grey Company. We have more to do in this, my friend."
Garrick gave a quick, grave nod.
Faramir suddenly sat straight up, pulling free of Boromir’s arms, and said to Aragorn, "I would hear of this plan, my lord! I am fit enough to ride and defend Gondor!"
The hush that fell over the room was so profound it seemed all the air had been sucked out, leaving a silent void. Everyone stared at Faramir, who just the day before had not been able to make it back to his bed without aid. His eyes grew large, his gaze flitting over the solemn faces, all but his older brother’s, whose gaze he carefully avoided.
The Steward stared at Faramir with grim intensity and said in a low, menacing tone, "What did you say?"
Faramir lowered his eyes to study the sheet. "Uhhhh . . . ."
"Would you care to repeat that, little brother?" Boromir asked, his stern tone reminding me of Garrick’s words to Devon years earlier.
"No," Faramir muttered.
Boromir looked at Aragorn and said, "Must I really wait until tomorrow?"
Faramir threw a quick glance at Boromir, then gave Aragorn a stricken look.
"Aye, young Captain of Ithilien, you know exactly what your brother means," Aragorn said, exchanging a somber look with Boromir. "And yes, my Steward, tomorrow is soon enough. It will give your temper time to cool yet again."
Faramir turned to his brother. "Yet again?" he asked, looking vanquished and withering before our eyes.
Gwin had been quiet too long. He leaned towards Faramir, whispering loudly enough to be heard by the garrison at Osgiliath, "Something about your eating habits, I believe."
I have often wondered if all Gwinthorian’s wits are intact. I had once asked Legolas about it in jest, and, after laughing heartily, he admitted that the question had come up before in the halls of his father’s realm, and no definitive answer had been reached. At the moment, I also wondered if Gwin had decided to invite a slow and lingering end to his life. It seemed that everyone in the room with a shred of compassion for Faramir would have gladly taken up Gwin’s invitation, save poor Garrick and Devon, who were watching all this with decided bewilderment.
Faramir had flushed to an alarming shade of ruby red, and Boromir now looked torn between wanting to thrash his little brother and wanting to throttle Gwinthorian. Had the Steward asked me for leave to go after Gwin, I believe I’d have granted it.
However, after a speedy look around and a keen assessment of his predicament, Gwin had the sense to offer the two brothers a quick, "Excuse me. It seems I spoke out of turn. I beg your pardons."
Aragorn turned to me and said, "You, my friend, do not have to wait until tomorrow."
I offered a small bow of my head. "Nor do I intend to, my lord."
It never ceases to amaze me that Gwin can look so innocent and woebegone when he has just behaved badly on purpose. He did, though, his sorrowful gaze focusing downward, his perfect mouth drawn into a winsome pout of remorse. Suddenly a small whisper came from the hobbits. I glanced at them, as did everyone else.
Merry and Pippin were staring earnestly at Gwin, and then they both burst into unconstrained giggling, a jolly, rollicking sound that traveled amongst us until everyone began to grin, even Garrick. Faramir couldn’t hold back a smile either, nor could Boromir, and he reached out and drew his little brother back into his arms, whispering something in his ear, then kissing his head again.
Finally when they had quieted a little, Aragorn said to them, "What are you two laughing about?"
Merry coughed and said, "I told Pip that he should ask Gwin for a few pointers, because the elf put on an even better innocent act than he did, and he had a much finer fake pout!"
Now everyone laughed openly, all but Gwin, who suddenly sobered and sneered, "I do not find that amusing." Which only made us laugh more. And despite my elfling’s sulk, I knew him too well. He was enjoying this immensely. Few things satisfied Gwinthorian more than being the center of attention, regardless of the circumstances. A swift exchanged glance with Legolas told me that he knew this of his kinsman as well.
Finally, Garrick looked at Aragorn and said, "We shall take our leave now, my lord."
"Please, stay and eat with us," Aragorn said. "Then we will ride to the camp together."
Garrick thought about this for a moment, then said with a nod, "Aye, my lord. Thank you."
"By your leave, I shall ride with you and Halbarad tonight, Aragorn," Legolas said.
"I had planned on your company," Aragorn replied.
Boromir cleared his throat and said, "Gwinthorian, wouldn’t you like to ride down to the Ranger camp with Halbarad and the others, too? Nice ride upon the back of a fine, swift steed? Of course -- " Boromir turned to me. "You would, no doubt, want to have the rest of your private, uh, ‘conversation’ with him first, my lord."
