Feud by Misty|
Summary: Aragorn and the Rangers come across a feuding town.
A/N: This story was written for the March 2006 Teitho Challenge. The challenge was that the story had to start with the sentence 'It seemed like a good idea at the time'.
"It seemed like a good idea at the time," the young Ranger said, wincing as Aragorn examined the nasty gash cutting across his forehead.
"You thought it sounded like a good idea to place yourself in front of men throwing rocks?" Aragorn asked with a raised eyebrow as he cleaned out the cut. It did not seem deep enough to need stitches, but he had to clean it thoroughly to make sure it did not get infected.
"It worked, did it not, my lord?" Rumen asked Aragorn a little hesitantly. "They stopped trying to kill that man."
"They did stop," Aragorn agreed, rinsing out the wound. "Rather than killing the object of their anger, they thought they had killed a stranger. You should consider yourself lucky that they were concerned enough over this thought to refrain from throwing more rocks. Many times when people are that enraged, they do not see reason and have little concern for those who get in their way."
Rumen swallowed nervously. He had been acting on instinct when he stepped into the circle of men who were apparently stoning another man. It had not even occurred to him that they might have simply stoned him along with the unknown man. At least, it had not occurred to him until he had seen the rock flying at his head. By then, it had been far too late. When he awoke to find his Chieftain poking at a cut on his forehead, he had been so relived to be alive that he was almost grateful for the pain. But he still did not know the fate of the man he had tried to save. "I could not stand by and simply let them continue, my lord. No one deserves to die that way, no matter what crimes he may have committed. How is he, the man I tried to save?"
"He is alive," Aragorn answered, finishing up with the cut and moving to take a chair beside the bed. They were now in the home of the village's only healer. The healer was in another room, treating the man who had nearly been killed. "Though he was badly beaten, he will recover fully."
"Then I did the right thing," Rumen said in satisfaction.
"Did you not consider approaching the men and asking what they were doing, or finding the rest of us to help you to calm the situation? Why did you even consider placing yourself at the mercy of an angry mob?" Aragorn knew full well the recklessness of youth, but if Rumen was to survive, he had to start thinking things through more carefully.
Rumen gulped nervously. The Chieftain did not seem at all pleased with his actions. "I yelled out a greeting as I approached and tried to determine what was happening. They did not hear me over their own voices. When I saw what they were doing, I knew the man did not have enough time for me to gather help. My actions may not have been well thought out, but I did not have time to find a better course of action."
Aragorn sighed and stared at the young Ranger lying on the bed. Rumen had only been traveling with the Rangers for a few months. He did not have the experience to know how to handle situations like the one they had now found themselves in. Though Rumen did not yet know it, the situation was much more dire than a group of men being angry enough to kill another man, though that was serious enough. The town they had just entered was like a raging river ready to burst through a dam.
The Rangers had been on one of their normal patrols when they saw thick black smoke rising from a village nearby. Fearing an orc invasion, they had approached quietly and attempted to determine what had happened. At Aragorn's signal, the group of nine Rangers split into groups of three. Two groups circled around the village in opposite directions while Aragorn's group headed through the center of the village.
While keeping an eye out for orc activity, Aragorn and his men studied their surroundings closely as they passed. Many homes were burned to skeletal remains, smoke rising from the smoldering ashes. A barn on the outskirts of the village stank like a slaughterhouse. Fearing what they might see, Aragorn gestured for one man to accompany him and the other to keep watch, then crept inside the door and blinked suddenly as his eyes watered from the smell. He coughed as the acrid scent insinuated itself into his nose and mouth, so strong that he could taste the death in the building. Five cows, still in their stalls had had their throats cut, and they lay where they had fallen in pools of their own blood. Their eyes were clouded over, and Aragorn could only shake his head in dismay at the wasteful loss of life, any life. Passing by the slaughtered animals, they looked through the rest of the barn, swords in hand as they searched for enemies or more victims. Aragorn was glad that the brief exploration of the barn revealed no human remains. Upon leaving the barn, Aragorn examined the ground closely for signs of orc activity. A frown crossed his face as he saw only human footsteps leading away from the barn. A battle had obviously raged in this place, but so far, orcs did not appear to be part of that battle. They moved silently through the village, taking a moment to do a brief search of each destroyed location for victims of this senseless violence, human or otherwise.
Aragorn was relieved, but rather confused as each search revealed destroyed property, the loss of people's livelihoods, but no human bodies. The sounds of people shouting caught their attention, coming from the left side of the village. Aragorn had begun to believe that the inhabitants of the village had fled before whoever had caused this destruction had arrived. Judging by the angry shouts and yells, not everyone had escaped. With a silent hand signal, Aragorn instructed his men to follow as he headed swiftly for the sounds they had heard. They stayed in the shadows as they approached, trying to judge what was happening before getting involved. Jumping blindly into a fray would not be a wise course of action. Aragorn groaned as he got closer and saw the youngest Ranger in their patrol jump directly into the center of the angry men. The other two men with him drew their swords and waded into the crowd to protect the young man who had just been felled by a rock to the head.
"What has happened here?" Aragorn asked angrily as he and his men approached the crowd with their own swords drawn.
The men who had been throwing rocks moments before turned to glare at Aragorn.
"Who are you and what right do you have to interfere?" A tall red-haired man stepped out from the crowd, breathing heavily and glaring daggers at Aragorn. His fingers clenched tighter around the fist sized rock he still held in his hand.
