Warning: Part three of the "White Lie" trilogy. I strongly advise to read "Broken Trust" before reading this story. But if you are bold and daring, you can jump into the deep water and give it a try on its own. Small reference to part one of the series, "Borderline". (1. Borderline; 2. Broken Trust; 3. Blame )
Disclaimer: Alas, I do own nothing in connection with The Lord of the Rings. I make no money with this story.
Summary: After his taxing experience in a small town in the wilderness with his rangers, Aragorn finally reaches Imladris, but the peace and quiet he so yearns for lies beyond his reach, as his brothers Elladan and Elrohir reveal the secret he tried to hide. And things turn even worse, when their trust in him begins to crumple, and Aragorn has to face not only his own uncertainties, but that of his family as well.
Gwanur: Brother (by blood) (I take it the twins call Aragorn gwanur and not gwador; he is family, after all)
Gwanur nin: my brother
°°°°° Chapter 1: False appearances
The chirping of a bird reached his ears as Aragorn made his way over the cobblestone courtyard that would lead him to the huge double doors of the Last Homely House. The place was covered in fresh snow, and not even his keen eyes could detect any footprints or signs that would indicate that someone had been out already, on this sunny morning. The air was cold despite the sun, but Aragorn did not care about it overly much. He was home, finally.
The trip to Imladris had taken him longer than he had planned, but, he mused, he could be glad to have reached his destination at all. With every day the welts and cuts on his back had ached fiercer, and more than once he had been forced to rest his tired and aching body. Under normal circumstances, the fifteen whiplashes that adorned his back would not have bothered him such, but he travelled alone and without any healing supplies or enough food. Not for the first time since he had parted company with his rangers at the Bruinen, Aragorn cursed the village men who were responsible for his pain. Nevertheless, the stronger part of him did not blame them, but only his own folly. It had been one of his rangers who had stolen the apples, after all.
Sighing and trying to shift his pack on his back in such a manner that it would ease the pain and failing miserably, Aragorn ascended the broad stairs that led to the wooden doors of the Last Homely House. He took another deep breath, and then knocked. A strange thing to do, considering that it was his home, but he wanted to surprise his family and see their faces when they opened the door. They knew that he was bound to come home, but nevertheless…
While he waited, Aragorn once more thought about his current situation. The punishment he had received in the small village had left his back on fire, and the welts and bleeding cuts were probably infected, although he had no fever. Every movement he made hurt his back and he wanted nothing more than to stop the fiery pain. But still, he did not wish his family to know he was hurt – again.
Aragorn knew that they would be worried enough because of the thinness of his body and his tiredness, not to mention the bad state his clothing was in. The winter had been hard, and there had simply not been enough food to eat, or time, strength and will to care for more than surviving. No, he thought, his outward appearance was enough to send his brothers into mother hen modus. There was no telling what they would do, should they learn of the welts on his back.
But that was not all, and Aragorn knew it. Should he tell his family of his injuries, they would want to know how he came about them. And what should he tell them then? That one of his men, a mere boy, had stolen food from an old innkeeper, because Aragorn had not been able to supply his rangers with enough food? Should he tell them that he, as Chieftain, had taken the punishment upon himself to spare the boy, and that he still felt that it was –somehow- his fault the boy had stolen the goods? Should he tell them that he had failed as Chieftain in his duty to lead his men? That the boy had not trusted him enough to consult him, to speak to him about his problems? No, he could not tell them all that.
He was home, a place that he associated with peace and happy laughter, with embarrassing tales and voices lifted in song. And as the door creaked open and he beheld the surprised face of his brother Elrohir, his decision stood strong. He would enjoy his stay at home, relax and replenish his strength in the company of those he loved. There was no need to disturb his family's happiness that he was finally home with the sight of the bloody welts that scarred his back, was there?
"Estel!" The next moment the surprised face showed a happy smile and Aragorn found himself engulfed in the strong arms of his brother, who lifted him from the ground and spun him around like a four year old.
Agony shot up his back and took his breath, and for a moment Aragorn feared that his brother would notice. But Elrohir was still laughing in simple joy, and when he returned Aragorn to the firm ground, the ranger had steeled his featured into a mask of painlessness.
Laughing with his brother, Aragorn commented, "Had I known that I get a free ride upon my arrival, I would have come sooner, Ro!" referring to the fact that as a child, his foster brothers had often 'given him a ride'. They had lifted him from the ground and whirled him through the air until he they had all collapsed in helpless laughter, too dizzy to keep standing.
"It is good to see you, little brother. But where have you been so long? We've been waiting for more than a week now. Were you not known for your tardiness, we would have started worrying."