Gwin darted a glare at the now-grinning Boromir and murmured a few vulgar words in elvish. Pippin sucked a sharp gasp.
"If you are muttering what I think you are, elf, you waste your breath," Boromir said. "You forget, my little brother is the Ranger in our family. I am not conversant in your tongue."
Aragorn crossed his arms over his chest again and turned to Boromir with a wicked half-grin, saying, "Oh? Boromir, Pippin revealed some shocking information to Legolas yesterday regarding elvish obscenities."
Boromir gave Aragorn a startled look, then turned the same look to Legolas and said, "Elvish obscenities?" He raised his brows and glanced at Pippin. "Did he?"
"Aye, little brother," the elf said with a lazy smile. He mimicked Aragorn’s pose and went on: "Peregrin and I had a small set-to yesterday, during which time he rambled off a string of filthy words, all in Sindarin. After some soapy convincing, he told me where he had learned such language."
Boromir watched Legolas eagerly. "And?" he urged. "Where did he learn it?"
Boromir need say no more. Obviously, he had neither a clue, nor any blame in the matter, and, therefore, nothing to fear. Every head whirled to Pippin, who now sat with his legs hugged to his chest, his nightshirt covering him down to his feet and his head tucked as far below his knees as it could go, only two huge eyes peeking out. He skimmed an anxious look around the room, ending with Legolas.
"Pip!" Merry breathed, clearly horrified. "You didn’t!"
Pippin looked as if he longed to crawl beneath the bedding and stay there until the coming of the Fourth Age. He lifted a glance of utter mortification to Garrick and Devon, then turned a pathetic gaze to his cousin, and whimpered, "It was just a tiny fib, Merry. Just a little white lie. The littlest of little white lies."
"It was a lie?" Aragorn thundered. "You lied, after we had just been talking about so-called ‘white lies’ moments before in this very room?"
"Pip!" Even Merry was aghast. "Pip, tell me you didn’t!"
"I was under duress!" Pippin cried. "Legolas had already soaped out my mouth twice!"
"Aye!" Legolas now entered the fray. "And why was I soaping out your mouth, Master Took?"
Pippin lowered his gaze and muttered something into his knees.
"Excuse me?" Garrick bid. "I did not hear that." It was so like him. Even if he had heard it, he wouldn’t have heard it. He looked down at Devon. "Did you hear that, cub?"
Devon, now a veteran of Ranger teasing, and an avid practitioner of the same, shook his head slowly and said, "Nay, sir. Not a word."
"Speak up, little one," Aragorn said, studying Pippin with a smoldering gaze.
"Legolas was . . . he was washing my mouth out with soap for telling a lie," Pip said, forcing out each word. "And . . . and for using foul elvish."
"So, if I understand this correctly," Garrick said with counterfeit bemusement, "Legolas was soaping out your mouth for telling a lie, and you cursed at him in elvish, and he asked you where you had learned such language, and you told him Boromir had taught it to you, even though that, too, was a lie." Garrick mirrored Legolas and Aragorn’s crossed arm stance, always an intimidating move from my massive Corporal.
Devon looked up at Garrick and said, "’Twould seem, sir, that while suffering the consequences of telling one lie, the halfling told another."
"Aye, so it would seem." Garrick fixed Pippin with a stern look. "Although that sounds too foolish to be true. Is that true, little hobbit?"
Clearly, Pippin now gave up any hope for mercy from this group. He sighed, lifted his head and snapped, "Aye! It’s true, alright? But, I’m telling you, I was coerced! I had a mouth full of soap and a cussed, detestable elf threatening more! I wasn’t thinking clearly! And I’m SORRY, alright?"
I couldn’t remember when I’d had a more entertaining afternoon.
Of course, beneath this surface layer of disapproval, not one of us bore any genuine anger towards Pippin. Even Aragorn, whose astonishment was plain, could not keep the glint of amusement from his eye. Pippin had lapsed yet again, yes, but he’d done so with such inept artlessness that it struck a note of compassion within us all. And he was superbly winsome in his distress, feigning just enough indignation and fear to make everyone comfortable with our scolding banter. There would indeed be more consequences for Pippin, and he knew it, but he also knew that, regardless of what dreaded chastisement his outrageous behavior had yet again earned him, he would be, as he had ever been, safe. Cared about.