"We are of the Dúnedain, and I am called Strider," Aragorn replied. "We were on patrol near here and saw the smoke. There were obvious signs of a battle, and we intended to see if we could be of assistance. There has been some orc activity recently, and we determined to destroy any orcs before they could cause more harm."
"Well, as you can see, there are no orcs here," the man said, his breathing calming somewhat as he looked at Aragorn. "Thank you for the offer, but we do not need your assistance. Take your men and leave us."
Aragorn raised an eyebrow at the man's words, then looked over to where Brégnir, one of the Rangers, was kneeling beside Rumen, checking his injury. "How does he fare?" Aragorn asked.
Brégnir looked up at Aragorn. "He lives, though he will have quite a headache when he wakes. I would not recommend moving him far until we can determine that there is no lasting damage to his head."
Nodding, Aragorn returned his attention to the man before him. "As you have heard, we will not be leaving just yet. I will not further endanger his health by traveling before he is ready." The glower that Aragorn leveled on the man made him flush and lower his eyes.
"Sorry for that," he muttered softly. "We meant him no harm. We didn't see him, didn't expect anyone else to put themselves in the middle of us like that."
"And may I ask why you and your friends here were attempting to stone another?" Aragorn asked. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that Brégnir had moved to begin examining the man at the center of the crowd.
"That is no concern of yours," the man huffed angrily. "But if you must know, he kidnapped my son and burned down my house. We were attempting to force him to tell us where he has hidden my son!"
"I didn't," a soft voice husked from the man kneeling on the ground. Aragorn looked over to the owner of the voice. A dark-haired man looked back at him. The man had an arm wrapped around his ribs, and had blood trickling down his face from a cut to his forehead. Aragorn was sure that there were many other injuries hidden beneath the man's clothes. With a hand gesture, Aragorn asked the man to continue. "I never touched his house or his son," the man said in a hoarse voice. "I was in the fields when his house caught fire. When I returned to town, I found he had taken my son. I did nothing to him, but he won't tell me where my son is."
"Liar!" the red-haired man spat at the other, raising the hand still clutching the rock. "You will get your son back when you return mine!"
Seeing the situation about to get out of control again, Aragorn quickly reached up and caught the man's hand before he could throw the rock. "Enough! I do not know what has occurred here, but I intend to find out. First, however, I need to see to these men. Is there a healer in this village?"
Another man stepped out from the crowd. He had a wary expression on his face, as if he did not quite trust the men who had just interposed themselves into whatever was going on, but was ready to allow an end to the madness that had overtaken the villagers. "Yes, the healing woman lives in the center of the village. Her home has been left alone, as she has no particular loyalty to either side of this dispute. She treats the injuries of any who come to her door, no matter who they are."
Nodding at the man, Aragorn gestured for his men to carry Rumen and lead the other injured man to the healer's home while he talked with the other men to determine what had caused the conflagration to start in this village.
The red-haired man glared with hatred as the other man was led away. "You cannot let him get away without telling me where my son is!"
Aragorn held up a hand in a gesture for peace. "He will be well guarded by my men as his injuries are treated. He will be going nowhere. Now, do you have a place where we may speak? I wish to help in any way I can. I would like to see your son returned to you and his son returned to him. Children should not be involved in their parent's conflicts."
"He took my son first," the man grumbled under his breath, sounding like a sullen child whose playmate had stolen a toy.
Aragorn did not respond to that statement, instead asking a question. "What is your name?"
"Bayard," the man said slowly, "but people just call me Red." He frowned, not happy with the way Aragorn seemed to be taking control of the situation.
"Red, then, is there a place we can all go to talk?" Aragorn repeated his question, trying to infuse a sense of calm in the men around him. While the Rangers were highly trained fighters, they were greatly outnumbered by the men in the village, and Aragorn had no desire for his men to have to fight their way out. Especially since he did not feel that any of these men were especially evil, just enraged.
The man who had told them of the healer nodded and gestured for Aragorn and the others to follow him. "I believe the village hall still stands," he commented. "We should be able to discuss this there; as long as Garman does not decide to lead his men in an attack on the building."
"Garman?" Aragorn asked as he and the men began walking back toward the village center.
"He is the head of the Wolfe family," the man replied. "Cedric is a member of his family, and Garman was the one to organize the men to attack our homes and livelihoods. We sent all of the women and children away to keep them safe, and they did the same."
"You are telling me that all of the destruction I have seen has happened at the hands of those who live here?" Aragorn asked, aghast. The thought that people would destroy their own village appalled him. How could anyone cause this kind of wanton destruction to their own homes? He was now more determined than ever to get to the bottom of these matters and do whatever he could to help restore peace. A gesture brought the last Ranger who had remained with Aragorn to his side. With a short whispered conference, Aragorn instructed Túven to find the other group of Rangers, then search out this Garman and talk with him, to find out why he would attack the men around Aragorn. Only by talking with both sides of this conflict could anything be resolved. Túven nodded and seemed to melt back into the shadows.
