Disclaimer: All recognizable characters and names belong to J.R.R. Tolkien. I make no money on this.
A/N: Written for May Teitho Challenge "Crime and Punishment"
Beta: Calenlass Greenleaf
I close my eyes and I see your face
If home's where my heart is then I'm out of place
Lord, won't you give me strength to make it through somehow
I've never been more homesick than now
~ "Homesick", by Mercyme
I sit beside the dying fire alone, the embers at my feet still glowing, though the fieriness has long ago died away.
Something troubles the Chieftain, I can easily tell. I do not think I can explain it at all – he just seems different than only a week ago. He doesn't appear injured, not in body at least, for his steps are light and soundless as usual, his responses always fast, his arms strong and his pace swift. But something is wrong, I can see it. There is a new spark in his keen eyes, some kind of wistfulness and longing if I were to describe it; even though he is always merry and confident among us.
I turn my head, looking towards the other side of the camp. There, I can clearly see his silhouette, lit by the starlight rather than by the remains of our fire. I cannot see whether his eyes are closed, but his steady breathing pattern ensures me that he is asleep. May it be his release from whatever plagues his mind.
He is weary. Oh, how I wish I could help him! But he only ignores my remarks about his fatigue, avoids me when he thinks I may bring it up. I will give him no aid if he allows none. Does he believe I cannot see through his constrained smiles and forced interest in the discussions?
Physically he is with us, but his heart is far away, wishing to abandon the company of the Rangers and follow its own desire. I do not blame him, though. I could not.
He is still young, although the last two years spent in the Wilds have had their effect on him. He has learned quickly and slipped into the role of the Chieftain easily, it seems. Arathorn would be so proud of him… He resembles his father a lot, in many ways. He is a skilled warrior, maybe even more so than Gilraen's husband. He uses his sword as if it were a part of his body – and a part of his soul. He is an astounding tracker – even the most elusive creatures should fear his abilities, for they would not elude for long if he desired to find them. And he has a great sense of humor! Although at times he can be too sarcastic – something that never happened to Arathorn.
And he is so different from his father… When he first joined us, some of us wished, or even expected, that he would be another Arathorn. We simply could not help comparing them all the time, pointing out even the littlest differences – not aloud, naturally, we did not want to hurt him. But in the quietness of our minds we did. It was simply unavoidable. It was hard to accept the fact that Aragorn is not a re-embodiment of Arathorn, that he is different. There is something elven about him, something I cannot define, yet I am aware of its presence. It must be a result of being brought up by Lord Elrond in Rivendell, among other Elves and as a brother to Elladan and Elrohir.
Suddenly, I hear a loud snore, even more disturbing in the dead silence of the forest around. I shook my head and move closer to the bedroll on the other side of the camp.
"Aragorn," I whisper, careful not to wake him up. "Stop it."
He moves his head in his sleep, snoring once again. And then his usual quiet breathing replaces the unpleasant noise he made a moment ago. Yet another difference between him and his father. One would never get Arathorn to stop snoring without shaking him awake.
I stand still for a moment, listening, but all I can hear is the rustling of the leaves above my head and my own quiet breathing.
I am patient. I wait.
I look around, searching for any sign of the deer's presence in the dim starlight – a hoofprint, a broken branch, some trampled grass. But there is nothing here. It has not passed through this place, but it still can be near.
Rustling foliages. My breath. And a singing bird some distance away. It is dark, but I am used to tracking at night.
Hunting is always a good way to improve my skills. Aragorn once told me that I had nothing to improve, that I had learned everything. A youngster's belief in perfection. One can never learn everything; even the Firstborn do not possess knowledge of everything. But Aragorn is still young. Skilled as he is, he has yet many lessons to learn and many adventures to survive. May they all be filled with as little pain as possible – I realize his life will not be spared hardship, and hoping that he will not be forced to endure any pain at all is futile.
I suddenly freeze, a barely audible sound catching my attention; yet it dies away before I can locate it. Whatever is lurking in the bushes, it has frozen as well. I stand like this for a few minutes, wondering if the creature chose the same strategy. It seems I am right – no sound can be heard now. Apart from the usual whispering of the trees.
