Story Downloaded from Open Scrolls Archive (http://www.openscrolls.net)

Title: Broken Trust (#2846)
Author: imaginigma
Chapters: 3

Archive: Tolkien
Category: Alternate Universe (AU)
Description: While on his way to Imladris, Aragorn and some of his rangers have to stay at a small village for the night. When they are accused for a crime that calls of a severe punishment, Aragorn takes a decision that could cost him more than only a sleepless night.
Published: 21 Jul 2006
Updated: 21 Jul 2006
Warnings: Violence
Type: Action/adventure
Characters: Aragorn; OC


Chapter 1 - The Accusation

General dislaimer applies...

°°°°Chapter 1: The Accusation°°°°

The sun set over the plains of Rhudaur, and the last rays of the red orb painted the snow covered fields and meadows a fiery ruby. It almost seemed that the fields were burning with an inner fire.

Here and there the snow cover was broken by deep imprints and tracks, sure indications that animals and humans had passed by. In the distance, small huts and houses could be seen, a huge wall of wood barring a direct view. Grey smoke rose to the blue sky, lazily sailing to the heavens.

Aragorn hugged his cloak tighter around his shoulders and shivered involuntarily. Besides the winter picture of peace and beauty that presented itself, the air was bitter cold. It had snowed for the past days, which had left his belongings wet and cold, making him feel even more miserable. And judging from the look on the faces of his three companions, they felt no different.

It was still winter in Middle Earth, although the Winter Solstice had been some weeks ago, and in the lands to the south, the grass was already green and the streams ice free. The clear blue sky did not help their situation, as a cloudless sky meant a frosty night and an even chillier day.

Breathing deeply and seeing the exhaled breath mist before his eyes, Aragorn turned to look at his companions. He was on his way to Rivendell, accompanied by three of his fellow rangers, who were on their way home as well.

Brugion and Haemon, two seasoned and travel experienced rangers who had served long before Aragorn had become chieftain, would travel to Eregion and spend their free time with their families. The other ranger, Cederic, would journey to a small village near the Bruinen with Brugion and Haemon and then part company with them. His parents lived in a fishermen’s village on the river’s banks. On their way back to the rangers’ camp in the north, the two old rangers would pick Cederic up, so that they could make the journey together.

Cederic was still young, not older than sixteen, and Aragorn had first opposed to take him in, but the boy’s enthusiasm and skill had made him change his mind. During his first weeks in the service of the rangers, the young man had proven his worth and had fought with them side by side against wargs and orcs, showing no fear and standing proud and loyal next to his comrades.

But on the other hand, the lad had missed his parents dearly during the harsh winter season, so that Aragorn had decided to take him with him when he travelled to Imladris, so that Cederic could cure his homesickness. Aragorn knew that the youngster’s parents were poor, the long and hard work at the river’s banks had left the father in bad health and the mother was struggling hard to keep the family nourished. That Cederic had left them to join the rangers, as well meant as it had been, had brought the family even nearer to the knife’s edge. Although they did not have to worry about Cederic as an additional eater anymore, the loss of his skilled hands and ability to earn some money had undoubtedly worsened their situation.

Therefore, it would do the young ranger and the parents good to see each other, especially in these hard times.

Shuddering as a gust of cold wind hit him and sneaked under his clothing, Aragorn nodded at his rangers, and without another word they headed down the small hill they were standing on, in the direction of the village that they had seen. While they crossed the snow covered fields, Aragorn asked himself for a short moment if they would find what they were looking for.

A warm place to rest for the night, and perhaps even some hours of sleep. It was difficult to sleep in the woods if one had to fear freezing to death during the night.

When they reached the small village, which was surrounded by a high wooden fence, Aragorn stepped up to the man guarding the entrance. It was not unusual that isolated settlements tried to defend themselves by building fences around them. Even Bree had one, although it was a town open to all and there had never been any trouble or fights near the town.

Pulling back the hood of his cloak despite the chill in the air, Aragorn managed a small smile for the guard. The villager was clad in many layers of warm clothing, a scarf wound around his neck and his hands in gloves. The spear which he carried leaned near the wooden fence, halfway buried in the snow. It would have been easy to just walk past the man, but Aragorn decided that their stay would be much more welcome if he asked for entrance.

“Greetings, Master Human. My name is Strider. My companions and I are seeking shelter for the night and we hoped to find a dry and warm place in your village.”

If the man understood a word Aragorn had said, he did not show it. Sniffing and wiping a gloved hand over his nose, the guard eyed Aragorn from head to toe, his eyes resting briefly on the long bow and quiver he carried. Then, after what seemed like an eternity to the ranger, he said, “Are ye rangers?”

Inclining his head, Aragorn answered, his tone neutral, “Aye.”

There was no sense in lying, he knew. Their grab and behaviour would give them away and furthermore, there were not many humans that wandered around in this weather, far from the next human settlement besides this one, without horses or at least a donkey to carry their packs.

Ignoring the urge to stamp his feet to regain at least some feeling in them, Aragorn wondered how long it would take this man to utter the next question. He felt frozen to the core and if the guard did not hurry, his ears would surely surrender to the cold and fall off his head.

Finally, after another long look at Aragorn and his companions, the man nodded and gestured behind him. “Just ye go to the old inn keeper. Has no rooms to lend, but he has a stable. haps he lets ye stay.”

Thanking the guard and pulling his hood back up again, much to the relief of his red ears, Aragorn and his men entered the small village. Just as they stepped through the wooden barrier, the red sun set in the West, her fiery rays shining on their backs and painting the snow a blood red.

As Aragorn had predicted, the night was cloudless, the moon shining down onto the earth and painting the landscape in a magical blue. The white and untouched snow reflected the glimmering moonlight, sending sparks of light in all directions. The stars twinkled from the black sky, like little diamonds caught in black silk.

From now and then the lonely hoot of an owl could be heard floating through the still air, the hunting bird the only sign of life in the otherwise tranquil world.

The rangers had found shelter in the stable of the innkeeper, an old man named Hendloc. The man had not been overjoyed to have “guests”, who neither drank in the tavern, nor played cards, but after some well measured words of Aragorn and the promise to leave early in the morning, the old innkeeper had shown them the stable.

It was a building as old as Hendloc; the wood was grey and weatherworn, the roof was leaking and the straw was reeking of mice. It housed no horses as the village was rather poor and travellers seldom came this way. But nevertheless, it was overall dry and relatively warm inside.

After bidding the innkeeper goodnight, the rangers had spread out their blankets and after settling down, had eaten some meagre ration of dried meat and fruit. The winter had not only been a hard one for the farmers and fishers, but for the rangers as well.