After Túven left, Aragorn entered the village hall and took a seat around a table with the other men. With a series of questions, he was able to find out the source of the conflict. Red had been out hunting with some members of his family, and when they returned to the village, his home was on fire. The villagers were working to put out the fire, and once the fire was extinguished, they sifted through the remains of the house to try to find some sign of Red's son, Berwen. When there was no sign of him in the house, Red had been greatly relieved, at first. Since Red's wife had passed away two years earlier, Berwen was all he had left. He and his wife had had no other children. Knowing that his son had not perished in the house had been the best news he could have heard. But when time passed and his son did not return home from playing with his friends, doing chores, or exploring the surrounding woods, Red became convinced that he was not returning home because he could not. There must be someone preventing him from coming home, someone who had kidnapped his son and burned his house to cover his tracks. Since Cedric had not been seen since before the fire, and was from a rival family, Red was sure that Cedric had taken his son. In retaliation, and in an attempt to force Cedric to reveal the whereabouts of his own son, Red had taken Cedric's son. Red assured Aragorn that the boy was well, but would not tell Aragorn where he had hidden him. Red still insisted that when Berwen was returned safely, he would return Cedric's son to him.
When Aragorn asked why he thought Cedric was behind his son's disappearance, he was told of every grievance Red's family had against Cedric's family going back many generations. Apparently, the town was split in two by the two largest families. Any time any evil befell someone, they blamed the opposing family, and there had been fights and battles many times over the years over trivial and not so trivial offenses. Aragorn did not know yet if Cedric had taken Red's son, but he now saw how Red's kidnapping of Cedric's son had resulted in the battles between the two families that had destroyed so much of the village. He knew he would have to tread very carefully in trying to determine the truth of this matter. These people had distrusted each other for so very long that they would easily believe the worst of each other and were quick to act on their distrust, justified or not.
After hearing the tale, Aragorn was able to convince the group of men not to make any further attacks on the Wolfe family until he could talk to Cedric and make every attempt to find out the truth. Aragorn knew that their cooperation would only hold as long as Garman's group did not attack. He sincerely hoped that Túven and the other Rangers would be successful at tracking down Garman and getting him to agree to stop the attacks while the incident was investigated by an impartial third party, namely Aragorn and the rest of the Rangers. Feeling the responsibility he had taken on himself as a weight on his shoulders, Aragorn rose and left the men to seek out the healer's house. He wanted to check on Rumen before speaking with Cedric and attempting to determine his version of events.
Aragorn had arrived at the healer's home before Rumen awoke, and though the cut had already been seen by Hannah, the healer, he felt it his responsibility to examine, clean and treat the cut just to be sure. The young Ranger had awoken while he was treating the injury, and Aragorn was able to speak with him. At Rumen's questions, Aragorn told him what he had found out from Red and the others as to the cause of the conflict. Rumen, like Aragorn, had been astounded that people would be willing to cause so much destruction to their own home simply to hurt their neighbors. When Aragorn was sure that Rumen would be well after some more rest, Aragorn paid a visit to Cedric. Two Rangers were standing guard over him to be sure that he did not attempt to flee, though Hannah had not appreciated the thought and made them stay outside the room. Since there was no other exit from the room, they had not argued and had done their best to stay out of her way.
Hannah glared at him as he came through the door to Cedric's room. Aragorn held up his hands in a gesture of peace. "Please, I mean him no harm, nor do I wish harm to anyone in this village. I only want to help. If there is a way to restore peace to this village, I would like to find it. Will you allow me to speak with Cedric and find out what he knows of this conflict?"
After a moment, the edge left Hannah's expression, and she nodded, gesturing for Aragorn to take a seat near the bed.
"Thank you," Aragorn said before turning to Cedric.
Before Aragorn could speak, Cedric struggled to sit up and looked at Aragorn. "You and your men saved my life. I want to thank you for that. How is the young man who was injured?"
"He will be well with some rest," Aragorn said. "The injury does not appear to have been too serious."
"I am glad," Cedric said. "I saw you talking with Red. Did he tell you where my son is?" Cedric watched Aragorn's face with a desperate expression. He wanted his son back more than anything else.
"No, I was unable to get him to reveal that information. He did assure me that your son was well and had not been harmed, but he refused to tell me where he had hidden him. I intend to talk to everyone involved and attempt to determine the truth of the matter. I am hopeful that finding the truth will lead to your son being returned. Can you tell me why he thinks you took his son?"
Cedric's face showed a mix of relief, anger and frustration. "I did not take his son. His family has long distrusted mine. Whenever something goes wrong for anyone in the Atwood family, they blame someone in mine. Berwen, Red's son, and Keane, my son, are friends. They have played together from the time they were very young, and Red never liked that. I was not happy with it at first, but Keane was happy, so I allowed it. I like Berwen, he is a very nice young man, completely unlike his father. I would never harm the child, but the first thought in Red's head was that I was the reason his son is missing. I assure you, I had nothing to do with this. I was out in the field the entire day. My cousin was with me, he knows that I was not here. But Red would not believe anything that a member of my family has to say. Garman is another cousin of mine. When he found out that Red had taken my son, he declared battle upon the Atwood family. I want nothing to do with it, I only want my son back."
Aragorn believed him. The desperation in the man's voice was true, and Aragorn did not feel that he was lying about the rest. Cedric was not behind Berwen's disappearance or Red's house burning down. Before he would commit to that idea, however, he knew he needed to talk to the cousin who could vouch for Cedric's whereabouts when Berwen went missing. There were still many people that he must talk to before the truth would be revealed. After he obtained a list of people to talk to from Cedric, Aragorn excused himself and left the house, assuring Cedric that he would do everything in his power to find his missing son.