Just as Aragorn was about to answer, he heard a familiar whoop of joy coming from behind him. Turning, he found himself hugged by his other brother. Elladan wound his long arms around his upper body and pressed him to his chest, patting his back for good measure.
"Estel, you little sloth, finally you have come. It was way too still here without you!"
Grimacing at the pain that erupted in his back, but biting back the scream of pain that wanted to escape his lips, Aragorn returned his brother's hug and then gently drew back from the crushing embrace.
"And it is good to see you too, Dan. Still as outspoken as ever, I see."
Laughing, Elrohir slung an arm around Aragorn's shoulders and steered him into the house. "Yes, and do you know what Estel? Dan has managed to insult Erestor! Can you believe that? And not only that he insulted Erestor, he did it in front of a delegation of Lothlorien Elves!"
Elladan shot a death glare at Elrohir, closed the door loud enough to wake the trolls in the Misty Mountains, and then hissed agitatedly, "I did not insult Erestor. It was merely a misunderstanding!"
"Sure, Dan. Of course it was. How many weeks of stable duty do you still have?"
The look that Elladan gave his brother was enough to make Aragorn laugh, and as they made their way up the stairs to the study of Lord Elrond, he almost forgot about the painful welts on his back. Indeed, it was good to be home.
Without bothering to knock, Elrohir swung open the door to his father's study and actually pushed Aragorn into the room, grinning from ear to ear. "Ada, look what the weather dragged in!"
When the Lord of Imladris looked up from his letter, his face brightened and he exclaimed warmly, "Estel. It is good to see you my son, it has been too long." Elrond stood to his feet, made it to his human son's side and embraced him in a fatherly hug.
Again, Aragorn winced as the welts on his back that only just started to heal were again strained, but he was so glad to be home and happy to see his family, that he held his father close and smiled in genuine happiness.
Then, Elrond drew back and held his son at arms length, scanning his appearance from head to foot. And Aragorn could tell that what he saw did not appeal to him. His father arched one of his delicate eyebrows and tilted his head to the side. For a moment Aragorn feared that his father had somehow found out that he was in pain, but the softly spoken words relieved him of that worry.
"I see the winter has been hard for the rangers. You are way too thin, ion nin, you are more bones than flesh. But we will change that as long as you are here. I deem it you are tired and exhausted from your journey, you look nearly frozen, Estel. Your room has been prepared for you. And after you have rested and eaten, there is still enough time to bicker with your brothers." Elrond gave a wink at him, and only then did Aragorn notice that Elladan and Elrohir were snickering behind his back.
Turning and giving them a sharp look, the two stopped giggling instantly, and put on their most innocent faces. By the age of six Aragorn had known to never trust one of the twins when he wore that particular innocent face. He could tell by the tips of their noses that they had planned something for him.
Placing a hand on Aragorn's shoulder, Elrond wagged his finger at the twins, "You let him get some sleep and a decent meal before you start pestering him. Understand?"
Elladan grinned only wider and Elrohir nodded his head so vigorously that one of his braids loosened and dark hair fell into his face. Aragorn heard his father sigh, and then mutter under his breath about immature elflings, before he gave Aragorn another smile and then returned to his desk.
While Aragorn emptied his travelling pack and stored his few belongings in the cupboard in his room, he could not help but smile at the twins' antics. They had, of course, pestered him the moment he had closed his father's study door, and bombarded him with so many questions about his time with the rangers and the world outside the gates of Imladris, that he had not been able to answer all of them.
The twins had then left him to refresh after his journey, their faces beaming with joy about the fact that their little brother had finally found his way home after the many months of his absence. And indeed, it had been long, Aragorn mused as he poured some water into a washbasin that stood on his nightstand. The last time he had been home had been in spring the last year, so almost a whole year had passed sine he had seen his family. Not a long time considering his years in Rohan and Gondor, but long enough for all of them to miss each other.
Aragorn sat down on his bed and began to pull off his wet boots, struggling with the leather strings that were swollen due to the melting snow, but finally able to pull them off his frozen feet. His tunic and wet leggings followed swiftly, and when he pulled on clean leggings, Aragorn already felt his cold body begin to warm. Of course, the blazing fire in the hearth of his room helped the matter of warming his frozen body as well.
Turning, he took the small pot from the fire and felt the temperature of the water with his fingers. It was warm, but not hot, the perfect temperature for cleaning wounds. Placing the pot on his nightstand near the washbasin, Aragorn slowly shrugged out of his under tunic. He could feel the tightness of the bandages around his chest, but that did not help against the pain that flared to new life in his back when he moved his arms or rolled his shoulders.
