Title: Broken Trust
Warning: Second Part of the "White Lie" trilogy, but it can stand alone. No reference to part one of the trilogy, only the same topic.
Disclaimer: Same procedure as last year, I fear. I do not own them and never will. I make no money with this story either.
Summary: 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.
°°°°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?"
Sooo, what do you think? Good? Bad? What the Valar is that? Let me kno-ow!