For the next several hours, Aragorn visited each of the people on Cedric's list. He had some difficulty finding several of them, since very few villagers were actually in their homes right now. Cedric had given him several places to look, however, so he eventually tracked them down and talked the situation over with them. Cedric's cousin confirmed that he had seen Cedric in the fields when Berwen disappeared and Red's house burned down. Many of Cedric's relatives had much to say about Red's temper and swiftness to blame others for any misfortune. As before, Aragorn also heard much about the grievances stretching back many generations.
After Aragorn had spoken to all the men that Cedric had led him to, he decided to wander the village and get a better idea of the damage that the villagers had done to their homes. Seeing the number of burned out husks that once were homes, gardens and fields turned up and destroyed, Aragorn shook his head sadly. Even if he were able to convince them to cease all hostilities immediately, so much damage had already been done that the coming winter would be a very hard one for the villagers. There was so much re-building that would have to be done, but the damaged crops and livestock were worse than the lost homes. Houses could be rebuilt, though it would not be easy. The crops could not be replaced so easily, however. They were far too late in the growing season to be able to replant new crops and gardens. While the villagers might be able to buy new livestock and hunt for game, trade with neighboring villages would be a necessity for them to survive until the next crops could be harvested. While in his circuit of the town, Aragorn was approached by Handor, one of the Rangers tasked with finding Garman.
"Did you find them?" Aragorn asked as he approached.
"Yes, my lord," Handor replied. "We have requested a cessation to the hostilities between the families while we investigate the matter and attempt to locate the missing children."
"And what was their response?" Aragorn asked.
Handor sighed. "Not promising. Garman seems intent on seeking out retribution for the kidnapping of his cousin's son. Nothing we say has had much success in stemming his desire for revenge above all else."
Aragorn nodded, fearing that might be the case. In all honesty, he was not certain that Red would live up to his word not to attack the Wolfe family if the opportunity arose. Neither side of this conflict was willing to stop and take a deep breath and look at the situation objectively. If he could just get a peace to hold long enough to find the children, there was a chance he could bring an end to this without further damage and hopefully, without further bloodshed. But for that to happen, he had to talk with Garman and convince him to hold off on any further attacks. "Take me to him," Aragorn told Handor. Handor nodded and led him to a large home on the outskirts of the village.
When Aragorn entered, he had no trouble determining which man was Garman. The tall, dark-haired man was facing Túven and arguing angrily. Túven caught sight of Aragorn and broke off in mid-sentence, giving Aragorn a respectful nod and stepping back from Garman. Garman saw the gestures and turned to face Aragorn.
"Are you the leader of these interfering men?" Garman asked angrily, waving a hand at the Rangers he had been arguing with.
"I am their leader," Aragorn replied calmly, not responding to the inflammatory words or the anger apparent in Garman's voice.
"You should tell them to keep out of other people's affairs. This has nothing to do with any of you, and you would do best to leave town now and leave this to us." Garman folded his arms across his chest and glared at Aragorn.
"Cedric seemed grateful for our offer of help," Aragorn said softly, keeping his gaze fixed on the face of the man before him.
"Cedric?" Garman asked in surprise, almost dropping his defensive posture. "How did you happen to meet him?"
Aragorn decided it would be best not to tell Garman that they had stopped Red and the others from stoning Cedric. That would not help calm matters any. "It does not matter," Aragorn evaded the subject rather than tell Garman a lie that might come back to hurt him. "We did meet him and I have spoken with both Cedric and the man known as Red. Both of them have agreed to let me and the rest of the Rangers attempt to find the missing children and get to the truth of this matter."
"You spoke to Red?" Garman asked, his eyes narrowing in thought. "Where is he?"
Shaking his head, Aragorn refused to answer Garman's question. He was not about to tell this man where he could find Red. If he did that, Garman would be sure to attack, and in the ensuing battle, many of the men could die. "I will not tell you that. What I can tell you is that Red has agreed to a temporary cessation of hostilities to allow us time to find his son. He will not attack your men, or their homes and properties. I need to ask the same from you. I cannot guarantee that he will hold to that promise if you and your men cause harm to any more of his men or their properties."
"Why would I agree to that?" Garman asked Aragorn scornfully.
"To give us a chance to resolve this peacefully," Aragorn answered, surprised that Garman could not see that. "If we can find the missing children and find out what happened to start this battle, perhaps we can find a peaceful way of resolving it."
"I know what happened," Garman growled. "Red falsely accused Cedric of taking his son and kidnapped Keane. He cannot be allowed to get away with that. If we can find Red, we can force him to tell us where he has hidden Keane."
"And how does burning down half the village accomplish that goal?" Aragorn asked reasonably.
"It gives him fewer places to hide," Garman answered with a spiteful grin.
Aragorn shook his head slightly. "If the two of you keep to this path, none in this village will be able to survive the coming winter. From what I have seen, this winter will be very hard as it is for this village. Please, let us do what we can to help, to keep this from getting any worse for those families that live here."
"Cedric's family lives here," Garman pointed out. "I will not let my cousin's son be kidnapped without exacting retribution."
"Has Cedric asked for your help? Has he asked you to do any of this?" Aragorn questioned. "For he told me that he wants none of this. His only concern is getting his son back. Have you sent out search parties to locate either of the missing boys?"