My arm itches, but I refrain from rubbing it. I will not give myself away unless I am sure what I have encountered. The animal waits, too, and minutes pass. Ah! This way we can both stand here forever.
I cautiously make a step, breaking the spell.
Here it is! I can now see two bright torches a little above the ground level, turned towards me. The eyes.
They stare at me for a fraction of second before dashing away – along with the rest of the body – into the bushes again.
It was only a fox, searching food, like me.
We should have set a trap. I am sure it would have been more effective – and easier. But we haven't had a good meal for a few days now and some of the less experienced men long for it. They do not complain aloud, but I can see it in their eyes, their faces, the way they move – they would not mind having something tastier than our usual supplies. Hence the hunting. Fortunately, this patrol is slowly drawing to an end, we will return to the village – or, should I say, our settlement – in two, maybe three days if we tarry.
The area is relatively calm, although we have seen more footprints than we would have liked. It was Aragorn who first spotted the large steps with long claws, akin to the usual wolf footmarks – though their size was unusual and this is what bothers me. If it is as I fear, then the wargs have returned to these parts of Middle-earth. Thus I infer that they subsist in abundance in the places where the presence of the growing Shadow is more evident.
But as yet the country is at peace. And experienced though I am, I still cling to the hope that it will remain so…
Whispering trees. My breath.
A loud cry.
I freeze again – this time in sheer horror, not caution. No animal screams like that, I am positive the cry was one of a Man. And the only Men in the area are the Rangers of the North…
Without a moment's hesitation, I rush into the woods towards where the voice came from. The thick bushes make it more difficult, slowing down my motion, causing me to stumble on the roots.
A little clearing comes into my sight and I run into it at full speed – and momentarily halt as I take in the tableau. The moonlight spreading here enables me to see far more clearly than in the denser parts of the forest.
Aragorn is kneeling over a lying person – from my position I cannot tell who it is – but when he hears me arriving, he turns his head to face me. Our eyes meet for a moment – and I again see something unfamiliar in his eyes, though now this look is different from what I have seen in his eyes before. I scrutinize him for a moment, but he returns his attention to the man on the ground before I can read the expression on his face.
I silently approach, only to see Tathardor, the youngest member of our party, lying in front of the Chieftain, a bad-looking wound in his leg bleeding excessively. I kneel beside them, wordlessly helping Aragorn to control the bleeding. All I can hear is the quiet sound he is making while dressing the wound. And the gentle whispering of the trees.
"Aragorn," I pronounce his name to garner his attention and continue only when he looks at me briefly. "What happened?"
"It was my fault-" he starts, but is quickly interrupted by Tathardor.
"Shh," the Chieftain hushes him, casting him an appropriate glance. "Do not speak, you will need your strength." The younger Ranger tries to protest, but to no avail. The son of Arathorn knows how to make people quiet – after all, he has been the one being silenced on many occasions, and knows what works best.
He continues wrapping the soft bandage around the wound, his skilled hands moving swiftly, almost instinctively. He has done this more often than any average man – even a Ranger – and whoever is wounded, under Aragorn's care will be fine. I am sorry for Tathardor's suffering – he tries to be brave and does not make a sound, but I know far too well how painful such a wound is – it has been his first real patrol with us. But I know he will be well, so I do not dwell on the matter.
I sit wordlessly, impatiently waiting for Aragorn to resume his explanation, but when he remains silent for a few minutes, pretending to be focused on his task, I speak again.
"Aragorn, can you, please, tell me what happened?" I already have my suspicion about the situation – and it would explain Aragorn's reluctance to share his knowledge. I hear a loud sigh coming from him, but it is followed by words. Finally.
"It was my fault, Halbarad. I knew Tathardor was not far away from me. Yet somehow I… I let my mind wander for a moment. It cannot have been more than two minutes… But it was long enough for a bloodthirsty warg to crawl upon us, unnoticed. I came as soon as I realized that something was wrong… Still not soon enough." His eyes shy away, and I nod.