Most deer and game had left the northern woods in their search of food, and nearly all rivers were still frozen. Food had been scarce in most villages and many families had been forced to send their children to bed without an evening meal.

The rangers had helped were possible, shared what they could, and given what they had. Where it had not been enough, they had helped bury the dead. And in this winter, it had been many.

On their way to their respective homes, the four rangers had taken enough food to last them through the journey, but as they had passed small settlements and camps, they had given most of it away to help the families and most of all the children.

Therefore, their meagre evening meal was finished soon, and the rangers settled down on their sleeping mats, and wrapped themselves in tattered blankets and cloaks. The wind howled around the walls and gusts of frosty air that sneaked through cracksin the walls and roof and made the men shiver.

But despite the coldness and the still hungry stomachs, the journey had tired the rangers and before the moon had reached his highest position in the night sky, the men were fast asleep. They had not set a watch, as the only danger that they had to fear were the villagers, and after what they had seen during the last hour of daylight, the inhabitants of this village were neither warriors nor fighters. There was nothing to fear.

The silver moon had risen high in the sky, shining down on the sleeping earth, when a soft sound floated through the otherwise still stable. It was followed by the creaking of the floorboards, and the unmistakable sound of shuffling feet.

Aragorn was awake instantly, the long and hard years as a ranger providing him with the ability to reach the state of total wakefulness in the split of a second. Outwardly, he gave no sing that he was awake; his breathing stayed even and deep, his eyes closed. He did not shift his position under his leather cloak and blanket, but his right hand almost immediately tightened around the hilt of his sword. Aragorn had made it a habit many years ago to position his sword near him while he slept; only a prepared ranger had any chance of surviving in the wilds.

The straw on the ground shifted and soft footsteps, barely audible, reached Aragorn’s ears. One of his fellow rangers was awake and moving around in the barn. Aragorn could hear the leather of the shoes crunch the dry straw and the creaking of the wooden planks. Relaxing the grip on his sword slightly, he waited until the footsteps moved past him.

From the sound of them, he presumed that it was Cederic. The young ranger had a habit of feathering his step; his heels would tower in the air a moment longer as absolutely necessary, and even the training of the rangers had not been able to rid him of this trait.

When the ranger passed by him, Aragorn opened his closed eyes a little. He saw a dark and cloaked figure near the stable door, and when the door opened with a soft creaking sound, blue moonlight streamed into the room and illuminated the face of the figure.

As Aragorn had thought, it was indeed the young ranger. He looked pale and tired, but after a quick look over his shoulder at his slumbering companions, the young man opened the door further and stepped out into the moonlit night. The door closed behind him with a soft thud, and stillness settled over the stable once more.

Taking his hand from the hilt of his sword, Aragorn closed his eyes and tightened his cloak around him. The night was colder than he had anticipated, and the wind that had blown in through the open stable door had made him shudder.

Resting his head in the crook of his arm, Aragorn wondered briefly why Cederic had left the relatively warm shelter, but soon his weariness won out and he drifted off to sleep again. After all, it was not unusual to feel the urge to step out during the night.

Dawn came frosty and bleary. Mist lay over the fields and meadows that surrounded the village, grey waves that were so thick that Aragorn could not see further than twenty feet. With the coming of morning and the new day, the rangers had risen and packed their few belongings.

Breakfast was a quick affair; they ate the last of their bannock and washed it down with ice cold water. As they had promised the innkeeper the day before, they planned on leaving the village early, as they would have to travel far that day if they wanted to leave the open plains behind them ere nightfall.

Stretching his limbs and craning his neck to work out the kinks, Aragorn took a deep breath. The air was clear but cold; it seemed to burn in his lungs and freeze his blood. Sighing inaudibly and coming to the conclusion that this day would be as cold and tiresome as the last one, he stepped up to his companions.

Brugion and Haemon had finished readying their packs and were already shouldering their weapons. Cederic, on the other hand, was standing a bit to the side, bent over his pack which rested on the ground.

Nodding to the two older rangers, Aragorn sidled up besides the young ranger.

“Cederic?” When Aragorn got no answer, he placed a hand on the man’s shoulder. Cederic straightened immediately, his face showing his surprise at being caught off guard. Quickly smoothing his features, he said, “Sir, pardon me. Did you say something?”

Smiling gently, Aragorn just nodded his head and gestured at the young ranger’s pack.

“Be sure to be ready to leave in ten minutes. I am going to speak with our host and then we will leave.”

Nodding, Cederic turned back to his pack. Letting his eyes linger one moment on the ranger and his pack, Aragorn wondered whether the pack looked any different than before. Although Cederic was bent over it and shielded it from direct view, it seemed to Aragorn as if the pack was thicker and fuller than the day before.

Frowning, he made as if to comment on it, but then he changed his mind. It would not do to perhaps embarrass the young man before his fellow rangers, and mayhap Cederic had only packed his belongings in a different manner than the last days, making the pack look fuller than it actually was.

Wrapping his cloak around his shoulders, Aragorn moved to the stable door. He did not truly feel the desire to step out of their shelter and into the open. The night had made the air cold and the mist would drench his cloak and clothing within minutes. But, they would have to travel on sooner or later anyway. With this thought, he took the handle of the door in hand and opened it to step outside.

As he pushed the door open, he nearly collided with the innkeeper, and it was only due to his many years as a ranger and the quick reflexes he had toned during his childhood with the elves that he was able to avoid the collision.

Taking a step back, he was to greet the other man, when his eyes took in the face of the old innkeeper. Hendloc’s face was pale, cold sweat standing on his brow. His small black sideburns circling red cheeks. His lips were quivering and his eyes were round as dishes.

Before Aragorn had the opportunity to say something, the man lifted his arm and pointed at the ranger with his index finger.

“Thieves! Bloody thieves you are! I cannot believe I let you lot stay! I have told the head of the village! You will not leave under the cover of the night! Thieves!”

Bewildered, Aragorn raised his hands in a placating gesture, “Sir, I am sure this is a misunderstanding, we…” before he could finish his sentence, fast approaching footsteps could be heard.

Hendloc turned his head and then his eyes seemed to sparkle. In a loud and slightly hysterical voice, he yelled, “Here! Here! These cursed thieves are here, Ragoth!”

The next moment, a tall, black haired and strongly build man reached the old innkeeper’s side, four other men following close behind. The villagers were armed with swords and clubs, and they looked more than willing to use them.

Having heard the shouting and seen the agitated old innkeeper, the other rangers came to the door and stood now behind their Chieftain. Sending his men a quick glance, Aragorn turned back to the men in front of him.