Garman was silent for a long time, his face dark as a thundercloud. In his silence, Aragorn had his answer. Garman had done nothing to find the children, only gathered his men and attacked Red and his family.
A sigh escaped Aragorn as he faced Garman. "All I ask is that you stop trying to hurt Red and his family. Give us the time we need to find the boys and hopefully bring an end to this madness."
"Madness?" Garman asked with a dark glint in his eye as he moved a step closer to Aragorn in an attempt to intimidate the other man.
Holding his ground, Aragorn kept his gaze steady on Garman's face. "What else would you call it when men destroy their own homes and make it that much harder for them to survive?"
Garman didn't have an answer to that, and stepped back a pace, lowering his aggressive stance. "You have one day, Ranger. You'd better get going and find them quickly. If you fail, you would be wise to leave town immediately, for my vengeance will be fierce, and you will be a target as much as Red."
Aragorn nodded and turned to leave the building, gathering the other Rangers to him with a gesture. As they left the building and the Wolfe family behind, Túven asked what the others were surely wondering.
"One day? He certainly has high expectations. Why did you agree to that?..My lord."
The last two words were added as an afterthought. The anxious expression on Túven's face made it clear that he was re-thinking asking the question. He did not want to sound disrespectful or as if he was questioning his Chieftain.
"It is all we could hope for at this point," Aragorn said. "For the next day, he will not attack. That should give us time to find something promising to report. If we can provide them with proof that we are making progress, perhaps we can convince them all to give us more time. Besides, I have spoken with many of the people directly involved in this dispute, and I believe that the initial incident, Red's house burning down and his son's disappearance, did not happen like Red believes. We will need proof to convince him of this, but we must start at Red's house. A thorough examination of his house and the surrounding area may give us just the clues we need."
With that, Aragorn led them through the village to Red's house after sending Túven to the healer's house to gather Brégnir and Erthor. He left Rumen at the house to recover, with one Ranger to watch over him, and two other Rangers guarding Cedric to protect him from Red and his men. When the others re-joined Aragorn, he directed the five Rangers to carefully sift through the remains of the house to see if they could determine what started the fire in the first place. The method used might begin to point to the person responsible. For the next hour, the six Rangers pored over every piece of wood or metal they found in the rubble, examining every piece of intact debris they could find. They had mapped out where the individual rooms must have been, and tried to make sense of what might have been out of place.
Aragorn looked up from the debris he was studying when he felt a hand on his shoulder.
Seeing that he had the Chieftain's attention, Túven asked, "Have you found something?"
"Perhaps," Aragorn mused. "Look at this burn pattern." Túven crouched down beside Aragorn to see what had caught his attention. Aragorn pointed out the pattern as he spoke. "I believe this point here was the start of the fire. The flames raced outward from this point to engulf the house, but this small area is burned deeper than the rest." Túven nodded, finally seeing what Aragorn had seen.
"What do you think caused it?" Túven asked.
Aragorn poked around in the nearby rubble until he encountered something metal. Carefully pulling it out from underneath the remains of what was probably the kitchen table, he revealed the twisted remains of a lantern. "This may be the culprit," Aragorn mused aloud. "A lit lantern in the kitchen that gets knocked over, toppled onto its side, could easily cause the burn pattern and destruction that we've seen here."
"Who do you think knocked it over?" Túven asked. "And who took the boy?"
"We should not speculate on that yet," Aragorn cautioned. "We do not have enough evidence to back up any theories we might have. It is best not to speak anything aloud until we have proof, one way or another. But…" Aragorn's voice trailed off as he looked out from the kitchen, to where the back door of the house would have been. "Anyone in a house where a fire has just started would have to flee quickly to avoid being burned along with the house. That door would have been the closest exit, the quickest way to flee the fire." So saying, Aragorn stood from the floor and walked carefully to the doorway, scanning the floor for any further clues as he went. A theory was beginning to form in his mind of what may have happened, but as he had told Túven, he would not speak it aloud until and unless he had proof. He reached the doorway without seeing anything else pertinent to their investigation.
Once through the door, he knelt and examined the ground. There were few traces that he could make out, since the ground had been trampled by all of the villagers as they put out the fire. The water used to extinguish the fire had turned the ground near the house to mud, obliterating any useful traces of who might have fled the house. Starting from the doorway, Aragorn directed three other Rangers to begin walking in separate directions, examining the ground for any clear traces that might help them. For himself, Aragorn chose the direction that led most quickly out of town and toward the surrounding woods. Once past the churned up mud near the house, separate footsteps could begin to be distinguished. Many tracks were adult size, the spacing of the footsteps indicating that they were moving at a rapid pace toward the house. Those had likely been made when people began responding to the fire. There were also tracks of adults moving at a slower pace away from the house, after the fire had been extinguished. The tracks that Aragorn was looking for would have laid underneath the others, and would likely indicate a hurried pace away from the house.
At last, Aragorn picked up a faint trace of a child's prints underneath the others. The spacing of these prints indicated that the owner of the prints had been running away from the house, likely as fast as possible. Aragorn examined the area carefully to see if there were any other tracks accompanying these. The presence of other tracks could indicate someone chasing the boy, but try as he might, Aragorn could not find any others heading in quite the same direction. With a short call, Aragorn called the others from where they were still sifting through the wreckage of the house and examining the ground to join him. Being quite sure that he had found what he was looking for, Aragorn told the other Rangers to find the child that Red had kidnapped. After speaking with many of Cedric's relatives, Aragorn had some idea of Red's habits and where he may have hidden the boy. He split them up into groups of two, sending two groups off to different locations while Brégnir was to accompany him as he followed the footprints and hopefully tracked down the missing child.