It is as I feared. My two suspicions are now confirmed. Wargs again tread the paths of this area – but I knew it would happen sooner or later. What worries me more is Aragorn's state of mind. He has been troubled enough for the past few days and now I sense something more in his voice and his eyes – guilt. Something needs to be done about it. I will think it over at night.
Now we both rise and pull the wounded young man to a standing position, careful not to affect the injured leg. We should reach the camp as soon as we can, so that Tathardor's wound can be properly tended.
He is sitting there alone, his back turned towards the camp, his shoulders slumped in a way I have rarely seen them slump. Oh, Aragorn, why do you always carry all your burdens by yourself? Won't you share if I ask you to?
I approach him and slowly lower myself to the ground beside him. He does not move nor speak, as if he did not notice me – but I know it is not so. I wait, not disheartened by this lack of acknowledgement.
I gently touch him to redirect his attention.
The Chieftain turns his head towards me, a single sigh escaping his lips. He looks at me sincerely, and in his eyes I can see all that I predicted. Pain. Guilt. Fear. Longing. And crystal tears gathering behind his eyelids, though refused to be shed.
"Something troubles you," I state simply, not sure how to start the conversation I know we finally have to have. He nods, but does not answer. I give him another moment of silence, and then continue. "Aragorn, Tathardor will be fine. The wound bled a lot, but it is not very serious. You know it."
"Then what is it that troubles you so? Tell me, my friend. I know there is something more than the hunting incident that occupies your mind." I realize that convincing him not to blame himself for what happened to the younger Ranger is pointless, so I do not even attempt that. I discovered that offering him some understanding and encouraging to open up works better than lecturing him. I have a feeling that he will start talking soon, and I will not ruin the opportunity.
"Halbarad, understand. It was my fault, no matter what you say." I bite my lip. This won't be as easy as I hoped.
"What do you want me to do, Aragorn? Punish you for not preventing what you could not prevent? I will, if you wish it. But it will not change anything." He remains silent and I begin to regret my words. I know such a reaction will not help me, it can only make him retreat into himself and refuse to confide. Another quiet moment passes between us as I ponder how to encourage him to speak.
"Aragorn, I know something is wrong. You seem so… dispirited." He shifts slightly.
"It's just that… I miss them terribly." He gazes into the darkness of the forest, but I now know that he is focused on me and our talk.
"Your family?" I ask, although I know I am right. I only have to keep the conversation going while I can.
"Yes," he confirms, and falls silent again. I can now understand the reason for his distractions and dismay. He has not seen them for a very long time… and he will not be going back to Rivendell for a few months at least…
Neither of us speaks for a while. I do not push him, I know that Aragorn will continue if I give him some time, so I wait patiently.
And indeed, he speaks again only a minute later.
"Well, I haven't seen them for at least two years, Halbarad. Do not misunderstand me, I do not mean that I do not enjoy my time with you and the other Rangers, for I treasure it and you can be sure that I will keep the memories of our patrols together forever in my heart. Yet I am not certain I am ready to really become the Chieftain of the Dúnedain. There is a part of me that wants to remain Estel Elrondion forevermore, and it will not leave until it accepts that this cannot be." He sighs. He is torn between the two worlds… Yet he belongs in both.
"I know, Aragorn. I know." I lay my hand on his shoulder and squeeze it gently. "But you will see them soon." I try to console him, although I know what I am saying is a lie. He seems to know it, too.
"Not soon enough, I am afraid."
"I am sorry, Aragorn."
Silence reigns again. The trees whisper carelessly, their branches caressed by the night breeze. I love the sound, it always soothes me. If only Aragorn would listen to it! But one day he will, he will learn to find comfort in simplest things, in details he has never considered significant. There will come a time when he will appreciate every inch of the world around him. May this time not come too soon – for it is pain and hardship that most teach to notice all that seems natural and usual when life is easy.
"Do it, Halbarad," he says suddenly, still gazing ahead.
"What should I do?" I ask, uncertain.
"Punish me. I deserve it. Maybe that way I will learn to control myself better. Maybe if nothing else works, it is the only way…" he continues, but I do not listen anymore.