Faramir, who, with his brother, was plainly fighting to hold back his merriment, said, "Perhaps, little one, you meant to say that, you regret your dishonest, unbefitting slander of the Steward’s good name and your complete distortion of the facts relative to his accountability regarding your colorful choice of language, as it was a shameless falsehood, but a perhaps pardonable deception, given the fact that you were, at the time, suffering the tortures of a soaped mouth."
Gwin rolled his eyes and released a loud ‘tsk’ while the rest of gave in and chuckled at Faramir’s overblown speech.
"Aye, Faramir," Pippin quipped with a small groan and a pained look. "I was just about to say precisely that. Thank you ever so much."
"Indeed." Faramir bowed his head. "You are most welcome." He gave Pip a tender smile.
Boromir chuckled and hugged his younger brother and mussed his hair. "Ah," he said. "Diplomacy."
This teasing and baiting could have gone on for some time longer, but a servant arrived and announced that dinner was soon to be served. Aragorn thanked him and sent word back that Boromir would be taking his dinner with his brother and to bring another tray.
"Bring plenty," Boromir added, frowning down at Faramir. "We are hungry, are we not, little brother?"
Faramir winced unhappily. "Yes, Boromir."
The prospect of dinner had perked Pippin up once more. "So are we! Aren’t we, Merry?"
"I should say so. This hearing about wargs and bonfires and rescues and such is draining."
Aragorn’s wry smile vanished. His stunned look slammed into me.
"I but told them a tale," I said with a shrug.
"Ah, yes," Garrick said. He dropped a lazy grin to Devon. "A good tale, is it not, cub? Do you remember it?"
Devon exchanged a red-faced glance of chagrin with Aragorn. "Aye, sir. How could I ever forget?"
"What tale is this?" Legolas inquired.
"Aye," Boromir added. "What tale?"
"We should go into dinner now," Aragorn said.
"What tale?" Boromir and Legolas said in unison.
I took pity on my squirming wild pup. "It was but a simple tale meant to pass the time and becalm these few who are healing." I glanced at Pippin. "Even if they are only healing from bruised sensibilities and a scorched backside."
"Not near scorched enough, ‘twould seem," Legolas muttered, frowning at Pippin.
Grinning nervously, Pip said, "Uhh, Legolas, if you stay here and eat with us, we can tell you and Boromir the tale."
It was a shameless ploy to divert attention from his doom, and it worked. "Ah!" Legolas exclaimed, darting a flawless smile at Boromir. "You and I are to have entertainment while we dine, little brother!"
Aragorn groaned, but there was a good-humored quality to his tone as he moved across the room in his familiar, graceful stride, muttering, "’A simple tale’ indeed. Of all the many tales he could have told--" He reached out and tousled Gwin’s hair as he passed, galling my fastidious elfling mightily. "Come, pest," Aragorn said. "You have my leave to dine with the adults."
"Aye, go sit while you can, Gwinthorian," Pippin taunted.
Aragorn halted and turned back to Pip. His stern glance of gentle seriousness passed between Pippin and Faramir, then he grinned softly and said, "The same to you, Master Took. I shall return in the morning." His eyes moved to Merry. "With a fresh bar of soap. I have not forgotten you, young Brandybuck."
Merry sighed and watched Aragorn turn to leave again, then he nudged Pippin. "Told you," he said.
"So you did," Pip replied.
I felt a surprising flash of melancholy as I moved to follow Aragorn. This had been pleasant, this snug and untroubled afternoon of memories and sharing and light-hearted fellowship. Such times were rare and precious and far too fleeting.
"Halbarad, wait!" Merry cried.
We all turned. The halfling had come up on his knees and he now fixed me with an earnest stare. "Thank you, my lord." He bowed his head. "Thank you for your splendid tale, and for sharing your time with us."
"Aye, thank you, my lord," Pippin added, also bowing his curly head. "We are most grateful."
"Indeed," Faramir said with an equal bow. "We offer you our humble and most heartfelt appreciation. Thank you for blessing us with your magnificent storytelling gifts. We are all in your debt, my lord."
Again I felt that dreaded warm flush creep up my neck. Aragorn noticed at once, of course, and smiled.
"Ah," he said. "The oppressive burden of tribute." Clapping a hand on my shoulder he said, "Accept what you must with grace, my friend. ‘Tis but a fair reckoning."