Further away from the house, heading out of the village, there were fewer tracks of others to confuse the issue, and Aragorn found the trail quite easy to follow. The footsteps were spaced relatively far apart for quite some time, well beyond the edge of the village, indicating a running pace. Once beyond the village, into a clear meadow, the steps grew closer together as the child must have slowed his or her pace. Aragorn and Brégnir followed the tracks deeper and deeper into the woods around the village, and Aragorn's brows drew together in concern. The further they went into the forest, the more likely it was that the child they were following could have encountered a beast of prey. Aragorn began to pray to Eru that they were able to find the child unharmed. After what seemed an interminable amount of time, Aragorn saw that the steps no longer traveled in a straight line. They had begun to weave slightly, and he saw evidence here and there that someone had fallen, likely out of exhaustion from the distance that had been covered. He hoped that meant that they were close. But enough time had passed that the child would have had time to rest and resume his trek, if desired. As the sounds of a small spring reached his ears, Aragorn slowed his pace. If the child had been trained in how to survive in the forest, he would know that having a source of fresh water was essential. Hoping to find the child near the spring, Aragorn had no desire to startle or frighten him. As he neared the spring, Aragorn heard a sound that brought him a sense of great relief and joy, a child's voice. Carefully pushing aside the branches of a low-hanging tree, Aragorn and Brégnir entered a small clearing with a fresh water spring running through it. A young boy, approximately nine or ten years old was sitting with his back against a tree as he looked at a squirrel in the branches of a tree opposite him. Aragorn smiled as he heard the boy's words.
"Come on down. I have some nuts you might like. Wouldn't you like that? Fresh nuts to add to your stash?" The boy had his hand outstretched toward the squirrel that he was apparently trying to befriend.
Thinking that he had tried the exact same thing when he was close to the boy's age, Aragorn crouched down near the spring and gestured for Brégnir to do the same. If he wanted to avoid scaring the child, it would be best to meet him on his own level. "Berwen?" Aragorn asked softly, trying not to startle him.
It was to no avail as the boy jumped up from his sitting position, scaring the squirrel back into hiding at his sudden movement. Berwen faced Aragorn with a determined but scared look on his face. "Who are you?"
"I'm a friend of your father's," Aragorn said carefully. "My name is Strider and this is Brégnir. Your father sent us to find you. He's very worried about you."
A flash of abject fear flashed through Berwen's eyes. "He's not mad?"
"Why would he be mad?" Aragorn asked carefully. "He just wants you home safely. I promise that he's not mad at you."
"He will be if he knows what I did," Berwen muttered. "He'll hate me."
"Your father could never hate you," Aragorn reassured him. "Why do you think he will be mad at you?"
"I didn’t mean to do it!" the boy cried, fear and guilt once again taking over his expression. "It was an accident, I didn't mean to do it!"
Aragorn moved closer to the boy and placed his hand comfortingly on his shoulder. "Didn't mean to do what?"
Berwen flung himself into Aragorn's arms and buried his face in the Ranger's shoulder. Through a torrent of tears, he sobbed out, "I burned down the house!"
Aragorn only nodded as his theory was confirmed. He held the sobbing boy for several long minutes, exchanging knowing glances with Brégnir. This revelation would hopefully be enough to bring the village back to their collective senses. Aragorn's only fear now was that Garman would use the news of this accident to point more blame at Red for jumping to conclusions and taking Cedric's son, Keane. Shaking his head to clear it of those distracting thoughts, he turned his attention back to the boy, whose sobs had grown quieter. When he thought Berwen was ready to talk again, Aragorn pulled him gently back and held him at arm's length. "What happened?"
Berwen took a few moments to get his breathing back under control. "Papa had gone out hunting with a few other men, and I was home alone. I was making lunch on the stove. I picked the pan up off the stove to carry over to the table, but it was so hot! I dropped it on the table, and knocked the lantern off onto the floor. The glass burst and the fuel splashed across the floor. I tried to put it out with water, but it didn't work, it only made it worse! Before I could do anything, the whole kitchen was on fire! I ran out the door and just kept running. Papa is going to hate me! He always tells me to be careful when I'm cooking on the stove. There just wasn't anything I could do once the fire started." Remembering the incident brought fresh tears to the boy's eyes, and Aragorn enfolded him in an embrace, letting him cry out his fear and pain.
After the tears once more ceased, Aragorn pulled away to look the boy in the face. He reached out and wiped the tear tracks from his face. "I assure you, your father will understand when you tell him what happened. He will be happy to see you and know that you are safe, no matter what you did."
"Are you sure?" Berwen asked in a very small voice.
"I am," Aragorn nodded reassuringly, holding the boy's gaze. "Are you ready to go home now?"
After taking a deep fortifying breath, Berwen nodded his head.
"Very well then, let us return to the village," Aragorn said, standing to his feet. He gestured for Brégnir to fall in behind them, making sure they were not attacked from behind by any of the inhabitants of this forest. As they walked back through the woods, Aragorn felt a hand creep into his. Knowing the boy still needed reassurance that he had done nothing wrong, Aragorn squeezed his hand and held it until the boy felt confident enough to withdraw his hand and simply walk beside Aragorn.