His hands still lifted in a gesture of peace, he addressed the old innkeeper, “Sir, this is a misunderstanding, neither I nor…”

Once again he had no chance of finishing his sentence, as Hendloc was not listening to him, but talking to the tall dark haired human who had just arrived.

“Ragoth, these are the thieves! They have stolen from me! I want what is mine. And I want justice!” Emphasizing his point, he poked Aragorn with his finger in the chest.

Not comprehending what was going on, but quite certain that the old man was mistaken, Aragorn tried once more to argue with Hendloc, but the tall man spoke before he could even open his mouth.

“What have they stolen from you, Hendloc?”

Red cheeked and lips twitching, the man answered instantly, “My food! They stole my precious apples. Nearly all of them! How am I supposed to live through this unholy winter without them?”

Ragoth, the head of the small village, eyed the agitated innkeeper for a moment, before he spoke, “That is a grave accusation. Do you have any proof of what you say?”

Clearly bewildered, the old man pointed at Aragorn once more.

“Proof? They are wandering folk, strange men. What other proof do you need?”

Flinching inwardly at the man’s words, Aragorn took a deep breath. He was used to being scorned and insulted, every ranger was. Nevertheless, it stung every time anew. Willingly calming himself down, Aragorn cleared his throat to catch Ragoth’s attention.

When he was certain that the man was looking at him, Aragorn spoke, his tone placating, “Please, Sir. This is a misunderstanding. We have stolen nothing, of that I can assure you. But if Master Hendloc is willing, I am sure we can sort this out calmly.”

Ragoth eyed Aragorn from head to toe, just like the guard had done the day before. Judging by the look on his face, he did not like what he saw. With a voice that clearly spoke of disgust, he asked, “You are rangers?”

Sighing inwardly, Aragorn nodded, “Aye, we are rangers of the North.”

Nodding his head once, Ragoth let his eyes travel over Aragorn’s companions. Brugion and Haemon met his gaze unflinchingly, but Cederic seemed to shiver under his look, and soon the young man averted his gaze.

Having enough of the useless talk, the old innkeeper grabbed a fistful of Ragoth cloak.

“They are thieves! I want what is mine! I want justice be done upon them!”

Giving the man a stern look and waiting until Hendloc had released his grip on his cloak, Ragoth turned his gaze on Aragorn once more.

“So you say you have not taken anything from him?”

Aragorn nodded. He knew that neither of his rangers was a thief. Mayhap he was a lenient Chieftain from time to time, more so than his ancestors, but his men paid him the respect he deserved, and to steal or break the customary law of Arda in any way, meant to break with everything that he stood for. It was not only a show of disrespect to the rangers in general, but an insult against Aragorn as well.

Sighing, the head of the village gave Aragorn and the other rangers a strange smile. “Well, as much as I want to believe you, ranger, I do not know you. But I know old Hendloc here nearly all my life. I think I will believe him until I have seen proof that you have not stolen his apples.”

As if to demonstrate the tall human’s point, the other men who had gathered at the scene gripped their swords tighter and lifted their clubs. They all seemed ready to attack the rangers, and Aragorn could not even condemn them for it.

In these hard times, food was scarce and everyone had a hard time to survive the winter season. Apples were even rarer, a treasure for these poor people.

Thinking for a moment, his eyes never leaving the men before him, Aragorn nodded, “Aye, I understand that, and I think it is your right to demand proof of our innocence. Therefore I think it would be best, if you convince yourself of the fact that we do indeed not have the apples.”

Stepping to the side, Aragorn gestured behind himself and into the stable. There on the ground lay his pack and the pack of Cederic; Brugion and Haemon had already shouldered their packs. Ragoth eyes gleamed at the thought of searching the packs, as many people wanted to know what a ranger carried in his pack; it was no secret as such, but few non rangers had ever had the chance to take a look at a ranger’s pack.

Stepping into the dimly lit stable, Ragoth gestured his men to follow. Letting the old innkeeper enter the stable before him, Aragorn entered as well. Upon a sign of him that was invisible to the villagers, the two older rangers laid down their packs as well, stepping back to give Ragoth and his men more space.

While Brugion and Haemon looked slightly angry upon the villagers’ open display of distrust and hostility, young Cederic looked positively alarmed. He fidgeted with his hands and licked his lips constantly.

Placing a hand upon the young man’s shoulder and speaking so soft that the other men could not hear, Aragorn whispered, “Do not worry, Cederic. We have nothing to hide, and they will soon see that as well.”

Letting his hand fall to his side again, Aragorn watched how the club swinging and sword carrying men approached their packs and began to open them. They cared little for the tidiness of the rangers, and soon clothes and weapons, food and water skins were strewn over the stable floor. Despite common belief, every ranger had his own organized system of packing; it was a well learned skill to arrange ones belongings in such a manner that they would fit a ranger’s small pack.

Aragorn could not suppress a small flinch as one of the men picked up his healing supplies and, after taking a look at them, carelessly flung them away. The leather satchel opened, sending herbs flying everywhere.

It had taken Aragorn many weeks to find the herbs and dry them, to crush them to a fine powder and to select the right herbs and bind them together so that he would not have to search long for the herbs he would need. But now, in this harsh winter season, it would be impossible to find any herbs at all. Little winter herbs grew in this region, and what little there was had been covered by the white masses of snow that had fallen in these lands.

Sighing inwardly and sending an angry stare at the man who had just ruined his stock of much needed supplies, Aragorn consented himself to waiting. He knew that his men and he could easily overtake the this men; they had superior skill with their weapons and their training and strength surpassed that of the town’s men. Nevertheless, Aragorn knew that it would not do to anger the men further. And truly, he was certain that the men would find nothing in their packs that did not belong there.

Suddenly, one of the men gasped aloud, followed by a surprised yell. “Ho, what have we here? Damn me, old Hendloc was right all the time!”

Alarmed and confused, Aragorn made to move to the man, but Ragoth was quicker. With two wide steps he had reached the man’s side and his eyes went wide as his eyes beheld what the man had found.

Turning his head towards the rangers, he grinned widely, a grin that told Aragorn that this would not end well. Ragoth, still smiling sweetly, reached down and picked up a pack from the ground. From the first look of it Aragorn could tell that it was Cederic’s, and a hollow feeling began to spread in his stomach.

Slowly, devouring every moment, Ragoth turned the worn pack upside down. It opened easily, and to the surprise of all, a few wrinkled apples fell to the floor, rolling in every direction.