When the shirt finally landed on the floor, Aragorn sighed with relief. Never had he thought that the little task of removing his shirt would hurt that much, and the even more taxing task lay still ahead. With gentle but weary fingers, he loosened the bandage around his chest, and slowly but steadily unwound the cloths. In dismay he saw that parts of the bandage were coloured in brown and a deep red; the welts had bled through the bandage and some had been reopened when his family had embraced him.
Aragorn did not hold them accountable for that, it was his fault, because he had not told them. He winced as he removed the last layer of cloths from his back, it had stuck to the skin and more likely than not he had reopened a welt when he had taken off the bandage. But it could not be helped now, and so Aragorn threw the soiled bandage into the burning flames and turned back to his nightstand.
He lifted his head, and when he saw his reflection in the mirror that hung above the nightstand, he sighed deeply. His face was pale, almost white, his cheeks sunken and his eyes dulled. Dark circles framed his eyes and his hair was such a mess that he asked himself for a moment how he was ever supposed to clean and comb it.
The man that stared back at him from the mirror looked thin and ill, not at all the strong ranger that he usually was. Aragorn closed his eyes for a moment; he did not even want to think about what his family had thought when they had seen him. Probably that he was half dead on his feet. Although, Aragorn thought bitterly, it was not that far from the truth, judging by the horrible pain that crawled on clawed paws across his back.
Sighing, Aragorn opened his eyes, took up a washcloth from the nightstand and dipped it into the pot with the warm water. He did not know when his brothers would be back to pester him, and he knew that he had better get started with cleaning and bandaging his aching back.
Aragorn turned so that he could get a look at his back in the mirror, and gasped. What he saw was not what he had expected, and in shock he lightly touched one of the welts that cut his shoulder. Eyes wide, he stared at his complexion in the mirror, disbelief written across his features. In his life he had seen and endured more than one beating, but never before had he seen something like this.
The welts on his back were some days old by now; the edges of some had already began to heal, but most of them still looked fresh and ugly. Some were red and inflamed, dried blood crusting the edges of the cuts. Purple and blue bruises marred his flesh, and here and there he could see that the whip had cut so deep that the flesh needed stitching.
But that was not what had shocked him. No, what had shocked him was the cruel precision with which the welts had been created on his back. They were not criss-crossing his back like he had thought they would, overlapping and meeting each other. No, there were fifteen cuts on his back, one next to the other, creating a neat pattern of welts, from shoulder to shoulder. With sudden insight Aragorn thought that the man who had wielded the lash with such an accuracy, had not done that for the first time; and his punishment could have been much worse.
Nevertheless, should someone see this cuts, they would know that it had not been a beating in rage or hate, but that it had been a calculated flogging, with a steady hand and a strong purpose behind it.
Shaking his head slightly and forcibly averting his eyes from his reflection in the mirror, Aragorn began to clean the welts on his shoulders and lower back, leaving the cuts on his upper back untouched; it hurt too much to move his arms to reach them. The water in the small pot turned red, and when it was the shade of wild cherries, Aragorn finally let the washcloth rest in the pot.
With fingers trembling from pain and exhaustion, he wrapped his chest in clean bandages. The herbs that had steeped in the water should numb the pain soon, and at the same time fight any infection and fever.
Aragorn waited with closed eyes and ragged breathing until the fiery pain subsided somewhat and his wildly beating heart choose to follow a slower rhythm, before he made his way over to his closet and donned a loose fitting tunic that would conceal the bandages and not chafe his wounds too much.
Cleaning all signs that he had treated more than some blisters from his nightstand, he cleaned his face and hair the best he could. His brothers had not returned yet, but he had no doubt that they would sooner or later come and drag him into some mischief. He could as well seek them out and get it over with, he thought. And after that, he would return to his room and finally rest his tired body; the bed had been so soft and inviting when he had sat on it!
Before Aragorn left his room, he glanced in the mirror once more to make sure that the white bandages were hidden under the tunic. The man that now stared back at him was even paler, the skin nearly as white as the snow outside, the lips pale and the eyes a dull grey. But, Aragorn mused sarcastically, at least I am clean now.
He took a deep breath, turned and left his room to find his brothers. While he made his way down the stairs that led to the entrance hall, he noticed with relief that the pain in his back slowly numbed as the herbs took effect. His slumped shoulders straightened, his step became stronger and the lines of pain and weariness vanished from his features.
And when he stepped into the Hall of Fire and found his brothers bend over a game of chess, there was no trace left of any pain or uneasiness on his features or in his appearance.
This is chapter one. What do you think?