Oh, Aragorn, why do you not believe in yourself? Where does this lack of self-esteem come from? Why do you want to resort to such methods? Do you really think this will help you in any way?
Ah, my friend, so many questions! But I would not dare ask any of them, not now. But I see how much your nostalgia has affected you. How can I help you?
I smile to myself. I think I already know.
Meanwhile, I gently pat the Chieftain's arm and he stops talking in mid-sentence. "Well, Aragorn, if you are to be punished, go back now to the fire and enjoy your evening with the Rangers while you still can." I grin at him wickedly. He smiles back and complies. This time I sit alone, my back turned towards the camp. I listen to the whispering trees.
I look around at the faces surrounding me, all watching me in anticipation of the verdict. I think I can see some fear in Tathardor's eyes – he is not sure what will happen to Aragorn. Ah, they are alike in one case – blaming. I am positive he has already decided to burden himself with the responsibility for whatever the Chieftain's punishment will be.
"By the decision of the second-in-command of the Dúnedain of the North…"
Usually it would be Aragorn's duty to judge – although situations when someone really needs to be judged are exceedingly rare – but today he is to be sentenced, so I, as the second-in-command, have taken over the responsibility.
Everyone was greatly surprised when I announced that the Chieftain would be punished for causing a life-threatening situation, as I put it then, though I did not mention that it was his will to be punished. I felt – and still feel – terrible. I have never liked judging people, let alone judging my friend and Chieftain, who, in addition, has not deserved any punishment – apart from the one he is to receive. Yes, that he has deserved!
"…Aragorn, son of Arathorn, and Chieftain to the Dúnedain has been found guilty of causing a possibly life-threatening situation…"
Oh, Valar. It sounds inane. I feel inane. But that will not last long now and in a while all will be clear. I hope I have chosen wisely. The punishment cannot be too harsh, yet Aragorn has to become a better man after that. I know he will.
He is now looking at me. His face seems indifferent, but his eyes tell me the truth. He is impatient. He would like it all to be finished already. So would I. He shifts uneasily, trying to read my eyes. But my eyes are cold and unmoved. He will learn my decision along with others.
I can hear the whispering trees, the soft and sweet sound making a pleasant background for my words.
"..and therefore is sentenced to leave the company of the Rangers of the North for the time being, and spend the forthcoming months in Rivendell. He will be also regularly lectured by Lord Erestor, and is forbidden to cause any trouble in the aforementioned place. He will leave immediately."
My gaze wanders and I see uncertain smiles on the faces of my kinsmen. But in a moment all the grins will broaden, and some of the men will most likely laugh light-heartedly.
The smile on Aragorn's face is already huge, his eyelashes wet and I again see tears in his eyes – but this time these are the tears of joy. He soundlessly mouths a thank-you and then turns away.
I join him, and walk him to his horse, helping him collect his belongings. When he finally straps the last piece of equipment, he turns to me.
"Thank you, Halbarad."
I pull him into a close brotherly hug. "Well, return one day, my friend. We will miss you. You do not want us to suffer that way, do you?" I tease him as he pulls away, eyeing me with a mischievous smile.
"I will come back, I promise. But there has not been a hurricane in Rivendell for a long time… Too long for my liking." His eyes shine, as if they were smiling as well. They are. Estel Elrondion is back in Aragorn, son of Arathorn. May he never lose this part of himself. May he always remain a young, cheerful boy deep in his heart.
"Let me hope that Lord Elrond will not be forced to do anything like what I just have to make you go back to us." I wink as he mounts his steed.
"Do not worry," he assures, "I will miss your company, too."
"You can always come with your brothers. You know that we all treasure their friendship," I add.
"I know." Aragorn slowly turns his horse and they both begin their journey back home.
"May the Valar watch over you on your way to Rivendell." He turns again and raises his hand in the gesture of farewell. I watch him disappear in the shades of the forest, and somehow feel happier myself, my heart lighter. Now everything is going to be well. Aragorn, my friend, may the longing of your heart be indeed healed in the House of Elrond, and may you return to us refreshed when the time comes.
I promenade back towards the heart of our camp, accompanied by the joyous whispering of the trees.