Upon seeing his precious apples, the old innkeeper gestured at them, yelling, “See! See, Ragoth, I told you so. My apples! Thieves, bloody thieves they are! I want justice down, aye, justice be done upon them!”

Aragorn did not move a muscle; he could not. Outwardly calm and his usual self, his thoughts raced through his head. This must be a mistake, a terrible misunderstanding, but one sideways glance at the young ranger beside him told him that it was not. Cederic’s face was as pale as the snow outside, his lips were trembling and he looked ready to run any moment.

Had the circumstances been any different, Aragorn would have tried to argue with the village men, would have tried to make them see reason and accept that the rangers had not stolen the apples. But as the things were, he knew that it would have been a lie. He had seen Cederic steal away the night before and he had heard him come back as silently as he had left. He had not thought about it the night before, but now he came to the realization that Cederic had been away far too long last night. Longer than it should have taken him to get a bit of fresh air.

Aragorn was pulled from his musings by a very smug looking Ragoth. The man still held the pack in hand, but he had approached the four rangers. The other men had sidled up with him, clubs and swords in hand. The air was suddenly filled with tension, and Aragorn could more sense than see Brugion and Haemon reach for their swords.

“So,” Ragoth said in a tone that dripped with sarcasm, “do you still claim to have no idea what we are talking about? Thievery is a heavy crime, more so in these hard times. The thief shall be punished according to our laws and in the manner we think appropriate. I ask this only once, whose pack is this?”

Aragorn could feel the young ranger tremble beside him. This was a situation they had not anticipated, and he could tell that a single wrong word could cause the situation to turn even worse.

Not even thinking about what he was doing, as he instinctively knew that it was the right thing to do, Aragorn took a step forward, and in a strong and determined voice declared, “It is my pack.”

Cederic’s eyes practically flew to his Chieftain and his mouth opened as if he wanted to say something, but a quick stare from Aragorn silenced him immediately. The two older rangers had not uttered a single word, although they too knew that it was indeed the pack of the young Cederic. Nevertheless, they would follow their Chieftain to Mordor and back, and if he decided to take the blame, then so be it.

But that Brugion and Haemon accepted their leaders choice, that did not mean that they were happy with it. Their eyes glimmered and Haemon shot an angry look in Cederic’s direction. They both still had their hands on the hilts of their swords, ready to use them should the need arise.

Not wanting to worsen their predicament, Aragorn threw them a look that made clear that he wanted them to not anger the village people further, and after some long seconds, the rangers nodded their reluctant agreement.

Satisfied that his men would not do something foolish to help him, Aragorn returned his attention to his own predicament. The moment Ragoth had spoken of punishment, Aragorn had known that the one responsible for the stolen apples would have to face a hard sentence.

It was normal in most towns that a thief was thrown out of the village and forever banned; sometimes the thief would be thrown into prison for some time before he was thrown out. But, Aragorn felt that the punishment Ragoth had in mind would not consist of a few days in the prison. He doubted that this village even had one.

No, Aragorn was quite certain that the punishment would be more severe than that. Much more severe. And the fact that Ragoth was grinning like a spider that had caught a fly, was not helping to reassure him in any way.

Watching Ragoth step up towards him, the pack still in hand, the hollow feeling in his stomach intensified. Only a few steps away from Aragorn, the tall human finally threw the pack to the ground.

“So, you confess?”

Aragorn replied without so much as a blink, his eyes locked on the other man, “Yes.”

“You have stolen the apples, tried to hide them, and lied to us all to cover your crime?”

“Yes.” His tone was neutral and showed no sign of fear.

Ragoth eyes gleamed and he sneered, “Then you accept the punishment we order?”

“Yes.”

Tbc...


Chapter 2 - The Punishment

Last Chapter:

Ragoth’s eyes gleamed and he sneered, “Then you accept the punishment we order?”

“Yes.”

°°°°Chapter 2: The Punishment°°°°

The wind was biting into his skin and he felt a shiver race down his spine. The sun was hidden by heavy grey clouds, painting the world in a milky and bleak light. No other sound floated through the small and isolated village than the sound of crunching feet on the white snow and the occasional cough of one of the humans.

After finding the stolen goods and identifying the criminal, the men ordered the rangers outside. Complying, Aragorn and his men followed the men to the middle of the village. It did not taken them long to reach the small market square, which was surrounded by shabby looking huts and houses.

A fountain, long dried and abandoned was located in the middle; ice had covered it and small icicles hung down from the structure. But the fountain was not he only thing that attracted Aragorn’s attention. The place was filled with people; men, women, and even some children could be seen.

Their faces showed curiosity and excitement, but here and there Aragorn could see fear and concern. Some others looked positively overjoyed, but Aragorn had no idea why. Nevertheless, deep inside he knew that he was to find out soon.

Having reached the middle of the market place, Ragoth turned and eyed Aragorn smugly. The other tall men who had searched their packs had followed the rangers, making sure that none of them tried to escape, or even attack them. But they should not have worried. Aragorn had no intention to leave, and he knew that his men would not leave this village without him.

But now, seeing the assembled crowd and the evil grin on Ragoth’s face, Aragorn wondered if his decision had been the right one. Absently he heard Ragoth give some orders to two broadly build men, who disappeared quickly down a side street, crunching the snow under their feet.

Brugion and Haemon had stopped behind their Chieftain, their faces clearly showing that they would let no harm befall their leader and friend. But Aragorn’s gaze was not directed at the two seasoned rangers.

Cederic was standing some feet away, his posture speaking of unease and nervousness. He had not missed the angry and disgusted look that he received from Brugion, or the strange look that Haemon gave him. Confusion and fear stood in his eyes and his hands fidgeted with the hem of his cloak.

He licked his lips and adverted his leader’s eyes; it was clear that he had no intention of revealing the fact that it had been his pack on not that of Aragorn. Hugging his cloak tighter around his shoulders and shifting his weight, the young ranger stared straight ahead, trying to ignore the looks Brugion and Haemon bestowed upon him.

Aragorn sighed inwardly. The moment Ragoth had emptied the pack, his heart had constricted in his chest and his stomach had felt as if someone had hit him. He still could not truly believe that Cederic had betrayed him thus, but he knew that it was so. Deep inside he felt that the young man was no criminal, and he even thought to know the reason for the theft.

Aragorn knew that Cederic had not stolen the apples for himself, but for his parents. The winter had been hard, the rivers frozen over. For a fisherman in bad health it meant a hard fight for survival, perhaps even a fight that could not be won. Nevertheless, a theft was a crime, and Aragorn respected the laws of Arda.

