A/N: Here it is, the last chapter. I hope you like it. Many thanks for all the reviews, they encourage me to write more.:o) Soooo therefore, the story continues. Part three of the 'White Lie' triology is called "Blame"
°°°°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."
"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.
Yes, this is the end of this story, but the triology continues! Soon.Love to hear what you all think! )