As they approached the village, Aragorn began to hope that the other Rangers had been successful in finding Keane, the other missing boy. His hopes of ending the violence depended largely on returning both boys to their fathers at the same time. Aragorn took the time as they were walking to explain some of what had happened while Berwen was in hiding. He knew it would likely shock the boy, but he didn't want him to be surprised about the destruction of much of the village when they returned. The last thing he wanted the boy to think was that the fire had spread and he had been responsible for the damage to the other homes. Berwen was already feeling guilty for his own house. Thinking that he had burned down other houses was more than he would be able to take. Aragorn was uncertain how much to say about Red's actions to his son, so he simply said that Red thought Cedric had taken him and got very angry. Then when the two families got angry at each other, they started trying to hurt each other. Berwen's reaction surprised Aragorn.
"If I had thought Papa would blame Keane's father, I would never have run away. I know Papa doesn't like him. He's angry at a lot of people in the town, but doesn't really know why. A lot of people in town feel the same way. They're all mad all the time. I wish I knew how to stop it. Keane's father is a nice man, he always treats me just fine. I need to get back home and tell Papa that it was my fault. If he should be mad at anyone, it should be me." Berwen wrapped his arms around himself at the thought, but held his head high.
Aragorn was impressed at the maturity in that statement. This was a young boy who had grown up in a town filled with tension, who was very well aware of the anger and hatreds that ran so strongly through all the people around him. This was the future of the village, someone who wanted to bring an end to the anger, to find a way to bring peace. The thought gave Aragorn some small measure of hope. He only hoped the boy and others like him could keep that hope of peace with them as they grew and did not succumb to the prejudices of their parents and grandparents.
Once at the edge of the village, Aragorn sent Brégnir to fetch Red, and Red only, to the healer's house. As one of the only neutral places in town, it seemed the best place to return the boys. After Brégnir left, Aragorn led Berwen through the village. The boy's eyes were wide, sadness, pain and a hint of wisdom all mixed in as he looked at what was left of the village he had grown up in. "How could they do this?" he murmured to himself. "There's almost nothing left." He looked up at Aragorn. "How are we going to move on from this?"
Placing a hand comfortingly on his shoulder, Aragorn looked back at the boy. "It won't be easy. I won't lie to you. It will take everyone in the village working together to fix this."
A shadow of doubt clouded the boy's eyes. "I don't know if they can do that."
"They will have to try," Aragorn said as he led the boy up the steps into the healer's home.
As they walked through the door into the main room of the healer's home, a voice called out, "Berwen!" Turning and looking through the doorway into Cedric's room, Aragorn saw Cedric sitting on his bed with another young boy sitting beside him. He smiled as he realized that the other Rangers had been successful in their mission. His assumption was proven correct when Berwen rushed into the other room.
"Keane!" Berwen ran into the room, then stopped when he saw Cedric. "What happened to you…sir?"
Cedric glanced at Aragorn, wondering how much to tell the boy. Aragorn shrugged, leaving it up to Cedric. "I met up with some very angry men," Cedric answered carefully.
Berwen looked back to Aragorn, remembering what he had been told on the way back to the village. He looked at Cedric in horror. "Did my Papa do that?"
"He was one among many," Cedric allowed, not willing to place all of the blame on the boy's father. He knew how much Berwen adored his father, and would not be the one to tarnish the image the boy had of him.
"I'm sorry," Berwen said, tears welling up once again in his eyes. "It's all my fault."
Cedric blinked in surprise. That was the last thing he had expected to hear.
Before Cedric could think of anything to say to that, another voice called out "Berwen!"
Berwen turned around from where he stood in the doorway. Red stood in the middle of the room, staring at his son in shock.
"Papa?" Berwen's very hesitant voice broke the stillness of the moment, and Red rushed forward, grabbing his son and pulling him into a firm hug.
"Are you well?" Red asked, running his hand over the boy's back and arms, checking for any injuries. When his son did not return his embrace fully, Red pulled away and looked him over closely. The tear tracks trailing down his face did not reassure him. "Did someone hurt you?"
"No, no one hurt me," Berwen said, pulling away from his father and brushing the tears off of his face. "But you're going to hate me, and Mr. Cedric is going to hate me, and Keane is going to hate me…"
"Wait," Red said, confused. "Why would any of us hate you?" He looked into the room and saw Cedric and Keane sitting on the bed. His face reddened as he stared at them both. "What have you been telling my son?" He could not quite meet Keane's eyes, but he was now afraid that they had told Berwen that he had kidnapped Keane. This situation was not what he had expected, and he wanted to know what was going on.
"I have told him nothing that would make him think you would hate him," Cedric answered honestly, reaching out to pull his son closer to his side when Keane flinched away from Red.
"This is all my fault!" Berwen cried loudly. "The fire, the village, Mr. Cedric's injuries, they're all my fault!"
"How is any of this your fault?" Red asked soothingly. He was a bit confused about his son's outburst.
"I knocked over the lantern, and couldn't put the fire out!" Berwen wailed. "I burned down the house. I thought you would hate me, so I ran away. Mr. Strider found me and brought me back home, but he told me that you and some of the other men were mad at each other. Did you and the others burn down people's homes, Papa? There are so many homes burned down! Did you have anything to do with this?"