But, he did not want the young man to suffer for what he had done, not by the hands of these village people. Years of travelling the lands of Middle Earth had shown Aragorn that people, as good hearted and friendly they might be in good times, turned to be harsh and cruel in hard times. Whatever punishment the villagers had in mind, Aragorn felt that it was a punishment he did not want Cederic to endure.

And after all, he was the young ranger’s Chieftain; he had sworn to protect his men, save them from harm and shield them from pain, with his life or death. This was no different. If one of his men failed, then he had failed. Every punishment that they deserved, was one he deserved.

Suddenly, the men Ragoth had send away returned, carrying with them what looked like a leather bag and two pieces of rope slung over their shoulders. The croud opened to let them through, and the men guarding the four rangers tightened their grips on their weapons.

When the two men carrying the supplies reached Ragoth’s side, the tall man nodded at them and took the leather bag. He did not open it, but gestured at the two strong built men to step to either side of him. Both now held a piece of crude rope in hand.

Ragoth turned towards Aragorn, an evil smirk adorning his face, and the sinking feeling in his stomach returned full force. When the tall human ordered him to lay down his cloak and strip his shirt, Aragorn knew that this was not going to be pleasant.

A shiver raced down his spine involuntarily as he opened his worn leather cloak, but it was not only because of the chill air that assaulted him immediately. Whatever was hidden in the bag, it made him regret having ever entered the isolated village.

Finally, Aragorn had taken off his cloak, tunic and shirt, standing in the cold air bare-chested. Resisting the urge to wrap his arms around himself to keep him warm, he looked at Ragoth with calm eyes. Aragorn had no intention to let this man see his unease.

But he should not have worried, as the tall man had directed his attention at the bag in his hands. Looking up and seeing Aragorn standing in the cold air, without so much as shivering outwardly, his smile seemed to falter for a moment, but then he opened the leather bag and reached inside determinedly.

When his hand came out of the bag, clutching a long black object, Aragorn sighed inwardly, closing his eyes for the shortest of moments. He could hear his men shift behind him, could actually hear their suppressed gasps.

He shook his head once, and without looking behind him knew that Brugion and Haemon had understood him. He heard Haemon curse under his breath, but knew that neither he nor Brugion would attempt to stop the village men. The two older rangers knew as well as he did that they would now not be able to leave the village unscathed, should they try to flee. Such an action would result in an open fight, and although Aragorn felt that they would make it out alive, they would be forced to fight their way to freedom, thereby certainly injuring and perhaps even killing some of the inhabitants of this village. It was a risk that Aragorn was not willing to take; after all, these were innocent people and they had wronged them, not the other way round.

He took a deep breath, and his eyes locked on the object that had so far been hidden in the bag:

A worn but strong looking leather whip.

Turning the whip in his gloved hand, Ragoth’s eyes never left Aragorn. The smug smile on his face told the rangers that this man was enjoying what he was doing, and that he would make sure that his victim would not escape.

With a gesture of his hand he ordered the two men who still hold the rope in hand to seize Aragorn. Immediately, Haemon and Brugion stepped forward, hands on their swords. Their postures spoke of defiance, and for a short moment Aragorn was not sure if they would follow his silent orders and stay back.

Hesitating, the village men gazed at the rangers, and then back at Ragoth, who looked slightly annoyed. Once more gesturing at Aragorn, Ragoth tightened his grip on the whip.

The same moment the two village men stepped forward, Brugion and Haemon did the same, effectively blocking their Chieftain from the men. Sensing the tension and fear of the villagers, Aragorn stepped forward as well and placed a hand on Haemon’s shoulder.

Meeting his Chieftain’s gaze, the ranger shook his head, not willing his Chieftain to sacrifice himself to this cruel sentence, “Strider, you cannot….” But Aragorn interrupted him, “I can, and I will. This is my decision.”

Sending a quick look to Brugion, he continued in a whisper, such that the other men would not overhear what he had to say, “Please, my friends. Do not make this more difficult than it already is. Do nothing foolish. They will not let us leave without the punishment being performed. My decision stands, so do not try to convince me otherwise. And whatever happens, make sure to keep and eye on Cederic.”

With that said, Aragorn turned away from his men, and without another word stepped up to Ragoth and the two strongly build men. Grumbling under their breaths, Haemon and Brugion stood where they were, watching the scene unfold before their eyes, while Cederic seemed to be rooted to the spot some feet away.

Convinced that Aragorn would neither flee nor fight them, the men wound the rope around his wrists, one standing at each side of him. As Ragoth gave them a signal, they stepped back, forcing Aragorn’s arms to spread to the side, so that he more resembled a bird that had spread its wings than anything else.

As if the two villagers were still fearing that the ranger would try to escape his punishment, they pulled the rope so taught that Aragorn could feel his muscles bend and stretch, making his arms hurt even more than they already did due to the cold and frosty winter air.

Suppressing a groan as one of the men gave the rope a harsh tug, Aragorn locked eyes with Ragoth. The man had watched the scene wordlessly, but now he stepped up so close to Aragorn that the ranger could have touched him, had his arms not been bound.

Sneering, the head of the village said, his voice so low that only Aragorn could hear him, “Oh, this is going to be a pleasure, ranger. This will teach you not to steal from others.”

And with that said, he turned and moved to stand behind the bound ranger. Lifting his head, Ragoth spoke in a loud and clear voice, so that the assembled crowd could hear him, “Hear what I have to say! This man is accused of stealing. He confessed his crime and accepts his punishment. His crime is a heavy one, and his attempt at lying to hide it from us adds to his sentence. Hear me now, his punishment, in consistency with our laws, will consist of fifteen strokes with the whip. And it shall be executed here and now, with you all as witnesses.”

Having finished his formal speech, Ragoth took a step back and shook out the long whip. The leather fell on the snow, and Aragorn had the feeling of a simulations gasp that rushed through the crowd. Complete stillness settled over the market place, like the calm before a storm.

Closing his eyes in anticipation of what was to come, Aragorn mused that it could have been worse; not much worse, but worse after all. Fifteen strokes was a hard punishment, as the small amount of twenty-five strokes could kill a man, but it was nothing that he could not endure.

He heard the whooshing sound as the whip rushed through the air, and when it connected with his bare back a moment later, all thoughts were driven from his mind. Never before had he felt a whip hurt so much; it almost felt as if the leather had cut the half of his back, and he could feel his warm blood trickle down his back.

Absently he heard Ragoth loud voice, shouting, “One!”. The crowd was silent, holding its collective breath. Then the whip connected once more with his back, and he jerked involuntarily, his arms pulling at the ropes that held him. Nevertheless, he stood straight and tall, no sound escaping his tightly closed lips.

And as Ragoth shouted “Two!” and brought the whip down once more a moment later, he was glad that he had taken the punishment upon himself. Cederic, he knew, would not have been able to live through this cruel punishment without screaming, therewith disgracing himself.

“Three!”, “Four!”, “Fife!”, “Six!”, “Seven!”, “Eight!”, “Nine!”, “Ten!”, “Eleven!”, “Twelve!”.

Aragorn could feel his body trembling, the strain on the ropes that held him was so strong that he feared his arms would be pulled out of their sockets. Cold sweat stood on his brow, and had he been able to see himself we would have noticed that his face was of a sickly grey colour. Tasting his own blood as he had bitten on his cheek to keep from screaming, Aragorn felt another shiver race down his spine.

He did not notice the crowd jerk with every new stroke, did not hear the curses that Brugion was muttering, or feel his blood run down his back and drip onto the white snow, turning it crimson. His ears had turned deaf, as had most of his other senses. The only thing he felt was the pain radiating of his back, and the only thing he heard were the exited yells of Ragoth, who seemed to hit him harder with each stroke.

Another white hot pain shot through his back, making him gasp involuntarily; he heard Ragoth scream, “Thirteen!”, and suddenly he felt his knees turn weak. He slumped forwards slightly, and had the ropes not been holding his arms high up into the air, he would have given in the urge and plunged to the ground. Valar, it hurt.

Taking a deep breath, he was nearly not able to stifle his scream as the leather connect again with his already bleeding back. Clenching his teeth and hearing Ragoth yell, “Fourteen!”, Aragorn ignored the trembling of his body and focused instead on one thought: Only one more stroke, and then it would be all over.

When the stroke came, it fell harder than any stroke had done before, and Aragorn jerked heavily in his bonds, feeling the rope cut into his wrists, breaking the skin and drawing blood. But to his utter relief, he had not screamed; he knew that his men would have understood, but he was their leader, after all, and such a behaviour would have disgraced himself.

“Fifteen!”

He was not sure if he had truly heard it, but he meant to have heard some disappointment swing in Ragoth tone. But Aragorn did not feel triumphant, merely in pain. He had long moved past the point to feel the biting cold on his skin, and for a fleeting moment he wondered whether the cold had numbed his back strong enough to lessen the agony of the welts that now decorated it.

His breath came in short gasps, and now that the punishment was over his ears started working again, and he could hear Ragoth order the two men who stood at this sides to release him. The rope was loosened and instantly his arms fell to his sides, the muscles cramping upon being released from the strain.

He swayed slightly, his eyes still closed, and just as he felt himself finally tumble to the ground, a strong hand was placed on his shoulder and another around his waist, stabilizing him and supporting him.

Haemon’s voice whispered into his ear, “I have you, Strider.” He nodded, and upon opening his eyes he saw Brugion shove one of the two rope holding villagers out of the way, his face showing his anger and the repulsion he felt towards the men.

Gripping the rope, Brugion removed it from Aragorn’s wrists as gently as he could, but the damage was already done. Blood trickled down his wrists and onto the snow, but Aragorn did not feel it, as the pain in his back overrode all other feelings.

Haemon removed his hand from around Aragorn’s waist, but still steadied him without being too obvious, and turned and looked behind him. When his eyes lit upon Cederic, he said, “Cederic, bring Strider’s tunic and cloak. Now.”

The young man hesitated shortly, but then he hurried to the discarded shirt, tunic and cloak and held them out to the older ranger. Taking the clothing, Haemon made as if to help Aragorn into his tunic, but Aragorn was quicker.

Shaking his head minutely, he turned and took his tunic from the ranger, and with a resolute movement pulled it over his head. The cloak followed swiftly, although it took Aragorn’s slightly trembling fingers longer than usual to close it.

Had the circumstances been any different, he would not have pulled on his clothing without the wounds being tended, but he had no desire to stay in this village any longer than absolutely necessary. Furthermore he had the distinct feeling that the villagers would not let them tend his wounds here.

Nodding at Brugion and Haemon and thanking them silently for their support, Aragorn turned towards Ragoth, his eyes as cold as a winter storm. He forced his wobbling legs to carry his weight and suppressed the pain that engulfed his whole being and wanted to be released in a loud scream.

Ragoth met his gaze unflinchingly, the leather whip still in hand. Only now did Aragorn notice the red sparkles on the otherwise white snow cover.

Aragorn nodded, and then told Ragoth, “The sentence has been carried out. Now we are free to leave.” It was a statement, no question.

The other man ground his teeth, and then brought out, “And make sure not to come back.”

Wordlessly, Brugion and Haemon took up their and their Chieftain’s pack. Silently asking Aragorn with his eyes whether he wished any help and seeing his offer rejected, Haemon nodded, but stayed at his Chieftain’s side nevertheless. Brugion stared at the crowd before them, and then he strode forwards, determined to leave this village as far behind them as possible.

Seeing Cederic hesitate, Aragorn gave him a stern look, then turned his back on the young ranger, and with Haemon at his side, he made his way slowly out of the village. Not once did he look back, he knew that Cederic would follow them.

But, before they left the isolated village that had brought him so much pain, Aragorn knew that there was one thing which had to be done. When his eyes found the one he was looking for, Aragorn changed his direction slightly and stopped right before the old innkeeper.

Hendloc’s cheeks were red and his eyes gleaming. Obviously, the old man had enjoyed the spectacle.

Locking eyes with the villager, Aragorn inclined his head and told him, “Master Hendloc, I am sorry for the trouble I caused you. It has never been my intention to exploit your hospitality.”

Gazing at the ranger who stood before him, Hendloc spat on the ground, right before Aragorn’s feet. Sighing inwardly, Aragorn turned, and walked out of the village, his back straight despite the pain and his gaze directed onto the wide and open snowy plains before him. He did not even look back when he heard the huge wooden gate close behind him and his men.

Tbc...


Chapter 3 - The lesson learned

°°°°Chapter 3: The Lesson Learned°°°°

Night had settled over the Trollshaws, but the rangers had stopped for the day only a few hours after leaving the village and set up camp. Aragorn had been in too much pain to walk further, although he had denied his weariness; Brugion and Haemon had been adamant that they stop and tend to his wounds. They had found a shallow depression, surrounded by huge trees and evergreen that would protect them from the cold wind and from peering eyes, be they human or animal.

Feeling relatively safe in the depression, they lit a small but warming fire, gathering around it to feel the heat of the flames on their skin. After melting and boiling some of the snow that covered every bush and tree, Haemon cleaned the bloody welts on his Chieftain’s back. Although he tried to be as gentle as possible, the wounds started to bleed afresh, the awoken pain causing Aragorn to lower his head and clench his teeth.