Red sat down abruptly on the floor, his world and all his preconceptions knocked out from under him. His son had burned down the house accidentally? All that he had done was a mistake? The color drained from his face as he realized that he had kidnapped a nine-year-old boy based on only his own paranoia. Cedric had had nothing to do with Berwen's disappearance. Berwen had been so afraid of facing him that he had run away, and he had responded by kidnapping his son's best friend and having that friend's father nearly beaten to death? What had he done? What had all those suspicions made him do? That wasn't who he was, or at least it wasn't who he wanted to be.
He forced himself to look up and meet Cedric's eyes. "I'm sorry. I am so sorry for everything I did to you." He met the scared eyes of the young boy on the bed. "And for what I did to you, I cannot offer enough apologies. I was afraid, and I did things that I am now ashamed of. I cannot say how sorry I am for everything I did. Please, though I know I do not deserve your forgiveness, I hope that some day in the future, I may receive it." Turning back to his son, he rose to his knees and grasped Berwen's shoulders. "But understand this. What I did, my actions, are my own. You are not responsible for anything that has happened here. I do wish you had felt you could come to me and tell me what happened to the house, but I feel that your fear of my reaction was my own fault as well. You are not responsible for any of this, do you understand me? You are a child, we are the adults. We should have known better than to let something like this happen."
Berwen stared into his father's eyes for a moment, then leaned forward and hugged him. Red hugged him back with all his might, so grateful to have his son back in his arms. His eyes met Cedric's over his son's shoulder. "Whatever you demand in recompense, it is yours. If you wish me to spend time in jail, I will do so, without complaint. I only ask that you and your wife watch Berwen for me."
Aragorn felt he had to intervene into the conversation. "Do you have a judge in this village? An impartial observer to hear cases and decide equitable and just solutions to conflicts?"
Cedric and Red both looked back at Aragorn. "We have not had such a man in the village for some time," Cedric responded. "The last man we had in such a position left years ago. He heard so many cases that were squabbles between my family and Red's that he grew frustrated and decided to leave to find a more peaceful village."
Aragorn rubbed his beard in thought. "You said the healer, Hannah, is an impartial inhabitant of this village. I would never ask a healer to stand in judgment of anyone, as that would reduce her ability to treat all who come to her door. But surely there are other impartial people who live here who would be willing to take on the role and help mediate peace among the villagers here?"
Cedric and Red both stopped in thought. "There are a few who might," Red said slowly. "We would have to approach them with the idea, and the promise that both sides would abide by whatever ruling is decided upon. I will speak to my family and gain their assurance that they will give this promise."
"And I will speak with my family to do the same," Cedric said. He moved to get out of bed, and Aragorn moved forward quickly into the room.
"Are you well enough to move from your bed?" Aragorn asked.
"I am well enough for this," Cedric said. "I ask that you watch Keane until I return. Keep him safe from any harm."
"And that you watch Berwen," Red said. "You have proven that you are trustworthy. I believe that you would do anything necessary to keep both of our sons safe."
"We would," Aragorn said with a nod, touched that these men would trust him to watch over their recently returned sons. He nodded to both men as they exited the house and walked off to find their respective families and ensure a continued peace.
Three days later, Aragorn and the Rangers were finally leaving Wildmere, the village that had been ravaged by its own inhabitants. In the last couple of days, they had seen a justice system set into place. An impartial judge was declared and both sides of the conflict had agreed to abide by any ruling. Both sides were horrified that all of the damage had occurred because of a misunderstanding. Berwen had spoken at the proceedings, giving his account of what had happened. He also asked that they try to put an end to all of the anger and distrust that caused the escalation of the violence. Keane also spoke and asked that he and Berwen be allowed to stay friends. He had been scared by Berwen's father, but Berwen was still his best friend. The villagers seemed moved by the words of the children. The final ruling asked that all those involved in the destruction help in the rebuilding of all the homes that had been destroyed, and that they pool their resources to help the farmers replace their slaughtered livestock. They were all facing a food shortage because of the violence, and the town would have to work together to be able to trade enough with their neighboring towns to survive the coming winter. Finally understanding the true damage they had been a part of, each side realized that they would have to work together for their own survival. As for Red, he had willingly agreed to serve three months in jail, after helping with the rebuilding of the village. Cedric and his wife would be taking care of Berwen during his brief incarceration. Berwen had been understanding of the sentence, and had agreed to stay with his friend and his family, knowing that his father would be able to return to him once the three months was over.
Rumen looked back at the village as they left it behind. "Do you think the peace will hold?"
Aragorn sighed and tried to figure out how to answer that. "I do not know, Rumen. The human race is capable of such hatred and fear that sometimes I do not know if we are capable of overcoming it. They have lived with this hatred and distrust of each other for so very long that I am not sure those who have felt it will be able to move past it to forge a lasting peace. I fear more battles could occur if tempers rage out of control again."
Rumen's face fell at the thought that the violence of the village may start up again after a time of peace.
"But, I do have hope," Aragorn said. "Berwen and Keane have remained true friends throughout all of this, and perhaps one friendship can turn the tide. Their fathers have made peace already, and though they may never be friends, they will not be likely to suspect each other of wrongdoing again. This experience has changed them both. Perhaps there is still hope."
Rumen looked back once more at the village. A small smile crossed his face as he thought of the two boys that he had watched play together. "Yes, perhaps there is."