As the villagers had emptied their packs in the stable and the rangers had not been able to repack them properly, most of their gear and food had been lost; but what caused Aragorn more concern was the loss of his healing supplies. The road to Imladris was dangerous and he still had many leagues to cover before he would arrive. But it could not be helped now, and therefore he asked Haemon to just bandage his wounds as they were.

Aragorn sat down near the fire, his bandaged upper body resting against a fallen log. He had debated whether to lean his sore back against it, but he was in pain this way or the other, and after a few moments he decided that resting his exhausted body was what he needed right now.

Their food had been left behind with the healing herbs in the stable, leaving them hungry. Brugion had gone into the forest to try his luck with his bow, but Aragorn doubted that he would catch something. The day was cold; most animals hid in their nests and waited out the cold season.

Aragorn sighed and closed his tired eyes for a moment. He was exhausted, hungry and in pain, but most of all, he felt a deep emptiness well inside of him. Over and over he had asked himself why Cederic had stolen the food, why the young man had betrayed him. He had found no satisfying answer, and although he meant to know why Cederic had stolen the food, he also knew that he would find no peace until he had spoken with the man.

Therefore, he opened his eyes again and scanned the campsite. Neither Haemon nor Brugion had spoken a word with Cederic after they had left the village, and Aragorn could not even hold it against them. Cederic was their companion and friend. Rangers were wandering folk, their fellow rangers more often than not the only family that they had left. Trust was fundamental. If a ranger could not trust his companion, than he could trust no one. What Cederic had done, had shaken the fundaments on which the rangers build their lives.

It was a sin that could never be forgotten, and seldom be forgiven.

When his searching eyes lit on the small figure that sat huddled near the edge of the camp, Aragorn sighed again. He should have spoken with Cederic much earlier. As he made to get to his feet, his hand supporting his weight against the log in his back, Haemon stood to his feet quickly, wanting to help his Chieftain in every way he could. Accepting the offered hand, Aragorn smiled and made it to his feet. He was proud, but he was no fool, and his aching back told him in clear terms what it thought about moving.

Sensing his friend’s mood, understanding dawned in the older ranger’s eyes, and he nodded. He knew that Aragorn wanted to talk to Cederic, and although the felt that the young ranger deserved the punishment he put himself through, Haemon felt it was time for Cederic to understand all the consequences of his actions. And furthermore, to speak to his Chieftain.

Aragorn saw Haemon settle back down near the fire, and so he slowly made his way over to the young ranger. Cederic sat in the cold snow, far away from the warmth spending fire and the light it provided. He had wrapped his cloak around him tightly, but even from the distance Aragorn could see the man shiver and tremble slightly.

When he was just a few yards away, the snow crunching under his feet, Cederic suddenly lifted his head, and his eyes bored into those of his Chieftain. Grey eyes met green ones, and in this split second Aragorn could read all he needed to know in Cederic’s eyes. Then, the young ranger averted his gaze and looked to the ground.

Stopping right before the young man, Aragorn slowly eased himself to the ground, feeling the cold snow under him. For long moments neither of them said a word, but then, Aragorn said softly, “Why?”

His voice did not sound angered or upset, rather it was neutral and held a slight tinge of sadness. Cederic swallowed thickly before he answered his captain. Brokenly he brought out, “I did it not for me. They were meant for my parents.”

Nodding as Cederic affirmed his guess, Aragorn continued, “How did you know the old man possessed such a treasure?”

“I saw them when we arrived. He forgot to properly close the kitchen door.”

“Was that the only reason you got up during the night?”

Aragorn saw the surprised expression on Cederic’s face. Obviously the man had not thought that someone had seen him. Cederic only nodded.

“I see.” Aragorn said nothing more for some time. He stared at the landscape around him, trying to ignore the pain in his back, the hollow feeling in his stomach and the coldness of the day. When a soft whisper reached his ears, he had to strain his ears to understand what Cederic was saying.

“Why did you apologize to the old man, after all that they did to you, Sir?”

“We wronged him, he deserved nothing less.”

Cederic seemed to ponder this for a moment, before he asked another question, his voice quivering slightly, “Why did you do this for me, why did you lie for me, Sir?”

There would have many things to answer the young ranger. Aragorn could have said that he doubted that Cederic would have lived through the ordeal. That he wanted to protect him from pain and suffering. That he understood the man’s motives, although he could not accept them. But Aragorn said nothing of these things. Instead, he waited until Cedric met his gaze, before he answered, “Because you deserved nothing less.”

As Aragorn had anticipated, confusion entered the other’s eyes, and so he added, his tone gentle, but firm.

“I am your Chieftain, and I am responsible for your well being. We are a group, we protect each other, care for each other, be there for each other. If one of us stumbles, the others help him to his feet. If one of us despairs, we give him hope. If one of us does something wrong, we right it for him. And if one of us fails, I have failed. Because it was my duty to keep him from failing. You deserved nothing less, than to have me take the blame, as it was mine to take.”

Cederic stared at his Chieftain, eyes wide and showing the denial of what he had just heard. “But Sir, it was me, and me alone who stole the apples. You should not have taken the blame.”

Aragorn had to suppress a smile at the young man’s outspokenness. Only moments before, Cederic had been too afraid to look him in the eye, and now the man was arguing with him, defending his own point of view.

Tilting his head to the side slightly, Aragorn answered, “You would had me step aside so that those people could have punished you?”

Aragorn could see Cederic pale. Slowly, the man shook his head and whispered, “No.”

Shifting his weight slightly and grimacing at the pain that shot through his back, Aragorn continued, “Cederic, what do you think these villagers will do to the next rangers that they meet?”

“Turn them away.”

Aragorn nodded, “Aye. They will turn them away. No single ranger, no matter how dire his need and how dangerous his situation, will ever again find shelter or help in this village. And the people there have family and friends in other villages. Word will spread that the rangers cannot be trusted. It is from things such as these that most people think that rangers are dangerous folk. That they are murderous, liars and thieves.”

For long moments neither said anything, letting the words sink in. When the quietness began to become uncomfortable, Cederic asked tentatively, “Are you angry, Sir?”

To his own surprise, Aragorn smiled slightly, “No, I am not angry. It was not the first flogging I received, and it was surely not the last.” When his smile turned into a sad sigh, he eyed Cederic closely, wanting the young man to understand his next words.

“I am not angry, Cederic, but I am disappointed. Why have you not asked us -me- for help? Do you not trust me?”

Aragorn could see the man struggle for words, and eventually he averted his gaze before he spoke, “I never meant to disappoint you, Sir. I will leave with first light.”

“Leave? Then all of this, all what I did today, was in vain.”

“Sir?”

“Cederic, tell me, what have you learned today?”

Not knowing what his Chieftain was talking about, Cederic thought for a moment before he spoke, “I have learned that I can trust you. That you are always there for your men when they need you. I have learned that my actions can bring severe consequences with them, and that I should not think only of myself, but of the other rangers as well. I have learned that we are there for one another when we need to be, and that, should one fall, the others lift him up again. I have learned that… that the other rangers are my family as well. Or rather, have been my family.”

Cederic swallowed again, and then went still. His head was bent, and his entire posture spoke of defeat and resignation. It was clear to Aragorn that the young man had meant every word that he had spoken, and that he anticipated to be banned from the rangers.

Placing a comforting hand on Cederic’s shoulder, Aragorn told him, his tone sincere, “You have learned your lesson, and you will never forget this day, of that I am sure. So, why do you want to throw all this away, where you have just moved one step further on your way to become a well respected and honoured Ranger of the North?”

Aragorn could feel the young man tremble under his touch, and he was certain that it was not due to the cold. Cederic looked up into the face of his Chieftain, of the man who had sacrificed himself for him, and his voice was thick of emotions as he asked, “I am not going to be banished from the rangers?”

Smiling slightly, Aragorn shook his head, “No.”

But the young ranger was not at peace yet, as another question was burning on his tongue, but he did not dare to ask. Seeing Cederic’s predicament, Aragorn encouraged him, “Just say what you want to say. I will listen.”

Big eyes locked with Aragorn’s own, “Sir, I…I am sorry.”

°°°°

The next morning dawned misty and cold. It had begun to snow during the night, and even now little white snow flakes floated to the earth, adding to the pure whiteness that already covered the lands.

As Aragorn had predicted, Brugion had not been able to catch some game the last night, but he had found some winter berries and beechnuts, so that they had not been forced to sleep hungry. In the morning light, Aragorn had spotted some well tasting herbs not too far from their resting place, and made a strong tea from them for them all.

They had not spoken much, Brugion and Haemon had not felt the need to talk, Cederic was still somewhat ashamed of what he had done, and Aragorn knew that it would take time until he would be able to come to terms with his actions. But the first step had been done the last day, and Aragorn was sure that Cederic would prove worthy of the trust that he put in him.

As for Aragorn himself, he was much too tired to talk. He had not been able to sleep long in the night, despite his exhaustion. Every time he had moved, his back had send tendrils of pain through his whole body, and his pain in combination with the coldness of the wind and the snow had kept him awake.

The walking did not helped his wounds either; his back hurt with every step he took and he felt his legs grow cold and hurt as well. Despite Brugion’s protest, he had taken his pack from the ranger to carry it himself. He knew that he would have to do it sooner or later, so why not get used to the weight on his sore back now?

The sun stood high in the sky, veiled by deep hanging grey clouds, as they reached the East-West road, and the Ford that would provide a safe passage for Aragorn to cross the Bruinen. It was the point where they would part ways.

Brugion, Haemon and Cederic would head South, while Aragorn would cross the river and head East towards Imladris and his waiting family.

The Bruinen was not covered by ice, despite its shallowness. The magic of the elves kept him free of ice, and Aragorn was grateful that he would not have to cross the slippery icy surface. He could manage to wade through the icy water, he had done it numerous times before, but a fall onto hard ice would not have been good for his hurting back.

Stopping on the riverbank, Aragorn turned towards his men.

“It is time to part ways. May the Valar watch your path and guide you home safely, my friends.”

Haemon and Brugion bid him a safe journey as well, before they stepped to the side to give Aragorn and Cederic some privacy. The night before, when the young ranger had fallen into a deep sleep, Aragorn had talked to the two older rangers. They had understood his decision, and respected his choice to not banish Cederic. And Aragorn had made sure that the two would protect the young man until he was home. He was sure that the two would not treat Cederic too harshly. After all, the young man had seen his mistake and apologized.

Now, as Aragorn stepped up to Cederic, he wondered what he could say to him, but to his surprise, the young ranger spoke first, “Sir, I want to thank you. And I promise, when we next meet, I will not disappoint you again.”

“I know you will not.” Placing a hand on Cederic’s shoulder, Aragorn reached with his free hand inside his pocket and sighed deeply. “I wish I could give you more, but that is all I have.”

And with that he placed some coins into Cederic’s hand, closing the man’s fingers around them. What the young ranger held in hand was more than his father earned in half a year.

Gaping at the money in his hand, Cederic slowly shook his head. “But Sir,…”

Squeezing Cederic’s shoulder, Aragorn said sadly, “I know one cannot buy what does not exist. In these hard times food is rare. But maybe it will serve you nevertheless. Take it, and do something useful with it. May you have a safe journey, Cederic. Until me meet again.”

Releasing his hold on the man, Aragorn straightened as much as his burning back allowed, and strode towards the water. When he had already done some steps into the icy water, he heard Cederic all after him, “I will do that, Sir. Thank you. Be safe, Sir!”

Smiling at the young ranger, and knowing deep inside that his decision had been the right one, Aragorn turned and made his way to the other side of the river. When he reached the riverbank and looked back, the other rangers had disappeared from his sight.

Aragorn took a deep breath and released it slowly. The last weeks had been hard, and the previous day exhausting and painful. But despite his fiercely aching back, and the hunger that stirred in his stomach, his heart was light.

Turning and entering the forest that surrounded Imladris, Aragorn felt the heaviness that had claimed his body lift, and his spirit felt at ease. Soon he would be home, with his brothers and father, a soft bed and a warm fire to chase away the coldness.

But what lifted his heart the most, was the certainty that he had done the right thing. Deep inside he felt, that one day, Cederic would become one of the most trusted and valued rangers of the North, a man that held the respect of his comrades and who gave them back more than he took for himself.

Because Cederic had learned what many never had the chance to learn. Everyone made mistakes, but only the ones who learned from them, was the ones who would never make the same mistake twice.

But what was more important, was that Cederic had learned that he was not alone, and that his friends would always be there for him, no matter what. Only the brave stood up to his mistakes, supported by his friends, not scorned.

And Aragorn knew that the rangers would need to stand side by side, united and strong, as friends, not only comrades, to be able to fight the encroaching darkness.

And united they would be, as even today, they had made one step in the right direction.

The End.
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Printed from Open Scrolls Archive (http://www.openscrolls.net) on Tue Dec 11, 2018 10:38 pm